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Saturday, April 17, 2010

The culture of accountability

In the waning years of the great civilizations of the Bronze Age there was a belief among the royal and priestly classes that their fortunes and dynasties would endure the ages. Despite their wisdom, they could not see the true meaning hidden within the subtle changes that had befallen their world. There are lessons there among the heroic tales of the Iliad that describe for us a world characterized by desperate actions by ill advised and desperate leaders who would cling to a forlorn notion of honor. The realities were far more complex even for a bard of Homer’s stature to describe. What is often lost to the casual historian is the fact within a mere eighty years, the Greek culture that had launched a thousand ships for the sake of fair Helen, had ceased to exist. The cultures of the eastern Mediterranean had fallen into a Dark Age. What parallels could be drawn by an astute observer from these ancient tales to the current state of affairs in which we find ourselves. Some say to those in the past their primary enemy was their own success. By this I mean, their populations grew beyond their capacity to feed them. As the privations of an economy in turmoil made themselves evident their leaders could not look beyond the status quot for answers.

For those of us, who came of age during the Reagan era and were unlucky enough to live outside the sphere of the wealthiest of Americans, there is something that each has in common. This being experiential thread of being the cultural scapegoat for the perceived excesses of the baby boomers that came before us. This population boom flowered in the cultural revolutions that followed and was characterized in popular song as the dawning of a new age. This new age was however short lived as the economic realities of the 1980’s were made evident. The promise of a world free of war and disease was perhaps a long shot to begin with but what about the other things? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this all began to change. Sometime during the 1980’s a culture of profit at any cost was embraced by an elite cadre of the wealthiest who shunned industry as a cause unto itself for the fortune of the bottom line. In one generation the assets of our nation were liquefied to line the pockets of these privateers in gold. For these men, pride in a sense of accomplishment that comes with the production of goods and services or the welfare of workers families would no longer be a priority. Instead, the goal of increased profitability would be their rallying cry.

Since then the computer from which reams of data can be processed instantaneously has become commonplace. In their hands it would become the tool through which the institutionalized scrutiny that pervades our culture was created. This scrutiny has trickled down to a point where it is involved in virtually every facet of our every day lives. We are told what we should eat, what we should look like, how we should spend our free time and how to be safe. In this made for television fantasy land of images and fun facts, there is safety in numbers. For our short sighted and narcissistic society, it is true in both the sense of a herd and as algorithm. For those who are held accountable these numbers can be arranged to prove or disprove anything. And the subsequent finger pointing allays any collective responsibility. We can pretend then that we should expect guarantees against the ravages of crime, nature and disease even as the climate itself goes through the most dramatic changes since the ice age. In this era of terrorism, plauge and foreign war Statistics have replaced commonsense and dignity. As a result, the cooperative nature of the common good is seen as an anachronism.

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