Thursday, July 18, 2013

Book reviews

Surviving Tigers, Imaging Cougars

Summer readings on nature and fantasy

Ever since summer camping became a part of the calendar, many children around here have the great experience of leaving home for a week or two, or even for the whole summer, to get to see nature up close. A favorite destination for some has been the century-old camps of Algonquin Park: At Pathfinder, Tanamakoon, Northway, and others, kids from about age eight through high school sleep on cots in platform tents or in rustic dormitories, eat meals and wash up in log mess halls, learn how to paddle and portage canoes, roll kayaks, start campfires, exist without electronics, write letters longhand, negotiate with older kids. Above all, they learn about nature. Sunset becomes a meaningful event, because the only light is the battery-powered thing that helps you to the outhouse. Loons cry, owls hoot, and wolves yip and howl. The forests are dark, and in August, when the cold of the north starts to show itself, it’s definitely time to come back to warmth, the normalness of school and of the built environment.
Any parent sending a tween or teen to camp this summer should send that wilderness-bound camper equipped with two books: one to challenge the kid’s understanding of the human impact on the North American forest, and one to scare the bejesus out of him or her.
Scary first. Canadian journalist John Vaillant’s Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival is a very fine piece of work that will disrupt the romanticism of anybody who likes the idea of camping where big predators are a part of the natural order. Just an hour’s drive from Buffalo is Allegany Park, home to 200-pound black bears that sometimes range all the way to East Aurora to raid chicken coops and apiaries and berry-patches. Some young people I know well did once and still do get enthusiastic about wolf packs hunting moose not even three hours’ drive from the Toronto Science Center, right near where we typically rent the canoes, just the next pond over. Vaillant’s book is about a creature that lives in snowy northern forests on the easternmost part of Russia where the woods meet the Pacific Ocean, just north of China and North Korea in a region even more remote than Siberia, an apex predator that eats deer and wild pigs, but that also kills and eats wolves, and bears, and hunting dogs, and armed men.
We live in a part of North America that was once part of the range of the cougar, the big tan cat that has re-established its range out West, that attacks joggers in California and eats dogs in suburban Boulder, California.Nation du chat, cat people, is the term French translated as the self-designation of the Iroquoian-speaking people who lived here until their conquest and absorption by the Senecas in 1651; the reference was not to bobcats or to lynx but to cougars. The Ontario Puma Foundation publishes a map of reliable sightings and other evidence of a re-established population of cougars everywhere from the cross-border suburbs of Detroit through the émigré Scottish-farmer flatlands of the Ottawa, Thames, and Grand River valleys to the easternmost part of the Niagara Peninsula, i.e., the woods and fields just inland from where much of Buffalo goes to the beach. The Bruce Trail, which is a belt of green that connects Georgian Bay straight south to Hamilton and then east along the Niagara Escarpment to the Niagara River right near the Butterfly Conservancy, may be the corridor for migration for breeding populations of cougars now resident in the American and Canadian Midwest. Or maybe we just want to think that they’re here. The Ontario enthusiasts have their counterparts in the Eastern Puma Research Network. There’s also the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, which posts an upbeat masters thesis entitled “Recolonization of the Midwestern United States by Large Carnivores: Habitat Suitability and Human Dimensions,” by Julia Smith, who praises the adaptability of wolves, bears, and mountain lions.
Vaillant’s book about the arduous life-ways of the forest-dwelling people of the forests of Russian Manchuria, and of the tigers who sometimes eat them, is a strong presentation about what inevitably occurs in the native territory of an apex predator. Human-tiger interaction is not happy. It never has been. Vaillant’s focus is on the personalities and the political dimensions of finding the 500-pound beast that stalked and killed and ate a poor hunter named Markov, and then, wounded, starving in winter weather of 30 degrees below zero, stalked (for days!) and killed and ate a very young man just back from a horrible term of military service in Chechnya.
Go to the globe, the part that shows China, the two Koreas, Japan, and Russia: North of the Amur River that forms the border between Russia and China, inland from Vladivostok, are the forests mountains and valleys where about 500 Amur tigers remain, out of a pre-Perestroika population that may have been 20 times as high. Capitalism’s reintroduction to the Russian Far East is a big part of the story here; the heavy hand of the former Soviet state prevented poaching but only after a period of ideologically sanctioned slaughter of tigers, leopards, and other wildlife in that exotic Manchurian landscape, in which very, very poor Russians eke out a subsistence, alongside some few thousand members of indigenous groups for whom tigers are at least totemic and possibly also divine. After the Soviet Union collapsed, and gangster capitalism exploded, so too did tiger-slaughter. The big beasts are sought now by Chinese, who are now rich enough to purchase their heads, penises, dried blood, pelts, and sometimes whole carcasses; the meat’s taste is appreciated, too.
As raw and wild as the Amur tiger’s range still is, the opposite is true in the Americas described Charles Mann in his masterful, challenging summary of recent scholarship on the world of the pre-conquest Native Americans. The book is 1491: New Revelations of the Americans Before Columbus. Most of the surprises that Mann presents consist of the work of archaeologists, paleo-botanists, anthropologists and other scholars of South and Central America, the most counter-intuitive of which concern the shape of the Amazon rain forest. American students of Native Americans tend to focus most on the Northeast, the Plains, and to some extent the American Southwest; working northward from the great empires that were in place when Euro-thugs Pizarro and Cortes arrived, Mann does a great job of connecting lots of disparate information about crops, agriculture, social organization, architecture, and other matters. That’s how he connects the very disturbing stories about the march of horror that swept in and depopulated northern North America so effectively, so swiftly, so very-nearly completely, even before the first waves of European settlers arrived in any numbers.
The politics of writing about Native America have always been front and center in every analysis. First came the triumphalists of the 19th century, typified by Francis Parkman’s books about the French and British conflict. Then came the boots-’n’-saddles histories of the American West, celebrating the victories over the horse-tribes. Then, in the 1960s, the revisionists arrived, with popular histories and celebrations of Native American spirituality, and Francis Jennings’s critique of the triumphalist tone. Who, the revisionists asked, who was the real savage here? To Jennings and his generation, the Europeans were unquestionably the evil-doers—killers, exploiters, despoilers. But then came Henry Dobyns, whose research into the demography of pre-conquest Mexico did two surprising things to the highly angry dispute between conventional historians and revisionists. First, Dobyns read the Spanish-language sources, something that the English-centered scholars, um, forgot. Most important, Dobyns counted.
The native population of the Americas did not decline by one-tenth, as the term “decimated” signifies. The native population of the Americas declined almost entirely to zero, and did so because of disease. The emptied, “widowed” landscape into which wondering Europeans wandered was no wilderness, either. North America wasn’t an Eden: it was very much a cultivated garden, as Mann skillfully collates the results from all the various disciplines of investigators, including wildlife-population specialists, who have a great deal to add to general knowledge about those great masses of protein that Americans nearly and then completely wiped out, the bison, and the passenger pigeon.
’Tis the season of embracing true nature. These books are nature to advantage dressed.
Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at

