Election 2016: Maybe the Whole Trump Presidential Candidacy Is Just a Publicity Stunt, Part of a Vast Centrist Plutocratic Conspiracy to Elect, in a Landslide, an Unpopular and Untrustworthy Candidate Who Is a Pawn of the Plutocracy (i.e., Hillary Clinton)?

Bernie Sanders was an actual threat to the Plutocracy that rules America, and they were sure to shut him down—systematically denying him media attention, pulling other strings behind the scenes, all the dirty dealing by the Democratic Party and the Democratic Convention, and so on—while lavishly showering money on their darling, Hillary Clinton. Not that Sanders was ever such a major threat, but he was, refreshingly, somewhat beyond the Plutocrats’ direct control—he didn’t dance like a puppet on a string for them—and his ability to mobilize potential voters who were disaffected with America’s superficially two-party, actually one-party (the party of Big Money) political system may have caused them at least a headache, maybe some actual alarm.

Donald Trump, by contrast, basically just reflects a more bizarre, extreme wing, or caricature, of the same old one party of Big Money. To the extent his candidacy is even legitimate, it only represents something of a civil war within the Plutocracy: an effort to revert to the more overtly crass, bald-faced favoritism toward corporations of the Reagan years, together with a return to the infantile go-it-alone approach to foreign policy of the Reagan years, with an admixture of angry populism (the Wall on the Mexican border and other anti-immigrant rhetoric) as a sop to Main Street from a candidacy that is mostly about Wall Street, just like Hillary’s campaign is.

[Notably, both candidates hail from New York, the capital city of the global neoliberal Plutocracy.]

But is Trump’s campaign actually legitimate? Or is it really just more string-pulling and stage-managing by the Plutocracy to help assure an easy victory, even a landslide victory, by their anointed, safe candidate, who can be relied upon to do their bidding dutifully while only mouthing populist rhetoric to the minimum extent necessary to create occasional distractions?

Think: Hillary Clinton has been throughout this campaign a relatively unpopular candidate. Based upon a long family history of sacrificing principle to big-money politics, of which the ongoing State Department e-mail scandal is just more smoke proving the existence of fire, the American people, correctly in my opinion, generally perceive Hillary as untrustworthy. Carrying such heavy baggage, she might have had difficulty confronting a credible challenger in the run for the White House.

Yet after generating enough attention to look like a viable presidential candidacy, Trump’s campaign has shot itself in the foot again, and again, and again—making it look more like a publicity stunt than a credible candidacy. Moreover, the various stupid and/or reckless things Trump says have helped generate enough of a mood of “anybody would be better than Trump” that even the unpopular and untrustworthy Hillary Clinton seems to many like a national savior compared with Trump—to such an extent that she might be swept into office in a landslide, and with an apparent “mandate” to rule based on her large margin of victory.

And wouldn’t that be a brilliant way for the Plutocrats to take a tainted candidate and overcome all her political hardships without changing any of the underlying realities that have made her unpopular—by putting up a rival candidate so obnoxious and buffoonish that anything their candidate says or does looks golden by comparison?

Even Bernie Sanders, who hammered away at Hillary’s many faults for months, often incisively, was pulled back into the Plutocrats’ line of battle basically by the argument that “If not Hillary, then Trump, and Trump is unimaginable.” Sanders dutifully tried to lead his followers back into the Plutocratic camp under the shadow of the threat of a Trump presidency; many followed (while perhaps others have not).

Now, one of the big problems with conspiracy theories is that all too often, the natural if perverse unfolding of human events can leave in its wake a pattern that, viewed with hindsight, looks like the product of an organized conspiracy.

Yet it does seem a little too perfect how the squelching of an actual oppositional movement—the Sanders candidacy—followed by the tightly restricted choice (a false choice, really, because there are, and always are, actually many other options) between the slower-motion train wreck of a Plutocratic Hillary Clinton presidency, offering more of the same Plutocratic madness that has economically polarized and torn apart the nation and the world for the past thirty years or more, and the likely quicker-moving train wreck of a reckless, irresponsible Trump presidency—promises to give to the Plutocrats’ anointed, safe, reliable candidate a public stamp of approval and popularity that she has neither earned nor deserves.

In short, maybe Hillary, who decades ago famously complained of a “Vast, Right-Wing Conspiracy” unfairly targeting her and her husband when news broke about their past corrupt dealings, is now the beneficiary of a Vast Centrist Plutocratic Conspiracy to put her in the White House, where she can continue to do the Plutocracy’s bidding.

So you’ve gotta wonder . . . .

 

Another Gratuitous Poem (Because the Last One Was Such a Raging Success): “Los Abandonaditos”

Well, the Olympics are now over, they wound up going pretty well in spite of all the potential problems and worries beforehand, and that’s all good.

Maybe to celebrate, I’ll now post something non-Olympics-related for the first time in several weeks.

My blog continues to act weird. The last time I posted a gratuitous poem, I was complaining about how the number of daily visitors had abruptly crashed to half of where it had been running, and then went lower than that. I smelled a rat and suspected interference with my blog. [Still do.]

However, more recently, there appears to have been some sort of manipulation (or else just a very weird fluke) that suddenly raised the visitor count on my blog. After running along at a miserable and unusually low count of around 80 visitors per day on average, on August 16, the visitors suddenly shot up to 695—not THE biggest day, but among the biggest days my blog has ever had—and then the following day, August 17, that  number shot up to 2,662—easily the biggest single day this blog has ever had, and probably more than all the other days of August put together (particularly were one to leave out August 16, which was apparently a wind-up to this weird phenomenon).

Admittedly, I don’t really know what to make of this—whether to complain, or crow, or carry on in some other way, or just ignore it. Probably the latter.

Anyway, here’s the promised new gratuitous poem (which will probably be the last time for a good while that I demonstrate to the world how I’m really not a poet):

 

Los Abandonaditos

 

“Are you coming back tomorrow?”

Juan Daniel asked hopefully.

“Maybe,” I lied.

 

The swirling swarm of brown-skinned children

(Darker-hued than those in the magazine ads)

Makes fixing gutters

(Or attempting to fix gutters—

Coaxing too-small round plastic downspout pipes

Onto too-large square metal gutter drops,

Beating and twisting the stubborn metal’s corners a little rounder

And getting a shower of flakes of dirt and rust in my face—

The resentful gutter’s revenge)

Seem like a restful reverie.

 

I distract them for a while with paper airplanes—

Though my ambitious plans to keep them still and quiet,

Studiously focused on learning to make the slightly tricky design,

Nose-dives and crashes like a badly-made paper airplane.

(“Teach a man to fish”—

But not if he’s seven years old

And wants fish right now!)

The seething knot of hyperkinetic boys

Has no patience for sitting

And carefully mastering the intricate bends and folds

That turn a sheet of paper

Into a flying wing.

But they all want one.

So I become a paper-airplane factory,

Folding paper furiously,

Racing to satisfy the demand

And place flying machines

In each small, eager hand—

One for Jaime, one for Jose,

One for Ernie, one for Edgar.

(How did the name Edgar

Ever travel from cold, bleak Britain

To warm, steamy Central America?)

The bat-shaped paper airplanes

Cannot put out an eye (hopefully).

“¡Es el Beh-Dos de los Estados Unidos!”

I cheerfully announce in my broken Spanish,

Hoping they are all much too young and innocent

To share my suspicions of U.S. military might,

Hoping I can deter them

From making other, sharper-nosed designs

That can cause hurt or harm

Like real weapons of war.

I show the eager, impatient boys

Where to hold and how to throw

Their fragile B-2 bombers;

Soon paper airplanes are looping, careening, and crashing

All around the concrete-paved, hurricane-fenced enclosure.

 

The paper airplanes are

Mostly a boy-thing,

While the girls work

More quietly and studiously

On more ladylike artistic projects.

But gentle, shy little Malisa

Wants a paper airplane, too—

Not to throw and chase,

But to keep in a special place,

Like an origami sculpture

Or a dream of escape.

Juan Daniel, too,

Though concentrating intently on his

Colorful creation of cardboard and beads,

Wants an airplane to keep, not to throw.

He hides it in a secret place—

The hollow of a heavy steel I-beam

That holds up the roof that keeps out the rain,

Next to the fence atop the tall concrete steps

That are the children’s project desks

And paper airplane launching pads—

A place sheltered from other eyes

And safe, or safer, from other hands.

 

One paper airplane soars high,

Then pinions itself against the cyclone fencing,

Like a bird struggling to escape its cage.

I climb up to shake it down

And return it to eager hands.

No escape just yet.

 

The paper airplanes’ momentary magic

Fades much too soon

With a whole hour left to fill.

I start to feel helpless and useless.

Then Angela produces a basketball,

And I am saved.

Thank heavens the other volunteers

Know their tasks much better than I do!

All women, all well-prepared,

Holding up more than half the sky

Like usual.

 

The basketball’s magic is longer-lasting

Than my flighty paper-airplane plan.

Juan Daniel, less than four feet tall,

Shoots hoops like a seasoned professional.

He likes Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

He wants to see Los Angeles.

Other children gravitate toward the ball

As the sound of its bouncing echoes around

The fenced concrete enclosure.

We help them chase the ball and

Bounce it back toward the basket,

Encouraging them

To take turns and share.

Juan Daniel is especially good about

Sharing with little Maria,

Dark-skinned with white teeth,

Pretty like Juan Daniel is handsome.

(Are they brother and sister,

Or just close friends?)

Edgar and Ernie take their turns,

Edgar smiling broadly around his big buck teeth.

I happily watch the children play,

Grateful not to have to display

My own lack of basketball prowess.

 

The hour’s end creeps up unnoticed.

I want all these bright, happy young faces

To have a future.

Yet the future is lurking

At a far corner of the enclosure—

Two teenage boys, glumly and sullenly sitting,

Waiting to be sprung from foster care,

To gain their freedom,

To be abruptly ejected into the wider world

With no jobs, no skills, no homes, no families.

I look at pretty Maria and handsome Juan Daniel,

Their bright, white eyes shining

In their round, brown faces.

(Too dark to get adopted—??)

 

“Are you coming back tomorrow?”

Juan Daniel asked hopefully.

“Maybe,” I lied.

 

The 2016 Rio Olympics are here! Good luck, Brazil, and everybody!

There have been more SNAFUs with construction flaws and problems in the Olympic Village (for instance, I guess the Australian team could not move into their quarters a week or two ago because of too many building code violations), and now this morning I read that Olympic officials lost the keys to the new Olympic Stadium and had to cut it open with a bolt-cutters!

Regardless, I hope the games go well. Best of luck to the City of Rio de Janeiro, the nation of Brazil, and all the young (well, mostly young) Olympians who will be competing on a great international stage.

–Jeremiah

In Honor of the Upcoming 2016 Rio Olympics

Another Olympics is already upon us, starting just over two weeks from today!

I’ll confess—I mostly lost interest in the Olympics after it became, basically, a global big business and mega-marketing opportunity, which happened already decades ago when I was old enough to be aware of the process as it occurred. Various doping scandals haven’t helped my opinion, either, from long before Lance Armstrong to the present cloud hanging over the Russian team. I can still remember the reports coming out of the former East Germany of systematic doping and other medical interventions that helped to make the East German women’s swim team effectively male, and so on.

I guess one particular incident that sort of turned me off to professional and de facto-professional sports in general was reported in a magazine I was once reading while waiting in a doctor’s office for a medical appointment—the story of star gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi’s gymnast-factory in Oklahoma, where the pressure to win and compete was so intense that one young gymnast, a Hispanic girl, was forced to compete even though she was sick, took a serious fall off a piece of equipment, and wound up paralyzed. Although I can sort of understand that it might take that kind of intensity and determination to win and win consistently, it also makes me realize that both winning in any particular sport, and sports in general, really don’t matter that much.

I suppose I still enjoy watching the Winter Olympics more, because of the particular speed and grace that snow and ice lend to the various events. Also, every so often, there’s a fun surprise like Jamaica fielding a bobsledding team—“You go, guys!” [No, you probably won’t get the better of the winter sports powerhouses like Germany, Switzerland, Canada, and the United States—but you definitely get my vote for having spirit.]

Regarding the present Olympiad XXXI, as readers already will have heard, there are all sorts of unfortunate reports coming out of Brazil regarding the conditions in which the Olympic games will take place—not just the Zika virus, but severe water pollution in parts of the bay where various boating events will take place; serious crime and poverty in various neighborhoods close to the Olympic stadium that have been worsened by recent economic troubles; the omnipresent threat of terrorist acts; and so on.

Yet, for the sake of the many Olympic competitors from around the world who are not components of corrupt, substance-abusing, state-sponsored sports factories and who have worked hard and trained hard in good faith for their moments on the world stage, I hope that the upcoming games go relatively smoothly and fairly, notwithstanding my misgivings mentioned above. Also, the entire world, frankly, needs a happy event to feel good about amidst the recent rash of horrific terrorist acts together with ongoing wars and global economic uncertainty. So, good luck, Brazil; good luck, Rio; good luck, all you honest competitors; and best wishes for a happy and successful 31st Olympiad.

What follows may admittedly not be properly in keeping with those hopeful sentiments, but it’s my Olympics story that I repost every four years, so—here goes:

 

Olympic Gold, 2124

 

“Oh BYOOOO-tiful, for SPAAAYYY-shus skies . . . .”

The recorded music blared out, bouncing off the upper tiers of the cavernous Olympic stadium.  Down in the center of the stadium, a pair of gymnasts from the North American Confederation twirled through the air so fast that they dissolved into two whirling blurs of color.  Dressed whimsically in matching Superman/Wonder Woman costumes with star-spangled tights—“Angling for a home-court advantage,” the television announcer observed—the lean, muscular young man and woman with the perfect chiseled features were in perpetual motion as they spun through their intricate routine.  At times, the stunning pair would intersect briefly to do fancy stunts on the same trapeze, or even elaborate jumping, twisting, and tumbling on the same giant trampoline.  At other times they were off on separate equipment, but they always stayed perfectly synchronized as they flipped and twirled around their many-leveled uneven bars and rings.

