“You think you’re so clever and classless and free
But you’re still fuckin’ peasants, as far as I can see”
I ought to look up old Carlos Yu on Facebook. I worked with him at my first newspaper job some 17 years ago (ouch), and I can’t remember why I lost contact with him; he would have been worth staying in touch with, but I suppose I was a pretty flaky beer-drinking kid back then. Anyway, the above headline was Carlos’s favorite saying, and it’s floated up to the top of my mind lately, tied largely I’m sure to the complex of ideas that’s been stirred up by the fact that the whole BP oil disaster has occupied about 80 percent of my coherent and topical thoughts (as opposed to thoughts like ‘my leg itches’ and ‘the cat needs water’ and ‘oh, life is pointless anyway, let’s pop in a Tim Burton movie’) for the past few weeks.
You can hardly blame me for obsessing; if you aren’t worried about the mysterious future consequences of unprecedented amounts of oil being spilled into the earth’s least-well-known and largest ecosystem — not to mention the ominous and equally unprecedented underwater oil plumes which are going to lurk god knows where killing god knows what for god knows how long — then I think you’re the one, to understate the case severely, who has a problem.
But as a mere ant in the global whatever-the-fuck-you-want-to-call-the-economic-system-we-have-now, it seems all I can do about it is sign the odd petition and ‘inform myself,’ just in order to… what? Impress the more intellectual among my fellow ants? Scrabble for a shred of hope? Ignore my own mortality for a few moments thanks to a burst of righteous outrage? Hey, it seems to work for most ever’body else…
However, since I have, like most of the populace, long forgotten how to operate a physical newspaper, it’s google google google “oil spill.” So I find some pretty random stuff. There are the obligatory rants blaming Obama the socialist (if he’s a socialist, kids, I’m a tree frog) and Geedub the oil tycoon (I hate to break this to you, but even if his entire life was indeed buoyed by crude, the oil cabal would have no doubt been just as strong without Junior as an ally), as expected. But what’s really shocking is the relatively mainstream British-jingoist ranting I found in, of all places, the Daily Mail.
Yeah, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Fancy that, a tabloid devoted to cellulite seek and snark missions publishes a bunch of columnists who still feel a vituperative resentment against the United States for… what, exactly? Not belonging to them anymore? Being fat and ugly? That’s kind of the vibe I picked up, although, like most people who are tormented by tribal hatreds which are no longer nice to express in polite company, the Mail’s columnists had to twist things around to make themselves look like victims, who are merely striking back in self-defense.
So their launching pad for their American-hating British diatribes is American hatred of the British, as exemplified by President Obama’s OUTRAGEOUS reference to BP as ‘British Petroleum,’ a name the company ditched 12 years ago in favor of, um, the acronym of that very name.
See, that slip of the tongue, the Mail argues, shows just how much Obama hates, and always has hated, Great Britain. Remember when his wife HUGGED THE QUEEN? (The Mail actually used the verb form ‘mauled,’ as though Mrs. Obama were a bear, and her side-hug had in fact been a violent tongue kiss followed by erotic strangulation.) American outrage at BP’s actions is, they claim, a direct expression of the fact that AMERICANS STUPIDLY HATE AND DISDAIN EVERYBODY, especially the INCREDIBLY CIVILISED AND SUPERIOR BRITISH RACE, because we are DUMB EUROTRASH HALFBREED YANKEE GITS. Ain’t prejudice hideous? The amount of hatred simmering in these columns, as well as that openly expressed, on both sides, in the comments section, is surprising: we have been allies for quite some time, fella/ows.
Of course, one of the more rational Mail articles on the subject brought up the very valid question of why mainly-American companies such as Halliburton, who were BP’s contractors on the blown-out well, are not getting the same fire as BP. Valid though it is, it’s an easy question to answer: while Dick Cheney is still at large, anyone who questions Halliburton — including the sitting president — runs the risk of being waterboarded. (Or beheaded; I just got around to watching Alice in Wonderland, and while I’ve always admired Helena Bonham Carter, I think ole Dickwad would have been a much better casting choice for the Red Queen.)
