Where is the outrage?

I had the privelege of attending a screening yesterday of All The Presidents’ Men followed by a panel with Robert Redford, Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein. The movie was powerful and subtle as always, and watching the three of them converse as old friends added another dimension to my enjoyment of the film.

The conversation inevitably turned to the state of journalism today in America, and their responses were twinged with regret. The film represented a high point in American journalism, said Bernstein, and possibly the last time that everything worked: A newspaper had the resources to investigate this story and did so, and when the evidence was out there the government responded appropriately; the Supreme Court, three of whom were appointed by Nixon himself, voted to force him to surrender the Watergate tapes. The most significant difference I took from the conversation was that back then, the idea that a politician was lying was downright appalling. A president had the nation’s trust, since then it has been squandered.

In the modern age, outrage is dead. Bush I lied, Clinton lied, Bush II lied, and apparently Obama lies as well. We were upset at the Lewinsky scandal, maybe, but not outraged. When President Bush and his administration fed lies to the public to support a war we were furious, but there was also a sick undercurrent of hopelessness. We knew we were being had but there was nothing we could do; it was hard to resist the idea that in the US, Power had won the ultimate battle over Truth.

This is the wellspring of dissatisfaction that Obama tapped during his campaign, following others before him. But he won’t fix these problems, because this sickness is greater than one man, as I am reminded today when I read about the horrific scale of tap water poisoning in the New York Times. Forty percent of communities violated health and safety regulations at least once, 3/5 of which were in “serious noncompliance.” And regulators pushed the problem away from them, afraid of large and threatening companies. I am reminded of this when I consider our disgustingly wrongheaded agricultural subsidies, or the fact that Dubya committed impeachable crimes daily and the press, congress, and nation rolled over and allowed it to happen.

Regulators in our country are not concerned with what they regulate – they are concerned with keeping their jobs, and the two incentives are more out of line than ever before. Let me repeat that: regulators in our country are not concerned with what they regulate. How have we let our country get to this point: where politicians, regulators, and journalists are hamstrung by a system that is not interested in values but in efficiency. Capitalism is a great framework, yes, but regulation and government are designed to inject our priorities into our economy. We have been losing these priorities in reverence to our beloved McDonald’s ideals of efficiency and expediency.

Am I the first person to bemoan moral degradation in society and the loss of values? Not at all — and as long as values are changing, someone will think they are being lost. But I do hope that one day we will return to the values of truth and honesty in spirit, and not just when others are looking. Maybe we will live to experience another time when cynicism is low and the prospect of a President lying sends actual waves of shock and not opportunistic cries of anger.

Will it happen any time soon? I know I won’t be holding my breath..

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