When I voted at the town “hall,” I went to the table for the actual town but across the room there was a second sign-in table for the area just outside Valier. For months I’ve been thinking about the difficulty presented to this town, which is — of course — defined by a boundary and plat that was designed when it was founded and is based on area and a line around the outside. The rules of life are quite different on the two sides of that line, which creates a gradient.
The main tendency is that the expensive community services (schools, churches, town management, amenities such as sewer and water, street maintenance, building permits) are funded by town taxes and fees and controlled by voting residents. But because the ecologically possible creation of profit is in raising livestock or growing grain, those things must happen on land outside the town. Today the enterprises require major machinery and uses of chemicals (including fuel) and therefore investment capital (the bank is in the town) but the families who live out there and do the work depend upon the amenities of the town. In this dry-land country, even potable water must be trucked out from town wells. Irrigation canals for crops can’t be used for drinking.
For the last decades parents have concentrated on getting their kids into college, but the town is invested in maintaining the values and assumptions that have defined the town, which do not prepare kids for college. Some will manage to make it anyhow, and since cities and college towns are usually far more global, people with college educations vote differently than those who stop at high school graduation. People who have spent time in the city are more invested in “things to do,” which often turn out to be passive, provided by specialists: athletes, performers, law enforcement, cafés, taxis, actually more “done for.” And paid for.
At the same time, college grads are more susceptible to the romance of the ranch and since a big technologically advanced ranch (say one that uses hormones to produce and ship genetically valuable bovine fetuses instead of raising cow-calf pairs on grass) is likely to have an international clientele that will love to visit, so they aren’t likely to feel like hicks in the sticks.
The energy, the money, and the contacts around the outside of the town are powerful, but crucial quality-of-life elements are inside — a kind of island. The ranchers cannot vote on town matters. These days no church has enough money for a minister. The culture will not tolerate school administrators or even teachers from outside. The bank policies are hostile to “little people”: won’t exchange Canadian money though the border is close and people go back and forth a lot, won’t make paper bills into coins for machines, no longer accepts payments for the utility companies in order to spare postage, imposes sizable penalties for overdrafts or late payments. They are meant to pipeline big money.
Kids, having watched many media shows based on high density populations, can’t imagine what to do in a small rural town, because they have been looking at passive city events in stadiums and theatres. Even the streets have more action. Valier, with its old-lady enforcement of leash law, doesn’t even have dogs sprawled sleeping in the streets. (Plenty of action in Browning, both dogs and people.) Their idea of “doing” is pre-determined “fun” activities. In fact, even the school lessons are supposed to be “fun,” a high value of the American culture. Skill-building is entirely neglected.
With one exception: because the computer culture teaches itself all the time, kids soon find that thrilling edge where competence grows and it is not limited to the small town nor small town values. They aren’t skills for dealing with live people. Home-schooling and charter schools (on the rez) work better than the public schools because they allow more self-determination. In Kim Williams’ terms, doing instead of being done unto.
Tim used a Paul Krugman quote today: “Maybe the historic channels of reform — speech and writing that changes minds, political activism that eventually changes who has power — are no longer effective. Maybe American isn’t special, it’s just another republic that had its day, but is in the process of devolving into a corrupt nation ruled by strongmen.” At town council meetings I often hear rational thought-out explanations that are immediately cancelled by emotion or suspicion of motives.
I’ve been thinking about gerrymandering, which is fiddling with the boundaries to alter what is included. Blackfeet know a lot about that, since their boundaries kept being pushed back to move the good grazing outside of it so ranchers could get at it. Part of the rez is in Pondera County so that Swift Dam would be in the same county as the Pondera Canal Company. The state voting districts have been redrawn and redrawn to prevent rez people from having control, until some districts look like a snake that swallowed a pretzel. stretching across the Rocky Mountains.
Gerrymandering of regulations doesn’t depend on drawing boundaries of land, but manages categories of definition so that some people are exempted or included as convenient. The power from being in government comes in part from this, but much of the machinery is never seen because it depends on data, so easily managed with computers now, subtly making all the marbles roll into the right pockets through the use of printed law. In this election the polling people got overconfident about their data, forgetting that humans set up the categories and humans have a tendency to not see whatever they don’t like or haven’t experienced. A lot of people are outside the ken of pollsters or those who commission them, which suddenly became obvious when the voting returns came in.
A lot of critics have rounded on the media for misleading us, being tools of the puppeteers. They are the ones who inform the non-readers. I was impressed by Judy Woodruff rapping her manicure on her desk and demanding, “What do they WANT?” As though there were some mystery about people who want a living wage, security in their homes, enough to eat, and good health. The mystery is why she doesn’t know that they aren’t getting those things. (I also have a hunch that Hari Sreenevasan wouldn’t get much chance to say anything if the director weren’t talking into their earwigs and telling the camera to go to Hari.)
Why aren’t people figuring out that even if they REALLY want something and REALLY WORK HARD, they still might not get it. When I was preaching, I once addressed this, saying that no matter how hard I tried or how many lessons I took, I would never be an opera star nor a ballet dancer. The congregation gave a big laugh. I was shocked to realize that their laugh unexpectedly put me on the verge of tears. It was a return to reality that the whole country is experiencing now. “Painful,” to use Hilary’s word. We are never going to have gods and leaders who love us, protect us, keep us from evil, make everything all nice and safe. These are do-it-yourself tasks and campaigns are just advertising with no guarantees. You can heart them all you want, but you may discover the world is heartless.