Friday, January 29, 2010

In Memoriam

Howard Zinn, on the cusp of politicalization

This past Wednesday, two larger-than-life writers, who had not insignificant effects on my world view, passed on. That Howard Zinn and J. D. Salinger died is not especially tragic-- Zinn was 87 years old and Salinger, 91, and certainly their very best days were behind them. Zinn's most famous work, The People's History of the United States, was published in 1980 and Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye in 1951. Both men are old enough that they served in the Second World War, Salinger participating in D-Day and Zinn as a bombardier, whose vigorous anti-war beliefs stem from being one of the first pilots to use napalm, dropping it on Royan, France, at the end of the war. Zinn and Salinger had paradoxical reactions to their successful careers in letters. As much as Salinger withdrew from public life, Zinn embraced it, lecturing at universities and rallies on the role of the average American in producing progressive change, teaching that it has been the participation and inspiration of ordinary individuals, the unsung heroes, who have effected whatever liberal programs we enjoy (and take for granted) today.

I've read People's History twice. The story of America's rise to power is an overwhelmingly tragic tale, from the theft of indigenous land to the brutal, cheap labor enjoyed by both Southern plantation owners and Northern capitalists, building industries and making fortunes on the work of slaves, and later, immigrants. If there is a thread that connects this history, it's one of blood and tears. Well-researched, much of People's History is told in the first person by Americans who were brave enough to challenge the power structure and its tight grip on the status quo. Zinn was a revelation for a number of modern historians (termed "revisionist" by a reluctant establishment) for taking on a view of history in which progress is not measured by the winning of wars but the championing of basic human rights deserving of all men and women.

J. D. Salinger

I've read The Catcher in the Rye three separate occasions: the first time was in High School when I was too young in life to "get" it; the second time was just after finishing university, having decided to pursue a writer's life but having no idea how I would make my way in the world otherwise, wary of the transformations necessitated by adulthood; and the third time was during my first extended stay in New York City when I was 25. That final time, I didn't get it either but it was because I had moved on from Holden's callow obsessions. In short, I felt that Holden was a sympathetic misanthrope, sympathetic to the extent that he felt powerless in a society that strips us of our innocence and that this was the world's biggest "f*** you" he could never efface. All of us, especially young readers, can relate to the realization of our limitations, which is the true, great pain of young minds raised on the myths of superheroes.

I wonder had the character, Holden Caulfield, read Zinn's People's History, might he embrace the idea that there is no absolutism in life and that adults are capable of amazing, beautiful and imaginary actions. A fictional character, Holden, on the edge of life: his fate is whatever we care to dream.




Monday, January 25, 2010

More Than Just Bad News on Page 25


Of the considerable technological achievements of the twentieth century-- the automobile, the jet airliner, the Internet, DNA fingerprinting, the bomb-- none have had as profound an effect on everyday life in Africa as the invention of the plastic bucket. Consider that for centuries that women used heavy clay or stone vessels to fetch water for the day's cooking, drinking, and washing. Traditional tribes unfamiliar with wheeled vehicles required the village women to carry this heavy container on their heads over great distances. The advent of the everyday and ordinary plastic bucket-- cheap and light and to us from the West oh so sundry-- revolutionized life in Africa. Longtime resident, the Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuscinski, in his collection of writings on the continent, "The Shadow of the Sun," writes appreciatively for small things, aware that in Africa if a plastic bucket be a miracle, then to be grateful for small miracles nonetheless.

Kapuscinski, who died three years ago, spent decades reporting from Africa. Famously, as written in his author's bio, he "witnessed 27 coups and revolutions" and "was sentenced to death four times." In the compilation of his reportage from Africa, he suffers cerebral malaria, tuberculosis, nearly drowns in an ill-planned attempt to escape a coup in Zanzibar when his boat gets caught in the monsoon, survives several mechanical breakdowns in the bush, and is nearly bitten by a mammoth cobra in an abandoned hut. Critics have accused Kapuscinski of fabricating his experiences in the interests of the narrative-- while these are serious allegations, these criticisms miss the point of his writing, which although is harrowing is not the real story for Kapuscinski for all his nine lives does not seem at all boastful as he does compassionate. This not his story but the people of Africa's. If anything "The Shadow of the Sun" is a journey of a foreigner between optimism and disenchantment, an arc mirroring that of the African, who had higher hopes for the equitable distribution of wealth once his brethren took power. As anyone who pays any attention to international news at all, this transfer of power did not pan out very well. At one time or another, nearly every African nation has suffered the ignominy of failed state status. Kapuscinski, a convivial, friendly writer who seems to put his subjects at ease, translates this heartbreaking process in a variety of places and people, shattered sometimes by malicious greed, other times by tribal pathologies.

