Below is something I wrote for one of my classes.
In a lot of ways, that I get to write about anything here is very freeing, but just because there are so many things that tends to rush in and out of my mind, it’s kind of daunting too. In Hong Kong, there’s this protest going on. The images of the protests are spectacular. I saw one image of thousands of people boxed in by the police in their riot gear and pepper sprays, with the edges of the box differentiated by colorful umbrellas, some of which the police have managed to tear apart. I saw a video too, to see the images accompanied by deafening noises of chants… it’s chilling. Then there’s this video I’ve watched of MSF/Doctors without Borders treating burn victims in the Gaza Strip, because I chose to focus on MSF for my final project in one of my classes – International Poverty Reduction. Last week in NYC Mayor De Blasio said he’ll sign an executive order to expand the living-wage law for NYC. There are so many interesting things to write about in this log. Still, what gave me the urge to do this second log was when I came across a special edition of Forbes magazine (October 20, 2014 edition) on my doorsteps.
So I get a batch of different kinds of magazines at my doorsteps every other week. I somehow ended up winning this promotional sort of thing and it’ll expire next year. The promoters are hoping I eat up this gift and pay a lot of money to renew, and that’s how I often get New York, and Wired, Rolling Stones, and other kinds of interesting things in the mail. I do like to read Forbes once in a while just to challenge myself with editors who tend to think so differently than I do, often in the complete opposite way. Sometimes I get too flustered and offended and annoyed and throw it aside. This week, it wasn’t anything I read in Forbes that bothered me; it was the cover itself. I don’t know why it bothered me so much this particular week since Forbes regularly publishes its special edition of the “400,” which is the “definitive ranking of the 400 richest people in America.” It wasn’t any of the headlines or the picture on the cover (this week, the cover goes to Jerry Yang, the former CEO of Yahoo!), but just the fact that it’s a 200-plus-page dedication to the richest of the richest billionaires, and that this is a regular, routine publication effort.
It really boggles my mind that this is, to put it colloquially, a “thing.” Who actually reads and anticipates for a magazine edition that briefly profiles hundreds of billionaires? I mean, I did I suppose, but I regretted every second of the experience. As there are four-hundred people to talk about, each profile is a short blurb that barely manages to describe what the person’s achievements are and what his (very rarely her) parents did for a living. It’s a boring dry read. What’s offensive to me is that with each profile, there is accompanied this thing called “Self-made score” which is Forbes rating of how rags-to-riches the person is. In the middle of the magazine is an article that analyzes ten billionaires, asking the question “self-made or silver spoon?” Some people out of the four-hundred are given special standing ovations for being “self-made standout,” which features people like David Murdock (he’s a high school drop-out and had dyslexia) Oprah Winfrey (she was raised on a rural farm in Mississippi and experienced sexual abuse as a child), and Howard Shultz (whose dad was a delivery driver and Shultz got to be the first in his family to go to college via football scholarship from Northern Michigan). I would generally agree that a lot of these people features are amazing, and rather interesting to learn about as well, and it would be important to keep them in mind particularly because of the reach of their influence and power. The message I get from these editions existing though just has me squirming in my seat from so much discomfort.
I personally don’t care to celebrate America’s richest people, whose combined net worth is $2.3 trillion. That’s twice the cost of Operation Enduring Freedom – the cost of ten years of occupying and restructuring Iraq! This ranking of 400 doesn’t really delve into their business practices, what makes them unique human beings, their impact on the rest of society, you know, the kind of things that gets discussed the most when magazines like Rolling Stones and newspapers like The New York Times profile their individuals, the kind of things that we as average Americans find fascinating to read. These people are given a spotlight simply because they are super rich. Though the magazine doesn’t directly state this, there’s a sort of an implied notion that the reader too can be just as rich.
In the front part of the edition, Steve Forbes – the editor-in-chief – has this to say: “Most governments loathe the truth that the people on our lists are essential to prosperity and a higher standard of living. Government wants the benefits of what such people create, but it doesn’t want anyone to get rich from the creating” (p. 25). A few pages later, there’s a section that highlights and ranks some of the billionaires as being “the most generous Americans.” Many of the pages of these magazines, as is often the case with these special editions have their edges tinted in a golden color. The hero worship emanating in these pages to me are suffocating. It’s not that I don’t respect and admire the rich; it’s just that I don’t think the amount of money in their checking/savings account warrants them this kind of special attention from average Americans.
