Swans Commentary » swans.com December 16, 2013  



Perspectives: A Review of 2013


2013 Brings To Mind A T.S. Eliot Poem


by Glenn Reed





(Swans - December 16, 2013)   I'm searching for some theme.

In reviewing the major events of the past year, I'm finding it difficult to do. I guess it is hard to see this forest for the trees. Unless you become a victim of the clear-cut. Or live in the Amazon. Then the forest is long gone and it's too late. One T.S. Eliot poem keeps popping into my head. Yeah, I know I'm not being original if I create a theme around it. It's been used repeatedly.

Kind of like all of the tactics/strategies/plots/methods that our so-called world "leaders" used in 2013.

The Eliot poem is called "The Hollow Men." It was kind of ruined for me back in the late 1970s by Marlon Brando's mumbling in Apocalypse Now ("we are the hall min..." or something like that), but I'm rehabilitating it in my head. It begins:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw.

(From "The Hollow Men." All subsequent citations come from the same poem.)

Ah, forgive this poetic intrusion. Perhaps I'm being too literary, too obtuse. After all, this isn't a college term paper, but a look back. And maybe this theme is too obvious.

Perhaps the 2013 theme should not revolve around the lack of vision by prime ministers, presidents, dictators, corporate CEOs, and generals. You know, the stuffed men (and women such as Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton). Sorry to pick on Hillary, who began running for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination in 2013. Don't put off 'til tomorrow...

Perhaps the theme should focus on the 99% of us, like my senior friend who lives in Section 8 housing and who would be homeless if not for her one son's support. Perhaps it should be the food stamp cuts that she is facing, while this country drops silent death on terrorists and collateral damage bystanders in far-off lands. Perhaps it should be my partner, going into his third year of unemployment in an economy that continues to enrich Wall Street moguls, the Walton family, Vladimir Putin, the Saud family, the Koch Brothers. There are those millions and billions of events that trample the "little people" beneath the boots of the 1% who dictate the headline events.

Oh, but the Occupy Wall Street Movement and so many like it have receded beneath the incessant din of the corporate media and their hollow masters this past year. The TV cameras ignore Canada's Idle No More activists and focus on Ukraine's masses clamoring to join the European Union and follow in the footsteps of Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland. Let the masses pick their poison!

Again, I digress. Apologies.

Perhaps I'm avoiding thoughts of 2013. Perhaps avoidance is the theme? That would certainly be true of our world's leaders, who studiously avoid such pressing issues as global climate change, which threatens the existence of the planet as we know it. I think back to February of 1978, when I first read the T.S. Eliot classic in a British Literature class at the University of Vermont. We discussed the atmosphere in which "The Hollow Men" was written in 1925 during the so-called "Roaring Twenties," which followed "the War to End All Wars" and was preceded by the Great Depression. Colonialism drove the industrial west's worldwide rule and prosperity, while the divide between rich and poor was as wide...as it is now in 2013.

Eliot could be in perspective in 1978. Then, the United States was still recovering from its hangover over Vietnam, Watergate, the tumultuous social changes of the 1960s. The "hollow men" lurked in their dry cellars, biding their time, ready to set in motion the same forces, the same strategies, the same blind plan. They were set to prove, as Albert Einstein once said, that the definition of insanity is to keep repeating the same actions over and over and expecting different results. But who is insane, in this instance, in this past year of 2013? Is it those that drive us towards the cliff or the far greater numbers that keep handing them the keys?

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men

There they lean, together, headpieces filled with straw:

Kim Jong-un's North Korea threatened to launch another nuclear bomb, the world protested, there was tension on the 38th parallel, then he retreated into his ego parades. Vladimir Putin demonized Russia's LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) population, a few individuals and organizations complained, but the Winter Olympic plans proceeded as usual (there's money to be made, contracts signed, and national egos to be boosted). Syria's Assad unleashed chemical weapon attacks on civilians in still another civil war driven by ethnicity, Americans floated aircraft carriers close to his borders, Putin saw an opportunity to reassert Russian power, a deal was reached, and the Syrian civil war disappeared from cover stories, to back pages with the corporate media. The "Arab Spring" optimism of 2012 withered in the drought of a coup in Egypt that ousted President Morsi and renewed violence there and in Tunisia. Democracy faded from Cairo to Detroit, Michigan, which declared bankruptcy and handed the car keys to corporate pawns. Meanwhile, US drones continued to glide silently through the skies of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, their explosives striking far from the ears of the American populace.

What was it that Eliot said about a bang and a whimper? We'll get to that.

Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

I imagine the whispering behind closed, locked, and guarded doors. In board rooms at the top of skyscrapers and in retreats nestled in palatial estates. They cough out platitudes to market economies, speak in measured words about the sacrifices others must make, their eyes wander towards their anointed, entitled, brethren thousands of miles away, wondering about their next moves in the power games of thrones.

