Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: May 2010

Irish Eyes: The View from Here

Watching the unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico through European eyes undoubtedly provides a richly diverse perspective.  For one thing, having access to 24-hour news services from France, England, Russia, India, SKY News, CNBC, as well as CNN, Bloomberg, and especially Al Jazeera guarantees an abundance of information.  Fox News is also out there somewhere, but somehow its signal doesn’t seem to be able to cut through the Irish mist.  (I wish I had better reception of the Bloomberg channel because it carries “Charlie Rose” several times a day in addition to endless if informative chatter about world markets.)  Incidentally, The Irish Times is still one of the best newspapers in the world.

It’s a pity that in the US I can access Al Jazeera only on line, because its coverage of the world, particularly the Middle East, is comprehensive and well balanced.  With desks in Washington and London, the English-language service is almost flawless.  Its reports on the unfolding ecological, political, and monetary calamity of the BP oil “spill” provides a case in point, although today that was eclipsed by coverage of the brutal Israeli assault on the emergency relief flotilla heading toward Gaza from Cyprus.  While undeniably sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, the service takes pains to interview Israeli politicians and citizens-on-the-street and restricts editorializing to talk shows.  (The presence of Irish volunteers on the ships has made coverage of even keener interest on this island.)

In any case, it is not difficult to keep up with events in the US, but here in Ireland I am in a privileged position to monitor developing situations from China to the Azores.  And while I’m sure there are other stories besides the oil spill, that event has focused world attention like no other.  There is evident apprehension voiced that the political fallout will be injurious to the Obama administration, which is generally viewed with favor in this part of the world (unlike its predecessor).

Calling the BP disaster “Obama’s Katrina” is so wide of the mark as to bespeak the partisan sniping for what it is.  Government deregulatory commissions (which in fact is what they have been) were cemented in place a decade ago, when energy policy for the US was handed over to Big Oil and Gas (AKA BOG).  US political memory is dismally short.  The terrible events of September 11, 2001, wiped the slate clean for many.  But if the movie is rolled back several months before that, there were more-or-less secret meetings between Dick Cheney, Enron’s soon-to-be indicted and dead chairman and former CEO “Kenny Boy” Lay, CEO Jeff Skilling, and other petrol-barons to ooze out an “energy policy” for the country (on Feb. 22, Mar. 7, April 17, August 7, and finally on Oct. 10… hardly a haphazard affair).  Mr. Cheney has tried to keep the reports of those meetings under protection of executive privilege for understandable reasons.  In this, he was quietly supported by the ever-compliant Mr. Bush, whose oil connections, like those of Condoleezza Rice and a bevy of other highly-placed administration officials, had been firmly in place for decades.  (So far as I know, Ms. Rice was the only presidential security advisor and Secretary of State to have an oil freighter named for her.)

America’s creepy oil dependency has a much longer history than that, of course.  But for memory-challenged Americans, recalling the antitrust suits of 1911 and the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal of 1921 must surely rank with trying to remember what the Magna Carta was all about.  Out of sight, out of mind and well, barons will be barons.  Still, for anyone inclined to take entertainment seriously, the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood could serve as a kind of harbinger of present doom.  (And behind it lurks Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, which pointed an inky if gentler finger at John D. Rockefeller, Lyman Stewart, and the other great oil barons of the late nineteenth century.  Don’t say we weren’t warned.  But who pays attention to political prophecy?  Reality is much more captivating, if sometimes stranger and in the end a lot more expensive.)

Not that there were precedents, other than the Exxon-Valdez incident (which was sufficiently long ago that my undergraduates are inclined to think it’s the name of an exotic Spanish dancer).  The now defunct and absorbed Union Oil Company, once a major petro-contender, was responsible and heavily fined for a serious oil spill off the coast of California in 1969, during which as much as 100,000 barrels of oil seriously fouled the Santa Barbara channel.  That led to the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970.  And whatever happened to that?

Seems like small stuff by comparison – BP’s sunken Deepwater Horizon seems to be leaking that much oil into the pristine waters of the Gulf every day.  And that may well continue until August. 

Blaming President Obama for the BP disaster is like complaining that St. Peter didn’t act soon enough to contain the burning of Rome.  (No, Virginia, I am not comparing Mr. Obama to the pope.) Experience can be a hard teacher.  Especially when we don’t pay attention to the lessons of the past.  But we knew that.  Or did we?

Rogue, as in Elephant

With the far right wing-tip of the Republican Party having gone all roguey, and parts of the voting republic following after in good Tea Party fashion, it struck me as an opportune moment to check on the word, which turns out to have a checkered past, to say the least.  But then, who’s perfect?

The earliest use of the word comes from the middle sixteenth century, according to the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, which may for the purposes of argument be considered definitive, so to speak.  It seems to have had something to do with the French word roger (hard G), which meant “to beg.”  In any case, by 1551 it had come to mean “One belonging to a class of idle vagrants or vagabonds.”  By 1578 it referred to “A dishonest, unprincipled person.”  But as Shakespeare might have said, what’s in an etymology?

Fittingly, perhaps, by 1859 it also referred to “An elephant living apart, or driven away, from the herd, and of a savage and destructive disposition.” (That was about 5 years after the Republican Party was organized and Mr. Lincoln of Illinois was engaged in a series of debates with Stephen Douglas.  The rampaging elephant was first used as a party symbol around 1874.) 

If you are still with me, boys and girls, in modern parlance, according to handy on-line dictionaries, the noun has come to signify a vagrant or tramp, a dishonest or worthless person, AKA scoundrel; a horse inclined to shirk or misbehave, and  an individual exhibiting a chance and usually inferior biological variation.  I kid you not.  (See http://www.merriam-webster.com/netdict/rogue.  I am not making this up.  A similar entry can be found at http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/rogue.  My students regard these sources as theologically definitive, so I assume we are still on firm ground.)

As used, “rogue” enjoys several nuances, including the notion of a charming miscreant as opposed to its more sinister and real meaning.  In 2007 it was the title of an Australian movie about a big crocodile threatening to eat a party of innocent campers.  But even in this day of cinematic revisionism, one should not forget the great old 1950 movie about Robin Hood’s son (John Derek in a dashingly swashbuckling role) called Rogues of Sherwood Forest. Thieves and bandits, you know.  Russell Crowe might deck you if you said that to his face, however.

Rogue is also a female character in a Marvel comic book series, collectively a class of damage-dealers in the World of Warfare, and a gas-guzzling Nissan SUV.  Sometimes the term is used to refer to states like Israel and Iran that flaunt international law and human decency in regard to civil rights violations, oppression of minority groups, and general bellicosity.

So before we all get on the roguey bandwagon, perhaps a moment’s reflection would be in order.  Or have I got it all wrong?