When Kapuscinski first arrived in Africa, in Ghana, in 1956, during the early years of decolonization, he found people who had been humiliated for centuries by Europeans via the slave trade and exploitation of resources, ready to demonstrate to the world their capacity for autonomous rule. But from the beginning the transition failed. As the journalist explains:

"On the one hand lay the deeply encoded remembrance of the history of one's clan and people, of the allies one could turn to in times of need and of the enemies one had to despise, and on the other hand was the awareness that one was supposed to be entering the community of independent, modern societies, a precondition of which was the renunciation of all ethnic egoism and blindness."

Here Kapuscinski is discussing Uganda but he may as well be talking about nearly every single African nation. As Kapuscinski notes later in his writings, there are comparatively few international wars within the continent. Africa's fiercest fighting is internal, between clans whose history of harmony or discord predates even the earliest European meddling. Kapuscinski illustrates this with the meeting of two men in Somalia. They give their names, family lines, clans, lineage, roots:

"Their personal rapport, their mutual sympathy or antipathy, have no meaning; their relationship, be it friendly or hostile, depends on the current state of affairs between their two clans. The human being, the singular, distinct person, does not exist..."

This is not to let the Europeans (or for that matter the Americans) off the hook. African nations have been incredibly self-destructive in their penchant for civil wars and corruption, but it is the sorrow of slavery that is most emasculating (and here, yet again, is the complicity of the African himself). But slavery has been a most complex burden, not only physical but spiritual and psychological, one that has engendered an inferiority complex.

Nowhere is the legacy of slavery so apparent as in Liberia, which Kapuscinski goes into graphic detail. There is much to tell but in summation, Liberia's story is a lesson on the extent of man's capacity for ruthlessness. By the early mid-19th century the entire coast of West Africa had been colonized by European powers save a narrow strip of land west of the Ivory Coast, disregarded; because of dense jungle thicket it was deemed impenetrable. This is where Robert Stockton, an agent of the American Colonization Society, docked in 1821, with designs to resettle former slaves in their homeland. Within a generation, these former slaves had adopted the plantation habits of their former masters including the columned mansions, The Good Book, the big gowns and stiff collared suits, as well as the enslavement of local tribes, who were denied citizenship, deemed heathens.

In Liberia, slavery lasted well into the 20th century. 1980 and 1989 witnessed two major coup d'etats and the country has been in perennial unrest ever since. It's a fascinating tragedy but I bring it up as a detail illustrating the structure of troubled African states as well as the inadequacy of aid programs:

"International relief for the poor, starving population is an exhaustible source of profit to the warlords. From each transport they take as many sacks of wheat and as many liters of oil as they need. For the law in force here is this: whoever has weapons eats first. The hungry may take only that which remains. The dilemma faced by international organization? If the robbers aren't given their cut, they will not let the shipments of aid get through, and the starving will die. Therefore you give the chieftains what they want, in the hope that at least the leftovers will reach those suffering from hunger."

Damned if you, damned if you don't has real life-or-death repercussions here and usually for want of a better option, the warlords reap the treasures and Africa itself is regarded as a colossal failure that cannot take care of itself, still even after colonization, "the white man's burden."


