Saturday, April 25, 2009


It made a difference to be born in 1939, just before the Boomers’ parents created so many babies out of wartime desperation and triumph. Simultaneously I came to consciousness aware of the holocaust and the atomic bomb -- the eradication of whole populations. I was surprised to realize in about 1946 or so (2nd grade?) that Germany and Japan still existed. I thought we had sent them to oblivion. But that’s not the way the “civilized” world works, partly because a country is a mixture, not all of whom are guilty to the point of depravity.

At least if they are a nation. There’s no such thing as “nation-cide,” just genocide, and that’s for the “gens,” the people who have an identity but not a structured nation with borders, a flag and an anthem. As the Indians know -- though, crazily, the very nation that tried to destroy them then forced them into becoming internal nations. The Jews have the advantage of a Book and Temples. Oh, and it helps to have money and connections -- even if not quite enough. And then there are the Gypsies who learned to slide through the shadows.

The natural number of people in a community of “known people” is about a hundred or so. Few enough that when you see the people on the street, you know their names and ask about their relatives. Valier is 350, so that’s a little over the limit. In the old Belgian peasant villages where most of these people came from, people had known each other for centuries. If they tried to be different from their families, people laughed and shoved them back in.

The Blackfeet tribe is 8,000 on the rez and 8,000 off. Heart Butte, the most remote community, has a population of 650, mostly pretty young. I know more Heart Butte people than Valier people because I taught in the former but live quietly apart in my house in Valier. In the old days the Blackfeet lived in small groups, maybe a hundred or so, and moved around. If someone tried to be different from their families, they generally went looking for another group more to their liking. They still do that.

These are communities based on place, location, a walkable space where the land is divvied up and assigned. There are also communities based on affinity, common interests. In the religious context they are called “gathered congregations.” They became important when the dominant religion in Europe, which was “parish” or place-based (so that every priest was responsible for everyone in his parish) was challenged by Protestantism so that their minister was responsible only for the members of that congregation. Protestants, when they split from the Catholic monolith, then shattered into smaller and smaller schisms until the left wing took action by delineating their community, moving to live together, sometimes communally, and throwing out dissenters. This was called “fencing the communion.” They didn’t go converting others in an effort to grow -- they just stayed home and guarded their boundaries, morally as much as any other way. So today we have Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, Church of the Brethren, and so on. They have survived, persisted and kept the ways that are now old.

Today we have virtual communities over the internet. People in them may have never met except through print, images and ideas. They may be “cloaked,” representing themselves as entirely different than they “really” are. Their day jobs may be totally different, their educations may be totally different, they may not even be the gender they say they are. What holds them together? Common interests, curiosity, a shared style. They’re not like a profession, the way medicine or law gather around a discipline that makes them useful, related to the culture as order-keepers. In fact, what holds them together may be rebellion and secrecy. Or not. The “H” humanities listservs at are academically defined.

The drug culture may contribute to virtual communities somewhat, but it’s not possible to be an effective hacker or videographer without a mind that works. Maybe drug culture needs a typology: those who want to increase their alertness or endurance, those who crave visions, those who are trying to stay alive: HIV/AIDS. Even I, Old Lady Diabetes II, depend upon the Internet and blogs for my medical information. Personal testimony. The breaking up of monoliths and assumptions.

We have discovered that the pharm companies, along with the doctors and lawyers and senators and generals, are only keeping order for themselves. They erase the gens by committing crimes of omission: not funding. Not counting, not identifying, not educating, not housing, not providing courts, not even actively torturing in the way I read about as a child in the Police Gazette, but simply deporting, warehousing, leaving on the streets, denying insurance, never funding enough safety inspectors. Those who actively tortured were a convenient distraction for the more cold-blooded, filling the news with shocking images so we wouldn’t read our stock market statements carefully.

The gens identify themselves and begin to form groups, until finally one day they reach critical mass and Act Up. Of course, in that specific case, all the authorities had to do was to wait for them to die. The same as they are waiting for the Indians to intermarry enough to dilute themselves out of existence. They didn’t expect all the different tribes to intermarry with each other and create one big pan-Indian tribe that now has enough critical mass to make major political changes. They didn’t expect that gays would form networks of information and support, that the dying would reach out to the living.

Here I am on the edge of the reservation, not really belonging to the village or the rez, but participating in a virtual community called Cinematheque. I don’t meet their demographic. I can’t even approach their tech skills. I’ve never met them. I’m thousands of miles away. I’m not fortified behind strong doors but hide in plain sight. How did this happen? I don’t really know. The answer is somewhere in Tim Barrus.

Or maybe it is as deep in me as those first child years when I sat watching newsreels or listening to grownups talk or leafing through Life magazine or sitting on the porch stairs trying to figure it all out. I went with my mother to church when I was so young that my legs stuck straight out in front of me in the pew. I was too near-sighted to see the preacher, but I could hear him. I learned to listen, even if it was only to his tone of voice. I listen carefully to Cinematheque.

If that worries you, just skip the posts about it.

[About a hundred and fifty people read this blog every day. Over a thousand through the week. Enough to attract a bit of advertising since I need a new printer. I hope it doesn’t bug you. I certainly don’t endorse the content. Computers have no sense of irony.]

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