The Perfect Excuse

When things go wrong, blame it on the storm.

THE TERM HAS BECOME such a clich鬠its probably clich頴o even complain about it. The perfect storm, a phrase popularized by Sebastian Jungers book of that title, has become the go-to explanation anytime an unpleasantness arrives. In fact, in this troubled world, the perfect storm seems to be the only thing that is perfect these days. In durability and imprecision, call it a Category 5 metaphor.

When Seattle City Light had major problems and whacked city residents with massive rate increases, who was to blame? Not City Light, of course, but a perfect storm in the energy market. Perfect storms continue to rock the energy business. One was blamed for the recent Northeastern power blackout.

This week, as many folks awaited the arrival of Hurricane Isabel, perfect storms were already wreaking havoc from coast to coast, cutting a swath through American life. Not the least of which was the storm that exposed the fact that plywood prices have risen dramatically in recent months, making it more expensive to board up storm-threatened storefronts. How come? According to the Sept. 13 Chicago Tribune, plywood was skyrocketing because of a perfect storm in the forest-products industry. Thus, the perfect storm begat a perfect storm.

But the storm clouds extend well beyond your local lumberyard.

What describes Americas plunge from trillion-dollar budget surpluses to trillion-dollar deficits? According to an economist quoted in the Sept. 14 New York Times, it was the perfect fiscal storm.

Americas pension plans are on the brink of collapse. How come? According to the Sept. 13 edition of The Economist, a Bush administration official points to a perfect storm.

Al Qaeda seems to be holding up pretty well. Why? A terror expert told The Associated Press on Sept. 11 that the current environment is the perfect storm for generating Islamic terrorists.

How will these trends affect President Bushs chances for re-election? Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was quoted by CNN on Sept. 11 as warning that a perfect storm might be brewing for the president and Republicans in 2004. One can only hope.

THE PERFECT STORM has left its mark on other fronts, too. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported on Sept. 6 that Bishop Wilton Gregory of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said a perfect storm of media coverage damaged the church. (And you thought it was those wicked priests!)

The epidemic of childhood obesity? According to a public-health official in the Sept. 14 Houston Chronicle, its generating a perfect storm in future health care costs.

When he was asked to explain the budget crisis at public KCTS-TV, then-President Burnill Clark told The Seattle Times it was due to a perfect storm that began stirring in the mid-1990s. That storm is apparently gathering steam. In the Sept. 15 Washington Post, John Lawson of the Association of Public Television Stations was quoted as saying that public stations are having trouble raising money due to a perfect storm of downward trends. The article cited the already storm-lashed KCTS as an example.

And in a Sept. 9 story about the movie Thirteen, a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel described the main characters life as the perfect storm of adolescence: divorced parents, disaffected dad, struggling mom, family living on the fringes of poverty, chaotic home life. Perhaps adolescence itself could be described as a perfect storm of hormones.

Whats at work here is far more insidious than lazy writers leaning on the crutch of an apparently sturdy clich鮠Its clear that perfect storm has become the perfect excuse for every human screwup, and one that politicians, policymakers, consultants, and other experts are grasping in an attempt to avoid all responsibility for what went wrong.

Who screwed up the economy? Who ripped off consumers? Who stole your pension? Who wrecked your public-TV station? Whos responsible for your kids being overweight delinquents? Not Bush, of course. Not incompetent administrators. Not you. Its the confluence of circumstances beyond your control!

Which is the perfect dodge. We puny humans are responsible for nothing, really. Because a perfect storm is a force of nature or an act of God. We have no say, and no standing. Because the storm is perfect, able to overcome our best efforts, we are all equally victims

THE MAJOR PROBLEMS we face have nothing to do with us as individuals. The train wreck of human error? The perfect storm did it. We hapless humans can only stand by and watch. We get to blame the dog for eating our homework: Shit happens. Perfect shit.

We used to live in a rationalistic society where everything was connected in some kind of logical cause-and-effect chain. But our irrationality cannot accept the consequences of such a world, because it is too painful for us to face our failings and take responsibility for them. The perfect storm is our eras great evasion, a new twist on mistakes were made. Now, anyone can commit the perfect crime, and get away with it.

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