Let us descend into the blind world now

I’m not sure whether there’s anything coherent or decent to say about the wreckage in Port-au-Prince. I was in the waiting room of a doctor’s office today, translating a form for an injured patient when footage of the quake aired. I’d read a news headline—7.5, it said—and moved on to the finer points of the Leno-O’Brien catfight without giving the event a second thought. As a longtime resident of the Ring of Fire (on both hemispheres) one thing I’ve learned about earthquakes is that the Richter rating is the least sensational thing about them. If all you hear is a number, chances are a more terrible metric hasn’t yet emerged.

The Haiti footage came on HLN, that catastrophe of a channel that specializes in kidnapped children. This particular doctor’s office has HLN blaring all the time so that the lobby is ablaze with the outrage of Common Sense. It’s hard to blow your nose without feeling like you’ve taken a stand (this is how they talk) on sex offenders. I had Dante’s Inferno with me and struggled in vain to read this bit of Canto IV: “the heavy sleep within my head was smashed by an enormous thunderclap, so that I started up as one whom force awakens.”

The host was a tragic (smart) woman whose job it is to engagingly present people’s Facebook comments on legalizing medical marijuana and whether a mother should or should not have murdered her child. She asks people to please call her or contact her on Facebook to “get your voice heard.” But she is no actress. She is a journalist, despite her good looks and excellent makeup, and her eyes turned almost human when news turned to Haiti and she announced that “hundreds of thousands” were suspected dead.

I put “hundreds of thousands” in quotes because that’s how it appeared onscreen for the rest of the day. A different number was spoken and a new metric has emerged.

I’ve been reading Jincy Willett’s Winner of the National Book Award, which flirts with a tidal wave (a fictional temptation echoed in Margaret Atwood’s short story “Happy Endings” where the fictional author, getting more and more desperate to generate a worthwhile plot, defaults, in version D, to a tsunami). What’s important in Willett’s novel is that neither plotwise nor in fact does the much-feared natural disaster really come.

The next few lines of the Inferno talk about “the melancholy valley containing thundering, unending wailings” in which “though I gazed into its pit, I was unable to discern a thing.”  Being the kind of cold-hearted prig who talks about storytelling when real tragedy hits, I guess I was pleased to gaze into the pit as long as it remained undiscernable. Discernment is vitaminic and cauterizing. Before this 7.5 earthquake happened, I was curious about how this kind of story would be told.

But now?

The temptation, and it’s a real one, is simple and ostrich-like. The temptation is to let this particular set of awful stories go. Better just to help. Isn’t it enough to send money to Oxfam, to the American Red Cross, without having to know anything more? Can’t I be an HLN Facebook commenter? Of what use can it possibly be to find out more about this particular data set?

A tangent, because it’s hard to look some things in the face: fourteenth-century Florence enforced a humanist education as a means of preparing its citizens for what sounds, today, like a freakishly participative government. It was governed by a council of nine men, the signoria, the head of which served exactly two months in office before another one was elected.  (The thought of a presidential election every two months just made me pick at my bottom lip so much it bled.)

The “elections” were lotteries. Theoretically the name of every man over thirty who belonged to a Guild and was free of debt was included. (In practice it was an easy system to game, and the Medicis did, but the model still fascinates me. ) Therefore, it was urgent and important to have an educated public that could rise, if randomly selected, to the challenge of prospective government.

The case for an educated public seems weaker now. (I’m using “educated” broadly here; I’m talking as much about current events as I am about neo-Platonism or calculus.) I want to be convinced of its value.

It’s been suggested that Bush is Exhibit A in the People’s case against American stupidity. Maybe. It may be that an uneducated public elected an uneducated man. I’d suggest, though, that the real driving force behind it all was money, and money has a talent for continually defying our claims for what an education provides.

Because we’re stupid at economics. Economists are as good at money as meteorologists are at weather. Experienced stockbrokers can’t outperform chance.  Education has nothing to do with economics, and our educational system is fundamentally ill-equipped to prepare its citizens to deal with the willful  supranational monster money has become. There are no teachers.

That education has value is basically an article of faith. That’s a weak position for an education to be in, and—to take a premise of Hornby’s fantastic movie An Education seriously—it’s worth considering the merits of intellectual agnosticism.

