When A Windmill is Really an Oilrig

May 8, 2010

Don Quixote(1)

I look back at the bravado of my youth with some surprise.  It’s not that I have forgotten it so much as being able to see it as a whole is somewhat bewildering.  Of course, as with most bravado, it did not come from my being right as much as believing others were wrong.  The true wonder of this time is how anyone, at all, could have put up with me.

Lessons learned with age do temper such boldness.  The imprudence of charging into a thing before knowing all the facts does work to that effect.  When your first course of action is belligerence, it is easy for others to involve you in a matter armed with only half a story that ends with embarrassment.  I remember, more than once, having someone who worked for me tell me of an abuse at the hands of a supervisor and charging off like Don Quixote after a windmill.  Of course upon meekly leaving the said dragon’s office, now knowing the whole of the story, I wondered how I could be so gullible.  Lesson learned.

Life is like that.  It is easy to think you are right when all you have is evidence that supports your being right.  With age you learn to seek evidence that suggests you are wrong before you commit to action, at least you should.  Then after consideration of both, the truth is easier to see.  Looking over the past few years, it seems it is a lesson we, as a nation, have failed to learn.  Just ask yourself how things might be different today had we fully understood Iraq and the downside to our involvement there.

If that was not bad enough, our current economic situation gives another great example.  Had legislators and regulators performed their fiduciary duties rather than accept the opinions of the institutions they regulate, the dangerous course the economy took might have been corrected long before we were stuck in the mud and left with a huge tow-truck bill to get back on solid ground.

Now it seems the same sort of bravado exists within the Department of the Interiors’ Minerals Management Service (MMS).  Rather than questioning one of the industries they regulate, the petroleum industry, they simply accepted the “self-regulation” model giants like British Petroleum (BP) put forward.  The end result is lives lost and an oil spill of immense proportions.  Somewhere along the line, our government changed its focus from stewardship of our nation to ensuring businesses played well with each other.

The problem is systemic within the government.  Regardless of agency, the officials that represent the interests of the people are too close to the industries they regulate.  Instead of asking for proof, they ask for assurance.  Rather than looking at the worst-case scenario, they accept “trust us, we can handle anything.”

My dad once told me, “Son, if you ever need a lawyer, get the meanest butt-reaming son-of-a-bitch you can find.”  What he meant was to get one with a passion for protecting your interests over the interests of others.  While we do not need a bunch of lawyers running the various government departments, we do need managers with no less commitment than the lawyers my father had in mind.  We need people that will tear into an issue, question everything, and assume something other than the best result is possible.

Returning to events of recent years, if only we had asked more questions, what would we have learned?  Would we be better off today for it?  We accepted the half-truths put before us on faith and charged off with the same bravado I remember from younger days to tilt at windmills while the real dragons did us harm.  We need to quit taking things on faith and demand proof and challenge that proof.

The ideas we desperately want to believe in are the ones we must question the most.

We want to believe our government represents us, the people.

–   They have proven otherwise.

We want to believe industry has a social conscience.

–    Instead, they have shareholders and profits to think of.

We want to trust that regulators understand what they are doing.

–   Instead they rubber-stamp proposals from the regulated without        question.

In the end, we really have only ourselves to blame.  We accept rhetoric as fact and entrench ourselves in various ideologies that only serve the ones that take advantage of us.  If we have the temerity to question the rhetoric, our patriotism is questioned or we have the label of “Real American” removed from our name.  How dare we question anything that one of the “chosen few” puts forward?

We have forgotten a few simple facts.  First, the government works for us, not the other way around.  Second, business has one motive – profit and that is as it should be, but it does mean they need unbiased regulation.  Third, we have a responsibility to question everything our government does, or in some cases, does not do.  Moreover, we need to stop marginalizing the people that do question.  Otherwise, we are left with only the sound of voices that agree with our own preconceived notions.  That is until and oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico blows up and we are shocked to learn an industry only gave us half a story as we marched off with bravado.  It seems we have not learned the lesson, maybe we never will.

(1) Daumier, Honoré. Don Quixote And Sancho Pansa. 1868. Oil of Canvas. Neue Pinakothek Museum, Munich, ‎Germany.

One comment

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