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Charlottesville. And beyond.

We’re an hour southwest of Charlottesville, and I was horrified but sadly not wholly surprised as events unfolded there in Emancipation — formerly Lee – Park yesterday.

A friend who has worked for the State Department in some pretty dicey locations abroad — a man still in his early 30s — sent this message: “Let there be no confusion: this was deliberate terrorism. My prayers with victims. Stay home.”

This is not just about Charlottesville, nor even mainly so. This is about all of us and our divided nation. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know.

In the 24 hours since, two more messages, if you will — one of hope, one of warning — and a prayer.

The warning, from “The World of Evan Osnos” (New Yorker), in an essay on the Chinese dissident Xu Hongci: “What is the precise moment, in the life of a country, when tyranny takes hold? It rarely happens in the instant; it arrives like twilight, and at first, our eyes adjust.” (Like the proverbial frog dropped first into lukewarm water on the stove?)

To that, I would say, find and read “The Dark Valley,” a scholarly study of how fascism arose and World War II followed in the 1930s. We’re seeing something all too similar.

On a more hopeful note, yesterday NPR was talking with Volusia County, Fla., sheriff Mike Chitwood, who is requiring de-escalation training for his deputies following a rash of shootings. He’d built a  successful police department in Daytona Beach, he said, in part by requiring all   prospective officers to take a course in the history of racism — because, he said, “We are a racist country, have been from the start.” He had a good deal more to say — identifying the racism implicit in the theft of native American homelands and destruction of their culture as well as slavery, Jim Crow and all that has followed it.

Chitwood also served in the Philadelphia, Pa., police department. He spoke about getting retrained, as an officer, how not to be trigger happy. About how just a split second can tell you that a man is pulling out his wallet and not a gun. About how police involvement in communities doesn’t stop with visits to schools, but requires constant feet on the street.

Can’t find the newscast — and his reputation as “top cop” in Daytona may not hold up — but as events were unfolding in Charlottesville — and as that city’s police failed to de-escalate a situation that many  had foreseen —  it did offer a sliver of hope.

At least someone, somewhere, in a position of some authority is thinking: Thinking about how incidents like what happened yesterday do not arise out of thin air. Thinking about the long, thick and tangled legacy of racism in this country, and what we can and must do to dismantle it.

Last, this from NYC, from a friend who’s been a parishioner at  St. Clement’s, located in what used to be called Hell’s Kitchen,  for many years:

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together in mutual forbearance and respect …

Amen.

Tribalism: It’s not always pretty

Back in freshman history, Ms. Marcia Colish 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 it 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 and 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 ..

“From heres” and “come heres” ~ Rockbridge County ctd.

 

Do I know you?

The way her eyes narrow says it all. She’s walking toward me as I drive across Myers Street and raise my hand in the customary (hereabouts) greeting-in-passing.

Her face bears the stamp of our mountain country: weathered skin, strong bones, creases at the corners of those pale blue eyes that traveled across the North Atlantic a couple of centuries ago, the creases proof of years of outdoor work.

Her gray hair is neat and nondescript and she is wearing a purple sweatsuit, a nice one.  She is clearly not someone who steps out for a trip to the post office or a walk around the block without some forethought.

What’s it to you,  I hear her thinking as I put my hand back on the wheel. Not for her this Johnny-come-lately habit of waving at strangers. Back in the day, you only greeted people you actually knew, from church or school or perhaps the grocery store, and that’s good enough for her. None of this raising a hand or doing the two-finger waggle now popular on our narrow county roads as two vehicles weave past each other.

I stand reproved. She is right. I’m not from here, even though I was born in this very town more than sixty years ago. I am not a “from-here.” My family were outlanders, “come heres,” and from the North to boot, which sometimes still matters here.

She is not. She is from here, and these mountains are truly her home, their shifting patterns of light and shadow ingrained in her being from so far before birth that she has to stop and count the generations. And count them she can. They are buried in a family cemetery somewhere in the county, or in old church cemeteries with names like Ebenezer or New Providence.

I want to protest. I grew  up here. I too know the light and the shadow, and I see – or rather hear, coming back from the flatlands where I spent most of my adulthood – how in the mountains, the sound only travels from one end of the hollow to the other. It does not travel miles, the way it does over flat land, so that you might hear the noise of a highway five miles distant if the wind is blowing your way.

Not here. Here, you will only hear what the mountains let you hear. You will not hear the dog or the child or the highway from the other side of the ridge line.

And I want to tell her that I too see how their colors change, these mountains, how right now they wait for fall’s flaming brilliance but will soon  lie brown and sleeping in the winter sun. How the spines of their leafless trees stand up like prickly fur. How they will turn pale green in spring, darker in summer, flame bright again in autumn. How we can walk their trails and listen to the birds call.

But we won’t have that conversation, she and I. There are many divisions besides ridgelines in these mountains. She is of the tribe J.D. Vance calls his “hill people,” and I know it is a term of hard-earned and well-deserved respect. But we won’t have that conversation either. Her purple sweatsuit recedes in my rearview mirror, and we go on into our respective days.

Photo caption:  Looking across Rockbridge County to the Blue Ridge from the top of the road where I live … this is her ancestral land. I’m just a “come here,” but it is my land too.

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.

 

The Anthropology of Food …

Image courtesy of wholeuniverse.com: "The Anthropology of How We Eat"
Image courtesy of wholeuniverse.com: “The Anthropology of How We Eat”

… check out my new food blog at http://wholeuniverse.com/anthropology-eat-sugars-fats-salt/ :

The Anthropology of How We Eat: Sugars, Fats and Salt

by Lisa TracyLook up “food anthropology” on the Web, and you’ll find some fascinating tidbits. One study posits that our gut bacteria are responsible for our cravings. Another says it’s whatever culture we grew up in. A third talks about the uniquely human phenomenon of cooked food. It’s the dopamine, says a fourth site ~ our brains are wired for pleasure, and sugars, fats, and yes, salt trip the nervous-system wires that send the signal to the brain to release the pleasure-linked chemical.

Yes, all good. But WHY?

Why do we eat what we do, and why do we WANT to eat foods we know aren’t healthy?

Let’s start somewhere on this side of the Paleo Diet: Let’s start with potato chips, candy bars, and the Industrial Revolution … read more at http://wholeuniverse.com/anthropology-eat-sugars-fats-salt/