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Jesus, Big Coal and I-80

On the Road Again

by SAUL LANDAU

“Jesus Lives” screamed the giant billboard on I-80, some 20 miles east of Lovelock, Nevada. At the bottom of the sign appears the sponsor: adsforGod.org, an “organization whose only purpose is to advertise for The only True Living God whose only begotten Son is Jesus The Christ.”

From the car, driving through dramatic mountain scenery in Wyoming and into Nevada, I saw mountains covered with snow, sagebrush and clouds. No people, cars, trucks or houses appeared on the horizon. As soon as I reached a populated place in the state where slot machines abound at every seedy bar and high class casino, at airports and eateries, I suppose I could try to find out exactly where Jesus lives. Since there’s no Bethlehem in Nevada, perhaps he’d take up residence at the Mustang Ranch outside of Winnemucca, the world’s most famous brothel?

On the edge of Carlin, Nevada (population 2,161), I see a trailer park and signs for several fast food chains. To further dampen my appetite, a sign tells me Carlin is home to a prison, euphemistically called the Carlin Conservation Center. The next roadside sign warns: “don’t pick up hitchhikers.” Suppose the guy with his thumb up was Jesus?

Maybe Jesus lives near the prison guards in the communities of modest small homes? Or in the shacks and trailers of those who work in the mines, gold and other minerals, no longer the silver for which the state was named? One can see how the modern Judases still sell their souls for the old 30 pieces of silver – add a few hundred million – as the refineries and smelters pour contaminating smoke into the pristine sky. The payoff for such sins has grown. The silver processing in Biblical times was a lot less contaminating. John Prine offered an appropriate soundtrack on the car CD:

“The coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
They dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.” (“Paradise”)

Through the thousand miles of deserted Wyoming and Nevada landscape lay God’s perfection – except for billboards and a virtually empty four lane highway. After fifteen minutes passed without me seeing another vehicle, I finally crept up to the car ahead of me. The bumper stickers said: “Jesus Will Forgive You” and “McCain/Palin 2008.” Another Prine song played:

“Father forgive us for what we must do
You forgive us, and we’ll forgive you.
We’ll forgive each other till we both turn blue
Then we’ll whistle and go fishing in Heaven.”

(“Fish and Whistle”)

For the un-forgiven, Nevada provides lots of prisons. On the outskirts of Lovelock, another fortress looms on the landscape. The guard towers loom over the medieval structure chiseled into the base of a brooding mountain. “Correctional Institution,” the euphemism used throughout the country for caging men for their sins, has a poor record for correcting either their past behavior or their future course. Most of the inmates, like those in prisons and jails throughout the country, engaged in sins like smoking or using prohibited drugs and petty larceny. Some committed violent crimes, but compare their sins to those performed by the bankers and security speculators, Bernie Madoff and the members of the military and the mercenaries who have slaughtered civilians throughout Iraq and Afghanistan!  The wealthy hire legal talent that finds loopholes and brokers to pay off judges. The military – well, they’re only following orders.

A billboard “welcomes” us to the town of Lovelock (population 1,889). On a nearby highway sign, the big criminals advertise their polluting product; the petty ones rot away in penitentiaries. Those visiting family or friends can stay at a nearby Holiday Inn or Best Western Motel.  Such facilities will house visitors of O.J. Simpson, who was sent to lock-up in Lovelock Correctional Center (Medium Security Prison) for 9-33 years. Simpson, who starred at USC, won the 1968 Heisman Trophy, but on October 3, 2008, a jury convicted him of robbery, kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon, following a September 2007 confrontation with two memorabilia dealers in a Las Vegas hotel room. Simpson said he was just trying to get his football trophies back from people who had improperly acquired them. (He could no longer afford the high paid legal talent that got him acquitted in the murder trail.)

