Thursday, March 29, 2012

Elegy on a Country's Wild Card

Elegy on a Country’s Wild Card

(with not many apologies to the rather wretched poet Thomas Gray,
and with hopes that you’ll dust off your iambic pentameter ear
{duh-DAH,  duh-DAH, duh-DAH, duh-DAH, duh-DAH},
and with trust that you’ll forgive metric and parodic impertinences {including the indolent decision to change an ABAB scheme to an ABCB one – once  you know I didn’t directly consult the original poem} . . .
  after teaching 18th-century literature forever, I challenged myself to mess with Gray’s “Elegy” from memory alone.  Then again, 18th-century literature was not the most sought-after of courses, so you can look at the original poem here: )

The pundits toll the end of clownish play:
The city is not shining, nor the sea.
A void has opened in the primary season:
It leaves the world to darkness, and Rom-ney.

Farewell to students cleaning high school bathrooms --
Goodbye to colonizing on the moon --
No more self-serving outrage at the press corps --
Newt Gingrich’s left this silly race too soon.

At best, the Speaker had a slender chance.
He surged and burst, then surged and burst again.
A lesser pol might slink away in shame,
But Newt does not resemble other men. 

An ego as expansive as his girth,
Revolving credit, and a staff stampede,
A string of wives proceeded by affairs,
A K-Street business fueled by blatant greed,

An adamantine vow of half-price gas,
‘Big thoughts’ that spanned the crazies’ and far right’s --
As candidate, the Newt was sorely lacking,
His baggage outweighed all of Samsonite’s.

If many modest flowers blush unseen,
Pale violets that shrink from begging votes,
Newt decked himself in orotund bouquets
As big as eco-busting Rose Bowl floats.

The boast of speakership, the pomp of power,
The macrocephaly that comes with rank,
They wither on the vine of bad results;
The paths of glory lead but to the bank.

If you desire a photograph with Newt,
It only costs you fifty bucks a snap.
Throw in another fin, and you yourself
Can join Callista on his ample lap.

If Gingrich reincarnated as a cheese,
What partisanal palette would he serve?
My guess:  he’d be a vain inglorious Stilton
That spreads a funk all over the hors d’oeuvres.

No further seek his merits to disclose,
Nor read his frailties from his beamish looks,
They now revert to what they always were –
A boost to self-regard, and to his books.

So weep for Newton Leroy, he is gone.
(Oh wait – another poem has its say . . . )
I’ll switch to watching baseball ‘til November
When GOP is finally DOA.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Toys for Boys

Toys for Boys

By now, everyone has heard about the Romney campaign advisor who compared his candidate (and/or the Romney presidential-run-to-come) to an Etch a Sketch.  No matter what his illustrative intentions were, the comparison has stuck like aluminum powder to a gray glass screen. 

It’s such a perfect simile!  Like much effective satire, it literalizes abstractions, ridicules flaws, and exposes hypocrisy.  Moreover, an actual Etch a Sketch is the ideally sized prop for rallies and photo-ops, now by Republican opponents, soon by Democrats.  No wonder stock in Ohio Arts, the maker of Etch a Sketch, has skyrocketed.

What’s weird is how easily former Governor Romney can be encapsulated through reference to a classic toy, in a way that his rivals cannot be. 

While thinking about this blog entry, I’ve tried to match Romney’s primary opponents with other toys, and it’s been harder than you might think.  Newt Gingrich was pretty easy at first:  Weebles!  They wobble but they don’t fall down, just as the former Speaker’s candidacy has teetered on the brink of irrelevancy for months.  Also, Gingrich looks like a Weeble.  But I can’t think of anything much beyond Weebles, except a Star Wars Light Sabre, which is so obvious that it’s not amusing at all. 

As for Rick Santorum?  He’s just not a toy boy.  Can you imagine him actually playing Top Chef with his daughters around an Easy-Bake Oven?  Or enjoying a family game of Operation?  [Maybe the latter, as it could be a platform for home sermons on the evils of the flesh.] The best I could come up with, in regard to Santorum, was Baby Alive.  Or Lincoln Logs, just because they were the most boring building toy that I can remember (and they were introduced in 1916, and they referenced the nineteenth century). Neither of these toys has the Eureka factor of the Romneyesque Etch a Sketch. 

