Monthly Archives: September 2019
by John Kendall Hawkins
You could be forgiven (but what’s the fun in that), if you were to think. Looking at Jacques-Louis David’s neoclassical painting The Death of Socrates, you could believe you’re seeing Socrates giving the bird to democracy and demanding that Crito give him the goddamned chalice full of hemlock, and get out of the way. There are different versions of what Socrates’ last words were. I thought I heard, “Tell my neighbor, Asclepius, he’s a cock, and I owe him one.” But I’d just come off reading The Clouds, Aristophanes’ take-down of Socrates, so I could be wrong. All we know is that he was in a foul mood.
And he had a right to be. All those Ralph Nader-like years of public service, including a distinguished stint as a soldier during the Peloponnesian War, only to be told, like most any vet, that things had changed since his return from his tour of duty. The Thirty Tyrants banned him from speaking in public — his dialectics had a tendency to undermine their reign of terror. He never spoke out against the oligarchy directly, but he did continue to be a “gadfly” for every horse’s arse who came his way: encouraging each to think for himself. When democracy was restored, his influence was not forgotten by governmental leaders.
Socrates famously quipped, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates’ Golden Rule is built into the foundation of American democracy. A life that is not examined is one controlled by the thoughts of others — open to deception, propaganda, and subterfuge. An examined life is built into Thomas Jefferson’s notion of a “well-informed public.” Augmented by the mission of the Fourth Estate, which is to keep the citizenry informed and the Bastards Honest, well-informed, self-examining people are in control of their representative government. Ideally. But there are a lot of Ee-yores, assorted horses arses, and serial ignoramuses out there. Even a Ralph Nader can only do so much.
Ultimately, Socrates was convicted on charges of impiety and corruption of youth. Only the latter really matters (nobody really gave a good goddamn about the other one). At the core of his dialectical philosophy was the directive: Question Authority. He demonstrated his method daily, followed around Athens by youthful acolytes, as he took the mickey out of the Know-It-Alls in power. Even in the heyday of democracy, the vested interests wanted none of that. They laughed at Aristophenes’ parody of Socrates and his tactics as a form of sophistry allowing sleaze-balls to weasel out of debts and obligations by making language itself a series of loopholes without end. Creating lawyers who could con Jesus off the cross. Denny Crane! “Never lost a case.”
Socrates might have gone into exile, but, he argued, it would have been the same thing all over again — his dialectics pissing people off. An endless vista of Apologies opened up. So, he talked himself into the death penalty (which came in record time, BTW). He said, according to the Benjamin Jowett translation, “I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live.” Then Socrates was handed the chalice of hemlock. Some say that that was the day the music died for Athens’ exceptional democracy, and by the time it got handed down to we moderns it was already more sound and fury than substance.
And yet, here we are some 2500 years later, historically slap-happy, still trying to work out the broad strokes and nuances of our own Exceptional democracy — like kids playing with dynamite, as Mose Allison might say. There’s something Belén Fernández wrote in her new book Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World that sticks with me, something about patriotism, guarding the O Say Can You See against foreign and domestic usurpers, defending the fatherland (patri) you believe in (ism) no matter how abusive and alcoholic he’s become, until you can’t take anymore. As Fernández observes, you can “ start to view the state itself as public enemy number one,” and you know something’s been lost when you start seeing your country as a “state.” Like Socrates.
And that got me thinking about childhood, and homeroom, and our placing our hands over our hearts and pledging our allegiance to all them stars and stripes, earnestly but mechanically. And at lunchtime, all the goombahs extorting lunches and test answers from the weaklings and nerds in that long lead-up to their grown up years of thuggery and politics, now seen as the first wake-up call in the game called Hide Your Twinkies.
And after lunch, we’re taking turns reading aloud Edward Everett Hale’s “The Man Without A Country,” gasping as Philip Nolan exclaims, at the end of a trial for some unknown treason, “To hell with America,” or something like that. And he gets sent ‘up the river’ for 56 years (gulp) for saying something I’ve felt mosta my life — and I’m a true patriot. No, really.
