Friday, September 26, 2008

Shame Trumps Contrition

William Greider has argued, in his piece on the Web site for The Nation, that what the American public really wants by way of resolution to the current economic crisis is a "frank and open" (my turn of phrase) display of "Acts of Contrition." Here is the core of his argument:

The spectacle I want to see is powerful and self-important leaders getting down on bended knee and asking the country's forgiveness.

Henry Paulson could offer apologies for Wall Street and also for the Bush administration's lackadaisical response to the spreading financial contagion. He is not alone.

The Republican party owes us an apology but so does the Democratic party, because both are directly implicated in creating the conditions that caused the disaster. So is the august Federal Reserve. It dismissed the early bonfires and actively encouraged the money fever that has led to ruin. So are deep ranks of learned economists. So are the corporate think tanks that blessed and promoted the financial gimmicks that made the country vulnerable to what is now unfolding.

That's before we tick off the names of celebrated billionaires.

I would like to hear someone in authority say they are sorry. Instead, the political dance in both Washington and Wall Street is focused on holding hands in crisis and diverting blame elsewhere. Maybe it was those careless homeowners who didn't read the fine print in their mortgages. Or sleepy regulators and the creepy lobbyists. Maybe it was the Chinese, who lent us too much money for own good. Maybe it was God punishing his most-favored nation for our sins.

I am not so sure that the rest of the country shares this desire. If we look back on past financial catastrophes, such as the Enron scandal, we see that (probably with the assistance of the media) the American public has a much greater blood-lust. They want to see shame, rather than contrition. They remember the "perp walk" from Enron days; and there is nothing they would like more than to see it again. They would like to see those "celebrated billionaires" in handcuffs being escorted by police, having their heads pressed down as they enter the back seat of a police car; and, with the same hunger that fed the French Reign of Terror, they probably want to see Hank Paulson do that same perp walk. Greider's fantasy that all will be healed by some "reconciliation commission" is just that: a fantasy. Even South Africa recognized that reconciliation would not heal all wounds, and this may be a case where contrition may not even begin to cleanse those wounds. Main Street is "mad as hell and not going to take it any more;" and that is not a position from which one can talk about contrition, forgiveness, and healing. Does anyone still want to get on Barack Obama's case for invoking an adjective like "bitter?"

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