There are some Africans who feel that the mess was pre-determined, that the European colonials intended that the African nation states should appear incompetent without the direction of foreign officials. These protesters (legitimately) cite the promotion of uneducated tribal partisans (Ida Amin in Uganda, for example) and the ill-advised cartographical drawing of borders (something for which the British Empire in Kashmir, Iraq, and Palestine has blood on its hands, blood still being spilled in the world's biggest hotspots). In Africa, their mapmaking error was the creation of The Sudan. The Sudan comprises 2.5 million square kilometers incorporating the Sahara and Sahel, vast desert and savannah space as well as a very green, tropical south. More importantly, the people of the north are Muslims, the people of the South, animists. The origins of the longest running war in African history began nearly forty years ago when large landholding Arabs with access to money and arms ousted numerous fellaheen from the fertile Nile Valley, converting small subsistent farms into export crop estates producing cotton and rubber. The dispossessed Arabs were prodded south towards lands inhabited by what was defined to them as pagans and savages. When the war evolved it was no longer between armies but between roving bandits, armed and hungry. They follow the women and children since this is where they can find international aid, which is taken at gunpoint. But who is killing who, so well catalogued in the West has so few reference points in places like the Sudan, where:

"... even the longest and greatest war is quickly forgotten, falls into oblivion. Its traces vanish by the day after: the dead must be buried immediately, new huts erected on the site of burned ones."



The media constantly portrays Africa as a wasteland ravaged by war, AIDS, malaria, famine, poverty and crime. It is true of course that there is little of Africa that has not been touched by apocalyptic conditions but with such reportage concentrated on the horrible, it can render a place as large and significant as Africa a place useless and vile, easily regarded in a niche of hopelessness so despairing as to beyond realistic sympathies. The media does little to focus on the resilience of the average African. That they can live an entire life uncomplaining in conditions Europeans and Americans would find intolerable within 24 hours:

"Everything is eaten, down to the last crumb. No one has any supplies, for even if someone did have extra food, he wouldn't have anywhere to keep it, no place to shut it. You live in the immediate, current moment; each day is an obstacle difficult to surmount , and the imagination does not reach beyond the present, does not concoct dreams, does not dream."

The African can never take anything for granted, as Kapuscinski explains:

"Life here is a constant struggle, an endlessly repeated effort to tilt in one's favor the fragile, flimsy and shaky balance between survival and extinction."

Shade and water and the securing of these two fluid, inconstant things is what constitutes the average African's quest. Kapuscinski does not fetishize these simple desires nor does he feel sorry for them. What comes through in the telling of his time in Africa is that the continent's failings is not an African problem but a human one. There is no pie-in-the-sky solution offered by Kapuscinski as he is not a theorist but a journalist. If there is anything to be taken from his story is inspiration. Africa needs first person accounts, people who genuinely feel compelled to understand it via experience rather than judge it with headlines from the newspaper. That's your duty, then, yours and mine.

What Is It All Supposed To Add Up To, Singapore?

Acrobats on Orchard Road

If there is one thing visitors to Singapore complain about, they say it's boring and that once you've done your shopping you can move on. Certainly, consumers in revolt would find themselves disgusted by the buyer's impulse running the national engine. On Orchard Road alone-- a two-mile boulevard of wide sidewalks and tall fruit trees-- there are dozens of enormous shopping centers including Orchard Central, Ngee Ann City, and Wheelock Place, boutique-rich megalopises catering to a great gamut in tastes. Prominent are the big names and Armani, Gucci and Louis Vuitton enthusiasts with good credit can outfit themselves for the next dozen balls. Ubiquitous is the handsome lady with stooped shoulders, weighed down by designer label bags in both hands. Big spenders and small ones can cool their heels at any of the number of Starbucks cafes en route. And this is only Orchard Road, the grandest shopping district in a city designed for mass consumption and air conditioned pleasures.

It wasn't always this way. Singapore was a fishing village less than 200 years ago when one of the great visionaries of the British empire, Sir Stamford Raffles, declared the island a free trade port. The British, competing with Dutch and Portuguese merchants in the region, consolidated its regional commercial interests on the island. This was not an overnight task. It took years to clear the malarial marshes of the island (as well as hunt the man-eating tigers) and beyond the luxuries of the colonial administrators, much of the Chinese, Tamil and Malay population used for constructing the infrastructure suffered in terrible poverty. The island's darkest years came during the short, bitter Japanese occupation, in which thousands of Chinese were slaughtered as national security risks and survivors starved through rampant food shortages. During the great colonial uprisings of the 1950s and 60s when Asian and African colonies liberated themselves from European rule, Singapore was briefly ruled by Malaysia, finally becoming an independent city state in 1965.

