1. August 16th, 1869, marks the Battle of Acosta Ñu, pretty much the end of the line in the War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay. The Paraguayan military had been so whittled away over the course of 6 years of fighting that most of the Paraguayans fighting by this point were between 12 and 17 years old, some wearing fake beards in order to be taken seriously by their enemies. The Paraguayan soldiers were many of them fighting with machete and bayonet having no ammunition or rifles left, they were described as often barefoot and almost naked, the boys laying out on the battlefield cried out for food as they were too hungry to notice their wounds.

    To try and get a full picture of how things got to such a high pitch of human misery let us consider a chronology of Paraguay in the context of Spanish South America.

    Of course in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue — we know how that played out pretty well, Europeans figured out they were not in China or India and they decided that if you killed enough of them, the locals might tell you where the gold was at.

    So in 1494 Spain and Portugal rather arbitrarily carved up the globe, Spain being assigned the majority of the New World but leaving a big slice of the Eastern Seaboard of South America in Portuguese hands — over time the Portuguese would slowly move over this line and fill in quite a bit what would become the modern expanse of Brazil.

    Spain spent 1532-1537 knocking down the Incas of Peru, the most politically organized native civilization in South America. On August 15th, 1537, the Feast of the Assumption, a stockade was built near the confluence of the Paraguay and Pilcomayo rivers: Asunción was assigned some importance as an administrative center by Spanish authorities, and yet was really too far in the backwaters to be that useful.

    In 1545 to the north in the high plateau lands now known as Bolivia, a mountain of silver was discovered. Between 1556 and 1783, mines at Potosí would produce 41000 metric tons of silver for Spain, pushing the balance of world trade — especially in regards to China — into Spanish hands. On a map it would seem that carting silver to Asunción and sending it down to the port of Buenos Aires would have been the best way to get silver to the Atlantic and then across to Spain, but the overland trip was too rugged and full of hostile natives — instead the silver went down to the Pacific at Lima, by sea up to Panama City and then overland across the Isthmus to the Caribbean.

    Buenos Aires, which would become Asunción’s powerful rival, commands the harbour at the end of the Río de la Plata — the culmination of the river system that begins upstream in Paraguay. The settlement there was founded in 1536, the year before Asunción was established, however it had been evacuated by 1542, due to attacks by local Native Americans. Governance of the Río de la Plata region moved upstream to Asunción but only until Buenos Aires was reclaimed beginning in 1580; after that, the region we know as Paraguay today settled into a quiet isolation. Settlers in Paraguay grew tobacco, logged valuable hardwoods and gathered a native plant that became Paraguay’s most important agricultural product in the region, yerba maté; however, all of these exports had to pass through Buenos Aires which, by 1620, had pretty much completely eclipsed Asunción politically.

    One of the primary though not always recognized commodities produced in the area were the Guaraní, Native Americans who early on seem to have courted good relations with the Spanish leading to much intermarriage and also to their exploitation as forced labor. The Jesuit order had started a college in Asunción and in 1608 were granted the opportunity to convert the Guaraní and save them not just in the Christian sense but also to protect them from slavers. One might turn a cynical eye on this and call the Jesuit efforts a ‘slavery in Christ,’ however the Jesuit missions were suprisingly enlightened and very successful. The Jesuits figured out how to cultivate maté and with the labor of their grateful converts created a burgeoning Jesuit empire in Paraguay. The Jesuit reducciones — missionary settlements — operated in Paraguay for more than a century. By 1732, records show more than 100,000 Guaraní taking part in this really quite remarkable utopian religious communism. In 1767, however, the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish South America by royal decree; the reducciones were taken over by other Catholic orders who either could not or would not keep them up; the towns went into an extreme decline and the Guaraní either fled back into the woods or used their skills and missionary educations to join Spanish colonial society.

    Let me take a moment to add up some of the important threads that we are weaving together into what will soon be the basis of a new independent nation of Paraguay. First, because of their isolation and the overall lack of interest Spain showed in the region, Paraguayans were used to having to look out for themselves. There was no mountain of silver in Paraguay, just as there was no access to the sea. Yerba maté was a commodity which was traded primarily with Paraguay’s neighbors, it was not a major player in any sort of international trade. So a make-do attitude and strong inclination towards self-reliance marked life in Paraguay. Secondly, although Paraguayan society certainly enslaved and exploited the native Guaraní, a certain nativist pride was beginning to grow — a mixed Guaraní-Spanish identity was being built, even if it was built on a good deal of hypocrisy and crime. Third, rivalry with Buenos Aires was an important undercurrent, the Porteños — people from Buenos Aires are Porteños, dwellers in the port city don’t you know — had politically and economically undercut Paraguay again and again. But even more prominent among Paraguay’s unloved neighbors was Brazil, with whom the Paraguayans had been in armed conflict with for decades over Brazillian incursions over the Paraguayan border.

    We are about to step over the threshold into a period of time known as the ‘Age of Revolutions,’ and it seems worth remembering that these revolutions came about because of all manner of very worldly matters — very small countries in Europe had swallowed up vast regions of the earth made possible by their technological advantages, but several centuries later, their initial speculations weren’t paying out enough to keep the project of controlling far-flung empires workable. For instance, the silver mountain, Potosí, that had to a large extent financed the colonial endeavor in Spanish South America was not producing as much readily available silver as it had. There was still plenty of silver in the mountain, but the surface deposits were becoming exhausted and the work of extracting more was becoming more and more difficult, dangerous and expensive.

