Stormy Skies

by Milo Clark

November 12, 2001


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The 18th and 19th centuries were about ideologies. The 20th about economics. Now, in the 21st century, we are about religions, again.

The great vacuum created by the collapse of Red Fascism in the late 1980s may be filled by demonizing Islamci, Muslim fundamentalists in American English. We will confront them with military force while ourselves falling victim to evangelicals cloaking themselves as crusaders of the emotional plague of humankind.

Community, the nurturing home of culture, again becomes defined by religion. Even if that religion is materialism or science.

Today's nomads are refugees or displaced persons as they were called after WW II. They now tend to reform communities less defined by nationalisms as by religions or sects within religions. Mystical awe may come as much from a sense of safety, a sense of belonging, as from a square meal.

Will the future be determined by a fear of god or a love of god?

Fear of god is fear of authority. Love of god breeds tolerance.

The Persian Rumi or North Indian Kabir sing of a love of god without needing to specify what god. Both know that god begins within and expands without.

Power does not equal strength. Beware fair weather friends.

When south is north and north is south, the great swath from Balkans to Bering is centered where the old was Turkic and the new may again be so.

Look for what unites peoples, what divides them. Look for where fear is supplanted by love.

Notice that water costs more than gasoline.

Robert D. Kaplan

For more than twenty years, Robert D. Kaplan has traveled and written. He gets off his butt and onto his feet. He walks into history. He listens carefully. He learns. He understands. Through his many books, now that I am reading them, I get a much stronger sense of history in progress. I am beginning to understand how much I don't understand.

Outside the very privileged, now very slightly dented, enclaves within which Americans tend to exist, it is not like Americans are told it is. Why are we kept ignorant? Who benefits?

Kaplan travels "shank's mare," an old expression meaning he goes about more like other folks than us folks. He goes light, often with no more than a small rucksack. "To travel well, you should carry nothing except the clothes on your back and the pages of a few books photocopied and stuffed in your pocket." [p.101]

He avoids airplanes. He hitchhikes. He takes broken buses bulging with humanity in the raw. He takes terrible trains to obscure places. His books incorporate history into the present in ways unlikely to penetrate American classrooms, American minds, American consciousness, American awareness until much too late.

Right now we are seeing too late pushed into our faces. But 'seeing' is not the right word. It is very clear those in power fail to see. Yet, it is also possible, perhaps probable, that those in power are simply joining history in process. They are unleashing barbarities on the barbarous, as they see it.

Kaplan has written two books about the Balkan end of the swath from Atlantic to Pacific which is centered in Afghanistan. He wrote about his experiences within Afghanistan during the Soviet years, 1979-1989. He has written about the mid-East and the near-East.

His 1996 book, "The Ends of the Earth, A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century" [Random House, New York, 1996, ISBN 0-679-43148-9] cuts into the swath at an angle. He goes from West Africa, across the Nile Valley, through Turkey, the Transcaucasus, old Persia, over the once Silk Road into Pakistan, India and out to the Pacific through Vietnam.

Our self-image of being nice, good-hearted people willing to help the downtrodden barely holds at home and weakens sharply beyond our borders. Kaplan notes, "To be completely heartless about Africa, I mean to suggest, is to start down a path which imperils our own nationness." [p. 68] "The future here could be sadder than the present." [p.69]

How can we know?

Yes, how can we know?

Friends came by recently. They were coming back from Japan. They lead small, intimate tours into traditional Japan, country villages, mountain forests. This tour started three weeks after. Each of their tour members had been called by their travel agents before leaving, They were told that the State Department had issued a travel advisory for Japan. A travel advisory for Japan! Astounding! Scary. They went anyhow.

Our friends have spent many years in Japan. They return to Japan, two, three, four times a year. They speak and read Japanese. They have many friends scattered about Japan who welcome them to their homes and hearts. Friends who will speak candidly with them. They apprenticed themselves to traditional builders of temples and zendos, to traditional garden builders, to traditional herbalists. They lived in a small village, as villagers. They spent long months in the tiny islands of the Ryukyu chain which reaches far south almost next door to Taiwan (Formosa). These islands were taken by the Japanese in 1879, lost in WW II and returned to Japan by 1972.

They were dumbfounded to learn about the travel advisory.

As is already apparent to those who will look, Americans are being contained. In the Cold War, as designed by George Kennan in the late 1940s and revised by Acheson, Shultz, Kissinger, et al., the US national interest was to contain communism. Now, the US national interest is to contain Americans within America.

