Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Life Among the Continuing Ruins of 9/11

Tom* of the famous Dispatch wrote recently that we are 'Living in the Ruins,' and despite the mounting evidence, no one in the media wants to admit it. (Emphasis marks and some editing are mine - Ed.)

Among my somewhat over-the-hill crowd - I'm 64 - there's one thing friends have said to me repeatedly since the stock market started to tumble, the global economic system began to melt down, and Iceland went from bank haven to bankrupt. They say, "I'm just not looking. I don't want to know." And they're not referring to the world situation, they're talking about their pension plans, or 401(k)s, or IRAs, or whatever they put their money into, so much of which is melting away in plain sight even as Iceland freezes up. I've said it myself. Think of it as a pragmatic acknowledgement of reality at an extreme moment, but also as a statement of denial and despair. The point is: Why look? The news is going to be worse than you think, and it's way too late anyway. This is what crosses your mind when the ground under you starts to crumble. Don't look, not yet, not when the life you know, the one you took for granted, is vanishing, and there isn't a damn thing you can do about it.
He continues with commentary about how the media are treating this story as though it doesn't affect them or anyone they know personally; it's just another story. I was thinking about that today as the market continued its swan dive (just ahead of the long-expected Dick Cheney (retirement-necessitating) "heart pains," treated at a D.C. hospital story), wiping out nearly all the recent gains coming after the big losses it had suffered last week, and the media continue to cover it like it's just one of those things that will straighten itself out soon and then they can go back to breathlessly talking about Paris Hilton's sex videos and who shot whom on the freeway, convincing me once again that they (and Tom agrees):
are there largely because they didn't have the faintest idea that anything like this might happen. Whether they're reporting on, or opining about, the latest market nosedives, panic selling, chaotic bailouts, arcane derivatives, AIG facials, or bank and stock-exchange closures, it still always sounds like someone else's story. I guess that's the nature of the media.
The idea of trillion-dollar losses roll off their tongues just as easily as thousand-dollar losses (or no losses at all - it's just a script after all).
It's professional for reporters and pundits to write or talk about the pain of others, not their own. Normally, you just assume that's the case. So, for instance, when Frank Bruni, in a front page New York Times piece on the second presidential debate, writes, "Now the situation looks gloomier still, with markets in other continents tumbling - with a world of hurt at hand," it really doesn't cross your mind that he might be including Frank Bruni in that description. Here's a rock-you-to-your-socks fact I happened to read in a news report the afternoon of the day that Barack Obama and John McCain had their town hall meeting with 80 uncommitted voters and moderator Tom Brokaw. In the last 15 months, according to the Associated Press, Americans lost $2 trillion from their retirement plans. Now, that's a world of hurt and you could feel it the moment Brokaw first called on an audience member. Allen Shaffer rose and asked: "With the economy on the downturn and retired and older citizens and workers losing their incomes, what's the fastest, most positive solution to bail these people out of the economic ruin?" I have no idea what Shaffer's situation is, but I'll tell you this, his didn't sound like a reporter's question. It sounded close to the bone. It sounded like a world of hurt. Not surprisingly, neither presidential candidate actually responded, in part, undoubtedly, because to be close to the truth either would have had to say something like: "Hey, how the hell do I know?" At this point, despite the onslaught of news about how bad things are, dotted with portrayals of Americans in trouble, I suspect there's quite a gap between the world as reported and the world as felt by most Americans. Let me give you a simple example. In the news these days, it's common to hear that we are at the edge of a real recession . . . the cusp of a global recession or even the verge of a deep recession. Recently, the word "Depression" has finally made it onto the scene. Little wonder, as even more financial institutions totter, while, for the first time in memory, the initials GM and the word "bankruptcy" repeatedly end up in the same headlines . . . . a recent CNN poll indicates that nearly 60% of Americans think an actual Depression, even a Great Depression - not a situation bad enough to compare to one - is "likely." To many of us, it's already starting to feel that way and that's no small thing. When you see a Wall Street Journal headline like last Friday's - "Market's 7-Day Rout Leaves U.S. Reeling" - don't you feel like you're in a different world, however the experts care to define it? The edge of panic in the voice of a friend telling me about the 401(k) she's not looking at catches the story for me. It's visceral and scary and, let's face it, whether this is the half-forgotten past coming back to bite us or the future kneecapping us, it's depressing as hell.
A friend of Tom's emailed him what millions must be thinking: "I'm given to gloomy thoughts . . . . You really get the sense that things are on the verge of spinning out of control." Tom told another friend that he "found it staggering to turn a corner, bump into History, and discover that He's unbelievably gargantuan."
Oh, and there's one fundamentalist character I've left out of the mix, someone who definitely bows down to force. Call everything that's happened these last few years Osama's dream. It's hard not to think of William Butler Yeats' poem, 'The Second Coming,' and then wonder: 'And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?' Today, on a visit to lower Manhattan, there would be no smoldering fires, no smoke, no raw throats, no gaping holes, no smashed buildings, no ruins, and yet, as you walked those streets, you would almost certainly be strolling among the ruins, amid the shards of American financial, political, and even military superpowerdom. Think of it as Bush's hubris and bin Laden's revenge. You would be facing the results, however unseen, of the real 9/11, which is still taking place in relative slow motion seven years later. It should scare us all.
I'm terrified, but it's not like it's something I haven't been reporting on for oh, the last seven plus years. And I'm not heartened much by the Dick Cheney fake-heart-pangs hospital episode either. As both you and I know he would have had to buy a heart first. Suzan
*Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial, The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site, has recently been published. Focusing on what the mainstream media hasn't covered, it is an alternative history of the mad Bush years. You can listen to a podcast of Tom Engelhardt discussing this piece by clicking here.

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