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Friday, September 17, 2021
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“It was not until the fifteenth century, the dawn of the age of ocean navigation, that Europeans systematically began to venture south, the Portuguese in the lead. In the 1440s, Lisbon’s shipbuilders developed the caravel, a compact vessel particularly good at sailing into the wind. Although rarely more than a hundred feet long, this sturdy ship carried explorers far down the west coast of Africa, where no one knew what gold, spices and precious stones might lie.

“But it was not only lust for riches that drove the explorers. Somewhere in Africa, they knew, was the source of the Nile, a mystery that had fascinated Europeans since antiquity. They were also driven by one of the most enduring of medieval myths, the legend of Prester John, a Christian king who was said to rule a vast empire in the interior of Africa, where, from a palace of translucent crystal and precious stones, he reigned over forty-two lesser kings, in addition to assorted centaurs and giants.”

– pg. 7, KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST, by Adam Hochschild, Houghton Mifflin, 1999

There was a black activist in Belize who died a couple years ago who always referred to the white man as “the white boy.” I did not understand his logic, if such it was, because this “boy” had been kicking our collective black a— for several centuries. But, that was his perspective, and may he rest in peace, and, as they say, rise in glory.

In the last couple weeks, two billionaires of European ancestry, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, have made self-financed, civilian flights to the edge of space, which, as I understand it, is fifty or more miles above planet earth. There, they have achieved weightlessness, for instance, but most important is the fact that they have introduced space flight into the business arena. If you have enough money, you will now be able to become a space tourist. Imagine that. One seat on Bezos’ flight cost $28 million in American dollars. These two “white boys” must be given their respect, I think.

The American media were all very excited and optimistic about the flights. Out there in space, you see, there are very valuable deposits of metals and other strategic materials. There is gold itself up there in the faraway planets. The super nations of the earth, such as the U.S., Russia, and China, have been fighting to lay claim to space and the planets in space since the late 1950s, when the Russians sent the first satellite, Sputnik, into space orbit. Because of that Russian triumph, the Americans vowed to reach the moon first, which they supposedly did on July 20, 1969, exactly 52 years to the day, before Bezos’ flight, which must have cost him billions.

There are many ways of looking at what is going on, but the most obvious, of course, is that all this money could have been spent on the welfare of planet earth’s starving, suffering millions (billions?). But, we’ll set aside that consideration for today, and only consider the fact that for sixteen months now the Americans, in specific, have been fighting a battle against the COVID-19 virus which they have been unable to win in a decisive manner. Well, perhaps they are thinking of going to space to live: presumably, there is no coronavirus up there. Whatever, whatever …

In the process of being educated in various schools, I came to understand that no empire created by man has ever survived. The Egyptian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, all man-made empires have ended up collapsing. We are still trying to figure out why the Mayan empires declined. This week on cable television, the Russian Times said that it was the lead in their water pipes that drove the Romans mad. Very intriguing.

Now the empire which dominated the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, the British Empire, which controlled one-sixth of the world’s population in its heyday, is still a wealthy and powerful entity. Recently, the British, again, simply refused to give Venezuela that republic’s gold which is stored in London. Might was and is right. (An aside, perhaps.)

The concept of the British Commonwealth is an interesting one, you know. The question is: have the Chinese now built an empire which can demolish, is demolishing, what remains of the British one?

For me, educated at the university level in the United States and a working resident of New York City during the summer of 1966, I have always wondered how such an empire as the American one could ever collapse. I considered the Manhattan skyscrapers, truly engineering marvels. The Empire State Building is spectacular. Nothing could destroy the American Empire. So it seemed.

Decades later, along came the virus. It hit New York City hard. The most fabulous city in the world fought back. Now, there has been a resurgence of the virus. Subway travel was such a perfect breeding ground for COVID-19.

Every weekday morning for two or three hours, subway trains packed to the gills with passengers, and squeezed up against each other, speed workers from all the five boroughs of the Big Apple into Manhattan’s financial district. In the evenings after five, these same workers repeat the human sardine scenario for another two or three hours on their way home. To repeat, a perfect breeding ground for the virus.

Then the Empire State Building, more than a hundred stories high. Packed elevators; offices where space is at an absolute premium; everything tight, tight, tight. The American empire. A thousand years from now perhaps, the scholars will try to figure how come the only superpower began to crack. There was no way that could happen. Will they remember the invisible, elusive, transformative virus? Human beings, our name is mortality. A humble reminder for Branson and Bezos?

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