I’ll grant the Mail another point: as much of a ditheringly detached scumbag as he seems in his own right, you almost had to feel sorry for Tony Hayward when the U.S. Congress laid into him this week. The format of the interrogation was proportional to the disaster, but in no way appropriate to the amount of personal guilt that can be laid at the feet of a single man when an entire multinational corporation’s habits of recklessness and greed are at fault.
HOWEVER: Come on, what different outcome did the Mail honestly expect? The US congressmen needed to show blustering outrage in order to appease their constituents so they could justify their useless overpaid role in a government that’s so much weaker than the nondemocratic international corporate system of overlord-ism that their only possible means of remaining relevant is to, indeed, be noisy and hypocritical corporate lapdogs. How does this differ from the prostrate bloviation of British — or any — politicians? Serving up an individual head like Hayward (and, to a lesser extent, Obama) as a sacrificial circus scapegoat is the only way to quiet the populace without attacking the big, thick body of the multinational hydra — which no politician, no matter how comfortably the hydra may line his pockets, has the power to do in any meaningful sense. (With the possible exception of Obama, who tried to make up for his adminstration’s failure to clamp down on the oil industry in time to avert the disaster by wrangling a reparations trust fund for the small businesses and individuals that were ruined by the multinational’s fuck-up — but who in consequence is once again being blasted by the corporate welfare queens. That’ll teach ‘im! If he were more malin he’d just put Hayward in the stocks for a bit and then slither away with a payoff.)
In other words, if the Mail columnists know anything about the way the world works, which I hope they must, their attack on Congress (and by illogical extension, the entire American populace) is just as insincere and opportunistic as the Congressmen’s attack on Hayward.
And, I suppose, in my turn I should not be surprised that the Mail is trying to drum up British jingoism against the stupid, dumb, arrogant, dumb, stupid Yanks; it’s a great opportunity to use obsolete prejudices to get more clicks on your site from angry people on both sides of the pond. Never mind the fact that the daily lives of the Yanks and Brits whose ancient antagonisms they’re riling up are, in the end, far more heavily affected by the same non-elected international corporate bureaucracy than they are by their own home governments. Hell, even our own home cultures are losing ground by the day.
That said, the Mail columnists do have another valid point: we Americans are throwing a fit and demanding reparations because a company we perceive as foreign (it’s actually multinational, with plenty of U.S. stockholders and employees) has polluted our shores, when American corporations as well as the government are creating massive messes in others’ backyards on a constant basis. True; even as we cry over BP’s oiling of our shores, American companies are trashing our own neighbors’ land to extract oil to fuel our monstrous SUVs. (Just google ‘Canada tar sands’ if you want to be absolutely sick.)
But then again, as repulsive and immoral as ‘our’ actions in Iraq, for example, have been, it’s American taxpayers (not, you’ll note, corporations such as Halliburton who have made money hand over fist off the war) whom the Bush administration set up to foot the bill for cleaning up the mess we’ve made there. The public sector in this country has enough trouble cleaning up its own disasters; once in a while we’d like the profiteers to pick up the bill, thank you, regardless of where they’re based.
MORE ESSENTIALLY, HOWEVER: Is the average British citizen to blame for BP’s spill? Absolutely not; they’re powerless against the company, and any American who decides to hate the entire UK population for this soft attack is — despite my devilish compulsion to make jokes like ‘one if by crude, two if by methane’ — off his rocker. Aaaaaaaaand, by extension: just who the fuck are you, Daily Mail, to blame the average American citizen for the actions of powerful ‘Americans’* beyond his control who pollute sites in other countries? I personally have no more control over the nefarious deeds of Halliburton than John Smith of Picadilly has over Tony Hayward, or than Ali Iraqui had over Saddamn not-actually-the-Taliban Hussein. In fact, I don’t even drive. The Mail may rant and rave about what a gas-guzzling monster culture the U.S. has, but the fact of the matter is that most individuals must either live according to social norms or live like me — rather small and outcast. Most people can’t handle that. Do you own a vehicle, Mail columnists? Do you eat food and drink beverages? Yeah… I eat too. Maybe we should all shut up. If you’re going to tilt at windmills, tilt at the multinational money government, not random tv-addicted 40-hour-a-week-working no-health-insurance-having American citizens. Most of us are just pigs being fattened for the slaughter, just like your own compatriots.
