Cargo cults and casinos …

wilkins-wheelFloating around somewhere in the vast hinterland of forgotten films is a minor classic called “Mondo Cane”, a 1962 effort by some Italian filmakers that created its own genre of offbeat documentaries. It is a movie that leaves oddly vivid memories of strange episodes and scenes from unexpected sites around the world. One such scene came from New Guinea, where in World War II people living with Stone Age technology and little contact with the outside world were exposed to the full rush and roar of modern civilization as American troops pushed back against the Japanese. Tremendous quantities of supplies were airlifted into Port Moresby as the tribesmen watched in awe.

Eventually the War moved on to the Solomon Islands and the Philippines and Japan, leaving the locals with memories of the great silver birds that had once brought food and uniforms and radios and all the goods of America.

When time went by and the great silver birds did not return, some islanders concluded they had come from the gods and, if proper arrangements were made, the gods might bring them back with all their wonderful cargoes. So they built and manned rough wooden structures in the form of the air traffic control towers they had seen, thinking that once the gods saw them do that, the cargo planes would return. The effort, patently useless to our knowledgeable eyes, was an act of blind faith that became known as “the cargo cult.”

The image of those watchers scanning the skies in their impossible hope comes back to me in these days of Atlantic City casino closings. When I first returned home from law school to practice law in Atlantic City the town was full of aging boardwalk hotels trying with plastic palm trees and winter weekend promotions to bring back the glory days Nelson Johnson wrote about in his celebrated book “Boardwalk Empire.” To lure back modern visitors with modern amenites a new Howard Johnson’s hotel and modern motels like the Midtown were built along Pacific Avenue. The gods of tourism did not respond.

In their panic, the politicians turned to legalized gambling. The state constitution was to be amended allowing casinos to be built in New Jersey, but in a crushing defeat the authorizing referendum was lost at the polls. In the confusion that followed, Governor Byrne came to a meeting of our civic leaders, such as they were. Nobody had an answer better than to try again for passage of a casino referendum. Two years later, now confined to the boundaries of Atlantic City, it passed.

For a generation and a half it worked. The aging hotels became young again. The venerable Haddon Hall became Resorts; the Ambassador became the Tropicana, The Marlborough-Blenheim became Bally’s; even Howard Johnson’s morphed into Caesar’s.

But not all the consequences were fully understood. Soon good nurses were leaving hospitals to become blackjack dealers. Teachers looking for better pay became roulette dealers, and the senior classes from our high schools trooped out of their graduations and into casino jobs with no thought of more productive but non-gaming careers.

Local businesses learned the hard way that casinos were tough competition. A lounge on Delilah Road that had built a reputation its owner described as “the best second-rate black entertainment venue on the East Coast” featuring the hottest new performers on the eve of their breakouts went bust when Resorts booked high-voltage black acts of the stature of Diana Ross or Diahann Carroll and papered the house by giving away free tickets to insure a packed audience.
Local restaurants went under as the casinos opened their own to keep their gamblers from wandering off the premises. Men’s clothing stores lost their top end trade to casino stores. Local jewelers could not compete with the casino jewelers. Atlantic Avenue died. It took a long time for the effects to percolate down to the roots of the city, but when nearby states opened their own casinos the final handwriting was on the wall.

Now the talk of the future is how to get it back again. The casino ethos is our local version of the New Guinea cargo cult. It is a stubborn but foolish belief that if we maintain the forms of a casino-centric economy the gods of gambling will smile on us once again and bring back cargoes of blackjack and slot-machine players.
We should, and will, keep what casinos can survive. Casino jobs remain vital to thousands of our friends and families and neighbors, and local businesses have learned how to find their own customers.

But it’s high time to move on from short-sighted leaders who insist on standing forlorn watches hoping for fresh cargoes of tourists that will never come. It’s time to build new foundations, and to encourage new businesses that will offer more durable – and meaningful = jobs to our high school and college graduates. Why put our future hopes into the hands of people like Donald Trump or Carl Icahn? Why be so dependent on casino-ism we let that industry strip our workers of pensions, benefits and opportunity?

© 2014 Joseph T. Wilkins

The television philosopher …

jt1It is indisputably true that I watch too much of the wrong kind of television. I am constantly accused, by my personal improvement guru who resents my monopolizing the remote, of being a news and political junkie willing to watch anything except commercials and reality shows, and making her endure the blatherings of every talking head that pops up on the screen.

She’s right, of course. I wish I had a good defense to the charge. Truth is I get trapped between the desperation of a blocked writer looking for any excuse to avoid putting words on paper and the nearly irresistible lure of watching the ballyhooed whoop-whoop of rapidly approaching disaster from the diseases of Africa to the murderous thugs of the mid-East to the latest land grab from Vladimer Putin.

When I clicked on Wolf Blitzer and the yap-yappers on MSNBC one time too many, she put her foot down. Being an independent, strong-willed macho man and acting on the silent advice of General Beauregard, our telepathic beagle, who was telling me if I wanted dinner it would be smart to knuckle under, I switched immediately to “This Old House”.

Within minutes my blood pressure dropped, Beau fell asleep, and the steaming fragrance of her ravioli and meatballs drifted through the house. Meanwhile the guys on television were going right at it, ripping out walls, replacing pipes and windows and flooring and generally having a high old time. I don’t do that sort of stuff anymore, having had my share of the do-it-yourself life. But it’s always great fun to watch somebody else work, especially when you can doze off while they dig up the basement and wake up just in time to watch them gently ease the perfectly-measured cabinets into the perfectly-measured space between the stove and the sink.

