Saturday, February 25, 2017


The most crucial element of any ecology inhabited by human beings is the OTHER human beings.  So the future of the hominins will depend on their ability to get along with each other, support and improve each other, survive each other.  They say wars are fought well not for the sake of the cause but for the person next to you.

The first impulse of most people looking for how to “be” is to try to imagine a perfect person.  Experience has taught me that what we need is an assortment of people, all kinds of people, some of them secret and even subversive.  The more kinds of people that exist, the more it is likely for hominins to persist, because it is more likely that someone will have the mutation needed to meet the threat.  Like the ability to digest milk.  Probably not war skills.

In the past half-century there has been a great jostling horde of people trying to figure out what we should do, not just in the great choices of political leaders or economic strategy, but also in terms of local, personal life.  Two guides much discussed in the past were the idea of “other-directed” people versus “inner-directed” people.

The Lonely Crowd is a 1950 sociological analysis by David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney. It is considered, along with White Collar: The American Middle Classes, written by Riesman's friend and colleague, C. Wright Mills, a landmark study of American character.”  

“Riesman et al. identify and analyze three main cultural types: tradition-directed, inner-directed, and other-directed. They trace the evolution of society from a tradition-directed culture, one that moved in a direction defined by preceding generations. Tradition-directed social types obeyed rules established a long time in the past and rarely succeeded in modern society, with its dynamic changes.  This earliest social type was succeeded by people who were inner-directed. They discovered the potential within themselves to live and act not according to established norms but based on what they discovered using their own inner gyroscope. Inner-directed people live as adults what they learned in childhood, and tend to be confident, sometimes rigid.”

There’s a fourth cultural type which came to prominence when everyone acquired television, which is “fantasy-directed.”  The middle-class in particular began trying to guide themselves according to what they saw on television while sitting in their own homes, which made it even more vivid.  When I was teaching on the Blackfeet rez in the Sixties, people were just beginning to see these images, these behaviors, and they were convinced that this was the American norm, which was nothing like the way they were living.

By now we sit staring at Caitlin Jenner and Bill Cosby (not to mention Trump) and feel pretty much the same way except that they have inexplicably become something we never expected and cannot approve.  Beyond that, in some places one can look out the window to see the neighbors killing, butchering and roasting a goat in their backyard.  Most people aren’t used to that.  Aaaauuuugh.  

It’s tough to figure out what is fantasy and what is reality.  Our visual stories on TV now mix flashbacks with plot progression in the fancied “now”.  The sound overlaps the images.  The plots themselves are fantastical, mixing the stuff we see on the news (which is unbelievable enough already) with sci-fi and paranoid conventions about politics that after a while seem real.  No wonder when it comes to politics, people vote but it seems to have no connection to the results.

Identity is anchored in daily life.  We try to appear pretty much like everyone else around us.  Mostly it’s pretty clear what the neighbors are doing, but not always.  The more difficult task is to be inner-directed, because what we learned as kids isn’t always much help.  

Previous generations had little moralizing stories to tell.  In the nursery story everyone was mad at Simple Simon, because he was always doing what worked last year instead of using his head to make his actions fit a new situation, but think of what a problem it was for poor Simon, doing his best but getting criticized for it.  Like holding doors for people who aren’t grateful because it implies they can’t do it for themselves.

The very rich, who may or may not be well-educated or experienced, have the privilege of being inner-directed and causing everyone around them to also be directed by their superior innards.  This might sound like a great idea, but it soon turns out to be a trap unless, like Buddha, one goes in disguise to find out what the world is really like.

In reality it’s pretty brutal.  But also full of joy.  Simon (and maybe Buddha) have a cousin named Jack who is “resilient” to use one of the buzz words of our day.  “Jack” stories are about a little guy, maybe a child, who is oppressed and damaged by a big guy, maybe even someone in his own family, but he saves himself by using his wits to look at the situation in a way that reveals more options than the “giant” knows about.  (McGyver is a Jack.)

Sometimes one can Jack the situation by moving the point of view, or by thinking about a foreign country where things are different, or by enlisting the help of other Jacks.  He is inner directed, but confident enough to interact with and learn from others without getting captured by them.  On the other hand, he’s not afraid to grow and change.

The Plains Indian cousin of Jack is Napi, who is distinguished by his tendency to make a fool of himself.  Jack fools others; Napi gets fooled.  But that never stops him for long. because he learns from his mistakes.

Jill Power tends to be grouped, and sometimes more symbolic than actual, like pink pussy hats.  But also sometimes Jill’s follow Buffy the Vampire Slayer without the resourceful screen writers, which means they end up shouting ineffectively.  For kid heroes, one generally has to go to cartoons, but I can imagine an absorbing series based on a remarkable boy, maybe dark in both senses, but never mean or vengeful.

Back to Jack.  Imagine this immigrant is like a Jack Russell terrier with a personality many of us have come to know: persistent, enthusiastic, energetic, and funny.  The problem the Jack dog has is that the others are humans who want to tell him, even FORCE him to do what they want.  So maybe where he has always lived, it was normal to kill, cut up and roast a goat in the backyard, but now that he has moved, everyone gets upset and points out laws against cruelty to animals, which he can’t understand because it’s not about cruelty — it’s about food.  Is this new country against food?  All sorts of semantical problems about when a living being enters a whole array of laws about how food must be handled for the sake of good health — when plainly the idea should just be to invite everyone over and eat it right away.  But the neighbors are convinced that’s barbaric.  He should buy a refrigerator and make that goat meat last all week.

This example is meant to show how inner and outer directed can smash into each other, creating bafflement and anger.  But taxation, health care, walls, and gimme-caps with mottoes on them are burned over territory.  There is no unified “other”, not even the fantasy scenarios of television which have made us think we understand other people like gays or trans or innocents with dread diseases.  

Now we all crowd onto one of the media platforms where algorithms hook us up, like with like.  What does it mean to be “algorithm directed”?  What class does that relate to?  The credit card class, I guess.  Advertising has grabbed us.

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