Swans Commentary » swans.com December 19, 2011  



Perspectives: A Review of 2011


A Personal Kaleidoscope Of Events In 2011


by Manuel García, Jr.





(Swans - December 19, 2011)  The following presentation of events that occurred in 2011, and personalities that passed on during the year, is my purely subjective kaleidoscope of impressions and memories of the old year.

There were many important events and noteworthy people who died in 2011, which I do not mention only because I never developed an emotion for or interest in them. This is not a judgment about their significance but simply the reality of my particular thinking and feeling during my coincident living during the time of these other lives and happenings.

A convenient listing of notable events for 2011 is catalogued on Wikipedia, and is the source of some of the data I used here.

Nature's Power Over Humanity

Homo sapiens today are as powerless to influence the forces of Nature as the first of our kind were half a million years ago. Certainly, we can dress, and house, and medicate our bodies more effectively, and we can protect ourselves by anticipating many regular changes of weather more accurately than our ancestors could, but we have made absolutely no progress in controlling Nature, even though we have the technical knowledge for destroying much of the biosphere (some organisms would probably survive a nuclear winter), and we have no foreseeable prospects of ever gaining such control.

When earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and violent storms brush away our people and their constructions from large swaths of land in only a few hours, or even moments, we experience primordial fear, and our psyches are telescoped back into the pure animal mind of our origins.

Once the immediate danger has passed, which had jolted us into this primitive limbic state, and we have sufficient time and security to return to our typically modern frontal cortex forms of consciousness as mental states of abstraction and distraction, we can benefit from contemplating the humbling realization of our individual and collective insignificance within the workings of Nature despite our species' miraculous evolution.

We might even awaken to the realization of the essential bond of community as the one refuge from primordial fear.

January 11 - Flooding and mudslides in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro kill 903.

March 11 - A 9.1-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit the east of Japan, killing 15,839, injuring 5,950, and leaving another 3,642 missing. Tsunami warnings are issued in 50 countries and territories. Emergencies are declared at four nuclear reactors affected by the earthquake at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. Three of the reactors overheat causing meltdowns that release large amounts of radioactive material into the air.

June 4 - Chile's Puyehue volcano erupts, causing air traffic cancellations across South America, New Zealand, and Australia, forcing over 3,000 people to evacuate.

September 19 - After 434 people die, the United Nations launches a $357M appeal for victims of the Sindh floods in Pakistan.

October 4:

-- In Thailand, 283 people are killed by floods during a severe monsoon season, with 58 of the country's 77 provinces affected. By November 14 the death toll is 536, and 13.1M Thais, about 1 in 5 of the entire population, are affected.

-- The death toll from the flooding of Cambodia's Mekong River and attendant flash floods reaches 207.

-- The flooding in Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia, lasting over three months, is the worst in 50 years.

October 23 - A magnitude 7.2 earthquake strikes eastern Turkey near the city of Van. Over 600 deaths are ultimately reported. On November 9 another earthquake of magnitude 5.7 strikes Van, trapping dozens of people in building collapses, as residents had returned to living in Van's still-damaged buildings.

Poverty Courts Disaster and Sires Tragedy

Man is a clever selfish ape. How else to characterize a species that can send its individuals on extraterrestrial voyages, decipher the conditions of the planet back through billions of years, and manipulate matter from subatomic scales to that of the Pyramids, and still find it impossible to provide for the minimum needs in food, clothing, and shelter for so many people?

Survival drives people to take many chances with their lives: they crowd onto inadequate and overloaded vehicles, because to not go may mean a harsher fate; and they scavenge fuel for cooking, and maybe heat, and maybe to run some basic machinery, even though scavenging (or stealing) fuel may cause gas explosions and accidental fires, or expose them to chemical toxicity.

As abstractions in the frontal cortex of our most advanced individuals, the varieties of human struggles for survival form a global weave of Gordian knots, a socioeconomic mesh of intractably entwined problems. At the limbic level of experience worldwide, there remains the imperative to survive in a vast, marvelous, and terrifying world that is still a finite realm populated with a daily increasing number of survivors.

