Volume 39

FEBRUARY 2007

39. 7:   TREASURED ISLANDS, by Lowell D. Holmes [BR]   2.27.2007

 

          

Islands have always figure prominently in my readings, or maybe just my “escapist” readings.   I remember the first book I read, and it wasn't a comic book, but a real hardbound book. I was just a kid and I was sick in bed for a few days. I don't know how I came by a copy of Smiling Jack Escapes from Devil's Island. I don't even remember the author, and the book has long ago disappeared. [1]   I just remember being a little sad when it was over; it hooked me on books.

 

I have a much better remembrance of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island , the second book I read to completion. I had to ask my father the meaning of a lot of words, I recall, and he taught me how to use the dictionary.  I was young Jim ‘Arkins, as he came to be called in that 17 th Century Cornwall seaman's argot best spoken by the likes of Long John Silver.  Elsewhere in these pages (Archives No. 23.7, The Call of the Sea) I have recounted my fascination with the seafaring life—mostly from the pages of books—and the exotic and mysterious islands, especially those of the South Seas. Islands and ships go together and are each a little bit of the other. I grew up on fantasies where I was always the young crew member who had to make love to the beautiful daughter of some Polynesian king, or the natives would slaughter all my crewmates.   This was my conception of true heroic selflessness. [2]

 

Maybe that was Stevenson's fantasy as a young boy as well, but it appears that as he matured the call of Bali Hai had a different purpose for him.  Stevenson may have been a literary giant, but he was a slight and frail man who had long battled respiratory problems. He apparently had all the classic symptoms of the “consumptive”—low weight (98 pounds), a pasty complexion, and the hacking, an sometimes bloody, cough. He was anything but a robust sailor. Amazingly, he was a chain-smoker of his home-rolled cigarettes. Wife Fanny—she was a divorced woman with an adult son—was supposedly very protective of her husband's health; but she also smoked, so Stevenson got the “second hand” stuff as well. Fanny was very susceptible to seasickness, but that did not daunt her in assisting and accompanying her husband's pelagic adventures.

 

Today, Stevenson might be compared to a well-off executive or sports figure who can charter his own jet to set off when and to where he desires. Without his means from the success of his writings he never would have been able to have the sort of adventure recounted in this book. He was in all respects the exact opposite of the young Errol Flynn setting to sea (Archives 23. 7, The Call of the Sea), and would not have been hired on as an ordinary, much loess “able-bodied,” seaman by the merchant marine. In fact, his adventure was related to his frail health—the South Seas and the clement climes were supposed to be good for his dodgy lungs, the yet to be Surgeon General's warnings about tobacco more than a half-century away. [3]

 

Holmes' account has Stevenson setting out from San Francisco in 1888 in the 94' schooner-yacht “Casco,” the first of three vessels involved in his three-year voyage.  There was a crew of five, including a captain Otis, and Stevenson's wife, mother, Maggie, Fanny's son Lloyd, and the Stevenson maid, Valentine.   It was the longest leg of the voyage, down to the Marquesas, calling at their islands with such exotic names:   Nuha Hiva, Hiva Oa, and Fatu Hiva. After calling at several of the society Islands (Tahiti) it was a wild tour of the South Pacific, a long reach up to Hawaii, where they switched vessels to another schooner, the “Equator,” then on to the Marshalls, Solomons, New Hebrides, switching to another ship, the 186' steamer-sailor, Janet Nicol, at Tutulia island, then on to Sydney and Auckland.

 

Stevenson's health waxed and waned, but on the whole it appeared that it was better than in the drafty climes of England and Scotland. He enjoyed doing manual labor when he was able. There were periods when he was literally down, but he continued to write and file his material to keep cash flowing as well as satisfy his muse. As a visitor he was hardly reclusive; the author took much interest in the various cultures and did not comport himself with the aloofness of an ethnically-superior westerner.  He engaged both common people and the royalty of various island cultures as well as western traders and missionaries. [4]

 

The Stevenson's settled in Samoa, whose inhabitants Stevenson felt were “by far from either the most capable or the most beautiful of Polynesians,” but for whom his respect and affection grew.  Eventually, the Stevensons settled down in Samoa, building a house near Vailima, a village not far from the capitol at Apia.   This was a close to tropical paradise as it could get for Stevenson. Their house was the most elegant in Samoa, and well-appointed and suited to Robert's writing needs and habits. He was very productive in the time he was there, completing the non-fictional works In the South Seas, Footnote to History, and Letters from Samoa, and fiction works Island Nights Entertainments and among others his important Scottish novels Catriona, St. Ives, finally, Weir of Hermiston .  

 

He was dictating the last of Weir of Hermiston, when he suddenly complained of a severe pain in his head. A few hours later, his doctors unable to prevent it, came his death by cerebral hemorrhage, at age 44. He was a young man by contemporary expectations, but sort of “on schedule” for the type of ailment he had and the extra pulmonary abuse he gave himself.

 

Stevenson lies in a grave on a site he had selected, on nearby Mount Vaea.   He was not unprepared, having penned his own epitaph, now on a bronze plaque there.

 

Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me lie.

Glad did I live and gladly die

And laid me down with a will.

