Saturday 29 November 2014

Ferguson: just the beginning

KMO: The embers have cooled, and by the time this goes out another week or so will have passed. I wonder what you think the lasting cultural impact of Ferguson will be. Michael Brown become as much a household name as Trayvon Martin two or three years from now, or will this be overshadowed by events to come? I’m asking you to go out on a limb, since some people will be listening to this a few years from now.

Brian: Unfortunately, we’re living in such a flickering society that it’s hard to say. When people got their news from a tangible object like a newspaper, or from conversations with people they knew, and it fundamentally changed the way people dealt with one another – a news item could have powerful repercussions across a community. Now, most people I talk to are social only in the sense that they stare at glowing rectangles all day, and connect with a lot of other people in their subcultural bubble who are also staring at glowing rectangles.

If you read books like Bowling Alone, and many studies in the same vein, it shows what a deeply-knit social structure my country used to have, and doesn’t anymore. To some extent you still have that in Ireland, at least among the older people, but Ireland is changing too as it becomes prosperous and Americanised – the young people are slowly losing the traditional songs and storytelling and pastimes, in favour of staring at glowing rectangles.

I don’t want to sound holier-than-thou about this, because obviously I blog and keep up with all these acquaintances over social media. It is, however, fundamentally changing the way we think; news now just appears on screens and disappears, and blink in and out of our minds, so I don’t think these events will linger in the public consciousness much. But it should. Because as we go further into some very difficult times – difficult because of fossil fuels, weather disasters, outages, shortages and other things like that -- and specifically for Americans because their empire is faltering visibly – people in general, and Americans in particular, will see some difficult times ahead.

What impresses me when I talk with elderly people here, and try to learn some of their traditional ways myself, is that Americans still have it really, really good. There’s no reason for most Americans to be suffering right now; they’re just not used to having less. But they are having to live with that, and Americans right now are some of the most frightened people I’ve ever met, frightened in a way that people in most other countries are not. And that’s a very serious thing.

Most of the economic relationships – their rudimentary means of getting food, shelter, warmth, water, security and so on – the basics of life – are vertical, to strangers in distant and possibly unaccountable institutions, rather than horizontal, to family or neighbours nearby, or singular, things that they can provide for themselves. We grow up warehoused in schools, and most young people are aware of it and don’t appreciate the squandering of their early years. But it prepares us for the life that many American children will live, as cubicle plankton in office jobs. We didn’t grow up with many real skills to provide for ourselves, and most of us didn’t know anyone else who had them either, so that kind of life was difficult to imagine.

When I talk with elderly people here, or people from any traditional society, who grew up before wealth or electronic media, I find their lives were fundamentally different. Most security was accomplished through social pressure and shame, rather than armed men wearing uniforms. Young men grew up occupied with chores and hard labour, rather than the opportunity for mischief. People were able to provide for their own needs in many ways, that we were not raised to be able to do.

People had deep relationships to other people around them, so that the person who runs the shop might have also helped dig your father’s grave, and might have helped you with your first communion. These many threads of relationship in every direction wove a quilt of community, which cushioned the weight of the world. So people might have been poor, but they were incapable of feeling poverty the way Americans do now, for their lives were not spent floating idly upon a sea of strangers.

There are lots of things like that, which I mention in the American Conservative article, that I don’t see many people talk about, in any political group. People talk about big things like the war, but not the million little things that make up people’s lives. Right now many Americans are terrified of each other, paranoid of authority but completely dependent on it, and convinced that everything is the fault of these vast conspiracies controlled by these people on the other side from their own, and filled with flamboyant stories about how terrible those people are. It runs through political groups, races, religions, all kinds of divisions. It’s an extremely unstable situation.

Here in Ireland recently there was a presidential election, with seven parties running candidates, and they had prime-time television debates between all of them. People in my office building would talk very freely about how they supported this or that candidate, and would argue jovially about it. Even in this country, which endures a revolution, a civil war and a decades-long guerrilla war in the lifetimes of people still alive, people were not so divided that they couldn’t open up about their opinions in a very friendly way.

But when I talk with a lot of people back home – again, Tea Party, Republicans, Democrats, Green Party and so on – it’s not that people felt strongly about their point of view. It’s that most people were incapable of arguing even their own point of view, because they couldn’t believe how anyone could believe anything else. They don’t even have an argument, and it’s difficult to bring up most subjects without having somebody explode.

With many things declining, it’s important for most Americans to understand that it doesn’t have to blow up. They are still wealthy enough that they could cope very well with less, but most of my countrymen have never had to do so and have no model for how this could be done. In the case of Ferguson, it started over what has become tragically common, the shooting of a young black man. So the story entered around my country’s deep and unresolved problems over race. But it could be something else next time, but unrest is likely to hit more and more places in the coming years.

