EXAMINING A RECENT ‘OH-HOW-SAD’ HOLLYWOOD MOMENT IN TERMS OF SOME OF THE MULTIPLE UNDERLYING ISSUES THAT IT RAISES
Should anyone ever doubt the profound and multifaceted interconnection of everything, he would only need to look at This Humble Correspondent’s life, or she might only consider a case like the topic of today’s blog essay. Stating precisely what that topic is would be difficult, however, since the interlocking pieces at first glance seem disparate enough to justify distinct writings in their own regard.
- The surface point of entry is the recent financial difficulty in which Barkhad Abdi has found himself, after he helped to create a production that has netted close to $200 million.
- Fairly clearly, one would hope, that ties in to recent data that has come This Humble Correspondent’s way, about alternatives to plutocratic plunder as possible societal media formulas.
- And both this particular story and the general perspective that it can tease out in turn relate, because of the interesting origins of Mr. Barkhad Abdi, to the history of the Horn of Africa, about which This Humble Correspondent has occasionally written.
- But wait! That’s not all, as he has been helping students with Out of Africa, Things Fall Apart, and African literature and culture generally of late, his reading list has recently included issues of empires, ‘Scrambles for Africa,’ the origins of slavery, and so on and so forth, with copious references both direct and elliptical to Mr. Abdi’s Somalian homeland.
- Penultimately, in preparing the recent blog, “Stacking the Deck All Over Again”, he came across a truly fascinating piece of analysis from a Yale scholar, demonstrating conclusively that during the exact same time period that Fascist Italy and ‘Democratic’ England were engaged in a pas de deux in the Horn of Africa to determine which culture and location in Europe would rule over Somalia, the Roosevelt administration, from the President down through different advisers, was admiring “that fine Italian gentleman,” Benito Mussolini.
- Finally, to top things off, he has recently been reading and corresponding about the origins of human culture, the nature of mythology, and how ancient, ancient ways of social relations continue to mess with the tuxes and fluxes and all of the deluxe yum—the glitter and fluff and delight of Hollywood—that so captivates the attention of all the boys and girls who contemplate existence today.
So then, perhaps the topic for today’s posting would be easiest to state as a stab at displaying interconnections between a lot of fascinating elements of life that dovetail with a specific case that is now unfolding in the world. Even when our tendency is to desire a nice, tidy, limited assessment, therefore, we benefit by digging deeper and looking more broadly than at surface, narrow developments in themselves. In the past, This Humble Correspondent has called such writing and thinking “depth textuality.”
The point of all of this, hopefully obvious, is that things are comprehensible if and only if an onlooker is willing to juxtapose apparently disparate pieces in such a fashion as to see the whole in relation to the parts and vice versa. No other set of methods will ever yield outcomes other than rudimentary portraits, which in themselves have nothing to do with action, power, or possibilities of transformation.
PENURY & RICHES & BARKHAD ABDI
Anyone in his right mind, anyone with a decent head on her shoulders, would think twice about looking a $65,000 ‘gift horse’—in the form of a chance to play a big role opposite Tom Hanks—in the mouth. On the one hand, had Barkhad Abdi ‘thought twice,’ he would have no Academy Award nomination and no tantalizing prospects of a career as a generation’s great thespian, not to mention the intense highs and lows of being part of a big film production that inevitably taught him loads about life.
On the other hand, he might be more solvent. He’s living on per diems and in borrowed clothes at the moment. He’d probably still be working at an older relative’s limousine service, or flirting with the customers, as he tried to sell/cell them electronics, in his elder brother’s Greater Minneapolis cell/sell phone shop.
The universal point of view about this, and that means without any discernible exception among the ‘mainstream media’s’ media-assessments, is that this situation is ‘sad’ or something similar. That Sony Pictures has cleared close to $200 million on the project while Abdi lives hand-to-mouth is ‘sad.’ That a fine actor has only ‘prospects’ to sustain him after what many describe as a magnificent performance—he received many other award nominations and won at least two other prizes—is ‘sad.’ That this is ‘a fairly typical tale of contemporary Hollywood,’ not to mention the past—one might refer to Gore Vidal’s novel—is ‘sad.’
And from these sighs and shaken heads and clucking teeth come one of a couple or so conclusions. The first goes something like this, that Sony Pictures will take a hint and give Mr. Abdi a richly deserved bonus, in order that the studio suffers no discoloration around the eye over its young star’s fate.
