[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
Nero, it is said, fiddled while Rome burned. When they write about the early 21st century United States, maybe they'll say Americans blustered as oil ravaged the Gulf.
As a country, we seem to have lost the plot, with grandstanding, strategizing and even lying taking center stage while real problems threaten many of the core elements of our day-to-day lives. We don't realistically address the issues, but use them as opportunities to score political points. The Deepwater Horizon oil disaster is far from the only example, but it is the latest one.
For coming up on two months now, tens of thousands (and maybe hundreds of thousands, we can't get a straight answer) of barrels of oil have been pouring into the Gulf of Mexico every day. The result has been miles of oil in the Gulf, threatening the shores of Louisiana, Alabama and Florida. How much oil? We don't know for sure, partially because BP won't let independent scientists measure it. BP won't even admit that oxygen-sapping oil plumes exist below the Gulf surface, even as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has confirmed that they are there, as big as 10 miles long, three miles wide and 300 feet deep.
In short, BP drilled a mile below the floor of the Gulf to get to the oil supply, despite not having the ability to stop oil from gushing from the well if something went wrong (as it did, when an explosion occurred on the platform). BP's attempts to seal or contain the flooding oil failed again and again. And the result has been an environmental disaster that will affect not just the ecology but also the economy of the area for a long time. (One estimate put Florida's loss at $10 billion.)
In light of such a disaster, it would seem appropriate to have a rational discussion about what happened, and what it means for the future. After all, the spill has turned a possibility into a reality, and BP's reaction has been actual, not theoretical. If nothing else, shouldn't we try and learn lessons from this disaster?
It would seem that things are pretty straight forward, if you put politics aside. But when do we ever put politics aside in this country anymore? So we get Rush Limbaugh blaming the Sierra Club, Sarah Palin blaming environmentalists, Republicans trying to pin the disaster on President Obama (with the nonsensical and illogical Katrina-BP comparisons), and a parade of leaders (most, but not all, Republicans) standing up for BP (like John Boehner, parroting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, saying tax payers should help BP pay for the cleanup). We have also experienced a line of politicians (again, mostly Republicans, but not all, including Democrat Mary Landrieu) saying that despite the oil disaster in the Gulf, we should keep drilling. Rep. John Culberson, a Republican from Texas, wrote a letter to President Obama opposing the moratorium on off-shore drilling, saying that the BP spill was nothing but a "statistical anomaly" since only "0.001 percent spilled" in the past. I wonder if Culberson would also argue that the nuclear reactors in Chrenobyl are safe, since they operated fine for nearly a decade with only one incident.
I feel like all perspective has been lost. It's like many of the politicians (again, mostly but not all Republicans) can't forget even for a millisecond the interests they truly represent (and those interests clearly don't include the best long-term interests of their constituents). Rather, in the case of Republicans like Boehner, priority number one is the corporate interests they always protect (the same ones they have looked out for in opposing health care reform and financial regulation). It's not surprising that when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says "jump," Boehner starts hopping.
It's one thing to oppose policy for the wrong reasons, but when politicians defend BP after the oil disaster, we've crossed some kind of line.
How did we get here? There has always been partisan battles, and the parties have always looked out for their core constituencies, even as they changed over time. But things feel different now, as if there is no situation under which the entrenched interests will budge. Even our national security isn't exempt, as right-wingers like Liz Cheney and Newt Gingrich engage in a campaign to scare the American people into believing that the president isn't keeping the country safe from terrorism, even as this administration has had far greater success in taking out top al-Qaida leaders than the Bush crowd ever did (and, whether you like the policy or not, Obama has been more aggressive using drone attacks in Pakistan than Bush ever was).
I think the key to the problem can be found in a little-noticed media story from last week. For the first time during a sweeps period, the weekly viewership of the nightly network newscasts fell below 20 million. By way of comparison, the three network evening news broadcasts in 1980 averaged more than 50 million viewers. This dissolution of one of the primary sources of hard news that Americans generally accepted as providing objective facts about any given situation has left the country not just battling policy, but not even agreeing on the underlying facts.
To be clear, I am not defending the network newscasts, nor am I saying that modern news sources, especially on the Internet, don't play an important part in informing and persuading Americans. But many online sources are partisan, and with a common set of accepted facts gone, it opens the door for outlets to put together their own set of "facts," regardless of whether or not they are actually true. There is value in a commonly agreed upon set of facts that citizens can rely on when debating policy.
The emergence of a right-wing media machine, led by Fox News, for which the truth of "facts" is less important than their strategic value, has enabled Republicans not only to oppose a moratorium on off-shore oil drilling, but to deny that the current oil disaster is, in fact, a disaster. I can't help thinking that if there was still an objective news source to which a majority of Americans looked to get their facts about current events, it would be almost impossible for a politician to deny the impact of the BP spill. And we would be forced to face the real issues surrounding off-shore drilling.
No ideology is so perfect that it solves every problem. Acknowledging the implications of what has happened in the Gulf and adjusting policy accordingly doesn't mean that those who believe in the power of free markets have to completely abandon their ideological positions. But you wouldn't know that from listening to the purity-testing, Tea Party-kowtowing, facts-challenged right-wing media machine.
From a jobs crisis to Afghanistan to Iran to oil taking over the Gulf of Mexico (and more), we have real problems in the United States that have to be addressed. But how can we solve anything when too many political leaders are more interested in seizing on these issues to score political points? As we fight these petty battles, the problems march on, unaddressed. Nero might have fiddled, but I doubt he denied the existence of the fire.