Simpson’s cell mates will include a high number of sex offenders. Like the other inmates, Simpson will receive three meals a day, access to mail, limited phone privileges and up to one hour of exercise every day. He can also work doing yard labor, and kitchen chores. (Melissa Arseniuk and Cy Ryan, Las Vegas Sun, Dec. 19, 2008)

Back in 1994, I thought that the LAPD had framed the right guy for the murder of his wife and her friend. It took 13 years for the police fraternity to catch O.J. again – in what looked like a minor infraction at best. But time wounds all heels.

Simpson deserved punishment. But how does one equate his murderous acts with Chevron’s behavior in Ecuador or Nigeria, where they not only dirtied the environment, but collaborated, according to two law suits (filed by Nigerian residents represented by EarthRights International), with Nigeria’s repressive forces to kill people. On January 4, 1999, a woman and her children were fishing in Opia, a small Nigerian village, when soldiers opened fire, killing her. Two lawsuits allege that Chevron paid the soldiers, and that they traveled in Chevron-owned trucks and helicopters in more than one such bloody “incident,” including an armed attack on protestors at an oil drilling platform.

Nor does time seem to punish massive government-private sector corruption. “Contractors” in collusion with US military officials stole hundreds of billions of dollars supposedly reconstructing Iraq. According to Patrick Cockburn, $57.8 million was sent in “pallet upon pallet of hundred-dollar bills” to the US comptroller for south-central Iraq, Robert J Stein Jr., who had himself photographed standing with the mound of money. He is among the few US officials in Iraq to be convicted of fraud and money-laundering.

Since 2003, Congress has appropriated hundreds of millions each year for reconstruction, but “there have been no cranes visible on the Baghdad skyline except those at work building a new US embassy and others rusting beside a half-built giant mosque that Saddam was constructing when he was overthrown. One of the few visible signs of government work on Baghdad’s infrastructure is a tireless attention to planting palm trees and flowers in the centre strip between main roads. Those are then dug up and replanted a few months later. Iraqi leaders are convinced that the theft or waste of huge sums of US and Iraqi government money could have happened only if senior US officials were themselves involved in the corruption.” (Counterpunch.org, February 16, 2009)

Instead of seeing the symbol of corruption, the Casino, each Nevada town no matter the size sports signs of virtue: church spires emerge on the Horizon. According to adsforGod.org “there exist 9,900 different ‘Religions’ on the face of this earth,” but only “‘one’…can prove that it is the ‘Inherent Word’ of the ‘Only True Living God.’”

But the certainty of religious statements must stand next to screaming commercialism symbolized by towering Golden Arches sporting an American flag and blinking neon signs shouting “Casino.” I’m sure I would find, if I looked on the website of adsforGod.org, an explanation of how God intended man to create shopping centers that would merge into harmony with His perfect creation.

My road trip began in Chicago and offered me a chance to see how a traveler can adopt a shield of aesthetic insensitivity — beyond the crime of scenery pollution. On the radio, news reported, as it usually does, acts of extreme violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. A news report talked about the final count of the dead in Gaza, casual summaries of what Hannah Arendt called “the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale,” the kind that can’t be “traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology or ideological conviction in the doer.” Arendt saw “extraordinary shallowness” beneath these wicked deeds, the kind cultivated by a mass consumer society, snuggled in religion. The four lane highway and the car radio combine to offer drivers and passengers a way to think only about their consuming needs. The messages in print on billboards or blaring from radio commercials distract us. They direct our thinking away from the sky, the mountains, the people, plants and animals and toward “choices” of brands of soap and brands of representatives who will make war.

Then, we can blame them for what they have done to us and others. We continue to accept the word “free” as the defining adjective of American life as the economy sinks into the mire of stagflation. Much easier to go with the dictum of adsforGod.org: “The Bible is Right” – whatever that means.

SAUL LANDAU’s film, “The Jail,” is available on DVD (roundworldproductions@gmail.com). He is an Institute for Policy Studies Fellow. His latest book, A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by Counterpunch A/K.