But then, at recess, as the goombahs started selling ‘insurance policies’, I hung out in the toilet and got to thinking, started examining myself (mentally, I mean), and began to wonder what did Nolan actually do wrong? The story doesn’t really say. Miss Johnson (at least that’s how I remember her name) just said it was a parable about patriotism. But what had he done? My little mind worked and worked to know. Had he done some illicit machine-gunning? Was he a serial philanderer? Had he tried to kill John Lennon and all his love? 56 years! No one once asked him if he’d changed his mind, offered him some fucking parole? I discovered myself without toilet paper. Wrote on the wall: Phillip Nolan was here.
Years later, as I was growing up (still am), I discovered that Nolan’s tale was loosely based on an incident that happened to Peace Democrat congressman Clement Vallandigham in 1863, who, mid-war, openly called for peace; who didn’t believe the battle to end slavery was worth the price of a divided white nation. A draft had been called by Republican president Abraham Lincoln; New York’s white underclass erupted in rage when it was discovered that rich people could buy their way out of serving or find a proxy, and that their jobs refining slave-labor crops (cotton and sugar) could be lost, if the Union won. Vallandigham’s exhortations were regarded as treason — he was court-martialed and sent into exile. Why, Nolan was a patsy!
Many self-examinations later, I thought: Only a Republican would send a man up for 56 years without a chance for parole and call it a parable, while only a Democrat would sue soulfully for peace, but not give a damn about the injustice of slavery or, later, what became known as “economic inequality.” I didn’t know what to think. Toilet stalls don’t grow on trees, and I had nowhere to hide. And it all reminded me an awful lot of the Clinton years, back when Is was Is.
It’s only gotten worse since Socrates and Nolan, IMO — democracy and patriotism, I mean. Some would argue that they are long gone, like a turkey through the corn. 9 Eleven, that was our house of cards, two decks down, freefallin’ at the same time, ‘oh, the humanity’, and like little children who’ve spent all morning building and balancing our catastrophe-in-the-making we raged at physics, as if it were a demon, and looked with extreme prejudice for goats trying to escape.
As Pavlov dingled his bell, and we all broke out in a lip-doodling frenzy of ‘patriotism,’ Susan Sontag seemed to be the only one in the elephant room big enough to call the response for what it was: “The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing…[and] well, unworthy of a mature democracy.” Sontag saw no need to apologize and took her hemlock exile courageously. One day we’ll find the patsy in all this — probably while shaving.
Socrates died in 399 BC — but one could picture, almost 2500 years later, that Democracy has overshot its trajectory, and that Capitalism, not Asclepius, is due a salute. We have our own Cloud issues now; way more than Thirty Tyrants; our hearts and minds still filled with the soothing beats of war drums we’ve heard all our lives (from Korea to the ‘Ghan); thinkers pilloried; a press that mocks and squawks; and instead of a well-oiled Grecian democracy ready to wrassle with Killer “Climate Change” Kowalski, we got us a 1963 Rambler needing a new transmission. Personally, I think that future pledges of allegiance should require not the hand over the heart (that’s got other things to do: why burden it with the gravitas of false patriotism), but a nice big juicy middle finger that says Question Authority. That’s what a mature democracy requires.
Think about it.
By John Kendall Hawkins
In the 1963 horror-thriller, The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock wants his viewers to understand the world from the point-of-view of birds. Angry birds. Birds angry at humans. The question is: Why? Why are the birds angry? Why have they gone amok, seeding chaos, and what will be the solution?
My favorite shot in the movie comes when Hitchcock has a seagull floating over a town on fire and in full-flight panic — as if the bird were considering its work below, like a parent determining whether the administered spanking to a brat had been enough. And then another birds shows up in the frame, and another, and another, and then they all descend again. Why are they so angry?
Maybe part of the answer is attitude — hubris — or, as Bobby Dylan once sang, “Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please.” In 1962, Rachel Carson released Silent Spring, a cataloguing of Humanity’s catastrophic treatment of the natural environment. Man was shitting his bed regularly and seemed proud of it. The ever-ironical Hitchcock was providing payback for the angered birds: Who’s luffing now?
