Thursday, May 15, 1997
Odds and Ends
With its bullying accord with Russia on NATO expansion
the U.S. has finally kissed off Boris Yeltsin. The agreement's "assurance"
that NATO will not move against a near-prostrate Russia provides a sliver
of face-saving for Yeltsin, although keeping him propped up in the cross
hairs of his domestic opposition is no longer cost-effective in the Clinton
Washington realizes that it is Yeltsin's inner circle which must now hold
off the nationalist reaction to the glories of Russian mafia-capitalism
and societal rot -- or not, as the case may be. Madeleine Albright has intimated
that the U.S. must prepare for any eventuality, and it is apparent that
NATO's proposed inclusion of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic is intended
to dampen the possibility of a worst-case scenario in Russia.
These newly garrisoned NATO members (provisioned by the free world's arms
merchants) will constitute a fire wall against spillover from any political
eruptions in Russia, the administration hopes. They are, significantly,
the most stable of the Central and Eastern European countries and, unlike
their less prosperous and more disillusioned regional neighbors (and particularly,
industrious but embittered Eastern Germany), would be less likely to experience
dissension arising out of internal domestic sympathy for Russia's workers
and their own disenchantment with the once-glittering Western European economic
The buffer zone countries of the Cold War are now allegiant to the West,
and Russia is not merely encircled, but penetrated. Free market affluence
in Russia is of course only enjoyed by the criminal elite that had been
elite and criminal prior to its rehabilitation by democracy. The retinues
of these dozen or so ex-commissars who control half the wealth of Russia
will join with current and future NATO invitees in what Clinton envisions
as a "democratic partnership." The success of such a concert depends
on whether or not the Russian Constitution can be amended -- as the Kapitalburo
is presently scheming -- to enable a president to be appointed by the parliament
rather than elected by the people.
The U.S. is aware that, were a fair election to be held, retired general
Aleksandr Lebed's reform movement would win handily. And NATO's expansion
to Russia's borders plays to Lebed's hand as it reminds the Russian populace
of historical NATO corralling of and belligerence toward the former Soviet
state. All of which Washington has taken into account, as well. It appears
that Clinton is anxious to bring these issues to a head, as befits the momentum
of America's global mission and his own wish to be remembered for foreign
policy grandiosity equivalent to that of his predecessors.
Such ham-fisted policy illumines the larger conflict, which centers on finalizing
the structure of the European Economic and Monetary Union in 1999 and establishing
the Euro as the single currency. The economic changes necessary for admission
to the E.M.U. -- set forth at Maastricht in 1991 -- are based upon the German
and American models, with their stringent requirements for acceptable budget
deficits and national debts in order for countries to qualify. The traditional
social benefits enjoyed by European workers have suffered as a consequence,
with the attempt to cut or eliminate public monies for pensions, health
and welfare, and the encouraging of private insurance substitutes. Worker
resistance to the erosion of social gains has intensified over the past
two years and has brought millions into the streets.
Parallels to the era of the earlier NATO presence bear some scrutiny. The
containment of the Soviets also yielded a domestic component in the enclosing
of European workers and political parties of the left. However shortsighted
they may have been, workers looked to Soviet labor as a theoretical guide
to the possibilities for full participation in their own societies. Over
time, their militance won them conditions similar to the social democratic
policies of the Scandinavian countries.
The attempt to reverse these gains is synchronous with the newly revitalized
NATO posture. The wispy armchair warriors who plot the graphs of American
foreign policy foresee the prospect of a Lebed triumph and have charted
its possible consequences. Foremost is the likelihood of some recentralization
of the Russian economy and rigorous monitoring of infusions of outside capital
and the selling of Russian state properties by its ex-apparatchiks. The
cohesion of ordinary Russians around these reforms will induce movement
toward reclaiming their lost web of safety net guarantees. The tumult --
and it will be exactly that -- will reverberate throughout all corners of
Europe, necessarily targeting capital's currently rampant influence. The
planned NATO expansion is a prospectus for siphoning off any shock waves
rippling into Central and Eastern Europe, while Western Europe's take-backs
of benefits serves as a pointed confirmation to its labor force of the assumption
that the old vision of a society run by the people who do its work has been
consigned to the ashbin of history.
* * *
Speaking of unwarranted responses (as Joe Bob Briggs
would say), the reaction to the Jack Davis birthday party is a bit puzzling.
The promotion of an amateurishly conceived stadium proposal is facilitated
(I'd normally not get within an ass's roar of this word) by a demonstration
of the sophomoric fare available on local access cable. Bad politics and
worse art -- side by side, San Francisco to the core. We get reamed by this
diversity of expression all the time, and indeed extol it as a mark of our
uniqueness. Our tourist trade thrives on such notoriety. All of which is
the point of today's homily, brothers and sisters: the reminder that, in
life's key moments, you avert your eyes from everything but the money. Because
after the transaction is complete, you'll be best aroused by who's on top
and who's on the bottom.
--Copyright John Hutchison 1997
When Myth Becomes Reality
The painter Mayumi Oda is haunted by a recurring vision
of the Tibetan goddess Dakini. Glowing with the heat of a passion transmuted
into compassion, this great and terrible deity wears a string of fifty skulls
around her neck; her right hand brandishes a razor-like curved knife. According
to legend, Dakini's appearance before a person presages a dreadful transmogrification:
the top sliced off, her victim's skull becomes a gaping cauldron, into which
she crams the rest of the body. This sacrificial stew -- truly the essence
of all that the person has experienced -- is served up for the sake of all
who lived and suffered in the past.
