The Genius of Generosity

December 18, 2010

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There’s magic in nativity — mundane and marvelous magic. It’s no wonder our most popular holiday is centered upon such an event. The promise implicit in nativity can transform even the hardest heart. Charles Dickens understood this and invented Ebenezer Scrooge. Dickens gave the miserable old miser a second life and us a good story.

Before Dickens were the gospel writers; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John crafted tales that elevated the promise of human birth to a divine level. Even if you don’t believe their stories literally, the underlying myth they’re built upon is a powerful one. Most of us can appreciate the potentiality of a blank slate or new beginning. Everyone was once white as the driven snow.

Snow Mountain
The place is cool and distant
The air is clear of error
The vista wide and brimming
Everything is still
Undone

It’s hard to believe that the depth and simplicity of the Christmas nativity story has devolved into our commercial circus. But every divine story ultimately gets a human stamp. Or is it the other way around — we give every human story a divine aspect? In story-telling terms, it makes you wonder which came first, the chicken or the egg; the human or the divine.

One thing’s sure, it’s hard to make the connection between divine birth and Wii commercials. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but Wii commercials, along with the deluge of hype of every product that flows from top-down manufactured want — want that fuels an up-to-date Christmas — makes the Wise Men and their paltry gifts seem simple and piddling. 

At its core the mythology of the Christmas story is about generosity — in this case, divine generosity: god gives his son to save mankind from (essentially) itself. If anyone doesn’t believe we need a divine hand, just open today’s paper or take an online run through the news — and reading a little history wouldn’t hurt either. But whether our recognition of the need to be saved from our tendency to self-destruct is divine insight or a simple human “duh” moment, the important thing to take from the story is that generosity is its point: it takes the generosity of sacrifice to make the world a better place. But sacrifice is not an idea that appeals to modern consumers or is in sync with the psychology of mass marketing, or which is the foundation of a consumer-driven world economy. Consumer-driven-economy is not about positive sacrifice.

Nevertheless, selling the idea of Christmas generosity is how business genius has wrenched the story of divine and human generosity into its present grotesque shape. The mythology — or fact — of Christmas (depending upon your mindset) is buried under mountains of manufactured goods which makes, say, Wal-Mart owners richer and the rest of us poorer  — not only in a monetary sense, but also in a spiritual sense.  It’s gotten to the point where even a mythological god would be sighing, “They’re just not getting it.”

What we, our government and business community have been doing in contorting the deep mythology of the Christmas story is summed up in a brilliant line from Bob Dylan’s “Summer Days.”  Although he’s referring to a politician, the line is apt for us all. Dylan sings: “He been suckin’ the blood out of the genius of generosity . . . ”

The “genius of generosity” is the story of Christmas in a nutshell, with “love and sacrifice” being its background hallelujah chorus. But the kind of generosity at the core of the Christmas story has little to do with buying-blitzes at malls. It has more to do with the background hallelujah chorus . . .the love and sacrifice part, the seeing-what-your-community-needs- and-giving-accordingly part, the what-can-I-do-now-to-help-get-us-through-this-mess-we’ve-made-of-the-world part and to evaluate and act without calculation.

William Wordsworth wrote, “Give all thou canst; high Heaven rejects the lore of nicely-calculated less or more.”

In any case, the inspiration we should seek in the Christmas story is not to suck the blood out of the genius of generosity, but to give it a transfusion. The Red Cross knows something about this, and many other organizations do as well. Give ‘em a call.

Speaking of second chances, fresh starts and blank slates; turn over a new leaf. Call it generosity-of-time-and-spirit. Make it a New Year’s resolution. Let it be local, but with a global view.

Even a measly human generosity, if it considers the world, can be, after all, almost divine . . .and truly Christmasy.

for the Shelburne Falls Independent
Dec 21, 2010

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Cooked Goose

December 12, 2010

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It looks like Greenfield (MA) is closer to inviting a big-box store to town, which is kind of like leaping into the mouth of the beast that would eat you. Instead of fighting a predator tooth and claw Greenfield is seasoning itself to become more palatable to a big appetite. Here’s some contrast: remember the doomed character Quint in Jaws?  Sliding down the deck of his busted boat into the mouth of a great white he went kicking and screaming futilely defiant. Quint had self respect. But things are different when it comes to discounts.

