Media morphine for a grieving society
It was the shock of seeing two research maps of Toronto, the first showing the income diversity of the city in 1970 and the second showing the changes 30 years later, that woke me up. The middle class in Toronto has vanished like an endangered species, replaced almost entirely by low income groups and the poor. And slowly expanding urban enclaves for the wealthy in the very best locations, of course.
Is this true across the country or out here on the East Coast? I don't know. I do know that when we were leaving Ontario seven years ago, there was a significant migration of middle class people moving out of the city to the rural suburbs. So perhaps other cities are experiencing similar shifts.
What I do know is what I see on second hand TV, most of it American. Online, I've scanned a whole new batch of shows dealing with the collapse of the American Dream. Saving Grace, Weeds, Breaking Bad, Jericho, Dexter and Lost are all are variations on post-apocalyptic themes. Here, good people are driven to do bad things in the face of bad times or end times.
The police and authority figures are either shadowy, or partially corrupt heroes fighting the after effects of the collapse. Or either blindly honest or totally corrupt dumb stooges.
To be clear, these dreary sagas aren't exploring new creative territory, they're reflecting the fears of the public, especially the lower middle and working classes, in the wake of 30 years of socio-economic decline. It seems that there's only so many home foreclosures, and so much unemployment and minimum wage survival that ordinary people can take before society disintegrates completely.
At least that's the picture being portrayed metaphorically in these TV dramas. For a change of pace, one could tune-in to reality TV or the news, though these are may be even more depressing in a cultural sense. But in the end, none of the dots seem to get connected in the mainstream media.
After the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre shooting, movie critic Roger Ebert told us that the shooter, James Holmes, was just another insane publicity-seeker who wanted to see himself on the news. While Ebert extolled gun control (which, ironically, seems to the the last thing Americans want as evidenced by the rush to purchase handguns in the wake of the Aurora shooting), he self-servingly shied away from making the connection between real life violence and screen violence but goes on to cite the main character in Taxi Driver as an example. And with that observation he makes my point. Movies project who we are and where we are. It's a circular, symbiotic relationship: us to the screen and the screen to us.
And just where are we? Canadians and Americans are now trying to disengage from the longest war in our histories. Afghanistan is in its tenth year. And now our forces are advising in Libya. We don't publicly call these wars in the Middle East what they are: a race to beat the Chinese to the largest oil reserves on the planet.
So if our TV shows have lost their moral compass, there's an underlying reason. The West itself has lost its moral compass.
Here at home our government is following the American pattern. It's getting rid of social statistics, the long-form census. Among the reasons for doing that could be that the government suspects that the economics of ordinary people are nosediving across the country, and the less said the better, with the exception of Alberta, of course. And to get ready for the social fallout and the cutting back of the social safety net, it's getting tougher on crime, building new prisons and ramping up our military forces.
Speaking of which, Canada is now setting up seven new mini-military bases around the world, micro-mirroring the American strategy. According to Gen. Walter Natynczyk, we're building them in order to have the "ability to project combat power/security assistance and Canadian influence rapidly and flexibly anywhere in the world."
Now, why in hell would Canadian peacekeepers want or need to project combat power anywhere in the world? What does this have to say about our basic international civility?
Meanwhile, the federal government is running a wide open resource economy, deregulating restrictions to that sector as fast as it can. The U.S. and China need oil and we're happy to oblige, including selling off ownership to Chinese state-owned companies (like the CNOOC-Nexen deal now in the works). Closer to home, the provincial government is eerily neutral on gas fracking, while, ironically, Irving Oil's partner, Repsol, is bailing out of its new LNG facility due, in part, to a glut in the market of cheap natural gas.
On the other side of the resource issue, as we've read, Canada has been clawing back its environmental protection services with massive cuts to front line staff in Environment Canada, while muzzling the rest of its science staff. The focus is on resource extraction while our manufacturing industries, especially in Ontario, are still in the tank. And that spells more unemployment and an ever-shrinking working middle class.
And if they won't go back to work for minimum wage driving taxis, we'll cut off their employment insurance and import immigrants who will. It's now the perfect system: a Third World reality in the middle of our own.
In the end what few of us are willing to admit is that it's all connected—from Wall Street deregulation to the next Travis Bickle waiting across the street.
But what can we do? Until the working middle classes, like the government's knowledge workers—Canada's scientists and environmental protection workers—find the courage to walk off their jobs and join forces with the protesters, ordinary people won't stand by them.
They, and we, are still paralyzed by fear, and still too willing to take our narcotics via television to tune our minds back into reality. Or perhaps we haven't had our very own personal wake-up call yet.