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The Pneumatics of Washington DC

by danps Sat Jul 17th, 2010 at 06:38:49 AM EST

The federal government has begun to acquire an almost reflexive opposition to transparency.  Many of the usual explanations for that may be true, but there could be a more philosophical reason as well.

For more on pruning back executive power see Pruning Shears.

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

The BP oil spill has been covered up as much as possible from the very beginning, but the nature of it seems to have changed recently.  It started as an attempt to downplay the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf, apparently with the belief it would be stopped relatively quickly and its effects kept offshore and under water.  Barry Eisler imagined a political flak's approach: "We're just guessing. So I want us to guess lower. We'll introduce the lower number into the public's mind to ease the entire incident into their consciousness. Once they realize there's a spill, we can gradually walk the number up without unduly shocking people."  Whatever the real thinking was, his fictionalized logic squares perfectly with what actually happened.

As the magnitude of the disaster has expanded, though, so has the response.  What looked like an attempt to collude with a negligent corporation to limit damage to its reputation, if not the environment (via), has morphed into an all-encompassing effort to shut down reporting on the fallout (via).  (When former security contractor Adam Dillon went public with his concerns about BP's actions it prompted a little change, though with unspecified caveats.)

In addition to the lockdown on media access to the worst of the spill sites, there now seems to be an effort to cripple scientific investigation into the effect of the disaster on the Gulf.  As Dan Froomkin reported, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is collecting a vast wealth of data on the impact.  Unfortunately it has chosen not to share any of it with scientists, though it is doing so with BP.  This gives the government the appearance of privileging the irresponsible party who unleashed this disaster on the public over the disinterested researchers who just want to figure out what exactly is going on.

The mushroom approach is of a piece with a larger narrative.  As Glenn Greenwald astutely observed on another matter:

Most of what the U.S. Government does of any significance -- literally -- occurs behind a vast wall of secrecy, completely unknown to the citizenry.  While a small portion of that is legitimately classified, these whistle blower prosecutions and other disclosure controversies demonstrate that the vast majority of this secrecy is devoted to avoiding embarrassment and accountability....Secrecy is the religion of the political class, and the prime enabler of its corruption.  That's why whistle blowers are among the most hated heretics.  They're one of the very few classes of people able to shed a small amount of light on what actually takes place.
His use of ecclesiastical language is perfect.  In fact, the dynamic inside the Beltway bears the strongest resemblance to a particular subset of faith.  Most religions throw open their doors to any and all who care to convert.  Broadly speaking, if you are willing to learn the basics and live by the major tenets you can become a fully participating member.

There are some, though, like Gnosticism, that postulate secret knowledge not necessarily available even to members.  Among the congregation there is a small group who have learned very special things.  They have access to the innermost sanctum, and that separates them from everyone - true believers included.  (See also secretive societies like the Freemasons.)  Unlike faiths that offer full salvation/enlightenment from day one, these groups require years of training and sacrifice in order for the holiest doctrines to be revealed, and there is no promise that they ever will be.

That is the dynamic that seems to best characterize politics at America's national level.  Citizens do not know much of what is happening, but not because such things are unknowable.  Data is being collected, records are being kept, it all is getting taken down.  But our leaders seem to have come to see themselves as the keepers of holy mysteries.  They derive their power not from their training, experience or competence but because they guard that which has been revealed.  The more miserly they are in rationing it, the more it enhances their prestige.  In that sense the biggest threats are, as Greenwald notes, those who would bring light to the masses.

In other words, the challenge is not to persuade NOAA administrators on the facts but to subvert their will.  They are not keeping data on the catastrophe secret because they sincerely believe the best response for the Gulf and the country is to only allow BP look at it.  They are doing so out of a quasi-religious belief in keeping dark knowledge from the uninitiated.

by danps (dan at pruningshears (dot) us) on Sat Jul 17th, 2010 at 06:39:07 AM EST

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