 

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

 

___________________________________________

© 2007, James A. Clapp

[1] Even a search on the Library of Congress web site failed to turn it up.   So if anybody out there has my copy I'll pay the postage to get it back.

[2] In actuality those exotic native rites turned out to be a lot less romantic that I grew up believing. See 13.2, Going Native   http://homepage.mac.com/yingloon/DCJOct2004.htm

[3] While most of Stevenson's biographers appear to agree that Stevensen was tubercular, Holms disagrees, holding instead to a diagnosis of bronchiectasis, an irreversible   dilation of the bronchi.   Symptoms include chronic cough, expectoration of pus, periodic hemorrhage, fevers, weigh loss, which he suffered from for most of his life.   Yet he ended up dying of a stroke, or cerebral hemorrhage, which supports the hypothesis that he was not consumptive.  

[4] There were at least 400 westerners in Samoa at this time, with German, American, and English consulates, and of course, various denominations of missionaries, Catholic, Mormon, and London Missionary Society, respectively competing for commercial advantage and souls in a manner in which it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference.

 

39. 6:   THE DIGI-WAR     2.23.2007

 

          

 

When I was a boy we used to see, typically a few weeks after events, footage of WWII action on newsreels before watching a film noir at the local cinema. Then came what was called the “living room war,” Vietnam, with napalmed kids, or summarily executed Viet Cong tucked in between bites from our TV dinners.  Now we have Iraq, where soldiers seem to have more computers and digi-cams than body armor.  The Military Channel , which might be called the Pentagon and Defense Contractor Channel now has features called “War Dairies,” where soldiers takes us and their families right along with them through the streets of Baghdad or Fallujah. (“Watch, Chrissy and Bobby, daddy is going to kill some naughty Iraqis.”) We can get first-hand(held) almost real time views of our troops out on patrol, or eating, or playing video games. This time we are “there”; we are, live, we are interactive. Daddy can call you on a cell phone and let you in on his interrogation of some hapless Iraqi who can't understand a word he is saying about where those damned WMDs are hidden.

 

The Military Channel actually solicits these videos, encouraging soldiers to become a perverse amalgam of producer/commentator/talent.   Who knows what they would pay for one in which some star-struck Marine says “I love you, baby,” to the wife back home just before his digital camera records his leg being blown off by an IED.  Gives a whole different meaning to “podcast.”

 

This is only part of the war voyeurism we have become accustomed to in America. The Iraq war has not only produced the reports of “imbedded” journalists, but dramatic re-creation progrms, documentaries about the thousands of private security firms working there and the field hospitals and mash units, and feature films.   There was also a series on a cable channel that had all the look and feel of the real thing, a further blurring of the line between fact and fiction,

 

For as restricted and intimidated the media have been in covering this war, stuff sneaks through. In a documentary in which a camera crew for the New York Times/Discovery Channel one soldier complains to the camera that the platoon leader always begins their patrol with a prayer session. Another, after giving some candy to a young boy, says something like “the (bleeping) little bastard would probably like to blow me up.” It fits with what another soldier remarks:   “We're just targets here.” The documentary about the medical treatment the wounded get is hyping how good the care is. But the wounds are horrific, and one surgeon, a volunteer from private practice, offers that “there are twice as many amputations in the Iraq war as there were in Vietnam.” Of course, the majority of injuries are “blast injuries”; it's a good war for the prosthetics industry.

 

One wonders whether the popularity of this war voyeurism owes to the same morbid and gory curiosity that fuels NASCAR races, those reality COPS shows, bull riding, dare devil programming, The Ultimate fighting Championships, and other such “entertainment”—the crash, the wipeout, the crippling blow, and always the prospect that we might actually see somebody getting killed. Our “civilization” might grab the moral high ground from those Romans and their gladiatorial games, but we are not that much higher. We get salsa spilled on us rather that splashed with blood, but that momentary thrill of seeing life and death change places before our very eyes, and perhaps even in real time, of seeing Saddam's neck snap at the end of his noose, gives that little frisson, that thrill of the forbidden that is an opiate that paradoxically “enlivens” our otherwise dull and uneventful existence. Will it eventually de-sensitize us to the horrors of war when we see the security men pulled from their car, burned and strung up, when we see beheadings, when we see the body parts and the blown apart bodies of the “targets” we call troops?  

 

Drama is Entertainment/Conflict is Drama/War is Conflict. It's a solid, money-making syllogism that spawns endless books, movies, television programs, and now we have reached the level of YouTube. We can be there, in the digi-cam, not just watching some slut undress, or the antics of some collegians in their dorm rooms, but our own fighting men and women in action, in real time.

 

Beyond the “entertainment,” is there a chance that “war is hell” will finally reach beyond the cliché when daddy or boyfriend is sniped or fragmented right there on your lap top. Or, what are the prospects for justice when the “entertainment might be when an Iraqi kid is ripped apart by a clip of M-16 slugs, or his father, or brother is pulled out into the night and executed. How much of the dirty, dark side should we see, should we be made to see?   Would those antics at Abu Ghraib been more entertaining has they been on video?  

