A R C H I V E S
Madinat al-Muslimeen Islamic Message Board
|'the story of US'|
|06/13/02 at 02:17:14|
|A slice of real American life|
By John R. Bradley, Arab News Staff
The Story of US, a recent Hollywood movie starring Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer, purports to represent the reality of divorce through the eyes of a typical American couple.
The title’s capitalized “US” that rolls across the screen during the opening scenes promisingly suggests that the couple’s separation will on a deeper level symbolize the breakdown of the social fabric of the United States itself.
No such luck.
While the movie does chart movingly the personal consequences of the couple’s separation, it does not in any meaningful way deal with the reality of divorce as experienced by the average American couple. For the latter, separation is much more likely to be the result of poverty, drug abuse, wife-battery or child abuse (or a combination thereof) than a disagreement with one’s partner on the existential meaning of one’s existence.
“The Story of US” presents divorce in an exclusively emotional, or abstractly psychological, context: a once-happily-married couple grow apart over the years without knowing it, but eventually realize they have become incompatible. People change as life changes, the movie unremarkably implies; and what is a reflective married couple who have made a solemn pledge of fidelity for life to do?
Both these characters are well-educated and hugely successful in their chosen careers; both are beautiful and in perfect health; and both are white. That they are all this and in being so represent not the reality of a typical American couple but how only the top 20 percent of the American population live their lives should hardly come as a surprise.
Apart from the tiny cluster of American intellectuals who are still drawn to the pages of The New Yorker, Harper’s and the half-a-dozen or so other highbrow publications that keep alive in the United States the weakly flickering flame of cultural enlightenment and reflection, America’s middle class has largely given up exploring — let alone trying to change for the better — the reality that underpins their complex society.
They have brushed under the crudely woven carpet of bland conformity their culture’s inequalities, divisions and crudities, and along with them its many extraordinary enviable and unique characteristics; and they have done so to the extent that those who dare to stand out by challenging the status quo, or by merely going out on a limb, now do so at the very probable risk that soon afterwards they will find themselves permanently ostracized, their dissenting perspective damned rather than treasured.
This, then, is the real story of the United States, and in that sense “The Story of US” — in the way it oh-so-briefly looks askance at social reality before cozying up to the dumb middle-class “ideals” of its audience — does indeed symbolize what American society and culture have largely become: insincere at best and at worst self-deluding.
This is why Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” has been so enthusiastically welcomed by intellectuals and those with a social conscience in the United States.
Ehrenreich decided to join the millions of Americans who work full-time for poverty-level wages. She took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered as “a woefully inexperienced housewife returning to the workforce.” And she tried as best she could to get by only on what she earned.
This is the kind of investigative journalism many thought had long since died a silent and unmoored death.
What Ehrenreich encountered and now reflects on in “Nickel and Dimed” is a world of exhausted men and (mostly) women, entirely bereft of hope for a decent future, either for themselves or their children. Their incomes, from what are usually two full-time jobs, bring in barely enough to pay for substandard accommodation and a quick fix, twice a day, on junk food. To survive from one desperate day to the next is their common goal.
Avoiding the get-out clause so often employed by Americans too ashamed to look at the shortcomings of their society or too proud to have them revealed by others — “this army of poor are the unfortunate few who have yet to benefit from the extraordinary prosperity offered to every citizen” and so on — Ehrenreich points out that the Economic Policy Institute recently came up with a “living wage” figure of $30,000 a year for a family of one adult and two children. This is what it would take to stay out of poverty: a job paying at least $14 an hour.
“This is not the very minimum a family should live on,” she then clarifies. “The budget includes health insurance, a telephone and child-care at a licensed center, for example, which are well beyond the reach of millions. But it does not include restaurant meals, video rentals, Internet access... cigarettes and lottery tickets, or even very much meat.”
The “shocking news” is, Ehrenreich concludes, that the majority of American workers — “about 60 percent” — presently earn less than $14 an hour.
Her subject, so it turns out, is that tens of millions of Americans barely manage to scrape by, despite often having two full-time jobs. They typically live below the official poverty line.
Nor is the fact lost on Ehrenreich that she is entering a world that does not exist, as far as the top 40 percent of Americans who control their country’s media (either by producing it or consuming it) is concerned.
While working as a maid, for instance, she returns home one evening and watches TV: “I see a world in which almost everyone makes $15 an hour or more, and I’m not just thinking of the anchor folks. The sitcoms and dramas are about fashion designers or schoolteachers or lawyers, so it’s easy for a fast-food worker or nurse’s aide to conclude that she is an anomaly — the only one or almost the only one — who hasn’t been invited to the party.”