I’m hoping that the kind of thing that I do – studying old crafts and values – could, in some small way, bridge different groups, like traditionalists conservatives and ecological liberals, and use some of the lessons of the past to help us prepare for a difficult future.

All text from KMO's C-Realm podcast. Photo courtesy of ABC News.

Friday 28 November 2014

Ferguson: poverty then and now

My interview about the situation in my old neighbourhood, continued. 

The third thing that I was able to bring was that I’ve lived in rural Ireland for about a decade – I wrote my first magazine cover story about peak oil a little more than ten years ago, and have been writing about things like that ever since.

My contribution has been to research older traditions and crafts from a low-energy past, and to see how they could be useful to us in a low-energy future. That kind of knowledge is useful, because I was able to look back on Ireland the way it was a few decades ago, and compare it to poor and high-crime places in America today.

When violence happens in places like Ferguson, liberal Americans I know attribute it to poverty. But no place in America is poor compared to what Ireland was like a few decades ago, and it didn’t have those same problems. When my wife was growing up here in the 1970s, the average GDP-per-capita was lower than that of Gabon in central Africa. A lot of her neighbours didn’t have electricity or plumbing or cars, and some still drove horse- and donkey-carts.

Yet it was also a highly educated society, and a healthy one -- a doctor friend of mine here did a study on health in Ireland, and found that people were healthier then than they are now that Ireland’s been prosperous, and healthier now than in the United States. The crime rate was also lower then than it is now, and lower now than it is in the United States—a little over one homicide per 100,000 per year, as opposed to five for the USA and 100 for East St Louis. And that seems surprisingly common for traditional societies, to get by with little violence and little need for policing.

In the USA, though, we’re seeing more and more policing, and staggering levels of violence compared to most Western societies. In the article I proposed some reasons why that might be, and they are cultural. So those were three things I thought I might be able to add to the conversation.

Thursday 27 November 2014

Ferguson: Anger McNuggets

My interview on Ferguson, continued. ... 

... the second thing I noticed about the news from Ferguson is that it went out to a million little media outlets and blogs, each with their own spin and designed to cater to an audience with their own ideological bubble. And that’s normal these days – that’s the case with any piece of news. The insularity of those bubbles are new.

It used to be normal – and still is normal in a lot of other countries – for people to know their extended family and neighbours, and perhaps to be part of fraternal and professional organisations that took people from all walks of life. In my own country today, though, there’s been a huge transformation that no one talks about.

Many of the people I talk to increasingly connect to the outside world through these little glowing rectangles, and when they interact with other humans, it’s with people staring at other glowing rectangles, usually of the exact same subculture, class, race, politics, hobbies, and the same church or lack thereof. They all watch many of the same television shows -- and many people I know, more and more, don’t socialise with anyone outside their bubble. And many studies back this up.

They hear media specially designed for their own bubble, and I find that when I talk to people, they don’t have any common language to even begin to understand each other. And I’m often disappointed to see how many people live in some other world than I live in, as their views just get more and more extreme and amplified as they bounce back and forth across their echo chamber.

Almost everyone I know in my native country, from all religions and races, struggles to get by, feels disappointed with their government and their country, and despairs of the future. And everyone looks for whose fault it is, and most decide that everything that’s going wrong is the fault of this conspiracy of people who are frothing-at-the-mouth insane, idiotic, and filled with this inexplicable hatred.

Acquaintances of mine who are with the Green party and the Tea Party, Democrat and Republican, Atheist, Catholic, Evangelical – most people think this same way -- it’s just that everyone thinks they’re one of the only ones that think this. Everyone thinks they are one of the few who took the red pill, that see through the lies of the mainstream media, and that are completely different than the rest of the sheeple. And most people talks about politics in the same way, by circulating memes or stories about crazy, hate-filled morons on the other side.

I’m from a Christian conservative background myself -- I know people active in the Republicans and Tea Party, and of course I still write for Pat Buchannan’s magazine. But I never liked the vaudeville acts you’ll see on Fox News – that doesn’t resemble what the word conservative used to mean, back when it meant something more honourable.

And I was interested in science and ecology from an early age, I volunteered for environmental causes, knew people in Earth First and other radical groups, joined anti-war protests and the Green Party – all things that people don’t find conservative, for some reason. So I’m connected to people from all different backgrounds over social media – my main contact with the USA from rural Ireland -- and when something like Ferguson happens, I get all these different versions at once.

