- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Two men were overheard chatting at a Cosi restaurant in DC this weekend. One said, “You know, with the death of Ed McMahon, Farrah, and Michael Jackson, I think the 70s also died. They’re over with once and for all.” The other guy said, without hesitation, “I’d believe that if Jimmy Carter weren’t still president.”
Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. I just overheard the conversation. (Please read on for my rather different view.)
Personally, I found the obsessive retrospectives about Michael Jackson a little disgusting. His commercial success for a few years as a pop singer seemed to trump the dark and unsavory aspects of his life. But he was no hero. He was certainly no one to be celebrating. Unless of course, you were an ayatollah. Because one of the truly transcendental ironies of recent history has to be the fact that a symbol of the worst sort of Western spiritual and social corruption…celebrity worship, drug culture, financial excess, debauchery…ended up providing just the distraction that the keepers of the Islamic Revolution’s flame in Tehran needed to direct the world’s attention away from their abuses of their own people.
In an instant, the really important story of tens of millions struggling to be heard in Iran was swept off the air by the death of a 50 year old accused pedophile in America. CNN, which had been congratulating itself daily for bringing the “green revolution” in Iran to the world as only it could in an instant tossed its news judgment out the window and started offering 24/7 retrospectives on how Michael Jackson chose the red leather jacket he wore in the “Thriller” video. It was an appalling, cheap and cynical programming choice made worse by the fact that other major stories…from the Congress passing the landmark Waxman-Markey climate legislation to the coup in Honduras…were left to play the role only of journalistic spackle, filling in the cracks between paeans to a man who spent the last twenty years shocking the world with his unhinged depravity.
The sad reality is that none of the celebrities who died in the past week say much good about American culture or the state of hero worship in America.
Which brings us back to Obama and the overheard Carter crack. Because one way that Obama is clearly unlike Carter is that he has already achieved something momentous and, occasional cigarette aside, he actually does offer Americans a leader whose story is legitimately inspiring. It is far too early to tell whether he will be able to add to a legacy that has already been assured by the fact of his election…but Friday’s passage of the Waxman-Markey legislation and the administration’s vigorous defense of the bill is a sign that it just might.
The change in the America’s stance on the issue of global warming is one of the most dramatic and meaningful of the Obama era. (Don’t believe me? See Angela Merkel’s recent comments on the subject.) It will not be easy to get Senate passage of similar legislation. Insiders on the Hill with whom I have spoken suggest that in all likelihood the Senate bill will be sidetracked by the healthcare debate and may not be even voted until after the Copenhagen climate summit. This in turn will mean the United States goes in saying “we can go this far if China and India commit to reductions” which is perhaps not optimal, but may well be a good negotiating position.
And if China and India and the other developing countries do commit to meaningful emissions reductions within a reasonable period, then early in 2010 Senate passage and a final bill going to the President seems likely. (One senator told me that the key to selling the bill is letting Americans know they won’t be the only ones sacrificing and that for him, the Chinese are the lynchpin. In fact, he said the issue of coal-burning Midwestern states vs. the alternative energy loving coasts is overstated and that it will be fairly easily settled via “the usual horse trading that goes on up here.”)
The United States has never been closer to meaningful action on combating climate change and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. It would be a simultaneous breakthrough in climate security, energy security and economic security. The opposition’s antics on the legislation (including Representative Boehner’s reference to the just passed legislation as a piece of shit) well illustrated their desperation and cluelessness. In fact, the people on the wrong side of this legislation once it passes will be seen as being on the wrong side of history and will be very vulnerable to election challenges on those grounds. Especially since recent estimates, like those of the Congressional Budget Office, underscore how minimal the financial impact of the cap and trade provisions of the bill will be on the average family.
I wish CNN and others in the broadcast media had covered this story as they should have and given the president the great credit he deserves for fighting for it. (A nuanced stance which, over the weekend included the airing of the president’s principled objections to provisions in Waxman-Markey requiring tariffs be levied against nations that don’t commit themselves to emissions reductions.) The well being of millions and perhaps the fate of the planet hangs in the balance and as a consequence, I think a fair case can be made that we could have cut back on the interviews with Lisa Marie and Dame Elizabeth long enough to let the news creep through the maudlin aggrandizement of a featherweight, self-inflicted, altogether tawdry American tragedy.
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