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.
Today, in my world at least, this is the most commonplace of comments. It’s just not a line I’ve seen much when the press and TV bring on the parade of financial experts — most of whom 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, A.I.G. 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.
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 or, as International Monetary Fund managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn put it, “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 ever 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. “Depression” arrived on the media scene, however, in a formulaic way and usually quite carefully hemmed in as part of a comparison: If X does or doesn’t happen, this will be “the worst crisis since the Great Depression,” or simply that it is “the worst [you fill this in] since the Great Depression.”
And yet 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.
And speaking of depressions no one is much talking about, let me just say what a journalist can’t: I’m depressed…
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Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. 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.
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt