Saturday, April 4, 2009

Conspire, Perspire, Expire

The Actual Conversation

The muzak system is playing Smash Mouth: Somebody once asked could I spare some change for gas, I need to get myself away from this place... Sitting in the last corner booth after work today, next to the day-shift manager as he trains the newly promoted cover, Steve, in number-crunching paperwork. "Two to thaw, three to bake. Have them bag up four dozen, we go through a lot on weekend midnights." I twirl my fork, push spaghetti around my plate. I said, Yep, what a concept, I could use a little fuel myself, and we could all use a little change...

Across from me Steve bends over the pages and pages of prep lists and stock inventory, scribbling in numbers with the stub of a pencil. He's dressing up these days, classier than the polo shirt and eye-bleedingly red apron he used to wear like the rest of us servers; now, he's in black slacks and a button-up collared shirt and tie, also black. It's like he's trying to turn the restaurant into the Matrix. Would you like the red pill or the blue pill? Can I bring you fries with that? Steve's girlfriend is Pagan. They're both amazingly industiral-goth when not in uniform. Now he's crunching numbers as middle management in the food service industry. This is how life is sometimes.

The day-shift manager asks me to slide out for a second so he can go make a phone call in the office, and in a moment Steve and I are joined by another friend, Frank, who's snacking on some fries before his dinner shift begins. Frank is tall, with no waist, a neatly trimmed goatee and big clunky shoes; he always brings his uniform to work in a backpack stitched all over with anarchy symbols. Once when there was a bomb threat at the post office next door, he turned the bag inside out just in case the investigating police might get the wrong idea. When Frank is being funny, he purses his lips and blinks his eyes.

"Rob said he loves me like a rock," I tell Frank, to make conversation. "So I asked him if he meant that he really loves rocks, or that rocks have very strong emotions." Frank raises his eyebrows at me. "You know--if he loves me as though I were a rock, or if he loves me as though he were a rock... He told me to shut up."

"Maybe he meant the-way-in-which-he-loves-you is like a rock, you know, solid and durable... and slowly being worn down by the constant erosion of wind and water." Frank and I both giggle. Steve continues crunching numbers, chewing on his lip and ignoring us.

"See, I was just about to say, 'Yes, but that's not as funny,' but you proved me wrong." I twirl more spaghetti onto my fork. (This is the way my conversations at work go, hopping from one clever or ridiculous non sequitur to another, seeing what acrobatics of wit or syntactic contortions we can accomplish. So after a pause, I add:) "Stupid global warming."

Steve, in his all-black-cover-manager-threads-and-silk-tie, mutters without looking up at either of us, "Global warming isn't real."

For a moment, Frank and I don't say anything. I mumbled with my mouth full of pasta. "What?" Frank asks.

"I said, 'Well that's enlightened of you...'" Then, holding my hand up on the wrong side of my mouth, I say to Frank in a faux-whisper that Steve can hear perfectly well, "But I was being sarcastic."

"Global warming isn't real," Steve says again, this time stopping his scribbling and tapping the pencil stub on the table a few times. "It's just something the government made up to make money."

It's hard to read Frank's expression, his lips working into a purse but his eyes wide open. Still, I can't help but chime in (at risk of being the only person at the table with, you know, a functioning brain), "I don't know... making money by asking us to consume less; sounds kind of counterintuitive."

"I think," Frank says, blinking, "instead of addressing any real problems, they should just invest everything in some ridiculously pointless master plan. You know, like a Planet Umbrella," he adds, saving us all from having to muddle through a serious conversation.

I laugh. Steve goes back to his paperwork. Frank finishes his fries as the conversation moves on to other things.

What I Should Have Said

Now wait. Let's pretend I'm a slightly different person than I am, someone with more practice (or less civility) in confronting people about the fundamentally ignorant or frightfully misinformed statements they sometimes make in the course of casual conversation.

"Global warming isn't real," Steve says again, "It's just something the government made up to make money."