    The fact of the New World, the extensive new contact with far away civilizations like China and India, the explosion of scientific curiosity brought about by the need for everything from new mining techniques, better maps of the world, and catalogs of the new and potentially important plants and animals of far away lands — all these intellectual inputs profoundly affected European writers and thinkers. Concepts that severely challenged the world view established by reactionary forces like the Church and Royalty brought about radically skeptical new world views, views that would eventually cause people to declare the right of the people to determine their own governance and to punish crowned heads for their abuses. The Age of Colonial Expansion led inevitably to the Age of Enlightenment and then straight on to the Age of Revolutions.

    The crowned heads of Spain I’m sure watched with horror and disgust as the British colonies revolted in North America, and with even more horror and disgust as the King and Queen of France lost their heads to a rabble in the streets of Paris. The spectacle that likely horrified them most was the meteoric rise of a certain commoner, Napoleon Bonaparte, from being a second lieutenant in the French Army all the way up to crowning himself Emperor of France. Two years after crowning himself Emperor, Napoleon came after Spain, the resulting Peninsular War (1807-1814) effectively began the scramble for Independence among the many divisive factions at work in Spain’s far-off colonies in the New World.

    Many of the initial revolutions in Latin America began as conservative attempts to reject rule by Napoleon’s puppet government of Spain in support of the Spanish monarch held captive by France. But too many conflicting ideals and ambitions were at work and soon the struggle became one between the Spanish born ruling elite and the next tier in society below them, the native born creoles — an educated and landed gentry who had traditionally been denied positions in the government. It is worth pointing out that this is not too different from what had occurred in the Anglo-American War of Independence, ‘we the people’ may have risen up to cast off the tyranny of English rule, but power was still distinctly in the hands of the wealthy white American-born landed gentry.

    In 1810, the local government in Buenos Aires sent the Spanish Viceroy packing. The Porteños tried to induce Paraguay to join a new independent United Provinces of the Río de la Plata, but the Paraguayans weren’t having it. After some bungled diplomacy, the Porteños decided to use force and were fiercely repulsed by Paraguayan forces. The initial impulse among Paraguayans seems to have been a loyalist rejection of the Porteño revolt against Spain, but soon creole interests began to lose their affection for the left-over Spanish authorities. Paraguay declared its independence in May of the next year, 1811. In the next few years an educated creole lawyer and theologian José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia maneuvered his way into a lifetime position as absolute ruler of Paraguay. ‘El Supremo’ was renowned for being frugal and honest and seems to have been well loved by the lower classes, most especially for the way in which he utterly broke up and discomfited the upper classes. He redistributed land, taxed the elites, forcefully repressed any opposition to his policies and carefully withdrew Paraguay from the political machinations of his neighbors. Paraguay, either in spite of or because of Francia’s iron rule became even more self-reliant and when he died in in 1840 the Treasury had more than doubled its contents.

    As many benefits as Paraguay seemed to reap from the benevolent despotism of Francia, a major disadvantage became apparent in his absence. The majority of Paraguayans had been trained by their first three decades of independence to have no political aspirations or impulses — they had come to have absolute faith in their ruler. From 1844 to 1862 another well-educated lawyer, Carlos Antonio López, ruled as dictator, but unlike Francia, López used the position of first consul as a means to enrich himself and his family. He brought Paraguay a few steps out of its complete isolation, strengthened and modernized some of the countries infrastructure, but did nothing to curb the absolute power of his position and then handed that position down to his son, Francisco Solano López.

    Solano López came to power in 1862 at the age of 35. By 1864 he had embroiled his country in armed conflict with Brazil and 1865 was at war with a Triple Alliance of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Solano López had been made a Brigadier General in his father’s army at the age of eighteen. Sent abroad to Europe, he had definitely enjoyed buying arms and machinery, as well as fancy new uniforms for the military — one imagines he threw himself into the adventure of all-out war with the joy of a spoiled child. The first year or so of the war went well for Paraguay, the army made successful forays into Brazil and Argentina capturing ships, forts and weapons but by 1866 the Paraguayans were on the run. The fierceness and dedication of Paraguayan troops seems to have somewhat overwhelmed the Triple Alliance, it was with great caution that the enemy began to press its advantage into Paraguay.

    Towards the end of 1867, Solano López had a full accounting drawn up of the men left available to fight his war. One list prepared in the previously well-populated town of Villa Rica offers 563 soldiers, 245 of whom were between the ages of 12 and 14, 260 more who were age 50 or above; the remaining 58 were, for the most part, either slaves or else blind, insane, wounded in battle or disabled in some other way. And still the war dragged on, Solano López becoming more and more paranoid and homicidal — he became convinced that his own people were out to get him, when in fact they remained remarkably dedicated to his cause considering the great misfortunes he had heaped upon them. Thousands were arrested on suspicion of plotting López’ downfall, many hundreds were tortured and executed, and the purges continued even as Solano Lopez abandoned the capital and retreated from the oncoming Alliance. Enemy soldiers discovered hastily buried Paraguayans all along the path of Solano López’ retreat. By the time they caught and killed him, almost seven months after the miserable Battle of Acosta Ñu, Francisco Solano López had effectively wiped out the majority of able-bodied adult males in his own country. One of the more balanced and methodical studies done on the subject posits that between 60 to 70 percent of the population of Paraguay died in the War of the Triple Alliance.

