Saturday Single No. 189

Someone asked me once, during one of my weekly newspaper gigs, “Why is the news so bad?”

I don’t recall what I told that person as we stood there, most likely by the frozen foods as other Saturday morning shoppers eased past us on their way to the fruits and vegetables, but the encounter provided me with a little bit of grist for a column about news-gathering and reporting.

The column was essentially reassuring, noting that a generally accurate definition of news is “those things that are out of the ordinary.” We never hear, I wrote, about the many thousands of planes that have uneventful flights; we hear of the one plane that has difficulty. We never hear of the millions of people who leave home for work and then leave work for home every day without encountering anything more troubling than a dirty windshield. We hear about the very few people whose lives intersect in traffic accidents or other more woeful occurrences.

Those airplanes that fail, I argued, and those accidents that damage property and lives – all of those, as horrible as they are to the people caught up in them – are the exceptions, the rarities. The vast majority of us go through our lives untouched by the tragedies around us.

Then, in the 1990s, even as much of the world of news began its merger with the world of entertainment, providing cable outlets with their twenty-four hours of daily programming stuffed with supposition and assumption and decorated with glitz and the occasional nugget of real and honest reporting, even as all that began to dominate the discussion of current events and public policy, I took some comfort in the central fact that generally remained intact: When bad things are news, bad things are generally rare.

And that holds true in the wake of the bad news of the past few weeks, I guess. There is rarity: I don’t ever recall another instance of an out-of-control oil well spewing millions of gallons of crude a day into our nation’s coastal waters. It’s never happened before, at least not on this scale. I think it’s very clear that the gusher on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico – now somewhat but not nearly entirely restrained, as I understand it – is going to make the other oily encounters in our nation’s history – Santa Barbara in 1969 and Prince William Sound in 1989 – seem very, very minor league by comparison.

So this is a rare bit of news. But somehow, I find little comfort in the fact that nothing this bad has ever take place in the history of oil going where it’s not supposed to go. And I doubt that this whole sorry episode is going to end any way but badly for almost everyone involved. Because the thing is, we’re all involved. No one really knows what happens to an ecosystem when this much oil makes landfall as many places as it undoubtedly will in the next months. When the flora and fauna in coastal marshes are poisoned, what else happens nearby? When marine life is poisoned because its waters are studded with what are being called “plumes” of suspended oil, what happens next? With that much poison floating and bobbing around, I’d be more than startled if anyone can seriously begin to estimate the consequences. And once the flora and fauna of the Gulf – on land and in the water – have been damaged, what happens to those species with whom the damaged species intersect? And let’s not kid ourselves. We – homo sapiens the oil guzzler – are one of those intersecting species that will be affected.

I am, as readers can no doubt tell, feeling bleak about this. My mother and I were out running errands the other day, and we were talking about the Gulf disaster. “It’s going to take years to clean up, isn’t it?” she asked me. I told her that if her granddaughter – my niece, now twenty-nine – ever had children, the Gulf might be cleaned in their lifetimes. But I doubt it.

Maybe I’m wrong. It would be nice if I were, if there were some technology that will emerge to make the Gulf – and the rest of us by extension – whole again. But that’s magical thinking, I fear. And in some ways, magical thinking got us here. I think this whole mess is the logical outcome of several strains of self-delusion in American life that finally intersected: the almost maniacal drive toward less regulation of American industry and business that began in 1981; our absolute refusal as a society to become serious about reducing our dependence on oil; and the tendency of many – not all – corporate types to cut corners on safety for workers when doing so can enhance profits.

As I said, I’m feeling bleak these days. And it’s getting more and more difficult for anything – even music – to light the darkness. But here’s one tune that does. It’s “Apocalypse Lullaby” by the Wailin’ Jennys from their 2006 album Firecracker, and it’s today’s Saturday Single:

Edited slightly and video posted March 28, 2014.)

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4 Responses to “Saturday Single No. 189”

  1. Well said, whiteray. Hardly reassuring but well said.

  2. ljhord says:

    A beautiful Saturday Single. Thank you for posting!

  3. Paco Malo says:

    Sometimes it feels a little lonely down here on the gulf coast, not sure the rest of the country can quite understand how tragic this situation is. Your post brought the nation’s empathy home to me — I found it somehow reassuring in the daily sea of bad news about the ongoing spill. Thank you. This is a fine post.

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