This essay originally appeared on TomDispatch.
Among my somewhat over-the-hill crowd–I’m 64–there’s one thing friends have said to me repeatedly since the stock market started to tumble, the global economic system began to melt down and Iceland went from bank haven to bankrupt. They say, “I’m just not looking. I don’t want to know.” And they’re not referring to the world situation, they’re talking about their pension plans, or 401(k)s, or IRAs, or whatever they put their money into, so much of which is melting away in plain sight even as Iceland freezes up.
I’ve said it myself. Think of it as a pragmatic acknowledgement of reality at an extreme moment, but also as a statement of denial and despair. The point is: Why look? The news is going to be worse than you think, and it’s way too late anyway. This is what crosses your mind when the ground under you starts to crumble. Don’t look, not yet, not when the life you know, the one you took for granted, is vanishing, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.
Today, in my world at least, this is the most commonplace of comments. It’s just not a line I’ve seen much when the press and TV bring on the parade of financial experts–most of whom are there largely because they didn’t have the faintest idea that anything like this might happen. Whether they’re reporting on, or opining about, the latest market nosedives, panic selling, chaotic bailouts, arcane derivatives, AIG facials, or bank and stock-exchange closures, it still always sounds like someone else’s story. I guess that’s the nature of the media.
It’s professional for reporters and pundits to write or talk about the pain of others, not their own. Normally, you just assume that’s the case. So, for instance, when Frank Bruni, in a front page New York Times piece on the second presidential debate, writes, “Now the situation looks gloomier still, with markets in other continents tumbling–with a world of hurt at hand,” it really doesn’t cross your mind that he might be including Frank Bruni in that description.
Here’s a rock-you-to-your-socks fact I happened to read in a news report the afternoon of the day that Barack Obama and John McCain had their town hall meeting with eighty uncommitted voters and moderator Tom Brokaw. In the last fifteen months, according to the Associated Press, Americans have lost $2 trillion from their retirement plans. Now, that’s a world of hurt, and you could feel it the moment Brokaw first called on an audience member. Allen Shaffer rose and asked: “With the economy on the downturn and retired and older citizens and workers losing their incomes, what’s the fastest, most positive solution to bail these people out of the economic ruin?” I have no idea what Shaffer’s situation is, but I’ll tell you this, his didn’t sound like a reporter’s question. It sounded close to the bone. It sounded like a world of hurt. Not surprisingly, neither presidential candidate actually responded, in part, undoubtedly, because to be close to the truth either would have had to say something like: Hey, how the hell do I know?