    My musical offering this week is a Sarabande, a stately dance of the Baroque period, composed by Domenico Zipoli, an Italian composer who without any explanation gave up his prestigious job as an church organist in Rome and headed off to join the Jesuit missionaries in Paraguay. 

     
  2. August 6th is celebrated as the Feast of the Transfiguration in Roman Catholic, Syrian Orthodox and other Eastern Orthodox Churches that follow the revised Julian calendar. The Transfiguration is an event in the life of Jesus as related in three of the four Synoptic Gospels; it stands out as a miracle that involved Jesus but that was not performed by him. Jesus goes with some of his disciples up onto a mountain, whereupon he becomes suffused with glory, shining with heavenly light. Moses and the Prophet Elijah appear on either side of Jesus, and the three of them begin to talk. A bright cloud then appears above them and a voice declares Jesus to be ‘my beloved Son.’ On the way down off the mountain, Jesus tells his apostles to keep quiet about this event until after the “Son of man be risen from the dead.”

    August 8th marks what to me is another mystical event, another event where the affairs of humankind come in close contact with a world of luminous meaning from beyond. On this day in 1989, the space shuttle Columbia was launched on a classified mission for the Department of Defense. The main objective of the flight was to set a specialized military communications satellite in orbit, but there was another odd experiment being sent into space that day. “Detailed Secondary Objective No. 469” was a human female skull, weighing 11 pounds. It had been cut into 10 pieces and then reassembled, housed in clear plastic meant to simulate tissue. The experiment involved sensors set within the skull meant to determine how much cosmic radiation might be penetrating a live astronaut’s head… but, wait a minute. This is just too obviously some necromantic hoodoo being perpetrated by NASA and the DOD. What kind of occult dark arts ritual was going on here at the taxpayer’s expense?

    If we look at the miracle of the Transfiguration with the critical eye of a detached modern observer it looks like plain and simple propaganda: it seems obvious that, of course three out of four disciples would want to link Jesus with Old Testament law (Moses) and Old Testament Prophecy (Elijah). And, of course we need a voice from heaven to claim Jesus as his Son, because Jesus was always so careful never to claim that for himself. And, as a plus, we get a sneak preview statement about Jesus rising from the dead. But that’s me just stripping all the magic out of it. I don’t want to do that, no sir — the more magic we can squeeze into a story the better. Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray — the closer you can get to the sky the better contact you have with heaven. In my King James Version of Luke’s account the cloud from which the voice speaks is so close that it not only overshadows them but also ‘they (the disciples) feared as they entered into it.’ Jesus communes with his ancestors, and Christian theologians have apparently written a great deal on whether or not the Old Testament figures were there as visions or whether they were corporeal — that is, whether they were alive in the flesh as we are to assume all the dead will be at the Second Coming. Elijah was brought up to heaven alive, bodily, according to the Old Testament, but Moses died on earth, and so if we believe that Moses was really there physically at the Transfiguration, then the miracle here is that we are seeing the Life to Come, incorruptible and without death. Theologians also assert the the Transfiguration was important as all three members of the trinity were there — Jesus, obviously, as well as God the Father, present as the voice, and also the Holy Spirit in attendance as the luminous cloud.

    When I think of luminous clouds enveloping people and speaking, especially now that I’m talking about space travel, I think of all those pulsating amorphous energy beings that would hinder or help the crew of the USS Enterprise on Star Trek. Yes, I’m getting a bit facetious here, but stick with me and we’ll get through this. Space travel really messed up the magic behind Heaven. Just saying that maybe the earth revolved around the Sun was considered heresy for centuries — so actually going up there with a camera and not finding angels and Jesus crowned in glory was truly problematic. Luminous energy cloud-beings were of course a pretty cheap and easy special effect to make on television, but let’s look at them as important refugees from a time when the Heavens were closer and more invested in affairs on Earth. I think science fiction is frequently trying to reconcile us with our need for there to be something up there besides dark, cold, limitless space. Even when sci-fi aliens are menacing, hey, at least they are paying attention to us, not like the impassive, utterly dead, utterly random, utterly infinite cosmos that we can’t quite accept is out there.

    So, here is my attempt to form a short mystical belief system for the First Church of the Star-Borne Skull. First: the most powerful nation among the nations of the earth, builds a ship named Columbia. Columba is the Latin word for dove, and the tradition of calling the guiding spirit of the Americas (or, indeed, the ‘discoverer’ of the Americas) ‘Columbia’ comes as a reference to the dove that brought news of new land back to Noah as the Flood began to subside. Outer space might be seen as like the Flood — a vast encompassing demonstration of God’s lack of mercy. The dove, interestingly, was traditionally an animal used as a burnt offering in Old Testament days, and so Noah sending it off to look for land was in a way a sacrifice — if God had no mercy, that dove wouldn’t have made it back. 20 missions after the flight we are discussing here Columbia burnt up upon re-entry. The skull was not on board.

    So, the white dove of sacrifice is launched into the heavens as a probe, as a instrument to gauge the mood of the almighty god of the sky. However, let us not forget, although the dove is a symbol of peace, this was a military expedition. Our second article of faith should be as follows: the space ship Columbia was a weapon, a missile, really, a rocket with a payload. And this payload? An anonymous female skull cut into 10 pieces. What is this occult object we were threatening the heavens with? The number 10 is considered significant by numerologists as a combination of a phallic male principle — the ‘1’ — and a yonic female principle — the ‘0’— which suggests that numerologists are on the whole a randy lot who see sex everywhere. Be that as it may, I think we can say that the skull has been imbued with some pretty serious sexual magic here.

