Saturday, March 26, 2011

Cultures and Cassoulets

People here in the US don’t speak much about “culture” anymore, not in any real sense. To speak these days about things like “a culture” or “a people,” and to demand that such things be taken seriously, is to invite smirks at best, anxious frowns at worst. I believe that the new century will contain certain centrifugal forces that will enable us – force us – to take these things seriously again.

The US has always comforted itself with the myth of the “melting pot.” What we actually have – what we have always had, if the truth is to be told – is more like the southern French dish called “Cassoulet.” A large, bubbling pot full of chunks of disparate, bizarrely matched ingredients. When people speak of “an” American culture, they are willfully insisting on the myth of the smoothly mixed “melting pot” rather than the uncomfortable reality of the American cassoulet. American culture as such does not exist. In place of the culture is the shared assertion that “We are all Americans!” From the perspective of authentic cultures, this is a non-statement. It simply says, “We believe in the same ideas.” So saying, “I am an American” means nothing more than “I accept the same propositions that you do.” In a nation where even the illusion of such unity of beliefs and values lies shattered on the ground, this entire model collapses – and the US has nothing authentic with which to replace it.

Once the chimera of “shared ideas and values” is seen for what it is, we are confronted with a Bizarro World free-jazz interpretation of an authentic culture. By the time Americans’ ancestral cultures have been fed into the maw of the great American degradation machine and shat out the other end, they are nothing more than a collection of Disney Land “small world” artifacts bearing no more resemblance to authentic cultures than “Saint Patty’s Day” bears a resemblance to my ancestral Gaelic culture that it purports to celebrate. The idea that a nation can simply manufacture a culture at will is not only the height of hubris, it also misses the point.

With the idea of “an” American culture exposed for the myth that it has always been, perhaps it is time to rediscover and renew our faith in the authentic cultures of the ancestors we left behind. Not so that we can “celebrate our heritage” in some typically shallow, mercantile, set-piece little ritual of consumption. But rather so that we can have a true understanding of who we are and where we are from. As the “American idea” vanishes into smoke and faerie dust, this may be the only thing we have to hang on to, the only firm ground on which we can stand.

When I drive along the shore of the Mediterranean from Barolo to Monaco to Nice to Provence to the scrublands of Languedoc to the small rocky beach at Banyuls-sur-Mer, regions where the locals are once again demanding that their homelands be called by their true names – Catalonia, Occitania, Savoy – I rejoice in the multitude of alive, vital, authentic cultures. When I drive from mad King Ludwig’s castle across the Rhine and into the heart of wine country in regions that the locals are once again proud to call Bayern and Alsace and Bourgogne, I rejoice. Any place where an authentic culture grounded in an authentic people anchored to the land survives and even occasionally thrives in this flat, dull, monotonous, pasteurized, globalized, Disneyfied world, I rejoice.

And I salute them.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Utopia? No, but ...

The country and the world are going to hell. But in the backyard, the sun is coming down warm and benevolent, the asparagus are rearing up and shouldering their way into the light, and the chickens tirelessly patrol the perimeter, same as it ever was. Utopia? No. But it'll do ...

Goldfrapp, "Utopia"

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why I Stand With The Unions

I can remember my short, bird-like grandmother putting my hand on her head, under her hair, and making me feel the lumps and scars that were hidden there.

“The feckin’ goouns did that, Stephen!” 75 years in America and my grandmother went to her grave with a brogue I could barely understand. I finally figured out she was saying “the fuckin’ goons.”

And that’s when she told me her story.

About how she had to find work when her husband died at age 28 (from blood poisoning due to a goddamn abscessed tooth, if you can believe it), and went to work doing piecework in a sweatshop in the NYC garment district. Her story helped me to understand why she would stand up any time the “Look For The Union Label” commercial came on the TV and put her hand over her heart like it was the National Anthem. For her, it was. She helped organize, and she got her fair share of harassments and beatings from the “feckin’ goouns.” And she told me something I’ve never forgotten: “You don’t give an inch. You fight.”

My grandmother was just one of millions, immigrants most of them or the children of immigrants, pushed out of their ancestral lands by starvation and brutality and pogroms and forced to cross the ocean to a new land, the land of exile, no giddy triumphalist “Land Of Opportunity™” but simply a place where they were somewhat less likely to be killed, or to starve to death. And here is where they drew their line and said “Enough! Here is where we stand; we can do no other.”

And so they did.

Stand with the unions? How could I do otherwise? To do otherwise would mean I was without honor. And to be without honor is to dishonor all those who came before, endless generations whose existence made mine possible. Endless generations, back all the way to those who spoke forgotten languages and worshipped forgotten gods, and who walked up out of Ice Age Europe and across the shallow marsh that is now the Irish Sea. We have to answer to them, every single one of them, in this world or the next. Because they watch us, always, and they judge us, asking themselves: “Does this one live with honor?”

I stand with the unions because I want them to be able to judge me, nod their heads, and say one word:


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

8 Minutes 31 Seconds

Wagnerian opera or an uncompromising tragedy by Sophocles - disguised as a Western. The revelation of why this unrelenting Fury with a gun has been hunting Henry Fonda makes that other great film revelation -- "Rosebud!" -- seem pretty trite by comparison. We never escape our deeds, and if our deeds were bad enough, well then some day someone like Charles Bronson just might come a-calling. Karma.

Once Upon A Time In The West - The Duel

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Oh, Charlie

The Zen-mystical stylings of Charlie Sheen. My favorite: the orange kitteh going all Mitch Miller on our ass as he proudly proclaims "I got magic and I got poetry at my fingertips."