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Last fall, I went to meet someone at their house up around Copper Avenue (fyi to non-Fresnans: this is the northern edge of the sprawl, where you can look out your back window and see that your neighbor is recently-bought and soon-to-be-developed farm land).  In an bad mood, I parked in front of the house and tweeted:  “In a neighborhood i don’t visit often. Beige boxes and no tree over 4 feet. Oh well to each his own.”  I then went into a house with fortress-sized front doors and cathedral ceilings where I found the occupant making microwave bacon.  Enough said?

Well, no.  That’s not enough.

In my introductory anthropology class, my main goal is to show some forty-odd mostly young Americans that people in other cultures lead meaningful, satisfying lives.  This may seem simple, but it is actually very complex.  One problem is that accepting this point fully means recognizing that modern American life is not the pinnacle of the human experience, but just one among many ways of living — and hence beautiful, ugly, satisfying, infuriating, constructive, destructive, etc., just like life in other times and places.  I’ve been at this for a while and I’ve achieved some modest successes, mostly through the rational presentation of sound concepts together with accurate information about other cultures and about American culture.

An even more general goal:  helping people acquire the conceptual tools to understand any sociocultural situation, whether far from home or right next door.  This endeavor brings a whole other set of pitfalls.  For example, I often ask students to take an objective and sympathetic look at varieties of American life that they find disturbing.  In a class about religion, for example, I introduce them to the Holiness (i.e. snake handling) churches of the American South through Dennis Covington’s terrific little book, Salvation on Sand Mountain.  Here I find that sometimes, those who have accepted the premise outlined in the previous paragraph have great difficulty applying it to the snake handlers.  Even after marveling sympathetically and relativistically at some very different and often challenging religions practiced far from modern America, some students can then turn around and apply to the snake handlers labels like “uneducated,” “ignorant,” ‘reckless,” and even “crazy.”

I have not yet gotten to the bottom of this problem.  One possibility:  It is one thing to admit that people in other cultures lead full and satisfying lives that include the practice of witchcraft and the use of oracles for divination.  But it may be quite another thing to admit that people in modern-day America engage in such exotic practices as handling poisonous snakes in order to make real the Gospel, and that such people are also living full, satisfying and meaningful lives with no need of correction.  Putting snake-handling off as “uneducated ignorance” makes it safe, and protects against the inevitable conclusion that we Americans, along with everyone else in the world, are a very strange lot.  To avoid this conclusion, some students say, in effect, “They are not us,” or perhaps, “They are us, but if they had more education they’d be better examples of us.”

Which brings me to Fresno Magazine.  Recently, Fresno Bee reporter Mike Osegueda posted news of an unfortunate comment by Fresno Magazine owner, Melanie Warner-Kennedy.  FM sponsors the “Best of Fresno” poll in which FM subscribers vote on the best local businesses.  The poll is a matter of consternation for some in Fresno for many reasons, including the heavy presence of chain stores like Taco Bell, which took the “Best Cheap Eats” category (or something like that:  I can’t find the 2009 Best of Fresno results online).  In a Beehive comment and an email to Osegueda, Warner-Kennedy essentially accused critics of “Best of Fresno” of being “too cheap” to subscribe to the magazine.  Let’s agree that this comment was poorly thought out.  What’s more interesting is that Osegueda’s post kicked off a lengthy and bruising string of over 100 comments, many of which included some very rough and often highly personal indictments of Ms. Warner-Kennedy and Fresno Magazine.  (Two of the most thoughtful comments are about ten from the bottom, by “adrian” and “Suzanne.”)  I read the entire thread with gruesome fascination.  Why, I wondered, had Ms. Warner Kennedy and her magazine inspired so many to put so much effort into such virulent criticism?  This question has many answers, I am sure, but here I want to explore one of them.

One big group of FM/”Best of Fresno” critics is the local creative community.  I know this community well and may even be a member.  They tend to be politically progressive.  Many live south of Shaw Avenue or their hearts, at least, are there.  (Another fyi to non-Fresnans:  the area south of Shaw is relatively old and includes our struggling downtown; north of Shaw is newer, richer, and the main present-day locus of sprawl at places like Copper Avenue).  They are engaged with and committed to downtown revitalization and a current buy local campaign.  They tend to eschew chain restaurants and stores.  I’m simplifying and generalizing a bit, but you get the picture.

Who do the above-mentioned critics perceive to be FM’s subscribers?  (The actual breakdown of FM subscribers is beside the point for this post.)  I’ve never heard anyone actually say any of this about FM’s subscribers, but I suspect this is a common view:  FM subscribers are wealthy, conservative, eat at chain restaurants, and live north of Shaw in houses with over-sized doors.  They are scared to go downtown and so they spend lots of time at River Park (a big shopping complex in north Fresno).  Judging from the ads in FM, they spend lots of disposable income on plastic surgery.  In short, they live superficial, materialistic lives in garish houses insulated from the “real” Fresno by their gated (non-)communities.  To the extent that their lives seem so different and deficient, they are the creative community’s snake-handlers.

I’ve recently been reading Culture and Consumption II by anthropologist Grant McCracken.  McCracken challenges some cherished notions about modern-day Americans, particularly the widespread belief that Americans are a bunch of consumeristic, materialistic sheep who are driven this way and that by clever, manipulative marketers shilling for greedy corporations.  Against this view, he argues that Americans creatively fashions selves and lives with material things.  Neither McCracken nor myself are naive:  some aspects of American consumption are pathological and certainly unsustainable.  But none of that changes the heart of American consumption, which is not pathological, but merely cultural.  In a compelling series of essays, McCracken shows how Americans make selves, lives, and ultimately meaning, through the acquisition and cultural appropriation of, well, all that stuff, including the hipster’s hush puppies, those over-sized front doors, and my own house in a “cool” south Fresno neighborhood.

Taking all this to heart compels me back to Cooper Avenue.  To paraphrase one of the more thoughtful commentators on the Beehive discussion, “The Fresno portrayed in FM is not my Fresno, but it’s someone’s.”  And guess what?  That someone is someone.  They are surrounded by stuff which they (like I) have acquired and which they (like I) have imbued with significance on the way to making a meaningful self and life.  I’m certainly glad to live in the Tower District and not up on Copper Avenue, and I can be smug about it at times (see tweet at start of this post).  But when you strip away the posturing of taste, we’re not so different, really.

The bottom line:  go easy on folks.

(Disclosure:  I served for a year on Fresno Magazine’s advisory board.)

(Check out the film whose title I modified for the title of this post.)

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