It’s not that Etch A Sketch is the only perfect toy analogy for Mitt Romney.  What about Gumby?  Silly Putty?  The Magic Slate?  Wooly Willie?  Or, if we want to move into board games, the slam dunk of Monopoly?  Clue (because he rarely has one)?  Parcheesi (homage to ‘cheesy grits’)?

You see my point. There’s something about Mitt Romney that invites caricature and easy lampoons.  Actually, it’s rather sad.  As far as I know, Romney is a decent, intelligent man who’s done well in business and public service.  But as a rock-em-sock-em political player, he just doesn’t get the game.  Or he gets it, but can’t play it well.  He doesn’t know how to tap into today’s noisy communication environment; he doesn’t know how to craft a motion capture of whatever he authentically believes, if indeed he has authentic beliefs.

Perhaps some of this has to do with age.  The Republican field is pretty darned old (Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich are older that the baby-boomer Romney, and the somewhat younger Rick Santorum acts as if he’s older than all of them).  So are their advisors and the professional explainers tasked with filling airtime and print inches.  No one is comparing any Republican candidate to, say, video games – with which more U.S. citizens amuse themselves with than with 1960s-to-80s pastimes like Risk, Shrinky-Dinks, or Etch a Sketch. 

President Obama belongs to the what-ever-you-call-it generation following the baby boom, a generation more or less immune to classic-toy/game identification (except, perhaps, for Pong or Pac-Man).  Having fairly young children may give Obama a pass (because we actually can imagine him playing with his kids) as might his well-publicized love of basketball.  We can also envision him playing video games: we know he loves his smart phones, and he comes across as a father who keeps track, as best he can, of how his daughters occupy their electronically focused leisure time.

But if the Obama family wants to reach into memory’s toy chest and pull out a game that actually exists in three dimensions, I have a suggestion for a classic toy they might get a kick out of – one that could remind them of this year’s Republican primary:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012



Thank goodness.  We can all sleep more soundly in our unsullied beds.  Rick Santorum has declared war on pornography.

On first hearing, this causus belli is part and parcel of his campaign against anything to do with the pleasures of the flesh, except it seems sillier and less dangerous than other components of his agendum.  It doesn’t attack women’s agency or health access directly; indeed, it would seem that men might be the most inconvenienced.  Is this Santorum’s idea of equal repression, one he hopes will soften the dislike of his anti-contraception, anti-women-in-the-workplace views?

I doubt it.  Instead, a war on pornography (which has a spotty but persistent Republican history, most laughably expressed in former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s edicts to drape bare-breasted statues of Justice) fits eerily into a theocratic view of government, one based both on a literal reading of the Bible and on theologically shaky fillings-in of Biblical gaps.

The big lacuna is this:  the Bible doesn’t really say much about sex.  As everyone knows, the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament addresses intimate relations in the context of their time.  Polygamy is fine (consequently, the anti-adultery commandment is directed at property rights – it’s not an endorsement of one man/one woman exclusivity), and women are essentially chattel who can be pimped out to save male honor (i.e., Lot’s daughters). Church Fathers and Talmudists strictly allegorized the Song of Songs (which originally may have been an actual love poem) into a mystical prayer that expresses the longing of people for Zion or Jesus or God.

In the New Testament, Jesus mostly comes across as a forgiving sort who doesn’t believe that sexual activity necessarily damns one for all time.  It’s Paul who’s the zealot and demonstrates an unhealthy attraction-repulsion to sex (it’s best to be celibate; if that’s not possible, it’s better to marry than to burn).  Paul taps into the underlying misogyny of one version of Genesis’s fall-of-man narrative.  Woman, by her very nature and biology, tempts Man and imperils his immortal soul.  And by the Book of Revelation, sexually unfettered ‘femaleness’ is grafted upon oppositional politics and governance through the figure of the Whore of Babylon.

Back to Rick Santorum’s war on pornography.  There is zilch in the Bible about pornography – unsurprisingly, as a pre-print and largely non-literate culture would not have produced anything we today would recognize as pornography.  (Just as there’s nothing about contraception and abortion, and [for different reasons that might need to be addressed in another blog] almost nothing about homosexuality.)  So how do today’s Biblical literalists ground their objections to pornography?  On one verse:  Matthew 5:28 (“ . . . whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart.”)

