“Shakedown” in the News

As you no doubt know, during a Congressional hearing involving executives from BP, a Texas Congressman apologized to the executives and characterized the process whereby the company pledged 20 billion to help cover damages in the Gulf a “shakedown.” I listened to his remarks, and his thesis seemed to be two-fold: a big, bad federal government had mishandled a company; and BP deserves the presumption of innocence like everyone [“one” being the operative word within a word, corporate person-hood and all] else.

The Congressman later apologized for his apology. That was the part that perplexed me. He obviously believed, and believes, what he said, so why apologize? It is when politicians make “mistakes” that aren’t mistakes that we most need them to be honest and not apologize if that’s what they really believe. In any event, let us turn to “shakedown,” which originally referred to a bed made of straw that was loosely arranged on a floor–“shaken down” on the floor, as it were.

In the sense the Congressman used it, it can be found in Shakespeare (see OED online), but also re-emerged in the early 20th century, as the OED example suggests:

1902 in Dict. Americanisms (1951) s.v. shake, To the historic phrase ‘blackmail’..have been added, as words of similar evil omen, the new and expressive terms shake-down and rake-off.

We know what blackmail is, rake-off is skimming, and a shakedown is a form of extortion. So: did Obama extort BP.

Just in terms of definition, I think not. BP made a blunder that led to a catastrophe, and Obama asked for money to clean up the mess. That’s different from visiting a company that’s done nothing wrong and telling it to pay up. In terms of definition, the amount probably doesn’t matter, but it is worth noting that 20 billion is just over what BP nets each year. Moreover, the image (Orwell likes to concentrate on imagery) “shakedown” may project is of a bully intimidating a small shopkeeper or someone on the playground.

Not so in this case. To a large degree, BP has demonstrated that it has more power than the U.S. government. For a long time, they controlled the image of the leak. The used toxic dispersants–to mask, some alleged, the size of the leak by making some of the oil sink into submerged plumes–they weren’t supposed to. They produced and paid for the broadcasting of the first extended piece of propaganda. They are in charge of stopping the leak while the Coast Guard basically sits and watches. They also contributed, it is alleged, 1.4 million dollars to the said Congressman’s re-election fund. One could argue that BP and other oil companies have been shaking down the U.S. government, extorting lousy regulation and controlling the terms of the debate in Congress. Corporate person-hood is in the hood.

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