Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Forgotten Men

Under normal circumstances, you're as likely to see me holding down a stool in a blue-collar sports bar as to see me at a NASCAR event... or a country music concert. But these are desperate times, and a few nights back I did, indeed, find myself downing drafts of Molson's and a platter of “wings” at a joint on the southern fringes of Buffalo, New York. And I was surrounded by people who are – not to be at all snobbish about it -- “not our kind”, for better or worse. And to add to the savor, this happened to be on the same night that the place in question hosted a “cruise car and motorcycle” rally in the parking lot – and I have photos to prove it! What I found encouraging – well, there were many things. One was that, even though I was clearly a “tourist”, I was treated in the same friendly, boisterous manner (by the uniformly buxom and scantily-clad female staff) as the “regulars”, and even found myself treated to a shot of grape vodka (!) by the guy two stools down, who looked like the Niagara Frontier version of one of those guys in “Deliverance”. (He later exited the parking lot in a car that was, clearly, only being held together with sheer willpower.)

So... what was the significance of all this? Aside from the fact that, truth be told, the food in those places is usually pretty darned good, since it contains all four of the Basic Blue Collar Food Groups – sugar, salt, fat, and grease. This is, in fact, an entire culture that, basically, runs on fried food and beer – not unlike most of Pittsburgh, now that I think about it – and proud of it!

But first, let me comment on the area in question. The place was located in Blasdell, New York, which is one notch south of Lackawanna, New York, which is, in turn, a graveyard of the Industrial Age, displaying abandoned and ruined mills and grain silos as far as the eye can see. And like any ruin of past civilizations, it has its charms. Not unlike those 19th-Century paintings of clotheslines strung between columns of the Roman Forum, or goats grazing among the ruins of Delphi, there is a certain subtle sense of triumph in that, even though the pomps and works of Man eventually crumble and decay, the human race struggles on, eking out a living amidst the rubble. This observation alone should serve to humble those who continually preach the gospel of Progress, and of the triumph of Technology... and, of course, of the inevitability of Empire. The only thing inevitable about empires is that they eventually fall, and are replaced – by new empires perhaps, but also by ordinary people doing ordinary things. So there is always hope, in a way – only that we have to redefine our concept of “hope” and divorce it from the concept of “progress”, which has long since been shown to be illusory. Another way of putting this is that the lessons of humility are always before us, if only we choose to perceive them and learn from them. Even an industrial graveyard can provide a cautionary message. The difference, I suppose, from Pittsburgh, say, is that in the latter case we have become pretty skilled at adapting to creative destruction by performing acts of _physical_ destruction, or demolition – as witness the endless miles of “brown fields” on the shores of the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers. But in the case of Lackawanna, the cost of cooperating with decay was evidently too high, so these ruins stand as a final testament to days gone by, when the air was filled with red dust (iron oxide? Who knows?), the sharp odor of chemicals, and the comforting scent of Cheerios (“Shot From Guns!”). Yes, that was the mighty triumvirate of industry in that area – steel, chemicals, and grains – not forgetting automobile manufacturing, and there is still an imposing Ford Stamping Plant along the main highway, the only, or principal, survivor of the economic plague. But overall, the scene reminds me of nothing so much as the last lines of “Ozymandias”:

... Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

And yes, there are “lone and level sands” in Lackawanna – right down at the beach on the shore of Lake Erie – said shoreline being the home of a shiny set of high-tech windmills, just to complete the metaphor. And I have to add that the only site of note, culturally, in Lackawanna is the National Shrine of Our Lady of Victory – a magnificent pile of Italian Baroque Romanesque architecture which testifies to the spiritual vigor of the former residents, and to the incredible skills of their carvers and stonemasons. (How many churches have a large cluster of marble statuary for each Station of the Cross? Not many outside of Europe, I daresay.) Are there enough craftsmen in the entire country today who could reproduce that edifice? I seriously doubt it.

And if one descended from a spaceship into this area, one would be hard pressed to explain all of the anomalies and anachronisms; only by knowing the history of the area (industrial, economic, social, cultural, political) do things come into sharper focus. Lackawanna, like so many other areas of American cities, has become a concentration of abandoned businesses and vacant lots, as well as a place to warehouse black people – yes, I know, that sounds harsh, but it's true nonetheless. You take a place that is past its prime, that is suffering from “blight”, and it becomes a designated part of the “inner city” - even if it's not especially “inner”. This is just the way our system works – we are almost unique in history as being a society that willingly abandons its cities to anarchy and decay.

