The most moving song I know about the Gulf Coast is "Biloxi" by Memphian Jesse Winchester. When he resided here, Jesse went by the name of Jimmy Winchester and fronted a great garage band called the Church Keys. I was a freshman at Christian Brothers High School when he was a senior and a member of the National Honor Society. With a limitless future, Jesse was instead forced to flee this country and accept refuge in Canada rather than participate in the Vietnam War. It was while living as an expatriate that he wrote the wistful "Biloxi," an evocative childhood memory of frolicking in the salty sea water of the Gulf, made more poignant by Winchester's circumstances. If a potential draftee sought sanctuary from Vietnam in a foreign land, he became a man without a country and was unable to return to the United States without the threat of arrest and imprisonment. So Winchester wrote "Biloxi" as someone who never expected to see the Gulf again.
The song takes on weighty new meaning today, since none of us may ever see the Gulf Coast again, at least as we remember it.
After Jimmy Carter pardoned thousands of draft resisters living abroad, Winchester was able to sing "Biloxi" at Memphis' Ritz Theatre on Madison Avenue. It was the same year that Carter tried to warn us about the dire consequences of our dependence on foreign oil. Regardless of your opinion of Carter as president, he was the first advocate for wind and solar energy. Had we heeded that advice 35 years ago, or learned from the Exxon Valdez disaster 20 years ago, we wouldn't be facing the most massive man-made catastrophe since the New Orleans levees broke five years ago.
But floodwater eventually recedes. A tsunami of oil is a bit more tenacious. With this ecological 9/11 looming, it seems as if even the local politicians still don't grasp the scope of the danger. Like dense bureaucrats in a disaster movie, Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu and Governor Bobby Jindal see no reason to suspend permits for future off-shore oil exploration, even while the Louisiana marshes are dying.
BP has become the villain of this piece, although they are as beholden to the petrol cartels as any other major oil trust. What's astonishing is their admitted cluelessness over what to do about it. Too bad we don't have an underwater equivalent to Red Adair. When alleged "experts" in their field begin asking the public for suggestions on how to plug a leak, you know we're in big trouble. And they continue to refer to it as a "spill." A spill is what happens to a glass of wine. Two million gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf every day is not a spill. It's an underwater volcano, and BP's attempt to insert tubing into the shattered pipes to capture the oil is like siphoning water from the Mississippi with a garden hose. Now, a month after the explosion and fire, we have only seen their faulty caps and cement doghouses fail to stop it. The company's latest plan is to bombard the area with tires, ropes, and shredded golf balls. Wasn't that the premise of a Seinfeld episode? Rush Limbaugh removed an obstruction from his blowhole to blame the Sierra Club for forcing the oil syndicates to drill farther offshore with their pesky regulations. Come to think of it, old Rush might be the perfect fit to plug that thing.
This atrocity's origins can be found in the era of lax regulation by government and corner-cutting by ruthless profiteers. Since Dick Cheney allowed industry insiders to write this country's energy policy behind closed doors, we have lurched from one Enron rolling blackout to the next, driven by unfettered corporate greed. No company in U.S. history has benefited more from friends in high places than Halliburton. Yet from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Mexico, Halliburton has been the very model of incompetence. It was Halliburton's responsibility to properly seal this well, but they used seaweed instead of cement. The only thing more disastrous than Cheney's oil war has been his corporate crony energy policies. Has there ever been a vice president who has done more personal damage to his country than Cheney? I think there's finally enough accumulated evidence to charge him with international racketeering under the RICO statutes. Hey, they finally got Al Capone for income tax evasion.
This bomb went off on Obama's watch, and it's past time for him to get his wingtips dirty and his ass to New Orleans. If we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, it's that the perception of leadership in a crisis is as important as the methods used to alleviate the problem. There is an urgency now and action needs to be taken or else those white sand beaches that Jesse Winchester sang about and all that "fun among the sea oats" enjoyed by thousands of Memphians and millions of Southerners will be lost for a century.
The "Redneck Riviera" may seem remote to our countrymen, but let that crude get into the loop current and start landing on the beaches of Miami and Florida's Gold Coast and we may yet see some outrage. Five states are facing an environmental and economic apocalypse, sea and land creatures face extinction, yet Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, told Sky News, "I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest."
My father used to say, "It's a dirty bird that fouls his own nest." Heads up to the human race: We just peed in the gene pool.
Randy Haspel writes the blog "Born-Again Hippies," where a version of this column first appeared.