John Barnard argues that America needs more than just a big sponge to deal with the oil spill.
Sacrifice is needed when the community falls sick; but the community is always sick.
To deal with its sickness, the community of ancient Athens, at the annual festival of Thargelia, conducted the ritual humiliation and expulsion of scapegoats from the city. After the ritual, as the inimitable Eagleton puts it, “The city could then settle down again to the business of lying, cheating, murdering, and blaspheming until the next Thargelia came around.” While this annual sacrifice was enough to expunge from the cosmic record the ordinary criminality of the state, occasionally the sickness would flare up and overrun, like some inner-Mississippi, the levees constructed by the annual rituals.
Our national illness has flared up in the “plume” of petroleum poisoning the Gulf of Mexico; and as Bob Herbert observed in a recent column, there is indeed something epic and archaic about this disaster: “the oil gush[es] furiously from the bowels of earth like a warning from Hades about the hubris and ignorance that is threatening to destroy us.”
This epic explosion has set off the modern ritual of the “blame game,” and to read or watch the news these days is to witness the feeding of our sacrificial appetite with threats of prosecution, accompanied by a flurry of lip service to regulation and reform, and commitments to rethinking our methods. But this is all, as Thoreau noted of liberal hand wringing about slavery and the Mexican War, the posturing of a state “penitent to that degree that it hired one to scourge it while it sinned, but not to that degree that it left off sinning for a moment.”
There is a lesson to be learned here, as there was from the crisis of the 1850s, which is that there is a clear choice to be made between principle and the expedient solution, which is never a solution at all. Every president from Reagan to Obama has assured us that the American way of life is not negotiable, much as the great compromisers of the antebellum period assured us that nothing, not even Justice, would threaten the cohesion of the “union.”
Thoreau countered this in no uncertain terms, declaring in “Resistance to Civil Government” that the American “people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.” From the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico—which extends both literally and figuratively to the Persian Gulf and the borderlands of Pakistan—we can derive a similarly radical statement: we must stop drilling in the ocean though it costs us something at the pump, though it forces us to make our way of life negotiable.
But within the prescribed boundaries of public debate even the moderate suggestion of radical ideas is equivalent to howling at the moon, and all the responses—from Obama’s studied show of indignation to the proliferation of Facebook groups suggesting clever things—BP executives, the works of Ayn Rand—with which to “plug the hole”—are of the order of the scourge.
They deal with symptoms rather than causes, and bemoan the results of our activities rather than suggesting a new way of acting. Like raging over the bonuses Wall Street players pay themselves, demands for the head of this BP executive or that former Vice President of the United States are nothing but demands for street theater, and the occasional white collar criminal actually convicted for his crimes—a Ken Lay here, a Bernie Madoff there—serves the function of the scapegoats of Thargelia, stemming the tide of internal frustration in a cathartic sigh of good riddance.
But this oil “plume” presents a special crisis, of the sort that has always, since long before the days of Thargelia, required special sacrifice. As Eagleton reminds us, “The city… kept a supply of scapegoats on stand-by for times of crisis, as a modern city keeps emergency services in reserve. If a calamity such as a famine or foreign invasion befell Athens, the scapegoats could be rolled out like sponges to soak up the resultant impurities.”
Given the viscous nature of our actual emergency, Eagleton’s metaphor of the sponge is more than a little apt. And the sponge, though it surely fails to literally and figuratively cleanse the national slate, succeeds in what is perhaps its actual objective: to distract our attention.
The sponge, the scapegoat in this particular case, is unsurprising: a big-name terrorist, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, supposedly the “number three guy” in Al Qaeda, whose death—by “drone attack” in northwest Pakistan—was conveniently rolled out to coincide with the news cycle otherwise dominated by BP’s latest failure to “plug the hole.” His function as a scapegoat is suggested at the very least by the “news” coverage throughout that afternoon, in which the stories ran back to back, over and over, to the point that one could almost lose track of which was the chicken, and which the egg.