“And CROWWWWN thy good with BRUHHHH-therhood from sea to shyyy-ning SEEEEE-EEEEE-EEEEE.”

The gymnasts’ time was almost over as the canned music slowly shifted the harmony upward for a grand finale.  In the middle of their perfectly timed spinning, twisting double dismount from the uppermost uneven bars, there was a blinding flash, and the young gymnasts simultaneously vanished in a fireball.  Roaring their approval, the 400,000 spectators in the Olympic stadium all leapt to their feet in thunderous applause.

In the Ramachandra-Guzman home, the fourteen amazed sets of eyeballs that had been glued to the TV screen all through the gymnasts’ routine widened in unison at the grand finale.  The children broke into cheers as the TV cameras showed how bits of flesh and bone had spattered ringside spectators and even flecked the screens protecting the judges.  Then the announcer broke in again, spluttering enthusiastically, “¿Total increible, no?  This one’ll be sure to go down in the Record Books in bold print, folks.  Probably with a picture, too!  We haven’t seen a double routine that perfect in at least twenty years!”  There was a sudden hush in the stadium as the judges prepared to raise their scorecards.  The crowd exploded into even louder cheering at the unbroken line of perfect scores.

During the long commercial break that followed—more boring pitches about floor wax, cell phones, acid-reflux pills, and how to look young forever—seven-year-old Joon-Li Ramachandra-Guzman asked the adults if he could go to the refrigerator and get himself a can of Coke.  Grandma Jackson-McCabe answered first: “Sure, Jackie—just don’t stand there with the door open; ya know how much it costs to run that thing.”  So Joon-Li climbed down the ladder from his perch up on the wall, passing his elder sister Navanita and his elder brother Rajiv on the way down before reaching the floor between Grandma Jackson and Grandpa Guzman-Zhou.  He went diagonally across the room to the small kitchen area at the other end.  He opened the refrigerator door and hurriedly grabbed a small red-and-white can before quickly slamming the door—he didn’t want yet another scolding about wasting electricity!

As Joon-Li turned back around toward the television-viewing seats stacked up on top of each other along the wall, Rajiv called out from his seat in the middle tier, “While you’re there, could you get me one, too?”  Grandma Jackson immediately snapped, “No way, Reggie.  Ya had one the day before yesterday.  The stuff don’t grow on trees, ya know.”  Then she chuckled a little at her own joke.  Nothing grew on trees anymore; there wasn’t room for them.  Joon-Li had never even seen a tree, except for old pictures on his electronic document reader for school.

In a few steps, Joon-Li was back at the base of the ladder.  He ducked his head a little as he walked in front of the grown-ups sitting in the first tier of five chairs nearest the floor, but there was no need—he was only about a meter tall, just a little taller than the refrigerator, and the television, like the viewing seats, was mounted up on the wall to save space.  Grampa Zhou gave him a kindly wink as he climbed back up the ladder; Rajiv playfully poked him in the ribs, saying, “If you drop it, it’s mine!”  When he got back to his seat, the TV station was only on the fourth or fifth commercial, so it would be a while before they got back to covering the Olympics.

But thinking about Coke had gotten Grandma Jackson started again.  Navanita rolled her eyes; Rajiv looked over at her and up at Joon-Li with a grin, opening and closing his hand like a flapping mouth.  Farther down the line, their cousin Mohammed groaned audibly.  Whatever Granny was going to say, they’d probably heard it a hundred times before.

“Coke!” she snorted.  “They call that piddly little three-ounce plastic thing a can of Coke!  Why, I remember when I was growing up, they had twelve-ounce cans, and they cost less than a dollar.  And they charge almost ten dollars for one of these! I tell ya, it’s highway robbery. . . .” As she paused to catch her breath, Rajiv tauntingly started to whistle the musical jingle from the latest Coca-Cola ad campaign.  But Granny was just getting started, and like usual, she turned to complaining about the refrigerator.  “And that poor pathetic little fridge,” she grumbled.  “Three feet by two feet, and ya can’t put nothin’ in it.  When I was a girl, they had fridges ya could walk into. . . .”  Rajiv’s white eyes and teeth glinted devilishly in his dark face as he murmured to his siblings, “Somebody should’ve closed the door on her.”  But their mother overheard this, and she leveled a stern warning glare at Rajiv from down below.

Dee Dee Ann Jackson-McCabe had been born more than ninety years before on a type of primitive animal-protein factory that they used to call a “ranch” in the southwestern part of the former United States.  Like everybody else in the world, she was a mix of various blood lines—some East Asian, some Latin American, some Middle Eastern or East Indian, maybe a dollop or two from elsewhere—but she was almost three quarters “pure good ol’ American Okie,” as she put it, and proud of it.

Granny didn’t like the new world, and she let people know it.  She didn’t like the language people spoke—basically English, but with snippets of words and phrases from Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, and Arabic thrown in, spoken with a mix of accents and dialects from all around the world.  “Why the hell can’t they learn to speak English proper,” she would rant.  She still spoke like an old-timer from the cowboy movies, her words a mess of diphthongs, so that “Go to the store” became “Gaouw teuw the staouwr.”  Rajiv had endless fun imitating and provoking her, saying, “Yehys, May’mm,” “Naouw, May’mm,” and “Ah jess doahn’t knaohw, Grammahw—whahy cain’t nobody tahwlk proper any moahr?”

Granny also hated the metric system, and refused to use it.  For her, the family’s fourteen-square-meter living/dining/kitchen area was still a “crappy little ten-by-fifteen-foot animal pen,” a 100-milliliter can of Coke was a “three-ounce rip-off.”  Above all, Grandma Jackson hated the crowding.  “Too may goddam people,” she’d grumble.  Joon-Li had seen pictures of her when she was a young woman—a strapping, red-haired, freckle-faced country girl who’d ridden horses and motorcycles and even shot off guns.  Now, even in her nineties, a massive, stern woman with a craggy face that looked like it was hacked out of granite, Granny had a lot of energy, and when she got wound up, she could go on for a long time.

“And the plumbing!” Granny spat out venomously.  “Back when I was little, the crapper and the shower were separate, and when ya flushed the crapper, it took the stuff away.  Ya didn’t have ever’thing sittin’ in a tank for a week to come back at ya!”  Joon-Li thought of the family’s composter—a closet less than one meter square that fed into a fermentation tank, then a sludge compactor, than a dessicator.  Joon-Li had seen all this in cutaway diagrams on his electronic school document reader.  It cost a lot to run the equipment, so Joon-Li’s parents let stuff collect in the tank as long as possible before processing it further and sending it all down to the Metropolitan Sanitation Authority.  The waste-collector part of the composter worked by gravity, helped along by the shower mechanism—a weak, one-minute-long film of moisture that was all you got.  “No better than somebody pissin’ on ya,” Granny growled disgustedly.  You could use the different parts of the composter separately, but in the morning, when all the family members lined up to take their turn, if you didn’t get finished the first time, you’d have to wait an hour for another chance.

Joon-Li hated the claustrophobic composter closet.  “Clean, convenient, and 100% odor-free!!” the manufacturers claimed in their television commercial jingle.  But it was never as great as all that.  Then, at least once a week, the system backed up so that foul-smelling gases from the fermentation tank vented up into the closet.  Rajiv always ribbed Joon-Li about this, as though he were to blame—“Jackie, whatcha doin’ goin’ stinkin’ up the composter?”  The system was also supposed to be silent, but as he lay in his upper bunk at night, Joon-Li could often hear the fermenter, burbling and groaning with indigestion right behind the wall of the family’s ten-square-meter sleeping area, even over the snores and grunts of the thirteen other people in the room.  He shuddered a little, recalling a few of his least favorite composter episodes.  Whatever system Granny’d had must have been better.  Even sassy, thirteen-year-old Rajiv didn’t taunt her about this claim.

Then the Olympic theme music blared out, and the Olympics coverage was back on TV.  Granny was still wound up, but at least she piped down, muttering her complaints to Grampa Zhou, who accepted them, as always, with patient nods of the head and encouraging grunts.

The TV cameras had shifted to some of the cultural exhibitions.  These weren’t really athletic events, but more a chance for contestants to showcase some part of their ethnic backgrounds, performing ancient rituals of long-lost cultures.  First up was Ernesto “Ernie” Prahdnavati-Hiyashi.  A handsome, well-built, dark-haired young man in his early twenties, he was “part Latino, part Indian, but a full half pure Japanese—and that’s a rarity nowadays!” chirped the announcer excitedly.  “Tonight he will present a demonstration of some of the ancient culture of his mother’s ancestral homeland.”

Clad only in a loincloth, Hiyashi first beat out elaborate, throbbing rhythms on a set of beautiful, antique Kyoto drums, their heads decorated with ancient symbols and designs.  He dashed from one drum to the next, trying to stay within the time for his routine.  Then, quickly donning an ancient Bushido helmet and suit of armor, he gracefully danced through an exhibition of traditional martial arts movements, leaping, kicking, and effortless twirling a sturdy wooden staff all around himself, even behind his back and above his head.

When his floor time was almost over, the young Olympian kneeled down, pulled out a short, wicked-looking curved knife, held it with both hands far out in front of him, then savagely plunged the knife into his middle and twisted the handle.  All the spectators in the packed cultural arena were on their feet in seconds, cheering as the cleaning crew quickly but respectfully carried Ernie Hiyashi off the floor.  As the cameras panned over the enthusiastic crowd, the announcer chimed in, “That was so quick and clean, the cleaning crew won’t have anything to do but haul away the drums!”

The TV coverage then flicked back to the outdoor track arena, where contestants were getting ready for the 500-meter hurdles.  “500-meter” was just a traditional label, since nobody ever made it too the finish line.  Just as they were about to complete their first loop around the oval track, the runners ran into the hurdles with the tripwires that triggered plastic explosives.  The winner was the first to get blown up, and his time would go down in bold print in the Record Books.  As usual, the East African Union had the strongest contender, but this year, the South Americans and Southwest Asians had unusually competitive teams, so the bookies weren’t sure how to figure the odds.

The audience was more tense than usual as the slim, long-legged runners took their places, stamping and scuffing their feet like racehorses from the old movies.  The favorite from East Africa, Atieno Nguyen-Shobayo, exploded off the blocks like a rifle shot and took an early lead, but Mustafa al-Habib-Yurechenko from Southwest Asia stuck close behind him.  As they rounded the far end of the track and broke out into the straightaway with the first set of hurdles, al-Habib-Yurechenko even momentarily took the lead.  Nguyen-Shobayo pulled ahead again through the hurdles, but the other runner kept on fighting, pulling nearly even as they approached the tripwire hurdles.

The lanky East African and the Southwest Asian cleared their first hurdles at the exact same moment.  As the East African runner leapt over his second hurdle, there was a loud bang, and he vanished in a cloud of smoke and fire.  Al-Habib-Yurechenko was caught by the blast just a millisecond or two before his own second hurdle went off.  The third- and fourth-place runners soon followed.

Taking up the rear, a few seconds behind the rest, Wolfgang Tomasini-Abdul of the Western Eurasian Union had time to be aware of what had happened up ahead, but he kept running as hard as he could.  As he jumped over his tripwired hurdle, he gave a slight shrug of his shoulders before he was blown to bits.  “Honkies never were no good at sprinting,” Joon-Li heard Grandma Jackson snort.

In the stands, the spectators were spontaneously hugging total strangers, while the TV sportscasters were frantic with excitement, their words tumbling out on top of each other in rapid staccato bursts.  “Namaste! Folks, you just saw history being made!”  “Did you ever see such a close finish before?  That was almost a tie—and we’ve never had a tie since they brought in the new-format Olympics sixty years ago!”  “Yes, they’ll probably give al-Habib-Yurechenko an official second place, but they’ll have to give him a special note in the Record Books.  And that’s what it’s all about, ¿no?”  The two younger announcers turned to their older companion in the sportscasters’ box to ask, “Abuelo, do you remember anything like this before?”  The older announcer grinned, saying, “Not really, muchachos.  The closest thing was thirty-six years ago, when the South Asian Federation had an Australian runner who almost caught the Caribbean competing for South America.  That race was close enough that the second-place got caught in the winner’s blast, but only just barely.  And the crowds went crazy over that.  Think how they’ll be carrying on in Southwestern Asia tonight!”

Another sportscaster asked, “How’d you like last-place finish from Western Europe?”  They all chuckled.  “I’d call that grace under pressure.  And he’ll get a note in the Record Books for it.”  “Yeah, you know everybody who didn’t make the last cut would have loved to be in his shoes—if they couldn’t be in Shobayo’s or Yurechenko’s!”

Another commercial jingle blared over the Ramachandra-Guzmans’ TV set.  Granny took that as a cue to start her harangue again in earnest.  “And why’d they ever hafta change the Olympics into people killin’ themselves, anyway?  I remember with the old Olympics, you’d get to see the athletes more than once.”  She paused, and a dreamy look came over her craggy face.  “Like that diver from Brazil back in the twenty-thirties and ’forties.  He won the gold in three straight Olympics—and he musta been about the best-lookin’ man who ever lived.  All us girls were crazy about him . . . .”

Grampa Zhou, his face crinkling around the corners of his eyes, gently interjected, “But that’s hard on the other athletes, isn’t it?  To never get a chance to really shine, because one of them is taking the limelight over and over again.”  He paused, shaking his head.  “And there are so many of them competing.  You know this is their only chance to really feel like somebody, to get in the Record Books.  It’s that, or be a pop music star, or somehow get in the movies.  And you know you can’t do that unless you know the right people. . . .”

Grandma Jackson’s face darkened at the mention of pop entertainers.  “It’s them musicians and creeps in the movies who started all this,” she growled.  “When that syrupy, phony, good-for-nothin’ pop singer Diego in his bullshit leopard-skin Spandex bodysuit killed hisself on stage seventy or eighty years ago.  That’s when ever’thing changed.  Ever’one started copyin’ him.  Soon they were doin’ it in the music videos, and then in the movies….”

