“What is a plume?” Shakespeare may have asked rhetorically if he were writing the tragedy that is currently unfolding in the Gulf. BP, it appears, will not definitively say. The BP execs are too savvy to allow themselves to be pinned down to any one definition, especially since they know that we love a good debate and the wilder and more outrageous it is, the sexier it appears. When the company’s chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, was confronted on NBC’s Today Show last week about the appearance of large plumes of oil beneath the ocean’s surface, he was suddenly caught in a Clintonesque moment. Would he like to backtrack on his company’s previous statements? Well, he immediately stated, we “haven’t found large concentrations of oil under the sea” — in other words, to paraphrase Bill, it would depend on what your definition of “no” is. Or to put it yet another way, as he finally concluded, it “may be down to how you define what a plume is here.” And by “here,” does he mean now, at this time, or is it “here” in this place? Is a plume defined situationally, perhaps? An oil plume in the Gulf may be different than a plume, say, in the Caribbean Sea. (As Lewis Carroll wrote over a century ago, when you make a word do a lot of work like that, you have to pay it extra.) Suttles prefaced his double entendres with a comment earlier in the week that the “spill should be down to a relative trickle by Monday or Tuesday” — and again that might, as evidenced by the continuous gushing of oil, also depend on how you define “trickle” and even “relative.”
Are the BP execs hiding behind the smokescreen of an ideological/semantic debate? Maybe so, but according to our current ethos, that’s just about par for the course. It seems incredible that any polemic could surround something as blatantly obvious as the oil spill, especially when we are watching it in real time, all the time. (To be sure, BP has offered to pay all “legitimate” claims.) But almost everything today is relative and everything is debatable; we’re all entitled to opine, no matter what the basis for your opinion. Is Obama really an American? The state of Hawaii seems to think so, but that has not abated the ongoing “debate” among disbelievers. Is there such a thing as climate change? Some argue that the jury is out, even though there appear to be few or no mainstream scientists among the jurors. Isn’t creationism a theory as legitimate as evolution? So say very many non-scientists. Imperialism and capitalism are unacceptable terms, according to the Texas Board of Education (“free market” says so much more), and Barry Goldwater and Phyllis Schlafly (really?) have made more significant contributions to the US than Franklin D. Roosevelt. Texas students will also soon have to explain “the roles” of the Moral Majority (a term to be defined for those under the age of 50) and the National Rifle Association. And who among us is prepared to argue such weighty matters at this time against the slippery, rhetorical backdrop of the oil spill?
Rather than grapple unsuccessfully with pesky definitions and verbal gyrations regarding the Gulf crisis, let’s channel our frustration on to the President, who just isn’t demonstrating our collective rage quite enough for us. We don’t seem to require a confrontation; we just want him to emote. If we can’t win the war of words, let him at least kick some ass for us — figuratively speaking.
Or perhaps it’s just time to rethink our thinking. It might be better to simply drift in the slimy sea of relativity for a while, at least until this whole crisis blows over. Let’s turn off the web cam and focus on those issues that lie beyond human comprehension. We can put the burning questions aside and focus on the truly unknowable: Why did Al and Tipper really break up? Should we try to contact aliens? Can Sarah Palin still see Russia from her house over her new fence? And just who is Lee DeWyze? Fellow citizens, let the sparring begin.
María-Cristina Saavedra is Assistant Professor of Spanish at Susquehanna University.