A couple weeks ago, my colleague Jon Cummings posted his opinions on Keith Olbermann’s current Bizarro-world rantings, exhibiting a vehemence seldom seen from the supposed liberal left. Jon rightly claimed that Olbermann’s spasms were frighteningly right-like and as over-the-top as Bill O’Reilly. At the same time, he said that the underlying sentiment of anger at President Bush, his penchant for being so out of touch with the very country he runs, and his patronizing stabs at letting the little folk
think know he commiserates are dead on. I have to disagree.
When I talk to my friends and co-workers, the folks “down here” on the totem pole, I don’t get a sense of anger, certainly not the eye-bulging, vein-throbbing anger of a certain MSNBC commentator. I get despair, and lots of it. I have written in the past about the shell game that is the Economic Stimulus Rebate, saying that our ever-mounting bills, still faltering job market and ever increasing debt-load, would render the whole thing null and void. As we roll into summer (and yes, 2008 is almost half over!) few families can afford that trip to a sunny destination and many are wondering if they can even afford to take the whole family to the movies a couple times this year. Gas prices are shattering records and that 1970s inflation curve economists have been ameliorating us with (“If you do the math, we’re still paying less than we did in ’73! Boo-Yah!”) is rapidly breaking apart. Under the weight of all this, I find those around me are too depressed to be pissed, too burdened to rage. If the true plan from the upper 10% of America was to drive the lower 50% into a suicidal funk, it’s starting to work.
So even though it is oddly cathartic to see Olbermann bitching, ostensibly for our benefit, it is hardly about capturing the national mood. See, America used to be the land of dreams, many unrealized, but it was okay to believe better times were ahead, our lives could turn for the better just like that, and that the much vaunted ‘good life’ could be ours. It doesn’t seem like dreaming is allowed anymore. There are too many gatekeepers to pass, too many toll-takers to pay, not enough air to breathe. We can’t even go for a Sunday drive without fearing the financial backlash on Monday morning. My brother Dan has been in a band, Core Device, for more than a decade and they’re good. As a matter of fact, as metal bands go they’re actually great, and that’s not nepotism. Yet, with a small family of his own to support and a job market that could never provide what he needs, Core Device has been pushed farther and farther into the margins. My friend Tom died a couple years ago. Well, died is a soft-shoe term because he actually killed himself. His business went under, his wife was sick, his bills kept mounting and hope seemed like a fool’s game. My uncle had to take on loans to save his home and now, in a period of his life when he was hoping to retire with minimal debts, is working as a janitor where his boss condescendingly calls him “Pops.”
I could go on and on and, frankly, I bet you readers could as well. We’re just too weary for venom and too abused to dream. And that is the unkindest cut of all. My friend Patricio (I call him Patrick) has been looking at the mess this country is in and often wonders, out loud, why he bothered to get his family out of Chile to be here. The immigrant dream, the American dream, the notion of a glorious self-evolution in a land that actually appreciates that sort of thing, these are all coming undone. It is not okay to dream anymore, so it seems. When that mood settles in, so do the vultures. I can’t help but be sickened at the commercials for real estate entrepreneurs, mugging for the cameras, demanding that “foreclosures are the key to your wealth,” and “their misfortune is your golden opportunity!”
I’m equally shocked when the self-help superstars come crawling out of the ground. They have a system and they work it like a Patek Phillipe movement. Step one – identify the malady. The main problem is unhappiness. The symptoms of sadness can be emotional depression, being broke, getting fat because of low self-esteem due to the circumstances, but the target must be as broad as possible to attract the lion’s share of the
Step two – create the field of misery. By saying that the problem isn’t your fault, that it is systemic and that you actually are a victim, is to close off the doors. You can’t sell them on your course if they feel they have no part of the problem, so by creating the field of misery, that amorphous conglomeration of isms, doubt and bullshit, you aim the blame back at them. You’re the problem. Here’s the solution.
Step three- manifest the positudity while exiling the negavisitation. In plain English, well, there’s no way to break that down into plain English, and that’s the goal. Guru cures often hinge on a solution that is so vague, so abstract, that thousands of interpretations are possible. It’s a form of plausible deniability. When their cure-all fails to cure-all, it’s not the program’s fault, it’s yours. You didn’t manifest the positudity. You didn’t love the universe enough. You didn’t give your inner child a candy bar. It has nothing to do with our snake oil.
Step four – the executive version. Maybe your negavisitation is unprecedented. Maybe you have uber-negavisitation. Maybe you need the DVD set to go with the book, or perhaps you should come to our seminar. It’s only $600 to attend and the first 1000 attendees get a soda can cozy with our corporate logo screened on it absolutely free. You’d be a fool to let this chance go. Give your dream a chance to live.
The truth is that the real estate gurus, the feel-good gurus and the financial gurus didn’t get their fortunes by practicing what they preach. They got it by selling their paraphernalia to you, pure and simple. Because America is the land of frustrated dreamers, the venues for leeches to bleed the dream dry are plentiful. After all, if we don’t seize the opportunity they’re selling, it’s our fault. If we buy into the refinancing schemes of predatory loan salesmen who, all the while are purporting their mortgages to be “cash-quality-safe”, it’s our fault not theirs. If we elect officials who keep telling us they have the best kung-fu to keep us safe from the marauders at our borders, it’s our fault they lied to us.
Here’s a thought. While we’re not innocent of our current circumstances, we’re also not entirely to blame. If the Wall Street Journal says it is so, and CNN says it is so, and Tim Russert says it is so, we might very well be gullible and prone to the pitfalls of belief, but we didn’t create the lie. Pyrrhic though it may be, even though we fell for the gag, we didn’t make the gag. The true strength of the proposed American dream is that maybe, just maybe, when the clouds part a little, we might be able to breathe easier again. It might require us to re-prioritize things. It might even mean a lowering of expectations. But as dire as everything may be, know that it is not entirely our fault. If we can somehow get past this national despair without becoming crusty, cynical shadows of our former selves, we will have succeeded in our own, personal first step.
And that’s a victory no scam artist can sell you and no governmental gangster can steal away.