He casually put his knee on a human being’s neck for nine minutes as he died like a zebra in the clutch of a lion’s jaw.

– Michael Santiago Render (Killer Mike), May 30, 2020, on the torture-murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police

In ancient Rome, lions symbolized the natural right of the powerful to dominate the powerless. The donkey seems to ask, “Does it have to be this way?” The lion, king of beasts, takes no notice of the question. Mosaic from Tunisia (AD 150–200), Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades (CA); courtesy Getty Open Content Program.

In the Roman Empire, the lion was a symbol of the natural right of the powerful to dominate the powerless. Later, the British Empire adopted the lion as its emblem. Today, The Lion King is a Broadway show.

Where the ancients saw a comparison

lion : other animals = Romans : other peoples

Render’s metaphor draws a line that separates humans from animals. The line is empathy. Video of the nine-minute death on a Minneapolis street shows a strangely calm, animal indifference to the suffering of another. Lack of concern for whether or not a pinned prey is dead yet will be all too familiar to viewers of Wild Kingdom.

The role of zebra is not easy for a man to accept, much less deliberately adopt. Nevertheless, submission is the survival tactic taught by black parents to boys coming of age. A moment of unmanning is put on a microscope slide in lyrics from “Early,” Run the Jewels 2 (2014):

Please don’t lock me up in front of my kids
And in front of my wife, man, I ain’t got a gun or a knife
You do this and you ruin my life
And I apologize if it seems like I got out of line, sir
’Cause I respect the badge and the gun
And I pray today ain’t the day that you drag me away
Right in front of my beautiful son

Submission may or may not be enough, depending on the situation and officer. Some police come to the job with a “hunt-and-capture-prey mentality,” Render said in a Billboard op-ed in 2014. These are “thrill-seeking cops.” Their drive, in President Trump’s phrase, is to “dominate the streets.”

Reference
“Killer Mike on the Problems Underlying the Chaos in Ferguson,” Billboard (Aug 19, 2014). https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/6221865/op-ed-killer-mike-on-the-problems-underlying-the-chaos-in-ferguson)

 

But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme.

– Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy (1990)

If it’s like a tsunami, then justice is rare, an exceptional event. It comes after a sudden, earthquake-like downfall of tyranny – as in the French Revolution or the arrest of Harvey Weinstein. Wrongs of the past are swept away all at once. Or that is the hope.

To make hope and history rhyme – so that a dream of justice becomes historical fact – there has to be a huge accumulation of pain and anger. Nothing less will move an ocean of inertia. And the wave, once it rises, must reach the shore. Most uprisings sink back into the sea.

In early 2011, known for a while as the Arab Spring, a wave swept across North Africa. It began with the despair of Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit-seller in Tunis who set himself on fire in protest after callous persecution by a petty official. His story spread fast, stirring sympathy and outrage. People massed in public squares; governments fell. In Tunisia at least, a working democracy emerged and held on. Everywhere else, there was only wreckage and retaliation – still going on in Syria.

A tsunami leaves a terrible mess behind. There is no wiping the slate clean.

Progress, if not justice, is possible, and it may seem to come out of the blue. Harry Truman integrated the US military in 1948 with the stroke of a pen (Executive Order 9981). Oprah Winfrey won instant acceptance in American homes when her show premiered in 1986 – not as a picture-perfect “Julia” or one of the comical “Jeffersons” but as herself, talking about matters great and small that she personally cared about and that her audience of mostly white women also cared about. Barack Obama won presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, as if the country’s need for a wise leader were the only issue that mattered.

Postscript: A wave of protest against racial injustice swept across America in May-June 2020, after the torture-murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It remains to be seen whether history written in the next few months will at last fulfill the long-held hopes of millions of oppressed Americans – so that hope and history rhyme.

Photo: Trail up from the beach at Patrick’s Point State Park (California); Karl Stull

Behold the dread Mount Shasta, where it stands, / Imperial amidst the lesser heights, and like / Some mighty, unimpassioned mind, companionless / And cold.

– John Rollin Ridge, “Mt. Shasta, Seen from a Distance” (1850)

“Unimpassioned mind” is an unusual way to describe a mountain. Mountains are often lofty, pure, mighty, noble, or regal, but it’s rare to find one with awareness.

It’s not a kindly awareness. It is solitary, cold, and far-removed from human concerns.

No human breath has dimmed the icy mirror which
It holds unto the moon and stars and sov’reign sun.

Mt. Shasta sees and is seen. Wearing a crown of snow upon its brow, it gazes down upon the valleys and streams of the Golden State, down upon the sea and the lesser mountains. Parents and children sense its divinity. Even the cattle driver:

Oft will rein his charger in the plain, and drink
Into his inmost soul the calm sublimity…

Toward the close of this 76-line poem, Mt. Shasta becomes a symbol for the rule of law, sorely needed in Gold Rush California, where vigilantes did much of the policing. The legal system Ridge has in mind is, like Shasta, devoid of human passion – so much so that:

e’en pity’s tears shall on
Its summit freeze; to warm it, e’en the sunlight
Of deep sympathy shall fail…

Ridge’s belief in a clear, pure, cold legal system – one that would by its impartiality right the wrongs of the past and elevate humankind to a more principled way of life – seems heroic, and quixotic, when you learn he was a Cherokee who accepted American culture and was committed to racial assimilation. It may be that “Mt. Shasta” gives us a glimpse into the mind of a modern counterpart, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Biographical note: At age 12, Ridge witnessed the murder of his father, a signer of the Trail of Tears treaty. His mother, who was white, a schoolteacher’s daughter who married for love, saw to it that Ridge received a good education. Despite his belief in assimilation as the way forward, Ridge knew very well that American society was not blind to race.