For Oda, who makes her home in Muir Beach, California, seeing goddesses
is nothing new. A small woman with a frequently impish grin and long dark
hair like that of the women she paints, she has devoted much of her career
to expressing "the strength and vitality of the female" by depicting
women as mythic (male or female) figures. But the whimsy of her previous
works often took the bombast out of traditionally frightening personages.
In one silkscreen print, for example, the angry wind god who customarily
guards the entrance to Japanese temples metamorphosed into a young woman
in red and purple bloomers, dancing from cloud to cloud.
Dakini is different. Dakini is fierce and uncompromising, demanding total
devotion. The change occurred, Oda says, during the Gulf War, when she stared
at her television set in horror as U.S. planes bombed Iraq. Perhaps she,
like Fusako deAngelis, another Bay Area resident from Japan, was reliving
the World War II firebombing of her native Tokyo. In any case, Oda began
to work obsessively on two paintings: one, a nurturing image, of the Chinese
goddess who guards the magical peaches of immortality; the other, a remarkably
disturbing one, of a full-breasted maternal figure, nailed to a cross. Then
she stopped painting and went to Japan.
There the horror continued, although more subtly. She discovered that the
country which defined itself by its unique role as an A-bomb victim had
become nuclearized. Uncomfortably aware of its dependence on foreign energy
sources, Japan had silently committed itself in the 1950s to developing
a completely self-sufficient cycle of nuclear power generation -- everything
from uranium mining to waste disposal. The government allotted 93 percent
of its ample energy budget for nuclear research and development, and by
the 1990s there were 49 commercial reactors operating in an area the size
of California. In a program that prided itself on its concern for safety,
their placement often seemed oddly ill-conceived. The "Nuclear Ginza"
of Wakasa Bay, where 15 power plants are concentrated, is separated from
the ancient capital of Kyoto, some 37 miles away, by Lake Biwa, which provides
water for 8 million people. Nearby, too, are earthquake fault lines, and
the town of Monju, the site of Japan's prototype fast-breeder reactor, sits
about half a mile from an active fault.
At the core of the reactor lurks a ton and a half of plutonium (the bomb
dropped by the United States on Nagasaki contained less than twenty pounds).
This radioactive element, a silvery metal produced almost entirely by nuclear
reactors and laboratories, is appropriately named. Pluto, the Greek god
of wealth who controls the earth's cache of subterranean precious metals,
also rules the realm of the dead. His namesake, used primarily in nuclear
reactors and nuclear weapons, offers up great wealth to electric companies
(11 of the 15 plants near Wakasa Bay are owned by Kansai Electric) and arms
merchants. Its potential for destruction is equally great: minute quantities
of plutonium in wounds can produce skin cancer; inhaled particles of plutonium
oxide can cause lung cancer; ingested plutonium, which seeks out bony tissue,
can cause bone cancer. (In the United States, retaliation against Karen
Silkwood for accusing Kerr-McGee of making defective plutonium fuel rods
took the form of placing plutonium compounds in her house where she would
eat and breathe them.) This was the substance that Japan was stockpiling
at an alarming rate.
Oda looked for signs that someone in authority was aware of the danger,
but officials in the Japanese and the American governments seemed oblivious,
if not actively implicated. She discovered, however, that women in both
countries were willing to turn themselves into "wrathful mothers"
(as Oda called herself in a recent UC San Francisco talk) willing to challenge
the "nuclear patriarchy." Back in the United States, she met Claire
Greensfelder, who had begun antinuclear work after the accident at Three-Mile
Island caused her to fear for the future of the Chicago inner-city children
she was working with. The two women and others, Japanese and American, established
Plutonium Free Future, based in Berkeley, and quickly joined similar-minded people
in attacking the production and use of plutonium throughout the world.
Dakini has directed her passion toward a new, powerful opponent, one nearly
impossible to destroy. Once created, Plutonium 239, the most commonly used
isotope, with a half-life of 24,000 years, is here to stay. And so the goddess
has become a guardian, perpetually bound to the force in her custody. The
Munich psychoanalyst Thea Bauriedl, who has written about the psychological
effects of living in a nuclear age, sees this as a healthy transformation:
only by continued consciousness of the dangerous element in our midst, by
integrating its destructive potential into our daily lives, can we free
ourselves from the paralyzing guilt of having created it.
Is all this talk of goddesses merely New Age babble? Far from it. The reinterpretation
of ancient myths in modern contexts -- which is also found in contemporary
ecology-based poetry -- enables us to make sense of the chaotic world around
us and makes real the life-and-death struggle in which we are engaged. It
simultaneously forges links to the past and opens up paths to the future.
In another adaptation, Mayuma Oda presents the image of the treasure ship,
which the people of Edo several centuries ago placed under their pillows
at New Year's in the hope of realizing their dreams. Her most recent version
shows a boat laden with all the fruits and animals of the world. The goddess
Benten straddles the bow, an ever-vigilant owl perched on her head and a
round, healthy earth held securely in her lap.
--Copyright Betsey Culp 1997