Recently, Britt Hume took material form to go on Fox News Sunday and imply that the BP oil spill was not really a big deal. “There’s a good question today if you are standing on the Gulf,” the former anchor said, “and that is, where is the oil?” In addition to baffling Juan Williams in an extremely amusing fashion, Hume seemed to be arguing that media reports of thousands of gallons of crude forming an oil slick larger than Delaware were somehow exaggerated. “The ocean absorbs a lot,” he kept saying, after pointing out that the largest source of oil in the ocean is “natural seepage from the ocean floor.” That’s true, in the same sense that the largest source of cocaine in our daily lives comes from residue on dollar bills. That doesn’t stop the plume from damaging our synapses/making us spend hours talking about what cable television will be like in the future, though.
Let us assume that Hume’s essential contention—that the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion/ensuing unstoppable oil spill is not actually a big deal—is not simply the product of a clear-eyed examination of the facts. “Except for little chunks of it, you’re not even seeing it on the shore yet,” is a ridiculous assessment even by Hume’s standards, like refuting global warming by demanding to know why your house isn’t on fire. If we accept that Hume’s statements are not the product of his scientific approach to marine biology, we are forced to ask: Why did he say that?
Our new friend Rand Paul elicited a similar question when he remarked that President Obama’s criticism of BP was “un-American.” Why, exactly, is it un-American for the President of the United States to criticize a British oil company? In fairness to Hume, his tenuous statements came in the larger context of an argument over whether we should suspend oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, which is an issue with defined liberal/conservative positions. And in fairness to Rand Paul, his public statements suggest that he is trying to win some kind of bet. You can argue that both men’s positions can be connected, at least tangentially, to real policy issues the country is currently trying to sort out.
Yet they seem to be motivated by something more abstract. The absurdity of Hume’s remarks remind us that how you feel about BP says something about your political orientation. If you think the fourth largest corporation in the world is generally a force for good, you are probably a Republican. If you think that it’s a necessary (or simply historical) evil, you’re probably a Democrat. These, too, are reasonable positions that can be traced back to defined political ideologies, particularly those having to do with environmental protectionism and laissez-faire economics.
Neither of those issues really applies once the oil is floating around in the ocean, though. At this point, BP has A) poured a gajillion gallons of crude into and wreaked god knows what damage upon the Gulf of Mexico and B) thus far proven itself unable to stop doing so—although in fairness they are trying one of their failed attempts again. Whether they did it in righteous pursuit of rational self-interest or gross depredation of the working classes, British Petroleum has fucked us, big time. The company itself my be an integral part of our global economy, but the spill is an unequivocal disaster.
That Brit Hume is looking for ways to argue that it’s not a big deal—and that Rand Paul considers a foreign energy conglomerate more American than the President of the United States—says something about the mindset of the contemporary Republican Party. First, it tells us who their constituents are. In a conflict of interests between a global petrochemical company and the people who live on or around the Gulf of Mexico—to say nothing of those made uncomfortable by the concept of a dead ocean—conservatives choose the global petrochemical company. That’s cold, but at least you can argue that BP does more for society as a whole than a bunch of environmentally concerned Americans. I disagree, but it’s an argument grounded in reason either way.
Hume’s argument is not. The second, more disturbing aspect of contemporary conservatism underscored by his remarks is that it has become increasingly concerned with identities, not ideas, and categories, not situations. British Petroleum is a large corporation (Republican) that has damaged the environment (Democrat.) We could keep drilling (Republican) or we could stop (Democrat.) Maybe BP didn’t obey safety regulations (Democrat) but they found a lot of oil (Republican.) In these terms, the situation is extremely simple.
It’s also extremely resistant to change. Hume and Paul’s remarks are symptomatic of the epistemic closure that has made both the Republican and Democratic parties better at marketing and worse at everything else. It’s hard to imagine something productive coming from this disaster when people like Hume won’t even admit it is bad. At least for the next fifty years, America needs oil. We also need to not destroy one of the world’s largest ecosystems. Until we can speak and reason like adults about the problem, we’re unlikely to approach it any better in the future. Meanwhile, the leak keeps gushing.