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Archive for March, 2011

Finally, we know what it takes to knock the seamy, scuzzy antics of Charlie Sheen out of the headlines:  a one-two-three punch of a horrific earthquake, devastating tsunami, and unimaginable nuclear crisis in Japan.  I don’t believe in hell (or heaven, for that matter) but if there was one, it would be defined as what the Japanese people are experiencing now.  How could it be that a people who were bombed in the 1940s, whose family members were sickened from radiation poisoning or burned from the nuclear bombs that dropped on their countryside more than a generation ago, now have to live through the danger of radiation poisoning and death once again?

The nobility and quiet perseverance of the Japanese, which has been exhibited on the airwaves day after day, suggests that these people have reacted to this unspeakable set of disasters with more calm, dignity, and fortitude than most of us can begin to imagine.  The old Yiddish story, which tells us of a man who is dissatisfied with his little house — crowded with family, neighbors, and chickens —  ends with the reminder, “remember, if you think things are bad, they could always be worse!”

And in Japan, we see, on every news report, what worse looks like.  While Alan Paton’s remarkable 1948 book (which explored the evils of apartheid in South Africa) offered up the title for my reflection, his prose offers us a glimpse of the anguish and conflict that I suspect many of the citizens of Japan are feeling:

“Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.”

Our complex world struggles with finding ways to provide energy that will not increase the high levels of greenhouse gasses and other pollutants which threaten to choke us all.  And yet nuclear energy has its own risks, supposedly well-managed…except in the face of disasters that knock out power and destroy power facilities.  Now, in addition to the warnings that people stay indoors or evacuate affected areas of the country near the damaged nuclear reactors, reports of dangerously high radiation levels in the Japanese food supply are emerging, and people around the world are ready to hand over absurdly high amounts of money for a stash of iodine pills to ward off the threat of radiation poisoning.  The world economy has been damaged, as Toyota and other major corporations remain closed (and the lack of supply of goods from Japan makes it way down the line to corporations around the world, forcing them to close as well).  And — not the least of the concerns — the death toll in Japan has now passed 8,000 and is expected to exceed 10,000, and beautiful seaside towns and cities have been wiped off the map.

For every time that I think, “I wish I had…” or “Why can’t I…”, I think of what the Japanese in areas like Sendai must be enduring.  This reminder of the fragility of our existence, the nobility of people brought to their knees by the shaking earth, overpowering waves, and the failures of technology, jars all of us who whine about our troubles into understanding — at least at a surface level — what pure hell looks like.

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At the risk of being condemned by my friends for being shallow — not to mention dismissed by those I wish to connect with professionally for being an airhead — my thoughts have recently turned to Charlie Sheen and Moammar Khaddafy.  Khaddafy, long known as a vicious dictator and at least an extremely quirky man (if not completely mad) now finds himself in a battle for control of his country as rebels and those who yearn for a different sort of government struggle for change and perhaps, freedom.  Khaddafy has been in power in Libya since a military coup in 1969.  Referred to as “The Leader,” Khaddafy is known for his acts of oppression, his disconnected speeches (or rants), his protection of known terrorists, and his threats against forces who suggest that Libya’s people be liberated.

The uprisings which resulted in the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and led to demonstrations and a revolution in Tunisia and other parts of the Arab world, also moved to Libya, and in late February, 2011, it appeared that Khaddafy’s grip on the country might be at an end.  But not so fast:  as of this writing, Khaddafy had managed to retain hold of Tripoli, the capital, and troops and ammunition had been dispatched to retake Zawiyah, 30 miles away from the capital.  Meanwhile hospitals are reported to be overwhelmed with the injured, reports of violence and intimidation against the Libyan people are widespread, and worldwide, oil prices are soaring.  Khaddafy is not giving up without a battle — perhaps to the death — and the outcome of the unrest is far from clear.

And what about Charlie Sheen?  Sheen, the actor who had so much potential and who was the highest-paid actor on television (over $2 million per episode — can anyone be worth that much?) has, after months of highly publicized rants and bizarre acts, been given the gate by CBS.  Fired from the television series “Two and a Half Men,” Sheen continues to spout about having “tiger blood”; about life with the “goddesses” who live in his mansion (oh dear, one of them left him a few days ago, just as Khaddafy’s Ukrainian nurse deserted him last week); about “winning” in this battle he’s engaged in with the network.  Last night footage was shown of Sheen on top of a building with his minions, waving a machete and reportedly drinking ‘tiger blood’ from a bottle.

Thanks to advances in communication technology, we can receive Sheen’s tweets on his new business plan (over 2 million people currently following).  We can see live reports from Libya, even though Colonel Khaddafy has pulled the plug on the power and internet service in many parts of the country.

In the case of Khaddafy, I can understand why we care:  we have had, and continue to have, the opportunity to see what a transition in government looks like, as we’ve observed the downfall of Mubarak and unrest in many parts of the Middle East and Africa.  On the other hand, why are we so fascinated with Sheen’s outbursts and bizarre behavior?  He is an actor.  He is a drug abuser and, clearly, mentally ill.  He behaves erratically.  He needs help.  He is like many people in the US and in other parts of the world:  an individual with an illness, in need of treatment.  This, Sheen shares with Khaddafy, long considered a madman.

In his poem, “The Second Coming,” written nearly 100 years ago, William Butler Yeats wrote:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The words from this remarkable Modernist poem, written by Yeats to describe the Apocalypse and reflect on Europe following the first World War, can also be seen, through our twenty-first century lens, as a mirror of the chaos wrought by these two men.  On the one hand, we observe Khaddafy’s insane grip on his people and his country’s resources, and — in a far smaller sphere — we are treated to daily reports of the wildly spinning madness that spouts from Charlie Sheen’s lips and BlackBerry.  No telling what the next news cycle will bring, but millions will surely be watching to see what new chaos has emerged as “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed” again.

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