"Let me get this straight," this Other Ali would say. "You're telling me that our government, the government of the United States of America, invented an elaborate lie about global warming as early as the 1970s, then conspired to spread this lie all across the world, convincing scientists from every industrialized nation to 'independently verify' such a concept through hundreds of studies, all conducted independently. Then, when the rest of the world has completely fallen for this thoroughly convincing lie and everyone begins signing silly Kyoto Protocols and such nonsense, you know, cutting emissions, designing more energy-efficient vehicles, the U.S. government--the same government that supposedly conspired to tell this Lie of Global Warming in the first place--refuses to play along and instead decides to reject the whole idea, to reduce regulations and to encourage hugely wasteful and backwards industry models that only serve to put our manufacturing and technology industries far behind foreign competition. Despite this, our government persists, cleverly, in being very vocal in the fake denial of the lie they conspired to create and disseminate, and this goes on for decades and decades (meanwhile, the country's weathermen and meteorologists are in on it, too, reporting on the ever-increasing number of 'record-breaking heat waves' and extreme weather conditions all over the world). All of this, so that now, when even fellow American citizens have finally come to believe the lie the government has been telling them by way of everyone-except-the-government, they can make a little money off the fad of shopping for organic tomatoes and driving foreign-built hybrid cars. This is the story you want me to believe?

"I'm all one for conspiracy theories," this Other Ali would continue, "but I'm more inclined to wonder why the only 'scientific' studies that call global warming into question have been pursued and sponsored by corporate and government think-tanks. Or why it is only the American media that assume 'fair and balanced' means including misleading claims of the hypocritically-capitalist, irrationally anthropocentric Religious Right to balance out the bias of actual fact confirmed by countless peer-reviewed and respected scientific studies. Or why the CEOs of American car companies continue to spout global-warming-denial rhetoric and portray fuel-efficiency as merely a trendy innovation; the same rhetoric proffered by oil companies who make billions of dollars in profit when gas prices rise in response to national security threats and personal economic anxieties that the government helps to create and maintain with its fear-mongering and willful incompetence. Conspiracy? Sure thing. You're right there, Steve.

"Certainly, now that global warming has become so firmly established among the educated population of the world, now that its effects are becoming apparent even to the amateur observer with any long-term memory of what childhood winters used to be like--in short, now that the government and corporations of this country can no longer get away with complete and unadulterated denial... of course they're now trying to make money off of global warming, trying to reduce it to a trend, a brand, a marketing strategy. They're racing panicked around the deck of a sinking ship, dismantling it board by board and trying to sell the parts to us as life-preservers. Certainly they wouldn't want us to take anything too seriously, to question their priorities or actually maybe change the fundamental way we live our lives. Gods forbid we learn how to swim.

"And isn't your girlfriend Pagan? Isn't her best friend Pagan, too, and you're all housemates together? Even if you're right about everything, even if global warming is a Big Lie the government has told us, even if that's true--how do you reconcile consumption and waste with a love of the earth and the sacred celebration of its seasons? How can you ignore the very basics of ecology, the cycle of resources, the vast interconnected web of being? How do you turn yourself off to the singing of the trees choked by smog, the streams humming as they empty into oceans clogged with pollution and whole continents of plastic refuse set adrift by our recklessness? What lie could the government tell that could be worse than this, worse than the lie that we have the right to live as callously and selfishly as we like, to consume and squander and whine for more, ceaselessly and without consequence? And what is Paganism to you, if it has no room for the earth in it? Just a mishmash of misguided antiauthoritarianism and fashion accessories, the fringe-thrill of worshipping gods that make the WASPs and JWs squeam? And have you ever stopped and wondered, then, who exactly is making money off of your religion?

"Not to get on your case, Steve. We're all friends here."


  1. Well, you know, Ali, this is why the gods gave us blogs. *smile*

    Seriously, sometimes there is an opening, and sometimes there is not. For instance, while it causes my stomach to knot when I think about the percentage of damaged and unparented kids in my classrooms who wind up entering the military--often in the interests of what they truly see as public service and honor--I continue, when I've got a kid in my class with limited literacy skills, an interest in the military, and a lack of honorable role models in his life, to supply that student with books that portray the military in ways the student will find interesting.

