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By Gil Troy, The Montreal Gazette, 1-4-11

It was the year of leaks, both oil and Wiki, plus seeping support for Obama and unrest in Europe and the Mideast

Workers remove oil booms from the beach after reaching the coast of South Pass, south of Venice, Louisiana, as oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead continues to spread in the Gulf of Mexico, May 5, 2010.

Photograph by: Carlos Barria, Reuters

Good riddance to 2010 – not only because the calendar gods decree it, but because so many of us were so fed up with it.

Fortunately no historic cataclysm occurred that will jump off the page of future textbooks. Instead, it was a year of slogging through, of feeling drained. It featured major leaks, notably the British Petroleum oil leak and the diplomatic tsunami of WikiLeaks. During 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama’s support and standing continued to seep away. And 2010 witnessed trouble brewing in the United States and Europe, as the prolonged recession drained individuals’ morale, family finances, and communal energies.

The spectacular Deepwater Horizon explosion, and its ensuing oil gush, represented yet another spectacular failure brought to you by the corporate and government structures supposed to keep our world safe. Pictures of poisoned waters, ruined aquatic life and devastated coasts, were heartbreaking -and terrifying. This perfect environmental storm epitomized the high ecological price we pay for our oil addiction, and the humbling human impotence we see sometimes when technological failure begets natural disaster.

True, in less perfectionist, more trusting, times, we could have focused on the heroic, ingenious efforts to cap the underground geyser and clean up the oil spill. Accidents happen. But in our current collective cultural mood, headlines alternated between caricaturing the BP folks as greedy polluters of precious waters and Obamaadministration officials as reprising the George W. Bush administration’s follies following Hurricane Katrina.

The WikiLeaks release represented a different kind of breach -but yet another assault on our confidence in corporate and governmental structures. Once again we learned that the Internet expands our reach while shrinking our zone of privacy. While no particular diplomatic bombshell caused serious damage, the cumulative impact of so many secret documents so easily revealed humiliated the United States. Mostly the documents caught diplomats in the act of being diplomatic -which in kindergarten we called lying. It was embarrassing for Arab states to be caught worrying about Iran going nuclear, for the United States to be caught minimizing those concerns to pressure Israel on settlements, and for the U.S. State Department to be caught blurring the line between diplomacy and spying.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claims to be nobly illuminating the dark recesses of modern governments. His simplistic and self-serving view somehow did not stop him from protesting when Sweden leaked details about his legal problems. Citizens have a right to know many things -not everything – about one another and about their own state. Even democratic governments need some arenas of discretion to protect the public, in every era with enemies and especially in an era with shadowy terrorist enemies.

The more BP’s oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico, fouling the atmosphere, and the more WikiLeaks’ documents leaked into the blogosphere, fouling the diplomatic environment, the more confidence in Barack Obama seeped away. The U.S. midterm elections in 2010 illustrated Obama’s plummet in public esteem from his euphoric election in November 2008 to his “shellacking” in 2010. But unlike Bush, who never recovered from the Katrina debacle when New Orleans flooded, or president Gerald Ford, who never recovered from the backlash against his pardoning Richard Nixon, there was no one dramatic moment when millions of Americans broke with Obama. Instead, it was a drip, drip, drip. Support seeped away gradually but steadily as the economy languished, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars continued, Iran and North Korea flexed their muscles, Obama relied too much on the left-leaning congressional barons in Nancy Pelosi’s Democraticcontrolled legislature, and Obama failed to excite Americans with his vision of governance.

It is premature to predict whether Obama will win reelection in 2012. But so far as president he has failed to replicate the post-partisan, broad-based magic he conjured in 2008. This is a shame, because Americans and the world could use a dose of hope and faith in incumbent leaders.

Instead, a generalized crankiness festered, as bad faith brewed in many pockets of the Western world. In 2010, student protests in Greece, in Italy and in Britain often turned violent. In the U.S., the trouble brewing was more subtle, expressed in a generalized malaise rather than incendiary outbursts. But the low-grade fever of low expectations threatens democracy, especially America’s upbeat, go-getting political culture. Of course, false hope is no better than dashed hopes. Americans – and many others in the Western world -yearn for serious statesmanship offering concrete solutions to the ongoing economic crisis.

On the whole, Canadians had much less to complain about than their neighbours in 2010. Despite Canadians’ characteristic low profile, the phrase “Canada is the new America” gained traction. This, Canadian patriots please note, is meant as a compliment, celebrating the Canadian dollar’s strength, Canadian banks’ stability, and Canadian politics’ relative calm amid the tumult of the Bush and Obama presidencies.

It is a lovely, constructive illusion that we start a new year with a clean slate. But just as millions of individuals make resolutions to tackle personal shortcomings, nations can resolve to tackle communal challenges. In shaping 2011, unexpected disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will erupt. The true test of political leadership, communal grit and a better year will come from solving the persistent problems, which for Barack Obama still involves ending two wars, jump-starting an economy, and, now, reassuring Americans that “yes we can” was a path to real progress, not an empty, ultimately disillusioning and disempowering slogan. May 2011 be a year of plugging leaks, stopping seeps, and brewing hope, witnessing personal and communal revivals economically, politically and ideologically.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.

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