Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Jane Jacobs' Warning.

In 2004 at age eighty-eight, Jane Jacobs published her last completed book.  It was a jeremiad entitled Dark Age Ahead.  I was reminded of this last week when I read the following article by Robert Parry

which deals with the corrosive effects of careerism in the world of journalism, government and international bureaucracies.  

One might at first think from the title of Jane Jacobs' book, that it is about the serious threats that were emerging at the time of writing, such as the perils of terrorism and its effects on liberal democracies, or about the persisting threats of global climate change or nuclear war.  But that is not what Jacobs was writing about.  She was concerned with threats to society arising from within. 

What she meant by a 'dark age' was a a 'cultural dead end', a time when people could no longer remember what they had lost.   In the book she identifies five pillars of society whose failure could be  leading us into a new dark age:

Families;   Education;    Science;   Taxes;   and Professional accountability.

While Ms. Jacobs insisted that the failures were interconnected, she seems to have been particularly prescient with respect to last of these - professional and personal standards and accountability.  The failure of professional self-policing has become more and more common since her death. The consequences have been more serious than their immediate impacts might suggest, and are perhaps leading us toward a dark age as outlined by Jacobs.  More on this later but first a few reminders of the failures.

The accountancy profession was seriously compromised in the Enron and other scandals in the 90s.  Wall St. and the banking profession were even more tarnished in the unravelling of the financial crisis of 2008 and in the LIBOR rate fixing scandal a few years later.  Banks, mortgage lenders and ratings agencies were revealed to have egregiously violated their positions of trust.  Apart from a very few scapegoats, the perpetrators walked away better off than before.  The fact that governments bailed out banks without anyone facing criminal charges, has left the industry perhaps more vulnerable than ever to the temptations f moral hazard.  

Another profession which has in many cases lost the public trust is that of policing.  Police forces have always been notoriously self-protective. But in recent times this seems to have become even worse, to the extent that (in the USA) officers filmed shooting unarmed suspects, or in a mob killing an unarmed suspect in a choke-hold, have walked away, with little more than a slap on the wrist.  What kind of message does this send to young officers joining a police force?  

And of course there is the journalistic profession.  In  Robert Parry's article (link above) he  details how 'careerism' has done serious damage to the credibility of the profession. Not surprisingly he points to the massive failure in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. He particularly points to the failures of the Washington Post and New York Times in simply accepting and parroting the line being spun by the Bush Administration. He points out how New  York Times’ Pentagon correspondent Michael R. Gordon who was the lead writer on the infamous “aluminum tubes for nuclear centrifuges” story which got the ball rolling for the Bush administration’s rollout of its invade-Iraq advertising campaign in September 2002, still covers national security for the Times – and still serves as a conveyor belt for U.S. government propaganda.  And the Washington Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hyatt who repeatedly informed the Post’s readers that Iraq’s secret possession of WMD was a “flat-fact,” is still the Post’s editorial page editor, one of the most influential positions in American journalism.  Meanwhile whistleblowers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are persecuted and forced into exile.  Parry asks what kind of example does this set for aspiring journalists?  And he answers "The lesson that any careerist would draw from the Iraq case is that there is almost no downside risk in running with the pack on a national security issue. Even if you’re horrifically wrong — even if you contribute to the deaths of some 4,500 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis — your paycheck is almost surely safe."

The failure of the journalistic profession relates to, and is perhaps a consequence of, the mendacity of the political class.  Politicians have always lied and stretched the truth.  But it has traditionally been considered the role of the journalistic profession to challenge and expose such behaviour.  Politicians no longer seem to have to really pay a price for their lies and crimes.  Those in the administration of George W. Bush, including torturers and war criminals, who broke international law and violated the Constitution faced no real sanction. In the UK Tony Blair faced several inquiries, the most complete several years after he had left office, and though he was criticized, never faced any legal sanction or penalty.  

Now it seems that the worst penalty that a politician may face if his or her delinquencies are exposed is a short time-out.  Examples in the UK are Peter Mandelson (former Labour cabinet minister) and Liam Fox (Conservative cabinet minister).  The former actually was forced to resign twice over financial malfeasance, but after a brief time out was reinstated twice.  Liam Fox, when in the shadow cabinet was found to have a huge over-claim on expenses, and was forced to repay a large amount.  In spite of this he was appointed by David Cameron as Minister of Defence, but was forced to resign when it was revealed that he had given close friend and lobbyist Adam Werrity access to the Ministry of Defence and had allowed him to join official trips overseas.  But in spite of all this he was reinstated as a minister in Theresa May's new cabinet after the Brexit vote.  

What kind of example does all of this send to young people?  As with the crimes and misdemeanours of banks and financial institutions, the message is that cheating and unethical behaviour are OK, and if you get caught, it will just delay your rise by a year or two - just a slide down a snake, but there are still lots of ladders to help you back up.   Even athletes caught doping face longer suspensions that some of these dishonest politicians.  

How does all of this relate to Jane Jacobs' warning of a coming dark age?  Well I think that all of the mendacity, careerism and professional malfeasance that we have seen since Jacobs wrote her book, have led to a situation in which people have lost trust in their institutions.  This I am afraid has helped paved the way for Donald Trump and this, I fear, will become the new normal.  

Trump has been able to get away with his egregious behaviour by blaming his opponents, in particular the press, but also the 'elites' at large, for disseminating 'fake news'.  Many people believe this because they have lost all trust in the mainstream media - a well-justified belief in my opinion.  But in place of a trusted media we get even worse lies and distortions by unscrupulous players like Trump and Breitbart.  And people are now forgetting the way it once was - a time when public figures were held accountable for their actions; when there was a clear distinction between truth and falsehood;  and when there was more trust in what politicians and journalists were saying.  

It seems too that now governments can act in violation of international law, and even of their own Constitution.  Whether or not you believe that the Syrian Government was responsible for the gas attack in March, the response of President Trump, in launching a Tomahawk missile attack, without Congressional approval, was clearly a violation of both international and US law. 

Could the Trump phenomenon have happened prior to the press scandals following the illegal invasion of Iraq?  Would Trump have got away (indeed be widely praised for) with his missile strike, without the precedent of Bush's illegal invasion?  Crimes and delinquencies left unpunished inevitably lead to further such actions.  Jane Jacobs realized this,and she didn't like what she saw.  

She claimed that the five failing pillars were interconnected.  For example the weakening of family and community structures has made the transmission of moral values and ethical behaviour more difficult. In a similar fashion, the way in which, in her view, universities have prioritized credentialism over teaching critical thinking, has made it all the easier for dishonest and unethical behaviour to thrive.  

Many countries in the world suffer from endemic corruption - Italy, Russia, Ukraine, China and much of Africa and Latin America immediately come to mind.   In spite of serious efforts to curb this behaviour, it persists.  Once corruption becomes accepted as normal, it becomes extremely difficult to remove.  People can no longer imagine a society free from corruption.  

The same is true for 'corruption' of the type engendered by careerism and the violation of professional standards which go unpunished.  The prevalence of  'lawyer jokes' reveals the way the public views that profession.  Banking has justifiably earned a similar reputation.  Now journalism has become similarly tarnished to the extent that Trump can call the press 'the enemy' of America and not be laughed off the platform.  People do not know who to trust, and are asking, like Pilate, "What is truth?"  

All of this makes it easier for charlatans like Donald Trump to thrive. Are we already forgetting how a functioning liberal democracy operates?  Jane Jacobs saw it as a real possibility, and I fear that since her death we have moved a long way down the path she predicted.    

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