More Tea-Partyish acquaintances will forward headlines to me that say things like “OMG! Left-wing loon thinks government needs to kidnap Christian children!” and Green Party acquaintances will send me headlines like “Outrageous! Right-wing preacher thinks gay people should be burned at the stake!” Some of these headlines are hoaxes, of course – no one actually said that, or if someone did they are not typical of their group. But that’s not the point of forwarding such things – it plays a social function in their bubble.

Most of the web sites where Americans actually get their news are not in the business of delivering news to people. Neither were the newspapers that I used to work for – they were in the business of delivering people to their advertisers – but there, at least, they needed the support of a number of companies with different interests in a geographical community. Now web sites and other media deliver most of the news, and they are in the business of generating outrage, so their stories can go viral and everyone can keep circulating these anger McNuggets.

Many of my American acquaintances – again, liberal or conservative or whatever – depend on this outrage drip for what I call their NABA NABA fix – N-A-B-A, for Not As Bad As. Everyone is deeply invested in being able to say they are Not As Bad As those crazy, hate-filled morons on the other side, that we can all laugh at and hate together. Everyone hates the people who are extreme or closed-minded or racist, but that’s always somebody else – it’s never them.

 So with any issue, I would get lots of contradictory information – but in this case, I happened to be from the area, and was getting first-hand information from people who were there, and had some basis for gauging the accuracy of what they were saying.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Ferguson: Not what you think

This is a continuation of the transcript of the interview I did for the C-Realm podcast last month. I was asked about the American Conservative piece I wrote, and explained a few things I noticed about the media coverage surrounding my old neighbourhood. I realise this is a touchy subject, and a bit unusual for this blog, but as a native I might have a few useful thoughts. Back to our usual subjects after this week. 

Kaller: When I wrote about Ferguson, though, I didn’t write about any of those things – and I got some criticism from people who thought I was skipping over things like the difficulties of being black in America. But I’m not the person to write about that – I’m not black and I’m not in America. Others have written about it eloquently, and I don’t have anything to add. I could, however, add a few things that other reporters could not, because of my background.

First, I’m from the area, unlike almost anyone else reporting on it, and I was not only hearing from the same media reports as everyone else, but was hearing reports from lots of friends and family on the ground. I’ve given talks in St. Louis with people who have been helping lead the protests, I have friends who went out to spend time with protesters, I have cousins who worked for the county and had their office computers hacked by Anonymous – from people close to the situation on many sides.

Almost all the reports described Ferguson, in one way or another, as “the inner city” or “a black neighbourhood” against white police – they chose that angle. Race is important, of course, but in focusing on that, they gave a misguided idea about what Ferguson is like -- it’s not a desperately poor, inner-city neighbourhood. It’s racially mixed, working-class but not especially dangerous.

East St. Louis, on the far side of the city and the river, is perhaps the highest-crime city in the USA – and possibly the Western World -- with perhaps 100 homicides per 100,000 people per year, and with 50 violent crimes per 1,000 people per year – which is off the scale. But Ferguson has one-thirteenth that crime rate.

Describing Ferguson as this hellish ghetto served everyone’s purposes, no matter where they were on the political map -- depending on where they were people could condemn the rioting thugs from a distance or pity the poor black people from a distance. But no one was thinking of it as something that could happen where they live in the coming years.

The violence and military occupation isn't something that always happens to someone else -- it happened where I grew up, in a normal neighbourhood, and could absolutely happen in your neighbourhood next time. That's an important detail, and most news reports didn’t appreciate that.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Ferguson: bubbles and bias

In this blog, I usually write about traditional crafts and ways of life, and I don’t usually delve into anything too political. Today, though, I’ve been watching my old neighbourhoods in flames on the global news. I thought an interview I did last month for the C-Realm podcast on events in Ferguson, Missouri would be quite timely right now. The transcript has been made and published with the permission of KMO, who runs the C-Realm. It does not purport to be a perfect word-for-word transcript, but instead captures the gist of the conversation. 

KMO: … I deliberately avoid any reference to the current news cycle, because I want to create things that will be of interest to people a few years down the line, people who avoid a rehash of what’s in the news. So now it is the first of October, and I’m just now getting around to airing an episode that talks about events that got started on August 9, 2014, when, in Ferguson, Missouri – a suburb of St. Louis – a police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed a young African-American man named Michael Brown. He shot Michael Brown six times, twice in the head. All that is undisputed by anyone; what is disputed is what led up to the shooting. Nobody claims that Brown had a gun of his own, but some witnesses say that Brown kept advancing toward Wilson, other eyewitnesses say he had his hands in the air …

