Thursday, September 25, 2014


Eugene Harold Robinson

"Eugene Harold Robinson (born March 12, 1954) is an American newspaper columnist and the former assistant managing editor of The Washington Post. His columns are syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group, and he is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
"Robinson is a board member of the IWMF (International Women's Media Foundation)."  interviewed this Eugene Robinson in relationship to the publication of his book, “Coal to Cream: A Black Man’s Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race.”  The title comes from his grandparents: a very dark man and a very light woman.  He is formally addressed as “Mr.” but the transcript rather curiously put in every stutter, every misspeak, every stopandstart, of what he says. 

This Robinson grew up in an academically centered all-black community, so was only vaguely aware of color-based discrimination until he was assigned to South America as a journalist for the Washington Post.  In Argentina where he lived and Brazil where he often traveled, he became aware of how skin-color interacted with status and class assignment, splintering “black” into a lot of sub-categories, whereas in America, if you were a little bit dark, you were considered black.  This forced unity gradually became a political entity with some real power.  The book is how that happened and the people involved.

Rev. Eugene Robinson

The white Eugene Robinson is MORE controversial.  He is a gay man, a recovering alcoholic, married to another man for twenty years (he had been previously married to a woman and had two children with her), ordained and consecrated as a bishop, though he had to wear a bulletproof vest under his liturgical vestments at the ceremony.  The event split congregation, the American denomination, and world-wide Anglican networks, which roughly follow the British Empire.  He has resigned by now after seven years of turmoil.

He wrote two booksIn the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God,” and  God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage.”  Basically he is defending the right of an individual to have a relationship with both "God" and social respectability while committing to an unconventional marriage that the group disapproves.  He has been a highest level religious leader, but in a small context (New Hampshire) that stood by him personally.  This is a definitively Protestant stance, which means that the Roman Catholic church and the “high” Anglican denomination find him disruptive enough to label him evil.  

What I’m seeing in these two men is a much more global tension between the individual seeking a personal stance and the category, which in terms of the black community is crucial to the preservation of power.  Since I’m currently feeling very anti-institutional and since the institutions themselves have fossilized and eroded, it seems an important issue, even a central issue to everything else, generating a host of questionnaires and theories of change.  Add in the other two Gene Robinsons, and we’ve got two more versions, one noisily (literally) counterculture and the other quietly but supportively conventional, though progressive. 

Entering Valier

Like most things in life, one must seek balance if not harmony, but how do you do that?  As a flaming liberal thinker whose lifestyle is even more conservative than this Belgian-diaspora irrigation community I live in, but who is affiliated over fifty years with the violently splintered Blackfeet rez community just to the north, and who is merely tolerant of the Southern Baptist congregation at my elbow (If only they were Progressive Baptists!), I am rather urgently pressed to work on this.

All the feminists and enviros will urge me to look to the land: identify with the larger East Slope community but it is also split -- not splintered, but cleaved between those who (religiously) think the point of human life is prosperity and those who think humans must respect their participation in the planetary interwovenness.  Prosperity is individual (unless you’re a Hutterite) and interwovenness is the ultimate in community, without limits unless you consider the planetary troposphere as the boundary.  And we must do that or suffocate ourselves.  ALL of us.

Browning, MT

This week the Eloise Cobell Trust Fund settlement checks are going out to individuals, whose financial fortunes have been separated from each other by the US Government through the Dawes Act and the imposition of the rules of property developed in Britain and spread through their pre-empted empire.  At the same time the Blackfeet Tribe is trying to consolidate and “clean house” as a community in the interest of keeping at home the profits of a new wave of oil discovery (among other things, like fighting poverty).  The next couple of years will be fascinating to watch.  It is important to realize that there are more players than the tribe at this poker table, this bone game, but that the tribe’s players are new, just elected.  The government, the corporations, the underground culture of booze and drugs, and now new categories, local academics, and check-receiving diaspora Blackfeet are all keeping time with their sticks.

At the same time, the issue presented by the land -- water produced by the Rocky Mountains -- is an uncomfortable but real unifying force.  There is a famous experiment in which two summer camps of boys were encouraged to be rivals, to strive hard against each other in competition and make that opposition central to their lives.  It worked, all too easily.  But the two camps were dependent on the same water system.  The experimenters deliberately interdicted the water in a way that could only be repaired by the cooperation of the two camps.  The boys worked together -- carrying rocks, digging, planning, joining pipes.  By the time the water was running again, the boys were a single community, connected by many small friendships.

There are two water systems originating in the East Slope: one runs north/south in a rain and snow run-off belt;  the other is man-made and runs along the boundary between Canada and the US which happens to be high land due to volcanic activity, but not high enough to draw much water.  The pipe and diversion systems run parallel to the east-west railroad which prompted settlement dependent on that water.  Now the system is aging out.

The water coming off the Rockies is regulated by water law, a water master, a water court.  The trouble is that the humans have mostly ignored it and now the differences in development between the rez and the rest must be reconciled.  It will hurt, but there are guidelines.  The water along the High-Line is dependent on non-governmental sources and one-time funds.  The two communities created by water use face different problems.

It seems to me that the same split is between human-dependent systems and land-dependent systems throughout the world.  As much as we are in tension between individual and community, we are also in tension between places that are easy to live in and places that are pretty damn tough.  But the binary is on a sliding scale.  In summer and fall the East Slope and even the High Line are wonderful windswept spaces of light and grass.  In winter you might as well be at the North Pole.  

The easier the environment, the more the emphasis can be pushed toward the self-sufficient individual.  The tougher it is, the more people must unify to address survival.  Tough social conditions produce one kind of “Gene Robinson” and clearly supportive institutions help another sort of “Gene Robinson.”   It’s the transitions and reconciliations that are turbulent.

No comments: