Congress v Hayward: how it became a witch-hunt
First Post psychoanalyst Coline Covington on the xenophobic fantasy behind the oil spill outrage
The heckling began as soon as BP's chief executive, Tony Hayward, opened his mouth to address the US Congress at yesterday's hearing. A shrimper from Texas (above), her hands covered in oil, immediately accused Hayward of being a criminal and had to be forcibly removed from the chamber.
But the heckling also came from congressmen. Democrat Henry Waxman portrayed Hayward as "cavalier" while Republican Michael Burgess expressed his fear that Hayward might be in charge of other oil wells around the world, suggesting that the BP chief executive was putting the world at risk.
Perhaps the most vociferous attack came from Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, who accused Hayward of taking "a golden parachute back to England [while] we in America are left to recover for years from the disaster".
This nationalist remark reveals the paranoid fantasy that is emerging that it is foreigners who have caused this damage and who must be extradited in order to protect the safety of the nation.
Although BP has succumbed to the Obama administration's demand to set up an escrow account of up to $20bn to fund compensation claims, this has not quenched the desire to single out a fall-guy. The congressional accusations have shown a determination to prove Hayward guilty before the trial has begun.
This indicates what in psychoanalytic terms would be called the paranoid-schizoid position in which all badness is split off and projected onto someone else so that the self can remain all good. The reason why this is called "paranoia" is that it then leads to a fear that others are out to get you. In other words, there must be someone to blame for whatever disaster occurs.
The witch-hunt mentality that has taken over Washington's response to the oil spill - and much of the media reaction it - is particularly evident in the much quoted comparison made by Obama between the oil spill disaster and the 9/11 terrorist attack.
A cartoon of al-Qaeda admiring BP for masterminding such an effective attack against the US says it all.
However, this is a gross distortion of what Obama actually said. On June 14, the President told the political website, Politico: "In the same way that our view of our vulnerabilities and our foreign policy was shaped profoundly by 9/11, I think this disaster is going to shape how we think about the environment and energy for many years to come."
Obama's message was quite clearly that the disaster is a wake-up call that has shaken the American belief in its own invincibility.
The President seems to have touched on a raw nerve in the American psyche that has its historical antecedents in its Puritan beginnings and, above all, in the extreme vulnerability of the early settlers who had to survive in the face of a wilderness that was life-threatening.
When a group is vulnerable and its existence is endangered for whatever reason, it normally responds by demonising one of its members. He or she then becomes the symbolic scapegoat who must be sacrificed in order to purify the group and re-establish safety and an illusion of control.
The Salem witch trials of 1692-93 are a prime example of this process. They were largely a response to a variety of conflicts - economic, religious and political - that were besetting the New England colony.
The witch-hunt arises as a way of splitting off the conflict by investing it with the form of an external enemy. The fight against the enemy then enables the different warring factions to band together and, at least for a time, to form some sort of unity.
The BP disaster may be politically timely insofar as it has happened in the midst of what seem to be growing schisms within the US, both political and economic.
More importantly, in a shaky economy that is no way near out of recession, a disastrous mistake such as the Deepwater spill is a ready target for anger and blame. Like al-Qaeda, the root of the disaster lies outside the US and not within the country.
But while the accusations fly against Tony Hayward, there has been one notable dissenter.
Republican congressman Joe Barton apologised yesterday to BP for the £20 billion escrow account it has been asked to create. Emphasising that he was only speaking for himself, Barton said, "I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterise as a shakedown."
To the horror of his fellow committee members there to give Hayward a roasting, Barton went on to describe the escrow account as "a $20bn slush fund that's unprecedented in our nation's history, that's got no legal standing, and which sets I think a terrible precedent for the future".
Barton was clearly criticising the Obama administration - he was later forced by his party whip to apologise - but he was also pointing out the dangers inherent in a "shakedown" that can easily serve to mask deeper problems that are not one person's or one company's responsibility alone.
In psychological development, the paranoid-schizoid position is followed by what is called the depressive position. This means that the self is able to own up to its own destructiveness and to feel guilt and concern for others and the impact of one's actions on others.
Our need to find a fall-guy on whom to pin the damage is not only an attempt to establish our innocence - it is also a way of avoiding our depression for the destructiveness that has been done, regardless of whose "fault" it is. Photographs of oil-soaked pelicans are a reminder of our collective destructiveness and not just the damage done by BP. ·
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