.
the diary thing 
.
08.03.01
.
 power
.
 
ch - cheeseAPPARENTLY, WE'RE OFFICIALLY IN SOME KIND of economic recession. The timing is bad -- is it ever good? -- because Bush's tax break has apparently emptied the budget surplus. This is doubly bad news for Bush because, with the coffers empty, he won't be able to float more money to the army and defense industries, as promised. No matter, since medicare and Social Security have temptingly fat piggy banks, waiting to be raided. Expect some kind of renewed attack on both systems as "flawed" and "outdated" and somehow too egregiously socialistic (though I doubt you'll hear George W. use precisely that sort of tongue-twister) to survive without "reform". If he needs any lessons on how to pull this off, he need only look up north, to Canada, and my home province in particular, to see how this can be done.

I haven't felt much in the way of a recession lately, to be honest. In fact, I can honestly say that I've been living my own little bear market for at least three or four years, since before I met K., or began this diary. Had I started this little record two or three years before I did, you might have read about a very different kind of Rick, one making flush wages, paying scant rent, going on little spending sprees (imported CDs of vintage jazz and ethnic music, antique gramophones, custom tailoring) and agonizing about the fickle nature of women and his undoubtedly bitter future as a frustrated single. Imagine Bridget Jones, differently chromosomed. I don't imagine I'd have too many female readers, steeped in defensive misogyny as I was at the time. Trust me, it's better this way.

I can date the change in my fortunes to two events: my friend Greg's wedding, and my decision to devote more time to writing. Somehow, Greg and Vicki's nuptuals made me more aware of how isolated and miserable I was, how deftly I'd painted myself into an emotional corner. As Greg's best man, I was pulled into a whirlwind of social activities, for which I was emotionally poorly prepared, or at least that's how it felt. On the day after the wedding, the bride and groom on their way to the British Virgin Islands, I was suddenly in the grip of a fierce kind of post-partum depression. Something had to change, it seemed, but what?

That's all a bit vague, I know, but it made me enter a period of serious doubt, and took a bit of my desperate self-assurance away. The decision to write more is simpler to explain: compared to photography, freelance writing is an economic disaster. I can work for a month or more on a feature that'll net me seven or eight hundred bucks, tops. I can earn that much on a single decent photo shoot, with only a day or two's effort. No wonder I once had acres of leisure time to spend the relatively fat paycheques I was gathering. It was the life of Riley, let me tell you, except that I was almost constantly depressed, and committed to spending my way to distraction. No more.

In any case, my only memories of the great late-90s market is of standing on the sidelines while friends and acquaintances made handfuls of money while I toiled in the "doomed" print industry, looking through the glass while the bacchanale went on, occasionally getting invited to, say, the lavishly-catered Xmas parties V.'s "new media" employer threw, before they downsized V. and half of her co-workers. When the crash came, I felt bad for V., but buoyed by a nasty schadenfreude for the whole bubble-world of tech/dot.com/computer biz and the stock market scavengers that winged it aloft. If I couldn't do well from it, at least it had the good sense to go away. Finally, the world around me was living a bit closer to my level. Sort of.

SO THE MUCH-VAUNTED SUCCESSFUL TEST of the missile-defense system turns out to have been rigged. I sort of expected as much, but never thought the truth would be so easily coaxed out of the Pentagon. It doesn't matter much, anyway. The Bush administration wants this to work, badly, and even if it doesn't, it wouldn't be the first time that billions of dollars of public money were poured into defence industry welfare schemes, ending up in a white elephant, mothballed and bleaching away in some vast desert pachyderm's graveyard. 

It's as if the Republican administation can only look at its last percieved success as a model for the near future. It's understood that Reagan outspent the Godless Commies into insolvency (if only it were that simple), ending, alas, the raison d'etre of much American foreign policy. Never mind -- it worked before, let's try it again, regardless of the lack of monolithic enemies. The defense lobby is here for its nine-thirty, sir, and Rockwell is on line one. Shall I cancel the t-ball tournament, sir?

It's been a blast reading the editorials in the wake of the test. I tend to mostly read right-wing papers and magazines, since I don't see much point in subscribing to press that usually caters with my own sympathies. It's much better to face daily challenges to my view of the world, and as nice as the occasional issue of the Guardian might be -- a sort of warm bath for the prejudices -- there's nothing like the caffeine-like jolt of outrage in the morning as I fume at some op-ed that earnestly calls for the dismantling of every social crutch, hinting darkly that the best way to eliminate the social chaff is to marginalize it out of existence, equating "working class" with "underclass", happy to ignore the vast (potential) armies of souls building the heaving belch of consumer goods that emblematize social prosperity. I honestly think, sometimes, that the top ten percent imagine that their suits and cars and boats and kitchenware is produced by some mythical artisan class, proper bourgeouis very much like themselves, though invited to different parties, members of different clubs.

