The Worm Ouroboros:
Consuming Ourselves to Death
Several days ago at the office, one of my colleagues voiced a complaint over the rising cost of gasoline. It seems that he bought a large Chevrolet Tahoe pickup truck last year, seduced by the GMAC offer of ‘Zero Percent Financing’ they use to snare all the suckers into a losing game of dollarophageous automotive consumerism. With its 26 gallon fuel tank, it costs him $97.50 every time he takes the 11 mpg beast in for a feeding. That’s at the current per-gallon price of $3.75.
Having just finished the morning’s purchase trades for the State Treasury, I had a brief respite in which to consider his remarks and tender some sort of reasoned reply. Jack, a somewhat junior co-worker at age 36, has a wife and two children, a steep mortgage to cope with, and all of the usual financial concerns most of us Mercans (also known as ‘Americans’) are saddled with in our land of the rave and the home of the fee.
As usual, whenever someone starts a conversation with me, in my frusty pseudo-academic manner I invariably make an effort to couch my reflections in a brief pretext of interpolative background. It’s a habit I picked up long ago, mindful of the fact that quite often the other individual may have little or no awareness of my sometimes arcanely esoteric points of reference. Thus, in the midst of tossing out a few contextual facts about the oil situation, I mentioned Saudi Arabia’s former oil minister, Sheikh Zaki Yamani. This produced a blank look on Jack’s face, so I painted a bit more background on Yamani’s role in the virtually single-handed engineering of Saudi Arabia’s rise to preeminence as the world’s top oil producing nation, in the 70s and 80s.
More blank looks from Jack. Then it finally dawned on me that Jack had been born in 1972 and that he had been only one year old when the Egyptian-Israeli ‘October War’ (also known as the ‘Yom Kippur War’) had broken out. Jack was apparently completely unmindful of that war’s profound effect in helping precipitate OPEC’s use of oil as a ‘weapon’ for the first time in modern history.
This made me pause to reflect myself over the fact that although Jack was a college educated, intelligent fellow, he not only did not know who Zaki Yamani was, he also hadn’t a clue about any of the world-shattering events that took place in the Middle East in those momentous late-middle decades of the 20st Century. For yet another time I realized that one of my favorite philosophers, George Santayana, had it right once again with his famous observation (“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.” George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905).
My friend Jack, regrettably, is far from being alone in his relative ignorance of that which has gone before, which perhaps explains why our nation is in such deep shit at the moment. Since Jack is an educated and reasonably aware member of our society, with a college degree from a reputable university, this fact screams volumes about exactly why we are at where we’re at on the happy road to economic perdition. Further, it doesn’t take the abstract reasoning of an Einstein to remember that most of the citizens in our nation are a LOT farther down on the ladder of reflective reasoning ability than is baccalaureated Jack. In fact most of them are abysmally stupid, if you’ll permit me to take off the kid gloves and address the issues squarely.
One of the complaints one occasionally hears these days is the fact that ‘younger people’ no longer read newspapers or watch the national news media broadcasts on television. Of course there are a great many reasons for that drop-off statistic, not least of which is that many younger people reject the intensely commercial nature of (non-cable) network broadcasting by simply not bothering with it (surely a faint sign of some reflective intelligence, at least?). The greater point here perhaps is that America has become so thoroughly saturated by the ‘spirit’ of commercial materialism that straight information not related to the selling of a product is no longer given much importance by the public media in its role of ‘informing’ the public. Of course that very likely is an unreasonable conclusion, considering how readily kids buy into rampant mass market branding campaigns (viz. Oakley, Vuarnet, Quicksilver, Billabong, Nike, you name it).
Still, this tendency shouldn’t have that great an impact on the life of someone who has determined that the very method of living a reasoned, balanced, and astute life is to take the broadest possible interest in life’s continuously unfolding events and formulate one’s actions, awarenesses, and attitude accordingly. Unless it is felt that one’s nation has screwed up the world so royally that the only really satisfying recourse is to escape into one’s own reassuring fantasies. But that presupposes that everyone is at least capable of intelligent application of thought, which simply is not the case.
