Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Gulf oil spill: how many good guys are there, really?

The oil spill in the Gulf is, of course, a disaster. It is, however, rich in fascinating lessons.

It was amusing that Aaron Viles of the Gulf Restoration Network suggested that hopes that the crisis was past were premature and said ‘we are terrified that there is going to be this “mission accomplished” moment.’ Is that going to be Dubya’s lasting legacy? To have turned ‘mission accomplished’ from a declaration of well-deserved pride at a job well done, to an expression of scorn for hubristic ignorance and an inability to recognise failure masquerading as apparent success?

And another Dubya moment: I saw a headline ‘Bush running half marathon for oil spill.’ Bush didn’t manage to get to New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, from Texas, the state next door. Now he's running thirteen miles for the victims of the spill? Assuming, that is, that ‘running for oil spill’ actually means running for the victims. Which I hope we can assume, though with Bush you couldn’t be sure.

In any case, the story turned out to be about an actress called Sophia Bush. Whoever she is.

But the best story of all came from Ewell Smith of the Louisiana Seafood Marketing Board.

Now let me make it clear that I enjoy a fairy tale as much as anyone. I don’t just watch, I enjoy chick flicks. In case anyone has difficulty coping with the complex plots of these films, let me tell you they go something like this.

A woman of great good looks, wisdom, warmth, wit and charm is single at the age of 25/35/45 (delete as applicable) and not making any progress in her career as a chef/dancer/singer/professor/boxer. She recently broke up with a man whose imperfections she had failed to spot despite her extraordinary insight (did I mention that quality?) until he made them glaringly obvious by confessing to having slept with her best friend/three groupies from a nightclub/her brother-in-law. Now she meets a man who is absolutely perfect – apparently. The romance goes swimmingly and he even helps her towards a breakthrough as a dress designer/PR guru/financial expert/political lobbyist until a terrible confusion of misleading clues leaves her convinced that he’s married/about to get married/working for the KGB. Fortunately, her daughter/best friend/mother sorts out the confusion and reveals that Mr Perfect really is flawless. The film ends, with a marriage in the offing, immediately after her first film/new record/latest painting is received with delirious critical acclaim.

Now I really like these films. They don’t strain the intellect. They leave me feeling good about myself and the world. But I realise they’re pure escapism, so I try to watch something like The Pianist or The Hurt Locker from time to time, to remind myself that films can be insightful and truthful too, even do a bit of gritty realism. That way I can make a clear distinction between fairy tale and reality. What I find hard to take is when we confuse the former with the latter.

So I was never comfortable with the narrative about the oil spill. Plucky Gulf fishermen, plying a tough and honest trade as their forefathers had for centuries, have their meagre but honest livelihoods put in jeopardy by an evil corporation based in Mordor. Or Britain. Or wherever.

Riding to their rescue, on a white steed and in shining armour, comes Barack Obama seeing off and defeating the pantomime villain, Tony ‘I want my life back’ Hayward.

It all seemed too pat to me, as though it might have been scripted by George Lucas. And then I heard Ewell Smith. What was he telling us? The waters of the Gulf are now clean enough to start fishing again. But he’s trying to raise money to pay the fishermen a 30% premium to get them out fishing before the restaurants run out of seafood.

Why won’t they fish? Because BP is paying them so much more to take part in the cleanup operation. That grand old tradition of the plucky men plying an honest trade in the waters of the Gulf isn’t proof to the temptations of the Evil Empire’s dollars.

Warms the cockles of the heart, doesn’t it? It restores my faith in human nature.

BP made the monster profits and was responsible for the appalling damage, but at least the little guys are getting their fair share of the cynicism.

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