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
I've said it myself. Think of it as a pragmatic acknowledgment 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, A.I.G.
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 80 uncommitted voters and moderator Tom Brokaw. In the last 15
to the Associated Press, Americans 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?
At this point, despite the onslaught of news about how bad things are, dotted
with portrayals of Americans in trouble, I suspect there's quite a gap between
the world as reported and the world as felt by most Americans. Let me give
you a simple example. In the news these days, it's common to hear that we are
at the edge of a real recession or, as International Monetary Fund managing
director Dominique Strauss-Kahn put
it, "the cusp of a global recession," or even the verge of a "deep
Recently, the word "depression" has finally made it onto the scene. Little
wonder, as ever more financial institutions totter, while, for the first time
in memory, the initials GM and the word "bankruptcy" repeatedly end up in the
same headlines. "Depression" arrived on the media scene, however, in a formulaic
way and usually quite carefully hemmed in as part of a comparison: If X does
or doesn't happen, this will be "the worst crisis since the Great Depression,"
or simply that it is "the worst [you fill this in] since the Great Depression."
And yet a recent CNN poll indicates
that nearly 60 percent of Americans think an actual depression, even a great
depression – not a situation bad enough to compare to one – is "likely." To
many of us, it's already starting to feel that way and that's no small thing.
When you see a Wall Street Journal headline like last
Friday's – "Market's 7-Day Rout Leaves U.S. Reeling" – don't you feel like
you're in a different world, however the experts care to define it?
The edge of panic in the voice of a friend telling me about the 401(k) she's
not looking at catches the story for me. It's visceral and scary and, let's
face it, whether this is the half-forgotten past coming back to bite us or
the future kneecapping us, it's depressing as hell.
And speaking of depressions no
one is much talking about, let me just say what a journalist can't: I'm
It crept up on me, but I can date the feeling to the first week of October,
because a friend e-mailed me on Sept. 29 this way: "I'm given to gloomy thoughts…
You really get the sense that things are on the verge of spinning out of control."
I remember the e-mail I wrote back with a certain embarrassment. I was neither
gloomy nor down, I responded. My reigning feeling was one of "awe" – that you
could live your whole life and never experience a moment like this one. At
about the same time, I told another friend that I found it staggering to turn
a corner, bump into History, and discover that he's unbelievably gargantuan.
Even as I sent that e-mail off, it felt kind of callous to me, but it was
what I thought I felt. The media claims to know – and report on – "our pain,"
just as the presidential candidates claim to feel it. How could they? I didn't
even know my own. It took a remarkably long time to notice that weird feeling
– as if another body were sagging inside mine – I identify with depression,
and so finally say to myself: Okay, maybe you were awed, maybe you still are,
but you also feel gloomy as hell.
the strange thing: I've been running TomDispatch.com these last nearly six
years. I've written (or posted) with regularity on how the Bush administration,
with its blind, fundamentalist faith in military power, had pushed an imperial
America into a precipitous decline. In July 2006, I typically ended one dispatch
on the subject, "The
Force Is Not With Them," this way:
"Oh, and there's one fundamentalist character I've left out of the mix,
someone who definitely bows down to force. Call everything that's happened
these last few years Osama's dream. It's hard not to think of William Butler
Yeats' poem, 'The Second Coming,' and then wonder: 'And what rough beast,
its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?'"
I posted a piece at TomDispatch in April of this year in which, to some criticism,
Wall Street expert Steve Fraser specifically brought up the "D" word in this
"Nonetheless, the current breakdown of the financial system is portentous.
It threatens a general economic implosion more serious than anyone has witnessed
for many decades. Depression, if that is what it turns out to be, together
with the agonies of a misbegotten and lost war no one believes in any longer,
could undermine whatever is left of the threadbare credibility of our Gilded
Last January, I even posted an essay by Chalmers Johnson, bluntly entitled
"Going Bankrupt," suggesting
that we were fast heading the way of Argentina 2001. I've certainly long been
convinced that we were spinning out of control, that this was madness, and
that we were, in some fashion, heading down.