The speculation is that this looming “Store X” (as the developer coyly calls it) is probably a Wal-Mart.  Now what self-respecting small town of the 21st century would not want Wal-Mart within its precincts? Everyone loves to rub shoulders with success. After all Mr. W. (we’ll call him that for convenience) is brilliant. Mr. W. has convinced Americans that building his good fortune on our bad luck is not only a boon for him, but is good for us too! If that’s not American egalitarian brilliance, what is?  

Al Zack (no relationship to the admirably persistent and knowledgeable Al Norman), vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union until his retirement in 2004, put it this way in an article for Democratic Wings: “(Mr. W’s) real genius is (that he) figured out how to make money off of poverty. He located his first stores in poor rural areas and discovered a real market. The only problem with the business model is that it really needs to create more poverty to grow.”

What better way to reap the rewards of an expanding pool of cash-poor customers than to buy goods off-shore, pay workers here as little as possible, offer as few benefits as a docile labor market will bear, then rely on the federal government to pick up the tab for the shortfall in worker income? Isn’t that what a government social safety-net is for?

Say what?  California Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (22nd Assembly District) was particularly outraged by that certain Wal-Mart practice. Having been tipped off, “… her office discovered that Wal-Mart was encouraging its workers to apply for public assistance, in the middle of the worst state budget crisis in history! Lieber was enraged that taxpayers would be subsidizing Wal-Mart’s low wages, bringing new meaning to the term “corporate welfare.”

Finding themselves snagged in a Wal-Mart world, where else are workers going to shop, Lord & Taylor? No, when they’re off their employer-mandated part-time shift  in consumer-attack mode, they’ll be milling around in mall parking lots getting ugly before busting through Mr. W’s doors at a big sale opening and trampling fellow employees to death as they did in Mill Valley, N.Y.

Having helped fuel desperation and frenzy in the underclass by buying only the stuff of off-shore labor and squeezing local help as much as he can, Mr. W. might have to provide store bouncers with cattle prods to keep things more civilized the next time he offers some shiny new e-gadget at discount. The truth is, if Mr. W. paid decent wages with benefits fewer folks would need to shop in his stores and contribute to his family’s estate. My guess is you won’t catch John Boehner or Sarah Palin shopping at Wal-Mart —John Kerry or Bill Clinton either, for that matter.

The sadly ironic thing is that the less-well-off are complicit in deepening their troubles. It’s a sign of desperation when people demand that their town bring in a discount chain whose business model predicates its success upon buying low-priced off-shore goods (thereby helping to kill U.S. manufacturing) then targeting un-or-underemployed consumers who are desperate for discounts. Every item bought by the new underclass at Wal-Mart is a self-destructive transaction.  It’s an ironic collusion between Wal-Mart and its customers which  works to drive customers to even greater poverty so they’ll need Wal-Mart discounts even more.

Again, Assemblywoman Lieber: “. . . Wal-Mart’s welfare-dependence (has) made it nearly impossible for responsible employers to compete with the retail giant. It was as if taxpayers were unknowingly funding a massive plunge to the bottom in wages and benefits – quite possibly their own.”

Out where the sun shines this is all perfectly legal. Pared to the bone it’s just smart capitalism. But Wal-Mart is not above skirting the law. According to Al Zack’s article “Wal-Mart routinely violates laws protecting worker’s organizing rights (firing workers for union activity).” It’s also a “…repeat offender on overtime laws.”

Wal-Mart workers have charged that Wal-Mart managers “encouraged” them to clock out and continue working. And others have charged that they were locked in at the ends of their shift. Of course Wal-Mart denies that these abusive practices have anything to do with its business strategy —but someone once said a fish rots from the head.  Even if that aphorism is not always so, given the power of Wal-Mart over its employees, especially in a down economy, does anyone seriously think managers would blatantly violate workers rights and basic morality against Mr. W’s implicit wishes?

So here the people of Greenfield stand, buffeted by the winds of a lousy economy, surrounded by commercial predators, with a choice: to collaborate in their diminishment in order to conveniently buy cheap Chinese stuff up the road a-piece, or to say, “Uh-uh, Mr. W., I’m not buying what you’re selling. If I want to shoot myself in the foot I’d rather purchase a slightly more expensive paint-ball gun made right here in the U.S of A. 

“Still, in keeping with the season, tell your friend Mr. Scrooge when you get together over our cooked goose, ‘Merry Christmas, and God bless us everyone, even you.”