July 20 -- The United Nations declares a famine in southern Somalia, the first in over thirty years.

September 10 - The MV Spice Islander I, a ferry boat carrying at least 800 people, sinks off the coast of Zanzibar; 240 people are confirmed dead.

September 12 - Approximately 100 Kenyans are dead after a petrol pipeline explosion in Nairobi, Kenya.

October 31 - Global population reaches seven billion, according to UN estimates.

The Long Wait for Peaceful Reasoning and Justice

Wars flare up, atrocities occur, and we yearn for the perpetrators to be caught and swift justice administered. But, so often they elude our moral outrage and our laws, and the victims are forgotten by nearly all except their families. Justice delayed is justice denied.

Yet, sometimes the persistence of moral outrage is rewarded, when war criminals are finally apprehended and tried, ensuring they end their lives with their freedom revoked so that however long the interval of liberty that they enjoyed after their crimes, they can experience the destruction of their hubris and the unraveling of all their schemes.

The passage of time has a way of eroding the hardened positions and compelling motivations of yesteryear's wars. Old partisans can awaken one day and realize that their fight has long been over, that they have wasted so much of their lives entrenched in ideological bubbles that evaporated for the rest of the world long ago; and like Rip Van Winkle they must try to settle into a new present for which their war-motivating conceptions are so outmoded that they have been relegated to historical footnotes.

Once long-delayed instances of peace and justice finally occur, one has to wonder: why did it take so long, and require so much suffering?

May 26 - Former Bosnian Serb Army commander Ratko Mladic, wanted for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, is arrested in Serbia.

July 9 - South Sudan secedes from Sudan as the result of the independence referendum held in January.

July 20 -- Goran Hadzic is detained in Serbia, becoming the last of 161 people indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to be apprehended.

September 5 - India and Bangladesh sign a pact to end their 40-year border demarcation dispute. Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, was born out of a 1971 war of liberation against West Pakistan, and with Indian support. This conflict in turn sparked a coincident Indo-Pakistani War. Perhaps up to 3,000,000 people died, mainly Bengalis in Bangladesh, and the atrocities perpetrated on them are listed as one of the top 5 genocides in the 20th century.

October 18 - Israel and the Palestinian militant organization Hamas begin a major prisoner swap in which the captured Israeli Army soldier Gilad Shalit is released by Hamas in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian and Israeli-Arab prisoners held in Israel, including 280 prisoners serving life sentences for planning and perpetrating attacks against Israel. Keying off Descartes: we talked, therefore acknowledging we each exist; ergo, so much more could be talked about.

October 20 - Basque separatist militant organization ETA declares an end to its 43-year campaign of political violence that has killed over 800 people since 1968.

October 27 - Alfredo Astiz, 59, a former Argentine naval officer known as the "Blonde Angel of Death," was jailed for life for crimes against humanity including torture, murder, and forced disappearance committed during the military rule of Argentina between 1976 and 1983. Eleven other former military and police officers were also given life sentences for crimes against humanity. Four others were jailed for between 18 and 25 years. About 30,000 people were killed or made to disappear by the military in its campaign against political opposition and left-wing guerrillas. The group of naval officers with Astiz during the "Dirty War" was responsible for about 4,500 of those deaths.

The Madness of Assassination and Terrorism

Desperate times call for desperate measures. A people repressed under military occupation, deprived of the liberty to manage their society and the power to develop an economy that sustains them and could lead to prosperity, will resort to the weapon of the powerless in the struggle for independence: suicide attack.

A powerful state accustomed to having others accommodate to it, and disinterested in detouring from its agenda to consider the many pleas and preferences of powerless foreign peasants who are aggrieved by that agenda, may be seduced by the attractiveness of assassination of individual foreign (and domestic!) irritants as a quick and economical way to lubricate its predetermined policy thrusts.

