The horrific human and environmental tragedy now entering its third month in the Gulf of Mexico is reminiscent of a world at war: no matter how unusual or frightening or surreal the situation, people get used to it as a condition of daily life.
Like people do who have a chronic illness or who are in poverty or in prison, we adapt. Human beings have an amazing capacity to adapt. As a species, that is both our strength and our weakness.
It’s our strength because, being adaptable, we’re not easily defeated. Individuals can be broken, physically and psychologically, but communities tend to be tough and resilient. The people of the Gulf Coast endured the ravages of Katrina and were well on the way to recovery when this new catastrophe began. We admire their courage and fortitude, as some of the toughest and most defiant among them are paraded every evening in human interest segments on the national news.
But being adaptable is also our weakness because, once we get over the initial shock of a major tragedy, we tend to get used to it as just part of life. Our sense of outrage tends to fade as we become immersed in the reality of the situation and spend part of each day thinking about the unthinkable. We get the idea that we can tolerate this because we are tolerating it, and we may forget our moral obligation to do everything we can to ensure that it can never happen again.
Thus could a naïve but fundamentally honest man like Joe Barton, forgetting about dying pelicans and idle fishermen, slip and say something outrageously incorrect from a political point of view. While many segments of the American public were demanding the scalp of BP’s politically inept CEO Tony Hayward, Barton had the audacity to apologize to him for tough treatment he and his company were allegedly receiving on Capitol Hill.
The Republican establishment, in the person of House Minority Leader John Boehner, immediately trounced on Barton and forced him to apologize for his apology—which he did with all the enthusiasm of a school boy being forced by the teacher to apologize to the class for being late.
The statements Barton made, according to a quick public statement released by Boehner and other GOP leaders, were “wrong.”
But they weren’t wrong. What Barton said was simply a reflection of the truth as he sees it: that big business—and, more specifically, big oil—should be exempt from liability or accountability for its actions. As a good capitalist, Barton was merely expressing an honest opinion held by many if not most of the leaders of the Republican establishment: that so long as businesses make money and a lot of it, they should be beyond the criticism or interference of mere mortals acting in behalf of mere insignificant, inconsequential, individual human beings.
Barton was factually right in stating a position that is at the crux of the philosophical divide between the two major parties in America: When there is a perceived conflict between what’s good for individual, flesh-and-blood human beings (and other living creatures) and what’s good for corporate America and the very rich, damn the individuals.
Barton’s position may be morally wrong and, for the moment, politically incorrect; however, unlike more cunning members of Congress—like Boehner, Cantor, and Pence—his comments came from the heart.
Obviously, the extraordinary devastation of the Gulf oil spill can be embarrassing to those who’ve most enjoyed the benefits of the oil companies’ financial support and contributions. Undoubtedly there are many in Congress who’d like to see America forget about this whole messy business so they and their friends in the industry can get back to business as usual.
Thanks to Joe Barton for the timely reminder that, while the pain of this man-made catastrophe is endured by individual living creatures, there are powerful forces working to protect the status quo.