The usual question—the one An Education asks—is what it means to be participate meaningfully in our own time. What I’d rather ask, in the face of natural disaster, is whether the “meaningful” aspect of our participation as outsiders matters.

My ostrich answer—in which we donate and minimize our exposure to distressing information—offers a great solution, the one I’ve already proposed: money.

The American Red Cross could sell the secular equivalent of papal indulgences.

Hear me out. Back in the day, saints, on their arrival in heaven, would donate whatever extra merit they didn’t need to the Catholic Church. It would be stored in the Great Treasure House of Merit, a nebulous bank of Christian virtue in which  the pope held the only checkbook and wrote people indulgences when they were short on merit of their own, or short on the time required to do penance. (Luther’s first salvo against the pope: that the donated Merit belonged to all Christianity and that the pope was effectively a squatter.)

We could all buy some Haitian relief and it would all have the real merit of real dollars going to real people. Whether we ourselves go through the spiritual steps that precede penance—whether we experience real contrition, or empathy, or anything—seems less than relevant.

Provided we donate, why find out more about Haiti than HLN provides?

I’m groping here*. I’m hoping for something besides the categorical imperative. Journalism depends on our need for news and relies on an ingrained integrity of soul and public-spiritedness that wants its news told accurately and well. Journalism is also (therefore?) dying.

(Another cause we should throw money at?)

A week ago I was interpreting for an injured worker who was undergoing a psychological evaluation. These appointments are the worst. They take forever, they’re grueling for the patient, and they leave my hand cramping from filling in bubbles on a questionnaire that asks you in nine different ways whether you think you have special powers or loved your dead father. Different doctors use different tests. This particular one was 400 questions long.

Before starting, a psychiatrist interviewed the patient, who was, by the way, a sullen, angry-looking man. When the doctor asked him a routine question (“what medicines are you taking?”), the patient burst into violent sobs. Face-time with the doctor was brief; he did what he could, then escorted us out into the waiting room, where another patient and his interpreter were occupying two of four available chairs.

“We don’t have a private room for you,” the psychiatrist said, “but you can do the questionnaire here.”

I stared at him. He was asking my patient to answer 400 questions about his innermost demons IN PUBLIC. With two strangers as inevitable witnesses. (There was no way they could not hear us, just like there was no way for me not to hear HLN over the Inferno.) I told him we needed a private room. He said he was very sorry, there was nothing to be done.

I did my best to construct a sound booth using the questionnaire and to make it seem like it wasn’t him, me, the other patient and the other interpreter. It’s just the two of us! I intimated, as if that were an improvement. I whispered the questions, trying to make it seem like I wasn’t whispering because for either of us to acknowledge that would mean recognizing our position: an outsider sitting next to a stranger whose life is in ruins, asking him over and over whether he still gets erections, whether he cries often, would he steal if no one was watching, does he want to die.


*And I’m less interested in HLN and its many flaws than I am in the whole problem—what, beside Arko Datta’s symbolic photo, we really need.


Dear Carla Fran,

With headlines everywhere today screaming about the meltdown of the economy, I felt my pulse quicken. “My God!” I thought. “My money!” Before remembering, like the Bluths (Season 3, Episode 6), that I have no money.

As I read one article after another, fear turned to rage over the meltdown of language used to describe and explain the economy.

On January 22, 2008, Brent Budowsky wrote the following for The Hill:

Our crisis today is real. The common sense of the matter is clear. The gathering storm is upon us. The sooner we act, the stronger the program, the greater the good and the lesser the pain. We should escalate the bipartisanship and increase the power of the program.

Sooner, stronger, greater, lesser—that’s a brilliant portrait in miniature of the American economy. But common sense? My thesis, for today, is that common sense plays absolutely no role in the economic discourse the U.S. has developed for its citizens. That honor goes to the Brothers Grimm.

To do Budowsky justice, this paragraph wraps up an article—found here—on issues troubling the economy and proposing some solutions. He even predicts Black Monday (we’ve all agreed that’s what Monday was, yes?). Says, too, that

… the bond insurance problems are very serious and there is a dangerous disconnect between Washington, Wall Street and Main Street.