“And the audiences loved it,” Grampa Zhou broke in.  “That was the way somebody could really stand out and get some attention, go down in the Record Books, even get their pictures in there.”

“And then when ever’body was doin’ it, it wasn’t enough just to kill yerself anymore,” Granny continued, her face reddening with anger.  “Ya couldn’t just hang yerself, or jump off the sixtieth floor.  Ya had to fall off a three-hundred-foot platform above a reflectin’ pool, and blow yerself to smithereens just before hittin’ the water.”  She spat out her words scornfully.  “And I still say it’s nothin’ but crazy, sick nonsense.”

At this, Navanita, who’d been rolling her eyes impatiently all through Granny’s diatribe, emitted an audible sigh, noisily pulled out her electronic document reader for school work, and put on her white noise-generating hood to shut out the sound of Granny’s voice.  She opened her reader and booted it up with a petulant frown.

Granny turned her head upward to glare at her.  “What’s that she’s readin’ now?” she asked grumpily.

“Oh, just some of her North American History,” Rajiv said tauntingly, giving Joon-Li a devilish grin and making his dark eyebrows jump up and down twice.  “All about the guy who predicted how everything would get better and better as the world got more and more people in it.”

This was one of Granny’s least favorite subjects, and it always set her off.  “That damn idiot,” she snarled.  “How could he think everthing’d be better when ya can’t even get outside and go anywhere, ‘cause it takes ya two hours just to go half a mile?  When ya can’t even visit one of yer friends in the same damn building, ‘cause ya hafta wait more’n an hour just to get on the elevator?  That’s better, he says?”

Grampa Zhou broke in soothingly.  “Well, you have to admit he was right about some things.  There never was mass starvation, and they did find substitutes for most things the world ran out of, like wood and paper and metals—just like he said.  And if people can’t go places, they can telecommute. . . .”

“Substitutes!” Granny snorted. “You call dessicated plankton and algae biscuits a substitute for real food?  Now, John”—she called him John, even though his name was Jun-Quan—“you can remember real food, like fried chicken, right?  You say it’s better now?”  She twisted in her seat to look directly at him.  “And so there’s ‘telecommuting’ and ‘televisiting’ and ‘telefriendships’ and ‘telelearning’ and all the other tele-crap the Cellular Solutions people are always yammerin’ about on TV.  What good is that?  Ya never really get to see the person, except on that little screen.  And ya hafta wait for forty-five minutes just to get online, ‘cause ever’one else is trying to do the same damn thing at the same time.  And the kids can’t even go to school the way we used to, ‘cause they’re too many kids, and ya couldn’t even build enough schools for ‘em all, and there’d be no way to get ‘em there, anyway, with all these damn people cloggin’ the streets and the subways and the interbuildin’ connector tubes and the elevators and ever’thing….”

“Well, he did miscalculate,” Grampa Zhou agreed.  “Everyone did.  Back then, they thought the world population might level off at twelve billion, not twenty-one.”

“Yeah, he was off by a little bit,” Granny snorted derisively.  “Damn shame they couldn’t’ve figgered that out before it was too late.  And now the land’s covered over with apartment towers or water recyclin’ plants, and the ocean’s covered with algae and plankton trawlers, and ya can’t even stretch yer arms out without hittin’ two or three people.”  Turning back to glare at the TV screen, she growled, “That dumb bastard. . . .”

While this discussion was going on, Joon-Li’s mother had gone over to the kitchen area to flash-irradiate the dishes and utensils from dinner.  When Granny saw this, she scowled.  “I never did trust that radioactivity,” she started to say.  But the Olympic theme suddenly drowned her out.

On the television, the Olympics coverage had returned to the cultural demonstrations.  A pretty young woman of largely South Asian extraction with a dark skin, long, thick, flowing black hair, and brilliant white teeth and eyes was completing a demonstration of traditional Indian dance and yoga, gracefully stretching, bending, twirling.  Then, as her time was almost up, she climbed onto a bed of reformulated petroleum products made to look “just like twigs and tree branches used to,” as the announcer cheerfully observed.  Lying in the center of the bier, with graceful motions, the young beauty lit the bier in several places with a small lighter she pulled out her flowing, colorful costume.  A blue flame danced around her in a ring, and then the bed of pseudo-twigs flared like a torch.  The audience cheered and applauded.  The woman made a final, graceful acknowledging gesture before the flames hid her from view.

Then the announcer’s voice broke in again.  “Since it will take a while for the cleaning crew to clear away the remains of that beautiful performance of a traditional suttee ritual, we’re presenting a tape of a dramatic accident that happened earlier in the diving competition.  Li-Peng Aquino-Zhiang from the East Asian Democratic Union appeared to be doing a perfect dive; then look what happened.”  The television showed the diver on his platform, carefully judging the distance to the bottom of the pool below.  He sprang off the platform, arcing high into the air while twisting and tumbling, first forward, then diagonally sideways, his arms tight to his body.  Yet after he’d fallen to the bottom of the empty pool below, the audience gasped—he was weakly moving his left arm.  As the cleaning crew moved in to administer a lethal injection, the announcer intoned, “Yes, señores, after that incredible dive, he was still alive.  He failed to position his head just right for the impact, and the judges had to dock some points from his score.  However, the rest of the dive was so flawless, he will probably still win second or third place.  And he’ll be in the Record Books.”

The coverage flicked back to the cultural events, where the cleaning crew had cleared away the last of the embers.  The next contestant was getting ready for his routine while the audience clapped politely.  The newscaster announced, “Twenty-three-year-old Buck Chavez-McClanahan is a local boy, brought up here in the southwestern district of the North American Confederation.  He says that his great, great grandfather was a cowboy and rancher back in the 1900s, and that he’s ‘real proud’ to get to represent North America tonight at the Olympics here in Denver-Phoenix-Tucson-Vegas.  Like the other contestants, he’s worked for nearly five years on the routine he’ll be showing us tonight.”

Granny perked up at the mention of “cowboy” and “rancher,” and she watched with renewed interest.  On the screen, Buck McClanahan wore a garish white cowboy outfit, with white plastic chaps made to look like old-fashioned leather, a broad-brimmed white cowboy hat, and big fancy cowboy boots with exaggerated faux-metal spurs.  Above his jutting chin and reddish face, he had sandy-brown hair—“Natural,” the announcer pointed out.

The young man in the cowboy suit picked up one of the ropes he’d brought and deftly made a lasso.  Then he began twirling the rope all around himself, down at the floor, then up around his head, then changing the spinning loop from horizontal to vertical and back.  He kept the rope always in motion as he leapt into or out of a wide, spinning horizontal loop, then jumped back and forth through vertical loops, spun the loop around his neck, his arm, his outstretched leg.

Meanwhile, the ground crew was rolling out some additional props.  The rope-spinner soon turned his attention to these, expertly throwing lassoes around the smallest knobs and hooks mounted on several upright or horizontal beams.  Then he put down his ropes and pulled two matching antique pearl-handled six-shooters out of holsters hanging from his showy white, faux-leather belt and began twirling and juggling these all around himself—above his head, behind his back, underneath one of his legs.  Without missing a beat, he picked up one of his lassoes again, flung one of the pistols high up in the air, and lassoed it.

While this was happening, the ground crew was rolling out the last of the cowboy rope-twirler’s props—a high scaffold with stairs leading up to a platform.  As his floor time was about to expire, the cowboy took a rope in his hand and bounded up the steps to the platform.  Wasting no time, his hands deftly formed a hangman’s knot—with all thirteen loops, as the announcer chirped.  The cowboy then took the other end of the rope and lassoed the scaffold overhead.  Removing his hat, he took a large, dark bandana out of the left chest pocket of his gaudy, embroidered white western jacket.  He put the bandana over his head, then slipped the noose over his head and around his neck.  Then he leapt high into the air above the open well in the scaffold’s platform.  As his body fell back earthward, there was an audible crack, amplified for the spectators’ benefit.  The figure in the garish cowboy suit then swung from side to side while the audience roared its approval.  The children in the Ramachandra-Guzman home also cheered with delight.

But Granny wasn’t joining in.  Rather than just glaring disapprovingly at the TV set as usual, Joon-Li was surprised to see that she was bent over in her seat with her face buried in her hands.  “What’s wrong, Grandma?” he asked.  As she straightened up, the other family members could see that the big, tough old woman who never showed much emotion was sobbing.  Struggling to compose herself, Granny croaked hoarsely, “Oh, I don’t know what it is—I guess he just looked so much like people I used to know. . . .”  Her voice trailed off.  Then she slowly started to get up out of her seat.  “I can’t watch anymore,” she said.  “I hate these Olympics.  I don’t care whose damn name goes in the precious Record Books, or where.  I still say it’s nothin’ but sick, twisted nonsense, and it ain’t the way it oughtta be.”

Starting to shuffle slowly across the room, Granny announced solemnly, “I’m goin’ to bed.”  Joon-Li’s mother, listening from the kitchen area, reminded her, “But Uncle Raffi’s sleeping in your bed, mother, and all the other bunks are taken, too!”  “Well,” Granny replied crossly, showing some of her usual fire again, “he can wake up a little early, then.  His shift downstairs begins in two hours, and it’ll take near that long just ta get down to the fifty-first floor.”

Rajiv, seeing how upset Granny still was, tried to bring her back to her normal, cantankerous self.  He teasingly called after her, “I’ll be going to the Junior Olympics tryouts in two weeks!  You wanna come?”  But Granny wouldn’t take the bait.  “You do whatever you want, Reggie.  I don’t care, and I won’t be around that much longer, anyway.”  Then, standing at the door to the bedroom, she turned around and looked at Grampa Zhou, saying, “You know, you’re right after all, John.”  With her thumb, she gestured toward the TV set on the wall.  “They are the lucky ones.  Record Books or no Record Books, they won’t hafta wait in line for three hours just to buy some dessicated plankton that ain’t worth eatin’.  They won’t hafta sleep fifteen to a room, stacked in bunks from floor to ceiling like cordwood in a crappy little ten-by-ten holding tank.”  She nodded her head disparagingly toward the bedroom.  “They won’t hafta sleep in shifts, and roust somebody else outta their beds just so they can lie down.”  She paused to catch her breath and reflect for a moment.  Then she continued: “Yep, they’re the lucky ones, all right.  ’Cause who the hell’d wanta live in this godawful world, anyhow?”

With that, she walked through the doorway to the bedroom.  After the door closed, Grampa Zhou clicked his tongue, saying, “That cowboy routine sure upset her.  I haven’t seen her like that in years.  She’ll get over it, though—she always does.”

Then the Olympic theme music blared out again, and the family turned their attention back to the TV.  Hearing the announcer, Joon-Li’s mother called up to him, “Joonie, tell Nita it’s OK to come out from under her noise hood.  Granny’s gone, and her favorite event is coming on—synchronized drowning!”

 

 

 

A Gratuitous Poem, and More Gratuitous Grousing about Interference with the Internet

There was a flaw in my last posting for which I should make amends.

I referred to a possible roughly century-long cycle connecting the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) with the Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815) and World War I (1914-1918, with a delayed second act in World War II, 1939-1945). As is obvious, there is a missing century: the early 1700s. As I should have noted last week, that can be filled with the War of the Spanish Succession (concerning which royal family of Europe would inherit the throne of Spain after a Spanish king died without a male heir), which went on from around 1701 to 1713 and embroiled much of Europe at one time or another. That particular war largely revolved around the diplomatic and military ambitions and aggressions of France’s King Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” back when France was clearly by far the dominant military power in continental Europe (as it was, generally speaking, from the late medieval era through the rise of modern Germany during the 1800s). Although the war pulled in England, Austria-Hungary, Portugal, and various German duchies along with France and Spain over a long span of years, it has never picked up quite the same bad reputation for ravaging the whole continent the way the Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, and World War I (and II) did. So maybe it’s a somewhat weaker point in the whole century-cycle theory. Or maybe not. Like other centuries, the rest of the eighteenth century (which means the 1700s, for those of you who get tripped up by that sort of thing) had various other smaller wars of note before the next really big blowout, including the Seven Years’ War (Anglo-American colonists referred to that as the French and Indian War) from 1756-1763 and the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783).

That correction to the record now being made, I will note that after my last posting about Brexit, turbulent times, and possible disturbing cycles in history, the visitorship to my blog abruptly fell by about two thirds. Now, it’s entirely possible that what I posted was badly written, perhaps a little crazy, unfashionable, whatever. Nevertheless, in my experience, whenever my blog visitorship suddenly falls overnight to a small fraction of what it had been, that tends to be a pretty clear sign that somebody, somewhere, is messing with it. And that truly annoys the hell out of me. Whether it is done by government agencies, private entities, or private contractors working unofficially on behalf of government agencies, it is disturbing to think that some mindless clowns out there are deliberately interfering with other people’s (supposed) freedom of speech and expression. But maybe I should take it as a badge of pride that the powers that be are concerned enough about the generally increasing economic and political instability in the world that they felt the need to quash my humble and little-read blog posting regarding that topic.

That’s the gratuitous grousing mentioned in the posting’s title. Now, on to the promised gratuitous poem.

The following poem came into my mind, and stubbornly wouldn’t leave, after an intense life experience I went through a few years ago. I am well aware that I am no poet, and never have been. But this one came out both more concise and truer to my feelings and to what I hoped to express than any of my sporadic earlier efforts, and a literary friend of mine read it and thought it was actually really good. Now, later, after being rejected both by The New Yorker as well as by a much-less-well-known online poetry journal, I’ve decided that I won’t bother any further with editors and journals, and will instead allow my poem to be rejected by the general public directly.

[Trumpet flourish]

 

Los Abandonados

Luís deals another hand of cards

And dreams

Of a sailboat on the ocean.

He has a son, he says,

But that son left

And never came back.

Mal hijo, he says,

Bad son.

