Saturday, June 26, 2010

Oil and vinegar

"A federal judge in New Orleans on Tuesday blocked a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling projects that the Obama administration imposed after a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico...In a 22-page opinion, Judge Martin L.C. Feldman of United States District Court...wrote that the Obama administration had failed to justify the need for such 'a blanket, generic, indeed punitive moratorium' on deep-water oil and gas drilling." (Charlie Savage, The New York Times, June 22, 2010)

Whenever I'm tempted to lose faith in the Obama administration -- no more than twice a day -- I try to remember that had John McCain been elected, this is the kind of petro-whore he would be appointing to the Supreme Court. Everybody's Supreme Court, not just poor, ravaged Louisiana's. Then Barry doesn't look so bad.

But as the rightzis line up to kiss BP's ass, I also find myself wondering what a real populist like Huey Long would be doing if he were governor instead of Slumdog Exorcist. For one, I think he'd find a way to sink BOB, Tony Hayward's toy boat. When he had everyone's attention, the Kingfish would invite BP executives in for a chat -- and when I say "invite," I mean dispatch state troopers to drag them off the golf courses and squash courts. When they were assembled in his office, he'd lean back in his chair and say:

"Gentlemen, I think you ought to know that under a law my legislature will be passing in a few days, I have frozen all BP's assets in Louisiana. After every individual and every business has been made whole, and every inch of our beautiful coast is pristine, y'all can have the balance back. Now I understand you may think you have grounds for a legal challenge of my action. Feel free to sue us. My attorney general Joe Bob here tells me that by the time your action comes to trial, there won't be much oil left on this planet. Also, if it looks like your cheap-jack methods cost eleven men their lives, well, I'm real sorry to have to tell you that Angola Prison Farm has no squash courts. You can go now. Every man a king, dum da dum dee dee...."

When it gets this bad, I'll take a mean redneck populist over a patrician law professor any time. You don't have to like Long's methods to acknowledge that they got highways, hospitals and LSU built. Just tell me how to rein a demagogue in when the need has passed, because nobody has found a way to do that short of assassination. Which we at the Sky do not support.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Oily Taints

Frank Pentangeli's appearance before a Congressional committee in Godfather 2 had nothing on Tony Hayward's. He couldn't recall, he wasn't sure, he never heard of Michael Corleone. There was even a broken-down Texas Republican to attest to his good character and apologize for the verbal waterboarding he endured at the hands of Barack Obama and Eric "The Enforcer" Holder. At least he didn't invoke the Fifth Amendment -- but neither did Frankie Five Angels.

In a possibly unrelated development, Hayward has disappeared from BP's television spots, replaced by a sensitive-looking black man identified as the company's claims officer. He feels your pain, and his accent doesn't remind people of every Brit movie villain since Sydney Greenstreet. I look forward to meeting Petey the Pelican, scrubbed clean and relocated to south Florida at no cost to the taxpayer...because BP cares.

Of course, this hearing resulted in no actual plans for action -- much like the President's breathlessly awaited (at least by MSNBC) Oval Office speech on Tuesday. Eighteen minutes of platitudes, including five minutes of religiosity, like he was in a hurry to get upstairs, take off his shoes and watch an NCIS rerun. It won't do.

I have nothing to offer in the present catastrophe, but here at the Sky we take the long view. This kind of thing has happened before, as Rachel Maddow detailed the other night. It will happen again, and again, as long as oil is pumped. Pipes rupture, rigs are damaged, tankers run aground. Oil companies find oil, drill for oil, refine oil and sell oil. The one thing they don't do is clean up oil. They're no good at it, because no one has ever forced them to learn, because their vast wealth makes them impervious to authority. This is the moment in history for that to change.

We need to create an agency along the lines of the National Transportation Safety Board. Whether an airliner crashes into a mountain or a bus goes off the highway, the NTSB is there within hours. As soon as search-and-rescue is complete they take charge of the site and stay there until they find out what caused the accident, even if they have to collect airplane parts from the bottom of the ocean and glue them back together. Their recommendations result in design changes and operational adjustments that prevent further accidents. It's all they do, and they do it so well that other countries frequently request their help.

The agency I have in mind would have the same relationship to oil spills. It would be part of the Department of Homeland Security -- not, I stress, Interior, which has been snuggling with the oil companies at least since the Harding Administration. It would develop and master technology as yet undreamed of, apparently, with all necessary equipment and protective gear. It would not have to depend on the Coast Guard, the National Guard, or good-hearted volunteers with shampoo and toothbrushes. Best of all, it would cost the taxpayer nothing, for it would be cheerfully funded by the oil companies, if they want to go on doing business here. I think five percent of their annual gross profit is fair. We don't want future CEOs to suffer the way Tony Hayward has suffered, having to re-arrange his schedule and change his holiday plans and all. We'll do the job and you'll pay for it, OK? OK.

I hope this is the last time I will have to address this subject.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Tony deaf

"Holy crap, this is gonna be ugly."

Had Nathan Lane uttered those words at the top of the show instead of two hours and forty-five minutes in, I could have taken evasive action. I haven't seen any of these shows, I haven't even read reviews of them, but if CBS is willing to take a ratings loss and afford Broadway three hours of prime time for self-promotion, Broadway might at least make an effort. Maybe you can't make an interesting award show out of a couple dozen clunkers, but you have to try. For example, dressing Sean Hayes in a series of silly outfits is not the same thing as hiring a host with a personality. (I assume the big kiss he planted on Kristin Chenoweth was intended as a retort to that dumb Newsweek article by Ramin Setoodeh. I'm sorry it didn't work.)