    The fact that the skull was a woman’s skull makes a powerful statement about the intentions of whichever Department of Defense witch-doctors sent it up against the Ancient of Days. In a great many of the mystic traditions, the power of femaleness is to capture the luminous cloud-like being that is spirit and weave it into a material form, perhaps this decempartate female skull was a trap set to force a luminous cloud-being, the Holy Spirit, to enter into physical form. I think perhaps it was expected to work rather like a seed crystal, forcing the Celestial Eminence to coalesce into a corporeal being, thus jump-starting the Second Coming. That’s my take on it, my third article of faith: NASA and the Department of Defense meant to perpetrate an aggressive occult Transfiguration, to hasten the millennial era, the only obvious result of which was the space shuttle’s eventual destruction.

    To reverse whatever curse might accrue to the American people for the actions of our space and military industrial complex, here is a poem and a piece of music to lay the starry-crowned skull to rest — she deserves a funeral after all, after all that necromantic space travel.

    Robbed of the whisper on her lips,
    The silver thread of gravity unspooling —
    Just as memory is long fled —
    Silence within, silence without:
    Nothing called, nothing comes.

    Orphaned at the edge of memory,
    Your breath, once hot and attentive —
    Shatters into a shower of crystalline fragments —
    Needle-sharp and cold.

    Where is what was worthwhile,
    when the world was listening?
    Gone into a stillness unimaginable —
    cave-dark, without thought,
    The chasm behind your eyes.

    A mask of glass —
    wishes settle on it, like dust,
    But no hand comes
    to wipe them away
    from the corners of your eyes.

     
  3.  
  4. 13:43

    Notes: 1

    Tags: photos7/1lilies

    Lillies!

     
  5. So the wheel of the year turns. August 1st marks the festival of Lughnasa in ancient Ireland, it’s another of those cross-quarter days, like May Day and Halloween. I’ve been trying to get a handle on the way calendars came together over time, all the interlocking circles of the moon and the sun and the stars doing their own little dances with the earth threading its path through it all. I’ve enjoyed looking at the way the ancient Celts managed things, probably because their seasons link up well for how things go down here in Appalachia.

    The Calendar of Coligny is a Celtic artifact found in France, dating back to about the 2nd century AD. It is a bronze tablet with holes in it, holes for wooden pegs to mark the days off with. It essentially lays out every day of a 5 year cycle of 62 months altogether; each month adds or shaves off a day here and there to figure in the bit of fudging that we accomplish with leap year. The seasons are clearly marked as starting on the cross quarter days — May 1st, August 1st, November 1st and February 1st. These are the days dead-set between the solstices and equinoxes; in our modern calendar we use the solstices and equinoxes to start our seasons with, but I like this Celtic way of thinking about it, mostly because to my mind August is usually the hottest it’s going to get around here and February the very coldest.

    The Calendar of Coligny also splits the years into two halves, essentially the half that gets cold and the half that gets warm, which has a nice resonance if one thinks of the year as being night (getting cold) and day (getting hot). So Lammas sort of stands out as the high noon of the year. In more tropical lands the year doesn’t divide up into such neat quarter-seasons; apparently the ancient Babylonians just had a ‘planting’ half of the year and a ‘harvesting’ half of the year. In Ancient Egypt the year was split in thirds, the flood season as the Nile submerged all the farmlands, the ‘showing forth’ season as the river receded leaving new, rich soil to be cultivated, and then the harvest season. In India, an early Vedic system named five distinct seasons: ‘spring,’ a hot season, the rainy season, ‘autumn,’ the cold season, and then a season of mists.

    Lughnasa is a feast made sacred by the Celtic god Lugh. Lugh was one of the Tuatha de Danann, a mythic race of Gods who brought their great powers and artifacts of magic to Ireland only to be defeated in turn by the Milesians who drove them underground. Lugh dedicated this festival to his foster mother who had belonged to a previous race of beings that had inhabited Ireland, the Fir Bolg. His foster mother was Tailtiu, remembered for her great feat of strength — wielding an axe she cleared tremendous portions of Ireland leaving fields of clover where there once had grown the vast untamed forests. The Fir Bolg, the Tuatha de Danann, the Milesian kings and heroes that followed, each successive wave of legendary beings seems to have gone into hiding, in a way receding into the dark of night while in the light of day the world gets less magical, less wild. Lugh commemorates his powerful Goddess mother, but eventually the festival becomes only a dim remembrance of him, the long-lost magical Lugh, and eventually the brightness of Celtic glory fades into the Christian Era, where Lugh-mass, Lammas is associated instead with a Christianized harvest-season Feast of First Fruits.

    So this is the beginning of Foghmar, the Celtic harvest season roughly approximate to summer. As a salute to the season let me present a set of pretty Irish tunes — a jig and two reels: the Threshing of the Barley, the Field of Harvest and the Field of Oats.

