Sunday, May 3, 2009

Where's the Change?

For a couple weeks now, I've been stewing and brewing up thoughts about the lack of change by the culture and media over the financial crisis. It's almost like the H1N1 virus-- is this what a pandemic is like? One person mildly ill 8 miles down the road, no shaking hands in church for a few weeks as if to acknowledge we should be afraid-- but we're really not-- and then, well, what happened? There's a certain unreality to the financial crisis for me. I know people are losing their jobs-- including my favorite print company salesperson. I know people are suffering-- but I only hear about them now and then anecdotally; I don't really know any.

But what has been bothering me is, basically, Marketplace, the radio show on NPR. It already bugged me before the crisis, and I've had a longstanding policy of turning off the radio as soon as it comes on. I can't stand the smug tone, the wise-cracking approach, and I also just don't like that we're supposed to spend so much time thinking about money. It's not cool.

Since the financial crisis began, the content has changed a little, but actually, not much. Their main shtick seems to still be advising people on how to invest their money. The advice now is peppered with: work on solidifying your position at work and protecting your job, and save more-- but then with the extra, how about this financial vehicle or that stock option... Don't invest in GM even though it looks like a great bargain. And some very witty repartee on the various trials and tribulations of, well, every economic indicator.

In addition to a half-hour show every day, and an hour on weekends, Marketplace gets 10 minutes at the end of each hour of Morning Edition. Which is when I'm driving to work. Last week I didn't get to the dial before the opening "teaser," and I caught a bizarre and frankly offensive opening line. Something along the lines of: "Mexico's closed, but someone is making money..." a story about the drug companies making the vaccine, no doubt.

An exception to same-style-slightly-altered-message was John Stewart's wonderful challenge to Jim Cramer on his comedy program on March 13 (link here ), after which of course he went back to the usual yucks-- and let's face it, if it's sarcasm and cynicism I DON'T want, and I DON'T, then John Stewart can't be part of any real solution. Of course, his main message was: "Don't engage with me! You're not me! You are an actual financial news show and so you have a much higher standard to meet. You have a real job to do, not just entertainment." But more and more young people get all their news from John Stewart. Where that will take us has worried me at least since I watched the Daily Show coverage of the conventions in 1992 with my father...

This morning I decided to go through my Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines from the last six months to pull out any good recipes and then recycle... January 2009 was on top, and it is the "value issue" (bon appetit would never go so far as to have a "budget" issue, so "value" is the best word they can use.) Which means the cover item is Fettuccine carbonara with pancetta and broccoli rabe. Have you priced pancetta lately? I'm quite sure I can't get it in the ordinary grocery stores in Central Minnesota, and would feel like a snob asking for it at the St. Joseph Meat Market. Even better was the mussel bisque, "mussels being a less expensive and wonderful substitute for lobster in this rich, savory bisque."

Well, across the page from the opening editor's letter, "Time to Save-- and Savor," is an ad for "delicious adventures" by Adventures by Disney. International travels to 23 countries with your family, safaris and good eating. Of course, all the ads are like this: the All-Clad slow cooker, ski vacations, cruises, luxury ranges... And the value issue does have a story on "pate de campagne," a French "meatloaf." It does turn out to be a mixture of ground pork and spices, whipping cream and Cognac, but still!

I guess I'm saying that these attempts to pretend we're committing to a "scaled down" existence are just screaming "false!!" to me. Of course, January was early to change our advertising habits, let alone our luxury dining.

Yesterday we went to see Tony Kushner's musical (more like an opera) Caroline, or Change, set in 1963 in Louisiana. (In the program was a big ad for "staycations" at a luxury hotel in Minneapolis.) It's the story of a black maid who works "below sea level" in a rare basement in Lake Charles, LA, for a Jewish family. She's angry and disappointed about her life, a single mother of four children, working for "pennies." Then the family decides, to teach the young son a lesson about his carelessness with money, that Caroline can keep any change she finds in the boy's pockets. He starts leaving change there purposefully, because he wants Caroline to like him and to be part of her life. The change is, of course, a metaphor for real change, and the quarters are nice but corrupting-- they make Caroline more dissatisfied with her plight and inability to give her children the finer things. They basically mock her. And she feels bad, of course, taking from a child. It's a set up. There's no real chance for her to get real "change."

In the end, the message of the play seems a bit muddled. For Caroline, there's resolution to her plight, and acceptance by her rebellious daughter that the opportunities she has are because of the sacrifices and hard work her mother has done. After a climax and catharsis, Caroline resigns herself, settles herself, and loses her anger and misery-- but her situation does not change. Her daughter is the hope for the future, the one who will see and effect real change. But if you care about Caroline, you can't feel good about the resolution.

And it's a musical.

I guess the problem I'm having with mixed discourse-- the media not matching the message, and the seeming inability to move to an ACTUAL new discourse, to just cancel Marketplace and say we're now going to do a different kind of programming, provide people with something that is actually new and appropriate and real, was exacerbated by the musical. I was crabby all evening, despite being very amply entertained by great music and acting for nearly three hours.

Perhaps it is time for me to "tune out, turn off (the t.v.)," and listen to the landscape and the people around me. Of course, given the "no handshaking" policy at church, it's hard to tell if listening to the world around me more directly would lead to something more real.

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