the past in pop culture

Category: Holiday

Snakes on an Island

St Patrick's Day Parade 2007

St Patrick’s Day Parade 2007 (Photo credit: Out.of.Focus)

What would Saint Patrick do? The snakes are back. The New York Times recently reported that Ireland is now home to a growing number of abandoned pet snakes. After Ireland’s economic boom went bust, status symbol serpents became too expensive to maintain. Some of their owners just let their pythons, boas, and rat snakes go to fend for themselves, leading one young Dubliner to found a National Exotic Animal Sanctuary.

Although legend has it that he expelled all the snakes from Ireland in the fifth century, Saint Patrick would probably approve. Surely he would pity the more recently forsaken serpents. He knew a thing or two about making an unplanned visit to the emerald isle. Saint Patrick, after all, wasn’t Irish. He was born into a family of Roman colonial officials in Britain but as a boy of sixteen was captured by Irish raiders. They took him back to Ireland as a slave where he was put to work herding sheep for six years before he managed to escape and make his way home. Only later did he feel called by faith to return to Ireland as a missionary. Scientists, in any case, suggest that Ireland never did have a population of snakes, making the story of St. Patrick’s accomplishment more likely to be symbolic of his work to cast out pagans—not Pythons.

The island that could really use a little of the Saint Patrick magic is Guam. Since the end of World War II when U.S. military ships brought a plague of brown snakes to the tiny territory, Guam has been overrun by them. Local bird species had never developed defenses against snakes and are nearly extinct. And now the birds’ traditional prey—spiders—are forty times more prevalent than in the past. The slithery varmints also snap electrical lines, stage home invasions, and bite babies. The snake doesn’t stop there either: the snakes on a plane scenario has led to fears that Hawaii (another snakeless wonder) could be their next stop. Thus the U.S. Department of Defense has concocted a plan to strew poisoned mice into the trees of Guam to tempt the brown snakes to their deaths. How very Old Testament.

On most days, the poisoned mice plan might best be described as a Hail Mary pass given how defenseless the world has become to the phenomenon of invasive species. And indeed, Santa Marian Kamalen is the Patron of Guam. But on Saint Patrick’s Day, they say that everyone is Irish. Surely that includes the people of Guam. May Saint Patrick grant them the luck of the Irish, and a snake free future.

A Valentine for Frederick Douglass

Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass

Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As of this writing, Frederick Douglass still does not appear in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Spielberg has gotten a lot of grief for this, as has his screenwriter Tony Kushner who started with a script that included Douglass but then left him out. The black characters who did make it into the film are mostly kindly, grateful, and token. Sure, there’s one angry black man at the start who’s intent on holding Mr. Lincoln accountable, but he isn’t Frederick Douglass and the other black soldier who is with him keeps laughing at Lincoln’s jokes. Spielberg’s Lincoln is in good company at this year’s Oscars though—Argo and Zero Dark Thirty have also been raked over the historical accuracy coals for what they left in, left out, or just plain made up. And in far off Chile, film director Pablo Larrain recently invoked Spielberg in defense of his Oscar nominated movie No in which a complicated social movement that led to a national referendum to oust dictator Augusto Pinochet is told primarily as the story of a single man and his ad campaign. Worse, many of the people who were actually involved are very much among the living and not all have had kind words for the film.

Frederick Douglass, we hope, is resting in peace. And since he will not be on screen this year and nor will any actor portraying him be on the red carpet at the Oscars next week, let’s remember him on this his birthday. Douglass chose Valentine’s Day to celebrate the day of his birth because his mother, who he saw only a handful of times during his childhood in slavery, called him her “little valentine.” He didn’t know his own birth date because, as he writes in his autobiography, no slave ever did. Even as a child he wondered why he was deprived of this privilege. It’s fitting that Douglass’s chosen birthday falls between that of Lincoln and Washington. There is a considerable distance between the two on the question of slavery and Douglass as much as anyone and more than most helped to move the country in the right direction. If this isn’t in the movie, well, Hollywood history has always left a lot on the cutting room floor and Spielberg is not a documentarian. Douglass is not in Lincoln. So here’s a thought: how about next year a movie titled Douglass for Best Picture?

Carnival is Over and Other Sinking Feelings

English: Pieter II Brueghel (the Younger) (156...

English: Pieter II Brueghel (the Younger) (1564-1638). The Fight Between Carnival and Lent. Copy of a painting by Pieter I Brueghel (the Elder). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium. Detail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday’s Fat Tuesday is today’s Ash Wednesday and a time for sober reflection. It’s been a rough week for ancient traditions. A pope stepped down for the first time since 1294. In Venice, where carnival has been celebrated since even before that time, revelers had to wade through high waters and melting snow in the sinking city. In Brazil, a carnival float caught fire and killed four too soon after that country’s deadly nightclub fire earlier this month. And somewhere on the Gulf of Mexico, a ship by the name of Carnival Triumph continues to drift after an engine room fire left it without power. Its four thousand plus passengers now face conditions remarkably like those of eighteenth and nineteenth century steerage class. The stench and filth below has driven some to sleep in tents on deck. Passengers report scarce food, long lines, and bad behavior. There are fears of disease and worries about the health of the elderly and handicapped. It’s no doubt a blessing for the cruise company that the lack of power has left people largely unable to use their cellphones and other such devices: so far, most of these reports are not accompanied by pictures. With luck, the beleaguered travelers will be towed to port in Alabama by today. They can, at least, be thankful they didn’t meet the fate of the passengers of the Costa Concordia—another ship belonging to the Carnival company. After running it aground, the captain decided to get off before his passengers had been rescued. What’s next? Women and children last? Yes, that too. Not even on our beloved Titanic where the captain did indeed go down with his ship were the male passengers quite as self-sacrificing as they have often been portrayed. While women and children mostly survived from first and second class, in steerage the rates were reversed. At least on the Titanic the captain gave the order to save women and children first. In most maritime disasters, survival rates were highest for the crew, followed by the captains (!), then women, and children dead last. Turns out that the real rule has been every man for himself. It seems unlikely that the Carnival line will re-name itself Lent any time soon, but it’s a thought.

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