Saturday, October 22, 2005

For want of a blue guitar

"Erin Brockovich." "North Country." "Silkwood." "Norma Rae."

Hollywood likes to make movies about underdogs, especially where laborers are involved; and corporations; and corporate secrets. We like these movies. We like to see individuals struggle against impossible odds and defeat the system and struggle like heroes in quests for the holy grail, the silver bullet, the smoking gun, the stake through the heart of the vampiric blood-sucking monster ghoul corporation.

We like to take the side of labor, of the working man and woman; so long as it doesn't cost us anything. So long as the costs don't go up and we aren't inconvenienced. We like to blame, them, too, for their problems. Like the report on NPR about the UAW, where the reporter stated as fact that the UAW "leveraged" it's membership into the middle class with "fat contracts" in the '70's, and now their members are suffering because GM and Delphi can't pay their insuranc premiums, can't afford the labor costs. No mention of the low wages in China, or the government health care provided in almost every industrialized country in the world but this one. Just an underlying message that laborers don't deserve to be middle class; that the first people who deserve the cuts are the people on the assembly line because, after all, why should laborers be "middle class"?

We're schizophrenic about labor. We don't want to honor it, because labor is expensive; because money is what matters. And so, while we like movies like "Erin Brockovich" or "North Country" or "Norma Rae," we never ask why the system is like this, and why we put up with it.

Studs Terkel makes us wonder why we tolerate it. He makes us celebrate people who didn't put up with it, who fought it all their lives, and took another route, and went another way, and were never heard from, and probably never won. Movies don't do that.

Movies tell us stories of people who made a difference. Or who should have. Even if they didn't; even if nothing really changed and they really didn't do anything. So long as it makes a soothing melodrama. And we never consider that it's a corporation that brings it to us; and a corporation that sells it to us; and a corporation that puts it on cable; and on DVD.

We like the stories of the underdog, the determined individual who sacrificed almost everything for a victory, for a certain outcome, for the glory we know is coming at the end of 90 minutes. Sometimes I think we like it because it makes us think a victory is possible, somewhere, somehow, for someone.

Sometimes I think we like it because it means someone else will do it, and we won't have to.

There is a lot of evil out there; much of it caused by corporations, by greed, by failing to see people as human beings, as individuals. And the question is not: how do we defeat it. The question is: why do we participate in it?

Dom Crossan made me think about that question in seminary. Only the poor, he insisted, are innocent. Only the destitute are without fault. "Easy for him to say," I thought. He had a summer house, and a good income. But it didn't make what he said, any less true.

Only the poor are innocent. Katrina exposed us to that. But we don't want to pay the price for such innocence. We don't want to accept our responsibility for things as they are.

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