One of the ways we recognize the beginning of some sort of human civilization is where (or when) we find the first use of the fire. Scientists date some sites where they find the remains of human activity by carbon dating the charcoal from the fires.
I’m not sure to whom I’m addressing this little meditation. Very few of us have a real concept of what darkness really means. The great majority of us live in large cities, small cities, towns, villages, or in areas within a few miles of those. For good or for ill, our industrial activity has put particles and gases into the atmosphere which reflect light. We have a dreadful penchant to want our sidewalks and streets and yards and parking lots to be lit up at night, and so we have (and here it is definitely the royal we) invented the “dusk to dawn” light which shines brightly up into the air and reflects from all of the junk in the atmosphere and the light merrily bounces around 'til it produces an even, shiny glow for miles and miles and miles around everyplace even just a few people live. So few of us know what it’s like to step out the front door and but for the tiny glow of a fire in the hearth behind us have real, genuine, pitch black darkness. But at the dawn and before the dawn of what we call civilization, that’s what early humans had as a matter of course. Before fire, they took what shelter they could, no doubt huddled together for warmth and defense, and uneasily spent that night through hoping to see first the faint grey and then the faint pink of the coming sun.
The rules changed when humans somehow found fire, and they changed again, drastically, when humans learned to create fire on their own. Can you imagine the leap in technology? Initially, people had to take a fire started naturally (by a lightning strike) and nurture some embers of that fire the way our more recent ancestors would bank a fire so that they could bring it to flame to warm themselves and cook their food again and again. And if these “first fire people” lost the embers, they had to wait until lightning struck again. And then someone discovered that by striking certain materials together, you could create a spark which could catch certain other materials on fire, or that by spinning one kind of wood against another, the heat from friction would create fire. And then Mankind had this seminal tool for the night, and the fire became the focus of the group, the “tribe.”
The concept of “tribe” is vital to to humanity. We all identify ourselves as part of a tribe. Look at my profile, and you’ll see that I identify myself as part of many different tribes. We may call them firms, groups, lodges, states or nations, but in the sense of what humans are reaching for, they are tribes. And for however many tens of thousands of years tribes gathered together, the central focus was the fire. Perhaps 2000 or 3000 years ago, fire was occasionally a bit more confined than it had been before. The invention of the chimney 1000 or so years ago put efficient fire within structures, but that fire was still the center of the tribe.
And around the fire there was a “natural social selection” for decision-making within the tribe. More recently, really a blink of the eye compared to the fullness of the history of humanity, we have come up with some formalized notions of how to select the “best and brightest” among us to make decisions and lead, but understand that at least in tribe, this was handled quite naturally, quite nicely for a long, long time. Just as the modern athletic team will rally around the strongest, fastest, or most skilled player, so would tribe rally around those persons, usually older, who made the best decisions for all of the people. Moreover, it was a function of tribe to define what constituted good decision-making. Always, that includes the ability to discuss, debate, listen, reason, and consider all viewpoints including those with which leaders didn’t agree. It’s not always the best discussion leader who is the best tribe leader. The best discussion leaders have sometimes been the shamans of the tribe, whose function has been to ask embarrassing questions and to point out all of the alternatives.
As I say, this occurs around the fire. And it is the older leaders of the tribe who are nearest the fire and whose voices are most commonly heard. The younger would-be leaders of the tribe gather around the periphery of the group, and the more junior they are the farther away from the fire they are. Now this is not a “seen but not heard” thing, for the young are fully immersed in a continuous and continually evolving process. In tribe, those on this periphery are welcome to speak at will. The control over their speech is the nature of the council fire and their perception of the wisdom of those nearer the fire balanced with the urgency of their need to share there some of their ideas and their individual desire to learn at that the fire and to test themselves.
And so in a stable society, a stable tribe, the fire becomes a constant thing, lit every night, gathered around every night, where wisdom is revealed and new truths are discovered every night. The youth far from the fire who listens will one night, speak. Her comment will be judged with the same standards as any other comment. What does it do for the good of the tribe? And as time passes she will slowly or quickly move toward the center of the fire. And from death, illness, disinterest, old age, or any other cause, those at the center of the fire may move back or leave entirely, making room for others. But it is a continual process. Just as your mind today is a day older than your mind was yesterday, and is thinking slightly different things, there is still a continuity. Thus we have the mind of the tribe.
How unlike the tribe in the fire is government and corporate society today. We constantly talk about the “new Rome.” Our political campaigns talk about change, even to the point of using slogans that it’s “time for change.” (Seldom is the change specified - Just change, that’s enough for the Sound Bite Generation.) We pray, we guarantee, that there will be no continuity in this large tribe we call America. We brag that our society lurches from marching into a swamp to turning upon a whim and marching into a desert, still wearing rubber boots. And we do things suddenly. Our economy is in trouble. And so, we must react, now, now, now, we must react quickly, we must infuse our economy with money that does not exist, even though we can create it, and pay for it later with work not yet in production on products not yet invented, and poof there it is, a trillion bucks, and we only have to ask some shiny new academics in University economic departments and sidestep that old fire thing completely.
