Well-Crafted Phoniness

Al Gore won the most famous award on the planet, but it is New York Times columnist Bob Herbert who summed up in a brilliant Op-Ed piece the significance of this year's Nobel Peace Prize for America.

The fate of Al Gore offers a window into our condition as a country and the future we are doomed to repeat--soon--if we do not wake up to this problem and fix it. 

Gore, whom Herbert calls "one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, talented men in America and remarkably well-equipped to lead the nation," is the exact opposite kind of leader that America has chosen for the past decade.  Herbert blames journalists for what history will mark  as one of the monumental failures of all time in that profession:

In the race for the highest office in the land, we showed the collective maturity of 3-year-olds. Mr. Gore was taken to task for his taste in clothing and for such grievous offenses as sighing or, allegedly, rolling his eyes. It was a given that at a barbecue everyone would rush to be with his opponent. We've paid a heavy price. The president who got such high marks as a barbecue companion doesn't seem to know up from down. He's hurled the nation into a ruinous war that has cost countless lives and spawned a whole new generation of terrorists. He continues to sit idly by as a historic American city, New Orleans, remains wounded and on its knees. He's blithely steered the nation into a bottomless pit of debt. I could go on.

(full text here)

Every journalist working in America should print out that passage in extra-large font and tape it next to the bathroom mirror.  Better yet, they should put the passage on a chain and wear it around their necks. 

Journalists play a crucial role in our political system, Herbert is telling us, and the fact that journalists by-and-large chose the 'barbecue companion' over 'intelligent, thoughtful, and talented'--and then did it again four years later--has had profound consequences in real terms:  loss of life, collective wealth, and a general lack of peace and well-being that now poisons the entire world.   Gore's Nobel Prize should lead everyone to wonder what kind of world we would be living in, today, if journalists had only showed the 'collective maturity' of 12-year-olds or, heaven forbid: educated adults.

The choice was never clearer, Herbert reminds us, and we have suffered deeply for choosing unwisely.  Whatever one thinks about the legal hocus-pocus that took place in the Florida recount--whether Bush won, lost  or was installed as President--it is clear that our system failed. 

A foul-smelling reality that hangs in the air this week, most of us understand that even in a time of war, impeding economic collapse, inevitable health crises, and a global climate crisis already upon us--were Gore to step again into the Presidential ring, he would again be eviscerated into submission for how he speaks, dresses, and eats--issues of no significance to anyone. 

Gore's Nobel Prize shines an unflattering light on America in general and our political culture in particular.  It reveals a media-driven American politics that still prefers beating good ideas and leadership to death and rolling around in the mess than turning to the future with an interest in understanding what John Dewey once called the relationship between things.

That there is even a need for Al Gore to argue that too much carbon in our atmosphere is a problem for human survival--that the act of doing so on a global stage becomes a work of great moral leadership--that is itself the product of the political culture this country has chosen to reward twice in the past 8 years with Presidential electoral victories.

This country has developed the bad habit, Herbert reminds us, of choosing 'well-crafted phoniness' as presidential instead of intelligent, informed talent.  And that is a habit that we do not seem particularly determined to break:

Which brings us to Mr. Giuliani.  The entire basis for this former mayor's candidacy is his contention that he is some kind of expert, a veritable guru, on matters related to terrorism.  "I understand terrorism," he says, "in a way that is equal to or exceeds anyone else."  And yet in the two most important decisions he has made with regard to terror, he has miserably failed.   Mr. Giuliani foolishly insisted, against expert advice, on placing New York City's state-of-the-art emergency command center on the 27th floor of a 47-story building that was known to be a terror target and that was
destroyed in the World Trade Center attack.  And he pushed hard for the corrupt and grotesquely underqualified Bernard Kerik to be appointed to the top antiterror post in the Bush administration, secretary of homeland security. In an episode that humiliated the president, the nomination had to be scrapped after boatloads of damaging information began to emerge about Mr. Kerik. (He has since pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and remains under federal investigation.)  But Mr. Giuliani, who shares with Mr. Bush a Manichaean view of the world and an aggressive, authoritarian temperament, remains not just a viable candidate, but the G.O.P. front-runner.

The fact that vast sections of the American population believe Giuliani is an 'expert' on terrorism is a sign of the continuing vitality of the America that yearned for barbecue instead of intelligence. 

Not only is Giuliani not qualified as an expert on terrorism, but there is monumental and overwhelming evidence that his lack of qualification resulted in a greater number of deaths than needed to happen.   

Just as we imagine what would have been if America had chosen Gore instead of Bush--chosen intelligence and talent instead of a barbecue buddy--imagine what would have happened if Giuliani's had not been in charge of New York City in 2001, had not been allowed to make the egotistical decision, against all the advice of actual experts, to put the emergency command center on the 27th floor of the #1 known terrorist target in New York.  Imagine that.

Lives would have been saved.   How many?  Who knows, but many.  The planes would have hit the towers and the command center would have been in tact, up and running.  Firefighters and police officers would have been informed of the situation and switched to a different rescue scenario, one that involved pulling people out of the World Trade Center much faster instead of blindly running inside to their deaths.  If only Giuliani had not been in charge--if only--then so many of the heroes of that day would have been heroes because they saved people's lives instead of  being heroes because they rushed into a burning building to their deaths. 

But instead of having this discussion, Herbert reminds us, we are forced to deal with the Manichean lie that Rudy Giuliani is an 'expert' on the very thing that he should be  tried and convicted for. 

And what makes this continued appeal to well-crafted phoniness so disturbing--what we seem only able to see as a nation when reflected in moments such as Gore's being awarded the Nobel Prize--is that we are dealing on a daily basis with the deadly tragedy of the exact same kind of false claims.

George W. Bush has been elected and re-elected on the well-crafted phony lie that he is an expert on fighting terrorism, on the idea that his ideas would save lives from terrorism while the ideas of his opponents would cause countless deaths if not the destruction of America and democracy itself. 

And what has happened?  Americans with the help of journalists have flocked in droves to the barbecue of well-crafted phoniness and thousands upon thousands of lives have been lost as a result.

Each day we embrace this well-crafted phoniness from Bush that his actions are saving lives from terrorism, and each day his actions cost us more lives and bring more terrorists into the world.  And what do we do?  Do we look around for real leadership for intelligence and talent to clean up the mess and solve these problems?  No.  We look around for another barbecue buddy instead.

Herbert's observations help us understand that Gore is not just a prize winner.  He has become a reminder that this country is standing on the edge of a cliff and that carbon emissions are just one small aspect of that dilemma.

As Herbert argues cogently, asking if Al Gore will decide to run for President again is "like asking someone who's recovered from a heart attack if he plans to resume smoking."   I agree.  It makes no sense.  What does make sense is to look at Al Gore's Nobel Prize and demand that this country does not again choose the barbecue test over the leadership test--does not go for well-crafted phoniness over talent and intelligence.

Speaking to this very problem in his press conference, yesterday, Gore made the following statement that should have been repeated by every journalist in America:

There is an old African saying:  "If you want to go quickly: go alone; if you want to go far: go together."  We have to go far--quickly.

(watch the video here)

We must go together and quickly on so many levels. How insulted we should all be that so few journalists bothered to report this powerful insight by Gore, focusing instead--as they often do--on the well-crafted and phony reactions from the right-wing media.

Barbecue, indeed.

(cross posted from Frameshop)