The other is that a mentoring system—teaching Mr. Abdi about budgeting and managing his affairs—would be a no-brainer excellent idea. After all, if he hadn’t bought quite as many lattes or gone on quite so many wild benders, then he might still have a little bankroll and be able to save a few pennies from his studio stipend to boot.
The problems with such thinking are manifold. The first does not address the large majority of Hollywood output that lose copious amounts of cash. Moreover, it leaves out of the loop those talents who may not be quite so sympathetic to view, such heart-throbs, whatever, and who therefore don’t threaten ‘black eyes’ and so would never merit ‘bonuses.’ It’s charity, at best, in other words, instead of a better system.
The second sort of approach, leaving aside a certain whiff of paternalism and condescension, resembles the assumptions that appear in most cases of social work, or welfare. The problem is one of the individual, especially of the individual’s habits and behaviors. If he wouldn’t smoke so much, party so much, or otherwise be so spendthrift, if she wouldn’t shop so much, party so much, or otherwise be so dissolute, he or she would make out in a swell way.
Unfortunately, such attitudes have a problem with reality. They don’t correspond to it, except in selective anecdotal circumstances. As George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, of course the theoretical possibility exists of budgeting more cleverly and stretching out pittancess.
“Would it not be better if (those desperate for employment) spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even…saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it (wholesomely) … .When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty.’”
Now, obviously, $65,000 is more than the ‘dole’ in Depression-era England. But that was to last our cousin, Mr. Abdi, for however many years passed until his next gig came along, at least if he was to continue ‘living the dream’ of becoming an actor. And under those straining circumstances, watching the dollars drain away, the longing for “something ‘tasty’” can seem almost irresistible, so that the question becomes, “can a society support creative endeavor—writers and performers and artists and so forth—in a way that does not necessitate either potential starvation, and a rigorous discipline in avoiding everything ‘tasty,’ or forgoing one’s calling?”
NO FOOLING: OTHER WAYS OF MEDIATING MEDIA ARE POSSIBLE
If one wants to irritate a reactionary, one should mention France. So let’s mention France, by all means. This is actually rational because a look at France can widen the viewpoints of ‘sad’ commentators and suggest alternatives to sighs and sorrowful goodbyes to dreams or lattes, or both.
Among the French, since 1936, Les Intermittents du Spectacle—basically performers and technicians, many of whom are also writers, who face the prospect of intermittent employment—has allowed creative workers to draw on fairly generous unemployment and other benefits to tide them over patches when no work presented itself. As one commentator noted, one need not presume that the inquiry would be essential to a French acquaintance who considers herself an artist,”But what do you really do?” The assumptions of remuneration and social support are a given in other words.
Since the 1960’s the business of production and entertainment has, “every few years,” tried to destroy this system, but in every case so far, strikes and protests and campaigns of the workers themselves, with their allies among musicians, intellectuals, and other workers, has forestalled such a cutoff. The outcry against the attempted elimination of the program in 2003 was especially intense.
The most recent assaults on these benefits may succeed. But be that as it may, these organized creatives are not giving in. A few weeks ago, tens of thousands of these folks had taken to the streets once again. The Paris Opera provided but one instance of sympathy walkouts. Recent statements by participants in and supporters of these actions overwhelmingly indicate both militancy and something that seems a lot like optimism.
Nor is this the only cultural sector of the French socioeconomic framework that proffers such generous support to those who labor in creative realms. The Center for National Cinematography taxes the take on all French film and television and then makes subsidies, grants, and stipends available at the community and grassroots level to collectives of writers, directors, and actors to produce media in amounts that compare favorably with ‘Bollywood.’
While one might write off such facts as atttibutes of ‘le exception culturelle,’ such a reified notion—as if the air of France were more ‘artistic’—has not stopped big business on the continent from seeking to annihilate such opportunities. The equivalent of the French Chamber of Commerce has made one of its prime objectives the ending of such subsidies to those who toil with the muse. What has kept these forces from succeeding has been the organization and sense of unity among French workers generally, and among creative laborers in particular.
And France is not alone. Whether one delves into the international cultural scene in Cuba or Korea or Scandinavia, among mutliple other places on this fair orb, one will discover something interesting. Many other cultures respect, support, and help to further the work of artists in systematic and accessible ways, even as constriction and cutbacks for all but the wealthy have become the presumption of those who support the ‘American Way’ and standard operating procedures.
The point is not whether bludgeons of reaction might be able to crush such outposts of human progress. Clearly, such assaults are on the agenda globally. But for eighty years and more, people in other places have stood up to such purveyors of ‘property and privilege,’ and they may do so again.
