I have finally accepted that, by most people’s standards, I am an extremist. This realization has crept in recently, but was oddly solidified by the Cinematique showing of “The Queen of Versailles”—a film that revitalized my commitment to the Live Local movement. I watched it on the heels of a week spent reflecting on the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) funds, which have occupied my mind a lot during this election. I keep coming back to the “flowing up” of money to top dogs rather than the “trickle down” effect we keep getting promised.
“Jock, if we each got $10,000 as a bailout from the government, what would we do with it?” I asked.
He took a swig of beer. “Is someone offering us $20,000?”
“No, this is a theoretical $10,000 each.”
He reflected for a moment. “Probably we’d go out to dinner a few times, make a chunk payment on the mortgage, you would pay down some credit-card debt, and we’d get the back part of the house fixed.” (We have a floor and a roof section that are starting to become a mere memory of what was.)
“So, in the end, the majority of it would still flow ‘upward’ toward the banks?” I countered.
“Probably,” he conceded.
I really did not want to see “The Queen of Versailles,” but Jock wanted to go. As longtime Cinematique fans, we adore our local national public radio station WHQR, which hosts the non-cineplex-style screenings at Thalian Hall. “The Queen of Versailles” is about a billionaire couple, Jackie and David Siegel (he claims to be partly responsible for swinging the 2000 George Bush election). They live in “the 1 percent” and begin to build the biggest house in America at 90,000 square feet. However, the financial meltdown made the activity impossible.
They pay for it by selling timeshares, which is not real estate but visiting rights to real estate. Then, they sell the mortgages on the timeshares to banks. Once the construction halts, they allegedly begin to “cut back” on spending. And their idea of pinching pennies would have given my mother apoplexy: truck loads of toys, games and bicycles still come into the house, as “The Queen” wanders around in a fur coat. It is an extreme in American society which is hard for me to fathom. The excess shopping and lavish lifestyle wasn’t even appreciated by members of the Siegel family, including their eight children—and it was painful and saddening to watch. Scenes showed collectors trying to squeeze every little penny out of the people who had fallen behind on payments in the timeshare company—all for a non-essential purchase they didn’t really own. Eventually, the multitude of people the corporation employed had to be let go.
What the movie didn’t show was any real sacrifice on the part of the Siegels. Whereas the middle class has focused the last few years on paying down personal debt, such a thought never crossed the minds of a family who spends as fast as they borrow. Nor did they try and help save their employee’s jobs. How revolting to think this family has no respect whatsoever for those behind the scenes who are scrimping and scraping to keep such profuse luxury afloat.
It got me thinking: Why do we spend money with behemoths who aren’t appreciative when we can spend with people we know? Vendors at a local farmers’ market or small business, for example, really are gracious, not only for the income but also for the web of community which backs them.
And I am an extremist for taking this position…
My friend Kit mentioned at our weekly billiards night how his parents were involved with the first Earth Day. Back then, activists wanted curb-side recycling to be standard in American cities. In 1970 that mountain seemed incredible; yet, in 2012 people involved in the waste-removal business wouldn’t dream of giving up the lucrative recycling segment of their business model. However, 40 years ago it was quite a demand to voice.
Many once-extreme positions have become commonplace in American society. Half of the population’s participation in government now comes with women voting. African Americans exercise their rights protected in the U.S. Constitution, and most of our country lives the reality that separate is not equal (though, this still needs work). We no longer prohibit the sale of alcohol. We have ended the legal enslavement of humans for forced labor and the exploitation of children for cheap labor. Sure, such statements may seem provocative, but at one point they were all extreme positions for which people had died fighting for. Don’t misunderstand: I am not equating ending slavery with preservation of a local economy, just drawing the parallel that these actions were once perceived as unrealistic and impossible but have come to pass.
“Extremists” are important to our ongoing social dialogue and (hopefully) compromise. I am not a good negotiator. I have never mastered the fine art of making everyone feel like they have won; however, I have learned you don’t negotiate by starting in the middle at the compromise point, else there is no ground to cede. For all of the ridiculous, thoughtless excess, there must be people who overthink and actively scrutinize and agonize about their impact on the world. These two extremes are what provide the possibility for that center point.
I don’t expect everyone or even half of our readers to go 100 percent local, but steps add up and make a difference. By now, we have a Live Local movement in Wilmington (Arlo says we only need three people). We’ve made great strides with Buy Local ILM, Wilmington Cash Mob, and the locavore movement. This community has made leaps and bounds over the last five years. No, we aren’t going to bring all the money back from the Cayman Islands overnight, but we have saved several small businesses which employ many people who otherwise would be out of jobs.
It reminds me of the story of two people walking on a starfish-covered beach. One picks up a live starfish and throws it back into the ocean. The other looks around despairingly at the hundreds of starfish, many which will die.
“But you won’t save all of them!” he points out.
His friend concedes, “No, but I saved that one and that one—and that matters.”