Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Decade of the Alternate Reality

So I think it's fair at this point to view the last decade as overall a pretty awful period of time, when it comes to the Nation as a whole.

The odd part of it is that even though even when things started to turn problematic, we never really took that next step and actually acted on it. Somehow when the Bush administration and the whole crew of troublemakers served us all a shit sandwich, we ate the thing and ordered another one if it came with a free dessert. Don't even ask what's in the dessert.

As a result, I'm hereby offering my List of the Top 5 Frauds of the Decade:

5. The Sports Purity Myth:

This really goes to the extended period of various athletic organizations, and the perpetually fabricated notion of the games being focused on good, honest sportsmanship and competition. Hey, I'm fine with artificial enhancements when it's done openly. There's nothing morally wrong with an actress getting huge fake breasts or whatever the hell Mickey Rourke did to his face, creepy as it may be. At least they'll admit to getting the work done to have big fake breasts or whatever it was Mickey Rourke was trying to get (maybe more roles as a horrible burn victim?). Professional wrestling deserves some serious props for at least owning up to the fact that it's not real, and the guys are on huge numbers of steroids. But the sporting community has never honestly come to grips with all its demons, and that creates a huge misrepresentation of what's happening.

The biggest American athletic scandal over the last decade has been the baseball steroid situation--unquestionably. Consider where we were in the late nineties. In 1998 and 1999, Sammy Sosa averaged 65 homers and 150 RBI as the darling of both MLB and the country. Mark McGwire was still a monster star, and was suddenly promoting Bedwetting Awareness (and he made us feel bad for kidding about it). And this was before everyone from A-Rod, Bonds, and Manny Ramirez got roped into it after their enormous personal success. Ugh. What a goddamn mess everything became. The good thing is that finally everyone wised up in the latter part of the decade and became distrustful, but no one stopped watching or buying stuff, so it didn't matter.

The NFL is facing some serious problems as well, although the money situation is overall pretty good (even if there is a lock-out in the next few years, everyone involved is still rich). Most importantly of the issues, there has been an increasing focus being cast on the long-term health of players. Realistically, the NFL has about as much concern for the post-retirement lives of its workers as a Cambodian whorehouse. The average life span for players with 5 year careers is 55, and 52 for linemen. Brain injuries are an enormous part of the game and at some point, there's going to be a reckoning with all of this. I love the NFL like few other things, but the way the league has tossed aging players onto the scrap heap is a disgrace.

Others in this category: NCAA recruiting and enormous money, NBA Refs and Player Drug Use, Money controlling the Olympic Committees.

4. Fictitious Media as Reality

This is somewhat of a consolidation, as I'm combining a number of elements. We've seen the enormous growth of "Reality Television" as a mainstream form of entertainment, even though to say that it even vaguely reflects reality is preposterous. I don't mind it as a form of entertainment, and I fully admit to loving some of the trashiest entries (You know I love "Jersey Shore"), but when some of the shows create this manufactured image of the ideal and people start emulating it, that's a problem. I've got no beef with the stuff that's clearly a niche thing or documentary style (like "Real World Challenge" and "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant." You're not in Thailand eating bugs with Johnny Bananas and you'd know if you were pregnant, even though if they didn't.). Same thing for the big jump in cable news, mainly the gauntlet of derangement offered every night at Fox News. They offer up this explanation that Glenn Beck and the rest of the Patriotism Action Squad is all "analysis" and thus doesn't have to follow the normal standards of journalistic responsibility, but let's get real, people. Everything on these shows is presented as fact, and everybody knows it.

And the concept of Hannah Montana. It's a Disney show that somehow became the biggest entity since gravity, denim, and the color orange. Seriously, Hannah Montana is bigger than the color orange, and somehow she's able to still hang her hat as a "musician" or "person with a soul." When this makes sense, someone please let me know. I'll be banging my head against a wall to the beat of "Achy Breaky Heart."

