Monday, October 27, 2008

Mr. Murphy was on the bus

I think I saw Mr. Murphy today. I took the bus to Tacoma for the first time; I work in Seattle and usually drive when I have business in Tacoma, but today I tried something new. An old guy got on the bus and shuffled down the aisle to a seat right behind me, and shortly after he sat down I heard a drawn out dry cough come from deep within him. I've been fighting a cold and didn't want it to get any worse and thought of moving to another seat, but after the second or third time I didn't hear it anymore; maybe he went to sleep. He reminded me of the late Donald B. Murphy, who was the ancient founder of a drilling company I once represented in a case many years ago.

It was a landslide case that arose on a Thanksgiving weekend -- when the rain came down so hard and steady that the Mercer Island floating bridge on Lake Washington sunk. It takes a lot of water to sink a floating bridge. It rained like that all over Western Washington that weekend, three inches or more in a 24 hour period a couple days in a row; the weatherman called it a hundred year storm, which is supposed to mean that much rain comes not more than once every hundred years, but it seems that we get one of those storms about once every other year.

When it rains like this the hillsides start moving -- the rain lubricates the glacial till -- and slabs of earth slip from high ground to low in a kind of leveling flow. There were landslides all over Western Washington that weekend, including one on the Kennydale Hill that allegedly resulted in the death of an old gentleman who lived on the side of the hill.

Mr. Murphy's drilling company was hired to build a retaining wall at the base of the Kennydale Hill where a condominium development was going in, and shortly after they got the wall in, it began to rain. After several days of steady rain, the hillside began to move. Although it is a fact that the new retaining wall stopped that whole hillside from flowing right out onto Interstate 405 that weekend, the heirs of the old man on the hill sued Mr. Murphy's company, and everybody else who worked on the condo project, for wrongful death and other misdemeanors.

Mr. Murphy was long retired by the time all this happened, but I needed a company representative to attend the trial with me and he was chosen. He was a gruff and grizzled old man who survived lung cancer after they took out one of his lungs, but it hardly slowed him up. He came to court early and energized every day dressed in a clean pressed shirt, a regimental tie, and a blue blazer.

During jury selection, it turned out that one of our prospective jurors was an editor for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, and I thought he might know a bit about the rains that caused the hill to move. So in the guise of finding out if this guy could be a fair and impartial judge of the facts of our case, I had him tell us all about the rains that weekend, the flooding, the sinking of the bridge, and all the landslides that happened all over Western Washington. The Seattle PI, as it's known, is the more liberal of our two daily newspapers, and I guess Mr. Murphy had some kind of run in with them, and he wasn't too sure where I was going with all my chummy questions of this newspaper man. During our next break, Mr. Murphy shuffled up to me and said so everybody else could hear, "I don't know what you're doing, but you better get rid of that guy from the fucking PI."

He had a way of making his point understood. He also had a low wet cough that came from deep within his one remaining lung. It was a rumbling thing that took quite a bit of work from start to finish and the first time I heard it I wasn't sure if he was going to make it or expire right there in the courtroom. But he was a tough old guy and one more unpleasant bodily noise wasn't going to disturb him no matter what. He sat right behind me in the court room in the first row of seats, and this gurgling choking cough was not something you could miss. Trouble is, after the trial got started, it seemed to me that one of those coughs came up right about the time some damaging testimony came in, as if to put an exclamation point on something I wished had never been said.

Early on in the case, Mr. Murphy would stand right next to the door as the jury came and went, and he would nod or wink or give them some other sign of affection until one of them said something to the judge who told him to stop. About half way through the trial he attended a luncheon and came back with a gigantic gold medal hung on a red, white and blue ribbon around his neck. There was no missing him whenever he came into the courtroom and this time everybody stopped and watched him; he had a grin on his face from ear to ear as if he had just won an Olympic Gold medal. The jury loved this old man and I did, too.

So it was that I think I saw him again today on the bus to Tacoma even though he passed a few years ago. And tucked up under one arm I do believe he had a copy of the Seattle PI.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Whither American Exceptionalism?

Is there room still in history for American exceptionalism? Or have we wandered to the end of the American rainbow only to find, rather than a pot of gold, an empty pot and bankrupt ideology?

This notion of American exceptionalism gained currency before our independence; it is at once a narrative and an ideology and it has served as the basis for the way we look at and, for better or for worse, how we treat the rest of the world.

Its power as a narrative lies in its re-telling throughout American history. The names and context change but the structural foundation remains the same – we are special – we possess special attributes and visions and capabilities and purpose. From the beginning of the American project these special attributes were said to be God given and infused with messianic features. We were the “city upon the hill”, a promised land, destined for an errand in sacred history; President John F. Kennedy said we would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty;” and more recently Secretary of State Madeline Albright said we were the “indispensable” nation.

It is without question a distinctly American conception of liberty, one in which the vision did not neatly correspond to the domestic realities, but one to which all Americans subscribe nonetheless. In the context of the greater Middle East, Michael Oren showed us how the story is told and re-told in our use of power, our professions of faith and our popular literature, art and motion pictures in his work “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America and the Middle East 1776 to the Present.”

Its power as an ideology is revealed by the way government and the vested interests have mobilized American exceptionalism to legalize, or at least to justify, our conduct vis a vis the world. We are special, our values and traditions are the best, and everybody else had best get with the program. At its best, Woodrow Wilson mobilized the ideology to fight famine and pursue world peace. At its worst, the current administration mobilized the ideology in pursuit of world war.

The current financial crisis fits squarely within the narrative and ideology of American exceptionalism. The story of the American economy is one of boom and bust, its structure is life, liberty and the pursuit of property; and the latest boom rose from the ashes of World War II when the US dollar became the world’s measure of value. If the government will just let the good times roll then, by the grace of God, the good times will roll; and man what a roll it’s been. But a bleak chorus has become hard to ignore. While the rich really are getting richer, the gap between the top and bottom is growing by exponentially increasing quantum leaps, and those left in the middle are being pushed toward the bottom faster than they can climb into the top.

The ideology of America’s nearly unrestrained capitalist system rewards creative work; and the larger the scale of the creative work the greater the reward. In the span of twenty years, a college drop out became the wealthiest man in world history right here in America. The scale of his invention is global; with a left click of the mouse the world comes to our desks and with another left click we can buy or sell anything we want anywhere in the world we choose. And now we have seen how the magic of creative financial instruments made gold from base materials, and with a click of the mouse the trick appears to have ensnared investors from every corner of the world. It is an ancient and seductive ideology as greed has been a human foible since the dawn of time. But what could be safer than an investment in America, especially one that is insured by the largest insurance company in the world, AIG? It is not mere coincidence that AIG stands for American International Group.

Marx predicted that the cycle of the booms and the busts would eventually cause the system to implode, but he was wrong; mankind’s creative impulse is stronger than the destruction it causes, and from the destruction wrought in the current financial crises new opportunities, new possibilities and new structures will arise. The larger question, it seems to me, is whether that which we have believed in for so long – America’s promise to lead the world to a brighter future – is a promise that anybody, anywhere wants to follow any longer.