     
  6. I’m reading Eric Hobsbawm’s book, Bandits, an in-depth look at the importance not only of the facts but also the fictionalization of banditry. The bandits he focuses on are what he calls ‘social bandits,’ that is, bandits that have a place in society as a sort of safety valve — when the disparity between the rich and the poor becomes too obvious, when the peasantry cannot even count on the most basic restraints on the greed of landowners, when injustice rules the land, popular myth calls forth a time honored defender — a character that is free to act outside the law, a character who is of the people and dedicated to helping the poor by redistributing the wealth of the rich, a robber who represents a sort of basic wish-fulfillment of vigilante vengeance.

    The tension between reality and fantasy is an important aspect in studying these bandits. The following are Hobsbawm’s nine elements that define the ‘noble robber,’ the champion of the weak and poor. First, this Robin Hood-type gets his start on the wrong side of the law because he is singled out by corrupt authority or unjust laws. Secondly, he is out to reverse any and all instances of injustice, plus, thirdly, he is out to redistribute wealth gained by unjust men. Fourth, he only ever kills people in self-defense or as an example of justice served. Points five and six are important to consider together, as they both serve to assert that the noble robber never ceases to be a part of his community; Hobsbawm’s fifth point states that the robber will return to live with his people if he is allowed to survive his exploits, the sixth point is that ‘he is admired, helped and supported by his people.’ The seventh element is that the ‘noble robber’ is only killed through betrayal, and the eighth states that he is ‘invisible and invulnerable’ — taken together these points illustrate that his powers are such that his enemies would never be able to capture or kill him except through the collusion of a close associate. And the ninth point states that the noble robber never breaks faith with the highest powers of law and order, only with ‘local gentry, clergy or other oppressors.’

    It seems unlikely that any outlaw ever lived up to all of these points in reality, but, in the case of bandits from a long time ago it hardly matters — fact gave way long ago to fiction, and so who cares what the ‘real’ Robin Hood was like. In the modern day, it becomes almost impossible to ignore the ugly fact that an outlaw is an outlaw because he does unpleasant things and really has to be out for number one if he’s going to survive — regardless of what his ideals might be. Here I am looking to understand once again, when do we accept a rebel as a hero rather than perceive him merely as a criminal? Eric Hobsbawm writes about a number of outlaws that were formative, sometimes directly, sometimes merely as fictional ideals, to struggles for social change in societies where wrongs needed righting and the weak needed protection. But he also keeps in his focus criminals who really didn’t do much for anyone but themselves and yet still were important in the minds of the downtrodden — a bandit who was a selfish monster is still accomplishing something if he is demonstrating to the high-and-mighty that they aren’t anything special — that they aren’t the only men capable of being selfish monsters. A ruthless villain is still a symbol of defiance and strength if he is your home-town villain and not some villain imposed from outside the community.

    On July 25th, 1853, law enforcement killed Joaquin Murieta, a notorious outlaw living in the mountains of central California. It is worth remembering that California had only been governed loosely by the United States for less than a decade at this point — having only been won from Mexico in 1847 as part of the spoils of the Mexican-American War. The story of Murieta revolves around another important event that occurred around this time — gold was discovered in California and over 300,000 people came to California during the Gold Rush to make their fortunes. To the best of our ability to separate truth from fiction, Murieta and his family arrived in California from Hermosillo in the Mexican state of Sonora in 1849. He set up to work panning for gold but something led him instead to become a robber and horse thief and eventually at least 40 murders were attributed to his gang. The State of California assembled a team of California marshals to put an end to Murieta’s career; after they had killed him the marshals went around for a while with Murieta’s head preserved in a jar full of alcohol, ostensibly to prove the identity of their catch so they could collect the governor’s reward, but also so they could exhibit Murieta’s head among the mining camps — you had to pay a dollar to see the famous outlaw’s head.

    The legend of Murieta was built up as the story of a resistance fighter — the Anglo takeover of Mexican lands, plus the overwhelming influx of strangers during the Gold Rush, made California a rather frightening instance of society breaking down along ethnic lines. Although no official records tell the story, Murieta seems to have been driven to brigandage after being mistreated by Anglo miners jealous of his gold claim. A dime novel, “The Life And Adventures of Joaquin Murieta: The Celebrated California Bandit,” published only a year after his death, reports that he was beaten, forced to watch as his wife was raped and that he was later horsewhipped and his half-brother hung by a second mob of Anglo-Americans. This novel seems to have been highly influential in fixing the ‘facts’ of Murieta’s exploits in peoples’ minds; both historians and observers who had been on hand during Murieta’s life have absorbed some of the novel’s disproven points, but, again, the social bandit is a figure that society desires and fabricates requiring only the barest framework of facts.

    The man who wrote “The Life And Adventures of Joaquin Murieta” is another fascinating character, a Cherokee writer known as Cheesquatalawny (Yellow Bird) or by his Anglo name, John Rollin Ridge; he was born just as the Cherokee people were being officially driven off their lands by the US government. His father and grandfather had both signed the Treaty of New Echota that put the stamp of law on the Trail of Tears; at the age of 12, Cheesquatalawny was forced to witness his father’s murder at the hands of 25 Cherokee men angry about the New Echota treaty; a decade later Ridge murdered one of the men he believed to have been involved with his father’s killing. Ridge was less than successful as a gold miner in California, and, although he is credited as the first Native American novelist, his book never made a profit during his lifetime. He became a journalist but died at the age of 40 from encephalitis. His portrayal of Joaquin Murieta demonstrates some of his somewhat difficult and twisted attitudes towards race in America — in his novel Murieta is steadfast and true, a worthy Mexican who leaves his native land in pursuit of the lofty ideals represented by the policies of an enlightened United States, and as a bandit in California he remains dedicated to a vision of American life that Anglo Americans deny him. However, Ridge maintains an ugly hierarchy in representing race in his novel, his Anglo Americans and Mexican Americans are not blameless but they are depicted as reaching towards higher goals of civilization, whereas he portrays the California Indians as greedy, cowardly and lazy — truly savages in comparison to his own Cherokee people; as well, Ridge presents his Chinese-American characters in a less than flattering light. Murieta too appears not to have let the downtrodden status of Chinese immigrants influence his treatment of them — his gang seems to have victimized Chinese communities just as much if not more often than Anglo settlers.