I surfed a few ultra-conservative religious sites so you don’t have to.  Here’s a typical exegesis (lurching off from Matthew’s adultery-in-your-heart pronouncement):

“Adultery in the imagination, or watching porn, leads inevitably to adultery either in person or virtually.  Adultery usually leads to marriage breakdown and the nightmare of divorce. [. . .] Any sexual activity outside of [marriage], whether it be pre-marital, adulterous, by force, with self, same-sex, or contraceptive is harmful physically, psychologically, and spiritually.”

Santorum’s official site sounds much the same.  For example:  “Addiction to pornography is now common for adults and even for some children [. . .] Pornography is toxic to marriages and relationships.”

What we have here is a New Testamental fear and loathing of sexuality – indeed, of the physical body altogether.  (Da Vinci Code fans alert:  Santorum purportedly is a member of Opus Dei.)  Sex so threatens faith and judgment (and patriarchy) that it must be bound and gagged. 

The ‘pornography’ that Candidate Santorum would scourge is not just the kind that most citizens would find objectionable – child pornography, for instance, or sexualized torture.  It’s everything that could possibly be called lascivious, including the boring ‘adult movies’ available in hotel rooms or a married couple’s perusing of Playboy to spice up a rare evening away from the kids.  Only a baby step, if that, separates a war against visual pornography from book banning.  The shades of D. H. Lawrence, Chaucer, Voltaire, and Walt Whitman might have thought they were safe from revived Comstock Laws.  They would be wrong.

Even discounting the constitutional barriers to an all-out war on all conceivable definitions of pornography, even discounting the hyperbolic stratosphere towards which this new purity campaign aspires (according to Santorum’s official site, President Obama’s administration “seems to favor pornographers over children and families”), Rick Santorum’s self-presentation as pornography’s flagellant-in-chief is disturbing.  Put plainly, why is this man so preoccupied with sex? 

I’m sure (and I’m thankful that) I don’t know.  But maybe there’s a clue in the photo below. Without going all-Lacan on you, there’s something Santorum is measuring . . . the length of which he may envy and find repulsive . . . something that is anything but an empty signifier (or is, and the horror vacui needs filling).

If you have another, better explanation of this photo, or a perfect caption, please comment on this blog or email me.  Maybe there’ll be a prize (sent in a plain brown paper wrapper). 

[Quote sources:  John Henry Westen, “No, It Is Not Okay for Christian Couples to View Porn Together as a Warm Up for Sex,” Life Style, March 19, 2008

Rick Santorum, “Enforcing laws against illegal pornography”

Friday, March 16, 2012

Sculptcha and Spawts

Sculptcha and Spawts

Recently, a friend who’s charitably been reading my blogs pointed out an error.  In “Beer in the Bullpen,” I’d written ‘Giacometti’ (noted twentieth-century sculptor) instead of ‘Giametti’ (noted twentieth-century baseball commissioner).  My friend then challenged me to create a blog about sculpture and sports. He’s a New Englander, so that came out as Sculptcha and Spawts.

Game on!

Because it’s March Madness time, sports (or spawts) are much on my mind.  At this point, I don’t have a lot to say about the NCAA Tournament, as my brackets remain up in the air yet sinking fast (thanks a bunch, Long Beach State and Harvard).  So I’ve been thinking about sculpture – perhaps the art form I love the most – and sports.  Which makes me think about what I value about sports.  And sculpture.

            Sports:  There’re the exciting competitions and the home-town/alma mater boasting aspects, certainly, but there’s also the aesthetic spectacle of beautiful human bodies performing beautifully.  What is more visually stunning than a slam dunk or home-run swing?  What’s more pattern-enthralling than football formations or soccer attacks?  What brings more brief bursts of uncomplicated joy than watching your team or favorite athlete win (obviously the joy of actually being a winning athlete is more complex, but I don’t have much first-hand knowledge of that experience)?

            Sculpture:  Works that speak to me have always been figural.  My favorite sculptor is Bernini; right behind come Michelangelo (as sculptor, not as painter), the creators of the blown-up Bamiyan Buddhas, Archipenko, Anyi and Mumuye carvers, and, yes, Giacometti. These known and unknown artists share a fascination with the expressive human body, whether naturalistically or abstractly rendered.  On another register, sculpture – like sports – is, for me, extremely hard to do.  (I can draw, and maybe paint, but wrangling recalcitrant materials into some sort of form?  No way.) Thus I really respect those who can do it at all, much less do it well.

