Behind the public’s impatience with President Obama and the Gulf Oil spill lie dangerous fantasies of technological American angels that can fly in an fix everything and anything. The same kind of fantasies, of course, lead a company like British Petroleum that they can overcome the unexpected with a combination of public relations savvy and technical know-how.
It’s not optimism. Optimism is reality based and healthy. It’s reality-defying denial. The New York Times had a weekend piece on this all-too-American trait. In it, the late physicist Richard Feynman is quoted:
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.
When Frank Rich is speculating that the oil spill will damage Obama, irony spills faster than oil in Gulf waters. George W. Bush was the President from the Oil Patch. Big Oil never had friends in high places like Bush and Dick Cheney. Now Sarah Palin, busy collecting oil company money more efficiently than a boom collects oil slicks, accuses Obama of being in the pocket of Big Oil.
And what do we make of Republicans who want to drown the federal government in a bathtub but shriek for federal assistance when economic, environmental and technological disasters strike near their homes?
When politics becomes dissociated from reality, bad things happen to good people, usually at the hands of bad people happy to exploit the virtual fantasy worlds they’ve helped invent. “Drill Baby Drill,” said Palin. There was never any considered thought given to what a BP-like disaster would do to the Gulf state fishing, shipping and tourist industries. Raising questions about it seemed out of place in the fantasies. Then disaster strikes and we turn into a nation of unruly children, wailing like infants who wail for their pacifiers after they throw them to the floor.
It’s temporarily comforting to believe that technology can fix anything because we can avoid responsibility for everything. The Right likes to talk about responsibility, but it’s an irresponsible and unaccountable political movement. Accountability is for people lower in the pecking order. Those at the top are never responsible or accountable. It’s a principle of rightist leadership. This is just one reason it’s easy for the bigoted to blame Obama for what BP did. He is, after all, a few links down in the great chain of racial being.
The sad thing is the last few decades of American history fairly shout that our technological hubris is killing us, from the fantasy that we have the best health care system in the world to our denials that climate change is the result of cosmic rays, not human folly.
Bridges collapse, children die of hunger and lack of medical care, viruses mutate and pandemics loom. The herbicide Round-up has led to the evolution of herbicide resistant weeds, threatening the food supply. The ice caps are melting, cities are wiped out by storms. Right wing nutjobs want to take science out of the classroom and replace it with hidebound, ideological dogma. When the chips are down, they scream for science to save them.
We are good at re-inventing ourselves in a kind of etch-a-sketch reality. But sometimes the picture formed by aluminum powder won’t erase. Then, reality bites.