Category Archives: Look for America

Tribalism: It’s not always pretty

When we were freshmen at Oberlin, four of our required 12 hours of social sciences could be met by taking Marcia Colish’s dread History 101, a class in which I routinely scribbled 10 pages of notes out of sheer desperation as she flung the story of Western civilization at us at warp speed.

She talked about how empires rise and fall. First, there would be tribalism, though she didn’t call it that.

No, she didn’t call it that because back then, we mistakenly thought that tribes only existed in “uncivilized” parts of the world, which didn’t even merit mention. Her course started with the fall of the Roman empire, but didn’t dwell on its causes. Instead we waved at the Patristic (dig that etymology) scholars and then sailed on to the Merovingians and Carolingians.

So the story back then began with warring dukes and wannabe kings and emperors. Back then, as Rome fell and Byzantium faded eastward, there was of course the “Holy Roman Empire.”

But what there really was, was tribalism. We just didn’t call it that. Still, Ms. Colish gave us the fundamental principle: Empires fall. They crumble into chaos and then – she taught us – nation-building starts. Nations arise and then they grow into empires, and then those empires fall and so in goes, on and on.

What we didn’t appreciate, because we didn’t see we were in the middle of it, is just how messy the fall of empires can be.

And we never studied what really happens when an empire crumbles. It doesn’t go right back into nations; now we see, it goes down to the bones. And the bones, because evolution is slow, are tribes.

So here we are now, in a global economy with 24/7/365 ¼ communications, working at the tribal level to get the world’s work accomplished every day and try to prevent incinerating ourselves in the meantime.

How’s that working for you?

Two good essays on Salon.com this morning tackle the subject as it’s manifesting itself right here in America. Never mind the lethal and tragic tribalism of street culture vs. the police; this morning’s essays look at why Trump voters can’t even admit to themselves that they might have  been wrong – because tribalism is such a deeply embedded survival mechanism:   http://www.salon.com/2017/06/21/watch-why-trump-fans-wont-dump-him-now/

And in an interestingly congruent essay, Lucian Truscott IV – he of the Jefferson family scandal and many trenchant  insights into our society – writes about “power without money” – about how you motivate scared human beings to go out an fight a war when there’s no  immediate reward in it for them and they are too many to punish … and how that is exactly what our nation’s underpaid, unloved but faithful government bureaucracy is, and how Trump hates those bureaucrats because he doesn’t understand the concept of power without money.

Or maybe, I am thinking, he understands it very well on an instinctive level. Instinctively, he knows these faceless functionaries are not of his tribe, and he is exerting all of his own power to dismantle and destroy them.

Just thinkin’ … read Truscott at http://www.salon.com/2017/06/21/power-in-the-absence-of-money/ …and hope that our justice system and those patient, faceless bureaucrats survive this bout of tribalism. But as Ms. Colish never quite pointed out, when empires crumble, nations are not what they crumble into. They crumble into tribes, and it is messy and dangerous. Like the Dark Ages.

Let us pray ..

The Coal Camp Series

If you  are anywhere within a 100-mile radius of Roanoke, Virginia — or even if you aren’t — you need to make a beeline for the Hollins University campus, just off I-81. There at the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum, you’ll find the very best of Lenny Lyons Bruno’s work. But you need to hurry — this is the last week.

Lenny was born to a coal-mining family. Her Coal Camp Series tells it like it was — and like it really, essentially, still is.  Her artworks are often made using old quilts as her canvases. Her sculptures employ found objects to viscerally evoke the life she and her siblings knew — going to school barefoot and threadbare, getting ridiculed because with all the transiency of the coal camps, they’d never learned to read, didn’t know the protocol of a classroom, and were shabby and grimy from the constant of their lives: coal dust,  King Coal, a shack if you were lucky, and the company store.

“Blackberry Winter” is the painting you see at the far end of the gallery as you walk in. It’s Lenny’s tribute to her mother — pregnant again, on the move, no food in the house except the blackberries they’d picked in the summer and put up.

The art is intriguing and evocative in and of itself. But it also speaks to just one of America’s big failings — and of the courage and grit one family found to get through it.

If you check out the website https://www.hollins.edu/museum/index.shtml, that first picture in the slide show is one of Lenny’s, and it is probably my favorite: “Fold Inward,” it speaks of the pattern of their survival; of hope and tragedy and transcendence. The background, as it happens, is a variation on the American flag.

Lenny’s work deserves a permanent place in a museum of its own. If you can’t get to Roanoke, this ferociously long URL may do the trick. Just mend the breaks and you’re in business. Or just Google Lenny Lyons Bruno. I promise you won’t be disappointed:

https://www.google.com/search?q=lenny+lyons+bruno&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjO_5Ck7p_SAhXIOyYKHSyBAgYQsAQITw&biw=1150&bih=635

John Lewis is my hero

 

And he has been for a long time. Today’s New Yorker article by David Remnick testifies to some of the reasons why.