 

The worry is that no matter how realistic we make war, or if we just present its reality, it has become so much a part of our entertainment, so conflated with our diversions, that it will never be too excessive for our morbid curiosity. Its addictive properties have inured us to its thrills such that we can never get enough of it, it can never become “extreme” enough, for revulsion.  Or is it that the very horrific reality of war has been stripped of its veracity by its conflation with the entertainment programming it engenders (“Gee, Alice, didn't that soldier that was blown up look a lot like Justin Timberlake?”).

 

Such are the epistemic confusions of a society in which anything, and seemingly everything, even the reality of war, is entertainment.

_____________________________________

  © 2007, James A. Clapp

 

39. 5:   OH, HEAVENLY DAY!   (SOS, Part 9)     2.20.2007

 

                 

                                                                                            © Pieter Bruegel, Tower of Babel , 1563; © 2007, UrbisMedia

 

It was a heavenly day. The bright morning sun gave the sea a rich, translucent lapis lazuli blue, flecked with white tops, with a temperature of 24C and a let up in the wind.   A good day to talk about heaven, so I asked Donald if we might address that subject. He seemed very eager, and opened by saying that “Jim has some questions about heaven that he would like the group to discuss.”

 

He passed the extra mic along to me and I asked, “Can anyone describe heaven for me?   I am very curious about where people would like to spend eternity.” It seemed a reasonable question; heaven is the ultimate objective of every faith that claims there is an “afterlife”—paradise, nirvana, the happy hunting ground.   Is it like the Muslim paradise with its rivers of wine, lakes of honey, and seventy-two virgins (what do Muslim women get, seventy-two hairdressers?).   Jesus, what a cheap, bullshit conception, some Hugh Hefner heaven, laying around for eternity getting drunk and getting laid.   But at least the Muslims came up with something!   Sister Ignatius, my first grade teacher, must have made quite an impression on me; for six decades I have retained, though not accepted, her description of heaven as a place where we eternally “look into the face of God.”   And so, I have this indelible image, formed a s six-year-old, of a sea of beatifically happy faces just staring at generic handsome gray-hair deity; not moving or doing anything else, just staring. I guess that, in heaven, you don't have to go to the bathroom.  

 

There were, it turned out, not real surprises in the notions of heaven that people had, and none of them were particularly exciting either.   They ranged from the vague condition of “eternal peace” to “more like a state of mind” to a “place of re-unification with loved ones we have lost” to “where there would be no pain and suffering as what the flesh is heir to,” (a reasonable one, considering the age cohort of these people) to something like Sister Ignatius's “being with the perfection of Jesus.”   I wanted to ask if we would finally know what the Holy Spirit looked like, but the mic never got back around to me before the session was over.

 

Donald was happy with how the session had turned out.   Nearly everyone had something to say on the subject, and heaven is a rather pleasant subject to consider.   Curiously, the “other place” was not mentioned, even the fear of it. This was a group that seemed confident that they would get to meet again someday in a place they could not quite describe.   Only one woman came up to me and asked me was “it true that I considered it a possibility that there was nothing on the other side of death, no hell, no heaven, just nothing—and that might be what we mean by ‘eternal peace'?”   She just could not fathom that.   Neither can I to some degree.   Something in me wants a final reckoning.   Something in me wants justice.   Something in me does not want Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and their like to get a free pass to oblivion, more so than it is necessary for the good to be rewarded.

 

The natural thing is to see heaven in terms of paradise, the place where everything is perfect and there is endless love and happiness.   But how much of those conditions are made up of the negations of their opposites, and of anticipation.   By this, I mean, something like what I read about Japanese film, where it was explained that whereas westerners tend to like happy endings in their films the Japanese did not mind unhappy endings because they tended to see life's fullness made up of the dualism of sadness as well as happiness.   Indeed, one could not appreciate happiness without having known sadness, or love, say, without lost love.   For that matter, much of art, certainly dramatic art, is drawn from such tensions between opposing conditions; it is what makes them interesting to us.   If a story about endless, unthreatened happiness might be boring to us, then might also a paradise of endless happiness be, ultimately, boring as well?   Is this what Shakespeare meant when he wrote that “parting is such sweet sadness”?   The rather silly notion of people sitting around on clouds, presumably addressing nothing more interesting than, “Look, that cloud is shaped just like a giraffe; see, that long part there is like its neck, and   . . .”   Now that's my idea of hell.

 

Perhaps every notion, or concept does contain, if only implicitly, it opposite.   So heaven, would contain the notion of not heaven , though not necessarily hell.   One would have to apply that as well to Donald's rather interesting notion that heaven, or rather eternity, might not be in the concept of “forever and ever” but in the actual “cessation of time.”   It would have been an interesting topic to proceed with, but I had had my say and didn't want to monopolize.   But, again, the concept of time contains the concept of non-time.   I recall that Alfred North Whitehead had once written that “time is in Nature” as opposed to Nature being in time.   So for time to stop, Nature must cease, and if Nature ceases what is there but nothingness, so there cannot be heaven either.   Anyway, it raises the question of whether time is outside (independent of) God. The Bible starts with “In the beginning . . .”  (if there is a beginning, then there must have been a before the beginning. Is this when the clock starts running?   If so, once it starts running, then everything else is temporally measured from that first tick; creation (or big bang) plus one, two three, etc . . . so to speak. If time is like a clock—and maybe it isn't—then even when you putatively stop time (or God does) it logically, irrefutably, becomes Stop-time plus one, two, three, etc., does it not? If God created existence itself, once He has done so he cannot reverse the fact that it existed.   God is trapped in Time. I guess he brought us into His trap so he wouldn't be so lonely.