So what’s the connection between sports and sculpture?  The ideal human body? Yes, in part . . . but also a body in motion (arrested motion, in the case of sculpture), either performing to its highest potential or exemplifying a state of fully realized human being-ness.  Even hierarchic sculpture can convey a sense of sub-surface motion, the mental and sometimes physical struggles preparatory to spiritual or political victory.

One could conclude, therefore, that sculptors often depict bodies engaged in sports, as the intersection of contested emotional investment and maximum physical display should be irresistible.  But it hasn’t been.  In the West, painters occasionally have depicted the ‘sports body’ (e.g. George Bellows, even Leroy Neiman), but sculptors usually have not. 

A major reason, I think, is that sports in today’s Euro-American cultures (and probably in all Western culture after Christians v. Lions ceased being Super Bowl-sized attractions) has carved out its own space, a monetized space that artists want to avoid except when it comes to marketing their own works. 

Concrete monetized spaces like stadiums and arenas often do display commissioned sports sculptures of heroes like Hank Aaron or Walter Payton.  Some of these are nice enough pieces, but placements near concession stands and ticket booths degrade their ‘real art’ credentials.  As adjuncts to massive commercial enterprises, they are not that different from the bobble-head dolls on sale nearby, except that their proportions are better, they’re bigger, and they’re made of more durable materials.

This need not be the case: one only has to look back at Greco-Roman sculpture to see that portraying the ideal body engaged in sports competition was a completely legitimate way to reify cultural ideals and to show off one’s sculptural talents.  (See the photo of Myron’s “Discus Thrower” [a replica] that heads this blog.)

I therefore offer for your consideration the sculptures of Ousmane Sow.  This Senegalese artist is known for vigorously rendered bodies in combat; often, these bodies are engaged in wrestling matches.

Wrestling is a traditional sport in West Africa.  It’s more a test, allied to male initiation grades and warrior status, than a sport as the West understands ‘sport’ (English geek alert:  re-read Chinua Achebe’s novels).  But it depends upon competition, physical prowess, and style just as contemporary Western sports do. 

Sow, in my opinion, does more than any other contemporary artist, from any part of the world, to elevate the agon of sports into compelling visual statements.  Below are photos of some of his works; they are over-life-sized, and the medium is an always-changing glop (glue, thatch, mud, pigments, etc. on a wire armature).  The sculptures’ scale and texture give them a viscerally moving immediacy.  They also suggest palimpsests of competition, triumph, and suffering -- individual and historical.

My blog entry today contains no particular argument.  Instead, I’m using my friend’s sculptcha and spawts challenge to share my enthusiasm for a talented, intriguing artist.  Sow is well known in Europe (he now lives in Paris) and in West Africa.  It’s only fairly recently that he’s made waves in the United States art world.  So if you, like me, need a break from contemplating your woefully weak brackets, try contemplating instead the powerful sculptures of Ousmane Sow.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Catfish, Cheesy Grits, and the Argument for Authenticity

Catfish, Cheesy Grits, and the Argument for Authenticity

In the past few days, Willard Mitt Romney moseyed through Dixie, trying to steal Mississippi and Alabama delegates from his competitors.  In so doing, he attempted to speak Suhthun.  As in (to paraphrase):  this is the second time I’ve eaten catfish, and they’re very good.  As in:  I’ve tried cheesy grits.  As in:  good morning, you all.

--Catfish is a staple food down here, Willard -- not a particularly good-tasting fish, but cheap and relatively easy to cook.  (And because catfish can be farmed, they’re also a renewable food resource, but I guess you wouldn’t be interested in radical environmentalist ichthyculture).

--It’s CHEESE GRITS, Mr. Romney.  Not cheesy grits.  Just as toasted cheese sandwiches are not toasted cheesy sandwiches.

--When we address more than one person, we say ‘yawl.’  A single syllable.  Think of expensive boats.  Then think, if you can, of less expensive ones.

It may be piling on to take notice of Romney’s signature clunky-isms, but it’s fun.  As The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart noted yesterday, Romney sounds as if he’s ‘on safari in his own country.’  What interests me here is how people – average voters, the professional commentariat – interpret Romneyisms.

They’re marshaled as evidence of the candidate’s inauthenticity: the robotic rich boy trying to morph into a varmint-hunting buddy of whatever voter base he’s appealing to at the moment. While such an observation is undeniably true, I wonder about its deep structure.