So with that in mind, let's get back to the denizens of the sports bar. (There was not a black person in sight, by the way – nor any Hispanics – nor anyone else who would not willingly shed a tear upon hearing a Johnny Cash ballad. I think my pony tail was the only thing keeping me from getting thrown out.) What these people represent is, truly, an alternative culture – a “subculture” in more than one sense, in that it is a piece – and a stable and vigorous one – of the larger culture, but “sub” in that it is, for all intents and purposes, below the mainstream – economically, politically, socially, and every other way. It serves the purpose – always invaluable to any society – of being the chronic lower stratum. And, let's admit, it is peopled with men, and women, who have a fatalistic view of life in general, and their own lives in specific. I've identified this with what is called “locus of control” -- the idea that one is helpless in the face of fate. And it would be easy to blame this on economic dislocation, unemployment, etc. -- except that these attitudes have characterized this group from time immemorial. As evidence, take a look at the lyrics of any Irish or Appalachian folk song, or modern-day country-western song. It's more than a meme – it's a world view, an over-arching sense of life. And I suppose that when your culture has been suppressed, oppressed, and low on the totem pole for long enough, this attitude not only becomes ubiquitous, but it is perfectly justified. These people are, indeed, the done-to, the exploited, the manipulated... the forgotten. And yet, amidst it all, their alternative culture thrives – in fact it thrives in a more sturdy way than the culture of the mainstream. Consider, for example, how durable Irish culture was when they were under the British boot – and how durable it remains... and how much more vital it is than the culture of their oppressors. (Is there a British culture any longer, outside of royal weddings and cricket? I'm not even sure.) Think about the culture of Christians in the Ottoman Empire. Once the Ottoman chains were severed, those cultures became visible and vibrant again – as opposed to the culture in what is left of the empire, namely Turkey. Think of Catholicism in places like Lithuania, which is alive and well now that the Russians have retreated. And I suppose that there is even a coherent Palestinian culture – owing much to the Christian component – which survives despite the suffocating effect of being an encampment within the borders of Israel.

And yet, having said all that, it is clear that the minority culture – the alternative culture – remains so as long as its opposite, its opponents, are in charge. It remains, in other words, not only alternative but autonomous. Do I imagine for one minute that the customers at the sports bar are “politically involved”? The concept is laughable. Do they spend even a brief instant on any given day worrying about the national debt, or the balance of trade, or global warming, or any of the other countless ills that chronically afflict the rest of us? No, of course not – and among the reasons (besides having much better things to do, like drinking beer and eating wings) is that, unlike the rest of America, they know they are powerless. In this sense, their age-old fatalistic attitude has turned out to be prophetic; even if it was not always true, it's certainly true now. So they don't care about these things because they know there's nothing they can do. They don't even have the “certified victim group” creds that might yield some benefits if they took to the streets and started setting things on fire. I doubt if they even vote; that too must be recognized as an empty and pathetic exercise, suitable only for “squares” (AKA the middle class). The only form of service they might ever grant to the Regime is the occasional exercise in patriotism – flags 'n' stuff, on motorcycles and leather jackets. But in this, I suspect they are celebrating their own culture much more than that of the mainstream – or, even, celebrating genuine patriotism in spite of the mainstream. What little patriotism they might show is likely to be much more authentic than the empty rituals engaged in by the power elite in Washington – and which are likely to dominate the news this coming weekend.

And yet if you view these people on their own terms, they enjoy a robust life style with full ownership – no one is trying to take it away from them (even though the mainstream media view it with plain contempt, and occasional patronization). They have something that is all theirs – and, really, what more can be asked? Can the beleaguered American middle class say as much? Not really – what they have is a borrowed and badly frayed culture that can be pulled out from under them at any time (this process being well underway at this point). Comparatively speaking, they are on thin (or non-existent) ice, whereas the sports bar people are on solid ground – granted, not ground that a middle-class person would want to immigrate to, but it seems to satisfy the people who live there. There is an authenticity there, as scruffy and coarse as it seems at times, that defies all the vain attempts of the larger culture to either assimilate it or provide an attractive alternative.

So the question then arises, who are the survivors? Because we have already experienced catastrophes like unto a world war, or a depression, or a revolution... and the middle class is clearly on the chopping block. The fun has, in fact, just begun. So while the rest of us are running scared, and wringing our hands, and losing sleep, the folks I encountered are happy as pigs in stuff – or, at least, they are living on their own terms. They suffer no guilt... they are unapologetic... they are, admittedly, carnal and addiction-prone (not that they see anything wrong with that)... and political correctness is something that never darkens the skies (blue now – another blessing of the post-industrial age) above their heads. They have their toys (cars, motorcycles, etc.), their music, their food and drink, and each other. They are, in fact, a coherent culture – possibly the last surviving one in America. But this, I submit, is the best indicator of their survival potential. Events that would cause a middle-class person to crumple into a heap bother them very little; they have a toughness that we can only dream of. And as for the upper classes, whose fortunes and power are based largely on their skill in manipulating paper – well, they would not survive for five minutes in the world of my sports bar homies.

I think we need to seriously reconsider what constitutes survivability in cultures – another exercise in humility, perhaps. We need to consider that, in the long run, the first may indeed be last and the last may indeed be first. You don't have to admire their life style, or their culture, or their values, to recognize this. After all, the Greatest Military Power in the History of the World is being held to a standstill by a bunch of Afghan goatherds – I don't care what Obama and his minions say. “The meek shall inherit the earth” -- well, these people are anything but meek; in fact, they're probably the least meek people on the planet. But they have no pretenses... no “ambition” in the conventional sense... no felt need for “empire”... but in these times, that may be key.

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