Saturday, February 21, 2009
The Mean Season
(Above: Bill Brand. Photo taken from his blog.)
Another sign that the economy is going south: Chinese fortune cookies. I had lunch at Hunan Villa in Pinole last week, and my fortune read, "You shouldn't overspend at the moment. Frugality is important."
A few days later I was at Renee's Place in Albany, and the fortune read, "It is time to help a friend in need."
Wise advice on both counts. You know the ancient Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." Well, these times sure are interesting.
Growing up in the affluent but boring '50s, I romanticized the era of the 1930s, with its NRA parades and CIO organizing drives featuring Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie leading striking workers in singing, "We Shall Not Be Moved." It seemed so thrilling compared to my time.
I told my parents I was jealous of them for having lived through such a heroic epoch, and their response was "Don't be. It was horrible."
I didn't understand what they meant then, but I'm beginning to understand now. We are entering a mean season.
Take the recent attempt in Congress to blame the woes of the auto industry on its workers. Or last week's rant on CNBC by business reporter Rick Santelli, who called foreclosure victims "losers" as traders on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange cheered his every word.
Look, we're all scared. Nobody likes going to bed every night worrying about tomorrow. And when people are under stress, it's tempting to turn on each other. Then things get even worse.
Families disintegrate. Spousal and child abuse increases, just when the social service agencies that could help the victims have their funding slashed.
Crime goes up, and the political pressure builds to spend less money on helping the poor and more on locking them up.
During the 1930s some even gave up on American democracy entirely. On the left, they joined the Communist Party or supported demagogues like Huey Long.
On the right, pro-fascist industrialists plotted to overthrow FDR and replace him with Gen. Smedley Butler, the most decorated Marine in American history. The plot collapsed when Butler, a true patriot, blew the whistle on them.
It's not a pretty picture, and I'm not looking forward to a repeat. So let's buy local, avoid scapegoating and try looking out for each other, OK?
That even includes the guy who gives you the one-finger salute in traffic. As a friend e-mailed me last week, "Be kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle."
Finally, a personal note: My longtime colleague, Oakland Tribune reporter Bill Brand, died last Friday from injuries he sustained earlier this month when he was hit by a streetcar in San Francisco.
Bill was a sweet, gentle man and a great reporter. Whatever he covered, whether it was business, politics or his last beat, writing a beer blog called "What's On Tap," he did it superbly.
I will always think of him as the best Berkeley reporter that ever was, and I speak as someone who covered Berkeley for many years myself. There was nothing going on in this town that he didn't know about. There have been - and still are -some excellent reporters in Berkeley, but Bill was the gold standard.
Several Berkeley Police officers attended his funeral Wednesday, including Chief Doug Hambleton, who said, "Bill quoted me more accurately than any reporter I ever met."
I will miss him. And I'm not alone.