_________________________________________

© 2007, James A. Clapp

 

39. 4:   THE SPACES IN BETWEEN    2.16.2007

 

          

                                                                             UrbisMedia

 

A “black hole” is cosmological phenomenon wherein gravity is so powerful that it compresses matter to the point where a region of space-time is created from which escape to the outside universe is impossible. I had the feeling of being trapped in a black hole this past weekend when, with my brother I attended a sporting event—the international Rugby Sevens—at San Diego's (gag!) Petco Park stadium.   This is not about the Sevens, which I discovered while living in Hong Kong some years back, and are one of the great sport spectator events; its about the spaces in between that event. [

 

More specifically, it's about the filling of the spaces in between.  My brother and I noticed as we took our seats before the first match (between Tonga and Portugal, I think), that there was blaring from he speakers all over the stadium, raucous rap music, at decibels that can only be loved by fans whose hearing is already mostly destroyed by years of rock festivals, Walkmans and iPods, or the companies that manufacture hearing aids. I have a hypothesis that these sounds have indeed reached beyond our solar system, have been heard by intelligent life on other plants, and are the reason extra-terrestrials have no desire to get in touch with us. They wisely prefer to keep a lot of space in between us and them.

 

Why, you ask?   Well, my brother and I asked ourselves the same question. Although the rap and rock was turned off during the fourteen-minute matches, its insistent dissonance was blared out the moment a match was concluded, forcing us to shout at one another to have any semblance of conversation in the spaces in between the matches. Not a moment was left for social interaction (admittedly there were a number of inebriated, and not-very-interesting fanatics who did little more that shout their team's name), or, god-forbid, even a nano-second of quiet contemplation.  Moreover, although the sensation of spaciousness that is one of the desired aspects of being at outdoor sports venues seemed cancelled by the feeling of claustrophobia created by deafening blare of the speakers. The effect of confinement is enhanced by visual pollution; a band of active, polychromatic digital advertising flashes ceaselessly throughout the event and, so that no one will miss their four-foot wide flat-screen televisions at home, a huge monitor dwarfs the play on the field.

 

Why allthis constant sensual overload? Could an answer be that we Americans have become terrified of being left alone with our own thoughts, even for the briefest of periods. Could it be, I hypothesize, that reality is too much to encounter or ponder, that our lives have already been brought to a level of banality, delusion and self-deception—the very stuff that is the content of what is called “reality television,” creating boring, clichéd and de-humanizing premises and participants on both sides of the screen?   Is it the tedious and un-creative jobs, the un-communicative relationships, and the endless pursuit of happiness defined by the acquisition of stuff, that we must block out with any sound or image lest the potentially depressive real reality intrude?

 

We all know people who come home and immediately turn on the radio, television, or stereo, so that the noise and the “ presence” of others will be there to distract them and perhaps assuage their essential loneliness (which is quite different from aloneness, a state of being which is essential to identity and introspection). This is often after we have been distracted much of the day by our MP3 players, car stereos, and the bewildering of omnipresence of external stimuli and advertising that pollutes our environment and assaults and dulls our senses.   Meanwhile our brains grow less and less able to develop their own reflective internal stimuli , nurtured on original thought and imagination.   For greater numbers of people the notion of contemplation must seem some anachronism reserved for monks, catatonics, or people stranded on desert islands.   Are more of us becoming people who feel insecure if we don't have at the ready the comforts of the 10,000 songs on our iPods, ubiquitous WiFi Inernet access to the web and our email, a well-charged cell-phone with speed dialing and unlimited minutes.   Do we need its digital camera to record any moment, or the capability to gamble or play a video game online for hours and, in the scant spaces in between, to text message vacuous gossip and thoughts to the like-minded?   Have these worthy devices and conveniences become for some a form of tecno-meth of insidious addiction?

 

So many gizmos and gadgets to fill those spaces in between, to fend off the curse of un-programmed consciousness. We are the first generation that may have developed a technology that is both the etiology and treatment for the interstitially-phobic .  

 

And yet.   Yet there is so much beauty in the spaces in between.   One must be ready and open to them—un-fettered by space-filling noise and garish visuals—to appreciate that space.   Jazz great Miles Davis once referred to his playing as mostly composed of the spaces he left between notes, that they, the spaces, were as important as the played notes.   One needs to download some Davis from iTunes and give a good listen.   If you miss the meaning, then on to the Tantric hesitations in the phrasing of a Shirley Horn ballad, with her use of the spaces in between to heighten the meaning of a lyric and its elevation to poetic a-tonal foreplay.

 

The spaces in between have always been just as important to visual artists. Any watercolorist knows this, but Picasso said the same thing—you don't paint everything, although those spaces are “painted” by the mind. He might have taken his cue from Da Vinci, whose notion of “aerial perspective” required a conscious employment of the spaces in between to indicate distance and proportion.

