Joe Romm’s Veddy Veddy Thin Skin

The Climate Progress blog is a useful assemblage of climate-related news stories. I visit often. I’m therefore especially sad that it’s become a casualty of Victim Syndrome. Yes, it’s part of human nature – more acceptable in some cultures than others, perhaps, or maybe it’s behaviour that can be indulged in more by the powerful – that perceived wrongs justify any kind of retaliatory behaviour.

Joe Romm, the owner of Climate Progress, has chosen to indulge in anti-British rhetoric over the BP Gulf of Mexico spill. In fact, the Climate Progress site lists no less than 177 posts under “BP Oil Disaster”, a number of them attempts at “humor”. One in particular grabbed my attention. It appears on Climate Progress under the title “By any other name ‘British Petroleum’ still smells bad”, and also at a site called Salon, as “It’ll Always be British Petroleum to me” subtitled “Memo to Brits: Quit whining about the name. Americans are incredibly pissed about what BP has done in the Gulf”.

The subtitle alone appears to say “your feelings don’t matter because ours are obviously more important”. Lucky isn’t it that we Brits aren’t, like, really upset then, isn’t it? Maybe then we’d be obliged to write: “Memo to Yanks: Quit venting, we’re really miffed.” Where would it all end?

To give the flavour of Romm’s “humorous” piece here are a couple of quotes:

“So are the Brits really saying that calling their veddy, veddy British company ‘British Petroleum’ is somehow an insult, a threat to our ‘special’ relationship?”

“We never thought of you as whiners until the CEO of your big oil company started saying stuff…”

and the conclusion:

“So, man up. We’re gonna keep calling it British Petroleum. And if you keep complaining, we might start calling it the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. Let’s see what that does for business.”

I’d never come across “veddy, veddy” before. I had to look it up. Apparently it’s: “Jocular or derisive of the way Englishmen are supposed to pronounce the letter r”. So that’s all right then.

The very first comment at Salon (undeleted by the moderator) gives a flavour of the sort of people smart-ass intellectuals like Joe Romm are egging on:

Tony Hayward, goggle-eyed sodding wanker Brit.

Man up, you gormless twits and own your monumentally stupid oil company, helmed by the most repulsive specimen of corporate clueless assholery ever to slither from an oil slick, Tony ‘I want my life back’ Hayward-Shithead. Today we in the US are looking at the results of your criminally incompetent, utterly negligent corner-cutting favorite company. A year from now I expect we’ll be looking at a dead ocean after the millions of barrels of oil, weaponized by a toxic dispersant, work through the water column of the northern Gulf of Mexico, poisoning every living thing in its path. Hayward should be shoved face first into a dead whale’s asshole. British Petroleum, a company stolen fair and square from the Iranians, should be nationalized by the US government and sold off in pieces of cover the as yet uncalculated and likely incalculable environmental and economic losses. Don’t like it? Fuck you. Start a war with the US, invade Washington, and burn down the White House. Please.

My first reaction to Romm’s rant was that the job of persuading people of the dangers of climate change requires clear-thinking and detachment. The point is that we might not be able to do everything we want. We might for instance have to take the difficult decision to leave some fossil fuel in the ground. It seems to me that such an already difficult task is incompatible with letting your emotions run riot. So I posted a very restrained comment at Climate Progress saying so.

But that wasn’t good enough for Joe Romm. No, he put his own comment on my comment. I replied. And get this: my second comment has not appeared. I would have thought this was a breach of netiquette. In fact, I would have thought any self-respecting blogger owes it to themselves not to selectively filter and therefore skew the comments on their own posts. What could I have said that was so offensive that it must not appear on the internet? And remember, the standard we’re talking about is one where “Tony Hayward, goggle-eyed sodding wanker Brit” is perfectly acceptable.