The link above should take you to Remnick’s essay. Meanwhile:

John Lewis came to the military college in my small hometown here almost two years ago to accept a civil rights award. Many of us townsfolk went to Virginia Military Institute’s big sports arena to witness the event, so proud that even in this Southern mountain town, we have come a ways.

Not far enough yet, as Lewis himself has made clear. But on Saturday, about 700 people marched peacefully through our town in memory of Martin Luther King’s message to the nation, and in an expression of  community and inclusiveness. It was that, and more. The next evening — last night — several hundred of us were privileged to hear Diane Nash give the MLK Day address at our other college, Washington & Lee University.

There’s irony here — Robert E. Lee is buried on the W&L campus — but we want to get past that. Ms. Nash — who as a college sophomore decades ago was a chief organizer of the Freedom Rides — spoke about her life,  about Dr. King and her association with him, and about how the civil rights movement in her view was created and carried out by people who refused to accept oppression. She spoke of “agapic energy,” the energy that enables you to get past hating your opponent and to target the institutions and beliefs that keep oppression in place.

This was just one day after both  the CARE Initiative march honoring King and the by now customary showing of Confederate flags were captured by the New York Times in a video — https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/16/us/parades-lexington-virginia-martin-luther-king-jr-robert-e-lee.html. That didn’t faze Ms. Nash, who is entirely equal to facing down a flag and much more.  But for us who remain behind, it was a reminder that we’re not in that “place just right”  — not just yet.

And so, John Lewis. Once again this man who has walked so many miles for freedom and justice — who has walked with the wind and against it and has never faltered — once again this man, in the fullness of his years, is talking with his feet. He is not attending the inauguration of a man who has mocked the disabled, women, and people of all races other than his own.

Here’s an excerpt from Remnick, quoting Lewis:

Testifying at Sessions’s confirmation hearing, Lewis said, “Those who are committed to equal justice in our society wonder whether Senator Sessions’s call for law and order will mean today what it meant in Alabama when I was coming up back then.”

“We’ve made progress, but we are not there yet,” he continued. “There are forces that want to take us back to another place. We don’t want to go back. We want to go forward. As the late A. Philip Randolph, who was the dean of the March on Washington, in 1963, often said, ‘Maybe our forefathers and our foremothers all came to this great land in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.’ It doesn’t matter how Senator Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you, but we need someone who’s going to stand up and speak up and speak out for the people that need help, for people who are being discriminated against.”

So we still have work to do.  And Ms. Nash has the recipe, which she shared last night with students, professors and townspeople: Investigate. Make your plan. Hit the streets. Keep at it.   And love your enemy, because the energy of love is the most powerful and the only reliable force we have going for us. Agapic energy. Onward.

 

 

 

And about West Virginia …

OK, I promise this is the last time you’ll hear from me about the severe disconnect in this country, at least until after Nov. 8.

I voted for President Obama twice and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I hope he goes down in history as the smart, courageous, compassionate human being he is, and for all he has accomplished.

It turns out, in the latest New Yorker, that a big chunk of West Virginia voted for him too. That was a surprise, to me at least.

But this time they’re voting for Trump. And “Trump Country” explains why. An excerpt:

Trump seemed … to treat West Virginia like family, and he had noticed that many West Virginians in return treated Trump like family, brushing off the things he said that sounded nuts or that they didn’t agree with. “In Iraq, I listened to David Petraeus speak every day about how we had to rebuild Iraq’s oil infrastructure and protect it,” Richard Ojeda says. “But, if we’re going to go to trillions of dollars in debt over Iraq, why can’t we go billions of dollars in debt and make every single coal-producing plant clean in West Virginia? Don’t we deserve a hand? We built this country with the steel that came out of our coal, and we protected this country with our soldiers, and nobody cares. We’re more willing to give millions of dollars to people in other countries who’d just as soon put a bullet in the back of our heads. That’s why West Virginia is going to vote for Trump.”

The thing is, it really doesn’t matter whether we agree with, like, or admire each other at this point. If we don’t resolve our differences in some way, we’re pretty much doomed. Of course that includes differences with people we may have been taught to disregard, disrespect, even despise. My sister says the core Trump constituency is made up of people who know they’ve pretty much been written off, personally and economically. I think she’s right.

I’m seeking to start with understanding, hoping for discourse.

The link: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/10/in-the-heart-of-trump-country

9/11/2016

Fifteen years … so much has happened that we couldn’t have foretold, in these fifteen years. But today I am not thinking about all we might wish to have changed, or what we now know about ourselves and the world that we didn’t know that we knew, on that day.

Today I heard from a friend who was working for FEMA that day. And I’m thinking of another who was living in New York.