 

How often have we unconsciously responded to the space that a comedian might employ in a way that makes all the difference in something being humorous or not. The pause, the “take,” the hold for effect, that is as much a part of the joke or routine as the words themselves.   Comics call it timing, the same thing that we “don't notice” in great oration, but it's spaces in between.

 

Even in the field that I taught and practiced for many years I found that a respect for the spaces in between is an essential functional and aesthetic element.   People sometimes mistake the motives of urban planners to be the desire to plan everything in the city, to have urbanism conform to what used to be called the master plan. Planners were sometimes regarded (and some have been) master manipulators, would-be omnipotent designers of the entirety of our spatial environment.   But that would be equivalent to filling every measure of music with notes, every millimeter of canvas with paint, and the city would be as oppressively dull if all of it were so planned.   No, the secret to creating good urbanism is to know what to leave un-planned , to know what spaces in between should be left to be “filled-in by experience, happenstance, history and serendipity. Just like music and painting and the written and spoken word, the spaces in between are what allow the art or the city to engage us in a manner whereby we can interact with them, the way our perceptions and thoughts and imaginations fill-in the spaces in between.

 

And can we forget that when we are gazing into the night sky we are not just viewing the stars, but stars set in the spaces in between ?   The universe is a vast region of Space-Time, mostly Space and mostly Time. I wonder whether we hubristic humans feel that our purpose in creation was to fill it all in.

 

And so, with our lives, with our own consciousness, do we need those spaces in between. We must reaffirm, re-capture, insist upon those periods with no external stimuli when, absorbed with space only for our own thoughts, in the time we allocate to contemplation and meditation, we again become a whole person who refuses to become a human black hole.

______________________________________________________________

© 2007, James A. Clapp

[ The Rugby Sevens, sides of seven players rather than the usual fifteen, is played largely by nation-based teams from the erstwhile British Commonwealth.   Two seven minute halves constitute a match.   The game is fast, and wide open, with scoring frequent and often by exciting open field runs.   In fact, the space between , i.e., the openness of the game, as played on the same size field as that played on by the larger sides, factors significantly into making the Sevens one of the most exciting sporting events in the world.   In the space of two to four days as many as 30 teams may play several matches to determine an overall champion.   Figi, a powerful teams of players with blazing speed, won the tournament that prompted this eassy.

 

39. 3:    DOWN ON THE FARM    2.12.2007

 

          

                                      Apologies to Grant Wood from UrbisMedia

 

E-coli, and frost. After “deportation of undocumented workers” there are no worse words that a California farmer fears to hear these days. In recent months California farmers have heard them all, but only E-coli and frost have eventuated.   First, it was that E-coli caused the farmers to trash their lettuce and send consumers running for the iceberg faster than chickens are dispatched at an H5N1 outbreak. Still reeling from that and temperatures dropped to wipe citrus growers. The cost might reach a billion bucks, causing many to lament that “it ain't easy being a farmer.”   As more of us sit in chi-chi bistros eating our salads and buying our meat in bloodless shrink-wrapped packaging, it must seem that way.

 

Actually, it is easier; at least its easier than it used to be, especially if compared to when farmers were families that toiled from dawn til dark for results that typically rendered not much more than subsistence. And there probably was still E-coli (although not by that name) and frost to contend with. But a good case can be made that farming is indeed easier than it used to be—and a good deal different than it used to be.

 

In early America the “yeoman farmer” achieved an almost sacred status of the:   his honest industry in the land, his closeness to nature and therefore to God, his simple enjoyment of   abundance, his self-sufficiency, these being traits that in some ways came to define the ideal American character.   Farmers were celebrated by Jefferson and Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Enlightenment political philosophers.   Jefferson distrusted cities and city people, but even urbanites like Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin were complimentary of farmers.   Doubtless that fact that it was primarily farmers, taking the muskets they used to hunt game, who were the ranks of the revolutionary army in America, that earned the farmer this somewhat exalted status.

          

This myth of the special status of the farmer was built however on the idea of the small, relatively self-sufficient, independent farmer, not the commercial   farmer.   In fact, the farmer, probably always saw it rather differently, that is, he saw farming as an opportunity to make money, and his self-sufficient status was more forced upon him by circumstances such as inadequate farm to market roads.

 

This notion that the farm and the farmer should enjoy a special status in American society translated itself into a powerful political consciousness.   Because he lived and worked in close communion with nature his life was believed to have a wholesomeness and integrity which the populations of cities could never achieve. By the mid-19th century much of the expansionist policy of the country was based upon the notion of opening up and settling new territories with farms and farmers.   Politically, politicians not only found it necessary to advance the notion that agriculture enjoyed a special status, but it was politically advantageous to have an agricultural background to be elected to office

 

In spite of the allure of the cities, and perhaps because of it, the agrarian myth maintained its power.   And in spite of the realities of farm life farmers themselves were believers in it. But Historian Richard Hofstadter write that: “Like almost all good Americans [the farmer] had innocently sought progress from the beginning, and thus hastened the decline of many of his own values.”

