Thursday, January 06, 2011

Off with their heads!

I know it's not fashionable to praise the French Revolution anymore, at least not the way it used to be. But after finally seeing Charles Ferguson's documentary about the causes of the 2008 financial crisis, "Inside Job," I'm ready to get out the guillotines.

The film brings together many things I've more or less known about with some new stuff, but seeing them all at once is devastating. The greed, corruption, impunity and impenitence of an entire class!!! And both major parties in the financiers' pockets for thirty years now!!! (Obama named his new Chief of Staff today - straight from J. P. Morgan Chase.) Why are the Tea Partyers the only ones demonstrating in the streets?

What amazes me all over again: so many played their part in this - and so few of them have seen the error of their ways. I'm not just thinking of the "fat cats"; in a way it's too easy to focus on them, as it was too easy to focus on W during the years of Republican pillage. I'm thinking of the whole food chain from small-town lenders through ingenious alchemists of financial products to those who made billions betting on other's losses.

Ferguson reminds us that accountability is nowhere - nobody's been brought to justice, or even to trial. Beyond political failure, what about individual conscience? Has even one of the thousand Wall Streeters who've been receiving record bonuses sent it back? Has even one of the thousands of predatory lenders who set vulnerable people up for ruinous debt and foreclosure repented or tried to make amends? Have any even tried to explain what they thought they were doing, and why they thought - think - it justifiable? Some, indeed most, must have felt that what they were doing was acceptable, even commendable - not just making a killing but generating wealth and value. The great documentary "The Corporation" provides an account of why people lose their moral bearings when working for corporations. Ferguson doesn't go so deep - but maybe that's as deep as it goes with some of these folks.

That's ultimately what's most depressing. At a political and cultural level, it's paralyzing to see that an entire leadership class of exploiters remains unassailable. But at a moral level, a whole culture seems to have collapsed. Remember that rather eloquent speech I wished Obama would give, back in September '08? Its refrain was "we're better than this." The election of 2008 seemed to confirm that we could be. But twenty-eight months later, it's harder to believe. Where's the outrage? Do we expect no better? Or is that we can imagine no better, can't imagine even ourselves better?

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