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July 20, 2009

America Embraces Jenga and Meat Loaf? If Only!


The voice is deep and reassuring. It carries with it the weight of depth and reassurance. Attached to the voice is an actor, Dennis Haysbert, who appears and feels nearly presidential. And why not? A few years back, he portrayed the president on a popular television show.


He says to an America laboring through a recession that last year we learned Jenga and meat loaf were better than box seats and reservations. The size of your television isn’t as important as those huddled around it for entertainment. It is a moment of connection, where an insurance company is hoping to get across to potential customers that it feels their pain. It is empathy at work, something that is apparently supposed to be a bad trait for a judge, but is good as a marketing gimmick.


The question isn’t whether this particular display of empathy is phony. As a marketing gimmick, it almost certainly is. The question is whether it has staying power in connecting with the American people. That is, did the American people really learn last year that Jenga and meat loaf are better than reservations and box seats?


The answer to that should be a raised, dubious eyebrow. It would be hard to believe that a single event that happened nearly nine months ago would prompt lasting change. We were told that September 11 changed everything. Soon after, conservative columnist George Will noted that neckties had returned to the workplace and casual Fridays were a thing of the past. The years have faded the pain. Casual Fridays have returned.


The near collapse of global finance should have sent us a message that it is time for a closer look at our way of life. Our economy, which has become a thing that moves from bubble to bubble to bubble, is a symptom of what has gone awry. It speaks volumes toward a lack of discipline and long-term thinking, and toward a glut of short-term opportunism that sells short the future.


What has been masked as building a better life is nothing more than naked, luxury-based consumerism. It is the idea that you make for your children a better world by removing physical discomfort. Past generations built roads, brought electricity to rural America, connected the world through the telephone. Today, our greatest achievement is manufacturing video games that realistically depict a zombie holocaust. The American media obsessed over the death of a pop star not terribly relevant for 20 years, while ignoring at the same time a substantial effort to reform American health care.


It is not controversial to call it unsustainable, either. We have done very well exporting one thing – the American dream. Everyone wants to live like an American. The problem is that, at the rate we consume resources, we’d need several planets to do it.


It is apparent that there is a complete lack of political leadership. In Washington, the same crooks who last year nearly cratered global finance not only got bailed out with billions of dollars, but their position has become stronger. The general drift appears to be that the sooner things get back to “normalcy,” the better for everyone.


Yet, it isn’t just banking that has failed. We see failure in a great many systems – education, infrastructure, energy, environment, health care. Many of those failures have the same symptoms, but dots go unconnected. The bigger picture is ignored, and rather than treating symptoms to treat the disease, we hope to inflame the symptoms thinking that this will cure us.


It is an opportunity missed to learn from past mistakes. Returning to “normalcy” means returning to a horribly out-of-balance way of life. It means once again mindlessly lurching toward exhausted natural resources and pain for future generations in the name of luxury today. It means a pursuit of box seats and reservations at the expense of Jenga and meat loaf.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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