Archive for May, 2012

Playing “Ain’t It Awful”

It was a long time ago – the 1960s – when I read the book “Games People Play” by Eric Berne and heard about “Ain’t It Awful.”  This was one of the earlier pop psychology books that was both easy to read and, at the same time, illuminated many of the patterns that we all follow in our daily lives.  These patterns were called “games” because indeed, they seemed to be group activities defined by specific, if unwritten, rules, and serving some purpose, even if not consciously understood.

Many people clearly recognized themselves in these descriptions, and I was certainly one.  One game that was very recognizable and quite pervasive was called “Ain’t It Awful”.  The classic example of this is where a bunch of employees sit around the water cooler or having a beer after work, and bitch about how screwed up the company is, how all the managers are clueless, how so many co-workers (none of whom are present) are morons, lazy, or corrupt, and so on.  This game can go on indefinitely, generally until it is time to return to the cube or go home.

Although a “game”, this is not one with a goal, nor one where there is a finish with a winner and loser.  It is simply a ritual that serves the moment, and indeed, no one walks away feeling like the loser.  On the contrary, this game allows the participants to feel some level of bonding around their shared experience of misery and frustration.  It may even allow participants to express anger in a way not tolerated in the normal work environment and so serve some useful purpose of briefly relieving tension.

Ultimately, however, it accomplishes nothing and leads to no improvement in the situation which is the context for the complaining.  The marvelous poet, Mary Oliver, said, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.”

It has been described it this way:  “People playing this game get to feel Right and Righteous, a step above those being ‘awfulized’.”  “There is the drama and attention that comes to the one who begins the game or who can ‘one-up’ the previous player.”

In short, it is a kind of drug that makes us feel better in the moment but does nothing to make our lives better in the long term.

Even worse, it has a long-term corrosive effect – where the addicts of the game come to believe that the scenario they spend their time discussing is the true reality and beyond possibility of redemption.

The media today has become dominated by “Ain’t It Awful.”  So has much of our political process and discourse, and it is irrelevant which came first.  They are feeding on each other, all for immediate gratification and with no attention on problem solving or working toward a resolution of the things about which they complain.

The media? It sells papers and gets viewers, listeners, and blog traffic. It pays the bills and keeps the lights on.  The right wing has made a full-blown career out of this for a decade or more, but the left is in the game too.  As with the original book, once the pattern is called to our attention, it is as clear as a 30-foot neon sign.  Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, etc. are simply playing “Ain’t It Awful” all day long, day after day, and serving up the drug of Right and Righteousness to their audience – all without any hint of responsibility on the part of the listener.  No.  All the world’s troubles are somebody elses fault.

Bad as that may be, the entire Republican party seems to have joined in the game.  The self-styled “Tea Party” crew that swept on the scene a few years ago actually has nothing more to offer than strident rants about how awful everything is.  It is particularly pointless to mention that their party was in control of the Congress and the Executive branch for most of the 8 years preceding their epiphany that the country was on the short road to ruin.  Discussion with these people, from their presumptive nominee down, is only possible if you embrace the complete awfulness of the entire government and most of the changes (formerly called ‘progress’) in this country over the past 200 years.

So lest I be merely another player in a different cell of the “Ain’t It Awful” game, I will suggest that we start immediately focusing attention on those persons and those activities that are not mired in “Ain’t It Awful.”  Give support in whatever way possible – time, money, even just casual conversation – to the ways that our complex life and society can be managed and evolved for the better, and to the people who show an ability and commitment to that approach. Do not waste time on people who are trapped in “Ain’t It Awful” and who don’t even realize it.

One of the classic recommendations to people who have come to realize that they have been drawn in to these “Ain’t It Awful” games is simply to stop playing.  Refuse to play.  Just say, “this does not serve me or the larger world” and walk away. Walk away and find something positive to do. This is not a new idea.  As a very old saying put it, “Better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.”

The right direction, or the wrong one.

Four years ago, during the last presidential election cycle, one of the standard poll question was, “do you think the country is headed in the wrong direction”, and it was getting a substantial majority of “yes” votes.  The election of Barack Obama as President therefore seemed like a logical consequence.  Curiously, polls these days sometimes show a plurality of “yes” votes to that same question, even though, by any obvious measure, the country is going in the opposite direction it was 4 years ago.