In Timothy C. Winegard’s The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, the author goes one better than Hitchcock by substituting birds with mosquitoes and providing the creature’s point-of-view going all the way back to the Age of Dinosaurs. As far as Winegard is concerned, mosquitoes have been calling the shots throughout history in the animal kingdom, but especially with human beings, who, seemingly, have seen the decisions of virtually every ‘Great Man’ affected in pivotal moments by contact with the tiny disease-bearing predators.
The male mosquito does not bite and, according to Winegard, lives a Beautiful Life of procuring sex and nectar. When it’s time for the woman warrior to come looking for larval love, the males form a “swarm” tunnel into which she swoons, looking for a “heartbeat boy” on a version of “If You Are the One.” If you’re ‘lucky,’ one of these swarms might occur right over your head — and can extend “1000 feet into the air” — as you’re walking. Writes Weingard, “You are not paranoid, nor are you imagining this phenomenon. Take it as a compliment. Male mosquitoes have graced you with the honor of being a ‘swarm marker.’” Once the sperm is obtained, he says, all they need is blood — yours or mine. Winegard pictures a knocked-up mosquito landing on a patch of human skin. He provides almost an engineer’s description of the mechanical processes involved in biting into and drillin’ for blood:
She conducts a tender, probing, ten-second reconnaissance, looking for a prime blood vessel. With her backside in the air, she steadies her crosshairs and zeros in with six sophisticated needles. She inserts two serrated mandible cutting blades (much like an electric carving knife with two blades shifting back and forth), and saws into your skin, while two other retractors open a passage for the proboscis, a hypodermic syringe that emerges from its protective sheath….
On and on it goes, but, in short, she sucks your blood, and goes off to deposit her blood children in a pool of still water.
There is a cartoonish anthropomorphism that winds its way through the book. It’s clear that Winegard has fun referring to the principal lethal mosquito as General Anopheles — for almost 600 pages. Winegard has a military history background (but reads more like Jeremy Scahill than some swaggering apologist for the Pentagon), and his last book, The First World Oil War, was about the underlying fight to control petroleum during “the war to end all wars.” So, he’s comfortable dressing the mosquito in a general’s uniform and leading him into battle — always the victor, one way or another. General Anopheles is our hateful enemy.
“We are at war with the mosquito,” Winegard declares in his introduction. We’ve been at war for the whole shebang of human time. Almost half of the 108 billion humans who have lived in the last 200,000 years, perished by exposure to toxic mosquito bites. This is a staggering fact, if true (he’s extrapolating from data). But as Weingard indicates, “The biting female warriors of this droning insect population are armed with at least fifteen lethal and debilitating biological weapons against our 7.7 billion humans deploying suspect and often self-detrimental defensive capabilities.” Some of the maladies have been with us for a long time — malaria, dengue, yellow fever — weapons humans have struggled mightily to overcome.
Because Weingard approaches the history from a battlefront perspective involving Big Man confrontations, a lot of time is spent detailing how said maladies are used to advantage by various warriors. As so many battles Weingard describes seem to involve one side drawing the other into literal quagmires of infested mosquito zones, one imagines a briefing of some sort warning soldiers of what to watch for.
Walt Disney put out an especially effective film, The Winged Scourge, in 1943 that explains to soldiers the cycle of infection. (A soldier at the time, Dr. Seuss was also given an opportunity to spread the word to his mates and put out a pamphlet, “This is Ann…She drinks blood,” that likened malaria to a venereal disease delivered by some floozy — seemingly with green eggs and sore hams.) As Weingard repeats, over and over, malarial infections among soldiers had often-catastrophic consequences for fighters.
Winegard’s account of mosquitoes covers millions of years. The best approach to understanding how he proceeds and what the reader can expect is to provide a sampling in, say, four separate historical epochs. I found interesting his speculations on the disappearance of dinosaurs, his alternate take on the comings and goings of Ghengis Khan and the Mongols, Napoleon’s first use of biological warfare, and, probably most interesting (and controversial) of all, from an American’s point of view, the role mosquitoes played in New World slavery.