 

Dedicated to the idea of progress, it was progres s that was the undoing of the yeoman farmer. As the cities grew and needed food, so did the commercial opportunities for farmers.   Rather than remaining strictly self-sufficient, farmers sought to take advantage of these opportunities. In short, the prospects for profits—the same thing that cities were all about—tainted the farmer with urban values.   Farmers began to concentrate on “cash crops,” bought more supplies from the country store, supported the building of farm-to-city roads to rush their produce to market, and began to introduce mechanization into agriculture. The “simple rural life” was getting more complicated because the farm entered into a compact of mutual dependence with the city.

          

In feeding and clothing the City, the yeoman farmer began sowing the seeds of his own undoing as early as the 18th century. Since his time, which is also the birth-time of the Industrial Revolution, swallowed farmland in the path of its expansion, and created an agricultural technology which has vastly altered the scale of farming in both acreage and capital investment. It has been one of the ironies of the American experience that many an erstwhile farmer has ended up working in factories making the tractors, threshers, and combines which would replace others like himself.    

 

As farming went from a “way of life” to a business career the farmer became an employer of labor, went into debt to finance the purchase of more land and equipment and found it necessary to engage in politics to protect markets or enhance competitiveness. Even the land, which he worked as a God-given trust, became a commodity. Particularly as cities expanded to reach out to farms and land values rose, there was as much value in selling farmland for profit as in farming it, turning some farmers into speculators.  The characteristics of farmers were becoming more like those of the urbanites from whom they had differentiated themselves. With the advent of the telephone, good roads, rural electrification and rural free delivery, the automobile and the tractor, then radios and television, and finally the Internet, the difference between the urban and rural ways of life were being obliterated.

 

  If Jefferson were around to meet today's American farmer he more than likely would encounter him in Washington, D.C., perhaps testifying before a congressional agricultural committee, or sitting in a corporate board room in Manhattan. An expensive three-piece suit would have replaced the coveralls, a more appropriate costume for plowing financial furrows with a depreciation table for massive tractors and combines. The contemporary farmer's “farmhands” now consist of accountants, lobbyists, and ag-school graduates. Jefferson would doubtless wince at learning that these are the people who feed America (and some other nations as well) through something called “agribusiness.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the average net worth of California farmers is between $690,000 and $800,000, and farmers use seventeen percent of the State's water to irrigate their crops.

 

There is plenty of documentary evidence for this momentous social transformation, which has accelerated in this century.   Since 1950 the number of farms had fallen from 5.6 million to 2.2 million by the end of the century. Fewer and fewer of them are family operated and thousands go out of business every year, or have given way to corporate farm operations. Nevertheless the agrarian myth has been responsible for a growing relationship between agriculture and government.   Ironically, the dimension of the American economic section that has been historically associated with self-sufficiency and the independent rugged-individualist spirit, has evolved in to the most publicly-dependent sector of the economy. By 1987 federal subsidies to farmers had reached $26 billion, much of it to pay farmers not to produce farm products but to keep their farms in operation.

 

Today, although only about one-sixth of the nation's farms are run by the family farmers, the American cultural attachment to the family farm remains relatively undiminished. Surveys still record a surprisingly high number of people who, when asked where they would like to live, express a desire to live on a farm. Most of those surveyed, of course, are born and bred urbanites that have never shoveled out a barn, milked a cow, or worked around the clock to out-race a storm. Fewer still, think about price fluctuations, bank foreclosure auctions, or about E-coli and frost until their salads are affected.   But the Jeffersonian image of the family farm will probably continue to live on in the minds of city people, perhaps even more so as the reality fades. Today's vanishing yeoman farmer probably maintains no such illusions; he knows that the city has conquered its erstwhile ally, the countryside, and that the factory has come to the farm.

________________________________

© 2007, James A. Clapp

 

39. 2:    THE END OF THE WORLD IS NIGH    2.8.2007

       

                 

 

And soon it won't do any good to repent.

 

We humans seem to delight in doomsday scenarios, and that's probably because we always seem to conjure them in a way that we can escape their dire consequences. A favorite is the “invaders from outer space,” who are usually invading us because—even though that have a superior technology and intelligence—they have screwed up their own plant, and now they want ours.   Martians are the usual culprits because we can see their planet and it looks like one giant slag heap.   We have gotten to the point where the Mars attacks scenario has become comical, but those Alien movies were really scary.   Even though we humans battled them in outer space se could imagine what it would be like if those heartless, rapacious bugs ever got a claw-hold on terra firma.   Few people see these films and make any connection between those bugs and, say, the little mosquito that kills millions (and may, see below, increase its lethality).  

 

These alien invaders sometimes just come here to wipe us out and, now, that we have computer animation and nerds socialized by computer games, the monsters get bigger, badder, and uglier. It's a much more popular theme than the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where they invade by not just taking over our world, but our very bodies (Eyiiiew! Yuk!). This must be the reason they seem to be doing all those alien abductions—you know the ones where they have this rather prurient interest in our genitalia.