 

Gloria was a dancer,

Tall, strong, beautiful.

Now her long limbs

Tremble and jerk

As she sits in her chair

Or in her wheelchair

And when we walk her

Through the garden.

She lives

Half in this world

And half in a world

Where only she can go.

 

Paulino, winking,

Wearing his wide,

Gap-toothed grin,

Still loves to dance.

He whirls and gyrates

Across the floor,

Making smooth moves

And tricky steps,

Snaking between the others

As they shuffle

In time to the boom-box.

 

Clara cheerfully says

That she has a son

With a family

Who lives in Norte America.

But he never sends letters

Or money.

 

Juanita does not know

Where she is

Or who she is.

Tiny, bright-eyed,

She sits upright

Like a bird on its perch,

Beaming angelically

As we spoon-feed her

Her midday pudding.

 

Josefina lives in an

Unhappier place.

She fears the dark hallway

Where unseen hands lurk,

Waiting to seize her,

To hurt her.

As we approach the door

She struggles and pleads.

We comfort her, reassure her,

And walk her around

To the other, sunlit door.

 

Luz craves darkness,

Death, release.

All her relatives are dead, she says.

Educated, well-traveled, well-read,

She is surrounded

By others who are not.

Alert, curious, inquisitive,

She is trapped among those whose

Minds have gone dark.

What is the word in English, she asks,

For when you take something, and—

She pantomimes death.

Poison? I propose.

No, no—she shakes her head.

Suicide? I suggest.

Yes—suicide, she says.

 

Macho, still handsome,

Craggy-featured, jut-jawed,

Deals another hand of cards.

Will you ever come back? he asks.

Maybe, I reply.

We won’t be here, he says,

And makes a gesture like

Tossing away a burnt match.

In Honor of Brexit: Reflections on the Dangerous Cycles of History

[I’m actually offering something brand new—other than a theater review—for the first time in a while. The recent upheaval over the “Brexit” vote—UK citizens’ bitterly contested decision to leave the European Union—confirmed in my mind a pattern I’ve been seeing taking shape over the past year or two. [Based upon an extensive familiarity with postwar United States history and the rise of student and other radicalism in the late 1960s.] The tragic murder/assassination of British Member of Parliament Jo Cox in the normally relatively safe, domesticated United Kingdom particularly conjures forth alarming echoes of the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in the (traditionally less safe or domesticated) United States back in 1968. Most of this is a letter I wrote to a friend, but I’ve added some additional comments and historical notes, recognizing that most people, especially Americans, don’t remember or care about anything that happened the day before yesterday, let alone events that happened decades or centuries ago. Yet I feel they should, for the reasons discussed below among others. Unfortunately, we’re never free of history, and history may come in cycles that we do not recognize or understand, and which we may be unable to control.]

 

Hey, Grant,

Though I’ve been thinking this for some time, I think I can now say with certainty: we’re presently looking at perhaps the greatest level of general global political upheaval since 1968. And I have a theory that there may be some sort of roughly 50-year wave pattern in human events and group psychology going on here (if so, an even earlier one being the radical outbursts at the end of World War I in 1918-1919).

[Here I should explain—my friend is a historian like myself and knows this stuff, but most people don’t, and most Americans don’t know anything beyond American history if they know any American history. At any rate, Americans may be familiar with the bitter, sometimes violent presidential campaign of 1968, with the infamous Chicago Democratic Party convention, the decision of sitting president Lyndon B. Johnson not to seek an additional term in office, the “Dump the Hump” movement against mainstream Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the segregationist third-party candidacy of George Wallace, all against the backdrop of the rising student protest against the Vietnam War and the many race riots in various American cities that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. All that is a lot in itself. But many people, especially Americans, might forget that there were also student uprisings in Paris, the Prague Spring in which Czech citizens overtly resisted Soviet domination before their movement was crushed, widespread student resistance to Maoist authority in China, and numerous other examples of clashes between established authority and radical militants. For a brief overview of these tumultuous times and events, see Wikipedia, Protests of 1968. Further back in time, there was a worldwide wave of radical sentiment and rebellions against authority after the end of the First World War, when the leaders and political institutions that had led the world into that debacle frankly looked quite discredited. Such rebellions were frequently socialist or communist in ideological orientation, and were put down forcefully by conservative forces—except in Russia, where the long civil war fought by White Russians against the new Bolshevik leaders from 1917 into the 1920s failed to dislodge the new Soviet Communist regime. In the United States, the domestic iteration of this radical social upheaval is usually referred to as the Red Scare of 1919.]

 

I’ve seen the growing radicalization of students, often in a rather silly, self-indulgent sort of way, just like the late 1960s only more so. I was also struck by how, when the choreographer of a theater production I wound up happily escaping mentioned to the cast that she had been at Berkeley and in the Free Speech Movement there in 1965 and had thrown a brick at a policeman, one of the actresses, who is also a performing musician around town, probably college-educated and certainly not stupid, exclaimed, “Cool!”  Anyway, there’s sort of a generalized mood of unrest, of reckless embrace of radical alternatives, etc. It will probably lead in stupid, dangerous directions. It already has done so with the Trump candidacy.

[And here I should explain: I’m often personally pretty sympathetic to reformist causes, including some radical reformist causes—but I don’t like silly, infantile rebellion against authority just for the sake of rebellion against authority, and much of what went on in the late 1960s was no more than that—the grossly irresponsible drug use, sexuality, etc.—and most of the revival today is also no more than that. Although I can imagine situations where I might feel it was justified to throw a brick at a policeman, and situations in which I might feel compelled to do that myself, such situations are necessarily highly context-dependent, and I find a blanket assumption that it’s a good thing to throw a brick at a policeman (i.e., that policemen—“pigs”—generally deserve to have bricks thrown at them) to be rather infantile and dangerous, as well as probably unfair to most police officers and blithely oblivious to the ugly situations we might find ourselves in without the services of police and other authority figures. Yet, ominously, that reckless late-60s-vintage spirit and attitude seems to be rising again.]

In case we’re on some other sort of cycle, since we’re 87 years removed from the start of the Great Depression, I wonder what came roughly 87 years before that?  Let’s see . . .  the revolutions of 1848 were about 81 years earlier. Maybe that’s some sort of more rough cycle—or maybe, as with most such things, there’s no cycle at all and only coincidence.

[For the historically illiterate: 1848 saw major if brief political revolutions and uprisings all across continental Europe; these were democratic aftershocks to the earlier and greater upheaval of the French Revolution, and represented defiance of the generally conservative governments that took control of various nations after the fall of Napoleon during a continent-wide reaction against the French Revolution. The failure of the 1848 Revolution in Prussia particularly helped to trigger a significant stream of immigration by former revolutionaries and sympathizers from Germany to the United States.]

Yet I am especially struck by the seeming power of the 50-year cycle in at least some situations—it may just be coincidence, certainly, but I think it may have something to do with the passage of human generations and the passing of lived experience into mere myth—so a cycle of forgetting. 50 years later is when most people who actually experienced something as mature adults will have died or will be approaching the sort of overall social marginalization that typically comes with advanced age. Anyway, here are at least a few interesting 50s: 1929, stock market crash and Great Depression; 1979 [roughly] rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (followed by ouster of Helmut Schmitt and his replacement by big business conservative Helmut Kohl in Germany), leaders generally committed to undoing the policies put in place as a result of the Great Depression. 1939, start of the Second World War; 1989, Berlin Wall comes down. 1941, German invasion of Soviet Russia; 1991, Soviet Union collapses.

With some of these that are perfect 50s, like the Berlin Wall and Operation Barbarossa (the Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union), I suppose there could be some sort of anniversary effect—the very fact that we’ve reached the nice round number of 50 makes people that much more aware of the earlier event that they’re either confirming or reversing? It’s interesting that some of the roughly 50s confirm (like silly student radicalism) while others reverse (like the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union).

Admittedly, I’m sort of hoping for a 50-year sudden revival of aggressive environmental activism, to help make up for several decades of criminal stupidity and irresponsibility.

[But I know it may be too much to hope for . . . . ]

I guess the most alarming possible cycle is the roughly century-long cycle that roughly links the start of the 30-Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, and World War I (of which World War II was in a sense just a continuation, as with the 30-Years War). Because if that is a recurring cycle, then we’re due for another before too long.  L  I think it’s fair to say that each of those other cycles was driven by demographic pressure—regional overpopulation in Europe putting stresses on political and economic systems. The Middle Eastern/African migration crisis would seem to be a pretty clear indicator of regional demographic stress. I can remember checking the population statistics for various nations back when I was in junior high or high school back in the 1980s, and both Iran and Egypt back then were around 40-45 million; now they have both nearly doubled, and the same is likely true (or greater) for many of their neighbors as well as African nations. It was demographic pressure that helped to make the Balkans the tinderbox of Europe, as well as bringing millions of southeastern European immigrants to the United States in the years before World War I.

[Here I should note: the ignorant buffoons who set global corporate neoliberalism loose on the world, and who brought the likes of Thatcher and Reagan to power, also did their utmost to uproot the dawning awareness of the potential dangers of overpopulation and of the need for demographic policy and planning that had emerged during the 1960s and 1970s—just as these fools sought to uproot and destroy the environmental movement. They were all too successful. Partly as a result, we failed to confront the unfortunate reality of overrapid and unsustainable human population growth since the 1980s—and we may now be facing yet another of the sorts of demographic crises that helped to trigger World War I and earlier global or continent-wide conflagrations. Nice thinking, you neoliberal clowns.]

Anyway, to echo the ancient Chinese curse (“May you live in interesting times!”), we’re definitely living in interesting times . . . .

–Jeremiah

 

A Respectful Nod to Prince Ea’s “Stand For Trees” Video: “What difference will any of it make…?”

Several weeks ago, back in April, my father sent me a link to Prince Ea’s “Stand For Trees” Earth Day 2016 video, which can be found here on YouTube and here on Vimeo. It took me a while before I could find the time to watch it; as soon as I did, I wanted to make this post, but I was busy moving out of my horrible, unfriendly former condominium building and neighborhood in Hollywood while trying to stay on top of work, and I was also lazily letting the bizarre and inexplicable levitation of the May daily visit stats for this blog run its bizarre and inexplicable course. [Which it did; nothing like that happening this month!] Then there was a worthy local theater production that I wanted to plug for a while (just in case any of the target audience would stumble upon this blog, which is extremely unlikely at best, but that’s my modest way of trying to help the Los Angeles theater community). So now it’s already almost two months past the release of Prince Ea’s video, which in terms of the hyperactive media cycle is almost the same as two centuries.

Nevertheless, I was quite impressed with Prince Ea’s heartfelt contribution. And, with full recognition that this handsome, talented young man has made his important message heard more widely and effectively than I’ll ever be able to dream of, I wanted to give a highly respectful nod to his work, and also re-run this piece, showing how Prince Ea’s correct message—that even as worthy as so many other worthy reform causes in the world are, none of them are going to matter unless we get it right on the global environment—has a long and rich history.

[For the record, both Prince Ea and Ken Worley hail from Missouri, the epitome of Middle America and a long way from San Francisco or other traditional environmentalist hippie hangouts.]

 

“What difference will any of it make … ?”

 

In 1969, a concerned American citizen sent the following letter for inclusion in the records of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution’s 1969 field hearings in St. Louis, Missouri:

“[My organization] is proud that it involves itself socially and politically in all the great issues of our times. We take positions on Viet Nam, armament de-escalation, school integration, racial injustice, Supreme Court appointments, moon shots, mass transit and health insurance.

“It is frightening to think that all the above issues, each screaming for priority, will become, or worse—already are hypothetical, and we here are a ‘moot court’ planning today to meet yesterday’s deadline.

“We believe no problem has greater priority than the problem of our environment.

“What difference will it make if the fighting stops in Viet Nam—

“What difference will it make if the bomb is banned—

“What difference will it make if black children finally receive a chance for an education and their fathers a chance for a job—

“What difference will it make which persuasion dominates the Supreme Court, or how many more billions are budgeted to trample more footprints on the moon—

“What difference will it make if at last we decide that all men have the right to the best medical care that can be provided—

“What difference will any of it make if we continue to poison and destroy the life supports of our world?

“We in [my organization] ask ourselves if we are struggling for the benefit of a generation which will never have the chance to be.

“Better we tear the factories to the ground, abandon the mines, plug the petroleum holes and fill the fuel tanks of our cars with sugar than continue this doomsday madness.

“[My organization] has placed air and environmental pollution at the top of its list of priority problems of man.

“We demand that our community and all communities do the same.

“We demand that uncompromising and irreversible standards and controls be established to preserve our environment, no matter what the cost, no matter how great the violation of property rights, no matter what the effect on dividends and no matter what the effect on our own bold plans for collective bargaining.”

To say that this striking, resounding letter expressed the environmental concerns of some segments of the American public at the dawn of the 1970s environmental movement would be a pathetic understatement. It went far beyond that. For the writer, who was obviously sensitive to a wide range of major issues of concern to progressives of the day, actually went so far as to say—outright, eloquently, and forcefully—that as important as all those other issues were, the truly central issue on which all the others depended was protecting the environment. The writer was pointing out, stridently, what frankly still applies today: that all of our other worthy reform efforts will be rendered meaningless if we let our ship collide with the looming iceberg of environmental devastation.

Some of today’s reform causes are mostly new since 1969—like equal pay for women and gay marriage rights. Other of today’s worthy reform efforts are, sadly, depressingly familiar and still far too much the same as they were more than forty years ago—such as health care and racial equality. The Vietnam War is long over, but other, newer (and some might say, equally ill-advised) wars are still grinding on.

But most of all, the iceberg in front of us is still the same—or at least still too much the same, in some ways perhaps better, in other ways much, much worse, still unresolved, still un-surmounted, still un-bypassed, still potentially, disastrously lethal.

What’s also striking about this 1969 letter is that it was not written by just some random environmental extremist representing some peripheral, possibly fly-by-night early environmental group; it came from a major leader of a major American labor union. Substitute “the United Auto Workers” for each appearance of “my organization” in the letter above.

