Monday, May 31, 2010

Piracy on the High Seas

Well-armed pirates in international waters attacked and seized a flotilla of relief vessels bringing humanitarian aid to a beseiged community this weekend. Using attack helicopters, the pirates boarded these unarmed civilian vessels and killed as many as 19 innocent civilians. As many as sixty civilians have been wounded. Incredibly, spokespersons for the pirates claim that after they had boarded the ships uninvited from the air, "they were attacked and acted in self defense." The pirates, armed with sophisticated modern weaponry, were met with limited resistance by civilians wielding metal poles. Previous pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia from different pirate gangs have been far less violent and bloody. These pirates are known to be cruel and merciless, with a history of shelling on-shore civilian areas.

The pirate terrorists have been tracked to their sanctuaries in the so-called State of Israel. They are currently holding hundreds of their innocent victims as hostages in detention camps. It is believed that the pirates have been armed by the United States.

The freedom-loving people of the world must unite to put an end to these terrorist pirate havens in the region and establish democratic and secular rule.

PS Excellent analysis from English Socialist blog Lenin's Tomb: The Reason for the Slaughter of the Free Gaza Activists

34, El Soldado

From the Loteria, card 34, The Soldier. It's Memorial Day in the United States, originally the post-Civil War holiday called "Decoration Day." It's considered the beginning of summer; a good excuse for a short vacation. I detest sanctimonious celebrations of those "who have served" and "those who have given their lives for their country" offered up by politicians who think of soldiers as pawns and expendable currency. If I'm not a fan of the armed forces and I think enlisting is a poor career choice even in a wretched economy, I recognize the humanity of all those soldiers killed in wars led by politicians united in their disregard for life.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Anti-American Art: Anti-Imperialist Circus Act

Showing an American jet crashing through the hoops formed by the number 1000, this stamp was issued by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1966 to mark the 1,000th US aircraft shot down over Vietnam.

This past May 19 was also the 120th anniversary of the birth of Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Vietnam in its war against French colonialism in the 1940s and 1950s and against American aggression in the 1960s. Although Ho Chi Minh did not live to see the defeat of the US--he died in 1969--he led his small nation in a valiant fight against the most powerful military machine on the face of the planet.

Here's an excerpt from his 1967 letter to US President Lyndon Johnson:

"On February 10, 1967, I received your message. This is my reply. Vietnam is thousands of miles away from the United States. The Vietnamese people have never done any harm to the United States. But contrary to the pledges made by its representative at the 1954 Geneva conference, the U.S. has ceaselessly intervened in Vietnam, it has unleashed and intensified the war of aggression in North Vietnam with a view to prolonging the partition of Vietnam and turning South Vietnam into a neocolony and a military base of the United States. For over two years now, the U.S. government has, with its air and naval forces, carried the war to the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam, an independent and sovereign country.

The U.S. government has committed war crimes, crimes against peace and against mankind. In South Vietnam, half a million U.S. and satellite troops have resorted to the most inhuman weapons and most barbarous methods of warfare, such as napalm, toxic chemicals and gases, to massacre our compatriots, destroy crops, and raze villages to the ground. In North Vietnam, thousands of U.S. aircraft have dropped hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs, destroying towns, villages, factories, schools. In your message, hyou apparently deplore the sufferings and destruction in Vietnam. May I ask you: Who has perpetrated these monstrous crimes? It is the United States and satellite troops. The U.S. government is entirely responsible for the extremely serious situation in Vietnam....The U.S. government has unleashed the war of aggression in Vietnam. It must cease this aggression. This is the only way to restoration of peace."

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Queers Against Israeli Apartheid

Speaking of Apartheid in Israel, the Toronto Gay Pride committee has decided to exclude Queers Against Israeli Apartheid from its upcoming Gay Pride events. From QuAIA: "Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) is a Toronto-based organization that was formed to work in solidarity with queers in Palestine and Palestinian resistance movements around the world. We support the 2005 Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law. As queers, we recognize that homophobia exists in Israel, Palestine, and across all borders, but queer Palestinians face the additional challenge of living under occupation, subject to Israeli state violence and control. We also recognize that as part of its Rebranding Campaign, Israel is cultivating an image of itself as an oasis of gay tolerance in the Middle East. QuAIA works to out this ‘pinkwashing’ of Israeli apartheid." The City of Toronto apparently threatened to cut funding to the parade if QuAIA was not banned, and the official pride committee knuckled under.

Again from QuAIA: "This follows a year of intense pressure from Toronto City Hall (one of Pride’s main funders) and Israel lobbyists, who claim that criticisms of the Israeli government amount to hate and discrimination. By caving to their demands, Pride Toronto has not only silenced the voices of queer Palestinians and human rights activists — they have set a dangerous precedent for free expression in our community."

It's disturbing to me how many gay people are duped by Israel's claim to be both the only middle-east democracy and some kind of beacon of gay rights. Gay rights cannot be divided from overall human rights: whatever legal protections lesbians and gays have in Israel are deeply compromised by Israel's overall policies and by its deprivations of the rights of all (non-Israeli) people--gay and straight--on the West Bank and in Gaza. Gay people, acutely sensitive to injustices against us, should be standing on the right side of history and welcome groups like QuAIA that carry forward the banner of interconnected social justice.

While at my age I'm not so interested in marching in pride parades anymore--I put in my time--I think it's really key that political issues not be excluded from what started out as a political celebration of gay identity.

I recommend this interview with a Queer Palestinian activist in the Haaretz newspaper: "It´s really pathetic that the Israeli state has nothing besides gay rights to promote their liberal image," says [Haneen] Maikey. "Ridiculous, and in a sense hilarious, because there are no gay rights in Israel....Stop speaking in my name and using me for a cause you never supported in the first place. If you want to do me a favour, then stop bombing my friends, end your occupation, and leave me to rebuild my community. I'm aware that my society has a long way to go in terms of human rights and social issues, but it's my responsibility, not yours."

Friday, May 28, 2010

Anti-American Art: Power to the People

This 1971 poster from Cuba's OSPAAAL marks the muder of Black Panther Party activist George Jackson in San Quentin prison. The blood from the fallen hero forms the pattern of an American flag.

“To the slave, revolution is an imperative, a love-inspired, conscious act of desperation. It’s aggressive. It isn’t `cool’ or cautious. It’s bold, audacious, violent, an expression of icy, disdainful hatred!” from George Jackson's "Blood in My Eye" quoted here.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Don't Forget This Axis of Evil: USA, Israel & Apartheid South Africa

This is an interview from the RT network with Sasha Polakow-Suransky of the Council on Foreign Relations discussing his revelation that Israel tried to sell nuclear weapons to the white racist apartheid regime of South Africa in 1975. Polakow-Suransky details the relationship that began under the Peres-Rabin Labor government in Israel and deepened during the subsequent Likud government. His information is detailed and fairly nuanced; he does not suggest that in the end South Africa purchased the nukes. Of course Israel is denying these reports.

But something needs to be said that seems forgotten these days. At the height of apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s, South Africa had two main allies and defenders, and they were the State of Israel...and the United States of America.

