Monday, June 29, 2015

Well, Hell: Contest Won In Record Time, Story Attached

Jaby Jacob let me know that the quote is, indeed, on Google. Of course it's on Google.

Jaby wins the contest, since he was the first to e-mail, and here's the story. I've taken this from Fordlandia, Greg Gandin's brilliant investigation into Henry Ford's Fitzcarraldo-esque attempt to build a rubber plantation and "American civilization" in the Brazilian rainforest.

It's a brilliant book, both for the main river of content and all the little tributaries that pop up. The most interesting, to me, concerns Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian who was instrumental in development of both the dirigible and the airplane.

Here's the story, and it's haunting:
Villares probably didn't welcome the scandal’s publicity. Yet for the nephew of Alberto Santos-Dumont, who Brazilians insist was robbed of the credit for inventing the airplane, there were worse fates than to be known as the man who bested Ford. Claiming to be suffering a nervous breakdown, Villares, induced by “threats, together with the payment of a sum of money”— both courtesy of Governor Bentes— boarded a steamer headed for France to retrieve his aviator uncle, who really had suffered an emotional collapse. 

The disappointment of Alberto Santos-Dumont’s life was not that he didn’t get credit for inventing flight, though he did resent that the Wright brothers won all the acclaim. His real heartbreak was that he lived long enough to see the machine he helped develop be used as an instrument of death. Santos-Dumont wasn’t an ideological pacifist like Henry Ford, but he did hope that airplanes would knit humanity closer together in a new peaceful community, just as Ford had believed that his car, along with other modern machinery, could bring about a warless world and a global “parliament of man.” Both were of course proven wrong by World War I, which broke the conceit of many like Ford and Santos-Dumont that technology alone would usher in a new, higher stage of civilization. “I use a knife to slice gruyere,” Santos-Dumont said when war broke out in Europe, “but it can also be used to stab someone. I was a fool to be thinking only of the cheese.” 

Ford dealt erratically with the fact that, after all his high-handed opposition to World War I, he turned his factories over to war production. He continued to speak out provocatively against war, maintaining his position that soldiers were murderers and quoting Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall” to the end of his days. Yet Ford’s faith in America as a revitalizing force in the world led him to say that he would support another war to do away with militarism. “I want the United States to clean it all up,” he said. No wonder the Topeka Daily Capital said that Ford put the “fist in pacifist.” 

Santos-Dumont, in contrast, was crippled by just his mere association to a machine that was used for mass murder. He held himself “personally responsible for every fatality” caused by his “babies,” that is, airplanes. “He now believes that he is more infamous than the devil,” commented a friend. “A feeling of repentance invades him and leaves him in a flood of tears.” 

After the war he vainly called on governments and the League of Nations to “demilitarize’ the airplane (a call that the surviving Wright brother, Orville, didn’t support. Orville invoked a different kind of technological utopianism, insisting instead that the plane itself “has made war so terrible that I do not believe any country will again care to start a war”). But the slaughter continued, and death from above became a constitutive fact of modern life. Britain, for instance, encouraged by Minister of War and Air Winston Churchill, regularly bombed and strafed Arabs as a way of maintaining cost-effective control over its colonies. And on July 16, 1927, just a week after Ide and Blakeley arrived in Belém, US marines in Nicaragua staged their first dive-bombing campaign, against the rebel Augusto Sandino. Marine pilots descended to three hundred feet to fire four thousand rounds of ammunition and drop twenty-seven bombs on anything that moved. Hundreds were killed in the slaughter. 

Throughout the 1920s, Santos-Dumont found himself checking in and out of various European sanatoriums, refusing to eat and losing weight. Death seemed to pursue him. Persuaded by his nephew Jorge to return to Brazil, Santos-Dumont arrived home a hero. A dozen of Brazil’s leading politicians, intellectuals, and engineers boarded the Santos-Dumont, a bimotored seaplane, to meet the steamship that carried the flyer and his nephew as it entered Rio’s harbor. But celebration turned to tragedy when one of the plane’s motors exploded, plunging its passengers and crew members to their deaths and Santos-Dumont deeper into depression. When the ship landed at the quay, the aviator was “greeted with profound silence by the multitude.” 

And the killing continued. War broke out in early 1932 between Bolivia and Paraguay over a stretch of worthless, hellishly hot scrubland thought to hold oil. It was a fully mechanized slaughter, with both sides borrowing copious amounts of money from foreign banks and petroleum companies to purchase tanks and planes. By the time it was over, more than a hundred thousand Bolivians and Paraguayans were dead. That same year, after witnessing the aerial bombing of his beloved city of São Paulo by federal forces putting down a regional revolt, Santos-Dumont committed suicide. Having sent his nephew Jorge out on an errand, he spoke his last words to an elevator operator as he returned to his room to hang himself: “What have I done?” 

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