Darkness, Indeed




I was planning to take a few days off — and then cut back somewhat on dispatches until September — but as it turned out the power grid struck first, and though I wasn’t in New York myself, Tomdispatch was. (My daughter, on the other hand, did have to walk home to a dark apartment across the 59th street Bridge from Long Island City, evidently muttering to herself about déjà vu all over again, since this had been her 9/11 experience as well.) The full Nation magazine/Nation Institute server went down, and “I” disappeared into some Ethernet black hole for two days.

What this meant, as a start, is that many of you never got to read Thursday’s Tomgram — the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s wonderful piece on the world’s champion liars. If you were frustrated by being unable to reach TomDispatch.com, as a number of you wrote that you were, just click here and check the piece out. Galeano should never be missed.

A reader who did get an email through to me pointed out that my last dispatch was presciently titled, “Welcome to the Republic of Darkness and Unemployment.” The phrase, used by the Baghdad Blogger, Salam Pax, was graffiti from Iraq, of course. There, after four months of occupation and weeks of 120 degree temperatures, our viceroy L. Paul Bremer has still been unable to announce the full restoration of electricity (or much else) and has urged patience as well as an appreciation of the right to travel (most commonly, it seems, to the roof at night to sleep).

Imagine for a second, New Yorkers or the inhabitants of Detroit patient after four months of next to no electricity with the streets patrolled by an occupying army. You can’t. Well, it seems neither can the media. What’s struck me in the massive coverage of this O. J. Simpson of blackouts, with TV and headlines screaming “Blackout 2003,” is what struck me after the tragedy of 9/11 — how little such events seem to open us up to the larger world of suffering out there somewhere.

Our response to the attacks of 9/11, as I’ve written before, was to take for ourselves the roles of singular global Victim, Survivor and Dominator, more or less sweeping the emotional boards, and leaving only the role of Evil One open for applicants (along, perhaps, with a small slot for “sidekick,” though we’ve tended to use the term “coalition forces”). This more or less follows the pattern of the movies about war and mayhem (also adventure and exoticism) in the Third World that I grew up with.

I’ve been struck the last couple of days by a similar phenomenon around the blackout. You would think that this moment might spur some major editorials, for instance, empathizing with the plight of Iraqis now that we, assumedly, know better what the experience feels like. And perhaps there were some, but all I could find were a couple of amusing pieces, stuck away in distant corners of the press on the Iraqi reaction to our blackout. (This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising since, though a swath of Canada went dark as well, our news reports have largely stopped at the border, despite bickering between the Bush administration and the Canadian government over which part of the grid was responsible for this crisis.)

Associated Press reporter Niko Price wrote a piece that offered a top 10 list of hints on dealing with the blackout “compiled on the streets of Baghdad.” In shortened form, they go:

    10: SLEEP ON THE ROOF…
    9: SIT IN THE SHADE…
    8: HEAD FOR THE WATER…
    7: SHOWER FREQUENTLY…
    6: BUY BLOCKS OF ICE…
    5: CHECK FOR BITTER-ENDERS… ‘They should go to the power stations and see what the problem is,’ suggested Ahmed Abdul Hussein, 21. ‘Maybe there are followers of Saddam Hussein who are sabotaging their power stations. That’s what happens here.’
    4: GET A GENERATOR…
    3: CALL IN THE IRAQIS… ‘Let them take experts from Iraq,’ said Alaa Hussein, 32, waiting in a long line for gas because there was no electricity for the pumps.
    2: USE FOUL LANGUAGE…

    And the No. 1 SUGGESTION… TAKE TO THE STREETS. Some said demonstrations can be effective in persuading authorities to turn on the switch. ‘We held protests. After that we had fewer blackouts,” Ahmed Abdul Hussein said without even a hint of sarcasm. ‘I’d suggest Americans go out and demonstrate.’