Monday, July 1, 2013

Considering the Navajo dub of "Star Wars"

Extinction and Traditional Narrative: The Navajo Dub of Star Wars

By Bruce Fisher

            I have nothing much to say about Jurassic Park, except that, as I surfed past it looking for the weather forecast, I understood that Jurassic Park has become traditional literature, as has Superman, Spider-Man, and Star Wars. The messages in the Spielberg movie about dinosaurs are pretty-near universal articles of faith, and much more explicitly so than the message of Frankenstein and even of the other Michael Crichton stories that have been scaring us with the science-run-amok story for the past two hundred years. Science, they all say, runs amok. The understanding of advanced intellects, they say, is nothing compared to the power of nature.
And Jurassic Park says something else: Extinction should be forever. But now, with the news that speakers of the allegedly doomed North American language of the Na-Dene family known as Navajo will translate and dub Star Wars into Navajo, explicitly so that their children will learn and speak Navajo better, the world is getting a new message about power, culture, survival, renewal, and also about the possibilities for traditional narrative. It’s about to be a great day, again, for the ancient and honorable profession of story-telling – and it’s going to be a pretty damned good day for the Navajo language, too.
We in the mundane world of the dominant culture know lots of old stories, but we know them in English. We know lots of stock and well-established characters – in English. We know how the stories turn out in the end, just as if we are all illiterate peasants sitting around a hearth hearing the same old stories we’ve always heard, or hunter-gatherers raised in a traditional pre-literate society sitting around a fire hearing the same old stories they’ve always heard. We know the simple truth of the Jurassic Park parable: science runs amok, and nature overwhelms the works of mere humans. And we know the inspiring, hopeful truth of the Star Wars story, too: small bands of fighters can survive overpowering force.
            The older among us grew up with these instructive moral tales. For Baby Boomers, TV provided the Old Testament epics for holiday viewing, when we were all reliably to be found clustered around the living-room appliance, and those Old Testament epics (did all of them star Charlton Heston?) reinforced the stories that had defined Western culture for 2,000 years. The texts were The Ten Commandments, The Robe, Cleopatra and Ben-Hur, and they were for many years broadcast around the Passover and Easter holidays. Then came the 1990s, when Easter/Passover became the season for replays of the Star Wars films. The Lucas movies were competing texts, offering competition for tradition on the subject of the numinous. In the absence of a national authority that compels that the public airwaves carry repeated showings of genuine, deep-rooted cultural traditions – origin myths, deliverance narratives, the Christ story of divine intervention in human affairs – most families watch that regulated public space that was deeded over to folks who sell whichever texts will attract measurable audiences.
We watched with interest, but also with some sadness, as Generation Millennial came to see holiday-time stories as fungible. Jesus melded with Santa Claus and then with the re-created dinosaurs Jurassic Park, though the tradition did not itself degrade to the point that watching Jurassic Park meant it was time to open presents, nor did the Star Wars suite call us to break the Lenten fast or eat the bitter herbs.
The reintroduction of those origin stories, and of those old tales of national identity and of divine intervention, are left to other kinds of networks – and now, to a new idiom entirely, and for a new purpose: to reinforce the identity of a tiny group (the Navajos are the largest single Native American language group in the USA, but still number only 200,000 or so). There will be dynamism, evolution, and challenge in a North American language that has been losing speakers for the past three decades. And a new narrative, a movie, is the vehicle for a persistence. Wow.
+ + +
When, before the full onset of the iAge, we tried to imagine how narrative worked before there was electronic technology or even technology of printing, we had trouble – because narrative used to be a human production unmediated by tools. Before the personalized public spaces of YouTube were invented; before the market-segmentation strategies of HBO and The Learning Channel and the narrow-cast; before broadcast television; before broadcast radio; before newspapers of general circulation; before the broadsheets and chapbooks and pamphlets of a few large cities of Europe, there were stories.
Yea verily, stories. The stories of great complexity, of genuinely or even of seemingly great antiquity, were the tradition and the traditional practice of those who told them, and of those who heard them. It is those traditional narratives that defined and reinforced group identity.
And in those stories resided power. Stories themselves reshaped maps at the very time when our country was shaping the map of North America. In 1803, when Thomas Jefferson bought Louisiana and sent Lewis and Clark out to redefine those ancient Native North American spaces as new American spaces, there were Europeans setting out to define themselves by collecting and transcribing and redacting traditional narratives – acting as discoverers, and as preservers, too, using the technology of printing to save stories so that people without that technology, the story-tellers themselves, would live beyond their mortal limits.
It would happen, in the 1830s, that the story of Native American cultural distinctiveness, and of its potential extinction, became a part of the European elite narrative that stimulated a cultural preservation movement inside Europe. In 1832, Prince Maximilian of Wied hired the Swiss painter Karl Bodmer and boats and guides and labored up the Missouri River to the Earth Lodge villages of the Mandan. Before his book was published with Bodmer’s watercolors in 1840, the Mandan had been nearly wiped out by a smallpox epidemic. Extinction was a possibility.
The brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm began their career of publishing collections of folk-tales in 1812, adding their version of the Edda in 1815. Irish folklorists were undertaking the same work, gathering Gaelic-language narratives and translating them, in the 1820s. Elias Lonnrot began his work in Finnish-speaking Karelia in 1827, when the rural population there was suffering a radical depopulation. These efforts to save, preserve, and publish carried on for decades – and they were put to use, political use. The map of Europe would be changed by the unlikely political act of collecting and publishing traditional narratives.
Grimm’s “fairy tales” were a part of this story. Boomers’ children know them less well, but Americans of the Boomer generation were deeply imbued with their work, not just because so many Americans are of German descent, but because the folk-tales that the two Grimm brothers collected and published in the 1830s were, in translation, our 1960s bedtime stories. Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella… Walt Disney amplified our bedtime stories, just as Hollywood reiterated what we knew from Sunday school in the big epics starring Charlton Heston, Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Curtis, Laurence Olivier, and that general-utility ancient man, Kirk Douglas.
There wasn’t a “Germany” when the Grimms did their work collecting the traditional narratives of German-speaking peasants. There was the Austrian empire and the Prussian empire. There were two dozen principalities where German-speaking peoples lived. The “nation” that the Grimms helped form did not yet have a single political expression. The enterprise of listening to, and of transcribing and then collating and publishing German folk-tales is credited, or blamed, for having enabled and emerging national consciousness for the Germans.
The poetic and musical story-telling practices of other rural peoples who lived within the boundaries of European empires became of interest because politically-active people, even in the British Empire, found traditional narratives critically important for creating a sense of group identity.
The politics of traditional stories was true identity politics. The British Empire had crushed the Jacobite rebellion and the tribesmen of Scotland in 1745. As the imperial victors, they still had had to cope with that ongoing identity of their subject neighbor. We know how they handled it: the British selectively incorporated the hostile northern natives, with the emphasis on military reorganization of Scottish warrior societies and clans, which is how the kilt-wearing regiments and their war-pipes and their plaids became militarily domesticated. Scottish narratives, however, had a different fate. Thanks to the Anglo-Scottish lawyer-novelist Walter Scott, his modern invented romantic narratives of pre-conquest Scotland were published in mass editions and thus became much more market-accessible to the interested elite, even to the Scottish nationalists, than were Gaelic-language stories, which were remote, and foreign, and which remain exotic. Robert Burns, albeit with verse that required knowledge of a dialect, was an innovator rooted squarely in literary society notwithstanding his traditional subject matter. Traditional narrative was quite useless, or had been superseded, in that famous conquered place, and the conqueror liked his own, modern version of the old stories, and Scots themselves were rewarded for producing the new material in a language that was close enough to the language of the conqueror for the greater British Empire to read. The politics of Scotland had been decided: its national consciousness would not be extended or created through traditional narrative. Its national consciousness, and its traditional narrative, would remain a little, manageable, quaint part of a great, overwhelming, English-speaking empire.
That’s not how it worked in North America. For the most part, demography was destiny for traditional narrative. There are perhaps a few hundred, perhaps only a few dozen, who can understand the annual recitation of the Gaiwi’io in the Mohawk language.  A few thousand understand enough of the L- or D-dialects of Dakota to understand the Sun Dance songs and Inktomi stories, but already at the 1985 Medicine Lodge of the Nakon people near Tabex’a Wakpa in Montana, fewer than 50 people could understand. In Dinetah, the Navajo term for their homeland, there are still monolingual Navajos, but English is otherwise ubiquitous.
                                                + + +
The same day I surfed past “Jurassic Park,” I filched my daughter’s Kalevala.