All of life’s dramatic potential unfolds in these locales, just as it does in the U.S.A., and the desire for creative expression accompanies this craziness. However, social support for popular voice is much more extensive elsewhere, so that the ability to learn from and contextualize and explore these dramas is vastly more likely in France or Greece or dozens of other places, than it is compared to what is possible here.
MORE DRAMA THAN SOMALIA WOULD BE HARD TO IMAGINE
Somalia, Barkhad Abdi’s homeland, is not—despite Somali culture’s ancient honoring of poetry and dance—one of those ‘more supportive’ places. Its civil society and social capital have, for at least a couple of centuries, come to pieces in a vortex of upheaval and war, clearly fueled by the imperial impetus of “U.S. and Western Interests.” Its demographics—life expectancy at just over half a century, infant mortality of over ten per cent of live births, and more–exemplify these difficulties. Some spots on Earth seem to attract such mayhem.
The Horn of Africa is one of those places. One of the driest places on Earth where longstanding human habitation is present, the so-called Horn of Africa is a shielding that prohibits Ethiopia’s access to open ocean, one source of the frequent conflicts between ‘Abyssinian’ and Somalian interests. It covers an area roughly the size of Texas, stretched out in a crescent that would subsume much of the Eastern U.S. from Pennsylvania south to Alabama’s Gulf Coast.
Geography and geology and hydrology have had massive, one might even say dispositive, impacts on its destiny. For as much as, or quite likely more than, a thousand years, it has acted as a gateway between South and East Asia and Europe. And many have been the conquerers and local overlords who showed their fierce desire to attempt complete control of that doorway.
The ecological situation, where droughts like those taking place now in California have remained part of the landscape for thousands of years or more, has meant a constancy of scarcity that can easily intensify hostility among different peoples and communities. It certainly played a central part in the formation of Somalian social relations and culture, where six major clan groups now coexist in Africa’s Horn. This sparsity of water has also contributed to the prevalence in much of Northern and interior Somalia generally, of nomadic forms of sustenance and reliance on hardy breeds of cattle.
And the sea beckoned to those close enough to avail themselves, nearly 4,000 kilometers of coastline in a country shaped like a boomerang. Even on the coast, the litany of ‘water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink’ has been the pattern since prehistory.
For many of those arid milennia, the traders and warriors and clans of what we now call Somalia played a key role in the manifestation of social relations there. They mediated markets from across the Indian ocean that shipped spices in return for hides and specie and, often enough, slaves. They provided waystations for those who hoped to trade otherwise with subsaharan Africa, including those who wanted to purchase human flesh. They were capable enough sailors that they made excellent merchant mariners and, more recently, pirates, such as those that Barkhad and his friends played in “Captain Philips,” especially now, when sociopolitical and ecological factors have combined to impel them.
With the coming of Islam—which arrived as Somalia provided refuge to early Muslim converts and leaders—coastal control began to incorporate different sultanates, though only rarely did this oversight extend into the interior, where pastoral networks and culture followed ancient clan and nomadic practices. The Portuguese, when they took over some of these Islamic outposts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—mainly in the aftermath of their assistance to Ethiopia, which the beleaguered Somalis had invaded and sacked, were the first permanent European interlopers on the scene.
This intervention of a ‘Christian’ overlord caused, at the least, frequent friction. After the ouster of the final Portuguese fortress in 1728, for slightly more than a hundred years, very loose oversight devolved to an alliance between Somalian clans themselves, on the one hand, and Zanzibar and the sultanate of Oman on the Arabian Peninsula, on the other hand.
Then, by the middle of the nineteenth century, modern European encroachment began, which when combined with United States involvement, continues to the present day. Intermingled with this entire span of over a thousand years, from the initiation of Muslim religious affiliation to very recently indeed, was the involvement of Somalian clans with slave trading—primarily in relation to providing laborers to Arabia and India, but also on occasion intersecting with the European promulgation of the Trans-Atlantic flesh-markets. Up to the present moment, human trafficking remains an issue in and around Mogadishu.
In this thousands of years of human conflict and yearning and mayhem, ascribing guilt or blame is at least as often as not impossible, as well as being generally pointless. Everyone might play roles of victim and vanquished at different junctures. That said, with the expansion of the British empire, the competition between France and England over Africa, and the emergence of Italy and Germany as national actors on this imperial stage, any pretense of independence in the Horn of Africa became a charade. And, clearly, Somalia suffered and the imperial powers profited.