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by Jim Culleny
Dec. 12, 2010

for The Greenfield Recorder

Before the Ink Dries

December 5, 2010

There’s nothing like gazing into a clear night sky to give a mite in a macrocosm some perspective. Considering the size of the universe, comparing ourselves to mites is not a stretch.  Cosmically speaking our problems and anything we think or do today will vanish like the smoke of flash fires in a wilderness. Yet we feel this cannot be so.

Flipping logic on its ear (as he often does with great effect) Bob Dylan gives us this line in Tight Connection to my Heart: “What looks large from a distance,” he sings, “close up ain’t never that big.”

Though Dylan’s line seems counter-intuitive, a massive supernova light years away in fact becomes mite-sized when brought to earth and compared to problems we face  right here in our terrestrial cosmos. Next to terrorist bombs supernovas virtually disappear.  Immediacy is all. What’s worse than our problems themselves, however, is our apparent inability to take steps to solve them. The real problem is that the only problem-solving creatures around that can do anything about our problems have a problem grasping that our problems demand immediate problem-solving. In the USA everybody knows that problem-solving has come to a virtual standstill.

In the December issue of  The Atlantic, in a piece about work being done on clean-coal technology, Joseph Romm, a former Department of Energy official says, “No one in the U.S. government could ever imagine a 10-year plan to ensure U.S. leadership in solar power or batteries or anything else. It’s just not possible, so nobody even bothers to propose it.”

But it’s not just lethargy, money’s involved as well. There are bottom lines and economies threatened by doing something about concerns that might affect existing lucrative conditions. There are congresses, legislatures, ministers, parliaments and presidents bought by the financial networks of national and global business; big money —which (despite Dylan) looks even bigger close-up than it does at a distance, as in the moment a lobbyist waves a check in a politician’s face.

Even acknowledging the cosmic creations and acts of god I’d wager that human acts cause more woe on the planet than acts of god. In fact, some of the latest “acts of god” may really be the effects of acts of Man. I’m talking about such phenomena as the recent unprecedented floods in Pakistan, Australian and Bolivian droughts, the increase in the frequency and severity of hurricanes —activity science tells us is linked to human-caused global warming. What’s more, the day-to-day suffering caused by person-to-person acts of Man does not need much explication; it’s historically well established and as up-to-date as today’s headlines. All of this cuts across class lines and cultures and is motivated in huge part by greed and indifference.

But we’re comforted by our imaginations. Our thought-dreams make it clear the world is filled with bad guys and good guys.  The bad guys are the other guys (them) —the ones who don’t look like (us), whose beliefs are other than ours, whose class is other, whose values are really screwed up. Most of us identify with the good guys —the ones who certainly can’t be terminally mischievous — they’re respectable, they dress well, they’re pillars of the community. It’s human nature. Self-identity trickles up. We are always among the respectable.

Bottom line: our society values and respects financial success above any other.  We either see ourselves as top dogs, or fantasize we’ll someday be a big barker. That’s how Wall Street gets away with what it does; it feeds that fantasy. That’s why money talks and what it says is golden no matter how much pain and anguish flows from its presumptions. Corporate tobacco, for instance, can still sell poison for profit legally because it has the financial influence to do so. What our fogged imaginations fail to see is that the so-called respectable may be as corrupt as your average drug lord. What our lame-brains refuse to admit is that the real problem may be a world-view distorted by our dead-end acquisitiveness.

Truth be told:

When suits enter the woods
the animals flee

When Pradas plod the undergrowth
not even the king of the jungle is safe
lions become lambs
and lambs, lamb chops
 

When the scent of Gucci
wafts through primal domains
even 800 lb gorillas take a hike
–like pipsqueak squirrels
who can smell death
at distances of light years
they scurry into shadows
at the glint of cufflinks
 

All forest creatures know
that a man in a tie may be
more vicious than a werewolf
at full moon or a great white
off Coney Island in high-sweat July
 

Beware the lapel, the mother bear
warns her cubs. Lapels frame the heads
of mighty predators like necklaces
of skulls and tiger’s teeth
and silk hankies that peek
from breast pockets are no less than
the marks of Cain
 

The spear-pens of bankers may pierce
the heart of a wilderness
more deeply than the bronze tips
of fierce Greeks pierced the heart of Troy
 

–once they’re hurled a wilderness dies
a sure death before the ink dries

by Jim Culleny
for The Shelburne Falls Independent
Dec. 10, 2010