I found this 1986 column from Carl Rowan: "The more President Reagan talks about South Africa, the clearer it becomes that his heart and mind are with the white minority that is holding power through brutal oppressions. During his Tuesday press conference in Chicago, it became obvious that Mr. Reagan could not have been a blinder ally of the Afrikaners if he had been a puppet with Pretoria's President Pier Botha pulling the strings. There was Both Tuesday afternoon telling the congress of his ruling National Party that communism is at the root of all the evils and woes of South Africa. Then came Mr. Reagan that same evening asserting that the Communist Party of South Africa 'joined with and just moved into, the African National Congress...And right now...the ones we're hearing from and that are making the statements, are the members of the African Communist Party." President Reagan tried to veto sanctions against apartheid South Africa; basically called Nelson Mandela a terrorist, and spent millions backing South Africa's proxy wars against Cuban/Soviet backed governments in Mozambique and Angola. Meanwhile South Africa became the star client of Israel's armaments industry, purchasing billions of dollars worth of hightech weapons and fighter jets. In return South Africa supplied uranium to Israel's nuclear power plant.

The United States sacrificed the black majority in South Africa to its cold-war strategy. Ironic, of course, since apartheid was US-style Jim Crow segregationism taken to dramatic new levels. All the separation laws of the American south and its defacto deprivation of rights for black people were made government policy in South Africa. It was racial separation writ large and legal. Eventually the South African regime set up puppet black microstates in tribal areas as showcases of plausible deniability that everything they did was motivated by racism. The truth is that the spirit of Apartheid is kept alive today in one place and that place is Israel. The Arabs in the so-called occupied territories are subject to separation and deprivation of rights...and once again, despite its occasional protestations, the main backer of the new apartheid regime is the USA.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Anti-American Art: Weapons of Mass Destruction

This crudely executed stamp from the last years of Saddam Hussein's rule in Iraq is part of a series issued in 2001 condemning "The Crime of Using Depleted Uranium Against Iraqi People by USA." It's a stylized depiction of an Iraqi family defying a falling US bomb. While this stamp refers to the fallout from the US bombing campaign during the so-called first Gulf War, the effects of modern American weapons of mass and less-mass destruction on the civilians of Iraq in the aftermath of the second US attack and invasion continue to be noted.

Recent reports of birth defects in Fallujah noted on Alternet documented massive increases in the number of "central nervous system anomalies" and physical deformities among newborn babies, and incidences of cancers is way up across the board. Among the suspected causes are white phosphorus explosives and shells made of depleted uranium. But hey, the Iraqi people are free(tm)!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rethinking America Before Columbus

Of all that could be said of the erased cultures of the indigenous first Americans, perhaps the greatest lamentation is that most of them did not, or could not, leave behind a written record of the days before the European explorers and immigrants, leaving their stories to be endlessly mangled and distorted, the subject of both endless fantasy and speculation. Of course there are modern Native writers like the late Vine Deloria attempting to add a sense of perspective, and the historical record of nations captured in their moment of confrontation with the new, second Americans, but outside Central America and Mexico the voices of the pre-Columbian Americans can only be interpolated from relics and ruins not from written testaments.

Much writing on Native history suffers from twin distortions: on the one hand those anxious to ultimately excuse the genocide of the Indians as an act of historical progress, or those looking to objectify Indians as dreamily lost environmentalist naifs, too spiritual and too innocent to survive the confrontation with Europeans. That image of the weeping Indian from that 1970s TV pollution ad twins so perfectly with the whooping, scalping savages of a thousand Westerns.

One of the best books I have read recently on American Indians avoids these pitfalls. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann discusses the state of North and South America before the arrival of the Europeans. Based on archeological, geological, anthropological and historical evidence, Mann radically reinterprets the clues left behind to come up with a fairly revolutionary, and apparently controversial, comprehensive view of Native American civilization at odds with most of the myths of popular imagination.

One of the most exciting of Mann's arguments is his debunking of the notion that the America the early European explorers arrived at was some kind of pristine, near-empty natural paradise. Mann sees the massive herds of buffalo, the incredible overabundance of animal life as evidence not of ecological balance, but of a sudden ecological imbalance brought on by the collapse of local human population. He shows how Indians shaped their environment through well-developed agricultural practices including forestry management using controlled burnoffs. He suggests that North America was filled with vibrant permanent settlements--cities like Cahokia!--home to millions of people at a much higher level of development than that of nomadic hunter gatherers. He suggests that a sudden die-off of native populations happened out of sight of Europeans due to the spread of disease from the early limited 15th- and 16th-century incursions long before the 17th-century wave of European immigration and settlement. Thus the "pristine" forests and huge animal populations were the boomerang of human catastrophe as the human population suddenly plummeted.

Mann also similarly argues that the vast Amazon forests are the legacy of previous civilization. He looks at the ground itself and sees evidence not of mere human subsistence agriculture but of radical terracing and irrigation practices that reshaped the landscape and harnessed its fertility.

Again and again he reinterprets the evidence in North, Central and South America and challenges convential history. The resulting view of Indian cultures, of American Indian civilization, is far more nuanced, far more complex, and far more respectful of its achievements. Ultimately it humanizes the original Native Americans by de-mythologizing them, turning them into people of historical achievement rather than people of myth.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Anti-American Art: Look, Up in the Sky....Down on the Ground

Two of a series of stamps issued by North Vietnam in 1969 to honor the nation's air defenses, then heavily engaged in fending off massive attacks by the world's largest military machine. The Soviet Union supplied MiG fighter jets to Vietnam, shown on the left, which helped shoot down many of the thousands of intruding US aircraft downed on their missions to destroy the infrastructure of the nation. The stamp on the right shows a wounded American POW being escorted from the wreckage of his plane.

Click on the image to see the details enlarged.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

30, El Camaron

For mother's day I took my 78-year old mom out to Brooklyn's Chinatown. We ate a tasty meal at a Vietnamese pho restaurant. Looking for a complement to our bowls of soup and noodles I asked my mother if she'd enjoy an order of shrimp. "Oh yes, we should have some while we can still get it."

It's now a month since the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. In the interim an incredible volume of crude oil has spilled out onto the fertile gulf waters, so much that it is visible from space. We've been treated to the spectacle of the BP oil company, the sinister Halliburton corporation, and the Swiss company that actually owned the destroyed rig all pointing fingers of blame elsewhere, except at themselves, while testifying before congessional inquiry. We've seen BP offer estimates of how much oil and gas are leaking into the waters of the gulf that are a tiny fraction of what non-oil company sources estimate. We've seen politicians and infotainers deny that the spill is much of a deal--"accidents happen" says idiot/racist Senatorial candidate (Ayn) Rand Paul. And we've seen the US government seemingly place all its trust in the dubious ability of BP to clean up its own mess. Unbelievably, it's not yet about clean-up of this spill, it's still about turning off the out of control spigot on the ocean floor which BP has lackadaisically failed to figure out how to do. I suppose not surprisingly President Obama is talking about a commission of inquiry; what he should be doing is seizing all the assets of these companies.