And in her conclusion, after having intimately documented the misery and exploitation faced by so many American citizens on a daily basis (almost all at the hand of global franchises based in the US), she states soberly: “You would have to read a great many newspapers very carefully, cover to cover, to see the signs of distress.”
Ehrenreich becomes a maid, a waitress and a sales assistant, and enters into the lives and lifestyles of her fellow workers. Those whom she encounters and befriends are mostly women, whom she takes to be representative of the four million or so “booted into the labor market” by welfare reform in the late 1990s.
How were they going to make it, on $6 or $7 an hour?
For most of them, “making it” turns out to mean being glad that they have made it to the end of another grueling shift (longer than that agreed in the contract but without overtime pay as compensation).
The common, crippling problem that binds everyone Ehrenreich encounters is a lack of affordable housing, “in almost every case the principal source of disruption” in their lives. Their appalling living conditions resemble those of many Third World immigrants in the Gulf, and this is not a hazy analogy: most of the workers encountered by Ehrenreich are either immigrants or African-Americans.
Ehrenreich works out that she can afford to spend $500 on rent or maybe, with severe economies, $600 and still have $400 or $500 left over for food and gas.
“This pretty much confines me to flop houses and trailer homes — like the one, a pleasing 15-minute drive from town, that has no air-conditioning, no screens, no fans, no TV.”
From the waiters and cooks she works alongside, the following stories emerge: Joan lives in a van parked behind a shopping center at night. Andy lives on his dry-docked boat which is not more than 20 feet long. Marianne and her boyfriend are paying $170 a week for a one-person trailer. Claude is desperate to get out of the two-room apartment he shares with his girlfriend and two other, unrelated people. George, who shares an apartment with a crowd of other Czechs, cannot sleep until one of them goes off for his shift, leaving a vacant bed.
As a mark of how Ehrenreich manages to weave penetrating humor even into narratives such as these, she reflects on yet another inadequate apartment she has to consider renting: “There is no window. Well, there is a windowlike structure near the ceiling, but it offers a view only of compacted dirt, such as one might normally see when looking up from the grave.”
This captures brilliantly what her book essentially is about: the life of the living dead.
The marginalization of the reality described in “Nickel and Dimed” by the mainstream American media matters for a number of reasons, quite aside from the fact that it is deeply unethical when considered from whatever journalistic perspective you care to adopt.
While the American media has rightly been criticized for not challenging its government’s resort to empty rhetoric when it comes to the so-called “war on terror”, for instance, ignored is a more insidious collusion: because the media does not make reality an issue in the first place, George W. Bush is able to get away with his facile nonsense about being the defender of civilization and of good versus evil.
His speeches exist in a media vacuum, neither contextalized by what is already there nor queried after they too become part of the deception.
Exactly how “good” and “civilized”, that is to say, is the life lived by the millions of Americans described in Ehrenreich’s book?
Consider the other statistics not mentioned by the author: that one in five American children live in poverty; that 16 percent of the adult population in America are illiterate; that less than 40 percent of eligible voters actually bother to vote in elections.
Obviously, the very idea that America represents an ideal civilization can only exist at all because everything that makes American such a failure, in terms of civilized norms and values, never forms part of the picture.
And that brings us back to “The Story of US.”
When you see this movie, try to spot a character whose lifestyle even vaguely resembles those documented in “Nickel and Dimed”. And when you fail to do so, as you inevitably will, think of the political implications when you switch back over to CNN.
|Re: 'the story of US'|
|06/13/02 at 07:15:49|
This makes really grim reading. But this is where Capitalism and the deregulation of wealth creation is taking us.
Can you comprehend what a miserable life it is to struggle and strive just to make ends meet? Alhumdulillah, we have Allah and His Prophet, so we're able to strive to higher ideals... but what about those billions of others who don't???
Likewise, humans as a whole have to find a way to fight this Capitalist monster so that at the least they can see some sort of future for themselves and their families.
|Re: 'the story of US'|
|06/13/02 at 12:30:38|
|This makes really grim reading. But this is where Capitalism and the deregulation of wealth creation is taking us. |
Capitalism is neither moral or immoral. People are moral or immoral. People make choices on what they do with their time and resources. Capitalism gives many people time and resources, but many choose badly. BUt also, many choose wisely and do much good with their resources and time. God regulates wealth, governments should not. God will eventually take away wealth from people who are not wise in their decisions regarding what God has bestowed on them.
Madinat al-Muslimeen Islamic Message Board