I would love for there to be a popular counterpart to Forbes special editions. How about if we have a magazine that could devote 200+ glorious pages to homeless people and to working-class Americans who have their unique and inspiring life stories to tell? I would think more Americans could relate to those profiles than profiles of billionaires, a ranking so rich, that even a person with net worth of $1.55 billion couldn’t make the cut. The people profiled in the counterpart magazine can actually talk about discipline and hard work, without coming off as fake. They can talk about the struggles that they have had, and we the readers will surely be left in awed silence. Followed by a flood of outrage and call to action, and a feeling of solidarity.
Each aspect can be interesting: What are your business practices? What makes you a unique human being? What kind of impact are you making on the rest of society? We have an idea of what the answers will be like from billionaires before they actually say anything. But for the homeless and for the working-class Americans, I have no doubt their responses will surprise and shock us. We will certainly be shaken, and we’ll be all the better for it.
One of my greatest wishes as someone aspiring to be a social worker is not only that our profession be popularized but also that our clients themselves be honored, respected, and admired by the rest of society. If there was a magazine that featured America’s most vulnerable and the most voiceless like Forbes regularly ranks and profiles America’s richest, if there were TV hits and bestselling novels that featured – or even just included – genuine social workers, I would think just those things alone would transform American cultural attitudes in such a way that the current way of American politics and economics would have to transform as well.
I believe this especially because a few weeks ago, I had the New York magazine in the door mail issue Sept. 8-21, 2014, which had its cover story “The Highest-Paid Female CEO in America Used to be a Man.” That article was interesting sure, but what actually left me with the biggest impression was “The Story That Tore Through the Trees.” It was about forest fires and while that topic doesn’t interest me all that much, the message of the article was what struck me the deepest. The way most Americans came to think in such a way about forest fires – that it’s awful, that, as Smokey the Bear says is something that simply needs to be prevented – has absolutely nothing to do with scientific evidence or peer-reviewed articles or pamphlets mailed by non-profit organizations, nothing like that. Most Americans have come to a very dangerous and scientifically wrong view about forest fires because of the influence of a novel, Young Men and Fire. This one novel has had more impact on American cultural attitudes towards forest fires than 50 years of scientific research that prove that forest fires are necessary and natural for there to be healthy ecosystems. Instead, because of the impact of this novel, America is at war with forest fires and the unintended consequences of this war has been nothing short of disastrous.
Popular culture is a very important thing to consider I think. Social workers often are ignored, misunderstood, and even villainized because they have virtually no representation in popular culture. I read this one article before which said that if you were to watch any of the America’s popular medical TV shows e.g. Grey’s Anatomy, ER, General Hospital, one conclusion you might make is that social workers don’t exist in American hospitals. I do recall one episode of Grey’s Anatomy in which one of the surgeons was being caring and being considerate to the social wellbeing of a patient and immediately afterwards, her superior chastised her, saying something to the effect of, “What, you think you’re a social worker? If you want to do that, quit being a surgeon because that just makes you weak and pathetic.” The few times a social worker is portrayed in media, it’s never in a positive light.
Except for Judging Amy I suppose. I think that’s one TV show that actually has a social worker as a main character. That’s the only I can think of. I really loved that show when I was in high school.
Anyway, my point is that in America, as social workers, we have an image problem. The clients that we serve – particularly those who are the most economically disadvantaged, and affected most deeply by institutional racism, mental illness, substance addiction, domestic violence, bigotry… – they are invisible and non-existent in our popular culture. That to me is a serious, serious issue. How to rectify this issue, shoot, I don’t quite know, and it’s a daunting, overwhelming challenge. But if one novel can have that much of an impact in cultural attitudes toward forest fire, maybe for us too, all that’s needed to ignite the public consciousness is one special edition of a popular magazine.