I would like to know what will happen when the inevitable hurricane hits this oil slick?

Meanwhile the oil is beginning to wash up on the shores of the gulf, and commercial fishing has been curtailed in large areas. The wildlife of the area: birds, sea turtles, dolphins, whales, fish, shrimp and oysters face imminent catastrophe. The livelihoods of the local fishing industry (ironically including thousands of immigrant Vietnamese shrimpers) are deeply challenged, and the population of the region, already complaining about an unpleasant smell in the air, face unknown health risks.

So yes, 30, El Camaron, the shrimp. An ugly, insect-like creepy-crawling, scavenging little crustacean that God hates, yet sweet, plump and delicious. Soon to be endangered on these shores. But it turns out 90% of shrimp consumed in the United States is imported. So everything's okay, right?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Anti-American Art: Anti-imperialist Torture Porn

Yes that does seem to be a fiendish GI driving a spike into a Korean woman's head with an axe. It's another in the gruesome series of torture paintings at the Museum of American War Crimes in Sinchon, North Korea. I'm not sure what the piece of paper being nailed to this poor woman is. It certainly makes Abu Ghraib look like a fraternity prank. I wonder what the truth is behind these depictions.

Friday, May 21, 2010

East Village, 1990s

"Recent Unsafe Sex...If I Get AIDS in 1995 I Guess It's My Fault," random crazy-person art poster found on a lamppost in the East Village, mid-1990s. From the collection of a friend.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Anti-American Art: Scary Big Bird

Here's a Cuban OSPAAAL poster dating from the 1989 American attack on Panama ordered by George Bush I to depose its president Manuel Noriega, arrogantly and self-servingly entitled "Operation Just Cause." "Panama: To Resist Is To Win." Noriega was a vaguely nationalist left-talking corrupt puppet of the US who got out of hand; Panama of course is the northern part of Colombia the US chopped off a hundred years ago to provide a more pliant local partner for its canal building and land grabbing. Corrupt Noriega or no, it's not hard to understand how offensive the American power grab was and why Cuba would have urged Panamanian resistance. Wikipedia has a discussion of the Panamanian casualties, estimates varying between a couple hundred and a few thousand.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Happy Birthday Malcolm X

"I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being, neither white, black, brown nor red. When you are dealing with humanity as one family, there's no question of integration or intermarriage. It's just one human being marrying another human being, or one human being living around and with another human being. I may say, though, that I don't think the burden to defend any such position should ever be put upon the black man. Because it is the white man collectively who has shown that he is hostile towards integration and towards intermarriage and towards these other strides towards oneness. So, as a black man, and especially as a black American, I don't think that I would have to defend any stand that I formerly took. Because it's still a reaction of the society and it's a reaction that was produced by the white society. And I think that it is the society that produced this that should be attacked, not the reaction that develops among the people who are the victims of that negative society." --Malcolm X, January 19, 1965

Check out this deep mixcloud podcast by one of my music blog friends, blackclassical: Happy Earthday El Hajj Malik El Shabazz. Rare jazz set to themes by Malcolm X.

Pyramid of the Sun

Teotihuacan is probably the most amazing place I've ever been. It's the stone ruin of a city's central plaza dating from before Aztec/Nahuatl civilization just outside the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan that is today Mexico City. That makes it at least a thousand years old. While dominated by two huge pyramids, so-called the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, the plaza is surrounded by dozens of smaller pyramids, temples, and galleries.

Having been born in Mexico I was curious as an adult to return: I did so in 1985, when I visited Teotihuacan and took this photo. I don't remember what time of year it was, but it was dry and hot. There were these dried plants all over the place that had tiny seed pods hanging from them: walking through them sounded like walking through a field of tiny bells as the brittle seed pods shook and rattled. It was almost like hearing the echo of the place's ancient sounds while walking on the broad avenues below the pyramids. The pyramids themselves are steep, but accessible. There were plenty of tourists there but the place was not overwhelmed; in any case it would be hard to imagine that the scale of the place wouldn't dwarf even the largest tourist invasion.

It's sort of remarkable that these man-made mountains are just there. They're simultaneously symbols of both permanence and impermanence. The nation that made them is long gone, but the world that inherited them is left to confront their meaning. Visiting Teotihuacan is a little bit like visiting a cemetery in that the place itself is sort of other-worldly and hallowed. Nobody's likely to build a skyscraper next door, and McDonald's isn't likely to build a concession stand on the top of one of the pyramids.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Anti-American Art: Save Gas - Fight Uncle Sam

"To Win, Resist. To Resist, Save...Every Resource Saved Is a Blow Against the Enemy"

Vintage 1960s Cuban poster campaigning to save resources like oil and gas in the face of the US blockade and embargo: "We are in combat against the blockade imposed on us by the enemy...We have to use our resources with the same efficiency that our glorious armed forces and territorial militias use in their invincible means of combat." Note the stars in Uncle Sam's crushed bonnet have been changed to little swastikas. It's nothing short of miraculous that Cuba has held off US aggression for fifty years; the last twenty without the economic support of the now defunct Soviet bloc.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Collect Dead Indians!

This is from a series of trading cards included with packs of chewing gum back in the 1930s. This series featured notable native Americans: featured here is a "portrait" of King Phillip, the Alonquian chief named Metacom whose claim to memory is King Phillip's War, the bloody late 17th-century conflict that marked the general destruction of independent Indian nations side-by-side with the Puritan/European settlements in southern New England. The reverse of this card reads "Metacomet was the Indian name of this fearless chief of the Wampanoags who inhabited the southeastern part of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. He was the son of Massasoit and was at first a friend of the white colonists. Later, fearing the whites would destroy his people, started the terrible King Phillip war and massacred many colonists."

It's a completely fanciful illustration; and the brief history is the perfect distillation of the conqueror's point of view: the noble savage was first our friend but then betrayed us. What the card omits is that the defeated Algonquins were largely rounded up, enslaved, and shipped to the Caribbean to be sold as so much chattel. Metacom's severed head was put on display in Plymouth. Pilgrim's progress indeed.

For an extraordinary read on King Phillip's War, including a remarkable exposition on "how brutality is justified and how war is remembered," I strongly recommend Jill Lepore's 1998 work "The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Orgins of American Identity."

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Anti-American Art: A Courier's Appointed Rounds

This is the cover of a cultural-revolution-era Chinese picture book; the title, in beautiful caligraphy, has something to do I believe, with "Red Hero." Interpolating from the vivid paintings within, the plot seems to have something to do with a hero who cuts his teeth in the struggle against the Japanese during the Second World War and goes on to volunteer to stop the US invasion of Korea. Here in sweepingly heroic socialist inspirational style, our colorful hero bravely carries an important package through the smoke of war while dingey gray American soldiers cringe.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Echoes of a Past Life - A Pile of Witchcrap

One of my goals in The Cahokian is to hold up a mirror to the world: to explore what "we" say about ourselves, whoever that "we" might be. "We" have a remarkable ability to delude ourselves, and to create defining myths out of wishful thinking. There are many good things about the United States, for example, but most of us living here would rather not think about all the things documented in my "Anti-Americana" series. Of course these outsider images of America are caricatures themselves, telling a different version of the story but not necessarily a complete one either.

