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The gulf oil spill and theater of the absurd

Several years ago, I saw Edward Albee’s wonderfully inventive play “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” It’s about a man who falls in love with a goat, which sounds preposterous, I know, until either you see the play or watch what is happening in Washington. There, from time to time, we get a procession of scapegoats who take their lumps, usually in relative silence, and then go back from whence they came -- the Land of Oil, the Land of Auto, the Land of Finance -- and everyone feels better but almost nothing happens as a direct result. It is not even particularly good theater.

The other day, for example, the House Energy and Commerce Committee did its version of Albee -- without the sex, I must add. It lined up senior executives from four huge oil companies and let them have it. One congressman, Joseph Cao of Louisiana, suggested to Lamar McKay, president of BP, that he kill himself. “During the Samurai days, we’d just give you a knife and ask you to commit harakiri.”

Given that in all likelihood BP's rules and regulation (as amended) would require McKay to submit any plans to disembowel himself to the board (sect. 4b), the suggestion was clearly unhelpful. It was even more so since Cao prefaced his proposal by saying, “In the Asian culture, we do things differently.” Harikari, also known as seppuku, is Japanese in origin. As for Asian culture, there is of course no such thing. There should be no such thing as stupid sound bites, either.

Yet Washington persists. The most serious problems facing this great nation of ours are met with ridiculous, prepared sound bites -- one after another. The results are usually not what the congressmen expect. Not only do they not become instant heroes, but in sophisticated circles, they are deemed to be fools, and ordinary people lose whatever confidence they have left in the competence of congress. I have not met one person who knows anything about finance who was impressed with the grilling given to the chairman of Goldman Sachs by the normally astute Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). And the other day, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) told the aforementioned Mr. McKay that he should resign -- presumably before he kills himself, I would think.

The first literary goat was not Albee’s, but the Bible’s. It was the famous scapegoat, loaded with the sins of the people and driven off into the desert. This was tough on the goat and, in a day or so, did not do much for the people, either. This, of course, is what is happening with congress -- theater of the absurd and a chance for Albee to update his creation. Instead of having busy chief executives come to Washington to be used as fodder for sound bites, why not send one goat? It could sit, chew some paper or tin cans, and let the congressmen have their fun.

I’m in love already.

By Richard Cohen  | June 16, 2010; 11:02 AM ET
Categories:  Cohen  | Tags:  Richard Cohen  
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The congressman who do the theater-of-the-absurd accomplish more than you indicate. Remember that in the USA all publicity is good publicity. Whatever may be said about the congressmen in public or in private, by the time the next election roles around, most people forget about the issues and even about the show. But they are guided in their electoral choices by NAME RECOGNITION.

Posted by: adelemcdaniel | June 16, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

That's funny, I counted FIVE (not four) big oil companies represented at yesterday's hearing on Capitol Hill:

Rex Tillerson, Exxon Mobile
Lamar McKay, BP America
John Watson, Chevron
James Mulva, ConocoPhillips
Marvin Odum, Shell

Posted by: laloomis | June 16, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Okay, so you've gotten your soundbite in on Congressmen getting their soundbites in -- what makes you think that's helpful. The gulf is still a mess and the gusher is still gushing.

Posted by: SarahBB | June 16, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

The debacle is sickning, both in lousiana(millions of dollrs in kickbacks) to washington, home of oil billionairs> I would be much amused to see BP and the other oil giants, post it kickbacks and funds given to politicans calling for BP's head. The obama 2 faces are no different than all the 2 face pols before him, washington runs on oil fees, finding pols pockets, oil stock and alike. My uncle was right $hit is $hit, no matter the color or shape.

Posted by: davidtrottier2002 | June 16, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

I'll tell you what is Theater of the Absurd (aka Theater of the Hypocrites), these congressmen/women -- many of whom in this august body were wined, dined, feted and received thousands of campaign dollars from these same companies, and who, when all is said and done, were the "enablers" of these companies to, literally, destroy our planet. I would certainly like SOME reporter, how about you, Mr. Cohen, to LIST the congressmen/women who received contributions -- and how much -- from which oil companies. Isn't it public information?

Posted by: lrb100 | June 16, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Personally, i like Rep. Cato's idea. The notion of ritual sacrifice to expunge dishonour would be interesting. Maybe Cato and his fellow Congressmen should lead the way and make this a Congressional law - all Congressional Representitives who act in a dishonorable fashion (lie, cheat, steal, etc...) should commit seppuku.

As for the grilling, it was absurd and did nothing to move things forward towards solutions. Another waste of time by men and women who seem to have nothing better to do than rant and rave. Maybe they should go to the gulf and help in the cleaning effort instead.

