Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Blame Game: America's National Pastime

The headline on today's New York Times Magazine screamed at me this morning:
Every Hour an Acre of Louisiana Sinks Into the Sea. Who is to Blame?
Interestingly, in the online version the title changes to "The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever". That's an interesting shift, but I'm not sure what to make of it.

What grabbed me about the in-print headline was not the declarative statement of fact. That Louisiana's coastline and wetlands are slowly being drowned is not news; Hurricane Katrina but a big red exclamation point on a process that's been going on for years. The really interesting part is the question: Who is to Blame?

This is a reasonably accurate representation of the article, which is about a lawsuit (or a movement to create one) to pin responsibility for the encroaching water on the oil and gas companies, and thereby get them to pay for remediation. The details of that fight I leave to others to get into. I doubt the lawsuit will go anywhere, but I could be wrong.

But the broader "Who is to Blame?" question seems to me emblematic of our culture today. We are so tribalized and balkanized into different subgroups that there is no more "we", only "us" and "them". Every problem that confronts us becomes a battle over whose fault it is. Pay attention to Tea Party News (or even Fox News) for a week and play Bingo with how many of the world's problems they blame on Obama. I doubt it would take you seven days to win that game. E pluribus unum indeed.

"Who is to blame?" has become our default question, the first response to every issue. Coverage of the lone Ebola case in the US has focused to a large extent on whose fault it is that the patient was turned away from a Dallas hospital the first time he visited. Don't get me wrong - that's an important question if you run that (or any other) hospital. For the other 99% of us, however, it's irrelevant next to the information we need to know about Ebola and the kinds of collective action we need to take to protect ourselves.

Organizations that are perpetually engaged in blame-fights almost never do well; many a business has gone under in a blaze of blame-throwing. Why should we expect a country to be any different? Problems don't get solved by asking whose fault it is; they get solved by coming up with solutions.

Some will say, but don't you have to diagnose the causes of the problem? Of course you do. But diagnosis and blame are not the same thing, as any good manager knows. It's one thing to identify mistakes and errors; it's another to engage in punitive witch-hunts. The former is productive, the latter is not.

Don't get me wrong - there ARE bad actors out there, and maybe the oil and gas companies are among them. But many of those actors are "bad" (in that they pursue their own self-interest to the detriment of everybody else's) precisely because there is no "we" anymore. They are not "part of us", they are their own tribe looking out for their own interests and screw the rest of the world. The Wall Street hubris kings who broke the financial system a few years ago suffer from the same problem - they think of themselves as a breed apart, not as Americans or citizens or even New Yorkers.

I have no idea how to fix this, of course. I have a small blog read by maybe three dozen people. The New York Times is rather bigger, and they're hardly the only one feeding the Blame beast. But somewhere I would like to see people start to ask not "Who is to blame?" but "How do we fix it?"

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