The five regions of the contemporary Horn of Africa, including Somalia correspond to British and Italian-controlled sectors of the 2,500 miles of coastline, together with French hegemony in Djibouti, in the far Northeast of the region. The formal partitioning of Africa followed a conference in Berlin that reflected centuries of Europe’s depredations, from slave trading to plantation agriculture to inequitable trading terms.
The Somalis resisted these attempts at dominance; like people everywhere, they have not made good sheep, even if the British saw their presence their as “good sport.” The “Mad Mullah,” whose dervishes held off the English for more than two decades, until slaughter from the air decimated indigenous forces in 1920, was only the best-known such case. In the 1920’s and ‘30’s, the Italians and British carved up the region between them, with the English—who also controlled Egypt, Sudan, and Kenya—by far the preponderant power.
The tactics of the English in extending its rule were both insidious and masterful. On the one hand, the Brits coopted different Africans, recruiting the most warlike and obedient into the King’s African Rifles. At the same time, Sikhs and other conquered colonies also proffered troops to fight in Britain’s far-flung colonial warfare. The ‘sun never set’ indeed, as England utilized colonialized people against others in its incursions.
One can read of the intertwining of English imperial efforts in India and Somalia throughout Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, which tells of her ‘adventures’ in Kenya under the tutelage and protection of Farah, her Somali ‘chief-of-staff,’ in relation to all manner of other characters from Arabia, India, and elsewhere in the Horn of Africa itself. On her departure from the country, she describes the “entire” Somali population of Nairobi’s turning out to see her off.
During World War Two, Italy first displaced England, only to have the favor returned within a year. After the end of the war, the United Nations granted Italy a trusteeship of much of contemporary Somalia, while the Brits ran Somaliland, in the North, as a ‘protectorate.’ Shutting off indigenous movements such as the Somali-Youth League, these two enemies of the slaughter in the forties, ushered in contemporary Somalia in 1960, when their two regions joined together in an ‘independent state.’
That period of ‘balancing the clans’ lasted less than a decade, however. Mohammed Siad Barre brought erstwhile “scientific socialism” to the Horn, but his politics almost immediately began to appear decidedly corrupt and opportunistic. He prepared for war with Ethiopia by cozying up to the United States within five years of having accepted Soviet sponsorship.
This was prescient, since, when he led his nation against Ethiopia a few years hence, in a hopeless war, Russia cut Somalia off from aid. As ‘luck’ and Barre’s come-hithers to Gerald Ford and the British would have it, the U.S. filled the gap, taking over the naval facilities built by and for the Soviets and giving the better part of a billion dollars in military aid between 1979 and 1991.
At that point, completely nauseated by corruption and fraud and murder and oppression, Somalia exploded in violent uproar that drove Barre from power. The assessments of the U.S. both before and after this eventuality were in the nature of strategic wagers —buying off warlords, snuffing out uncooperative elements, and blaming nearly everything in this post-Soviet world on terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists.
Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, an effort in which “U.S. Support was the Key to Success.” A Somali chronicler described the “balance sheet” of this U.S. promulgated incursion as “genocide, destruction, displacement, and starvation.” In any event, the past few years of Somalia’s status as “the most spectacular example of a ‘failed state’” stems from this most recent violence.
The culmination of the approximate midpoint—the 1991 ouster of Barre and the descent into civil disorder since—of this more or less recent historical context has been the experience of Barkhad Abdi and his family. Despite the nearly twenty years of ‘foreign aid’ from the United States, averaging as much as $50 million per annum for the last five years or so of Siad Barre’s dictatorship, the rule of this now-much reviled criminal politico came unhinged. In both rural areas and Metropolitian Mogadishu, violence erupted volcanically.
As noted above, the relations between Somalia and the kingdoms across the Gulf of Aden have for millenia affected outcomes in the Horn of Africa. Just so, Barkad’s father was tutoring math in Yemen when Siad Barre fled to try to save his skin and Somalia descended into yet another vortex of internecine war.
Recognizing what was afoot, the Abdi ‘parental units’ orchestrated the family’s exit to Yemen, where they stayed until 1998. At that point, participating in a ‘Green Card lottery,’ they all won the chance to relocate to the United States, where Minneapolis’ thriving Somali expatriate community plays an increasingly prominent role in the overall social milieu in Minnesota.
There, the teenaged Barkad learned television English, played basketball, and dreamed of making music videos and films. His was the complex existence of a equatorial desert’s diaspora in the rain and snow drenched Great Lakes tip of North America’s Great Plains.