Singapore today is the vision of one man, Lee Kuan Yew, who was the small nation's first prime minister in 1965 and has never relinquished power (his son is the current P.M. and Yew is involved in the government as a quasi regent in the post of Minister Mentor, created specifically for him). Yew is both revered and reviled for creating what Singapore is today: a consumeristic society managed and systemized by a paternalistic control-freak (chewing gum, anyone?) Singapore is not alone among twentieth century nations dictated by a strong personality; Fidel Castro, Ferdinand Marcos, Juan Peron, and Suharto are just a few individuals that having wielded considerable power become individuals indivisible from their nations. Many rightly despise Yew for his record on civil rights: dissidents are punished, polemic presses shut down. Nevertheless, there is something about the society that works.

Visitors (I was there three days) can only glean so much and their impressions will naturally be skewed by a highly selective experience. Yet, I was impressed with Singapore, which feels more first world than the First World itself. It has a solid infrastructure in place: numerous hospitals and a cheap, clean convenient public transportation system. Nearly everyone I met spoke good English, a sign of quality education (a great legacy of the British empire is the city state's multiculturalism and Anglophone communications). People looked fit and well-attired. I did considerable walking yet did not see anyone destitute or pan-handling. My hotel in Little India felt like India, Indians everywhere, but unlike the big cities of the sub-continent, Little India was spotlessly clean. The city was safe to walk at night. The food is of high quality, delicious, and affordable. Tap water is potable.

Singapore may be highly regulated but this is not to say that Japan, the U.S. and Europe are very cooperative involving citizens in the decision-making interests. Rarely in judicial cases does it seem that the citizen has more rights than the corporation. Democracy is often a canard, empty promises for elections. In much of the western world corporate interests finish first. Of course, corporations thrive in Singapore but it seems like the system is well regulated enough that the high taxes trickle down to the general population. Singapore has an enviable quality of life that we would do well to emulate (albeit with regards to civil rights, we should be careful). The island's success seems all the more significant when you consider that it has no natural resources and is so small.

Multiculturalism in Singapore:
the man on the left is the day's groom

But possibly it is its very size that is its reason for success, its manageability. While visiting I couldn't help thinking what Manhattan would be like if it seceded from the country to become a city state. It would no longer have its revenues plundered by a rapacious government in Albany or wasted by a fiscally irresponsible national government. It wouldn't even have to come to secession (which is pure fantasy as the majority of Americans will always love the concept of America in spite of its brutal realities). Perhaps regions could initiate programs of self-sufficiency in which the majority of taxes were paid to civic or state authorities rather than the bulk going to the national government. Perhaps citizens then would be more involved in the system in a proactive, civil capacity rather than the patriotic and emotional (and let's face it: empty) actions that characterize our participation today.

But what Singapore makes clear is that once we've solved the problems of hunger, homelessness, unemployment, and interracial violence, reaching more or less a Utopian state in which there is no crime or want and people sleep within four walls and eat three square meals, once man has had his comforts and needs satisfied the end journey is the line at the cashier. History, culture, and art becomes kitsch, lovingly assembled and packaged, available in various colors and sets. Some Singaporeans might argue that these conclusions are insultingly reductive, gathered from such a short visit but they are not exceptional. The general impression of Singapore is that of a shopper's paradise, for better or worse.

Singaporean lifestyle was not always so sanitized of course. As late as the mid-twentieth century opium was a legal indulgence within the Chinese community. You can learn that at the Chinese Heritage Museum where the old ways of life-- the opium den, the brothel, and the open street where most everyday people spent their time-- have been reconstructed in diorama settings. Once a lifestyle is memorialized in the museum the raw edges have been completely rubbed clean. The dens and whores are gone but so are the children in the street, involved as they are in video games, TV, virtual realities. Life is undoubtedly better, healthier, easier but the vividness is no longer evident. The streets of Chinatown today are often empty, people removed to their air-conditioned chambers. The peculiar ephemera that made life eclectic is the province of the antique store. Like newer, factory-produced items, it is for sale.


