Bearing All

The Marjorie Taylor Greene in white fur meme had nearly played itself out by the time Michael Che added the coup-de-grâce of “Cocaine Bear.” The pitifully comic spectacle of Green’s incivility and the gory comic spectacle of a coked-up CGI bear are neck and neck when it comes to insulting real live bears.

We seem to be having a Bear Moment—pure coincidence but nonetheless illuminating. In addition to Cocaine Bear, there’s a Winnie-the-Pooh horror movie, the Iranian film No Bears, and a streaming series The Bear. Since last year we’ve been in a Fed-induced Bear Market, and Russia’s war on Ukraine has brought the Sleeping Bear of old political cartoons back to life.

The prelude to Bear ’23 was probably COVID boredom, when homebound property owners began posting clips of deck-roaming critters, with bears often the stars. There was also the big splash of Katmai National Park’s Fat Bear Week.

The Bear Dance (1870)

Bears might be America’s most equally admired and feared animal. They live in the woods and the northern wilds. They catch salmon with their bare claws. They frequently steal our food and they occasionally kill people.

One of the most well-known oil paintings at the New-York Historical Society is William Holbrook Beard’s The Bear Dance. Modern viewers (me, for instance) are often charmed by the 1870 painting’s conscious innocence, its presentation as a classy version of the dogs playing poker. But since Beard’s paintings satirized human behavior (predominantly male), and since this one was also known as “The Bears of Wall Street Celebrating a Drop in the Stock Market,” his animal subjects are on par, motive-wise, with the dogs playing poker.

The stock market’s bear terminology predated the bull, emerging in the seventeenth century from a proverb: “catch the bear before selling its skin.” The subsequent “bear” speculator sold borrowed stock with a future delivery date, expecting stock prices to fall so that the stock could be bought back at the lower price.

Today’s Bear Market is supposed to behave predictably like a controlled demolition . . . and it’s not. That’s put economists in a funk. Rules have held sway since the time of bearskin-trading—not moral rules but the de facto rules of play: bluffing, hedging, and often cheating. It’s a 100% human kind of play, whether stocks or poker. Only the current market isn’t following the Bear Dance rules.

What made me connect the dots on this Bear Moment were images of potential massive galaxies recently obtained by the James Webb Space Telescope. That’s because these images were identified in a tiny patch in the constellation Ursa Major. Astronomers believe that the six objects identified are so massive, that if confirmed as galaxies, they could call into question the Big Bang Theory about the origin of the universe.

Thanks to data from the telescope’s infrared-sensing instruments, we can see that these potential galaxies were somehow as mature as our 13-billion-year-old Milky Way galaxy just 500 million to 700 million years after the Big Bang supposedly created the universe. If these pics lead to the theory’s unraveling, the portal of discovery will have been the Great Bear sky.

And if economists and astrophysicists are coming up against hubris in their certainties, you couldn’t have a better symbol than the bear. Bears have no predators but each other; ditto for us. I remember being a skeptical reader of Lewis and Clark’s 1804-1806 exploits—all the rhetorical hype about the group’s humility before the majestic land. Yeah, well, indigenous peoples had been everywhere on that land, and the great white captains were leading what seemed to be trigger-happy soldiers-for-hire. When they encountered the until-then unknown grizzly bear, their response was to shoot it eight times in the head and marvel that it kept on charging.

White Americans had the final say on the submission of bears and Indians to their smart maps and munitions, on the submission of global asset trading to their smart Wall Street rules, on the submission of the universe to their smart equations. We are the same cocksure country as when Kodiak Bears were discovered in 1896, but now we whine when we feel disrespected, still unable to differentiate between ursine aggression and human courage. §