Monday, December 08, 2008


When UU Leadership School was devised in the Seventies by Peter Raible, Rod Stewart and Ord Elliott, the key idea was not church history or personal faith -- though those two defining elements were included -- but rather the nature of the institution itself. They were trying to teach us Organizational Design. All three of these men, plus others, were frank institutionalists who wanted the denomination to persist and thrive. They were deeply idealistic but practical at the same time and had made the Pacific Northwest District a laboratory for some of their ideas -- or maybe the PNWD produced the ideas.

One of them was the sustaining of the religious body without constraints from national boundaries, since the district stretched from the California border through Canada to Alaska. In the end, the district was seriously damaged by the political goals of those interested in a different institution: a separated Unitarian denomination in Canada, so the leaders on that side of the border would have more power. They ripped the PNWD in half. (My mother used to say, “for every bug there’s a bigger bug.”)

Anthropologists have a concept they call “climax culture.” No, it’s not about sex, though when I googled the phrase a large number of those entries came up, demonstrating once again that eroticizing and commodification have modern Western life by the throat, if not some other body part. What I’m addressing is the idea that sometimes all the forces, both internal and external, are aligned in such a way to cause a huge flowering of energy and creativity that is so impressive that people ever after yearn to return to it, even though the forces have faded.

Famously, 19th century Plains Indian culture was one of those climax cultures, one that still beguiles us. In fact, it is so vivid that this week a French scriptwriter has been sending me emails asking for “the facts” about Blackfeet, whom she is convinced are still like the 19th century. She looks for tipis and horses. When I chide her that she’s being romantic, she insists that she is not -- only Hollywood is romantic about Indians. But she believes that the Bureau of Indian Affairs is assigned to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and is an instrument of oppression.

Not that it can’t be, but after the outrageous last massacres following the Civil War, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was removed from the Department of War and assigned to the Department of the Interior. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is, theoretically at least, trying to make prosperity, not war. It is also trying to keep itself as an institution alive, as surely as the Unitarians. The Blackfeet tribe is also trying to keep ITSELF alive as an institution. They are all hoping that organizational design is one of the keys: the tribe is currently working through a new constitution. The whole association of American states (USA) is trying to preserve its coherence and effectiveness, and talks of redesigning our election process to get rid of the electoral college, now that technology has changed everything. Certainly organizational design, or the lack of it, has brought down our financial infrastructure.

But these may be small forces that cannot create a climax culture. New technology, esp. sources of energy, are certainly part of the picture. Horses and guns lifted the dog-and-arrow technology of the Plains Indians into enormous effectiveness. For a little more than a hundred years that empowerment captured the imagination of the planet before industrialization (notably the steam ship and the railroad) ended the story. Now the end of carbon-based energy may be ending industrialization.

Not that new technology, even the internet, can change the world as much as a new idea. For instance, the shift in morality after World War II and during the Cold War -- maybe prompted by “anthropology” -- released many gifted and energetic men in San Francisco to experiment with developing a whole new community, as surely as the shift away from Calvinism allowed the ideas of Unitarianism and Universalism to flower in the open as legitimate denominations when earlier they had been heresies.

Like any sudden release of energy, including that of the Plains Indians on horseback waving Winchester 66’s, the first reaction was chaos and horror on the part of those not included, who were invested in maintaining their OWN institutions. Sex, drugs and rock’n roll were the most obvious SF symptoms, but demonizing them has made them so attractive to the rebellious and transgressive that now they are part of the mainstream: sexualization, commodification, pharmaceuticals, and loud music follow us everywhere, even to small Montana towns, even in religious institutions. Some think the big boom in UUism came when birth control was devised. In Portland the Michael Servetus Singles group became an outlet for libertine behavior that would have hurt Servetus himself, that crusty old bachelor, more than being burned at the stake which he was. Certainly the UUA has been eager to reach out to the gay and lesbian community, to the point of sharing space with the Metropolitan Community Church, which is focused on the same demographic and thus in competition.

The point of Organizational Design was to deliberately devise principles and patterns that would manage the energy of change and variousness into less self-destructive channels. How do we keep the libertines and transgressors from driving all the quietly conservative people out of the institution or on the other hand keep all the conservative people from stamping out every innovation, every experiment or new kind of music (folk music, anyone?), every young person who might be the future.

That wildness in counterculture San Francisco gradually formed itself into a flamboyant climax culture now of considerable interest to us and of deep personal nostalgia to the people who were actually part of the mix. Gus Van Sant’s movie “Milk” will never play in Valier or even in Great Falls, but Netflix will soon have the DVD and then many here will quietly see it. Some of the ideas are already mainstream. The dynamics of terrorist assassination are vital to understand today.

How to think “properly” about gay culture is as relevant in small villages as anywhere else, simply because gays are here -- always were. But there are many kinds of homosexuality, some of them bent to the point of being criminal, like assault on children (which can also be heterosexual). Other modes are benign and constructive and always were, for instance, the woman-identified men of the Plains cultures who stayed in the village to help with heavy work, loved children in a protective way, and -- if necessary -- acted as hunters and warriors. This figure is one of the reasons gay men become so invested in Plains Indian culture.

I think that both eroticization and commodification have become cultural dead ends. We need new principles and I think they will be trans-national if only because our problems are. The tiny beginnings are already here but I wouldn’t point them out even if I could, because the status quo would stamp them out.


Anonymous said...

I stumbled on this by chance, and found it interestingly homophobic. I suspect that you don't mean to be, though. You might want to re-read this and consider some re-phrasing.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

This post is five years old. I'll leave it as an artifact of my thinking at the time. Your comment sounds more like a troll than an insight.

Prairie Mary