There was a time when we wondered about the extinction of the dinosaurs, and came to the conclusion, after much debate, that it was all about the fiery spitballs from outer space. That was a long time ago. These days time seems to be speeding up. Is it a natural fact, I wonder, or just old age? I think more about the extinction of great thoughts, The Sixth Extinction, and what, if any of it, mattered. Winegard argues that “that up to 70% of regional species were already extinct or endangered” by the time the asteroids hit. He credits the floozy from the oozy for the greater part of the kill, and we should be thankful: “Aided by her role in eliminating these top-tier dinosaur predators,” he writes, “mammals, including our direct prehominid ancestors, evolved and flourished.”
The Nazis admired Mongol tactics, writes Winegard; they were so similar to Blitzkrieg, encircling “their hapless enemies with breathtaking, unrivaled speed and ferocity.” But “the mosquito sucked dry their dreams of European subjugation,” and as “the mosquito helped prevent the west from being completely overrun. She harnessed her malarial might and held the reins of Mongol conquest, steering them away from Europe.” They returned East.
However, Winegard points out the greatest achievement of the long Mongol reign, stretching from Ghengis Khan to Kublai Khan, is that they opened up a permanent means of communication, transport and commerce between East and West, later called The Silk Road. “The Mongols were willing to allow traders, missionaries, and travelers to navigate their entire empire, opening China and the rest of the east to Europeans, Arabs, Persians, and others for the first time…These new land routes opened by Mongol military expansion created an immeasurably smaller global society by fusing two larger, previously distinct geographical worlds.”
Napoleon had his own Empire-building problems with mosquitoes. The African slaves he hoped to build a sugar-producing colony in Haiti with revolted in 1791. The natural defenses against malaria (such as sickle-cell anemia) that most slaves brought with them from Africa, argues Winegard, allowed them to resist and defeat the French soldiers sent to quell the resistance, but who had their own waterloo problems with mosquitoes. “Although the United States was the first to be born of revolutionary mosquitoes,” writes Winegard, “her battlefield prowess in support of the slave rebellion in Haiti forced Napoleon to sell his North American lands.” As he notes, the Louisiana Purchase that followed saw France give up a quest for American colonies and doubled the landmass of America overnight.
However, Napoleon learned from his defeat in Haiti. And at Walcheren, in 1809, Napoleon drew attacking and superior British forces into a marshland where they perished so miserably from contracting malaria that they couldn’t fight on. But, writes Winegard, Napoleon’s biological tactic also “ushered in the worst epidemic of malaria that Europe had ever seen.” When a defeated Napoleon was sent into final exile in 1815, the British ship Musquito guarded over him.
Perhaps the most compelling portion of Winegard’s narrative is his discussion of African slavery and how it changed everything in the Americas. He tells the story of NFL defensive back Ryan Clark, Jr. who fell ill on a team plane and was later diagnosed with sickle-cell disease. One in twelve African Americans have sickle cell trait, and, according to Winegard, “Advanced by natural selection, sickle cell is a hereditary genetic mutation passed on precisely because it was originally a net benefit to the people who carried it…The evolutionary design that nearly killed Ryan Clark was initially a lifesaving human genetic adaptation.” It provided Africans with the trait with almost total immunity from some forms of malaria.
According to Winegard, such immunity only made the African slave value grow, as it allowed colonists to not only settle in, especially in the Deep South, but to expand empires of cotton and sugar. He notes:
…African slaves were relatively unafflicted by malaria and yellow fever, and simply did not die at the same rate as non-Africans. Their genetic immunities and prior seasoning made Africans an important ingredient of the Columbian Exchange and indispensable in the development of New World mercantilist economic markets.
The slave ships brought wi\th them the anopheles and aedes mosquitoes, which would prove sop lethal to both the colonial and indigenous peoples of the Americas. Winegard’s observations about the interplay of the mercantile development of the New World with slavery and malaria is long and fascinating.
Probably the only white hat Hero introduced in the narrative is the discovery, almost by accident, of quinine. Winegard writes, “Quinine was a New World treatment for an Old World disease. The disease itself, and its vectoring mosquitoes, were born of Africa and the Old World and were transported to the New World, where they flourished.” Coffee, chrysanthemums and, my favorite, gin and tonics, are all known to stave off malaria. And Big Pharma has some cures too. But mosquitoes and malaria are still very much with us.
