Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, July 15, 2005

Be prepared

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine (July 2005)

A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. - Edith Wharton

I don't know why so many people continue to insist that we're living in a democracy that somehow would have been recognizable to Franklin D Roosevelt or even to Richard M Nixon. The belief is bad for their health and mental stability, in no way conducive to the upkeep of a decent credit rating or an appropriate state of personal hygiene. Or so at least it would appear if I interpret correctly what I've seen of the writers who for the last six months have been showing up in the magazine's offices with stories about the perfidy of the Bush Administration. They come forward with so many proofs of whatever crime against liberty or conscience they happen to have in manuscript or in mind (the war in Iraq, the corruption of Wall Street, the ruin of the schools, the nullification of the United States Senate, et cetera) that they run the risk, as did the old Greek heroes who gazed upon the face of Medusa, of being changed into blocks of humorless stone. How can they hope to save the world from its afflictions - to stop the massacre of the innocents in Africa and Asia, preserve the Brazilian rain forest, uplift the multitudes in the slums of Las Vegas and Detroit, fight the war on terror in this darkest hour of the country's peril - if they allow themselves to become sullen and depressed, don't pay attention to their choice of adjective or to the grooming of their shoes? How can they expect to write important and financially rewarding books?

Maybe it's still worth the trouble to wonder when the American democracy lost its footing in Hollywood or Washington, but the historical fact is no more open to dispute than the extinction of the Carolina parakeet or the disappearance of Pickett's brigade on the field at Gettysburg. The setback doesn't mean that we must abandon our belief in the powers of the American imagination or the strength of the American spirit. If we have learned nothing else from the events of the last few years, it's the lesson about the facts being less important than the ways in which they're presented and perceived. Where is the joy in vain regret, where the profit to be gained by selling America short? Somewhere the sun is shining, and only a blind man doesn't look for the silver lining when clouds appear in skies of blue.

Why vilify President George W Bush as an illiterate lout forwarding freight for a rapacious oligarchy when it's just as easy to see in him almost the entire catalog of virtue listed in the Boy Scout Law - helpful, cheerful, courteous, loyal, friendly, obedient, and clean? The man finds himself burdened with undeserved misfortune in Iraq - American soldiers dying for reasons yet to be explained, money draining into the sand, angry and ungrateful Arabs killing polite and well-behaved Arabs, no good news anywhere in sight - and how does our President respond? Does he reproach his former CIA director, George Tenet, for testifying to the existence of fictitious weapons of mass destruction, dismiss Donald Rumsfeld, his secretary of defense, for ordering a military invasion while under the impression that he was playing a video game in a Virginia penny arcade. No sir, not George W Bush. We have before us a Commander-in-chief who remembers the Boy Scout Oath - to do his best, "to help other people at all times", to keep himself "physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight". Instead of berating Tenet with charges of incompetence or treason, the President decorates him with the Medal of Freedom; instead of sending Rumsfeld to a rest home among retired admirals in San Diego, he outfits him with another $450 billion to recruit an army of magical robots and pursue America's war on an unknown enemy and an abstract noun.

On a similarly admirable premise (that there is no loyal American undeserving of the nation's trust) the President nominates a bigot as America's ambassador to the United Nations, appoints to the federal appeals courts a synod of judges eager to swear their oaths on the book of Revelation. The decisions speak to the resolve of a man unwilling to take no for an answer, who holds fast both to the Christian theory of redemption and to the American belief in the second chance, the fresh start, and the new beginning - the very same set of doctrines that provided Mark Twain with the plot for Huckleberry Finn and furnished the pilgrim fathers with the chance to build in the American wilderness a New Jerusalem free from the encumbrances of history and the storage of prior arrest records.

To denounce the Bush Administration's foreign and domestic policies as the products of false advertising is to misunderstand the character of the American dream. If we don't recognize the fireworks display in Iraq as a sales promotion for America's "credibility in the world", we do ourselves a disservice and dishonor the memory of the Alamo and P T Barnum. The pioneers moving west of the Mississippi River in the 1840s chose for their captains men who could hearten them with descriptions of the land of milk and honey awaiting their arrival, like tomorrow's economic recovery or the democratic transformation of Iraq, just around the next bend in the river or across the next range of hills. The caravans had little use for doubts or maps. What was wanted was a leader on the order of Ronald Reagan, a booster blessed with the gift for what Harvard Business School professors define as "aspirational rhetoric", a preacher who could sell the story with or for a song.

As often happened when the joint venture came to grief, the company relied for its salvation on the invisible hand of the divine providence that since the days of James Fenimore Cooper's Deerslayer has supplied American expeditions with ways out of traps that ninety-nine times in a hundred would have doomed a lesser breed of men to certain bankruptcy or death - Major Reno and Captain Benteen departing in a timely fashion from the confusion at the Little Bighorn, John D Rockefeller emerging unscathed from the wreckage of the Standard Oil Trust, President Clinton wriggling free from Monica Lewinsky's thong. We can mention in the same dispatches the resourcefulness of the executives at United Airlines, who as recently as this May solved the riddle of the corporation's insolvency by defaulting on its obligation to pay the $6.6 billion in pensions owed to the 120,000 beneficiaries. So shrewd a stroke of initiative (bold, quick-witted, entrepreneurial) could have occurred only to people well-versed in the practice of rugged individualism.