Granted. But there’s a more worrisome disconnect. It’s the one that forces every newspaper in America to resort to the only economic marker the average American knows: the Great Depression. Who knew 1984 was here already? Americans talk economic Newspeak; the government has handily eliminated all words for the economy except “Depression,” “Black Monday,” “up,” “down” and maybe “bull” and “bear.”

Is the Great Depression really the only metaphor available? Is our economic vocabulary really that small?

I think the answer is an unqualified YES.

Take me. I’m in approximately, oh, 47th grade. I’ve taken a ridiculous, an absurd, some might say a self-indulgent and offensive number of classes. Calculus. Statistics. Organic Chemistry and Civics and Motivated Behaviors and Movement Training for Musicians. I’ve studied Botany and French and Happiness (yes, that’s right) and Chekhov and Art and A.P. U.S. History and Global Studies and International Relations and Theory of Knowledge and Anthropology. I may not remember much about most of them, but how is it possible, I ask you, that after twelve years in a comparatively decent public educational system and umpteen more of college, I have a five-year-old’s grip of our economic problems?

And this despite the fact that I’ve actually made the supreme sacrifice and read a book or two on the stock market, taken Morningstar courses to educate myself financially and researched my poor little acorn-husk investments?

I was doing a LexisNexis check to see how many times the words “worst since Great Depression” appeared in newsprint in the last ten years, but Donald Luskin, who shares my annoyance, beat me to it in his 9/14/08 article “Quit Doling Out That Bad-Economy Line.” According to him, the Post alone used the phrase nine times in the last two months. An adviser to John McCain, he talks cogently about the inaccuracy and foolhardiness of making such a comparison. I find myself nodding in agreement, feeling smugly bipartisan. We are indeed a “nation of exaggerators.”

Then he pinpoints the source of the epidemic.

“Ooh! Ooh! IknowIknowIknow!” I hear you say. “The criminal neglect of any sort of economic education for our children? Forcing newspapers to do the sex-ed equivalent of ‘Daddy plants a seed in Mommy?”‘”

“…and that’s how Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were born. And they grew and grew. Then a Bear called Stearns came to visit, so we sold him to a nice man named JP Morgan who promised to give him lots of honey. Fannie and Freddie got so fat eating Turkish Delight that they couldn’t leave their houses in the shire, so Gandalf gave them each a bag of gold so the White Witch wouldn’t evict them for defaulting on their debt. And the Lehman brothers fell down a well.”

But take comfort, little one. All is not lost! As the Christian Science Monitor tells us bright and early this Thursday morning, “Congress Eyes Solutions for Wall Street Woes.”

See? THEY ARE TAKING CARE OF IT. Congress is cool. Congress is fucking money. He won’t make any moves yet. But he’s eyeing Solutions. He’s like a big bear with claws and with fangs, and big fucking teeth, and Solutions is just like this little bunny, who’s just kinda cowering in the corner.

Sources say Solutions wrote down her number on a napkin and handed it to the bartender.

The End

Oh, intercourse the children!! (I hear you cry.) What about US? What the hell is going on? Sub-prime mortgage crises? Credit buyouts? What’s the Consumer Expectations Survey and why didn’t I get one? What’s a GNP Deflator? Does it come in pink? And what do I, an average American citizen, make of a sentence like this, not from a newspaper but from an actual business source like Marketwatch:

Also Wednesday, it was revealed that money market funds managed by Bank of New York Mellon Corp.’s Dreyfus and Columbia Management, the fund arm of Bank of America Corp., held commercial paper issued by Lehman Brothers Holdings and needed support from their parent companies to maintain their $1 a share net asset value.

An arm. Someone holding paper. Parents. So Dreyfus (also, confusingly, B. of A’s arm) manages money market funds which hold commercial paper from the Lehman Brothers (so are the funds, like, the fingers?) and needs help from his parents wiping his own assets.

That’s it! The epidemic of Great Depression references stems from the fact that we are all economically illiterate! And rather than learn, we reduce serious economic news to bad diaper jokes!

Right, Donald?

So the source of this unimaginative spate of yellow journalism, this total dependence on an eighty-year old boogie-man trope for disaster and devastation, this abuse by the press of a term—used perhaps legitimately by both Soros and Greenspan—that reduces, nay, depletes our nation’s history, is due to whom?

Here’s a hint: it starts with an “O.”