The Blue Raccoon

Thursday, December 31, 2009


The above image came from Arnaldo Dumindin's online history of the Philippine-American War, 1899-1902. I think of this conflict for several reasons, as the last granules of 2009 and the 21st Century Aughts slip away. The image at left is the unfortunate Chandra Levy.

First, I'm reading historian James Bradley's "The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire."

The book describes Teddy Roosevelt's effort through his Secretary of War William Howard Taft who was dispatched in 1905 on a Pacific cruise. The voyage resulted in secret and unconstitutional treaties that caused our engagement there and laid fuses for what ignited the Pacific Theatre of World War II, an almost every major conflict following, resulting in tens of millions dead.

It was the culmination of the "White Man's Burden" philosophy that guided the U.S. westward, "following the sun."

Quoting the U .S. military commander Gen. Arthur MacArthur (Douglas MacArthur's father), Bradley "pointedly describes a too familiar situation. “General MacArthur described a depressing quagmire where the U.S. Army controlled only 117 miles out of a total of 116,000 square miles, a hostile country where Americans could not venture out alone and a shell-shocked populace whose hatred for their oppressors grew each day,” he writes. “The Imperial Cruise” is all too persuasive in its visions of history repeating itself."

Well, as Mark Twain -- who opposed this imperialist gambit -- observed, history doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

If you don't believe it, look the recent headlines. It's chilling.

There's a familiar scene at the end of Charlie Wilson's War in which Wilson tries to get Congressional appropriations for building schools in Afghanistan. It's a powerful glimpse into why we're there now -- because of the mess the Soviets left, and how our covert assistance helped dislodge them and ultimately cause the collapse of Communist rule. But an exasperated Wilson, when told he can't get the money, says this is what always happens. We go in and change the world and then we leave. 'We always leave."

That's a bit disingenuous. The U.S. today maintains bases in Germany, Japan and Korea, and we're still in Central Europe following the horrors of Serb-Croat atrocities and civil war.

In fact, and these are 2004 figures, the "Pentagon currently owns or rents 702 overseas bases in about 130 countries and HAS another 6,000 bases in the United States and its territories."

There's a bit more up-to-date information here.

We invaded the Phillippines for little cause, after buying the country for $20 million, and then unsatisfied with Filipino administration and courts, decided to go and slaughter them into our way of doing things.

Of course, we did the same thing to Native Americans, and a photograph reproduced by Bradley in Imperial Cruise of native dead in a trench at Wounded Knee, bears startling resemblance to the one shown above, that also appears in the book. Mark Twain complained of U.S. imperialism, but wouldn't admit that we did the same damn thing to the Indians. And then there's the whole slavery thing. But facing fault there would cause the nation to admit, like the Fonz, that it was w-w-w-r -wr-wrong. There's lately come various apologies for various crimes and errors on our part, but of course, this doesn't help the 600,000 Filipino war dead. Or the millions of Indians wiped away. That we weren't any better than other colonial powers of the period is a difficult view to take.

This is tough reading.

I think of all this, too, because we are at the end of the Aughts. They started with anxiety about The End of the World -- remember Y2K? Then came 9/11 and that wiped away the Chandra Levy Washington D.C. murder mystery and the threat of killer sharks.

Now, at the end of the Aughts, there's still anxiety about the end of the world, with real and imagined fears of nuclear potential in Iran and Korea, and terrorists. Following 9/11, there was supposed to be a new serious to the media, but instead, thanks to TMZ and millions of blogs, no, we're instead distracted by narcissistic party-crashers at the White House and Tiger Woods' peccadilloes.

There's been a whole slew of movies about the world ending in various ways from comets to zombie-causing plagues. Seems like every other program on the History Channel is about decoding Nostradamus or the Bible or some other hidden mystery that indicates the end is nigh.

Conspiracy theory has become a kind of civil religion. The political world is wildly divided and toxic. One side regards the other as some form of alien life form. (Indeed, some people believe they really are from out of space, or inside the Earth)

And the people who believe this stuff breed and vote.

Anyway, the Teens of the 21st century look more and more like the beginning of the 20th.

Happy New Year. I'm going to get a few stiff drinks.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The New Sensation

The image of this smiling, arms-raised young woman is more than a century old. She is Evelyn Nesbit, arguably one of the first mass media sex symbols and the template for all the pathetic, tawdry scandals that followed in her wake. She was featured both in E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, the movie in which Elizabeth McGovern won an Oscar nomination portraying her, and the popular musical of the same name. And she was one of my early fascinations.

In the waning months of 2009 there've been the deaths of beautiful women who've died before the generally accepted actuarial eventuality. This has occurred to me personally, and generally.

I offer to you the words of Richmond novelist James Branch Cabell from his 1909 novel The Cords of Vanity: A Comedy of Shirking. These concern the death of a pretty and vivacious young woman.

"You see the world had advanced since Stella died, -- twice around the sun, from solstice to solstice, traveling through I forget how many millions of miles; and there had been wars and scandals and a host of débutantes and any number of dinners; and, after all, the world is for the living.

So we of Lichfield agreed unanimously that it was very sad, and spoke of her for a while, punctiliously, as 'poor dear Stella'": and the next week Emily Van Orden ran away with Tam Whately; and a few days later Alicia Wade's husband died, and we debated whether Teddy Anstruther would do the proper thng or sensibly marry Cecilia Reindun: and so, a little by little, we forgot our poor, dear Stella in precisely the decorous graduations of regret with which our poor dead Stella would have forgotten any one of us.

Yes, even those who loved her most deeply have forgotten Stella. They remember only an imaginary being who was entirely perfect, and of whom they were not worthy. It is this fictitious woman who has usurped the real Stella's place in the heart of the real Stella's own mother, and whom Lizzie de' Arlanges believes once to have been her sister, and over whom Peter Blagden is always ready to grow maudlin; and it is this immaculate woman -- who never existed, -- that will be until the end of Avis' matrimonial existence the standard by which Avis is measured and found wanting. And thus again, the whirligig of time, by an odd turn, brings its revenges...."

..And I? Well, I was very fond of Stella. It would be good to have her back,-- to jeer at me, to make me feel red and uncomfortable and ridiculous, to say rude things about my waist, and indeed to fluster me just by being there. Yes, it would be good."

And, thus, the year ends and takes away those who were loved and whose memory, though piquant and near now, will in time fade. As will we all.

Who will remember us? What will they write? What will they make of us, a century on?

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