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Reconfiguring the Tribe
By Judith Gayle | Political Waves

I RECALL, a couple of years ago, driving home from a neighboring town on one of Missouri's many numbered roads, two-way traffic lanes that rise and fall over gently rolling hills lined with thick forest. It was late in the fall and the trees were bare, revealing little homes and trailers set back into the woods, invisible when summer dressed the trees with greenery. There seemed so many of them, some modest to the point of pitiable, the yards dotted here and there with old cars and trucks, farm equipment rusting quietly in the fading sunlight. For reasons I still haven't determined, you don't see people out much in this state; perhaps in the summer you'll see them sitting on their porches, fanning themselves, and my son tells me if I would get out and about at the crack of dawn I'd see a few more, but that's about it. This creates a feeling of abandonment to a city girl, such as myself. You can only tell if a home is occupied if the grass is cut or if there's laundry hung in the yard; over time, I've learned that even the pitiful ones are usually occupied even if signs of life around it are minimal.

As I drove the thirty-odd miles back to the Pea Patch, I passed through the single town on that route and I use the word loosely. The typical township is composed of one street lined with shabby business fronts -- a gas station, a post office, perhaps a greasy spoon in which the locals gather. Andy Taylor, the beloved TV sheriff of the 50's, would recognize the customers although Mayberry would have been considered a real live city compared to these kinds of stops in the road. There's one other building in each of these little villages that is a cut above the others, maintained and spotless. I'll bet you can guess what it is ... it's the church. As I drove, pondering the isolation and poverty, it suddenly dawned on me why this state is repressively religious. There's literally nothing else going on.

Barack Obama is said to have put his foot in it recently, speaking to a group of Californian's about the bitterness of rural Pennsylvanians. Here is his quote: “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them…And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Hillary Clinton has made much of this commentary as elitism, saying, "Well, that is not my experience. As I travel around Pennsylvania I meet people who are resilient, optimistic, positive…If we start acting like Americans, and roll up our sleeves, we can make sure that America’s best years are ahead of us."

Me thinks Mrs. Clinton is smoking something: or borrowing heavily from the Ronnie Reagan school of politics; i.e., make the rubes feel good about themselves. Her statement is absurd on its face. We can't "work" our way out of this, not here in the Pea Patch -- there is no work. There is minimal education and opportunity; services and options. The only money is in the big cattle farms, passed down through generations and protected by old boy Republican dynasties that also own the banks and lumber yards, and in the bank accounts of the seniors that have settled in this area with flush retirement from an era long gone. There is no union hall, no community center in which to air the problems of the day, which leaves only the churches: the place to gather and commiserate with one another, the rural version of networking, the institution in which charity is handled with visitations and food distribution. The price to be paid: adherence to fundamental Christian views, perfunctory at best, is worth it when you're lonely, hungry and, yes, bitter.

Still, I've come to expect Mrs. Clinton to do the heavy lifting for the Republicans this year, handing them their talking points as she crosses yet another line in the sand with regard to party wisdom. I posted at length on this topic at Political Waves, including a number of articles by small-town residents who had fled to cities but knew the real bitterness and despair of our forgotten rural areas. What Clinton tried to do for her presidential campaign is not serving the serious conversation that needs to occur nationally about a problem that is growing bigger by the day. What is happening in small-town America is also occurring in cities across the nation, more apparent in their ghettos and low-income areas, but spreading fast. We have a growing epidemic of deterioration in economy, infrastructure, social programs and morale. Since George Bush took office in 2001, we've lost 3.1 million jobs in this country and our long-term unemployment rate is over 13 percent. Barack Obama told us the truth, and it pissed some of us off: the word "bitter" implies defeat; and, while that is accurate to describe the situation all across this country, that's not what we think of as the American way. In truth, we're fighting an ill-advised war that is designed to maintain our muscle-heavy mythology; while also bankrupting us to avoid coming to terms with this notion of defeat. The word "bitter" is an assault on pride, but that is an expensive commodity for sure; and not one we can any longer afford. Still, for many, pride is about all they have left.

