Saturday, January 9, 2010

Jumping on a Bandwagon Whose Wheels Are Falling Off

A couple of days ago, one of my Facebook friends from high school, a minister and the son of a minister, posted a link to this New York Times column by Bob Herbert, and remarked:
Bob Herbert of the NYT may be a prophet. Not always perfectly right but talks this week about our country being preoccupied with a few things and not paying attention to the big things that can help us...few of us willing to sacrifice today for a better tomorrow.
One of his friends chimed in with "We live in the land of instant gratification." That's a familiar variety of sermon-speak, of course, and I'm neither surprised nor complaining that a minister talks like a minister.

But what he said set off some alarms in my head, because I really do not agree that "few of us are willing to sacrifice today for a better tomorrow." Every day I'm around students who are mortgaging their futures to get a college degree that may or may not get them a suitable job. Every day I work with people who are sacrificing all kinds of transitory pleasures to earn money to support their families, hoping against hope that their children will have a better future (just as my parents did). I've seen reports that most Americans express their willingness to pay higher taxes to support social programs. Such easy moralizing as my friend's -- and, as you'll see, Bob Herbert's -- is a gross insult to such people.

I looked at Herbert's column, and I'll admit it's not really that bad. I guess he didn't really have any better idea for this week's column, so he just threw together a tossed salad of the current headlines and cliches: America is more concerned with Tiger Woods's sex scandal and the death of Michael Jackson than with really serious matters, job growth has been stalled for the past decade, a quarter of American children are on food stamps, and we're fighting two wars. Something Must Be Done, or the Decline will continue! We must make some serious changes around here!
The fault lies everywhere. The president, the Congress, the news media and the public are all to blame. Shared sacrifice is not part of anyone’s program. Politicians can’t seem to tell the difference between wasteful spending and investments in a more sustainable future. Any talk of raising taxes is considered blasphemous, but there is a constant din of empty yapping about controlling budget deficits.
(I put Herbert's remark about "sacrifice," seized on by my friend, in boldface; you have to look closely as you read the article, or you'll miss it.)

Now, Herbert's diagnosis of the problems we face is accurate enough: the American economy is indeed in trouble, but then it has been since the 1970s. He's hardly the first journalistic hack to complain about the celebrity fixation of the American media, nor the first to blame that fixation on the American people. Back in the late 90s, when the Republican Party, the New York Times, and the Washington Post were engineering their coup against Bill Clinton, the same complaint appeared in print and on the air: Americans are obsessed with this scandal, we in the media are just giving them what they want, it's not our fault. I don't think so, though I do notice that while my coworkers who express an opinion complain about the media's obsession with Tiger Woods, their displeasure doesn't seem to make them seek out different media. And I do consider them responsible for that.

But as I read Herbert's column I began wondering: Who is "we" here? As I said, a good many Americans have been saying the same things all along; if Bob Herbert is a prophet, so is Noam Chomsky. So are the left media. It's the corporate media who are obsessed with trivia, and particularly with the fall of sports heroes; a lot of the people who run the corporate media are jocksniffers (but then so are a large number of American men), but rather than keep their fetish on the sports pages where it belongs, they think it is news. And since corporate advertisers, who pay their bills, would rather see celebrity trivia, scandal, and crime than serious news coverage or analysis, the path of least resistance is to cover what sells ad space.

Short representative digression: The latest viral text on Facebook, from shortly after Herbert's column was published, called for women to put in their status the color of the bra they were wearing that day, without further explanation. I saw it in the morning, asked one of my coworkers about it, she explained. It was supposed to further awareness of breast cancer, or something. I don't think so, but it seemed harmless to me. Today, though, on the AOL news page (which I see when I log out of Netscape mail), I found this link header: "Facebook Bra Post Stirs Outrage", with the subhead "I'm vomitously sick ..." So I clicked the link, and guess what? It's a male blogger on Sphere who's having a hissyfit -- "Broadcasting the color of your bra to your friends and colleagues is not typical or even acceptable behavior for most women, yet that's precisely what thousands of female Facebook users were doing this week, ostensibly to raise awareness of breast cancer" -- though he does quote some female bloggers who disapprove too. I think that aside from queasiness at women talking about their lady parts, he was just peeved that they did it without checking with him first.

The "we" in Herbert's column, then, must be the elite media, corporate leaders, and the Beltway. Those people don't want to pay higher taxes, don't care if public services degrade (most of them have enough money to buy their own), like war, and do not have sacrifice on their agenda. (They're happy to make other people sacrifice, of course: their jobs, their pay, their pensions, their health insurance, their time [by working longer hours]. But they themselves had better get their multimillion-dollar bonuses, because they're doing God's work.) The Times has run numerous stories over the past year about wealthy folk who are having to tighten their belts due to the economic downturn -- $500/bottle champagne instead of $1000, going to Cancun instead of the Riviera, having to sell the third house, and so on -- and such people may be the audience Herbert had in mind when he wrote his column. I doubt they'll listen. But, assuming that I'm right and giving Herbert the benefit of the doubt, to cite him as a "prophet" on a social site frequented by people who are much lower on the socioeconomic pyramid isn't in the best taste. From what I can tell, I doubt that even my old friend's congregation even fits into the Times demographic. What the vast majority of Americans need, given the deteriorating conditions Herbert listed, is less sacrifice, not more.

It may be trivially true that "The president, the Congress, the news media and the public are all to blame", but not everyone is equally to blame. I notice that Herbert didn't mention corporate America, including the banking and finance sectors, which bears a heavy burden of blame for the fix we're in. (But I suppose that's who Herbert meant by "the public," in keeping with Noam Chomsky's dictum that in current discourse, "the public interest" refers to the corporate sector, while "special interests" refers to "women, labor, youth, the elderly, ethnic minorities, the poor, and farmers ... almost the entire population.") It could be argued that by voting in Obama and a strongly Democratic Congress, by rejecting the policies of the Bush years, "the public" did its part to signal its wishes for the direction of change in America. By ignoring that mandate, the president, the Congress, and the news media deserve all the blame that can heaped on them.