It had been a good long time since the nameless poets of the Finnish national epic had told of “steadfast old Vainamoinen” and “strong young Lemminkainen” and of the creative blacksmith Ilmarinen, and of all those monsters and battles and intrigues and jealousies and beautiful and tragic, stubborn and suicidal maidens, and done so in free verse, episode after episode.
A copy of the Kalevala had been a Christmas present to one of the children – the one who is off, now, again, in Scandanavia doing more of this stuff. The edition was Francis Peabody Magoun’s translation from the Finnish original that a Swede named Elias Lönnrot had compiled in the 1830s. As a college student, I had stumbled upon the story of a young man from the big city who had put on his cross-country skis and traveled far into the hinterland, to isolated farms and hamlets, and there had seen an ancient tradition alive – ancient in the 1830s, when our American ancestors had been figuring out their own national identity. The amateur philologist Elias Lönnrot had taken notes at the isolated farms he’d visited as a public-health doctor, literally skiing to his patients. He’d made longhand transcriptions of the oral poetry of illiterate story-tellers who had performed their narratives in a strictly structured poetic manner, composing their texts without benefit of reference to any written text. My kid’s paperback edition contains the same strange photographs I had seen when I was in school, of pairs of middle-aged and older bearded men – photographs taken when photography itself was new, and when the specific tradition of the illiterate Finnish narrative poets of that northwestern-most part of what was then the Russian Empire was old, very very old, almost dead, threatened with extinction because of the ravages of communicable diseases that the physician Lonnrott was without drugs to treat. The pictures are of pairs of men seated together outside of the cabins and farmhouses, poor subsistence-farmer abodes, where they were to perform, or had just performed, the songs, sometimes performed with accompaniment from a kantele, a wire harp like a zither that neo-folkloric Finnish metal-heads now use, too. The songs were narratives, stories, in which first the lead singer would describe a scene or an action or introduce a character in a phrase, and then the partner would, in a rejoinder phrase, never two, repeat or extend the action or amplify the attribute of the character just mentioned, all the while facing the lead singer, holding the lead singer’s hands, and both of them following what for them were the normal rules or conventions of poetic construction, rocking back and forth, with the audience gathered around them, listening in as best they could from only inches away.
The Harvard professor Francis Peabody Magoun, building on the work of the tragic adventurer-scholar Milman Parry and of Parry’s graduate assistant Albert Bates Lord, developed Parry’s radical idea: that the songs of the blind poet Homer, those huge narratives, were built the same way that the old Finns’ narratives had been built: with rules or conventions of poetic construction Parry called “formulas.” Parry died in 1935. Lord and Magoun outlived him by decades; Magoun wrote scholarly articles about “oral-formulaic poetry,” and translated the Kalevala, and enjoyed a productive career in great esteem, all building on the work of a guy who began investigating Homer but who seems wholly Indiana Jones. I don’t know if Milman Parry had a bull-whip, but in the photographs, he sure did have a broad hat, and he sure did go deep into what for Americans was an exotic and faraway place – not Finland, not the Upper Missouri River where Prince Maximilian and Karl Bodmer and their American contemporary George Catlin went, and not to Navajo country, but to exotic, far-distant Yugoslavia. This 30-year-old American went in 1933 to a “new” place, a new country, the place that had just been liberated from the rule of the just-dismembered Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. He went through and past the big cities of Belgrade, Zagreb, and Sarajevo, past Mostar, to the tiny villages and hamlets of Bosnia. The European ferment of identity-seeking was still in full bubble: not far north and east, at the very same time, musicologists and composers including Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly were visiting Hungarian-speaking villagers in the Transylvania region of Romania, collecting indigenous folk music from people whose identities for a thousand years had been Magyar, but whose citizenship had just recently changed because of cataclysmic politics – politics, and nation-creating, and nation-destroying, that would get unimaginably uglier  within only a decade.
But these boys were scholars. They weren’t polticians or operatives of great imperial powers. They were, like students today who are looking for deep-rooted, genuine cultural expressions, thinking about things ancient.
The burning question for them: Had Homer been an oral poet, using the ancient traditions of composition and of pre-literate literary form to create stories that lived as long as his unrecorded performances? Or had Homer been a writer like Robert Burns, relying on tradition, translating it into a poetic idiom, but, from the first, a writer, saving his performances using the precursor of the technology we use today?
Parry in particular believed that the recurrence of formulae – of those repeated phrases like “the wine-dark sea” in Homer’s verse – were evidence of old performances. Parry thought that what he and his young protégé Lord encountered when they travelled around in rural Bosnia, and when they attended the performances of illiterate “singers of tales” in taverns and coffeehouses, was an echo, a survival, a contemporary 1930s version of what Homer himself had done. Old Bosnian men, without benefit of a written text, would perform rhythmic, poetic epics on historical subjects just as Homer had, and just as the Finns whom Elias Lonrott had heard, and that these old men were adhering in their performances to strict conventions in how the story is told, utilizing formulae – in Bosnia, accompanying themselves on their one-string violin called a gusls, and thus carrying on the ancient tradition and the ancient stories and the ancient text-less texts – but ever, like poetry-slam poets today, like improvisers today, creating anew.
Magoun, the translator of Lönnrot’s Kalevala, entered this conversation with Parry and, after Parry died, with Lord, and noted that something similar must have happened in a text he knew and that many more of us now know, called Beowulf.  Magoun spotted such tricks or techniques as the old exotic singers from Finland had used in the poems of Kalevala. Magoun wrote a very controversial article entitled “The Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” in which he argued that the great epic narrative that inspired J.R.R Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series was composed by somebody who practiced, knew and wholly embraced the rules and conventions of the illiterate Finnish-speaking peasants of Russia’s northwest frontier, those being the same rules and conventions of the illiterate Serbo-Croatian-speaking peasants of Yugoslavia’s isolated Bosnian region – except that the Beowulf poet had done it a thousand years earlier than today and a thousand years after Homer, in another language and for a very different nation far, far from either Finland or Yugoslavia or Greece or Hollywood.
Magoun published his article about Beowulf before he published his translation of Kalevala. But Magoun’s fellow scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature, the soon-to-be-famous J.R.R. Tolkein, also wrote a scholarly article about Beowulf, entitled “Beowulf and the Monsters,” all about Grendel and the dragon and such. Tolkein was interested in the symbols; Magoun was interested in the mechanics, the techniques, the how of transmitting stories of great antiquity from person to person, from generation to generation, in scattered communities of illiterate farmers, fishers and herders who, if they’d formed no national group for most of the centuries of their existence as a people, had yet formed a community of the knowledgeable.
And this is the connection to our own mass, folk, un-lettered, un-schooled, wholly vernacular understanding of shared stories.
                                    + + +
Everybody over the age of six in America today knows the Star Wars story, of valiant heroes prevailing against big bad guys, and special divine favor – the Force – empowering the virtuous twins.  Perhaps we know the Jurassic Park story even better. It’s the Frankenstein story, and the story of all those other Michael Crichton books, and of lots of science fiction: science runs amok. Everybody knows that story.
As for the Kalevala, everybody in that group of peasants in the Finnish-speaking part of the northwestern corner of the old Russian Empire in Elias Lönnrot’s time almost two hundred years ago knew the Kalevala stories. They knew about the old man Vainamoinen who wanted to get married, and they knew that his mother was the sky spirit who’d carried him in her belly for thirty-some years before birthing him – and folks knew what that story meant. Everybody up there in the region they still call Karelia knew as well the character of the young black-bearded Lemminkainen, who was so angry at not having been invited to a wedding party at a place called North Farm that he crashed the place after the event, and then demanded food and drink and then, in his rage at having missed all the doings and all the dancing with all the young women he hadn’t been invited to dance with, they knew the ugly outcome of that story –- that he’d committed a murder out of rage at having been excluded. And folks there knew about how the widow subsequently sang some songs and that her singing brought an army into existence to avenge her lost man. Just as we know about the Ewoks in Star Wars and the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, everybody in that tiny, scattered ethnic group of folks who spoke more or less the same Finnish language knew about the minor Kalevala characters as well – about Ilmarinen, who’d  made a sort of hand-cranked grinding device that magically produced salt, flour and money, all three; about various goddesses and crones and virgins, and about various magical objects like sleds and spears and swords, and various magical fish and bears, wolves and birds and snakes, and various places and districts, in which various magical acts were commonplace, such as the ability to “sing” armies into existence the way that that widow had done after Lemminkainen had killed her man. These listeners to the songs that those pairs of singers sang, before writing and tape recorders and MP3s, knew these stories, and accepted the notion that a character could compose songs, chants, poems or narratives that actually would enchant a love-object or drive snakes from a barley-field or drive monsters back into the underworld or cause an army to come into existence. These folks believed in the magic power of words!
