When I was young, the U.S. landing on the moon represented the technical genius and the aspirations of a society that–all its social and political sins notwithstanding—still believed in itself and the vision of a better society. Citizens of the U.S. held these beliefs with reason. If racism and sexism remained, all members of society, regardless of race or sex, had finally achieved at least the legal status implied so many years before by the best words in the Constitution, the terrible victory of black men in the 19th century paving the way for the victory of women of all races in the 20th, the less terrible nature of which in itself seemed to indicate the maturation of American society. If the U.S. was still making war against liberation movements from Vietnam to Latin America, its post-war generosity toward both allies and defeated adversaries showed the moral heights to which it was on occasion capable of rising. If government still abused power, that same government repeatedly demonstrated the capacity to clean its own house. I was able to persuade myself that the failures were temporary, and that if society slipped occasionally into the gutter it was nevertheless capable of setting itself back on the road ahead.
Today feels different. American capacity and resources may remain impressive, but the pattern of governance across the major arenas—environmental, foreign policy, health care, and financial policy—in the 21st century leaves one with the sinking feeling that the road has been lost. If the symbol of the post-war era was the moon landing, today—when the cascade of wars has made almost incomprehensible the very phrase “post-war”—the symbol of American governance is the sacrifice, very likely for the rest of our lifetimes and perhaps far longer, of one of the world’s great resources, the Gulf of Mexico, on the alter of Big Oil greed. Already challenging the ill-conceived war against Islamic activism brought to us by the Imperial Presidency and the “never-ending recession” created by Big Finance for first prize in the Olympics of Political Screw-ups, the greasing of the Gulf promises to be the event of the early 21st century that will go down in history as the symbol of American governance.
And yet, hope lives. Upon hearing news of the first tar balls hitting the Texas coast, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson announced [AP, 7/6/10] the revolutionary concept of holding BP responsible. What a fair bill for trashing some of the world’s most valuable fishing grounds and wetlands might be is almost beyond imagination, and surely would require both the complete financial dismantlement of BP plus appropriate, long jail time for its corner-cutting executives and such politicians and regulators as looked the other way while BP casually punched holes in the Gulf bedrock. Nevertheless, the vision of responsibility is a positive sign, albeit a long shot.
Responsibility is not a popular notion in the 21st century USA. None have been held responsible for the leveling of Fallujah, the 2006 destruction of southern Lebanon, the repression of Gaza, the undermining of the Constitution in the name of “fighting terrorism,” the invasion of Iraq, making nuclear threats against Iran, or gambling away our national financial security. But if Washington can seize the vision of responsibility voiced by Mr. Patterson, it may still just barely be possible to replace the “greasing of the Gulf” as the symbol of 21st century American governance with the symbol of the “restoration of the Gulf.” If that can be done, then Goldman Sachs and those who make war on defenseless civilians may perhaps also be held responsible for their actions, or, in Mr. Patterson’s phrase, be charged with “picking up the tab.”