Anne Every morning as I read another dreary story of greed-head corporate malfeasance and insider arrogance, I remember two of my favorite pieces of satire. One is a comedy sketch starring Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live, where Murphy put on whiteface and slipped into the secret whites-only world of extravagant, buffoonish privilege. The other is The Way We Live Now, in which Anthony Trollope shows how the promise of too-easy money turns members of the circa-1875 English ruling class into fools and betrayers. This, of course, is the way we live now: Ruling elites operate according to their own self-serving rules.
Enron, Global Crossing, Tyco, WorldCom, ImClone. (They all sound like lame names for fake corporations in a novel.) The only new thing is that our 24-7 multichannel mediascape instantly translates business scandal into the latest reality-entertainment genre.
Kurt I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Eddie Murphy’s insanely great “White Like Me” first aired in December 1984 – two years into the bull market and a few weeks after Ronald Reagan’s reelection. That was the moment at which the current to-hell-with-fairness era got traction. The apotheosis of the new Reaganite paradigm was the new economy. And the new economy involved, among other things, a series of cash grabs by elites: by Wall Street research analysts dissembling for the companies they tracked in order to please the investment bankers who employed them, by investment bankers raking in fees for taking half-baked companies public, by the people who founded those half-baked companies and flipped their stock as soon as they could, by friends-and-family shares in IPOs.
By the way, none of this was secret. Everyone knew all about it, and the beneficiaries privately smirked. The fact that millions of ordinary investors were also making money made the greed fest feel like a quasi-democratic experience. The charitable view is that the affluent half of the population was indulging in massively wishful thinking during the late ’90s – make that magical thinking. And when the new-economy magic ended, companies like Enron and WorldCom panicked and tried to keep the magic going, as magicians do, with sleight of hand, diversionary patter, illusions, and tricks.
Will this season’s revelations and prosecutions have any profound political impact? I doubt it. Voters may start hankering for public honesty – not the goody-goody Jimmy Carter-ish kind, but an early 21st-century honesty that’s bracing and even cruel, along the lines of that English record executive, Simon Cowell, on the Fox show American Idol. It’s his bluntness that made the show a hit.
Anne I hope you’re wrong about the “honesty” of American Idol being the cultural template for resurgent candor in America. That show exploits every modern citizen’s sense of entitlement to celebrity. It’s pitched as democratic dream fulfillment, amped up by Fox’s hysterical, evil-genius spin machine. I’m not sure that there is any more-cynical programming.
If the networks are going to give us honesty, I’d rather see it as complicated, makes-you-squirm storytelling honesty than as more unreal reality programming. I’ll take The Shield, which is a compelling new cops-and-crime series presenting a troubling moral scale, with every character grappling with complicated zero-sum options: Life is combat with triage choices; deal with it. These are characters who are facing moral choices that feel authentic.
So much of work life is about picking the lesser of two or three evils. Even for noncriminals like us, just going into the office requires choices about degrees of honesty. Not all CEOs are crooks. But all bosses shade the truth alot of the time. Every workday is a minute-by-minute series of choices on the ethical continuum. Don’t you think the line between Ken Lay or Dennis Kozlowski and Vic Mackey on The Shield or Tony Soprano is simply one of degree? Isn’t dissembling part of almost any big job?
Kurt Yes. Although so far as we know, Lay and Kozlowski didn’t murder anyone. The paradox is that The Shield is good, honest storytelling that celebrates real-world dishonesty. In the first episode, the antiheroic cop kills a good-cop underling because the good cop is a snitch. Yet we continue to like Vic Mackey as he breaks the law to catch bad guys. Doesn’t that say something about our, um, mixed feelings regarding the virtues of truth and straight shooting? If their bosses were men like Vic Mackey or Tony Soprano, this year’s prize real-life whistle-blowers – Sherron Watkins at Enron and Colleen Rowley at the FBI – would be dead snitches.
Anne And yet neither has really been turned into a hero either. They were just women who couldn’t take the lies and self-delusions of their respective cultish boys’ clubs anymore yet continued to “work within the system.” Their worlds and our worlds are composed of a million bewildering shades of gray. In movies like Erin Brockovich, Silkwood, and Norma Rae (all big commercial successes about the depredations of big commercial enterprise – and all featuring female heroes), Hollywood’s anti-business heroes have a personal peccadillo or two, but their moral choices and battles are always stark and pure. Maybe it’s time for movie portrayals of business as nuanced and free of superheroes and arch-villains as shows like The Shield and The Sopranos.
Anne Kreamer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a media entrepreneur and consultant in New York. Novelist and radio-show host Kurt Andersen is her email guest this month.