Both morality and elegance are lost from national policy when assassination becomes a tool of statecraft because domestic political inertia has become an imperative. When any one man holds this attitude, it is obvious that he is insane.

May 1 - President Barack Obama announces that Osama bin Laden, the founder and leader of the militant group al Qaeda, has been killed during an American military operation in Pakistan.

July 22 - 77 people are killed in twin terrorist attacks by a lone assailant in Norway, Anders Breivik, with a bombing in the Regjeringskvartalet (the government center in Oslo) and a shooting at a political youth camp in the island of Utøya. On November 28, the Norwegian court declares Breivik insane.

October 4 - 100 people are killed in a car bombing in the Somali capital Mogadishu. Since 2006, hundreds of suicide attacks have taken place in Somalia. "In the ten years after September 11, 2001, there were 336 suicide attacks in Afghanistan and 703 in Pakistan, while there were 1,003 documented suicide attacks in Iraq between March 20, 2003, and December 31, 2010." In Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank between October 2000 and October 2006 there were 167 clearly identified suicide bomber attacks, with 51 other types of suicide attack.

The World of Debt

"The idea is essentially repulsive, of a society held together only by the relations and feelings arising out of pecuniary interest." -- John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

"To feel much for others and little for ourselves; to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitute the perfection of human nature." -- Adam Smith (1723-1790)

"Once we allow ourselves to be disobedient to the test of an accountant's profit, we have begun to change our civilization." -- John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946)

"The legacy of unregulated wealth creation is bitter indeed." -- Tony Judt (1948-2010)

May 16 - The European Union agrees to a €78 billion rescue deal for Portugal. The bailout loan will be equally split between the European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism, the European Financial Stability Facility, and the International Monetary Fund. The European financial crisis -- the inability of certain European Union states to borrow money because the financial market fears they are unable to pay back their debts -- will continue for the rest of the year as the European Union seeks to refinance those debts so as to maintain the viability of its currency, the Euro. From Portugal, the focus moved to Greece (again) and threatens to include Italy, Spain, and Ireland.

September 17 - Protestors under the banner Occupy Wall Street gathered in New York's financial district and camped out, inspiring many similar protests in the U.S. and internationally. OWS protesters are united in opposition to the social costs of the "banker terrorism" that has resulted in financial crises in the United States, Europe, and Japan.

October 27 - After an emergency meeting in Brussels (spearheaded by German Chancellor Angela Merkel), the European Union announced an agreement to tackle the European sovereign debt crisis, which includes: a writedown of 50% of Greek bonds, a recapitalization of European banks, and an increase of the bailout fund of the European Financial Stability Facility totaling €1 trillion.

November 10 - The Cuban government lifts its five-decade ban on the buying and selling of property by Cuban citizens, the most significant liberalization of the Cuban economy yet made by the administration of President Raúl Castro.

December 3 - All Latin American and Caribbean nations join together in a Western Hemispheric bloc, which excludes the U.S. and Canada, to safeguard their economies from the global financial crisis. The new grouping is animated by the spirit of independence personified by Simón Bolívar, but now with reference to "el norte." The group is known as CELAC, Communidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States).

The Arab Spring - Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain

"Let the voice of the people be heard!" -- Albert Parsons (1848-1887, last words on the gallows)

January 14 - The Tunisian government falls after a month of increasingly violent protests; President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flees to Saudi Arabia after 23 years in power.

February 11 - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigns after widespread protests calling for his departure, leaving control of Egypt in the hands of the military until a general election can be held. After further mass demonstrations, elections are held on November 28 and 29.

March 15 - Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, King of Bahrain, declares a three-month state of emergency as troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council (mainly Saudi Arabia) are sent to quell the civil unrest.

The Arab Spring as the Libyan Revolution

"The human right to political freedom."

March 17 - The United Nations Security Council votes 10-0 to create a no-fly zone over Libya in response to allegations of government aggression against civilians.