Here’s what I said to Joe Romm (it’s a bit of a ramble, so I’ve highlighted what I now realise is the insightful point – it’s not calling BP “British” that matters as such, it’s the deliberateness of it, which leaves the recipient trying to guess what’s behind the usage – it’s a “what are you trying to say mate?” situation):

JR wrote: “I have been to Great Britain many times and I’ve always admired you folks for your dry sense of humor. [Yeah and don’t we just love being the subject of patronising generalisations]. I read the piece again and it is light stuff. [I’ve seen worse, but why is this sort of thing necessary: “We never thought of you as whiners until the CEO of your big oil company…”? Nobody’s whining, mate, though there’d be every reason too – we just thought it was about time we stepped in to defend our interests.] Also, I don’t think there was ever much chance the company could be put out of business [I hope not, but plenty of people have been arguing that could happen. There’s no legal basis for the $20bn, e.g. paying for other oil companies’ idle workers is absurd – the decision to suspend all deep-sea drilling is tantamount to admission of regulatory negligence – so we’ve no idea what the US authorities are going to do next] — but why would you care if it’s not an specially British company? [Because “its stock happens to form a large proportion of UK pension funds”, as I said before].

BP likes to tout itself as a veddy veddy [I’ve no idea what you’re trying to communicate with this affectation, but I doubt it’s complimentary] British company when it suits his purposes, likes to pretend it is Beyond Petroleum when that suits its purposes. [OK, I think we can all agree that BP’s rebranding was too clever by half, they should have gone for “International Petroleum” – I gather British Airways/Iberia is going to become “International Airways” – but the fact of the matter is it’s called “BP”. To knowingly call it something different must surely be to make a point of some kind, even if the listener has to make up their own mind precisely what point]. The point of calling it British Petroleum is not so much the “British” part as the “petroleum” part. [I simply don’t believe you].

BTW, What “load of abuse” did the British people get? Seriously, what? “Politely”? [Yeah, politely – the op-ed pieces very gently pointed out the connection between politicians saying “British Petroleum” accidentally on purpose and the sort of abuse in the very first comment on your piece at Salon]. That is dry. Anyway, the piece was marked as humor. I’m sorry you didn’t like it.”

Three points:
1) A company is not a single entity, much as that would be convenient. It’s a web of many different interests. So when BP has to pay for the spill it is in fact the shareholders’ capital that is used. Fair enough – there’s a risk in holding shares. But as soon as politicians start making up the rules the fairness evaporates. And the perception over here is that a) BP may end up paying more than necessary – and of course we’re talking big bucks – and b) other companies and the regulator are not getting their share of the blame – and, in the case of Anadarko, trying to squirm out of their share of the bill. I’m shocked that the President feels it necessary to inflame rather than calm the situation. Given that this sort of behaviour often occurs around the world, though, I wonder whether an international court should be established to rule as a last resort on disputes between nations and multinationals. This would give investors a little more confidence in an era when political risks seem to be increasing.

2) You are engaged primarily in trying to convince the public of the rational arguments of the dangers of climate change. I came to your site today looking for your latest on Arctic sea-ice, and I found this garbage. I’m very puzzled why you would want to taint your brand by getting involved in this sort of irrational mudslinging. It undermines your credibility.

3) Why the heck is the US giving up the moral high ground? At the outset there was universal sympathy. BP was paying for everything anyway. In every crisis situation in my professional life, the leader has tried to take the emotion out, not reinforce it: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…” and all that. I’m sure many “Americans are incredibly pissed”, but as soon as the big stick comes out, as it seems to all too readily over there, people over here start thinking: “Hang about, those guys aren’t trying to take advantage of us are they?”. And in this case, there’s the “British” angle, too, so there’s an implication of blame and responsibility attached – we’re thinking you’re thinking that the “British” caused the spill so you’re justified taking what you want from the disproportionately British BP shareholders. But, like any other shareholders, those of BP are entitled to be protected by the law, not presented with bills for anything that pops into the mind of a White House official. Perhaps it feels good to vent, but maybe anger isn’t always the best emotion to nurture.

The irony is that Romm’s whole point is that the “Brits” are supposedly thin-skinned whiners.

I’d be grateful if anyone could explain exactly how I’ve managed to upset a tough American.  If I knew, I could do it again!