The letter was written by Kenneth L. Worley, the long-time director of Region 5 of the UAW, covering effectively the entire western United States from Missouri, Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana westward to the Pacific, excepting only Minnesota, Iowa, Montana, and the Dakotas. With California, Texas, and Washington State, UAW Region 5 largely dominated aerospace employment along with being a major presence in auto, truck, and tractor manufacturing. It was and is a major component of a major international labor union.

Worley’s letter thus powerfully demonstrates how before the 1970s, the American labor movement was frankly out in front of most of the rest of the nation in supporting pro-environmental policies and reforms.

Worley’s letter, although admittedly only one piece of evidence, also helps dispel some all-too-common myths about early environmentalism. For instance, one that took root in the later 1970s and 1980s: that environmentalism was cooked up by a bunch of privileged, liberal/leftist college kids. Anyone who is familiar with the history and origins of environmentalism before 1970 would know that is wholly incorrect.

In the early 1960s, some progressive college kids, white as well as black, stuck their necks out bravely to fight against racial segregation and inequality—those were the famous “Freedom Riders” who rode Greyhound buses into the segregated South to desegregate bus terminals, at risk of injury or death; the students who participated in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters; those students who joined Dr. Martin Luther King in the anti-segregation boycotts and protests in Birmingham, Alabama in 1962-63; and workers in the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration campaign of 1964, to name a few salient examples among many others. Those students got out front early, took great risks, and sacrificed their own safety and comfort for the good of others and in the name of justice. They are rightly viewed as heroic as such. Later students became active in the antiwar movement during the late 1960s—before they all became mostly preoccupied with drugs, sex, and other self-indulgence in the dissipated 1970s.

The point is: student activists, and students in general, were busy with other things and basically didn’t even discover the environmental movement until not long before the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Students did take an active role in the first Earth Day; it was conceived as a nationwide “teach-in” patterned after earlier “teach-ins” about the Vietnam War on college campuses. Thereafter, students became much more active and visible in the new environmental movement, and ultimately, in typically self-satisfied, self-important Baby Boomer fashion, they sort of took it over and acted as though they had built the whole movement in the first place, helping to give color to critics’ contentions that environmentalism was just the creation of some spoiled-rotten, affluent college kids who knew nothing about real work.

Obviously, though, Kenneth Worley, who was born in 1924—thus 45 years old in 1969—and was a Marine veteran of World War II who apparently never went to college, was not a Baby Boomer college kid, and was not speaking for them when he wrote his letter to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee. We can safely assume that relatively few of the members of UAW Region 5, or any other UAW region, had gone to college.

This all just helps to illustrate my point: the people who over the 1950s and ’60s brought the fledgling environmental movement to the point where it could be even called a movement, and to where there could even be a first Earth Day, were not Baby-Boomer college kids; they were mostly mature adults of the World War II and Korea generations.

[Notably, like most of the people who did all the early heavy lifting in the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and early 1960s, when most Baby Boomers were still in diapers or watching “Leave It To Beaver.” Remember, even the earliest Boomers, born in 1945, would have been only nineteen by the time of the Mississippi Freedom Summer—barely old enough to participate. Thus it is safe to say that nearly all Boomers were too young to have taken anything more than a mere spectator role in most of the significant achievements of the Civil Rights movement. Like the environmental movement, credit for all that must be given to the earlier generations who have never received credit for it. Boomers, by contrast, are due full credit for the irresponsible self-indulgence of the 1970s, as well as later being the “Me Generation” and young Reaganite conservatives of the 1980s. Credit (or discredit) where such is due.]

Worley’s letter, and what (and who) it represents, gives the lie to another popular myth about environmentalism: that it’s just a creation of (upper) middle-class elitists looking to establish nature preserves for themselves and their affluent families to romp in, with no regard for employment opportunities for ordinary working stiffs.

The charge of environmentalist “elitism” is one that Reaganite critics have loved to throw at environmentalists since the late 1970s, when corporate America and its spin-masters finally discovered effective if under-handed and logically inconsistent rhetorical tools to turn back the environmentalists’ appropriate critique of modern corporate consumer capitalism. The elitism charge has always been transparently hollow.

Early environmentalism, from the late 1960s through the ’70s, focused primarily on controlling air and water pollution and other forms of pollution. Upper-middle-class people already lived in relatively cleaner places, and always have; working for general clean-up of the air and water obviously had more impact on more heavily polluted poorer neighborhoods than on richer ones that were already relatively clean. No duh. Presumably that’s why the Reaganites and their descendants always loved to focus obsessively on wilderness preservation as though it were the whole of the environmental movement, and ignore pollution control—it’s a lot easier to caricature rich people frolicking on nature adventures in national parks than to confront the reality of people, rich, poor, or in between, challenging industrial pollution for the sake of everybody.

[I should add here that I am absolutely NOT joining in the Reaganite critique of wilderness preservation, which some on the left also have foolishly embraced; wilderness preservation is necessary and appropriate to keep a greedy, short-sighted, stupid corporate consumer economic machine from overrunning and destroying everything in its path in its mindless pursuit of short-term gain. And what is preserved is preserved for all, and for the future, even if it’s admittedly easier for the more affluent to take advantage of it. Does anyone suppose that the poor of today, who are struggling to get by, want their children or grandchildren to stay in the same situation, and never have a fuller life? Or want their children or grandchildren, even if more affluent, to inherit a world not worth living in? Moreover, if we were to measure the value of everything by the yardstick of people presently too poor to worry about anything other than just getting by, we would have to throw out pretty much everything: not just national parks and wilderness areas, but concert halls, opera houses, art galleries, museums, universities, and certainly the golf courses of the filthy rich. The very poor don’t have access to most of these institutions, unless as menial laborers. Yet it’s kind of funny how only the national parks and wilderness areas, which have resources that corporations wish to exploit, get branded with the label “elitist” and targeted for destruction. And how CEOs and investment bankers who annually earn several hundred to several thousand times what the average American taxpayer earns are not “elitist,” but environmentalists are. VERY mysterious. Almost looks like spin …. ]

At any rate, Worley, and the many ordinary union members from the St. Louis area who came out to testify before the visiting U.S. Senators in 1969—like the Teamsters-affiliated Martha Blacksher, James Pace, and Richard King, who complained bitterly of the harm lead smelter pollution was causing to their communities—obviously were not “elitists,” unlike the well-heeled academic and political spin-doctors who later cunningly cooked up that label for anybody who challenged corporate environmental destruction.

The later history of Ken Worley, unfortunately, parallels the history of both the decline of union-environmental cooperation and the decline of the American labor movement as a whole.

Kenneth Lee Worley was born in Fortuna, Missouri—a small town in a rural county right in the center of the state—on June 18, 1924. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater during World War II—his obituaries call him a “decorated veteran,” a fact Worley apparently carried proudly through his life. He married his wife of forty years (she predeceased him) in 1954 in Liberty, Missouri, now a suburb of Kansas City. Worley was director of Region 5 of the UAW for 21 years from the 1960s to the 1980s. He was living in retirement back in Fortuna when he died on March 8, 2010. The Ken Worley UAW Center in Wentzville, Missouri is named after him.

What was Worley thinking when he made his sweeping pro-environmental statements in his letter to the visiting Senators in 1969? As with any person, at any time, it is hard to say for certain. Was his strident rhetoric entirely a reflection of his own personal feelings at that time, or was it affected by a majority (or outspoken minority) of his rank and file members within Region 5, or was it in part an effort to curry favor with Walter Reuther, the far-sighted, progressive, and pro-environmental top leader of the UAW? We don’t know. Some historians, most of whom know and understand very little about environmental issues or environmentalists, when first confronted with Worley’s pro-environmental rhetoric, may be inclined to be dismissive, concluding that “He was just saying that.” They don’t know for certain just what was going on in Worley’s mind any better than I do, but whatever the case, he WAS saying it—that is, as a major and rising figure within a major international union, and speaking on behalf of tens of thousands of members, he MADE those strident statements, on the public record. Even assuming that Worley may not have been speaking purely from his own heart—few of us ever do, especially public figures—he obviously felt that it was not only politically safe, but perhaps also politically advantageous, to write what he did. That in itself obviously speaks volumes about the mood of the times, and the mood within UAW’s Region 5.

The fortunes of both the environmental movement and the labor movement ebbed in the 1970s, though. Walter Reuther himself died in a plane crash in early 1970, a few months before the first Earth Day. The 1970s brought economic troubles to the United States that tended to dampen both movements and drive a wedge between them. Although environmentalists and labor unions continued to cooperate on certain issues well into the 1970s, gradually, unions, concerned about hanging onto union jobs and job-creating projects, began to abandon their pro-environmental stance. Various major unions favored the Supersonic Transport (SST) project—which was both economically and environmentally a bad idea, as later developments revealed, but which promised jobs. Unions also favored building the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline and more nuclear power plants, additional bad ideas that environmentalists resisted. By 1980, the major unions were more and more prone to ally themselves with corporate management and make sweeping concessions to management to hang onto jobs, and, of course, in the election of 1980, large numbers of union members became “Reagan Democrats,” switching sides to vote for the pro-growth, anti-environmental former governor of California. [Environmentalists were generally horrified by Reagan and his proposals and mostly did not vote for him; unlike union members, they definitely cannot be blamed for helping to elect him and bring on the age of Reaganism. Reagan, of course, promptly rewarded the blue-collar Reagan Democrats’ loyalty by dramatically and aggressively using the full power of the federal government to smash the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike, so helping to break the remaining strength of the American labor movement to such an extent that it is only starting to recover now, decades later.]

By the 1980s, whatever his earlier views on the environment may have been, Worley, a survivor and an insider, was an active participant in the alliance between union leaders and corporate management. Worley and other UAW leaders helped to arrange secret deals with employers, then presented them to the rank and file as faits accomplis. Rebel movements within the UAW sprouted up to challenge what some saw as high-handed and unresponsive union leadership of the 1980s; Victor Reuther in particular came out of retirement to fight against the new “partnership” approach to union-management relations, which he saw as a return to the 1920s and everything he and his brother had fought against. Worley was challenged for his leadership position in Region 5 by Jerry Tucker, a popular, reform-minded UAW official and leader of the “New Directions” caucus of local union leaders concerned with the upper leadership’s readiness to accept job losses, concessions, and a common front with corporate management. Worley initially hung onto his position by one-tenth of a vote in a close, bitterly contested election in 1986 that drew allegations of corruption and impropriety. Later, after prolonged litigation brought by the United States Department of Labor, a federal court threw out the 1986 election results, and Tucker handily won in the 1988 rematch. Although Tucker was soon squeezed out again by the established leadership of the UAW, the whole transaction embarrassed the UAW leadership, including UAW president Owen Bieber.

“Partnership”-prone UAW leaders such as Bieber and Worley presumably honestly felt that the cozying up to corporate management and making secret agreements with corporations were the best things they could do for their union and its members during what was, for both the UAW and the U.S. auto industry, a generally disastrous run of years from the 1970s through the 1980s, as the industry reeled from foreign competition (especially from fuel-efficient and well-made Japanese imports), U.S. auto plants were closed, and the Big Three automakers of Detroit lost ever more domestic and international market share. Bieber credited himself with softening the blows to the UAW by the partnership approach. Other union leaders, such as Victor Reuther and Jerry Tucker, advocated a different path, confronting the corporations more aggressively as the union had done in the past, even being ready to strike if necessary. Probably the domestic plant closures and steady off-shoring of American jobs were never as inevitable as the corporations and their allies in the Reagan administration liked to pretend; yet at the same time, there definitely were powerful forces pushing in those directions.

Whether or not American unions could have done better during the 1980s with a different strategy, and whether or not the UAW somewhat helped to soften the blow for its workers relative to certain other industries such as the hard-hit steel industry, the fact remains that overall, labor lost out during the Reagan years and has been, ever since, a mere shadow of its former self. That suggests that, if they were going to lose anyway, the union leadership might have done better at least to go down fighting. They chose not to.

They also forgot that they ever were allied with some friends they might have had in that fight—the environmentalists. Worley of course wrote his striking, strident letter in 1969; around the same time, both before and after his brother Walter’s death, Victor Reuther made various passionate public statements regarding the common interests of workers with students and environmentalists. By the mid- to late 1970s, already, such statements were long forgotten, and Victor Reuther, even as he was trying to help mobilize progressive elements within the UAW to challenge the established leadership, seemingly never mentioned environmentalists again, at least not in a favorable way; the same goes for Kenneth Worley. Ironically, even the segments of the UAW that challenged the established leadership’s coziness with the corporations nevertheless appeared to have swallowed the corporations’ anti-environmentalist poison. Such attitudes persist even today, with far too many environmentally unaware leftists joining disingenuous right-wing spin-doctors in a common front of self-righteously bashing environmentalists as though they somehow are the problem. Again, it wasn’t the environmentalists who elected Ronald Reagan president. And although some union members who became Reagan Democrats may have felt alienated by environmentalists, more were probably at least equally alienated by the (non-environmentalist) student activists of the 1960s and ’70s. It’s easy to see how World War II veterans like Worley, or Korea veterans, might have felt put off by what many saw as lazy, irresponsible, draft-dodging, pot-smoking, sexually libertine, pampered deadbeats of the 1970s. [In fact, Ronald Reagan’s whole major political career and trajectory toward the presidency began when he was elected governor of California in 1966, based in large part upon the statewide emotional appeal of his promise to rein in and muzzle the student radicals of the Berkeley Free Speech movement—who were not talking much if at all about environmental issues.]

Ken Worley’s striking 1969 letter indicates that significant elements within the America labor movement actively embraced the environmentalist cause at that time; other evidence reveals the same picture. When the hopeful relationship came to an end during the 1970s and ’80s, it was fundamentally due to labor bailing on the environmentalists, not the other way around. Labor, in cozying up to corporations that were already determined to close plants and off-shore jobs, shot itself in the foot. On balance, and with hindsight, labor leaders made bad decisions that sealed the fate of the American labor movement. Union members did the same by switching parties to vote for Ronald Reagan.

