11 December 2010 Leave a comment
I was just having some thoughts while driving home this afternoon. I had stayed a little later than I had intended, it was snowing and still a little icy, and it was Friday, so I could have and did anticipate a slow, trafficky commute. I had the pleasure of a fine young man, whom I knew lived on my way home and who would have had to take two city busses in a lengthy trip home. He offered the opportunity for some good talk about school and books we had read and liked and didn’t like. Having his company, made the trip tolerable in the face of some pretty irritating demonstrations of driving that would have lit all my fires on a lonely trip.
This is Minnesota, and now is climate change. Global warming doesn’t mean everywhere keeps on being as it has always been, but one or two degrees centigrade warmer. No. no. Here in the provinces, it means hurricane levels of low pressure rolling through setting new records, spring and summer arriving a few weeks ahead of schedule, and temperatures in the seventies one week and the teens two weeks later. In other words, it means wacky adjustments to the new normal, One thing has not change here in Minnesota though; it snows and we have to drive in it.
Another change that comes with climate change, though I don’t think there is any causal link, is a progressive increase in the tone of weather prediction and reporting. Weather is drama. Katrina set the mark for a new high in politicized media hype around weather. Not that Katrina didn’t deserve the coverage, but such a media blitz doesn’t come often, thank goodness, or easily. I does change the game though. Now, the weather people assure us that weather is a sign of Armageddon. Demonic catastrophe falls from the clouds in paralyzing sheets. It swells from the seas in all consuming waves. It screams out of the very air around us in shrieking blasts. I mean, this really sells more soap than they do on WDUM. With this in our minds, mine and the driver of the car ahead of me, I could understand why that car was travelling 15 miles per hour while everyone was trying to maneuver around it on somewhat slippery roads in the Friday afternoon rush. That driver had heard the weather report warning of the almost certain difficulty on the drive home once the snow began to fall. That driver, like me, had heard this warning Wednesday and yesterday and this morning, three? Six? A dozen times? "It must be bad out here. These other drivers have no idea how bad these conditions are!"
We did indeed know how bad conditions were. The streets were riddled with cars driven by hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who believed death was stalking them in an ice encrusted Kenworth truck, or maybe a beslushed Prius. They slowed for intersections, although they were already going slowly. They straddled lanes to avoid a sudden, perilous sideways slide into a city bus. Tentative. Cautious. And making driving conditions damnedably difficult, just as the weather person had warned me.
I realized, though I did not share my realization with my young passenger, that the media were competing in this dramatizing of rather typical predictions and events because they need to get and keep our attention as part of the free market environment in which we are currently wallowing. We live in market driven times. The old fifties assessment that the advertisers created the need they were then ready to fill has become more systemic, more internalized in our twenty-first century psyche. In almost Pavlovian obedience, we are always searching around for things we need, and we will know we need them when we find them. Since we are always searching, the world must be ever ready to produce needs. Today’s drivers needed to know that the drive home tonight would be difficult. I would not have been able to assess the surface conditions walking across the street and parking lot from school, brushing the snow off my cold car, driving out of the parking lot and down the block to the stop sign, and there turning left. I had however already learned from six or seven animated, terror fueled media warnings what I needed to know; the driving conditions were going to be difficult.
Enjoying my oppositional disorder to the max, I drove as I normally would on slightly slippery streets, made slippery by the way by the ice remained from two days before. We had not needed to be warned about that storm so much. A lost marketing opportunity.
Well, if the media are not trying to cause traffic jams with their weather forecasting, why does it happen? And it does happen. It feels hotter when we are told repeatedly how hot it will be, colder when we’re told how cold, and snowier when we’re told how snowy it will be. When Democrats were told by almost every media outlet for weeks that they would not be going to the polls during a midterm election in a great recession because they were seriously unexcited about the election, they dutifully did not vote. Why do we comply in these self-fulfilling prophesies promulgated by the media markets in the guise of news and weather? Because they tell us what we need to know, and therefore, we know that if they hadn’t told us, it was because we didn’t need to know. We are after all helpless, and the media simply plays to our sense of helplessness. It assumes, perhaps correctly, that we cannot do anything to improve our lives, and we certainly can do nothing to make this a better world. That’s out of our hands, and luckily someone else’s fault. We will be told what we need to know.
I got my young man home in plenty of time. The snow wasn’t so bad. I guess I didn’t need to know.
Now, I must admit, it is some days later, and we are in the middle of the worst snow storm in almost 20 years, which the media has been hyping for two days as the worst blizzard in nearly 20 years. I hate when they’re right on top of 60 hours of alarmist, apocalyptic doom weather news!