Tuesday, May 17, 2016

There's more than one way of being ripples

Lost Hills, California. Photo by Chloe Sorvino/Forbes.
Another day, another dateline. Another little chunk of David Brooks's life. Stung by his failure to realize that Donald Trump was going to be the Republican presidential nominee this year, he's ripped himself yet again out of the bourgeois strata where he generally spends the the big chunks, and gone where he feels least comfortable, out into the pain, as his preferred approach to leaping across the chasms of segmentation, "One Neighborhood at a Time".  We all have some responsibility to do that.

Thus in early May he seems to have visited decaying Pittsburgh, where he chatted with school principals and factory owners, and the whitewater rafting country of West Virginia, where I could see no evidence he ever wandered as far from his room as the hotel's bar.

Today it's Lost Hills, California, where I'm afraid he's not going to find a lot of Trump voters; underemployment is no problem, because everybody has a job on the 70,000 acres of Paramount Farms, world's largest vertically integrated supplier of pistachios and almonds. Nor are there a lot of broken families:
When you go to the pre-K center and look at the family photos on the wall, you see that most of the families are intact — a mom, a dad and a couple kids standing proudly in front of a small ranch house. Many of these families have been here for decades.
Isn't that special! Oh, and the population is 97% Hispanic/Latino, as you could learn from, say, the Internet, though not from Brooks's column.

Which is not to say Lost Hills doesn't have its dark side, because it does, or did at any rate:

until recently you didn’t find the community organizations that you’d expect to find in such a place. There’s still no permanent church. Up until now there has been no library and no polling station. The closest police station is 45 miles away. Until recently there were no sidewalks nor many streetlights, so it was too dangerous to go trick-or-treating.
An America Tocqueville wouldn't have recognized!

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that Americans are great at forming spontaneous voluntary groups. But in towns like Lost Hills, and in neighborhoods across the country, that doesn’t seem to be as true any more.
Actually, the locals didn't do so badly in Lost Hills at organizing, in the years since Stewart and Lynda Resnick acquired Paramount Farms in 1989, though trick-or-treating may not have been their top priority, as you can learn from the United Farm Workers website through the testimony of Ramon Mendoza of Lost Hills:
I started working in 1996... The foreman never provided us clean water. The water jugs were never cleaned and were always dirty. The water had a mossy smell and bitter taste. The foreman had seven dogs that he would carry in the vans in the afternoons. The dogs were dirty and would leave lots of hairs in vans and at times even in the water, furthermore the vans smelled like urine. The vans were in terrible condition, the drivers under the foreman didn't have driver's licenses, so they would drive in dirt roads, up to 20 miles to work. This made it very dusty, with no air-conditioning on extremely hot days we would leave the windows open.
By the time we got to the workplace we were covered with dust from our faces to our feet. The dirt roads had many holes and it made it a very bumpy ride too. We would sit on wooden benches and by the time we got to the workplace we were aching already. On or about 1997 a van overturned with 22 cramped workers inside. Wooden benches and workers collided together and workers got badly beat up. In 1998 a worker got his leg smashed by a van accident. The corrupt foreman was asking workers to donate money to cover for medical costs for the injured worker. We were obligated to ride with them or there was no work for us.
At work the foreman didn't provide us safety gear, such as gloves and safety glasses. We also had bad and unsafe equipment, like shovels that were held up with tape. One of the most hostile and harassing situations that made it a miserable working environment under this foreman is that he would say false allegations and comments about us workers.... He even discriminated and did sexual harassment comments to a worker and at one point even wanted to fight him....
But instead of organizing a church and a library they organized a union. That's not something you'll learn from Brooks's column either.

Maybe with the rise of TV and the Internet people are happier staying in the private world of home. Maybe it’s the loss of community leaders. Every town used to have its small-business owners and bankers. But now those businesses and banks are owned by investment funds far away.
Either way, social isolation produces rising suicide rates, rising drug addiction, widening inequality, political polarization, depression and alienation.
But Lost Hills didn't have any banks or small businesses from the get-go. I don't know about their suicide rates or political polarization. I'd guess wealth and income inequality weren't widening much, though, because the only people in town with any substantial wealth or income weren't in town; they were Stewart and Lynda Rae Resnick, and they live way south of there, in Beverly Hills.

