Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Skirting Responsibility

"What do you mean 'we,' kemosabe?"

In the days before hypersensitivity ruled the land, that was the punch line of this, and analogous, jokes. (I'm waiting for the day when our exquisite sensitivity is matched by careful consideration of the instances in which sensitivity is warranted, and not.)  In most analyses, neither the joke nor the term "kemosabe" is racist, but the line has gone by the wayside despite being applicable to many situations.

And so it was that President Obama responded to the riot(s) in Baltimore with a statement (prompted by a question) that was fair and balanced.  The violent protest, he noted, "is not a statement. It’s people -- a handful of people taking advantage of a situation for their own purposes, and they need to be treated as criminals." Still, he cautioned,  there are "thousands of demonstrators who did it the right way." Further,

if you have impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity, where children are born into abject poverty; they’ve got parents -- often because of substance-abuse problems or incarceration or lack of education themselves -- can't do right by their kids; if it’s more likely that those kids end up in jail or dead, than they go to college.

The President omitted at least two causes.  Parents often can't do right by their kids because, with insufficient sex education and access to reproductive services (and other factors), there simply may be too many youngsters in the family for adequate child rearing.  Nor did the President mention a lack of jobs or of jobs which pay adequately. That may seem a petty complaint until one hears Obama say

Now, I’m under no illusion that out of this Congress we're going to get massive investments in urban communities, and so we’ll try to find areas where we can make a difference around school reform and around job training, and around some investments in infrastructure in these communities trying to attract new businesses in.

Positive change, as the President realizes, is unlikely, though a President who has given greater priority to deficit reduction than to ameliorating social ills has exacerbated the problem. Moreover, in citing school "reform" and "job" training, Obama threatens to make the situation far worse..

Through Obama's presidency, he has pushed charter schools, attractive to the private interests which make a killing off them, but less attractive to the public school system, itself in danger of being killed off by this destructive "reform."  And training for jobs which don't exist is not merely an inefficient lack of resources, but gives false hope to many individuals which, combined with other problems in the ghetto (yes, ghettos still exist; we simply are not allowed to acknowledge them anymore), is no prescription for peace and calm in the streets.

Instead, President Obama aggressively pushes the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But the TPP, the Economic Policy Institute finds, will reduce employment and wages as it "cause(s) substantial reshuffling of domestic production away from labor-intensive import-competing sectors" which "will clearly inflict damage on large groups (probably the majority) of American workers."

The Tonto of the "kemosabe" joke would have understood how the President went off the rails when he added

But if we really want to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could. It’s just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant -- and that we don't just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don't just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped. 

One of the classic dodges is "society" or "our society" and in this case it is unclear to whom or what the President is referring. When he charges that "we (don't) really want to solve the problem," Obama is obligated to tell us who "we" is, to call out the culprit.   He is the President responsible for a massive bureaucracy and for setting the tone of American government. Of Congress, he merely says he is "under no illusion we're going to get massive investments in our communities."   Choosing not to specify "Republicans" or "conservatives" or "members of Congress from rural districts," Obama is pandering to the media and to those Americans who choose to write off the entire political establishment, to conclude "they're all the same."

Perhaps President Obama is saying every American bears that responsibility. That would be poppycock, but at least demonstrate some intestinal fortitude. Were he have done that, we could debate whether the responsibility does in fact lie with: your one friend who has lost his job and cannot find another because he has reached the ancient age of 40+; your cousin who cannot support her family on her minimum wage income at McDonalds; or your neighbors whose house is in foreclosure because of some NINJA loan a 'too big to fail' bank suckered them into.

Presumably, Barack Obama does believe each of us should be as accountable for the country's plight as his cabinet, the Speaker of the House, bank executives, or himself.  In one strange sense he would be right: your friend, relative, and neighbor have done about as much as he has to tackle the problems displayed in Baltimore.

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