8 May 2008 |
On Medina Street in South Philly you aren’t likely to find a tanner or a basket weaver or a potter or a rug maker or soup ladler, a knife sharpener or stone cutter. On this hidden cutout between Seventh and Eighth, Wharton and Reed, its name derived from the Arabic word for “city,” there are no drying spices, no spools of colorful thread, no bottles of perfume. The 20 or so walled medinas of Northern Africa are cacophonous, labyrinthine places of dizzying intensity. Half-block Medina Street, with its weeping cherry tree, Zagar mosaic (Cristo Rey on horseback, no less), and hanging flower baskets, isn’t. “Oasis Street” would be more suitable.
It is possible that Medina was used to signify the street’s position between two lively curb markets, the Jewish market on Seventh Street, long defunct, and the Italian Market, which may be the closest thing we have to the intimacy and sensuality of a medina. Unfortunately, the street isn’t listed in Bob Alotta’s almanac of Philadelphia street names, Mermaids, Monasteries, Cherokees and Custer, so we’re left to imagine that whoever gave Medina its name also named Titan, the miniature passage one block away.
But what may have been dry humor a century ago is standard marketing practice today. A quick glance at Toll Brothers offerings reveals Plumstead Chase and Charlestown Meadows, Dutchess Farm Estates, Doylestown Woods, Rivercrest and Regency, the Reserve at Pond Creek. We all know what you won’t find in these places: meadows, woods, farms, rivers, and ponds. This sort of thing seems well-suited to extol pretend environmental virtues. An ad in the current issue of Harper’s says that for reaching 21 City MPG, Chevrolet’s enormous Tahoe Hybrid is the “Green Car of the Year;” another claims Shell Oil is producing “cleaner city air.”
In the same issue, Kevin Phillips argues that the culture of lying extends well beyond Madison Avenue into what was once imagined to be sacrosanct in a liberal democracy: objective bureaucracy. By deliberately falsifying economic data, every administration since Kennedy has molded key indicators to bend public opinion. Food, energy, and housing have been removed from the government’s gauge of inflation, the Consumer Price Index, rendering it false — and irrelevant to most consumers. Phillips says this finagling has resulted in an “opacity crisis,” where economic measurements are too complicated to be understood. “Intricacy,” he writes, “has become a conduit for deception.”
And as David Barstow reported recently in The New York Times, intricacy defines the Pentagon’s strategy to manipulate public opinion. Retired military brass, most of whom maintain hidden-to-viewers business relationships with defense contractors, are massaged, spoon-fed, coddled, then presented as authorities at CNN, Fox, NBC and the other networks. It took Barstow a feat of epic journalism to unravel the complex war-selling scheme as crafty marketing. The rest of us, weary from the constant mode of false discourse, can only wonder how bad the war really is.
Thus it comes as no surprise that just in time for tourist season the now six-and-a-half-year-old “temporary” barricades around Independence Hall have received their annual decorative, patriotic bunting. Here is the Orwellian gesture suitable for a nation accustomed to believing surface pronouncements, no matter how false and self-deceiving. Perhaps tourists don’t get the irony. To us Philadelphians, now used to having our most powerful symbol of liberty locked up, the result of the bunting isn’t anger, rather only the melancholy produced by a lie that’s gone on too long.