San Francisco: Why I hate TED Talks and love Rebecca Solnit

dsc_0530From LA to San Francisco I take the train. This feels like a novelty because I didn’t know the US still had trains. In Mexico (where I’m living at the moment, viz. November 2015) the train network was broken up and sold off in the early 1990s, and I assumed that the whole train network in the States had long ago suffered a similar fate. It’s one of the many things that surprise me on my inaugural visit to the US.dsc_0445San Francisco feels like a greatest hits of some of the nicest places I’ve ever been to. In Chinatown I have an uncanny sensation that I am back in China. I understand that this is kind of the point of Chinatown, but still. The sights, smells and sounds seem to be those of a place that exists in itself, rather than a mere stopping-off point for tourists.dsc_0419The layout of the hills reminds me strongly of Lisbon, with sudden stunning glimpses down into the bay. Strolling up from where I’m staying on the morning of thanksgiving, I find the streets mostly deserted. I sit in a café surrounded by big-brained young people murmuring and tapping away on laptops and drink coffee so strong my head actually falls off. I’m reminded of Hamburg in terms of the quality of life. There are lots of people carriers and I catch glimpses of yachts on the water below. I find the presence of a caterpillar sanctuary comforting and make a mental note to direct any exiled lepidoptera I should meet up this way.dsc_0474On the way to the Golden Gate park, around the corner from Haight Ashbury Primary School, I stop and watch a game of American football. Americans don’t call it American football, in the same way as the Mexicans don’t talk about Mexican food. It’s a college game, someone explains. I manage not to embarrass myself in conversation with the local enthusiasts, and briefly try my hand at sports photography. In the park itself, I pass the National Aids Monument and then come across two friends from ‘home’: Goethe and Schiller. The statue was dedicated by the German community in 1901. Partly because it’s a port town, SF has always been a huge draw for immigrants, and it’s easy to see why.dsc_0530Up at the bridge I enjoy a stunning view across the bay. I’ve missed the famous fog by a couple of months. In any case it’s diminished somewhat over the last couple of years. The climate is, after all, changing.dsc_0370The next day I spend in Oakland and Berkeley. Mention of Oakland often evokes the famous phrase from Gertrude Stein: “there’s no there there”. Actually, the most powerful association it has for me is with hiphop. Back in the 1990s I listened to a lot of g-funk and was particularly enamoured of a local revolutionary rapper called Paris who was best known for bragadaciously fantasising about assassinating the then-President. Hence as I wander round my head is full of lines of street poetry about shooting cops. Up in the hills above the bay I go for a woodland walk with Daniel, the brother of an old friend from Dublin. Although he wasn’t born here, he embodies a soft-spoken wisdom about the world which I quickly come to associate with this part of the country. We talk at length about the drought and what it means. Daniel was an agronomist before retiring, and now spends a lot of his time volunteering on a collective organic farm. Hence he is very well-placed to talk about what climate change is doing down at the roots of nature.dsc_0364I get the bus down to Berkeley. My new friends Jan and Steve kindly take me on a walk around the university, which is probably the most climate-aware place on the planet. Because of the drought the grass on the lawns has been replaced by wood shavings, along with a notice explaining why. In the Sciences building there’s an advert for a Survival 101 course (‘the next 50 years will be radically different from anything we have ever known’), a special board for ‘activist jobs’ and more Bernie Sanders graffiti that you can shake an organic placard at. Afterwards we have beer and pizza in their garden and talk about climate awareness strategies.dsc_0512The person who most embodies the radical Bay Area spirit for me is the local writer and activist Rebecca Solnit. Although I’ve insisted here multiple times that climate denial is connected to racism, she points out more clearly and coherently that it is also very much about patriarchy. She’s best-known for writing the essay and subsequent book ‘Men explain things to me‘, which gave birth to the term ‘mansplaining’. Solnit encapsulates the notion of an engaged intellectual: honest about the difficulties of staying active and hopeful but facing up to reality without flinching. I hope I won’t be doing her a disservice by saying she’s like a cross between Naomi Klein and Erich Fromm. In addition to being hugely prolific, she’s well worth following on Facebook. Last year her (in these times) must-read book ‘Hope in the dark’ was reissued. Shortly before visiting the States I read her history of walking, ‘Wanderlust’, in which she makes a connection between walking and writing that I find truly inspiring. Her work is a constant reminder that if is there is to be a future, it will be a feminist one, as another heroine of mine has also pointed out.dsc_0428Another woman I associate with the Bay Area is Oedipa Maas, the heroine of Thomas Pynchon’s novel ‘The Crying of Lot 49’. Looking for an underground postal service which may or may not exist, she follows a series of homeless men through the night as they appear to deposit and collect mail from trash cans. The network may or may not represent another level of reality subjacent to the official America. Oedipa has visions of connections and communities that lie beneath the surface. She sees Californian suburbs laid out like circuit boards and notices arcane symbols used to communicate between those in the know. My father-in-law has a cute theory about how the visions she experiences may be the result of epilepsy. In any case, there’s something extremely prescient about a book published in 1966 anticipating the acid-fuelled flowering of consciousness that was to come.dsc_0484Maybe in the future awareness and empathy will be luxuries, like yachts and, well, houses. In the Bay Area