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July 10, 1997

Full Flaps

Relearning the Alphabet

In their capitulation to Congress and parents' groups over the labeling of program content, the television networks consented with barely a whimper. The sole demurrer, NBC, rather politely pointed out the long-term consequences of this pattern, apparently finding it sufficient to merely caution against the inevitable imposition of police state powers. Congress, with the generosity born of friendly persuasion, has promised a moratorium on censorial implementation, confident that the networks will see the wisdom of compliance. The direction couldn't be more clear (as the vote to kill the NEA subtly reminds), and thus one would think that with their "voluntary" agreement to implement the S, V, L, D and FV ratings symbols denoting sexual content, violence, profane language, suggestive dialogue and fantasy violence, the industry might have salvaged a trace of self-respect by at least proposing the addition of the scarlet letter of our dissembling times, the H for hypocrisy.

The lock-down on the country's discourse is sanctimony gone epidemic, an enervating contagion which, of course, offers a constant and full diet of buffoonish hilarity. Few within officialdom remain unafflicted, with contesting factions pummeling each other for holier-than-thou honors over undifferentiated issues.

Before us presently is the ludicrousness of the Senate campaign finance hearings, with each wing of state capitalism demanding of the other show-us-the-money accountability. Huh? You'll find little hint of sheepishness in this vulgar jousting and more bass continuo than one could have believed imaginable. The Republicans envision this forum -- chaired by their current thespian, Senator Fred Thompson -- as formal payback for the ignominy of Democrat corporatism's siphoning off Republicans' traditional contributor base. In the tilt of affluence vs. affluence, Thompson is thrusting into the grave to cuff around Ron Brown and the success of the Commerce Department in its colossal filling of big business coffers. Certainly this has been maddening for the Republicans, watching the "left" assuming like characteristics and benefits, but rather amusing in this summer of Travolta and Cage writ large. Does this mean that anyone under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian when watching the hearings?

Concurrently, the fruits of our national leadership ensemble are on display at the state and local level, and no more dramatically than in California. The squabbling between ascendent Wing H1, and its loyal opposition, Wing H2, over welfare reform is as good a showcase as we have for the medievalist distinctions with which the legislative class indulges itself. The well-fed and well-connected inveighing against each other over how best to motivate the now-legally criminalized poor toward unavailable livelihoods leaves us breathless in envisaging, for instance, future recommendations for weaning the state's farmers and vintners from six prosperous decades of dependency teat.

Were there available a gradated ratings system for denial, the country would go off the chart. How the integral unsavoriness of big-money capitalism fails to engender even rudimentary shame in the elected beneficiaries who usher and oversee its dealings is beyond comprehension. The public's customary moral perimeter is no match for the assault of political avarice; its influence and voice are a mite against the congressional ponderosity and caterwaul which has tied up the McCain-Feingold ban on soft money. One would think that network news divisions, heretofore complicit in assigning this fulsome phenomenon to the natural order of things, might link the coercion of its entertainment programming to the essential workings of coalition government's larger agenda.

Congress' offensive against the entertainment culture is, in equal parts, a consequence of its electoral strategy of wooing upscale suburbanites (who would have their sheltered kids molded to the point of cultural autism), a concomitant Southern strategy desirous of the imprimatur of fundamentalist preachers, and a sense that the lowbrow coarseness of most televised fare is unbecoming of the high ideals and intrinsic propriety of its notional America. Never mind that modern capitalism owes its development and continuation to access to the tube, that sophisticated niche marketing is based on variety and multiplicity within the entertainment/cultural nexus, and that entertainment is the country's largest export product. The barons of our consolidated politics look with forlorn mistiness to the bipartisan refuge of the 1950s and the consolations of an era without major domestic complexities, where a Bob Hope double entendre constituted salaciousness and controversy was exemplified by quiz show scandals and whether or not Arthur Godfrey was justified in firing Julius La Rosa.

Of course, well-recompensed American workers producing American products typified that idyll, and surely any notion then of politicians financially rewarding businesses for leaving the country for offshore cheap labor markets was inconceivable. You could confidently make the case that the subsequent undermining of U.S. workers has greatly occasioned the soothing, mesmeric mass appeal television and film holds out to them. Who can blame workers, with their inerrant sense of the system as a pernicious crap shoot, if they buy into the fantasy that becoming a movie star like Fred Thompson offers a realistic possibility for reversing their condition. The centers of power certainly concur with such aspirations for self-betterment; they know more precisely than anyone the potential for accrual the casino economy provides. It is power's traditional unease with the concept of liberty as exercised by others -- i.e., the lower orders' undiminished appetite for the media-generated possibilities and diversity of a capitalism they take at face value -- that vitiates what currently passes for national debate.

There is much the networks have to consider as they emerge blinderless into this brave new world. Beheld, there are extrapolations as far as the eye can see, and one might suggest that the Constitution be considered as a guaranteed guide to the terrain. As a first excursion, the nightly news could place a ratings box on screen whenever the House or Senate is used as a story backdrop. The letters PY should be sufficient, as in peee yewww.

--Copyright John Hutchison 1997




Connect the Dots

As I was reading the San Francisco Chronicle the other morning, I felt my brain begin to stretch out in odd directions like a Macarena-loving ameba. On the front page, which prompted the contortions, two articles competed for attention. One, headlined "Giant Flood Engulfed Ancient Mars," traced the journey of the tiny Sojourner rover across the Red Planet, gathering evidence that, at least a billion years ago, torrents of water hurtled down from the Martian highlands and inundated thousands of miles of land to a depth of hundreds of feet. The other, entitled "Sacramento Showdown On Welfare," described Governor Pete Wilson's vetoing (on the grounds that it encouraged dependency) a Democrat-sponsored bill designed to meet new federal requirements and move California welfare recipients slowly into low-paying or nonexistent jobs. These two events exist in the same universe, my order-seeking mind reasoned; therefore, they must be related. But how?

