I was reminded of Edna O’Brien’s novel, August is a Wicked Month, when two scandals erupted last month – one, predictably, in the financial sector and the other, more surprisingly, in the journalistic sector.
BBC News (August 10) and Reuters (August 7) gave wide circulation to the scandal over the fixing of the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), that underpins the nearly $350 trillion market in derivatives. While this lapse was not on the moral scale of Bernie Madoff’s classic rip-off of his clients, it did create waves of indignation and attendant condemnation simply because far too many financial firms and regulators had their hands dirtied.
It also reminded many of the time that Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs tried to laugh off his firm’s lapses by saying that his firm was “doing God’s work”. Perhaps the only way for him to have defended himself against the hostile merriment he provoked from American comedians such as Jon Stewart would have been to say that he had in mind the holy trinity of Indian mythology where Brahma was the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer, and that he was thinking of Shiva!
Then, in mid-August, journalism was rocked by the charge of plagiarism against prominent journalist Fareed Zakaria of CNN and Time. The scandal has now died down, as with the plagiarism of the distinguished historian Doris Kearns Goodwin earlier. But it cannot be entirely wiped away, and it has left many asking questions concerning journalistic ethics that will certainly be examined more fully by schools of journalism.
But after August, the Americans have opened the season on gaffes – by both Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama as the election reaches the final lap of an excruciating marathon. Gaffes are, of course, a regular feature of political life, and they multiply as politicians navigate the rapids of the election season. Thus, we remember, Joe Biden’s foolishly borrowing entire episodes from British politician Neil Kinnock. But the more famous one has to be Sarah Palin’s gaffe, as senator John McCain’s vice-presidential candidate, about being able to handle Russia because she could see it across the border from her home!
But US presidential candidate in 2004, John Kerry, topped them all when he said back then that firms that were outsourcing were Benedict Arnold’s. At first, i thought he must be complimenting these firms because i had never heard of Benedict Arnold and thought he must be an obscure English poet, a distant cousin of Matthew Arnold. Lo and behold: i soon discovered that Benedict Arnold was America’s greatest traitor!
He sounded like Lou Dobbs, the great scourge of outsourcers whose CNN show broadcast internationally was a farrago of attacks on the greed of corporations that outsourced. He is now gone, but President Obama has more than made up for Dobbs’s absence, so far with no price having to be paid for this lapse.
In fact, the president has been let off for many gaffes that no one else would have been forgiven. Buried from view have been his gaffes in pronouncing foreign names, often during state visits abroad and at home, which far exceed the tendency of American politicians in pronouncing foreign names; one shudders when even today, Iraq is pronounced as Airac.
When i spoke at the Indian Parliament a few days after he had, i was told that he had continued manhandling Indian names, as he had done earlier in Washington (where he also called Prime Minister Nehru, President Nehru once) and in Mumbai. A Japanese diplomat told me that he did the same with Japanese names.
By letting him off scot-free, the media does not serve him well. If not the serious media, the comedians should provide the corrective. For, these gaffes suggest an inherent lack of seriousness about international issues that, if left to fester, may well come to haunt the US and its friends and foes.
The original article appeared in Times of India.