Oil Spill? Oh, Well

Is there less shock about the Gulf oil spill compared to past oil disasters? And are some of us simply too old to get all worked up about it?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Disasters can spark outrage. Sometimes that outrage can provoke a useful response. Other times it merely leads to grumbling. Commentator Andrei Codrescu thinks he knows why our response often falls short.

ANDREI CODRESCU: Two retired teachers rocked in their rocking chairs discussing the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Carl said that he was under the impression that not much was being done about the oil spill in the Gulf, despite the fact that it was the number one topic on TV and in conversation.

There didn't seem to be the same sense of shock that was felt about the Exxon Valdez spill for instance, or about the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, when thousands of young volunteers came to wash oil-soaked birds by hand.

They swirled their glasses of a fine Spanish red on sale for under $10. And then Andrei said that he didn't think this was quite fair because lots of young people shaved the hair from their dogs and from their heads to make booms to soak up oil, and would go into the marshes in a minute if anyone could figure out something for them to do.

Still, Carl had something bigger there, namely the quality of outrage and protest these days. The world is more devious than it was when they were young. A lot of wrong and right got confused by symbolism. It probably started Gerald Ford's win button whip inflation now which lots of people wore to stop inflation. And then Jimmy Carter's sweater, which made us believe he was conserving energy. And then Nancy Reagan's just say no drugs. And the drug-free zone signs. And Tipper Gore demanding stickers on CD to tell us they had explicit lyrics and scores of other symbolic pronouncements by Republicans and Democrats that had nothing to do with the reality they were pronouncing about.

Then the Internet made it much easier to forward protest emails, than to go out into the street and get your head bashed in. Advertising put a nail in the ethical coffin. Oil companies pretend to be environmentalists. And almost every business that harms people is on TV saying how they benefit us. The political class that used to make at least a show of having standards and ideas pretty much abandoned them for naked combat on lobbyists' dimes.

So two things happened. George Orwell's "1984" came to stay and the last generation who thought they knew right from wrong found out about the $10 sale on this magnificent Spanish wine.

Andrei told Carl that he felt personally guilty about not doing enough. And Carl gave him a brief and salutary lesson on enjoying life now because theyd taught for decades young people right from wrong. I suggested that he teach a seminar for hard-working older altruists like ourselves who can't even enjoy a sunset without worrying about an oil spill. That lesson right there was worth $150, or 15 bottles of the fine Spanish red.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Andrei Codrescu's new book is "The Poetry Lesson."

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