Monday, July 3, 2017

Chilly Winds

My mother used to tell me a story with a message in it, about life. I think it is an Aesop's Fable. It's likely found in more than one cultural tradition. This is the message of Joseph Campbell: look around and you'll find resonances in many cultures. I was probably about five years old the first time she told the story to me. The story was basically this:

A god (or God) was having an argument about power with one of his minions, perhaps Satan in his pre-Fall state, if you want to get all Miltonic about it. Satan says, “See that guy down there, all wrapped up in his big fur coat, shivering in the North wind. I'll bet you I can make that guy take his coat off by blowing twice as hard.” So God says, “You're on. And I'll up the ante. I'll bet you I can make him take his coat off by not blowing at all.” And the two of them clink their glasses of mead and give a hearty laugh.

So there's the bet. Satan blows harder and harder, so hard that finally he gets plumb dizzy and has to sit down. Then God simply wipes away the clouds and shines the sun down on the freezing traveler, and in a few minutes off comes the coat.

Apparently Satan learned the lesson. “Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste.” By then he'd Fallen, and his aim was to discredit guile so as to more easily trick us muddled humans into trying something else, more to his liking in the big picture of things, which is of course to make our little planet as terrible a hell as can be imagined.

Our most underrated trait, as humans, is probably multi-generational resilience. We create children, young people, who mostly start out seeing the future hopefully no matter what has happened to their parents and grandparents. This isn't always true of course. Sometimes this trait so annoys people with other agendas that they employ scientific methods aimed at training hope right out of the young. Some of these people mount armies of children, and train them to kill, and work at destroying all empathy. Take a ten-year-old, give him a pistol, have him shoot someone in the back of the head, then praise him mightily, call him a hero, give hm a birthday cake. Sometimes it works. For an exploration of this story, and how it works and how it sometimes doesn't, see Louis Malle's Lacombe, Lucien.

You could say that the 9/11 attack was an example of the bitter destruction of empathy. The men who planned and carried out the attack cared only about the symbolism of the buildings, and entirely put aside the real people who happened to be in the buildings. As well, they wanted to show the world that empathy was not going to stop them, just as fourteen years later ISIS wanted to show the world the same thing by cutting off the heads of their captives, no matter who they were.

But this battle of an eye for an eye was surely joined long before 9/11. There can be no doubt that from the point of view of a person struggling to survive in Afganistan or Iraq in 2000, there had been already many bitter blows, and a long chill wind. As many people said when we decided to attack and invade Iraq in 2003, “it's all about the oil.” Who's oil?

9/11 upped the ante, or perhaps to use another metaphor, accelerated the death spiral. Our attack on Iraq gave another goose to the accelerator. There is no obvious end point to this.

Meanwhile, there remain (until they vanish) other possibilities. Some smart, scientific-minded girls from Herat, Afganistan, applied last week for permission to come to the US and participate in a science forum on robotics. They are earnest, serious looking people, these young women. They come from a part of Afganistan that has a great, centuries old tradition of science, and more affinity with Iran than with the Pastun-speaking and Taliban supporting peoples of Afranistan who reside nearer the Pakinstani border. Nontheless, these young women were summarily denied entry into the US. The “travel ban” is a cold North wind.

There are a lot of stories covering the denial, you can google yourself.

This is what we have as US foreign policy these days—a cold North wind. The Herat girls live in a country that in significant measure frowns on women having any education at all. Apparently Mr. Trump stands with the Taliban on this. It's another weary example of Billie Holiday's strange fruit. It has been, for pretty much ever, the response of some of us. It is perhaps a definition of authoritarianism. Put their heads on pikes lining the road to the palace. All will bow down and tremble. There will be a final end to those who dare to complain. The more brutal, the more effective.

The horror is that there is no way to entirely refute this Satanic dream. The horrors can be multiplied. People in Herat probably invented multiplication a thousand years ago. Yet these girls thought the effort was worth it. Perhaps the US simply has gotten away with too much for too long. Too many of us simply do not imagine the possibility of being in the footsteps of these girls, making their way from Herat to Kabul to apply for a permit at the US Embassy. I believe I read last week that some 4,000 more US troops are on their way over there.

We never looked into the face of oblivion, except for our soldiers, who went and either came back or didn't. If you came back, we said, “Get over it.” In Japan, in Germany, in France and Great Britain and the Soviet Union, they lived it. It was harder to forget in those places. Here we've already put up a new, better tower, and there are mostly just brief glimpses of the old twins in movies from the '70s and '80s.

When you finish with Lacombe, Lucien, try Fasbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun.

My mother was of course also teaching me about how to get along with my father.

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