In Jean de Brunhoff’s 1931 children’s book, The Story of Babar, a young African elephant sees his mother shot by a hunter; he runs off, not deeper into the jungle, but (somehow) to Paris. There, he is taken in by a kindly and rich old woman, and learns the pleasures and virtues of urban civilization before eventually becoming homesick and returning to Africa, where he becomes King of the Elephants and helps his subjects adopt an improved lifestyle based largely on human ways. It is a delightful and amusingly surreal story that can be read to children as often as they like. They will learn the horrible truth soon enough.
Snorting has greeted Niall Ferguson’s new column, which begins like this:
President Barack Obama reminds me of Felix the Cat. One of the best-loved cartoon characters of the 1920s, Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky.
But aside from derision, Ferguson’s comments deserve some analysis. There is a reason why Ferguson, when he looks upon a cartoon character from the 1920s, lets his mind free-associate in the direction of black people. As many cultural historians have pointed out, the classic American animated cartoons emerged from the same milieu that produced blackface performances (like the Amos and Andy show) and minstrel music. Many of the great early animated characters — Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Bosko — had more than a touch of blackface and the minstrel show to them.
Felix the cat is a feckless, happy-go-lucky trickster. Culturally, he’s the missing link between Br’er Rabbit and Bugs Bunny: admirable in some ways but lacking in the “white” qualities of respectability and responsibility. It’s interesting that Ferguson managed to pick out such a potent, meaning-rich cultural symbol of blackness. It was probably subconscious on his part but still very revealing.
June 3/09 (Reuters): “Dead whale found on bow of Exxon tanker in Alaska”
Oh, how the entire PR unit of ExxonMobil must have gone to bed on Monday night praising God that no photographer happened to be hanging around the terminal the day that tanker came in. But while this particular image-as-metaphor will apparently have to be provided by and preserved in our own imaginations, the report itself does contain one passage of almost poetic sadness:
Neither crew members on the Kodiak nor those aboard the tugs that escorted the tanker during the final approach to Valdez noticed anything out of the ordinary during the transit, said Ray Botto, external affairs manager for SeaRiver Maritime.
“There was nothing that suggested any deviation from standard operating practice,” he said, adding the poor condition of the whale, which had a noticeable stench, suggests it had been dead for a while.
Sums up the whole progress of civilization, somehow, doesn’t it?
Not safe for work; not safe for the home; not safe at all: here’s a link I’m hesitant to pass on. Via the great Doug Henwood, a blog account, complete with very graphic photos, of an animal rights rally and orgy that took place at a Russian Biology Museum. While making love on the floor of the museum, the activists chanted slogans about the need for Russia to save its bear population. Apparently the orgy was influenced by pagan Slavic ideas about the intimate connection between human sexuality and the health of Mother Earth. The signs that the activists are holding up read something to effect that “Screw to save our bears.” A very interesting glimpse of Russia at this current moment. Fair warning: if you’re at all squeamish about sexual matters, don’t look.
Interesting sidelight: the Russian word for bear (“Medved”) is part of the name of the new leader, Medvedev.
An animal rights orgy or a political protest? I got an e-mail from a Russian-born friend saying that I was naive to take this blog account at face value. It wasn’t an animal rights protest but rather a performance art event designed to mock the new Russian president Medvedev (Putin’s hand-picked successor). Medvedev’s name, as I noted above, is Russian for bear and his political party uses the bear as an emblem. My friend was rightly critical of this performance art group, saying that their prank distracts attention from Russia’s many real problems, including an increasingly corrupt and authoritarian regime.