Pipelines and Popcorn

Last night I went to a showing of the documentary film, Pipeline Fighters and was impressed with Marino Colmano’s work. Although it primarily deals with fighting the construction of pipelines across a handful of Mid-Atlantic States, it is packed with valuable direct action tactics that could be of use to any concerned citizen and not just in fighting pipelines.   But I found myself feeling something between glum and perturbed when it came time to depart the venue.

One could certainly become despondent when watching activists engaged in the near Sisyphean task of taking on large fossil fuel companies and corrupt legislators at the state and federal level. And as is often the case, citizens fighting to preserve the security and integrity of their communities and pass those blessings down to future generations often lose out to powerful entrenched interests. But that is not what brought me down. The movie itself instilled a sense of hope by showcasing how hard work, creativity and ingenuity led the halting of several pipeline projects.

What brought me down was the interaction with the small audience following the movie. The fellow who led the Q&A session mentioned to the audience how he was struck by just how few activists were shown in the movie as opposed to how many normal, average, ordinary citizens who went above and beyond the call were portrayed. That was also a highlight of the movie for me as well. We got to see a host of farmers, retirees, shopkeepers, students and tradesmen becoming their community’s activists. And they nailed it!

However, during the Q&A questions arose on what could be done to better fight the proposed Atlantic Sunrise natural gas pipeline here in Lancaster County. One fellow said he would get in touch with a local refugee resettlement group and then another person stood up and said she would reach out to the nuns at a local abbey. And those comments were for me the rub and what I took issue with.

One of the people interviewed in the movie stated the importance of getting a large mix of people into the movement. Unfortunately, that profound idea was misunderstood by the two who brought up the notion of conducting outreach to recently settled refugees and a cloistered community.

The word “sin” or “syn” comes from the Greek and Jewish terms that denote the act or state of missing the mark; the original sense of New Testament Greek ἁμαρτία hamartia “sin”, is failure, being in error, missing the mark. I think it is safe to say those two had missed the mark when it comes recruiting people for effective civic action.

By way of background, Lancaster County is considered to be the refugee capitol of America. According to the local paper, Lancaster has taken in 1,300 refugees since 2013, 20 times more per capita than the rest of the country. There would be thousands more if not for Trump’s ban.

Having engaged in politics at the volunteer level for much of my adult life, I can say that refugee communities are very poor places to go trolling for activists. This is especially true when it comes to engaging members of those communities on issues other than those dealing with meeting immediate needs and wants – which are great indeed. Yet, here were two people advocating just that.

Sorry, but you could not have watched the movie Pipeline Fighters and come away with anything but a sense of how much is required of activists when fighting well funded corporate interests. Successful citizen actions require an intimate knowledge of not just the issue; but knowledge of local, county, state and federal governments. Citizen activists must also be conversant in the language of the law as well as existing statutes. Citizens must be able to clearly and effectively articulate their positions verbally and in writing. You will not find this in communities of new arrivals who are, to wax metaphorical, just learning their way to the bathroom. Adding to the problem is local refugee resettlement groups and advocates seem be more concerned with the native born resident of Lancaster improving their attitude to our new neighbors, and not with the refugees learning to fit into American society. There is a sign that has become ubiquitous in the City of Lancaster that states, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” and it does so in three languages, Spanish, English and Arabic.  Churches and other NGOs involved in refugee services receive cash grants from the Federal government.  These grants are doled out on a per refugee basis.  I wonder how glad the congregants would be if they were the ones shouldering all those costs of resettlement as well as other state and local services after the NGO’s obligations end.

Unfortunately, it will be a generation or more before these new arrivals to Lancaster County will be participating at a level where they can be counted on to effectively fight something like a pipeline or what I spend a lot of time doing, fighting urban sprawl. Effective citizenry cannot be learned in one semester of civics. It takes time, generations even. Last weekend I attended what is known here in the County as a MUD sale. These MUD sales happen frequently and are a way for townships to raise much needed money for their volunteer fire departments. The sales are strongly supported by the Amish and Mennonite farming communities because the volunteer fire departments are their fire insurance.   The MUD sales are just one of the many examples I have come to discover here that form a collective security blanket for the citizens of the community.

John Hostetler referred to the Amish as a “high-context” culture in which “people are deeply involved with one another. Awareness of situations, experience, activity, and one’s social standing is keenly developed. Information is widely shared.” This is opposed to “low-context” cultures that “emphasize literacy and rationality” and information is not so widely shared.   It makes me think of the quote by the Roman emperor Tacticus who said, “When the state is most corrupt, then the laws are most multiplied.” Tacticus was describing a low-context culture which tends to be more cosmopolitan wherein the inhabitants rely on solid laws and codes as opposed informal notions of what is and is not acceptable behavior.

Despite what Church World Services, a cooperative ministry of thirty-seven Christian denominations would have you believe, all the welcome signs in the world are not going to quickly or easily meld our new arrivals into the body politic. This is especially true for those arriving from countries with no democratic traditions and cultures that marginalize women. And although there will no doubt be exceptions, like Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, they will prove to be the exception and not the rule.

Getting a citizen off the couch and into the street is no small feat. Just look at how few even vote. So, when it comes to trolling for activists, everyone you meet is just corn in the can until they POP. In the long run, my money is on those from a high-context culture who are invested generationally and have been that community’s stalwart members over the course of their lifetimes.

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