Contained Americans know less than nothing about what it is like out there on your feet and off your butt. Germans during the Nazi years were contained. Russians, et al., were contained during the Soviet years. North Koreans are still contained as are many, if not most of the peoples of the planet, contained by poverty if not by fiat. Contact with foreigners was/is forbidden or unknown. Why? If we don't already know, we will.

Writing from the Nile Valley of the mid-1990s, Kaplan ponders, ". . . could politics, ethnic or otherwise, ever exist in a vacuum, outside the larger environment? This was the question I returned to throughout my travels. After all, the floods and droughts had a terrific political impact in Pharonic Egypt. . . . University of California sociologist Jack Goldstone* makes an excellent case for how the English revolution of 1640, the French revolution of 1789, the various revolutions in Central Europe in 1848, the Jelali revolts in the Ottoman empire and rebellions in imperial China all emerged from the inability of regimes to deal with the problems arising from sustained population growth and natural resource depletion. Goldstsone uses an earthquake as an analogy: Though the havoc is unanticipated, stresses that build up gradually over the years cause the layers of crust to shift suddenly." "The specific problems of Arab nationalism notwithstanding, there are larger forces at work." [p. 117]

Will containing Americans in America build up tectonic shifts? Will unintended consequences overwhelm us?

* "Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World," Jack A. Goldstone, U. of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1991

Will unintended consequences overwhelm us?

Kaplan concludes his book, "The Ends of the Earth," "I thought of America everywhere I looked. We cannot escape from a more populous, interconnected world of crumbling borders."

"We woke up late to the European disorder that erupted in 1914 and again in the 1930s. . . . When we wake up it won't only be Europe that we'll have to confront, but a wider world, bearing, perhaps, a more amorphous terror that what we confronted in the two world wars: disease pandemics like AIDS, environmental catastrophes, organized crime that will have advanced its borders, for instance, to the failed states of West Africa, . . . and so on. Or, the threat may be more insidious: future crises . . . that sharpen ethnic and economic fissures at home."

"But I would be unfaithful to my experiences if I thought we had a general solution to these problems. We are not in control. As societies grow more populous and complex, the idea that a global elite like the UN can engineer reality from above is just . . . absurd. . . . Besides, in an age of mini-holocausts, decisive action in one sphere will not necessarily help victims in another. People will either solve or alleviate their problems at the local level or they won't."

"On the plane, I was overwhelmed by the complexity and apparent hopelessness of what I had seen. But isn't this the way the world has always been? The great ages of virtue are few and far between. . . . The Cold War years may be been an . . . interlude for Europe, even as it clouded our view of the themeless violence occurring elsewhere in the world that we now focus on."

"Of course, all analysts, including myself, are eventually proven wrong. Solutions to specific problems . . . will someday arise. . . . But, if the past is any guide, in too many places there will be a time lag between extreme social disintegration and strategies which might have prevented it. The long range future may be bright, but the next few decades will be tumultuous. Keep in mind that the collapse of just a few small countries scattered around the globe has overwhelmed policymakers in the West. Were a major regional power to dissolve somewhere, we would have no answers. Americans, because of our own history, tend to see optimistic scenarios in places where endings have rarely been happy. But the banal truth is that economic and social development is generally cruel, painful, violent and uneven — and humanity is developing more dramatically than ever before." . . .

"To escape the world is folly, we tried that before each world war. As AIDS shows, Africa's climate and poverty beget disease that finds its ways into the wealthiest suburbs. We are the world and the world is us." . . .

"No one can foresee the precise direction of history, and no nation or people is safe from its wrath."

Theme songs, shruti, come from over to front:

"Trying to solve problems using the tools, techniques and thoughts which create theme is silly."

"Convert local resources using local people primarily for local use in ways which foster community and generate economic surplus for local reinvestment."

"Rebuild on a local base to gain a world."

"Power is not strength."

"Machetes will defeat stealth bombers."



       Milo Clark, a founding member of Swans, had it all: Harvard MBA, big house, three-car garage, top management... Yet, once he had seemingly achieved the famed American dream he felt something was missing somewhere. As any good executive he decided to investigate. Since then, he has become a curmudgeon and, after living in Berkeley, California, where he was growing bamboos, making water gardens, listening to muses, writing, cogitating and pondering, he has moved on to the Big Island in Hawaii where he creates thought forms about sunshine. Milo can be reached at Swans.

       Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Milo G. Clark 2001. All rights reserved.

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Published November 12, 2001
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