Obsessed, I stared at the problem head-on but failed to come up with a solution. Finally, in desperation, I opted for another approach, one so oblique as to appear irrelevant. Utilizing a kind of inductive triangulation, I focused on a third element, far removed from either the floodplains of Mars or the Sacramento political arena: recent attempts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. This unorthodox method did indeed produce an answer to my question.

* * *

At this time of year, the Chesapeake is lined with luxuriously leafy trees and fertile farmland extending all the way to the water's edge. Gentle waves unroll against the shore, slightly cooling the hot summer air. Old-fashioned skipjacks and less quaint boats criss-cross the bay, laden with croakers and drumfish and shad or carrying soft crab catches from Tangier Island to the wholesale market in Crisfield. A region that inspires fierce local loyalties among its inhabitants, the Chesapeake is also the largest estuary in the United States, measuring about 200 miles from north to south and draining a watershed that begins near Cooperstown, New York.

In the early 1970's, the residents of tidewater Maryland and Virginia began to notice that the fish population was declining. The black-striped rockfish that people like nature writer Tom Horton remembered catching as a boy -- and eating fried in cornmeal -- were disappearing. Oysters that used to be harvested by the millions of bushels were becoming hard to find, and they weren't as big or as tasty. Ospreys that had returned year after year to nest on the same harbor pilings were no longer to be seen. The water was murky. Years of careless use were taking their toll: the bay was dying.

After a decade of investigation, the largest political organizations in the area -- the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, and the District of Columbia -- embarked on a remarkable enterprise to bring the area back to life. From the beginning, the members insisted that responsibility for management decisions and resources must be shared. Emphatically results-oriented, they outlined three initial target areas that needed repairing -- nutrient overenrichment, diminishing underwater grasses, and toxic pollution. Emphatically flexible, they reshaped their goals as they learned more about the needs of the region, making them more specific (114,000 acres of recovered grasses by the year 2005; a 40 percent reduction in nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous by the year 2000). They added new ones (the restoration of forest buffers along rivers and streams; the extension of the area covered to include tributaries upstream). They opened the restoration partnership to 1,650 local governments and instituted a multifaceted campaign to educate the public in the ways and means of bay preservation.

This intensive effort has worked no miracles, but during the past 15 years it has begun to reverse the damage incurred over the past several centuries. Some programs have been more successful than others. Ospreys are flourishing, but oysters remain sadly sparse. The entry of both phosphorous and nitrogen into the bay has decreased, but the flow of nitrogen is still well above the level targeted for the year 2000. Because of a slow start under previous administrations, Virginia lags behind Maryland in its cleanup. Industries such as Bethlehem Steel in Maryland and Smithfield Foods in Virginia continue to spew out toxic wastes despite efforts to regulate them. Rapid increases in population often threaten to negate technological advances in sewage treatment, agricultural management, and habitat restoration. Nevertheless, the water is cleaner, the wildlife are more plentiful, and the bay is generally a more pleasant place.

On the eastern shore of Virginia, where the Chesapeake meets the Atlantic, nestles the town of Cape Charles, once a bustling resort and now -- since the construction of the 17-mile bridge-tunnel at Norfolk -- a reviving vacation and bedroom community. I stood on its sandy beach at the end of June, as hundred-degree heat bleached the sky and the water until they resembled a badly overexposed photograph. Swimmers appeared as black silhouettes, and black arcs outlined the edges of breaking waves. Offshore, a fishing boat headed quickly for the harbor. Then the photograph turned black, rent only by jagged lines of lightning. The wind bent the trees nearly to the ground. Rain battered the beach and flooded the low-lying streets, carefully constructed to direct the runoff into storm drains and not into the ground. A messy squall, not the sort that washes everything clean, it left behind piles of debris. But it also punched holes in the oppressive air that had smothered the coast, enabling people breathe easily once more.

* * *

If we return now to the question I posed earlier about the connection between two Chronicle articles, the answer is simple: There is no connection, none at all, unless we create one ourselves. Natural forces occur as they occur, without any thought for the precious human plans they are disrupting. A summer storm or a Martian flood will always find a way to follow its own pattern, no matter how feverishly we try to control or eradicate it. Similarly, poor people will always adopt whatever methods they need for survival, no matter how frantically the authorities try to discipline or exterminate them.

But the Chesapeake Bay experience suggests that making connections is constructive, whereas refusing to make them is definitely not. Once the decision was made, out of necessity, to clean up the bay in earnest, one link led inevitably to another. The small number of partners gradually and naturally increased until every inhabitant and every organization in the area was included. The area itself grew as well, as it discovered the need for links with other, surrounding regions. And one goal led to another, as scientists realized what fisherfolk had known for generations: that everything in and near the bay is interrelated. To leave out any of the partners, to omit any element in the cleanup, would open up the possibility that a rogue operator -- a polluter; a rapidly spreading species of algae -- could scuttle the entire expedition.

In the same way, once lawmakers -- and the people who elect them -- decide that a universal living wage is necessary for the health of the community, they will inevitably gravitate toward far-reaching partnerships to bring it about. The problem is getting them to recognize that action is necessary before it's too late. Once they do, they will discover that a living wage is useless without adequate child care, that adequate child care is useless without sufficient health insurance, that adequate health insurance is useless without reliably safe drinking water, and so on, all the way perhaps to lumpy gray Barnacle Bill in the Ares Vallis.

--Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

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