Mad world

I would rather be robbed at gun point than taken from behind by greedy hedge fund managers.

Over break, I found myself increasingly confronted by sawed-off shotguns, barred windows, seven foot walls laced by barbed wire, and stern security guards. When I paid for my meal at a restaurant, I conversed with the teller through a small hole in a bullet-proof panel. When I took the bus, I made sure to pick a window seat so that I could ensure that my bags would not be stolen from down below at any of the stops before my final destination. Costa Rica is not as bad as Guatemala âÄî where my escorts got out of the truck cab at every stoplight to stand guard over the luggage in the back with machetes âÄî but it isnâÄôt American suburbia either. My travel companion, a virgin to the Third World, was visibly disturbed by these violent images, but I hardly noticed. While in the country, I attributed my immunity to the fact that I had been to Latin America before, I knew what to expect, and I was comfortable with these realities. Furthermore, I have always been simultaneously blessed and cursed with the inability to detect immediate danger. This latter quality has allowed me to pull off some fairly daring feats and cornered me into some rather unsavory spaces. However, it wasnâÄôt until I returned home âÄî back to the world of economic doom and gloom âÄî that I realized the real root behind my indifference to Costa RicaâÄôs dark side. On Sunday, I logged on to catch the episodes of The Daily Show that I had missed while away and I immediately became engrossed by the scathing interview that Jon Stewart launched against CNBCâÄôs âÄúMad MoneyâÄù host, Jim Cramer. If you have not yet viewed the unedited version, I strongly recommend that you do so (on Comedy Central.) Jon Stewart, king of quips, made the calculated move to remain dead serious for once in his career, proving not only that he is an exceptional interrogator, but more importantly, that not everything in life is funny. Sometimes you can take a joke too far, like when Wall Street hot shots secretly manipulate millions of dollars and permanently damage the lives of thousands of trusting Americans. The effects of this act will ripple even stronger throughout the rest of the world. âÄúThere are two markets, one that has been sold to us as long-term investments,âÄù Stewart argued to Cramer. âÄúPut your money in 401Ks, etc., and leave it there and donâÄôt worry about it. ItâÄôs doing fine. Then thereâÄôs this other market, this real market, thatâÄôs occurring in the back room, where giant piles of money are going in and out and people are trading them and itâÄôs transactional and itâÄôs fast, but itâÄôs dangerous, itâÄôs ethically dubious and it hurts that long-term market. So what it feels like to us âĦ it feels like we are capitalizing your adventure by our pension âĦ and that it is a game that you know, that you know is going on, but that you go on television as a financial network and pretend isnâÄôt happening.âÄù As Stewart rolls 2006 tapes of Cramer advocating private manipulation of the market during his days as a former hedge fund head, he becomes even more incensed: âÄúI understand that you want to make finance entertaining, but itâÄôs not a [expletive] game. And when I watch that, I canâÄôt tell you how angry that makes me.âÄù Agreed. Watching that interview, my own rage screamed forth like the lava flows out of the Arenal Volcano I had witnessed just two days before. I knew why I was not afraid of the guns of Costa Rica then. If someone is going to mug me, rape me, kill me, anything âÄî at least I will see them coming. They will point the gun at my face. I will look him in the eye and have a chance to fight, if I wish. I will know my attacker; he will know me. I may have the chance to prosecute him if IâÄôm lucky. Or someday, he might even feel shame. I can accept this fate. What I cannot accept is a filthy rich oligarchy ensconced in a smoke-filled room surreptitiously stealing the futures of countless, innocent, hard-working human beings without ever having to reveal their names. This is a reality that reaches far beyond humiliation. Carlos Aguilar, a well-known Costa Rican artist and my dear friend, watched my eyes fleck with betrayal over the indignation behind the new American reality many times during my visit. We talked idly of the economy and I was thankful that even the most oppressing topics can be made beautiful by the Spanish language. âÄúIt doesnâÄôt really matter here, in Latin America,âÄù he said, moving his hands along the stained glass window that he was making. âÄúFor most people, every day of their lives is an economic crisis. TheyâÄôre struggling just to put food on the table. This is nothing new.âÄù He was trying to infuse me with the sick sense of optimism that Americans are still better off. We might now have to live without what the rest of the world has been living without for their entire lives. He wanted me to feel happy for my privileges thus far, but he succeeded only in making me feel guilty for feeling sorry for myself when the damages of colonialism and greed of empire have been wrecking other countries for centuries. Before I returned to Minneapolis, I stopped home in Wisconsin and the list of local casualties was read aloud over the dinner table. Mark, Thomas and Sharon all lost their jobs. Derek and Jody arenâÄôt sure if they can keep their house. My waitress friends havenâÄôt taken home good tips in months. Like your extremities in cold snow, rural Wisconsin always tends to feel the frostbite first. I would rather be shot in the face than this slow and painful backdoor bloodletting. Anger is unproductive, so I think of Carlos, leaning over his stained glass window. He has Indian blood in his veins; his hands allude to a hard life, but he gives me hope. He holds the first completed window frame up to the light and the colored glass pulses and glitters with life. I smile and find relief in knowing that beautiful things are still being created every single day. Ashley Dresser welcomes comments at [email protected]