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The Denver Post

Every day, every way, we're going to pot

April 20, 1996
Section: Denver & The West
Page: B-07
   Hans Bjordahl

One look at the newspaper or television makes it clear: Life in America has never been worse.

The American workplace is more brutal than ever before. Two-career families face unprecedented challenges. Politics grows increasingly rancid. The economy teeters with perilous "uncertainty." White males are angry; black males are angrier. America is in a state of moral crisis. The American family is threatened. "Stress" is at an all time high. It's a crisis and a tragedy.

And a sham.

Why do American media feed us crisis after crisis? Because crisis sells. Americans, as a whole, like to be assured they are the most unfortunate wretches who ever walked the planet. Marketers, whether they're selling a product, a politician or a war know that the key to establishing trust with a consumer is to coo that he or she is the most pitifully unfortunate soul who ever lived ... and thus deserves very special treatment.

In politics this year, Pat Buchanan proved himself a master of this tactic, whipping Republican primary voters into such a frenzy of anger and self-pity over their job prospects that he was able to claim the New Hampshire primary. The amazing thing about Pat's "you've never had it so bad" pitch was that its popularity belied a booming U.S. economy - in New Hampshire, unemployment stood at a razor-thin 3.2 percent. In a way, Buchanan borrowed a page from the playbook of President Clinton, who won the presidency four years ago by looking the citizens of the world's lone superpower in the eye and saying, "I feel your pain."

Politicians often point to the 1950s, when lifetime employment was the norm and one-income families easily afforded

upper-middle-class lifestyles as an example of what Americans should expect their economy to deliver. The trouble with the '50s was that it was an economic anomaly, enjoyable but completely unsustainable. You think life is hard for working people in America in the '90s? Try the '30s. Try the 1890s.

Other politicians, such as Newt Gingrich, cite the "moral climate" of the '50s with its neighborly neighbors, white picket fences and freshly baked apple pies as a comparison point to illustrate the sheer hell of living in modern times. While the '90s may not be the idyllic '50s, it's important to note that not even the '50s were the idyllic '50s.

While Newt may yearn for the days of segregated drinking fountains, government radiation experiments on unsuspecting civilians and the imminent threat of global nuclear annihilation, others would contend that's too high a price to pay for a 5-cent Coca-Cola.

Even as politicians pander to the electorate with whimsical visions of molding the U.S. into a retro Disneyland, voters complain loudly every election, to throngs of eager reporters, that they're "dissatisfied" with the choices available. This "voter dissatisfaction" is then fed back to the electorate via the press as evidence that Americans have been somehow cheated out of a fulfilling democratic process. This "dissatisfaction," however, is unlikely to ever compel these prima donnas to pry themselves off the couch and actually run for office, because 45 percent of them typically don't even bother to vote.

The press has discovered that coddling its readers (and viewers) with sympathetic stories is a sure tactic to keep them coming back. Every six months, "stress" becomes a hot topic as a primary bane of modern life. "Stress"? For that we should rejoice; not too long ago it was "plague." "The overworked American" is another semiannual cover story, but how many of us would trade places with the "overworked Cambodian?" The media fabrication known as "Generation X" brought self-pity to the younger generation, detailing the travails of whiners cursed with being slightly less overprivileged than their parents had been. The horror.

During the commercial break, the pandering only intensifies. Want to sell something to America's working moms? Let them know you're sympathetic to their appallingly hectic struggles and brutally difficult lives. The battle for suffrage was apparently a cakewalk compared with the demands of getting the kids to soccer practice on time. Want to sell a soundproofed luxury car to a white male executive? Advertise it as the perfect balm after a "hard day" of conducting meetings in an air-conditi oned high-rise.

Every day Americans consume so much information telling them how difficult their lives are that they are actually beginning to believe it. In reality, America is the world's lone superpower, with a bustling economy and a bright future. For a country our size, our standard of living is unmatched. In terms of historical and global perspective, few people have ever had it so good.

That is not to say that we live in a utopian society.

There are real problems in America today - crime, poverty, militarism, the environment - that demand vigilant attention.

However, challenge and tragedy have been a constant of the human experience from the beginning. It's time to stop throwing our national temper tantrum and realize that while living in America in the 1990s may be far from perfect, it's nonetheless a distinct and powerful privilege.

Hans Bjordahl is editor of the Internet publication Zone Interactive and co-creator of the Cafe Angst comic strip, which runs in the Denver Post.

All content 1996- The Denver Post and may not be republished without permission.
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