Saturday, April 14, 2012


This week I’ve been watching a steady sequence of social consciousness films, independently made because people really believed in the message. (If you watch one on DVD, there will be trailers for the others.) “The Stoning of Soraya,” “Satan Tango,” and tonight was “Sin Nombre” -- all are very hard to watch and yet they are the reality of some people, lived without escape, without fantasy. The worlds of isolated mountain Iranian villages; or poverty-stricken, rain-soaked Hungarian farms; or Mexican immigrants on trains trying to get into the US, are so foreign that we don’t try to imagine them because we don’t know they exist. And yet, if we don’t know about them, how can we make decent social decisions in our lives? This is not escapism or fantasy.

An article about Matt Groening reflecting on growing up in Portland, Oregon, has been floating around and some of us have chatted about it. No two of us grew up in the same Portland. The Portland of my childhood and youth was nothing like the Portland I knew later as an animal control officer and then as a clerk for the City of Portland Bureau of Buildings. The only way those views could have been grittier would have been if I’d be a cop.

But none of that compares with Browning, Montana. The most recent tragedies have divided people between those who feel there should be as much outrage and action as for others who have died -- as a matter of honor -- and those who feel that it only makes everything worse to tell people about it. The more hidden the better. Just walk away. Find a better place. Myself, I feel a third way: I think that if we really understood, things might change. We should know everything that explains, that leads to answers.

People tell me this is a fool’s opinion, a liberal white woman’s delusion, because nothing will change anyway. And yet in the fifty years that I’ve known this place, the only things that really haven’t changed have been the land and the alcohol. Drugs are worse; education is better; people are fatter; more young people are achievers -- like Ph.D. level achievers. Like happily married achievers. Like successful business achievers. And then there’s Eloise Cobell, who finally got a bridle bit in the mouth of the USA. No one expected that to be possible at all and they were critical of her path to that achievement: learning the world of banking and law. What business did an Indian woman have learning such things? Now we know.

Bob Scriver used to say that during the Great Depression, which is when he was in high school and college, things around here weren’t much different than usual, because everyone was already living at ground level. Now people keep telling me that they will NOT live in an old house or drive an old car, and they don’t. Ranchers around here are doing a little better than the rest of the country. There is a lot to lose. Since I work with an international group, I’m am acutely aware of what the Great Recession is doing to the growing edge of social action -- shutting it down. The safety net in this country is full of holes now. Subsidies are so politically-based instead of compassion-based, that they amount to subjugation and extortion.

But come back to the local. A teenaged girl -- smart, beautiful, intelligent, achieving, well-loved and all the other qualities that are supposed to be protective -- has been lost. She called 911 to say she thought she had overdosed. They got to her quickly but lost her at the hospital. Would this tragedy have been avoided if she had known how dangerous it is to mix alcohol with pills? If she had known how dangerous prescription pills can be? But one of the worries is that if one teenager dies of suicide, it becomes a script for others, so I’m not using her name. The praise, regret and sorrow can be alluring to someone who is normally brushed aside and ignored.

And what about Marie Heavyrunner? I think there are secrets about this death that have not come out yet and that no one wants to become known, like the relationship to oil lease money. This house was finally raided as a gang drug house. There is always buzz about drug gangs. Why aren’t they challenged as soon as they are detected? (This isn’t the first murder on their tab.) Because people like the excitement? Being “in the know”? Because they think that’s really the way life is and there’s no way to oppose such a phenomenon?

Watching all these independent movies, usually written by someone who infiltrated the scene or read a book or had a relative involved, has given me an acute consciousness that this planet has many layers of government and structure. In addition to the obvious United Nations, there are underground networks of incredible extent and power. Some are criminal, some are religious, some are financial, some are NGO’s, some are international corporations and cartels. A person with a cool temperament and a lot of luck can play three-dimensional chess through them in a lot of different ways for a lot of different motives, both good and bad. Places with borders, overlapping jurisdictions, and de facto no man’s lands are great for these interstitial people.

We love the novels and films about all this, especially the ones with heros who know how to make the moves that save everyone. In actual fact, not many people are hip enough to get involved. Or, NOT, which is even more hip. Certainly no one is able to control all these levels and dynamics by passing laws, making inspections or even hiring soldiers of fortune. The culture itself must form an opinion, a NORM, and express it in every way that they can, and that’s what will turn things around.

It used to be normal to own other people. It used to be normal to beat horses to death in the streets. It used to be normal to have open sewers. We changed that. Three-dimensional chess might be complex, but straightforward awareness and determination are not. You can do it at home.

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