“Taking the Piss” on Cassandra Metaphors
N.B. – For those not in the know, the phrase “to take the piss” is British slang meaning “to make fun of.” It might have some other meanings here too.
Celebrations of midsummer – sankthans in Norway and Denmark, midsommar in Sweden – have just ended in Scandinavia. The week of the solstice is past, John the Baptist’s birthday duly marked (albeit utterly without awareness, in most cases). The Norwegian and Danish bonfires (sankthansbåler) on beaches, quays, and boats and the Swedish dancing around the maypole have ceased, leaving only summer’s extended daylight – and a devil of a hangover.
That last is not (metaphorically speaking) a bad thing, in my opinion. When not coupled with the disease of alcoholism and consistent behavior harmful to self and others, a hangover signifies that the person has been letting go of anxieties and living in enjoyment of the moment.
This type of balance is essential to life. What, after all, is the purpose of worrying and predicting and planning, if not to achieve something enjoyable at the end of it all?
The past weeks of watching the world from Philadelphia via television and the Internet have bolstered my opinion that news media generally (as well as the financial markets, international governments, and their citizenry – the last of whom are the only ones likely to take the advice) could use some version of a good bender and better hangover.
This is not so much because there has been “bad news”; there is always bad news. Hence, people who try to learn their English from the Philadelphia news media will develop a healthy vocabulary involving the words shot, killed, wounded, fight broke out, police are searching for, and school district (yes, the last stands out oddly, but it’s been “the other bad thing in the news” here), whereas I have developed modest expertise in Norwegian road accidents and train problems.
By the way, should the Norwegian government’s transportation division have need of an English speaker with knowledge of bilulykker, lastebilulykker, lusekjører, traffikorker, togkaos, and jernbanekriser, I will be happy to discuss the options.
The reason I have been entertaining occasional fantasies of a global media shutdown due to mass inebriation is less the bad news than the “it probably will be tremendously bad” forecasts. From the Greek debt crisis to the U.S. budget stalemate to the Oslo Sentrum summer station shutdown, prognostications of disaster have dominated headlines for a full three months (and you can include the Rapture Project among the offerings).
The climax came this weekend, when the Associated Press, on the one hand, produced poll results alarmed at Americans’ increasing lack of responsiveness to the words debt ceiling and debt crisis, while The Guardian, on the other hand, fearfully dared to consider the demise of the European Union (to be met with one winning comment, by user “munkeelugs”: “‘Greek debt crisis prompts fears of EU disintegration’ – That would be like fearing a nice meal or a malt whisky.”)
My dear Cassandras in the media: what did you expect? To my mind, you should be relieved that most of us are sufficiently resilient not to go the way of the international markets, jumping at the sound of Ben Bernanke’s voice or strains from Zorba.
I know one or two “ordinary humans” who have acquired that nervous complex, and it is very wearing on the people around them. Perversely, we want to mutter things like “quantitative easing” and perform the sirtaki in their presence.
Most problematic is not the probable truth of such forecasts – there’s a strong chance of a U.S. default on its debt, due to the mule-headedness of politicians who believe you can pay off the credit card without earning much money, and the fallout is unlikely to be comfortable – but their departure from the reality of news.
A shooting is news. A traffic accident is news. A stock market rise or fall is news. But what the Congress or the European Parliament should or should not do about something, and what may happen if they do or do not, is not news. It is worry.
To start my week today, I turned to the headlines in Kragerø Blad Vestmar, newspaper for the town whose sankthans celebrations are depicted here. And there, to my great relief – and confirming my suspicion that Dionysus, rather than Cassandra, was called for these days – I found news:
- The police picked up a middle-aged woman, too drunk to stand, for squatting like a crab and urinating on the quayside.
- The police came across a young man who had decided to relieve himself on a major throughway.
- The police found another youngish man sleeping drunk on the side of the road, after motorists alerted them to his presence.
(If I were a Norwegian investor, I’d buy alcohol stocks.)
These items are news. They are not necessarily good news (though they are somewhat inevitable, given Kragerø’s position as a premier in-country summer vacation destination); but they deal with the reality that is a Norwegian town after midsummer. Similar stories appeared down the southern coast, from Arendal to Stavanger.
Norway had a good time this sankthans weekend, however the population may have felt today.
The world has developed a bad case of worrying – “bad” because it isn’t changing the future probabilities one iota and is steadily making life miserable today. Without considering ways to prepare for economic fall-outs or considering exciting things in the present, the media and the markets and the politicians worry. Given few good ideas for what they can do, personally or corporately, to address these crises, those citizens who don’t still think QE2 is a luxury liner are tuning out in droves or worrying themselves to distraction and irritation.
Neither approach is helpful.
So what can people do – something the media are loath to address?
Well, the biggest likelihood in the case of cascading European debt and/or a U.S. default is rising interest rates. Locking in existing low-rate borrowing, cutting borrowing down or eliminating it entirely, and starting to save are all good strategies when facing this kind of scenario – especially when the borrowing of big institutions may well impact on jobs again.
These suggestions will make the neurotic markets cringe at the idea of short-term decreases in spending. The question is, would they like to stay in business in the long term, or not?
Simultaneously, not supporting the elimination of government safety nets in the short term would be prudent. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment – all these need attention to be sustainable, if they can be made to be. But in an environment of immense economic instability, where banks and insurers might just come knocking at government’s door again for bailouts (that should be amusing) and, more important, many citizens may be reliant on such benefits for survival in the event of job loss and contraction, dedication to draconian cuts to safety programs suggests a pathological solipsism.
Unless you’d like to call troops home to deal with people in the streets, get over thinking you can “fix” Social Security and Medicare with a few months of cuts.
Finally, not adopting such a degree of austerity in one’s personal life that one cannot enjoy the present is essential. You may not want to go for the kitchen makeover this year, but you can still take a weekend at the shore. Those who have locked themselves into the “Great Depression mind-set” are the most agitated at the moment, for they won’t let go the worry.
You can let it go for a day. You probably can’t fix Greece – but you’re allowed an evening out once in a while.
On the home front, I think I’ll find my father different reading matter than Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And maybe I should expand my Norwegian lessons beyond such headlines as “Omkon etter kollisjon på E 16 i Hordaland.”
I may need it.
(Incidentally, while there certainly has been traffic – especially due to the unpredicted closure of the Oslofjord tunnel – the shutdown of train traffic through Oslo Sentrum has “gone fairly well” for starters. Oddly enough, people there decided to … prepare.)