Thursday, February 12, 2009

Just Plain Stupid

The details behind the fire that destroyed the latest stately capitalist mansion of Shanghai before it could be occupied have now pretty much emerged in their entirety. If we are to believe the latest report from the BBC NEWS Web site (reproduced in its entirety for thoroughness), those details will provide grounds for prosecution:

Twelve people have been detained in connection with a fire that partly destroyed the unfinished headquarters of China's state broadcaster.

One of those being held is an official from China Central Television (CCTV), Xinhua state news agency confirmed.

CCTV has apologised for setting off powerful illegal firecrackers that are blamed for sparking the Beijing blaze.

A firefighter died after inhaling toxic fumes and several people were injured in the fire late on Monday.

The tragedy has angered some Chinese, for appearing to show how high-profile groups can bypass normal rules.

Officials from CCTV were using the new building - that housed the near-completed Mandarin Oriental hotel and a culture centre - as the backdrop for an illegal pyrotechnics display.

One or more fireworks hit the tower, which was still under construction so the sprinkler system was not switched on. The 33-storey block may now have to be scrapped.

Among those detained over the incident was Xu Wei, 50, who was in charge of construction at CCTV's new site.

The 12 are being held "on suspicion of creating a disturbance with dangerous materials", an official statement said.

Citing police, Xinhua news agency reported separately that three other CCTV employees and eight people the station hired to set off the fireworks were also under detention.

Authorities said previously the blaze was caused by fireworks that CCTV had illegally set off that were far more powerful than the public was allowed to buy.

It also ignored police orders against setting off the fireworks as part of Chinese lunar new year celebrations.

There are many things I like about the language of this text. That phrase about "how high-profile groups can bypass normal rules" seemed particularly appropriate, coming on the heels of the treatment that the eight banking CEOs received from the House Financial Services Committee yesterday. Indeed, had Committee Chairman Barney Frank encountered that phrase earlier in the day, it might have emerged in his remarks. After all, our government's instruments of accountability are far more transparent than those in China; and the banks represented by those CEOs have made an arrogant show of flaunting the efforts of the Government Accountability Office to monitor the bailout founds they had received. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has already begun to use the power of his office to make those banks pay for their arrogance. I suspect that most of the American public expects Frank and his colleagues to show just as much backbone, since they are probably far more furious with those banks than the Chinese are with CCTV.

I also like the way in which the Chinese authorities phrased the formal charges against the people they have detained. The language may be a bit restrained, but it seems accurate enough to sustain a case based on the available evidence. Besides, neither China nor the United States has the power to charge either individuals or institutions with the "crime" of being "just plain stupid," let alone as arrogant as those "Masters of the Universe" in the financial sector have been. Where China has a leg up on us may well be in the area of public humiliation. We took a crack at that with the "perp walks" of the last financial scandal; and it never really had much effect.

Nevertheless, I doubt that we shall come out of the latest round of Congressional hearings and deliberations with any sense that justice has been done; and I suspect that the Chinese will resign themselves to the fact that their normal rules will continue to be bypassed. Every now and then I find myself reminding my wife (whose Master's Degree is in English Literature) that we can only find poetic justice in poetry; so, if I am going to come to peace with my own frustrations, I probably need to turn to literature, rather than the news sources. This morning I was reminded of Malcolm Cowley's brilliant introduction to The Portable Faulkner. By way of a case study, he examined the novel Absalom, Absalom! (an interesting source for reflection on Lincoln's Birthday) and the role that Quentin Compson played as narrator of that tale:

… he tells a long and violent story that he regards as the essence of the Deep South, which is not so much a mere region as it is, in Quentin's mind, an incomplete and frustrated nation trying to relive its legendary past.

That "legendary past" is, of course, a fiction, not just to Quentin but to all the Southerners in the tale he unfolds. China also has a "legendary past;" and, as in the Deep South, there remain deep tensions over the influence exerted by that past on life in the present. However, we may also wish to view our own financial institutions in the context of their legendary past, that past being the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, when the wealthy first acquired the notion that they could be "Masters of the Universe." That metaphor of "an incomplete and frustrated nation trying to relive its legendary past" applies quite nicely to today's "Wall Street aristocracy." They are just too immersed in their innovative strategies for circumventing regulation to realize it; and, because we fail to appreciate the power of their collective unconscious, we may never be able to awaken them from the nightmare of history that drives their never-ending lust for power and undermines that "sense of reality" without which we are unlike to recover from our current economic crisis.

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