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Thursday, May 15, 1997



Odds and Ends

With its bullying accord with Russia on NATO expansion the U.S. has finally kissed off Boris Yeltsin. The agreement's "assurance" that NATO will not move against a near-prostrate Russia provides a sliver of face-saving for Yeltsin, although keeping him propped up in the cross hairs of his domestic opposition is no longer cost-effective in the Clinton administration's calculus.

Washington realizes that it is Yeltsin's inner circle which must now hold off the nationalist reaction to the glories of Russian mafia-capitalism and societal rot -- or not, as the case may be. Madeleine Albright has intimated that the U.S. must prepare for any eventuality, and it is apparent that NATO's proposed inclusion of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic is intended to dampen the possibility of a worst-case scenario in Russia.

These newly garrisoned NATO members (provisioned by the free world's arms merchants) will constitute a fire wall against spillover from any political eruptions in Russia, the administration hopes. They are, significantly, the most stable of the Central and Eastern European countries and, unlike their less prosperous and more disillusioned regional neighbors (and particularly, industrious but embittered Eastern Germany), would be less likely to experience dissension arising out of internal domestic sympathy for Russia's workers and their own disenchantment with the once-glittering Western European economic model.

The buffer zone countries of the Cold War are now allegiant to the West, and Russia is not merely encircled, but penetrated. Free market affluence in Russia is of course only enjoyed by the criminal elite that had been elite and criminal prior to its rehabilitation by democracy. The retinues of these dozen or so ex-commissars who control half the wealth of Russia will join with current and future NATO invitees in what Clinton envisions as a "democratic partnership." The success of such a concert depends on whether or not the Russian Constitution can be amended -- as the Kapitalburo is presently scheming -- to enable a president to be appointed by the parliament rather than elected by the people.

The U.S. is aware that, were a fair election to be held, retired general Aleksandr Lebed's reform movement would win handily. And NATO's expansion to Russia's borders plays to Lebed's hand as it reminds the Russian populace of historical NATO corralling of and belligerence toward the former Soviet state. All of which Washington has taken into account, as well. It appears that Clinton is anxious to bring these issues to a head, as befits the momentum of America's global mission and his own wish to be remembered for foreign policy grandiosity equivalent to that of his predecessors.

Such ham-fisted policy illumines the larger conflict, which centers on finalizing the structure of the European Economic and Monetary Union in 1999 and establishing the Euro as the single currency. The economic changes necessary for admission to the E.M.U. -- set forth at Maastricht in 1991 -- are based upon the German and American models, with their stringent requirements for acceptable budget deficits and national debts in order for countries to qualify. The traditional social benefits enjoyed by European workers have suffered as a consequence, with the attempt to cut or eliminate public monies for pensions, health and welfare, and the encouraging of private insurance substitutes. Worker resistance to the erosion of social gains has intensified over the past two years and has brought millions into the streets.

Parallels to the era of the earlier NATO presence bear some scrutiny. The containment of the Soviets also yielded a domestic component in the enclosing of European workers and political parties of the left. However shortsighted they may have been, workers looked to Soviet labor as a theoretical guide to the possibilities for full participation in their own societies. Over time, their militance won them conditions similar to the social democratic policies of the Scandinavian countries.

The attempt to reverse these gains is synchronous with the newly revitalized NATO posture. The wispy armchair warriors who plot the graphs of American foreign policy foresee the prospect of a Lebed triumph and have charted its possible consequences. Foremost is the likelihood of some recentralization of the Russian economy and rigorous monitoring of infusions of outside capital and the selling of Russian state properties by its ex-apparatchiks. The cohesion of ordinary Russians around these reforms will induce movement toward reclaiming their lost web of safety net guarantees. The tumult -- and it will be exactly that -- will reverberate throughout all corners of Europe, necessarily targeting capital's currently rampant influence. The planned NATO expansion is a prospectus for siphoning off any shock waves rippling into Central and Eastern Europe, while Western Europe's take-backs of benefits serves as a pointed confirmation to its labor force of the assumption that the old vision of a society run by the people who do its work has been consigned to the ashbin of history.

* * *

Speaking of unwarranted responses (as Joe Bob Briggs would say), the reaction to the Jack Davis birthday party is a bit puzzling. The promotion of an amateurishly conceived stadium proposal is facilitated (I'd normally not get within an ass's roar of this word) by a demonstration of the sophomoric fare available on local access cable. Bad politics and worse art -- side by side, San Francisco to the core. We get reamed by this diversity of expression all the time, and indeed extol it as a mark of our uniqueness. Our tourist trade thrives on such notoriety. All of which is the point of today's homily, brothers and sisters: the reminder that, in life's key moments, you avert your eyes from everything but the money. Because after the transaction is complete, you'll be best aroused by who's on top and who's on the bottom.

