Saturday, October 4, 2008

Literary Interlude: History Repeats Itself

What could be more natural than an excerpt from one of my favorite novellas: Heart of Darkness? Given the prose here, it has always boggled my imagination that Conrad, a Polish Seaman, learned English as an adult.

"Instead of going up, I turned and descended to the left. My idea was to let that chain-gang get out of sight before I climbed the hill. You know I am not particularly tender; I've had to strike and to fend off. I've had to resist and to attack sometimes--that's only one way of resisting-- without counting the exact cost, according to the demands of such sort of life as I had blundered into. I've seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men--men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later and a thousand miles farther. For a moment I stood appalled, as though by a warning. Finally I descended the hill, obliquely, towards the trees I had seen.

"I avoided a vast artificial hole somebody had been digging on the slope, the purpose of which I found it impossible to divine. It wasn't a quarry or a sandpit, anyhow. It was just a hole. It might have been connected with the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do. I don't know. Then I nearly fell into a very narrow ravine, almost no more than a scar in the hillside. I discovered that a lot of imported drainage-pipes for the settlement had been tumbled in there. There wasn't one that was not broken. It was a wanton smash-up. At last I got under the trees. My purpose was to stroll into the shade for a moment; but no sooner within than it seemed to me I had stepped into a gloomy circle of some Inferno. The rapids were near, and an uninterrupted, uniform, headlong, rushing noise filled the mournful stillness of the grove, where not a breath stirred, not a leaf moved, with a mysterious sound--as though the tearing pace of the launched earth had suddenly become audible.

"Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees, leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. Another mine on the cliff went off, followed by a slight shudder of the soil under my feet. The work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die.

"They were dying slowly--it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now,-- nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. These moribund shapes were free as air--and nearly as thin. I began to distinguish the gleam of eyes under the trees. Then, glancing down, I saw a face near my hand. The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly. The man seemed young--almost a boy--but you know with them it's hard to tell. I found nothing else to do but to offer him one of my good Swede's ship's biscuits I had in my pocket. The fingers closed slowly on it and held--there was no other movement and no other glance. He had tied a bit of white worsted round his neck--Why? Where did he get it? Was it a badge--an ornament--a charm--a propitiatory act? Was there any idea at all connected with it? It looked startling round his black neck, this bit of white thread from beyond the seas.

"Near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner: his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with a great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence. While I stood horror-struck, one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees, and went off on all-fours towards the river to drink. He lapped out of his hand, then sat up in the sunlight, crossing his shins in front of him, and after a time let his woolly head fall on his breastbone.

Bejing Raises Leopold's Ghost

I interrupt the election to bring you an article that caught my jaundiced eye. I am familiar with the Chinese presence in Cuba, not one I consider particularly helpful to the cause of Cuban freedom. I had not, however, heard of their involvement in Sub-Saharan Africa. Reading it immediately brought to mind a very good book, King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild, which details Belgium's involvement in the Congo. It is eminently readable for a work of nonfiction.

It is a variation of the phenomenon Hitchens (Peter, not Christopher) describes that I fear for Cuba. As he researches the story, his life is in peril because the Africans in abject misery fear that if light is brought on the situation, the Chinese will leave, and they will be even worse off. And who's to blame them? Here is the crux:

These poor, hopeless, angry people exist by grubbing for scraps of cobalt and copper ore in the filth and dust of abandoned copper mines in Congo, sinking perilous 80ft shafts by hand, washing their finds in cholera-infected streams full of human filth, then pushing enormous two-hundredweight loads uphill on ancient bicycles to the nearby town of Likasi where middlemen buy them to sell on, mainly to Chinese businessmen hungry for these vital metals.

To see them, as they plod miserably past, is to be reminded of pictures of unemployed miners in Thirties Britain, stumbling home in the drizzle with sacks of coal scraps gleaned from spoil heaps.
Except that here the unsparing heat makes the labour five times as hard, and the conditions of work and life are worse by far than any known in England since the 18th Century.

Many perish as their primitive mines collapse on them, or are horribly injured without hope of medical treatment. Many are little more than children. On a good day they may earn $3, which just supports a meagre existence in diseased, malarial slums.

We had been earlier to this awful pit, which looked like a penal colony in an ancient slave empire.
Defeated, bowed figures toiled endlessly in dozens of hand-dug pits. Their faces, when visible, were blank and without hope.

We had been turned away by a fat, corrupt policeman who pretended our papers weren't in order, but who was really taking instructions from a dead-eyed, one-eared gangmaster who sat next to him.

By the time we returned with more official permits, the gangmasters had readied the ambush.
The diggers feared - and their evil, sinister bosses had worked hard on that fear - that if people like me publicised their filthy way of life, then the mine might be closed and the $3 a day might be taken away.

I can give you no better explanation in miniature of the wicked thing that I believe is now happening in Africa.

