Witnessing Dysfunctional Behavior in the Crowd at a Willie Nelson Concert

Paul Cienfuegos’ August 2nd, 2016 Commentary on KBOO Evening News


(His weekly commentaries are broadcast every Tuesday evening. You can view or listen to them all at PaulCienfuegos.com, CommunityRightsPDX.org/podcast, or subscribe via ITunes. Listen to this one HERE.)


Greetings! You are listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos.


I’m happy to be back in my weekly commentary slot on the Tuesday KBOO Evening News, after two weeks of amazing Pacifica Radio convention coverage that preempted the Evening News. And what a two weeks of politics it turned out to be. Wow! But that’s for another day.


On July 24, I went to McMenamins Edgefield, outside of Portland, to attend a Willie Nelson concert. I have been yearning to hear Willie Nelson live my entire adult life, so this was a very big deal for me, to finally be in the audience, witnessing this living legend on stage, in a beautiful grassy amphitheater.


I went alone, so I was able to squeeze my small blanket and festival chair in among the larger groups of folks with their enormous blankets. I loved the concert – every moment of it – but what ended up surprising me quite a lot was my witnessing of We the People, thousands of us, interacting ever so awkwardly and dysfunctionally with each other, hour after hour, which is the focus of today’s commentary: people watching at a Willie Nelson concert.


One of the first things that I noticed is that the couples sitting on both sides of me seemed incapable or unwilling to even acknowledge my presence, which I found very perplexing indeed. In moments like this, I tend to ask myself whether such strange social behavior is universal in other societies and cultures, or whether there’s something universally broken about our own modern capitalist and hierarchically-structured society that rewards rugged individualist behavior over communitarian behavior. And all across the concert lawn, there were huge blankets with just two people sitting on most of them, keeping everyone else out. So much unfairness in the way that people locked up their spots, just like our addiction to our private properties where each of us lives, if we’re lucky enough to have a home.


The only thing that seemed to bring my concert neighbors together on the lawn was a sense of mutual outrage against a fellow sitting a few rows behind me, who came up to near where I was sitting and very kindly asked two men to sit down as they were entirely blocking his view of Willie Nelson. The two men responded with a surprising amount of hostility and contempt, and then people all around them joined in, as if many of them had also been directly attacked. An almost gang-like sense of behavior quickly formed, in full solidarity with each other from a place of outrage. And all of them now targeting a fellow who had simply made a request, with appropriate words and tone, and who himself was now outraged at their response. What a mess!


This brought me to imagining how things might have unfolded differently if the vast majority of the crowd had some training in nonviolent communication, a profound and paradigm-shifting communication process invented by Marshall Rosenberg many years ago. How, I wondered, could this conflict have been resolved peacefully?


I may be overgeneralizing, or maybe I’m not, when I make the following observation: We the People do not trust We the People. And what a huge tragedy that is, and what a huge disaster for our future together as a nation.


Willie Nelson sang one classic song after another, in quick succession. And unlike most famous musicians, he actively worked the crowd, attempting over and over to get us to sing along on the choruses, to really sing, loudly, together. Me? I loved that! I’m an acupella singer. So I belted it out. But as I looked around me, I realized that very few other people were singing back to him at all. And this too troubled me, and brought up curiosity, about whether We the People are no longer even capable of truly engaging a beloved performer. Yes, I’m overgeneralizing terribly here, but the fact is that a large percentage of the audience wasn’t even listening to Willie, let alone singing back to him.


So when Willie Nelson suddenly said goodnight to all of us, after just one hour of performing, with no encore at all, I had to wonder whether we Portlanders had insulted him. Was he mad at us? Had he written us off, as just a bunch of white privileged intoxicated party-goers who really couldn’t care less who was on stage? It’s true, most of us were not singing or clapping along, even though he had requested repeatedly that we do so. Finally, the audience started paying attention, but now it was too late. Each of them had paid $60 or more for the show, and now it was suddenly over, with no second set and no encore. That certainly got peoples’ attention! And they didn’t like it at all.


I personally felt embarrassed, even though I knew that I was making just a wild guess as to why he had ended the evening so prematurely. I went online to see if I could find an explanation, but found nothing to help me make sense of what had unfolded. How did We the People become so disinterested in a true peoples’ hero? How did we end up with such short attention spans, and so little tolerance or patience for others who might have differing needs? And most importantly, what must we do to turn our culture around, so that We Americans actually start to witness ourselves and each other as We the People? We have no time to lose.


You’ve been listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos. You can hear future commentaries every Tuesday on the KBOO Evening News in Portland, Oregon, and on a growing number of other radio stations. I welcome your feedback.


You can subscribe to my weekly podcast via I-Tunes or at CommunityRightsPDX.org. You can sign up for my ‘Community Rights Updates’ at PaulCienfuegos.com. You can follow me on twitter at CienfuegosPaul. THANKS FOR LISTENING! And remember: WE are the people we’ve been WAITING for.

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