Saturday, July 3, 2010

"It Ain't My Fault": Calling Out the Blame Politics of the BP Oil Spill

Much has been made of the following question from the BP Oil Spill: whom exactly do we blame? In the months since the Deepwater Horizon sank and the well began spewing oil, BP and its corporate partners went to great lengths in front of Congress to point fingers at each other for responsibility for the disaster. It was quite clear that this was meant to stake out positions for the lawsuits to come seeking to assess liability for the disaster.

In reaction to this Blame Posturing, the “Gulf Coast All-Stars” (including Mos Def, Lenny Kravitz, Trombone Shorty, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and actor Tim Robbins) performed an old New Orleans standard with new hip-hop lyrics that call out the hypocrisy of these blame politics: It Ain’t My Fault.

This song was written as part of the Gulf Aid benefit concert held this past May to benefit the thousands now facing the end of their livelihoods. Mos Def describes the motivation for the song this way:

[I]t’s an old New Orleans classic we use it to speak about the current situation that’s going on in the Gulf and . . . [to] speak up about the situation that prevails in the world today.

Even after the Gulf Aid concert, the Blame Posturing continues. It is a story we now know all too well: BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, in a series of gaffs, went from contrite to cagey about BP’s responsibility for the disaster. As the New York Times reported on June 23:

He initially minimized the impact of the disaster, then publicly wished he could “get my life back.” Most recently, he took a day off to watch a yacht race in Britain even as Louisiana shrimpers were kept off the water by a fishing ban because of the oil spill.

In a move that came as a surprise to no one, BP quickly completed its plan to remove Hayward from dealing with the crisis. (BP = Bumped Prez!) Hayward’s conduct ratcheted up the desire to make BP pay for the spill, and it is clear that its establishment of a settlement fund is BP’s effort to get ahead of the liability curve. Moreover, as has been discussed on the Corporate Justice Blog, the legal issues surrounding the liability for the spill (coupled with the ongoing financial crisis) potentially will transform the approach to corporate liability generally. (Indeed, BP took the remarkable step of withholding dividends from its shareholders in anticipation of having to pay for this disaster; a smart move, as Professor Dorothy A. Brown argued.)

Moreover, the blame game has become Blame Politics. It began with President Obama expressing his frustration at BP’s finger pointing. In the same breath, President Obama ordered the revamping of the regulatory scheme for oil drilling to attack the “cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill.”

Yet, as the response of the government unfolded from May to June, which included the role the President undertook to change regulation, reconsider drilling policy, and facilitate the creation of the BP Settlement Fund, pundits and polls blamed President Obama for not being angry enough. (Was the message to President Obama “Be Perturbed”?) At the same time, other pundits cautioned Obama to remain measured because he risked being perceived as “the angry black man.” (The contradiction here is worth further exploration in a later post.) Moreover, some Republicans defended BP and criticized Obama (while others objected to this “defense”) for running a “shakedown” of BP through helping to negotiate the $20 million settlement fund. (BP = Bad Politicians?)

The Blame Pastime of the last two months misses the larger point—the Gulf Coast has been Battered Plenty. It Ain’t My Fault is a pointed reminder of this fact. Mos Def reminds us that the BP oil spill, possibly the biggest oil spill ever (as well as the failed levies of Hurricane Katrina) is somebody’s fault, and the mechanisms for corporate and governmental accountability once again appear to be insufficient to solving the problem. While blame is passed around, it is the Besieged People of the Gulf Coast region that are suffering—through Katrina and now through the Deepwater Horizon disaster—while litigation and political posturing continue.

It is no surprise that the American people are near the Boiling Point.


  1. Terrific post.

    I wonder whether calling out the shameful blame shifting and soliciting donations can have any real effect? Isn't it the purpose of BP to pursue profits at all costs?

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  3. A truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery on a detour. ............................................................

  4. The song really relates to the politician. They really delivered it so well.


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