The Chilean Mars Landing

Why all the fuss about the Chilean Miners?

What a bizarre few days we’ve had in the news.  The rescue of 33 Chilean miners has caused such euphoria and excitement across the globe that we seem to have lost all sense of proportion of the event, picking over every possible angle and ultimately telling a story of 33 people who were simply in danger and now are not.  Should this be globally significant news?  Not on the face on it.  Compare this with flooded Pakistan, where families have despaired, suffered typhoid and cholera, been just as patient, and finally rescued from the jaws of death not unlike the miners, but where so many thousands of others have perished.  Surely there were scores of such hopeful narratives in that tragic set of events?  Or do we prefer the hope without the tragedy?

In spite of this perspective, the Chilean miners’ rescue has undoubtedly been a wonderful story.  But it would be foolish to think that we were only concerned with the welfare of 33 workers, that we watched them being rescued one by one, embrace their families, be joyfully rushed to hospital, only because we hoped that those 33 men would survive fit and well.  There is clearly much deeper significance to this story.

Nationalism

No doubt the most obvious broad narrative in which the story has been told and received is Chilean nationalism.  Images of Camp Hope – the temporary settlement around the rescue operation – awash with Chilean flags have become commonplace on evening television around the world, whether flying from poles or lately draped around the shoulders of the rescued heroes.   This certainly seems to be a theme which has been embraced by the Chilean public, chanting the name of their country as they greet each newly rescued miner.  Somewhat more bizarrely, news networks on Thursday morning published footage of rescuers still in the mine, having completed their mission, pausing for a moment of jubilation centred on the flag and again chanting that now familiar “Chi Chi Chi, lay lay lay” before they began their own ascent.

As appealing as it has been, the nationalistic side of the story has by no means been an accidental outcome of the rescue.  The presence of Chile’s president Sebastian Pinera in the centre of the story would suggest a certain amount of deliberate staging.  He has his own national agenda too, which he’s not afraid to share: “the country is not the same after this”, he remarked in the midst of celebrations, Chile is “more united and stronger than ever”, surely the image any world leader would pursue for their voters and an international audience.  He seems at pains to distance Chile from the image of military coups and the Pinochet years.  Pinera is also demonstrating considerable political astuteness both by his presence and by his encouraging of the national significance of the event.  A billionaire, he is a right-wing leader on a continent where left wing parties, including in his own country, have the potential to become prominent.  There is no doubt that his opponents home and abroad will attempt to capitalise on this story of workers’ struggle.  Left-wing president of Bolivia Evo Morales has already promised Carlos Mamani, a national of Bolivia and the only non-Chilean miner, a house and guaranteed job on his return.  But Pinera has so far marginalised these voices.  For better or worse, that this has become a national event in Chile is beyond doubt.

Religion

The significant church involvement in Camp Hope suggests that this is also a story of good Catholics and Christian cooperation.  This has likely broadened the story’s appeal in largely Catholic Latin America and globally.  The implied narrative is not only one of a nation uniting to rescue its sons, but also one of prayers answered and religious fervour legitimated.  Lilian Ramírez, wife of rescued miner Mario Gomez was unequivocal: “I want a shrine to stay here, a lovely big shrine where people can come and where the families can give thanks to God, the Virgin Mary and all the other saints who gave us our families back. That they are doing well and all alive is a remarkable miracle.” (Source: Euronews)  And miracle is a word we’ve heard a lot recently, hinting that the events have already been interpreted by many as an act of God.

Mars Landing

But perhaps this story’s deepest meaning relates to the general human struggle behind the event. It’s a story of human frailty and of human inventiveness, technology and cooperation.  The nightmare of being trapped so far underground for so long is perhaps only matched by the awe and fear of space travel, which is the ultimate conquering of human physical limitations.  There is a certain irony that the miners were given guidance from space travel experts and even provided with “bio-harnesses”, designed for astronauts, to monitor vital signs.  Essential as this aid may have been, the comparison with astronauts doesn’t stop there.  The miners have been afforded the status of pioneers and national heroes, and the grainy footage of the kitted out rescuees climbing into a rocket-shaped rescue capsule emblazoned with the Chilean flag surely recalls television coverage of manned space missions.   The capsule is named “Phoenix 2” after the mythical bird, but the name surely also recalls the spacecraft of the same name which landed on Mars on 25th May 2008, incidentally humanity’s most ambitious space destination today.

Humanity has in this case overcome the odds with ingenuity and technology and the world celebrates.  This truly has been Chile’s Mars landing.

Undercurrents at Expo 2010, Shanghai

There’s something paradoxical about the annual World Expo.  Nations strive to set up (normally) exciting and futuristic pavillions, the host nation focuses on the favourable future for themselves and everyone else concerned: technology, design, art, environment – meeting national identity.  This year’s Expo is in Shanghai and features such exciting treats as Germany’s Balancity and Maldives’ Tomorrow (which focuses on environment, making me cry a little – bless them!)  China is getting a Pavillion for pretty much every province and major city, which is reasonable I suppose since they’re hosting the thing.  Among these is the confidence inducing New Tibet, Better Life.  Estonia’s Save City looks interesting and suffocatingly topical – yes, that is ‘Save’ as in save money!  And I’m sure you’ve already seen the Iran and North Korea pavillions, humorously juxtaposed.

All forward looking, friendly stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree, but I’ve always had a feeling that the Expo has never really moved beyond the Victorian era.  It was founded then, of course, apparently Prince Albert’s idea.  The idea that you exhibit new technologies and sciencific and aesthetic advances, if it originates in that era, is not the issue.  The issue is that nations set up their own pavillions, displaying a watered down version of their national identity and often couching it in these technological and aesthetic advancements.

One gets the feeling that in this respect the Expo has never lost that ambition, that competitive sense that the world is caught up in an unstoppable process that will eventually lead to excessive imperialism that will cave in on itself and finally cause two world wars!  Well, the world isn’t quite like that any more.  At least industrial powers have figured out that it’s not advantageous to pound each other to mutual poverty and thereby waive superpower status and generally end up embarassed.

The world expo is very much 21st cenutry in China, but is still 19th century when it comes to coolness.  We’re used to receiving our aesthetic, technological pleasures from large multinationals these days, so the nation-state focus naturally bamboozles one a little.  Not so much Apple as Eritrea.  So, traditions and things from Spain pavillion?  No: futuristic things.  What?

Actually, to be more specific, a giant robotic baby from the dark pit of your worst nightmare.  Imagine this thing crawling along, upside-down with its head facing the wrong way, on your ceiling!

I’ve never seen a baby with an eviler look on its face!  Think I’m being harsh? Okay then, go ahead and instead imagine it in a cot, gurgling away, in  your house, crying in the middle of the night!  Fancy that?!

Don’t get me wrong, I’d absolutely love to go.  Some of these pavilions look truly amazing.  But listen: I’d also like to watch Isambard Kingdom Brunel building a bridge, or have dinner with Queen Victoria.  Maybe the darker side of my personality would even like to see Franz Ferdinand assasinated, just to be there, you know?  But I’d rather do this without all the nationalism, thanks very much.

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