    The song I present this week is a traditional ranchera song, “Cruz De Madera” — I picture it being sung by Joaquin Murieta’s head, preserved in a jar, on display for curious goldminers. My translation is probably a bit clumsy, but here goes:

    When to the graveyard you take me,
    There’d better not be crying from nobody —
    All of you’d better be singing,
    some song that once made me happy —
    bring me to the funeral
    in the best of spirits!

    This world is so small,
    and I’ve walked it round and around —
    so when they take me away,
    I hope there will be a band playing —
    Sing, don’t cry my comrades,
    you’d best be enjoying yourselves!

    So what, if, as the years pass along,
    my grave should become abandoned,
    And that rough wooden cross
    become weathered and broken;
    You can go and scratch out my name,
    and bury that cross in the dirt,
    But, truly, you must remember —
    to die, it really is nothing.

    So, farewell, to all my true friends,
    and blessings upon my dear old mother —
    Farewell all you beautiful women,
    and goodbye to all the beautiful places —
    Farewell and drink up, gentlemen,
    here ends the tale of my sorrows.

     
  7. July 19th is Burmese Martyr’s Day. At 10:37 AM, traditionally, the air siren will sound in Burmese cities marking the moment Aung San and his cabinet were gunned down at a meeting in Rangoon, back in 1947. The current military dictatorship in Burma generally tries to keep Martyr’s Day observations low key — mostly because public displays of interest in politics might get sloppy; Burma has been in a state of civil war, more or less, since 1948, and it has been ruled by the military as an overtly totalitarian state since the 1980’s.

    I’ve been trying to get a handle on what Burma is — it’s quite difficult really. It brings into question how to define any country really; we call our country America, ignoring the fact that we are not the only nation in the Americas. We call ourselves Americans, while the indigenous peoples of the Americas never chose ‘America’ as a name or chose the way of life embodied in our mostly European derived governance. Burma has a problem with its name, and with the governance that the name represents; beginning in 1824, Britain fought three bloody and expensive wars shaping a territory known as Burma and absorbing it into its Indian Empire.

    The strongest political force in the Irrawaddy River valley region during the early 1800’s was the Kongbaung dynasty, which had fought at different times with China and Siam (Thailand) to create pretty much the borders as they stand today to the South and West. To the East they had to contend with British India which eventually would swallow them up. A quick look at the layout of the country is informative, especially with an eye out towards language. The Irrawaddy River is obviously the most important dynamic in a discussion of Burma, it begins up in the glaciers of the Himalayas, up in the North. Midway down out of the mountains the river has been joined by most of its major tributaries; here, the main city is Mandalay and from this region the Irrawady flows down to the lowland delta around the capitol city Rangoon. This stretch from Mandalay to Rangoon, or in the modern parlance — Yangon, is the area populated by the Bamar people, who speak the language we refer to as Burmese and dominate the politics of the country once called Burma, renamed Myanmar in 1989.

    Renaming their country Myanmar was a move on the part of the military junta to make a split with the British colonial past, but as well, it was an attempt to try and be more inclusive of the non-Bamar ethnicities who have been resisting Burmese rule for half a century: ‘Myanmar’ is derived from a literary name for the region that dates back to long before the British Empire, back around 1200 AD. Many refuse to use the term Myanmar because they feel it gives legitimacy to the current military rule, plus many others point out that Myanmar is still a Bamar term and does nothing to resolve the problems of the many ethnic minorities who feel cheated of any chance at self-determination within the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. While the Irrawaddy midlands and delta are controlled by the mainly Bamar military government, control becomes a thorny issue with the many minority peoples vying for self-determination in the hills all along the river valley and uplands. Historically, many of these peoples have struggled against Bamar domination even before the British colonial era, and continue to do so today.

    The overarching discussion I find myself harping on over and over again in these articles is: how can I root for the underdog if I can’t decide who has a right to that title? The events remembered on Burmese Martyr’s Day highlight that most crippling ambiguity inherent in studying history, politics and human behavior in general: terrorists are freedom fighters, every tyrant is a hero to someone, and vice versa — one man’s underdog is a despicable bully to someone else. Diving right into the matter, let’s play Good Guy/ Bad Guy…

    Aung San, leader of the Burmese Independence Army as well as the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League was born in 1915. By this time the British had ruled Burma outright for 20 years, after six decades before that of wars fought to gain control of the country. So the British were the Bad Guys. During the first few decades of Aung Sun’s life, resistance to British rule became more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than just easily-suppressed bursts of violence in the backwaters. A generation of Burmese scholars educated abroad began to organize and educate. In the thirties, a group of students began to call themselves ‘thakin’ — a Burmese term that essentially means ‘master,’ a term the British had come to expect to be addressed as. Aung San joined these upstart ‘thakins’ and the 1930’s were a tumultuous time of protests and politicking — Aung San became a founding member and the first secretary general of the Communist Party of Burma. The British decided to separate the governance of Burma from that of British India, giving Burma a constitution and also allowing for an elected administrative body of Burmese. Among the first prime ministers of this nominally democratic British Burma was a man named U Saw.

