The Discreet Charm of “This American Life”

Back in September the folks from This American Life did a financial crisis recap episode (which I’m just now getting around to, since I’ve been listening to my podcasts via Google Reader, which seems to rub TAL the wrong way for some reason?)

Anyway, here’s a snippet of dialogue between Adam “Planet Money” Davidson and a guy called Glen, a “mortgage company sales manager” i.e. one of the people who used to package risky mortgages together and make oodles of money selling them. Glen has since lost most all of his money and undergone something of a transformation:


Glen: I’m driving a car now that has no paint on it…you know, it’s a piece of junk. And…I used to think that it mattered, you know? But, it doesn’t.

Adam: I’m picturing an alternative Glen — the Glen from the world where there was no bubble bursting, the Glen who’s still making $100,000 a month, who still has that lifestyle…and I’m picturing meeting that Glen today. And I feel like I like this Glen a lot more!

Glen: Yeah, without a doubt. Well, because…how do I explain this? Other than…that Glen was about Glen. And this Glen, is about what I can bring to — trying not to sound cliche — society. What I can bring to my family. What I can do to make sure that we don’t keep creating that Glen. You know?


It is very emotional stuff. The jarring change in Glen’s life forced him to essentially create a new Glen. This allowed him to look critically at his old identity — particularly as he had performed it through wildly conspicuous consumption.

There’s an old sociological conundrum here: how much of our identity is unequivocally our own? How much is produced as a “role” by the social institutions and ideological structures around around us? Further, what powers benefit from enforcing those institutions? I mean, my liberal arts alarm bells really went off when I heard that sentence in bold, because it was Glen acknowledging that society had something to do with creating “Glen.”

But…I also suspect that TAL as a text wants me to have this reaction. If you listen to the whole podcast, the hosts are very careful to shift blame away from Glen or any of the other individuals profiled in the show and towards “society” or “culture.” I do think this is appropriate in this instance since the financial crisis was clearly an institutional crisis — but I also think that this bemused, albeit well informed, detachment is part of the TAL brand. Like, they are clearly not going for outrage and righteous indignation, the bread and butter of Rush Limbaugh and legions of other ultra conservative talk radio hosts. Instead, the antidote to that — there is really no discussion of politics at all!

We are supposed to identify Glen as having fallen victim to American “rugged individualism” gone haywire, or the craven “corporate culture” of Wall Street financial firms — views which, incidentally, I agree with. But of course I’m the ideal white middle class listener!

Also note that we’re not really supposed to bridge our analysis into any kind of action, nor are we supposed to hold Glen (ourselves) accountable. No, the corruption and redemption of Glen is a narrative arc that fits neatly into the TAL genre which, largely by masquerading as realism, gives us listeners pleasure.

I will go even further out on this limb and claim that we’re supposed to internalize Glen’s plight as we work towards a greener, more diverse and democratic (community-friendly) capitalism — the supreme symbol of which is Barack Obama! Yay America! etc.



2 Responses to “The Discreet Charm of “This American Life””

  1. William Bruntrager Says:

    Matthew 19: 16-24
    Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
    “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”

    “Which ones?” the man inquired.

    Jesus replied, ” ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,'[d] and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.'[e]”

    “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

    Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

    When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

    Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

    I’m not sure I actually disagree with you, but I certainly don’t think about Glen’s story in way that you describe here. Well, alright, I’ll go further than that. Talking about Glen’s story in terms of the evils of capitalism or the role society imposes upon us is a distraction from a problem that has deeper roots than a massive government and corporate conspiracy against the citizens of the world.

    It seems to me that your analysis relies on the implicit assumption that people basically have no core problems, it’s only civilization and its institutions that corrupts them. I have no evidence on how satisfied ancient hunter-gatherer people were with their lives, but I just suspect that that’s wrong.

    You said to me once that the libertarian’s mistake is to see everything in terms of government. I think you’re making a related mistake by seeing everything in terms of invisible structures in society that keep everyone “in little boxes,” as Mark says in that quote that I always bring up.

    I don’t seem to have a thesis here and it’s a comment so I’m not going to rewrite it, but to your post I agree in part and disagree in part. I’m glad that TAL almost never engages in politics, but you seem to abhor the vacuum so much that you have to create a villain in a story where there isn’t one, which I think takes away from the importance of the message.

  2. tripinchina Says:

    Yeah, I’ll admit to sharing in some of this Marxist bias that kind of echoes the old utopian “noble savage” image of pre-capitalist society…I think that’s a BIG assumption that Marxists sometimes make and a legitimate criticism on your part.

    Furthermore, I think what makes TAL great in this instance is its ability to appeal to the universality of Glen’s greed and subsequent shame. Those are feelings that we can all sympathize with, presented in a disarmingly honest way. (Your scripture quote is apt — the story is bringing up ideas that have deep roots in our culture.)

    But I just can’t help but be a little suspicious whenever there’s supposed to be *no* politics to something!

    To clarify: I’m not claiming that people are automatically captured in impenetrable “little boxes” by some anonymously evil anti-human force. Rather, using Glen’s story as a jumping off point, I’m claiming that identity is not a rigid thing — instead, it’s a process during which people have to continually negotiate with all kinds of values, stories, and positions circulating in society, all of which have something to do with power politics. Glen takes a critical look at some of those while retelling his story; I’m trying to take a critical look at some of them while listening to it.

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