A great way to be demoralized, unless you’re the sort of crass salesman who finds such things uplifting and edifying, is to take a look at the hidden mercenary history of projects that everyone knows were motivated by highminded idealism.

Perhaps you noticed that Big Bird, that lovable “Sesame Street” institution, bears a striking resemblance to the mascot on old La Choy vegetable cans. By “old,” I mean older than “Sesame Street” and Big Bird himself.  Complaints about the commercial corruption of “Sesame Street” miss a salient truth: the very project was the work of old advertisers. In a very real way, these fellows didn’t debase an altruistic children’s television character by whoring him out for commercial purposes, but elevated a purely mercenary cartoon character from canned vegetable sales to the moral and intellectual formation of young children. All the same, it is a bit creepy.

There’s worse. You’ve probably heard that cloyingly sappy song about how “I’d like to teach the world to sing….” It’s the sort of thing that American school districts see fit to teach elementary school students instead of, say, math (as an alumnus of Walter Hays Elementary in Palo Alto, CA, I know whereof I speak), but surely its creation was the work of mentally addled but well-meaning idealists. It was obviously the result of George Harrison, or maybe The Guess Who, dropping some particularly rad acid one day and then breaking out a box of psychedelic multicolored crayons to draw the album cover. Right?

Wrong. It was dreamed up by an advertising executive whose flight got badly delayed at the Shannon Airport, where the passengers took great comfort in Coca-Cola. The song began life as a Coke jingle.

Hey, miss, could you pass me an airsickness bag? I know, we aren’t yet airborne, but it works for existential sickness, too. Ah, yes, that’s m’lass.

Why not, “I’d like to buy me blokes a pint/of anything on tap?” Well, that’s a stupid question, with an even stupider answer: not commercial enough. We’re good Americans. We aren’t sluts; we’re whores. Let me rephrase that in the fashion of Benjamin Franklin: we’re mercenary prostitutes.

But don’t get it into your heads that this has to do with anything as wholesome as sex. We aren’t high-end call girls having a consensual roll in the hay with the governor and wondering why he won’t take off his socks. We’re more like mob-connected S&M dungeonmasters who drug innocent pubgoers and then have our way with them. Our marks wake up the next morning with bruises and dull anal pain, thinking, “I swear I had $300 in my wallet last night. What the hell did Vito do to me? Am I just dreaming that he stripped me naked, tied me to a column in the basement, beat me with a belt and tickled my nose with a feather? And where the hell is my passport?” Then, when they, or perhaps I should say we, go to the authorities, our complaints are heard by some pleasantly crooked beat cop who takes us aside, puts an arm over our shoulder, and says, “Hey, word to the wise, that ain’t how things work around here.”

Truthfully, though, that beat cop doesn’t have to give his sage counsel too often; most of us are content within the precincts of the hologram. Nay, we feel like fish out of water when we leave it. Besides, people who choose not to live in the hologram are much harder to fleece. Why keep that sort of dour, morally upright company when the alternative is to rip off one’s fellow goobers and be thanked for it? Which makes more sense: being told off for hawking a shit sandwich, or having the customer say, “Mmmm, Nutella! May I have seconds?” I make it sound like Eric Cantor might be an important part of the customer base, and indeed he might. Just remember: if the Majority Whip brings his appetite and his smirk, it isn’t so much that he enjoys your sandwiches as that he’d like to have your business at his own Pret-a-Manger franchise. All of this is, as Herman Cain might say, a dirty, dirty game, but it’s a lot less lucrative to hang out with sane and honest people.

It isn’t just songs, dances and smirking Congressmen. Consider American agriculture policy. We’re the breadbasket of the world. USA! USA! USA! It helps that competing breadbaskets have historically been managed by the likes of Stalin, but still, we know a thing or two about farming. One of those things is farm surpluses. The Heartland produces such bounty that prices plunge and farmers must plant more and more to tread water financially, further plunging prices, and before long the sheriff’s deputies have to weigh their fear of creditors and their hired thugs against their fear of agrarian lynch mobs. For a change, the sheriff is hoping that there isn’t a good hanging tree in these-here parts, because he doesn’t fancy himself part of the swinging scene.

