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GP4May05: Bumper Crop of Swiss Spaghetti

Spaghetti, Not Money, Grows on Trees.  “The British Broadcasting Corp. documentary showed buxom young women in peasant costumes happily celebrating the largest harvest of spaghetti in decades. Eight million viewers watched the show, filmed in Ticino, Switzerland.  The women harvested the spaghetti by carefully plucking the limp strands from trees, which looked like they were overloaded with white tinsel, and laying them out to dry in the sun.  The voice-over, by the BBC’s Jonathan Dimbleby, announced that it was a good year for spaghetti because of the mild weather and the success of the Swiss spaghetti-weevil eradication program.  The women danced to Italian music, while the voice-over announced that the spaghetti would soon be at your local grocer.  Of course it was a hoax, one of the more successful in a  long history of April Fool’s day pranks by the British media.”  (From Ray DeVoe’s The Devoe Report, April Fool’s Fortnight, 2005.) 

The Real Scam.  Of course, the BBC jokes don’t measure up to the phony news put out by the American TV networks last Friday morning.  On Thursday Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labor Government were returned to power by the British electorate, although their cumulative lead over the other parties was cut in half.  His return to office for a third term was historic, particularly in light of his principled, stubborn support for a very unpopular war in Iraq and the vulnerability the Tories exposed surrounding his immigration policies.  It was a queer election where, as one wag put it, the Laborites ran as conservatives, the Liberals ran as socialists, and the Conservatives ran as Liberals.   

But you learned little about this on U.S. network TV or, for that matter, in any of the newspaper coverage that followed.  On Friday morning ABC dithered on about the Michael Jackson trial, CBS followed the runaway bride from Atlanta, and NBC huffed and puffed about Bush’s upcoming trip to Putinia, a.k.a. Moscow.  The most significant story of the day and the month was nowhere to be found.  We chased it on the Internet. 

Blair and Brown’s Accomplishment.  Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, two bright and accomplished Scotsmen, Great Britain has enjoyed a long period of successful good governance, all based on moving the Labor Party to the center of the political spectrum and becoming the party of the middle classes.  Blair as Prime Minister and Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer were joined at the hip in a famous meal at Granita in 1994, an Islington restaurant,  where Brown agreed to let the more sparkling Blair become head of government if Labor came to power, while Blair ceded virtual control over domestic policy to Gordon Brown as part of the deal.  While both have been bruised by the power sharing arrangement, it has led to fiscal stability, broad economic growth, some improvement in government services, and, arguably, more influence for the country in international affairs.  It is not very hard to contend that the Brits have enjoyed much, much more able leadership under Blair-Brown than the U.S. has under Clinton-Gore or Bush-Cheney, the Americans having squandered capital and opportunity at every turn.  The Germans under Gerhard Schroeder and the French under the duplicitous Chirac have, all this while, simply stagnated.  This is the momentous story that our dysfunctional media have managed to miss.  For one review of the Blair achievement, read www.geocities.com/Athens/9841/TBLA.HTM#intro.  For more on the storied Granita dinner, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Granita_%28restaurant%29.  And finally, to peek at Gordon Brown, who is touted to become Prime Minister soon and who we predict will be very unsuccessful in that role, see the write-up at  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

Media Mismanagement.  You don’t have to be a churlish rightwinger to know our media’s a mess.  In fact, there is just as much bad rightwing press around now as left, or middle, or confused.  It’s harder to understand the reasons why.  Clearly the consolidation of the media—print, radio, TV, etc—has led to sloppy, homogeneous thinking.  In TV, our media stars, dare we call them journalists, are clearly overpaid, mindless, and not dedicated to their appointed task.  The economics of the industry and the breakdown of Federal regulation have strangled the Fairness Doctrine and freed corporate owners from any of the obligations of stewardship.  In any event, the national media are caught up in the weeds, and missing the trees. 

Chasing Audiences and Political Extremism.  It’s not just that the media is missing the big story at every turn.  It has distorted our politics by celebrating loudmouths.  It is clear to all our citizens that the wacky and the weirdest get the biggest play on the front page and in prime time.  These media creations make utterly asinine statements to extend  their few minutes of fame.  Demagogic politicians, talentless movie stars, and feckless businesspeople raise our dander but not our insight.  How can society advance if it is focused on a bunch of skinny heads totally without gravitas?  Interviewed by functionaries who do not know the question.  As we pointed out in the “Last Time I Saw John Gotti,” Jim Collins has pungently explored the dangers of confusing celebrity with leadership.    

Traditional Americans.  With media to goad them on, extremists in every sphere become more extreme.  But Americans of traditional values still hug the middle of the road—and are not as poles apart as all our pundits would have us believe.  Red America and Blue America are really all of a piece, if Professor Wayne Baker of the University of Michigan has gotten it right.  (See www.lsa.umich.edu/soc/directories/dl/faculty/wayneb.pdf.)  A very interesting and original fellow, he doubles as a business and a sociology professor.  His America's Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception, from Princeton University Press (2004), explores where Americans are at and does not find them to be bitterly divided. 

They can, he finds, live with ambiguity.  A great many of them, for instance, are against abortion, but, equally, believe in a woman’s right to choose.  Likewise Americans want to guard the environment even as they espouse economic growth.  That is, they deal with modernity, not by making a choice between either and or, but instead choosing both either and or.  As a citation about his book says, Baker looks at the evidence and finds that “The results are surprising.  The evidence shows overwhelmingly that America has not lost its traditional values, that the nation compares favorably with most other societies, and that the culture war is largely a myth.” 

If Baker has it right, we must wonder whether our government and our press are at all representative of the people.  And if we are poorly served by them, it is because they do not capture who we are and what we care about.  And worse yet, they ignore the world as it is and as it is becoming, making it terribly difficult to get where we must go. Until we get the right story on the front page, it’s going to be awfully hard for us to join the twenty-first century. 

As for Tony Blair.  His party and his country’s media smells blood, even if he and they have stomped out fox hunting.  We’re told that Gordon Brown is soon to replace him as Prime Minister.  It’s a pleasure to know that he will have something more useful to do  than our ex-Presidents who go about the land moralizing and collecting gigantic honorariums. 

Way back in college he was sort of the lead in a rock band called the Ugly Rumors.  So he has a trade to go back to.  Spreading ugly rumors.  (See http://politics.guardian.co.uk/

P.S.  Another News Blackout.  We are awaiting more news from Marfa, Texas, where our local correspondent has promised to bring us up to date on the vibrant art scene, goshawful cuisine, and relentless gentrification by folks not up to much. But his indigestion is so bad that he can’t get to a phone.  See http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9903EFD9

P.P.S. More on Green Tea.  One of our roving British reporters, imprisoned in the Atlanta airport, writes to tell us of the powers of green tea: “I think Sheridan Le Fanu, the excellent Victorian ghost story writer (Uncle Silas + Carmilla), wrote a memorably creepy story about someone who drank too much and saw visions called "Green Tea” (www.kirjasto.sci.fi/lefanu.htm).   

P.P.P.S.  Otis Ferry, son of the very talented rock star Bryan Ferry and a keen advocate of hunting with the hounds, got arrested after lunging at Tony Blair, who was on his way to a post-election party at the National Portrait Gallery.  Blair banned the hounds, and now the hounds are after him. (See www.usatoday.com/life/people/2005-05-06-ferry-arrested_x.htm.)

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