Only someone quite ignorant of these facts, or quite disingenuous, could blame environmentalists for these disastrous results. That doesn’t keep them from being blamed, though, or from being used generally as a whipping-boy for the frustrations and disappointments of the American left. More on that later.

And the bottom line remains: when Ken Worley made his statement in 1969 that various other worthy reform issues would not matter if we fumbled the ball on the environment—HE WAS RIGHT.

In fact, HE IS STILL RIGHT.

[Just as Prince Ea is right!]

Which is something that a lot of well-intentioned progressive reformers, confronting the plethora of policy problems we presently face, should always keep in mind.

Or in other words, to bluntly rephrase Ken Worley’s statement, and to liberally paraphrase former President Bill Clinton:

“It’s the ENVIRONMENT, stupid!”

Fun with the Fringe Festival: “Alien vs. Musical” Is an LA Theater Romp

[Another gratuitous theater review. And as with all my gratuitous theater reviews, it is targeted at my fellow Angelenos, or any non-Angelenos who will be temporary, visiting Angelenos during the next few weeks.]

 

Hey, all you avid theater-goers out there!  [Or, for the more pretentious among you, “theatre-goers.” 🙂  ]

Last Saturday, my theater critic friend dragged me out to a newly opening production that is part of the month-or-so-long annual Los Angeles Fringe Festival of relatively small and experimental local theater productions. I say “dragged” because I was tired, it was hot as hell in the San Gabriel Valley that particular day (as usual, much cooler in Hollywood), and I really wasn’t in the mood to see anything. So I was sort of expecting to be underwhelmed at best, gravely annoyed at worst.

Instead, I wound up laughing a lot—often pretty hard—and really enjoying the show. So I’m recommending it, especially to all of you with a somewhat dark or sick (or both) sense of humor. [Who seem to be well-represented among people who’ve been to law school, for some unknown reason . . . . ]

“Alien vs. Musical,” which was first produced in a somewhat shorter version for last year’s Fringe Festival and was an audience favorite, takes place in the Land of Musicals, where all characters from classic, vintage and recent American musical theater live together in peace, happiness, and harmony. So, Maria from “The Sound of Music” is there. [And so is Maria from “West Side Story.”] Harold Hill from “The Music Man” is there. Lil’ Orphan Annie is there. Elphaba from “Wicked” is there. Jean Valjean from “Les Miserables” is there, and has a romantic thing going on with Tracy from “Hairspray.” And so on, and so on. Then somebody finds the egg from the classic science fiction horror film “Alien,” nobody knows what it is, and things develop from there, as the Alien emerges and takes down one musical theater character after another as the characters struggle to figure out how to fight, and beat, the Alien.

All of this is set to music, with characters singing the sorts of songs they sang in their original musicals. The music is capably provided by a four-piece band (keyboards, electric guitar, bass, and drums), and the songs are chock full of cleverly written lyrics, while the music also satirizes and parodies stock Broadway fare. The whole story, and the situations in it, are of course entirely absurd, and only become more so as the story progresses. The audience was frequently in stitches.

My friend and I saw the preview before the show officially opens later—and critics don’t usually review previews, but the Festival requested that they do so for these, because most shows will only run for a very few weeks, and they need whatever publicity they can get and they need it early. My critic friend was complaining a little that the production wasn’t as tight as it might have been, with people seeming to take longer than necessary to get on or off stage, start the next scene, and so on. [I wasn’t especially bothered by that.] Then, after the show, we heard one cast member telling an audience member how that was the very first time they had put on the show in that particular theater (apparently they’d been rehearsing elsewhere), and as anybody familiar with theatrical productions will likely empathize, moving a show to a new location is a tricky business, where you suddenly have either more or less space to do whatever you were doing, and what used to take ten steps now takes twenty, or vice versa. So it would have been miraculous had the show not been a little un-tight, as the cast was adjusting to the new space. That also might have been a factor with another problem that troubled me a little more: with some of the actors, when they were singing, it was sometimes hard to hear what they were saying; they were not projecting loudly enough to be heard above the band. For example, that was a particular problem with Maria, a major character, who confronts the additional hurdle of having to try to sing loudly in a sicky-sweet, affected Julie Andrews voice and accent (which was less of a problem later on, and mostly never a problem when the actress was only speaking and not singing; the actress generally gave a delightful performance). Another major character, Lil’ Orphan Annie, by contrast, belted out her songs like a real Broadway performer and could always be heard loud and clear. Anyway, hopefully these sporadic audibility/comprehensibility problems were the result of moving to the new space, and the cast will successfully adjust by projecting/articulating more, and perhaps toning down the band a little, as needed. [And notably, even where singing was less than perfectly audible or comprehensible, the performances were still quite enjoyable; just as with opera, you usually don’t really need to know just what’s being said.]

Many more nice things could be said about many performers in the cast, as well as the ensemble work overall. I’ll just note that the Alien, too, was delightful—played (mostly) by one of the actors doing a character who gets bumped off early, the Alien dances, flirts, and also broke up the audience by doing some classic “WTF?” body language when the Alien is getting ready to take down another character, but that character, in classic Broadway musical fashion, won’t stop singing. By the end, the Alien is a large, three-person puppet that sings and does chorus-line dance steps. It was all very funny.

I had some particular favorite scenes, but especially because some of them came very much out of left field as surprises, I won’t dampen the element of surprise by discussing them . . . .

If you want to see this, be sure to get there FAST, because, like other offerings in the Fringe Festival, it might only run for about three weeks. Because my critic friend gets free tickets, so I never have to worry about the cost of things, I don’t know whether tickets are discounted for the Festival or are more the normal going rate for theater in Hollywood (usually around $20; you can always check GoldStar or other online services to see whether you can find discounts).

The production is by the Sacred Fools Theater Company—a very good and innovative local theater group—at their new space in what was formerly the Lillian Theater (maybe it’s still known as the Lillian Theater, or Theatre if you prefer?), less than a block south of Santa Monica Boulevard on Lillian and between Cahuenga and Vine in the heart of the LA Theater District. It is a small, intimate theater (99 seats), and from every seat in the house, you feel very close to the action—the actors’ energy doesn’t get lost in transmission over long distances (as all too often happens in large theater or stadium productions), and there are no nose-bleed seats.

Here are some links for the Lillian Theater (which used to be the home of the Elephant Theatre Company), for the Sacred Fools (also on Facebook), and for “Alien vs. Musical.”

 

http://www.theatermania.com/los-angeles/theaters/lillian-theater_1424/

http://www.sacredfools.org/

http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/2202

http://www.alienvsmusical.com/

ALERT: I see there are presently only four more scheduled performances after the preview. That might change, and the run might get extended or be brought back, if it proves to be popular with audiences. Here’s the schedule currently listed:

 

Sacred Fools Theater Main Stage
1076 Lillian Way, Los Angeles CA 90038

Saturday, June 4th @ 2:30pm (PREVIEW)
Thursday, June 9th @ 7:00pm
Friday, June 17th @ 11:30pm
Thursday, June 23rd @ 8:30pm
Sunday, June 26th @ 6:00pm

 

 

 

 

Memorial Day 2016: The Real G.I. Joe

I’ve been lazy about posting, or even just re-posting, anything for the past month, partly because my blog was somehow getting insanely high daily visit counts even while I was just letting it sit there, and I thought it best just to leave it alone. [This month will be the first time since November 2014 that the monthly visit count will go over 10,000 again; granted, what I left sitting there all this while is one of my favorites, but still I cannot even try to explain the sudden surge in visits or what meaning it has, if any.]

But we’re coming up on Memorial Day, as well as the fourth anniversary of one of my other all-time personal favorites. Although earlier repostings accumulated various additional commentary that probably didn’t add much, this time, I’ll just re-post the original, unadorned and unadulterated.

Best wishes and best of luck to America’s military service personnel who are still stuck out there fighting wars begun twelve to fifteen years ago. I know it’s probably an impossible wish, but I hope you all manage to make it home safe and sound.

 

The Real G.I. Joe

[Originally posted in 2012]

 

Today is Memorial Day, when America remembers and honors the men and women who gave their lives in the military service of their country in one or another of the many wars America has fought since its founding. Hopefully Americans also think about and express gratitude to the still-serving or veteran soldiers, sailors, and airmen on this day, too, even if the official day for that purpose is Veterans Day. [And, since I love dogs, I personally hope that some people will also remember the fallen or still-living canine soldiers who form an increasingly important part of America’s military effort.]

To switch abruptly from real servicemen and –women to the strictly fictional, comic-book variety, I learned two weeks ago that June 29, 2012 was to be the release date for Paramount Studios’ summer blockbuster action thriller film, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the title role—although recently the release date was rolled back to March 29, 2013, to allow the director to insert more 3D scenes to cater to foreign moviegoers and try to expand worldwide box office returns. The current movie trailer shows temporarily airborne tanks, gratuitous explosions, and other mindless, implausible, but exciting standard stuff of Hollywood action thrillers.

"The Rock" as G.I. Joe

“The Rock” as G.I. Joe

News of G.I. Joe: Retaliation made me remember the original G.I. Joe—and reflect wistfully on the changes in the image of America’s military forces, and America’s own self-image, over the past seventy years.

For the original G.I. Joe was far from the mighty, muscle-bound superhero/killing machine of the recent G.I. Joe movies. He wasn’t even the buff, tough, but more nearly human warrior of the Hasbro toy action figures of the 1960s and ’70s.

Most Americans living today would never remember that the original G.I. Joe, the first character to bear that name, was a comic figure: a short, skinny, ordinary guy in the World War II U.S. Army who regularly got himself into trouble by trying to figure out ways to shirk work, make a little extra money on the side, or find romance in a war zone, or just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time—and whom nobody, including himself, took that seriously. G.I. Joe was sometimes a malingerer or a complainer; he was always a smart-ass and a wiseheimer.

Cover of an original hard-cover collection of World War II-vintage G.I. Joe cartoons

Cover of an original hard-cover collection of World War II-vintage G.I. Joe cartoons

Yes, the original G.I. Joe even was a “four-eyes” back when wearing glasses was rarer, contact lenses didn’t exist, and four-eyes got picked on in school.

GIJoe_book_cover_I

As a showcase for human frailties, the original G.I. Joe was entirely too human, the antithesis of a superhero.

Private Breger - HItler Kite

He also was a reflection of a very different American military, and a very different America. An America that could laugh at itself.

GIJoe_Colonel_orderly_cartoon

The real G.I. Joe was the creation of cartoonist Dave Breger (1908-1970), who graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in psychology in 1931—the depths of the Great Depression—then worked for his Russian immigrant parents’ Chicago sausage factory before moving to New York City in 1937 to try to make it as a freelance cartoonist. In 1941, just after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Breger was drafted into the U.S. Army and wound up fixing trucks at an army base in Louisiana, though still doodling and cartooning in the evenings. Breger’s first wartime single-frame cartoons, called “Private Breger,” initially appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. But Breger’s talent was discovered by the Army, who in June 1942 shipped him to England to serve as a cartoonist for Yank, the Army Weekly. While working for Yank, Breger changed the name of his cartoon to “G.I. Joe.” Breger’s cartoon ran from 1942 to 1945, made Breger one of the most popular wartime cartoonists, and made “G.I. Joe” a household term used throughout the United States to describe the ordinary American foot soldier.

World War II cartoonist Dave Breger

World War II cartoonist Dave Breger

Breger and his formerly famous, popular cartoon character are now largely forgotten, especially relative to Breger’s better-remembered, younger contemporary, wartime cartoonist Bill Mauldin (1921-2003). There may be various reasons for this. Mauldin, who studied art at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts before the war, produced more dramatic, statuesque, memorable images than the self-taught Breger. Mauldin’s cartoons, although funny, often tended to have darker, more philosophical overtones than the more light-hearted pure fun of Breger’s “G.I. Joe.” That difference might have resulted from Mauldin’s service with the press corps of the U.S. Army’s 45th Division throughout the unexpectedly tough, thorny Italian campaign of 1943-44, where Mauldin regularly visited soldiers at the front and was once wounded by German mortar fire. Breger, stationed in London, may never have seen the front. Mauldin also had a long and celebrated postwar career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist (after winning an earlier Pulitzer in 1945, at the tender age of 23, for his wartime cartoons and commentary on wartime experiences). Bill Mauldin was still alive when America belatedly rediscovered the Second World War in films such as Saving Private Ryan and books such as The Greatest Generation; Dave Breger was by then long gone. At any rate, Mauldin’s iconic characters Willie and Joe, the long-suffering ordinary foot soldiers who appeared in the pages of the American servicemembers’ newspaper Stars and Stripes, are now better-remembered than Breger’s once-iconic ordinary foot soldier, Private Breger/G.I. Joe. [To the limited extent that Americans remember anything at all from their past.]

Bill Mauldin, 1945 - 1

Bill Mauldin, 1945 – 1

Bill Mauldin, 1945 - 2

Bill Mauldin, 1945 – 2

Bill Mauldin, 1945 - 3

Bill Mauldin, 1945 – 3

Mauldin Foxhole

Mauldin-Purple Heart

Mauldin Buttons in way

Mauldin Who Is It

Mauldin  Damn Fine Road

Mauldin Sittin with two sick friends

Mauldin-Chianti

[Two interesting articles on Bill Mauldin: 1 2 WWII photo gallery with Mauldin cartoons ]

Yet there are notable similarities between Breger’s and Mauldin’s work. For instance, both cartoonists spoke for the ordinary “little guy” and regularly made fun of officers and their presumption, pretensions, and demands for following orders without question. [General Patton once upbraided Mauldin and threatened to have him thrown in jail for lampooning officers; General Eisenhower ordered Patton to leave Mauldin alone, recognizing that he helped provide soldiers with a healthy vent for their justifiable frustrations.] Both cartoonists depicted not highly trained, specially equipped soldier-superheroes, but ordinary citizen-soldiers doing their jobs, struggling to survive, and wanting and waiting to go home and get back to their ordinary civilian lives. Both cartoonists reflected a culture that saw both war and large standing professional military forces as abnormal, and held the belief that the “little guy,” and his right to live decently and peacefully, was what the whole war was really about. Both G.I. Joe, and Willy and Joe, represented a fundamentally down-home, unpretentious, democratic, slyly anti-authoritarian vision of the essential meaning of America. They were wildly popular with servicemembers and the general American public.

