Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Safety Buffalo

I think it was my wife who first dubbed me a "safety buffalo," although I don't know how she came up with the buffalo part. A safety buffalo is essentially the same thing, or person, as a worry wart--now an old-fashioned term, I think.

I often think, "What could go wrong, and how might one prevent it from going wrong?" Sometimes it's useful to think this way, but it's also exhausting, and I admit it does tend to take the fun out of things.

In the Catholic mass now, the priest tends to interrupt the Lord's Prayer right after "deliver us from evil," and the priest in our parish says, "deliver us, Lord, from all our useless fears," and then we finish with "for the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever." That "useless fears" phrase is interesting. He's right, of course; most of our fears are useless. At the same time, I assume Evolution selected "fear" for a reason, and as far as I know, the Catholic Church has no "issues" with the concept of Evolution. Sometimes caution, thinking ahead, and worry turn out to be useful--in the short run, at least, if not on the scale of kingdom, power, and glory. I sure wish Bush had been more cautious about going to war, for example.

My good friend and colleague, the late Wendy Bishop, loved the term "safety buffalo," for some reason, and she agreed with my wife that the term fit me. Wendy and I shared some Scandinavian ethnicity, and we agreed that Swedes and Norwegians may not see the glass as half-empty, but they routinely imagine situations in which the glass breaks and becomes a dangerous, jagged shard.

Here is my poem about the imaginary safety buffalo, and I hope Wendy is smiling somewhere in a place well beyond our world of fears. The poem is dedicated to all worriers out there. May you get a good night's sleep!

The Safety Buffalo


The Safety Buffalo lowers
his head and horns, considers
everything that could go wrong.
His whole head’s covered
with thick hide and hair. Beneath
these lies bone. Beneath bone
lies a bison-brain recalling well
how good things can go wrong.

The Safety Buffalo has seen
the apocalypse of prairie lightning,
heard trees explode in an ice-storm,
smelled diesel and blood
when a metal box full of humans
went spinning off that gray
line into stones. The Safety
Buffalo worries for the herd,
steps cautiously, snorts
at how carefree the antelope is,
and the goose. Death
is always loose on the prairie.
This the Safety Buffalo knows.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Heavy Light Verse

I ran across the following poem by Rudyard Kipling, in The Norton Book of Light Verse, edited by Russell Baker:

A Dead Statesman

I could not dig, I dared not rob.
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?

I don't know to what statesman Kipling was referring, but the poem reminded me of George W. Bush.

Arguably, however, Bush has robbed, in the sense of funneling federal money to large corporations, a.ka. "private contractors," in many cases with no bidding process. Neither Congress nor anyone else in "power" (does Congress have power anymore?) seems to have accounted for the drained billions. It seems he has practiced this thievery both in Iraq and in New Orleans. He has certainly lied to the mob--if by "the mob," Kipling means "people" or "voters." Bush won't specify what he was doing when he was supposed to be fulfilling his National Guard duty as a pilot, and the records have been hidden. Does that qualify as a lie? I think so. He lied about weapons of mass destruction, and he sent Colin Powell to the U.N. to spread the lie. He approved the use of torture and lied about it, using a kind of two-step: a) "we don't torture" but b) "we don't discuss our interrogation techniques." He and his cohorts discuss "techniques"--quite a euphemism--to the extent that they say "we don't torture," but when they are pressed--for example, by a specific question like "Do you use 'water-boarding'?"--they say, "We don't discuss our techniques." "Water-boarding" is quite a euphemism, too--for almost-drowning someone, for making them choke on water repeatedly.