At this point, without going off on another of the wildly diverse tangents that I am so fond of (and prone to, admittedly), let’s return to my conversation with Jack, who had no idea who this Zaki Yamani character was (or why I even brought his name up to begin with). Jack was complaining, between gulps of the usual terrible caffeinated battery acid, about his own personal pain at the pump. Complaining to me, someone who rides a bicycle to work every day, rain or shine. The lamb voicing objections to the wolf, eh? Ralph Nader registering a protest to Dick Cheney?
University degree or not, Jack is very typical of a very large number of individuals in our country who have been successfully conditioned to let others handle the ‘reflective intelligence applications’ of their lives. The present leaders of our nation, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Pearle, and that gang of corrupt thieves who form the present administration, all count on that factor to allow them to pursue their own misguided self-interests behind a mirror that has been cleverly adjusted to reflect the erstwhile ‘will of the people’. To again quote my mentor, George S.: “Advertising is the modern substitute for argument; its function is to make the worse appear the better.”
Using the intensely refined psychological precepts of American commercial advertising, our leaders are easily able to mold, shape, and configure that hypothetical ‘national will’ into whatever convenient form suits their economic whim. In the case of ‘Iraq War II’ that we seem likely to be immersed in for some time, the entire nation was skillfully reconstituted into a herd of obedient sheep that were willing to blindly follow the president and his (NeoCon inspired) cronies into what will assuredly emerge in the subsequent annals of history as one of the most deceitful, duplicitous and dishonest American foreign policy actions every undertaken by our nation. Of course, by the time the historians bravely dare to document that shameful fact in print, George W. Bush and all of his ‘chicken-hawk’ (note: a term used to describe ‘hawkish’ proponents of war who were never actually serving in uniform at any time, during their own lives) cohorts will be long disappeared from the public scene and comfortably retired to their wealthy estates.
[Lest I paint too bleak a picture of America's spongeform herd-instinct reactivity here, I should mention in passing the recent PBS 'FRONTLINE' special program (4.5 hours long) titled BUSH's WAR, which is a stunning documentary expose of all those deceits (viewable in its entirety at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/bushswar/). There is also an excellent Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program titled THE LIES THAT LED TO WAR that takes the same approach, but that lasts only a half hour. http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/lies/. Bravo for both of these excellent efforts to lead the herd to an appropriate informational watering trough!]
Ah! I see another tangent looming ahead, so we’ll divert back to the main highway again. The point I suppose I have been forming in my mind, in response to Jack’s very bad decision to buy one of the worst gas-guzzlers on the road (in the midst of the present severe fuel crisis), is that had Jack been a student of history, or even mildly well-read in world affairs, he would have understood that change is the only reliable constant in human life. As Santayana put it: “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” Happier, yes, but also a much more intelligent approach, as well, since Spring's delights are brief, but the dynamic change of seasons is a continuing facet of ongoing reality.
My reason for introducing the name of Zaki Yamani into my reply to Jack was that, aside from being an absolutely fascinating individual that everyone should know about, Yamani was the chief architect of the West’s present misery (helped immeasurably along by Dick Cheney and all his Big Oil buddies, of course). A Saudi national by birth, Yamani received most of his education in the West and was therefore fully comfortable in all his interactions with Western culture. He was also an extremely astute and personable individual, characterised by many who knew him as ‘brilliant’. The overall impression one receives of the Sheikh (a purely honorific title, since he was a commoner and not a member of the Saudi Royal family) is that he was an intensely honest, fair-minded, very well-educated (he had two law degrees, one from NYU and the other from Harvard Law) Arab who treated everyone he dealt with a peerless equanimity, regardless of whom they were or what station in life they held. In other words, he was probably more democratic in his approach to interpersonal and international affairs than are most Americans.
It was Yamani, working closely with Saudi Arabian King Faisal ibn Al Saud, who almost single handedly introduced the oil ‘weapon’ that changed the nature of the world’s entire modern oil-based economy forever. In that, his influence and fame as one of the most notable human beings of the 21st Century is assured. For that reason, among many others, my friend Jack should not only have not brought on his personal economic misery in the form of that Chevrolet Tahoe truck, he should also have instantly recognised the name ‘Zaki Yamani’ (even if he was born only a year before the oil crisis of the early 70s took place) and generally known what part Yamani had in the formation of our present American oil crisis.
