Saturday, October 17, 2009

What happens when utopians fail? … Their best friends turn on them, and that is good.

I was struck by the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson opinion piece today entitled The Biggest Disappointment of the Obama Presidency. In it he berates Obama for giving short shrift to New Orleans when he visited Thursday. Of all the Post’s writers, Robinson has been the most supportive of Obama, seldom finding fault, but this time he skewers him.

President Obama's brief display of drive-by compassion Thursday in New Orleans was, for me, by far the worst outing of his presidency thus far -- and the biggest disappointment. 

I covered Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath -- the flood in New Orleans that drowned a great city, the storm surge in Mississippi that erased whole communities, the devastation, the agony. For weeks afterwards, I had trouble sleeping. I couldn't forget the scenes I'd witnessed or the stories I'd heard. 

More than a year later, I covered a Senate subcommittee hearing in New Orleans on the lagging reconstruction effort. I watched as a young senator who was thought to be considering a presidential run -- that would be Barack Obama -- used his Harvard Law skills to eviscerate Bush-era officials for not doing enough to rebuild and revive the Gulf Coast region. 

So it was strange and disheartening that Obama would wait nine months to make his first visit to New Orleans as president. It was stunning that he would spend only a few hours on the ground and that he wouldn't set foot in Mississippi or Alabama at all. But worst of all was the way he seemed to dismiss the idea that his administration could and should be doing much more.

The problem with utopian leaders or those carrying utopian messages is, once in power, they can never deliver on their promises. When that happens, they are subject to challenge or even ridicule. Holding on to power becomes more important than delivering utopia. So they attempt to silence critics who threaten them. The next phase is assuming total power and controlling all decisions from the top. With the best of intentions, all utopian states or sects devolve into failed enterprises. It has happened in Cuba with the Castros. It happened in the Soviet Union. It happened with Jim Jones’ People’s Temple (Jonestown) and in the innumerable utopian movements of the Burned-over District of New York in the 1800s.

The most important check to keep this from happening is a free and critical press. It is important that Fox and talk radio not lose their voice. But most important is the compliant old media must assume a more active role in critiquing government. Eugene Robinson’s article is an excellent start.

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