The World Is Rich, But It Is Not Mine

This world is rich, but it is not mine.
Where I live, hungry children are crying
I am not angry, at my own condition
I just want people to know my position.

Procol Harum, from a statement by South African Stephen Maboe

Congressman Joe Barton says he doesn’t want to live in a country in which those in authority are held accountable.

Okay, I’m paraphrasing, but I’m getting the spirit of his comments – and his beliefs – just right. He apologized to BP for the Obama Administration’s audacity and its demand that BP put $20 billion in escrow to compensate Americans devastated by the oil giant’s Gulf spill.

I’m only speaking for myself. I’m not speaking for anyone else, but I apologize,” Barton added. “I do not want to live in a county where anytime a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong, [it is] subject to some sort of political pressure that, again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown.

Other Republicans (John Cornyn, Michele Bachmann) shared Barton’s concerns. Some tried to distance themselves. Whatever.

The point is that Barton spoke from his heart. In the worldview of Barton and his ilk, humanity divides neatly into two categories: the ruled and the rulers. It is a violation of natural law to hold rulers accountable. Surviving fish do not punish sharks for the flounder they eat.

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Evangeline, the Oil Spill and Highway 61

Evangeline, by George Rodrigue

I was 18, skinny, out of money and in New Orleans for the first time after some Appalachian adventures and a visit to Nixon’s D.C. I faked a cocky walk into a French Quarter piano bar and stayed until closing time when the brunette singer in a sequined costume gown took pity on me. We went to an all-night place to eat. She picked up the tab and sent me gently on my way, and I still don’t know who pays the angels.

I headed out of town on Tulane Avenue under a high, gray light filtered through very low sky. At the Broad Street red light a man in a rumpled coat and wrinkled trousers stood in the intersection. He swayed on unsteady legs and waved his arms as blood sprayed from his neck. A cop in his car at a gas station on my right saw the same thing I did, looked at me funny, punched his siren and flashed across the intersection. A road sign I hadn’t noticed before slapped me hard with the Dylan verse: “God said, Abraham kill me a son.” The man’s throat was cut near the end of Highway 61.

I’d had a youthful tour of the Museum of America, from John Prine’s Paradise to Washington’s Marble Presidents, from the Encounter With the Compassionate Stranger to the Diorama of Violent Death. I drove on home to Houston, where everyone said I looked gaunt.

I’m spending a lot of time in New Orleans these days. The town, still recovering from the Storm, is bracing for the economic gut punch of the Spill. If I were Pharaoh of New Orleans, I’d let the people go before the Mississippi turns to blood and frogs fill the Superdome.

Already some LeBlancs and Toussaints have escaped to HBO, not the promised land but a virtual home for a spirited, impressionistic filmsong of New Orleans, Treme. Sandra Bullock’s moved to town and adopted a motherless child, and in the French Quarter a guy in a cop costume tosses you a Saints cap and asks for a twenty-dollar food-drive donation. Hat in hand, the role reversed, you give it up for an angel not forgotten.

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A Requiem for the Gulf

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” – John Muir

They were fragile and appeared insignificant against the repetitive roar of rollers on the Gulf of Mexico.  Oval and grayish in color, the turtle eggs looked as if a puff of wind might cause them to evaporate.  Momentarily, as our television lens hovered above and focused on the nest made of sand, the eggs began to crack.  Tiny green heads emerged from behind the opaque fragments of shell and snouts pointed at the air.  Time and the genetics of survival had programmed the Kemps-Ridley hatchlings to scent the ocean and turn, instinctively, toward the water.

Gulf shore nesting season for Kemps-Ridley turtles

A clutch of the sea turtles had hatched within minutes of each other and they had all begun scratching at the sand to make their way to the unforgiving gulf where they were destined to live.  They looked like olive silver dollars crossing an expanse of a hundred yards of beach on the Padre Island National Seashore.  Our TV camera tracked them and the minute prints they made as their shells moved closer to the waves.  Less than 20 minutes passed before each of them were pushing fins against the hard packed seam between the soft white beach and the drumming surf and they were picked up by withdrawing waves and curled into the sea.  Survival seemed unlikely but some rose to the top of outgoing surges as if defiant of the odds that only a few of them were destined to live beyond these initial hours.

I first heard of the Kemps-Ridley sea turtle while working as a TV reporter in 1979 covering the blowout of the Ixtoc 1 drilling rig in the Bay of Campeche off the coast of Mexico.  As the governor of Texas was calling public concerns about the oil in the gulf “much ado about nothing” and suggesting that we only needed to “pray for a hurricane,” a few people were already hard at work trying to prevent the extinction of a rare creature.  The millions of gallons billowing into the sea at the Ixtoc site near Cancun were going to make saving the Kemps-Ridley a great challenge.  Acutely instinctive, the endangered turtles nested only in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico near Tampico, and the oily ocean drifting northward was a threat.  Eventually, the turtles were saved from extinction by a rescue effort that also moved north to South Padre, Island, Texas, and the dedication of Ila Loetscher, an accomplished woman who had been the first female licensed airplane pilot in Illinois but is remembered by history as “the turtle lady.

