Friday, August 07, 2015

Cecil, the dentist and the "Global Village"

Cecil (RIP)
Before going any further, I want to make it clear that Cecil the lion was truly "the king of the beasts" and that I hope his murderer spends a few years filling and extracting his fellow prisoners' teeth deep in the infirmary of some Zimbabwe jail.

Having said that and as much as the hideous, sadistic death of Cecil has shocked and appalled me, I confess to being just as horrified by the social media lynching that the rich, cruel, idiot who murdered him, has undergone. 

I think that the lynching is as, or even more important, than the hideous crime that provoked it because anyone in our society is much more likely to become the victim of similar electronic, mob-violence, than to ever be laid low by some malignant dentist's bow and arrow.

What has happened?

We now live in the "Global Village", whose birth Marshall McLuhan clairvoyantly prophesied way back in the 1960s, long before the Internet existed.
Today, the term "Global Village" can be used to describe the Internet and World Wide Web. On the Internet, physical distance is even less of a hindrance to the real-time communicative activities of people, and therefore social spheres are greatly expanded by the openness of the web and the ease at which people can search for online communities and interact with others who share the same interests and concerns. Wikipedia
The word, "village", has a generally positive ring, suggesting a rich community life, yet somehow, in most developed countries, the villagers have fled their villages in droves for the "soulless" anonymity of large urban centers.

Many people, never having experienced village life are puzzled by this flight, however, I might be able to clarify this question for them, as I  spent a lot of my childhood in a traditional 1950s, midwestern village, where only a rich neighbor's 100ft antenna could pick up the Chicago TV signals. A time capsule of classic American village life.

My grandmother had been raised in this wide place in the road by her grandfather, a Glaswegian Scots marble carver (tombstones, marble angels and tiny stone lambs). The town was founded by the rock-ribbed, New England diaspora in the 1820s. Anchored on the Illinois side of the Mississippi valley it lies about forty five minutes away from Tom Sawyer's, Hannibal Missouri...

Top that for a deep-American-traditional-village if you can.

For most of my childhood, when summer came, I left Chicago's North Shore to spend at least a month of my school vacation in a red brick house that my great, great, grandfather had built with his own skillful, hands, long years before the American Civil War.

Google Streets has finally gotten around to patrolling the place, and not long ago, through them I was able to revisit my grandmother's hometown and discover that, like so much of the Middle West, the idyllic, Disneyesque, village I knew as a child had been destroyed.

The once vibrant main street, in those days filled with charming, ornate, 19th century, brick store fronts was now a boarded-up, ruin, with weed-filled, gaping vacant lots like so many missing teeth... Devastated and hollowed out.

And with the main street, I imagine, the town's entire shopkeeper middle class has gone too, (the people who always funded and chaired the excellent public school, the churches and the library). Probably all the victims of some nearby, but not too nearby, big-box store that supplies the only (minimum wage) jobs left in the whole county.

I also discovered that the large, lovely, but hard to heat, 19th century houses, that had once lined the quiet streets under the leafy shade of  massive centenarian elm trees, including my great-great-grandfather's, had all been replaced with tacky, little, aluminum-sided horrors... and of course all the elm trees were long gone too.

All the continuity with its past had been broken and as memory is perhaps the most important quality that defines a true village and it is memory itself, or really the desire to leave memory behind that has driven more people to leave their charming home towns than anything else... probably even more than better job opportunities in the cities.

I'll give you some personal examples of traditional villager's memory.

Old men and women in the village, my grandmother's childhood friends, would laugh and tell me that my highly respectable, strait-laced, Victorian grandmother, had once been a spoiled brat who used to ride her big chestnut horse bareback (ladies rode side saddle in those days) and jump it over neighbors' fences with her long red hair flowing in the breeze... like some Maureen O'Hara. Fortunately they couldn't come up with anything worse... But not for want of trying, be sure of that.

In those Eisenhowerland, rural American days,  I was the only kid with divorced parents for leagues around and once when I was about six years old an old crone took me into her kitchen and plying me with homemade peach pie and ice cream got me to spill everything I knew about my parents... That's when my granny took me aside, sat me down and explained what villages were all about.

She told me that gossip is the passion of villages and "old-wives" are its practitioners... that villages are places where neighbors walk right into your house without knocking, where they know everything about you, from your birth (and any rumors connected to it) to your dying day, and everything about your family and your ancestors, is known to everyone and you in turn know everything about all of them too... The flipside to this being that there is a "balance of terror": anonymous, poison pen defamation is practically impossible and consequently the strongest, "everybody is watching", social repression and group conformity is essential and the only way to survive is to be discreet and on polite, even friendly terms, with everyone, all the time.

And now with the Global Village we have "Global Old-Wives"...  But the big difference with our new electronic Global Village and my granny's traditional one is that although some of the global old wives know everything about us, we now know precious little, almost nothing, about most of them. This is perhaps, in many ways, the worst of both worlds: a cruel village of intimate, encyclopedic and mostly anonymous gossip... and now there is no longer any faceless "big city" to run away to.

The moral of the story boys and girls is that there is nowhere to hide anymore... the world is a small town, but unlike a real village our global village is a paradise for anonymous defamation.

What to do?

Just like in my grandmother's village the only way to survive online today is to be discreet and on polite, even friendly terms, with everyone, all the time. Be careful what photos (nudity, dead lions, etc.) you put up in facebook, what you tweet, what you blog, what you comment... Remember, the Internet's memory is even longer than that of the old crones in my granny's home town. DS

1 comment:

Fiddlin Bill said...

How about if the dentist has to repair the teeth of lions as his penalty for being a creep of the first order.