Monday, January 15, 2018

"The Post"--Monument or Gravestone?

With iconic actors Streep and Hanks playing iconic characters Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee in "The Post," it's time for a NewsCompanion repost. Following Bradlee's death in 2014, much was not written about the years following Watergate, and what Bradlee himself described as the "post-Watergate caution of editors". "What the newspaper did not need", he felt, "was another fight to the finish with another president--especially a Republican president, and especially a successful fight. Without the suggestion of a formal decision, I think the fires of investigative zeal were allowed to bank." The post below, from October, 2014, explores whether monuments can sometimes become gravestones, and whether victory can plant the seeds of future defeat.

Ben Bradlee--After Watergate

There's a big gap in obituaries for Ben Bradlee, the gutsy, charismatic icon of journalism who passed away October 21st. We hear plenty about the journalistic heights of the Watergate investigation that led to President Nixon's downfall, and the embarrassing depths of the fabricated Janet Cooke story, which led to the Washington Post returning a Pulitzer Prize. But with the exception of one blogpost at, little is said of the years 1981 to 1991, which coincided with the Reagan/Bush era and Bradlee's last ten years as executive editor of the Post.

The reason for this gap can be found in the "After Watergate" chapter of Bradlee's book, "A Good Life", where he describes the "post-Watergate caution of editors". "What the newspaper did not need", he felt, "was another fight to the finish with another president--especially a Republican president, and especially a successful fight. Without the suggestion of a formal decision, I think the fires of investigative zeal were allowed to bank."

The scandals of the Reagan era, which Bradlee describes as "unconstitutional adventures that threatened democracy more than Watergate", came in the protective shadow of Nixon's resignation, an increasingly passive public, and the never-ending stream of accusations of liberal bias aimed at newspapers like the Washington Post. "That criticism," wrote Bradlee, "that suggestion of bias, wore me down over the years, I now think, and I know we walked the extra mile to accept the official versions of events from the White House--explanations that I doubt we would have accepted from the right-hand men of Democratic presidents. And the public was glad to go along."

Bradlee notes that the alleged liberal bias, if anything, went the other direction: "at the Post anyway, we were always praying for good Democratic scandals". That reverse bias, along with the need in some political circles to avenge the resignation of President Nixon, contributed to the investigative excesses of the Clinton years.

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, famed for their reporting of the Watergate story, said that Bradlee's “one unbending principle was the quest for the truth and the necessity of that pursuit. He had the courage of an army.’’ And yet, one aspect of Bradlee's truthfulness is his admission that, even for him, the journalistic pursuit of truth could be compromised, blunted, worn down by relentless ideological attacks and public apathy.

Sometimes it's hard to distinguish monuments from gravestones. In a country that remains paralyzed and artificially polarized as the global threat of climate change gathers power and momentum, the World War II monument on the National Mall becomes more like a gravestone for a lost era of national unity and sacrifice for the greater good. Given the timidity that crept into journalism in the 1980s, the courage and commitment to truth that marked the Watergate investigation, too, stands as both monument and gravestone.

As Bradlee is rightly celebrated for his long and iconic journalistic career, and the personal and financial risks taken in pursuing the Watergate scandal, it's good to remember that the greatest monuments to past glories are not built of stone, nor of words. They come not in the form of passive, ritualistic celebration--an annual parade, a comforting eulogy, or a ribbon slapped on the back of a car--but in emulation. These are the living monuments America seems to have forgotten how to build.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Why Is New Jersey Alone in Banning Self-Serve Gas Stations?

Living in New Jersey just got more special, now that we're the only remaining state that doesn't allow drivers to pump their own gas. An article in the NY Times pits a lonely state legislator's call for self-serve against polling that shows a NJ populace largely supportive of keeping things as they are. Interestingly, both Governor Christie and his predecessor, Jon Corzine, initially supported the self-serve option, but dropped the subject after encountering strong opposition. People embrace the tradition of full-serve, or worry about the health effects of breathing the fumes, or the inconvenience of getting out of the car, particularly in cold weather.

The maverick state legislator, Republican Declan J. O'Scanlon, calls the opposition to self-serve gas "ridiculous", and he's right. His cause would be helped if articles included important aspects of the issue, listed below.

Gas station attendants' working conditions
The Times article mentions drivers worried about breathing fumes, but regulation has led to safer, unleaded gas and better pump designs that minimize fumes. And if a driver is worried about the health effects of standing next to a gas pump for a few minutes each week, or the inconvenience of pumping one's own gas in cold winter weather, then consider the risks for the gas station attendant who must work in that environment for 8 hours day after day. If NJ wants to artificially create jobs, let them be productive work, rather than doing a task people can easily and safely do themselves.

Self-serve doesn't prevent stations from offering full service option
Articles make it sound like allowing self-serve gas would prevent drivers from getting their gas pumped for them, but if the public's desire for full-serve is real and deep, then gas stations can provide both options to meet the demand.

Attendants increase the cost of gasoline
Former governor Corzine estimated drivers could save 6 cents/gallon with self-serve gas. That's a significant savings for many drivers, who, in another Times article, are said to be willing to drive an extra block for gas that's a penny cheaper. Though polls show strong support in NJ for continuing full service, it's worth asking if the polls mentioned the likely savings of self-serve before getting people's opinions.