There is a problem with leaving the fire. We make sudden decisions. Actually, we don’t make them. They are made by the leaders du jour, the trendy twenty-somethings and thirty-warriors who wear very expensive shoes that you can’t wear on gravel. At the fire, a new set of given circumstances might be responded to quickly, but the decision was seldom thought of from start to finish right then. You say that society is moving fast, and so we have no choice but to make sudden decisions, but that is a load of crap. At the fire, we have time. We can plan ahead. We can see our challenges. We can know our enemies. We can conceive of our friends, and acknowledge that they may not always be our friends. Indeed, we can remind ourselves that an enemy-made-friend is MUCH more dependable than your average friend. At the fire, we can run what we now call “decision trees,” those complicated “what if’s.” If we do that responsibly, we have already considered that when this happens, our possible responses are that and the other thing, and the other thing is best because . . . In other words, we already have a good idea in advance of what reaction is best for the tribe.
But what is at the fire? Well, that is where the power of the tribe resides. In the modern world, everyone loves power, even though nobody likes responsibility. When good things happen, powdered mugs viciously compete for air time to claim personal credit. One screw up, though, and it’s not, “Wow, I screwed the pooch on this one,” at the very most it’s “Mistakes were made.” And through it all, we still hold onto this quaint theory of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. We see the people in the legislative branch as our representatives who are doing our will without thought to their own reward. We think of the people in the judicial branch as the best and the brightest who neutrally apply the rule of law without reference to politics or person or economic philosophy or political philosophy. We see the people in the executive branch as faithfully executing the laws and as carrying out the ministerial acts which make our day to day collective life possible. And all of these people, all of those in our government we see as our employees.
Does anyone still believe that?
Pardon me, I have to pause - I’m chortling.
Well, there are certainly some admirable examples of good and honest people in each of the branches of government who have not cashed in, who work hard, and live modestly. Some accumulate very decent pension benefits and keep working for very little above what their pension would be if they retired. Our local chief circuit judge, the most senior circuit judge in the state, is working for $100 a month. That’s the difference between what his pension would be, payable NOW, and his paycheck. These folks don’t hit the headlines. This Judge, though, is incompetent at self-economic-advancement. Two judges in the southern part of West Virginia hit upon a brilliant scheme. They were running unopposed for reelection. So they retired, and got their generous lifetime pensions. Then, they were elected to new terms. And now receive their salaries, too. Servants of the law, I’d say.
Some “servants of the people” will use power to benefit groups which are traditionally deprived of power. In West Virginia, several political people strongly pledge their unity with their “union brothers and sisters.”. Try it, it is about tribe. That does not mean that they ignore others, but they look to tribe. And others focus on children, the medically uninsured, the sufferers of a particular illness, workers in a particular job, but seldom do we have people in government who look to the entire tribe. Seldom do we have people who genuinely look to balance all the interests all the time and take the time to do it thoughtfully.
The power round the fire was represented by work assignments, by whose words were listened to, by respect in the community, and by the individual’s own feeling that she was contributing to the tribe. And now? Power is expressed as the dollar, or what the dollar buys, or what the dollar enables us to coerce others to do. The funny part is that so many people are selling out so cheaply. At least those in government can be bought for a song. The former senator from Alaska went down, no kidding, for some furniture and home improvements. (What he intended may be an issue, since the hopelessly political prosecution and conviction was just dismissed. The intention of those who made the improvements and bought the furniture, however, is pretty clear.) A measly bag of money brightens the day of the average congressman in a cheap suit. When you think of it, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Perhaps $100 here and $1,000 there could be spent without notice, but when it comes to bags of money, that kind of spending is going to be on somebody’s radar. Now, some politicians do go into the bribery business wholesale. Congressman Duke Cunningham is one of the greatest disappointments of this decade. In the Viet Nam War, he was an Air Force pilot-ace, and a legitimate war hero. He served his country honestly and honorably and no doubt parlayed that into election to Congress. And then he set up a bribery company complete with price list. One thing I will say for him, he was honest about it in a very weird way. He wasn’t pretending to help people out on the one hand and taking political contributions or personal gifts or contributions for this or that on the other hand, he was in the bribery and vote selling business, flew the Jolly Roger, and made no bones about it.