Many of those involved would prefer policy solutions that don’t involve kowtowing to Pinkertons or scanning every horizon for rope-toting rabble and stout oaks. Is there a way to hang on to the farm without brandishing a Colt 45 in the presence of local lawmen in order to deter them from taking part in official iniquity? Is there a way to structure the market in such a way that the farmers can consistently get three hots and a cot for their trouble, so that they can be fat and prosperous in the country that they made fat and prosperous by growing so damn much food, instead of running a feverish race to the bottom on commodity prices? Is there a way to maybe avoid a Dust Bowl in the process? Ya reckon?

I reckon there is. Specifically, I reckon that the solutions would involve a hearty dose of grange socialism. There’s the rub. The solution is un-American. It’s a short march from the grange hall to the kolkhoz and from there to the Gulag, so don’t y’all become Bolshevik on us, now, y’all hear?

A better solution: have the federal government buy some of that American exceptionalistic surplus and give it to (other, swarthier) poor countries that need the food. Now, y’all hear good now, that isn’t socialism. It’s socialism when the Soviet government does that, and it’s socialism when the American government gives its own poor people food without making them dance for their supper, but it’s helping hardworking American farm and ranch families when the government buys their produce and dumps it in foreign countries that lack the wherewithal to block our ships at the port. And that’s just about every country on God’s green earth because, as we showed in ‘Nam, foreigners ain’t got balls like Americans. Yup, that’s some smart policy. Kills two birds with one stone: takes surplus off the American market and wins hearts and minds in the Third World by giving starving foreigners food. Khrushchev is banging his shoe on the table, so angry is he that he didn’t think of it first.

How do Third World farmers fit into this scheme? Uh, no one gave a thought to them. Oops. But it was never really about the foreigners. It was about the Yankees. Us. Foreign food aid is mighty agreeable to agribusiness because it is a way not to have to sell their entire output on the open market (kind of a pain in the ass, that). It appeals to bleeding hearts of all stripes by giving sustenance to starving children. Jingoists enjoy it, provided that they aren’t completely steamed about socialism, because it gives them an opportunity to revel in their superiority over dark-skinned peoples whose local agriculture the exports incidentally destroyed. There’s a lot more overlap between the last two groups than is pleasant to contemplate. To be fair, it’s hard to find a solution to Third World food problems that isn’t terrible from the perspective in country, but from the American political perspective, USDA food aid is a win-win-win. To quote food policy analyst Charlie Sheen, also known to his UFW contacts and Chuck “Chaim Leibowitz” Lorre as Carlos Estevez, “DUH! WINNING!”

Rudyard Kipling long ago joined the ranks of Dead White Males, but the White Man’s Burden lives on. If they can’t feed themselves, we’ll feed them. Hell, even if they can feed themselves after a fashion, we’ll dump our surplus into their markets and say that it’s for their own good. Aren’t we a fine bunch of chaps?

It seems we (and I include among us Kipling’s countrymen) have a wee problem according the darker sorts the same free agency that we claim for ourselves. Of course, it’s hard to be a savior for those who see no need to be saved. Idi Amin tried turning the tables on us during Great Britain’s 1970s industrial fugue. Figuring that the limeys were hitting hard times and might enjoy some free fruit, he sent a wholesale shipment of fresh Ugandan bananas to Great Britain, whose customs authorities declined the shipment. For many observers, the shipment was a point well taken, but alas, that point might have been made more effectively by someone other than a megalomaniac widely believed to be a cannibal.

