Point of View Columns

Blindness of the Mind


          We learn so much about ourselves during times of adversity. We learn about our sense of self and purpose. We plumb the depths of our determination and perseverance. We learn the truth of the friendship and the love and support of our collective acquaintances, friends, family and loved ones. The same can also be said of a nation.

          During times of stress and trial and tribulation the character of a country makes itself known. The resiliency and resolve demonstrated by the United States during and after the Great Depression and World War II are hallmarks within the entire span of global history. The national capacity for reform and intransigence as demonstrated during the height of the modern civil rights movement also revealed certain American character traits – and the impermanence of imperfection. And as we view the excruciating unfolding of the greatest single environmental disaster in American history there is an opportunity to learn more about this country and about its president and its citizenry and those who would presume to comment on the meaning of it all.

          President Obama has moved with characteristic competence drama-free excellence. As always, his belief in, and commitment to, institutional process and transformation can be seen in the various steps that have been taken by the myriad of governmental agencies and military forces that have been mobilized since the very beginning of this latest crisis in his presidency. Of course commitments to institutional process are rarely the source of inspiration or comfort even though it is institutional transformation that will ultimately mitigate the BP Gulf disaster and it is institutional transformation that will lessen the opportunity for the next disaster.

          Unfortunately, commitment to institutional process and transformation does not serve as a useful platform for the soaring oratory that propelled the President Obama into the political stratosphere. Describing the steps that need to be taken for institutional transformation must seem like the reading of the phone book to the people of the Gulf region who are experiencing immediate and profound suffering.

          If President Obama were more tactile it might make a difference for the moment. If he could more clearly articulate that he “feels the pain” of the fisherman who has lost his livelihood or of the hotel owner who has lost her way of life, it might make a difference. But that difference would be transitory. The institutional transformation needed to manage the energy industries so that coal miners don’t have to die and the wildlife of an entire national quadrant doesn’t have to be destroyed will mean so much more for generations to come.

But that is difficult to explain in a country that has been seduced by sound bites. Transformational process doesn’t translate well in a country that thinks “Where’s the beef?” and “Drill baby drill” are articulate presentations of useful political discourse.

And in the midst of this adversity the critics of the Obama Administration make themselves known to us in a unique and different manner. It was to be expected that the BP Gulf disaster would be billed as “Obama’s Katrina” almost as soon as the first thousand gallons of oil bubbled to the surface. The facts are that the governmental response of the Obama Administration to the oil spill is far superior to anything that occurred after Hurricane Katrina. But facts have never gotten in the way of the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh.

But during the last week of national pain and suffering there have been other revelations. During the past few days Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal and David Brooks of The New York Times have engaged in philosophical extrapolations in order to advance their political ideology. That would be remarkable if it were not also so transparently self-serving. Somehow they have come to the conclusion that the fact that the Obama Administration has not been able to part the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and march on the ocean floor to stem the oil flow proves the inherent limitations of government in addressing the needs of Americans. Incredibly, we are supposed to believe that all of the right wing of the right wing arguments regarding the need to limit the growth of “big government” are ratified by the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.

I have written in the past about this argument against “big government” and it may be that repetition is akin to whistling into the wind. Nevertheless it should be clear to even the casual observer that the genesis of the BP disaster is related to the lack of sufficient government oversight of the energy industry. It should also be clear to such renowned writers like Ms. Noonan and Mr. Brooks that the root cause of the disaster can be found in the need for a comprehensive and transformative (there goes that word again) change in this country’s energy policies. This is change that can only be effected by the government.

Moreover, only “big government” has the resources and institutional capacity to address huge crises and disasters whether they are in Nashville or the Gulf of Mexico or at the World Trade Center in New York City. Only “big government” can manage the social security system, student loan programs, Medicare in all of its palliative manifestations and, of course, there is national defense.

But I have to wonder at the timing of these commentators who want to take advantage of the suffering of the people of the Gulf to advance their political philosophy. That rhetorical exercise that might be appropriate at an exclusive cocktail reception in Georgetown. But in the real world now is simply not the time to score cheap points when the crisis and the people of this country need real solutions.

Wallace Ford is the Principal of Fordworks Associates, a New York-based management consulting firm and is the author of two novels, The Pride and What You Sow.


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