In July of 1977, just a couple of months shy of my nineteenth birthday, I left my home in southeastern Wisconsin and took a job in the Norco Windows factory in the tiny town of Hawkins, Wisconsin. On my first day, I wore my Emerson, Lake and Palmer t-shirt. At the time, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, a progressive rock band famous for their twenty minute songs fusing classical music with rock and for Carl Palmer’s rotating drum set, was all the rage with teenage middle class boys living in the suburbia of the Milwaukee to Chicago corridor. As I was shown to the department I’d be working in, I was disappointed to find that all of my new co-workers were middle to near retirement aged men to whom “Karn Evil 9” would surely be nothing but unpleasant noise. Finally, I was relieved when I was introduced to George, a guy my own age. He looked at my shirt and said, “Emerson, Lake and Palmer – who are they, a country band?” It was my reverse “you’re not in Kansas anymore” moment.
Back then, going on 36 years ago now, before the internet and the information revolution, northern Wisconsin was truly an isolated place, with limited and delayed access to mass culture. It would make it there, eventually, long after it’d been consumed and watered down by the coasts and the metropolises in between. In this age before DVDs and even VCRs, movies would show up in the small town theatres about six to nine months after they finished their run in the cities. Unless you ventured down to the college town of Eau Claire, the only music available was in the small album or eight track bins of the local Holiday gas station, with room only for the biggest country and top 40 acts. Television was whatever fuzzy network feeds you could get through rabbit eared antennas. Radio was mainly A.M. and country and Casey Kasem and top 40. There was no way of knowing that the punk rock revolution was even occurring –we’d never heard of the Sex Pistols. The closest thing was “Roxanne” by the Police, which was dismissed as this weird song on the juke box in the 211 Club. When the disco craze erupted, a backwoods version of Studio 54 finally opened in I think 1979, and its dance floor was soon filled with farm boys and factory girls stomping to the pulsating rhythms of Donna Summer and the Bee Gees. John Travolta it was not. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
Now days, technology has opened up access to the culture to everyone. That’s a good thing. You can stream radio stations from New York City over a cell phone (for the first year and a half I worked at Norco, my apartment didn’t even have a phone). Movies and books and music are available over the internet, only a download away. The barriers of time and distance have been broken down.
But there’s been a price to pay for all this progress. As mass culture explodes, local culture becomes a casualty, collateral damage. You see it along the interstate off-ramps, in the proliferation of the same fast food restaurants. You see it on the main streets of small towns, where Wal Mart super stores have replaced the local ma and pa hardware stores and the local co-ops or grocery stores. You see it in the aging eyes of the farmers, the few who are hanging on to family farms that have been abandoned by their children, and in the many who now work for corporate mega farms. You see it even in the shrinking numbers in the rural and the neighborhood taverns and bars, once the places where people connected with one another. It’s as if in the process of opening up the world, we’ve closed off our neighbors.
It’s no wonder we’ve become more politically divided. Why get to know that guy next door, he’s probably a redneck tea partier, when I can find all the liberal friends I want on social media. There’s plenty of information to support whatever politics we subscribe to, left or right, and we assume it’s accurate if it reinforces how we view the world.
Then something like the Boston bombings occur, and we remember that we are connected. The one consistent thing about these acts of terror is the way that individuals and communities react. When the bombs went off, people ran in, towards the chaos and the debris, in an almost instinctive and primal reaction to the naked face of evil. For a moment, there weren’t any tea partiers or 99 percenters, there were just innocent people. And it didn’t take long to add up the numbers and come to the conclusion that there were a whole lot more good people than evil. It’s the same reaction we saw in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hooks shootings, and in the first days after 9/11.
I’m sure that it won’t take long for the cynical and disingenuous from both sides to twist and manipulate Boston to shape their own agenda, and in time we’ll come to view the events of last week through our usual ideological lenses. But as we sit here tweeting on our blogs and liking this post and disliking that post, we need to remember that computers don’t bleed and that social media doesn’t heal. Neighbors, real flesh and blood and breathing people, still matter.