--Copyright John Hutchison 1997



When Myth Becomes Reality


The painter Mayumi Oda is haunted by a recurring vision of the Tibetan goddess Dakini. Glowing with the heat of a passion transmuted into compassion, this great and terrible deity wears a string of fifty skulls around her neck; her right hand brandishes a razor-like curved knife. According to legend, Dakini's appearance before a person presages a dreadful transmogrification: the top sliced off, her victim's skull becomes a gaping cauldron, into which she crams the rest of the body. This sacrificial stew -- truly the essence of all that the person has experienced -- is served up for the sake of all who lived and suffered in the past.

For Oda, who makes her home in Muir Beach, California, seeing goddesses is nothing new. A small woman with a frequently impish grin and long dark hair like that of the women she paints, she has devoted much of her career to expressing "the strength and vitality of the female" by depicting women as mythic (male or female) figures. But the whimsy of her previous works often took the bombast out of traditionally frightening personages. In one silkscreen print, for example, the angry wind god who customarily guards the entrance to Japanese temples metamorphosed into a young woman in red and purple bloomers, dancing from cloud to cloud.

Dakini is different. Dakini is fierce and uncompromising, demanding total devotion. The change occurred, Oda says, during the Gulf War, when she stared at her television set in horror as U.S. planes bombed Iraq. Perhaps she, like Fusako deAngelis, another Bay Area resident from Japan, was reliving the World War II firebombing of her native Tokyo. In any case, Oda began to work obsessively on two paintings: one, a nurturing image, of the Chinese goddess who guards the magical peaches of immortality; the other, a remarkably disturbing one, of a full-breasted maternal figure, nailed to a cross. Then she stopped painting and went to Japan.

There the horror continued, although more subtly. She discovered that the country which defined itself by its unique role as an A-bomb victim had become nuclearized. Uncomfortably aware of its dependence on foreign energy sources, Japan had silently committed itself in the 1950s to developing a completely self-sufficient cycle of nuclear power generation -- everything from uranium mining to waste disposal. The government allotted 93 percent of its ample energy budget for nuclear research and development, and by the 1990s there were 49 commercial reactors operating in an area the size of California. In a program that prided itself on its concern for safety, their placement often seemed oddly ill-conceived. The "Nuclear Ginza" of Wakasa Bay, where 15 power plants are concentrated, is separated from the ancient capital of Kyoto, some 37 miles away, by Lake Biwa, which provides water for 8 million people. Nearby, too, are earthquake fault lines, and the town of Monju, the site of Japan's prototype fast-breeder reactor, sits about half a mile from an active fault.

At the core of the reactor lurks a ton and a half of plutonium (the bomb dropped by the United States on Nagasaki contained less than twenty pounds). This radioactive element, a silvery metal produced almost entirely by nuclear reactors and laboratories, is appropriately named. Pluto, the Greek god of wealth who controls the earth's cache of subterranean precious metals, also rules the realm of the dead. His namesake, used primarily in nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons, offers up great wealth to electric companies (11 of the 15 plants near Wakasa Bay are owned by Kansai Electric) and arms merchants. Its potential for destruction is equally great: minute quantities of plutonium in wounds can produce skin cancer; inhaled particles of plutonium oxide can cause lung cancer; ingested plutonium, which seeks out bony tissue, can cause bone cancer. (In the United States, retaliation against Karen Silkwood for accusing Kerr-McGee of making defective plutonium fuel rods took the form of placing plutonium compounds in her house where she would eat and breathe them.) This was the substance that Japan was stockpiling at an alarming rate.

Oda looked for signs that someone in authority was aware of the danger, but officials in the Japanese and the American governments seemed oblivious, if not actively implicated. She discovered, however, that women in both countries were willing to turn themselves into "wrathful mothers" (as Oda called herself in a recent UC San Francisco talk) willing to challenge the "nuclear patriarchy." Back in the United States, she met Claire Greensfelder, who had begun antinuclear work after the accident at Three-Mile Island caused her to fear for the future of the Chicago inner-city children she was working with. The two women and others, Japanese and American, established
Plutonium Free Future, based in Berkeley, and quickly joined similar-minded people in attacking the production and use of plutonium throughout the world.

Dakini has directed her passion toward a new, powerful opponent, one nearly impossible to destroy. Once created, Plutonium 239, the most commonly used isotope, with a half-life of 24,000 years, is here to stay. And so the goddess has become a guardian, perpetually bound to the force in her custody. The Munich psychoanalyst Thea Bauriedl, who has written about the psychological effects of living in a nuclear age, sees this as a healthy transformation: only by continued consciousness of the dangerous element in our midst, by integrating its destructive potential into our daily lives, can we free ourselves from the paralyzing guilt of having created it.

Is all this talk of goddesses merely New Age babble? Far from it. The reinterpretation of ancient myths in modern contexts -- which is also found in contemporary ecology-based poetry -- enables us to make sense of the chaotic world around us and makes real the life-and-death struggle in which we are engaged. It simultaneously forges links to the past and opens up paths to the future. In another adaptation, Mayuma Oda presents the image of the treasure ship, which the people of Edo several centuries ago placed under their pillows at New Year's in the hope of realizing their dreams. Her most recent version shows a boat laden with all the fruits and animals of the world. The goddess Benten straddles the bow, an ever-vigilant owl perched on her head and a round, healthy earth held securely in her lap.


--Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

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