Singapore: old and new

In spite of the gentle comforts of utopian ease, some customs die hard. The Buddhist temples remained crowded with those for whom faith is not a superstition, joss sticks creating a smoky, heady atmosphere. In Little India, a live performance of the Ramayana attracted a huge crowd on the street. A man in drag played Sita, to be rescued by a hunk playing Rama. The spectators giggled and applauded as Rama defeated a clownish Lanka.


Tamil Temple in Little India

On my last day in Singapore I took a bumboat northeast of the island to Pulau Ubin, which is what Singapore looked like a century ago. I rode a bicycle through nationally protected green leaf wetlands, rife with a rich algae, crabs, and large lizards. There were herons fishing in the water and in the sky, but for a moment, a sea eagle gliding over it all. The island was quiet, shaded by mangrove trees and varieties of tropical forest. And I realized that this was not supposed to represent the past but the present, a natural getaway for the mall-weary utopiasts, a day trip on the occasional wistful Sunday, at least until developers find it with their creatively disruptive eyes. Look out for a gift shop selling yesteryear trinkets at the docks. That might be the beginning...


Wetlands in Pulau Ubin


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Being Happy

Todd Solondz's most famous film sums up its view of its characters, the audience, humanity, et. al in its opening scene in which Jon Lovitz's Andy, on the wrong end of a breakup in a chichi restaurant, tells Jane Adams' Joy, "You're shit and until the day you die...you will always be shit," the shattering silence shared between them fading into the film's title, written in glorious wedding cake font... "Happiness." You know you're in the 1990s thus, a time when irony enjoyed a carte blanche in our stultified, deadpanned culture, winking so much you might wonder if we didn't all suffer from some kind of nervous disorder of the oracular variety. Depending on whether or not you long for the Clinton years, Solondz's pretensions are the zenith or nadir of that careless affectation.

The story is set where the butt of most jokes originate, New Jersey. Revolving around the three sisters of the Jordan family, the story's center is Joy, who Solondz bludgeons with a series of Job-like trials that leave her loveless, ridiculed and cheated. Solondz, operating like a Judaic godhead with punitive bills to reckon, does not equate good works with success since Joy, a sweet-tempered aspiring musician floundering between day jobs, cannot seem to do right screwing up to the very end. Though self-righteous when making comparisons, Joy's sisters aren't much better off. One sister, Helen (Laura Flynn Boyle), is a successful, feted poet who takes advantage of the American tendency toward morbidity writing lurid poems about being raped as a child (knowing she's a phony for having lived an easy life). Molly Shannon's Trish is a perky, judgmental married mother of three, whose husband is the film's chief bait, a sympathetic pedophile.

Easily the creepiest scenes in a creepy movie are the father-son talks between Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker) and Billy. It begins when 11-year-old Billy asks his father what cum is. This leads to an explanation of masturbation and even an offer from Bill to help Billy facilitate the operation of his gonads. He politely declines. Billy has a friend named Johnny Grasso on his baseball team, a boy whom Johnny's father confides to Bill is a "fag" (Bill is a psychiatrist, thus simple people feel safe telling him embarrassing stuff). Suspecting that little, effeminate Johnny Grasso is as his father suggests, Bill drugs him with a tuna sandwich during a sleepover, taking his perversions to the next level. Another friend of Billy's, Ronald Farber, is molested by Bill when his parents are out of town. He is eventually found out by the Grassos and arrested. The family estate house is scribbled with accusatory vitriolic graffiti and his wife walks out on him with the kids, abandoning him to his presumed ignominious fate.

