Thursday, 1 November 2012

How about we dig our heads out of Coney Island sand?

It is too early to appreciate the long-term impact of Hurricane Sandy, but already there are stirrings of unease, perhaps a dawning sense that we are indeed in a brand new ballgame. And no, I do not refer to the (yawn) presidential foolishness. This is something much more visceral and serious.

I wish I had a copy of something a woman read a year or so ago down at the Poets’ House in its old Soho location. She explained that somewhere on an island off Lake Michigan, I believe it was, a tiny group of a half-dozen birds representing the last of their species being driven into extinction, was observed by naturalists. Little by little, she described in her short piece, they stopped flying out to feed or gather debris for their nests and simply huddled together in a seizure of dazed passivity.

The story has stuck in my mind.

As disasters go, this storm is nothing special, and plenty of places around the country and the world go through much worse on a regular basis. But this is New York City, home of the masters of the universe and their ruling banks—this is not supposed to happened to us.

I dare to predict that Romney’s pathetic trashing of FEMA as part of his four-legs-good, government-bad litany is going to be ditched (although I see he lamely attempted to whip up the right-wing talking point about how ‘just folks’ will pitch in to help their neighbors without any bad old gummint getting in their way). It’s pretty hard to stand there with the waters lapping at your ankles and argue that the private sector should somehow magically come to the rescue and pump the water out of the subway tunnels.

But now that the storm-of-the-century now occurs once every few months, the non-topic of climate change is going to force its way back onto the agenda. No doubt the oil companies and their intellectual enforcers, like the cigarette companies before them, will find a way to adjust to the new conditions and shift their discourse away from total denial to something that will enable them to extend the delays and keep their earnings intact.

But what we really need is a sharp break from the Pollyanna past in which mindless pseudo-debates over the reality of climate change have been permitted to block the screamingly urgent need for immediate action. Back during the run-up to the Iraq war, Condie Rice and her thugs used to go on TV to warn ominously that we could not afford the luxury of a ‘mushroom cloud’ error if we got the facts wrong on Hussein’s weaponry. You don’t hear much about the need to act on greenhouse gases even if there were lingering doubts about the science—which there aren’t—despite the many mushroom clouds in our collective future.

That’s why Obama will be marked by future generations of historians—if there are any—as a presidential failure. Not because he’s done such a terrible job overall, but because he had a tiny, platinum opportunity to rip up business as usual and set the country on a different path, and he refused to use it. Even if he had been crushed by the security state and the financier elites, he could have opened up the needed debate and staked out positions on the issues that can and probably will kill us, such as the looming climatic disaster. Instead, we remain leaderless.

This impassioned open letter by Wen Stephenson to former journo colleagues printed in The Phoenix from a mainstream idea-meister is a good example of what we needed then and now: he describe the safe, cautious world in which he found himself when he realized that he was part of an unconscious old-boys consensus to indulge the two sides and avoid open disbelief of bullshit because it constituted a career-busting display of ‘advocacy’. He quit his job and has become a full-time activist on the issue, picking up the old ACT-UP slogan in their fight against AIDS: Silence = Death.

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