there’s a drought of affordable places to live, which means the cost and scarcity of housing is by far the number one topic of even the most casual conversation. Whereas in London it’s partly the influence of the finance industry making things much more expensive for everyone else, in SF it’s the tech companies. In 2013 local activists started protesting the shuttle buses used by companies like Google to transport their workers to the corporate campuses, like the one described by Dave Eggers in ‘The Circle’. Everyone else is allowed to stay in the city under very stringent conditions. It puts me in mind of an essay I once read by Brazilian sociologists called ‘the return to the medieval city’. In modern cities there are so many exclusions in operation, partly through technology, screening creating invisible walls. The globalised market functions as an particularly efficient repressive tool. Anyone could get removed at any time. Just as undocumented migrants fear the immigration authorities, most people in cities like San Francisco live in terror that their landlords will sell up or raise the rent.dsc_0405Increasing amounts of apartments are given over to Airbnb. The new economy is a battleground. The Bay Area may be one of the places from which field operations are directed, but it is also very vulnerable to their effects. Just a couple of weeks before my visit protestors occupied the company’s headquarters in support of a (subsequently unsuccessful) proposition to limit short-term rentals. The tech industry is a reminder that smart doesn’t mean intelligent. Back in Mexico City I’d noticed that the British Council has a weekly session of TED Talks, open to all its students. These are becoming as ubiquitous in TEFL as they are online. They represent ‘progress’ divorced from politics, entirely mediated by the market, with technology as its stand-in article of faith – after all, it was Friedrich Hayek himself (the father of Neoliberalism) who called the market a kind of technology. The TED ideology is based on a religious faith that the existence of African mobile phone entrepreneurs will somehow save the world. It’s all very slickly packaged and presented, to the extent that The Onion does a very clever parody. (Here‘s a much more serious critique by Evgeny Morozov.) For me, TED talks put me in mind of Mao’s Little Red Book, in that they imply total devotion to the helmsmanship of the Global Market. There are, truth be told, some brilliant TED Talks (inevitable, given that they appear to come off a pretty speedy production line) but the fact that they are sponsored by car companies often gets in the way of any enjoyment or inspiration. At best they are persuasive and informative, and at worst irritatingly smug and extremely complacent; they are almost always deeply neoliberal in outlook.dsc_0551Down at Fisherman’s Wharf there are actually people fishing. I try to figure out if they’re doing it for food or fun. If it’s sustenance they’re after, they’re in competition for survival with some of the biggest seagulls I’ve ever seen. The scene reminds me of Durban, South Africa, where we saw Indians without rods fishing for whitebait in polluted water. It’s easy to romanticise going off-grid, but surviving outside the walls of the global market is hard. Still, many have no alternative but to escape its dominion and seek out or build alternative communities. José Saramago’s novel ‘The Cave’ is about a shopping mall that dominates every aspect of life in the area around it. Work, food, security and leisure are all increasingly centred on it. At the end the protagonists pack up and drive off the page to an uncertain but more independent future. In the final pages of Pynchon’s ‘Vineland’, set in 1984, Zoyd Wheeler leaves the politically repressive atmosphere of LA and heads up to Northern California, where new communities of hippies and other dissidents are being established. Contrary to the example set by countless backwoods myths and log-cabin yarns, surviving on one’s own is not an option. Cormac McCarthy’s protagonist in ‘The Road’ wanders a devastated post-apocalyptic landscape with a shopping trolley, and the book ends up with a incongruous epiphany which resembles nothing less than an advert for Coca Cola. The motif of the shopping cart put me in mind of the avatar that so often stands in for us on the internet. In McCarthy’s novel there is no more online and no more consumerism, so the future is dead. It is ‘welcome to the desert of the real’ made (barely) flesh. There is no community, with little fellow feeling between the isolated individuals who drift into contact. They are reduced to little more than isolated pixels in a ruined computer game. By contrast, in another of Saramago’s dystopian fictions, ‘Blindness’, the only seeing character literally strings the group of blind people together and manages to preserve some sense of a community in the midst of the shredded social fabric. The final words of the novel are ‘The city was still there’.dsc_0526There are examples of offline communities which protect those expelled or repulsed by the workings of the Matrix; wherever there aren’t, we have to try and establish them in the face of the confluence of climate breakdown and total corporate control. Climate Camp and Occupy were attempts to set such up places, to establish havens where people could identify and belong. Significantly, Rebecca Solnit spent some of her younger years as part of the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common. And although it’s set further down the Californian coast in LA, Pynchon’s ‘Inherent Vice’ (set in 1970, at the waking from the hippy dream presaged in ‘The Crying of Lot 49’) closes with the following passage, one which I personally find of some comfort when contemplating what lies ahead:

Doc wondered how many people he knew had been caught out tonight in this fog, and how many were indoors fogbound in front of the tube or in bed just falling asleep. Someday there’d be phones as standard equipment in every car, maybe even dashboard computers. People could exchange names and addresses and life stories and from alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog.

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