Coming to California in 1850, Ridge tried mining but soon turned to journalism, and he wrote California’s first novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, about a young Mexican who tries the American Way but is turned to crime by American prejudice. The story is notable for the hero’s ability to walk unrecognized among the townspeople who feared the very mention of his name, and for the cold cruelties inflicted by his followers, especially Three Fingered Jack. Ridge lived in Grass Valley, 200 miles from Mt. Shasta, and died there of brain fever at age 40.

Find the full text of the poem at https://ualrexhibits.org/tribalwriters/artifacts/Poems-of-John-Rollin-Ridge.html#MountShasta

Dancing with Mr. Arbuckle was “like floating in the arms of a huge donut.”

– Louise Brooks (actress), quoted in Gary Krist, The Mirage Factory (2018)

Donuts don’t dance and don’t have arms. However, they are round and can encircle. And if it seemed to Miss Brooks that she was floating weightless in Fatty Arbuckle’s arms, it would have been because he was famously light on his feet – able to do somersaults and backflips despite the roundness of his figure.

Setting its complications aside, the simile is simple enough.

Fatty Arbuckle = donut

A donut is an icon of gluttonous overeating (as seen for decades on The Simpsons). Public fascination with the scandal that ended Arbuckle’s career as a comedian in silent movies (after the death of an actress at a wild Hollywood-style party) was intensified no doubt by the imagery in mental movies of his corpulence in orgiastic scenes of gratification of the flesh.

Dramatic imagery (imagery that acts out a story) is the essence of metaphor.

Sinners in hell, stuck in a frozen river

Traffic in the lowest circle of Dante’s Inferno is at a standstill. The river Cocytus has turned to ice and holds the worst of sinners, the betrayers, in an array of tumbled postures, like debris picked up in a now-frozen flood. These souls (or “shades”) snarl and bite at one another, held forever in frustration and rage. The ice is like molten glass that has cooled and turned solid.

…l’ombre tutte eran coperte,
e trasparien come festuca in vetro.

…the shades were completely covered, visible
Through the ice like bits of straw trapped in glass. (34.11-12)

In Dante’s time, wet straw served as a layer of insulation for glass coming out of the furnace. Waste glass marred by flecks of straw was an everyday sight in the artisan’s workshop. The door of the furnace, stoked to temperatures well above the point where flames can even exist, must have been the scariest sight in town.

Translation by Mary Jo Bang (Bomb magazine, 112, Spring 2012), http://bombmagazine.org/article/6445/dante-s-inferno-canto-xxxiv

Photo: Il Libraio https://www.illibraio.it/socci-inferno-dante-610147/

C’mon, it’s like a zipper!

– I-80 motorist to merging traffic

On a crowded freeway, when two lanes of traffic must narrow down to one, the cars may come together like the teeth of a zipper – two sides taking turns to open and fill spaces efficiently. The “teeth” are not like chomping teeth but like the teeth in the gears of a well-designed machine, such as a pocket watch.

But sometimes the traffic gets jammed, as zippers sometimes jam. Jamming occurs in traffic when some of the drivers see themselves as racehorses rather than gears, jockeying for position in a crowded field where one will come out ahead and the others…well, they’re losers. Clearly, putting racehorses together with gear teeth results in a mishmash, something like a log-jam, in which the benefits of competition and cooperation are both lost. It is bad to mix metaphors.

The word log-jam entered American speech by 1885 (or 1851), and registered in the national imagination as an image of colossal system breakdown by 1907, when the Springfield Weekly Republican reported that a legislative log-jam had at last been cleared in Congress. Traffic jam became a word around 1917. The zipper came to market in 1925 as a closure for boots, a quick and easy alternative to too many buttons.

Photo: Karl Stull

The system is totally rigged and broken.

– Donald Trump, October 22, 2016

The rigging of a sailing ship is fairly basic engineering, but it can get complicated. To hold a mast upright requires a system of adjustable ropes that pull with balanced force in different directions. Added masts and taller masts require more elaborate rigging, with rope tensions “in tune” throughout the system. In the early 1500s, a “weale and pompously rigged” ship was an admirable sight.

A hundred years later, landlubbers were using “rig” metaphorically. Just as a sloop or yawl was recognizable by its arrangement of sails, so a man’s “rig” referred to his character. A related expression, “I like the cut of your jib,” persisted into the 20th century.

By the early 1800s, “rigged” also described clever schemes to lure stock investors – with “made markets, rigged shares, paid puffs in the newspapers, and all the other scandals.” In this image, an insubstantial investment is made to stand up, as it were, by an array of clever supports.

The stock-market sense of rigging is an insult to seamanlike ingenuity. On the other hand, it is understandable that all expert systems look alike to an outsider – difficult, arbitrary, favoring those who know how to pull the strings. When candidate Trump said the US electoral system was rigged, he meant it was engineered to favor political insiders.

Then he won the election. We are forced to conclude: if the system was rigged, it must also have been broken, because the rigging didn’t work. Never before in history has a president been so right about so many things he knew so little about.

Note: Quotations are from “rig” entries in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Photo: USS Constitution in Boston harbor, by Seaman Matthew R. Fairchild; Wikipedia

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