The communities I have participated in all have their own identity myths; myths which are informed by facts but surely by the selective reporting of them. We fool ourselves in taking these myths too literally, I think. The politically active "out" lesbian and gay community loves to harken back to Stonewall, for instance, to the police raid on a corrupt mob-owned gay bar and the ensuing riotous aftermath. There's nothing wrong with seeing Stonewall as a landmark event in the struggle for gay equality and social acceptance, but focusing solely on it discounts a lot of other things that happened inside and outside the gay community in the 1960s and 1970s that led us to where we are today. Wherever that may be.

The Neo-Pagan community was all about self-invention. Neo-Pagans can be brilliant miners and archaeologists of library texts for discovering ancient practices to resurrect in modern times, usually omitting such excesses as human sacrifice. But they can also be poseurs, picking and choosing and blustering, experts at omitting inconvenient facts, and somewhat heartbreakingly gullible to the slightest suggestion of actual ancestral continuity. The foundational myth of Wicca is that Gerald Gardner learned witchcraft from a secret coven of witches in an English forest who had practiced pre-Christian Celtic religion in an unbroken ancestral line since before the middle ages. He validated his tale with some idyllic but questionable anthropology supplied by Dr. Margaret Murray, and voila, Neo-Paganism's instant pedigree.

I wrote the humorous bit of fiction below when I was feeling rather peevish toward Neopagans, perhaps after one too many Pagan festival with overlapping ren-faire/trekkie convention sensibilities, one too many obviously-invented ludicrous traditional claim, one too many bits of play-acting. In truth I think that the time is ripe for a relevant, reverent modern nature religion, and NeoPagans are to be commended for building a real established faith that even has the Pentagon granting pentacle-emblazoned tombstones to fallen Wiccan soldiers. But there are plenty of mysteries of faith upon which to meditate and expand one's consciousness without resorting to making up stories about the magic herbs granny kept in her secret stash, or inventing tales of egalitarian womyn-centered ancient utopias.

Anyway I don't remember what exactly set me off to write this piece, which I didn't finish nor publish (until now!), but I thought it would be funny to tell a de-romanticized shaggy-dog creation myth send-up of Pagan practices. Perhaps, no definitely, it was also obnoxious of me. I was leading up to a punchline I don't entirely remember about the word "witch" deriving from the word "twit." And yet, I think I'm actually making a valid point about how we tell the story of how we got here.

The relationship of our creation myths to the truth is not linear. This dates from about 1994.

The True History of the World: A Pile of Witchcrap
by Ian Scott Horst
(unpublished, unfinished manuscript)

Time: Approx. 30,000 years ago
Place: Somewhere in Europe

It was a cold winter, and the people stayed in the cave for weeks on end to avoid the winds and snows. Since soap had not yet been invented, it was smelly in the cave. Worse, the people were very bored, since yahtzee had not yet been invented either.

Ooga the hunter sat playing with her rocks. She had four of them, and arranged and re-arranged them on top of a bigger rock. There were, of course, lots of rocks in the cave.

Ooga's little son Urggie was playing with mud in the back of the cave. His hands were filthy. Well, actually, he was filthy all over. But as he tried to stand (something he had recently learned to do) he almost fell forward, and he braced himself with a dirty little hand on the cave wall.

"Urggie," said Ooga, looking up from her rocks, "look what you have done! You've gotten little hand prints all over the wall of the cave. Bad little cave-boy! Why don't you come over here and play with these rocks?"

Grogga, who lived with her sisters around the stinking pile of mammoth skins next to Oooga and Urrgie's stinking pile of mammoth skins, sneered at Ooga. "Ooh," she said to her sister Glogga. "I hate that Ooga. She's such a twit, always playing with those rocks. And that brat of hers. Look what he's done to the walls."

"Oh come on, Grogga," replied Glogga. "It's not like there's anything else to do around here. Besides, she says it's kind of like magic how playing with those rocks helps pass the time."

"I still say she's a twit."

Eventually, Ooga died of old age when she was 32. Her children continued to play with rocks, and taught their children how to play with rocks. Their neighbors always called them twits, too.

Grogga and Glogga died a year later when they were eaten by a saber tooth tiger. The tiger thought they were yummy, though the lice in their hair gave him indigestion.

Time: Approx. 10,000 years ago
Place: Somewhere in Europe

Kraka was really upset. "I am so sick of elk burgers. Elk steaks. Elk chops. Elk soup. Is that the only thing around here to eat?" She sat playing with three rocks and an elk bone which had been handed down through her family for generations. "At least I'm not bored, too." Actually four rocks had been handed down to her for generations; she'd lost one of the rocks a few summers ago after drinking too much fermented elk-milk.

There was sudden commotion outside her elk-hide hovel. Kraka heard shouts from the men and women assigned to guard their encampment. She stood, and stepped out of the hovel to see what the commotion was about.

"Let's ask the Twit, she'll know what to do!" said a man dressed in filthy elk skins. A loud murmur of agreement passed through the assembled crowd. The crowd moved toward Kraka's hovel.

"Oh great Twit, we have captured a stranger. What should we do?" From the center of the crowd, a burly man in a dirty elk-leather kilt shoved a small figure before him to the ground at Kraka's feet.

The man was slightly built, and his skin was darker than that of her people. "Hmmm. Too bad. I was hoping you might have found something good to eat," said Kraka. "OK, who are you and why shouldn't we kill you?"

The small man stood, and spoke in a thick Indo-European accent. "I am called Agri in my land, which is far, far from here. I come from the soon-to-be-fabled Fertile Crescent. Madam, if you would please introduce me to your chief I would have a few words with him."

Kraka looked doubtful. She sized up his scrawny thighs and thought that maybe he would be a nice change from elk meat. "Not a good enough answer. You there, Zug, get a spit and light a big fire. Our guest is staying for dinner!"

"But wait! I can show you many miracles!" chirped the small man.

"Look, I'm the Twit of this tribe, and miracles are my department. But OK, I will consult the sacred oracle." Kraka went back into her hovel and picked up her four rocks. Well, her three rocks and one elk bone. She shook them around and threw them in the dirt. Well, OK, there was a lot of dirt in the hovel: She threw them in the part of the dirt that she had specially tamped down for the purposes of magic oracles.

She gazed at the pattern of objects. "Hmm. The three of rocks and the one of bone. That's the same answer I got last time. This... this... is a synchronicity!" Kraka went back outside. "The oracle has spoken. It says to explain your miracle. And it it really is a miracle, we may let you live."

Agri reached into a small purse hanging from his waist and held out a handful of seeds. "This is the miracle."

"It looks like a handful of wild elk-feed to me," said Kraka, eyeing the seeds dubiously.

"Yes, it does. But if you place these seeds in the ground and water them well they will grow plants that bear a hundred more seeds. And when they grow you can grind them, mix them with water, and cook them and eat them."

