Beta Culture: To Not Be Owned

One of the prime motivations of my life has been independence. I have a deep, passionate sense that my life is my own. Mine, and nobody else’s.

I want nothing to be able to claim any part of me, not by force, not by lies, not by clever manipulation. I want to be owned not by churches, not by corporations, not by the government or the military, not by television, not by addictions, not by sports, not by drugs, not by bullies, not by fads or fame or glorious leaders.

On the other hand, I do like giving of myself. I’ve donated blood, money, sweat and time to others. I’ve cooked for sick friends. I’ve given lengthy rides to hitchhikers. I’ve helped people move, watched their pets or house-sat while they were on vacation. In my cowboy life, I’ve helped at brandings, feeding, and hay-hauling without pay. For a long time, I really enjoyed taking food to work — crock pot dishes, or things I had baked. Just as a gift to the granddaughter of some good friends, I wrote what started as a short adventure story with her as the heroine … but which ended being a 50,000-word novel. I’ve visited with people in the hospital. On more than one occasion, I’ve stopped on the side of the highway and helped change a tire, or called a tow truck. Hell, I get a good feeling when I open doors for people, which I do every day. Also every day, I give people sincere compliments.

So I enjoy giving. Giving to others, helping others make their lives work, sometimes helping them just to get through their day, may be one of the chief pleasures of life.

It has to be me making the decision, though. The second I’m ordered to give, controlled to give, manipulated to give – like in one of those “everybody in the office must donate to this worthy cause” campaigns – the lid of my generosity snaps shut.

Examples of the type of unpleasant “ownership” I’m talking about?

A few days back, as I returned to my work van at a highway rest stop, I saw four young women, early-to-mid 20s, standing about 8 feet away. As far as our society is concerned, all four were genetic lottery winners — slender, blonde, beautiful of face. Grouped in a cozy circle and chatting, all four were standing right elbow on left hand in that ancient posture: Woman Smoking.

Key in the ignition and ready to go, I grappled briefly with the impulse to say something to them about it: “For the time you spend smoking, you’re giving up your Self. You’re owned by a tobacco company.” Decided, no, it would probably only irritate or embarrass them. I drove away and left them to their lives.

But smoking is definitely an issue of ownership. Over the years I’ve watched too many friends and family wrestle with the habit not to know this. Considering the cost, impacts to your health, the fact that it produces a lingering distasteful odor on your clothes and hair and possessions, for the time you spend at it … you are OWNED. You’re not yours, you’re theirs.

It’s pricelessly perverse that tobacco companies have managed to convince generations of victims that smoking is a way to express one’s INDEPENDENCE.

Another example I’ve written about in the past:

Years back, I came across a book titled “Ask the Coupon Queen!” that showed a smiling woman holding up a fan of coupons. The author apparently spent hours each day poring through newspapers and newspaper inserts to find coupons for groceries and such, more hours traveling to the stores that doubled coupons or offered daily specials. For her, coupons were a CAREER. So much so that she was able to write a book about it. Gah. Creepy.

And just imagine the happy day you get to MEET the Coupon Queen: You’re standing behind her in line at the supermarket, as she sorts and searches and fiddles with an inch-thick stack of coupons. Yeah. That lady.

And again, there’s that paradox: By using the coupons you can “save money” on your groceries … but you wouldn’t need to do that if the stores charged less for what they sell.

It may be that you won’t get the distinction. I’ve said this to a number of people and gotten blank looks. “But you’re really saving money!” they chirp.

But follow me on this: THEY set the coupon-savings price of the product, but THEY also set the original price. So YOU are not “saving” anything.

They set the price both times. Where’s the savings? They could simply set a lower price, and you wouldn’t need a coupon. But they don’t. This is pure manipulation – by the supposed savings of a few cents or a few dollars – to get you to come into their store, buy their brand. Worse, they rotate the “savings” week by week, forcing you – if you want to “save money” – to look for the newspaper ads, forcing you to spend time on them, reading, clipping, calculating, figuring out your route from one store to the next to get the best “bargains.”

