SOLOMON: At the Turn of a Century, Better Options Remain

The arrival of 2000 reminds us that life is short. Deadening routines often squander our time, while evasions take unnecessary tolls in human suffering. But much better possibilities remain.Every day, a nationwide media barrage encourages us to be cynical and passive. Endless dramas of politics and grand commerce -- amorality plays -- are performed with great zeal. We're supposed to cheer. But many of us find the glorified spectacles to be dispiriting rather than uplifting.The words of America's leading politicians reverberate through a national echo chamber. They tout global supremacy and higher market share as ultimate virtues. Dissenting voices are mostly circumspect. Pundits debate how -- but not whether -- the U.S. government should use such measures as diplomatic arm-twisting, financial blackmail and military might to impose its will on the world.Meanwhile, news outlets are echoing discussions on Capitol Hill about how to fine-tune the economic status quo -- widely portrayed as wonderful at the end of 1999. But a Boston-based organization, United for a Fair Economy (www.stw.org), offers a reality check, reporting information that can't be found in the media spotlights:* "The record-breaking economic boom of the 1990s has left Americans more polarized and debt-ridden," researchers found. A rising tide "has lifted the yachts to tremendous heights, but many Americans are still bailing out their boats after decades of sinking real wages."* Ten years ago, there were 66 billionaires and 31.5 million people living below the poverty line in this country. Today, "the United States has 268 billionaires and 34.5 million people living below the official poverty line -- about $13,000 for a three-person family."* Economic inequality is rampant in America. "The top 1 percent of households has more wealth than the entire bottom 95 percent combined." The situation is much worse than it was a quarter-century ago: "Since 1977, the top 1 percent has doubled its share of the nation's wealth to 40 percent."* Currently, the people on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans "have about as much wealth as the 50 million households in the bottom half of the population."* While news stories hail the glorious achievements of the stock market, a lot of people in the United States "are just plain broke. They have nothing to tide them over in case of a health crisis or unemployment, much less save for college or retirement. Nearly one out of five households has zero or negative net worth (greater debts than assets), compared with one in 10 in 1962."The questions that journalists pose to elected officials and candidates rarely confront such economic realities. Instead, the repeated queries have a pre-fab quality -- matching the slightly zombie-like verbiage of most politicians, whose language was aptly described several decades ago by George Orwell: "When one watches some tired hack on the platform, mechanically repeating the familiar phrases...one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy."Faced with a nonstop swirl of media coverage, it's tempting to succumb to chronic cynicism. But journalists -- and the rest of us -- are better off if we can develop an attitude of idealistic skepticism. In 2000 and beyond, giving voice to candor will be a minimum prerequisite to create conditions for realistic hope."I have come to believe over and over again," the poet Audre Lorde said, "that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised and misunderstood.... For it is not difference which immobilizes us most but silence."While 14 million people in the United States are extremely poor -- living at less than 50 percent of the poverty level -- for the most part their plights are dismissed by mainstream journalists as scarcely more consequential than lint in the pockets of the powerful. The same goes for the approximately 1,000 children around the world who die every hour from diseases that are easily preventable. According to UNICEF, the cost of saving their lives would amount to about 10 percent of the Pentagon budget.To criticize this institutional madness can seem bold, even brave. How sad."One day posterity will remember," wrote Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, "This strange era, these strange times, when / Ordinary common honesty was called courage."Hopefully, we'll find more strength for such honesty in the 21st century.Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."

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