Discover more from David Friedman’s Substack
I began writing this in a motel in Winnemucca, Nevada, the location of the Martin Hotel, a Basque restaurant we ate dinner at the night before. We try to time our annual summer trip across the country to reach Winnemucca at dinner time. The food is good but the other reason is the family style dining; if you are a party of less than eight — we were three, myself, my wife, and our adult daughter — you end up sharing the table with strangers.
“I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.” (New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael in 1972, often misquoted as “I don’t see how Nixon could have won; nobody I know voted for him.”)
My world is differently mixed than hers was; I have known people who voted for Nixon and Kennedy, Reagan and Obama. But there are sorts I haven’t known or have known very few of, such as people who don’t believe in evolution. I have only met one person who told me he didn’t believe in evolution, a West Indian member of my wife’s church mildly surprised that I did.
Very likely I have met a few more, in contexts where the question of evolution didn’t happen to come up, but very few relative to their share of the population.1 I have met lots of strangers in my life, students and colleagues at universities I taught at, fellow members of my wife’s church, people who shared my hobby of historical recreation, but they were mostly people who had something in common with me, were part of the same social world, inside my bubble. My fellow diners at the Martin Hotel are stranger than that.
Last night it was two cowboys, men who made their living competing for prizes in rodeos. There are, by their estimate, about seven hundred rodeos a year, of which they compete in about a hundred. They travel around the country in trucks, presumably pulling a horse trailer — two horses for each. Their specialty is roping. A steer is released, it gets a head start varying in length from one event to another, and it is up to the contestants, mounted, to rope it, demonstrate their control by turning it ninety degrees to the right then ninety degrees to the left. It is a timed event. To be competitive, they have to do it in four seconds or less.
Their profession is roping but their world is wider than that. Our conversation moved from Basque restaurants, located in places such as Winnemucca, Nevada, and Bakersfield, California, where ranchers raised sheep and immigrant Basque shepherds herded them, to problems with raising sheep, more difficult now without cheap immigrant labor skilled in herding sheep and protecting them from predators, to problems with raising goats, which eat anything, including things that kill them. One of the cowboys once owned a hundred goats, having been told that they were a good way to make money, was happy to have just broken even when he sold them. He prefers cows, sensible animals that know what to eat and can defend themselves from coyotes.
It was a window into a different world.
Driving east from Winnemucca we were passed by thirteen motorcycle riders in identical jackets, followed by a pickup with a motorcycle on it, presumably the support vehicle carrying the driver’s motorcycle. A motorcycle club on the move, another world I am not a part of.
Like most moderns I inhabit multiple worlds. Mine include the Society for Creative Anachronism — we are driving across the country to spend two weeks in a medieval pavilion surrounded by fellow recreationists, as we have done every summer for many years. It includes libertarianism, academic economics, rationalists, sf fandom.
Shopping in a local supermarket, I noticed a stranger and promptly categorized him as one of us. He was (I'm guessing) in his twenties, somewhat overweight, wearing shorts, a T-shirt, a scruffy beard, engaged in animated conversation with two younger companions. Animated conversation aside, none of that describes me. My instinctive reaction reflected the fact that he fit the pattern of people in environments where I am comfortable. He was probably an sf fan, probably a board game or computer game player, possibly a World of Warcraft player, possibly an SCA member. I had a similar reaction in the airport in Tel Aviv; I have never believed in Judaism, did not go to Hebrew school, was never Bar Mitzva’d, but the Israeli airport officials felt more like my people, very distant relations, than in other airports.
Worlds are bubbles, as exemplified by the Pauline Kael quote. Its mirror image is the silent majority, the mass of conservative voters somehow omitted from the polls who were going to elect Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Worlds are also tribes, allegiances. When we were visiting colleges with our children I took advantage of that fact to find sources of information not funneled through the admissions department. Part was locating members of the local SCA group, if there was one, and talking with them about the school; they were more willing to talk with us than they would have been with a random stranger. Part was wandering around the economics department getting into conversations. Economists are more willing to talk freely to a fellow economist than to a random parent and, because economics is, among other things, a way of viewing the world, their judgements will be closer to mine than those of an academic in another field would be.
When I moved from Chicago to San Jose, two fellow SCA members helped us unload our truck. One of them had lived in Chicago — we had probably fed him dinner after fighter practice once or twice — but not someone we knew well. The other I don’t think I had ever met. On previous moves my wife leveraged her involvement in folk dancing for a connection to a social network in a new place.
People want to be visible, to matter. If your reference group is 330 million fellow Americans mattering is very nearly impossible; unless you are a film star, national politician, or equivalent — a Nobel prize by itself won’t do it — most of them will never know you existed. It was easier in the past; if you lived a decent life in a village of a few hundred people, by the time you died most of your fellow villagers would know who you were, many of them think well of you. The world beyond the village existed but it didn’t matter very much.
A very long time ago I was in the Los Angeles area to participate in a libertarian conference on Santa Catalina Island. After a few days socializing with fellow libertarians, I don’t remember whether before or after the conference, I realized that I was visiting a village — some fifty miles across with a population of perhaps a hundred people, most of whom knew each other. Fifty years later I spent a week in northern New Hampshire in a different libertarian village temporarily condensed at Porcfest, the annual summer event of the Free State Project.
The Society for Creative Anachronism is a village — when we get to Pennsic, quite a lot of the people there will recognize us.2 So are folk dancing, my sister’s bridge and horse worlds, libertarianism, Bay area rationalism, academic economics, web forums, each with its component subvillages — law and economics for me, dressage for my sister.
A solution to the anonymity of mass culture.
I have a high profile in that world, having been active in it for more than fifty years and helped to start Pennsic. For people with a slightly lower profile their SCA kingdom is a village, for still lower, their local SCA group. Our daughter’s village is the Renaissance dance community at Pennsic and elsewhere.