 These Finnish folk knew as well that the way to hear these stories was to attend the performances of old men whom the skiing city-boy Elias Lönnrot witnessed singing their narratives, composing them as they went along, “making it up” in the way that Eric Clapton on guitar or John Coltrane on saxophone or last night’s most famous rapper raps and creates, by singing their songs in the presence of people who know the stories, know the idiom, know the rules of how those stories get told and know who is a good performer, a really good performer, and can tell which pair of old singing men were good from another pair who were just okay.
When Elias Lönnrot took his notebooks back home to the city and published this compilation and called it Kalevala, which just means “songs from the Kaleva district,” he transformed that narrative tradition. He made it into a political fact. Lonrott made possible a nationalist, separatist politics based on poetry and identity. The traditional narratives of the illiterate poets of the Kaleva district became, when the medium changed from the moment of performance into a printed book that could be read and re-read and passed around and then, as it was, a translated book, a tool for creating a national consciousness. Traditional narrative, once printed, captured on pages, helped create a self-governing country.
That’s why there are monuments to Lönnrot in Finland. There wasn’t a separate, self-governing country called Finland when Lönnrot collected traditional narratives from the Kaleva district. After he did, and in part because he did, there was.
J.R.R. Tolkein admitted, or bragged, or wistfully hoped (one can’t tell from his statements) that what he was after when he wrote his Lord of the Rings books was to create a national myth for England, as if he wanted to be, in the years after World War II when he wrote, an English Lonnrot. That should strike one as pretty darned funny, because Tolkein lived in a country that had just triumphed after the most brutal of wars then known, a country that had known itself for centuries, and not only knew its stories, and reveled in its language, but was host to a world trying to prove itself competent in English. Tolkein mined Beowulf, and the Kalevala, and Homer, and lifted heavily not from the German Grimm tales but from the German epic poem Nibelungenlied, and from the Icelandic sagas. Tolkein created a language, Elvish, partly out of Finnish and partly out of Welsh and partly out of Anglo-Saxon, and all sorts of characters that reflect various Christian and pagan symbols, and meant it all to be …. English?
In our house, the older kids became extremely enthusiastic for the Lord of the Rings books when the movies came. We saw the movies. They were outraged and uncomprehending when, at the theater for the first, and then again at the second, I fell asleep amidst all the carnage of Orcs and spears and swords. They read the books. When the girls pressed them on me, I said, “No thanks, I read the originals.” The girls were even more outraged at me turning down the books than at snoozing through the movies. “Whaddya mean you read the original?”
This meant the generational turn-over of the dog-eared copy of Beowulf, in Anglo-Saxon, a leftover from the days of  reading Magoun and Parry and Lord, especially Lord, because it was his book The Singer of Tales, the one about all those explorations in Yugoslavia among the 20th century Bosnians that had composed poetry just like the 19th century Finns or the 5th century BC Greeks of Homer’s time – the book that had caused so much excitement in the 1970s for a certain few college students, in the way that college kids are still capable of being excited.
Apparently, that kind of foolishness and romanticism passes generations. Within weeks, the kids were fighting over Seamus Heaney’s facing-page translation of Beowulf, English on one side, Anglo-Saxon on the other. After Beowulf, they wanted the Dream of the Rood and the Battle of Brunaburgh. Then Icelandic sagas. The Odyssey and the Iliad got their turns, then King Arthur, and The Song of Roland. And then, the ultimate in European traditional literature, the Kalevala, which is full of an ancient weirdness or primitivity. It really grabbed them, for the heroes of Kalevala are different than the knights of those battle-books. The monsters are scarier, the magic more other-worldly – as if from a people from a remote place, a people overwhelmed by spirits, who cannot really be relied upon to distinguish reality from a bunch of stories old men tell.
                                    + + +
And now, with the news that the Navajos are dubbing Star Wars, so that they can incorporate into their own rich traditional narrative some piece of the dominant culture’s new tradition, we see the processes of incorporation, renewal, and revitalization happening all at once.
We’re looking at a new kind of traditional narrative. And as we do so, think next about the Navajo translation of Jurassic Park, a narrative that now everybody in our big American (including Navajo) culture knows: A scientist discovers something impossibly ancient, which went extinct a long, long time ago. Somebody who wants to make money off this ancient legacy succeeds in making the impossible happen – bringing the extinct back to life. But doing so causes death and mayhem, because it is the natural order of things that the dead should stay dead.
One awaits a new-media recreation of the Navajo version of this story – for surely, there is one. The new media could certainly resurrect the old oral-formulaic poetry of Bosnia, of the Kaleva district, of Homer. Richard Wagner made an entertainment out of Nibelungenlied, adapting it, taking vast liberties with the text. The new media could do so and YouTube would be just perfect for it. We could click on and see and hear a guslar. If they’d ever do it, a Seneca or Onondaga or Cayuga, Mohawk or Oneida faith keeper could recite the Code of Handsome Lake, and it would be there, recorded, available for re-presentation at any time, and not just reliant on the continued existence of a community of speakers and, more, a community of the knowledgeable, of folks who know idiom, rhythm, technique, and who know a good performance when they hear it. Then tomorrow, YouTube, which like all media is voracious, as voracious as the printing-press, would run something else.
It need not be that immediate. We have a fashion of spending a few seasons marketeering things good and ancient and enduring, like Homer. Brad Pitt performed as Achilles for many weeks, and the Netflix of Troy is still downloaded, and so as a result, many millions still get a glimpse of the Iliad story, and now know what Helen of Troy looked like.
But those performers did not succeed in making that story part of our new tradition. Star Wars is. Jurassic Park is.
The Kalevala songs would be tough to make into movies: they’re not a linear epic, any more than the Inktomi tales and ohunkakan  translated from Sioux constitute a single story-line. Beowulf got its own movie several years after Tolkein’s stories got theirs, but of all the film versions of Beowulf that have been produced, the one with Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother would seem the least likely to endure. Such entertainments won’t ever have much to do with forming our national consciousness. Such entertainments won’t rise to the level of traditional narrative.
So one should expect that, like that tiny minority of Boomers who looked into this stuff, today’s tradition-inclined children shall have to make their living doing something other than celebrating old-style traditional narrative, because we have a new one. It has many shapes, many stories, but it is the narrative of science run amok, and of faraway celestial societies.
The last places on earth that haven’t been touched by our new “traditional” narratives have just been touched. Boomers inspired by Albert Bates Lord and Milman Parry, after having read The Singer of Tales, and after having heard recordings of the very Bosnian guslars that Parry and Lord recorded as the old man droned on and on and incomprehensibly on to the repetitive tune of his one-string gusl, went and did what now may be difficult to do: they carried on that tradition of seeking out, listening to, recording, transcribing, but at least listening to the performances of the people who did what Homer used to do. There are people alive today who went to remote places, witnessed as elders gently mocked the linguistic clumsiness of those few of the younger generation who made the effort to communicate with them, and who transcribed and translated the old-fashioned way, the Elias Lonnrot way, with notebook and pencil, and heard and saw what Parry and Lord had seen, heard a slice of what Magoun had written about – namely, oral-formulaic composition, mainly prayers, religious songs and praise-testimonials. And stories.
I heard the stories.
The people who performed them were among the last on earth who will ever have made them, in that particular language, for basic competence in that language is fading, and it is too much to expect of young people who are barely conversant with a language that they would also be able to master the techniques, the ancient techniques, of oral-formulaic composition. I saw it. I heard it. Now, upstairs in my library, there are my transcripts. There are even a few books, that, like Kalevala, are compilations of narratives. Where the translations were completed, by me or somebody else, I can still manage to hobble along, as my kids do with their facing-page translation of Beowulf. Where my stories or those of others are not translated, I’m lost. The original texts are there, but, at least in my house, the narrative is silent, beyond revival, beyond retrieval, beyond, unlike in the new narrative about science run amok but science withal competent, beyond any culturing from any extract of any insect trapped intact in amber. My traditional narratives will go extinct. They have already.
And now, the Navajo dub of Star Wars. They are cleverly leveraging the new narrative, the new tradition, to revitalize their own. This is a brave act. They are saying, We will not go the way of the Kalevala, to put our culture into amber in the way that the culture of the Kalevala continues to exist, as the collector collected it – not as the actual performances of hand-holding peasant men singing and making up their versions of the ancient stories as they went along, but of just one performance, one time, the way one outsider observed us, once. We, the Star Wars dubbers are saying, we are so grand a culture, so great a language, so huge and distinctive a people, that we can welcome somebody else’s stories into our house.

