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Sam Smith: The Homeland, Bad Times & Bothering

The Homeland, Bad Times & Bothering

By Prorev.com Editor Sam Smith

SAM SMITH, SECURING THE HOMELAND - As we move towards - and even surpass - the fictional bad dreams of Huxley and Orwell, it is helpful to remember that these nightmares were actually the curse of the elites, and not of those who lived in the quaint primitive manner of humans rather than joining the living dead at the zenith of illusionary power.

This bifurcation of society into a weak, struggling, but sane, mass and a manic depressive elite that is alternately vicious and afraid, unlimited and imprisoned, mimics in some ways the time of moated castles. But it also foreshadows what we find today - an elite willing, on the one hand, to occupy any corner of the world and, on the other, terrified of a few young men with box cutters.

The cost of this psychotic conflict is enormous, even on the innocent and unchosen. Yet ultimately the heaviest burden is on those in America's inner and outer parties. An important part of the split is geographic. The proles and savages were mostly removed from the centers of power, much as in our world. In fact 'globalization,' rather than making us "one world," has actually widened the gap between the powerful and the weak. The former mostly live and work in the economic and political capitals, enjoying what might be called capitalism were not the term already taken. The rest of the world is separated from the action. This phenomenon even occurs in conquered lands: the Iraq war was 'over' when we thought we had captured Baghdad, the devil take the rest of the country. Similarly, we have yet to capture Afghanistan, but under today's rules, holding Kabul is close enough.

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It is this unnamed country of international law, trade and finance, with its anthem to "global competition in the first half of the 21st century," that is increasingly providing the substance and the style to our anti-democratic politics. It is their dual citizenship in America and in the Great Global Glob that characterizes the most powerful among us, now more than ever including even our own political leaders.

In the wake of September 11, this trend became even more prominent. Our country's policies and budgets have been strongly skewed in the interest of protecting New York and Washington (and the natural resources and borders that support their activities). There has not been much mention of a terrorist threat to St Louis, at least in the national media. After all, St. Louis is in the countryside that is filled with persons who, if left to themselves, will, in the words of Orwell, "continue from generation to generation and from century to century, working, breeding, and dying, not only without any impulse to rebel, but without the power of grasping that the world could be other than it is."

This is not to say that St. Louis won't be a target, only that it is far from what the war on terrorism is really about, which is to defend those things, people, and places that the elite hold most dear starting with themselves. Nor is it to say that such places can be immune from the sort of economic or environmental catastrophe of which the Bush regime is fully capable. But unlike our frightened leaders, the residents of most of the country simply live with the risk. There is no government money for their bunkers.

Strange as it may seem, however, it is in this dismal dichotomy between countryside and the political and economic capitals that the hope for saving America's soul resides. The geographical and conceptual parochialism of those who have made this mess leaves vast acres of our land still free in which to nurture hopes, dreams, and perhaps even to foster the eventual eviction of those who have done us such wrong.


SAM SMITH, GETTING THROUGH THE BAD TIMES - Whatever reality presses upon us, there still remains the possibility of imagining something better, and in this dream remains the frontier of our humanity and its possibilities To despair is to voluntarily close a door that has not yet shut. The task is to bear knowledge without it destroying ourselves, to challenge the wrong without ending up on its casualty list. . .

Oddly, those who instinctively understand this best are often those who seem to have the least reason to do so - survivors of abuse, oppression, and isolation who somehow discover not so much how to beat the odds, but how to wriggle around them. . . These individuals move through life like a skilled mariner in a storm rather than as a victim at a sacrifice. Relatively unburdened by pointless and debilitating guilt about the past, uninterested in the endless regurgitation of the unalterable, they free themselves to concentrate upon the present and the future. They face the gale as a sturdy combatant rather than as cowering supplicant.

In Washington we have a neighborhood known as Shaw where for decades just such a form of survival thrived. It has been a particular interest of my historian wife, Kathy. Until the modern civil rights movement and desegregation, this African-American community was shut out without a vote, without economic power, without access, and without any real hope that any of this would change.

Its response was remarkable. For example, in 1886 there were only about 15 black businesses in the area. By 1920, with segregation in full fury, there were more than 300.

