Reading David Quammen is like opening Pandora’s box. The trick is to keep the lid up long enough to get to the bottom. I’ve just finished “Song of the Dodo,” which is his early (and long) book about extinction, particularly due to isolated and extinguished populations, as on islands. Scary stuff. Rats rule.
Nationally it's a terrifying time. Paul Krugman says the war on poverty has shifted into being a war on the poor. I see that. Stigmatizing people is a basic human (possibly mammal) strategy justifying extermination, but wealth has always been an effective defense. For people who have no wealth, there is no defense except compassion, which is basically extortion, and as many remark, we're about exhausted on that front. Justice is a lost concept. Pigs are the man.
The factor that is ignored by Republicans and others is connectedness. The Washington lawyers are so absorbed in playing their games that they do not see that a welfare mother in the deep South is actually connected to them and that if they let all the Alaskan villages sink into the sea due to global warming, they will drown as well. Because government operates on trust and benefit to the whole, the order that comes of it is VOLUNTARY. Without consent it's the end of the nation and the end of the nation is the end of politicians. But politics played by withholding consent means our representatives are only obstacles, which we don’t need and don’t want.
At the moment human beings are more connected than they ever have been, mostly because of little gizmos like cheap cell phones and transistor radios. I cherish the image of the Vietnamese peasant planting rice while singing along with the little radio in his pocket or slung around his neck. I love the idea of the African “apron woman” whose wealth is her cell phone in her apron pocket: she is a walking phone booth. These are not the playthings of the middle class -- the four-foot-across blu-ray flat screens with every chair pointed at it while people watch plane crashes, shooting incidents, and the hatching of bot flies.
But as soon as someone realizes that whoever controls the power sources and the tower/satellite infrastructure and the huge data centers that support the “cloud,” then that person will control the masses. That “person” is not going to be human, but rather a “pretend” metaphor: a corporation. Nor can it be regulated by a nation because -- difficult as boundaries surveyed on the surface of the planet can be -- the ones based on solar and wind power and motivated by individuals connected by self-generated affinities and services will be FAR more difficult to control or even detect.
As soon as something is stigmatized -- whether booze, sex or intellectual defiance -- it goes underground where -- like the mycelia of mushrooms -- the connections proliferate and provide nourishment. The attack on them might be carpet-bombing with poisonous molecules, like whatever it is that the loggers are spraying on their deadfall trash that makes the elks’ feet rot or the known substance that Syria used on dissenters. The trouble is that it’s uncontrollable. Bear spray only works if it's pointed at the bear and the wind is right. I was always impressed by Paul Fussell’s insight that the criminal, the insane, the wealthy and the powerful share the characteristic of being sequestered, living in an unreal and narrowly delineated world. A teakettle world. Vulnerable to in-breeding. Pot bound.
Recently I’ve been attending “talks” at the Blackfeet Community College. I don’t normally get out much, except in terms of books and google-stuff, which is enough of a chore to digest, but listening to the grandchildren of people I once taught, now much more like each other since whites have pretty much left but with a strong influence from south of the US border, I see what the reservation has created: ironically, a precariously middle class sort of people with similar faces, driving big pickups. The talks are, presumably, in preparation for a certificate-granting course of study that will prepare mental health emergency responders. An alternative to cops. People who do what powerful aunts and grannies used to address: freakouts, despair, violence, getting stuck, neglect. We can’t just put everyone in jail. This is where the action is -- NOT with politicians who are unwise in their choice of watering-holes.
But there is a possibly demonic side to it, slipping from the war on suffering to an attack on those who suffer. I live next door to a conservative right-wing church whose minister is determined to get me under control for his own purposes. He sends his little wife and she shepherds little girls to my door with gifts: homemade jam and art projects, a photo of the family enjoying a Hawaiian vacation and all making the sign language for “Love”. (Remarkably similar to the sign for a cell phone.) How he mistakes me. How people mistake Indians. How we all mistake poor people. Even Krugman.
The problem with helping the poor is in the “helping” part. Easy to be poor, hard to know how to respond to their variousness. More than any food bank (vital as those are) what counts is paying attention: listening and understanding. The understanding part can detect patterns of dormancy, like all those little frogs who are hidden in the ground until one day it rains -- then they are singing their song everywhere.
But maybe the “poor” are not all one blob and maybe they are not impoverished at all. Maybe the guy in the suit in the limo in the power center is the impoverished one. The alternative media are always making a case for it -- the person who has everything, except his or her self. It’s Dark versus Shepard. Which one has the wealth? What IS wealth? In a world where the Pope dares to ask his parish priests just how many of their parishioners are quietly practicing birth control, the next scary question might be “what shall we do about it in a world that’s too crowded?” According to the rules, they should all be excommunicated -- then, because there would be so few people left, there would be enough priests at last. No more pressure to ordain women and husbands.
Seems to me that wealth has something to do with reality, though it is usually described in terms of the ephemeral and theoretical -- just marks, iou’s, tricky bookkeeping on a page where the columns are always swapping sides, going far beyond double-entry bookkeeping into roulette with a fixed wheel, the dealer operating a lever with his foot under the table. All you win is plastic markers, little more than tiddlywinks.
The opposite of species extinction is the creation of new species, which normally happens among sequestered but dynamic populations, a condition not common these days of interdiction, parceling, dead zones. But human evolution, though it happens right in the midst of all the other species, is NOT about a species. Speciation is only the code changes that happen in the genome, drastic enough to prevent cross-fertilization between two variations. Human evolution is cultural, through the “cultureome” -- the memes. They can change fast and even by flipping to the opposite overnight. They can be stochastic: black swans.
We seem to be splitting into the world that H.G. Wells described in a story I read long ago: it was class stuff, of course. Genetically expressed in terms of near-species. Underground thick and brutal people did all the work to support an elegant elfin class of helpless but beautiful people. There was a love affair that crossed the division. May there always be love affairs that cross the division. But, Pandora, be careful with that box of yours.