Something else that is not in dispute is that people responded very badly to the Ferguson Police Department’s behaviour after the shootings, so much so that the protests that followed might not just have been about a white police officer shooting a black man, but might have a lot to do with how the police had been very secretive and obstructionist with their documents, and very stingy in handling those documents to people who were trying to get a handle on the incident … I have laid out a few facts that are not in dispute. What is in dispute is what is illustrated by the events of August and September in Ferguson, Missouri … 

Brian, welcome to the C-Realm podcast. You write for a variety of magazines and other outlets, including Mother Earth News and Grit, and about the time things were getting crazy in the news cycle around Ferguson, Missouri you published a piece in American Conservative about the topic. You have a particular vantage point most journalists don’t enjoy – you grew up in the town right next to Ferguson, Missouri. I want to know what you think the media coverage of Ferguson indicates.

Brian: Sure. I grew up in Florissant, Missouri, about a kilometre from the edge of Ferguson – both of them started out as small Missouri towns that got enveloped by the post-war suburbs of St. Louis – and I had a big Irish-American family with lots of cousins, most of whom still live in the area. I rode my bicycle through there as a child, went to my first school dance there, and I had my first gig as a radio DJ at the community college, right across the road from a building that got burned to the ground by rioters in the last few weeks.

We’ve lived in rural Ireland for the last decade or so, and when everything started happening in Ferguson I was on holiday in Scotland with my daughter, taking a little boat around some rocky islands, without phone or internet service. It was only after I came back that I saw that my old neighbourhood was the leading story in Ireland, the UK, across much of the planet; for a while it was bigger than Gaza, bigger than Ukraine, and the images were hard to tell apart sometimes.

The media’s coverage was fascinating to me, because it was like the film Rashomon, a Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa where a court is trying to reconstruct a murder, but every witness tells a different story that makes themselves look good. In the same way, every blog and news outlet told a different version of what was going on, one that suited whatever their audience wanted to believe. I’ve been a reporter for city newspapers -- I still write a weekly column for an Irish newspaper here, as well as articles for Mother Earth News, Grit, American Conservative, First Things, Resilience, and so on – so I knew what the media is like, and come away with a realistic picture of how it works.

Most Americans I know believe very strongly that the media are biased, and when I said that different media outlets were publishing different versions, most people assumed I was talking about a conspiracy. But genuine conspiracy-theory situations are quite rare in the real world, while bias is unavoidable and not automatically bad.

People say the media are biased when it’s a bias different than their own. Anyone in the American media – talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh or television stars like Jon Stewart – all complain about the media, but the media are never themselves; the media is always someone else. And they can all say the media are biased, because bias is whatever you’re opinion isn’t.

But when you write a news article, by definition you’re cramming a complicated situation into a few paragraphs, and by picking and choosing one detail over another you’re choosing what you think is the most vivid and realistic version of the truth. The problem is not that the report has a bias; the problem is that most Americans I talk to are getting only one perspective on any subject -- the one that suits their fancy -- rather than looking at a situation from many constructive angles.

Other writers made many important points about Ferguson -- that local police officers, in gear and attitude, more and more resemble soldiers occupying our cities; that the people of Ferguson were made prisoners in their own homes, that many black men in America say they experience constant harassment from police, and so on. I saw some articles writing about how this article from a net neutrality standpoint, saying that this article was downplayed on searches inside the USA – if that’s true, that’s extremely serious for democracy, because that’s how people get their information these days. All of those are important.

When I wrote about Ferguson, though, I didn’t write about any of those things – and I got some criticism from people who thought I was skipping over things like the difficulties of being black in America. But I’m not the person to write about that – I’m not black and I’m not in America. Others have written about it eloquently, and I don’t have anything to add. I could, however, see a few things because of my background that other reporters could not.

 ... to be continued tomorrow.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Published at Grit

Grit magazine has just published a compilation of some of its favourite articles from the past year in one volume, Grit's Complete Guide to the Woodlot. With articles on splitting wood, chainsaw, wood-burning stoves and much more.

It also has one of my articles, on coppicing and pollarding wood. Check it out, and maybe consider buying a copy.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Childhood in old Ireland

"We children all decided to go to church before hunting mushrooms and cycling home. It wasn’t our usual church, and we heard stories later on about strangers in the congregation – which turned out to be us."

"These days, children don’t have to think much about games given to them – we made up our own. We played spin the top, marbles, hoop the hoop, hop scotch, conkers, kick the can, scut the whip, jackstones, and box the fox. Hop scotch has survived to some extent, but only among girls."

"In springtime we went tree climbing and bird nesting. It was a great thrill to finally see a nest and the baby birds in it. In all my life I never remember a boy vandalising or destroying a nest."