March 19 - In light of continuing attacks on Libyan rebels by forces in support of leader Muammar Gaddafi, military intervention authorized under UNSCR 1973 begins as French fighter jets make reconnaissance flights over Libya.

August 20-28 - In the Battle of Tripoli, Libyan rebels take control the nation's capital, effectively overthrowing the government of Muammar Gaddafi.

October 20 -- Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is killed in Sirte, with National Transitional Council forces taking control of the city and ending the war.

The Arab Spring - Yemen and Syria

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress." -- Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

June 5 - Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh travels to Saudi Arabia for treatment of an injury sustained during an attack on the presidential palace. Protesters celebrate his transfer of power to his vice president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi.

June 12 - Thousands of Syrians flee to Turkey as Syrian troops lay siege to Jisr ash-Shugur.

July 31 - September 24 - Because of the uncertainties associated with a clampdown of the free press, there are believed to be at least 121 people killed in a Syrian Army tank raid on the town of Hama, and over 150 people are reportedly killed across the country.

November 8 -- The total dead throughout Syria may never be known, but UN estimates put the total at 3,000 as of September 24, 3,500 as of November 8, 4,000 as of December 1, and 5,000 as of December 13.

November 28 -- The Arab League imposes economic sanctions on Syria for failure to stop government violence against civilians. An investigatory commission sponsored by the UN Human Rights Council releases a report stating: "The commission is gravely concerned that crimes against humanity have been committed in different locations" in Syria.

Notables Passing

Lives that illuminated my imagination pass into history.

January 2 - Anne Francis, American actress (b. 1930). Who can forget her lovely blonde presence in the wonderful 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet (with Robby the Robot)?

January 15 - Susannah York, British actress (b. 1939). An icon of British films since the 1960s, she was luminous in the refreshingly witty Tom Jones (1963).

January 30 - John Barry, British film score composer (b. 1933). The composer of the James Bond theme, and classic film scores including that of the archetypal Bond film Goldfinger (1964). James Bond is the world's favorite fictional Tory.

February 3 - Maria Schneider, French actress (b. 1952). A fragile, cherub-faced presence in edgy 1970s films, like Last Tango In Paris (1972).

February 28 - Jane Russell, American actress (b. 1921). A warm-hearted, vibrant and statuesque American original, the brunette bombshell in the musical comedy film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

March 5 - Alberto Granado, Cuban writer and scientist (b. 1922). Che Guevara's older buddy during the 1952 Motorcycle Diaries journey throughout South America.

March 23 - Elizabeth Taylor, British-American actress (b. 1932). A superb child actress who as a lifetime drama queen was often a beauty and always a star; she was heartbreakingly lovely and urgent in the film A Place In The Sun (1951).

March 27 - Farley Granger, American actor (b. 1925). A gracefully handsome man who could transmit a sense of deep longing, resignation and resolve; see him in They Live By Night (1949), and Strangers on a Train (1951).

April 9 - Sidney Lumet, American film director (b. 1924). Lumet made classic films set in New York City, including 12 Angry Men (1957), The Pawnbroker (1964), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), and The Verdict (1982).

May 2 - Osama bin Laden, Saudi Arabian-born leader of al Qaeda (b. 1957)

May 3 - Jackie Cooper, American actor (b. 1922). As a child, Cooper memorably played Jim Hawkins in the classic 1934 film of Treasure Island -- a gem.

May 3 - Gil Scott-Heron, American poet and musician (b. 1949). The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a poem and song by Gil Scott-Heron, is first recorded by him in 1970.

June 3 - Jack Kevorkian, American euthanasia advocate (b. 1928). He made Americans face their fear of death, and imagine compassion for the dying.

June 7 - Jorge Semprún Maura, Spanish writer and politician (b. 1923). A clandestine communist agent in Franco's Spain from 1953 to 1962, Semprún mined his experiences to infuse realism into the screenplays for the films La Guerre Est Finie (1966) by Alain Resnais, and Z (1969) and The Confession (1970) by Costa-Gavras.

