Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Black Rain's Gonna Fall

"And what'll you do now, my blue–eyed son?
And what'll you do now, my darling young one?
I'm a–goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a–fallin',
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
And the executioner's face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I'll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it,
And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it,
And I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin',
But I'll know my song well before I start singin',
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard,
It's a hard rain's a–gonna fall."

Bob Dylan
(Emphasis added)

When you look at the video of the oil that is pouring into the Gulf of Mexico from the sea floor, it is rolling, boiling, raging, furious, like the nuclear clouds that swirled above two Japanese cities 65 years ago this summer.

But when it reaches the surface and, then, the coastline, the oil is in globs — the embodiment of Dylan's "pellets of poison ... flooding [the] waters" nearly 50 years after he penned that phrase.

As I understand it, Dylan wrote the song during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and its symbolism was intended for the Cold War age and a nearly unimaginable nuclear war. But it has been two decades since communism's collapse left the Soviet Union in tatters. The nuclear threat still lives. The Soviet Union does not.

Yes, nuclear disaster will always be a possibility as long as any nuclear weapons exist. But even when the Soviet Union and the United States had their missiles aimed at each other, a more insidious threat was growing like a cancer.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union — and, even, to a degree, in the years before — oil emerged as a threat in so many ways.

It is only common sense to conclude that there must be at least some truth to the claims that the poisonous gases being belched into the air have affected the global climate. It may not be quite as dire as some alarmists have suggested, but that doesn't make the conclusion less valid, just less vivid.

So the air that we all breathe must be affected — to a certain degree. And so, too, it could be argued, is the rest of the natural world because, once the oxygen (and/or the water) has been altered, even if it is in minor ways, the entire ecosystem is affected and must adjust.

In such adjustments is the reality of evolution. I am not a scientist, but I presume that life on this planet has always been at the mercy of one thing or another — asteroids, earthquakes, hurricanes, plagues, etc.. The species that couldn't "roll with the changes" (as a song from my teen years urged) disappeared. That was what happened to the dinosaurs and most of the species that have lived on this planet.

But not man. Not yet.

There was a time when oil propelled civilization forward into an industrial age that meant better lives for everyone, but it seemed to reach a point of diminishing returns some time ago. We've known all along that oil was a nonrenewable energy source. The fact that there was a limited supply of oil should have inspired man from the beginning to develop other sources of energy to accomplish the many tasks oil increasingly was expected to achieve.

Maybe, in the beginning, there were those who could anticipate a time when the world would run out of oil. But they lacked the technology to seek its successor. Now that we have the technology, we are at the mercy of those who control the funds.

There was a time when it seems wars were fought for many reasons. In the last couple of decades, it seems all our wars are fought over the land beneath which a fortune in oil can be found. There may be side issues — religious, cultural, what have you — but when you get right down to it, oil (or, rather, the possession of it) is at the heart of armed conflict in the 21st century.

There are many reasons why the United States would be wise to free itself of its addiction to oil.

I say that in large part because the oil spewing into the Gulf is one of those events by which Americans judge the effectiveness of their leaders. Obama has made several trips to the Gulf region. He has addressed the nation about it (during which he spent much of his time talking about the need for alternative energy sources).

What else can he do? wonder his supporters, who no doubt wish the spill would go away. Many of them seem to comprehend the threat this catastrophe poses to the president and his legislative agenda. But they seem powerless — not unlike Obama himself — to do anything about it.

And so the image of an irresolute president is born. I have my own issues with that, not the least of which is that it isn't true. But perception is reality.

It reminds me of a great line from the 1981 film "Absence of Malice," in which a reporter (Sally Field) has a relationship with a liquor distributor (Paul Newman). Field implicates Newman in the disappearance of a local labor leader in an article she writes. When their relationship is exposed, Field's newspaper has to write an article about it, and one of the reporters is dispatched to interview Field.

Field is asked to describe the relationship. "Just say we were involved," she says haltingly. "That's true, isn't it?" the reporter asks. "No," Field replies, "but it's accurate."

(As someone who has worked for newspapers, that would be my verdict on how well the film portrayed the men and women who work for daily newspapers and the journalism profession itself — it wasn't true, but it was accurate.)

I guess that is how I feel about Obama's handling of the oil spill. It isn't his fault. And I'm sorry there are other pre–existing problems that are demanding their fair share of attention, like high unemployment and two wars, and potential problems, like predictions of an unusually active hurricane season, that may yet develop. But that is the way the presidency is. The American people judge a president's effectiveness by how he performs when he has to juggle chainsaws, not nerfballs.

To this point, Obama probably has been as effective as he can be. His problem, I think, is that expectations were unrealistic, although hardly surprising considering how he was presented to the voters. So, in that context, if someone said to me, "Is it true that Obama has been ineffective?" I would have to reply, "No, but it's accurate."

I read, in the Wall Street Journal, that a poll it conducted with NBC News indicates that "grave and growing concerns about the Gulf oil spill" have left Americans "more pessimistic about the state of the country and less confident in President Barack Obama's leadership than at any point since Mr. Obama entered the White House."

OK, the Wall Street Journal has never been one of Obama's fans.

And it quotes a Republican pollster who reminds everyone that voter attitudes are typically set by June of any election year.

But that is merely conventional wisdom. Considering the source, it may seem partisan, but that is primarily because it doesn't favor the majority party. It seldom does. Ordinarily, it takes something very dramatic — usually an international crisis — to reverse such a trend.

And that could happen this year. Based on what the WSJ is reporting, Obama the pragmatist needs to hope that something dramatic does happen.

Because "[i]t would take an enormous and seismic event to change the drift of these powerful forces before November," the GOP pollster told the WSJ.

This isn't foolproof — far too many things can happen between now and November — but Obama had better hope that the oil spill gets resolved soon, and he'd better be prepared for anything else that might come along.

The things that eventually bring down presidencies — like "third–rate" burglaries, hostage situations and broken tax increase pledges — seldom seem big enough at first glance.

But they loom large in the rearview mirror.

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