Susan, then working for FEMA, sends this:

I was supposed to fly to Europe that evening .  Instead, FEMA deployed me …  I was assigned to Arlington to do what we could for Virginians affected by the attack on the Pentagon.  My daily morning task was listening to the general brief families. Day after day we were told about non-viewable remains recovered from the rubble of the Pentagon.  I accompanied the families on the last site visit before it was closed. As difficult as being in Washington was, I was grateful not to be called to New York, which held so many more personal connections.  I still struggle with retirement and have been going through  years of files.

My young friend Emily was living in the Apple, bartending at an East Side sports bar.  New York was her dream. She lived on Liberty Street, right under the towers. She called them her mountains – they were central to her love of New York and her life in the city, a landmark that could take her safely home to her little shared apartment in  southern Manhattan no matter what the time of day or night.

That morning, she woke to thunder in the sky and an earthquake below. Her building was vibrating. She threw on her new Nikes and ran to the roof. There she saw it all – the flames, the wavering buildings, the people leaping from their windows. She was maybe 22. “We have to run, they’re going to fall,” she told her roommate. They fled their tiny building and ran – ran in their pajamas amid falling debris and burning shreds of paper – across Manhattan to the Brooklyn Bridge. Across the Brooklyn Bridge to safety at a friend’s apartment.

They all survived that day, those young people, and they are living and working and thriving as I write this. But I know that a part of their core being, in their minds and their hearts, remains forever rooted in that day.

And so it is for those of us who stood farther from the hideous signal of a world we did not completely, perhaps at all, understand. We are still struggling to get to sanity. Let it be.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5vGho1fEw4

 

 

Looking for America — again …

“Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike/ They’ve all come to look for America … America …”

~ Paul Simon

But the place where I’m looking for America these days is not the New Jersey Turnpike.  Life here in Rockbridge County, VA is never dull. On the one hand, you have breathtaking views and a county seat of some 8,000 inhabitants of whom perhaps 25 are published authors.

There are two nationally known colleges –Washington & Lee University  and  Virginia Military Institute – both of which annually rank high in the ubiquitious US News & World Report liberal arts colleges ratings.

As Labor Day signals the start of a new school year,  tomorrow’s opening convocation speakers will be  Charles R Johnson at W&L, award-winning philosopher and scholar, whose novel  Middle Passage is being staged as a theater production in Chicago this fall; and at VMI, renowned foreign-policy observer and best-selling author Robert D. Kaplan.

 charles-r-johnson      51idsm4kvzl-_sy344_bo1204203200_     index

But scratch our polished surface and you’ll find a county where Trump-Pence lawn signs abound; where typically the town votes blue and the county votes red; and where both colors surface together pretty frequently in the form of the Confederate battle flag on T-shirts, trucks and alas, even flagpoles.

And that’s why I’m currently reading Hillbillly Elegy by J.D. Vance, recently interviewed on NPR’s” Fresh Air.”  I’ve said before how much of what’s happening in our country right now can be explained by the long-suppressed rage of  Angry White Men (another book touted on NPR). I cited Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War as the best explanation yet of why we’re in this mess: Why Donald Trump can incite riots at rallies; why we can’t rein in police departments run amok; why – fifty years after we thought we’d declared human rights as our nation’s civil rights — we are still struggling to leave a deeply stained past behind.

Yesterday in neighboring Buena Vista  — once the thriving industrial hub of our rural county, now the crossroads of Appalachia and post-industrial America – the Labor Day parade featured a near-life-sized figure of Donald Trump astride a rearing acrylic white stallion on a truck-drawn float. The parade’s slashes of red and blue  just served to underline in bold strokes  the deep divides in this deceptively pastoral county:  We have “from heres” and “come heres” ; multigenerational farm families who raise bees and know how to fix a tractor, and double-degree  academicians; mainstream Christians and fundamentalist evangelicals; people who support gay marriage and people who attend Tea Party gatherings. You name it, we have it: atheists, Muslims, Sikhs and Jews;  descendant of settlers from the 1700s and newly arrived Congolese refugees struggling with English … we are, in short, in this tiny community, a perfect microcosm of our strife-torn, battle-weary nation.

Pretty much the only thing we haven’t done here so far is start shooting each other – credit all of us for maintaining the frayed surface of civility, but it’s wearing thin. And that’s why I am reading Hillbilly Elegy. Because J.D. Vance explains how and why his “hill people” aren’t doing so well. How they left the destitution of eastern Kentucky to fan out across Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, to Chicago and Detroit and beyond—to give their children a shot at the American Dream, and how that Dream turned its back on them. Why they are angry, and sick, and weary beyond telling.