If the purpose of giving is to show off one’s superiority,then it is indeed better to give than to receive. Of course, that’s a game that the White Man doesn’t like to play on an even field. We honkies aren’t unique in this hypocrisy, but we are unique in terms of our superior firepower. We like to think of ourselves as gentlemanly sportsmen, but we aren’t so sporting when there’s a cheap morality play to be made or some lucrative plundering to be done. “Cheers, mate. Would you fancy a Bible with an Oxford concordance, or would you fancy a stroke of the cane?”

This brings us to missionaries. The Other White Meat. I enjoy ragging on missionaries, especially since all three of my paternal cousins went on a mission trip to Ghana, or as everyone at church usually called it, “Africa,” this past summer. I’ve always held my peace on this matter around my Evangelical relatives and friends. Grandma, for one, fervently believed in foreign missions for the sole purpose of evangelization, so my view has been that when in Rome, so to speak, one oughtn’t speak ill of the Church and her clergy. (This is, incidentally, a terrible analogy for those who are familiar with secular Italian politics.)

Around people who don’t promote the missionary position so fervently I’m more candid. The “Africa trip” was one of the wackiest propositions in which I’ve ever had close friends or relatives take part. The original plan to evangelize in Togo was scotched when that country apparently descended into some sort of unrest. I don’t know the details; even with cousins who nearly went there, I have a hard time giving a shit about Togolese news. The main thing I know about the country is that as of a few years ago it had no cardiac surgeon, so its citizens had to make do with Ghana’s cardiac surgeon, along with anyone in Ghana who had heart trouble but no money to fly to London.

You read that right: cardiac surgeon, in the singular, because there was only one. This fellow had intentionally trained in Hannover because he figured that he’d enjoy Germany less than his physician friends enjoyed the US and the UK, where almost everyone of them had settled after training.

Obviously, what such a country most desperately needs is for a group of Americans to fly in for a week and show them the “Jesus Film.” Don’t tell their hearts, their achy, breaky hearts, because Jesus may not be able to fix them if the national heart surgeon is busy, but he will be able to save them from hell, which is where they’re going, heart and soul, if they don’t ask Jesus into their hearts, so maybe that whole Islam thing isn’t the best idea.

Did I mention that the church group purposely evangelized a majority Muslim district in the North? Of course I didn’t; this tale is too tall for a single paragraph. If you reckon that things might get a bit gnarly, you reckon right. Before the group arrived in Ghana, their main in-country contact, a Christian Southerner, was beaten nearly to death by a lynch mob after his vehicle struck and killed a mother and child in a traffic accident in the North. It was only after he returned to that district to express his apologies that the local chief agreed to let him bring in my cousins’ church group to show the “Jesus Film.” The working of the Holy Spirit and a victory for Christ? Maybe. A victory for Americans meddling in countries they don’t understand at the intersection of sectarian and regional animosity, bad roads and worse driving? Absolutely.

Paradoxically (or, as P.J. O’Rourke would say, paradoxically for the stupid), the American missionaries were much better off in the Northern villages as American honkies than they would have been as Southern Ghanaians. Most of the locals had never seen white people, and the swarthiest members of the church group were white enough for their purposes. Crucially, this meant that they didn’t bring prejudices to the new relationships. Also, the novelty was pretty impressive: “Hey, dad, check this out! This Martian guy can stir his coffee while lighting a cigarette with his other two hands! And that Venusian line cook has a third eye under his cap! This is rad shit!”

The best thing they were saying about the group’s contact from Accra was probably that he turned out to be all right despite coming from a long lineage of dirty Southern bastards. I understand only the broadest outlines of regional and sectarian tensions in Ghana (hell, so did most of the mission group, if I’m not mistaken), but as an American, I’d say that our own North-South divide is a reasonable analogy, with the caveat that regional tensions in Ghana are evidently orders of magnitude worse than ours currently are. Ghana puts the “recent” into “recent unpleasantness.”

Ah, but we’re called to go to the ends of the earth to spread the Gospel. Or, in the case of Alma Mater, a now-secular institution formerly sold back and forth among Methodists, Anglicans and Baptists who threw out one another’s archival records whenever the institution changed hands, to “engage the world.” Or something like that; I forget the exact words.