Certainly all of Bush's lies have been proved untrue (I'm not sure about that line--lies are by definition untrue), but he won't have to face the men (and women and children) he slew--U.S. citizens sent to Iraq and killed, and hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iraqi and Afghan citizens killed by bombing or killed by the civil wars that Bush's invasion unleashed. That's the thing about almost total power: it doesn't have to face its consequences. Bush will spend the rest of his life on his ranch in Texas or traveling to secure locations. Arguably, he is among the presidents most unaffected by consequences. Kennedy got his head blown off--the ultimate consequence of being president; Johnson had to decide not to seek reelection because of the debacle of Viet Nam; Nixon had to resign; Ford lost in his only presidential election; Carter lost to Reagan; Reagan was at least forced to make a speech about Iran/Contra (a minor consequences, I admit, but he was humiliated); Bush Sr. lost to Clinton; Clinton was impeached, and he was forced to admit that he lied.

I believe Bush is, obviously, a failure as a leader but a kind of mad genius as a politician., partly because he seems to have figured out that to succeed as a politician, you don't need to succeed as a leader; in fact, it may easier to succeed as a politician if you fail as a leader. He has rewritten the calculus of politics.

He measures success strictly by winning elections and draining power from opponents and quasi-opponents, but he doesn't really do anything with the power except screw up. He's not a Republican or really even a Neo-Con. He is Nihilist (please see "The Big Lebowski"). By Bush's measurement, he is a huge success, and in terms of brute-force politics, it's hard to argue with his units of measurement. He "won" two elections. Fairly or unfairly, he won them. Congress has never held him accountable. When it attempts to use legislation to block what he wants to do, he signs it and states that he doesn't have to obey the legislation. The validity of these signing statements hasn't been challenged in the courts, so Bush has not been held accountable for ignoring one branch of government. He refuses to make his attorney general resign. He made Rumsfeld resign--but so what? The war continued. He won't sign the Kyoto Accord, and he ignores rules set out by the Geneva Conventions; no consequences for him have ensued. True, some Republicans lost some elections because of the debacle in Iraq--but so what? What does Bush care about his own party, except insofar as it helped get him elected and, when it controlled Congress, rolled over like a family dog. The shift in power in Congress has been symbolic, not real. Congress hasn't checked Bush. I believe his mad genius lies in doing whatever he wants to do or what the Neo-Cons want him to do and, subsequently, in never having to face the consequences of doing what he wants. He is the wealthy kid who perpetually screws up but fails upward, upward to two terms as the most powerful "elected" official in the world. His own family seems surprised at his success--that's how bizarre the situation. Jeb was supposed to be the successful one, not the screw-up, George. He's defeated even his own family at their own game! Fascinating. His success as a mad political genius seems to be a symptom of a broken American political process. However, Bush and his supporters--and, in spite of Iraq, I believe at least 50 per cent of American adults essentially approve of what Bush represents--probably do not believe the process is broken. Reasonably, they must deduce that it is working--for them. Bush "could not dig"--could not make a living he way most people must do in the U.S. He did dare to rob, in a variety of ways. He will never really have to face "the men [he] slew"--or face any other consequences.

People were fond of calling both Reagan and Clinton "Teflon" presidents because of their gifts of slick communication, which seemed to make political friction pass by in tough situations. Reagan read texts and cue-cards expertly; Clinton spoke with great success extemporaneously, and he had a tremendously subtle sense of audience. Reagan got away with Iran/Contra. Clinton got away with sexually harrassing an employee and lying about it.

Whatever the so-called Founding Fathers had in mind when they designed the three branches of the federal government, with the hope that the three branches would share power, well, it isn't working. Bush has gotten around that system. All three branches have irreversible dry-rot.

But I think the ultimate Teflon president has been George W. Bush. He makes Reagan and Clinton look like Little Leaguers. He eschews compromise; in fact he mocks it. He's not interested in real policy successes, such as responding effectively to (take your pick) Katrina, the health-care crisis, our energy problems, the widening gap between rich and poor, global warming, the exploitation of non-citizen workers. He is not interested in diplomacy. He is not interested in data. He is not interested in history. He is interested in winning elections and, after that, doing what he wants to do, like ride a bike or appoint his pal Harriet to the Supreme Court. Mostly, he seems bored by existence, seems to have an extremely short attention-span, seems unable to put basic thoughts together or to read a simple text out loud.

Bush: our mad genius, our dictator--not, alas, our "statesman."