The gathered members of the tribe began laughing wildly. "Elk-feed! He wants us to eat elk-feed! Hah hah hah..."

"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," said Kraka. "Who would want to eat elk-feed but an elk? Go on, Zug, get the spit."

"I beg of you, give me a chance!" cried Agri.

Now Kraka, being a Twit and all, thought maybe she shouldn't be so rash. "OK. Plant your elk-feed. If what you say is true we will spare your life."

Agri carefully dug rows in the dirt and planted his precious seeds. The guffaws of the crowd were deafening.

A week later Kraka had grown impatient. She had been right; the thigh meat was lovely juicy change from elk.

But not long after that little shoots appeared in the dirt that had been furrowed by the late foreigner. And not long after that, the shoots grew into a field of lovely tall plants. And soon, as the foreigner had promised, thousands and thousands of little seeds sprouted from the tops of these plants.

Kraka was still skeptical, but recalled the words of the foreigner anyway. "What was that he said? Grind them and mix them with water?" She did as she remembered and soon had a messy yellow paste. She wrapped the paste in leaves and placed the bundles carefully around the edge of her fire. Soon a delicious aroma came from the bundles. She unwrapped one and nibbled at it. She couldn't believe it, but she had never tasted anything so delicious. It was crunchy and crispy (because yeast would not be invited until her great-great-great-granddaughter's time) and sodium free. She realized that her world would never be the same. Her head whirled with the thoughts of the potential of this new food. She realized this new thing would change her people's culture forever.

Kraka called together her people. "My people," she proclaimed, waving a piece of her hot-baked goody, "I have made a miracle. I name this new food after me. We are nomads no mo. We shall build permanent huts instead of hovels. We shall cultivate the fields. Let the arts and sciences flourish, whatever they are. And let our new ways, our new culture, be named for the mysterious stranger who brought the first of these seeds to our land. I proclaim the birth of Agri-culture!"

Months passed and the people flourished. Many of them, including Kraka herself, got very fat on the new food. No longer was it just elk burgers, but now elk burgers on whole wheat or white crackers, chicken-fried cracker-crumb-breaded-elk in white gravy, and elk popovers. Rigda, one of the tribal artisans, and the world's first chubby chaser, fell immediately in love with Kraka.

"Oh Kraka, I worship you. Let me carve a statue of you," he pleaded with her, basking in the glorious afterglow of one of their 30-second joinings.

At first Kraka was unsure of Rigda's intentions. But after seeing how lovingly he carved stones and bones into a curvaceous interpretation of her ample pulchritude, Kraka was overjoyed. Soon her new field-side hut was filled with little statuettes carved in her image.

Time: Approx. 9,950 years ago
Place: The same place in Europe

Azarak was Kraka's grandson. He was not the Twit of the tribe, though many thought he was a twit indeed. His older sister had inherited the spiritual reins of the community. In truth, Azarak was a bit of a laughing stock.

Once he, his sister Grelda and their friends were exploring a cave not far from their village. The cave was dark and deep, and their torches illuminated many strange and eerie paintings on the walls.

Poor Azarak suddenly had an attack of flatulence, the embarrassing noise reverberating in the darkness for several minutes. His sister and her friends made him feel like a fool, running around him in circles in sing-song childish voices teasing about the echo his farting had caused. [Wow, that is one seriously mean in-joke! "Ekko ekko Azarak!" is an allegedly traditional Wiccan chant. --ish]

He grew up unhappy and miserable, and vowed his revenge. The moment came when a travelling trinket salesman passed through the village on his way to the coast. Well, actually, he was not, strictly speaking, a salesman, since selling had not been invented yet. He was really a travelling barterman.

Azarak was sitting in the dirt outside the family hut scratching his fleas when the barterman walked up.

"Say, lad, I'm trying to invent commerce only I can hardly find anything in these parts worth bartering for. Everyone already has plenty of elk hides. Do you have anything I might be interested in? I'll make it worth your while."

Azarek remembered his sister's cherished collection of figurines handed down to her from her grandmother. "Well, I might. Come on in."

He lead the barterman over to a particularly squalid corner of the hut, and pulled aside a tattered, mouldering elk-hide. "My sister says that her grandfather made all these statues of my grandmother. He said he worshipped her."

The barterman remembered how on his travels far and wide people were always asking for figures. "I'll take them. What do you want in return?"

"What do you have," asked Azarak.

The barterman opened his elk-hide sack. "I have sticks. I have stones. I have elk bones. I have..."

Azarak's eye caught something in the sack. "What's that?"

"That? Oh that's very special. It's a new invention. It's called a bowl. It's been carved from a piece of wood far, far away from here. You use it to eat with."

"To eat with! What's wrong with using your hands?"

"No, no. You put food in it. They you stick your hands in the food."

"Oh, neat. I want that."

"Well, it's quite rare. You'll have to offer me something else as well."

Azarak thought a moment. "My sister has magic rocks. You can have of them." He looked around the hut and saw a particularly worn elk-skin bundle. He unwrapped it, and pulled out one of the three rocks inside.

"You say these are magic rocks"" asked the barterman. "What do you mean, magic?"

"My sister is the Great Twit of this village. She uses these rocks to consult the oracle."

"Well in that case, it's a deal. Here you go sonny."

And the barterman handed Azarak the rough wooden vessel, grabbed the proffered rock, and began to load the figurines into his sack. Azarak rubbed his hands together in glee, knowing how mad his sister would be upon discovering that one of her magic rocks and all of her family heirlooms were gone.

"Thank you, lad. Well now, I'll be on my way. I'll be back this way again in the spring. You see if there's anything else you want to trade. Remember me, the name's Hum-El. Bye, kid." And with that the barterman walked out of the hut and down the worn and rutted path out of the vilage.

Azarak's glee soon began to turn to worry. "What if my sister is angry with me? What have I done! She's the Twit!" He looked at his new prize with a sick feeling in his stomach. He farted.

"I better put this thing in place of the magic rock. Maybe she won't notice the difference,"he thought, as he stuffed the wooden bowl into the bundle containing the two remaining rocks and the elk bone.

And lo and behold, soon thereafter his sister was called upon to throw the sacred oracle. She cast the contents of the bundle into the dust and looked at the results with shock and disbelief. "I don't believe it! The two of rocks. The one of elk-bone, and one of, what is this thing? Some kind of cup or bowl? That's the first time this reading has ever happened. This is a powerful omen!"

And much to Azarak's dismay, his sister's standing with the tribe increased. His disappointment was short-lived, though, as he died soon after from eating some rotten elk-meat that had, it should be noted, turned completely green after sitting in the wooden bowl for two entire weeks. His sister always remembered the time she had teased him, and vowed to be kinder to her other brothers ever after.

Time: 3,000 years ago
Place: Still someplace in Europe

Gwindel thought of herself as a sharp dresser. And it was only right for the Twit of the tribe to care about her appearance. Gwindel would sit by the pond outside the village gaze at her reflection. She stuck leaves and flowers in her greasy, stringly hair and marvelled at the effect. The she would wrap a piece of elk skin around her head. This she loved even more. Once, she held an elk-skull to the top of her head. This was her favorite. She strapped the antler-bearing bones to the top of her head with strips of elk-leather and pranced about the paths of the village, singing rhymes her foremothers had passed down to her.

