Lost in translation

Watching the oil continue to flow into the Gulf evokes an angry, sad, deep sigh, accompanied by a weary malaise, suffused with an abiding sadness. Not just for the damage done to people and the environment but a growing sense that as a nation we cannot act decisively, with consensus, and solve those issues that seem so urgently self-evident. It's the equivalent of pushing string.

The Republican-Tea Baggers retreat into "hell no!" anger, an entrenched, ideological fundamentalism, reflexively repeating a familiar narrative wherein government is the enemy and the solution is to shrink it to the size of a bathtub and when so inclined, drown it. Others, on the left, find surcease in a kind of political nihilism wherein politics is not the art of the possible but the art of the betrayal, a Faustian bargain that can never be trusted.

And so we seem incapable of addressing the large questions or tackling the big issues. We are a nation divided and it's hard to look forward and see how this present reality will change. Implicit in Obama's election was the understanding that after eight years of a stunningly inept administration change was not only long overdue but imperative.

So what are some of the large, game-changing issues that still beg to be debated and solved? Alas, so many. But here are a few:

  • A door stood ajar: With the firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the door briefly opened for a re-examination of the war in Afghanistan and the efficacy of our counterinsurgency strategy. Even the word quagmire, reminiscent of Vietnam, doesn't begin to capture how deeply ensnared we've become in this Byzantine, 18th century country. How, given our own country's infrastructure needs, mounting deficit, and staggering unemployment, can we seriously contemplate the remaking of Afghanistan at a cost of $7 billion monthly (the aggregate cost of Iraq and Afghanistan recently surpassed $1 trillion)? How is our presence in Afghanistan in our national interest? Unfortunately, that debate will likely not take place, for the door quickly closed.
  • Heartbreaking hypocrisy: This congress is about as dysfunctional as any family selected for the reality TV show "Intervention." To listen to their ruminations and rationales requires a suspension of disbelief.

Case in point: Federal unemployment benefits began to run out a month ago. Some 2 million jobless workers have since lost their benefits. The House of Representatives passed a six-month extension last May. The Senate Republicans, plus one Dem, Ben Nelson, have blocked a similar bill, three times (and counting) meaning the benefits will/have run out. People have been flattened by this Recession. Devastated.

These Republicans, to a person, are now righteously passing themselves off as fiscal conservatives and deficit hawks while the fragile economic recovery remains in jeopardy and people suffer. Think of unemployment payments as a form of fiscal stimulus, helping the unemployed to stay above the Plimsoll line and so become employed. But it's not going to happen, and it's unconscionable.

In truth, what is needed is not belt-tightening but spending, a massive FDR jobs program to start. Rehab our infrastructure nationwide. Rebuild all that is frayed and old and worn out from bridges to levees to roads to the grid. Let's clean up and rebuild the Gulf, fulfilling a promise made by the last administration, all of it, with a comprehensive eco-work program and send a good portion of the bill to BP. People need the work.

Peak planet: A recent Associated Press-Gfk poll found that a plurality of people still favor offshore drilling, no matter what is transpiring in the Gulf of Mexico. Has no one concluded that this might be the moment to reframe our entire energy policy? Has no one figured out that we're not just living in a time of peak oil but we're living in a time of peak planet?

Our rapacious consumerism of goods and energy, driven by a reflexive belief in "growth," which is often the antithesis of sustainability, is depleting our natural resources at an alarming rate. Is this not the time to redefine what "the pursuit of happiness" means? Is this not the time to ponder if the perpetual acquisition of stuff — lots and lots of stuff — will ever provide existential fulfillment? Or will that initial rush soon fade as built-in obsolescence takes hold and the newest incarnation of whatever it is hits the market?

As for those animals with whom we share the planet: 40 percent of all species are endangered and many will become extinct without public awareness. Why is any country still hunting whales?

Meanwhile the oil continues to surge into the Gulf, grim and dark and unrelenting, a metaphor of sorts, and the exigencies facing our nation continue to be ignored, ultimately to our own peril.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland and writes opinion columns for the Daily Tidings. He can be reached at honore305@yahoo.com.

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