The name “G.I. Joe” quickly surfaced throughout American popular culture, in advertising, literature, and everyday conversation. But the next major appearance of the term in popular culture also clearly reflected the Breger/Mauldin vision. In 1945, United Artists released The Story of G.I. Joe, based on the columns of the well-loved, widely read, Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle (1900-1945), who like Mauldin observed the Italian campaign, though officially as a civilian. Pyle was known for his “love affair with the ordinary infantryman” and for affectionately and respectfully telling the stories of many average G.I. Joes, as well as for spending time at the front with soldiers and sharing some of the danger and hardship they faced. [Pyle was killed in action on Ie Shima, a small island near Okinawa, in April 1945.]

Beloved World War II war correspondent Ernie Pyle

Beloved World War II war correspondent Ernie Pyle

Ernie Pyle, killed in action, 1945

Ernie Pyle, killed in action, 1945

Pyle’s columns, and The Story of G.I. Joe, focused not on glamorous superhero stunts, but rather on the unglamorous, ordinary, everyday, low-level “heroics” of the common infantryman coping with the misery and sacrifice of war. The two major episodes featured in the film were not smashing American victories. Rather, the first was the Battle for Kasserine Pass, one of the early American military engagements in North Africa in 1942, where green American soldiers were badly whipped by the experienced, battle-hardened troops of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps. At Kasserine Pass, Ernie Pyle gets to know “C” Company, 18th Infantry, and its popular commander, Lieutenant Bill Walker. The second episode finds Pyle reconnecting with “C” Company in 1944 at the long, frustrating siege of Monte Cassino, where dug-in German soldiers blocked the Allied advance up the Italian Peninsula, and where Walker, by then a captain and still loved by his men, is killed in action.

GIJoeposter

Robert Mitchum played the role of Lieutenant Walker; it was the role that made his career as a major film star. Burgess Meredith, then little-known and serving as a captain in the U.S. Army, was picked to play the role of Ernie Pyle precisely because he was less well-known than veteran actors James Gleason or Walter Brennan, who also were considered for the role. For lifelike background and extras for the film, the Army provided United Artists with 150 combat veterans of the Italian campaign, who in 1945 were in California training for redeployment to the Pacific Theater, namely the planned invasion of Japan. All in all, the mood of the film (which I have not yet seen) apparently was relatively realistic and unglamorized (by Hollywood standards), and relatively true to the vision of Ernie Pyle, who was killed on Ie Shima two months before the film’s release. It was about the “little guy,” the ordinary American citizen soldiers patiently and stubbornly fighting to help free the world from the grip of the Axis powers. United Artists, like Pyle, Mauldin, and Breger, saw the “little guy” as worth knowing and appreciating.

The Story of G.I. Joe thus affixed Dave Breger’s lasting label to Ernie Pyle’s (and Bill Mauldin’s) Italy. It was nominated for four Academy Awards; later, in 2009, the Library of Congress officially added it to the National Film Registry as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically” significant film to be preserved for all time.

As World War II ended, American servicemembers eagerly anticipated returning home, living in peace, and being through with war. Whatever millions of G.I. Joes might have wished, however, after the Second World War ended, the Cold War with the Soviet Union soon began. World War II also catapulted the United States to global imperial status—a role the nation might have taken, but refused, after World War I. As a result, the United States never really fully demobilized and went back to its traditional normal existence; rather, it became, for the first time, a permanent warrior nation on the international stage, maintaining large standing, professional military forces in all branches of military service. [The United States had kept a powerful, two-ocean navy since the late 1800s, because the most threatening potential enemies were across an ocean on a different continent, but America traditionally had allowed its army to dwindle down to a token force after each war.] In effect, the United States became accustomed to a constant state of warfare.

The next emergence of G.I. Joe in American popular culture reflected the nation’s new, permanent warrior ethic. When the first G.I. Joe “action figures” appeared in 1964, they no longer represented a figure of fun, or an ordinary citizen soldier patiently if irreverently putting up with military officers’ petty pretensions temporarily; the new G.I. Joes were buff, tough, masculine, deadly serious defenders of the free world. Hasbro, the company that produced the new action figures, had to develop the term “action figure” to get around American males’ traditional aversion to playing with dolls. That is, American boys, like boys elsewhere throughout human history and prehistory, had long played “war” as cowboys vs. Indians, or perhaps as Union vs. Confederate, and like other boys they had doubtlessly played with small, faceless tin soldiers, horses, and cannons—but they did not play with dolls. The 12-inch G.I. Joe, with facial features and movable limbs, was a doll—hence off-limits—until marketing strategists relabeled him an “action figure,” which suddenly made him an acceptable object of (straight) masculine attention. The 1964-69 action figures originally came out in three separate versions covering three separate branches of the military: a soldier named “Rocky,” a sailor named “Skip,” and a pilot named “Ace”—but the separate names were later dropped in favor of the generic name G.I. Joe, “America’s Movable Fighting Man.”

1960s-vintage G.I. Joe in the buff

1960s-vintage G.I. Joe in the buff

But the late 1960s, America’s frustrating and unsuccessful experience in the Vietnam War, and the resulting antiwar movement temporarily tarnished the image of the American military, and Hasbro replaced “G.I. Joe, America’s Movable Fighting Man” with the less clearly military “G.I. Joe Adventure Team.” The 1970-76 G.I. Joes gradually introduced superhero-type powers, such as the “kung fu grip” and “eagle eye vision”; Hasbro, responding to the cultural changes brought by the Civil Rights movement and the later Black Power movement, also began offering African American G.I. Joes during the 1970s. Changing fads and fashions, and lingering anti-military sentiments, led Hasbro to drop the original soldier concept and the G.I. Joe name in 1976 in favor of a bionic man action figure and other fanciful superheroes.

1970s-vintage G.I. Joe superhero action figure, "Atomic Man" Mike Power

1970s-vintage G.I. Joe superhero action figure, “Atomic Man” Mike Power

America’s Vietnam debacle, plus the Watergate Scandal that brought down the presidency of archetypal Cold Warrior Richard M. Nixon, dampened America’s imperial pretensions for a while. Yet the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980 announced to the world a re-militarization of the United States, and that America intended to use its power more aggressively again. Along with both nuclear and conventional-force saber-rattling directed at the Soviet Union, the Reagan administration eagerly seized the opportunity to flex its military muscle, and try out new tactics, in the October 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada, a tiny Caribbean island that had experienced a pro-Soviet leftist coup in 1979. The U.S. military quickly, effectively, and efficiently accomplished its mission of toppling the leftist government.

The (unnecessary) Grenada invasion was transparently an effort to start exorcising the unwelcome ghost of failure in Vietnam (as well as the memory of the failed military mission to rescue American hostages held in Iran in 1980); it led to mass outbursts of enthusiastic flag-waving and patriotic rhetoric in the United States, far out of all proportion to the relative insignificance of what was only a minor engagement, and notwithstanding the complaints of most of the rest of the world, including our allies, that the U.S. invasion violated international law. Basically, Grenada was a gratuitous opportunity to score an easy win, and to convince a frustrated post-Vietnam, post-1970s American public that America could “stand tall” and start winning again—as well as go it alone in the face of international criticism if America felt like it.

[Notably, Grenada happened only after the UK’s silly Falkland Islands War against Argentina, which provoked mass jingoistic outbursts in the UK and helped to reinvigorate flagging support for the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. So the Falkland Islands War showed how a smashing, one-sided victory in a silly little war could really sell politically in a frustrated nation. Also notably, the Grenada invasion began less than 48 hours after the deadly October 1983 truck-bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon that killed 241 Marines in their sleep. Grenada helped to divert public attention from that avoidable fiasco and gave the Reagan administration an easy win when it badly wanted one. The timing almost certainly was more than a mere coincidence, particularly since Grenada did not represent any threat to the United States, and any invasion thus could easily have waited. In historical perspective, the Grenada invasion comes out looking like a publicity stunt.]

In keeping with the change in America’s public mood revealed by the election of Reagan, in 1982, Hasbro relaunched and re-militarized G.I. Joe, “A Real American Hero.” The company brought out a new line of 3.75-inch action figures, together with a pioneering marketing campaign combining with traditional advertising an animated television miniseries and a run of comic books, plus a long line of accessories sold separately. By 1985, the new G.I. Joes were ranked the top-selling toys in America. The “Real American Hero” line continued until 1994.

Notably, 1982 also saw the first of the iconic Rambo movies, showcasing a fictional American super-soldier. The first film of the series was based on a popular novel about a traumatized Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Army Green Beret standing up to small-minded local authorities in Washington State, but the next two films (1985 and 1988) were standard Hollywood sequels, milking the success of the first film with Hollywood-made plots where the American super-soldier single-handedly beats up on impossibly vast numbers of Soviet soldiers or other Communist baddies. The comic book-like Rambo films, as the franchise later developed, perfectly fit the mood of the Reaganites’ re-militarization of America.

Sylvester-Stallone-as-Ramborambo10

After sporadic brief reissues commemorating anniversaries and such, from 2002 onward, G.I. Joe has been produced in association with an ongoing comic book story line: the unending rivalry between G.I. Joe and his arch-nemesis, Cobra. The marketing has been supported by either direct-to-video movies (G.I. Joe: Spy Troops and G.I. Joe: Valor vs. Venom) or by full-blown Hollywood film releases (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) and the recently postponed G.I. Joe: Retaliation). G.I. Joe has persistently evolved farther away from the ordinary, funny, frail human and American he once was, and has become an ever more bizarre, fanciful but deadly serious comic book superhero/killing machine.

220px-250px-GIJoeMovie1987GIJoeSpyTroops1Gijoevalorvsvenomcover220px-Gijoemovieposter

But my point is not to dwell on the evolution of the G.I. Joe toy franchise. I never played with them as a child, and didn’t understand why other kids did; though I was into war like other boys, I never found human figures appealing as toys.

No—my point is that the change in popular culture reflects what I see as an unfortunate parallel change in America’s self-image and the image of its military.

In short: I worry that America has largely abandoned the vision of Dave Breger, Bill Mauldin, and Ernie Pyle, a vision of American fighting men and women as ordinary American citizens reflecting American civilian values, decently and humbly doing their duty as part of a vast team of similarly ordinary Americans until they all get the job done and can go home. That was a vision of a citizen army, and it reflected a democratic ethic of shared sacrifice, and the general sense both that nobody was above military service and that everybody had something to contribute to the effort. It was a vision of America as all one community, with no sharp division between servicemembers and civilians. The healthy irreverence toward arbitrary military authority reflected in Breger’s G.I. Joe and Mauldin’s Willy and Joe had a healthy, democratic leveling effect, and served as a reminder that America fundamentally represented freedom, including freedom of speech and the freedom to be irreverent in the face of authority.

In contrast, since the Cold War, and particularly since President Reagan, the American military has grown in professionalization and permanence to an extent that would make it wholly unrecognizable to pre-World War II Americans. Of course, recent episodes, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden and the rescue of captives from Somali pirates by highly trained US Navy Seal units, shows how sometimes, it’s nice to have incredibly highly trained, competent, efficient experts in the use of military force to get certain jobs done neatly and quickly. Americans could not have pulled off operations like those in 1940, or probably even in 1970. And America took a long time getting on its feet militarily and getting its ordinary citizens adequately trained in both World Wars—from the British perspective, a painfully long time in each case.

Yet the fact remains that a large, powerful, permanent, professional military apparatus is fundamentally more characteristic of an empire than of a democratic society—that was true of imperial Rome in ancient times, and imperial Germany and Japan in modern times, to name just a few examples. And the ready availability of professional military force makes it much easier for a society to act imperially or aggressively—just as it’s obviously easier to pull out a gun and use it on somebody if you’re already carrying it in your waistband, well-oiled and loaded, than if you have to run home and unlock one safe to get the weapon and a separate safe to get at the ammunition. Since the start of the Cold War, America, with a more professional military, has moved in a persistently more imperial direction. The Vietnam debacle was a warning against American imperial pretensions, but rather than learn that lesson, American leaders instead revamped and further professionalized US military forces to make them more flexible for further imperial adventures. And because American leaders ran into trouble using a citizen army of draftees for imperial purposes, they did away with the draft—and thus the US Army and Marines of the Vietnam era represent perhaps the last traditional American citizen army a la Breger, Mauldin, and Pyle—an army of society-wide shared sacrifice. Instead, American leaders—and citizens—now leave it to the professionals, which may have led to an unfortunate societal sense of a division between the military and the general public, of “them” and “us.” They are supposed to make sacrifices and do their job so that we can go on lavishly consuming in peace and rarely think about them.

Needless to say, that is a vision and understanding of the military, and of a nation at war, that is fundamentally different from Breger’s and Mauldin’s.

The further professionalization of the US military seems also to have conjured forth a superhero image of American forces in the mind of the general public. The American people, and even probably many leaders, may now have the notion that the US military really is Johnny Rambo, or “The Rock” as G.I. Joe—a highly trained, invincible superhero/killing machine. The highly publicized incidents involving use of special forces contribute to that image. And American popular culture tends to focus on the extremes of military professionalization—in the 1980s, it was “Top Gun” fighter pilots; now it’s US Navy Seals. The popular worship of military professionalization—soldiers, sailors, and pilots as comic book superheroes—tends to increase an overall nationwide presumption of easy American invincibility, among both leaders and the general public. That in turn lowers the threshold for imperial adventures.