But back to Carlos Yu. You know, maybe I wouldn’t care so much about any of this if it weren’t for the Enlightenment. That was a period of time in which much idealism was bandied about, and those ideals have been passed down to us, even as a new, rather nastier — dare I say it? — international aristocracy has grown up around the corporate system. Free markets had their day, so they say, a hundred or two years ago, but what have we got now? The only people I know who weren’t born with more money than God who are really rich now never sleep; they may have power within the circle influenced by their work, but they’re hardly in a position or mental condition to make a real difference in the world. Those of us who want to have lives outside of work have no power at all, except the power of free blogspeech, which is reaaaaaaal useful when there are as many blogs as there are PC owners. Once in a while we can circulate a petition to save an historical building or two, but I’d like to see, say, restaurant-worker bloggers take down Sysco.
As twistedly as we may behave, modern denizens of nominally democratic nations are hopeless idealists, on the grand scale of things. More than any other peoples in history, we really seem to believe in freedom for everybody. Ironic then that almost nobody really has any. Which is business as usual for humanity, but we’re unique in being so bothered by it that we’re in near-psychotic denial. You’re free, huh? How about that student loan? How about your rent payment? Mortgage payment? Oh, you’ve paid for your house? How about those property taxes, then? You think you can quit your job and keep that house you ‘own’? What percentage of your income do you spend paying property taxes for the right to live on ‘your’ land in comparison to, say, the percentage of his fortune that an anonymous scion of the Walton family pays in total? Yeah, you’re free. I’m free. Free to be you and me: indentured servants, whoo fucking pee.
I remember being patriotic when I was a little kid. It’s natural to want to be proud of your country, even if it can lead to nasty things. It’s especially natural when your country tells you stuff like, hey, you’re free! No tyrant can rule over you! But then why is Dad so cranky and miserable? You find out when you get a job and are shoved into the mini-realpolitik of the office that, even if we were living in a pure and perfect libertarian or socialist paradise, where everybody truly got an equal shot from the start, people will take petty tyranny where they can achieve it, and enlarge the scope of their ass-rapership whenever possible. Actually, didn’t you already learn that lesson in grade school? Even as you were assimilating the optimists’ propaganda of freedom and equality, the kids who thought they were better than you for one reason or another (sometimes just because they didn’t like your face) were stuffing you into the Dumpster behind the gym.
Feudalism and aristocracy seem to be the natural tendencies of large-scale and complex human societies. Any measure of democracy or freedom is a sweet fruit to be savored, indeed, but not to be depended upon. It seems almost cruel to inculcate children with the idea that these things are their inalienable rights, when most waking hours of most people’s lives in even the most affluent nations are marred by bondage to activities contrary to the individual will. And the sweeter freedom sounds to you, the bitterer you’re going to be when you grow up and realize how pitifully rare such a thing is in all of human history.
Sometimes I just want to put my blinkers on, get high on yoga, put my head down, and think about nonexistent gods while I muck through the most mindless job I can find, then shuffle home and turn on the circus tube. When I was younger I thought such behavior was degenerate, but now I think it’s realistic; nonetheless, something keeps me studying things like Sanskrit and history and literature whenever I can work up the energy. I think that something may be a yet-unlabeled form of insanity. ‘Cause we’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see, and even after the death of Divine Right, repositories of divide-and-conquer strategems such as the Daily Mail and the non-fiscal right seem to hold an eternal advantage over love and logic.
*Who, for all their own opportunistic pseudo-jingoist rhetoric, care more about their equally wealthy Saudi oil buddies than they care about Joe Yank — I mean, seriously, geedub would have looked much more appropriate wearing a giant pound symbol hat on his head than a frigging cowboy hat.