Now, the corporate world is a little better in extracting more value from power. Consider the stimulus package enacted in February 2009. Need I point out that this was not discussed around the fire? Oh, this was certainly discussed on K St. in Washington. The shamans who discussed it were not the wise ones who had sat around the fire and cared for the tribe and loved the tribe all of their lives becoming more wise and more responsible as the years and decades went past. No, the new leaders round the conference table reached into academia, and the walnut paneled offices, and far into the sky where nothing important happens below the 46th floor to find their justification to do what they already wanted to do. They could not sit around the fire. After all, it was time for change, and we have no time for the council fire. This is the time for action, a time for urgency. I can hear the voice of the huckster on TV, “If you order in the next five minutes, we’ll add a SECOND box of ZOOM detergent absolutely FREE! But you have to act NOW!” Yes, if you don’t act now you won’t get your second box of Zoom. You’ll just get your first box that you didn’t need anyway. The UPS driver will drop your boxes off and you’ll anxiously open them in your kitchen and then you’ll realize, shit, it’s just detergent, it’s the same stuff you could have gotten at Food Lion, you’ve been screwed again, and an accounting entry is being made that says you have less and they have more, all because you had to call in the next five minutes. You did not have time to think, you did not have time to spend around your own personal fire. As a society, those who do not want us around the fire vie for our attention so we cannot see when the rabbits are slipped into the hat or the cards are stuffed up the sleeves. The “news” screams at us that Jennifer’s dress left nothing to the imagination, and the war dead are on Page 8 of USA Today. When a state budget is $100 million or $8 billion from balancing, it is so urgent that the legislature talks ad nauseum about the threat of gay marriage to all of the heterosexual marriages. Sorry, honey, the thought of what all those gay guys are doing just makes our relationship a boring drag. In a crashing economy, with a strict and disciplined budget cutting governor, the West Virginia Legislature just completed an intense discussion about “In God We Trust” vanity license plates, finally rejecting them because too many other interests wanted their own vanity plates, too. Focus, focus.
No one is around the fire. We have lost the fire. The fire was not a quiet place. The fire was not a sleazy place. Oh, there was controversy at the fire. There were raised voices at the fire. There was passion at the fire. There were ideas at the fire. Very, very importantly, there were changed ideas at the fire. My goodness, when is the last time you looked at C-SPAN and saw any congressman or even one senator change his or her opinion on any issue in the slightest? They are not debating – they are performing. Bring on the dancing Senators! They were not following the dictates of the book of Isaiah, where we are instructed to “Come and reason together,” they are repeating the speeches of their staff who are using materials from their favorite lobbyists and favorite contributors to convince their hidden Masters as they will wag their tails and roll over and bark at the right moment. Arf, arf, I’m a Senator, pet me, pet me, wag, wag.
America needs the council fire. The council fire does not have to be a secret place. It cannot be a secret place. Anyone and everyone should be able to see the wise ones working at the council fire. But those of the council fire should be old ones, the wise ones, those with nothing to gain, and nothing to lose. In my imagination this evening, I see a new council fire for America. I see a council fire where the old ones who have been battered and scarred sit around the fire and talk and perhaps smoke the pipe, and listen from time to time to those right outside who are moral and worthy and who take the time to think about the tribe and give up gain for themselves. In my mind, I see Robert Byrd, and Ted Kennedy, and John McCain around the fire. I see the lanky form and bald head of James Carville, the buckskins of Gerry Spence and the pinstripes of Antonin Scalia, the erect posture of Colin Powell and Gen. Shalikashvili. I see the compact neatness of Warren Buffett, the humility of Billy Graham, the fire of Katharine Graham, the dignity of Sandra Day O’Connor. I see Dr. Koop and Bill Clinton (who, from time to time, says, "Bad judgment? You want to see bad judgment? I'VE used bad judgment!"). Oh, there are others. But I see a council fire where those who come to the fire leave behind their possessions, leave behind any ways that they can show favoritism, make money, help family. I see the people of the fire living apart, , where they live apart, in the glass houses, sacrificing themselves, where they are giving their lives to the tribe.
How ridiculous, what silliness, mindless babbling, totally unworkable in the modern world says everyone in power and everyone who worships the dollar and everyone who screams out the Viking motto, “I got mine!” And everyone for whom the concept of tribe is just out of style. But then I confess this evening that I am not completely energetic and not completely motivated, because seeing the growing politics of greed and pursuit of power and the dispatch of anything for the common good to the refuse pile of caregiving is a very sad thing. In looking around and counting the people who are standing up and saying, “enough,” and who are picking themselves up and rejoining the tribe, rejoining society, rejoining their neighbors, I fear for the tribe and I fear for these people but unless we stand and walk and press and push and demand and convince and cajole and then accept mockery and abuse, we will never again have tribe, which would be the greatest sadness of all.
PS - For you, Friend Jan.