COLUMN: Lost without 'Lost'

Sunday, May 23, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:29 p.m. CDT, Sunday, May 23, 2010

COLUMBIA — In all my life I’ve never committed to a television show like I did to "Lost." I don’t even own a TV, so I watched every episode either on DVD or streaming video on my computer. Sunday night, it will end, and I’ve begun to imagine my future without Jack, Kate, Sawyer and all the other characters that I personified into real beings that populated my day-to-day existence during the six seasons the series lasted.

The mystery that has haunted me over the years, however, has nothing to do with “the island” and the bands of time-roving misfits that created its suspense. Rather, I struggled to understand why the saga so resonated within me. Then, in an epiphany, I realized it’s because like the characters on Lost, I’ve been lost — for nine “seasons” now — in Columbia, marooned on a landlocked Missouri island where I don’t belong but stay welded for a purpose I’ve only just begun to fully understand.

In those nine years, it seems to me, Columbia — like “the Island” on Lost — has become a meaner, uglier and more sinister place. And despite all the self-congratulatory expressions of the politicians who run the place, there are aspects of our community that manage to keep outsiders, like me, outside — lost and transitory.

Part of the reason Columbia has devolved is because America has, too. Riven by uncivil discourse, partisan clashes, a rising tide of bigotry and a mounting self-centeredness and disinclination toward compassion and caring, we have succumbed to that same dismal tenor. After 9/11, it never dawned on me that we’d transform so significantly from the solidarity that existed in the aftermath of the attack to the disengaged souls we are today.

Here, during election cycles such as the mid-terms currently underway, my sense of “otherness” becomes more pronounced. The phrase “Missouri values” percolates to the surface, as politicians of every ilk use it to crack open the fissures that separate us into an “in” group and an “out” group. Every two years, the phrase re-emerges just like the characters on Lost who die, only to return again in a different timeline.

Our congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer, who is running unchallenged, defines the term on his website, saying these values mean denying women procreative choice, forbidding people to forge families because they are the same sex, touting gun ownership and imposing draconian measures against millions of people caught in a badly warped immigration system.

Well, that’s the way I interpret what he says. I'm not the only person who doesn't share a single one of those values, so the effort to label them as Missouri’s immediately turns us all into outsiders. And I can’t help feeling that’s exactly what people like Luetkemeyer deliberately intend, diminishing any opposition by delegitimizing anyone with a different worldview.

And then, I feel lost when I observe our leadership resolve problems in a way that’s insular and parochial, as if no one else has ever confronted these issues or devised constructive solutions to them before. The latest example is the city’s IBM gambit, one reportedly hailed by Regional Economic Development Inc. as “the single most significant impact in private sector jobs for mid-Missouri in the history of Columbia.” Huh?

The look on the faces of the gaggle of public officials that gathered to announce IBM’s plans reminded me of the expressions my twin daughters used to exhibit when as toddlers they successfully navigated their potty chairs. With that “look what I did” smirk, our civic leaders just made a bargain that will ultimately cost taxpayers $31 million without sufficient enforcement mechanisms to assure Columbia, the county or the state will ever get the benefit of its bargain.

That’s because had they checked, they’d know that tax incentives to spur economic growth don’t necessarily guarantee anything, while allowing corporate giants to play communities against one another to see which one will make the dumbest deal. “Project Tiger” may actually work in the long run, but it’s just a roll of the dice like any other investment, and it certainly isn’t of the same magnitude or significance as a company showing up just because it wanted to.

Compare it to Columbia's No. 1 employer. Last fiscal year, MU pumped approximately $800 million in wages into the Columbia and state economy (with 80 percent of it coming from sources other than taxpayers). Rather than supporting its contribution, politicians have spent two years cutting deals that have helped place MU at the bottom of the salary heap among the Association of American Universities schools. Nearly everyone agrees that creates a competitive and hiring deficiency that could irretrievably tarnish Missouri’s most important asset.

Just a 3 percent raise for each of the last two years would have injected a guaranteed $48 million into the local and state economy, ironically about the same impact political leaders are only gambling on receiving from IBM. When you factor in the income, property and sales taxes that would have been returned and the economic impact of 30,000 students continuing to live and eat their way through two semesters and summer school, the cost to taxpayers would likely not have exceeded the millions in corporate welfare given to IBM, a company worth about $170 billion on the stock market.

So, maybe “Missouri values” don't encompass things such as regard for education. But even voters in a deep red, xenophobic state like Arizona just overwhelmingly passed a one cent sales tax increase, knowing it's a good idea to prevent damaging cuts to education. Do they understand something we don’t?

See what I mean? It’s hard to figure the logic that drives these decisions, the kind that makes me feel so … well … lost. Perhaps, it’s time to give up the “Show-Me State” moniker, the one that’s spelled incorrectly on all of our license plates. Maybe, we need to adopt a more creative and inclusive name that models the values of a diverse population that’s truly committed to innovation and forward thinking, like the “Show-Them State.” I’m at a loss to understand why we won’t.

Michael Jonathan Grinfeld is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and a co-director of MU’s Center for the Study of Conflict, Law and the Media.

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