Why is it important to be authentic, and what does that mean?  In academia, the argument for authenticity is potent and fraught, most particularly in the humanities (and I’m relying on my knowledge/experience base, which is a zillion years in a major university’s English Department).  Even the most reductive cases – a common one in the United States being: should African American Literature be taught exclusively by African American professors? – combine theoretical/ethical concerns with real-world consequences.  Hiring and course allocations hinge on how the institution values authenticity, usually defined loosely as ‘belonging to the group/culture/tradition’ that one will be slated to teach and/or teach to.

On the one hand, this is a specious argument.  Can only white men who’ve been dead for half a millennium teach Shakespeare?  Can only equally dead Japanese women teach Lady Murasaki?  Can only gay people teach Oscar Wilde or Gertrude Stein?  Shouldn’t the standard be expertise in the field, which is not circumscribed by personal, biological, or historical virtual kinship with the author/subject/culture being taught or the audience for that teaching?

On the other hand, there are practical benefits to ‘authenticity.’  I know this from experience:  a white woman teaching African Literature is initially a hard sell to students.  What I could never offer was an immediately accessible role/authority model based on identity, so I was often viewed initially with suspicion. In this sense, students resemble a political electorate.  Authenticity (read – I’m one of you) is an easy – and not altogether bogus – first step to getting your point across (and, in the case of teaching, contributing to an atmosphere conducive to intellectual receptivity and inquiry). 

Students can spot a phony as quickly as they can access Wikipedia on their Samsung Galaxies.  I had to build authenticity on something other than identity politics or its ridiculous twin, faked and forced identity politics.  The most honest way for me was demonstrating expert knowledge of the subject, respect for its cultural embeddedness, respect for my students, and a genuine desire to facilitate their explorations of an exciting subject.

This is where, I believe, Governor Romney’s inauthenticity hurts him the most.  If he could offer something valuable to teach/think about/work toward/aspire to, his lame attempts to connect to his (in the present case, Southern) audience might be seen as inept but well-meaning, maybe even cute. They could be a first step in building a meaningful dialogue. But without a coherent message (other than everything President Obama did, does, or will do is very, very bad), his random stabs at a sham authenticity read only as cheesy grits and oil-soaked catfish. 

He’d do better being his authentically androidal self.  After all, what’s wrong with grana padano polenta and honey-balsamic glazed salmon?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

This Ad Drives Me Crazy


This Ad Drives Me Crazy

No, the above graphic is not an ad, nor does it make me homicidally psychotic.  It’s simply a graphic I found while drilling the internet for oil images. a graphic that made me laugh (probably because I have a new car that gets 39 mpg on the highway. Yea!).  What doesn’t make me laugh – indeed, it makes me seriously angry – is a seemingly innocuous Chevron ad, part of the company’s ‘We Agree’ campaign.  This campaign purports to show how Chevron cooperates with and contributes to the communities in which its operations are located.

[I don’t know how to swipe videos, so here’s a link to the ad:
The ad in question is the second down (We Agree—Community) in the left-hand column under ‘Television Ads.’]

Oil companies run a lot of these sorts of ads, evidently to support positive branding efforts. (I’m not sure why:  I really don’t think that we patronize gas stations because advertising tells us to.  We surrender our fuel money because [1] the station is convenient;  [2] it has marginally lower prices than the station across the street;  [3] we have a credit card for that brand of gas; or [4] we own stock in that oil consortium.)  Usually I pay little attention to these ads, other than indulging in desultory eye rolling when BP touts its stewardship of the Gulf Coast.  But this particular ad makes me want to punch out the TV screen and vow never, ever to buy Chevron (aka Texaco) gasoline.

The ad features Angolans talking elliptically about how Chevron is helping their country.  One Angolan is an engineer (for Chevron?  The ad suggests but doesn’t say), the other a student (supported by Chevron?  The ad suggests but doesn’t say). They both speak about hope for their country, their community.  The ad leaves the impression that Chevron-in-Angola acts as a responsible steward of the nation’s natural resources and is helping Angolans achieve a better, more fulfilling, more upwardly mobile life.

What the ad covers up is the troubling back-story of Angolan oil.