Similarly, John Tierny of The New York Times did a piece, tucked away at the bottom of page 11 of Saturday’s 16-page freestanding “Blackout” section, headlined, On the Light Side: Baghdad on the Blackout: A Path to Enlightenment. In addition to the 10 hints above, Tierny adds:

    “Do not try to repair the Northeast grid yourselves. Entrusting the job to Americans, Iraqis warned, would only result in more blackouts and endless excuses about ‘sabotage’ and ‘neglected infrastructure.’ Thamir Mahmoud, a retired clerk, said he was especially worried by President Bush’s promise to fix the problem. ‘If the American government is involved,” he said, “you must be prepared to be patient. They work very slowly.’

    Some Iraqis suggested inviting the United Nations to supervise the reconstruction, but others had a more radical idea. Put Saddam Hussein in charge of the grid. ‘Saddam had the electricity back two months after the last war,’ said Maythum Hatam, a computer-science student. ‘With his methods, you would have electricity right away, but you must expect to lose some workers.'”

The History News Network “staff” rushed out some background material of interest on reactions to earlier New York blackouts. Their piece begins:

    “On Tuesday November 9, 1965, at 5:30 p.m. New York City fell dark when the Northeast was hit with a massive power failure. Lights went out across 8 states. The blackout was triggered when a relay switch in Toronto failed. Four million homes in the metropolitan area were plunged into darkness. Although the disaster cost the economy of New York City tens of millions of dollars, it is remembered as the “good blackout.” Only a small number of stores were looted. Crime in general declined. And New Yorkers celebrated the feeling of good will which pervaded the city. Sociologists afterward attributed the city’s good fortune to three main factors. First, shop owners were able to protect their stores because the blackout began before they had closed up for the night. Second, in 1965 the city had not experienced a general blackout before. Most people expected the lights would come back on in a short period of time. Third, the blackout occurred on a cold November evening, the temperature hovering in the mid-forties.”

Edward Walsh of the Washington Post lets us know a little of the bad news. As with the assault of 9/11 and the subsequent USA Patriot Act, the blackout of 2003 may have its uses. “The massive power failure that struck the Northeast and parts of the Midwest this week,” his piece begins, “also delivered a jolt to Congress, where energy legislation has been stalled amid deep regional differences over how best to upgrade the nation’s aging electric power transmission system.” This is a terrible energy bill (as discussed in a dispatch earlier in the week), but it may soon be ours.

And what of causes? Amid all the newsprint and TV time, who remembers deregulation? Well, it turns out at least two writers do: Greg Palast, author of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, and Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect magazine. In a New York Times op-ed today, under the odd title An Industry Trapped by a Theory (weren’t we the ones trapped by the theory?), Kuttner begins and ends the piece thusly:

    “In the search for the source of Thursday’s blackout, the underlying cause has been all but ignored: deregulation. In principle, deregulation of the power industry was supposed to use the discipline of free markets to generate just the right amount of electricity at the right price. But electric power, it turns out, is not like ordinary commodities.

    [I]n the old days of regulation, a utility like Con Ed would be required to regularly submit a resource plan to a state’s public service commission.

    Under deregulation, however, nobody plays that crucial planning role. Much of the Southeast, by contrast, has retained traditional regulation – and cheap, reliable electricity.

    When the blackout hit on Thursday, many of us first thought of terrorists. What hit us may be equally dangerous. We are hostage to a delusional view of economics that allowed much of the Northeast to go dark without an enemy lifting a finger.”

But if you check out only one piece amid the oceans of verbiage (and pulped trees), don’t miss Gregg Palast’s piece, which reminds us, among other things, of that great legacy left us by George I, the first growth of our present dynastic shrubbery — the deregulation of electricity and of the ability of utility companies to contribute to political campaigns. Enter Enron (“Their motto,” writes Palast, “your money or your lights.”) and George II. Check out why we’ve joined Brazil (Rio’s electricity company was seized by Texas deregulators with the expectable results) and now privatizing Iraq in “the Dark Ages.”

Tom Engelhardt

Additional contributions from Tom Engelhardt can be found throughout the week at TomDispatch.com, a weblog of The Nation Institute.

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