Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hope sinks

The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed. (Revelation 8:8)

It’s hard to know which is more astonishing: the yet ongoing creation of what likely will be the worst single ecological disaster of modern times or the somnambulant reaction of the public to this catastrophe. The reality, however, is that they are two sides of the same coin.

The American mainstream media has seemingly lost all ability to evaluate the events of our times. Its sole basis for deciding what to report are how many eyeballs a story will attract. If an event lacks sex or violence, has no immediately obvious connection to people’s everyday lives, is too complicated to be explained in 60 seconds, or is not trumpeted by a celebrity or well-known politician (the latter being a subset of the former), then its airtime or column space will be minimal, at best. Stories are not pursued or developed; there is no time or money for that. Besides, all the Woodwards and Bernsteins were long ago put out to pasture.

Needless to say, the oil industry culprits in this fiasco have no interest in drawing any more attention to the disaster than is unavoidable. Honestly, who can blame them? No, the scandal beyond the scandal of the blowout itself is the blanket being thrown over it by our government, with the acquiescence of President Obama. Beyond the public’s reaction, where is his outrage?

A month into this catastrophe, the unavoidable realization is that the president is keeping as much of this story below the radar screen as he can. There are probably multiple explanations for this but it fits with a disturbing pattern of this administration to shield big business from the consequences of its actions. A growing number of commentators are recognizing the parallel between the current hands-off attitude towards BP and the protection of the TBTF banks last year at the start of the Obama administration.

It is now obvious that BP has been lying from the start about the quantity of oil gushing from its blown well. Again, no surprise. What is incredible is how government agencies have not only not challenged BP’s estimates but have seemed to go out of their way to avoid coming up with their own figures. But this only continues what has also become obvious, the dereliction of duty at all levels of the agencies charged with regulating offshore drilling.

Following the almost laughably pathetic performance of oil and drilling company executives testifying before congress, President Obama came out to sternly chastise them for their finger pointing and blame games. There have also been announcements of regulatory reorganization. Yet the scope and horror of this event continues to be downplayed and, of course, the oil continues to pour out.

Obama’s lecture was very similar to his expression of dismay last winter with banking executives’ resistance to his reform proposals. For this appearance he trotted out grim faced Paul Volcker to stand at his side and relegated Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to the sidelines. Volcker is known as the only administration figure to have consistently urged that the TBTF banks be severely reined in by new government regulation. But Volcker is only an advisor and, after Obama’s public tongue lashing of the banks, disappeared from view once again.

In the 1950s a GM CEO famously said, “What’s good for GM is good for the country.” Barack Obama seems to have accepted this philosophy, now applied to corporate America generally. It is very likely that he came into office having been convinced that the nation’s economy was on the precipice of a Depression-like collapse. And that assessment may very well have been accurate. Avoiding this, however, has resulted in two pernicious strategies. One was to keep the magnitude of the danger a secret to prevent the public’s panic from giving the economy the final push over the cliff. The second has been to give time and protection to the country’s seriously wounded banks and other corporations to enable them to rebuild and power a national recovery.

What has not been considered, however, is the possibility that the financial collapse was the result of systemic problems in the nation’s and even the world’s economy. For if that was the case, then simply putting all the old economic pieces back in place will only set us up for yet another crisis, probably worse than the last. And many financial and economic observers fear this is indeed what is in the offing. Increasingly, Obama’s fabled caution and pragmatism seems to playing right into the hands of those whose primary goal is protecting the status quo. Virtually all his advisors are Washington and Wall Street veterans who can only see the world from the perspective of those vantage points.

While the pettiness and goofiness of the Bush administration are gone, it is remarkable how little else has changed. What better sign of this was there than the announcement of yet another supplemental appropriation for the Pentagon? Combat deaths in Afghanistan have passed the 1,000 mark and more American troops are now there than in Iraq. Meanwhile the vision of our future in Afghanistan only gets murkier and our tactics become more reprehensible.

“Change you can believe in” was one of Obama’s primary campaign slogans yet change is exactly what seems to be most missing. Add to that “Yes we can” and “The power of hope” and the emptiness and cynicism of it all becomes all too familiar and very sad.

Having supported and voted for Barack Obama my feeling is of disappointment, of course, but also embarrassment and foolishness. I was taken for this ride once before with Bill Clinton—how could I not have learned? Fool me once: shame on you. Fool me twice: shame on me. And while the consequence of his words cannot be treated lightly, it is hard after a generation of misgovernment and deceit not to think again of Thomas Jefferson’s famous warning: “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. …[W]hat country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.”

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