Judging him by his actions alone, Bill is without question a monster. Violating the most sacred lines of decency, he drugs little boys and, in his words, "fucks them." But his character, perhaps because Solondz finds his double life so fascinating, is also the most developed: in this cast of selfish, self-absorbed, self-righteous whiners, Bill alone knows he is "sick," and feels real pain because he knows it's wrong-- abominably so-- but can't help himself anyway. In probably the most heartbreaking father-son heart-to-heart ever dramatized, Billy asks his father about his actions, learning that Bill, had he a second chance, would do it again. Billy then asks his father if he would ever "fuck" him, to which Bill replies, "No, I'd jerk off instead."

Don't Play Footsie With the Man at the Head of the Table


It's really difficult for me to understand what Solondz is really doing with this film: is he humanizing the child molester or is he just "fucking" with us? After all, there is no redemption in his world. In order to have a happy ending, a film's characters must feel motivated to resolve their crises. But when the crises are the humanity of the persons themselves you've got nowhere to go.

Cleverly, happiness exists in Solondz's New Jersey but only in the clich├ęd ideas of saccharine pop music. In such contexts happiness sounds outrageous (if a little ironic). Through films, music, and fashion magazines, we get a skewed view of how we are supposed to be happy and it's usually expensive. What is soft afternoon light, beautiful literature, and good food worth if we can only see Big Picture facts which are that we are not only not rich and famous but unattractive and uninteresting? The Jordans and their intimates are victims of a society that blueprints its ideas of success and respectability, judging those with and without into categories of winners and losers, a simple system, really, that the majority of us (i.e. losers) deal with by turning off just about everything connected to the thought process. Case in point, the sisters' parents (Ben Gazarra and Louise Lasser), who are undergoing a separation because the father wants "to be alone." He has an affair. After climaxing the woman tells him not to feel guilty. Instead, he claims, "I feel nothing."

The film, "Happiness," is like reality TV: man's most embarrassing traits are brought to bear to an audience feeling correspondingly sanctimonious about witnessing such flaws. Watching these people screw up we tell ourselves we are distinct, above, or at least, not that stupid. "Happiness" belongs to the genre of 'rubberneck' cinema, in which we feel guilty for watching but gladly suffer our curiosities.

Had Solondz chosen a less ironic title for his intersecting storylines their emotional impact might have had more resonance-- the title choice thus feels as catastrophic as the characters themselves. He might have intended it to represent something elusive and ethereal, the goal that no one succeeds, but in this day and age such a title feels trite. Happiness, ha ha, what a joke. What Solondz produced is courageous enough without needing that kind of bullet proof armor.



Monday, January 18, 2010

Of Four Horsemen, the First That Comes Riding Into Town

The End of the Romanov Dynasty

In 1884, a lovely 12-year-old princess, Alix, daughter of Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt and granddaughter of the illustrious Queen Victoria, traveled to Russia for the occasion of her elder sister's wedding to the Grand Duke Serge, brother of Emperor Alexander III. It was at this relatively insignificant royal union that young Alix met young Nicholas, the Tsar's 16-year-old son. Nicholas fell hard for Alix and they were eventually married. She bore him four daughters and, finally, one son, Alexis, the heir to the throne. Alexis was a delicate child, bruising easily. He suffered from hemophilia, a condition in which blood fails to properly clot when wounded. Hemophilia is a genetic disease found in the female X chromosome and passed to male offspring. The elder women in Alix's family tree, including Queen Victoria, were carriers of the disease. Alexis was cared for by many doctors until the Royal Family--particularly the Tsarina--embraced the special healing powers of the wandering mystic, Rasputin. When the First World War broke in 1914, the Tsar left to lead the Russian armies on the Eastern Front. His wife, plotting with Rasputin, disputed with the Duma and the people. Rasputin, a notorious alcoholic and womanizer, abused his influence over the Tsarina to a breaking point. One day in March a bread riot turned political. The Russian Revolution had begun. Within a very short time, the Royal Family was captured by Bolshevik forces and a few years later, executed en masse in the foothills of the Urals at Ekaterinberg, in July 1918, ending more than 300 years of the Romanov dynasty.

