Among the many and contradictory criticisms of Obama’s handling of the BP catastrophe is that he has failed to show enough emotion.
But what emotion should he show? Eighty-seven percent of respondents to an Associated Press/GfK poll last week said events in the Gulf were personally very important to them, trailing only the economy in salience. The environment, according to the poll, is now very important to almost three-quarters of those surveyed, a big jump from the previous month.
But what do they feel? There’s not much evidence of the grief and rage that followed the attacks of 9/11; the terror we experienced watching Three Mile Island threaten to blow; the heartbreak and shame that Hurricane Katrina, and Bush’s racist, clumsy response, elicited.
President Obama, to be sure, is disquietingly dispassionate. We should expect this by now. No longer the feminine Candidate Barack, who wooed us wearing his heart on his crisp, white sleeve, he is now a hyper-masculine commander in chief: He has no time to cry over our problems; he wants to fix them. Commentators on both the left and right are decrying the tardiness and tentativeness of his fixes this time. But really — what can he do? Nothing. Maybe that’s what he was telling us when he ended his Oval Office address with a final proposal: prayer.
If our emotional reaction to the death of an entire ecosystem is subdued, one reason is that we cannot see what is happening. Evidence is amassing that BP, with the help of local and federal officials, is blocking the press from surveying public beaches and marshes to report on the damage wreaked by the Deepwater Horizon blowout. In late May, a boat carrying BP contractors and Coast Guard officials threatened to arrest a CBS news crew that was trying to film an oil-covered beach in Louisiana. Also in Louisiana, local deputies kept journalists from reaching the Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge. “BP’s in charge because ‘it’s BP’s oil,’” a company representative told a Mother Jones reporter in the group.
The night before a scheduled trip with journalists to survey the shoreline, Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson received a call at his office from the Department of Homeland Security informing him that no media would be allowed. News organizations compare the situation to that in Iraq, where a select few reporters are “embedded,” along with official minders who control what they see and tell the public.
What are we allowed to see? A murky videotape of something gushing into something else. Photos of dark blotches floating on slightly less dark water, sometimes punctuated by a boat of unknown size. Taken from aloft, these are not representations but abstractions. They hardly look like destruction: Multicolored, voile-like, they are almost beautiful. If BP gleaned any lesson from the Exxon Valdez spill, it is that pictures of oil-drenched creatures and despoiled coastline move people to defend nature — and despise oil companies.
That antipathy is here now. Eighty-three percent of Americans disapprove of BP, according to another poll; the number dwarfs the hefty 52 percent who give President Obama failing grades. Almost half believe the company knowingly sidestepped the law before the blowup, for profit’s sake.
There is anger — and what else? Are volunteers streaming south? Are fundraising parties being organized? Or are we looking the other way? One friend, an active public citizen, says he is confused by his own relative numbness. He says he doesn’t travel south much; the spill feels far away. Another, a news junkie of the first order, says she’s avoiding the story altogether. She wonders if she is secretly hoping the entire South will be swallowed in black goo.
Until quite recently, the press has kept the story local. I think journalists are excited by the localness — the rough faces of the riggers and shrimpers whose mouths produce a weird gumbo of dialect; they relish the tang that is increasingly rare in a homogenized culture. Everyone jumped on BP’s Swedish-born chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, when he referred to the folks his company allegedly cares about using some inoffensive Swedish phrase that received an unfortunate translation: “the small people.” But, portraying the Gulf’s “vanishing lifestyle,” the media also give us its denizens as quaint, exotic — a small, faraway peasant culture, not of this century or even, maybe, of this nation.
Those who speak for the Gulf’s residents aren’t doing much better to disabuse us of the impression of their littleness. Following Obama’s speech, a Louisiana parish president interviewed on National Public Radio stood up for the rights of the oil companies to make a profit. What particularly irked her was the drilling moratorium. After all, she noted, it’s just one blowout among hundreds of rigs. She sounded like a battered wife defending her violent husband: “But, Your Honor, he only broke three ribs. He didn’t kill me. Please don’t lock him up!”
Like the abused wife’s, the Gulf region’s loyalty is bred in long economic dependency, a habit of subservience epitomized last week by the spectacle of Texas Representative Joe Barton on his knees before BP CEO Tony Hayward. Later, other Republicans joined Barton in assailing the $20 billion escrow fund the president strong-armed the company into creating. Some characterized the basic principle of U.S. tort law — wrongdoer compensates victim — as a communist redistribution-of-wealth scheme. One can only hope the American people see who the party’s real pimps are. For his part, Barton turned out to be a cheap whore. Of nearly $1.5 million in oil and gas industry contributions he’s received in the last decade — making him the House’s biggest beneficiary of that industry’s largesse, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics — BP has chipped in an average of just $1350 a year.
Polls last week showed more and more people believing the spill will affect their own lives. Bringing the crisis home may be the one accomplishment of Obama’s otherwise disappointing speech. But it’s unclear how people think it will affect them. The NPR interviewee reminded listeners they will be sorry if they can’t turn on their air conditioners. I scoffed. Then, the next evening, I suggested we drive from Hardwick to Montpelier to see a movie. My partner pointed out that America’s disengagement from the death of the Gulf is the expression of our 21st-century identities as consumers — drivers and air-conditioner users — not citizens of the U.S. or the planet. Could it be that to watch the oil pouring into the sea is to witness my own collusion in the catastrophe?
Or maybe we — and by we I mean everyone from the Vietnamese immigrant tuna fisher to the New York Times editorial writers to the president of the United States — cannot fully feel the tragedy of the Gulf because we cannot countenance what we are witnessing.
That is, the limited ability of technology to solve all problems, including this one. “We are not well equipped to handle” accidents, Exxon Mobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson admitted in what might have been the most chilling moment of the congressional hearings. The only thing drillers can do, he averred, is try to prevent them. With all the hullabaloo about how much money BP can afford to shell out, we may find that no amount of riches will ever “make whole” the Gulf or the people, animals and plants that live there.
I posed the Big Question to the oracle. “What if they can’t stop the spill?” I typed into Google. A few Yahoo.com threads came up. One respondent said, “The oil spill will most likely be cleaned,” but “worst case is it kills our oceans.” Another sage advised readers we’ll be OK if we stay on dry land.
A more credible — and hence far more terrifying — scenario has been sketched in a post on the highly regarded oil- policy website the Oil Drum. Although the writer, “dougr,” is not officially affiliated with the site — he’s a former Texas journalist — scientists and knowledgeable journalists have received his comments with cautious seriousness.
The failures of BP’s efforts so far lead dougr to “one inescapable conclusion ... The well pipes below the seafloor are broken and leaking,” and the company and the government are covering it up.
What dougr envisions is pressure being transferred from the ineffective “cap” to the “down hole” below the seafloor, “undermining the foundation of the seabed in and around the well area.” As the foundation erodes, the 450-ton “blowout preventer” will fall in, too, and this “will collapse the well.” After that, “it won’t be too long [before] the entire system fails,” leaving “a wide open gusher blowing out 150,000 barrels a day of raw oil or more.”
And then? Dougr describes Armageddon this way: “the worst things you can think of.”
Do we not feel enough because we cannot bear to think of the worst things? Because we cannot believe we have trusted technology too far — and it has finally let us down? Do we dare think that this is the way the world ends: not with a whimper but a whoosh?