On Saturday This American Life had some stunning interviews. Some were Studs Terkel’s from when he was working on memories of the Depression. Black people and white people, but all of them working people. (Not even Studs got around to red people.) The program, to prove that being rich won’t save your soul, added a woman whose family fell from prosperity because the father got “over-invested” in being a big prosperous lawyer -- to the point of embezzlement. I was surprised at how many among the interviewed people talked about uprisings, rioting in the streets.
But the real stunner was a man who remarked casually, “When I was sixteen, I was not afraid to die. But these kids today who are sixteen are not afraid to kill.” In my experience, this is true.
I think this is because our culture has shifted from being group-focused, “all in this together,” to being every person for himself. We’ve gone from feeling that the strong should give a hand to the weak (maybe die for your buddies, military-style) to feeling that the only thing that counts is to be the last man standing. Only fools enlist. Winner take all. Number one. A young man sneered at me, “anyone who can’t drive as fast as I do in a car as good as mine doesn’t deserve to be on the road.” He meant it. He meant me.
Besides the Depression and Studs Terkel, This American Life reflected briefly on Obama, a quiet man who is not afraid to die for his country. (We’re afraid to talk about it much.) He DOES think the strong should extend some protection to the weak. That doesn’t mean stripping the rich in order to feed the poor. One way to discredit anything -- one of the principles that used to be in English textbooks and now survives in election rhetoric -- is to exaggerate to the point of becoming ridiculous. So I won’t do that to today’s sixteen-year-olds, portraying them all as “not afraid to kill,” though at seventeen -- assuming they join the military -- that’s what we’ll want from them, isn’t it? The same as the Middle Eastern teenagers are not afraid to kill. Nor afraid to die.
We’ve just passed the 70th anniversary of Kristalnacht when crowds raged through European cities, killing and smashing. At that time things were also mighty tense in the USA because the Depression had destroyed so many lives. They had nothing to lose. One person told about traveling just outside Oklahoma City and seeing a Hooverville ten MILES by ten MILES -- isn’t that a hundred square miles? -- crammed with people living in piano boxes, car bodies, cobbled up shacks as we’re used to seeing in Africa or South America or Afghanistan. Someone confided that at that time we were just a blink away from mobs running in the streets and, of course, we HAVE had them. Detroit. Watts. Grant Park. (Some people were VERY worried about Grant Park this time, but it went fine.) Another person said that the vivid memories older people have of those eruptions is one of the forces driving us to DO SOMETHING now about money, but NOT run into the streets setting fires.
Jim Stebbings sent me the Studs Terkel pages from the Chicago Tribune. Studs only got a couple of paragraphs in the Montana papers, but we can all Google him. The gravelly voice. But more than that, the relentless emphasis on what is justice, what keeps people going in hard times, who are the brave examples, and where are the rewards. Never cynical, never bitter, always emphasizing what survives, what is uniquely human and exemplary in the person sitting at the microphone with him.
I was thinking about the difference between the reservation sixteen-year-olds and the Cut Bank sixteen-year-olds. As far back as the Sixties the programs of renewal began in Browning: Headstart, Peace Corps, community service lawyers and doctors right out of school. When I thought about Headstart, I realized that today’s Blackfeet sixteen-year-olds are Head Start graduates whose parents were also Head Start graduates. Decades of talk about making friends, working together, being creative, has given them a distinctive style as clear as that of the early 20th century mission-educated grandmothers who held families together through two world wars and a Depression.
Browning has had a steady influx of Catholic workers, liberals, Methodist work camps, hippies, veterans and so on -- often in the schools as teachers or lately as whole “charter schools.” There were two eloquent and peace-making voices in the recent debacle in Cut Bank. Mike DesRosier, whose son is a happy grad of the Piegan Institute’s Blackfeet Immersion School, and Calvin Tatsey, who attended Bill Haw's tribal “Blackfeet Free School and Sandwich Shop” in the early ‘70’s and says it changed his life.
The Browning kids nowadays are totally different than the kids I taught: consider that I used to have to FORCE them to do any public speaking, but now they consistently win prizes. They have voices and they use them. What’s interesting is that when I talk about the “old days,” meaning the Sixties, they are fascinated and sigh that “now everything is just boring and regular.” They want to hear about the day the high school students closed down the classes and Bill Haw, the counselor, got up on the stage to talk them through the revolution.
It occurs to me that over the years Cut Bank has become more rigid and right wing. The Cut Bank kids went to paid day care, which seems to have consisted mostly of loosely supervised play. Cut Bank got stuck. Browning moved forward. There were exceptions. Some Cut Bank kids, esp. on ranches, worked hard as part of the family team. One doesn’t find them in bar fights. But also they tend not to get into political matters, preserving the peace through avoidance.
Eric Newhouse bravely wrote an editorial in the Great Falls Tribune today -- brave because he published his name and photo, which editorial writers don’t always do. He reported that he and Gary Moseman, the managing editor, had been reflecting and searching about whether to allow commentors on this story of the bar fight to post without using their real names. In the first place, it’s impossible to confirm who really made the post, even knowing the url of the Internet connection. In the second place, wouldn’t the newspaper forum be a better context than some flaming blog site? Or even a inflammatory radio call-in show? Isn’t it better to get issues out on the table where they can be dealt with?
In 1962 I opened an English classroom unit on discussion by asking for topics the sixteen-year-olds really wanted to discuss. They wanted to talk about cops who beat them up, a practice they could prove and that was pushing them to the edge. When we began to deal with it, the chief of the tribal police showed up at my classroom door to write me a ticket for libel. Because in those days, one dealt with controversy by suppressing it.
We went to the superintendent, who pointed out that the defense for libel was proof that the statement was true, which they probably could provide, and the chief of police withdrew. The violence did subside. I got a stiff lecture on not stirring the pot. Right. It didn’t stick. I want sixteen-year-olds to deal with the truth and to feel that they will be listened to. Then there will be far less need for them to die or to kill, either one.