I flew home from Washington Monday night, looking at live pictures on the BP website taken by an underwater robot of the greasy waters of the Gulf, and how’s that for a Metaphor of Our Times? Aboard a Delta Airbus at 37,000 feet maneuvering around giant thunderheads, connected to the Internet via satellite, looking at dark gloop a mile below the sea, contemplating the death of a beautiful body of water, unable to think of a single sensible thing to do or say about this that would make a milligram of difference, and yet here I sit with a clear view of the situation, like a passenger in a car skidding slowly into the median.
Years ago, in some crowded gymnasium, a commencement speaker told us that we should pursue our education because Knowledge leads to Power to Effect Change, but I don’t see it in this case. I’m flying in a jet airliner consuming oil as I observe a disaster caused by the demand for oil, mine, yours, theirs — and yes, there was gross corporate irresponsibility, zero government regulation, rank corruption in the Minerals Management Service, but growing demand (Drill, baby) is what’s pushing us toward the next disaster and the next and the next.
We are self-centered, short-sighted people, intent on comfort, averse to sacrifice. We know this. Knowing it does not empower us to change. The new guy at MMS will attempt to exercise oversight, Congress will hold more hearings, but in reality we have given over the Gulf to British Petroleum. Only the oilmen can plug the hole. The value of moral harrumphing is rather minimal, and though, as an ex-fundamentalist, I can sermonize with the best of them, I will spare you my tiny outburst of dudgeon.
We are a great nation immobilized at the moment by navel-gazers and poseurs and flackmeisters, and when you visit Washington, you see this clearly. Here are all the little marble palaces of the AFL-CIO and NEA and NRA and AARP and AMA and PhRMA and the trial lawyers and realtors and plumbers and the chemical industry and the nursing home operators — everybody but bank robbers and newspaper columnists has a mouthpiece in Washington — and it’s a lot of high-priced schmoozing and yipping and yakking by thousands of overeducated schtoonks in nicely pressed shirts pumping out hogwash and hokum that is easily ignored by the bureaucrats and elected officials who do the actual work.
This is democracy, I suppose, and so is the toilet-papering of Washington known as the Tea Party with its simple self-contradictory platform — if you are in favor of Medicare and Social Security and national defense and you are opposed to big government, then the sun’s so hot you froze to death, Susanna don’t you cry. But these fake patriots in their play tricorners are simply thrilled to death by all the attention.
Meanwhile, oil pours out of the pipe in the sea floor, and the plane descends over the St. Croix and Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, these beautiful waterways that I have canoed and swum in since I was a boy. Back when the Republican Party included some tweedy conservationists who liked tramping in the woods and it was possible to accomplish things now and then in Washington, Congress passed legislation that cleaned up those rivers to some extent, as anyone who lives around here knows. (Luckily for us, there are no oil deposits under them.) If you want to run your 80-foot yacht up the St. Croix, you can do that until you come to a sandbar, but you can’t flush your poop overboard. Big government, taking the place of your mama, will slap you if you do.
If man is pushing the planet toward extinction, then we should stop doing what we’re doing, and if we cannot stop ourselves or tolerate government making us stop or slow down, then I suppose we should enjoy the ride. The condemned man ate a hearty breakfast. I can’t think of anything better to do right now than to sit in my backyard and look at the Mississippi and listen to Bach cello suites and enjoy a dish of ice cream with fresh raspberries. As the Gulf turns dark and the polar icecap melts, I intend to listen to Bach more and listen to the news less. It’s good to know that, in the midst of vast indifference and mediocrity and narcissism, mankind did manage to produce the St. Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor.
— Garrison Keillor is the author of “77 Love Sonnets,” published by Common Good Books.