His family has also supported the work of Fatima Jibrell, whose Horn Relief Project has morphed into African Development Solutions, a Kenyan, U.S., and English NGO that emphasizes grassroots leadership, community-based participation, direct cash transfers, and the empowerment of women. Barkad Abdi is the organization’s first International Goodwill Ambassador.
Ms. Jibrell’s brilliance and dedication is undeniable. Her work deserves the broadest and deepest support. Nevertheless, her labors have often ran at cross-purposes with the U.S. State Department and CIA, which view all cash subsidies to locals as suspect, since ‘that’s where the terrorists are.’ Furthermore, her viewpoint of ‘development’ runs counter to relying on row-crop agriculture or the extractive industries and mega-dam infrastructure projects that the Corps of Engineers and the World Bank favor.
This is taking place even as the Twin City’s first Somali City Councilman has taken office, and the town’s erstwhile native son has almost won an Academy Award. However, even in tidy and placid Minneapolis, signs of difficulty are up and about. Threats of Jihad recruiters are now present, and suspicious troubles —arson, suspected homicide, money-laundering, and more—are, according to fact-rich accounts, implicating expatriate Somali entrepreneurs.
Thus, whatever the hopes and dreams and progressive schemes of such goodhearted souls as Abdi and his blithe-spirit friends, the need to grapple with this complicated Gordian knot of history, outgrowths of looting and empire and predatory self-righteousness, is inevitable. The film in which Barkhad Abdi played such a memorable role, with the lifeboat full of pirates and Tom Hanks as they faced the might of the United States Navy, is a testament both to these colonial and domineering legacies and to a mediated view of them that very, very rarely threatens those who own the container ships and destroyers and other well-heeled and well-trained denizens of power.
AFRICA, EMPIRE, & THE MODERN WORLD
Were this Somalian background of subterfuge and horror merely localized, it would be bad enough. But these patterns have, with no exception to the rule, defined the course of Africa’s ‘development’ by ‘Western democracies.’ The aforementioned Berlin Conference led to a famous “scramble for Africa,” in which Europe literally stole the entire continent from its inhabitants, all in the guise of civilizing and protecting poor, incompetent ‘natives.’
One way of summarizing the past thousand years or so of African history would sound like this.
- Slight differences in the productivity of social labor in the middle ages encouraged Arab interactions with the strongest African power networks, which enslaved weaker groups’ peoples and sold them abroad, with much greater frequency than transpired during ‘antiquity.’
- A huge leap forward in the the productivity of social labor in Europe at the beginning of the ‘Renaissance’ led to colonial needs for laborers, so that several continental powers—Portugal and England and Holland, especially—took over and transformed the earlier, Eastern, slave trade into something that crossed the Atlantic as something much more vicious and profitable.
- The ending of this process of cannibalizing human labor left all of Africa relatively weakened and underlay the industrial supremacy that has continued from Europe—with Asia’s recent ascendancy notwithstanding—to this day, so that, with no more opportunity to buy and sell human beings as such, the colonization of the African continent became a ‘logical’ step.
- The bloodletting of two world wars led to a reconsideration of the colonial formulations that were part of the contested domain that induced mass slaughter, but the ‘freedom’ granted to the former fiefdoms was one where fiscal and administrative control continued to rest in London and Paris and, now, New York City or Washington.
- The increasingly sophisticated and nuanced mediation of this long historical process has led to powerful works, among them a recent film in which a young Somali—generous and genuine and engaging, a real star—had the opportunity to ‘make his fortune’ and then go broke, so that the interpreters of the world could express their ‘sadness’ at such events.
The sweet smile and soulful gaze of Barkhad Abdi, in other words, are a perfectly logical outcome of twisted annals of longing and mayhem.
But his are not the first artistic or more generally cultural inclinations to place these matters in context. The loquacious English wrote matter-of-factly about their activities in different parts of Africa. In addition to tracts on the ‘Mad Mullah’ and adventures in Somaliland, other denizens of upper-crust Britain have spoken, for instance, of bringing civility to Kenya with a firm hand willing to murder hundreds of innocents in order to make clear the sine qua non of real rule. They’ve written of similar ‘charitable’ agencies in South Africa, Nigeria, and elsewhere. No doubt, other Europeans have, if not as fulsomely as the offspring of Shakespeare, also interpreted these matters in more or less open discourse.