Gwindel loved to put things on her head.

[And sadly, dear reader, that is where the manuscript ends, except for a couple notes for future chapters, including one line of dialogue: "Ann, you have harmed none. Do what would wilt it." --ish]

Friday, May 14, 2010

Anti-American Art: Old Grudges Are Hard To Forget

Two colorful triptychs of stamps from the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, aka Libya, marking the burning of the US frigate "Philadelphia" off the Libyan capital of Tripoli in 1804. The Philadelphia had been sent to North Africa to fight the Barbary coast pirates; it was captured by the forces of Tripoli's Pasha. US Marines under Stephen Decatur boarded the Philadelphia and burned it during a battle with the Pasha's forces to prevent the frigate from being used by the Libyans. The narrative of these stamps seems to suggest that the ship was burned by the Libyans themselves.

The second panel of stamps compares the Philadelphia's attack on Libya and its destruction to the 1986 attack by American F111 aircraft ordered against Libya by Ronald Reagan as a reprisal for alleged Libyan involvement in a terrorist attack in Germany. One of the US planes was shot down; and the targeting of Libyan leader Gaddafi barely missed, killing instead one of his children and wounding two more. The attack was roundly condemned internationally. Several dozen Libyan civilians and military personnel were killed.

Click on the image to see it in all its cartoonish propaganda glory: the top image showing the US marine brutally stabbing a Libyan in the chest; the bottom of course featuring the requisite bloodied children.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Alice Coltrane on harp

Here's a wonderful clip I had not seen before of Alice Coltrane playing a harp solo in concert. I know nothing more about this clip than what you see here. I was lucky enough to see her perform twice, but she stayed with piano and organ. This is a real treat.

If you haven't done so, check out some of the Alice Coltrane rarities reviewed on my music blog Ilé Oxumaré.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Anti-American Art: Nice Try, CIA

This Cuban poster is from a 1970s anniversary celebration of the Cuban victory at Playa Giron, what the United States media calls the Bay of Pigs Invasion, where Cuban exiles recruited, funded and armed by JFK attempting a military invasion of newly liberated Cuba in 1961 were soundly thrashed. The poster makes clear what everybody really knew, that Giron was not a defeat of random anti-Castro forces, but a defeat of the US attempt to spike the Cuban revolution. Afterwards Che Guevara sent a note to President Kennedy: "Thanks for Playa Girón. Before the invasion, the revolution was weak. Now it's stronger than ever."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

New Tenants and the Folks Who Used to Live Here

Nicaragua doesn't have any pyramids. Further south than the historic homelands of the monument-building meso-American civilizations of pre-Hispanic times, it does however have many stone figures carved out of ubiquitous volcanic rock. I photographed this one on the island of Ometepe in the largest lake in the center of Nicaragua in 1986. To my dilettante's eye it looks far more Aztec in style than Mayan. It looks a bit like the "eagle knights" of Aztec military aristocracy.

I was walking around my neighborhood in Brooklyn today, which was pretty much entirely constructed in the first decade of the twentieth century on what had been farmland for the previous several hundred years of American and European settlement. My block of brownstones was thrown up in 1907, a bedroom community for the industrial zone along the shore. Its first residents were a wave of Scandinavian immigrants, though its many classically-styled Lutheran churches are pretty much the only remaining trace of northern European ethnicity here; today it's a melting pot of Latin and East Asian immigrants, with smaller numbers of South Asians and "white" people (recognizing that color is a particularly imprecise measure here). Anyway it feels like an old, established, somewhat decaying neighborhood...and it's barely a hundred years old. No matter how many holes you dig, try as you might, you're not going to find anything man-made here older. The next neighborhood over has a stone farmhouse and few wooden frame ones going back a hundred or a hundred-and-fifty years more, but that's it.

I often wonder how that lack of a visible past affects our consciousness. In Mexico, in Europe, the past is all around you, layer on top of layer. But in Sunset Park, even the Mexican immigrants whose ancestors' civilization's remnants are clear to see back home are as rootless here as the rest of us.

The presence of Native Americans here before the Dutch and their bags full of clocks has an imaginary quality about it: we know they were here before but you can't easily prove it. Sure in upstate New York, even out on Long Island, there are Indian Reservations with real-live people in them descended from those original inhabitants, doing what they can to survive and preserve tradition and identity in a melting-pot world that has treated them particularly badly. But there's not even any stone statues here reminding us that this place used to be different. And whether, or maybe how, that state of difference was better or worse than today becomes a minefield of conflict between nostalgia and progress, racism and consciousness, evidence and imagination. What are our obligations of respect, of gratefulness, of acknowledgement?

There's no pyramids here either.

Monday, May 10, 2010

14, La Muerte, or a Musical Meditation on the Art of Darkness

I've been listening over and over, as is my wont, to a few songs lately, and wanting to find a way to say something about them. There's a theme to these songs, though, that seems so morbid to set words down about them, especially when the songs themselves don't actually produce morbidness as one of their emotional responses.

What I love about Tarot cards, so resonant and laden with meaning -- and by extension the Mexican loteria, on the one hand nothing more than a paper bingo game and yet somehow also a set of archetypes upon which one might meditate -- is that they become keys to unlock mysteries of meaning. They're like visual wordless poems that allow our minds to wander and learn. Tarot card images are full and complicated: every little piece of the design has a little bit of meaning and correspondence. They're deeply loaded with all sorts of occult symbols and suggestions, as well as the simpler meanings suggested by the parts of the design. Loteria cards are much simpler images, the details quite unimportant. Here's the thing about the death card in Tarot, though. It's not exactly about death. Oh, I know enough about a fortune-teller's trade to know that in context it could mean that. But what it means above all is transformative change.

Which brings me to the three songs I've been listening to. The first is probably the most well known. It's the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson singing "Trouble of the World." Here's how I first heard it; you too, probably:

That's the climactic scene from the classic Douglas Sirk melodramatic tearjerker "Imitation of Life." Susan Kohner, who has been "passing" for white, has missed the death of her mother Annie (played by the great Juanita Moore), and now must suffer the guilt of discovering that her mother was a figure beloved by everyone except her own light-skinned daughter; so beloved, in fact that at her jam-packed funeral the greatest gospel singer of our time sings her a parting spiritual. It's a great flick, full of 1950s repression and a very complicated, surprisingly un-racist depiction of African-Americans, setting aside of course the casting of a white actress as the passing daughter.

Anyway "Trouble of the World" is a classic Christian spiritual: "Soon I will be done with the trouble of the world, going home to live with God. No more weeping and wailing, going home to live with my Lord." It's somber, in that it's a song about death, for sure, but it's really more reverent than sad. It's used in the film to force all the tawdry soap-opera characters to think about what they've done and how empty and barren their own lives were compared to the late Annie, who though a humble maid saved enough money to take care of her family and send herself out in style.

