The current crisis in the Gulf of Mexico is being packaged and sold as a story of blame and gross incompetence, and there’s plenty of both to go around. But it’s perhaps more instructive to see what the oil spill spin–and the ecological catastrophe itself–reveal about America’s shifting self-understanding. This latest, lamentable, preventable tragedy, thankfully, is beginning to encourage the kind of deep self-scrutiny that has always been disallowed in this land of eternal optimism and no limits.
In some ways, the modern project that is America has always been a bit like the gifted child who is told she can do anything, be anything–that she is different, special, unique among her peers. Even when it becomes clear that our darling will never be a ballerina or a veterinarian, we continue to feed her ego and her false hopes.
In the community of nations, America has historically been the precocious youngster no one could refuse–or speak the truth to. The fact that the U.S. also had wealth (i.e., power) contributed to her popularity and irresistability. (Who doesn’t want to be friends with the pretty girl with lots of money?)
But maybe we’re growing up. Maybe we’re about to get real. Maybe we’re realizing just how ridiculous we’ve looked for so long, carrying on as if we’re still the adored, special child when everyone else has known for a long time that we are ordinary–valuable and vital, yes, but ordinary.
And with ordinariness comes the sobering realization that we have delayed far too long any sort of reckoning with the destruction that our prolonged adolescence has wrought. It turns out we may not have the ingenuity, the wherewithal, the American inventiveness to fix the monstrous spill on the ocean floor. We may need to defer to others who are smarter, more creative, more practiced in the art and science of addressing failure because they never assumed themselves immune to it.
(It is true that BP is a British company, not an American one. But globalization and its effects have blurred such boundaries, and the contracting and sub-contracting that goes on in industries like oil drilling make culpability for errors a shared problem and thus an American problem. Moreover, it’s America’s addiction to oil that drives the risky practices of companies like BP).
Growing up means we will have to acknowledge that the highly-prized “American Way of Life” was always unustainable and unjust–epic folly. And this myth rested on another one: that a limitless economy was not only desirable but our birthright. With characteristic bluntness, Wendell Berry puts it this way:
In keeping with our unrestrained consumptiveness, the commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt. The idea of a limitless economy implies and requires a doctrine of general human limitlessness: all are entitled to pursue without limit whatever they conceive as desirable—a license that classifies the most exalted Christian capitalist with the lowliest pornographer.
This truth is painful to hear but necessary if we are going to see our way out of the messes we have made and the lies we have lived–if we are going to do the work of repentance, which literally means to turn around and go in a different direction.
TV’s talking heads are pointing fingers in the aftermath of the oil rig explosion; it’s a truism of broadcast journalism that such a strategy will increase viewership. Maybe so. But in the midst of the spin we see real-world implications–dire consequences–for the whole created order. We’ve been given the gift of looking with clear-eyed honesty at our flawed past and our uncertain future. In accepting this gift, we must refuse to take refuge any longer in that other destructive myth that offers easy answers: America’s so-called exceptionalism.
We will grieve as we leave our childhood behind–not because we wish to return to it but because of our growing awareness of the responsibility we forsook while inhabiting it. Such grief can heal since it is not a sign of weakness but of growth and maturity. It is an act of profound humility. And such humility can be, for a grown-up America, the beginning of wisdom.