Thus, in other words, a rare genetic condition is hugely responsible for the Russian Revolution and the not-small repercussions, or so the author, Frederick Cartwright, suggests in his fascinating collection of conjecture called, straightforwardly, "Disease and History." In it the usual suspects are rounded up: the Black Plague, smallpox and the indigenous Americans, malaria and the inaccessibility of the African interior. But there are some interesting speculations, particularly when diagnosing the madness of certain monarchs, most especially Henry VIII and Ivan the Terrible, who began their reigns as firm, even heroic kings, but straying into bizarre if not catastrophic policy, were most likely victims of syphilis, insanity being one of its chief characteristics.

Disease, of course, is most often spread during the initial contact between foreign cultures. When a population lacks immunity, disease spreads very much like a wildfire does, leaping from person to person. If we go back to antiquity, it's very well known that it was in the post-Christ decades that Imperial Rome began its serious decline. Mainly, this is attributed to corruption and incompetence at administrative levels as well as a series of barbarian invasions. But what goes underreported is the scale of disease brought with Germans and Huns. Disease meant agricultural fields were abandoned, leading to famine. In a situation of scarce resources, war becomes inevitable (Cartwright, though he writes like a secular humanist, loves invoking the Four Horsemen to drive his point). It was in this period of massive death that Christianity found many converts. This was partly because of the generous afterlife promised to believers, but also because many of the miracles attributed to Jesus (especially by Luke) are those in which divine intervention equates to the healing of the sick. Many Christians became physicians but not very competent ones. Like the Greeks and Romans before them, they propitiated, but to various saints, rather than demigods. Should a person fail to heal properly, they figured there had been an error in the protocol or the wrong saint had been appeased. Working as faith healers rather than as empiricists they would control medicine's school of thought as such through the Dark Ages.

Street Scene, Black Death

Nearly a thousand years later, these charlatan doctors were bamboozled by the Black Plague. It's hard to contemplate the physical as well as the psychological impact this had on Europe. The Pope had to bless the River Rhone so that corpses dumped into its currents would have a proper Christian burial (what that did to the drinking water, down river, I do not doubt). Whole frigates lost their crews and these ghost ships drifted unmanned in The North and Mediterranean Seas. And then there were the flagellants, who saw the plague as divine punishment for man's sins so as to spare communities (and themselves) they would publicly whip themselves to appease a vengeful God.

Why Flagellate Without an Audience?

For the flagellants, their masochism wasn't worth a damn if they happened to encounter someone contagious. What made the plague of the 14th century so catastrophic was that it was pneumatic, meaning it was spread by cough, sneeze, drool, or sharing an ale. The Europeans failed to isolate the disease despite ingenious attempts (it is from the Black Death, we get the word "quarantine," as infected ships coming into port in Venice were isolated for forty days-- quaranti giorni). Cartwright has some interesting ideas regarding the consequences of The Black Death. For example, Jews in France and Switzerland were scapegoated and persecuted, instigating a voluntary relocation to Eastern Germany and Poland, thus connecting the plague to the Holocaust 600 years later. There was also the damage the plague did to the Church's reputation, which of course, appeared feckless in challenging the disease and saving its victims, doing much to expose its flaws as an institution. Many of the best parish priests died and were replaced with unscrupulous men. John Wyclif emerged in England, condemning these crooked priests for their sale of indulgences and other acts of avarice. Wyclif's ideas influenced John Huss of Bohemia, who in turn, turned on Martin Luther. Protestantism eventually led to the Puritan movement and their relocation to America (thus leading all the religious zealots to relocate to the New World).

Columbus's historic landing in the West Indies:
invisibly, bacteria are digging the moment most

One of the first major consequences of the Age of Discovery, epistemologically speaking, was the introduction of syphilis into Europe. It might have come with Columbus from the New World or it might have come via Portugal with Henry The Navigator, who was then opening up to the possibilities of the slave trade in Africa, but its symptoms in Europe are first recorded in the early 16th century. Famous for being venereal, initially it was passed through skin or oral contact. Syphilis was devastating to the layman, but here Cartwright is concerned with its effect on two monarchies. As mentioned earlier, one of the phases of the disease is a complete abandonment of common sense. Judging by his moniker it is not much a stretch to guess Ivan the Terrible went a little nuts. He is a well-known sadist who did not find piety irreconcilable to his bloodlust, to wit: "Ivan prayed with such fervor that his forehead was permanently bruised from his prostrations. These bouts of prayer were relieved by visits to the torture chamber, conveniently situated in the cellars."