Every aspect of the community followed suit. Among the institutions created within these few square miles was a building and loan association, a savings bank, the only good hotel in the Washington where blacks could stay, the first full-service black YMCA in the country, the Howard Theatre (opened with black capital twenty years before Harlem's Apollo became a black stage) and two first rate movie palaces.

There were the Odd Fellows, the True Reformers, and the Prince Hall Lodge. There were churches and religious organizations, a summer camp, a photography club, settlement houses, and the Washington Urban League. Denied access to white schools, the community created a self-sufficient educational system good enough to attract suburban African-Americans students as well as teachers with advanced degrees from all over the country. And just to the north, Howard University became the intellectual center of black America. You might have run into Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, or Duke Ellington, all of whom made the U Street area their home before moving to New York.

All this occurred while black Washingtonians were being subjected to extraordinary economic obstacles and being socially and politically ostracized. If there ever was a culture entitled to despair and apathy it was black America under segregation.

Yet not only did these African-Americans develop self-sufficiency, they did so without taking their eyes off the prize. Among the other people you might have found on U Street were Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston, laying the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement. Older residents would remember the former neighborhood with a mixture of pain and pride -- not unlike the ambivalence found in veterans recalling a war. None would voluntarily return to either segregation or the battlefield but many would know that some of their own best moments of courage, skill, and heart had come when the times were at their worst.

Another example. Last summer, I went to Umbria, a section of Italy north of Rome remarkably indifferent to 500 years of its history, where even the homes and whole villages seem to grow like native plants out of the rural earth rather than being placed there by human effort. It was as if I had been transported back several centuries while still being allowed to take along a car and my Diet Coke. I hadn't felt such stability for a long time, certainly not since September 11. Yet the Umbrians have been invaded, burned, or bullied by the Etruscans, Roman Empire, Goths, Longobards, Charlemagne, Pippin the Short, the Vatican, Mussolini, the German Nazis, and, most recently, the World Trade organization. Umbria is a reminder of the durability of the human spirit during history's tumults, an extremely comforting thought to an American these days.


SAM SMITH, WHY BOTHER? - One of the most fascinating and unusual examinations of how culture can be redefined is contained in a strange book, T.A.Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, by Hakim Bey. Bey argues that the world fundamentally changed with what he calls the "closure of the map" -- the end of terrestrial discovery:

"Because the map is an abstraction it cannot cover earth with 1:1 accuracy. Within the fractal complexities of actual geography the map can see only dimensional grids. Hidden enfolded immensities escape the measuring rod."

For example, there is the map one might draw of the Internet, whose nomads may never leave their office or room. They are like Thoreau who said he had "traveled much -- in Concord." Says Bey:

"Lay down a map of the land; over that set a map of political change; over that a map of the Net, especially the counter-Net with its emphasis on clandestine information-flow and logistics -- and finally, over all, the 1:1 map of the creative imagination, aesthetics, values. The resultant grid comes to life, animated by unexpected eddies and surges of energy, coagulations of light, secret tunnels, surprises."

Bey's temporary autonomous zones are uncertain and undulating communities of the rootless and the alienated:

"The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the state, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the state can crush it. Because the state is concerned primarily with simulation rather than substance, the TAZ can "occupy" these areas clandestinely and carry on its festal purposes for quite a while in relative peace. Perhaps certain small TAZs have lasted whole lifetimes because they went unnoticed -- like hillbilly enclaves -- because they never intersected with the spectacle, never appeared outside that real life which is invisible to the agents of simulation."

An example is the pirate utopia:

"The sea-rovers and corsairs of the 18th century created an "information network" that spanned the globe: primitive and devoted primarily to grim business; the net nevertheless functioned admirably. Scattered throughout the net were islands, remote hideouts where ships could be watered and provisioned, booty traded for luxuries and necessities. Some of these islands supported "intentional communities," whole mini-societies living consciously outside the law and determined to keep it up, even if only for a short but merry life . . . Fleeing from hideous "benefits" of imperialism such as slavery, serfdom, racism and intolerance, from the tortures of impressment and the living death of the plantations, the buccaneers adopted Indian ways, intermarried with Caribs, accepted blacks and Spaniards as equals, rejected all nationality, elected their captains democratically, and reverted to the "state of nature." Having declared themselves "at war with all the world," they sailed forth to plunder under mutual contracts called "Articles" which were so egalitarian that every member received a full share and the captain usually only 1 1/4 or 1 1/2 shares . . ."




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