Tuesday, October 02, 2012


In private communication, a reader objects to me talking about “German blood.”  The reader was correct.  Never mind that the context was that I was making fun of my mother for calling my father a Teuton when she was angry with him.  The fact is that it’s impossible to have “German” blood because there was no Germany until a little over a century ago.  Anyway, blood “types”  A, B, AB and O, (which weren’t discovered until 1900)  have sub-sets but they have nothing to do with place or nationality.  My mother meant pedigree or national citizenship.  Way back in there was a little whiff of “Nazi.”

The sore spot my mother was hoping to hit was actually in my grandmother, who had enough German nationality in her background to be very nervous about being stigmatized as a hostile alien, the way Islamic people are today.  WWI was bad enough, but in WWII the nation had witnessed the Japanese being stripped of their lives and thrown into internment camps, too much like the fate of Jews in Germany to be comfortable.  Or moral.

The German nation, as a unified country for the first time, begins in 1871.  This is 21 years AFTER the major treaties with prairie tribes, assigning them reservations, were signed in the United States.  Before 1871 there was no Germany and therefore no Germans and therefore no German blood.   The idea of “Germania” as it is portrayed in Ridley Scott’sGladiator” movie (loosely organized tribes) goes back to Julius Caesar.  I am almost accidentally learning a lot about all this by reading “Landscape and Memory” by Simon Schama.  I thought it was going to be about philosophy of place and it is, sort of, but it also explores a major north/south schism in Europe based on civilization versus wilderness -- or, as he styles it,  “masonry” vs. “vegetation.”   The constructed vs. the natural, interpreted as the sophisticated, educated, scientific versus the childish, earthy, mythic, primitive.  Which side you consider superior depends mostly on which side your ego dwells.  Rome (lingering on in England) or Germany (yearning for the Aryan paradise).

During WWII my brother-in-law saw some of the worst combat and was present at the liberation of the death camps.  He could not tolerate anything related to Germany, meaning to him Hitler.  In the Sixties a tourist family came through our Museum of Montana Wildlife on the Blackfeet Rez.  They were English-speaking with a German accent and we visited a bit.  (Bob had fought what he called “the Battle of Edmonton,” and had no particular feelings about “Germans.”)  After a while they were friendly enough to ask us why the Blackfeet were so cold to them.  They themselves had felt a great affinity, identifying Native Americans with the leafy and natural Germania tribes, a sort of Rousseaian ideal.  No one loves playing Indian more than Germans!  They were surprised to hear that many Blackfeet were, like Bob’s brother, veterans of WWII and therefore considered them enemies.   They had not known that the Blackfeet remembered enemies from centuries ago.  Though no doubt the Romans did, too.  And the tribes of Europe, the ones who eventually became Germany, remembered their rivalries, if not what they were about.

Lately videos about Mohammed have taunted the Islamic countries, who are lethally indignant and claim that all religion is sacred and must not be questioned or blasphemed against.  Then they go on to war sect against sect, north against south -- just the same as the Western world.  And in the Western world we claim we believe in free speech and yet people lose their jobs -- important people like the presidents of prestigious universities, because they took a “politically incorrect” position -- or so it seemed.  An English teacher was fired for using the word “niggardly” which means stingy, because it sounded like the forbidden “n” word. 

When my mother threw out “Teuton” (not German), she meant cold-blooded, technical, over-educated.  At that point she hadn’t gone back to school herself.  She returned to finish her junior and senior years when I started high school so she could put me through college.  But when I went to seminary decades later and paid my own way, she was incensed.  I was getting too big for my britches.  I was inviting trouble.  I didn’t tell her that most of the major theologians were Germans whose names started with B.  She was angry all over again when her good earnest Bible-based Presbyterianism didn’t match up with my high-flown Unitarian Universalist ideas.  I don’t know what she thought when she found my father’s carefully bound copy of his Master’s thesis:  it was about the price of potatoes.  Pretty organic.

These schisms and pre-judgings are insidious and come without being invited.  The north Blackfeet rez is prejudiced against the south Blackfeet rez and vice versa, but it is an old complaint and I can never get the straight of it.  I think it had to do with the Indian agents and the sequence of agencies as the reservation shrank.  It also seems to have something to do with the split between old-timey people and progressive people -- though that’s more of an east/west split -- mountains versus flatlands -- which also correlates with those who would like to subsistence hunt versus those willing to farm for profit.  If you don’t live here, you’ll never figure it out.  Cain and Abel are everywhere.

Back to blood.  There are two ways to overcome a two-split.  One is to emphasize the underlying unity of the issue -- after all, everyone has blood and the REAL dichotomy is not-enough-blood-to-sustain-life versus enough blood.  The other way to escape dichotomizing is to realize that there is a multiplicity.  Now we know that after you do the A, B, AB, and O sorting that everyone learned about because they were stamped on GI dogtags for the medic’s reference in battle, has had other variations added.  Rh factor was an early one.  At the level of organ transplants, the whole genome is necessary to get a good match and THAT proves every human being is unique.  The variations, which are tiny and influenced by another set of instructions in a kind of sleeve around the chromosomes called the epinome, are extremely small from one person to the next, but can have major consequences in terms of responses to environment and experience.

So what do we want?  Homogenized cultures where everyone is alike all over the world, or myriads of variations rich with the unexpected, the one-of-a-kind, the precious only?

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