The Rambling American: Bad News

The news media’s obsession with sensationalizing tragedy is a transcontinental trend, but Locke McKenzie finds hints of optimism in the doom and gloom of the financial crisis.

“Here you go,” a colleague said the other day as he handed me Pedro Juan Gutierrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy. “There’s a lot of dirty senseless crap in there, but tell me what you think of the good stuff there in the middle.”

After the first few pages I understood exactly what he meant — at least for the crap part. Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex. And quite graphic sex at that. I’ll be the first to admit that sex is fun to read, but it can get a bit old after about 200 pages.

But as it takes place in Havana, Cuba in the mid-nineties, Gutierrez’s memoir is also lightly interspersed with some amazing insights on life for the down and out.

His discussions of race relations (the blacks, the whites, and the mulattos), the economic situation, and the police state are amazingly personalized and surprising in their ability to contradict my preconceived notions of what life was like there.

All through the book, I found myself underlining small clips of wisdom hiding behind the visceral sexual episodes. Some are rather overarching statements on getting through life, while others carry pressing import on my here and now.

One of the latter is his quote about the news media:

One morning in the street there was the body of a woman who had been stabbed… There was a terrible grimace of pain on her face, and her lips and nose were split, smashed, clotted with coagulated blood… This was a simple crime of passion, the kind that is common everywhere. But here it wouldn’t be written up in the papers because for thirty-five years nothing bad or disturbing has been acceptable news. Everything has to be fine. No criminals or unpleasantness can exist in a model society… The thing is, you’ve got to know. If you don’t have all the information, you can’t think or make decisions or hold opinions.

Gutierrez was a journalist who lost his job because he refused to conform to the censorship of Castro’s regime. He wanted to report on the troubling events of the country. He believed they needed to be heard.

I found this quote so interesting because it stands in such stark contrast to what is happening in the Western world at the moment. For us, reports of dead women in the street are nothing new.

A couple of months ago I subscribed to a podcast for the NBC Nightly News. After watching the first three episodes, I was thanking God I had managed to get the hell out of the U.S. In as little as 90 minutes, I had experienced a massive flood, three shootings, a toxic air threat, a volcano eruption, and at least six reports on our doomed financial situation.

In U.S. media, not only would we feature the dead woman, but we’d also have ten other stories just like it. In fact, there seem to be very few of the soft and cuddly stories that Gutierrez fights against.

We in America love the troubling and the traumatic, but the German media isn’t any different. If one were to tally the most frequently reported stories of 2009 in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, I can almost guarantee that the German government’s Bailout Packages and Automaker Opel’s harrowing collapse would be at the top of the list.

As people are now reading the headlines every day and the feeling the effects, they become more and more frustrated with the media, the government, and the economic situation.

As a woman riding with me to Berlin two weeks ago said, “In times of crisis we [Germans] hole up and save our money. The media tells us every day that things are still getting worse, and so we just keep not spending. Now we’re killing our own economy.”

It used to be just the academics that bitched about the news media, now its on every street corner (or perhaps every other). Everyone seems to have an ominous outlook now regarding our current financial crisis. Hearing this all the time admittedly makes it hard not to get down on the financial crisis (my workload has, after all, dropped to a third of what it was in January), but at the same time it seems senseless.

One thing that I have also noticed about Gutierrez’s book is that he is a perpetual pessimist. Perhaps because he lived for so long in such a down-and-out state of affairs, it seems hard for him to see the positive in anything. This attitude, however, changes the way he interacts with people, the way he lives in his apartment, and the successes he has.

For example, how can you blame a lesbian for beating the shit out of you after you pull your hard dick out and ask her to fix it for you? This is the sort of thing that Gutierrez did and then complained about. Sometimes it seems that it is Gutierrez rather than the government that makes life hard for himself.

With the constant bitching of those around me and now Gutierrez’s hopeless book, it seems that things will never be good again.

I recently read an article, Die Krise und Wir (The Crisis and Us),” however, that has given me new hope. The article is a series of short interviews with people from all different walks of life all over Germany, each of them talking about how the crisis has affected them.

Much like most of the babble on the streets and in the news, many people are pretty pessimistic. (The following quotes are my translations from German.)

“Flowers are a luxury article. On Christmas and Valentine’s Day we had a 60-70 percent loss in comparison to last year. Many customers have started buying on credit — upfront payment is becoming scarce. Two to three payment warnings are regular now. If it keeps going this way I see myself under a bridge in five years.” — Anton Forster (52), florist

“I drive by the BMW factory in Dingolfing, and it is at a stand still. I meet laborers in my hometown, and they all have less money and less employment than before. They are all shockingly affected.” — Erwin Huber (62), politician

The never-ending pessimism is everywhere. But this is not the only way to see things, and many of the interviewees seemed to acknowledge this in their responses.

“Even the art market will have to moderate. And it’s really better that way. The prices on the art market are based on pure speculation and have nothing to do with quality anymore.” — Martin Thierer (30), curator and assistant at Schirmer & Mosel

“I have put my own collections, which were all that we had, in the office for the time being. I know now what surrender means. But for me it is easy to go back to basics as long as I can still keep my music and books.” — Dirk Schönberger (42), fashion designer

“I don’t notice the crisis at all. Writers are constantly living in a financial crisis. Now I spend almost everything I have. I’ve got to while it’s still worth something.” — Bodo Kirchhoff (60), writer

These people seem to have taken the right angle on things for the time being. It isn’t a denial of the crisis, but it isn’t capitulation either. There has to be a happy medium in there somewhere.

To draw once more from Gutierrez, “Life can be a party or a wake.” The economy isn’t dead yet, so we might as well try to party through this one.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.