    Meanwhile, an undisputed Bad Guy of Bad Guys appears on the horizon — over hills and mountains, and Hitler is his name. The mid-thirties also began a war between China and Japan, Japan being the aggressor and all around Bad Guy. Well, what is Britain to do? It doesn’t take too long for Britain to suddenly take on the aspect of plucky little underdog as the Axis powers roll all over continental Europe. The colonized peoples of Asia however are not so sure about this turn of events. The Bad Guy of my Bad Guy is my Good Guy, right? In 1941, U Saw, the Burmese prime minister, was arrested and carted off to Uganda by the Brits for making overtures to the Japanese. Aung San and a good number of his thakin compatriots fled Burma as the British were particularly twitchy about any rebellious activity during wartime; they were on route to seek help from China when they were intercepted by Japanese agents who whisked them away to Hainan island for special insurgency training. Thus was born the Burmese Independence Army, supplied and abetted by the Japanese.

    The Japanese attacked British-held Burma on the same day as their attack on Pearl Harbor, December 11, 1941. To many South East Asians the ease with which Japan swept aside the European colonial powers was thrilling; that the Japanese, fellow Asians, were able to demonstrate such strength and power was at first a vindication of the long-abused spirit of Asian peoples. Unfortunately the nationalist fervor that had propelled the Japanese to such feats of self-empowerment were not particularly inclusive — Imperial Japan was at heart deeply racist, and the atrocities they committed across Asia eventually galvanized numerous resistance movements; to a large extent the massive support for the Communist Party in China can be seen as an extension of a grassroots upsurge of resistance to the Japanese invasion. In Burma, a Burmese resistance fighter was quoted as saying ‘if the British sucked our blood, the Japanese ground our bones.’ By 1945 Aung San had turned coat and thrown his lot in with the British — the Burmese Independence Army began a revolt against the Japanese.

    World War II pretty much bankrupted Britain completely. The USA and the USSR had come out as the new world superpowers and had essentially carved up a good deal of the world into dependencies. The Labour Party came to power in England promoting plans to disengage with the majority of Britain’s colonial empire; other than Conservative Party stalwarts — among them Winston Churchill — most Britons did not see the point in expending more money and manpower bringing their colonial possessions to heel. None of the transitions to independence in South Asia were particularly graceful, Indonesia and Indochina declared independence from their Dutch and French overlords and the struggles that ensued were miserable messy disasters that bloodied the hands of many, including eventually the USA.

    Over and over, throughout the former colonies, power struggles came to the surface that demonstrated how artificial and arbitrary the borders of the colonies had been. British rule in India had often played different ethnicities off of each other in order to maintain control from the top, in 1947 the decision was made, attendant on Indian independence to partition the region into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. The results were horrendous — thousands were killed in the rioting that ensued as Hindus and Muslims raced to their new homelands. Next door in Burma a situation was brewing that in that same year would leave Aung San ripped apart by machine gunfire and Burma caught with almost no chance for democratic reconciliation between the various ethnicities living in an independent Burma.

    Winston Churchill referred to Aung San as a “traitor rebel leader of a quisling army,” and the former Governor of Burma Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith was ready to arrest him for war crimes committed during his stint as a Japanese collaborator. Indeed, Governor Dorman-Smith, who returned during the short period of British rule after the Japanese were expelled, brought back his friend, former Prime Minister U Saw, grooming him to be Prime Minister a complicit not-quite-so independent Burma. Dorman-Smith was also a supporter of a ‘two Burma’ solution that would have essentially created a partition between Upper Burma and Lower Burma; Aung San however had helped organize a modestly diverse coalition from amongst the minority communities in preparation for a full and inclusive independent Burmese Government. And many feel that when gunmen loyal to U Saw, using weapons provided by provocateurs within the British military, murdered Aung San and his prospective cabinet that that had been the last and only chance Burma was going to get in building a peaceful democratic future. Almost immediately, civil unrest began in earnest, a ‘kaleidescope of insurgencies’ that resulted in 60,000 dead just in the first two years after independence.

    There were so many guns, and so many men used to fighting by the time the British left. The Communists were the first to rebel, splitting away from the mainstream Burmese administration and setting up camp in rural areas. They still had the weapons they had used as part of the Japanese led freedom-fighting days, and soon gained support from Communist China up in the hills near the border. The British, as far back as the Anglo-Burmese Wars of the 1800’s, had developed a policy of arming various ethnic minorities to act as colonial troops and police, pitting them against the Bamar majority. This had intensified during World War II, Britain armed the ethnic Karens with the idea that they would fight both the Japanese and the BIA in order to defend a promised Karen State. After the Communists broke with the new Burmese government the Karens were next to rebel. And since independence, the civil war just keeps on and on: multiple insurgencies in support of, at the very least, 22 distinct ethnic minorities have arisen, supplied with money and guns from all sorts of shifting political entities. The drug trade continues to be a major force in these conflicts, the CIA having gotten into the opium business to fund its anti-communist operations during the Vietnam era; back in 1948 yearly opium production in Burma was about 30 tons, by the end of the twentieth century that figure was more like 2500 tons and the Burmese military is now quite complicit, profiting in the production and trafficking of not only opium but now methamphetamine as well.

