Media Circus: There's no bad news

Where have you gone, apocalyptic ranters? We're being overrun with cheer.


David Futrelle
May 21, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

americans are suckers for a good apocalyptic rap. Write a book telling them the country is "Slouching Towards Gomorrah" and they'll catapult it to the top of the bestseller list. Tell them the end of the world is near, and they'll send you their life savings. Tell them the earth is "about to be recycled," and you can convince several dozen cheerfully suicidal pioneers to sign up for your "away team" to the "level above human." The more apocalyptic your pronouncements, it seems, the more eager Americans are to listen.

Or so they have been. Now there are signs that America's fascination with gloom and doom may be easing a bit. It's not that Americans have given up on Apocalypse. They've just adopted a different kind of millennialism. Traditionally, Americans have held to the dour "premillennialist" view -- the vision of terrible "Tribulations" tearing up the earth before the second coming of Christ -- and even the least religious have taken a liking to this gloomy vision of a world gone mad. (Though true believers can be surprisingly cheerful about it all.) These days, though, a vaguely "postmillennialist" view seems to be taking hold, a vision of the world growing better, every day and every way, until we reach a heaven on earth. We may, in short, be entering the age of the Good News Apocalypse. As a sort of professional pessimist, I'm a little bewildered by it all.

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The nation's press, catching up with the newly festive mood, is reporting a sudden outburst of really good news. The economy, the press reports, is bustling onwards and upwards, entering its seventh year of expansion. Inflation is low, unemployment is still dropping, real wages are actually beginning to rise. It all appears, as the Washington Post notes, "almost too good to be true." And the Post is hardly alone in this conclusion: Last week, Reuters reports, the Federal Reserve's latest summary of economic trends "painted a picture of an economy almost too good to be true -- still growing six years into an expansion with few, if any, signs of inflation."

And it's not just the economy that's doing great, the pundits hasten to add. In a glowing Time article titled, well, "Too Good to Be True?" Eric Pooley described the "strange and wondrous place" America has now become. "We're living longer, breathing cleaner air, drinking cleaner water," Pooley chirps. "Crime is in free fall, with violent evildoing near a 22-year low, and the downtowns we once gave up for dead are bristling with coffee bars, green markets, life." (Granted, I feel almost obliged to add, these coffee bars and green markets are themselves bristling with irritating, self-obsessed yuppies, but what are you going to do about that?)

This week, U.S. News and World Report catches up with the conventional wisdom, offering its own cover story on "The Amazing Economy." Several weeks back, the magazine discovered even more good news: It seems our legendarily troubled teens actually "aren't all that troubled." Births to teen mothers are down. Ninety percent of teens say they're close to their parents and optimistic about the future. "On most measures, today's youths are actually better off than their parents were a quarter century ago," writes David Whitman in the May 5 issue. "They are less likely to smoke, drink, or do drugs, less likely to die at an early age, less likely to drive drunk or die from a drug overdose, and more likely to finish high school and college." Representatives of the species are still inclined to careen through the alley next to my house in large, accident-dented cars at 4 in the morning, but I chalk that up to the natural exuberance of youth.

Everywhere I look I find good news staring me in the face: Promising new AIDS treatments. Increased life expectancy in the third world. And even in matters a little less life-and-death the news is good: According to the Boston Globe, movie multiplexes may be on their way out, replaced by "stadium" theaters with big cushy seats, enormous screens and better sight lines. Even the left press, not normally given to cheerfulness, seems to have gotten on the positive tip. A cover story in the May 19 Nation celebrates the success of progressive activists in Burlington, Vt. And in last week's Village Voice, a cover story describes the lives of "Prison Lovers," telling "five stories of macho men and queens who found romance behind bars."

What to make of all this? The sudden outburst of glad tidings has left some normally cynical observers as puzzled as I am. "I've spent a lifetime identifying this or that disturbing factor that others ignore," James Collins writes in Time. "Now, however, I face a real problem: I can't find any of those factors ... As a skilled worrier, I fear my craft has become obsolete, like whaling or vaudeville."

Actually, it's not that hard to find troubling signs mixed among the good -- as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich (among others) has pointed out. "There are still millions of people desperately trying to stay afloat," he recently reminded one reporter. "One in five children lives in poverty. Forty-four million Americans have no health insurance." The list goes on: wage stagnation, segregation, schools in crisis.

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It shouldn't have been too difficult for Collins to root out this not-so-secret information: Reich's comments appear in Time, on the page opposite Collins' happily fretful column. And it's not as though the bad news has gone entirely unreported: U.S. News, in its cover story, does take a moment to reflect on the losers in the new economy, which is admittedly "brutal" to workers on the lower rung who find themselves "displaced or paid less well." Even Eric Pooley, in the peppy piece framing the Time debate, acknowledges that not everything in America is quite as "swell" as he and his editors would like to believe. While celebrating the "shrinking" of the welfare rolls, and the "new sense of self-worth" that newly working poor folks are apparently discovering in honest labor, Pooley notes that, alas, the giant cutbacks in the social safety net have actually -- who'd have thunk it? -- left some people hurting. Still, while "too many human beings are falling destitute as a result, many more are being forced to remake their lives for the better." Starving to death? Learn to savor every bite of food. Don't have health insurance? Well, maybe that'll encourage you to be just a little bit more careful when you're crossing the street.

I suppose I could call up, oh, Noam Chomsky and get an even longer list of human miseries. The "coffee bars" perking up the downtown? They're driving up real-estate prices and making affordable shelter harder to find. The drop in teen drug use? Brought about, in part, by sacrificing the civil liberties of teens forced to endure locker searches and random drug tests. Those cushy new theaters? Paid for, no doubt, with the blood of the poor. And clearly, as even the most cheerful observers have to admit, some of the new optimism in the press has less to do with the world itself than with the way the world is spun -- the result of a quite conscious focus on the "positive" in newsrooms around the country, inspired in part by the "civic journalism" promoted by journalists like U.S. News and World Report editor James Fallows. In a recent "Week in Review" wrap-up in the New York Times, Francis X. Clines gently suggested that the press, "so eager to please, is letting itself be spun to the point of boosterism."

Normally, that's the sort of point I'd be making myself. But, strangely enough, I find I've caught the good news bug. Frankly, I'm getting a little tired of always being the bad news bearer. All my life, I've listened to apocalyptic pronouncements from the left and right -- and I have to confess I may have made a few of my own. Contrary to popular belief, this sort of prophecy hardly consigns you to the sidelines: Naysayers sell an awful lot of books --- as a succession of writers from Allen Bloom to, well, Robert Bork and Noam Chomsky have learned over the years. But I'm not sure it does anyone much good. Those on the right tend to denounce a world that's fallen away from the eternal verities of some imagined past, to call for a stern revival of virtue. You can count me out. But the lefty vision, to which I've held perhaps too stubbornly over the years, is now beginning to seem almost equally dispiriting: If it's not quite reactionary, it's certainly reactive, a sclerotic, dismally uncreative way of looking at the world. It's one thing to point out the horrors of the world; it's another to be immune to its pleasures, to instinctively recoil at the very thought of life's comforts and joys. If I have to dance with these sourpusses, I don't want to be a part of any revolution.


David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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