I hope you all remember who Howard Beale was. To refresh our memories, he was the insane newscaster played by the great Peter Finch in the 1976 Sidney Lumet film "Network." If you will recall, when Beale's bosses, the executives of the fictional UBS television network decided their star anchorman was getting a bit long in the tooth, they handed him his pink slip. Well, old Howard took to the air ranting and raving, threatening to commit suicide on camera, and, in a classically memorable, maniacal peroration, proclaimed: "I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open, and stick your head out, and yell, I'M MAD AS HELL AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!"
The upshot of Beale's on-camera meltdown was that he became an American icon, got his own daily half-hour program, and proceeded to "tell it like it is" until ultimately, his utter honesty did him in. "Network," of course, is pure satire which, as Molly Ivins reminds us is "the weapon of the powerless against the powerful." Well, I'm feeling a might powerless these days, and really want to do something about it.
"And so," you may well ask, "what's making you feel powerless this fine day? What's different about today than yesterday or the day before?" Let me tell you. While hovering over my word processor, busily sketching out an article on Global Warming -- the issue to end all issues -- I got a text message to call my cellular phone company ASAP. I knew exactly what they wanted. You see, I've been fighting with them for more than six weeks now. Back and forth we go, them claiming that I am in arrears on my February payment, and me trying as nicely as possible to explain that according to my records [backed up by the good folks at my local bank], they received the payment weeks and weeks ago. Moreover, in a three-way conversation between me, my banking agent and one of the cellular company's drone-like representatives, we seemed to have nipped the snafu in the bud. That is, until today.
After listening to the recorded ten-minute list of options ["Press twenty-four to detonate nuclear device . . ."], and the disclaimer that "for purposes of efficiency, this call may be monitored" I finally reached a human being. Well, I think he was human. First he verified my cell phone number, which obviously had shown up on his I.D. caller. Then I told him my name, immediately after which he asked me to give him my name. How's that you ask? Why would he ask me for my name just a nano-second after I had given it to him? Probably because that was step #2 on his list of things to do. Remember, this is a person who likely makes little more than the minimum wage, probably hates what he does, and blindly follows orders. Next, he informed me that "for purposes of identification" I would have to supply him with the last four digits on my Social Security number.
"No thanks," I told the hapless drone. "I'm not going to give you any part of my Social Security number. I don't give out that information to anyone but the I.R.S., and then only under duress."
"Then I cannot speak with you about your account," he answered mechanically .
"By law, you cannot require my Social Security number as a means of identification." I waited for a response . . . a word, a cough, a sneeze . . . anything to let me know he was still on the line.
"Are you still there?" I asked. Hearing what I took to be an affirmative grunt, I continued: "And besides, if you have my cell phone number, you undoubtedly already have my home address, marital status, the names of my pets, my Social Security number and, for all I know, my blood type as well." I told him all this with as much politesse as I could muster under the circumstances.
"Then I cannot speak with you about your account," he repeated.
"Look," I remonstrated, "I'll tell you why you called me, and that will prove that I am who I claim to be." I then gave him a quick twenty-twenty on the situation with the bill snafu, the three-way conversation we had had a few weeks back, and the cellular representative's conclusion that yes indeed, the problem must be on their part.
"If you will check the computer file under my cell number, I'm positive that you will find a record of this conversation," I said, with not quite so much politesse.
"One moment," he said, and put me on hold. I was on hold for precisely 13 minutes and 42 seconds, before I heard breathing on the other end of the line. Eureka! I thought. We're making progress!!
"So what did you find out?" I asked, a slight note of victory in my voice.
"I'm sorry, I cannot discuss this matter with you unless you give me the last four digits of your Social Security number."
At this point, I figured I had but two options: to put a hex on him, his ancestors and the company that employed him, or to merely say "thanks for nothing fella," and quietly ring off. Although I'm sure Howard Beale wouldn't agree, I chose option number two. Believe me, option one would have made me feel quite a bit better, but one does try to be a gentleman . . .
I am sure that most everyone has been through contretemps like this, and no doubt feels just as angry, just as powerless. It's not just a cell phone lackey mindlessly reading from a prepared script. It's not just being asked for the umpteen thousandth time to give someone my Social Security number [which I do not give out.] And its not just being made to feel like an ultra-microscopic germ in the vast corporate body politic. No, its an overarching, overwhelming feeling that we -- the great collective "we" -- have all become bit players in someone else's tragicomedy. Nothing seems to work anymore. Our leaders only listen to those who have bottomless pockets. Teachers can't teach and students don't learn. Our foods are saturated with fat, sugar and petrochemicals. Our balance of payments is totally out of whack. The federal minimum wage hasn't been raised since Ben Franklin was in grade school. The entire globe has become just another venue for Wal-Mart. The people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast continue living in dire want while the folks in Washington continue sitting on their duffs. And on and on and on . . .
Poll after poll shows that we, the great American majority, are dissatisfied, disgruntled and suspicious. And yet, do you know what they're debating about this very week in the United States Senate? Whether to enact one Constitutional amendment that would make it a federal crime to burn the flag, and another that would make it illegal for any state, county or municipality to permit two people of the same sex to marry. Excuse me? This is what matters? Who in their right mind would ever believe that Congress would even consider Constitutional amendments that seek to limit individual freedoms? And at a time like this? Does the expression "Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic" come to mind?
I for one think it's Howard Beale time; time for all of us to get out of our chairs, go to the window, and shout out that "WE'RE MAD AS HELL AND WE'RE NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANY MORE!!"
In this case, however, I am sure that Howard would want us to do a heck of a lot more than merely screaming out into the night. He would want us to roll up our sleeves, pick an area of concern, and then find like-minded people who also want to enact positive change. We cannot wait for some visionary to come along and give us a national challenge, for that challenge may never come. We cannot sit back and wonder just who we're waiting for to lead us out of the morass.
As a very bright fellow back in the Berkeley days use to say, "WE'RE THE PEOPLE WE'VE BEEN WAITING FOR!"