Of course the missile test worked, quoth the Tory editorial pages. We built the bomb; we can do anything. To doubt the ultimate technocratic genius of something like the missile defense concept would hint at a lack of gratitude for your laptop, your online trading, your airbags, and your teflon saute pan. Who do you think made these marvels possible? The military, dammit, and their dedicated wonder-workers from Stanford and MIT, all working at weapons of war that, declassified, the patents sold to consumer goods divisions, will make the future peace brighter; the great philosophical conundrum that ennobles the defense industries, rendering them kind of like religion.

If we build it, they will come. It's an eerie kind of logic motivating Bush and his friends. If they come, though, why would they come on the tip of a missile, never mind one carrying a big GPS bouquet, announcing "HERE I AM!" for the convenience of the interceptors. Somehow, having overseen the elimination of Timothy McVeigh, Bush and the legions of planners and spooks whose business it is to cultivate their paranoia can't seem to imagine that the Oklahoma City bombing, nasty and dirty and low-tech, is something more like the future, a big ugly fertilizer bomb, depressingly like the munition-packed fishing dorry that blew a hole in the side of a billion-dollar Navy destroyer. Why make your attack aloft, into a curtain of radar, at the cost of millions of dollars a shot, when you can simply inspire a young fanatic, trained in the kind of summer camps that Hamas is running this balmy season, to drive it to its target along main street, in a rented Taurus?


 
"To know the pains of power, we must go to those who have it; to know its pleasures, we must go to those who are seeking it: the pains of power are real, its pleasures imaginary."
.
- C. C. Colton
Lacon

 
A long one, mostly about politics, and about my sad, debased profession. In any case, here's something I wrote on municipal politics, a day in the life of a city councillor, and there's new stuff on the movie reviews page.

THERE'S A PART OF ME that would like nothing more than to spend days, weeks, reading Jane's Defense publications and scanning the trade publications of the aerospace and military tech industries. It's a real latter-day Boy's Own world of stealth and alloys and armour and lasers and jet-powered striking capability. I can't keep my eyes off of this stuff when History and Discovery and TLC and public television devotes hours of programming to these re-packaged corporate videos. It's all such wonderful nonsense, a super-sized version of the first half-hour of a Bond film, with Q exasperatingly showing James all his new toys. "God help me, but I love it," said George C. Scott as Patton. Just call me the Tom Clancy of Parkdale.

KATHERINE GRAHAM DIED, and even that part of the press that never forgave her for The Pentagon Papers and Watergate reacted with suitable gravitas and displays of reverence. Perhaps she unleashed the great pinko menace on the world at the worst time possible, but she was still Good People, it's understood, One Of Us, a Radcliffe Girl who fell into dubious company. That kind of thing's been forgiven before, and will again.

I shouldn't be too mean; Kay Graham seemed like a nice lady, the kind of rich patrician that you need to know, at some point in your life, when no amount of truth or righteousness or talent will help you make a difference, without the immense momentum of money and position. The danger is thinking that a chat in the office, an invitation to drinks or dinner, even a weekend at the country house or use of one of the boats somehow makes you One Of Us. 

There's a sad kind of syndrome that overtakes too many journalists, a close cousin of the disease of social climbing, all the more paralyzing since it brings with it such fevered delusion. From the moment you enter the business, there are constant opportunities to write something nice, which means something about shopping, about celebrity, about the winners at the top of the heap. For entertainment and lifestyle journalists, this road leads to a pathetic dead end, years of genuflecting before publicists in search of access, eating the second-rate hors d'oeuvres in the press holding tent while reporting rumours from the VIP enclosure. The reward is dubious, usually a neurotic half-life as a "celebrity insider", a tenuous friendship of sorts with a star who recognizes a friendly face when receipts are bad, an acolyte who can be gently ignored when press is plentiful.

