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The week that was

February 21, 2011

A take on an eventful week

Last week was quite a news week. To skim three stories off the top for examination, we had the ridiculous, the sublime and the elucidating. There are some periods in human history in which world events can shine a light on the human condition through our behaviors. They allow us to examine our strength of spirit, our quest to know ourselves better and our tendency toward incredible pettiness.

First, the ridiculous and the petty. According a story from the BBC, Malawi’s Justice Minister George Chaponda last week introduced legislation that would criminalize flatulence to promote ‘public decency’. “Just go to the toilet when you feel like [committing flatulence],” he told a local radio station. Maybe the government feels a little claustrophobic (Malawi is landlocked), or maybe it was expressing an uptight vestige of its former status as a British colony. Either way, the law can certainly serve as an example of Big Government methane around in its people’s lives. And it can also serve as a benchmark of how much better off we are in our own country. And it gives new meaning to the term ‘restrictive’ governance.
Now, for the sublime. In a country frequently recognized in modern times for its Six-Day War with Israel in 1967, Egypt last week toppled a repressive regime with 18 days of peaceful protest. Maybe peace took three times as long as war to change the face and shape of t a region, but the price was certainly right. An ancient nation that built ships in 6000 B.C. and is mentioned prominently in the first book of the Bible, Egypt was led from the front by a group of mostly young people primarily armed with the tools of social networking Internet sites and cell phones. They showed up in numbers that made the military first back down from, and then join, the revolution.
It was an astounding display of passion for freedom, love of country and the fearless perseverance to risk personal safety and life itself to attain that freedom and forge a new, hopefully less repressive government. As events unfolded, we witnessed scenes eerily similar to those in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 – but with much different results. That a country’s entire governmental infrastructure, including its military, could be brought to its knees by its unarmed populace is as remarkable and as beautiful an historic event as we can remember seeing. It was a triumph of will, courage and organization.
And then there was the elucidation of the human condition. A group of dedicated scientists with a literary bent searched for, and found, the remains of the real-life Captain Ahab’s ship.
Captain George Pollard Jr. was the Nantucket whaling captain, whose first ship, the Essex, inspired the story told by Herman Melville in Moby Dick. The Essex was sunk in 1820 by an enraged (really?) Sperm whale, and Pollard and several of his crew members drifted through the Pacific on debris for three months marked by cannibalism and near-madness. (The fact that Pollard’s cousin was one of the victims of the cannibalism can give new meaning to the concept of a family picnic.)
That might have been the ship that made Pollard famous in classic literature, but it was not his last ship. He took the helm of another whaling ship, the Two Brothers. With the fishing grounds off New England depleted, it headed into unfamiliar territory to the Nantucket fleet, the French Frigate Shoals (now known as Honolulu). On the cloud-filled night of Feb. 11, 1823, a shoal of reefs every bit as deadly to a wooden ship as an angry Sperm whale sank the Pollard and the Two Brothers, ending Pollard’s career as a captain, although not his life.
One of the factors that make this story elucidating is that the team of scientists that found the wreckage of what could be called “Ahab’s Second Chance” made it at the very end of a series of dives that began in 2008 and that their journey to discovery was one of the few to find the remains of a Nantucket whaling ship. Most sank in waters too deep to allow investigation, much less study. That the real-life protagonist of one of the most widely-studied books in English literature was the subject of that discovery allows us to breathe life into one of our flawed fictional heroes and to come full circle in our relationship with someone whose character – and character flaws – we studied so exhaustedly and devotedly in school. By finding some concrete evidence of Ahab’s real-life counterpart’s existence makes him more real, and makes his folly that much more tangible, and therefore instructive.
And so last week’s memorable examples of our foibles, triumphs and absurdities stand as a testament top where we are as a species on this planet in the year 2011. Now, of we could only find out what a Sperm whale, equipped with a brain far bigger than ours, thought of all of this; then we would really know a thing or two.

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