Saturday, October 25, 2008


Civilization, I was taught, began when hunters turned to grain-based agriculture, which led to towns where the accumulation of grain could be stored and defended, which led to the concentration of population and specialization of occupations, so that some people had the luxury of time to learn the arts of reading and writing. Then those gradually developed into the fine privileged professions of doctor, theologian, lawyer, manager and author.

Authors, it was generally assumed for a long time, live in the city where they can live in lofts, hang around in cafes, attend the theatre and cinema, wear black turtlenecks, and develop eclectic taste in foods and beverages. University towns are also good, esp if you use libraries. It’s a lifestyle function of population density, like being a Unitarian. The rule, when I was trying to make congregations grow, was that roughly one in a thousand people was a good potential Unitarian, or maybe two or three times that in a university town. Since it takes at least two hundred people to support a minister and building, a Unitarian minister must live in a town of 200,000 or more. There is no town in Montana larger than 100,000. Therefore, my choice was stark: Montana or Unitarianism. You know what I chose. (But there IS a lot of grain here.)

It’s estimated that there are 8,000 enrolled Blackfeet on the reservation and another 8,000 scattered throughout the diasphora. It used to be that everyone kept in touch only through travel or by mail, but increasingly the tribe is re-united by the Internet. It used to be that an “intellectual” (that is, someone who focuses on thought in print) had to choose between solitude and stimulation from others. But now it’s possible to have a tribe of one’s own through the Internet. Problems remain.

How do we find each other online? I mean, people of the same interests at the same level of discourse? The great advantage is that one doesn’t have to hang out in bars. The scale-tipping of appearance is removed, but the “social interaction” websites are not for me with all their chatter and clutter. Academic listservs are good except when the calendar preoccupies everyone. (There’s always a lot of posting when people are supposed to be grading papers!) Still, competition intrudes. Dogma...

It is possible now to read a book, be really moved by it and to contact the author -- even when that author is not exactly a cozy type. This has happened for me with Tim Barrus, though it has been problematic in that three of his books were marketed as memoirs of a partly Indian man. More about that some other time, but they attracted the attention of witch-hunters who object to white people writing about Native Americans on grounds that they prevent Native Americans themselves from writing. Oddly, these witch-hunters are often white and I knew at least one of them already (vaguely) from listservs about NA writing. He’s an Englishman living on Cyprus, getting a doctorate (about white writers who pretend to be Native American) from King’s College in London by correspondence, with a female Portugese post-modern theorist as an advisor. What they know about Indians is only what they have read. Partly, the tie between Barrus and I is that we really HAVE lived and taught on reservations and are emotionally invested in people there. Much of the rest is a love of metaphor, risk, and story. (I just ignore his transgressive outbursts.)

Then there’s the tech problem, which has two pressing sides. One is the risk of malevolent intervention, like theft of information that gives access to one’s money or sometimes just malicious disruption. Barrus continues to run a school/group/home for boys “at risk,” which means that in spite of their considerable art talent no one else wants them. They are web-located because they create and post videos and because they rove through locations with the Internet connecting them. The witchhunters target them with violent threats which sound quite real to boys who are war survivors, street sparrows, and hustlers. These cyberstalkers have played around with my blogs and email as well. Defending against them takes a lot of time, money for special programs, and so on. So far my best defense has been Feedjit, which shows who’s online. I’m experimenting with adding Google Ad Sense for money, but have no idea what that will mean. It OUGHT to mean that Google and the advertisers will have an active interest in keeping me operational.

What I seem to have evolved into doing -- without humanities grants -- is a little micromagazine with one writer who produces a thousand-word essay every morning. Readers are about half happenstance, who find the blogs by Googling for a subject (and must sometimes be baffled or frustrated by what they find) and about half deliberate readers who come by near-daily. Some of them also blog but I don’t know any who define their blogs the way I do. Most make short posts about transient events and many post digital photos.

That brings up the next problem with online community: it soaks up time that isn’t focused on quality of writing. As in the ministry, there are always people who want to pull one over to the side for a private relationship. It sounds mean and selfish to say that’s not... well, what the blog is about. Anyway some of those people are dear and important to me -- they are invariably the ones who will stop sending messages at the least complaint. Some people I would love to draw into “aside” relationships myself, but they aren’t interested. I get frustrated when serious discussions devolve into personal kidding around, esp. when everyone knows each other in real life: I’m excluded. A few times I’ve found a group that talks about exactly what I want to talk about but have quickly been signaled “go away,” for instance, the process theology group in Edinburgh. No girls allowed.

Circling back to the technical problem, the computer people themselves are always complexifying, adding new features, upgrading the operating system. So Netflix says I can’t communicate properly with my movie “queue” because my browser needs to be updated, but my browser can’t be updated without updating my Operating System which will cost me $100 or so. (Think money changed hands backstage?) “Gotcha” marketing.

But isn’t this the cost of doing business anywhere? Isn’t writing, truthfully, an occupation that requires upgrades and contacts and investments, the same as any other? Isn’t it pretty naive to think that writing is something angels do with magic pens, scribbling on the clouds for free? Aren’t I still an ink-stained wretch in spite of the computer? And aren’t my blogs evolving into blooks, which are close enough to being books to count even if they ARE self-published? Why be a snob? Why complain at all? Well... writers DO that!

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