How resistance to change can radically change a planet
The news media sometimes breaks stories that can be a catalyst for change, but the journalist's need to portray people as victims (given readers are drawn to such portrayals) can also make readers want to cling to the status quo. Articles emphasize the potential negative consequences of any proposed action. In this case, the NY Times article quotes people fearful of changing tradition.

This tendency to keep things as they are can in many instances be a good survival instinct, but when it comes to gas and cars, the status quo is in fact an agent of radical change. It's taken me a long time to realize, but the act of filling up one's gas tank is a bit like loading up a bomber for another mission over enemy territory. Through our exhaust pipes, out of sight and out of mind beneath the backside of the car, flow the invisible gases that collectively are altering climate and oceans. My car's spraying fossil carbon hither and yon from the moment I pull out of the station.

Culture encourages us to buy and drive vehicles that, even when driven safely, contribute by the nature of their fuel to lethal planetary changes. We love our cars (though not the other cars in our way while driving). That personal connection to a vehicle is constantly reinforced by a steady din of advertisements that glorify their use and imply that cars and trucks can satisfy our deep emotional longings. Filling them with gas has long felt like a private, personal transaction that simply facilitates our getting where we need to go. A full tank of gas gives a sense of promise and possibility. What hasn't yet penetrated most people's thinking--even my own, depending on the day--is the role of each of us as unintentional cogs in a much larger wheel that's rolling in a dangerous and permanently earth-altering direction.

That transaction at the gas pump speaks more vividly than any other to the contradiction between our private lives and our collective impact on the planet. That moment, hand on pump (except in Jersey), injecting fossil energy into our vehicles, straddles two worlds of meaning--private and collective, present and future, intention and unintention. None of this is even realized by most people, and certainly doesn't find its way into articles about pumping gas.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Drill-Baby-Drill vs Pump-Baby-Pump

The move by the Trump administration to open all U.S. coastal waters to drilling brings back memories of the 2008 election and the Republican chant "Drill, baby, drill". Where does one begin with all the rich meaning that can be mined from the race to extract more carbon energy from underground?

Collectively Created Problems? Yes. Collectively Solved Problems? No
Though conservatism as currently defined might seem to be against collective action, as it dismantles or paralyzes government and demonizes regulations, this is only half true. Conservatism allows problems like climate change to be collectively created, but is opposed to collective action to solve those problems. When Obama, responding to McCain's "drill, baby, drill" proposal to sell drilling rights along the coasts, pointed out that we wouldn't need to burn the oil from the coastal waters if we kept our tires properly inflated, he was ridiculed. He was proposing collective action to reduce climate change, while McCain was promoting action that would maintain or increase the collective releasing of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Libertarians, according to the Libertarian Party website,
"strongly oppose any government interference into their personal, family, and business decisions. Essentially, we believe all Americans should be free to live their lives and pursue their interests as they see fit as long as they do no harm to another."
Those last words, "as long as they do no harm to another", render libertarianism fraudulent from the get-go. It is a libertarian's deregulatory fervor that increases the harm individuals do to one another. To the extent that any individual creates nonpoint pollution, be it car or chimney exhaust, trash, sewage, or fertilizer runoff, that individual is creating harm, particularly to those who are downstream in topography or time. Libertarianism, being a substantial component of conservatism, is compromised at its core. Liberals, acknowledging basic realities that a libertarian chooses to ignore, work to free us from the negative impact of others.

Energy Independence Now, Energy Dependence Later
There's a flip side to claims that drilling more domestic oil will reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil. Draining the nation's reserves of oil and gas now leaves fewer reserves to tap in the future. True energy independence is achieved only by reducing the need for energy, through greater efficiencies of which keeping tires inflated is a small but valid example, and by tapping the inexhaustible energy from the wind and sun.

Public vs. Private
Part of our individual wealth is what we own collectively through government. The logic of government can be seen in a public park. Owned by everyone, a park enables the individual to enjoy a landscape that otherwise would be accessible only to those with the wealth to acquire it. We all own the nations coastal oil reserves. Leasing that shared wealth, most likely at very low prices, shifts that wealth to a few private companies, leaving the public poorer.

Radical Conservatism Co-ops the Language of the Radical Left
The "Drill, baby, drill" of 2008 was preceded by the "burn, baby, burn" phrase associated with the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965, when urban blacks rioted to protest police brutality. Though the burning of fossil fuel is highly controlled, hidden within internal combustion engines and furnaces, its consequence is a permanent heating of the planet and radicalizing of the weather, with consequences that are far more destructive than an urban riot.

Lyrics in a 2001 song by Ash, entitled "Burn, Baby, Burn", capture the radical result of a conservatism that untethers the individual from responsibility for collective consequence:
Tumbling like the leaves
We are spiraling on the breeze
Almost to the point of no return
Everything will burn baby burn
U.S. Rushes to Become Europe
Resource abundance has long distinguished America from Europe. Dismissive of Europe and its ways, conservatism ironically hastens the resource depletion that in time will make America more closely resemble Europe.

The Quandary of the Conservationist
The work of preservation is never done, while it only takes one action to permanently exploit or destroy.

It Only Takes One Bad Tenant in the White House
Anyone who has been a landlord for awhile has learned that it just takes one bad tenant to trash a house. Likewise, it takes only one bad president to trash a nation. The George W. Bush administration left a legacy of 9/11, two wars, an economic meltdown, and tragic delay on climate change. With one political party in the grips of an anti-government philosophy, the federal government is caught in a recurrent cycle of demolition followed by repair, followed by even more aggressive demolition.