This Humble Correspondent has encountered some of these texts recently. Isak Dinesen, noted above, was a Danish noblewoman whose family owned a significant chunk of Jutlant and who married a similarly situated Swede, her second cousin. He gave her syphilis, and, though she did not shoot him—which she considered the first option “in such a situation”—she divorced him and sought to manage the farm that he had nearly bankrupted.
Her account of all this, beautiful and astonishing in many ways, completely accepts as given that ‘natives’ are a lower order—perhaps spiritually elevated, but intellectually inferior and incapable. She does see grades in this ordering of humankind, with Somalis and Indians and Mohammedans generally a cut above the tribal Africans—the best-of-the-lot Masai over the humbler Kikiyus in her region of Kenya. She apparently agreed with a more recent estimate of ‘African breeds,’ in terms of their utilitarian and aesthetic contributions to one’s household. “The dream is still of the handsome Somalis who always ran the grandest houses.”
But she does not question the occasional necessary murder of the locals, so that they learn their place. She does not quibble about the laws that prohibit ‘native’ ownership of half of ‘highlands’ African real estate, a practice that also typified Somalia. She is sympathetic and openhanded, and her servants almost all love her.
Yet, is a just and democratic world possible if we accept this Out of Africa frame of reference? One would think that the ‘Mad Mullahs’ of Somalia, the Mau-Maus of Kenya, the Ibo warriors of Biafra, and all the varied flavor of jihadis in the current landscape now gave an unequivocal answer, in the negative, to this inquiry. That the imperial potentates have thus far uniformly slaughtered these unfortunates does not alter the quality of their insistent witness.
Chinua Achebe’s most recent work, a combination of memoir and policy monograph about sub-Saharan Africa, echoes the points raised here and in many other locations. He has written the book, in fact, about the just-referenced butchery in Biafra. There Was a Country took forty years to gestate. Achebe himself played a role for Southeastern Nigeria similar to Barkhad Abdi’s assigned part for Somalian development. The great novelist was Biafra’s cultural ambassador and voice in the West.
His Things Fall Apart was, no doubt unwittingly, a precursor or prequel to his most recent offering. It told of Nigerian clan culture just as the missionaries and militias from India and Somalia, led by good British officers, were starting to arrive. It unblinkingly presents the polygamy and twin-death and other ‘backwardness’ of the locals. It also unflinchingly speaks about the British decision to decimate an entire village that had murdered a bypassing English naturalist. The upshot is the main character’s suicide and his eldest son’s conversion to Christianity, the narrative’s coming to a conclusion with a functionary from Cambridge or Oxford as he contemplates having had the hero’s body cut from the tree where it dangled and how this little snippet can fit into the book that he is compiling about his missions in Africa.
Both critiques and kudos for Achebe’s final book have been forthcoming. All accounts, however, agree on the double-edged evasion of responsibility that characterizes our accounting for colonialism and empire and all the rest. The first missing accountability deals with the ruling groups and complicit individuals, all African, that joined with the conquerers, either out of cupidity or deference. The second, and inherently much huger, absent ownership of obligation is in relation to the inheritors of the colonial system, who see themselves as blameless and above the fray—generous philanthropists of ‘democracy’—but who, Achebe insists, must accept joint culpability for both cause and solution.
Where the late encounters that Barkhad Abdi has undergone fit into this overall frame is a situation of ‘a work in progress.’ Whether he stands for mutual reconciliation and retribution, a denial of any sense that compensation and redress are necessary, or finds some middle path all his own will depend.
One thing seems certain. If he sides with the public relations specialists of empire, the self-righteous chest-thumpers of the ‘war on terror,’ the ‘war on drugs,’ and unlimited wars to induce good and forestall evil, he will help to usher in a project long in the offing for capital, suffering as it does from its declining rates of plunder and enrichment.
FROM MUSSOLINI TO “BLACK HAWK DOWN,” OR, ABDI AND INEVITABILITY
Fate is a lot like luck. One pretty rational definition of the latter is ‘when opportunity meets preparation.’ In the same vein, a way of capsulizing the former might be ‘an All-the-World’s-Stages strut into history’s unavoidable embrace.’ Up to a point, one can choose. Following that juncture, one can only ride or watch as whatever one missed takes its course.
Without having had our hands on $65,000 in wages that we used up, without having received the official accolades of academy’s awards, all who are not ‘to the manor born’ share Barkhad Abdi’s story. In view of what we uncover about the world—and Irish, Native American, Australian, Polish, Ukrainian, similar ‘back-stories’ to Mr. Abdi’s await those who inquire—what are we to make of ourselves?
Barkhad Abdi has taken the estimable step of standing before the world as a promoter of community rights and gender equity and participatory politics in Somalia. We all might make similar moves. Or, we might elect to continue to sit back and wait, watching and ‘going along for the ride.’
If the latter path is the direction that we elect, however, we might recall that the last time that a ‘people’s champion’ and proponent of ‘change’ occupied the White House was in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Franklin Delano Roosevelt invited collaboration with and frankly admired a corporatist Italy. In many ways, this fascistic model is coming closer to a full flower here in the U.S. today. Under such circumstances, standing and watching may not be the wisest strategy.
One who takes note can see, in fact, a plumbline that connects “Black Hawk Down” and “Captain Philips.” Such slick and beautiful productions lionize ordinary heroes, and, even as the ‘bad guys’ have their moments, they nonetheless face the consequences of their evil-doing in the end. And the imperial vanguard, bloodied and stretched, wins the day.
Merely watching such interpretive propagations of surreality in the guise of action and actuality cannot effectuate the grassroots initiatives that Fatima Jibrell, and now Barkhad Abdi, are seeking for such places as Somalia—development that those of us in Houston or Cleveland or Denver or Appalachia might well wish for Texas or Ohio or Colorado or the Mountain South. In order to obtain better than a snowball’s chance in a furnace of seeing justice and sustainability come to the fore, we’re going to have to do more.
Perhaps Warren Zevon was advising of this in his song, “Roland, the Headless Thompson Gunner.” He wrote the song with Dave Lindell, who owned the tavern where Zevon tended bar in Spain for a time in the mid-‘70’s. Lindell, more or less fresh from Africa, gave Zevon a business card that said, basically, “Mercenary: Hired Gun.” On the spot, the peripatetic songwriter decided to collaborate on a song about the Congo, where Patrice Lamumba had just faced CIA assassins, and Biafra, where millions went to their graves because oil companies liked doing business with tractable generalissimos.
The lyrics speak of a young man, from “the land of the midnight son,” who “struck a deal in Denmark” to venture to Biafra to “join the bloody fray.” Because of all the Thompson gunners, “knee deep in gore…Roland was the best,” because he was fighting “to help out the Congolese…The CIA decided they wanted Roland dead,” and one of his comrades, bought off, “blew off Roland’s head.”
The last verse is chilling.
The eternal Thompson gunner,
Wandering through the night:
Now it’s ten years later,
But he still keeps up the fight.
In Ireland, In Lebanon, in Palestine, in Berkeley.
Patty Hearst, heard the burst
Of Roland’s Thompson gun, and bought it!
Sensualist and successful Warren Zevon could quite readily have been reminding people of something akin to a ‘higher duty.’ As he did later in “Lawyers, Guns, and Money,” he could have been asking his fellow wanderers down life’s random pathways to make sense of the class oppression and rule-of-the-rich protocols that have organized our lives. In so doing, he might well have been requesting that we imagine something ‘above and beyond the call of duty,’ a pathway on which, like Roland, we would refuse to ‘give up the fight.’
And part of what that greater task is, the underlying rationale for this rambling narrative, is to take whatever happens, day by day, and figure out how it all hangs together and works as a logical whole. This will only be plausible if we are willing to dig deeper than does almost everything now mediated. We have to start at the outset and come down to this moment in time in such as way that we and our cousins and colleagues are in charge, acting for the benefit of working people everywhere on Earth.
NATURE & CULTURE, CLAN & MANKIND, & THE MYTHOS OF INDIVIDUALITY
In a sense, we can only initiate such a project by asking, “How did it all begin?” To pose the question can leave a sinking feeling, as the inquirer recollects Joseph Campbell’s voice speaking about the impenetrable veils of the deep past.
But threads of common sense and enlightenment are accessible. Whether we hearken to the work of E.O. Wilson, in The Social Conquest of Earth or to Friedrich Engels in The Origins of Family, Private Property, and the State, we can see that clannishness has yielded a more individualistic vision, in which an unshakeable tension exists between advancing one’s own agenda and figuring out what best suits our collective livelihood. Such ‘clan-balancing,’ for example, was a gigantic part of how things have worked out in Somalia.
And yet we must also acknowledge that this groupthink proclivity, pitting one’s own kind or color or ‘race’ against others, flies in the face of what we truly are. At root, we are one kind, one race, whatever color or shape we might have as individuals.
Also, no matter the mythological imprimatur of divergent needs and natures in men and women, we can only recognize that men and women are a unity inside of their duality. Any ideology or world-view that elevates or fundamentally differentiates the social rights of men over women—or, theoretically, vice versa—will likely doom the possibility of a socially just existence.
