The curse of conformity

Frank Rich’s latest column on the unwillingness of American leaders to take personal responsibility for anything has the ring of familiarity.  A lot of prominent people have made disastrous decisions in recent years (invading Iraq, stoking a speculative stock bubble) but no one wants to ‘fess up.  As the body count rises and the ranks of the unemployed swell, the closest we ever seem to get to an apology is the generic “no one saw the meltdown coming” or “everyone thought we’d find WMD” explanations.

Actually, a whole lot of economists predicted the bursting of the Wall Street bubble and a holy host of prophets warned against going after Saddam and his WMD.  There was just one problem, none of the experts stalking the corridors of power made the right call.  This is not a matter of bad luck.  Bad advice will be embraced with an unholy passion if it suits the needs of the moment.  Neo-cons had been itching to invade Iraq since Bush the elder resisted the temptation to march on Baghdad.  Expert willing to sign off on the invasion idea flourished in an administration riddled with neo-cons. 

Similarly, those benefiting from the steady expansion of the speculative bubble on Wall Street heaped praise and money on economists willing to give madness the name of sound economic policy.  Economists, for the most part, rise in the ranks of their profession by keeping rich people happy.  Hence, they are frequently wrong.

Politicians were unable to sound a warning because, red or blue, they survive by keeping their finger on the pulse of popular opinion. 

Smart, informed, intellectually honest people quickly discover how hard it is to make a living shouting “the emperor has no clothes.”  So long as the emperor is doling out the big bucks to scam artists, knaves and fools will prosper.

Besides, it feels to good to strike camp with the majority, to lose yourself in the happy horde of normalcy.

To be out of step is to be alienated.  Alienation is painful, even if the majority is blissfully marching off a cliff.

As Rich suggests, conformists rarely have to pay the price for their mistaken augery because, hey, everyone else was wrong too so, even though my projections led to disaster they were throughly mainstream.  Better to be wrong and in the mainstream than right and on the fringes. 

That is why Friends of Justice refuses to stop talking about the mass incarceration, the death penalty, the mechanics of wrongful conviction and the racial dynamics driving this madness.  This isn’t a popular message.  We want to believe in the basic fairness of a criminal justice system that rarely impacts anyone in middle class suburbia.  We want to believe the war on drugs is winnable.  We like to think that insitutional racism went out with Bull Conner and the boys.  But when you spend quality time with folks on the poor side of places like Tulia, Jena, Church Point, Bunkie and Winona the glaring inequities of the system stand out like a bishop in a brothel.

We don’t speak from ivory tower isolation or from the cloistered halls of a well-financed think tank; we speak from a personal experience too ugly to be ignored.