Extinction, Jurassic Park teaches us, is the way of the world. Not just yet, say the Navajo. Not just yet.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Speech in Hamilton, Ontario
June 8, 2013

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Chambless in snow 1/4/13

Intellectuals and Community


Buffalo’s identity opportunity, again

When the late Wayne Chambless came to Buffalo in 1960 to study English literature, he was leaving the segregated South for one of the triumphantly progressive places of America. Buffalo was then the home of a great new public university. The already-renowned art gallery was being expanded. The great public library system—home to the most significant Mark Twain manuscripts, especially Chambless’s favorite, Huckleberry Finn—was just opening its new downtown headquarters. The old Normal School had blossomed into the State Teacher’s College, with many new structures and a magnificent library and art collection of its own.
The Saint Lawrence Seaway had recently opened, and hopes were still high that it would make of Buffalo a bigger port connecting Europe to the Great Lakes interior. Bethlehem Steel had expanded and would again. Bell Aerosystems was testing promising technologies as diverse as hovercraft and rocket-packs.
And intellectuals and intellectuals-in-training were being drawn here from places too broken to house them, including the American South and post-revolutionary Hungary, but also from world capitols, too. It was in the early and mid 1960s when the great flowering of Buffalo as an international center of science, technology, music, literature, and fine arts occurred with the inputs of many transients but also from people who came and stayed. It was also then that Ralph Wilson’s football franchise made of Buffalo a major league city, as would the National Hockey League expansion almost a decade later.
One of the important features of the Buffalo landscape was an obscure private school founded by emigres and initially supported by them. The Calasanctius Preparatory School was a hard-to-categorize place: not a “blue jacket” prep school, neither was it a diocesan Catholic school, though it was organized, run, and largely staffed by priests. It was founded the year Sputnik went up. Its focus on academic rigor embodied one strand of the new zeitgeist that Buffalo-born historian Richard Hofstadter described in his Anti-intellectualism in America—namely, a new willingness to embrace learning, academic rigor, inquiry, or simply sheer brain-power as assets rather than detriments for the new age.

