The Expositor | I Bite My Lip, I Buy What I’m Told
In the words on one of my co-workers, the recent Russian spy situation resembles “a bad porn movie.” In case you managed to miss it, here are the highlights: after years of investigation, the FBI busted ten people in the US and one in Cyprus, alleging years of deep cover espionage of American life and culture. Eight of the people arrested were couples posing as ordinary yuppies, in one instance going so far as to bicker with the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service over ownership of their suburban home. Despite spy novel clichés like a stolen Canadian identity, money buried in a cow pasture, and of course racy photos of the one attractive single female spy, the whole embarrasing affair never managed to arouse much intrigue, mostly because the spies never seemed to get around to collecting any information that wasn’t widely available on the internet.
Anyway, what really struck me about the situation was how mundane a manifestation of the American dream the spies adopted. At least the girl with the topless photos chose Sex and the City as her model; the rest appeared to embrace quiet desperation with both arms. Apparently the days of James Bond are all over, and nowadays, spies fret about their home equity like everyone else. It seems they did such thorough participant observation of American culture that they came away with its neuroses, and very little else.
Those of you who only read this far in anticipation of a review of a spy novel, read no further. I’m going in a totally different direction with this, specifically, to the Philippine island of Mindanao – my home once for too brief a time — and, a few hundred miles south, the home of a mysterious group of people called the Tasaday. Google “Tasaday”, and a prominent word you will see is HOAX. Originally presented as a Stone Age tribe who lived in Eden (the first clue to the controversy is the confusion of a war-torn, criminally underdeveloped region for Eden), the Tasaday made the cover of National Geographic and were the subject of much academic geeking out until, following the end of the Marcos dictatorship, they were exposed as a group of local tribespeople who weren’t as isolated as the media claimed they were. The ensuing controversy continues, partially because the people photographed in the cave are still around and have the pesky tendency to behave pretty much the same way they did before they were “discovered”. This controversy, and the underlying issue of whether a misrepresented clan of forest people should actually be classed with Piltdown man and the Iraq WMD’s, are the subject of Robin Hemley’s fascinating 2003 book Invented Eden.
Certainly, the Tasaday were not the untainted primitive relics they were made out to be, and presenting them as such was the brainchild of a cartoonishly corrupt Marcos crony named Manuel Elizalde, Jr. Elizalde was the subject of the novel Dream Jungle by Jessica Hagedorn (whose Dogeaters remains the best novel I have read about the Philippines), and it is to Hemley’s credit that he managed to resist writing a book entirely about the privileged manipulator rather than the manipulated. Whether or not you agree with Hemley’s conclusions, his detailed research is admirable. He met with surviving members of the group as well as with just about every scholar ever to have an opinion on the subject, and hiked out to the area where they live. Forced to rely on translators with unknown agendas, and to sift through piles of inconsistent data, he ultimately concluded that the line between hoax and reality had become blurred beyond recognition. Yes, there were exaggerations, but it wasn’t Krippendorf’s Tribe (which, as another aside, should be required reading for everyone who is the child of an anthropologist!). They may have traded with other tribes in the area and swapped out their leaves for a few tattered t-shirts, but otherwise they are pretty consistent, and their involvement in the whole brouhaha has brought them little but trouble. What good is a secret life if you don’t gain anything from it?
Very few of us get through this life without harboring daydreams about being something better than we really are, as James Thurber parodied to great effect in the 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Mitty is a henpecked suburban husband (not unlike a few of the Russian spies, really) who imagines himself into heroic situations while grocery shopping. American readers have been taught for generations to pity the character, occasionally while seated beneath classroom posters urging them to follow their dreams. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like being a Russian spy or a “noble savage” is as glamorous in practice as it is in imagination. Perhaps that’s because the real allure of a secret life is its secrecy, not the day-to-day logistics of living it. Being a Walter Mitty isn’t really so bad, anyway. Sometimes in between classes I sit back in my chair and picture myself at my dream job, writing a book review column for an arts and culture magazine…
Photo credits: Tufts University