Are we really “better off”?

I recently stumbled across a real-estate listing for my old apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, with an asking price of $4,000 a month, which is double the rent my sister and I were paying when it was still rent-stabilized many years ago, and we were paying 50% of our income toward the rent. The apartment lasted all of a week on the market.

The listing describes the apartment as “huge” (it wasn’t); as having an “eat-in kitchen” (it did, if you were standing up); and as being in a “classic” building. I find this last term needing some kind of redefinition, now meaning “amazingly still around having survived more than 50 years of real-estate speculation”.

We lived in “Manhattan Valley” (the “low” looked-down-upon place between the landmark districts bordering Riverside and Central Parks), dominated as it was by housing projects. Outside of landmark status areas, the landlord could, for example, remove the entire cornice of the building instead of rebuilding it to landmark specification, leaving the building looking like a pie with its edge removed. Which he did. Classic..

One day during my recent trip to the States, I walked from Columbus Ave. and 59th Street down to Broadway and E. 7th Street, in a rather desperate attempt to find at least one of the old magazine stores that I used to spend so much time in when I worked in that industry. Out of the seven I knew of, mostly located near centers of publishing such as the Hearst and Condé Nast buildings, as well as in the old magazine district of Park Avenue South (Look, etc.), only one was left. And its pickings were scanty.

Talking to friends still working in the business, these are horrifying economic times [ link ] and [ link ]. The most recent casualty was Newsweek, now gone digital, under the baleful watch of Tina Brown (whose Talk I worked at and lasted at for about three months).

I worked 16 or so years in magazine publishing as a technical support, as a designer, and as an art director, torturously climbing my way up the ladder. I’m not going to moan about what some simply consider to be the vagaries of a competitive economic model weeding out the weak and useless. I won’t talk about the feeling of having “aged out” of the job market were I to even consider returning to the States, with my friends of equal or greater experience moving back in with family members, or else leaving the City for one reason or another after years of unemployment, and with our assistants hired at half our age and half our salaries.

I won’t mention the years spent without pay increases despite the inflation rate; I won’t mention one magazine owner based in Florida exhorting us New York employees to get back to work as soon as possible after September 11, 2001 since then-president Bush was keen on keeping the economy moving. I know I had it better than many, and I’m not complaining…

…but a thought did enter my head the other day that caught me off guard. I was talking to a former student now studying in New York and here on vacation, and she was upset because she didn’t want to return there, feeling that her ability to express herself was limited if not nonexistent in the States, and wondering in general about her possible future there. I explained all of the above, and said: “What if I were still in New York City? What would have become of me? I’m better off in Beirut.

At which point I stopped, because this “better off” line has been thrown at me on numerous occasions, basically stating that I was “better off” for having not lived through the Civil War; that I was “better off” for having gotten my education; “better off” for having worked all those years “making a name” for myself. Better off for having not been here.

And now, I have to ask: What does it mean that the culture that gave us this economic model as well as adoption as an institution based within that model has not held up its end of the “bargain”? Like the “one-percenters” who adopt, is there a “99%” of adoptees who are not expected to “make it” in terms of this grand social experiment? What if like others dispossessed and displaced, adoptees were able to seek reparations, based on the “false premise” and “false promise” of that initial transaction?

Let’s turn the question around: “Are we really better off?” And if not, how does that reflect back on adoption as a cultural practice?

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3 thoughts on “Are we really “better off”?

  1. Partly I want to contextualize this question some. All else being equal, there is a pre-Reagan/post-Reagan divide in the United States.The possibilities for nonwhites are still much poorer than for whites, of course, but the general level for what anyone in the 99% can achieve is profoundly lower overall.The neoliberal social contract says, “Look, you’re going to have to get out there and get it yourself,” and whatever the merits and considerable demerits of that, it presupposes a social milieu where one is enabled to “get out there and get it yourself”–whether that means somehow finding a niche and starting your own business (a gesture now predominantly closed off by the stranglehold of oligarchical corporate mergers) or working hard in the job market (now gutted in all kinds of ways, but most profoundly by the very removal of jobs from the economy by outsourcing). So partly I would want to rephrase the question generally as, “Were we better off”? In one respect, the deliberate and willful act of financial terrorism that was 2008 is simply the objective correlative–the cultural admission–of the wrong of adoption.

    I’ve never felt at home in this country. By the time I was 7, I was fantasizing about defecting to Russia (I’ve always been proud of myself for understanding that that was the verb for what I wanted to do: defect). So, is the current quality of my alienation from the bulk of people around me (in the United States) a function only of never having “seen the face of my neighbors” in the past (due to my isolation). Is the brutally ugly stupidity I can see everyday now on the Internet and in the people I see around me really something new, or did I just not have access to it before, because I was isolated and/or we didn’t have the Internet? How much is it my internalized (and for all that still unconfronted) racism, or at least cultural chauvinism, that Vietnamese people seem happier to me (even if their rating on the Human Happiness Index confirms that)? If I was in Beirut, how much would my delight at the intellectual life there be only because I’ve been raised (tacitly, and with redoubled violence and vigor since 9/11) to believe Arabs are fanatical? (I don’t even know when or how such idiotic thoughts decided to take up residence in my head, and I spit on them and drive them off whenever they show up, but that makes it no less disheartening that they show up at all.) And yet, it would be this very cultural chauvinism that would make me feel more at home in Lebanon–it would allow me to be glad for a decent human interaction and to already have a “buffer” (or explanatory mechanism) for any actually fanatical Arabic people I might encounter. I would feel more at home because what I implicit expect of people would be different. Is this part of making me better off?