Intertwined fates

The promise that was Buffalo in 1960 was never quite fulfilled largely because a new, finance-centered version of capitalism stripped the regional economy of heavy industry, even while local elites’ antipathy and indifference to the then-new State University thwarted well-reasoned efforts to make of SUNY the next industrial center.
Buffalo was a good place to be after the Soviet Union’s rocket scientists successfully launched Sputnik in 1957. Some significant pieces of the defense industry still remained here, even after the airplane factories left due to labor actions and organized crime problems. A major New York State commitment to a new university center here had transformed the small but well-regarded University of Buffalo into a version of a Big 10 or PAC 10 land-grant university.
But there was a critical tension here, just like everywhere else in America: between intellectuals and the business class. Historian and John F. Kennedy speechwriter Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s observed that “Anti-intellectualism…has long been the anti-Semitism of the businessman.” In Buffalo, anti-Semitism was a critical factor in keeping town and gown from melding.
The large presence of New York City kids at the now-public UB gave the Buffalo vernacular epithet “Jew B” a widely accepted descriptor even as it drove a wedge. The town and the gown went their separate ways, spatially and spiritually. Late UB President Bill Greiner and his former UB Law School colleague Tom Hedrick wrote a little book about how UB had never had a chance at becoming the centrally located urban university that has been the norm of successful cities for about the past 800 years or so. Informal historians recite the allegedly notorious anti-Semitism of a former leader of a daily newspaper, and the anti-intellectualism of at least one scion of a great Buffalo commercial fortune, as key determinants of siting the fourth of New York State’s university centers in Amherst, rather than next to the old central business district.
The university’s cultural divide from the business elite was strange here, given the Buffalo business elite’s simultaneous devotion to contemporary art and to new orchestral music. And in the early 1960s, until the university actually moved to Amherst starting in the mid- and late-1970s, it was the city, especially the Elmwood Avenue corridor and Parkside that was the home of region’s university culture and community.
Many famous intellectuals, including Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, writers like Dwight MacDonald, John Barth, Leslie Fiedler, Lionel Abel, Raymond Federman, even Allen Ginsburg, plus musicians and filmmakers and painters, both hosted and showed up at parties west of Main Street. Ditto the many scientists attracted by state money to conduct research and practice medicine here. Graduate students liked the cheap housing on the West Side, and mingled with locals in the Allentown and Elmwood bars. Young faculty from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and other large cities liked the density of their peers in that part of town. And for the more mature European and Asian faculty, whether refugees or happy immigrants, the question was often enough simply this: Where can we send our children to school? For decades, the answer was Calasanctius.
Faculty brats were the core of the student body of Calasanctius. Volunteers and part-timers from UB and from Roswell Park did a lot of teaching, which encouraged more faculty support and engagement. The school admitted girls long before the private schools did, and was co-educational while the elite Catholic schools remain gender-segregated. Educated people wanted faculty credentialed like them, and rigorous like them. Wayne Chambless was the main American among the largely European faculty at the school. He dressed likeEsquire, drawled like Faulkner, quipped like Mencken, smoked like Lucifer, and graded the way Bela Karolyi coached Nadia Comaneci: as if nothing short of utter mastery was expected because, with focus and discipline, mastery was indeed achievable. His students went Ivy not because their blueblood parents or grandparents paid the way but because their high-achieving parents got help from the unapologetic intellectuals who worked their adolescents’ butts off.
But when the Milliken decision came down from the US Supreme Court in 1974, and Judge Curtin’s Buffalo desegregation decision followed in 1976, and the magnet school system was cobbled together in an effort to give Buffalo’s middle class a plausible rationale for staying rather than fleeing to the suburbs, Calasanctius was dealt a blow. Faculty parents wouldn’t have to pay tuition at a public school. When City Honors was formed, Calasanctius lost its core constituency. The school’s census gradually dwindled. The founder generation passed on and was replaced by well-meaning, traditional prep school managers who didn’t comprehend the ethos of academic rigor that was plausible during the Kennedy New Frontier years.

Cycles of history

Now the old American pendulum has swung, a bit, again: A lecturer in (if not a professor of) constitutional law is in the White House, and Buffalo’s business class makes money from, and hopes to make even more money from, the State University.
But the world is much changed from 1960: The steelmakers are long gone, the second floor of the downtown library is closed, the defense industry has largely left the region, the polyglot slice of Habsburg Galicia or Krakow that was old Richard Hofstadter’s boyhood Broadway-Fillmore is reduced to the two congregations and two springtime holidays.
The Bills are still here, though, and at the moment—again—the public investment in spectator sports remains untouchable, overshadowing public support for the arts and for cultural institutions.
Unionized teachers are under bipartisan political assault even as City Honors, the functional successor to Calasanctius, motors along. Like Calasanctius students from the 1950s to its closing in 1991, many City Honors grads succeed brilliantly. They go to highly competitive colleges and graduate schools, and just like their Calasanctius predecessors, most don’t return. It is a matter of family economics: Unlike the elite private and parochial school networks, there were few if any Calasanctius family auto businesses, manufacturing companies, department stores, or other enduring structures of the business class. Faculty are salarymen. Physicians and attorneys rarely offer their progeny any employment opportunities. Calasanctius educated Buffalo children who went on to become inventors, academicians, corporate executives, attorneys, physicians, and what-all, elsewhere. This is again the case with City Honors, many of whose students come from even less well-heeled homes. Without mentioning either school by name, Harvard economist Ed Glaeser makes this point about the paradox of great educational institutions in failing cities: educational success benefits the nation, but not often the homefolks.
Until the students have a draw to bring them home, it is the teachers who keep the ecology going. Economists who appreciate the enduring relevance of what they call the “agglomeration effect,” which is all about the uncanny power of clustering diverse enterprises, talents, tastes, and demands in small spaces, note the resilience of cities where the students, faculty, support staff, and hangers-on of universities are ever present to refresh and reinvigorate the host community. It is a matter of physical adjacency: Proponents of the medical corridor are absolutely correct about that much—but while there is plenty of talk about building a brand-new stadium for the Buffalo Bills downtown, there is zero talk about using the Buffalo billion to put the entire university downtown. In the Rust Belt university towns Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Rochester, Syracuse, and Milwaukee, where there are downtown campuses, the town and the gown overlap much more creatively, with much greater economic impact. Population stabilization has been achieved in Rochester and Pittsburgh; further population erosion is forestalled where universities are sited. In Buffalo, population continues to nosedive. The numbers for the region are also negative: Erie County will dip below 900,000 by 2020, the year that the Buffalo Bills have the option to leave.
But because Buffalo was once a national and international draw for intellectuals, back in the days when our University was reinvigorated with Southerners, New Yorkers, refugees, scientists, and artists, their presence reinforced a progressive community identity. Our intellectuals were once neighborhood figures, which is a way of saying that they were part of the self-reinforcing context of the community. There was once a well-dressed, persistently drawling expert on inculcating literary precision in unruly teenagers, a teacher who often explained that Buffalo was his true home, not burgeoning, low-tax Tennessee, because here, unlike there, literacy, critical intelligence, and sexual tolerance were actually respected. May it ever be so.
Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at

Restoration blues 1/10/13

Law's Empire

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts slammed insurance giant AIG for considering joining a lawsuit that claims the terms of the company's federal bailout were unfair.

