By Scott McKeown
It has been getting confusing to sort out what it means to be a cultural "progressive" or a "traditionalist." As one who has always considered himself near the cutting edge of progressive culture, it has been somewhat disturbing to discover that, at least according to many journalists and critics in the dominant media, I have been classified as being from the cultural past. Funny, I always thought my leading-edge cred over the years was as solid as the next person's.
The most current and obvious example of this twisted confusion is the Measure M campaign in Sonoma County. The old-fashioned traditionalists want to rush out and plant untested genetically modified organisms that were produced in chemical laboratories, and then wait to see what the hell happens to the local eco-system. The live-on-the-edge, wild and radical progressives want to adhere to the precautionary principle of going slowly with a deep care for the conservation of our agricultural heritage and concern for the long-term consequences of our actions.
Or is it the other way around?
In the mid-'90s I moved to the town of Sebastopol so I could live in a community with likeminded thought pioneers. The city council has a Green Party majority. City leaders talk about creating sustainable culture. We have well-attended town meetings on such topics as peak oil. Hybrid and biodiesel cars are common, and most folks I know here are concerned about things such as global warming. Residents are generally well-traveled, well-read and well-informed about world events. Most importantly, people seem to genuinely care about creating community. It's my kind of place.
I consider these values and lifestyles, or at least I used to consider these values and lifestyles, to be near the cultural leading edge. But journalists have finally set me straight.
In an article in the October 2005 issue of Wired magazine about Tim O'Reilly, one of Sebastopol's leading entrepreneurs and a highly respected Internet pioneer, two descriptions of Sebastopol stood out. The first one termed the town a "post-hippie enclave," while the second pronounced the town to be "35 years back into the cultural past." Ouch. (I couldn't help but notice the irony that the Wired article was titled "The Trend Spotter" and it was about how Tim O'Reilly has consistently been a harbinger of the latest technological edge.)
Painful as it was, I had to face it: being a vortex of cultural dinosaurism is Sebastopol's reputation among many journalists. It seems that whenever any similarly progressive Northern California community is mentioned in any mainstream media, cynical comments often refer to the town's characteristics as being some nostalgic permutation of "'60s" values.
My immediate reaction to the article was to commit myself to changing my culturally past ways. I want to be on the cutting edge as I once thought I was. I decided to get with the program. The first question to address: If Sebastopol is 35 years in the cultural past, where, then, is the cultural present? Better yet, where is the leading edge? What lifestyle can I adopt to really be on the cultural forefront? I set off on a research project to discover the new edge. I finally came up with the ultimate lifestyle of what's really culturally current today. Here is the simple version of my report:
Move to a new housing tract of monster homes in one of the country's growing hot desert ex-urbs, such as Phoenix, Las Vegas or Dallas.
Join a Pentecostal megachurch, the fastest expanding segment of the fundamentalist Christian movement, which overall claims membership of 20 million and growing.
Become an avid NASCAR fan, which reportedly outstrips football in popularity.
Drive an oversized SUV. Some 56 percent of those recently polled stated that rising fuel prices wouldn't alter their devotion to their megacars. While hybrid vehicles are just 4 percent of vehicles purchased, SUVs remain strong at 26 percent.
Get most of my information about the world from Fox News, which has the highest Nielsen rating of any cable news channel.
Watch an average of four hours and 32 minutes of TV daily.
Shop mostly at Wal-Mart, which experienced a 3.8 percentage rise in September same-store sales despite closing 155 of its outlets due to Hurricane Katrina.
This is the cutting edge. If I were to live this lifestyle, I would never again be part of a demographic criticized in a national magazine for existing in the cultural past.
After further consideration, however, I realized that this cultural lifestyle would be way too radical for me. Too edgy. So after much soul searching, I have to admit that perhaps I like being stuck in the cultural past, if that's what indeed it is. Maybe I am a traditionalist after all.
In fact, I was thinking of starting an organization called the Traditional Values Coalition, but I think that name has already been taken by one of those new-fangled radical groups that are way too edgy for my old-fashioned taste.
Scott McKeown is the executive director of the Harmony Festival. The Byrne Report will return next week.
From the October 19-25, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.