Like Bageant, Vance acknowledges that the woes of impoverished  post-Appalachian whites are often self-inflicted. They cling to family even in dysfunction; they are too proud to ask for help;  they often blame everyone else for their failure; and – thanks to the post-World War II industrial boom — they are now spread all the way across this country. Their religion, what’s left of it, is and always was an angry, punitive Calvinist doctrine. They lack the community faith that has sustained black Americans through the worst adversity and the hope that propels arriving immigrants.

And that brings me to my plea:  Don’t judge, don’t excuse, but please read the background of what has brought us to this national divide, cynically manipulated by powerful interests. We know that the angry white  minority is just the lever those interests have long employed to keep the races, and more recently the entire nation, divided.

The crisis in this country IS a class war, and it has been in progress for a long time. It won’t be over unless and until everyone is included – whether we think they deserve it or not. And that means a national conversation that includes the out-of-work, down-and-out, gun-totin’ people of eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia.

Read Hillbilly Elegy or Deer Hunting With Jesus.  Please.

 

Jim Webb, Joe Bageant, Harper Lee, and the rest of us

Yeah, I really wish Jim Webb hadn’t dropped out of the race so fast.

I am living next door to the heart of Appalachia, 12 miles from where Jim Webb’s grandparents are buried.

So when Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War (Joe Bageant, Three Rivers Press, 2007) showed up in our local bookstore, I bought a copy.

You should too. It will explain a lot about why Donald Trump is shattering the GOP; why we have unfettered mass shootings nationwide; why our schools are failing, race is still an issue, and people are living in deteriorating double-wides.

Jim Webb understands all of that. So does Joe Bageant. It’s about class warfare and Calvinism. And so – oh, yeah – it also explains Ted Cruz and a bunch of other stuff. Read the book. Please.

Webb and Bageant both grew up on the edge of America. The poor white edge. Both transcended the world they were born to. Both understand that even that world, with its fingernail grip on the phantom of the American Dream, no longer exists.

And in a nutshell, folks, that’s our problem. That’s why our fellow citizens are flocking to Trump.

America is broken. And until we fix it, we are all screwed, as surely as the disenfranchised lower LOWER middle class men and women who used to work the night shift at Rubbermaid in Winchester, VA, like Joe Bageant’s family.

I don’t have a solution, and neither does Bageant – but at least he can give you a complete understanding of the problem. And if Jim Webb could have gained any traction, I thought he might have been able to help us solve it.

Here’s the thing: Up through the civil rights struggles of the ‘60s, the poorest whites in America were kept in check by the belief that they were better than African Americans, and that if they just sucked it up long enough, they – the poor white class – would be allowed to rise into the middle class. And sometimes that happened. They knew that the implicit, complicit, immoral but handy race divide insured that THEY would never be at the bottom of the heap. So they had hope.

This is something that Harper Lee understood very well. In the wake of her death, her bifurcated take on Atticus Finch has been in the news again. His daughter Scout’s Uncle Jack, in Go Tell a Watchman, sums it up this way: “Up popped Tobacco Road … For years and years, all that man thought he had that made him any better than his black brothers was the color of his skin … he sits nursing his hangover of hatred … Look at the rest of the country. It’s long since gone by the South in its thinking. America’s a brave new Atomic world and the South’s just beginning the Industrial Revolution.”

That’s Ms. Lee’s take on the South of the 1960s. But what Bageant explains – and Jim Webb very well understands – is how in the wake of globalization, even that hope is gone. As it should be, all things considered – because it was ALWAYS a class war. It was always a class war. It was just disguised as a race war.

The real kicker, as Bageant explains, is that the poorest white class who were concentrated in one place and had been here the longest – in the American South and every place it has now reached to — are of Calvinist descent. THAT means that they believe – again, in a nutshell – that if they are not succeeding, it is because they have sinned.

Conversely, if they see someone succeeding – someone like Jerry Falwell or Donald Trump – they KNOW that he is living in God’s grace.

The irony, of course, is that it brings them to follow, vote for, and believe in the very class that is exploiting them. They believe what they hear from those who’ve succeeded at their expense. The class war that might have led them to unionize, or at least protest – and to get to know people of other races who are fighting the same injustices – that war has virtually been lost.

By now it is all probably completely unconscious and subliminal. But it is THERE. And it explains a lot: Fox News. Donald Trump. Even mass shootings. The despair and anger that have no viable outlet.

Bageant explains how, in his hometown, the local people of means manipulate exhausted Rubbermaid workers by their superior knowledge of who and what you should be voting for – and also by covert intimidation. Those few exhausted workers who still DO have jobs are getting less pay and fewer benefits than of old. And their jobs could go abroad most any time.

The rest of the populace is working two or three jobs without any benefits or job security, and they are way too exhausted to think through what their “betters” are telling them.

It doesn’t fool Bageant. Or Webb. And it will continue to haunt us until someone actually figures out a viable, practical way to make America whole again. Clinton? Sanders? It’s a tall order.

Where is that FDR guy when you need him?