For more "serious" journalists, in business and public affairs, there's some hope of dignity, and more substantial rewards. The business journalist is encouraged to write soberly about the Financial Sage, Young Turk or Conventional Wisdom of the moment, 4500 words at .50/per plus expenses, with sidebars and a nice big portrait of the CEO in question, in the suitably lionizing photography style of the season. Without a degree in economics, accompanying tenure, a spell at a think tank or in government bureaucracy, or a stint in the business world (even as an unspectacular journeyman or outright failure) you're not encouraged to write anything critical, gainsaying the ConWis. In any case, there will be a new FinSage or YoTurk along any minute, and enough work to go around, especially in a bull market. A bull market, it's understood, is good news all around, especially in the business press, and faith in the market is an implied necessity. One day, perhaps, you'll be rewarded with a column, a book contract profiling a FinSage or the latest market scam, or a job as PR flack for one of your subjects. Life is good, rejoice.

In political journalism, the rewards are greater still, though rarer. Muckraking is encouraged at the level of municipal politics, more judiciously required at state or provincial level. The big time, though, is in the capital, or on the foreign desk in a place that counts: Moscow has lost much of its prestige (you'll turn in endless reports on gangster capitalism and economic disaster -- tiresome, depressing reading), while Brussels is becoming the place to be, especially when there's a Nato action, or currency unification, afoot. In the capital, you spend most of your time at parties, rooting out scandal, in scrums, hunting for a soundbite, or online, looking for a nugget of analysis you can co-opt. Clinton's last term, everyone agrees, was the happy time, but nothing like the Golden Age: the public dismantling of Richard Milhouse Nixon. Regardless of your politics -- or the politics you assume to fit in with your employer's editorial policy -- you dream about another such political nirvana, a moment when you know that your school buddies, maybe even the girl who dumped you in second year, or the guy who ignored you after you put out, will be reading your by-line, envious that you're at the center of the action, running down the elected bandits, micro-recorder in hand.

The rewards are, again, a column, a book contract, or a job in the administration -- why, you many wonder, is the Washington press corps so in thrall to a show like "The West Wing"? In later years, there's an editorial desk position -- dreams of Ben Bradlee -- or a teaching gig, journalism school, and more books. Maybe even a bestseller, a la Woodward and Bernstein.

And that, it seems, is the pinnacle. Woodward and Bernstein; never mind that they would never be allowed the kind of access that they once had as humble drones in Kay Graham's newsroom, they have reached a hallowed sinecure, celebrity status, houses in the Hamptons, friends -- even wives -- in Hollywood, assurance that their phone calls will be answered. They have the prestige, and even decent money, but only the vaguest sham of power. Power -- that's where Kay Graham came in.

The Washington Post, while a good paper, was only occasionally a great paper, guaranteed its status because it was the paper of record in the capital, guaranteed by the fact that it's only competition is owned by the goddamned Moonies, for chrissakes! The NY Times is better, the LA Times more improved, the Times of London more respected around the world. But Kay Graham can attract the principal of two or three administrations to her funeral, four or five if you count Henry Kissinger, and you're always supposed to count Kissinger. If he was still alive, I imagine Nixon would have been there. 

And so the papers are filled with earnest eulogies by people who were never there, never worked for the Post, never met Graham, (or maybe met her once, at a party, or maybe only met Ben Bradlee, at a lecture, in college.) Or who only read All The President's Men, long ago, in J-school. Never mind -- a legend is dead. A moment of silence, please. Pause. Now, let the backlash begin.

The saddest part is being reminded of how easily my profession can be co-opted, can be encouraged to fall into ranks. Having spent the better part of their professional lives covering the lives of their "betters", they start to think that they count as peers. Having drank a the same bars, from the same bottles, they try to buy houses in their neighbourhoods, join the same clubs, send their kids to the same schools. Healthy, skeptical criticism, once motivated by outrage, contempt and suspicion, becomes soured with time, fueled by envy, bitterness and jealousy, with dashed hopes and the deep suspicion that one's principles -- never worth that much, really -- were hocked, along with one's dignity, which hurts a bit more. Worst of all, is the feeling that, in the end, people who you're a lot smarter than feel better than you, simply because, at any point in the game, they have more money.

WEDDING NEWS: As I write this, K. is off shopping for fabric for her dress. She's found a nice vintage pattern, from 1952, and a dressmaker. We have a place for the reception, and they're only going to charge us for drinks and service, which is a big saving. K. has rented a vintage streetcar to take the wedding party from the church to the recepetion. We're talking to the printers about the invites next week, and I'll probably be chatting with the organist about music soon enough. I know who I want to play piano at the reception, but the question is whether I can afford him, even if he was able to afford me, twice, to shoot his album cover and publicity photos.

.
writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
.
.
...the past
back to diary index
send me mail
the future...