Monday, August 08, 2005

train of thought?

Today I received from my auto-insurance company an "important notice" informing me that, should I decide to purchase a locomotive, I am not covered for any accidents I may have in it. As the inimitable humor columnist Dave Barry used to say, no, I am not making this up. Presumably, of course, State Farm, the nation's largest auto insurer, sent this notice not just to me, but to all of its 34 million insureds. Which, to my mind, means that right now, about 33.999 million of us are staring at this notice and thinking, "What the f...?"

At first blush this might seem to have little to do with the nominal subject of this blog. But if you look a bit deeper, there are several points of overlap between SHAM and State Farm.

  • First of all, in its latest missive, State Farm is addressing--and no doubt, from its perspective, fixing--a problem that for all intents and purposes does not exist. Call me crazy, but I feel confident that relatively few State Farm insureds have had mornings where they woke up, leaned over to their significant others and, even before discussing the latest intelligence on Brad and Angelina, said something like, "You know, honey, what we really need is a locomotive...." Yet the notice makes it seem like this is a legitimate issue--legitimate enough to warrant notifying 34 million Americans, under a dire-sounding heading, in an envelope marked PLEASE OPEN IMMEDIATELY! The analogy here isn't perfect, but the high priests and priestesses of self-help have made a killing off the notion that the diseases, dysfunctions, syndromes, and conditions they're peddling afflict just about all of us; in truth, the universe of people who really need meaningful remediation in their lives--and who can be helped in any case by someone like Tony Robbins or Dr. Phil--may not be much larger than the universe of people who were thinking of insuring a locomotive with State Farm until they got today's notice. There you have it, Victimization in a nutshell: appealing to a mass-market audience with a message that, in reality, applies to almost no one. Having said that...
  • It seems entirely likely that my fellow insureds and I are getting this notice because some State Farm customer, somewhere, actually did buy a locomotive and got himself in trouble with it. I do not know of any such pertinent facts; a Google search proved fruitless. But it wouldn't surprise me if something like that happened. In which case the person who was damaged--as soon as he dusted himself off following his locomotive encounter--went to the yellow pages and let his fingers walk to the nearest big-name PI attorney. Because that is what we do in latter-day America: Whatever goes wrong, we sue. Although this is no great newsflash, as I point out in SHAM, very few of us pause on our way to court to think of how we came to this sorry state of affairs. There's good evidence that self-help's Victimization wing established the mental climate for such litigation by teaching us all to blame everything that goes wrong in our lives on somebody or something else. Simply put, the self-help movement that grew out of the I'm OK, You're OK 1960s defined away the notion of the random, tough-luck event. Everybody's tough luck became somebody's fault. Which also explains why kids playing Little League nowadays dress for games as if they were auditioning for a role in a King Arthur movie, or maybe a job with the local S.W.A.T. team rather than a baseball team.Though this gear has not necessarily protected the children, from a safety standpoint it has definitely hurt us all: Just see the conclusion of my book, "A SHAM Society." If you don't want to spring for a copy, pick it up at the library. It's worthwhile reading. And it'll help you understand why so many good products that needed inventing took so long to get to market...

P.S. Oh, I can't insure a bulldozer either. Damn...

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