The murderous disease-bearing mozzies are still with us 200 million years later, driving us nuts at night as we try to sleep, and making us wonder how that 190 million-old buzz, which has us slapping out, could be an evolutionary advantage rather than the taunt it seems. We are still fending them off the same old ways– with smoke, nets, drained swamps, and anti-disease medications. Not only do they still bring malaria in most parts of the world, they now carry the Zika virus, Eastern equine encephalitis, and many other potentially deadly viruses. Scientists continue to remind us that we are overdue for a mosquito-borne pandemic, with amplified effects due to climate change extending breeding seasons.
Some scientists believe that the succubus’ quarter-of-a-billion years reign is enough and it’s time for things to change. Enter CRISPR and the notion that we can genetically modify “humanity’s most dangerous predator.” But there are worries: we’d be messing with nature; we can’t yet guarantee something disastrously unforseen wouldn’t occur. What if we somehow — in our Lamarckian chutzpah — made our most dangerous predator stronger? Or created a real-life Jurassic Park (amber-bound mosquitoes do exist)?
I have mixed visions of Octavia Butler’s “Blood Child;” the recent movie Mosquito-Man (which sucked); and being shown as a child how to make a mozzie pop by squeezing the skin around their proboscis as they sucked — until they exploded, like a gory scene from Scanners. They bring out our latent sadism.
The Mosquito is a fascinating account of a primordial predator — seen almost-empathetically, by Winegard, through the lens of Great Man theory. It is unique in that sense. But it is also overwhelming in its comprehensive claim that mosquitoes were lurking in so many watershed moments of history. You follow his Hum-eric narrative, wowed by the endless stream of Anopheles triumphs that Winegard cites. Then, frankly, scepticism sets in. You seek out secondary sources, and discover that his claims are largely valid. It seemed, at first, a narrative gimmick — the Life and Times of General Anopheles — but ends up a revelation; Hitchcock’s birds eye view..
The Mosquito is yet another reminder to the reader that we live in a world where we don’t really call the shots and never have. We like to tell ourselves sagas of how Men Have Come Seen and Conquered, and sit around vain bonfires telling tales of our Darwinian conquests. But Winegard replaces our historical agents — our manly Caesars and Odysseuses — with female mosquitoes, buzzy little valkyries with a high-pitched nasal drawls. Imagine a civil war won not so much by guns and stratagems, but by reactions to diseased mosquito bites and the requirements of care to ensuing sickness. As Winegard reminds us, half of all human beings who have ever lived suffered “mosquito-inflicted deaths.” Heil Hit-ya, General Anopheles — thwack!
By John Kendall Hawkins
…but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
– W.B.Yeats, The Second Coming
Hive-mindedness seems to be growing — at the same time that bees are heading towards kaputzville. DARPA’s got a fix for the bees, they say. Then again, (D)ARPA gave us the Internet, which is where the hivemind is located. On the other hand, Al Gore ‘claims’ to have invented the Internet. Some people say he invented Climate Change, too. Riddle me this: If a guy can be that clever, then how come he can’t win his home state in 2000, without the need to blame Nader? And how come Watergate felon Charles “Dirty Tricks” Colson can be given back his voting rights by Jeb, but not all those Black voters? Is there a koan in a haystack locked up in all this? Or is it all rhetorical?
End Days thinking really, isn’t it? You gotta tamp that bong shit down. Anyway, I was thinking if Christ came back to Earth today, all swaddled again, which three Wise Men would show up in Bedlamhem to report on it. Would it be Old Schoolers like the New York Times, The Guardian, and The Washington Post? Or would it be the Upstarts — Amazon, Google, and Facebook?
Some things are certain: they are all pushers, dealing in cut info, trying to slide you into that crystal blue persuasion dream; and they are all in it for the frankincense and myrrh, baby. And all of them are spies for the Mighty Whitey, either directly or in- in- indirectly. And God help us if He came back black: They’d up and lynch Love all over agin’. Eternal recurrence, amor fati, my ass, Mr. Nietzsche.