"With games and occupations that spanned the four seasons, we never had a thought for such phrases as 'I’m bored.' We hadn’t enough hours in the day for all we wanted to do. Even when the dark evenings closed in we played 'Battle In, Battle Out,' and 'Jack jack show the light..'"

"People hadn’t much money but times were good. You could dress up and carry your handbag up O’Connell Street and not feel frightened. … There were no shutters, drunks or drugs. Everyone was out walking on every corner, and no one ever felt afraid. I would walk down the street coming from a dance at twelve. A few lads might fight but they never broke a window."

"When there was breaking news all the boys on street-corners rang bells shouting “Stop Press,” and everyone stopped to hear what the news was."

"We walked everywhere, and everyone was fit by today's standards -- no one had ever heard of dieting." 

-- Memories of elderly Irish about life in the mid-20th century, from No Shoes in Summer. 

Monday 3 November 2014

Able Hands

When my neighbour brought his horse to the farrier – horseshoe-fitter, pronounced like “carrier” – I sat in to watch and learn, and the farrier seemed happy to answer my many questions. He looked like a teenager, with a face you’d expect to see in a drive-through window, but he wrestled the stallion’s legs and shaped the hot iron like a man who knew his business.

His van folded out like a tackle box, with rows of hanging tools and a miniature forge like a barbecue, and when the shoe was ready he kept the stallion calm even when the hot iron caught its fetlock on fire. He told me he apprenticed for four years to learn his trade, and when I asked how quickly someone could learn the basics, he said, “Four years.” No shortcuts.

Once young men like him were normal; crafts and craftsmen whose callings – smiths, wrights, thatchers, tanners, millers and coopers -- survive only in surnames. Each town had its own set of craftsmen, known to everyone and identifiable at a distance by their clothing.

Nor would the farrier’s age seem unusual decades ago; children apprenticed from an early age, learned a skill for several years, and entered the world as craftsmen at an age when teens today are looking sullen in a corner of a mall. Only today do we assume that everyone must spend their prime years bored, warehoused and self-destructive.

Of course, most people did not attain such rank, but most people of any rank had a palette of survival skills unknown to almost any modern person. Farmers with little money or formal education would have known how to deliver a calf, weave a basket, butcher a pig, keep bees, shear sheep, turn autumn fruit into wine or spirits, make hay and silage, forage for wild plants, dig the peat bog for winter fuel and coppice trees on a timetable that stretched across the generations.

You can see such casual knowledge on display in, for example, cookbooks from a century ago, which began recipes with instructions to “pluck, draw and wash” birds before cooking, or to first “prepare the sheep’s head in the usual way,” assuming this was something any idiot could do.

A world of craftsmen creates an economy alien to modern Westerners; instead of cheap belongings meant to be thrown away quickly, goods had to be made durable, to be fixed, recast, re-forged or re-sewn over and over. The mountains of trash that rise outside our cities did not exist then, nor did the Texas-sized garbage patch in the Pacific, for few goods were thrown away.

Such an economy had few corporations or anonymous transactions. Writers from a century or two ago described recognizing particular barrels, nails or saddles as we would recognize someone’s handwriting, and the craftsman’s reputation hung on the quality of their work. When everyone knew where products came from and could identify the makers of the superior and inferior work, they could reward the hardest-working and most skilled craftsmen with their business – what used to be called capitalism, before the word came to mean the system we have today.

Today, of course, we drive long distances to buy underwear and palm pilots made to last a matter of months and be thrown away. We never meet the Third-World workers – possibly slaves -- who make such products, nor the crew that shipped them across a planet, nor the truckers who delivered them to a store larger than the wonders of the Ancient World. Few craftsmen remain in this world, and those that remain are often elderly hobbyists. Our modern system won’t last forever, though, and we know a world of craftsmen can be sustainable for centuries -- because it was.

I asked what work there was for a farrier these days, and the young man said he had more work than he could handle. Few people in Ireland or the USA can say that these days, as the people have less need of marketing managers and web designers. But horses, he pointed out, will always need shoes.

Photo of US farrier Pete Cote at work, by William D. Weisenburger Jr., EdD. Used with permission from Story originally published in 2011.

Saturday 1 November 2014

All Souls

"Pishogues. Nothing but bleakness; not even a scrawny dog was left, not even a burnt thistle. Nights were treacle-black, they haunted little children and big men alike. Dogs stayed under the range with their heads down; outdoors was for spectres and hooved creatures with strange powers. Children of the long-legged day would look out petrified at the wild sea."

-- Irish poet Evelyn McClaffrey, describing the country nights here in winter.