3. The Conservative Co-Opting of American Social and Legal Values

When we look back in a few years, we're going to really regret a lot of what happened over the last decade in the name of: (1) traditional values; and (2) National security. We somehow managed to follow the right wing into, among other things: cutting taxes for the wealthiest segments of the population, continually undercutting the rights of gay Americans trying to just get married, rolling back gun laws, and ensuring that the all Americans have access to quality health care. We saw an administration somehow try to justify torture and pass it off as a reasonable way to gather information. We also saw that same administration take step after step to isolate the country from the rest of the world. Seriously, who thought it was a good plan to appoint someone (John Bolton) who openly despised the United Nations to be the UN Ambassador?

And yet somehow an enormous part of the population still bought this. And they bought into creationism, abstinence-only education, deregulating financial rules, and secretly screwing Veterans by cutting VA benefits and health care when they came home. But torture was OK. Right. Got it.

For chrissakes people, open your damn eyes.

2. Enron, Madoff, and Lehman, and the Myth of Getting Rich

I group these together because while the details had distinctions, the ultimate point was basically the same. In short, these 3 were able to convince enough people (and themselves) that it was possible to pull enough shady shit to get rich without anyone figuring out how it happened.

Enron went down about 10 years ago, and despite being the warning that we ought to learn a little something, nobody did. Turns out it's tougher to make a truckload of money when you can't make stuff up. Who knew? Enron, as a reminder, was a huge Texas energy corporation with a ton of power (back in the day Phil Gramm was nicknamed "The Senator from Enron") bringing in about $100 Billion in annual revenue. The problem was that they were bleeding red ink on a lot of their internal finances, and paid off their accounting firm (Arthur Andersen) to fudge the numbers by a few billion. Of course when it all shook down, the people on the bottom lost everything, all but a handful in the middle and top just walked away rich, and a couple of big players went to jail.

Within a couple of years the mortgage crisis started developing and firms like Lehman started investing huge funds into stuff that didn't really exist for purposes other than making themselves rich off of other people's money (like credit default swaps). Same deal with Madoff. Nobody questioned it when they looked like they were making money. And nobody cared about whether they were selling ridiculous mortgages if they could collect a fee and pass it off to someone else.

Maybe that's the biggest takeaway from all of this. There was always a chance to catch the financial frauds at any point, but nobody wanted to. Blowing the whistle always meant the end of the gravy train, and nobody wanted it to end. Problem was, it had to end sometime and the longer it went, more people hopped on board.

1. Iraq

By this point, it's clear to everyone that there wasn't any factual basis for why we ever stepped foot in Iraq. There was no yellow cake, no WMDs, no Al Qaeda, and no goddamn point. Now that the smoke has cleared, it's apparent that we've now lost $700 Billion, over 4000 dead American soldiers and another 30,000 wounded, anywhere between 100,000 and a million dead Iraqis, and there's no stopping any of these numbers soon. Dick Cheney used to talk about not wanting the "smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," and instead it's just a giant pile of burning money and large sections of Iraq being on fire over the last 7 years.

The ugliest part of it is that even though the Republicans dragged us into this debacle, they're still sticking to the idea that it was a good idea and somehow the fault of the Democrats. "Well they voted for it too!" the right contends. Well no shit they did. When the President tells everyone that they have surefire evidence that we are under imminent threat of nuclear attack from the Iraqi government, I hope to hell they support action. There's nothing wrong with confronting an aggressive enemy. But when the President and his cronies make the whole damn thing up to make the hawks look good, that's just punching a ticket for disaster.

And so, here's a hope that as we move onward, we get it together a little bit and stop falling for the same old tricks. There has been a little bit of movement on rolling on past the health care scare tactics the conservatives and insurance lobby tossed out there this summer (Death Panels! Free Insurance for Illegal Aliens! Scary Public Option Bad!), indicating some growth in the bullshit radar of at least 55% of the American public. There are always going to be 30% who buy whatever Hannity and the boys are paid to sell, and they're not worth worrying about. But the remaining 70% needs to keep fighting for reality, now and throughout the next Decade.

Let's make it the Decade of (Actual) Reality.

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