Wednesday, March 13, 2013

When Johnny comes marching home, he'll have no arms, but at least he'll have a plasma TV.

I am fairly immune to marketing. I can remember once buying Coronas on the first truly warm spring day of the year because those seaside ads made me long for summer, but most pitches leave me more annoyed than wishing I could have something. That's because I don't buy things. My wages go towards experiences, as these are what enrich us mentally and spiritually as human beings.

I can't remember ever wanting things; for the longest time my worst material vice was an inability to refrain from collecting books. I'd buy stacks of them from used bookstores despite having a profusion of unread volumes at home. It was fun to discover new titles hiding among shelves full of pages that others had discarded. And for what? That was as perplexing as the ink that occupied them. Mine ended up on some of these shelves when I decided I'd had enough of Washington and trekked over to Bulgaria for a few months at the end of 2007. Now I wish I hadn't purged my library. I often find myself lacking memory of this fact or that character or just need to look at words well-strung together to inspire my own broken paragraphs. The information is glowering at me from a laptop screen, but the internet is soulless and will never replace the physical manifestation of thoughts that we get from books. Reading is more than just eyeballing words. The act of reading is not only a mental and spiritual exercise; it's a corporeal experience. To hold words is to touch ideas, to transform the abstract into something concrete. You don't get that with electronics.

Electronics. That reminds me to get back to the point: not wanting things. I don't know where it came from. I can't say exactly when I realized how much unnecessary crap people buy just as I don't remember when I began to see the world as a place we were all condemned to share so we might as well make an effort to get along. I can go through all the moments of my life again and again, all the things I've seen, all the people I've met from all over the world, but it seems to me that the instinct has always been there.

I don't know why it isn't there in everyone, but we've gotten to the point when the lust for things has broken our society. Some people's whole lives revolve around the things they buy, the giant televisions and the movie downloads and the technology that brings them a zillion channels at the click of a button. The same people who line up for the latest gadget often bitch about politicians being "idiots;" they can't make the connection between their consumption habits and the type of people who are being elected as policymakers. The economy collapses because of crooked bankers and you hear blame assigned to people who took out mortgages they couldn't afford without recognizing that they are just one layoff away from falling into that category. People bitch about high gas prices yet drive everywhere, many of them driving gas guzzling rolling mammoths with no thought of the consequences of such behavior. They buy clothes without thought of the children who sewed them together half a world away or drink coffee without thought of the slaves who grew it in countries without labor laws or unions to protect the workers. And if you bring it up, they call you a hippy or liberal or something they think is an insult. They get angry or they ignore you, dismiss you. And then it comes time to vote again and the cycle starts over because they refuse to change their consumption habits. Only economic downturns slow the pace of stupidity.

But who's to blame? Surely someone is responsible. If it were wholly the responsibility of  consumers, surely more people would choose to do the right thing in their lives. A lot of them just don't know. Many of them are so disconnected from the world that they can't grasp the fact that what they buy affects everyone in the world.

Here's where experience comes in. 

It's easy to see pictures on the news of gun-wielding men, heads enscarved, goals to annihilate Israel, and say, "I'm fine with my tax dollars going to Israel." But try doing it after a beautiful Palestinian girl, no more than ten years old, a refugee, a beggar, one day after many stops asking you for change when you're sitting with your coffee at a cafe and starts looking at the book your reading, picking out the few words in English she knows. She was proud to show me.  She doesn't go to school. She never will. She'll never have any life other than begging, because Palestinians don't have rights in Lebanon. They are a people without a country.

Her entire family begs or sells gum or trinkets on the street when they have something to sell. Her brother is a year or two younger than she is; both of them are well-groomed and cared for, but their clothes are always slightly too small and too worn. They stick together in the same area, hovering around cafes, not shy after years of begging to survive. It sucks.

I use that as a microcosmic example, of course. I'd been involved with the Middle East for a decade at the point when the girl came up to me and read a few words off a page. I had already met Palestinians who had been tortured by the Israeli military and Israelis who had been injured by Palestinian bombs. I had already worked with Palestinian civil society organizations who were trying to bring democratic reform to Palestine and Israeli organizations who were trying to bring peace to the region. I did not need to let editors of news organizations (or worse, blogs) dictate my ideas of the place because I had experienced the story.

It's not only Americans - the world is full of disconnect. One of my pet peeves is Arabs who bitch about US oil "imperialism" but who fill up gas guzzling cars and drive everywhere, exhibiting the same behavior as those they condemn. Find me a Lebanese person who walks to work, for example. Examples of hypocrisy and ignorance abound across the globe; no citizenry of one nation is "dumber" or "more evil" than another. Americans do seem to be more disconnected from the world than most, however. Supporting wars in foreign countries that you can't even point to on a map is pretty damn stupid. If you don't know where it is, how do you know what is going on there? 

You don't.

You'd think that with the advances in transportation and technology we've made, there would be more people seeking out new information and experiences. But we could be getting worse. Now we can willfully choose to see only what fits with our worldviews and never encounter different ideas and experiences.

“We want to give everyone in the world the best personalized newspaper in the world,” Mark Zuckerberg said about Facebook.

That is the basic recipe for ignorance. And why can it happen? Marketing. Facebook is making billions of dollars from advertising revenues because people won't stop buying shit they don't need. Newspapers, the ones who have trained storytellers to report the news, are struggling, and many of them have turned to sponsored content, which appears to be an actual news story but is in reality an advertisement some company paid for. Television shows produce dangerous lies about places such as Hamra Street, where I lived and where I'd rather be more than anywhere, because they think it will get people to watch the show, and more people watching means more advertising revenue. "Reality" is getting further and further away from reality.

Are we ever going to be able to return to reality?

<-- I'm going here on Saturday. This is the street that the fearmongering television show "Homeland" portrayed as a tank-lined, terrorist-filled street. The reality is that it is full of bars and restaurants and shopping. The real danger is the people who are buying shit they don't need, ensuring that our lives continue to be dominated by corporations that pursue profit at whatever cost to human beings. War, slavery, poverty...these are the results of such behavior.

Change your consumption habits, and you can change the world. It's not hyperbole; it's reality.

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