Tuesday, January 01, 2013
HOW DO YOU CHANGE A CULTURE?
I was just watching Jared Diamond tell stories on Edge.org -- explorer stories about looking for rare bowerbirds in New Guinea (unaware that he was looking at the rarest but didn’t recognize it because its feather topknot had faded with age) about being menaced by a psychopath sorcerer making the gesture of the menacing cassowary bird to signify power (which Diamond safely ignored because he was zipped up in his tent and the sorcerer didn't understand zippers), and about how one dead tree might be camped under safely but if one repeatedly does this, the odds will catch up with you.
TALES FROM THE WORLD BEFORE YESTERDAY: A Conversation with Jared Diamond http://www.edge.org/conversation/tales-from-the-world-before-yesterday
So I googled and wikied Jared Diamond because I never have gotten around to reading his very popular books, and discovered that he is one of the proponents of the idea that shifting to agriculture instead of hunting/gathering was not an advance but a blind corral, to use a Montana metaphor. (I tend to agree.) I also discovered that he is one of the many, many writers accused of making things up -- a terrible crime to the minds of the people who don’t want to hear what dissenters have to say, much less believe it.
Similarly, the GF Tribune Sunday morning published the third part of interviews with Schweitzer, our dynamic and colorful governor, now leaving office. They challenged him about his energy ideas which they find confusing: is developing Montana coal going to save us or doom us? Should be we emptying the reservoirs behind our dams, or saving the water for drought? And Schweitzer, as usual, threw them a curve by bringing up the huge ocean “belt” currents that move warm water from Africa around the horn of South America, turning the water over as it goes, until it reaches the northern Pacific where it makes agriculture possible in a major part of the grain producing world. If those crops fail, the planet dives into more famine and war than ever.
The paper also carried a story about the homeless in Great Falls, which they tried to organize into categories: shelterless (sleeping under bridges or in cars); in public shelters (still sleeping on the floor of the overcrowded existing shelters); couch-surfing; doubling-up with others who still have homes. I can think of other arrangements, like guys who pretend affection in order to live with single mothers subsidized by welfare of some sort or possibly working low-pay jobs. (The darkest side of this practice is the violence these immature men perpetrate on babies.)
So in the world there are systems, acknowledged or unacknowledged, human or far beyond human, all of them interacting with each other and governed by knowledge, convictions, and ignorance. Or what we think are Black Swans, even the ones with age on them. Was the Newtown shooting one of the usual average of twenty per year, or was there something worse about it? Maybe the fact that even the shooter’s mother knew he was trouble-coming, but didn’t act quickly enough. Was the Sandy storm a surprise disaster or was it exactly what has been predicted about rising sea levels and the vulnerability of Manhattan Island for decades now? The same was true of the New Orleans disaster, both at the ecological level and at the social level.
New Year’s Day is entirely arbitrary. It isn’t even at the equinox. It is an overlay on the reality. But it is also a prompter, an imaginary clean sheet of paper. This year we find it already marked up with divisions, people who somehow refuse to change their convictions even when they are demonstrably wrong. Why is that?
When dealing with liturgy, which is a means of changing deep convictions, the first requirement is safety. Victor Turner’s theory of the “liminal” stipulates that going over the limen, a threshold (which is in the brain) that permits openness, must first of all be safe. Any sensible person knows that there is NO safety in the world. We are ALL under constant threat, stalked by the Death Cassowary, camping under dead trees, not recognizing the bower birds even on the branch over our heads. So a liminal space and time has to be imagined but convincing, a virtual reality. Not real but seeming like reality. Only then can we change what is really not our “minds” but our convictions. We do NOT feel safe. We felt safer during the Cold War. Some always feel safer in the past.
Changing our minds CAN change reality because it will change our actions. So many of our actions are a vain -- often ridiculous -- struggle for safety through accumulating power, money, status, entitlements and stigmas that amount to walls and moats. Often they only create more danger. I’m being solicited for donations for my three alma maters. Actually, I benefited very much from scholarships from all three. I have not pursued the vocations for which the degrees were supposed to qualify me. Maybe I’m only rationalizing when I say that leaving those vocations has given me a greater freedom to think in the ways they taught me. Which has just about guaranteed poverty, but gave me something else.
Technology came along and handed me this power of blogging. It will only last so long as there is affordable electricity and the world internet complex is not yet captured by both commercial interests and governmental paranoia. Now and then lately -- due to some glitch which I assume is in the “cloud” -- when I google my own name I don’t get the usual list of my own stuff but rather an index of numerical indexes of my statistics: how many hits, categories of subjects, value to advertisers, and the like. In other words, to speak metaphorically, the cloud clears enough to let the sky show through. Marketing, a blimp with corporate logos plastered all over it, hovers there -- trying hard to control the world, if not return it to the glory days when the plutocrats were all old white men instead of young brown men.
A tree may fall on me, the Death Cassowary may knock on my door, but I’m busy trying to figure out the bower birds of liturgy even though we no longer put them on our hats and their topknots may be faded. The problem is not so much forcing change as trying to survive what has always been a dynamic and risky trail up a mountain stream -- like the one Jared Diamond describes -- which some insist on taking even though there’s a readymade easy path everyone else uses. No one wants to read about the wide flat paths, because they do not trace the ocean currents that bring nutrients to the surface and warm Mongolia. How do you like THAT mixed metaphor? It’s absurd. But so is life. You need a tent with a zipper.