[Previous entry: "DHS proposes "permission to travel"/I watch United 93"] [Main Index] [Next entry: "Hey, get out there and v*ote in the Hardyville Film Fest"]

10/18/2006 Archived Entry: "Civilized and without Clue"

IN THE AKIRA KUROSAWA FILM DERSU UZALA (which I watched a few days ago) tough but crass and clueless Russian explorers meet a gnomish, enigmatic native hunter in the wilderness. This hunter, the Dersu of the title, is at first a target of their bemusement and laughter. But once they realize how much he knows about woodcraft, the explorers (particularly Captian Vladimir Arsenyev) admire and rely on him.

In one early scene, they shelter from a rainstorm in a hut Dersu leads them to. As they're about to depart, Dersu insists that they leave portions of rice, salt, and other durable food behind. "Why?" the Russians ask, "Surely we're not planning to return here?" "Of course we're not," Dersu chuckles. "The food is for other people who come after us. They find food, they live. No food, they might die."

Arsenyev is in awe, because now he believes that Dersu is not only an expert in survival and tracking, but that he has a "great soul," leaving food for others he doesn't even know.

Dersu and Arsenyev are historic figures, and this account comes from Arsenyev's memoirs. In real life the explorer revered Dersu so greatly that he eventually invited him to come live with his family. In the movie, both are definitely awesome characters.

But admirable though Dersu's gesture was, it wasn't driven by some heroic generosity, but by practicality. Leave food for others in storm shelters and your own chances of survival are increased when others reciprocate. It doesn't matter whether you never meet the others; they're part of your community. The "civilized" Russians' puzzlement and awe seemed like one more sign of what we lose when we stop needing other individuals and start relying more on institutions and "authorities."


Yesterday, USCensusGov "experts" declared that the population of the U.S. was exactly, precisely 300 million as of 7:46 a.m. This blatant little piece of PR nonsense (the Census Bureau actually can't have a clue, nor can anybody else, about the precise population numbers) was predictably blatted all over the media all day long, getting as much coverage as the news that George W. Bush had signed away about half the Bill of Rights.

Before NPR interviewed demographics maven Carl Haub about this entertaining non-phenomenon, they sent a reporter out onto the Washington, DC, mall and asked passersby how large the population of the U.S. is.

Maybe a lot of people gave an answer close to the official one; I don't know. But the responses they broadcast were pretty bizarre. Guesses included: two million, twenty million, about 150 million, and "300 thousand million" (from a couple of giggly girls who clearly didn't have clue). Most guesses were astonishingly low. Given the country's 900-pound gorilla status in world affairs, I'd expect wrong guesses to be on the high side; a surprise.

Part of me says (hardly for the first time, naturally), "Jeepers crap, what on earth are they teaching people in public schools?" We live in the world's one-and-only superpower, the third biggest nation on earth, and some people think the entire country has about a quarter the population of New York City?

Another part argues, "Well, why the hell should anyone care?" Not only is the official U.S. population an estimate (at best). But what does it matter to the average person? Population in the abstract doesn't affect our daily lives; only population as in "there are too damn many people on the freeway this morning" or "we don't have enough people in this county to attract a Wal-Mart."

Is it selfish or ignorant to care more about what goes on in your immediate vicinity than about what the central government says is important? Or does it maybe indicate that we still, even in these days when All Bounty showers down upon us like manna from Washington, understand at some level that the people and things we directly interact with are more vital to our well-being than the deeds and decrees of far-off govocrats?


I'm not quite sure how these two tales fit together. But I think they do. So draw your own conclusions -- or not -- as you see fit.

Posted by Claire @ 09:54 AM CST

Powered By Greymatter