I've been hearing on the Charlotte FM station advertising recently for something of a workshop on Respect. The talk that goes with it tells that respect is something gone away from society and we need it back. My thought first time I heard it: Hmm, somebody noticed. I have to agree, in the urban world respect is absent and not missed as if it never had been, though in certain circles rappin gangstas kill each other for "disrespect." The workshop situation is for the white middle class, NPR listeners. In the white working class you still find respect. I'm wondering how much the falling away of respect in middle class mind has to do with the fast fade of old institutions in our time where respect was important. As they go away, respect goes with them, evidently. I'm wondering about the absence of community in the suburban middle class, what a sense of community has has to do with respect. I can say that in my own community in the NC mountains, Whitehead immediately and the whole county generally, a great deal of respect is going around. In what is left of mountain culture, an individual is respected for humility, for honesty, for helping others, and of course, for money. Anybody with money is respected everywhere in America, the world. That's part of the appeal for accumulating money, especially in a world where there's little to no respect for anything else.
People know each other in a rural community. A lot of people complain about the gossip and go to cities to get away from gossip, but they find it there too. I've come to see gossip as a kind of glue that keeps a community aware of the different individuals in the community like they're movie stars. In my first years in the mountains listening to Tom Pruitt tell about his life and people he'd known along the way, I noticed he spoke of the people of his community with the same tone of importance that city people talk about tv and movie stars. He spoke of the people in his world the same as people spoke of celebrities where I came from. I saw the people of his telling in my mind a little bit bigger than life. When I met different ones I'd heard him talk about, his brother Millard, for one, I was struck every time by seeing this is just another person, not a celebrity. They kind of shrank in my mind at first, seeing they were not celebrities. That caused me to adjust my own thinking. I came to see, knowing other mountain people of Tom's generation that this is how people talked about each other before radio, movies and tv started bringing celebrities into our lives. Now, we talk about celebrities with respect, and each other with watered down derision for not being celebrities.
I realized that the tone of voice Tom was using when he told about different people of the community was respect. It took me awhile to get there, because it took me awhile to catch on to respect as not only something valid, but important. When we look up to celebrities, we look at all the people around us, and ourselves, as they call us in the News, the ordinary people. Celebs are special and we're ordinary. My parachute landed me in a world where they hadn't caught on yet that celebrities were important and we were ordinary. I was seeing that the people all around me saw each other and themsleves the same kind of important accorded to celebrtities. A few months ago there was a buzz around that Robert Downey Jr had been to a certain country store in the county. Very big deal! It was like somebody came in from Celebrity Planet and wowed the people of Ordinary Planet. I confess, I was was impressed one of my favorite American actors had been in the county. Several people I know wished they could have met him. All I could think was, what would I say? You're really cool, meaning I'm really not.
It's like passing up a chance to meet Ralph Stanley. The people around him say, "He's just a man," which I already know. He's a country boy from the same generation of several people I've known here. His county, Dickenson in SW Virginia, is much like my county, Alleghany in NC, though he's in coal country and I'm not. That is definitely a difference. I've seen him up close a few times at concerts, like when he was at the table autographing for fans. He was the same size and weight, talked like and even walked the same as Tom's brother Millard, the Regular Baptist preacher who had a voice for singing as hauntingly beautful as Ralph Stanley's. I know he's just a man, and I could speak with him on that level. However, at the same time that he's just a man, he's also Ralph Stanley. I'm in awe of Ralph Stanley and believe my respect for the celebrity would obscure the man himself. I still have the sense that celebrities are beyond the ordinary. I hear an interview with artist Robert Motherwell and listen to every word like it's from Truth itself. I hear a local artist I know talking and it's the same as any other "ordinary" person talking. If I knew Motherwell, I would have been hearing just a man instead of the celebrity great artist.
Respect is one of my great learnings from living in mountain culture. There was a time when I believed the white middle class people moving from the suburbs to the exurbs might take an interest in the fact that a really interesting culture is all around them. I would tell new people I'd meet that you can get along very well with any individual of these mountains by treating them with basic human respect. I didn't realize then that respect outside these mountains was waning down to nothing in the middle class. They didn't care. I was flapping my jaws, barking to hear my head roar. Too many times I got a look like, What? I quit making any attempts to make one small step toward easing off the conscious and unconscious disrespect for the mountain people by the intruders. It's an assets point of view, not a cultural point of view. Mountain people have less assets than the people moving in. According to the law of the money and status ladder, you look up, never down. Respect is not a consideration for somebody living in a trailer and working in a factory. How do you respect somebody wearing work boots? How do you respect somebody in a tshirt that says Guns N Roses? Mammon is not a benevolent god, but a god devoid of compassion, love and understanding. I'll go with the god of love and be so poor I have to look up to everybody.
By the latter years of my life I've found my "place" in the world several years ago and I'm happy with it. I'm recalling my friend Jr Maxwell the time I asked him who he looked up to along the way in his life. He said, "I look up to everybody." I felt like I knew what he meant at the time he said it, though after knowing him as years went by, I saw he was not making up something that sounds good for public persona, which I already knew. That kind of thinking was not in him. He did, indeed, look up to everybody. He regarded everyone, low or high, with respectful attention. When you talked to Jr, he heard you. Everyone he knew, he knew for who the individual was, not the what. He respected the man who made big money and bought the biggest house on the highest hill the same as he respected the man working for him at the sawmill who threw all his money away drinking on the weekends. Jr might have thought it heedlessly self-defeating behavior, but he was a man just the same. Jr regarded people he did not trust the same as people he trusted. He recognized you have to watch out for one and you don't have to watch the other. Both are valid human beings deserving at least basic respect for their humanity. Of all my learnings from mountain people I've known, the one characteristic that every one of them embodies is respect. I'm coming to believe respect holds community together, too. I see where there is no community, respect is just a word on a spelling test.