Yamani returned to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the late 60s, after taking his last graduate degree (in jurisprudence) at Harvard. After starting his own law practice in Riyadh, at a time when there really were no such things as lawyers in the Islamic Shariyah courts, he was offered the position vacated by his immediate predecessor (Abdullah Tariki) by the King, who was impressed by his evident intelligence and highly commendable personal demeanor. Over the course of the next several decades (until about 1986), Yamani almost entirely by himself changed the course of extant history in nationalizing the Saudi ARAMCO oil behemoth that had, prior to that time, been wholly owned by 4 large American oil companies (Exxon, Shell, Mobil, and Chevron). In the course of this action, Yamani helped conceptualise and bring to life OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries), that consortium of the world’s oil producing nations that today largely regulates oil international prices through cooperative co-dominance of the petroleum market.
A man of exceptional charm and personable to a fault, Yamani’s economic astuteness nevertheless made him many powerful enemies among a number of other national players in the world’s oil market, notably Iran and Syria (the latter nation's delegates to OPEC actually threatened to have him assassinated at one meeting), and was even taken hostage and held under death threat by the notorious international terrorist ‘Carlos the Jackal’, during a 1975 OPEC meeting in Vienna. One of the results of that particular brush with death was the subsequent hiring of 6 personal bodyguards to protect him at all times. The 6 individuals selected as guards were all ex British SAS (Special Air Service, the UK equivalent of American SEALS) commandos. They all ranged over 6 feet in height, were handsome, cultivated, Oxford educated post-grads, and all able to place a bullet between someone’s eyes at 50 paces, in a heartbeat.
In 1983, while working for the Saudi Ministry of Defense and Aviation (MODA), I happened to be based in At’ Taif (the Saudi Arabian summer capitol, located in the mountainous Western Arabian Hijaz region at an altitude of some 6500 feet), with an office at the Al Hada Military Hospital located near (then) Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah’s palatial summer estate. Since Sheikh Yamani worked in Taif during the hot summer months, along with the rest of the Saudi government, he would occasionally come by my clinic for periodic exams. Such visits were always quite interesting, for his blonde, blue-eyed ex-SAS guards would accompany him and consequently there were many occasions for the exchange of interesting conversation.
One of the things that most impressed me about the guards was the fact that each of them carried two fully loaded MAC-10 mini-submachine guns—one below each armpit in a special holster—under their dark blue hopsack blazers. I was always quite curious about this praetorian guard of Yamani’s, since aside from their deadly personal combat skills, they all had the appearance of being handsome, personable, intelligent, and cultivated gentlemen who could carry themselves with sophisticated elan at the finest social gatherings. And indeed it was so, since any of them could carry on a competent conversation about anything one could think of—from ancient Greek civilisation to highly theoretical current concepts in quantum physics. I recall being extremely impressed during these occasional chats, to say the least.
For his part, Yamani was the gentleman’s gentleman. Polite, considerate, unpretentious, ingenuous, and extremely down-to-earth in an openly friendly, personal way, one would have thought he was anyone other than the single most powerful man on Earth at that time. After we had finished up his medical examinations and attended to his health needs (he lived an exceptionally clean, healthy life, incorporating a good diet, proper nutrition, and exemplary personal habits—unlike most Saudi VIPs—and never drank or smoked) he would always spend a few moments casually conversing with us. A very private and almost self-effacing person, the subject of our chats would invariably be deflected from himself to our personal concerns, and one would come into the room thinking we were all very old and close friends, such was the relaxed ambience that prevailed of such moments. The sheikh had an exceptional memory for names and faces, always, I have found, a characteristic of those who are highly intelligent in their dealings with others (i.e. excellent ‘people skills’), and each time he would return to our clinic he would warmly greet us all by our first names as if we were members of his own family. Unfailingly, a day or two later following his visits, one of his personal servants would arrive in a large limousine with an expensively packaged personal gift of exotic foods, fruits, and similar goodies for each of us. All of this couldn’t help but make a tremendous impression on both myself and my colleagues, but it was just another fascinating facet of the man’s incredible personal charisma and his keen intelligence revealing itself.