That’s why Alma Mater put such an emphasis on study abroad. From time to time I found a broad whom I wasn’t able to study as closely as I’d have liked, which was a shame. On the other hand, I spent part of a summer in Russia and didn’t see the need to go back for a semester or a year, although some of my instructors saw the need. The main turning point came on June 4, fittingly the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when a couple of dirty Moscow cops (but I repeat myself) interrogated me for allegedly photographing them and made me expose my film. This donnybrook demonstrated yet another way in which Russia was eternally fucked, and yet another reason to be prouder than ever of my maternal grandfather and his family for getting the hell out in 1905 and embezzling money for the cabin fare from Southampton to New York. Embezzlement would have been the least of their moral quandaries in Mother Russia.

As a legal matter, my field interrogation in Park Kultury came into starker contrast later that summer, when Donovan Jackson was body-slammed against a police cruiser by Jeremy Morse, one of Inglewood’s finest. Jackson’s arrest was the ultimate result of a traffic stop by an LA Sheriff’s deputy over an expired registration sticker, proving that they still know how to escalate on Century Boulevard. The kicker was that the incident was filmed by a civilian from across the street, and enough people didn’t believe Morse’s “ow-my-balls” alibi that Morse and his partner, Bijan Darvish, were indicted, respectively, for assault under color of authority and for filing a false report. Both officers were acquitted on their first trial, and I don’t know what the hell really happened except that all parties involved were punks (except for Darvish, who was probably just a liar), but it did give me a new appreciation for living in a country where, when the system works properly, bad cops don’t go home.

Was I in a position to fix the Russian police? No. That takes a Saakashvili figure in the right place at the right time; even the current anti-Putin movement is having a hard time purging the cryptotsarist thug and his cronies. I’m barely even in a position to fix the police in my own country. In this case, I suppose I might as well stick to the dysfunctional shithole that I know and love than to the even more dysfunctional shithole that my great-grandparents knew and didn’t so much love, and which hasn’t improved as much as it should have in the meantime.

The problem is that in an environment like Alma Mater or a mission-oriented church, it is expected that people will uproot themselves every few years for some greater glory, probably pie-in-the-sky. The same thing was true of the British Imperial Service. Having already been uprooted, unwillingly, just shy of my tenth birthday and moved from the Bay Area to Central Pennsylvania, I wasn’t crazy about the idea of being uprooted twice in the space of four years in college. I was still processing a backlog of domestic cultural exchange baggage. I had a hard enough time understanding my own countrymen, so I didn’t particularly feel like understanding someone else’s.

And unlike many of my classmates, I was uninterested in ruling the world, and I remain so. It makes me an inferior alumnus, since President Fish cannot use me as an example of great things done by Alma Mater’s alumni or milk me for the riches I’ve earned/stolen/otherwise acquired by ruling the world, but that’s no negative in my book.

I’d rather make some bad cops, probably American ones, not go home. Or maybe somehow arrange for a locum tenens cardiac surgeon to cover vacations in Ghana; I dunno. In either event, Alma Mater won’t get to take credit. I’m certainly not flying there to show Northerners the “Jesus Film.” They can worship whatever they want; I’m not entering that dangerous fray just because some Calvinist-inspired wackos have decided that their souls are in jeopardy because they’re Muslims. What can I say? I find arrogance to be a turnoff.

At least my cousins and their mission group flew to Ghana on British Airways. There’s no more fitting air carrier to lift up the White Man’s Burden to flight level 400. Hearts burdened for Christ, luggage burdened with projection equipment, the better to show the heathens the error of their ways and the graces of the true Old Time Religion, unlimited allowance for cultural baggage–when BA 081 is cleared to land at Accra-Heart of Darkness International Airport, it’s time for Africa!

Cheerio, chaps!

Advertisements