I'm not a Christian; I don't share this certainty of "going home to live with God," but the powerful faith revealed in Mahalia Jackson's completely committed delivery is inspiring to me. That death could be transformed from the object of fear and dread to something else entirely is quite a leap. But this is remarkably powerful message music and that leap is made convincing. There are a lot of things people can do in this world, but that finality must be met: and here Mahalia Jackson's steely determination and spiritual optimism says, "have no fear."

The second song I've been listening to is much less well known. Jazz trumpeter Charles Sullivan released the album "Genesis" on the Strata-East label in 1974; it was reissued on the Inner City label a few years later, and actually was recently reissued on CD by that reactivated label. Most of the album is some excellent instrumental jazz, typical of what the indie Strata-East musicians were recording at the time. But the young Dee Dee Bridgewater, then taking a guest turn on the albums of many jazz musicians, was brought in to sing an absolutely devastating suicide ballad, "Now I'll Sleep." You can hear it on Youtube:

"Why am I alive what have I got to live for
I'm through with playing games they just add up to zero
Life is war and war is hell and I'm no hero
I tried I failed but I tried I'm sorry
I can't begin again no chance to change my story
The end is just the end forget those dreams of glory
I had my chance to win I chose to lose
that's funny
Afraid to love so you die unhappy

And those who have no love to give
they have no need to live
how senseless it all is to me

And so I say goodbye with just a hint of sadness
For lonely is the road that leads me from this madness
But frightened though I am I feel a rush of gladness
And peace more peaceful than night
It's the peace I've searched for all my life
Now I'll sleep and never be afraid of waking up again."

It's pretty shocking to hear the sweet voice of the woman who sang "If You Believe" in the original production of the Broadway musical "The Wiz" sing these dire, hopeless lyrics. At the same time, I find this a beautiful, witty song. I love the line, "Life is war and war is hell and I'm no hero." This is an utterly convincing portrayal of someone who has had enough. And though I have lived my life without any bouts of suicidal depression, I find myself checking my mood when I listen to this song just to make sure I'm doing so with a healthy mind. I think that's powerful art.

Hearing this song we put ourselves in the position of its singer, brought to life by such a gifted vocalist as Bridgewater. We're allowed to experience a flash of this terminal disappointment and sense of failure, and the grasping desperation of taking matters into her own hand. But we're also allowed to walk away at the end of the song: surely the phrase "There but for the grace of God go I" has never had a better testament. Interestingly on the album, the graceful piano and voice of this song is immediately followed by driving bass and percussion of an extended suite called "Genesis." To me it's almost like trumpeter/composer Sullivan is immediately repudiating the pessimism and self-doubt of "Now I'll Sleep" by saying that life, creation, genesis, is complicated, challenging, sometimes chaotic, but worth staying awake for and ultimately rewarding in its gift of experience, both bad and good. All that existential angst? Get over it!

Art, like the tarot cards, is full of meaning and symbolism: it should make us confront the deep and dark things as well as the light and joyful ones. Both the solemn inspiration of "Trouble of the World" and the brutal self indulgence of "Now I'll Sleep" ask us to confront our assumptions.

The third song I've been listening to is "How Glory Goes," from an obscure musical called "Floyd Collins" by composer Adam Guettel. The version I enjoy the most is sung by Audra McDonald, the title song of her second solo album, released in 2000. (Another excellent version of the song is performed by Brian Stokes Mitchell on his own eponymous album.)

The song is a meditation on what happens when you die: as in "go to glory," the rapturous revelation of heaven at the moment of passing in Christian teaching. It begins:

"Is it warm?
Is it soft against your face?
Do you feel a kind of grace inside the breeze?
Will there be trees?
Is there light?
Does it hover on the ground?
Does it shine from all around, or just from you?
Is it endless and empty, as you wander on your own?
Slowly forget about the folks that you have known?
Or does rising' bread fill up the air
from open kitchens every where?
Familiar faces far as you can see, like a family?"

Audra McDonald is an art singer; and her theatrical training suits this song well. Her voice is almost operatic, soaring; the arrangement behind the song delicate and restrained with the flavor of theater music or classical music not pop. The gorgeously sung lyrics muse on all those unknowable mysteries of mortality.

"Do we hear a trumpet call us and we're by your side?
Will I want, Will I wish for all the things I should have done,
Longing to finish what I've only just begun?
Or has a shining truth been waiting there
for all the questions everywhere?
In a world of wondering suddenly you know;
And you will always know..."

In my own religious tradition, the Yoruba-based Santeria faith, there's a proverb attached to one of the sacred divination oddu: "The one who knows does not die like the one who does not know." To my mind, rather than promising some kind of special treat upon death to the initiated, some heavenly reward or playground of virgins, what these words are avowing is more profound. They're saying that when you explore the mysteries of your faith, of spirituality, you gain a level of consciousness that is what other religions might call grace. You find peace in being given a peek at the mysterious workings of the universe, seeing the transformative changes of life and death as not something to be dreaded, but something that simply is, trusting in the cosmic machinery that in the end, everything is as it should be.

Which I think is why I find "How Glory Goes" so special. It strips out the fatalism, the morbidness, the darkness, if you will, of that most human of predilections, worrying about what happens next. It doesn't say it's wrong to ask unanswerable questions, but it gives us the tools to move on with our lives lifted of the burdens of uncertainty. It offers a kind of spiritual serenity, which becomes a call, I think, to experience the living of the now with reverence and wonder and joy, welcoming the changes that need to come as the unfolding mystery of being.

As the song concludes:
"Only heaven knows how glory goes,
what each of us was meant to be.
In the starlight, that is what we are.
I can see so far..."

Sunday, May 09, 2010

John Brown, 1800-2010

May 9 is the 210th anniversary of the birth of radical abolitionist John Brown. Brown was executed in 1859 for his raid on Harper's Ferry, an attempt by Brown to seize weapons for a planned armed insurrection of slaves. Brown is a genuine great American hero who laid his life on the line in the struggle against slavery, the great moral compromise of America's founding.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Anti-American Art: Elephants' Graveyard

Founded in 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF) was ostensibly a union of communist and nationalist forces independent from Ho Chi Minh's Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north and the corrupt pro-Western government in the south. After years of U.S. covert operations blew up into outright war in the mid 1960s, the NLF became the guerrilla force opposing the Americans and its puppets in the south (though many speculate the NLF was greatly diminished after the spectacular but ultimately failed Tet uprising). The Americans called the NLF fighters "VC" or Vietcong. On this 1967 stamp issued by the NLF, fighters stand atop captured American tanks, while a downed helicopter lies crumpled in the background and the NLF flag flies gloriously above.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Anti-American Art: Talk to the Hand

Classic propaganda imagery from a 1983 North Korean stamp: the hand of the Korean people pushes away American armaments from the DMZ and reunifies Korea. Peaceful reunification remains the stated goal of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea: it's kind of hard given the vast cultural differences between the two halves of the country how exactly that would work.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Walls Speak

I went to Puerto Rico last year on holiday: saw this random chipped plaster wall with sharp-eyed graffiti commentary in the historic neighborhood of Old San Juan. "Africa."