 

Sometimes we create some ET type creatures, a la Speilberg, that are cuddly and   might be our friends, or at least friendly. But usually, and quite understandably, they want to “go home,” and let us get on with letting things be screwed up by Republicans. These critters—the almond eyed ones with spindly little bodies—are usually benign and, in California at least, we still have bunches of whack jobs waiting on hill tops waiting for their mother ship to come and whoosh them away “from all this.”   Along with those other whack jobs, the Christian “rapture” millennialists, who believe that the end of the world is foretold in Revelations, our hilltops are getting rather crowded. The whole religious “end of the world” thing is, of course, the “mother” of all “end of the world is nigh” scenarios, but we will save that one for the special treatment it deserves.

 

Then there is the evil bastard scenario, a favorite for the James Bond, Mission Impossible, and other techno-thriller genre. These are all an outgrowth of Manhattan Project and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and the Cold War that followed it for nearly fifty years. Since then, the two main directions this one has gone are the evil bastard scenario and the radiation unleashed scenario. The evil bastard scenario appears in the form of Goldfinger, and this or that rich or greedy Dr. Evil, who is hell-bent, and out to own or destroy everything, and he needs to be vanquished by somebody who looks like Sean Connery or (snicker) Tom Cruise.   One can discern that this is a conjunction of the Western movie with the world of high-technology, with six-shooters replaced by lasers.

 

Radiation unleashed allowed for all sorts of endtimes scenarios.   There is the classic that follows straight on from the bomb.   That's On the Beach , the grinding inevitability of a world enveloped by lethal radiation unleashed from nuclear explosions—the inexorable march, death by death toward a dead planet.   Then there have been the ravages of critters—giant tarantulas, Godzillas, and other monsters—made outrageously (and incredibly) outsized by the same radiation.   These monsters have a marked predilection for rising out of the sea, or coming up from underground to clomp through cities smashing buildings, tossing around cars and busses, and generally having a good whack at the symbols of that old two-edged bugaboo, technology.   Curiously, it is usually technology that is literally and figuratively the deus ex machina that comes to the rescue, typically in the form of military technology, and sometimes, paradoxically, in the form of the atom bomb.   What goes around comes around.

 

For most of my life I have been amused and bemused by these various expressions of doomsday. There is something dramatic about a story with an ending and it has been part of human hubris to think that the world, the universe, existence itself, would be defined by the destiny of humanity.   That we could be a minor drama in a rather remote corner of the universe, whose existence matters less than a hiccup is beyond us.

 

But I am beginning to be a believer, and even, in my own hiccup of time, a witness, to what might be a real, down and dirty, end of the world (not the universe), certainly as we know it, if not extinction. What I'm referring to is no secret; it's that we have been blithely screwing with the thermostatics of our globe.   Yup, global warming. I think we have finally found something that could bring about our end. It is almost as though we have been preparing for it. Look at our television; programs like Survivor, Lost , and Stunt Junkies that shows people doing stupid things and taking death defying risks as if there were no tomorrow, and stupid America's Funniest Videos with children emasculating their fathers with various missiles and implements.  

 

We see on the news some glaciers calving more rapidly, and big icebergs breaking off around Antarctica, or the rapid pace of desertification in Africa and Australia.   These things seem like they will take a while to cause inundation of coastal cities or get around to us personally. Why not just leave those to our grandchildren, you know, like the humungous debt the Republicans for their war and tax cuts for the rich? Maybe that's what a lot of people are thinking when they buy that Hummer.  

 

But you have to read some meterological history to appreciate that things can happen much faster. With even modest changes in mean temperatures some species will die off; others, like mosquitos, the biggest killers around, will expand in number and range, skin cancers will increase, diseases that we haven't seen in centuries will return, and fresh water—even more precious than crude oil—will become more scarce.   Relationships in natural systems we never took cognizance, much less care, of, will become painfully evident.   And so, humans being humans, the end could well come well before you need a kayak to get across Manhattan, because we don't deal very well with scarcity. Rather than sharing the powerful will attempt to grasp as much as possible, or eliminate the competition.   Hence, unrest, genocide, and the possibility of nuclear war become greater threats.   If we need a lesson in the relationship between scarcity and war we need only look elsewhere in the news, to Iraq, to the oil that we covet so that we can produce the CO2 to warm the planet . . . well, it's really all part of the same interdependent system.

 

So we may go out with a whimper, but a bang is even more likely if history is instructive.   Either way, it's “Game Over.”

 

Well, not really.   Nature is surprisingly resilient.   From out of the rubble and radiation will scramble those redoubtable critters, the rats and the roaches, and probably a few left over Republicans, nasty critters all.   They will probably be in a condo in Montana; the rats and roaches figuring our how they can feed off the Republicans, the latter being too busy figuring out a way for history to blame it all on those damn liberals.

________________________________________

© James A. Clapp, Ph.D.

 

39. 1:   THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING    2.4.2007

          

                                                       ©2007, UrbisMedia

 

Two-hundred and thirty years after our country threw out a mentally-ill king it allowed into power an addled and coddled frat boy to frighten the people and usurp the power and purse of the republic with justification of an endless “war on terror.”   But it may be coming to an end.

