Tuesday, June 18, 2013

I have met the enemy and he is Pogo

(originally posted 6/18/13)

Although it may be just a faint memory for some and totally unheard of to many, the comic strip Pogo was once one of America's "national treasures." Creator Walt Kelly, employing elaborate landscape art, a cast of apparently benign swamp creatures, and a sometimes-subtle-sometimes-blunt sense of humor, generated daily doses of political and social commentary. By far the most memorable piece Kelly ever produced, and featured on 1970 Earth Day poster, has Pogo (a possum) glancing sadly at his beloved swamp, beneath a polluted sky, and awash with tin cans, garbage, and all the detritus of modern civilization. His take:

"We have met the enemy and he is us."

Its effect was immediate, powerful, and enduring. While it was initially considered the rallying cry of the environmental movement, it was gradually co-opted by other groups. All had one thing in common: each felt that its sacred (profane?) ideas/goals had been thwarted or delayed by an American public incapable of grasping the importance of their agendas. In short, we American were, and continue to be, a benighted agglomeration of mental midgets "standing athwart history yelling 'stop!'"

I just finished a Google search on Pogo's famous phrase and found it used recently to illustrate our failure to appreciate each of the following: degree-based education, the nuances of venture capital investing, the clean-up problems facing professional bass fishermen, the elements of pharmacy practice in Canada,5 and the exaggerated threat of the Muslim world to Europe.

There were many, many more and demonstrate, as Victor Niederhoffer is fond of despising, "an idea that has the world in its grip." Astoundingly, Americans have become accustomed to accepting, without argument, accusations of possessing a national character that is both morally and historically weak and corrupt . But why are Americans so willing to meekly accept blame for ancient crimes (e.g., the institutionalizing of slavery) as well as more modern ones (e.g,, despoiling the environment)?

Try this experiment: go to a very popular social media website and claim credit for the invention of the internet, or the development of Velcro, or postulating the concept of string theory. Those who bother to respond will flame you unmercifully, claim your crazy, or suggest that your posting privileges be rescinded. At the very least they will view you as a nut unworthy of additional consideration and strike you from their list.

Return the next day and confess to feelings of guilt over slavery, the withholding of women's rights, your opposition to birth control, the continuing debasement of the Native American, and your opposition to tax increases. Your audience will respond with enthusiasm. Some will cheer your long-awaited epiphany and subsequent mea culpa. Others will feel it's "too little, too late" and suggest that sizable donations to various righteous organizations might allay their lengthy suffering. A third group will think you're a total sell-out, but not comment. A fourth group (the Remnant), will feel exactly as the third but will courageously post their objections - and risk the collective outrage of the collective mind.

The situation would be bad enough if the situations were limited to accepting unmerited approbation - viewed by some as heeding the scriptural injunction to turn the other cheek. But, in many cases, it has gone well beyond that; confession is not enough; repentance must be demonstrated. Generally, this is expected to come from someone of national prominence and in a very contrite manner. (There are some [Pogo?] who would prefer a re-enactment of the whipping Henry II received from the monks after the slaying of Becket.)   

Strangely enough, this method of instilling an inescapable sense of national guilt can only work in those countries with a strong Judeo-Christian heritage... yet among the strongest purveyors of this guilt are philosophers, academics, and sociologists who, in many cases, are atheists or agnostics. The success of these strategies is pathetic enough, but they are not the end. No, it is expected that the culprit, in this case, America, (and the entire Western bloc in other cases) is pretty much expected to withhold judgement, military action, and critical cartoons.

Our past sins have pretty much made us persona non grata in a world that not long ago welcomed us as conquering heroes. And so it remains - until some minor despot, in a "strategic" location, is threatened from within or without. Then we get the call. It most certainly won't go to Euroland which is incapable of fighting off the verbal attacks of Nigel Farage, nor to the British (whose entire Army can fit in Wembley Stadium), nor to Russia or China (who would most likely not leave or exact a heavy "exit fee"). 

Inevitably, the residents of Pogo's pissoir get the call - without a hint of forgiveness or a courtly request - but as a strident demand. It seems that, after all, our sins are irremissible, and the calls will never cease "for we are the movers and shakers of the world forever, it seems."