They compete to keep you hooked on their store, or their products. They CONSUME some of your limited, precious life time, and they do it with the lure of pennies.

Speaking just for myself: Hey, I might be a whore, but I’m not a cheap one. If you want ME to spend all that time and effort digging around in the newspaper, and then shuffling those damned coupons every time I go shopping – if you want several hours a week of my all-too-limited life – you better at least give me a car.

I don’t use coupons. At all, ever. I don’t get the “savings” my friends get when I go into the supermarket. But I also don’t have to spend two seconds of my time – MY time – thinking about coupons. At least in this way, I’m not owned.

So why is it that I, Mr. Independence, keep talking about Beta Culture? Something people would have to join, to give up something of themselves in order to become a part of?

Ha. Glad you asked that. Here it is:

My view of culture, from my own experience of my native East Texas Cowboy culture, is that it both TAKES something from you and GIVES something to you. Your culture owns you, a little bit or a lot, but hopefully it also empowers you in some measure.

Of course, the home culture you grow up in, you barely notice what it takes from you. However uncomfortable you might be in your home culture at any one moment, you think that’s the way things are supposed to be, and you just accept it and make the effort. Witness various Earth cultures’ continued devotion to un-anesthetized surgery, poking, burning, slitting, shaving, braiding, scarring, dyeing, tattooing, binding, beating, shrouding, cloistering and all sorts of other physical and behavioral control. (Not to mention forcing you to show up for Thanksgiving dinner so you can be grilled by your aunts about why you’re not married yet, or if you’re still dating That Loser.)

It’s only when you view it from the outside that you can see how painful and unnecessary – and SILLY – most of this stuff is.

What your culture gives you is a place to belong. Friends and family, and familiar ways of doing things. Traditional stories and myths. A roster of acceptable career aspirations, and – sheepskin or lion skin – the clearly delineated pathways into them. Home. Favorite foods. Acceptable clothing, hats, footwear.

The question is: Is it worth it?

At some of those same highway rest stops as the one where I saw the young women smoking, not far from New York City, I also frequently see Hasidic Jews. You may know who I’m talking about – the guys with the long side curls. Not long back, I saw a couple of young men sporting side locks that hung almost down to their shoulders. Both of them also had short-cropped, almost shaved heads, with little islands of foot-long hair on each side of their heads, like a limp, curly version of Pippi Longstocking pigtails. Even to my eyes, they looked faintly ridiculous.

I admit, not being from New York, the first time I saw these Jewish ultra-conservatives, I thought they look funny – straggle-bearded men in black coats and odd little flat-brimmed hats, accompanied by mousy women herding wide-eyed waifs peering at strangers as if every one might be a melodramatically nefarious child snatcher. The nearest match in my head was a comically-costumed Woody Allen in the movie Annie Hall.

But it took me all of 30 seconds to see it in terms I could understand: “Oh! This is their version of cowboy hats!”

My cowboy hat might look funny to others – from the number of times people have joked about it, I know it does – but I could wear it to the White House and feel perfectly at ease. To you, it’s a funny costume; to me, it’s a wearable piece of Home. Cowboy is what I am. It’s what MY people do and say and wear.

Ditto for Hasidic Jews. To them, their clothing and manners are not funny. They’re homey. Comfortable. Safe.

And yet I differ from them in this way: I can take off the hat, I can leave the boots and big buckle at home, I can remove every visible evidence of my western persona, and just be Joe Anybody.

In fact, in my everyday life (in New York State, remember), I seldom do wear any of that stuff. Oh, I’ll put it on for visits out West. I’ll proudly wear my gear to rodeos, or just for the hell of it when I’m out socializing. But mostly, you’d never know I was a cowboy.