Why we need the old order back—before another financial bubble bursts

The best argument for the American rule of law, however imperfect it has been, is that we Americans eventually get it right. President Obama paraphrases Martin Luther King, Jr., when he says that the arc of history bends toward justice. But with a new credit bubble looming, and the same old Wall Street bankers defying new rules enacted to rein them in, and other pin-striped thieves enjoying not just regulatory leniency but also the political support of ranting yahoo Tea Party Republicans, justice seems far less than inevitable.
Sometimes law isn’t much of a remedy. M&T Bank, whose boss swore up and down that neither he nor his outfit would ever do such a thing, stalked off with more than $250 million in a deal that they cooked up with the all-powerful Goldman Sachs a couple of years ago at the height of the craze for creating mortgage-backed securities. $250 million sounds like chump change at a time when just one of the big Wall Street banks is on track to profit $6 billion just this quarter alone. But back in the day, just five years ago, the Buffalo guys bundled up 6,000 or so very shaky mortgages (many of them written here in Buffalo) and then sold them to a big insurance company in New York. This meant that our local bank had to look past the inconvenient truth that it knew it was peddling garbage as if it were gold. Here’s what our legal system said when the insurance company found out that what it had bought was garbage: A New York judge said, in effect, you should have known better than to trust those guys.
Now it seems that Goldman Sachs all by itself is up to its old tricks again. The law, as enacted by our elected representatives in Congress, got changed in 2010, when Congress worked with President Obama to stop the once-banned practice of banks gambling their clients’ money. Bloomberg News reported this week that the CEO of Goldman Sachs did not tell the truth when he swore up and down that neither he nor his outfit would ever engage in “proprietary trading,” which is allegedly banned by the new Volker Rule of the much-heralded Dodd-Frank Act. The journalists at Bloomberg named some of the names of the 20 or so Ivy League grads whose daily bread comes from doing what the boss says they don’t and what the law says they shouldn’t.

Bubble ahead, bubble behind

The Dodd-Frank bill is more than 800 pages long. Back in 1934, in the aftermath of the last huge credit-bubble crash, Congress enacted the 35-page Glass-Steagall Act, where the lines were laid down brightly. From 1934 until 1999, until a former Goldman Sachs CEO, Robert Rubin, became secretary of the treasury and convinced everybody in town to repeal Glass-Steagall, it was illegal, plain and simple, for banks to gamble on Wall Street. It was so simple. Now it’s not so simple. And the new law means “yes” when it says “no” because there’s a brand-new nuance to “no.”
But locally, and nationally, bubbles are forming again. The local news is that housing prices are up an enormous amount—a 13 percent increase in median sale price just in the past year, here in a market that has four or five times as many new houses being built as there are new households to buy them. Wages are not rising 13 percent a year, that’s for damned sure: Wages are stagnant in nominal dollars, and actually declining in real purchasing power. What’s happening is that some assets are swelling in value—the assets that banks like to lend against. The old problem of 10 years ago is back, and back in a major way.
Everybody in the world of high financial capital is seeking high yields because interest rates are being kept so incredibly low. There is no point to saving: Your savings account at your local bank or credit union is yielding you less than one half of one percent interest on your deposits, and that’s true of everybody, large and small. That leaves some people—specifically, old people—reliant on their monthly pension payments, and not on their interest on savings, to keep them in the realm of consumers. The people who manage the pension funds that have to pay out money to those old folks have to come up with the money somehow, so those fund managers have to hope that stocks go up in value—or, in the alternative, that other things go up in value, things that can be leveraged, i.e., borrowed against.
Therein lies the problem: There is a new round of debt-leveraging underway. Debt is exploding again. And now, one of the people who warned about the first debt bubble is warning that we are looking at another one.

Hudson’s alarms

Michael Hudson, the senior voice of a group of economists that is far outside the Goldman Sachs-led world of compromised academia and revolving-door Washington officialdom, is warning that the same guys who pumped up the housing bubble in the first decade of the 21st century are pumping up a bond bubble that will pop in the second decade.
Here’s why people should sit up and listen when Michael Hudson talks: He called it right the first time. Hudson writes voluminously. His website ( is full of extraordinarily long essays. Mixed in amongst them are a few easy-to-understand expositions, such as the very nicely illustrated article forHarper’s Magazine in May 2006 that explained, with pictures and brief paragraphs, exactly how the housing bubble would pop, and what its popping would do to everybody. Hudson was prescient, correct, understandable—and his warning was completely ignored by Washington.
Now Hudson is at it again. He is warning that the major banks, unconstrained by effective regulation as they were in the olden days of just a dozen years ago, are leading the way to turning working people all over the world into debt slaves. We didn’t experience it in Buffalo because of the peculiar dynamics of this region, but in many other places in the US, the run-up in the cost of houses turned millions of people into slaves to their mortgages—which suddenly, in 2008 and 2009, became loans on houses that were worth less than people had borrowed to buy them.
But this time around, there are a couple of pieces of good news. You may believe that when President Obama succeeded in raising tax rates on high-income households, including capital gains tax rates, that it was all about politics. Wrong. It is actually good news for the overall economy that the people who have captured well over 93 percent (UC Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez’s estimate) of all the income gains since 2008 are going to be paying slightly more in taxes because their consumption won’t change, but more of the burden of all the government debt that was racked up during the Bush era will be their burden to bear.
The other piece of good news is that corporate executives—not the bankers or the speculators or the hedge-fund managers—are gaining something that sounds awfully like class consciousness, in that they are beginning to understand that their interests as salarymen are different from the interest of the aforementioned. People whose jobs are tied to stock-price performance actually are unlike the rentier class. And the rumor is, from at least one Republican consultant, that these business people have figured out that the Congressional Tea Party is a threat to economic recovery.
That still leaves us with a political establishment that has not yet been capable of restoring the rule of law. Banks that defrauded hundreds of thousands of customers get wrist-slapped. Banks that launder money pay fines and chug along. Banks that knowingly peddle bad paper skate. And their CEOs remain unbelievable. At least the US Senate now has a law-maker, in the person of Elizabeth Warren, who understands the potential majesty of the law, especially in matters of money.
Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at

