Thursday, March 21, 2013

My list of things to improve life in the US

I've been thinking a lot about my homeland of the United States, and some of the problems that plague us as a nation.  Suburban sprawl, obesity, dependence on cars, unhealthy eating, addiction to television, crazed gunmen.  When I was younger I used to get frustrated by these things, especially because they seemed to be problems that I didn't create, and that in fact I tried to avoid through my lifestyle choices, but that were nevertheless prevalent in our society, and that came to affect me despite my doing the right thing.

More concretely, I felt (and still feel, to some extent), that many of the worst problems in the US are a result of a bourgeois, suburban consumerist culture that leaves people feeling alienated and disconnected from reality and healthy human behaviors.  This was especially frustrating for me, because if my interpretation is correct, then my living in a way that shunned irresponsible consumerism was the correct choice, but my countrymen by far preferred to make the wrong choices in life.

At times, they even made me pay for their sins.  Case in point the Columbine school shooting:  two alienated kids from a wealthy suburb in the sprawling West (a desert where most people shouldn't have even been living in the first place due to lack of water) shot up their classmates.  The aftermath involved frantic demands for action, but since the wealthy suburban areas that tend to be affected by such tragedies wouldn't have accepted the dehumanization and stamping out of their children's civil rights entailed by heightened security measures, those who paid for the sins and neuroses of the wealthy were large urban school districts, where up to that point no such school shootings were occurring.  In my particular case, 4200 students had to file through only three entrances every morning at my high school, because the Chicago Public School system had decreed that all students should pass through metal detectors, and my school had only three detectors (which didn't really work anyway).  As had often happened in our country, dysfunctional wealthy whites vaguely conscious of the unsustainable, precarious nature of their lifestyle made the (disproportionately low-income, dark-skinned) urban populace into their whipping boy so as to feel somehow safer, somehow absolved.

Anyway, I was bitter for much of my adolescence and young adulthood about these things--the prevalence of social problems in the US despite seemingly common-sense solutions to them, the arrogant refusal of mistaken people to accept the wrongness of their decisions and lifestyle, and especially what I saw as the urban-suburban divide that at once kept me out of many of the problems I saw, but also kept me from contributing to their resolution.  Today I am less bitter, and simply want to help.  I've realized first of all that all of us are people and compatriots, and that if some people suffer from a problem, even if it isn't my fault, I and everyone else must play a role in solving the problem.  Furthermore, I've realized that these problems aren't limited to a suburban, thoughtless bourgeois "them".  School shootings, obesity, psychological problems, addiction to television, lack of exercise--these things are increasingly affecting urban, small-town, and rural communities, and not just the much-maligned suburbs.

So today I was musing on what I might propose to help resolve some of these problems.  I have recently been watching lots of Malcolm X speeches and interviews, and I re-watched Spike Lee's film based on the great leader's autobiography.  If there's something I admire most about Malcolm, it is the gradual evolution he underwent, which led him to realize that the problems of blacks and everyone else in the US wouldn't be solved simply by pointing out the injustices that whites had long perpetrated.  He never ceased to identify and call out what he saw as the roots of our country's problems, but he gradually came to speak in terms of everyone, white and black, working in communion to solve them.  Not to compare myself to Malcolm, but I am no longer satisfied to righteously condemn the flaws that others commit.  I want to be part of the solution.  So here goes my list of priority actions we can all take to make life better for everyone:
  • Get rid of your television.  You'll feel less insecure, scared, neurotic, violent, judged, judgmental, sluggish, greedy, and impotent without the constant barrage that TV levels at us to make us feel these negative things. 
    • The best way to get rid of the television is gradually.  First I'd recommend cancelling your cable subscription (which will save you money, too).  That way you'll still have TV sets in the house to watch the occasional movie.  Hell, get a Netflix subscription, and then you'll just watch a movie or two a week, and they'll be something you choose, instead of whatever junk is on the TV.
    • Next you can start doing away with individual TV sets.  Start with those in bedrooms (no one should have a TV in his or her bedroom--it makes for antisocial behavior and bad sleep habits), then move on to the dining room and kitchen.  If you're going to leave a TV in your house, have it be in the living room, where the family can watch things together.
  • By nixing the TV, you'll have more time to be active.  Do more things in general:  read, play with your kids, talk to your spouse, garden, cook good food, make love, walk to work, visit friends, call your parents, or even just sleep.  This last possibility is important--many people say they are too tired at the end of the day to do anything but watch TV, but statistically people in the US watch hours of TV every day.  If they stopped watching TV, they could sleep more, and be less tired at day's end! 
  • Eat real food.  Without a TV, you and the family can spend time together in the kitchen, fixing real meals with ingredients bought at the grocery store, a farmers market, or even grown in your back yard.  If you don't have time to cook so much (which would be unlikely now that you've added 4 hours to your day by cutting out TV watching), just cook a few big meals every week, and use the leftovers creatively.  By eating real food that you prepare in a family, you will be healthier, you'll spend less, and you'll spend satisfying time with the people you love.  In addition, kids that grow up talking with their parents and eating decent food around a table are less likely to don a black trenchcoat and raze their classroom with bullets.
  • Don't drive so much.  Again, without a TV you might have sufficient time and rest to consider walking, biking, or taking public transportation to work.  Whatever you replace driving with, it will be a winning trade-off--exercise, contemplation, and fresh air in the first two cases, or the chance to think or read if you're on public trans.  You might even get to a point where you can ditch your car altogether and save on gas and insurance.
  • My final step, and this is probably something that will turn off much of my intended public, would be that people consider moving out of the suburbs, to more human-scale, walkable settlements, be they small towns or big cities.  I am no longer keen on making sweeping condemnations of suburban people or anything like that.  It's just that suburban life makes it easier to be more hooked on the TV, the car, and bad food, and harder to make good lifestyle choices on these points.
    • I of course am a big advocate of agrarian rural living too, but most people can't and won't change their job and lifestyle to go start a farm.  On the other hand, moving to a remote rural area but commuting to a faraway job is essentially just a worse version of suburban living.  
    • So for now I'd advocate for moving to small towns or big cities (or even older, well-planned suburbs).  That way you can live within walking or public transport distance of where you work, shop, eat, go out, etc.  Your kids will be more autonomous when they don't need a ride everywhere.  It's also likely that they will come into at least indirect contact with the problems of the poor if they live in a big city with all types of people.  This is another positive, because they can at once be aware of the precariousness of life (and thus the importance of working hard in school), and also feel motivated and empowered to help others (and thus keep out of trouble themselves).
Okay, that's my little quick point-by-point plan to make life better for people.  I'm aware that none of what I'm saying is new; people have been calling for less TV consumption, less driving, and better eating for a long time, and for reasons ranging from environmental responsibility to my angle of just making life better for yourself.  If I have anything new to offer, it's distilling the major tenets of a sustainable lifestyle into just a few concrete points.  I want to call attention to the fact that getting away from the TV is first and foremost on my list.  I honestly believe that if people just watched less or no TV, a whole lot would change for the better in our world.  I also hope that I conveyed my proposals not as dreary sacrifices (get rid of your TV, get rid of your car, get rid of your microwave hot pockets) but rather as actions to take so you can replace these things with something better.

The big question is how I could convince people to make some of these changes.  Should I start up a crusading, door-to-door movement to spread the word (a la Jehovah's Witnesses)?  Would advertisements on TV and other media do any good?  A viral internet campaign?  I would instinctively go more for just living a decent, responsible lifestyle and thus serving as an example for others, but that doesn't seem to be having much impact thus far!

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