            First:  Angola has some of the largest oil and natural gas reserves on the continent.  It also has been one of the most war-torn and under-reported (in the West) African countries.  Its fight for independence was followed by a bloody, 27-year-long civil war (which also served as a Cold War Proxy, the U.S and ‘friendly’ African nations on one side, the Soviet Union and Cuba on the other).  The discovery of significant offshore oil fields (and the collapse of the USSR) contributed to a hiatus; eventually, the formerly Soviet-backed forces took power.  Once there was ‘stability,’ multi-national oil companies – particularly Chevron, which had discovered the first Angolan oil deposits fifty years earlier – moved in big-time.  They had to support the ruling powers in order to advance their business interests (this means, ironically, that U.S. and European companies [BP as well as Chevron] now back an initially Marxist regime).  By ‘back,’ I mean contribute substantially to governance racked by corruption, human-rights abuses, and ethnic cleansing practices.

            Second:  Most of Angola’s oil resources are located in Cabinda province.  This is a northern exclave that only became ‘Angolan’ because, in the 1880s, it applied to Portugal (colonial overlords of Angola) for protection from Belgian rule and its deprecations.  (Heart of Darkness alert for my fellow English Lit. geeks.)  In general, Central African colonial and neo-colonial history is driven by colonial extraction (of gold, ivory, slaves, rubber, diamonds, uranium, oil, coltran). Methods to attain such extractive goals have included coercion, bribery, torture, kidnapping, amputations, ‘strategic’ rapes, and summary executions.  Alas for Angola and, specifically, Cabinda, these methods have not been abandoned. 

            Cabinda people are ethnically and linguistically different from the rest of Angolans, who dominate the big-oil-supported national government.  Not surprisingly, everything from oil-profit allocations to on-site hiring practices is weighted against Cabindans.  And even more not surprisingly, there’s a robust Cabindan independence movement.  And even, even more not surprisingly, this movement is being ruthlessly suppressed by Angola’s central government . . . with significant help from Chevron and its big-oil brothers. 

            [Cabinda has applied to The Hague to try the Angolan President for war crimes.  The petition, which implicates Chevron as well, can be accessed here:
The Case for Trial of the MPLA Regime and of the Dictator Jose Eduardo Dos Santos in the Hague.  (filed 7 February 2011, International Criminal Court, the Hague, Netherlands)]

            Third:  Angola’s ‘oil miracle’ [a phrase promoted by Angola’s oil ‘partners’] resembles other ‘oil miracles’ on the African continent.  Take Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, and one of its richest in natural and human resources.  Nigeria is now a complete disaster.  The Biafran war (in the late 1960s) was largely an oil war, as the oil-rich southeast tried to declare independence in order to secure a reasonable share of oil-related revenues (and to have some say in protecting its ecology and traditional economies, like fishing.)  Nigeria’s subsequent political chaos is significantly grounded in the allocation of oil-industry profits, which also undergirds the present atrocities of the Islamic North against the Christian/Animist South (where the oil is).  Thank you, big oil! (In Nigeria, Shell Oil and Royal Dutch Petroleum have been the major players.)

Because this is a blog and not an article in Foreign Affairs, I’ll refrain from talking about Libya, Sudan, Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, even Somalia (hint:  oil interests).  My point is this:  Western-based big oil has had a far-reaching, systemically corruptive, ecologically irresponsible, and geopolitically devastating effect in African countries. Making such a claim is not absolving local governments from responsibility – you can’t be corrupted if you’re not corruptible; you can’t turn guns or machetes on fellow citizens if you don’t believe that violent repression is a logical response to dissent, inherited ethnic animosity, and threats to your Swiss bank accounts.  

That said, the sheer amount of money (and in many cases, material support ranging from arms to mercenaries) provided by big oil to African nations is staggering.  And for a good bottom-line cause:  without a pesky Strait of Hormuz to block a clear shot to historically vetted Atlantic trade routes, unimpeded movement of oil, from a source you more or less control, is a winning business proposition.  Also historically vetted: it’s a sorry fact that continuing mayhem inflicted on African polities doesn’t make waves internationally. 

The Chevron ad in question probably is not dishonest on its face.  I’ve no doubt that big oil has contributed to Angola’s infrastructure, including its educational facilities.  But the ad is, at the very least, disingenuous and misleading.   Up to now, oil has been a curse rather than a blessing to African countries possessing this valuable resource. 

Neither is the Angolan government’s position simple.  An astoundingly high percentage of its GNP comes from oil, and most of that oil comes from Cabinda.  To cede Cabindan oil to Cabinda, and to allow that province’s succession, would literally bankrupt the country – and plunge it yet again into the maelstrom of civil war.

In the future, oil could be transformative in positive ways, rather like the diamond industry has been in Botswana (largely because diamonds were not discovered there until after independence).  In Angola’s case, an aggressive program to help Cabinda benefit from a fair share of oil profits would be a good first step, as would judicial reforms that would promote greater transparency about where petro-dollars{Petro-kwanzas? [yes, that’s the Angolan currency]) end up (yet another hint:  they usually don’t end up  in places where they  could benefit large numbers of Angolan  and Cabindan people). 

But until multi-national business  ‘partners’ stop masking their histories of exploitation, and until they stop supporting repressive, kleptocratic, even genocidal regimes, their ads will continue to drive me insane.  

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ritual Humiliation

Ritual Humiliation

A few things that have happened this past week (in rough chronological order):

            *Virginia passed a (somewhat modified) mandatory pre-abortion ultrasound bill (and Pennsylvania is debating an even more Draconian one);
            *I watched some reruns of America’s Top Model;
            *Congress tried to pass ‘the Blunt Bill,’ which would have made health care for women even more dependent on what (mostly male) employers believe to be immoral (or simply don’t want to pay for);
            *Rush Limbaugh called law student Sandra Fluke a slut for trying to address Congress about contraception;
            *The chief Federal judge of Montana, Richard Cebull, mass-emailed (from his office, on federally-paid-for equipment and time) a “joke” about President Obama’s mother’s sexual congress with a dog;
            *Limbaugh demanded that the law student post sex videos on the internet;
            *Sponsors started to cancel their contracts with Limbaugh’s radio program;
            *President Obama called the law student to offer support;
            *I watched reruns of Jersey Shore;
            *Republican presidential candidates finally issued limp statements attempting to distance themselves from Limbaugh;
            *I read about how, in the 1660s, the self-announced (well, actually, the announcer was Nathan of Gaza, but who cares?) messiah Sabbatai Zevi blamed his wife and female demons for sinful nocturnal emissions;
            *This made me think about how late medieval art depicted the deadly sin of lust as a woman (often named ‘Synagoga’) seated backward on a donkey, and how adulteresses and female heretics had their hair shorn and were paraded naked in public;
            *The Federal judge tried apologizing by emailing a mawkish e-greeting card featuring an inter-racial family;
            *I read recent articles about how rape is a ‘tactic’ in various insurrections and ‘proactive suppressions’ around the world;
            *More sponsors canceled their contracts with Limbaugh’s radio program;
            *Rush Limbaugh offered what must be the weakest apology on record;
            * A South Carolina county instituted a ‘sex pledge’ (abstinence before marriage, no sex outside of marriage, no viewing of pornography, an absolute support of every possible gun right [?????]) for all Republican candidates;
            *Even more Limbaugh sponsors cancelled, as well as two media outlets; and
            *I thought of what I could write about Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (a novel I’ve taught about a hundred times and about which I’ve heretofore not had an original idea).

You easily can put these snippets together (even if you ignore idiosyncratic trains of thought and associations).  Terry O’Neill, the president of the National Organization of Women, has given this discouraging mélange of thoughts and actions the perfect category name:  the ritual humiliation of women.  I would add that similar tactics of calumny have been employed, historically, against racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, with the added benefit of feminizing (and thus disempowering) the targets of such abuse.

Ritual humiliation, a transparent and jack-booted power play, tries to reduce women to sexualized bodies, which can then be manipulated, interrogated, ridiculed, slandered, tortured, and occasionally killed.  Similarly, reducing whole peoples to fantasmagoric kinship with (usually fast-reproducing) animals and vermin (for example, look at Mein Kampf; look at 19th-century European explorers’ accounts of Africa; look at the common insult ‘b*tch’) sets the stage for a theater of repression and cruelty. 

In the United States, popular culture is complicit, unintentionally or not. The Jersey Shore women are portrayed as objects of seemingly well-deserved derision plus sleazy, medically enhanced objects of desire (I’m not even going to delve into the duck phone or Snookie’s bunny shoes and alligator pillow).  Aspirants on America’s Top Model are subjected to belittling body slams about their figures, carriage, clothing choices, attitudes, and mean-girlishness (not to mention being decked out as birds or posing, in sexually suggestive ways, with animals). 

