May 7, 2008

The Devil's Favorite Story

2008 1513 page5 capSNBC pundit Keith Olbermann regularly features an item titled “The Worst Person in the World” on his nightly Countdown news/entertainment/opinion show. In the segment, the host introduces three candidates whom he deems worthy of the title, surveys their qualifications, and crowns a winner. Olbermann’s biting, over-the-top satire, set against the musical backdrop of Bach’s dramatic Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, has made the feature one of the most popular elements of his show.
Were I to propose a print equivalent to Olbermann’s televised honorific, I would probably title it “The Devil’s Favorite Story.” And because space and time are at a premium in this medium—unlike television, where talking heads can bloviate forever—I’d offer just my current nominee.
A March 6, 2008, news release entitled “Bangkok restaurant to give big spenders a taste of poverty” informed readers of the $300,000 dinner being offered by Lebua Hotels to 50 of the chain’s top clients, prepared by three French chefs who collectively have earned eight coveted Michelin stars for culinary excellence. But lest we confuse this news item with a standard, run-of-the-mill-class envy story, the release went on to detail the hotel chain’s plans to serve the feast only after flying the super-rich clients by private jet to remote northeastern Thailand, which it noted is “one of the kingdom’s poorest regions.”
2008 1513 page5In a Surin province elephant camp, the wealthy clients would spend a short while learning about the lives of the “impoverished” elephant handlers, whose great beasts are often used to move fallen trees in the region’s timber industry. Safely back in Bangkok later the same day, the clients would “feast on lobster, black truffles and Roquefort ice cream,” according to the news release.
Let’s see: What do we have to work with here? Haute cuisine, exceptionally-rich “foodies,” a private jet, veiled concern for animal rights, a meal that can only scandalize anyone with a social conscience, and oh, yes, grinding poverty.
But what gives this news item my nomination as “The Devil’s Favorite Story” is the insidious way in which it allows readers to withdraw into smug moral superiority even as they salivate with the super-rich and wince at the evidence of poverty. How thoroughly convenient to be able to both envy those who can dine on truffles and think ourselves more righteous than they because we, at least, are not spending tens of thousands of dollars that could have been used to alleviate poverty on ourselves. We look at the rusting minivan in the driveway, remember the tedious coach-class flights to Omaha and Calgary, and castigate those who would waste thousands of dollars of jet fuel to acquaint themselves with what could be seen for free in many parts of Bangkok or any other major world metropolis.
As if we needed another reason to feel justified in our criticism of the high-living diners, the release added that “unlike after last year’s one-million-baht [$29,000 per person] meal, no money will be given to charity” since the hotel chain is footing the bill for all expenses, and wishes only to spark the altruism of its clients. They, presumably, may be inspired to do something to help the impoverished handlers. While dining on lobster and blue-cheese ice cream.
By story’s end, much to the devil’s merriment, we have tripped through several of the seven deadly sins and others that may be even more serious. We have envied the rich diners, coveted their excess, and become proud of our higher moral sentiments. We have turned the page as easily as the hotel chain’s clients turned from the faces of poverty to consider the menu of their Michelin-rated chefs. No hungry creature has been fed, not even the elephants.
Tabloid journalism invites us to window-shop on moral issues, teasing us into believing that thinking—and even emoting—about the world’s poor is enough. Unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees—and the hotel’s clients—we will not enter the kingdom of God, even though our souls overflow with lofty sentiments.
Pick up the phone; go to a Web site. Call or pledge online to a hunger-fighting organization that you believe in.
Make the devil wince, for a change. Start a story of your own.
Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review.