Extinctions

Gaddafi is dead. Bin Laden is dead. Saddam Hussein is dead. The people of the Middle East have risen up to reclaim their world from the privileged. In Wall Street people are arrested and sequestered lest the discontent should spread. Do those of Libya, Iraq, Egypt, aspire to Wall Street? Are not the oil barons wealthy enough? How easy it is for us to forget that what we call civilization began here. In what we now call Iraq, people first banded together with complex governments, specialization of labor, and the arts. And, naturally, slavery. As civilization grew, priesthoods became strong. Governments could not stand without the support of the gods. Temples could not stay open without government funding. Gods and kings slept together. The Bible would later parody this as the tower of Babel. How we want to live in that penthouse chapel!

We often take from history that which sustains our interest. And when that interest is reinvested and compounds, we lay the foundations for yet another tower. We live in a world of towers, glad to accept their beauty and glory without realizing that no tower stands out without the deep valleys between the artificial peaks. To build high, some must be consigned to live in the subways and cluttered alleys and sleep out on the streets. The oil money in Dubai, not far from the fabled Eden, erects towers that are the wonders of the modern world. Just looking at pictures of the Burj Khalifa can make one shudder. Oil is decayed life.

Sometimes I imagine the world of the dinosaurs. Mammals must have seemed an endangered species then, small and insignificant as they were. Our distant, distant ancestors must have gazed up on the towering brachiosauruses and bruhathkayosauruses with awe and fear. When they finally evolved opposable thumbs, they decided to emulate their fears. Now the dinosaurs are all petroleum and birds. And still they rule the earth. Civilization began in the oil fields of the world with little use for petroleum. Instead, kings and priests worked together to construct towers that would ultimately fall. Oil makes some very wealthy, but it is only possible because of the extinction of the largest living animals that ever walked the earth.


Freedom or Religion

Reform seems to be in the air. Its effectiveness varies from location to location, but what remains constant is the impact on religion. Or religions’ impacts on those dissatisfied with its application. As Syria begins to follow Egypt and Libya, a sense that the authoritarianism imposed by religious ideals is somehow flawed is sublimated in the news, yet clearly present. Regimes, be they Islamic, Christian, Hindu, or any other belief system, count on unquestioned authority to maintain control. Even the Catholic Church has been toying with reform – quietly, slowly – for any admission of change calls into question the authoritarian roots of power. Once that basis begins to crack, freedom has a chance to emerge.

In American society where freedom has perhaps blossomed most fully, there should be no surprise that a religious backlash is underway. In many ways liberty and religion stand at odds with each other. Religions make universal claims, drawing authority from none other than the One who started it all. Freedom begins at the ground and works its way up. Humans are natural followers, flock animals. Remember, Jesus said he was like a shepherd. When the shepherds apply the crook a little too liberally, even the sheep begin to plot. In many nations of the Middle East, the faithful have been kept in poverty and subservience. The Berlin Wall, however, was in the minds of the intimidated.

The United States has even backed the cause of the oppressed overseas, attempting to break up dictatorships that began before I was old enough to remember. And yet in our own backyard the Religious Right continues to make America like a western version of Syria or Libya. A nation of people under the rule of legislated morality that certain distorted versions of the Christian gospel advocate. Prevent equal rights to women and minorities by keeping the seat of power within the WASP community, although you may have to bring in some Catholics and Mormons to assist with the cause. The eyes of the world are on the Middle East, for any whiff of freedom, however faint, is cause for hope.


Sinking Ships

In anticipation of the Academy Awards, last night I revisited Titanic. Since I tend to view art from the perspective of metaphor, I was once again struck by how our society resembles that great ship. In particular, with the current turmoil between plutocratic governors and the average citizens who’ve elected them, the brazen upper-class passengers on the Titanic embody the interests of the self-interested. When Captain Smith leads the privileged first class travelers in “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” in their own private chapel unsullied by the second and third class detritus, the line “for those in peril on the sea” resonates with the Prosperity Gospel. The well-to-do are that way through no fault of their own; God loves them more and made them better off than the rest. And when icebergs float, those unloved by their creator sink.

Over the past few weeks, in the shadow of events unfolding in Egypt and even Libya, we have seen the assertions of the aristocratic governor class assailing the workers. Attempting to make unions illegal, reducing the services offered to the poor, attempting to shorten the lives of the elderly by withdrawing medical programs (let us not ask how much profit pharmaceutical companies make for they are dearly loved by their father who art in Fort Knox), they know the rush of divine power. Indeed, populations are so complacent that as long as we have our MTV (substitute here your favorite media narcotic), that we shrug our collective shoulders and say “whatever.”

Perhaps it is not the metaphor James Cameron intended, but it is the working class Jack who sinks to an icy grave while the privileged but bankrupt Rose remains afloat. Our sympathies are with the young lady abused by privileged society, but the lifeboats should best remain half empty to preserve the upper crust rather than risk all going down together. After all, the Bible informs us that bread cast upon the waters comes back. And those who take up more than their fair share of the lifeboats wager that when that bread comes back it will be docile and subdued after its ordeals in the North Atlantic, and the Carpathia will come and restore society to its proper order. And so perhaps it is only a metaphor that more than a decade later the shoo-in for the Academy Awards is a film about the royal family. I think I see an iceberg ahead.

This is only a metaphor