Did you know that the executive director of the Port Authority of NY and NJ had recently "burst into the consciousness of most New Yorkers last week with the blunt revelation that construction at ground zero would run longer and cost much more than announced because officials had promised too much"? Also, the NY Times tells us, this "part bureaucrat, part politician, part intellectual" with a "masters degree in divinity from Harvard" will need to "be both polished diplomat and hardened taskmaster" to put the project on track.
Polished and hardened? Is this person supposed to be a government worker or a precious gemstone? The author of the article, Diane Cardwell, apparently sees the latter, and finds it of particular interest that Christopher O. Ward, "invoked the philosopher and poet George Santayana" in explaining the cost overruns and broken promises at the WTC site thusly; "Were there overly aggressive dates set? Probably for the right reasons in some ways," because, you see, "This [9-11] was just an unbelievable event that tore into the fabric and the mind of the city, and the need for drama to say, 'This is who we are,' set some unreasonable expectations,"
Note that the article doesn't say that the delays and cost overruns themselves burst into New Yorkers conciousness; it only says that the amazing Mr. Ward did – but at least this courageous public servant did his bursting with style and elegance. There are precious few details about specific Ground Zero problems in the article, no explanation of the nature of delays and overruns, or what caused them - just the complete life and times of Ward, right down to the origin of his middle name and including his entire academic and work history.
Excuse me? Three skyscrapers are destroyed, in one of the worst events in our history, and 7 years later nothing has been rebuilt yet? Now the guy who heads the Port Authority, a guy who has been in on the rebuilding plan since Day One, essentially says, "we had to make irresponsible promises" after the attacks because we needed drama to "define ourselves"? Since when do Americans define themselves by empty talk and not action? And now this empty-talking leader is a media hero - just because of the highfalutin way he makes excuses? Please.
Unfortunately, this type of coverage is part of a larger pattern; I call it "distraction via personalization." It manifests itself clearly in the oft-heard expression, "the problem is the people" etc. In this case, we're taking systemic problems or issues, and focusing only on the people who are involved, usually the leaders, and not on the system itself. The main characteristic of this phenomenon is that it personalizes, and thereby distracts, from past government failures, by assigning blame for those failures or by promising new successes - or any combination.
The Ward story above distracts people from failure by glorifying one person. The problem is, one person - even the leader of the Port Authority – can't suddenly reverse the problems in NYC, and pretending that they can is just a distraction from our systemic problems. The conservative media personalizes too, with CSIS's Harlan Ullman recommending on 4-28-04 that Colin Powell be put "in complete charge of both the civil and military sides of the house" in Iraq, as if his decisions were so much better than those of any other person or group. Not once in that starry-eyed testimonial did Ullman deign to re-evaluate whether we should be in Iraqi houses at all.
A more recent example is Phil Gramm's statement to the Washington Times that the Iraq war was Bush's war, but "it became McCain's war, incredibly" and that "without McCain, we would have lost the war on Iraq." Gramm is deluded. First off, a war cannot be about just one person –whether that man is Bush or McCain doesn't matter. The notion is a disturbing one and very improper in what is supposed to be an advanced constitutional republic where only the Congress can declare war. The other thing is, we could still "lose" the war in Iraq, couldn't we? I mean, we're still over there, and so the jury is still out.
Negative personalization? After Katrina, it became de rigueur to blame FEMA Director Michael Brown. The biggest "distracter" of course, is President Bush himself. People waste so much time and energy blaming him for everything that they forget we still have real problems to solve. Frankly, it's an addiction. Notice the Democrats don't say the war itself is bad, only that a person – Bush - has "mismanaged it"? Recall the hostility towards Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld? Things are no better in Iraq since they left. No matter. The distraction worked. America is still at war with everything – everywhere, and no one is stopping it.
Distraction by personalization is everywhere. People are upset at the economy, so they look to Bush and Bernanke, as if they control the actions of billions of investors and savers all over the world. When things were good, it was all about "the Maestro" Alan Greenspan. Now, as systemic problems mount in our society – no one wants to look at the system itself. Instead all we get is finger-pointing and/or hero-worshipping, both of which only serve to distract us from the real problem – too much government.