But a near global financial collapse and crash in a matter of weeks? I can't
claim that such a possibility even crossed my mind. And anyway, who can ever
claim that learned and lived history bear much relation to each other any more
than do the experiences of reporting and being reported upon?
That was a thought, a construct. This is my life. That
was so much writing on the page. This is the world I'm sending my children
into (which depresses me more than anything). I find I have no particular faith
that, in the worst of times, the best of things will happen.
Now, at least, the media is talking about the Great Depression and, of course,
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, fireside chats, and the like. Even Barack Obama
did so the other day in an interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson. But, of course,
the Great Depression brought Hitler as well as Roosevelt to power. And if people
are disturbed by the anger, the threats, the rage
exhibited recently at McCain/Palin rallies, then hold your hats as things turn
truly grim. So I sit here and worry. And I know I'm not alone.
In these last days, I've thought some about my parents, about their whole
generation which lived through the Great Depression, those fathers and mothers
who had a "depression mentality" for which we, the young growing up in the
1950s and 1960s, had no patience, and about which we had next to no curiosity
whatsoever. I sure didn't, anyway. That was so past. Despite the good times,
they feared otherwise.
It's unnerving when history becomes yours, when no one can tell you where
the bottom is, or what life will be like after that bottom is reached. It's
one of those moments when you discover why overused phrases – I think here,
for instance, of "through a glass darkly" – were overused in the first place.
What a grim Alice-in-Wonderland feeling this turns out to be – in which the
world simultaneously seems to shrink to you and expand to take in everything.
Maybe this was what it felt like in parts of Asia as the great meltdown of
1997 began, or in Argentina as national bankruptcy hit in 2001. I wouldn't
know. Those were distant tsunamis to which we were immune. It was Washington
then that dispatched the International Monetary Fund to other countries in
such crises to "impose discipline." Now, ominously, the IMF (and the World
Bank) are imposingly back in Washington – and not for a night on the town either.
The Invisible Ruins
I'm a New Yorker, and soon after Sept. 11, 2001,
my daughter and I took the subway downtown to see the damage for ourselves.
The jets had been screaming overhead the preceding days, and that acrid smell
from the collapse of the towers had drifted up the island. But walking in that
area, which wasn't yet known as Ground Zero, glimpsing down blocked-off side
streets those humongous shards of the World Trade Center, that was staggering.
The indescribable scale of destruction was something the small screen simply
couldn't transmit. Within a few minutes, still blocks away, our throats were
already raw and we were hacking and coughing.
As for so many people then, life brought films to my mind. In my case, those
giant shards conjured up, as
I've written elsewhere, the final scene of the original Planet of the
Apes – that unforgettable shot of the Statue of Liberty atilt and half-buried
in the sands of time as the two humans escape down the beach on horseback.
And yet in September 2001, the real damage was largely confined to a number
of square blocks of downtown Manhattan, including the shut-down Stock Exchange
on Wall Street, as well as part of a single building in Washington, D.C., and
a field in Pennsylvania. This, we were told, was "the Pearl Harbor of the 21st
century." And soon enough, with a helping hand from the Bush administration,
Americans from Akron to El Paso were officially – and mistakenly – terrified
for their lives and for their country. In the next seven years, the Bush administration
managed to turn that misplaced fear into something like prophecy and bring
down the house.
Today, on a visit to lower Manhattan, there would be no smoldering fires,
no smoke, no raw throats, no gaping holes, no smashed buildings, no ruins,
and yet, as you walked those streets, you would almost certainly be strolling
among the ruins, amid the shards of American financial, political, and even
military superpowerdom. Think of it as Bush's hubris and bin Laden's revenge.
You would be facing the results, however unseen, of the real 9/11, which is
still taking place in relative slow motion seven years later. It should scare
Hey, I'm depressed, aren't you?
[You can listen to a podcast of Tom Engelhardt discussing this piece by
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt