Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Imminent End of Us All

Each day when I switch on CNN or log in to the internet, I half expect to learn there has been another horrific terrorist attack on the order of 9/11 or worse. This isn’t simply my over-active imagination, because even the CIA has said that the next attack is not a question of if, but when. And there are those periodic terror alerts coded yellow orange or red, telling us to look out for suspicious activities and suspicious people. It is never specified exactly what suspicious activities or people we should look out for, or where they may carry out their grisly deed. George W Bush summed this up perfectly when he once said: “When I was coming up it was a dangerous world and we knew exactly who they were. It was us versus them and it was clear who them was. Today we’re not so sure who they are, but we know they’re there”.

We are beginning to live in a nightmare world like the one in Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”, whose central character was made aware everywhere he went that he was under suspicion of having done something, but he could never find out what. It kept him permanently disoriented. Keeping us permanently disoriented seems also the intent of the Bush regime which enjoins us to lead our everyday lives normally, fly in aeroplanes, spend our money, hang out, stay loose, but then induces us to do the opposite by sending out those terrorist alerts. Is this to frighten us sufficiently, the better to manufacture our consent into giving the Bush regime more draconian powers than it already has?

Our new post September 11th Kafkaesque world is also becoming Orwellian. If you’ve ever read “1984” you’ll remember its milieu is a world parceled out between three large powers always at war with each other. The daily lives of the people are punctuated by announcements through loudspeakers telling of the latest military victory. How different is this world from ours in present day America where, in addition to the terror alerts, we learn daily from our TV news anchors of our latest military victory in Iraq, all part and parcel of the War on Terror which George W Bush has told us will go on for years and years, and which is discussed in the media 24 hours a day.

* * *

He reclines in his seat in a jetliner thirty thousand feet above the North African desert. He shuts his eyes while listening on his headset to a Bach Brandenburg concerto. On his tray is a pre-prandial glass of white wine – French Chardonnay – which he sips from time to time. What will they serve for lunch, steak or fish? And what for dessert?

Through his little side window he can see the brown expanse of desert below. Just sand, and it seems to go on for ever. Being so far above, he can only imagine how things might exactly be down there. But he has learned enough to know that the lives of most people down there won’t be much different from how they were two thousand years ago. Each day at the behest of sun, sand, and wind. Each day a struggle for the simple daily crust. Lives lived around heat, sand, camels, and tents. And perhaps a tribal or guerrilla war as well.

Suddenly he is overcome by schizophrenia. Here he is in a hermetically sealed bubble, sailing serenely through the heavens in womb-like air-conditioned comfort, taking it all for granted while all hell goes on far below.

* * *

He lies in his warm comfy bed at night listening to the rain thrumming on the tiled roof and spattering against the insulated windows. He wakes in the morning to the clock radio programmed to switch on at eight o' clock sharp. He turns up the thermostat on the wall because the room feels a trifle cold. He flicks a switch and light comes on. He puts a cold pork pie in the microwave and three minutes later it is hot. He turns on the shower in his antiseptically-white tiled bathroom and warm water gushes deliciously out. He picks up the phone and talks to someone at the other end of the earth as if to his next-door neighbour. He turns on his TV to watch a football game as if he is actually in the stadium. He switches on the computer in his study to send electronic messages to distant friends who will receive them seconds later. Despite all this he feels depressed, so he pops a pill and soon feels happy.

Being a glib child of twenty-first century enlightenment, he assumes most people throughout the world live like he does. He looks out of his bedroom window at the sky and thinks about what will come next. Human-like robots certainly, to do all the chores he doesn’t like to do. He’d like to get a ride on a spaceship some day to Mars where he would spend a holiday. There will be plenty of time for that since, thanks to the Men of Science, he will live to be at least 120 or more……………………………………………….

* * *

WE in North America, Fortress Europe, and Japan, who live like pigs at a trough while pressing the keys on our remote controls to close our security gates, are but 10% of the world’s peoples. WE are the goldfish in a bowl gazed upon covetously by THEM, the other 90% out there in the Third World, who have virtually nothing. But WE choose not to notice. WE, thanks to our Men of Science, live longer and longer and eat more and more. THEY, thanks to Aids and starvation, die earlier and earlier and eat less and less. The disparity between US and THEM grows daily more acute.

Our world is becoming dangerously out of balance and we are beginning to see the consequences like terrorism carried out by suicide bombers, a symptom that something is dreadfully wrong somewhere. By using jetliners to crash into skyscrapers, sending noxious germs through the mail, and threatening to explode nuclear bombs in the midst of our cities - thus exposing the myth of our invulnerability inside the goldfish bowl – the terrorists are throwing our technology - to which we genuflect as before a god - back in our faces.

* * *

Extinctions of sentient species have occurred regularly throughout the aeons since the first amoeba wiggled out of the ocean and on the shores. Species became extinct because they failed to adapt to changes in their environment, whether big climatic changes or the arrival of new predators. Extinctions, of sorts, have also been the lot of aboriginal human societies who couldn’t adapt to the gods, technology, and germs which invaders from over the seas brought with them.

We humans are still here because we have been able to live in harmony with our environment, or we were able to bend it to our will. However, about one hundred and fifty years ago with the start of the Industrial Revolution, our ways of living changed rapidly as we began inventing new gadgets like never before. With each new gadget spawning ideas for others, the rate of change became exponential, so that the world of the urban yuppie in today’s New York or Tokyo would seem like science fiction to a dweller in the Dickensian London of the mid nineteenth century.

But the heart and soul of today’s urban yuppie is the same as that of the nineteenth century Dickensian dweller, and of the hunter-gatherer in the savannah of five thousand years ago. The yuppie of today, lunching on pasta and white wine while talking into his cell phone between mouthfuls, has no more control over his jealousy, rage, greed, and predilection for mayhem than did his animal-hunting forebears on the plains.

The intellectual part of us - augmented by our inventions of computers, nuclear bombs and all the rest - has outstripped our emotional ability to use it wisely. So we are like children with dangerous toys, with no grownups to take them from us. Our environment has thus changed radically, but we haven’t, and we aren’t likely to because, the speed of evolution being glacial, our emotional selves won’t develop quickly enough to prevent the irreparable damage we will have done to ourselves and everything around us. So all the conditions are now in place for us to become extinct, as has happened to countless millions of species since time unrecorded.

How exactly we will be done in - whether by nuclear or biological warfare, overpopulation, disease, starvation, radiation, or environmental warming – is irrelevant, for we will be just as dead regardless of the means.

This isn’t to say that absolutely no-one will survive the coming apocalypse. A handful doubtless will, since there are so many of us. Any survivors will dig themselves from under the rubble and begin again. But they will have to live like our ape forbears did, because all gadgets and knowledge of how to make them will have been destroyed. Incidentally, if we care to look, we will see evidence that something similar has happened to us before, and many times.

Since we seem not able to adapt to the changes our over-developed intellects have brought about, it isn’t a question of if, but when our demise will happen.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

The Story of the Weeping Camel

I went to see “The Story of the Weeping Camel” recently since I had heard so many good things about it. I found it everything it was purported to be. While I hope you, dear reader, will like it too if you go see it, I'm realistic enough to know you may not if your tastes in film run to “Freddie Got Fingered” or films with Adam Sandler in them.

“The Story of the Weeping Camel” is a documentary film made in deepest Mongolia. It portrays the lives of a band of nomadic people living in tents, who eke out a living in the harshest of environments, flat and arid, with frequent howling windstorms which would blow away the tents if their occupants didn’t affix them very firmly to the ground. Central to the people being able to cope with everyday life, is having camels to transport them around and generally to act as beasts of burden. Mongolian camels are, incidentally, with their thick shaggy coats, a different species from their counterparts in the middle-east and elsewhere.

The film shows the camels giving birth and caring for their young (called colts). But there is one camel, a female, who had a particularly difficult time giving birth to its colt. So much so that she wants nothing further to do with it once it emerges into the world. The family responsible for the colt does get it to drink milk from a bottle, but this is an inadequate substitute for the real thing. So the family tries to get it to suck from the teat of its mother who always kicks it away. What to do?

They call in a man who has successfully dealt with situations such as this. He does it by playing a long stringed violin-like instrument which camels respond to. We see him playing it, accompanied by chants from the other tent-dwellers who also pat and caress the mother camel. For some time she looks nonplussed. Then tears begin to well up and fall from her eyes. The music is obviously making her sad, and she is weeping. Then we see the colt being led to its mother who now accepts it and allows it to suck from her teat.

So we see that animals, like camels, do have emotions, can feel sad and remorseful, and can cry – just like humans. The film is worth seeing for this alone.

It is assumed by most who see this film that the tears of the camel are simply a cinematic prestidigitation. But no, this is a documentary and the tears are real. Which makes me wonder why, if animals have feelings just like ours, we slaughter billions of them every year under the most frightful conditions just so we can enjoy those juicy half-pound hamburgers with all the works.

“The Story of the Weeping Camel” also brings to our attention that there are countless millions of people throughout the world, like the Mongolians in the film, who live in primitive conditions far, far removed from ours in the “developed” world with our electricity, indoor plumbing, laptop computers, credit cards, cushy jobs, social security, and the other privileges and comforts we take for granted. However, should terrorists cause our electricity to fail, and our banks, computers, and economies to crash, who will be better equipped to survive? We, or the Mongolian tent dwellers?

I also noted how appealing and happy the Mongolian children appeared to be, and how much they seemed to be loved by their multi-generational families – children far different from so many of their slack-jawed, foul-mouthed, ill-mannered, drug-addled, counterparts in all the suburbs and malls here in North America.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The Ugly American

Marlon Brando’s recent release from his mortal coil has inspired me to look again at some of the films to which he lent his mesmerizing presence, one of which was “The Ugly American”, made in 1963, in which Marlon is a US ambassador to a fictional south east Asian country still in the “development” stage, which is building a huge American-financed highway – called Freedom Road – from which all blessings will flow to the people. But all too many of the people don’t see Freedom Road as beneficently, seeing it instead as uprooting and destroying communities, and paving (sic) the way for American control over their economy and country.

Nationalist and communist agitators organize guerrilla attacks and mass demonstrations. The government waivers, and considers stopping work on Freedom Road. But the American ambassador insists that the project continue. Not only that, but to teach the agitators a lesson, the highway should now be extended further, to cross the entire country. The prime minister, knowing on which side his bread is buttered, acquiesces to the ambassador’s demands. When the news spreads, all hell breaks out. There is a national insurrection, and thousands are killed. China and North Korea take advantage of the chaos, and send soldiers into the country to stake out territory for themselves.

The ambassador, realizing he got it all wrong, speaks contritely into the microphones of the world’s newshounds gathered inside the barricaded embassy. He concedes that Americans, if they wish to win the hearts and minds of the Third World’s masses, must emphasize to them what America is for, rather than what it is against. And the ambassador says: ”People only hate us when we stop trying to be what we set out to be two hundred years ago”.

So, how much has really changed in the forty years since the “Ugly American” was made? A recent poll in Jordan, America's closest Arab ally, revealed that 99% of Jordanians do not like Americans at all, or otherwise outright hate them. America no longer represents freedom to Jordanians, or indeed to the masses generally throughout the Arab middle-east, who see today’s Ugly Americans as meddling in their affairs simply because America wants their oil. The obsequiousness of their leaders towards the US reflects that the US has bought them off as successfully as the Ugly Americans of the film bought off the Asian prime minister.

Any changes since the times of the “Ugly American” have been little more than cosmetic. The “communists” of then are the “terrorists” of now – the inchoate, unseen, and malevolent forces seeking to drain Americans of their precious bodily fluids and all else they hold dear.

This isn’t to say there have been no changes in the zeitgeist. For instance, unlike in the today of George W Bush, mainstream American films (as opposed to low-budget independent films – like those of Michael Moore) showing America in a less than complimentary light – like “The Ugly American” or “Dr Strangelove” - could still be made.