What of it? What if we elect to think racially or chauvinistically? What if we decide not to bother to challenge mediation of the world that implants such views or in any subtle, underhanded fashion accepts such perspectives as valid or defensible?
Things could work out, of course. People have predicted doom and gloom before, and at least a few of us have through, if not unscathed, still more or less whole. To deny this potential for surcease and survival, even if we wane and flail in our commitment to democracy, is obviously untenable.
But prior to today, tens of thousands of hydrogen bombs did not sit in their silos or in the bellies of cleverly engineered undersea boats. Prior to the present instant in time, such a large proportion of humanity has never been so dependent on logistical and food and energy infrastructures that would be quite simple to disrupt and destroy. Just as we must akcknowledge that everything might come out swell, so too we must accept that we could annihilate not only ourselves, but most mammallian and ‘higher’ life on the planet.
What a rational person, someone decent and caring and capable of self-awareness and compassion for others, does in such a quandary depends perhaps. But if the downside of the above duality—complete destruction—has more than a very small chance of coming to pass, at the very least our rational actor will contemplate doing something to reduce that probability.
The Hindu text, Bhagavad Gita, ends with the war of Mahabharata, in which, quite likely an entire epoch and civilization will collapse in fire and death. Arjuna, who is leading the stronger and worthier group of cousins into the fight, realizes what is about to happen. Cognizant of what is about to happen, he hesitates.
“(W)hat pleasure shall we find in killing our cousin brothers? Upon killing these felons we shall incur sin only.
Therefore, we should not kill our cousin brothers. How can we be happy after killing our relatives?
Though they are blinded by greed, and do not see evil in the destruction of the family, or sin in being treacherous to friends. Why should not we, who clearly see evil in the destruction of the family, think about turning away from this sin?”
But Krishna is obdurate. Though somewhat sympathetic, he commands Arjuna to “do his duty” as a warrior and accept the guaranteed glory of the spirit in the afterlife.
And, clearly, plenty of people aspire to such heavenly heights. While This Humble Correspondent would not deign to argue with the likes of these—since his ‘spirituality’ is rooted in the “muck and mire of some good earth,” he would turn to others, not so apocalyptically inclined, and ask them to ponder the chance to choose as Arjuna, on the one hand, and Krishna, on the other hand, argue.
Perhaps mass collective suicide is honorable. Then again, perhaps seeking any way out other than that might make sense. One can’t be sure, of course, but the choice is not likely between “Better dead than red” or “Better red than dead.” Much more reasonable is the likelihood that the choice is between passivity and weakness and fear or action and strength and hope.
This Humble Correspondent predicts, optimistically, no doubt, that the currently impoverished young man who came into the world in Mogadishu would agree. Barkhad Abdi would vote for Arjuna and life.
So everything does fit together. It all adds up and makes sense. But that is not enough. We have to care that it all does so. We have to act on this recognition and knowledge.
“And just why should I care?” This Humble Correspondent can almost hear the inquiry, and the follow up. “Because someone disingenuous enough, with enough temerity, enough gall to call himself ‘This Humble Correspondent’ says that I should care?”
Not at all for any such reason. But one should care nonetheless. One should care because we all, except for those born with the most substantial silver spoons—and having a bottomless jar of jelly to go with it—occasionally long for just a little bigger and more secure piece of pie from life’s oven.
We all, almost without exception, have creative genius that we might turn into output and useful contribution. Barkhad Abdi shows the way. We all have that sort of genius, or something at least vaguely similar, inside of us somewhere.
We all, almost without exception, want our capacity to contribute affirmed. We all pine to hope and not sink into the depths of despairing despond. By turning to our muses and stopping our leaders’ cynical lighting of fuses, we might stumble on steps that would reduce our confusion and lead to unbelievable profusions of human potential.
And, except that we can see that ‘everything does fit together,’ but for our ability to nod that ‘it all adds up and makes sense,’ we can never be likely to see how to obtain more pie. We certainly cannot have the heart, or stomach, to share consistently our creative products with our fellow humans here.
As such, no affirmation of our loveliness and sublime capacity will be forthcoming. And despair will seem like a charitable gift under such circumstances, the drug of choice, the Prozac of out eternal, bitter present tense.
So what are we waiting for? Now that we observe that always, always, always, we can struggle to envision just how everything adds up and makes sense, what are we going to do for ourselves? As is ever the case, inquiring minds want to know.