Caribbean misfortunes, reconsidering Vietnam, good drug news from Portugal, and rising Carolina dancers

by Rob Tiller

It’s been tough to see the devastation of the Caribbean islands by hurricanes Irma and Maria these last weeks.  I’ve got a warm connection to some of the most affected islands (Dominica, Turks and Caicos, the Virgin Islands, Key West)  from scuba trips.  I found so much beauty and joy there from both the natural world and the people.  I recently read a new history of the region,  Empire’s Crossroads, by Carrie Gibson, and discovered some unexpected complexity.  

Beginning in the late 15th century with Columbus’s voyages and extending for another three hundred some years, these islands were not vacation paradises but rather economic powerhouses for an expanding Europe.  They were  fought over repeatedly, because they produced enormous wealth, mostly from growing sugar with slave labor from Africa.  At the time of the American Revolution England and France both valued their Caribbean possessions more highly than the American colonies, and England’s need to protect those islands from the French was part of what created a power vacuum that led to the revolutionaries’ victory.  Their normally kind and beautiful exterior conceals a lot of tragedy, and they just got more.  

The people there face desperate conditions — homes and businesses destroyed, no electricity, no drinkable water.   And of course, the animals and plants there have also suffered greatly, which is seldom noted.  Our tendency as humans to forget about other species is deep seated, but not insurmountable.  It’s possible to view nature as worthy of caring and respect, rather than just something for humans to exploit.  This viewpoint makes possible a deeper engagement with nature, but it also makes natural and man-made disasters more painful.  

Speaking of painful subjects, we’ve been watching the new Burns-Novick documentary on the Vietnam war, and I highly recommend it.  It’s by no means fun, but it feels positive to get a more rounded understanding of this chapter.  There’s a lot of tension between our abiding central national narrative (we’re always on the side of good), and the death and mayhem that’s almost impossible to get our heads around (58,000 lost American lives are a lot — but we tend to forget the 3,000,000 Vietnamese ones) .  It’s amazing in a way that we’ve mostly repressed and forgotten the Vietnam experience, especially when its combination of good intentions, hubris, cynicism,  and sheer cluelessness continues to be relevant to our quagmire in Afghanistan and violence elsewhere.  

In other quagmire news, there was a relatively cheering piece by Nicholas Kristof in the NY Times today entitled How to Win a War on Drugs.  It summarizes the experience of Portugal after it decriminalized all illegal drugs fifteen years ago.  Portugal’s drug mortality rate is now the lowest in Western Europe and one-fiftieth (1/50) of that in the US.  Portugal’s rate of heroin use has dropped by seventy-five percent.  Meanwhile, deaths in the US from opioids have risen dramatically.  The core of Portugal’s approach is to devote resources to medical treatment for addiction.  Though far from perfect, this approach has been far more effective, and far less expensive, than the US’s war on drugs.  While there’s a lot we don’t understand about drug addiction, it could hardly be clearer that our war approach hasn’t worked, and that there are better alternatives.

We went to our first Carolina Ballet performance of the new season last night, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  With all the disasters in the headlines, to find a couple of hours of nourishing, energizing beauty is particularly welcome.  Some of our favorite dancers retired last season, and they’ll be missed, but the change has brought vibrant talent from the company ranks into view.  Lily Wills was a sweet and touching Ugly Duckling.  Jan Burkhard, back from maternity leave, was exquisite in Flower Festival in Genzano, a Bournonville pas de deux.  

Dialogues, the new ballet jointly choreographed by Robert Weiss and Zalman Raffael, was bold and refreshing.  The Dialogues music, Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme by Chopin, was played by pianist William Wolfram, who performed with insight, power, and passion.  With his daughter, Lauren Wolfram, now part of the company, I hope we’ll get to hear this great artist again.  We also enjoyed the angularity of Les Saltimbanques, with choreography by Weiss and music by Stravinsky.  Ashley Hathaway, Amanda Babayan, and Courtney Schenberger were striking and lovely.