It helps to recall at that time (early 80s) that only 10 years before, the cost of Saudi Arabian Light Crude had been hovering around $1.50 to $2 per barrel. After Yamani orchestrated and coordinated the Kingdom’s oil production, consequent to establishing OPEC and nationalizing ARAMCO, the cost for that same Saudi benchmark crude had risen to almost $18 per barrel. While that doesn’t seem like much, after you do the math involving the production of hundreds of millions of barrels of oil, it is a bit easier to gain the faintest glimmer of some basic understanding about oil wealth, and why oil has always been, and shall continue to be the most important economic resource in the entire world (for the foreseeable future, at least).
The cost of gasoline inside the Kingdom at that same time (1983) was about 15 cents per liter, which amounts to roughly $0.65 per gallon! I had a 1983 Russian Lada Niva 4WD vehicle, purchased new at the Taif car ‘souk’ (market) for about $5,000.00, and could easily fill its 10 gallon tank for a few dollars. My Lada was sand-beige in color and those of you who are modestly versed in things automotive will know that the Russian Lada was essentially an Italian Fiat wrapped in Russian sheet metal. The ‘Niva’ 4WD vehicle was essentially a Russian design, incorporating a license-produced Fiat 1300 engine and a 4WD mechanicals of Russian origin. It looked a lot like a small SUV in shape and essentially did everything modern SUVs do except drive you to the debtor’s work farm. Actually, I loved that little Lada Niva and wanted to bring it back with me to the US, but when I asked customs about the possibilities of import they told me that even if it WERE smog-compliant (which it wasn’t), some hyper-patriotic ‘Buy-in-America’ longshoreman would very likely accidentally drop it in New York harbor, while unloading it. You need to recall (another history lesson) that the early 80s were still part of the late ‘Cold War’ era of economic and military contention between American and the USSR for world dominance, and that a good many simple-minded Americans still thought that there was a Communist lurking behind every bush (or Lada).
Friend Jack, my ‘uneducated’ university graduate colleague at the office, does apparently catch the national media evening news broadcast at home on occasion, so he is aware of the fact that the present cost per barrel of Saudi Arabian Light Crude is now at about $118. The only part of the world’s economic equation he REALLY seems to completely understand, however, is the part that hits him over the head with a large, leaden dollar sign. The part that requires him to fork over nearly $100 every time he fills his vehicle’s fuel tank (that translates on a late model Chevy Tahoe pickup to about every 286 miles). When I ask him why he doesn’t trade his Chevrosaurus in on a smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicle, Jack confides in me that he doesn’t feel safe in a small vehicle, and given the absolutely crazed manner in which so many younger individuals (read: late teens and 20s) drive these days, I almost find myself in sympathy with him on that particular score.
Of course, the greater dilemma is that America has so successfully created a nation that relies upon personal roadway transportation (while concurrently eliminating all forms of competing mass-transport in that process) that you can now almost think of the entire nation’s population as one big vehicular crank house gang, totally and hopelessly addicted to driving big, wasteful automobiles no matter what the cost, economic pain, or personal discomfort.
As fuel prices continue to rise, threatening to reach into the $4.50+ per gallon range before too long, I have no doubt we are doomed to see more of those obnoxious local news program female anchors thrusting their microphones into average peoples’ faces and asking for an opinion on their personal ‘pain at the pump’. My own take on these local news media dog-and-pony vignettes is that they are rather artlessly engineered for the sole purpose of evoking sappy responses from those ‘average’ public individuals queued up at the station, whose words invariably parrot the standard “It’s just criminal to have to pay so much for gas!” sentiment. Of course it is not half as criminal as the fact that George (‘Texas oil cartel’) Bush, Dick (Mr. ‘Big Oil’) Cheney, and all of the other powerful commercial oil interests that have managed to tap into the Bush administration team have painstakingly contrived to develop and perpetuate an American economy that is slavishly habituated to squanderous personal gasoline consumption.
