Thursday, June 08, 2017

Archaeology, Biology, Appropriation, and Empire in Honduras

The best works of art strike you the wrong way…and maybe not in the way that the artist intended.

I had that feeling reading Douglas Preston’s Lost City of the Monkey God (hereinafter LCMG).

LCMG is a purpose-built celebration of archaeology, technology, and adventure in the detection and partial exploration of some ruins in the jungle in Honduras.  But as the book plays out, the whole thing plays out as a rather creepy calculated geopolitical operation.

The basic adventure premise—buncha white folk appropriate a region and its history thanks to their superior capabilities in exploration, interpretation, and conservation—is pretty much de trop in the post Edward Said/Orientalism era.  And the book suffers from the “gee whiz another benighted realm conquered by the forces of civilization” cheerleading.

Add to that the whole milsec overlay a.k.a. “flabby civilians must rely on the hard men of the military to keep them safe” which starts with the entire foray into the jungle getting put under the command of some ex-SAS types, whose legacy of mad survival skillz probably goes back to doing the dirty during the Malay insurgency.

Beyond the “civilization would not survive without the soldiers” vibe I picked up, the key technology that made the mission possible—lidar—is a core military capability.

Lidar is basically radar using lasers instead of microwaves.  Add high precision, military grade GPS and some fancy number crunching to the lidar, it turns out the jungle surface below the canopy can be imaged.  Lidar provided the imagery that demonstrated that there was a big, ancient civilization thing beneath the jungle canopy in Honduras.

Lidar works great in dry, sandy spots like the Middle East, where I assume its ability to detect the camps of hostiles, IEDs, and maybe hostiles itself is a valued asset; well, turns out it works satisfactorily in jungle environments too.  So if this breakthrough occurred thanks to the LCMG operation, I guess we can thank “Big Archaeology” for the enhanced capability to waste America’s enemies in jungle battlefields as well.

The “people in peril” plot hook for LCMG is that several members of the expedition, including the author, Douglas Preston, came down with a nasty parasite, leishmania, carried by mammalian vectors & transmitted to humans via sand flies, which required treatment with experimental drugs at the National Institutes of Health.

Preston got access to the NIH parasitology lab where “leish” is studied, and penned this passage:

Inside was an off-putting sight: two anesthetized mice lying belly up, paws in the air, twitching.  They were completely covered with feeding sand flies, whose tiny guts were expanding into bright red berries of blood…Later these sand flies would be infected artificially, a complicated process.  A delicate, hand-blown, tiny glass bottle has a piece of raw chicken skin stretched over it like a drumhead.  This skin is moistened with mouse blood to fool the flies into thinking it is mammalian skin.  The liquid inside the bottle is also mouse blood, seeded with the parasite…Once a sand fly is infected, the lab workers must coax it into biting a live mouse…At the end of my tour, a lab assistant brought out two bottles of live leishmanial parasites for me to look at under the microscope…As I focused the eyepieces, the parasites sprang into view, thousands of them in ceaseless motion...

Since I’ve been raised on a diet of Alien movies, I suppose I’m excessively sensitive to the feeling that Preston had gained access to America’s premier bioweapons lab, where rest-of-world biothreats are appropriated in the best imperial fashion for study, neutralization, and exploitation, and to make sure they don’t interfere with the national mission of doing stuff anywhere and everywhere.

By this point in the book I’m thinking, golly, this expedition has a sh*tload of stroke.  It gets a planeful of classified lidar equipment to run the survey and when things go off the rails for members of the team, disease-wise, they’re in tight with the NIH.

Made me think about some other things, like how this book is basically a handjob for the current right wing regime that deposed Honduran president Zelaya in 2009.  

The post-coup outfit clearly regards the “City of the Monkey God” as an opportunity to burnish the regime’s credential as good guys, and the president and military of Honduras are all over the book and described in the most glowing terms as dedicated to the protection and conservation of this snake-filled hellhole.

Preston also refers to the controversy that surrounded the search for the ruins, especially carping by Zelaya-era archaeologists and their sympathizers in the United States, that the expedition was imperial bullsh*t.  Hard to argue that lidar didn’t turn up a significant archaeological find; also hard to argue that the whole thing doesn’t have the flavor of a Yanqui military PR romp through Honduras to enhance the legitimacy of the current ruling outfit.

I began to wonder if there was a US political angle in the expedition, which sure enough popped up when I googled Bill Benenson.

Bill Benenson’s role in the book is primarily that of good-hearted filmmaker who somehow comes up with the tons of money and access needed to transform a quixotic 25 year search for the lost city by Steve Elkins into a big-tech success story.

Well, turns out Bill Benenson prefers to think of himself as a filmmaker, but he’s also the scion of a New York City real estate empire that one could characterize as anti-Trumpian: low profile, successful, and hard-core Democratic.  

The family’s total worth, split between Bill Benenson and two other brothers, is probably around $200 billion, a modest enough figure but sufficient to put the family on the Forbes 400 list.  One of the other brothers, Lawrence, is on the advisory board of Patriotic Millionaires, a non-profit whose ringing mission statement pretty much encapsulates the premises of oligarchy a la Democrat:

The Patriotic Millionaires is a group of high-net worth Americans who are committed to building a more prosperous, stable and inclusive nation. The Patriotic Millionaires’ goal is to create an overwhelming public demand - a true mandate - for economic policies that serve regular Americans and political process policies that ensure everyone participates fully and equally in our democracy.

It would, of course, be a funny joke if billionaires were exempt from the leveling policies the group proposes for mere millionaires.  The chair of Patriotic Millionaires, Morris Pearl, who was managing director of BlackRock, has rather coyly declined to state his net worth, only remarking he and his wife would be able to “live well” off their investments.


Bill Benenson and his wife are hardcore do-gooders in the conservation NGO way and also in the political way.  They were not only Clinton bundlers during her presidential campaign; they also donated to the Clinton Foundation in the 100-250K range.  And thanks to google, I acquired this gem, in which Nancy Pelosi characterizes one of Benenson’s other filmmaking endeavors, Beasts of No Nation, when it was screened at the White House with Benenson in attendance:

In Leader Pelosi’s words, “This is very special, the imprimatur of the Obama Administration is on this work of art, which is of course a statement of challenge to the conscience of all of us…”

The interesting question is, did Bill Benenson (and the US government) (and US globalist friendly media—Preston himself writes for the New Yorker which, under David Remnick, proudly flies its colors as a globalist rag and I actually laughed out loud when I read Preston’s account of how the founder of the New York Review of Books flew down to Honduras just to get a gander at this archaeological breakthrough; Why not Paris Review? I thought)…

…get behind the LCMG project to try and burnish the reputation of the new Honduran government (and Hillary Clinton, who was burdened politically among the lefties by her role in sh*tcanning the old Honduran government), and demonstrate the contributions to science and conservation and civilization (and in the process, empire) that could be made by enlightened capitalists and their cultured factotums working that whole glorious public/private partnership thing to advance the principled international order and, at the same time, secure the fortunes of a regime of pro-American sh*theels in Central America?

That question might make for an interesting book.  But that book isn’t LCMG…at least not advertently.


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