Those of you younger than 50 probably won’t remember the Tales of Uncle Remus, a series of children’s short stories more than 100 years old. Written in a post-slavery dialect that would not be considered politically correct these days, the author relates stories told by an old black man, Uncle Remus, to a 7-year-old child. The current world situation, and the place now occupied by the United States, bring one particular tale to mind: the story of Brer Rabbit and the Tarbaby, where we are Brer Rabbit, and “de’ Tarbaby” is a host of nations whose names all end in “stan”—as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmanistan, and Kazakhstan—and who, like the tarbaby, have what you might call a “close association” with oil.
In the Uncle Remus tale, Brer Fox decides he will catch Brer Rabbit and barbecue him up for dinner. But Brer Rabbit is too smart to be easily caught. So Brer Fox, being sly, makes a little girl out of tar and sticks her in the road. When Brer Rabbit comes sauntering down the lane, he attempts to get the tarbaby to say hello, or to respond in any way, but fails. Finally, in frustration, Brer Rabbit threatens to whop de’ tarbaby upside the head ... which he proceeds to do. His paw, of course, gets stuck in the tarbaby. Brer Rabbit is so angry that he threatens to whop de’ tarbaby upside the head with the other paw if it doesn’t let go. After a ferocious swing, both paws are “stuck fas’ in de’ tarbaby.” Still, Brer Rabbit doesn’t learn and soon he has kicked the tarbaby with both feet and butted it with his head—all of which are now stuck—“an de tarbaby, he don’ let go.” About then, out of the bushes saunters old Brer Fox, laughing out loud and sharing the plans for his barbecue with Brer Rabbit, who will be his guest “for dinner.”
So far, our nation’s involvement in what Bush calls “the global war on terrorism,” only has one paw stuck: The United States has promised to protect Uzbekistan, formerly part of the Soviet Union, from future attacks by Afghanistan in return for using their air bases to launch operations in Afghanistan. Looming over this commitment is the unanswered question of just how the United States can be expected to patrol boundaries through some of the most rugged mountains on earth to keep long-time rivals from sneaking through and taking pot shots at each other with their ever-popular rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Perhaps someone in our congressional delegation can explain how such “deals” that may well involve future generations of Americans are being made. It would also be great if someone in our congressional delegation could tell us when they are going to vote on such “deals” and when would be an opportune time for a little constituent input on such enormous commitments.
So far, we only have one paw stuck. But from the looks of things, we are certainly getting ready to follow through with another swing, and then a couple of kicks, and finally, in desperation, a head-butt. Unlike the tarbaby in the Uncle Remus tale, however, this modern version of an oil-based trap is not inert. Latest news from Washington is that somebody sent an envelope of anthrax spores to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. This follows up the other reported anthrax contamination incidents occurring with alarming frequency across the nation with such diverse targets as Microsoft, The New York Times, and NBC “Nightly News” anchor, Tom Brokaw. As the bioterrorism spreads, it becomes more and more apparent that this tarbaby ain’t letting go. And guess what? Having a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers circling the globe and getting ready to take the next big swing at the tarbaby ain’t getting us out, either.
Although most of the media seem to be adroitly avoiding the issue, sooner or later we are going to have to stare this tarbaby in the face and realize it is made of oil. As a nation and a people, we are getting more and more stuck because of one thing—our addiction to oil. The desire to drive around in enormous vehicles that get the worst overall gas mileage since the ’70s is one foot in the tarbaby.
The interests of the multinational megacompanies that supply that addiction are another foot in the tarbaby. We are spending billions of public taxpayer dollars yearly to maintain the oil addiction sea routes through the continuously-warring states of the Middle East. Our latest venture, while generally agreed to be justifiable in light of the East Coast attacks, could well open the way for a new pipeline that would bring the vast oil and gas resources of Uzbekistan and Kazahkstan safely through an American-subdued Afghanistan and thence to the Gulf of Oman through either Pakistan (our new friends) or Iran. We may get the oil, and a few large energy corporations will make a pile of money, but we won’t get out of the tarbaby.
In the Uncle Remus tale, Brer Rabbit doesn’t escape from the tarbaby, either—he’s pulled out by Brer Fox. Being a children’s story, Brer Rabbit eventually escapes by using his wits. We could, too, but it would mean changing the consumption habits of our nation and leaving the antiquated, polluting, “Oil Age” behind. Could we do it? Sure we could. Although there is much hubris in the acclamation that “America is number one!” there is also a lot of truth. We have the technology, the manufacturing capability, and the budget to move America off our oil addiction and into a new age of true freedom—a freedom that is not contingent upon the whims of warring nations half a world away. We have everything we need except the national commitment to do so. Considering the alternatives—like having to open our mail in contamination chambers for the foreseeable future—maybe we should stop swinging, use our wits to avoid this oil trap, and let the tarbaby sit there and melt in the hot, Middle Eastern sun.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.