A Culture of Denial

Here begins Frank Rich's hebdomadal jeremiad:

I dont want to pretend that today marks the end of our economic problems, the president said on Tuesday at the signing ceremony in Denver. He added, hopefully: But today does mark the beginning of the end.

Does it?No one knows, of course, but a bigger question may be whether we really want to know. One of the most persistent cultural tics of the early 21st century is Americans reluctance to absorb, let alone prepare for, bad news. We are plugged into more information sources than anyone could have imagined even 15 years ago. The cruel ambush of 9/11 supposedly changed everything, slapping us back to reality. Yet we are constantly shocked, shocked by the foreseeable. Obamas toughest political problem may not be coping with the increasingly marginalized G.O.P. but with an America-in-denial that must hear warning signs repeatedly, for months and sometimes years, before believing the wolf is actually at the door.

And this is the way it ends:

Nationalization would likely mean wiping out the big banks managements and shareholders. Its because that reckoning has mostly been avoided so far that those bankers may be the Americans in the greatest denial of all. Wall Streets last barons still seem to believe that they can hang on to their old culture by scuttling corporate jets, rejecting bonuses or sounding contrite in public. Ask the former Citigroup wise man Robert Rubin how that strategy worked out.We are now waiting to learn if Obamas economic team, much of it drawn from the Wonderful World of Citi and Goldman Sachs, will have the will to make its own former cohort face the truth. But at a certain point, as in every other turn of our culture of denial, outside events will force the recognition of harsh realities. Nationalization, unmentionable only yesterday, has entered common usage not least because an even scarier word depression is next on Americas list to avoid.

A bang ... or a whimper?

Robert P. Imbelli, a long-time Commonweal contributor, is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. A book of essays in his honor, The Center Is Jesus Christ Himself, edited by Andrew Meszaros, was published this year by The Catholic University of America Press.

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