Oh, and
Lost Hills is the home of a promising experiment. The experiment is being led by Lynda Resnick, who, with her husband, Stewart, owns the Wonderful Company, which includes FIJI Water, POM juice and most of the pistachios and almonds you eat. You should know that I’m friends with Lynda and Stewart and am biased in their direction. But what they are doing is still worth learning from.
So he ripped himself out of the bourgeois strata and went out into the pain to hang out with his billionaire friends, who showed him the lovely community center they put up in Lost Hills in 2014, 25 years after they bought the business, and sidewalks (there will be trick-or-treating), two clinics (one for the nut workers, one for the citrus workers), a Wonderful Company Community Park, and a restaurant, which may be the only place where farmworkers in California's famed Central Valley can eat fresh vegetables, according to Chloe Sorvino at Forbes, who can tell you a lot more about the developments than Brooks's column can, for what it's worth.

Brooks loves how the Resnicks have created a "culture of self-improvement" in Lost Hills, especially in the struggle against diabetes, which is undoubtedly a good thing, though getting the residents a slightly broader access to those fresh fruits and vegetables might do more on that question; and he is startled to notice that the folks don't seem to be socially isolated. From the "issue" signaled in his opening grafs to the Utopia of the San Joaquin:

What is the central challenge facing our era? My answer would be: social isolation.
Gaps have opened up among partisan tribes, economic classes and races. There has been a loss of social capital, especially for communities down the income scale....
The new institutions here [in Lost Hills] are intensely social. When you go to the health center, you don’t sit silently in the waiting room before going into a small room for your 15-minute visit. Many of the patients have group visits (sort of like Al Anon groups) to meet communally with doctors and encourage one another’s healthier behavior.
A Latino community of people who work together ten hours a day and live in close quarters in extended families are more social than the lonely unemployed white West Virginian oxycodone addicts in his head! Surely the Resnicks must be responsible for that! How beneficent are David Brooks's friends? It's amazing!!!

Not that it's just the Resnicks; there are other good people the Resnicks have invited to help out, such as a couple of doctors,

among the dozens who have come to Lost Hills not to save the place from outside, but to befriend it. Their way of being ripples. I met several local women who said they were shy and quiet, but now they are joining community boards and running meetings.
No, I misread that. It's not that they are ripples with a particular technique, it's that their gregarious lifestyle "ripples" to the backward women of the tribe. But that really has to be one of the worst sentences I've ever seen.

And finally the implication of the whole piece, that our social problems can be solved by the enthusiasm of a few billionaires, doesn't really distinguish Brooks from that vulgarian Donald Trump, does it?

James Dean's last stop, in Lost Hills. Photo by Sophie Morris.
OMG this is the best thing that's ever happened to me in my literary career!!! I took a break and a shower toward the end of writing the foregoing, and something truly extraordinary happened when I was in the shower: David Brooks on the radio! On WNYC's Brian Lehrer show, explaining precisely what those ill-educated Trump voters are about. I wasn't paying attention initially at all, and didn't know it was him or even what the subject matter was until he mentioned "declinism", and I don't know whether he discussed his plans to visit the world of pain and alienation, but toward the end Brian invited Trump voters to call in to the show to discuss their views with the sage.

When the first caller explained with some justifiable truculence that he wasn't ill-educated or lacking in hope and ambition at all, Brian said something to the effect of, "So, David, here's a Trump voter who doesn't fit your model, what's going on with him? Show us your interview technique." (As I've noted before, Brooks hasn't interviewed anybody journalistically since he was fresh out of college in the fall of 1983. Brian is sly!) Several seconds of dead air, followed by a non-interview in which Brooks and the caller argued, not very energetically, about the merits of the Trump program.

That's it, but I believe I was present, auditorially, at Brooks's first meeting with one of those people he's been looking for all these weeks, not in the land of pain but in a radio studio in New York City over the speakerphone, and with a journalist facilitator, and he still wasn't able to learn anything! So happy to be able to share it with you!

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