Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What The "Man With The Golden Voice" Affair Says About Capitalism

Just nine days ago, Ted Williams was sleeping rough on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, and begging passers by for change. His sign explained that he was an "ex radio announcer" with "a God given gift of voice". A reporter from the Columbus Dispatch asked for a demonstration, and the resulting clip got millions of hits almost instantly. Since then, Williams has lent his rich, deep voice to commercials for Kraft, joined the talk show circuit, and has received an offer of a house and a job from the owner of the Chicago Cavaliers basketball team. But what does the affair say about capitalism in general, and its 'American dream' variant in particular?

While the viral success of Williams' video can be put down to compassion for the plight of the homeless, mixed with a certain amount of curiosity, the American media has been quick to seize on the case as proof that "life in this country can change overnight" (in the words of Matt Lauer from the Today Show, who makes $13 million a year). In the midst of January blues and widespread pessimism about the state of the economy, Williams' story is being presented as a 'feel good' item - the ultimate 'rags to riches' story, which supposedly demonstrates that the pursuit of happiness is a realistic possibility for all Americans, no matter how bad things might get in their lives.

There are many problems with this perspective. Williams is - of course - the exception that tests the rule of social immobility. He has a highly marketable talent, which just happened to be discovered by a journalist. Unfortunately, there are many more homeless people who won't get such a break, although no doubt some will be trying to get a YouTube following in the near future. Even before the onset of this economic depression, an estimated 3.5 million US citizens experienced homelessness anually, and a 2010 report showed that the numbers had increased by 9% in just one year.

There is no doubt that a great pool of untapped talent lies within these many millions of people, talent which should be used for the benefit of all humanity. The same applies to the unemployed and underemployed, where they are just about able to keep a roof over their heads. However, under our present economic system, talent is only rewarded when it is can be exploited to make the wealthy even wealthier. Sadly, the unspoken message of the Williams coverage is that he is a rare deserving case, who has somehow ended up on the streets, but merits a so much better life because of his vocal cords. The implication is that the remainder must be undeserving, including the many ex-'heroes' of the armed forces who eke out an existence under the stars. Meanwhile, the obscene wealth enjoyed by the parasitical financial aristocracy is barely questioned.

Hopefully, Williams will get the care and attention he needs. In the short term, he will be able to make a lot of money, but those who boost him now are likely to drop him as soon as the novelty wears off. Those now waving cheques in his direction care nothing about the plight of the homeless - Chicago Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is CEO of Quicken Loans, which rakes in millions by seizing the homes of those unable to keep up payments. In this light, the 'gold' of Williams' label has only one meaning.
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