When it was announced in April that each of the three principal executives at Viacom had awarded himself a total compensation of between $52 million and $56 million for services rendered to a company that in the same year lost $17.5 billion, various small-minded critics in the business press attributed the gesture to the sin of avarice. They missed the better meaning and the higher truth. As is well-known from the teachings of the Bible and Frank Capra movies, a man's spiritual worth cannot be measured by his worldly success. If the executives had sacrificed their principles on the altar of Mammon (bowing to the cynical and vulgar wisdom that looks for some sort of a correlation between a CEO's pay scale and the company's share price), how could they be certain of their inner righteousness? And without a proper sense of self-esteem, how could they muster the courage to lead their investors into the mountains of limitless wealth? Had Brigham Young been cowed by the conventional wisdom harrying the Mormon faithful in the streets of Nauvoo, Illinois, his wagon trains never would have come safely home to the kingdom of Deseret on the shores of the great Salt Lake; if General George S Patton had listened to the voices of bureaucratic caution, the Third Army never would have reached the bridge at Remagen.

As intrepid as the executives at Viacom but more innovative in his grasp of virtual reality than the accountants at Enron, Bernard Ebbers, the former chief executive of WorldCom, conceived an $11 billion swindle by thinking as far outside the box as did the Wright brothers and Thomas Edison. Fearless on the threshold of the unknown, he ventured over the horizon into the kingdom of imaginary numbers and found gold where none was known to exist. At least 20,000 people lost both their jobs and their pensions, but how else did America settle the Great Plains if not in the company of dead or dying Indians?

Nor did Ebbers flinch in the face of adversity when brought into court last February on charges of criminal fraud. As forthright as the young George Washington contemplating the stump of the chopped-down cherry tree, Ebbers made no attempt to hide behind the screen of a lawyer's weaseling lies. "I don't know about technology" he said, "and I don't know about finance and accounting".

A similar telling of humble, frontier truths distinguished the testimony of L Dennis Kozlowski, former chief executive of Tyco International, when two months later he followed Ebbers into a courtroom to explain why he had stolen $150 million from his own company and how he had drawn an illegal profit from the sale of falsely inflated Tyco stock worth $575 million. Another of the trend-setting pioneers in the wilderness of postmodern capitalism, Kozlowski described himself as a visionary misled by charlatans, helpless in the hands of scoundrels. Asked why he neglected to inform the IRS of a $25 million addition to his income in 1999, Kozlowski said, "I was not thinking when I signed my tax return". Asked whether he had such a thing as a computer in his office, he said, "Yes, but just for show".

Look for the silver lining in the confessions of Ebbers and Kozlowski, and instead of a sorry farce the careful reader finds inspirational narrative fit for Oprah or a White House press release. Two poor but honest youths born on the wrong side of the tracks rising in the world on the rafts of pluck and grit into the bright light of big-time money and success and there adopted as pets by a news media that praises their brilliance and exclaims over the size of their net worth. Less steadfast individuals might have become confused in the glare of cheap publicity, given way to a sense of social inferiority in the company of even richer corporate folks who kept expensive mistresses, belonged to exclusive clubs, owned zeppelins and 120-foot yachts. Not Ebbers and Kozlowski. As firm of purpose as two Boy Scouts earning merit badges,
they acquired more companies, bought bigger yachts, paid $500,000 for wallpaper strewn with hand-painted birds. When neither frog changed into a prince, they didn't lose heart, didn't abandon the pilgrim road to self-affirmation. Ebbers remained in his Mississippi workshop, continuing to manufacture his ever-more-wonderful numbers, homespun and hand-sewn; Kozlowski sallied boldly forth into the high-end consumer markets, collecting an $18 million apartment on Fifth Avenue, and presenting his wife with a party in Sardinia that cost $2 million in company money and delighted the assembled guests with an ice sculpture of Michelangelo's David that urinated vodka.

As to the uses of Kozlowski's computer, what else is every political campaign speech and real estate prospectus if not a gesture made "just for show"? It is our glory as a people to prefer the word to the deed, the image of the thing in place of the thing itself. The Department of Homeland Security in early May disclosed that among the antiterrorism devices it had acquired at a cost of $4.5 billion since September 11 2001, few have proved effective. The radiation monitors at ship terminals can't differentiate between radiation emitted by a nuclear bomb and radiation seeping out of cat litter, ceramic tile, or a crate of bananas. The metal detectors at airports can't be trusted to notice a handgun.

Fortunately for the hope of the country's always better and brighter future, we're blessed with a mainstream news media that shuns sarcasm and knows where to look on the sunny side of life for the silver threads among the gray. A particularly heart-warming proof of the all-volunteer attitude appeared in late May in the pages of Newsweek. On May 9 the magazine had published a brief bulletin, anonymously sourced but government-sponsored, to the effect that interrogators in the American prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed down a toilet a copy of the Koran. The report provoked riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan that killed at least seventeen people, and by May 18, Newsweek was accepting the blame for any damage that might have been done to America's good name and reputation in the world.

Although the item had been shown to Pentagon officials prior to its publication, the magazine hadn't apparently received the government's explicit permission to print what it had been told was the truth. Did the editors stand on the right to free expression guaranteed by the First Amendment? Did they observe that it was the American military occupation of Iraq, not Newsweek, that was stirring up trouble among the Afghans and Pakistanis? No sir, never in life. The editors followed orders, fell on the grenade, took one for the team. Which is the proper way to behave in a make-believe democracy - show the flag, blow the bugle, learn to see what isn't there.

Bill Totten


  • ""if General George S Patton had listened to the voices of bureaucratic caution, the Third Army never would have reached the bridge at Remagen""

    I remember that when i read this, i wrote a letter to Harper's pointing out that it was the 9th division of the 1st Army that reached the Lundendorf bridge, and that Patton never actually crossed the Rhine until a few weeks later, by boats and ad-hoc bridge-work... and certainly nowhere near Remagen.

    I don't think they ever published a correction.

    By Blogger GARRHHGH, at 9:04 AM, January 09, 2016  

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