And when I’m not wearing that stuff, I don’t miss it. I don’t feel lost, or uncomfortable, or somehow less ME. I’m comfortable being who and what I am, no matter what I wear.

So: For each individual within it, culture pays off. But it also carries a cost which can vary from middling expensive to the cost of life itself.  (Families in the U.S. pro-military subculture sometimes pay this highest of prices.)

A foundational goal in designing Beta Culture, first as a way to create something new, but second, to make it more likely that people will actually buy into it, see the possibilities, is to make sure it gives more than it takes.

How might one do that? I have some ideas.

Education:

First, I’d expect Beta Culture to place a very high value on education, both the college-degree kind and the continuing-life kind. Betas learn things, all their lives, and it pays off.

It’s not that other people – even other cultures – don’t place a high value on education, it’s that we very specifically DO. Not just as random individuals embedded in a larger culture that doesn’t value education very much (cough*Texas*cough), but as a full-on culture of education, every person of which values it immensely. Every person within Beta understands that education is something you MUST get, MUST continue. If you don’t continue to learn, there’s something a little bit wrong with you, and this place is not a good fit for you.

Does that sound a little bit off-putting? Maybe it is, but as I’ve said before, this isn’t going to be for everybody. There’s already one hard edge in Beta, one absolute gateway, and that’s atheism. As I’ve said elsewhere, if you’re not able to free yourself from the fetters of religion, Beta is the exact wrong place for you.

Likewise, as I imagine it, if you don’t read books, don’t maintain an interest in the workings of your world, don’t understand science, don’t develop new skills or hone existing skills throughout your lifetime … you’re probably better off somewhere else. There’s an entire world out there where you’ll fit right in, and be none the worse for it.

However! What downside is there to education? I can’t imagine any. Education empowers you, empowers the people around you. Empowers the entire culture in which you live … far beyond those which think reading your last book as a senior in high school is an acceptable way to laze your way through the world.

Being encouraged to educate yourself throughout your life, considering the returns to you and yours, seems a very small price to pay.

Further, if Beta Culture grew big enough to swing it, I’d hope it would aspire to even grander goals, such as a FREE education to its young people. Every graduating senior would get a full-ride scholarship to the college of his choice. I can imagine several scenarios that might make this affordable – one would involve a large endowment by generous existing members, another would include some sort of agreement with grads that they would eventually donate some percentage of their adult income back into the program.

Safety:

I see Betas as anything but pacifists. I don’t mean they’d be war-mongers; decidedly the opposite. But I don’t think they’d shy away from protecting themselves – or their loved ones – against threats. Whether receiving training in self-defense or the handling of weapons, or just the willingness to file a lawsuit against transgressors, I envision a culture-wide air of assertiveness that doesn’t ask or beg for, but DEMANDS respect from the larger cultural surround.

Community Center and Beyond:

I’ve referred several times to the Beta Nexus, a meeting place and house-of-all-purposes in each sizable city. Every time I think of that place, I imagine more that could be done with it. Meetings, classes, temporary lodging for speakers, child care and kindergarten, a place for non-religious weddings and memorial ceremonies, so much more. Hell, it could even house its own coffee house, a nice place that welcomed – and gently proselytized to – local college students. (Free coffee to hard-science majors!)

Eventually, I see no reason why the Beta community shouldn’t own hospitals, publishing houses, web servers, resorts, real estate, all sorts of mainstream businesses just as existing churches and religious organizations currently own. (Did you know the Mormon Church is now – pending certain approvals – the largest private landowner in Florida? Or that the Catholic Church is the third-largest land owner on Earth? Whoa. We’re starting damned late, people.) All of this aimed not solely at profit, but at enlarging the lives of the people within Beta. As well as – and this is important – the surrounding natural world.

With some serious forethought, there are endless possibilities to build huge empowerment into the culture, at the cost of small amounts of personal dedication on the part of those opting – and this is all very much optional, I stress – to become part of it.


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