With his long white beard and circular wire-rimmed glasses, Malcolm Margolin looked like a wizard, full of magic and of some otherworldly realm. This man with the laughing eyes and the lively face gave the impression that he reveled in being alive. Maybe that was his power.
“In many of the Native American folk tales, there was a sense of a world where power was in the things around you,” he said. “But there was also a sense that the power was diminishing.”
Margolin, founder and publisher of Heyday Books in Berkeley, wrote a book called The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area. He said the loss of power is central to most Native American tales and metaphorically symbolic to their plight. Yet there is the ever-present quest to somehow rediscover it, to harness it, to use it for their benefit.
But it wasn’t just spiritual or metaphorical power that Margolin spoke of this past week in Sacramento’s Sheraton Grand Hotel. He was there to talk about power—in terms of kilowatts and not just symbolism—during the 13th Annual Energy Conference. Margolin was one of five presenters on a panel titled, “The Octopus Revisited: Themes of Power in Art and Literature.”
Whether it refers to the energy crisis with which California has wrestled all year, or the literature reflecting other forms of power, the issue of power and powerlessness is a theme that is thousands of years old. The world has always been divided between the powerful and powerless, and the gap between them remains a great abyss.
In theory, the media should help at bridging that gap. Being the go-between for the power people and the general public, the media are the middlemen that decide what gets reported and what does not. They shape public opinions and perceptions of power.
In such a pivotal role, the media must walk a fine line between cultivating awareness on issues yet not over-hyping them. What is broadcast and what is not becomes an issue of credibility, and whether we are to believe what the powerful tell us about power.
Such issues were the main focus of a panel called “A Roundtable of the Media’s Role in the Energy Crisis.” Audience members were curious why they had heard not just a few forecasts of the supposed coming summer of blackouts, but dozens accounts from every possible angle, raising alarmist fears that never materialized. Despite predictions of two dozens blackouts during the summer, there wasn’t even one.
“All I can say is that we’re like the weathermen,” said Paul Hosley of KCBS radio in San Francisco. “We tell you what might happen, because if we didn’t tell you and it did happen, you’d wonder why you weren’t warned. But this time it happened the other way around.”
The history of energy in California is a highly complex story to tell, he said. He admitted that he was no expert on the energy crisis, something which left him vulnerable to being only as good as his sources.
“This power crisis was clearly not driven by the media,” said Ed Mendel, a political writer for the San Diego Union Tribune. “A potential electricity blackout is a very serious thing, one that could mean the loss of lives. So we had to report it,” he said, citing an incident in San Diego where a blackout caused a traffic light to go out which caused a series of fatal accidents.
Yet after dominating the news during the first half of 2001, there seemed to be little vigor at the conference to rehash the energy issue. So it was that in the next panel, Margolin transcended the literal concept of power with metaphor and storytelling.
One of the stories that he told was about a medicine man. It was a story of a young man named John who loved to get drunk and ride his horse until he was tired. All he ever did was ride and drink and yell and ride and drink and yell some more until one day, while he was resting under a shade tree, he had a vision. In the vision, the man who came to him told him that he had amazing powers within him to heal, that he had the power to become a medicine man if only he could recognize that power.
The man said to him, “You have the power to see things that are not meant for everybody to see, and can talk with spirits from another world. All this time you have been wasting yourself on drink and bad habits. Get up and come with me. I have something to show you.”
The man led him to a place and told him to face east. He began to see all of his people who had passed on: his mother, his father and his grandmother, cousins and even some old friends. They were all glad to see him. Then, just as suddenly as they came, they disappeared.
Another man approached and told him to face west. He saw a wonderful city of gold. The man said, “Now John, I want you to go back to your people and do the good that you are on earth for. You have the power and must use it to help your people.”
Ever since the day beneath the shade tree, the medicine man has been discovering the good he is capable of and the power within him. Margolin’s stories were simple and allegorical, drawing subtle connections to the energy issue. Does California have the power to do good for its people? Are there lessons to be learned in its handling of the energy crisis? At the conference, such questions just hung in the air as points to ponder, like an abstract painting with many possible meanings.
Lillian Vallee, a professor at Modesto Junior College, was another panelist on themes of power in art and literature. Vallee’s primary focus was on themes of power and powerlessness, especially among women writers. Although women’s writing often focuses on themes of powerlessness, she said that these groups should not be reduced to their victimhood and marginalization.
“How do we teach people to respond to powerlessness?” she asked.
As if in response, she read a poem by Jean Janzen from a book called The Snake in the Parsonage, titled “Among Orange Trees”:
“Today in the orange grove across the street,
a man parked his car and pounded his fists
into a woman. She sat swollen with her unborn,
guarding her face and belly in a jerking dance.
The March grass stood green around them
and the sun was high. What had he lost
in this fertile season falling and rotten in the furroughs?
All afternoon the trees glowed boldly in their satin leaves,
and I wondered how tenderness is born and kept.
I remembered my father caressing my mother,
his calm responses to trouble. How once
someone paid his way to California, and when we met him
at the train depot, he reached into his satchel
for a small bottle of cologne which I have kept
unopened to this day.
From the crushed orange blossoms
he said, as he opened my hand and put it there.”