The two columns on opposite sides of yesterday’s New York Times were a study in jarring juxtaposition. In the one, David Brooks explored the incoherence of America’s response to the oil spew in the gulf. Boiled down to its essentials, the populace at once wants a limited government – one that will concentrate on the few things that it can do with some competence – and, at the same time, one that will DO SOMETHING to solve our myriad problems.
In times of crisis, you get a public reaction that is incoherence on stilts. On the one hand, most people know that the government is not in the oil business. They don’t want it in the oil business. They know there is nothing a man in Washington can do to plug a hole a mile down in the gulf.
On the other hand, they demand that the president “take control.” They demand that he hold press conferences, show leadership, announce that the buck stops here and do something. They want him to emote and perform the proper theatrical gestures so they can see their emotions enacted on the public stage.
They want to hold him responsible for things they know he doesn’t control. Their reaction is a mixture of disgust, anger, longing and need. It may not make sense. But it doesn’t make sense that the country wants spending cuts and doesn’t want cuts, wants change and doesn’t want change.
On the opposite side of the same page, Bob Herbert’s column was a portrait of the very incoherence about which Brooks was writing. Herbert begins his column by condemning the creation of institutions that are “too big to fail” and efforts to drill in places too deep to repair. He laments the helplessness of America – and particularly its leadership – in the face of our various crises, but goes on to call NOT for a reduction in our hubris, but an increase in our “can-do spirit that made America the greatest of nations.” He calls for a second “Manhattan project” of energy development (does he know what the first Manhattan project created?), and for “dynamic leadership” to take control of our situation.
In response to his observation that “all around us is the wreckage of our failure to master the challenges confronting us,” he calls for the expansion of mastery, all the while vaguely but inchoately aware that those very failures are the result of previous efforts of mastery.
What’s remarkable about the images of the oil spewing from the severed pipe a mile deep in the Gulf is the widespread belief that this leakage represents an environmental catastrophe in contrast to the norm. Our understanding of the “norm,” of course, is the belief that we control our circumstances and fate. Our true norm, in fact, consists in a more widespread but no less disastrous release of poison into our world. The norm that we fantasize about returning to is when we imagine that we control our circumstances by pumping the substance through pipes to containers to refineries to gas stations to automobiles to exhaust pipes to a warming atmosphere (or, to fertilizer factories to farm machinery to topsoil to erosion to rivers and back to dead zones of the Gulf). In other words, our experience and belief in “control” is little different in the end than our current felt condition of “helplessness.” The only real difference at the moment is the concentrated visibility of the disaster, one that makes visible what is usually hidden – that our civilization exists by poisoning our world, by a concerted and organized effort to release toxic substances from confines where they are relatively sequestered for life to flourish, to a condition where we must come to mistrust the food that we eat, the air that we breath, the water that we drink. Rather than dispersed throughout the world – including the very molecular composition of our bodies – the spew allows us to see with unusual clarity the nature of our civilization. Yet we treat it as an exception, a momentary and controllable lapse, the fault of nefarious oil profiteers, rather than the rule, our “way of life.”
It is at once painful and risible to watch the indignation of our modern moralists, from talking heads who claim to “keep them honest” to a President who must insistently exhibit sufficient quantities of rage (apparently by the clenching of his jaw), who demand that government DO SOMETHING when it’s precisely the modern State that was conceived to foster the conditions whereby we would indefinitely extend our mastery of nature. Nearly every effort one now witnesses by that same modern State is aimed at employing its massive power toward the end of mitigating the mounting (and probably uncontrollable) consequences of that very project of mastery. We live in the wake of efforts to control the natural world – in significant part by harnessing concentrated ancient sunlight – and see the fruits of our labor not only in the poisoned gulf, but a poisoned world. We live in the aftermath of efforts to eliminate risk from our financial world – and see the fruits of that effort in an economic crisis that remains at the edge of conflagration. We live in the shadow of efforts to eliminate all forms of human suffering and want, and face a future of unpayable debts for payments given to the richest generation on earth. We live in a time of self-satisfaction of our brilliance and inventiveness, but pen articles questioning why it is that – for all our technology – we seem to be daily more stupid.
In the face of these crises, we are trapped in the deepest imaginable form of incoherence: we call for more control over the consequences of mastery, yet vaguely recognize that this very response is the source of our deepest troubles. Yet, shorn of our ability to respond in a way that questions or challenges this default response, we allow our indignation to carry us over any doubts and our finger-pointing to avoid any question of our own complicity. But for the fact that catastrophes surround us and any action we take is only likely to draw them nearer, it would be the silliest season of all, an amusement for the ages.