March 31, 2009


No, the economic crisis is not good for America: When even Time hopes the downturn will teach ‘childish, irresponsible, fat’ Americans a lesson, it’s clear recession porn has gone mainstream. (Sean Collins, 3/31/09, Spiked)

Time magazine’s current cover story is headlined ‘The End of Excess: Is This Crisis Good for America?’, and its author, the novelist and commentator Kurt Andersen, answers in the affirmative. [...]

Andersen blames people for taking on excessive mortgage and consumer debt; in other words, for living beyond their means. In doing so, he ignores systemic factors, such as government promotion of home ownership, the Federal Reserve’s lowering of interest rates, and the general expansion of credit facilities. Moreover, it is not a sin for people to want to take a bet on their own future success (especially when offered credit at very low interest rates): it is a personal financial judgment call. People should have the freedom to make their own decisions, including those that prove to be unwise ones.

But Andersen is not content to state that Americans took on too much personal debt; he has to add insults. He dredges up the stereotype of the fat American (‘we started living large literally as well as figuratively’), and he says we all acted like stupid, naive children (‘we all clapped our hands and believed in fairies’). We were warned by popular culture, but did not listen: ‘For 20 years we’ve had Homer Simpson’s spot-on caricature of the quintessential American: childish, irresponsible, wilfully oblivious, fat and happy. And more recently we winced at the ultra-Homerized former earthlings of Wall-E.’ It is here that Andersen reveals his bigoted prejudices against working-class Americans, and where I have to fight to control my urge to swear.

Andersen goes on. He believes that the Great Recession is a good thing, because ‘we will be chastened and begin behaving more wisely’. We will rediscover the ‘common good’. But to do so, we must go through ‘addiction recovery’, because ‘we are like substance abusers coming off a long bender’. He fully embraces the therapeutic outlook, but being a knowing, hip guy, he presents ‘a streamlined, secularised Three-Step Program for America’:

* ‘Admit that we are powerless over addiction to easy money and cheap fossil fuel and living large; [and] that our lives had become unmanageable’;
* ‘Believe that we can, individually and collectively, restore ourselves to sanity and normal living’;
* ‘Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and be entirely ready to remove our defects of character.’

So, after complaining that Americans are ‘childish’, Andersen treats us like children. His calls for us to reform are sickeningly patronising. He goes to great lengths to stress that he is ‘secular’ and ‘reality-based’, but he is as sanctimonious as any preacher telling us to repent.

In 1978, Susan Sontag published Illness as Metaphor, in which she criticised the notion that one’s character causes disease. Today, people like Andersen blame character for the economic crisis, a kind of Recession as Moral Fable. In Andersen’s world, there are no larger economic forces in play, no credit derivatives, no state intervention. Just immoral individuals who are getting what they deserve, and who need to reform.

All economic crises are opportunities to blame the people you hate. Inconveniently for the political ideologues, our modern crises are solved by simple structural tweaks.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 31, 2009 7:56 AM
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