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Anti-American Art: The Mercenary

Here's a poster from Cuba's OSPAAAL, the Organization for the Solidarity of the Peoples of African, Asia and Latin America, that is remembered mostly for its impressive monthly posters designed by the world's leading revolutionary graphic designers. In this one, entitled "The Mercenary" a smoking, soul-less war machine of an American GI is shown, by a cutaway on his helmet, to be driven and controlled by a balding nebbish in a business suit: the fearsome US war machinery controlled by corporate interests. I'm guessing this one dates from the early 1970s.

Surprisingly socialist Cuba and the United States have never come to direct blows, though the 1980s wars in Grenada, Nicaragua, and especially Angola became essentially proxy conflicts between the American superpower and its tiny rebellious neighbor.

Monday, May 03, 2010

38, El Apache

Colorfully decked out in dyed-in-Taiwan turkey feathers, El Apache stands at the crossroads of Indianism. Simultaneously having nothing and everything to do with real native American people, he's both a travestic joke, a kind of clown, and an idolized fantasy of the eternal noble savage. No actual Apache ever looked like this, while millions of little white (and brown?) boys certainly donned similar exotically preposterous outfits in childhood play. And yet, he is tinged with the regret of the centuries that this continent of immigrants is what it is today only by the subjugation, destruction, and marginalization of its original inhabitants.

It's interesting that this card comes from Mexico, whose capital city was founded by the Aztecs with broad clean plazas, fertile gardens, and running water while the citizens of the capitals of Europe were rolling about in "nightsoil" and sharing their muddy hovels with rats, whilst hawking up bloody mucus into the dark corners. Today's Mexico is inescapably the fruit of its mostly poor native masses and its European-ancestered elite.

El Apache lives on in the erring imaginations of today's North Americans. Objectified as the wise spiritual being at one with nature or as the terrifying savage archer stoically dressed inappropriately for any season, our native American caricature reflects our aspirations and fears for a human nature much more complex; an inner conflict for generations of immigrants' heirs with exposure to few actual descendants of the survivors of the Europeans' American genocide.

(In addition to continuing The Cahokian's series of meditations on Loteria cards, this post marks the first of a series of posts on the phenomenon of Indianism, with all respect due to the late Edward Said, author of Orientalism).

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Anti-American Art: Samson v. Goliath

Colorfully-dressed female insurgents stand on the wing of a downed US Air Force plane in remote Laos. This stamp was issued in 1973 by the Pathet Lao insurgents for areas of Laos under their control. Often forgotten as an adjunct to the Vietnam war, Laos was bombed by US forces both to defeat the local insurgency and to prevent North Vietnam from moving troops and supplies through Laos to the war in the south. CIA troops made mercenaries of many of the local minority tribes, resulting in a mass exodus of Hmong tribe refugees to the US in the late 1970s after the victory of Pathet Lao forces.

According to Defense Department records, 520,000 bombing runs were made over Laos, dropping 2 million tons of bombs. "According to UNESCO, unexploded military ordinance (UXO) still contaminates 25 percent of the area of Xieng Khouang province," according to the Asia Pacific Journal.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

May Day! May Day!

May First is, of course, "Labour Day," in the un-American sense of the word, as in the revolutionary international workers' political holiday, the occasion for waving around red banners and yelling a lot, as opposed to our own labor day, which is good mostly for barbecues. It's also, of course, the Pagan fertility holiday of Beltane, which I've written about elsewhere, where copious seed is supposed to be spilt upon the earth to ensure the fruits of the future. Yes, Pagans, that's you being admonished in the Judeo-Christian Old Testament. I didn't know which to focus on for The Cahokian, so I've elected this beautiful photograph of a Maoist/Naxalite revolutionary in rural India that I found on the net. Take away the hammer-and-sickle flags and this woman could pass for a celebrant in a fertility festival so I thought it captured something about the moment. I'm not sure what it says about America that neither of these holidays are much celebrated here; well actually I am pretty sure what it says but I'm not too happy with the answer.

Either way you mark it, May Day is a celebration of optimism. Optimism that the have-nots can get together in solidarity and determination to one day have, and optimism that the winter is over and the seasons are spinning around properly as they should, that our efforts today will pay off tomorrow, that future generations will arise from our own, carrying on our traditions. (There's this sort of joke one of my Pagan friends told me once: it involved a group of Native American shamans who performed a seasonal ritual every year for return of the warm seasons. Some scientist sits down with the shamans and explains the science behind the rotating seasons, the earth on its axis, the scientific inevitability of the return of Spring, etc. etc. in an effort to to persuade these shamans to give up their quaint superstitious rite. The shamans listen carefully, aheming and ahahing. When the scientists had finished they talk among themselves and after extended deliberation return to the scientists. "Well, we have listened to what you said. Your evidence is very compelling, but frankly, it's just not worth the risk that you're wrong." And so they returned to their ritual.)

That optimism of the human spirit is a good thing, because it's sometimes very hard to maintain a sense of optimism for the mundane world. As I write, what some are calling potentially the largest man-made ecological disaster in American history is unfolding as untold quantities of crude oil are spilling out against the coasts of Louisiana. Drill, Baby, Drill, fuck YOU. As Gil Scott-Heron used to say, "America is in shock." In Arizona politicians are instituting a draconian and racist immigration law straight out of an authoritarian nightmare, where authorities are required to demand proof of citizenship from anyone they might suspect of not being a citizen, and citizens are required to demand that authorities enforce the law against their fellow citizens on the spot. And America is in shock.

There are crazy racist politicians and TV entertainers and bigoted religious fundamentalists running around in an orgy of lying delusion all enabling other to spout unbelievable ridiculousness. America is in shock. There're pointless wars costing billions of dollars and thousands of lives, and there are unbelievably rich people earning immoral sums of money trying to rewrite laws to make sure they get to make immoral sums of money more. America is in shock. There are men dying in coal mines because of their corrupt bosses just like there were a century ago. There are millions of people with no jobs, and no hope of finding one any time soon. Shock. Shock. "America leads the world in shock," to quote our friend Scott-Heron again.

In Brooklyn where I live it's supposed to be a beautiful weekend. The plants on my stoop are in bloom, and there's a freshness in the urban air. I'm gonna open my windows and let the breeze sweeten the air indoors. Maybe I'll clip some of the plants in the backyard already threatening to turn the garden into a jungle of thorns and blooms. I'll feed the herd of feral cats who visit every morning. I feel personally lucky to be reasonably healthy with some semblance of employment. We don't have marriage equality in New York, but then I'm not liable to want to get gay married tomorrow: it will be enough to have dinner with my boyfriend. For a day maybe I can focus on the joys and tasks of life and not the trouble of the world; fortunately there's no drone aircraft circling overhead trying to GPS my cellphone location; not yet anyway. In truth I'm probably not going to run around a maypole nor carry a red flag nor chant any slogans. But I sure hope somebody does. It's just not worth the risk that nobody will.