Useless Activities & Useful Idiots


The Pacific Northwest is blessed by nature with great fisheries, fertile soils, ample resources and a moderate climate.  People are drawn by that and by the natural beauty you see everywhere you look.  Living is good in the Northwest and it has been that way for a long time.  The Indians of the region were prosperous.   It didn’t take much effort to gather nuts & berries, hunt or fish in such a rich place and the inhabitants developed a fascinating custom called the potlatch.    The potlatch was a big feast where the host gave away, wasted or destroyed his possessions.    

Anthropologists have studied the phenomenon.   I first heard about it when I studied Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class.”   He used it as an example of a wasteful custom practiced by rich people to show their status.   According to the theory, the rich demonstrated their status by wasting what others don’t have. 

They are actually doing more.    The individual consistently doing the giving uses his ostensible generosity to establish dominance over the habitual recipient.  That is one reason why chronic recipients are often not very grateful for the largess they receive.   The potlatch demonstrates this too.   The rich chiefs made great public shows of generosity but they kept control of the productive assets.   The potlatch was a perverse variation of the old saying “give a man to fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for life.”  The fat-cats gave away fish but carefully kept the fishing grounds.   In a society w/o good storage facilities, giving away nature’s surplus bounty was about as generous as a tree shedding its leaves in fall.  

We find the same thing in today’s society.   Rich celebrities make big deals of their generosity, but they usually don’t change the equation.   There are exceptions.  The late Paul Newman was clearly a good man and it seems to me that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are really trying to do the right thing, but very often the rich assuage their consciences and demonstrate their status by holding high powered fund raisers and concerts for politically correct good causes.    It is more than ironic when they hold a million dollar gala to fight world poverty.

Useful Idiots

Back when some people still thought communism was a viable alternative to the free market, Kremlin leaders used to call them useful idiots.  They were people  in the West who went along with their communist aims w/o really understanding them .  In the current American context you have people who act as foot soldiers in the various anti-whatever demonstrations set up by radicals.    

The good thing about Portland is that it is tolerant and easy, but that also means that it has more than its share of listless young people with no visible means of support or obvious places to be.  They hang around the center of town and beg for money.  They even do this listlessly.   One woman complained to Mariza that she would be working but was being prevented by the Republicans.   I saw a lot of these sorts of young people gathering to protest against the war in Iraq.   I started to talk to a few of them but soon gave up.   They just don’t have the capacity to understand the nuances.   I felt like the character in the movie “the Time Machine,” the original one from the 1960s.   In one frustrating scene the guy tries to ask some questions and talk about serious issues but the vapid people of the distant future are just interested in their hedonistic pursuits.   Everything is provided to them and they have no idea where it comes from.

Most of the kids (a few of these “kids” BTW are still left over from the 1960s) hanging around the streets are probably harmless most of the time.   It is sort of like a “big Lebowski” club.   They don’t really do much of anything that smacks of effort besides Frisbee and hacky sack.   Mariza and I got a cup of hot chocolate at a local Starbucks and as we drank it watched a couple guys play hacky sack.  They were good.  You know that skill at hacky sack is inversely related to success in life.  Think about the time it takes to get good at something like that.   The same thing goes for lots of those sorts of things.   I had a colleague once who was the best player of minesweeper that I had ever seen.   She was not promoted.