In the part of Washington Where I live, a study based on all the most up-to-date measuring techniques will occasionally show that the aircraft noise of which we residents complain isn't really very noisy at all. Likewise, a few years back we were informed that the stench from a nearby renderning plant was probably in our minds, since it simply was not registering on the extremely sensitive equipment being used to gauge it. I got to thinking about these things last week while assualting the national news. Have you noticed how often and with what precision all the best authorities-- scientific, social, economic and political-- keep telling us how we are doing, what we are feeling and where we are going? Do their findings seem "right" to you? That is, do they seem applicable to you-- or just to other people, addresses unknown?
My theory is that we are the most weighed, counted, measured and analyzed society in the history of civilization; that most of our political fights concern who gets to do the weighing and counting (Keeper of the Data is our Keeper of the flame), and that as a consequence of this obsession we have begun to talk about ourselves as if we were someone else. To head off a diversionary counter-attack here about the atypical world some of us live in, I will stipulate at once that journalistic and governmental Washington is insulated from many of the pressures felt most keenly elsewhere in the country. But even so. . .
Consider just an ordinary day last week. Food prices were reported to have dropped 2.2 percent, the prime lending rate, on the other hand, went up to "a record" 12.25 percent, the thing called the "composite index of leading indicators" dropped 0.4 percent and the nation's foreign-trade deficit was revealed to have shrunk by$800 million since June of this year, down from $1.9 billion to a mere $1.1 billion. Would you characterize that as a good day or a bad day for our side, and, if so, why?
In fact, of course, the average newspaper reader is not going to be invited to do the analyzing of all this, which few of us would know how to do anyway. Qualified interpreters will at once take over and issue contradictory statements which will have only this common theme: things will be shown to be either better than expected or worse than expected-- but never, and this is the cardinal point, as expected. The subsidiary theme is this: not only are things different from what was expected, they are also different from what they look like . This is crucial. Are you feeling strapped? How odd-- the data show that you have never been better off and are the justifiable envy of the world. Are you in a pretty good mood despite your financial tight place? Like hell you are-- youRe on a real emotional and spiritual downer and we've got the charts and equations to prove it.
President Carter, diagnosing the national physic afliction last July, observed that it was "nearly invisible in ordinary ways," That is one of the principal sources of confusin and even turbulence when these things are being discussed. Malaise may be a near-anagram for measles, but it doesn't give you spots . . . so how do you know if you've got it? Just think about the "nearly invisible" phenomena we have been quarreling about this summer: are people happy or unhappy, are they for Jimmy Carter or fed up with him, are they confident or anxious-- and so forth.
Something more than political divination is involved here. There is, for example, journalism. By journalism, I mean the simple if overriding need to report something that has happened and therefore to be inclined to see "happenings" as reversals of commonly held assumptions. The data, God love them, can almost always be depended upon to help out here. There is always a study someplace, a chart, a graph, a survey, a speech at a learned-society convention, a poll, an equation that suggest (if it does not actually prove, thereby leaving open the way to the next reversal-event) that the unemployed are working, the working are unemployed, and that thereis 8.7 percent more air pollution in Antarctica than there is on the Los Angeles freeway.
But journalism is just part of it, and probably not the most important part.For the fact is that these days we do have both the methods to measure certain things we couldn't know before and the need to do so. Such as, for example, what the effects might be of the various hazardous substances, toxic wastes and other assorted industrial junk we keep breathing, eating, burying, buying and selling and otherwise disposing of. And no one trusts anyone else on this because in the first place-- and unlike the corroded-spirit stuff our political leaders talk about-- we are dealing here with phenomena that are as real as they are invisible. So the society necessarily has to spend some time figuring out the degree of their presence and their damage. Low-level radiation, unlike a rendering plant on a summer's night, doesn't have an unmistakable way of telling you it is there.
It is as inevitable, given our broad range of interests as consumers, producers and would-be enjoyers of prosperity, that we will fight about the meaning of these measuresments as it is that we will fight about the other key set of disputed statistics: the industrial, economic, trade and energy figures that somehow define our national condition in the summer of '79. You can't see the nitrites in bacon and you can't see the oil being pumped in Iran or stashed in Texas or piped in Ohio. You can't trust anybody to tell you about the energy figures either, not because some authorities are probably cooking the books, but because great numbers of the number-people don't know waht they are talking about. For this reason, and unsurprisingly, much of our national political wrangling has come to concern these measurements and indexes and indicators. Whose figures they are is part of the story. Who gets to count? Who gets to compute? What is the meaning of the month's or the quarter's showing?
My objection is that somehow we have let this special kind of argument slop over into social, cultural and political realms where it is, frankly, crazy. And because we have, we find ourselves living on a kind of split-screen world. There are two realities simulataneously playing themselves out before our eyes: the way we feel and the way we are told the data show we feel. It is a very insecure society that won't credit its own experience-- Are the children learning? Are the threatened anxious? Are the abused suffering? Until it has seen the results of the next set of tests and soundings, which should be in sometime in November. How can you tell whether you like Jimmy Carter or your child is getting anything worth knowing at school or hamburger costs more than you can pay or things are better or worse than before? The same way you can tell whether a Boeing 707 has violated your personal, domestic airspace. Just look . . . and listen.