June 23 - Peter Falk, American actor (b. 1927). Usually remembered for his role as the detective Colombo; many men my age will identify with him and his real-life pals playing in John Cassavetes's film Husbands (1970).

June 23 - Nguyen Cao Ky, 8th Prime Minister of the Republic of Vietnam (b. 1930). A marionette I would see on TV, who led the American-backed government in South Vietnam in 1967, as I was on the brink of being drafted during the height of the Vietnam War.

August 17 - Nancy Wake, World War II veteran with the French Resistance (b. 1912). A New Zealand woman of incredible nerve and bravery, nicknamed "The White Mouse"; by 1943 she was the Gestapo's most wanted person, and in 1944 became a leading figure in the maquis groups of the French Resistance. She was one of the Allies' most decorated servicewomen of the war.

September 10 - Cliff Robertson, American actor (b. 1923). One remembers an affable screen persona in numerous films, including: the aviation buff's delight 633 Squadron (1964), the delightfully convoluted and modernized version of Ben Jonson's Volpone (a play from 1606), The Honey Pot (1967), and Robertson's Oscar-winning performance in Charly (1968).

October 6 - Diane Cilento, Australian actress (b 1933). Cilento played the sexually magnetic Molly in the film Tom Jones (1963), a performance that garnered her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The year before, she had married Sean Connery.

October 16 - Dan Wheldon, English racing car driver and winner of the Indianapolis 500 in 2005 and 2011 (b. 1978). I can imagine Dan Wheldon having the same boyhood daydreams in the early 1990s that I had in the mid 1960s, when I again look at my photos taken at the 1972 US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, and then at the news photos of Dan Wheldon's fatal crash within a 15 car chain-reaction pile-up at 220 mph, on a stupidly overcrowded banked oval racetrack in Las Vegas. The romance of the sport killed by excessive commercialism.

October 20 - Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan leader (b. 1942). Sic semper tyrannis.

November 20 - Sergio Scaglietti, an Italian coachbuilder known as the "maestro of aluminum" (b 1920). Scaglietti was the Michelangelo of crafting sports car bodies with lush fluid curves in the 1950s and 1960s, usually without blueprints. He created the contours of many Ferrari racing cars, including the 750 Monza, the 250 Testa Rossa, and the 250 GTO. Scaglietti was also responsible for the production of numerous Ferrari road car bodies, including the California Spyder, the 250 GT Lusso, and the Dino 246. For us forever teenage boy car fanatics, a Scaglietti bodied Ferrari is the automotive equivalent of Sophia Loren. Of his work one would say: Che bella cosa.

November 27 -- Ken Russell, English film director (b 1927). Russell created the absolutely lush and riveting films Women In Love (1969), from the D. H. Lawrence novel, and The Devils (1971), based on Aldous Huxley's account of a 17th century outbreak of religious hysteria (that most delicious excuse for the application of torture) in a French town. The Devils seems like the artwork of an alien intellect, it was far ahead of its time. Russell also directed numerous films based on the lives of poets, artists and Romantic classical music composers. Russell made passionate movies about human passion.

December 22 -- Winter Solstice, the Earth begins a new year.


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About the Author

Manuel García, Jr. is a native of the upper upper west side barrio of the 1950s near Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City, and a graduate engineering physicist who specialized in the physics of fluids and electricity. He retired from a 29 year career as an experimental physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the first fifteen years of which were spent in underground nuclear testing. An avid reader with a taste for classics, and interested in the physics of nature and how natural phenomena can impact human activity, he has long been interested in non-fiction writing with a problem-solving purpose. García loves music and studies it, and his non-technical thinking is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Jungian ideas. A father of both grown children and a school-age daughter, today García occupies himself primarily with managing his household and his young daughter's many educational activities. García's political writings are left wing and, along with his essays on science-and-society, they have appeared in a number of smaller Internet magazines since 2003, including Swans. Please visit his personal Blog at manuelgarciajr.wordpress.com.   (back)


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Published December 19, 2011