    I do it, despite my peace testimony. And I do it because of my peace testimony... because, in most moments of most days, my openings are to building literacy--an important tool in avoiding being duped by militaristic propaganda, along with other vital life skills, like access to the imagination and wisdom of books.

    And my openings are about communicating that I care about and respect my students... and helping them explore what they are already interested in communicates that in a way that pushing my own agenda would not.

    And sometimes I'm the first adult who has ever really connected with a student in that way. And even when I'm not the first, it's sometimes another vital drop in a none-too-full bucket...

    And my openings are sometimes around allowing students to create, even from flawed and tragic materials, some kind of idealism and hope that there is something like honor out there. And while I hope that they do not serve in the military when grown, and that they learn that there are better forms of service of others than taking up weapons and fighting them, I honor that drive toward idealism.

    Where are the openings in our daily lives? Not always where we want them to be. I don't see a way to build up the skills of peace and compassion among my students that doesn't, at least sometimes, compete with the apparent demands of my peace testimony. I have to hope and trust that somebody else will get the openings that I don't, as long as I show up for the ones I do have.

    It's painful to be silent, and to feel complicit. And sometimes, speaking up is exactly what we need to do.

    But, well, sometimes it isn't. And that's hard.

    And a reason I'm grateful that the gods gave us blogs! *smile*

  2. "Well, you know, Ali, this is why the gods gave us blogs. *smile*"

    You can say that again! :)

    What you say about working through that conflict as a teacher sounds amazing and incredibly difficult. I constantly find myself torn in that way, though I'm rarely in any position of authority as an expert or educator, so in some ways I can get away with a bit more sarcasm and veiled implication. Sometimes I regret having a slightly shy, soft-spoken personality--or a face that seems to make me look young and naive for my age--but I try to at least set an example when I don't always feel comfortable or capable of speaking out directly.

    I also think that the heart of cultivating peace and empathy is treating every person as the unique and uniquely lovable human being they truly are. My brother, for instance, has gone into marketing for Big Business, which is something that fundamentally clashes with some of my core values... But I never miss an opportunity to tell him how proud I am of his work ethic and creativity, even when teasing him about our differing economic views. And over the years, I've also seen him grow into a young man more interested in pursuing campaigns for non-profits and environmental agencies than chasing the big bucks offered by huge corporations.

    Everyone has the potential to grow and to become more loving, peaceful human beings. But trying to push an agenda--even an agenda of peace--can so easily deteriorate into the same kind of forced conformity that disconnects us and leads to violence and alienation in the first place. I guess the best we can do, like you say, is to live up to those opportunities presented to us, and trust in others to do the same...

  3. My guess is that Steve has been popping too many of the red pills. ;-)

    Cat, Ali, I agree with everything that you have said. Something that also touches me keenly is the realization that I do not have all the answers myself; and even though I am as certain as I can be of anything that the government is not behind the global warming scare, and that military actions always cause more harm than good, I could still be wrong.

    After all, the gods have not stepped in to stop the warming. The gods have not stepped in to stop the fighting. Should I? I think the gods are waiting for us to learn our own lessons (or not). So, emulating them, I try not to offer opinions unless they're asked for. When they're asked for... That's the time to speak, or write, as Twain said, with a pen warmed up in hell.

    Like you did here, Ali. :-) I particularly love the image of the corporatist state breaking up pieces of the sinking ship to sell to the passengers.

    I have worked with federal and military officials, and most of them were well-meaning, myopic, misguided, and incompetent. Their incompetence comes with the territory -- because the US military-industrial complex is too big to rule competently. There's no way they could have planned "global warming" and pulled it off. Their subterfuge is generally limited to obvious ploys like getting the "enemy" to fire on American civilians.

