Tag Archives: Bagehot

Vacation musings–it's a beautiful, ugly world

If it seems crisisblogger has been quiet lately it is because I was enjoying an absolutely wonderful family vacation in the San Juan Islands. When you combine the delights of spending time with your beautiful wife, three grown children, their wonderful spouses, and seven angelic (usually) grandchildren all under the age of seven, along with the majestic beauty of the San Juans, what can be better? The weather was great, and we were successful on two out of four whale watching adventures in my little boat.

What can I say, other than it is a beautiful world and if we have eyes to see it we can catch glimpses of Eden through the veil of this life. However, the veil is there and while the vacation gave some respite from thoughts about crisis management, BP, the Gulf Spill and all that, it also provides some time to get perspective. And the perspective I have on the overall situation is that it is a beautiful, ugly world.

There are few things uglier than the sight of millions of gallons of dirty oil spewing into water inhabited by so many good things and on which so many people depend. To think that this tragedy is caused by ordinary people making bad mistakes makes it more painful for all of us to endure. Our natural reaction is anger, frustration, rage. The spewing forth of this anger matches in ugliness that which came from a mile deep. But there are some differences. The investigation into the spill will no doubt get focused on a few key decisions that had they been made differently would make all the difference. But the spewing forth of vitriol that has accompanied this is not the decision of a few, but of millions. And it is fed by the economic necessity of our desperate media whose only response to the hyper competitive environment they are in is to find a flame of anger and fan it to the greatest extent possible. This too is great ugliness.

This is not just my cynical observation and obsession. “Bagehot,” the pseudononymous columnist for the Economist made this comment about the media in his farewell column in the July 3 issue of The Economist. He is referring to British media but what he says about them can be said even more about American media: “The British newspaper business cultivates provocation rather than consideration. The crowdedness of the market mean people feel a need to yell to be heard; for all their virtues, political blogs and the Internet have intensified the competition and the shrillness, making analysis ever more instant and intrusive.”  Provocation rather than consideration–a wonderful but somehow too quiet way of saying what we face in media coverage around an event like this spill.

Bagehot goes on to comment about the British voters. He is a British political commentator so he writes from that perspective but what he says about politicians applies also to business leaders, particularly when caught in the cross hairs of a major crisis: “British voters seem increasingly inclined to think of their politicians as either heroes or (more often) villains. There is little room for honest mistakes or good intentions gone awry, and little sympathy for the challenges of reconciling competing public priorities. The puerile simplicity of some political coverage, Bagehot submits, reflects a broader and worrying immaturity in the way the country thinks about politics and government.”

Again, in such an understated British way Bagehot has captured the ugliness of our world as it relates to this monstrous event. The problem is, of course, I know many of the people involved, both with the US Coast Guard and BP. I have known many of them for years. These are the villains that have been so thoroughly demonized in the press and in the political firestorm that most of you and the public cannot even any longer conceive of them as decent, respectable, intelligent and honorable human beings. This demonizing it is not at all unlike what happens in a war. Having written a book on a fighter pilot who survived Buchenwald, I have become aware of what happens to both the victim and the perpetrator in the process of dehumanization. That is what is happening here. When you turn someone else into sub-human, it not only destroys them, it destroys you. The people of BP are not perfect. But neither am I and neither or you. No doubt terrible mistakes have been made. But I would bet my life no decision was made with any intent to destroy people’s lives and the environment. If I am wrong, I hope it is revealed and the evil is punished. In the meantime, the judgment goes on every day in the media coverage, in blogs, in conversation, in the criminal process, and in a zillion lawyers offices.

I urge you to be cautious in your own judgments about those who have already been accused, tried, and convicted. Remember, it is not only the victim of unjust dehumanization that is damaged in the process. We have enough ugliness in the world without adding to it.