The Turtle Lady

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Hey Great Britain, It’s About Lives, Not Politics

So, a British company all but destroys the U.S. Gulf Coast, threatening the lives and livelihoods of many and killing ocean wildlife, and the Brits are worried about their dividends? You might call it the British Callous Upper Lip.

Here’s how some Brits put it in the New York Times:

Investors in Britain were particularly furious about the suggestions that BP should not pay a dividend until it cleaned up the oil spill. BP’s dividend payment accounted for about £1 of every £8 handed out by British companies last year, according to FairPensions, a London-based charity.

“BP has many problems in the U.S.,” Justin Urquhart Stewart, co-founder of Seven Investment Management in London, said. “One of them is that it has the word British in its title.”

That’s right. We’re angrier about the word “British” than we are the oil strangling the Gulf.

Peter Hitchens, a research analyst at Panmure Gordon in London, said most analysts and investors in Britain are “more relaxed” about the future of BP than their American counterparts partly because of the geographic distance. “We don’t have all the press coverage that’s over there and we’re further away from U.S. politics,” he said. “We have a more rational view.”

This is the old Victorian imperial attitude. “Hey, our oil is choking and killing people way over there. Why should we care?” Face it, you old windbag of a country. It’s not that you don’t have the press coverage, it’s that you don’t have crude oil blackening the white cliffs of Dover.”

A Troubling Pattern in America’s Obama Story

George W. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 and was appointed president by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court. A sanctimonious pundit class tells us it is crabby, unpatriotic and uncivil to dwell upon that bit of history. But questions of legitimacy (“does he really belong here?”) have dogged Barack Obama since he won the Iowa caucuses. Where have the “get over it” arguments gone? Long time passing.

There is an ugly pattern in coverage and conversation about Obama. The media’s immediate recourse to dubious language like “the Gulf oil spill is Obama’s Katrina” is just the most recent example.

Juxtaposed against the overt “get over it” arguments about Bush’s appointment, this presents us with some unpleasant suspicions about the national character. About Bush the media asked, “When will he succeed?” About Obama they ask, “When will he fail?” Obama’s the show that doesn’t belong on Broadway, and the critics clamor: when will the curtain come down?

Obama’s reflections at a San Francisco 2008 fundraiser about the source and symptoms of white, working class frustration would prove his undoing, we were told. Okay, then, surely the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s “God damn America” preaching would take Obama out. A poor debate performance against Hilary Clinton? Disqualifying, said many.

Obama’s handling of the health care debate? The economy? Jobs? Too often the questions turned not on healthy, objective, rational critique, but on when this guy’s Broadway show would close. It’s not a quite a birther rant, but it’s of the same family.

Part of this is just the media’s attempted fulfillment of the clichéd American celebrity narrative: the star that rises from nowhere must crash and burn. I think unrestrained and unthinking Obama worship fed the “star” part of this storyline. I’m anti-authoritarian by nature, and I read too much history and covered politicians far too long to imagine superhero exploits from any of them, ever.

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Haley Barbour As Mayor of “Jaws” Amity Island

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is saying the Gulf oil spill is overblown and that sensational reporting is destroying Gulf Coast tourism. Who does this remind us of? Maybe the best parallel is Amity Island Mayor Larry Vaughn, played by Murray Hamilton in the movie, Jaws.

“The truth is,” he said, “we have had virtually no oil. If you were on the Mississippi Gulf coast anytime in the last 48 days you didn’t see any oil at all. We have had a few tar balls but we have had tar balls every year, as a natural product of the Gulf of Mexico. 250,000 to 750,000 barrels of oil seep into the Gulf of Mexico through the floor every year. So, tar balls are no big deal. In fact, I read that Pensacola or the Florida beaches when they have tar balls yesterday didn’t even close. They just sent people out to pick them up and throw them in the bag.”

American cultural narratives are full of selfish idiots who feign skepticism to promote their greedy interests. Such characters are a staple of the horror and thriller genres. We know them as the characters who cost innocent lives and who heroes have to overcome. They are always revealed as the deadly fools they are in the end.

Because the storyline is so well known, this gives an opening for those of us who want an open-eyed, realistic approach to environmental and economic disasters. The Gulf spill, of course, is both. By simply pointing out that parallels between, say, Barbour and Amity Island Mayor Larry Vaughn, the narrative frame will do the work for us.

That’s because human brains are wired that way. Narrative expectations are powerful things. We make predictions of future events based in large part on narrative expectations. Seen as Mayor Vaughn, the public will see his cavalier disregard for our well-being for what it is. And they will expect him to fail.

So what narratives are at work in these fools’ minds? In the stories they tell themselves, they are always right. Their authority is unchallengeable. The moral thing to do is what they say to do. It blinds them to the real world, hence their vulnerability.

So, here’s my modest recommendation. Those of us battling to contain the terrible consequences of the spill — and to enforce necessary regulations and precautions to prevent like tragedies in the future — we need to evoke the “Mayor Vaughn” narrative frame. It’s not hard to do. Of course, it’s only one of many things we need to do.

But we all know this story so well we ought to be able to do it in our sleep.

Fatal Fantasies of Our Technological Omnipotence

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.

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