Posted by: MadiganT | June 16, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Talk of the theater of the absurd:

Those who maintain that:
1. Regulation stifles economic growth;
2. Industry, through the magic of the market, does the correct thing;
3. Government is the problem.

now DEMAND that the government do something!

The also DEMAND that deap sea drilling resume! After all, who doubts that industry is ready for any eventuality?

Oh, where are all those great 'religious' leaders who know whether something is God's pubishment for ... whatever? Certainly this industrial devastation is not incidental!

I suppose it is not so much the theater of the absurd, but the hypocricy of Republicans and the like.

Posted by: AMviennaVA | June 16, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

I agree with AMviennaVA. The real absurdity here is the long line of politicians who spent the last twenty years - since Reagan - calling for government to get off the back of big business - because "government is the problem not the solution" - who now are demanding that Obama do something about this big business mess. Bet there are a lot of oil lobby dollars in their pockets.

Posted by: gposner | June 16, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

I liked the part where he said someone in the government was corrupt and he (Obama) was going to stamp out that corruption! There goes congress! It reminds me of Elliot Sptizer, another Harvard Law grad, trying to play sheriff.

Posted by: joe59 | June 16, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

I liked the part where Obama said someone in the government was corrupt and he (Obama) was going to stamp out that corruption!

There goes congress!

Posted by: joe59 | June 16, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Richard, I must agree with you, which I rarely do, but you are spot on here.

In order to avoid sinking into depression whenever these idiots line up to dump on somone, I suggest you try and look at the sound bites as a good source of humor. I would particularly recommend Barney Frank's Financial Services committee as a place where unabashed ignorance is on display. It is difficult to believe that some of the people on that committee are serving in government, much less Congress.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | June 16, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

You have missed the biggest problem - which is that nowhere in the public discourse are the voices of people who know anything about the engineering aspects of this heard. The press is beyond ignorant, and so is the average american. So, we get faux analysis, faux solutions, and of course, real anger from the vast majority who are uninformed, and faux anger from politicians who should know better, but think it's easier to be angry than to try to bring some measure of rationality to the conversation. This is indeed a tragedy, and it's being made worse by simple minded hollering. We need a scapegoal alright, for "Idiot America" which is in full cry right now. It would be funny if it weren't so infuriating to hear the Drill, Baby, Drill and Tea Party crowds demanding that the government that they profess to despise fix this immediately, or they will continue to drum their collective, ignorant heels on the floor.

Posted by: soliddawn | June 16, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Someone should tell Obama that it is a GULF crisis, not another GOLF game.

This is what happens when you have a GOOF posing as a president.

Posted by: Jerzy | June 16, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

It was BP who did the damage this time.... but it could quite as easilly have been any one of the other MEGA Oil Barons...... they even admitted that themselves. The only way to prevent this from happening ever again, as they said themselves is NOT to drill in Deepwater. Would be even better if all the money going into oil drilling and research went INSTEAD into clean and alternative energy resources.

Did You Know?
BP engineers alerted federal regulators at the Minerals Management Service that they were having difficulty controlling the Macondo well (Deepwater Horizon) six weeks before the disaster, according to e- mails released by the Energy and Commerce Committee.

“I don’t think this would have happened on Exxon’s watch,” Tom Bower, author of “The Squeeze: Oil, Money and Greed in the 21st Century,” said in a June 11 Bloomberg Television interview. “They’d be much more careful and much more conscious of the need to supervise subcontractors.”

WELL excuse me your sainted Exxon....... and Chevron and ConocoPhillips.

Let’s just take a look at a few of your past misdemeanours, and then we can consider again – if the moratorium on deepwater drilling should be lifted, and place it all firmly back into your nice clean hands!

Posted by: justmeint | June 16, 2010 7:16 PM | Report abuse

Not to call names but this behavior (both on the part of congress and bp execs) seems narcistic: the love of a big scene/breakdown/disaster the lack of concern for the pain caused to other people.

The congress people and bp execs seem to revel in the misery in a way that is disgusting.

Posted by: Clyde4 | June 16, 2010 9:51 PM | Report abuse

so all sound bites are the same ???

the hypocrisy of the repuglootarded terrorist teabaggers doesn't count against the repuglootards ???

and repuglootarded talking points about deregulation and "drill baby drill"

that hypocrisy is the equivilent of Democrats who have maintained the same sound bites for the duration ???

$arah paylin said the environmentalists who oppose drilling were responsible for the disaster

doesn't pure 4ss hattery like that count against her ???

why are delusional and hpocritical statements somehow worse in your book

does truth count for ANYTHING in your view ???

personally, I discount the hypocrites and idiots in the repuglootarded teabagger terrorist party

how is it that you lack the moral compass to make this simple distinction ???

Posted by: nada85484 | June 16, 2010 11:34 PM | Report abuse

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