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Borde-nough: The stroke of midnight in Haiti

Published: January 22, 2010
Section: Opinions


A whole lot of nothing occurred when the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced last week that it was resetting its “Doomsday Clock” to six minutes before midnight, a minute further from Doomsday. The value of the Clock’s measurements, it turns out, depends upon how well the Clock is calibrated. The news media’s output these last few weeks has seemed much like the Clock’s: both are mere instruments in the hands of those best positioned to manipulate their output.

The Clock records in an unscientific way the mental flatulence and flinches of a self-important clique of scientists and retired policymakers. It works like this: when members of the Bulletin want to make headlines, they reset the Clock. The Clock publicly registers their approval or disapproval of recent public policymaking relevant to their interests. As a “Doomsday Clock,” it is supposed to scare people into demanding government action pleasing to the scientists.

The expertise of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors lies mainly in the hard sciences, but they know a little about psychology and marketing, too: never in its nearly 60 years of existence has their Clock moved more than seventeen minutes away from the Cinderella-esque finality of midnight. Unsurprisingly, the clock has not proven to be very precise. It stood as far as seven minutes from midnight during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, and as close as three minutes during much of Mikhail Gorbachev’s premiership in the Soviet Union.

During the Cold War era, the Bulletin focused mainly on atomic weapons. But in the early 1990s, when the threat of a deadly nuclear exchange seemed to have become very distant, the scientists worried that their Doomsday Clock might become a cuckoo clock, and that only their crazy graduate students would still listen to them.

Fearful of losing the tan that the media spotlight left on their pointy heads, the scientists decided to keep adjusting their clock every few years. They did so even though the threat of doom had changed so dramatically that it seemed hard to compare Cold War “minutes” with post-Cold War “minutes.” In 2007, the purview of things that Bulletin members’ expertise allegedly entitled them to scare people about expanded to include a headline-grabbing thing called climate change.

Ironically, the scientists’ clock setting helps explain why there exists what the Bulletin’s website calls a “gap between experts and lay audiences,” a gap that the Bulletin itself is supposedly designed to “bridge.” Endlessly crying wolf, even from an ivory tower, will cause others to stop listening. The Bulletin’s Clock can still make headlines, but the Clock doesn’t seem to produce the results supposedly desired by the scientists other than the unstated one of making news.

The Doomsday Clock is a fairly weak instrument employed by an elite to spook democratic publics into using scarce resources in particular ways. A more powerful instrument is the very apple of the scientists’ eyes, the news media itself. Its output is routinely calibrated by people with more to gain from their handiwork than mere attention.

Take Google’s recent troubles in China. The company and its counterpart Yahoo agreed in 2006 to do the Chinese dictators’ dirty work. The dictators’ permission to cash in on China’s growing market (which now has more Internet users than any other country’s) was purchased with the companies’ agreement to censor the output of their Chinese search engines to eliminate Chinese dissidents’ and human rights activists’ websites.

Now it has emerged that hackers in China — who may work for China’s government– have been breaking into email accounts of Chinese and foreign advocates of Chinese democracy and human rights on Google’s Gmail and other web-based mail services. The world will never know how many people have been harassed, arrested, or worse based on information obtained in this manner, but it may soon hear details about a few of them. Google’s pious chieftains didn’t allow the Chinese government’s repressiveness to spoil two years of moneymaking, but they apparently draw the line when the blood on their hands threatened to become actual rather than virtual.

Still, Google executives skillfully made journalists sing when, on Jan. 12, they announced the company’s unwillingness to censor results on its Chinese search engine. For those who’d forgotten how the company had justified censoring search results in the first place, a press release portrayed its Chinese venture as “incredibly hard” to give up. The venture was said to have been based on the calculation that “the benefits of increased access to information… and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results,” rather than a desire to maximize profits.

Google’s public relations blitz may keep it looking good no matter how badly its censorship and failure to safeguard user email accounts turn out to have hurt opponents of the Chinese regime. Moreover, a bigger issue may be avoided: whether decisions to abet foreign governments’ repression are best made by corporations rather than American lawmakers.

President Barack Obama also hoped to shift the media’s enthusiasm for him back into high gear when, on Jan. 14, he proposed a “Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee.” He wants to tax large financial institutions “as long as it takes to raise the full amount necessary to cover all taxpayer losses” under 2008’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, up to ten years.

The goal, said Obama, is that of “recovering tax dollars while promoting reform of [crisis-causing] banking practices.” His reasoning would appear sound to any red-blooded taxpayer: “If these companies are in good enough shape to afford massive bonuses, they are surely in good enough shape to afford paying back every penny to taxpayers.”

Obama seeks a white-hat and starring role in the struggle against outlaw bankers. But unlike the best good guys in Western films, Obama seems more concerned with image than with justice. His proposal would not link an institution’s tax liability to the amounts it received from TARP or that it paid in bonuses, but to its “size and exposure to debt.” Taxing banks leaves “massive bonuses” in the hands of the bankers who took them. And the tax won’t touch badly-managed small banks.

The applause-generating tax obscures Obama’s role in creating the very giveaway to the banks that he now cites to justify the tax. TARP reflected an agreement between the outgoing George W. Bush and incoming Obama administrations: each president obtained discretion to distribute half of a huge sum of money to financial firms. Neither Obama and his friends nor their Republican counterparts attached legal strings to these handouts to keep bankers from pocketing them as bonuses.

Obama’s tax will raise money. But spreading liability over ten years dilutes its value to taxpayers and its impact on bank practices. Bonus collectors at bailed-out companies will learn a different lesson: once a bonus is paid, the government won’t penalize its recipient. Bonuses from bailout funds remain safe to take.

Sadly, even Haiti’s earthquake has proven to be an occasion for media manipulation. On Saturday, the president and his two immediate predecessors in office outlined forthcoming efforts by Bush and Bill Clinton to facilitate contributions to Haitian relief. Those efforts deserve media and public support. But they also keep questions embarrassing to all three men from being asked.

At a time when the US maintains city-sized armies thousands of miles away in Iraq and Afghanistan, why is it so difficult to help an island that is only a 1.5 hour flight from Miami? Given Haiti’s longstanding poverty, the beating it has taken from hurricanes in recent years, and its location in what many Americans still call this country’s “backyard,” why did help for Haiti have to wait until the wrath of God cut down at least 50,000 people and left what the United Nations estimates to be more than 300,000 others homeless and starving? Did Haiti’s lack of resources and the unimportance of its commerce help cause the delay? Perhaps most troubling is the question of when the task of aiding Haiti will be deemed completed. Restoring the island to its pre-earthquake position would still leave it poor and devoid of opportunity. Is that a just outcome after years of American neglect?

Unlike, say, banker relief or invaded-country relief, it will be hard for Americans to make money on Haitian relief. Bipartisanship is easy to maintain when no pie exists to be divvied up. But while elite posturing may mask troubling questions, it won’t help Haitians waiting for American resources to be mobilized on their behalf. For once, it seems appropriate to cheer on politicians’ fundraising, because for many Haitians, a real Doomsday Clock approaches midnight.