"What did he know, and when did he know it?"
I think we all recognize those words and know they were directed at Richard Nixon, but the question can be asked of almost any individual or group of individuals when things go wrong. Who knew, and why didn't they say something?
When does a political party know they have been led astray? When do the wizards of finance realize the economy is rife with fraud and deception and in danger of collapse? When does a nation admit that it has become a threat to the world rather than its savior?
I have a friend who was born in Germany in the late 1930s. She married an American and has lived in the U.S. for many years. Memories of World War II are dim. Her mother, when she was alive, would never talk to her about it because the woman never fully accepted Germany's role in the Holocaust.
It's called denial, and we all do it at one time or another. The point about denial is not that we don't know, but that we can't accept what we know because it strikes at the very heart of our belief system.
We know, but we chose not to know. We know, but see no way to change so we bury the knowledge somewhere deep in our individual or collective psyche. Americans have been doing it for some time now.
We've been warned about our runaway technology. We've been warned about global warming, the disappearing topsoil, disappearing forests, the pollution of our waterways and oceans. And we were warned about the present mortgage crisis as early as 2004. At least the FBI warned Washington, but Washington wasn't interested.
In an April 3 interview with William K. Black, Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri, Bill Moyers asked the former regulator how the CEOs and other individuals in charge of our financial system got away with one of the biggest swindles in history.
We had checks and balances, Black said, but they were in the hands of the CEOs who simply ignored them. We had regulations, but the Bush administration got rid of the regulations. We had laws that separated commercial banking from investment banking, the Glass-Steagall law, but got rid of the law.
And all this happened more or less in the open while the two parties in Congress fought each other for control.
In other words, we knew, but we were in denial because to expose what was going on would be to overturn the whole system, and no one highly placed enough to do it wanted to take the hit. This includes the CEOs of our major corporations and members of both parties in Congress.
Now the country has elected a new leader, but he is under attack from all sides. There is no way President Barack Obama can overturn years of entrenched special interests, not without more backing than he is getting now. And he may not be able to do it even then, but we have no chance of improving our odds unless we are willing to question our own preconceived ideas about government and the economy, because if we don't we will continue the same failed policies of the past.
This is not a Republican or a Democratic problem. This is not an issue of capitalism vs. socialism. This crisis happened because we allowed the financial system to become so convoluted that nobody understood what was going on until it was too late.
It happened because those in power benefited from the status quo. The public, for its part, chose to believe what it was told rather than question long-held political and social philosophies.
I am just as angry and just as frightened as the next person. I've seen family savings disappear, retirement funds vanish, jobs terminated, and like everyone else, I hold my breath and hope that in time things will return to normal. They won't.
Black's advice is to get rid of the people who caused the financial problems in the first place. That sounds pretty good to me. Then appoint people who have a record of success rather than failure.
Right on, but we have to stop making excuses for past blunders and accept the fact that in one way or another, we all allowed this to happen because we willingly accepting a flawed value system.
Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com.