Let’s consider some of the relevant “directions”:

  1. The direction of jobs and employment:
    Four years ago: DOWN. We were practically in a free-fall, even if we didn’t fully realize it.
    Now: UP, even if not as fast as we would like, but the direction has been reversed.  And another Great Depression did not occur. Do not take that for granted.
  2. The direction of the stock market:
    Four years ago: DOWN.  Substantial ‘crash’ events continued to happen throughout the year and into the next year.
    Now: UP.  The stock market has recently been chalking up highs not seen since 4+ years ago.
  3. Housing:
    Four years ago: DOWN. The mortgage market was in collapse and housing prices went into a freefall that we can only appreciate in retrospect.
    Now: UP. Even the hardest-hit markets like Phoenix are starting to see recovery.
  4. Industry:
    Four years ago: DOWN. The auto industry was facing bankruptcy.  Tens of thousand of jobs in the US were at stake.  The mere survival of GM and Chrysler were in question.
    Now: UP. The US auto industry has staged a miraculous comeback and is again a force to be reckoned with in the world market.  GM, Ford, and Chrysler are back as world-class competitors.  Detroit is looking at a renaissance.  I say this with a lump in my throat as someone who grew up in Detroit.  This likely would not have happened if the “let Detroit go bankrupt” people had had their way.  You know who I’m talking about.
  5. Social issues – gays, women, and the rest of us human beings.
    Four years ago: DOWN. We had “don’t ask, don’t tell”.  RU486 was banned.
    Now: UP. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has been repealed.  The rights of women and men to choose birth control and, when necessary, abortion, is supported by the executive branch.
  6. Foreign wars:
    Four years ago: DOWN. We had gone into Afghanistan.  We had gone into Iraq based on fabricated evidence and outright lies. Exit from any of these was vague and uncertain.  One candidate for President that year said we should expect “a hundred years of war”.
    Now: UP. We are out of Iraq.  We have a timetable for exiting Afghanistan. We have started no new wars in foreign countries.
  7. American respect in the world:
    Four years ago: DOWN.  The contempt in which even our traditional European allies held us was barely concealed because of our arrogance in charging into Iraq and showing them so little respect.
    Now: UP. Respect for America is at an all-time high because we are working with our allies and are dealing with our competitors with respect and intelligence.  When action was needed in Libya, we participated in a multi-national effort that achieved the goal without turning the US into the arrogant intruder.
  8. Terrorism:
    Four years ago: DOWN.  We were still in shock from the attacks of 9/11/01.  We had abridged our own internal freedoms out of fear and using terrorism as an excuse. Osama bin Laden continued to taunt us with occasional rants distributed worldwide.
    Now: UP. bin Laden was apprehended and killed in a bold raid that showed to those who would plot harm to us that we do not forget, we do not give up, and we will eliminate such threats, no matter where they may be. Many other members of the core of al-qaeda have been eliminated and the organization is dysfunctional.
  9. Taking care of ourselves, our middle class, the poorer among us:
    Four years ago: DOWN. Nobody but the wealthy could feel comfortable or secure that the government had their interests at heart.
    Now: UP.  We have health care reform and financial reform which, despite all the lies and disinformation spread by political opponents, do support the 99% of us in having health care and in not becoming the collateral damage of the wheelings and dealings of bankers and Wall Street manipulators.
  10. National pride.
    Four years ago: DOWN.  We were seen as an aggressor in the world, charging around like a drunken cowboy with no appreciation or even awareness of much of the rest of the world.  We had squandered the worldwide sympathy that flowed to us after the 9/11/01 attacks by our arrogance, yet we still seemed like a weak and stumbling giant. Our industry was seen as failing.
    Now: UP. We have changed our actions, and with it the opinion of the world.  We are again seen as both a serious competitor and a fair partner.  In a symbolic yet powerful and meaningful moment in just this past week, the new tower being built at One World Trade Center, NYC, USA, became the tallest structure in New York.  “It is not given, it is taken.  We shall rise.” We are rising.  That is our direction.

So are we where we want to be? No. But are we moving in a direction to get there?  Well, look at the summary above.  What do you think?  The direction we are going is not the same as the place we are at.  It is not enough to say “change direction” because we don’t like where we are at.  We must look at our current direction and see if it is making us “better off than we were four years ago” and better off each of the next few years ahead.  And if someone says our current directions are wrong and we should change them all, we should look well at where those directions took us in the past decade.