    What I realize, as an adoptee, is that it may not be whether one returns from the alien land to home, but simply (out of the implicit recognition foisted on those who are adopted) that the expectations one carries for those around you, and thus the quality of life that seems possible, are not universal. Whatever I expect now, if I go someplace else, I’ll know that that expectation is groundless and will experience it less. I could change my expectations locally, of course, but that change would be in the direction of the dismal and cynicism is the stupidest, most puerile shit ever to walk around believing. Nor am I pretending that “over there” (be it Lebanon, India, Russia, or Dar-Es-Salaam) can’t be anything but awesome. If I say the quality of life in Vietnam is more human-centered, that may be because I’m a white interloper amongst them, because what’s expected of me (as a human being, as a non-native) is different too. I don’t expect other places to be home; I just expect them to be different. So any disillusion someone like me would experience would be in the ways that people “there” are no better than people here.

    I’m writing this and obviously imagining to some extent Daniel’s experience of homecoming. He could fill out my gaps and stupidities here as needed.

    What seems to be taken as the normative framing of issues by the mass of people around here is what makes daily life like a microwave, makes it destructive, the sort of environment that makes Daniel rightly use the word “horrifying”. I feel like, if I wanted to, I might be able to drum up an envy for the people of Saudi Arabia, where wealth inequality may be less severe than here. If I am at the base of a cliff, it is not cynicism to acknowledge the futility of attempting to jump to the top of it without some kin of assistance or jet pack. Whether or not the bulk of voices one hears in the United States (including ostensibly critical academics) reflect a new structure of ignorant or if it is really just the same stuff that’s been there all along, either way it seems futile to resist it. Which is why I’d rather spend time here, interacting with people who at least have a more external view of the circumstance than pretty much everyone around me.

    • The Reagan years are truly the dividing line. Emmanuel Todd (mentioned him previously) in his book After the Empire describes the years of the New Deal, Social Security, the rise of the middle class and growing class equality, as well as civil rights efforts as being more a result of competing economic models, meaning, instead of allowing the Soviet Union (and the Communist threat) to maintain the upper hand in terms of accusations of class inequality and racism, the United States responded with stopgap measures and P.R. machinations. There is an interesting book called How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art [ link ], which shows how the U.S. State Dept. championed avant-garde art in order to claim “freedom of expression” for artists in the States.

      This also saw the displacement of former WPA public art and the social realism of artists of the time, especially given the use of this style in the Mexican Revolution to the south. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Berlin Wall came down, then the putative “competition” was gone; the former republics of the Soviet Union including Russia became havens for the worst of economic depredation via foreign investment (and disinvestment) just as South America (et. al.) had previously gone through, most of these countries were opened up for adoption as a side-effect, and the complete dismantling of the American social safety net was undertaken, and continues to this day. As someone who now lives in the “future” of what this dismantling means, I can only attempt to give a warning as to the return of Black and Dust-Bowl days, and worse….

  2. [No stupidity at all. My only correction would be to say that Saudi Arabia suffers the same inequality as elsewhere, if not more.]

    What is most telling when I say “I’m better off in Beirut” is the fact that Lebanon is, for all intents and purposes, a neo-liberal nightmare. But for my birth here, I would not stay. I would not wish this place on my worst enemy. There has never been a safety net here of any kind. It is the mirror image of everything wrong with the United States, with sectarianism replacing racism, and an inherent classism topped by none. I’m convinced that, like Bermuda that wished to remain with the Crown when offered independence, Lebanon’s leaders would gladly welcome you-name-the-colonialist power back into the country in a split second. There is as you are alluding to a kind of social contract that allows me to not worry about much of the day-to-day, and I can rely on my neighbors/community to a degree impossible in many other places, but this is breaking down more and more. So the “I’m better off in Beirut” is, in fact, reactive in a way, and it is most definitely a “lesser of two Evils” kind of comparison, and the irony of it should not go un-noted.

    Having said that, it seems to me that, along with the downhill slide of the current Imperial power in the world, there is an equivalent global breaking down of the needed dose of Imperial Mythology that lies at the heart of adoption. If I think of our adoptive parents, buying (literally) into the bargain of class climbing that a family gave them, it was at a time when the mythology of salvation behind adoption was not being challenged at home, by adoptees, or by source countries. I often say that I am able to forgive my adoptive parents this adherence to the dominant mythology of the time, but that as time has passed, and we know and are able to know more about the world, then the mythology no longer stands to reason, much less remains viable in any way, and those adopting today I would accuse of willful acts of trafficking. We have to admit that we know better now than we did then.

    So more and more the Emperor is shown to have no clothes, and yet the adoptions continue, and, for example, the hypocritical condemnation of Russia for actually doing what it was condemned for not doing continues, and more and more countries are targeted for their children (now it is the turn of Muslim-predominant countries). This reveals that adoption in many respects was never about the children to begin with, and is a political/economic tactic and tool. At some point soon, targeted countries will stand up and say, “no, it is not better where you are”, and will stop shipping off their children. This is akin to a similar nationalistic fervor that would lead to the statement perhaps of “our children are not better off with you”. I would hope for something much more humanitarian instead of jingoistic. But in the Great Equalization that has to take place soon, I’ll take what I can get.

    I think the mythology we are talking about is best represented by the fights I got into while in the States, watching Sandy destroy much in the way of my memories of life down the Jersey Shore. I was arguing that a hurricane didn’t destroy New Jersey, but the economic depredation that we are describing here did; like Katrina, the storm only revealed it, along with the inability of private systems to take care of the public good. It took much longer, decades if not a lifetime, and acted much more slowly, but it has been much more devastating sensorially and effectively than a days-long mega-storm. But we react to the quick violence, and don’t notice the slow. That the majority of people I know are unable to buy a home in the town they grew up in, adopted or not, speaks of something that now is reaching a major breaking point. And so the mythology and mediation of present-day adoption seems to me to be the equivalent of so much fiddling while Rome burns.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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