I have been thinking about something a colleague of mine told me last week after layoffs were announced here at NPR, which turned out to be just one story among many during another bad week of economic news. She told me it reminded her of Argentina, where she grew up. During that country's economic collapse, she told me, it wasn't unusual to see well-dressed men standing on the corner, crying in the street.
Well, it wasn't really like that here at NPR. Most people here handled the situation with restraint. And while it is awful to see colleagues lose their jobs, it is also the case that many people have it a lot worse. It has become commonplace for American corporations not just to shed people the way snakes shed their skin, but to do it in a way that seems designed to maximize the pain and humiliation — forcing them to leave the very same day, walking them out of the building under the gaze of security guards and that kind of nonsense. There was none of that in this building, I'm happy to say.
But can I just tell you? My colleague from Argentina had a point. There are many ways in which the life we Americans have taken for granted is ending, and we are becoming like the people we used to feel sorry for.
We used to be shocked when we traveled overseas and saw soldiers patrolling public spaces with high-powered weapons. You don't see that at home, we'd tell ourselves.
Well, now we do.
We used to be shocked to find out that people walked around with lousy teeth for want of basic dental care.
Well, a little boy in the Washington suburbs died last year of an untreated dental infection.
And let's not get started, shall we, on the subject of the millions of people in this country who lack routine medical care over the course of the year, or who wait days or weeks for appointments to see doctors they need because the only doctors who will take their insurance are so oversubscribed.
It is true that we still have much of which we can be proud. Our democratic institutions seem to work for the most part. Many people we've spoken to since the election who live or work overseas have told us how moved they were by John McCain's gracious concession speech and how surprised many people were that he gave it — defeated by a black man, no less. This, in a year when other nations saw defeated candidates stoking ethnic or religious conflicts and urging their supporters to the streets, with predictably bloody and terrifying results.
But then we learn of Rod Blagojevich's alleged attempts not only to sell an elective office to the highest bidder, but also to corrupt the news media who tried to hold him accountable by withholding state assistance for an unrelated business; it was allegedly an effort to compel more favorable coverage.
Now, it's true, in Mexico and the former Soviet Union, the narco traffickers and other thugs just shoot the journalists they don't like. But it is also true that too much of the media in this country are no longer large and vibrant businesses on their own, but rather the small and vulnerable subsidiaries of powerful conglomerates. And it isn't hard to see how profit pressures do almost as much harm to the independence and energy of journalism as the cruder measures we see elsewhere.
So, while maybe it's not time to start humming "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina," maybe it is time to pick our heads up and realize that all that bad stuff can happen here, if we let it.