“KAFKASTAN”

My political re-education began with a simple television commercial.

There seemed to be this inescapable message symbolically expressed in a recent advertisement for a frequent sponsor of television news, the Conoco Corporation. In the oil company’s thirty second TV spot, a group of lethargic brown bears are sitting in a river. The hungry beasts are waiting for spawning salmon to swim out of the water, and into the food chain. As one of the doomed fish makes its fatal leap, America’s winged mascot, the bald eagle, swoops down and snatches the waiting bear’s sustenance out of mid-air. The prize, writhing helplessly in the clutches of our national bird’s razor-sharp talons, is flown off to the eagle’s nest…

“CONOCO: THINK BIG, MOVE FAST.”

Somehow, the underlying theme of this typical, mind-numbing marketing ploy had transported me to particular evening in what now feels like a previous life. In April of `96, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. As a university English teacher, I would dedicate the next two years of my life to the task of educating translators for incoming Western corporations. For motives that were probably beyond my grasp at the time, my government responded to the collapse of the “Evil Empire” by invading the vast steppes of Asia with group after group of philanthropic, overly educated cultural mercenaries. At twenty-four years of age, lacking any other logical direction in my life, I was proud to be among this cadre of like-minded idealists.

Late one night after a lengthy vodka-soaked birthday bash, myself and an intoxicated associate were engaged in the challenging task of stumbling back to our apartment. Our circuitous homeward progress was impeded by the sudden appearance of the notoriously humorless local militia. It was quickly became evident that “Ust Kamenogorsk’s finest” had a zero tolerance policy regarding late-night drunken pedestrians. Without discussion, I watched helplessly as my inebriated comrade was physically accosted and thrust into the backseat of a Soviet jeep. The moment the Gestapo turned its attention to me, I immediately produced documentation which articulated my “diplomatic immunity.” I handed the militiaman my trusted Monopoly “Get Out of Jail Free Card.”

After a brief conversation in my slurred and hopelessly flawed Russian, the true nature of my citizenship was revealed to these instantly placated law enforcement officers. A round of hearty handshakes and sincere apologies preceded my associate’s emancipation from backseat captivity. The militiamen were somewhat amused by this misunderstanding. Surely, incarcerating a tipsy American would lead to more headaches than they were willing to deal with.

The real epiphany, however, was to occur moments later. As the four teenaged constables piled into their police jeep and drove off into the freezing night, a red-white-and-blue sticker on the bumper of the vehicle caught my eye. Their jeep, like all militia vehicles and toll booths throughout the city, bore an advertisement for Kazakhstan’s chief corporate benefactor, Chevron. My alcoholic’s moment of clarity revealed to me the saving grace that had kept me and my comrade from spending an unpleasant evening in the city’s infamous hoosegow.

“Of course they let us go. We work for the same people.”

Six years later, the overwhelming gravity of an innocuous, thirty second television commercial struck me like a psychological kick in the groin. A practically subliminal political connotation had become personalized in an unprecedented fashion. I suddenly grasped the meaning of Conoco’s depiction of the eagle and the bear…

The drama metaphorically represented in advertisement is the geopolitical struggle pundits are now calling “The New Great Game.” In a reprise of the original 19th century colonial struggle between Czarist Russia and the British Empire, the void left from Moscow’s diminishing sphere of influence in oil-rich Central Asia would be filled by Washington’s expansion of the red, white & blue empire right into Russia’s backyard. Our military deployment in Central Asia is now facilitating western control over the region’s vast petroleum resources. With the dust of the Afghan conflict barely settled, Harvard-educated Hamid Karzai has begun the arduous process of gaining his neighbors approval for a long-coveted trans-Afghan gas pipeline. A not-so-abstract interpretation of the TV spot’s wild kingdom parody is a sickening microcosm of the manner in which the Eagle is plundering the Bear’s lifeblood as a result of the neo-colonial War on Terror.

Unfortunately, the deployment of American forces into places like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and the Republic of Georgia were allegedly necessitated by the merciless slaughter of 3000+ innocents on September 11. I wonder how those three thousand ghosts would feel about the message being proliferated by Conoco’s marketing department?

Perhaps, after the IMF succeeds in bringing NATO’s newest member to financial collapse, Conoco can run an ad depicting the same group of bears enjoying their “enduring freedom” within the confines of the animal kingdom’s debtor prison, a city zoo. Perhaps the eagles can demonstrate their dominance and superior technological acumen by simply draining the river and taking the fish?

“CONOCO: THINK BIG, MOVE FAST.”

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