Swimming home from the Galapagos

In the Galapagos on New Year’s Eve, a few minutes past midnight, Ecuadorians pile the streets with carefully crafted life-sized papier-mache figurines representing the year’s aggravations elaborately staged on stoops and storefronts after Christmas and set them afire.

On San Cristobal Island, the year’s most popular themes were political vanity and corruption. What brighter way to look forward to the new year than to burn the ashes of that old darkness?

For Americans, accustomed to legislatures doing their worst in late hours of the night or on August days when no one ventures out unless there is money in it, what comfort to imagine a simple flame could transform victimizers into victims at the stroke of midnight before they can shake the sleep from their eyes and bluster with self-righteous indignation.

There was merriment for the Ecuadorians who set the streets on fire with piles of burning mannequins. I saw one officer of the law move his police van a few yards to avoid being singed by the burning effigies of the subjects he is sworn to protect.

It is too bad that Americans are humorless when it comes to turning the dross of our own political contradictions into fool’s gold. We could honor Ecuador by adopting its tradition, smudging laughter and tears.

On the other hand, burning streets seem like a bitter and distant memory better left behind. We are too frightened, naturally, by street fires consuming our soldiers in a war that makes less and less sense because victory is more and more unclear.

And we do not have the weight of imperial tyranny, as do Ecuadorians, such that festive arrangements of powerlessness unify ordinary people.

What if that were to change?

If there is an American political house of cards to be burned in caricature, it would surely belong to the lackluster Democratic Party and not the Republicans, now turning prospects of a long run on political power in the United States like a rough diamond that must be exactly cut to produce lasting value.

The need for skillful execution is a message regularly delivered by market makers like the estimable American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington DC.

In one of its recent missives, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, appealed to Republicans to unify their purpose and seize a multi-generational “stable majority”.

Gingrich wrote, “If minority Americans come to believe they are included by Republicans, it will be impossible for left-wing minority politicians to demagogue and foment racist fears in the 2006 and 2008 elections.”

Worthy stalking horses for papier-mache figurines, one and all.

On Saturday, The Associated Press reported that Jim Dobson, founder of the Colorado-based group Focus on the Family, warned U.S. senators up for re-election in 2006 that unless they are careful on judicial appointments—assuring that Roe v. Wade will be overturned—they will be turned out like the Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle, whom Democrats could not protect from a cold November election in North Dakota.

As the Earth spun into the new year in the Galapagos, this is what I was thinking: Thousands of miles of distance cannot separate us from hypocrisy of any facet, stripe or color.

Not the thunder from the right, which uses religion to oppose abortion at all costs to the mother or fetus, but will protect neither when it comes to holding polluters accountable for contaminating people and the unborn with toxins and endocrine disrupters doing business as sex-change agents.

Not the whimpering from the left, which is wandering in the wilderness when it comes to communicating progressive values that have inspired the American people and our democracy throughout a lustrous multi-century run.

And we, who don’t read the fine print on manufacturers’ warranties so long as the product is cheap, works and is comfortable and believe in salvation on terms only favorable to us, cannot imagine making papier-mache figurines of ourselves—that is something only our enemies do.

People need models and heroes. There is great affection for America from our neighbors to the south like Ecuador. But what are we really to them when recent changes to immigration policy provide incentives for new arrivals to join the ranks of our military—that we will not fill with our own—by making families eligible for expedited green cards and naturalization when their spouses enlist as foot soldiers and die in the war against terror?

Papier-mache or cannon fodder?

So, what swept through the hung-over streets of the Galapagos on New Year’s Day, blowing ash piles into the clear waters lapping San Cristobal felt familiar, like a wind propelling me home.

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