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Mailbox, Ballot Box

The deluge seems to be over.

At this writing, there are still ten days until November 8. So, finally, it’s safe to throw into recycling the still growing daily pile of election-oriented mail.

There’s been an unprecedented tonnage this year.

Who directs it to my modest dwelling? By volume, the victor has to be something called “C.A.R.B.” Its slickly produced, four color stiff paper broadsides implore us to vote “Yes on L.”

“L” poses as a Berkeley ballot measure dealing with housing. “Housing,” is a big buzzword, coast-to-coast this year. There doesn’t seem to be enough of it. But little or none of the hundreds of thousands of “units’ being discussed are directed to those in most dire need of it. “Housing,” after all, is mostly lacking for poor and homeless people. Poor and homeless people are most often non-white. Many of them are immigrants, whose native countries are class-stratified, environmentally ravaged, corrupt, and violent. 

In our land of wealth and opportunity, “housing,” as proposed, ranges from “tiny” one-room shacks with hot plates, toilets, and fold-down beds, to McMansions on entire floors of skyscrapers. Or multi-acre “estates” with water-guzzling lawns and pools. 

“C.A.R.B.” is listed as the sender of these well-printed in vivid color “housing” appeals. But C.A.R.B. is the California Air Resources Board, a government agency. It doesn’t seem to have either donated or endorsed Measure L. (inquiries to C.A.R.B’s Sacramento headquarters were not returned.)

Those listed on C.A.R.B’s pro-Measure L mailings include 43 “Community Leaders.” As someone who has lived and worked in this community for over 40 years I don’t recognize the names of 41 of them. A another list on the mailers of “elected officials” includes the caveat that those accompanied by a * have their “organizations” listed for identification only. One whose name I recognize actually came by our house to ask us to vote NO on Measure L, and give us a window sign with “NO on L in big letters. Yet she’s listed as an “elected official “ on the “Yes on L” mailer.

Whoever they are, they’ve raised $260,000 to support Measure L. Their largest donor, a realtor, has donated more than all opponents combined, according to incomplete statements filed so far.

The non-representative Berkeley City Council and Mayor having already presided over the destruction and transmogrification of a once vibrant city center for “housing,” now seek to use Measure L for further destruction. Permits are granted. Variances and tax concessions bestowed. There are no publicized community meetings for people and neighborhoods to voice objections.

The first step for creeping “housing” is to destroy existing structures. These often contain moderate, rent-controlled units. Then these sites lie empty, as the owners trade them for paper increases in value. Which they can do for years, meaning more displaced people wait for “housing” which, if built, they will not be able to afford.

Half of Berkeley’s voters won’t bother to cast votes. Our ballots are poorly laid out and hard to sort out. A completely indecipherable separately mailed “voter guide,” (there are two of them!) doesn’t help. Even though voting by mail is not hard, it takes time to find out where on the ballot candidates or issues you may want to vote for appear.

Not only are there deceptive “mailers” deluging us, those who watch TV will be further discouraged and confused by two slickly produced Native American Casino measures, Propositions 26 and 27. Neither is for the benefit of Native Americans, though each would be enormously profitable for gambling interests behind them. But happily for the gambling “industry” (one of California’s biggest “industrial” entities) this year’s election coincides with some of TV’s biggest audience programs. Sports!

The World Series! The N.F.L.! The N.B.A.! College football! “Bowl Eligible Big Games!!” The N.H.L.! Fox, ESPN, and ABC. now even show during games their own betting “cutaways” featuring jackpot prizes promoted by Sports announcers, and screen crawler subtitles with gambling odds and results.

With “housing” being hopelessly mired in electoral muck, the other big buzzword this November is “The Economy.” And its subset, “Jobs.” 

Daily statistics on numbers of people employed and the “price at the pump” are said to be on millions of minds. 

No matter how many people have “jobs,” courts and politicians have done little or nothing to protect workers, specifically through those collective associations known as unions. Executive officeholders, from Presidents to Governors, don’t work to enhance the dignity of work, rather than to increase the number of “jobs.”

Workplace safety. Collective possibilities for advancement. Elimination of discrimination. Have we seen real progress here? Or are real accomplishments – like “diversity” – all too often praised as outcomes, rather than way stations? A “diverse” work force of underpaid, underprotected people, stuck at lower employment levels with nonexistent future careers – Is this something to be proud of? Do these “jobs” provide satisfaction? Or are they merely a way to try to get enough money to keep the bills paid?

It is no wonder that the employed as well as the unemployed are depressed, sad and sometimes suicidal. If your only option to feed and house and clothe yourself and your family is noisy, dirty daily drudgery for money insufficient to fund your needs, much less your wishes, what can your “mental health” be? 

Even New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks recognizes a “Rising Tide of Global Sadness.” “The emotional health of the world is shattering,” concludes Brooks, after looking at startling increases in poll respondents degree of anger and disillusion at their work and at their communities (NY Times 10/30/2022). 

And how can politicians navigate the brackish waters in which their constituents survive?

What they mostly come up with are not laws, regulations, and policies. What they center on instead is “messaging.” Much as the Berkeley elected officials vaunt Measures L, M, and N as solutions for “housing,” national Democrats “shift gears” (“Shifting Gears, Democrats Now Emphasize economy” NY Times, 10/25/2022). 

Leading “liberal” thinkers want Democrats running for office to tell voters loudly that it is their Republican opponents who do things like block controls on the price of insulin. That it is Republicans who, if they get control of Congress, will continue and extend Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy, meaning less money for those on Medicare and Medicaid. 

Unfortunately, Democrats tend to focus on reality, not abstractions. How many are affected, or even know anything about, insulin and its pricing? Versus how many can tell you within a penny the price of gasoline?

