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.

The Best of Both Possible Worlds

I have always referred to myself as a pragmatic progressive. Progressive because of the policy goals and political ends I think best pursuing, pragmatic because I’m not super particular on how we get there, as long as we do. I often find ideologies interesting, but ultimately I think they do more harm than good, because they circumscribe what is thinkable. Also, they often work best on paper, and while theoretical space is a useful tool for playing and working with ideas, the lived world of actuality is almost always too complex for ideology to usefully encompass.

At the end of the day, though, I’m much more interested in (and motivated by) ideals than ideology. And I’m much more inclined to use them to pick ends than means, though they do very much play a role in both.

So, what ideals drive me, politically speaking? What political ends do I seek?

It’s pretty simple, really. I want everyone – by which I mean literally all humans – to have all the tools, education, and material support they need to prosper and thrive, individually and collectively; the opportunity to do meaningful work (whatever that means to them); and the material, cultural, social, and spiritual means to pursue and find happiness, again both individually and collectively.

Pragmatically, it seems to me the best way to get there is a combination of two systems of societal material allocation that often seem at odds: socialism and capitalism.

Both have virtues and shortcomings. Continue reading “The Best of Both Possible Worlds”

Hillary, Bernie, and Me

I was a strong and early supporter of Bernie Sanders, especially the Bernie Sanders of the early campaign: the guy who took the high road, who spoke truth to power, who organized at the grassroots and refused to engage in negative campaigning. The guy who said on her worst day Hillary Clinton would be a better President than any of the Republicans.
But I have a confession to make: I never thought he’d win.
It wasn’t lack of faith in the message or devotion to the agenda he espoused. That faith and devotion is what drove my support. To me Bernie Sanders was only a vehicle for getting the word out and starting to organize. It was clear the man himself was an imperfect vessel (he is, after all, a career politician). It was also based on a cold, hard political calculation. Remember the incident in Seattle about a year ago, when two #blacklivesmatter activists stormed a stage he was set to speak on? The way Bernie and, more importantly, his most ardent supporters handled that told me all I needed to know. However you stand on the incident, nobody gets the Democratic nomination without support from African-Americans. And while Bernie has done a great job of mobilizing younger African-Americans, they were outnumbered by their elders, who were less willing to take a chance.
Still, I advocated, and donated, and when the time came I caucused. All along I tried my best to keep to the high road the Bernie Sanders of the early campaign laid out.
Sadly, my candidate chose not to. Somewhere along the way, some subtle threshold got crossed. It was about Bernie now. Bernie the man, the visionary, the leader of a revolution, though what the revolution meant or would look like was never made clear. He started throwing punches, insisted he was going to win despite the fact that the path to victory only got narrower and less likely with every primary and caucus, even the ones that he won.

Continue reading “Hillary, Bernie, and Me”

A Pragmatic Idealist’s Guide to Caucus/Primary Season

Call me liberal, progressive, whatever you like. Parse it how you will, I occupy somewhere most of the way to the leftwards end of the political spectrum. If I had to self-label, I’d probably call myself a Social Democrat. My ideal economic arrangement would be using the productive capabilities of capitalism to achieve socialist-style ends (something along the lines of Iain Banks’ notions about the Culture in his novels, which can be summed up at the organizational level as ‘socialism within, capitalism without.’). Politically, I’d like to see a strong democracy in which participation by an informed citizenry with a liberal education, historical and scientific knowledge, and critical thinking skills ran the show. I’m in favor of single-payer universal healthcare, a guaranteed basic income, and top marginal tax rates approaching ninety percent (I’m also in favor of allowing folks to assign how their tax monies are spent, at least within a set of broad categories). I’m not against people becoming wealthy, but I think that option should only open up once the floor has been raised and guaranteed, for everybody.

So that’s where I’m coming from, in case any of the ten or fifteen people who read this blog didn’t already know. And I think there are lots of folks who’d agree with me, though the kinds of views I espouse don’t get a lot of play in the mainstream media.

So, given the rapid approach of primary and caucus season, what’s a pragmatic idealist to do? Continue reading “A Pragmatic Idealist’s Guide to Caucus/Primary Season”

Santa Claus and the American Dream

I thought of this the other day, but I didn’t want to harsh anyone’s mellow this holiday season, since there are lots of folks I know who genuinely love the holidays, especially Christmas, and I respect that.

But it occurred to me how the mythology surrounding Christmas, at least the American conception of it, kind of encapsulates us as a nation in a less-than-entirely flattering way.

Think about it. The Christmas myth is, essentially, that if you behave yourself and do as you’re told by authority while being surreptitiously surveilled by an invisible judge given to binary distinctions (you’re either on the nice list, or the naughty list), you’ll be rewarded with material goods. If you don’t behave, bam! Coal in your stocking (which does at least beat having Krampus). Or fewer presents. Or none.

The worst thing is that the kids who actually receive this punishment aren’t necessarily misbehavers: they’re just poor. The mythology connects material prosperity with virtue and obedience to authority. I don’t mean to take too jaundiced a view of the whole thing, but it’s a hell of a thing to teach little kids, never mind that it sets them up for the inevitable disappointment of learning that Santa Claus is actually just their parents, and that the volume of material love under the Christmas tree has more to do with their parents’ wealth than anyone’s virtue or behavior.

Every year there’s noise made about a War on Christmas, and as far as I can tell, the folks making the noise think the war is on the Christ part. Maybe for some folks it is. For my own part, I’m pretty down with JC. But if we wanted to declare war on the crass materialism that we’ve come to celebrate alongside his birthday party, I’d be inclined to join up.