"What have I done?"
a depiction of Ivan having just murdered his son and heir

Of course, by suggesting the legendary Henry VIII was also a syphilitic, is a very great offense to a very great number of Anglophiles. But Cartwright makes some good points. Those familiar with Henry VIII know he suffered from gout, married six women, and famously broke with the Church (in better times he had been nicknamed 'Defender of the Faith' by Pope Leo X). Cartwright, looking at the evidence, can only speculate but he believes it was syphilis that had prevented the Mighty Lion from producing a healthy male heir. There were numerous miscarriages among his wives and his surviving children suffered from some defects. Edward and Mary were physically and mentally unstable and Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, may have waived marriage fearing her own sterility and the pressures she would have undergone to produce an heir (syphilis is congenital, passed from mother to child in the womb). Impotence is also a symptom and perhaps Henry had become fickle with his wives, abandoning them when they failed to arouse him. Anyways, we're just having fun here at Henry's expense, but could possibly the Church of England (and eventually then the English Civil War) have evolved from a lapse of judgment caused by an STD? Nothing is impossible...

Henry VIII with Jane Seymour and Prince Edward

Any discussion about disease must eventually lead to talk of a cure and one of man's most ingenious developments as an empiricist was his innovative discovery of the vaccination. Smallpox was a notoriously terrorizing disease, killing off large numbers during outbreaks. But it was learned that should a person survive a mild case, he or she would develop immunity. Thus it made sense that a person should have some exposure to smallpox rather than none at all. This idea of "inoculating" a person-- contaminating a healthy person with a disease-- goes back a millennia to Chinese medicine but was regarded as suspicious by the medical establishment for decades until some brave, innovative physicians were able to prove its effectiveness. Today smallpox no longer exists in the developed world and is very rare anywhere.

Map of Africa, 1773:
notice how little of the interior is catalogued

Similarly, it was centuries before the Europeans were able to successfully explore the African interior. Until the mid-19th century, it was believed that Europeans could not travel in Africa because of unique racial composition: "Medical opinion held that the white man could not perform manual labor in the African climate without falling sick. Thus the white man's function was to direct and to govern; only the Negro could carry out heavy work." The reason for the widespread sickness was, of course, malaria, which comes from the Italian meaning "bad air;" it was yet another error in understanding the roots of the disease. Not until scientists learned mosquitoes were responsible for the transmission of malaria were they able to isolate the disease. When they discovered mosquitoes are bred in dank water, swamps were drained and canals cleaned, thus reducing not only the chances of malaria but that of cholera as well. There is still no immunization from malaria, but it was discovered that quinine, an active alkaloid from cinchona bark (a tree located in Peru), kills the malarial parasite and is somewhat effective in prevention and treatment.

During the twentieth century, we have been so successful at understanding disease-- its causes, symptoms and treatment-- that we have seen our numbers grow exponentially. This problem of population is what Cartwright discusses in his conclusion and he forms an argument that our problems largely stem from man's instincts of self-interest as well as his ethnocentrism. He pleas to our humanity: "If man destroys himself, his destruction will most probably result from his obsessive emphasis upon the differences rather than the similarities between the races and nations. The primitive hates and fears are still with us, ready to break through the thin skins of civilization. Hate and fear cannot form a basis for the world-wide cooperation by which alone Man can save himself."

It's a wonderful sentiment but unfortunately outside the ingenious capacity of scientists. Economic markets and the governments that move "the invisible hand" are not concerned with management of resources, observance to the environment, and the well being of man. For the health care and pharmaceutical industries the bottom line is that a major disease outbreak requiring vaccinations, pills and treatment would be good for business. Until this reality is met with serious reform and a wholesale evolution of popular sentiment then we shall remain at the precipice.


Malarial victims, Africa

This, likely, will be the final verdict on man as a species; whether he is meant to endure or to be extinguished.