2013. Déjà vu, already. Déjà vu ad infinitum.

This is the dead land
This is the cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Stone images, huh? Like Wall Street bulls? Like steel and glass skyscrapers and corporate logos? And lots of supplication by dead men in 2013:

They made Cypriots this year's Greeks in the continuing austerity measures rationed out by the European Union. They killed over a thousand and injured twice that number in a Bangladesh factory so that Americans could stream like cattle into a Walmart to shop on "Black Friday." They deemed Greenpeace activists as "terrorists" off Russian shores because those activists tried to stick their fingers in the dike of a polar ice meltdown in the Arctic.

Meanwhile, the powerless, desperate, and deluded sought refuge and salvation in religious extremism by holding hostage, blowing up, or shooting down Boston Marathon runners, mall shoppers in Kenya, and refinery workers in Algeria, in scenes lifted straight out of Terry Gilliam's film, Brazil.

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

The highest storm winds on record from Typhoon Haiyon devastate the Philippines, a chunk of ice the size of Singapore breaks off of Antarctica, tornadoes rake the U.S. Midwest in late November when snow should be falling. Send the aid. Send the checks. Ignore the long-term costs of behaviors that brought us to this abyss. Which brings Eliot back to mind:

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but a whimper

No action was taken about global climate change in 2013. Fracking (hydraulic fracturing), continued to increase unregulated. Public lands were opened up to more oil drilling. Smog still choked the skies of China, while chemicals deadened the holy waters of the Ganges. The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) in the U.S. poked through our emails and phone calls; the Egyptian military shot down protesters; whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, who exposed the massive surveillance operations of the United States, were driven into exile and then used as pawns by the powerful. Nations from Australia to Japan to Malaysia to Chile to the United States continued to negotiate still another trade deal (the Trans-Pacific Partnership) in secret that undercuts labor rights, environmental regulations, and the sovereignty of local, state, and national governments in favor of corporate profits.

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but a whimper

Those lines are simple.

But what is a whimper? A pathetic, inadequate response to massive issues? Or a prolonged, slow death due to the lack of one? Or both?

And a bang? Just a loud noise that startles and then is quickly forgotten? Or the result of an explosion that causes random damage but no long-term changes?

Yes, endless cacophonies of "bang" emanated from the halls of the least productive and least popular Congress in American history, as it spent most of the year fighting "Obamacare," while coldly allowing the sequestration process to pull food from the mouths of poor children and low-income seniors. Lots of bang and whimper here.

Extremists, including (but certainly not limited to) Islamic fundamentalists, continued to offer the most visible challenges to the power structure, totalitarianism continued to grow as the masses sought saviors from above rather than from themselves. Lots of bang and whimper here.

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

There's that vision thing again. There were certainly no eyes in the United States Congress that forced the shutdown of the government for a week and nearly brought the country, and the world, to the point of an economic meltdown. What was it over, again? Oh yeah..."Obamacare," again. For trying to enact some rather modest, corporate-friendly changes in the American health care system (already voted on and stamped for approval by the Supreme Court, mind you), to expand coverage to 30 million people.

No, there were no eyes seeing the local effects...the human and environmental costs of our addiction to fossil fuels. Evidence was plentiful, but quickly spun and then buried by the corporate media and their corporate/government masters. Remember the derailment of a train in Quebec, Canada, that obliterated a town? It was carrying crude oil. Any thoughts remain of the oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas? That was crude straight from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. Thought anything more about the radioactivity in ocean waters from the Fukushima nuclear power plant explosions back in 2011 and the tsunami debris still washing up on the shores of California, Oregon, and Washington? Just don't look, those hollow men remind us.

Ah, but in this holiday season I'm reminded that in his later life T.S. Eliot became a devoted church-goer and self-identified as Anglo-Catholic. He sought comfort and stability from the church in his later life.

Does my theme shrivel now like straw in flame? Should I seek salvation in this holiday season by turning to religion?

Perhaps the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the selection of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina to be Pope Francis is one tiny glimmer of hope to take out of 2013. After all, anyone who can make Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and Bill O'Reilly lash out in anger through his pointing out the evils of capitalism must have some vision. Hell, here's someone who is thinking outside the box for a change and he doesn't speak the language of "bang, bang," though his effect in the long run may be just one more whimper. Or, the cynic in me says, it's just a p.r. show.

If I think back, there are a few more bits from outside the box. They include President Obama's efforts for a deal with Iran, which resulted in that country's limiting its nuclear development program in exchange for sanctions relief. Hey, beggars can't be choosers for positive signs when the far-right in this country keeps yelling to "nuke Iran" if they don't see the light of the "we're number one!" U.S. of A. And look here. Billionaire Bloomberg's reign ended in New York City and a pro-labor liberal was elected. Coming from a confirmed agnostic and cynic, this handful of events remind me that you just never know.

So maybe I'm still searching for the theme.

Maybe it's really that 2013 hollowed me out a little more. Or maybe it's that I should reach for one of those dying stars and get out there with the fast-food workers marching for living wages today.

Some of those stars, after all, are still pulsing with life.


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About the Author

Glenn Reed is a writer and activist from Fair Haven, Vermont, who works in the non-profit world.   (back)


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Years in Review

Patterns which Connect

America the 'beautiful'

Activism under the Radar Screen

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Published December 16, 2013