Connie Schultz | It’s Not American To Feel Helpless

When I started to write this column Thursday, the estimated amount of oil that had gushed into the Gulf of Mexico was 40,340,547 gallons.

Or maybe it was 235,669,211 gallons.

Or somewhere in between.

Nobody knows for sure how much oil is filling the waters, so estimates run wild. You can track the gush and make your own guess by clicking on the real-time video at PBS’ “NewsHour” website:

It’s a hard video to watch, especially if you’re the kind of American who believes we’re all about doing what’s right. The screen fills, over and over, with black, billowing plumes we know are choking the life out of millions of creatures and draining all hope from countless workers who depend on those waters to support their families. So far, no one has been able to stop it. We know that isn’t right.

It is not the American way to be helpless, but that’s how most of us feel right now. Reactions range from blame to indifference, with a lot of prayer in between. Like so many, I’m angry with BP, frustrated with the president and exasperated with some members of Congress. I’m impatient with all the armchair advisories, the hubris of hindsight, and the self-serving sound bites that pander to one political base or another. Such a cacophony of rancor does nothing to stop this earthly assault triggered by the arrogance of man.

The oil is seeping into everyday life. Facebook is full of profile photos that have been changed from the faces of people to images of wildlife dripping in oil. Sometimes I look at these pictures of unspeakable suffering and feel encouraged that so many Americans — the “small people,” as BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg described them last week, before apologizing — care about God’s innocent creatures.

Other times, cranky times, I wonder: Could we churn up an equivalent amount of outrage over the plight of America’s poor children if we covered them in oil? Save your breath. I know concern for birds doesn’t mean a person is indifferent to the plight of humans, but I never have seen a stream of Facebook photos changed to reflect the millions of children in America who go hungry every day. We are a complicated people.

The oil is bleeding onto comics pages, too. The newspaper for which I work in Cleveland, The Plain Dealer, ran three strips devoted to the crisis on Thursday alone.

Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” trotted out a BP consultant trumpeting a poll that showed the company was more popular than Goldman Sachs, AIG and Halliburton.

“Who are we behind?” one of the guys asks.

“Um … Bernie Madoff and bird flu,” the consultant says. “But this is raw data.”

The first three panels of Scott Stantis’ “Prickly City” strip are filled with ribbons of gray in a sea of black. “We’re going to need more paper towels,” Carmen tells Winslow.

In Dan Piraro’s “Bizarro,” fashion models stroll the runway wearing hazmat suits. The emcee chimes, “This portion of the swimsuit competition is sponsored by BP.”

Talk show guys mine the horrors for punch lines.

Jimmy Fallon: “Here’s a little bit of good news. The Coast Guard says that BP is now catching up to 630,000 gallons of oil a day. The bad news is that they’re capturing it with ducks.”

Jay Leno: “On Monday, British Petroleum promised to pay all necessary cleanup costs for this oil spill. And they said they will do it, no matter how much they have to raise gas prices.”

David Letterman: “The oil spill is getting bad. There is so much oil and tar now in the Gulf of Mexico, Cubans can now walk to Miami.”

Bill Maher: “We’re still dropping things on it. This is like if your toilet overflowed and you tried to fix it by smashing it with a brick. Their next idea is to get the old lady from ‘Titanic,’ and she’s going to throw her jewelry at it.”

BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward: “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”

Oh, wait. That last guy? He wasn’t joking.

Just checked the live video feed again:

As of 2:26 p.m. EDT Thursday, 40,351,795 gallons of oil had gushed into the Gulf of Mexico.

Or maybe it was 235,852,642 gallons.

Or somewhere in between.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine.

Copyright 2010