Reader Comments

Blue 1/24/13

Water and Wealth


How a new clean-water alliance may reshape politics

Earlier this month, Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol published a study that Barack Obama’s consultants must have read before he delivered his second inaugural address. Environmentalists, and humanity in general, should be glad that the re-elected Obama and his team decided that 2013 is a safe, politic, and opportune time for him to talk about anthropogenic climate change, nutso weather, and alternative energy sources.
Professor Skocpol’s thesis is that it was environmentalists, not Obama, whose politics failed to deliver bipartisan support for the environmental goals that enjoy overwhelming public support. Now, with the president boldly recommitted to changing American energy and environmental policy, environmentalists have another chance—mainly because the president’s team of demonstrably competent operatives can take advantage of the political opportunity that Skocpol blames the elitist, conference-loving, narcissistic, and politically incompetent enviro-schmoozers for having squandered.
It happens that we in the Great Lakes region may soon be at the center of the coming political storm. Our governors and Congressional delegations should get ready for the political economy of water to be the focus. Today, the Washington media are focused on the Republican Party talking points of the debt ceiling and spending. But soon enough, the creeping disaster of another year of widespread drought will become more and more visible in the daily news. The cameras could well turn away from talking heads bloviating about budgets to moving pictures of withered crops, dry rivers, shrinking lakes, and stranded boats.

A dose of reality

On January 16, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declared 634 counties disaster areas because of persistent drought. All the counties of Oklahoma, most counties in Texas, and all the counties of Kansas were declared disaster areas eligible for federal disaster assistance.
These Red States voted overwhelmingly for the climate-science denialism of the Republican national ticket. Consistent with that Tea Party approach to reality, not a single Republican member of the House of Representatives from Kansas voted in favor of Hurricane Sandy disaster relief for New York and New Jersey. But in a circumstance that will enable rather than challenge cognitive dissonance, these same members of Congress will soon be delivering emergency federal disaster aid to their constituents becase the USDA’s drought programs are funded, as-of-right programs, not special aid that has to be voted on.
But as the seasons progress, the need for disaster assistance will grow because winter isn’t acting like winter. This is the time of year when drought is normally not an issue because almost everywhere in the continental US, winter is the season of precipitation—the restorative rains and snows that collect in the high country, replenish the underground aquifers of the flatlands, and bring the rivers back up to the level our country’s extensive barge and freighter shipping systems use.
None of that is happening this winter. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration drought-monitor projects that last year’s weather pattern will repeat: Last year, USDA designated 2,245 counties in 39 states as disaster areas due to drought. That amounted to 71 percent of the land area of the United States.
Not a single county near any of the five Great Lakes, however, was so designated.
The Blue States have water, the Red States are going without. Properly managed, that’s a reality that will become a political fact even more powerful than Tea Party ideation.

Locals to the rescue?

Professor Skocpol’s paper is provocative principally because she doesn’t believe that the Washington environmental elites get it. They still mainly want to pursue a pro-business, inside-the-Beltway strategy to achieve climate-change legislation, despite that strategy having failed utterly during Obama’s first term.
A section of her paper is entitled “Yearning for an easy way,” and the gist is this: Elite enviromentalists haven’t a clue about how to connect with voters. They were comfortable investing hundreds of millions of dollars in pollsters, focus groups, advertising copywriters, and TV ad-placements that didn’t deliver any Republican House or Senate votes for legislation that would have capped greenhouse gas emissions and set up a market for greenhouse gas permits, the so-called cap-and-trade bill.
Why did they fail? Skocpol says that the enviros ignored the demise of moderate Republicans, who are now constrained by Tea Party discourse and threatened with primary campaigns from the far Right. She recounts the takeover of think tanks by the forces that move rural and suburban Republicans: oil companies, pro-oil political action committees, Fox News, and the right-wing echo chamber of Rush Limbaugh and his epigones in every American media market. Republican political handlers everywhere, including right here in Paladino Country, succeed by crafting sharply anti-government, anti-green, anti-science messages that work particularly well with alienated, moderate-income white voters, especially men who lack a college degree.
Sensible policies that work elsewhere—like a carbon tax, which is bolstering the economy of British Columbia in Canada—actually enjoy bipartisan ideological support among think tankers, but because House Speaker John Boehner is still beholden to the denialist Tea Party caucus, it is a dead letter. Still, Skocpol points out, the leading enviros keep searching for nonexistent Republican moderates.
But now will come the new reality, and with it, the media stories. There will be pictures of water-starved crops and dry rivers. Unfortunately, in some of the Red States, there may be Dust Bowl conditions. The experiences of farmers without crops will be much tougher for pro-oil consultants and climate-science deniers to spin. In a nation where almost 700 counties are in severe drought in January, it would seem that such a wide experience of water shortages could become relevant to politics.
But that would mean that environmentalists would have to make contact with actual Americans who are culturally different from them. Skocpol is not alone in doubting whether national environmentalists will be able to connect the political dots. “Environmental organizations are investing way too much money in polling operations, and spending too much time imaging which phrases they should use in messaging campaigns disconnected from organized networks,” she writes.
But local and regional environmentalism has also become compromised and elitist—even though there is unquestionably broad public support for decisive government action to protect water, switch to green energy, and move forcefully to address climate change.
What to do? A modest proposal: Connect with people who go fishing, especially the moderate-inome, alienated, modestly educated white males who actually understand that clean water matters. Another thought: Resurrect a late-blooming first-term legislative proposal known as cap-and-dividend.

A policy bridge

In 2010, Maine Republican Susan Collins and Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell introduced the Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal, or CLEAR, bill in the US Senate. Like cap-and-trade, this cap-and-dividend aims to raise the price of carbon-based energy production and use—but the revenues that are raised from a tax or sales of permits are put into a public trust fund, with the proceeds divided up and mailed out as dividend checks to every individual citizen, something like the State of Alaska does for its residents from its oil permit fund. This CLEAR legislation would remit about $1,100 per family of four, a.k.a. the people enviros somewhat disparagingly refer to as “everyday Americans.”
The CLEAR bill sounds like the kind of deal that Barack Obama’s campaign team could sell with its grassroots networks—in part because an actual cash incentive that arrives in family exchequers could address the income inequality that was also part of Obama’s second inagural speech.
As the recent history of environmentalism and “shrinking cities” advocacy shows, there is a whole lot of money to be made from foundations—lots of conferences to go to, lots of junkets to take, lots of cocktail parties to enjoy after one finishes yet another round of presentations that sound exactly like last year’s. (The leading land-bank advocacy group in Washington spent more than $2 million on consultants last year—the same consultants who in 2012 produced books and articles that read like photocopies of the books and articles they wrote five years ago.) The great news for folks who live their lives beyond those charmed circles is that the competence of a winning political campaign team may get invested in actually winning a policy battle instead of talking about it some more. That’s what one should like about politics when a candidate is invested in an issue. There’s a decision date and a deliverable.
People in the Great Lakes states, where we not only have the water that the rest of America needs but also the political sense to support Obama, should be especially glad that this president made the connection between climate change, green energy, and income inequality. If he’s tasking his team to work on it, the chances of forward progress are better than ever.
Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at

Reader Comments