Ironically, in my (limited) experience, actual members of the military are less prone to this fallacy than the wider public. Certainly other servicemembers respect the demonstrated excellence of America’s special forces, and their aura of power and professionalism probably inspires many enlistees to enlist in the first place. But actual servicemen and –women also know a lot more about the reality of the military, and that it’s not all highly trained superheroes, but mostly a lot of relatively ordinary American citizens doing their job within a large bureaucratic institution—more like Breger’s and Mauldin’s US Army. Servicemembers mostly still understand themselves to be citizens forming a citizen army. But all too often, the general American public seems to forget about such normal American servicemembers—just as it all too often and too easily forgets about injured soldiers and Marines and homeless or jobless veterans.

I fear that is one of the unfortunate and inevitable costs of a professionalized military—it is far too easy for the general public to feel comfortably insulated from servicemembers’ experiences and suffering. To use a very pedestrian illustration: if you pay somebody to take out your trash, rather than doing it yourself, it is altogether too easy to ignore the amount of trash you produce, or perhaps the toxicity of the trash, or the danger of slipping and falling on the way to the dumpster. It’s someone else’s problem. Out of sight, out of mind. And there’s also a big difference between members of a family sharing the responsibility for taking out the trash, and perhaps rotating performance of the duty, versus hiring an outsider.

For the general American public today, both military servicemembers themselves and the policies they have been ordered to execute are too much out of sight and out of mind. And I fear that America, with its post-Cold War professionalized military, its imperial pretensions, and its fantasies of superhero invincibility, has developed a slightly schizophrenic relationship with its own military: servicemembers certainly see themselves as members of the American family, as “us”; yet many among the American public—particularly the privileged professionals, the Wall Street investment bankers and hedge fund managers, the people who see themselves as far too important ever to make any sacrifice on behalf of the nation—effectively view American servicemembers as hired outsiders, as “them.”

So that’s why, this Memorial Day, I felt it was appropriate to revive and invoke the memory of the real, original G.I. Joe—and of a non-imperial America that could laugh at itself and could appreciate the ordinary “little guy.”

 

If It’s Tax Time, Then It’s Time For Yet Another Edition of “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic — An Environmentalist Fable”!

 

Also a fourth anniversary celebration for this blog. “Rearranging” was the first posting on this blog. The blog began during the U.S. presidential election campaign of 2012, when a lot of stupid stuff was going on and a lot of reckless rhetoric was flying around; four years later, we have even more stupid stuff and reckless rhetoric to keep us all amused and distracted. But this piece remains true as ever.

Happy Tax Day, all you corporate cogs!  🙂

Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic — An Environmentalist Fable

Posted on April 14, 2015 by Jeremiah

Reply

Almost Tax Day 2015, here in Year Seven of the Fed Bubble, as well as almost the 46th Earth Day, so time for a reposting of the first item ever posted on this blog, and for celebration of the third anniversary of Jeremiads.net.

The last three years have included various adventures, including being targeted by relatively sophisticated, national-government-type hackers, spending a good bit of money to get that cleaned out, seeing the blog’s statistics surge amazingly throughout 2014 only to crash later probably due to yet another attack, etc.

But this remains as true as ever . . . .

Posted April 15, 2014

If it’s Tax Day, it’s also time for yet another iteration of . . .

Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic — An Environmentalist Fable

And pretty much everything is the same as it was back in 2012, when this item was first posted—except that the Occupy Movement did conclusively show itself to be a flash in the pan. All it takes is a little illusory economic growth, a little gratuitous waving of easy Federal Reserve Board money in their faces, to get Americans right back to flipping houses, showering billions of dollars on meaningless new apps and annoying new manifestations of social media, and generally reinflating foolish economic bubbles that will blow up in our faces all over again. Maybe then we can briefly have another Occupy Movement before the whole idiotic, infantile process repeats itself.

No—people don’t learn. That’s why we’re going down the tubes.

Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic — An Environmentalist Fable

Posted April 15, 2013

[First published last year; brought back as part of my special commemoration of “Earth Month” 2013—which is probably drawing the attention of at least twelve people throughout the United States (Earth Month, that is, not my commemoration, which will likely draw even less attention), while the others focus on grabbing money by any underhanded means necessary, worrying about their appearance and their sexual prowess, and masturbating mindlessly with their myriad personal electronic devices, including the iPhone, the XBox, and everything in between.]

[Happy Tax Day, all you corporate cogs! ]

April 15 this year wasn’t only tax day—it was also the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the fabled trans-Atlantic ocean liner, the RMS Titanic. Whether or not somebody actually uttered the legendary words, “God himself couldn’t sink this ship!”—or whether the actual claims were more modest, as with a White Star Lines brochure stating that the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic, were “designed to be unsinkable,” or Shipbuilder magazine’s observation that the Titanic’s watertight doors and other novel design features made her “practically unsinkable”—the Titanic lives on in history as not only the world’s most famous ocean liner, but also a monument to human hubris.

[Yes, God COULD sink that ship.]

The tragedy of April 15, 1912 also gave rise to the image of “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”—the classic depiction of useless activity in the face of impending disaster.

I find all these images strikingly appropriate as the proud, smug ship of the new global economy and civilization steams swiftly toward the iceberg of environmental devastation and ecological collapse.

The self-important, self-entitled corporate ruling class of this brave new world consider themselves to be infallible, and the world they own and control to be unsinkable.

And most of the piecemeal reform efforts to date to address the many problems and inequities of that globalized economy and society may amount to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But now, with a nod to the recent re-release of James Cameron’s classic film in 3D, a cast of characters:

The mighty, multinational corporations are the captain and crew of the Titanic, with their hands on both the throttle and the rudder, taking the ship too fast through dangerous, icy water and steering straight ahead toward the iceberg. The inner circle of top global corporate leadership—the people with the real power, who can buy or sell national governments, or just ignore them—are like J. Bruce Ismay, President and Chairman of White Star Lines, who allegedly ordered the Titanic to steam too fast for the dangerous conditions.

Politicians, and lawyers, form the Titanic’s Deck Chairs Rearrangement Committee. Their secondary mission is to supervise the moving or reassigning of deck chairs in the face of the many different interests squabbling for better seats, or any seats, on the deck. In this capacity, like any bureaucrats, they seek to change the existing arrangements as little as possible, leaving the wealthiest and most privileged passengers at peace and quelling challenges from less-well-off passengers below by co-opting their leaders and giving them a few token cushy deck chairs with good views. These former opposition leaders then merge with the privileged passengers, occasionally mouthing some strident oppositional platitudes as a dramatic conversation piece, or in a bid to wrest an even choicer deck chair from some other privileged passenger.

The Deck Chairs Rearrangement Committee also periodically stages Committee elections, which basically just rotate existing committee members through different positions on the committee; they sometimes add a new member or two from among passengers not already on the committee, just for show. These elections are held with much fanfare, vitriol, and personal drama, as though the stakes are really high. But the elections, of course, are just a smokescreen. The Committee’s primary mission is to make sure that no mere passengers get anywhere even close to the ship’s rudder or throttle, or otherwise pester the powerful few who control those levers. They are well-paid for fulfilling that mission. If they do it well enough long enough, they can even get elevated to the inner circle with real power.

That is Committee members’ dream.

Citizens and interest groups with their various concerns and causes are the passengers in the deck chairs. Some of these causes are patently unworthy, such as getting even more tax breaks for already filthy-rich passengers—though such causes also get a good deal of attention from the Committee, for some reason. Other causes are highly worthy, such as offering quality education to all the children on board the ship, but such causes are many in number and have to struggle mightily to attract the attention of the eternally self-important, short-attention-spanned Committee members, who are of course busy holding elections, campaigning for elections, and making deals with the wealthiest passengers. The worthy causes are lucky if they can get the Committee’s attention long enough even to have one or two of their leaders co-opted and put in cushy deck chairs. Committee members generally make some effort to keep certain aggressive passengers from throwing other passengers off the boat altogether and into the icy water—only the Committee itself may do that. Beyond that, though, they really don’t want to be bothered.

The poor and underprivileged are, predictably, the passengers in steerage. They are lucky if they can get up briefly to even see the deck; a deck chair is out of the question. If they do get on deck, they are not welcome there; the deck-chair passengers and Committee members are generally agreed that steerage passengers belong down in steerage, even if that means locking them in down there. However, some self-appointed leaders of the steerage passengers can wrangle themselves a nice deck chair if they squawk loudly and persistently enough. Symbolism aside, that does absolutely nothing for the steerage passengers—but, of course, nobody on deck particularly cares.

Environmentalists are the rare curious passengers who have gotten up out of their deck chairs to look around, and to look outward across the water rather than just inward at the eternal squabble over deck chairs—as well as some even rarer renegade members of the crew and the Deck Chairs Rearrangement Committee. These curious explorers and renegades are running around screaming, “OH MY GOD, we’re headed STRAIGHT toward an ICEBERG!! OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD!! SOMEBODY DO SOMETHING!!” But such warnings are mostly ignored by the other passengers, and entirely ignored by the Committee. After all, what could be more important than squabbling over deck chairs? And anyway, there were earlier warnings about icebergs, the ship might even have brushed against one or two, but it obviously didn’t sink. So clearly, there’s no reason to worry. The Committee might offer a few of the alarmed, screaming passengers cushier deck chairs, in hopes that will shut them up.

At higher levels, the captain, crew, and owners of the ship know that an iceberg, or a reduction in speed, would be inconvenient for business reasons—so there must be no iceberg. Some among the inner circle—those with advanced training in economics—have even developed theories based upon numerous complicated equations demonstrating that not only is the ship, in theory, unsinkable, but better yet, in theory, icebergs cannot exist. Because the theories and their supporting equations are quite robust—various other economic theorists have checked them out—there is no need to look out the front windows. Full speed ahead.

_______________________________________________________________

When I first conceived this simple fable, the purpose I had in mind was to hammer home that the environment is, in the end, the central issue: unless we successfully steer clear of it, all the other policy issues, a great many of which I personally care about, really won’t matter. Some of these other issues are of great significance—even amounting to keeping some passengers from throwing others off the ship, as with protecting certain civil rights, death penalty reform, equity for the underprivileged, and effective measures to keep criminal street gangs from killing other people with drugs or drive-by shootings. These issues appropriately matter a lot to many other people, and they matter a lot to me. But they all assume that the ship stays afloat. If the ship goes down, even highly significant other issues will prove only to have been more rearranging of deck chairs. Here in the 21st Century, after too many decades of dithering, we need to finally get our priorities straight and stop just rearranging the deck chairs. To mix metaphors: if the foundation of your house is slipping downhill, you don’t worry about the track lighting.

But a friend straightened me out by noting that the issue isn’t only the presence of the iceberg straight in front of us; it’s also the hands controlling the throttle and rudder. Even if the primary goal is to avoid hitting the iceberg, the top, emergency priority must be to wrest the control levers from those who are smugly and self-confidently sending us all full speed into the iceberg. And those hands are the hands of reckless, ruthless, insatiable multinational corporate power and greed, partly covered by the fig leaf of the legal and political institutions that exist primarily to protect and enhance corporate power. These existing institutions have already conclusively demonstrated their rigidity and inadequacy in confronting the looming global environmental crisis; in the thirty years since global warming surfaced as a threat, they have done, effectively, nothing but preserve and intensify the status quo. As long as those hands retain unbridled control of the levers of power, we are all doomed.

The 99%/Occupy Movement may represent the beginning of a healthy, long-overdue, sustained effort to wrest the levers of power away from a smug, self-interested, insulated corporate ruling class too blinded by their own power games to see the ecological threats we all face—sort of like the self-important grandees who demolished Easter Island’s environment to create more big stone heads as monuments to their own egos, described in Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Unfortunately, the poison from the false religions of the Friedmaniac “Free Market” and Ayn Randian cult of selfishness has spread wide and deep, and it is not yet clear whether the Occupiers have a bold, clear new vision for society or are merely current losers at Monopoly who still dream of winning at Monopoly (in other words, joining the 1%). American reform movements have a long history of stalling and ultimately failing, partly because of the Establishment’s well-practiced ability to co-opt reformist leadership. But if the Occupy Movement (or some other movement) does develop—rapidly—into a movement to wrest control of the rudder and throttle from the reckless, pompous buffoons who are steering us into the iceberg: that, finally, will be some change I can really believe in.

[Update, April 15, 2013—back when this was written, there was still at least some slight glimmer of life in the Occupy Movement; now there is none. So that question has been answered. The Occupiers suffered from being targeted by the corporate establishment and its duly elected or appointed minions within the Obama administration or various municipal governments across the United States, but they also faded away as economic conditions started to look somewhat better (even if that appearance of improvement may be largely misleading). Some of them are probably out currency day-trading or flipping houses now. In general, I’m afraid it’s rather pointless to hope for any sustained or meaningful protest or resistance from two generations of young Americans who are effectively incapable of thinking about anything other than themselves for very long.]

As an added bonus: wresting the levers of power from the reckless, irresponsible hands that currently control them might also give some hope of making meaningful progress on all the other worthy “deck chair” issues; without such change, there is little hope for any lasting reform of any significant issue. The established power structure is happy with things as they are.

As an additional note of warning: it took the Titanic two-and-a-half hours to sink after hitting the notorious iceberg. For part of that time, the crew and passengers were unaware of the extent of the damage, or that the ship was doomed.

It is possible that we already hit the iceberg—perhaps during the environmentally irresponsible administration of Bill Clinton, perhaps during the even more environmentally reckless administration of George Bush, Jr., or maybe during the environmentally unresponsive administration of Barack Obama, as the reckless, greedy corporate power structure was busily inflating or attempting to reinflate one absurd economic bubble or another. If so, then rather than avoiding the iceberg, we might instead be looking at the need to plan optimum use of the insufficient supply of lifeboats.

One way or another, time is short. And we don’t have more time for rearranging deck chairs.