Being the kind of television philosopher whose most profound insights come easiest when my favorite chair is in the fully-inclined position, it suddenly hit me that what the country needs is for the “This Old House” gang to take over the government, maybe helped by the “House and Garden” crew for the yards and finished off by Martha Stewart’s decorating touches.

The idea was so good it almost woke me up. What a joy it would be to have Norm Abrams and his buddies rip out the rotted committees of the House and put in lots of new windows all over Congress; not to mention putting in a brand new cabinet at the White House.

The secret those guys have is they don’t believe in negativity. They don’t debate much, and delay isn’t in their toolkit. They see a problem and reach for their hammers, saws and crowbars and before you know it they’re putting in the new countertops. Even the commercials are better on those shows. They don’t waste time telling you what worthless scum the other builders are.

The best of it is they appreciate the importance of saving the good features. You can trust them to preserve the designs that came out of Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia centuries ago while shoring up the sagging floors and brightening the dim corridors of colonial times with unobtrusive new lighting.

Then there’s the specialists; the guys who can replace a scratchy, balky old Speaker system with better fidelity, so what the people want comes cleanly through the system.

What a happy development it would be to watch the negativity of the talking heads and the tear-down politicians of personal destruction replaced by guys who really enjoy making things both beautiful and functional! Maybe we should recruit congressional candidates from the small-town contractors and do-it-yourselfers shopping at Home Depot and Lowe’s. At least they’d know how to do the job on schedule and within the bid.

© 2014 Joseph T. Wilkins

Joe’s Take: Aunt Tess and the scaregivers …

We were sitting in the gazebo at the Assisted Living, watching the seagulls swoop over the tidal marshes while waiting for her pal Becky Gottlieb to join us for our monthly lunch date. Aunt Tess is tough old Philadelphia Irish; Becky Gottlieb is tough old Brooklyn Jewish. Between them, those two biddies catch more news and talk shows than anybody. Someday I’m going to hide a tape recorder near their chairs in the lounge. If I could catch their running commentaries on what’s going on, I could set up my own reality show.

“I’m not saying it’s not real,” Tess said with asperity, which in Aunt Tess is as subtle as a jackhammer. “But if you don’t think the TV’s trying to scare you into watching the news, you’re kidding yourself. The more you watch, the more money they make.”

Becky arrived in time to catch the drift, and nodded in vigorous agreement. “Joe Scarborough’s bad enough,” she said, “but that Chris Matthews should get a grip. And the idiots on Fox News make you think we should shoot down any airplane coming from Africa.”

“But Ebola’s a real menace,” I protested as we headed for the car.

“So’s lightning,” Tess shot back, “which is more likely to land on you.”

“Well,” I persisted, “I’m willing to listen to the medical experts.”

“It’s not the medical experts you’re hearing,” she said. “It’s the talking heads. The top doctors say you can’t catch it except by having a victim’s body fluids get into your bloodstream. But they get shouted down every time they try to say something.”

“They just want us to be careful,” I tried to reassure the old dear, forgetting that her growing up with nine brothers who like fighting didn’t make her a weak sister. When you patronize Aunt Tess, she fights back. It’s like giving a porcupine a reassuring pat on his back..

“They’re not being careful,” she bulldozed ahead. “Careful is when they tell you to wash your hands and use common sense when somebody’s throwing up or bleeding. What’s happening on TV is just plain reckless. They’re selling fear and scaring everybody. The politicians do it to get elected and the TV stations do it to make money.”

I’ll give the old girls credit: They don’t take their eyes off the ball. When the doctors from the Center for Disease Control talk, they listen. They don’t take them as infallible, of course. But they’re convinced the doctors know a lot more about medical stuff than Bill O’Reilly or Chris Matthews.

“I heard Scarborough on Morning Joe this morning, saying he’s just a simple guy who can’t understand why we just don’t stop all flights from Africa,” Becky said.

“Simple’s the word,” Aunt Tess agreed. “He must think we should stop the world until he’s ready for what happens next. I like him, but when he goes off on one of his rants, somebody should kick him under the table.”

“Talk about Chicken Little!” Becky agreed. “All this talk about how the sky is falling does is start a panic.”

“That’s the real problem,” Tess picked up the theme. “They panic everybody. If they don’t calm down, the doctors and the hospitals will get filled up with scared people thinking they’ve got Ebola symptoms when all they have is the sniffles. Then they won’t have time to look after kids getting sick with that other virus …”

“The Enterovirus that little boy just died from?” Becky asked.

“Yeah,” Aunt Tess nodded. “What gets me is the TV guys should think a lot more before they get hysterical about Ebola.”

There they had it. The home truth is when you are afraid enough, you lose your judgment. When a lot of people collectively let fear rob them of their judgment you get angry mobs looking for scapegoats and immediate solutions based on their fears. I remember when the AIDS epidemic started — a horror that ultimately cost thousands of lives. In its early stages people didn’t know how you caught it, so they were afraid to care for their own loved ones. It took months and even years before folks realized you couldn’t get AIDS except from things like infected drug needles or the body fluids of infected victims, and learned to use common sense.

© 2014 Joseph T. Wilkins