Wednesday, November 25, 2009


This evening I was watching “Wire in the Blood” and thinking about how extremely stylish it is and how sophisticated all the references to ritual and psych theory and the Bible, etc. etc. and how formidably stark and ingenious the architecture is. Of course, it’s ten years since I’ve been in a real city except once overnight in Calgary to promote “Bronze Inside and Out.” But I was thinking about what a cultural gradient is and what it does. PBS is supposed to push you up the incline, but some people scorn it as an anchor preventing innovation. Someone just analyzed Sesame Street to show that all the gritty ghetto stuff that originally made it wonderful has now been dissolved away, drained into colorlessness. Oscar the Grouch becomes a victim of low self-esteem and Big Bird stops asking all those pesky questions about where babies come from.

When I was talking about “value gradients” meaning profit in reference to Native American artifacts, I noted that the steeper it is -- that is, the bigger the difference between how cheap you can acquire something (pretty cheap, if you’re just digging it up) and how profitably you can sell it (pretty high if you’ve got the right contacts in Japan and Germany) -- the more people are going to be doing it. But where’s the pay-off in a “culture gradient” and what is it that’s differing? Like ghetto music sold to volatile kids.

I see more and more that our Montana society is de-laminating along class lines that are about prosperity, but that’s always been there. There’s always been a boss up on the hill and the workers digging in the mine. In the past it was pretty predictable that there would be ethnic markers -- skin color, to be blunt. That’s not the way it is anymore. High class people can be of any racial origin. Misread that and you’re in for a ride, like the red-neck brothers who took on a Blackfeet county commissioner. (January trial in Libby, if it goes that far.) Shared class used to be a force for solidarity. Now it’s every individual for himself. Not even family unless you’re an immigrant.

If you have money, you can buy education, but the kind of education is quite different than it used to be. Everything now is focused on federally enforced standards and earning potential. When I taught in Heart Butte twenty years ago, the lit textbooks I ordered were the standard college-prep senior lit about classics: Beowolf, Macbeth, Keats and so on. I figured that at least they would recognize the names though I taught them non-traditionally -- for instance, Beowolf was the movie “Aliens.” They got it. I have no illusions that as soon as I left, those textbooks (formidably expensive for no real reason) weren't jettisoned. Not because the teachers didn’t think the kids could read that stuff -- and it’s true that they didn’t think they could -- but because the teachers had never learned those basics themselves and didn’t find them either basic or relevant. If they somehow blunder into the company of some upper class well-educated people at a cocktail party who began to chant in unison, “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,” they wouldn’t get what’s going on. In a way it doesn’t matter, but cocktail party chatter can mean a difference when you get to a certain level.

In a way the current war of religious books is a good thing, because even if no one actually reads the Bible or the Koran, I think by now they realize that they matter and that they are a kind of alphabet of stories, far more similar to each other than would justify any war. But as I reflect, it appears that all sense of continuums has disappeared -- everything has gone out to the ends, the edges, to the us-against-them whether we’re talking major geopolitical splits or just politics at home. I’m not fond of middle men, but the middle class -- which is often based on mediating merchandise or buffering social functions like law enforcement or technology -- seems to be debilitated. No one wants to be middle class anymore. They either want to be rich and glamourous or wicked and counterculture. Except the counterculture is no longer wicked. The sense I have is that most of them are quietly maintaining their standards out of sight. The wicked will have to go with the underculture, which seems to be rather overachieving, though it -- like everything else -- is corporatized, which means bureaucracy. Is wickedness all that wicked if it’s not free lance?

In some ways age groups can’t even be put on the same continuum. For instance, I see that the youngsters are making a sharp break with any taboos on sex. As far as they’re concerned, anything goes -- BUT they are also very aware of setting boundaries, defending their own space, and will say STOP. Generally, that seems to be effective. (Unless you're starving.) On the other hand, there seems to be no taboo at all on violence, only a technicalization/medicalization focus on autopsy afterwards. (This is very much in evidence on BBC-PBS serial murder tales where the forensic investigator is generally quite droll.) Of course, for news and graphic images no one can top the daily news.

I’m hoping that when the dwindling appeal goes out of sex and violence, that the lure of ideas, the shock of insight, the explicit graphics of history, will pull us back over to some kind of sanity. One obstacle is the tendency to hush, hush all admissions of knowledge of anything. I think of much email indiscretion in terms of the tale about the king’s barber who knew the king had asses’ ears, had to keep the secret, but couldn’t help whispering it to the rushes along the river, who ever since have rustled “the king has asses ears.”

And where does it say the king has to be warm and fuzzy? Now that it appears that Obama may actually be effective at dealing with enemies, the complaint is that he doesn’t take good care of his friends and supporters. (Evidently a lack of booty.)

Those of us who manage to survive all this will be the fittest for this time and place. The question is what will be the terms of the next society? Are we preparing?

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