Monday, July 11, 2005

Your are like a hurricane*

The National Weather Service threw the nation's headline writers a bone when they named the latest hurricane to ravage our coasts. A Google news search reveals that the SJ-R was far from alone in evoking the name of Hank Ketcham's incorrigible Dennis the Menace to describe conditions being left in the wake of Hurricane Dennis.

The headlines are rich in imagery. One can see an impish Jay North, puffing up his cheeks before exhaling a mighty gust that leaves Mr. Wilson's garage a pile of splintered timbers. Golly gee!

Actually, the Weather Service doesn't select names for their thematic value. It works from a set lists of names that alternate every six years. Names are only retired if they are associated with an unusually violent or deadly hurricane.

Headline writers will have their collective creativity tested with the next name on the list, the ubiquitous Emily. Coincidently, noted poet Emily Dickinson does have a poem in which she regales:

"The wind begun to rock the grass
With threatening tunes and low, -
He flung a menace at the earth,
A menace at the sky"

But good luck making that connection in a short, catchy headline.

The practice of naming storms began centuries ago, with the tempests being christened with the names of saints. In the 1950s, an alphabetical system was put into place using only female names based on some kind of misguided notion prevalent at the time that women are somehow volatile and unpredictable (and this was before Courtney Love). Today, a more enlightened approach has led to both male and female names being used.

The names are said to reflect the ethnic origins of the people who live in the areas that are often besieged by hurricanes. This wasn't good enough for U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee who several years ago railed against the injustice of having no names unique to African Americans. Apparently, a generation of black youth is becoming disillusioned by watching news footage of wide swathes of hurricane-produced destruction that doesn't speak to their experience. I don't recall the righting of this particular inequity being part of Dr. King's dream, but I have no qualms with naming a hurricane in honor of Tupac.

I think that it's good to name hurricanes. This way, they can be spoken of as raucous party crashers who tear up the joint and then split town, leaving the hosts to clean up the mess. Their names can be cursed for the destruction that they cause, and mocked for their ultimate inability to drive hearty souls away from their coastal abodes.

Of all the media coverage of Hurricane Dennis, the item I found most interesting was a TV newsmagazine story on Wal-Mart's state-of-the-art supply and distribution system. The retail behemoth is able to look at past sales records from stores along hurricane paths in the days leading up to storms to see what items are most sought. In addition to the obvious provisions such as batteries, bottled water, and duck tape, Wal-Mart discovered that those bracing for an atmospheric onslaught commonly stock-up on a particular staple – good old American Pop-Tarts. But not just any Pop-Tarts. They've found that people have a particular fondness for strawberry breakfast pastries while the roof is being blown off over their heads.

It's safe to say that this is a pretty amazing use of technology. Of course, it isn't safe to say anything complimentary of Wal-Mart without risking being labeled a traitor to the working man.

A letter-to-the-editor in the Sunday SJ-R compared Wal-Mart's treatment of employees favorably to slavery. I admit I have limited knowledge of the institute of slavery in this country and throughout history, but it seems obvious that the shackles of bondage involved conditions more oppressive than non-union wages. In fact, slavery involved no wages and actual, not metaphorical, shackles.

If Wal-Mart is breaking laws with their treatment of employees then they should be brought to justice. There's no excuse for forcing people to work overtime for no pay, or discriminating against women.

But a less compelling case against the retailer is the effect they have had on the competitive marketplace. Small general stores and five-and-dimes have had to shut their doors when Wal-Mart came to town. They weren't, however, driven out by mob tactics that had Molotov cocktails pitched through their display windows until they shut their doors in fear. They were outperformed in the business of supplying consumers with a wide variety of goods at a low price.

This happens all the time in our free market economy. When VCR's became the rage in the mid-to-late 1980s, Springfield was home to several locally owned video rental outlets (the last vestige of these businesses disappeared today as the sign for Lakeshore Video, which has been closed for several years, was taken down from its former location on Toronto Road). After several years, however, the Blockbusters of the world drove them out of business by offering more titles at a lower price. And now Blockbuster's market share is being threatened by digital video on demand and online services such as NetFlix.

The Wal-Mart organization isn't immune from competition anymore than its big box stores are immune from the devastating force of a hurricane. In the end, it's survival of the fittest.

*Thanks go to Neil Young for the title of today's post

1 comment:

Dan M. said...

You almost made it there.

I find the SJ-R's headline, "Dennis Is A Menace", (or something like that) disgusting. To trivialize a natural disaster that had a negative impact on millions, is just plain sad.

But what should we expect from the same people who feel compelled to show us a photograph of a mass murderer who lives thousands of miles away and has no connection to central Illinois. Why would anyone give a crap what the scum bag looks like? All it does is validate their act and fulfill their dream of notoriety. It is especially repulsive in cases where the scum commits suicide after their act. What good does it do to show their picture and say their name 10,000 times in one week?

If the SJ-R and other distant media outlets had only reported that two twisted losers came into Columbine H.S. and killed several people, without turning it into a circus, would it have meant any more or less to the average Illinois resident? But by making it a circus, one as sick as those losers, can actually see the value of doing a copycat act. Their rationale is, "well I am a complete loser now, but if I kill 10 people at 10:00 A.M. at least everybody in the U.S. is going to know my name and face by 6:00 P.M. I will live in infamy!"

My point is, the media has to show some compassion and responsibility in their work. A little common sense goes a long way too.