Tuesday, December 14, 2004


Originally uploaded by Ughman.
I think I can safely assume that everybody has heard an older person, or perhaps simply a pessimistic person, say that our society is in decline. Going downhill. To Hell in a handcart. I'm sure you know what I mean. "When I was a boy..." you might hear them start, or, "These kids today..." The rest of that sentence can involve anything from that "Hippety-Hoppity" music to facial piercings, but the sentiment is the same. In their perception, we are not marching boldly and gradually into some new utopia; we are lurching gracelessly toward a savage and sudden collapse of the Great Western Empire.
The thing is that these whiners are completely right!
The way I see it there has been a shift in the predominant social attitude away from collectivism toward a selfish sense of self-importance and entitlement. It is a false ideal that springs from a misguided interpretation of the fundamental ideology of western democracies: that all men are created equal. The statement might be true. It is when people put it into practise that it falls apart.
I think of it this way: Windsor and Newton manufacture a fabulous line of watercolour inks. They can be used for painting and colouring and have worked well for me. Now when these bottles of ink roll off the packaging line, they are essentially identical. Equal. Now in the hands of a talented artist, these dyes have the potential to become something breathtaking. Alternately, they could dry out in the back of a drawer like mine until they are just so much colourful dust.
People are a lot like that. We all arrive pretty much equal and we face a number of challenges as we travel through life. Some face greater adversity than others, but the ways in which we rise to overcome obstacles forges the character that we become. The problem with the whole equality thing is that some people seem to feel that that equality is a perpetual guarantee.
It is not.
Certainly we can agree on some basic human rights and the provision of fundamental civil liberties, but we have to remember that there is a society at work here and the needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the few. We need supervision and we need boundaries. We have created government, police and the courts to establish and maintain order in our culture and it has worked pretty well, but it is failing. Governments are more concerned with image and spin than with drafting necessary legislation, Police are worried about lawsuits, underfunding and internal corruption and the courts are increasing hampered by case law and precedent set by lenient sentencing.
It is time shift our collective focus from individual rights to civil obligations. You deserve to receive no more than you give and it is time to rebalance the scales of economy, justice, education, medicine and politics. It is time for us all to stand up and be accountable for our actions.
Before I ramble on for too long in this vein, and start to quote from Marx and Engels, let me explain why I am so concerned at this particular moment. It has to do with rugs. Well, shopping for rugs. You know, carpet, floor coverings. Allow me to explain.
Last Saturday, my wife and I went to a local department store to buy an area rug and a hall runner. Zeller's (a Canadian chain of stores like Target, or Kmart in the U.S.) was offering a buy-one-get-one-free sale on all floor coverings. We are in the market for rugs after I tore up our miserable forty year old wall-to-wall carpet. Now had I known that the store opened at nine o'clock, we would have arrived then, but instead we showed up at eleven and the store had been open for two hours. Really, I should be wiser by now. I should have cruised right on through the parking lot. Maybe go to the hardware store. Maybe just go back to bed to dream pleasant dreams untainted by the horrors that I saw instead. I should have been wiser. But I was not.
Now, I understand that rugs are meant to be walked on. Some are special and attractive and go on the wall, but most are supposed to go on the floor. In your house. After you buy them and take them home. It seems that in Zeller's rug department last Saturday, this convention was thrown away as casually as one might throw a twelve foot runner into, say, the aisle of a department store. The entire section was littered with carpet. Throw rugs, area rugs, doormats, all strewn the length and breadth of the place. A crumpled heap of sisal here, a mass of burber there. In one place, about twenty rugs of varying size, shape and manufacture had been laid flat on top of one another like some monstrous synthetic flaky pastry. Incredible. Adding insult to injury, the style and colour we wanted was all gone. While supplies last. Sorry, no raincheques.
What is it that causes a mass of people to behave this way? To abandon every last shred of moral decency? To resurrect the long buried primitive mind and embrace the animalistic id? I call it Wal*Mart-isation. As the cost of material goods declines, so the perceived value of the products is eroded also. This kind of behaviour just doesn't go on in more costly stores. Nor, I suspect, would it take place if there were sufficient public disapproval. I don't see it, though.
"Tsk, tsk. Will you take a look at that. Oh, well. Not any problem of mine. Somebody else will clean it up, I'm sure."
Or worse:
"If they do it, so should I."
And if I, to the embarassment of my wife, should confront one of these savages I am subjected to verbal abuse. I might say something like, "Hey, buddy, do you mind?" and get a cheery, "Who the fuck are you?" in response.
That's the attitude I'm concerned with. "Look out, Jack, it's ME comin' through. I couldn't be bothered to shower or shave today (or yesterday) and I am wearing greasy sweatpants, but I am very important because I am a bloody citizen and I very nearly almost voted in the last election and I don't know his name but I sure don't like the guy who got in and I sure might have voted for the other guy but I was probably drunk or asleep or watching Sur-bloody-vivor!" Ideally, I should be allowed to pound on that person until my hands hurt, but then I would go to jail. With a more concentrated bunch of rather impolite people. And worse things by far would happen to me. Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. Stop it. Ow.
O.K., now I have vented. I must go compose a more thoughtful essay about how truly dismal the future looks through the cracked crystal that is my jaded pessimism. Cheers for now.