Of course, as we are often reassured, conditions in Cuba are much better than in darkest Africa. But then, they always have been. Anyway, read the article. The analysis is incisive; the judgement; mordant.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Updated Meanderings: A Moment in Time and Nature

In the midst of political and economic high drama, it is well to commune with natural world. For instance, walking along the portico of my favorite bookstore this morning, I caught a glimpse of a dried leaf out of the corner of my eye. My brain began to process the sight when it announced an anomaly. How did the leaf get in that position halfway up a faux masonry column? Automatically, I turned and took a closer look. It was a moth, but not just any moth. It was a mega moth, confident in its camouflage and wisely ignoring me. A little down the way, I caught sight of one of our local wasps tending its nest above of my head. In the grass alongside the building industrious fire ants were busily constructing a mound.

Marveling at all this fauna in the unlikely location of a strip mall, I was reminded of the first time I stood by the Gulf of Mexico. Used to the beaches of the Caribbean islands, the East Coast of Florida, I was surprised that the waters of our local beaches are not generally the azure as those of the aforementioned locales, although they can be at times depending on their mood. They generally have a green tint. Over the years, I've come to see the color as symbolic of the fecundity of the natural setting.

We share the sugary sands of our beaches with countless birds, whole phalanxes of avian life. There are sand pipers and plovers, an odd ibis or two. There are diving birds and birds like pelicans and very sneaky white herons who challenge you for your bait as you fish. Our waters teem with the tiniest of bait fish. Go out a few yards, and you can catch mangrove snappers, grouper, snook. Incredible. Of course, if you're going in the water, it pays to practice the stingray shuffle. Although they are beautiful when you see them gliding in a school as I did off an abandoned trestle in Boca Grande, hidden in the sand under your feet, they are awesome in another way.

Inland, the ubiquitous lizards are kind of like mice up North, except that you ignore them, until they show up dessicated in the washing machine, etc. Then there is the dread Palmetto bug. Despite having grown up in South Brooklyn, inured to committing mass cockroach homicide, I cannot bring myself to stomp one. It's the splat factor. The same one that came into play, when we found the mother of all spiders, at least three inches long, in the living room. The hubster, as befits the man of the house, defended his castle with a shoe he had carelessly tossed by the sofa, only to unleash a sci fi channel horror as hundreds of spider babies fled in all directions from their mother's crushed body. Memo, use an inverted cup and slip a piece of paper under it.

I've learned to love nature here in all of its manifestations. Here in my part of Florida, we live much closer to Mama Nature, not only her beaches, but her skies, her weather and her minions. I love the blazing cardinal and screeching jays, the owl somewhere in the backyard, and the gorgeous birdsong outside my window, even at 2 AM. I know not to approach piles of brush directly or inverted planters. Snakes, you know. I've even learned not to get too freaked when the black racer that lives here visits the lanai, probably gaining access the same way the jays I occasionally have to liberate do and in search of the same prey- the seemingly endless supply of dead beetles that have given their all straining toward the light, as we all do.

Update: And today in the same spot, I came across the remains of a beautiful little bird, a yellow warbler of some sort, I think. I looked up at the plate glass window and read its demise in the smear. The last time I came across one of these little fellows, he had become hopelessly enamored of his reflection in the shed window. Sad.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Vice Presidential Debate: Parting Shot

I wonder if we will be subjected to a clip of Senator Biden's multiple errors of fact ad infinitum in the media tomorrow, including- Oh, my gosh!- one about the Constitution.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Media Malice

Charlie Gibson's behavior in his interview with Palin was reprehensible, but Katie Couric was an absolute bitch, and that's a word I don't use lightly in this blog. Just where does this woman get off? First she wants Palin to quote McCain's regulatory history. Of course, she couldn't have done the same to Biden had she dared, because his running mate doesn't exactly have one. Then she wants Palin to come up with specific Supreme Court cases with which she disagreed. What'd she expect? Oh, yeah, I disagreed with Plessy vs. Ferguson but agreed with Brown vs. the Board of Education. My "Journalism Degree" required that I study Supreme Court cases. And the attitude. It really deserved a George HW Bush/Dan Rather moment. What was the campaign thinking? Why didn't they start her on Hannity and Colmes?

I have not been particularly impressed with Palin's performance. But the elitist left may well overplay their hand. While they're running around sniggering at the rube, they risk alienating moderate people. Check out Frank Luntz's bit on O'Reilly where he tracked the response of independents to The View. The people expect fairness.

And now tomorrow, the debate is going to be moderated by a woman who has written a book about Obama as a breakthrough candidate to be released on inauguration day? I don't think I have ever been so disgusted at the media. The fix is in and has been since day one.

I have come to the conclusion that in the future, historians will present journalism in this era very much like they now teach of "yellow journalism" in the lead up to the Spanish American War. How's that for a little history?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Election: My Cassandra Moment

There is something terribly scary in the air. Obama's latest campaigning reeks of confidence and condescion toward his opponent, perhaps because he feels his ship coming in as this article indicates. Over at Newsweek, Fineman is taking a victory lap for the candidate before the election.