Apparently the only musicals of distinction were revivals and jukebox shows, and I couldn't tell much about the plays. There were flashing lights and wildly waving arms and legs and something called Green Day. Is Alfred Molina playing Uncle Fester, or was that someone else? Is Catherine Zeta-Jones's entire performance as bad as her singing of "Send In the Clowns"? Was I out of the room when Barbara Cook sang, or did they not even ask her, lest the audience realize that everything else was dreck? But I suspect the people downstairs had never heard of Green Day and the people upstairs had never heard of Julie Harris. The future was upstairs.

There were other things that annoyed me, but I'm feeling better. Thanks, hosting site, another killing rampage avoided through the miracle of blogging.


Friday, June 04, 2010


In the summer of 1816, to pass the time during a rainy vacation in Switzerland, an English teenager sat down to write a spooky story. When she finished, she had composed one of the seminal texts of the Industrial Revolution. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Godwin (later Shelley), is the story of a technological marvel which cannot be controlled by its creator, or by anyone else. Remember? Victor Frankenstein is an obsessed medical student about Mary's own age who stitches body parts together and brings them to life with the miracle drug electricity. He is repelled by the creature's ugliness (a remarkably shallow response, but after all, this is a book by a teenage girl) and runs away. Rejected by his "father," the nameless creature kills Victor's brother, his wife, his best friend, and several other people before vanishing into the Arctic wastes. The dying Frankenstein narrates the story to an explorer named Walton who is seeking the Northwest Passage (or something), and he gets it: Weigh the value of progress against the cost in human life. He bows to the wishes of his crew and sails for home.

"You are my creator, but I am your master; -- obey!" The creature who utters those chilling words prefigures all the wonders which have enslaved us: the internal-combustion engine, nuclear weapons, intercontinental missiles, television, the Internet, and our ever-increasing heap of non-biodegradable garbage (but I repeat myself). To that list now add Deepwater Horizon, which sounds like an O'Neill play but is really the worst man-made environmental disaster since overgrazing turned the pastoral uplands of North Africa into the Sahara Desert. There is nothing to compare it to, no way to calculate the damage or imagine when, or if, it can be repaired. The latest projections have the Gulf sludge circling Florida and entering the Atlantic -- sorry, Bermuda!-- while the politicians posture, and the BP executives bitch about their disordered schedules, and the seabirds perish in quiet, heartbreaking agony.

"If an oil well is too far beneath the sea to be plugged when something goes wrong, it's too deep to be drilled in the first place," Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times of May 31. It seems like common sense, but we humans don't work and play well with others. We are the only species which kills for sport, and the only one to develop the interesting concept of profit. In the years after Frankenstein, the Industrial Revolution would produce some of the greatest fortunes known to history, while blighting the lives of millions. As Dickens would remind us, the comfort of every Josiah Bounderby requires the degradation of thousands of Stephen Blackpools. Tony Hayward may find a few million less in his bonus this year, but the real suffering will be done by fishermen, restauranteurs, tour boat operators, vacationers, and the millions of nurses, carpenters and teachers from Dundee to Darwin whose pension funds are invested in BP stock.

The talking heads are calling this Obama's Katrina, and it surely will be unless he shows some leadership. Even after the explosion, his Interior Department went on mindlessly issuing drilling permits and safety waivers. Republicans may roar when their cheerleader screeches "Drill, baby, drill!" in her distinctive broken-glass-on-a-chalkboard voice, but Democrats have nothing to be proud of. When Americans, brought up to believe that science can do anything, demand that "something" be done, I'm reminded of the AIDS disaster of twenty-five years ago. It's hard to wrap our minds around the idea that some problems have no solutions, and some diseases no cures. As Mr. Herbert says, the point is not to create the problem in the first place. The President needs to point out that no ecosystem has ever been destroyed by solar panels. Then he needs to start acting more like FDR.

When a Democrat becomes president, it's usually because the country wants someone to clean up the astounding mess created by Republicans. Franklin Roosevelt took the Hercules approach, re-routing a river through the Augean Stable of the Hoover administration. Barack Obama seems to think he can do the job one forkful at a time, while politely asking the Republicans not to shit on the floor. Won't work, but the Gulf disaster can also be an opportunity. When Roosevelt took office, his problems included mass unemployment and a neglected environment. He faced both by creating the Civilian Conservation Corps, which hired young men to plant trees, dredge rivers, build roads, and otherwise improve the landscape. The same critics who had called him a socialist (for setting up Social Security) immediately began calling him a fascist who was organizing a private army for sinister purposes. They got a patrician middle finger in response. Cleaning tar off beaches -- as of this morning, it had reached the Florida panhandle -- is mostly a matter of backbreaking work. There must be thousands of young men and women who need work this summer and would love to do something more useful than serving burgers. The Cheney-Bush regime has left the country far more deeply in debt than it could have imagined being in 1933, but I'm sure a few million dollars could be found -- ideally, in the pockets of BP -- and what sane person could object? When Obama deplanes in Louisiana today, I hope he will announce such a program. I'm not holding my breath.

What have we learned? Last I heard, the cybernetics boys were still trying to make a computer which would become self-aware. Haven't writers and filmmakers been warning us about such things since Capek wrote R.U.R.? And really, since that strange girl dreamed of a monster? The more we learn, the less we learn.