Saturday, July 18, 2009

Village politics

I'm interested in the gap between what we are and do, and what we think we can be. Last night there was a documentary on TV about the gypsy village of Glod in Romania which Sacha Baron Cohen used for his home village, supposedly in Kazakhstan, for the "Borat" movie. The villagers were like something from a Brueghel painting, but aware of their place in the world. Some of the more "progressive" members, humiliated by their portrayal in the movie, saw an opportunity to make money out of a lawsuit against the film-maker. I didn't watch the whole show. But I was fascinated by the various characters, the dynamic of the village, the clash of ambitions and the sense of the whole human race writ small. Here was a village community, which while obviously poor, had enough resilience to have survived the vicissitudes of Communism and the years since then. And yet each member of the community felt imprisoned by fate and was fighting for change and more space, more life.

Yet it was also a village in which one could imagine middle-class tree-changers buying up houses and coming down from the city on weekends to soak up the atmosphere. It was also the sort of place which earnest post-peak-oilers could imagine to be the sustainable future model for humanity, looking at it from a systems point of view, with its simple robust infrastructure and horse-drawn traffic.

How did it compare to the little town where I live? Foster is more complicated socially. We have much higher levels of education here, even amongst the least educated! Girls aren't seen as old maids if they're not married by the age of seventeen, as is the case in Glod. There is a richer mixture of types here, we have much higher material wealth and a lot of us have had experience of the wider world. But the fact that we are embedded so completely into the industrial matrix of western society gives us very little real autonomy. If the trucks stop delivering to the supermarkets we'd go hungry. We are not materially self-reliant in the way a primitive European village like Glod can be.

But there are similarities. Foster people are physically tough. I see the netballers and footballers practicing at night at the footy ground opposite our house, no matter how foul the weather, and the young girls, sprigs of fashion, wandering around town in skimpy singlets on days when I'm rugged up to the maximum. And most locals can fix their own stuff — cars, houses or whatever. If you've made the commitment to live here, then you do what you must to get by, which means lots of different types of work. A lot of it isn't terribly highly skilled, but that doesn't mean it's easy, and many of us work long hours. Despite that, most people here are cheerful enough.

There are big differences in the way the people of Glod related to one another and the way we do. We're much more formal and strangely tribal — something I first became aware of when I worked with lots of Americans, who are emphatically not tribal. We are polite and not excitable in the way that the folk of Glod are. We are more trusting — for now — because we have all come through long, formal school education and therefore have a faith in abstract, complex systems. I don't think this simple trust will survive the next couple of decades though.

Will Foster survive? I'm confident it will. There are many towns in Australia which will not. Many were established by executive fiat, and command no loyalty from their inhabitants. Others are dependant on resources or other arrangements which are subject to the world financial system, are climatically marginal or are at the end of fragile supply lines. But Foster was established by miners over a century ago and when the mines ran out of gold, enough inhabitants found the place amenable to keep living here. Sure we will have to deal with some big changes, but short of invasion or the sea levels rising to swamp us, I think we're here for the long haul.

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