I was listening to Obama yesterday. The list of those who were to receive government help was seemingly endless. I kept asking myself, "but who is going to pay for it? The top two percent?" I am no fan of Wall Street or the elites, but I had to ask myself whether those who study, struggle and/or even steal their way to the top should have to support those who, many by dint of their own choices- not going to school, addictions, inability to defer gratification- linger at the bottom. Better yet, even those in the middle will now function as their economic foster children. There is some thing categorically wrong with this picture. But believe it or not, that's not what made my hair stand on edge.

It was this link, I received courtesy of George. Mr. Obama's associations with some pretty dark characters has long perturbed me. His prime early influences included a Marxist poet. His pastor for 20 years chants "God damn America." His associates include an indicted businessman who just happened to be involved in Mr. Obama's purchase of a humble million dollar home, and two unrepentant terrorists. (I would advise any Cuban American to take a look at the pictures around the internet at the approach to the guy's office.) Still, I said to myself, "maybe the guy is the only virgin in the cathouse," which while it strained credulity, kept me from full panic mode.

But then I found "Obama Camp" and went into melt down. Why, I had to ask myself. Well, the name Saul Alinsky has been bandied about in terms of Obama's time as a "community organizer." Well, as I understand it, one of Alinsky's principles was that you had to use stealth. Here's a bit from an article (read it) in The Spectator about his views:

Alinsky was a ‘transformational Marxist’ in the mould of Antonio Gramsci, who promoted the strategy of a ‘long march through the institutions’ by capturing the culture and turning it inside out as the most effective means of overturning western society. In similar vein, Alinsky condemned the New Left for alienating the general public by its demonstrations and outlandish appearance. The revolution had to be carried out through stealth and deception. Its proponents had to cultivate an image of centrism and pragmatism. A master of infiltration, Alinsky wooed Chicago mobsters and Wall Street financiers alike. And successive Democratic politicians fell under his spell.

What, I had to ask myself, was it about Camp Obama that caused me such panic? Try this excerpt:

During these training sessions, people like you will be taking their support for Barack to the next level by learning the organizing principles that this campaign and our movement for change are built on.

Camp Obama attendees will receive real world organizing experience that will have a direct impact on this election. Graduates of Camp Obama will go on to become Deputy Field Organizers who will lead this campaign to victory in crucial battleground states around the country.

"Support to the next level." Is this a cult? Is it like Scientologists where you only get their true identity doled out in soupçons as you prove your dedication to the religion? Most damning of all is "Deputy Field Organizers," which smacks of the paramilitary organization. Why? When does politicking cross the line into propaganda? Are we electing a politician? A Savior? A Very Big Unknown?

Those of us who have lived or have lived to see the terrible price paid for the cult of personality have no choice but to fear this candidacy, not because of race, but because of reach. Obama might just be your run of the mill Liberal, and he seems like such a nice guy, albeit a tad arrogant and patronizing. But I for one can't contemplate giving him the keys to the kingdom. I hope my fears are unfounded. I really do. But to me, the sound of approaching hoofs is more likely horses than zebras. Be afraid, people. Be terribly afraid. The best we can hope for is that the man is a shameless opportunist.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Sunday Sense of Place

On the Brink. Thankfully, a deal has been brokered in Washington. It looks like it worked out. Supposedly the "affordable housing"/ACORN component is not included; there are provisions to protect the taxpayers "investment" and somehow limit the compensation of failed CEO's. The government will be insuring the banks somehow against the mortgages, Republican demand. Don't know the details, and we know who resides there. But all in all, it looks like cooler heads prevailed. Rumor has it, it was Pelosi. (See, I'm fair.)

Back the Way We Came. In this, Victor Davis Hanson reminds us that Frankenstein was the name of the inventor, not the creature, as he seeks to assign blame for this mess. Hint: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." Read it. It seems an opportune moment for some self-examination.

Up the Road A Spell. Now we turn to the upcoming Vice Presidential Debate. I'm not particularly optimistic about Palin's performance. It is fortunate it's against Biden, who I like by the way. But unlike the oh-so-syrupy condescending author of this column in the New York Times, I think it's because she's been ham stringed by not causing McCain grief. She's trying too hard to toe the company line. My advice to her: Screw it. Be who you are. Nobody expects you to be a foreign policy whiz. As to the writer, to paraphrase a country song, "Take your cheap sympathy and shove it." Cleanse your palate. Take a look at this

In the Rear. Here's an oldie but goodie about the common man. "Ten angry beer drinkers" are looking to stop the planned InBev purchase of Budweiser. They've filed suit in Federal Court alleging anti-trust. Not a hothouse chance in hell, but ya gotta love 'em. And don't forget to read the best explanation of the Castro stratagem- using the suffering of his people to advance his agenda- to be found in the Wall Street Journal here. Is it a strategy or a tactic?