     
  8. On July 10th, 2000, at least 300 Nigerians were killed in an oil pipeline explosion. The pipeline had apparently been leaking for at least a week before the oil caught fire. Villagers had gathered to collect oil at the rupture site and a large proportion of the dead were apparently school-age children. Scavenged oil is used for cooking fuel and is sold on the black market. Generally when a leaking pipeline explodes, Nigerian officials blame local villagers; in this instance the Lagos Health Commisioner was quoted as saying: “anywhere you have a pipeline in this country, you have this problem because people are greedy and they want quick money.” Of course, one might try that statement out on the government officials and oil barons who are raking in quite a bit of quick money while the majority of Nigerians remain poor enough to want to go scooping incredibly flammable petrol out of the river.

    Critics on the left settle the blame solidly on the corrupt government officials and the businessmen who can’t be bothered shelling out a portion of their huge profits to keep the pipelines in good condition. Observers siding with the state say the poor people living near the pipelines are vandals, scavengers and criminals. Foreign petroleum industry workers are routinely kidnapped in Nigeria, and apparently the government and oil companies do pay out extortion money to protect their assets from sabotage. The inequality is what we have to look at here, the vast gulf between what it means to be well-off in Nigeria and what it means to be poor.

    And that disparity is exaggerated even more when we look at the petroleum economy on a global scale. I know that plenty of folks are hungry in the United States right now, but at nowhere near the rate that people are hungry in Nigeria. Nigeria has the largest population of any African country, and because of its oil wealth, those who can afford to can import food from Nigeria’s neighbors, often generating hunger in the countries around Nigeria as governments sell off their crops for petrodollars. In a ranking of 102 countries worldwide — a ‘global food security index’ that rates access and availability of food, nutritional standards as well as government investment and involvement in these areas — Nigeria ranked 87th, lower than many of its smaller neighbors. Feeding the most vulnerable of its people seems to take a backseat to exploiting its oil wealth as far as the Nigerian government goes, and this brings me now to a rather sudden shift in focus.

    I saw the new Transformers movie a couple days ago, Transformers: Age of Extinction. Why? Because I’m an American, and being as we Americans just ate a bunch of food and blew off a bunch of fireworks celebrating our independence, it seemed appropriate. I won’t try to convince you that I went thinking the movie would be any good. I went specifically to stare in awe and horror as America displayed its utter disinterest in making anyone’s lives better with our staggering wealth and technology. Wealth, technology and leisure time all based on the subordination of people all around the world — hey Nigeria!, give us petroleum so we can watch giant robots that turn into cars blow up things in surround sound. I wonder what it sounds like when a rusty old oil pipeline explodes on the outskirts of your town. I wonder if anyone would come see a movie about the massive environmental degradation and misery caused in the Niger Delta region by the oil industry.

    I grew up watching Transformers cartoons, playing with the toys, back in the 1980’s. The early 80’s marked the rollback of legislation that resisted product placement in TV aimed at children, resulting in a frenzy of kid’s shows that were in essence toy commercials. It’s odd to have television writers, directors, artists employed in essentially telling kids how to play with toys — no need for imagination when your toys come with readymade voices, backstory and plots. How do kids in Nigeria know how to play, without a television-toy industry giving them that vital guidance? Or is there time for playing when you’re so busy collecting leaked gasoline to sell for food?

    Nigeria now has the second largest movie industry in the world. Hollywood may rake in more money than anybody else, but India makes the most movies per year. Centered in Bombay, we call India’s movie making industry ‘Bollywood,’ and thus Nigeria’s movie industry gets called ‘Nollywood.’ Nigerian directors are out there using digital video for a primarily home entertainment market, making more than 500 feature films a year (possibly more like twice that many). Hollywood lately seems to be trying to capture a little bit of that ‘indie’ clout — how odd to see expensive films trying to use a hand-held camera aesthetic — but in general what we see a lot of are these expensive rehashes of old 80’s shows.

    I’d love to point to a graph at this point that somehow demonstrated the foundering of the American imagination in an inverse proportion to the level of leisure time and comfort enabled by our control of world petroleum resources, with a side chart mapping the strength and vibrancy of the imaginations of people raised in the shadow of our dominance. Of course imagination is not a measurable quantity. I don’t feel like the quality of my imagination was dulled any, despite the time I spent watching crappy 80’s cartoon shows. I’m sure a gigantic proportion of Nollywood films are just as vapid and thoughtless as any current US products. But I will always respect the underdog, and I’d much rather watch a movie based on events affecting the lives of real people than a series of expensive explosions brought on by robots disguised as cars.

    This week I made music for a pretend Nollywood movie, where cars that turn into robots come from outer space to burn and consume and generally foul up the Niger Delta region and are repulsed by the ancestral gods of the Yoruba people. I’m ready with the music anytime anyone wants to make that movie.

     
  9. Pretty Green Things — Beacon Heights, off the Blue Ridge Parkway, right across from Grandfather Mountain.

     
  10. Thanks to the town of Marion, for having a parade, & thus blocking streets to traffic so I could stumble backwards out into the road to take pictures — on the 4th o’ July.  And yes, there are no photos of the parade, just of the marvelous downtown.