Maybe ritual humiliation of women has always been the case (in the Judeo-Christian West, at least).  But there remains the question of why this has been the case and, perhaps more interesting, why there’s a misogynist resurgence right now. 

The Scarlet Letter was published in 1848.  This was the year of the Niagara Conference, a culmination of early nineteenth-century activism for women’s rights in the United States.  Abolitionist sentiment was on the rise.  Rumblings from Europe portended political instability that might spread across the Atlantic, threatening the grand democratic experiment instituted some 70 years earlier.  In other words, the (male-dominated) status quo was under attack.

Hawthorne’s novel elliptically addresses all these issues, and it does so by collapsing them into the figure of a ritually humiliated woman, isolated and seemingly helpless against pressures from political and religious male authorities.  The author also suggests reasons behind the persecution of Hester Prynne, reasons that may apply to what we’re seeing today.

  • Political:  the Massachusetts Bay Colony governor cannot countenance that an officially voiceless female subject refuses to say what he wants to hear when he commands her to speak.  (Read:  the present-day reality that more women vote than men, and that they no longer dutifully follow their husband’s/father’s/bosses’ leads, instills consternation and anger in some male politicians.)

  • Religious:  Dimmesdale, as the shepherd faced with a recalcitrant and seductive sheep, is paralyzed and emasculated – conditions enhanced by his rampant hypocrisy.  (Read:  present-day mainstream religions’ difficulty with women demanding more substantial roles in decision-making, not to mention institutional chaos about homosexuality, not to mention evangelical hard-line reaction to the above two points, makes finding a simple scapegoat [duh, women] an absolute necessity.)

  • Personal:  Chillingworth’s animus is clearly personal, based on sexual rejection, and it manifests itself as threats and incipient violence. Dimmesdale’s response is also clearly personal, but it’s based on sexual connection and manifests itself as guilt and its psychosomatic symptoms.  (Read:  all sorts of sexually-grounded trepidations are constants in the human condition; in our culture, only men have been able successfully to reposition these anxieties, making them the fault of the very people about whom men are anxious.  Do we need to discuss how Viagra and similar erection-enhancing drugs are covered by most insurance plans, including Medicare, while birth-control pills are medications of extreme contention?)

I’ve mentioned before that we can learn from the past as well as being blinded by nostalgia (see DeBlog #1, February 2012).  Here, I salute nineteenth-century American Literature, specifically, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, for crafting a succinct, multi-layered parable about women’s ritual humiliation.  Now I’ll sign off and re-read Emily Dickenson (to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”) and crawl around my rooms’ perimeters, inspecting intersections of (feminine) wallpaper and (masculine) baseboards.


Friday, March 2, 2012

Beer in the Bullpen

Beer in the Bullpen
(a song waiting to be set to music)

The teams are in place for spring training;
In a month, the real season will start.
I cherish March Madness and football,
But baseball has dibs on my heart.

There’re so many games on the schedule,
Winners are always in doubt
(Except that the Washington Nationals
Don’t need all three strikes to be out).

            Beer in the bullpen,
            Fans in the bleachers . . .
            Cheering that’s led
            By strange costumed creatures.

            What’s in the bullpen?
            Pitchers!  (of beer)
            I truly believe
            This will be the Cubs’ year.

I’m sure of a Red Sox implosion,
There’s no way the Cards will repeat,
The Yankees are bloated, the Brewers demoted,
The Braves will be kicked to the street.

I have a soft spot for the Phillies
(Due to Mike’s phan intervention).
I’ve heard there are teams on the West Coast,
But nobody pays much attention.

            Beer in the bullpen,
            Cheeks full of gum . . .
            Rookies:  excited;
            Managers:  glum.

            Anthems are butchered,
            Painful to hear.
            I truly believe
            This will be the Cubs’ year.

A wonderful thing about baseball:
Its rhythms float free like confetti.
A pitcher can dither, a batter can wither . . .
Game’s on – thus sprache Giametti.

Despite Astroturf, it’s bucolic . . .
And games often stop if it’s raining.
Fans sit in the heat, and they drink and they eat:
We’re so happy it’s finally spring training.

            Beer in the bullpen,
            Charges of doping,
            Anything’s possible!
            Wrigleyville’s hoping.
            Beer in the bullpen:
            It’s perfectly clear,
            After more than a century,
            This IS the Cubs’ year.