    I bless their incompetence, because it is only their incompetence that has prevented America from becoming a full-fledged military police state.

  4. Merry Meet!

    I'm going to jump into this interesting conversation because of my unique past--as a practicing witch who worked for the Department of the Navy for more than 25 years as a civilian. I know your post, Ali, centered on global warming, but it also brought up the question of when to pipe up and how we can influence our environment. (BTW, along with Jeff, I, too, thoroughly enjoyed your metaphor of the lie as a deteriorating ship; very clever and well written!)

    I was an English major when I took an internship as an Editor of military technical documentation one summer and, when I couldn’t afford to return to my studies and couldn’t find other employment, eventually worked my way into a position as a senior Contract Negotiator.

    So, how did I reconcile my earth-centered spirituality with the death-centric goals of the military all those long years? Surprisingly, my answer is very similar to Cat’s, and I think you will find yourself adapting to the world in much the same way, if you cannot already pinpoint how you have already.

    I concentrated my efforts in the field of hardware and training systems research and development, thereby contributing to the safety and well-being of our own men and women whenever possible. Just as Cat takes every opportunity to foster reading skills (even if it means such opportunities also foster interest in areas that she’d rather not have her students participate), my opportunities fostered increased survival in encounters I’d rather not have happen at all. Since the likelihood of these encounters ceasing was not realistic, survival was a better option; one that I could influence and where I could a contribution.

    A military force is a necessity born of human civilization, and humanity may never be able to eliminate its necessity. The best I could hope was to curb the worst of its excesses and provide our troops with the best protection, experience and information available. I have not stopped campaigning against war and I never abandoned my principles.

    I had to chuckle when I read Jeff’s evaluation of federal and military officials—because I agree with every word. The military industrial complex (MIC) is too big for a conspiracy as large as the “global warming lie” to survive; too many people’s fingers in the pie would be required. Small conspiracies may survive for short terms, until the conspirators move on. This movement within the MIC is inevitable and actually necessary. As a pond requires a source of running water to keep from becoming stagnant, the MIC only continues to survive if the instigators move before their implemented programs fail. The new incumbent in the position will then “fix” the failures by instigating their own new programs, and this new instigator will be sure to move on before their program flaws grow too obvious and failure becomes a foregone conclusion. Evaluation of their current effort doesn’t include failures they leave BEHIND, so they have no stake in the long-term survival or success of the programs they instigate. Thus, the vicious cycle continues. Well-meaning? I would say this of the majority. Myopic, misguided, and incompetent? Very much so, sadly; the system relies on these very things for its continued existence.

    I was, of course, the sole exception lol!

    Faerie blessings,


  5. Thank you for providing me with my come-back to "Global warming's just a cyclic thing and not human made, and the EU's just making a big deal out of it to raise taxes." I can tweak it to British sensibilities :)

    Seriously, while the majority of British mainstream news media are generally more responsible than many US news media (having lived in American for over a decade, I learned that there is overlap, but we haven't gone as far down the road to soap opera... yet), there is still the bizarre notion amongst many tv and radio producers that "fair and balanced" means giving equal time and credibility to wingnuts (a wonderful American term that has burrowed its way into my heart).

    If you wish to be depressed, read the online editions of the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail for sterling examples of mainstream British new media madness, particularly where climate change is concerned - and let us not mention political correctness, LGBT people, those rotten Johnny Foreigners Coming Over Here And Taking Our Women/Housing/Jobs/Social Security/NHS Treatment/Insert Divide-And-Conquer-Issue Here.

    Please, do feel free to share any more Should Have Saids with your loyal readers - we need you.

  6. Kat,

    Sorry for taking a while to respond to your comment. :) (And thanks for jumping in to the conversation!)

    Although I can appreciate your points, I do have fundamental disagreements with some of them, as well.

    ...Um... After writing a response that ended up being almost 1,000 words, I've decided to just write a blog post about it. ;) Sorry to make you wait, but please do come back and comment on that post, because I'd love to hear your response! :)