Yes, it makes sense and could be of economic assistance to tax the windfall profits of Chevron, Exxon and their fellow oil oligopolists. But that would mean those oil oligopolists would create and purvey lies and distortions of the same kind that back Berkeley’s “housing”-drunk politicians. More junk in your mailbox. More crap on TV! (Viewer alert: it’s World Series time! If it goes seven games, it might end three days before the election! And many states still have lots of in-person ballots cast on election day, or mailed around that time. So get set for lots of splash, flashy TV ads.)

‘Twas not always thus.

Back in my long ago (late 1950’s!) college years we used two seminal textbooks in American History classes. “Middletown” and “Middletown in Transition” (1929-1935). The authors, Robert Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, wrote what is still one of the most thorough and prescient studies of a small midwestern city, Muncie, Indiana. 

Before World War I and the early depression years, Middletown/Muncie (they changed the name to avoid issues of Copyright, Governmental rights etc.) was a white, working class community of 50,000. Jobs were facilitated through apprenticeships and passed on through families and unions. Crafts and skills were taught. Wages were high enough so that home ownership was common. Homes were comfortable. The economic elite existed, but they tended to be “hands on,” not isolated in corporate offices. Banks were funded by workers’ deposits, and revenues from low-interest mortgages. Municipal services (fire, police, street maintenance, education) were funded by affordable taxes. Governing bodies (city council, mayor) mostly were elected by and from workers and people known in the community (doctors, clergy, small business owners.)

All of this disappeared by the time the Lynds restudied Middletown after World War 1. Worker satisfaction had declined. Unions were suppressed and disempowered by federal and state legislation and judicial rulings. Massive industry created to fuel the war against Germany, which a pacifist and isolationist (and bigoted racist) President, Woodrow Wilson, turned control of business over to extremely wealthy people. This meant that crafts and artisans and locally funded manufacturing shrank almost totally.

Life changed with it, in a way the “virtual” life of business and crafts is changing today. 

Gone were Workingmen’s Clubs and free libraries. Gone were massive outings and picnics for workers and their families. Gone were easily accessible shops and stores where people without cars could buy locally grown and manufactured products.

The media (radio and newspapers) were bought out by wealthy families and became publicists and propagandists for a new economic era. The national Chamber of Commerce was blunt. “The American citizen’s first importance to his country is no longer that of citizen but that of consumer.”

Where previously “unions brought tangible pressure for a weekly pay law, standardized wage scales, factory inspection, a Workingman’s Library and reading rooms, and meeting halls, now all these disappeared.” As did the Workingman’s Party, whose Presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs, campaigned five times, the last from prison where he had been sentenced on false charges. He got more than a million votes. 

With millions and millions of those eligible to vote discouraged or indifferent to whatever they thought the outcomes might be, “progressive” Democrats retreated into urban governments. These became headquarters for isolated political “machines” of job seekers and job holders out for themselves.

The current Democratic Party looks more like what locally based governments looked like in the 1920s. Nationwide Democrats continue to get millions more votes than Republicans. But Republican control of state governments means districts are designed to elect Republicans while Democrats are packed into their smaller districts.

A new, Republican reinforcing tactic has come with the rise of the virtual. “Voter Analytics” measures tens of millions of people using consulting, analytics, media, marketing and advertising software. The resulting “voter scoring” shows Republicans which streaming video sources, podcasts websites, and apps, to use for messages, which are not monitored for accuracy. By transmitters like Google and Twitter. Nor are respondents monitored for “Q Anon” scores, measuring whether and how much they believe a “deep state” is behind Democrats fictitious involvement in fictitious things like an Obama-led (!) child trafficking ring.

Resistance to monitoring such messaging is led by none other than Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, who just bought the world’s most omnipresent messaging platform, Twitter. Within nanoseconds of his acquisition, Musk’s new toy had seen thousands of messages about Democrats stealing votes, Blacks being disillusioned with Democrats, and of course every vicious nutcake’s favorite trope, Jews behind all that’s bad. (The deranged man arrested while to kill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi but instead seriously injuring her husband was a follower of Q-Anon.)

Satirist songwriter (and public school math teacher) Tom Lehrer knew about this about the time I was reading the Lynds in college:

“National Brotherhood Week”

By Tom Lehrer (1965)

Oh, the white folks hate the black folks
And the black folks hate the white folks
To hate all but the right folks
Is an old established rule

Oh, the poor folks, hate the rich folks
And the rich folks hate the poor folks
All of my folks hate all of your folks
It's American as apple pie

Oh the Protestants hate the Catholics
And the Catholics hate the Protestants
And the Hindus hate the Muslims
And everybody hates the Jews

But during
National Brotherhood Week, National Brotherhood Week
It's National Everyone-Smile-At-One-Another-hood Week

Elon Musk says he’s going to have a “content monitoring” body in place. He doesn’t say when. Or who’ll be on it. Or how they will be chosen. Apple and Facebook also say they’ll be vigilant. But also have no procedures in place. The government? Well, it’s maybe going to do something some time while being careful not to abridge “freedom of speech.”

And after all, misinformation and disinformation has characterized our blessed Republic since even before its formal formation (for a thorough review of two recent books about this, see Adam Gopnick, “Finding the Founders: How Samuel Adams helped foment a revolution” (New Yorker, 10/31/2022).

What to make of this mess? And what goes into what voters can make of it? 

Takes time to figure that out. Time is what media says it doesn’t have, given what they hope is your anxiety to “find out.” If you’ve done all you can before Election Day, take the night off. Go see “Tar” or “Descendant” or “The Banshees of Inishirin” or “Till” if they’re available to you. Which they no longer are in Berkeley, all downtown movie theaters having been closed, thanks to those who would continue the disembowelment of the city.

(Larry Bensky welcomes your comments, praise and condemnation: LBensky@igc.org)

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