This killing is a multipurpose distraction not only from the grotesque and visceral image of the “plume” but from our general failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, from the ongoing carnage in those places, and from the ironic perversity of the fact that the U.S. Department of Defense is the world’s largest consumer of petroleum, and that therefore we seem to be fighting these endless wars—against the people of the Middle East, against the planet itself—solely to procure the resources to fight the wars to procure the resources, and so on.
Chris Matthews said on his program that the killing was really “good news for us.” Like many others in his profession, Matthews lauded the “efficiency” of the attack and praised the President for his “toughness” on “terrorism.” What he neglected to mention was what even the print journalists included only as an afterthought. The purgative significance of eliminating al-Yazid also seems to be intended to distract us from the concluding fragment of the sentence, which details with admirable nonchalance the collateral damage of this extrajudicial assassination, which killed the target “along with his wife, three daughters, a grandchild and other men, women and children.”
As Eagleton writes, “It is the mangled bodies of those upon whom power weighs most heavily which offer the most eloquent testimony to its bankruptcy” (134-5). These mangled bodies a world away, where the U.S. conducts on a regular basis lawless killings by remote control, present eloquent testimony indeed, and the utter callousness with which the murder of these women and children is frequently reported speaks volumes about the bankruptcy of the power that conducts and condones such operations.
Women, children, little girls—otherwise known as collateral damage, more of what Eagleton rightly describes as the new international pool of scapegoats for the illness of the west, “the wretched of the earth, the garbage of global capitalism”–less newsworthy even than the brown pelicans drowning in oil in the Gulf.
Outside of primetime, in a rare televised moment of clarity, Jack Rice, former CIA agent and current “terrorism expert” for MSNBC, accidentally asked a question about principle in relation to the killing of al-Yazid: “How many innocents,” he asked, “should die in order to take a bad guy down?”
Though the “host” passed over this question in silence, we can note for our records that Rice was asking about sacrifice: how many women and children must be sacrificed to our non-negotiable way of life, to assuage our fears of “terror”—what Roosevelt called our “fear” of “fear itself”—and to scourge ourselves for the sins we refuse to leave off committing?
Can we entertain an answer of zero? Can we consider accepting a minor threat as the price of a just peace? And that doing justice in this way might reduce the threat itself? This column is not about making policy per se but about the language we use when we talk, and the underlying belief that the way we talk effects the way we do things.
For example, it might be easier to accept zero as the acceptable number of “innocents” we can sacrifice if we talk about them as such. This kind of sacrifice is certainly never “tough.” As Tony Judt reminds us: “If an older usage were still in force, whereby being tough consisted of enduring pain rather than imposing it on others, we should perhaps think twice before so callously valuing efficiency over compassion.” The inversion of value we see in the current notion of “toughness” mirrors what we see in the concept of sacrifice, as we seem to have elevated sacrifice of the other over the virtue of sacrifice of self.
President Obama likes to talk about sacrifice and responsibility—indeed, his signature move is the assumption of responsibility. And in recent days he seems to be taking some advantage of the catastrophe in the Gulf to make some tentative gestures toward energy and climate change legislation.
But even as he appears with increasing frequency on the beaches of our southern coast, delicately squatting near the water’s edge, quizzically examining some bit of sand, while studiously avoiding getting any sand in his shoes, he continues to say nothing about the sacrifice of innocents in the ongoing, unmanned air war in Pakistan, which is fueled by oil from one Gulf or another.
According to a study by the New American Foundation, which couches its conclusions in the frigid terminology of the think tank, the civilian casualty rate of the “drone wars” is 32%. Evan Kohlmann, another “terrorism expert” on MSNBC, essentially blamed the victims for this, arguing that the families of “terrorists” are fair game because terrorists choose to be near their families, which by extension transforms anyone within the blast radius from human to “collateral.”
The viciousness inherent in this attitude is precisely what Matthews represses in his easy distinction between the good and the bad, and it is the stuff—like the petroleum that rises now to the surface and stares us in the face—that contaminates our collective conscience, and reveals the sacrificial costs of our nonnegotiable lives.
—John Levi Barnard