Monday, February 16, 2009

February Miscellany

So many things going on, and so much to comment upon, so this one will be a mix of thoughts, with no attempt to make them cohere.

All the news about the crimes among our major bankers and their cohorts on Wall Street—including the $50 billion Madoff scandal, the billions in bonuses to investment bankers, and the billions given to major banks with no indication that they did anything but use it to buy other distressed banks or simply sock it away—coupled with the growing awareness among Americans that the past 40 years, since Reagan, have seen the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor and middle classes to precisely these scheming bankers and other elites, brings to mind a comment made long ago by the French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Charles Mann mentions it in his book on the Americas before Columbus, 1491, and it goes like this:

Indians who visited France, Montaigne wrote, “noticed among us some men gorged to the full with things of every sort while their other halves were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty. They [the Indians] found it strange that these poverty-stricken halves should suffer such injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throat or set fire to their houses.” (Mann, p. 335).

It occurs to me that we could learn a thing or two from those Indians. I think the masses of Americans who are now suffering the loss of their homes, their pensions, their jobs, and their futures because of the outright theft perpetrated by these “geniuses” of Wall Street, ought to be thinking very hard about why they, why WE continue to honor a social compact which promotes obscene levels of wealth and comfort for a very few, and penury for the very many. Why do we, the majority, allow it? Why do we continue to not simply tolerate, but actually celebrate a system that gives immense wealth and power to CEOs and financiers who make nothing, while those who actually do produce the goods and services needed for survival—the farmers, the factory workers, the nurses and teachers and carpenters and truckers—are left begging for crumbs? Left trying to justify a meager raise in their salaries? or health coverage? or child care? or decent schools for their children? And why do we not make plain to those living in McMansions, including our elected representatives, that if something doesn’t change, and soon, they may find their houses, and themselves, going up in flames?
Also economic are some snippets heard on radio station KPFA from a documentary by Adam Curtis entitled “The Trap” (Curtis has also produced, for the BBC but of course not available in our media, a documentary called the “Century of Self” [on the rise of public relations and consumerism], and another called “The Power of Nightmares” [on the rise of religious fundamentalism both here and in the Arab world]). In “The Trap,” Curtis points out how bankrupt the once-reigning economic theory espoused by the Chicago School (free-market capitalism) really has become, partly because the theory upon which it is based—that people act rationally when they make economic decisions—was promoted mainly by John Nash (of “A Beautiful Mind” fame) as game theory. This is the same John Nash who has not only disavowed his theory of rational actors, but has said that when he concocted the theory, he was anything but rational or even sane; he was a paranoid schizophrenic. Thus we have an entire economy based on a theory that is, all things considered, insane. As Curtis points out in the documentary: in tests, only two groups were found to act fully rationally in economic situations—economist themselves, and psychopaths. And of course, as Curtis’ other documentary, the “Century of Self,” points out, those who concocted the ploy that saved capitalism in the 1920s, the pubic relations boys led by Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, knew this all too well. They invented advertising and public relations in order to induce consumers to want and buy goods (and wars, dictators, etc.) that were not truly needed, but were desired for subconscious reasons. We now have a global economy based on this insanity: growing numbers of people lusting after what Americans seem to have, an array of useless goods to “satisfy” desires implanted in their overstimulated psyches by constant advertising. The only question that remains is: will the current crisis force Americans to examine the basis of their economic lives, or will the solutions now being offered simply put the diseased patient on life support for a few more years?
One last thought, this after seeing a lovely French film called “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2008, directed by Julian Schnabel). Based on the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, it portrays life for the editor-in-chief of Elle Magazine after he has a massive stroke that leaves him paralyzed with a condition called ‘locked-in syndrome.’ Only one eye and its eyelid are capable of movement. The film begins with the paralysis and takes us through the superhuman efforts by speech therapists and Bauby himself to fashion a system, using blinks of that one eye, to communicate, one letter at a time. Incredibly, not only does Bauby learn how to “say” what he wants and feels, but he is able, after years of effort, to write an entire book, the memoir Le scaphandre et le papillon upon which the film is based. The film takes us through the gamut of emotions, from the initial horror at feeling Bauby’s paralysis (everything is shot through his point of view), to awe and triumph at his eventual publishing success, shortly after which he dies from pneumonia.

What strikes one, aside from the emotions generated, is how different this “medical” story is from our comparable American ones. There is not one technical shot of his brain, or a CT scan, or a bloody, dramatic crisis requiring noble doctors with advanced technology and techniques to save him. The physicians, indeed, are hardly seen, and when they are, they appear as grotesques who sew Bauby’s one non-seeing eye closed. The heroes, if they can be called that, are the therapists, especially the speech therapist. In fact, the person who takes Bauby’s dictation is an editor from his magazine who is sent by the acting head of Elle to help him. She learns how to interpret his blinks, and stays with him as devoted amanuensis to the very end. And what we are left with is not the superhuman capacity of doctors and technologies, as in TV shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” or “ER,” but rather the eminently human capacity of language and story telling, the courage and indomitable spirit of humans helping each other despite all odds. It is a telling difference I think—in cultures, in views of what matters, what’s important in life, and where one seeks salvation. In America, it seems, salvation is always sought via some miraculous new technology; in France, at least in this film, via humans and their capacity for an interior life that matters, no matter how apparently ruined the external circumstances.

Lawrence DiStasi

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