The Customer Is Always Right

Give me liberty or give me death. That’s what the sign says. She stands in front of the Baskin Robbins, not a manager in sight, her roots growing out, her mouth open mid-rant when the shutter clicks. She has her weight canted forward, on the balls of her feet, and a small American flag in one hand.

A vintage troop transport pulls up to a corner downtown, filled with cosplay paramilitaries in masks and sunglasses and ball caps and body armor. Each carries his customized Armalite one handed, to keep the other free for high-fiving. This is even better than the titty bar.

A quad-cab faces off with a nurse in mask and scrubs, tired of this shit. Not pictured: the hospital, maxed out and running out of PPE. A woman hangs out the passenger side window, hollering. Her hair is bleached. Her shirt says USA. The truck gleams, freshly-washed, in the sun.

***

For most of my adult life, I worked in bars and restaurants. And while food and drink were what we charged the money for, that wasn’t all we were selling. Core to the transaction, if unspoken, was customer service: treating people like they’re important and like what they want matters. In due measure, it can be rewarding both ways. But one of our exceptionally American cultural pathologies is that we take it waaaaaaay too far. Here the customer is king, and always right, and we’ll be happy to comp the meal you didn’t like and bag up the leftovers so you can take it home with you for later. Have a nice day and like us on Yelp!

You see that same sense of entitlement on display at these astroturf ‘protests’ that keep popping up like cold sores on state capitol steps. Like cold sores, they look like a lot more than they are, especially with the camera zoomed in so the people fill the frame, and all the empty space around them disappears from the context. They carry signs that say things like ‘I need a haircut’ and ‘Give me liberty or give me Covid-19.’ Maybe one in ten has a sign that says ‘I need to work.’ The one in ten has a valid point, but what the other nine want is only going to make things worse. More people will get sick. More people will die. The economy will, in the long run, take a bigger hit.

Doesn’t much matter when you’re broke and hungry and the rent is due now.

Do you know what else has that kind of urgency? When an addict needs a fix. Because let me tell you something: for every alcoholic, functional or not, that I served a drink to, I served three people addicted to being served.

The nine in ten? Didn’t know they were customer service addicts. Didn’t realize how much they depended on that presumed (purchased) deference. They thought that was just how the world worked, how it ought to work. How God wanted it to work, with his hierarchied omnibenevolence and preference for white Christian Americans. Take that away — take away any addict’s fix — and all they have left is the hole they’re trying to fill, the damage they never healed, the emptiness, uncertainty, and dread. For half a month or a month, they’ve been drying out in quarantine, no one to treat them like they’re important, like what they want matters.

And they are freaking the fuck out right now. Their roots are showing in more ways than one.

But it makes for good TV. And the operation was successful. The record shows: people protested. Those governors looking for a reason to kick poor people off unemployment rolls and deny small businesses support have their cover story. Someone else will come along and open new gyms and nail salons and restaurants after all this is over. The economy will go on.

(Someone else’s) death is a fair price to pay for liberty. Anything else would be tyranny in the land of the free.

And the addicts? They get their fix. Everybody wins.

Except the people who die.

***

I tried to quit smoking the first time when I was nineteen. Don’t think I made it a day. It wasn’t til I was in my thirties that I managed to quit for more than a couple weeks here and there. Every time I tried it was like every negative emotion, every hurt and disappointment and anxiety and guilt I’d ever felt and repressed welled up in me all at once all the time no matter what was happening around me. It was like that because that’s what was happening. My addiction tamped all that shit down, so I could get through my day without screaming or hurting myself or, as too often happened anyway, someone else. Because what is anger but weaponized pain, and what does a weapon want but to be wielded?

It took a lot of years and a lot of tries before before this last time I quit. It took also a lot of hard looks in mirrors and calling spades spades and a lot of coming to terms with things and a lot of humility and work. I also lucked out in having a first date with my partner the day after I last quit. That probably has more to do with my success in staying quit for this long than anything else.

***

It’s hard to feel sympathy for the entitlement of the customer service addict, especially as someone who made a career of abetting them for three decades. Negotiating with someone who’s just waiting for a reason to ask for your manager — or being the manager who has to step in and grease the squeaky wheel — will erode your faith in humanity and leave a dirty taste in your mouth. Doing it for not enough money to live on sucks even worse.