If there was any elitism in Obama's statement, it was that of a detached professor rather than an active participant: in the Pea Patch, guns aren't just for Rambo-like posturing. Hunting puts food on the table in this depressed area. God is the organizing principal around which we find communal services and like-minded hope for the future. Xenophobia does not stop at black faces or brown ones: anyone perceived as threatening the shaky status quo is suspect. This is tribalism of the first water; and this is the kind of low-level consciousness that put us in dire straits in the first place, gathering the Republican message to our national bosom without understanding that those at the edge of the herd would be the first to suffer. Unfortunately, small towns were just the beginning; now we're all vibrating to the probability of hard times due to adventurism, vampire capitalism and a mismanaged economy.

As much as the negative qualities of tribalism have gotten us into this mess, the positive have much to offer us in terms of helping us through these troubled waters. It is the intention of the tribe that matters: our human tribe, for instance, is intent on finding its freedom and revealing its dark side to itself, and we're doing a bang up job. There is tribal wisdom to take with us through this stretch of disenchantment and challenge; and it's interesting that the word "cooperative" is the best of our tribal understanding. It is in community, the grassroots, that our advantage resides, and perhaps our blessing of reconnection to the tribal attributes that can come with us into the 21st century.

Food banks are becoming more important to the nation than they've been in a long time. Worldwide hunger is rampant, giving has slowed in a dire economy, and in the United States, food prices are inflating to a degree not seen in seventeen years. Food pantries are reporting a 20 percent increase of participants in the last year, and food stamp recipients have grown by 1.3 million, higher than ever before. Back at the beginning of the last century, Liberal churches did much in the way of ministering to the poor, seeing their work as an outreach of the Christ message they embraced; all that ended with Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, which took the lead in providing assistance. It's time to revive our interest in assisting one another. Many food banks are state or federally funded, but others are an outreach of community organizers and collective church councils. See if there is something in your neighborhood that could use your volunteer time; if there isn't, see if any of your community organizations are interested in beginning such a project. Of the big three you might donate -- food, money and time -- time is the most productive, putting you in touch with both the need and the resources at hand. Collaboration with like-minded, compassionate people will inspire us to greater things.
The American Indian had a custom known as potlatch: it was an honored tradition to be generous to the point of impoverishment. Giving away what was most valuable might leave one with no pony, no household goods or treasures, but not for long; since all members of the tribe practiced potlatch, one would be gifted eventually with what was needed. While we may not practice those magnanimous qualities, the ability to barter to meet some of our needs is quite possible. When I lived in Spokane, Washington, the large Unity church I attended had a yearly give-away: everything one no longer needed or that was destined for a yard sale was brought to the church. On the appointed day, those who participated would select items for free that they fancied; ultimately, we swapped stuff. What remained at the end of the day went to the Salvation Army or Vets. It was one of the happiest occasions I can remember, full of laughter and good will. Everyone had a smile on his/her face.

Community gardens are a valuable resource for both country and city folk as well; in the country, resources may be limited but the collective will have what's needed. In the city, available land is a problem but there are ways around that dilemma; visit Craig's list, your local paper or bulletin board at the grocery store with your desires, see who wants to join in or volunteer an empty lot. Gather interested folks together and see what can be done. Container gardening is possible as well. Gardening is a magical process and experience; connecting ourselves with the process of planting, harvesting and consuming gets us in touch with the miracle of life itself. Committing time to a neighborhood project such as this is both productive and a source of networking that may prove invaluable down the road.

Perhaps the difficulties ahead are part and parcel of what we've called ourselves to remember: as we entertain a lift in consciousness, the idea of collaborative energy is one of those tribal truisms we should think twice about before throwing it out with the bathwater. Working cooperatively with one another seems nearly impossible as we focus on our differences, but it provides answers to tough problems when we acknowledge our many commonalities. If we need to learn how to cooperate again, after decades of isolating ourselves from the tribal process, our opportunity is upon us. We will find, someday soon, that we're all in this together and our respective talents and skills can benefit the whole of us in ways we never dreamed possible. If we begin now, I can guarantee that we will find a sense of satisfaction that may be missing from our lives: practicing compassion and service is how we better our self-esteem, enlarge our view of life and grow our soul. Yes, I think it's time to leave bitterness behind and rethink our tribal heritage, both its worst and its best: moving forward with the best of it is the human footprint our little planet has long awaited.

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