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Sunday, December 23, 2007

I Gave at the Mall

Save the world by buying a bottle of drinking water! That idea sums up the latest in the feel-good trend sweeping the country: spend money on something you want and would buy anyway, and get that warm feeling associated with helping your fellow man at the same time. Buy a $1.80 bottle of water and Ethos/Starbucks will send a whopping five cents to help children around the world get access to clean water. What could be better? Except that bottling of water in plastic, is, as we now know, a wildly irresponsible way to sell our drinking water.

What if Starbucks instead supplied access to tap water with some paper cups next to it? Every time a person took a cup, they could drop $1 into a can, which would then be sent to help children have access to clean drinking water? The customer would save 80 cents, the children would get 95 cents more, and we wouldn’t waste all that plastic and generate tons of non-biodegradable trash. Well, obviously, Starbucks isn’t going do that because then they’re out $1.75 on every bottle they didn’t sell.

The Ethos water charade is just one example of this trend towards incorporating a false sense of charity into an activity we engage in all the time anyway, namely shopping. We just go to the mall, not out of our way one bit, and we can buy things we were going to buy anyway so corporations will give a percentage of the profits to some charity. The Product Red campaign is a good example of this trend. We’re made to feel like we’re solving world hunger by buying a red iPod. A red iPod Nano costs $199. However, the blue one costs $199 also. Why should we feel so great about ourselves? We did nothing charitable; we simply bought something we wanted anyway and perhaps compromised on the color.

But hey, this is not to imply that it’s not good that corporations are committed to giving money towards causes like AIDS in Africa. And it’s not wrong that the corporations are only participating in these drives so that people will buy their products, either. They’re in the business of making money, so they’re just doing what they do. But let’s call it what it is, huh?

We’re being given the sense that every time we buy something, we just did our part to save the world. But if we really look, are we abdicating what is our responsibility--to truly help others?

I recently saw someone with four of those one-dollar rubber wrist bracelets at a coffee shop discussing the meaning of each colorful band. “This one is for poverty, this one is for cancer awareness…” He had spent a grand total of $4 to look like the second coming of Mother Teresa, all the while sipping a $4.95 mocha latte.

You see the signs everywhere — we can “feel good” about buying from this and that store. This one gives to charity, that one promotes fair trade, the other one is committed to being “green. “ What does that mean? A Connecticut car wash promotes itself as being “green” since it installed solar panels on its roof. While this will only meet a small fraction of the car wash’s electricity needs, we’re told to feel good going there to clean our SUV, even though hundreds of gallons of water mixed with phosphate pollutants from the soap go down the drain.

America is a generous nation, contributing a record $295 billion in 2006 to charity while corporate donations were $12.72 billion, a decline of 10 percent from the previous year. As much as it’s great that corporations are feeling that it’s necessary to look like good members of the world community, it’s obvious that we can’t leave it to them to do our giving for us. We need to think as much about our charity as we do about our other purchases. We can’t allow buying an overpriced bottle of water when we’re thirsty to replace well thought out contributions to deserving organizations. We need to continue doing what we’ve always done — volunteer and be generous, and not allow “I gave at the office” to become “I gave at the mall.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Where Have All the Anti-War Songs Gone?

The movie theater lights came down 10 minutes before show time, but instead of coming attractions, or ads for popcorn in the lobby, a three and a half minute National Guard recruiting video began to play. Immediately, it became obvious that this was no ordinary schlocky military-produced film, but a slick rock video by the popular rock group “3 Doors Down.” The video, “Citizen Soldier,” chronicles the history of the National Guard; one of their own fired the shot that “started a nation,” and others “stormed the beaches of Normandy” and includes footage from 9/11 and Guardsmen rescuing a cute blond boy from what looks like the aftermath of a tornado.

The reality, of course, is that for the last several years, Guardsmen, more often than not, have been deployed to Iraq, not here rescuing Americans from disasters. 3 Doors Down, by appealing to its fan base, is helping to send young men and women to fight in Iraq. The new recruits will most likely not find cute blond kids to rescue, nor will they start a nation.

The times they are indeed a-changin’.. During the Vietnam war, the popular bands of the era were putting out seminal anti-war music, not recruitment songs. Where have all the Pete Seegers gone? Gone to commercials everywhere, it seems. Even the formerly anti-establishment hero of the farmers, John Mellencamp, has gone corporate, happily singing that this is our country in those repetitive Chevy commercials. He informs us that, “There’s room enough here for religion to forgive,” but this inane, banal piece of bad songwriting cannot be forgiven. Long ago, Mellencamp told us that he fought authority and authority always won. Maybe he just got tired of fighting and decided to just take the money and run.

Four and a half years into the Iraq conflict. and it’s hard to think of a single Iraq-era anti-war song. Yet, even young people born long after the Vietnam war can name a handful of that era’s best protest songs. “Alice’s Restaurant,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “One Tin Soldier” come quickly to mind. Something has indeed gone haywire over the last 30 years if the most memorable anti-war musical moment (not even a song)came from the Dixie Chicks, a country group no less, when the lead singer announced a few years ago that she was ashamed that the president was from Texas.

Do today’s artists and listeners just have different political viewpoints? Or could it be the lack of a draft? Maybe self-preservation helped inspire the great anti-war song output of old. Or could the corporate ownership of radio simply be keeping these songs from us? In March of 2003, before the invasion of Iraq, The New York Times published an article about the state of anti-war music, saying, “One thing is certain: a war, as opposed to the prospect of war, would quickly generate more anti-war music.” Four plus years since then, it seems that certainty, like the music business, just ain’t what it used to be.