 

Members of his own party demurred, soldiers watching on television reportedly laughed at him, the polls refused to budge upward, and in the end (really the end for this guy's credibility) he didn't even seem to believe very strongly in his own words. That's the kiss of death for somebody who is supposed to be a leader.   George Bush sounded like a coach for a team behind by thirty points in the last minute of the last quarter, hoping that throwing up a “Hail Mary” would rescue his legacy.

 

It ain't gonna happen and, unfortunately, a lot of people are going to die and be maimed because this guy who has never been man enough is still has such callous disregard for the people who are willing to go out and fight his fight that he can't even admit his mistakes. Yes, he said that clever little phrase that “mistakes were made,” as though they made themselves, and even said that he is ultimately “responsible” (not that he made the mistakes but, almost nobly, he will accept responsibility).   He admits no lies and deceptions, and cherry-picking among generals who will say what he wants to hear for their promotions.

 

George Bush knows what we all know—that he has been a flop for his entire life.  We know, too, that he saw his so called “war on terror,” (really his war on Iraq for oil and war profiteers) was going to be his legacy, a legacy that would wipe out all of that failure and ineptitude.   But, just like the lies he created about himself he built his war on a foundation of lies, and they came home to haunt him. This one won't be like his doctored National Guard record.

 

This was going to be the victory that would make his father's “Desert Storm” look small and safe in comparison. George's war was, putatively, “global” and bloody, but it would be bigger than daddy's war. He had not been (ahem) “defeated” in his presidential campaigns, like daddy, and now he would have a bigger military victory as commander-in-chief. Little George would “finish the job” his daddy couldn't finish.   Even if he had no conception of how to define “victory,” he would just claim it. But the world despised him for his war, his phony “coalition of the willing,” his Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, extraordinary renditions and tortures, and those ungrateful Iraqis wouldn't stand up, or stood up only to snipe and place bombs that killed American soldiers.

 

So Little George's “legacy” plan is in shambles. His war was all but lost, a certainly not winnable the way he wants to win it.   He doesn't want to employ diplomacy (his appointment of Condi Rice shows what he thinks of diplomacy) because that sort of like surrendering to him.   The complex religio-politics of Iraq has him spinning like a dervish. Many of the insurgents, also the Al Qaeda who have joined them, are Sunni Muslims.   To put down the chaos he would have to go after them. But wait!   George's pals, the Saudis, are Sunnis, and they might even be providing some aid for their religious brethren.   The Shiites are also battling the Sunnis; can't make them an ally—hell, those Iranian are all Shiites!   Start fighting them and you're helping the insurgents, and the Shiites are the majority and are clearly going to dominate Iraq; piss them off and you won't get any oil concessions. Holy Shiites! This is complicated!  This does not put Little George in a Sunni disposition. [1] That what Georgie gets for ignoring the advice of diplomats and scholars who have long known how complicated it is, and then went on to ignore the advice of his generals.   So now he “needs” to send over 21,500 (where the hell did you get the 1,500?) to be targets and collateral damage in a civil war you helped detonate.

 

To do this Little George pulled out the old reliable fear factor. Scare the people into believing you; that's George's political schtick.   Gee, if America pulls out “there will be chaos” all over the Middle East. This, of course, is code for no oil concessions for your energy pals, no more big contracts for Halliburton and KBR.   The Iraqi government would collapse, George threatens.   Sure, like it's a functioning democracy—there's a civil war going on, George, even if you prefer to see it as an insurgency. Your trump card, the one you have played so successfully, is that if the Congress does not continue to give you the money you ask for to squander on your war, it will be putting our troops at risk by “emboldening the enemy” —you know, the troops that you didn't provide enough Kevlar vests for, or armor for their Humvees—the ones you have reduced VA benefits for. Those troops.   You hold a gun to their head and threaten Congress you'll shoot if you don't get your way.

 

But it isn't working so well these days for George. He has lost the support many of the troops, many of their officers, many of their families, and he has lost the support of the people, only a quarter of which support his war.

 

But Little George can't stop lying to himself.   He still lives in his little fantasy world, where there will be an annual public holiday in your name, with maimed soldiers parading down Pennsylvania Avenue singing the praises of their great commander-in-Chief.   He actually believes that he can spin his defeat: “Victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved. There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship. But victory in Iraq will bring something new in the Arab world a functioning democracy that polices its territory, upholds the rule of law, respects fundamental human liberties, and answers to its people.”   No Little George's surrender will take place much like the Vietnam surrender did, skulking home, claiming that at least you won the body count, but secretly wishing he had done for himself a nice tidy little, quick, war, the way his father did, or the way Ronny Reagan, “The Conqueror of Grenada,” did.

 

We can see it in your eyes, George—you are a beaten man. You are not looking for victory— you are looking for a way out —like a guy who threw a sucker punch in a bar fight and is heading for door as quick as he can. Since you have done nothing of a domestic sort but enrich your rich friends with tax breaks you will be remembered for this lost war, George.  You will be remembered as the guy who talked “shock and awe” but couldn't walk the walk. If you were an honorable man you would resign and talk your entire administration with you. Resign. Go hunting with Dick Cheney.   Wear a quail costume.   It would be the— at last!—honorable thing to do.

____________________________

© 2007, James A. Clapp

[1] Alright, I promise I won't do that again.