The eulogy for Walter Cronkite as "the most trusted man in America" on the CBS "Sixty Minutes" show said a lot about the condition of this nation -- though it did not signify what CBS thought it did. It wasn't about the death of one hugely esteemed individual; it was about the broad institutional failure of TV news in general and the current grievous loss of legitimacy and authority in shaping a national consensus of reality. Watching the old clips of Cronkite delivering the evening news years ago, one couldn't help weighing the contrast with the current spectacle of snide, combative, overbearing idiocy acted out nightly by the likes of Kudlow, Olberman, Kneale, O'Reilly, Matthews, and Dobbs as they shout down their invited guest commentators, pander to their demographic, and diss their rivals for ratings.
It was instructive to notice that the program following "Sixty Minutes" -- in the supreme weekly slot of 8p.m. Sunday -- was a childish and stupid "reality" show called "Big Brother." This said even more about the craven quality of the people currently running CBS. It was also a useful lesson in the diminishing returns of technology as applied to television, since it should now be obvious that the expansion of cable broadcasting since the heyday of the "big three" networks has led only to the mass replication of video garbage rather than a banquet of culture, as first touted.
It should remind us more generally that when a society's operations become broadly fraudulent and unreal, authority and legitimacy wither. This is analogous to the position Barack Obama now finds himself in. He was elected as the politician most trusted in America to change the fraudulent and unreal operations of the US government. Don't bother protesting that all politics is necessarily unreal and fraudulent. If it were so, you'd have to argue that the US Constitution was wholly a fraud, as well as Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and the rest. It only has strong tendencies in that direction. (The Declaration of Independence was itself a direct strike against the fraud and unreality of British royal governance in America.)
As president, Barack Obama is faced with the essential fraudulence and unreality of the US economy. Notice that, as ominous as they are, the wars in iraq and Afghanistan have generated only minimal protest so far in the early Obama period, despite the fact that they are not operationally different from their conduct under Bush. There is no protest because, for now, a consensus exists that our troops are in these places for perceived reasons -- to keep Mideast oil supply lines open... to keep Islamic maniacs busy in their own backyard instead of on US territory... to keep Iran in a vise... to maintain the American "empire" (take your pick). There's something there to appeal to a broad majority of US voters. Unlike Vietnam, Iraq and Afstan are not perceived as out-and-out frauds.
But the economy is. Since September of 2008, when Hank Paulson began shoveling bail-outs to the very banks who screwed the world on fraudulent and unreal securities, and left American society comprehensively bankrupt, the consensus has only deepened on the perception of an historic swindle. And so far, President Obama has positioned himself as chief enabler to further swindling. One need look no further than the rulings this past spring of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) as authorized by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC, an official government agency, created 1934), which have allowed the biggest banks to pretend that the fraudulent paper in their vaults does not have to be recorded as a loss on their books.
The US economy is now dying a slow and painful death because it had become based on activities that had nothing to do with producing real wealth. Instead, it became dependent on rackets, that is, behavior geared to getting something for nothing. These rackets are often summarized under the acronym FIRE (for finance, insurance and real estate), a system set up to strip-mine profits from the wish commonly labeled "the American Dream" -- itself largely a product of televised advertising and propaganda. The end product of all that was the doomed economy of suburban sprawl, an infrastructure for daily life with no future in a world defined by fossil fuel scarcity. The unraveling of debt at every level now is directly related to the mis-investments made in that way of life.
By now, it's self-evident that the "change" voted for in November's election was too horrifying to articulate. It still is. The suburban sprawl economy was all we had left. Now it's gone and we're stuck with all its deleveraging after-effects -- the worst case of "buyer's remorse" since the fall of Nazi Germany. Thus, the only "change" that President Obama can really work for is the health care system, which is a life-and-death matter. The sordid rackets so ostentatiously infecting the system boil down vividly to lives ruined and bankrupted, and a system more frightful to deal with than disease itself. Probably the baseline truth is that health care will end up being rationed one way or another. It's another prime symptom of population overshoot, and a reminder that life is tragic.
As another blogger put it so nicely last week on the web (sorry, but I forget who or where), this isn't a "recession," it's a collapse. The excellent Dmitry Orlov has outlined the process very nicely in his book "Reinventing Collapse" about the parallels between the demise of the Soviet Union and the prospects for demise of the US as currently constituted. Mikhail Gorbachev presided over the Soviet collapse. He must have been a leader of very subtle abilities. Not only did he survive to enjoy a busy second act of life with a Nobel Prize in his pocket, but he accomplished a nearly bloodless transition in a society long-conditioned to bloodletting as the primary political act.
Here in the USA, where we have had over two hundred years experience with peaceful power transitions -- even during the convulsions of 1860-65 -- the outcome this time might not be so appetizing. It would be one of the supreme ironies of history if it turned out that the US was incapable of ending its most self-destructive rackets peacefully and bloodlessly, while the Russians shucked off its Soviet racket like an old sweater. The way I see it, Mr. Obama just doesn't have much time before his authority and legitimacy slough off and he is left with only his genial smile. The "hope" vested in him will end up in a Museum of Lost Hopes, along with the integrity of TV news and the rectitude of the medical profession. And funding for that museum will be cut by President Sarah Palin, representing Naziism US style -- i.e. Naziism without the brains.
Tom Wolfe wrote a fabulous op-ed in the Sunday New York Times commemorating the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969. In it, he speculated that the achievment itself spelled the end of the NASA program because it lacked a philosopher corps that might have furnished it with more meaning beyond its element of "single combat" between the US and the Soviets in the "space race." This meaning, he said, might have been supplied by someone like NASA's chief engineer Wernher Von Braun, who once stated (in effect) before a congressional committee that "...we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.... Unfortunately, NASA couldn't present as its spokesman and great philosopher a former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent."
The further trouble, of course, is now that we sentient creatures seem to be in the process of destroying our home planet, how might we justify our spread to other worlds? We've fallen short both in resources and philosophy. In our current state of evolution we seem unlikely to ever again go further afield than the moon and not exactly worthy of making trips elsewhere anyway. Stay tuned a few hundred thousand years....