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by Dina Gachman

Culture Rant

October 15, 2000

Almost everyone has an opinion in the Bay Area. A huge percentage of this beautiful, insane, vocal, wild population cares about something. I get into political discussions with the woman at the flower shop, some random person on the train talks about overpopulation, people speak out through tagging billboards (my favorite - an ad for a certain big-time bank on the train that said "You Have More Power Than You Think", and some pissed-off person changed the "You" to "We" - my sentiments exactly!). Then there's the anti-dotcom mania, Gap and Old Navy hate-art, Starbucks protests, the pro-bicycle coalitions, the rave-scene worshippers, the citizens for a better, more open, more tolerant, more peaceful, more anything world. All this trying, scrounging, struggling - it's starting to sound like Radiohead's OK Computer.

I read a few months ago about a group of "activists" in San Francisco advocating pigeons as food, as in, homeless people should be fed pigeon stew etc, and by eating these ghetto birds we'd save money, feed everyone and get nutrients. And they were actually passionate about this? When is it OK to stop supporting and start laughing? I mean, is it possible not to become disillusioned and cynical with so much crap being protested, banned, hated, loved, and deified? Is it close-minded and judgmental to wish the pigeon proponents would just chill the hell out? Does it all matter anyway?

This is all personal choice. I've got no desire to silence anyone, censor anyone's beliefs (and I'm sure there are people who would love to laugh at some of my beliefs) but it gets personal when everything around you is an argument, and there are so many positions to take. I think the important ones - the issues that are closer to, say, political reform than pigeon eating - get diluted, convoluted because it gets to a point where there are just too many battles to choose from, and that's where cynicism tends to step in. Cynicism or apathy, which I'm not so sure you can separate anyway.

People should care about the world they live in and try and make it better. Movements do, on occasion, make a difference in the world. And I know that because I didn't get myself to Seattle or Philadelphia or Los Angeles this year, I don't have loads of room to talk. But my main concern with all this (and I think you feel it more living in a place like the Bay Area or Seattle) is that with so many wars being waged, the things that actually effect us lose their power, and the bigwigs that make the laws and have the ultimate authority (like it or not) have more room to laugh at it all. Think of it as crying wolf, I guess.

But even as I write this my opinion's changing. Who the hell am I to say what battle's important or what movement's laughable?

It just seems to me that there are a bunch of people running around loaded with opinions and convictions that are loosely-based on random headlines, benefit raves, some hipster's drunken MTV revelations and fliers thrown around the streets. I mean, how many people in the U.S. latch onto a cause because some celebrity did a commercial for it, or spoke at an event? It's OK to be influenced by others (sometimes even by the media - you have to get your information from somewhere). How many times, though, do people pick up the picket signs without really knowing what's going on? Without truly caring? Without actually reading up on it for themselves? Just because it's hip, trendy, and there's a Zen-themed bracelet to go with it?

I might get into trouble here, but the whole Mumia cult seems like a prime example of people throwing themselves into a cause because it's hip. I mean, almost everyone wants Mumia free, regardless of whether they know why he's locked up or not. He's a poster-child for youth advocacy - and there's nothing wrong with that, really. I think the man was absolutely unfairly tried in court, and that if he actually is murdered by the government I'll freak out with the rest of 'em... but, and here's where scores of Mumiaphiles will go nuts - I feel like believing in his innocence is a blind conviction. All signs point to "possibly" that he did it. But that doesn't mean he should be on death row, or even in jail. His trial was a sham, bottom line.

If he's innocent, I apologize for doubting. There are so many other issues at stake surrounding Mumia - racism, police brutality, corruption of justice etc - that it makes it difficult to articulate any opinions about it. It's just that seeing T-shirts, posters in college dorm windows, bumper stickers, books and countless lectures - it's just one, very visible, example of people flocking to a cause. I don't think any of the T-shirts and rallies should be stopped, or that people shouldn't read his books and listen to what he has to say. What I'm trying to get at here isn't really about Mumia anyway. It's about America's, save-the-planet-but-not-your-friend mentality. It's about a culture that's so hungry for change, eager for drama and quick to judge that issues get watered down by merchandise and Courtney Love doing clean and sober ads, that it's hard to take them seriously and actually do anything about it.

It's all about choosing your battles, really, which can be difficult in a culture that's bombarded with them. France's woman-with-a-voice Anais Nin believed in individual freedom, individual issues, and had no faith in politics or social movements at all - even in the face of WWII. The falsehood and hypocrisy of the movements she witnessed made her doubt their legitimacy, so she focused her energies on bettering individuals instead. And yes, Mumia is an individual - so are the homeless people that could eat pigeon stew. Maybe it's not an either-or issue, whether you join 85 grassroots campaigns or help a single person in a day. But - and I think all this ranting's now coming to something like a point - if we let all the hype and glitter behind causes make us apathetic, or, at the other extreme, blind, fair-weather reformers, we're missing the boat. Choose your battles - skepticism beats cynicism any day.

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