Early in my career, I found a way to console myself when I encountered such a person. True, they might make my life hell for five minutes or an hour. But it was always like that inside their head. You’d be surprised how much that realization helped.

Anger is weaponized pain, and now, without service industry people to point their anger at, these pampered beasts are finding their pain again. How can they know they’re always right if they aren’t anyone’s customer? Who will treat them like they’re important, like what they want matters?

***

Once upon a time, some scientists addicted some rats to cocaine. They put it in the water, put regular water next to it, and watched the rats choose the cocaine water again and again. Who wouldn’t, living in a scientist’s cage?

Someone had the idea to put the rats in different circumstance. They put the rats in rat paradise: room to run, things to do, other rats to be friends with. They offered them cocaine again. They wanted it less.

***

The guns the boys are playing with are real. So is the virus that shut down the service industry. The one they’re protesting from their self-defaced cars so they don’t catch it. So are the people they’re willing — implicitly or ex- — to sacrifice the lives of so they can have their fix again. So they can feel like the always-right kings they’ve always known themselves to be.

No addict quits without wanting to. Because when you quit you have to deal with all the things the addiction tamped down for you. It hurts, and it takes a long time. To be honest, it’s more ongoing process than final result, journey and not destination. But like anything, you get out of it what you put into it.

But what the one-in-ten need (the ones whose signs say ‘I need to work’) is more like what the people the customer service addicts want to go back to work need. It is, funny enough, the same thing our economy in its present form needs: free money to keep the charade going until we can build our own robust paradise, free health care in case we get sick, a rent and mortgage and debt payment freeze, and a reason to believe we might come out of this in a better place.

This doesn’t serve the customer service addict, nor the governor who has interests and oligarchs to placate.

But I can’t help but wonder: if we build the paradise that the rest of us want, where everyone gets what they need and no one has to worry about problems we have the means to solve, maybe the rats in their self-imposed cages will stop wanting the cocaine water so much.

Probably not. But I think we should do it anyway.

Make America What Again?

What with the shit-show we’ve got going on right now as a nation — concentration camps on the border, a wag-the-dog escalation to a war of choice with Iran, a serious bump in hate crimes and people identifying as Nazis and white supremacists, a climate crisis that will destroy life as we know it starting to kick in for real, a nationwide election coming up that will undoubtedly be fucked with by hostile foreign actors while the beneficiaries insist nothing’s wrong, and a legislature unable, thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to do anything but confirm hardcore conservative federal judges to lifetime sinecures, just to skim the surface — it’s easy to understand the widespread longing to go back to the way things were under the Obama Administration. To get things back to normal so we can all go back to living our lives without having to worry that the demented narcissist with the nuclear football will bring about Armageddon in a fit of pique or even just to avoid jail time.

I get it. I really do. I also would like not to live my life in a fog of existential dread, in which every action is pointless because, Rapture or not, the end is probably nigh for the American experiment and possibly human civilization and what can possibly matter anymore?

But even were it possible to return to whatever passed for normal before — and it isn’t — such a return is not even desirable, both on its own merits and especially in light of the challenges we face as Americans and human beings who live on the rapidly-warming, ecologically-imbalanced, and soon-to-be-downwardly-spiraling Earth.

I’ll explain.

Continue reading “Make America What Again?”

Dear My Fellow White People

I’d like to suggest that if the color of your skin and the doings of people who lived in the same countries as your ancestors constitutes your greatest source of pride and self-worth, then maybe you should consider doing something worthwhile and constructive enough with your life that you can cultivate that pride and self-worth there. I think you’ll find that it’ll make you much healthier and happier, and no one has to die because you can’t think of a good reason to like yourself.

So It’s Come to This

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Now I know my ABCs

What do you even say when you see something like this in a kindergarten classroom? I mean, really, what do you say? Given its placement, the way we read left to right, the Lockdown Song is apparently even more important than learning the alphabet.

How has it come to this?

How have we reached the point where school shootings are such a part of the fabric of our national life that someone decided it was better to start preparing children for the worst than to try and preserve their innocence awhile longer, and provide an environment where what’s best in them might flower and grow?