As for Jack, his ignorance of the larger issues concerning oil, energy, and non-renewable resources is endemic to conventional American social culture, wherein (to reiterate) the public has been repeatedly told to ‘leave these affairs in the hands of the experts’. The fact that this sort of philosophy is akin to asking Little Red Riding Hood to trust the Big Bad Wolf’s assertion that it is actually Red’s beloved old granny seems to escape their awareness. But then, in a nation built upon an political-economic premise of endless material consumption resulting from endless economic growth, such fables constitute the popular ‘pseudo-truth’ commodity being manufactured and churned out for the masses (to swallow). That famous image of the ancient disambiguatious symbol of the ‘Worm Ouroborus’ consuming itself springs immediately to mind as a figurative representation of the sort of seriously fallacious thinking present American political-economic theory encompasses.
I would have suggested a number of books for Jack to read, so as to enable him to understand why adopting a national philosophy of conservative economics is in America’s best interests, had there been time for this in our early morning exchange between sips of over-brewed coffee. I would have reminded Jack that ever since the Industrial Revolution surrendered its theoretical ethics to a scientific technology enabled by and based entirely upon fossilized oil resources, every single modern world conflict of major substance between human beings has been about oil. I would also have provided jack with a list of useful references on the history of oil wealth, the political-economics of oil, and the industrial development of oil as the single most important energy resource in the modern world. Hell, I might even have suggested that instead of investing his rapidly diminishing take-home pay in the fuel tank of his Chevrosaurus, he instead take out stock options on Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, and British Petroleum.
However (big pause), had there been time for all of that, I would also have suggested a course or two in world economics, one on the history of Arab civilisation, and an audit of contemporary world religions, since as long as the average American dimbulb persists in deferring all reflective thought on these vital and timely subjects, we might as well send the entire nation back to school. This time to receive an education in how to live a fully actualized life, instead of concentrating on picking up a few job skills in the never-ending materialistic feeding frenzy that is American style capitalist consumer democracy.
Regrettably, Jack seems to be irrevocably locked in to supporting his three little consumer tax exemptions (wifie and their two kids), the floating rate mortgage on his exorbitantly overvalued real estate, his meals on wheels lifestyle, and all the other involuntary debenturements that amount to a life of abject consumer slavery wukkin’ fo’ da man (viz. GWB, DC, and all of their evil capitalist buddies at the top of the American economic food chain). Therefore, and in addition to the lack of quality interaction time those of us have at the office, it seems impossible to even engage in a diluted, grass-roots expression of Socratian consciousness raising with Jack.
Further reflecting upon all of the foregoing, it strikes me as tragically sad that those economically astute individuals who have managed to see through all the Bush Administration’s smoke and mirrors obfuscations (and cogently pointed out the hazardous nature of our present economic course with appropriate alarm) have been largely either ignored or written off as a bunch of alarmist ‘leftist liberals’. It is further disheartening to find that despite all the loudly voiced complaints, the average citizen seems content to pay the price for his continued ignorance as long as he can express his belly-aching to a local news media bimbo on TV. The activism of inaction, if you care to call it that, continues to hold sway among that great smelly mass of ordinary yokels who are responsible for electing truly evil incompetence into high office in our nation. For his part, even my friend Jack, (with his erstwhile university level education) shares the blame for perpetuating this stinking economic status quo with the depleted and empty enthusiasms of an unsalvageable crack addict.
It is amusing to recall that Benjamin Franklin, that venerable renaissance man of our revolutionary days, wanted to make the American Wild Turkey the national symbol of our land (somehow overlooking the fact that this indigenous American bird is actually quite stupid). Instead, the American bald Eagle was given the nod, despite the fact that that noble raptor is an opportunistic scavenger that will feed on anything, dead or alive (perhaps even more appropriate than I thought, eh?). My conversation with Jack over personal fuel costs and the world-wide oil crisis made me think that perhaps an even more contemporaneously appropriate symbol of America might be the great worm that eats itself to extinction…the Worm Ouroboros.