 

These questions are rhetorical, obviously. We all know how. A powerful manufacturing lobby made a Faustian bargain with a political party (and possibly, even probably, Russian oligarchs) to sell as much of their product as possible, consequences be damned. For them, from their position and perspective, it’s actually a virtuous circle. Scientific studies have shown that fear makes people more conservative, makes them buy more guns. Once the market reaches a certain saturation (like, idk, one gun per person in the freest, most prosperous nation in modern history), the feedback loop reinforces itself. There are too many guns, and it’s too easy to get them, to make it harder for upright, responsible citizens (or, really, anyone) to buy guns to defend themselves from all the other people with guns. Never mind how your chances of dying from gun violence vastly increase when you purchase a gun.

But that’s just science talking. And science, despite its dedication to reflecting and clarifying actuality, can’t hold a candle to narrative when it comes to getting people to do (or not do) stuff.

But back to the virtuous circle, which is not really virtuous unless it’s in your interest to make people frightened so you can sell them guns and get them to vote for conservative politicians whose policies are generally terrifically unpopular. I mean, does anyone who isn’t rich really think the rich need more money while the rest of us scrabble and scrape? Does anyone really want to live in a world two steps removed from a battle royale where it’s all against all and fuck everybody who ain’t me and mine? Some people might, but fuck them.

So, the circle. How does it work?

Well, what you need is to cultivate an atmosphere of threat, fear, and scarcity. Which isn’t hard, because people are wired to respond to threats. It’s how we survived, evolutionarily, and though we’ve created a situation in which most of our instincts aren’t really optimal, evolution takes a while to catch up. Anyhow, I don’t think it’s a big stretch to say that when things get scary, or scarce, people’s circle of concern tends to tighten up. They start looking out for them and theirs. They also look for targets, because fear and scarcity take their toll on a person. And because fear produces anger and anxiety — which, let’s be honest, don’t exactly lead to clear thinking — it’s easy to divert that fear and anger away from their actual sources, so the underlying causes and problems never get addressed.

Which brings us back to the Lockdown Song. I mean, just think how many guns a whole generation suffering from a lifetime of fear will buy. Long term, school shootings are going to be great for business.

Sympathy for the Terrorist: Some Thoughts on Mark Conditt

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You know what? I don’t give a single solitary fuck how smart or sensitive or deep or broken or sad Mark fucking Conditt was. I mean, I would have, because I’m an empathetic sort of person, right up until he decided to MURDER RANDOM PEOPLE WITH BOMBS. Far as I’m concerned, that makes him a TERRORIST and a PREMEDITATED MURDERER. And not only that, he was a fucking COWARD, too. He was a coward when he made his bombs. He was a coward when he mailed them. And he was a coward right up to the very end, when he decided to become a SUICIDE BOMBER rather than face the consequences of his actions.

Why’d he do it? I don’t know. Maybe cuz he’s just another over-entitled mediocre white boy whose brilliance and inherent awesomeness the world failed to recognize and reward. Maybe cuz he was homeschooled and so he didn’t know how to make friends. Maybe cuz he was raised conservative, which for all its many merits too often comes down to an ideology based on an all against all mentality and violence in the face of fear. Maybe he was just a fucking asshole.

What I do know is that half the fucking country is bending over backwards to find reasons to forgive this poor kid/fucking asshole for murdering people because he’s white, cisgendered, and male. And you know what, I’d almost applaud that if we did it for literally ANY OTHER KIND OF PERSON. But we don’t, do we? We don’t show that kind of compassion for people with darker skin, or different faith traditions, or vaginas, or who feel like they were born in the wrong body and want to make changes so the flesh they wear matches their self-conception. Mexicans are rapists. Muslims are terrorists. Women are hysterical and shrill. Trans people are abominations in the sight of the Lord who made them that way.

So spare me the crocodile tears for poor, misunderstood Mark Conditt, who decided the right way to deal with his issues was to murder people better than he was with bombs, and who took the easy way out when the bill for his actions came due.

Or, you know what? I take it back. I will join you in sympathizing with this lost soul. We can, together, explore the culture and history that might have led him to make the terrible choices he made, to snuff out the promise of his own life and the lives of his victims. We can, together, mourn for him and for them. All I ask in return is you join me in offering the same compassion, the same grace, the same sympathy and understanding to everyone else in the world who is not young, white, cisgendered, and male.

What do you say? Do we have a deal?