Seeing history

I’ve been thinking about how I’ve seen history at various stages of my life.

Grammar school: History is a long series of headlines & dates & names to be memorized. What happened where, & who the leaders were. 

High school: Started getting a glimpse of why things happened, & how what happened at a particular time affected what happened later. And a lot of it wasn’t because of some person doing something on purpose; sometimes things just coalesce. 

Reading after I was out of high school: Finding out about how these events affected people who weren’t mentioned in school very often, people who were treated as background canvas for the big painting described in my school history classes… & realizing I cared more about them than I ever did about the leaders. 

And, eventually, realizing how much of the story I was told in school was propaganda, wishful thinking, & covering up embarrassing details (embarrassing mainly to the men who want to be seen as wise leaders but who are, all too often, venal cowards).

One of the biggest things I learned about the stories of history is how much it means now. History is not dead. 

People make decisions now, every day, based on the history they’ve been taught. People died this weekend* because of those stories. 

I don’t have any brilliant insights to share, I’m just thinking out loud.

If there’s an insight, it might be something like: Be skeptical about what your leaders tell you. 

Care more for the people breathing with you now . . .  than about the distorted, fun-house mirror images of your ancestors as told to you by people with agendas that are (very likely) not wholesome.

I’m a sucker for a sales pitch. But I’ve been burned so many times I’ve finally started being aware of the pitch, at least sometimes. 

When someone starts getting you riled up, slow down for one second; turn aside & ask what THEY hope to gain from your anger & fear.

When you’re in an “us against them” situation, are you with the right ‘us?’ 

Learn to see the con, then think about whether the confidence scheme you caught might not be the only one being played on you. 

Of course, I’m being really grim here, on a weekend when Weekend Twitter never had a chance against the tide of sewage in the news.

I still think that trust is possible, at least between individuals, and that it’s valuable, something worth working for. 

Building trust between individuals in a world full of very subtle manipulation must be one of the biggest questions we can explore.

It’s really risky, but the alternative is isolation & paranoia, which doesn’t build strong people or strong societies. 

*I wrote the original version of this post on Aug. 13, 2017, as a series of tweets during the weekend of the Charlottesville, Virginia far-right marches and counter-protests. 

Gated communities of the mind

Many years ago, I was walking through New London, Conn. late on a summer day and spotted a dog trotting along the sidewalk, obviously on some doggish errand, and paying no attention to anyone around. I remember him turning a corner very decisively & vanishing from sight.

The scene struck me as odd, but it took me a second to realize that I never thought of dogs as having self-motivation. I’d lived with dogs my whole life, but they were usually asleep or reacting to some human; going for a walk in the woods with me, eating their supper, chasing a car, or something similar.

I was recently thinking about my reaction to the dog, and what it said about my human chauvinism. I was 19 and had just realized that the world doesn’t revolve around humans. Thinking about that realization lead me to intuit that a lot of people probably see other humans through a similar filter. For instance, there are doubtlessly guys to whom it never occurs that women have any life outside of reacting to guys. (See: ‘Bechdel Test’ for more on this idea.)

It’s an interesting exercise to consider members of a range of other chauvinistic groups where the person barely ascribes personhood to people outside their group.

I’ve no idea if it’s possible to trigger a revelation in those people like mine on that long-ago summer day… but without that breakthrough of seeing others as free & self-motivated humans, not dependent on, nor even concerned with, the viewer, I’m not sure any real progress is possible for those shut in the gated communities of their minds.

Confused idealist to guarded optimist

A friend asked, “What’s the one issue you’ve changed your mind on significantly since you were younger?” I couldn’t stick with just one issue, so I wrote this up.

Below are a few of the things I can name as having changed positions on. Nearly all of them have been slow processes, and I’m not at ‘the end’ of those changes. I’m still uncovering bias that I didn’t know I had.

At 14 I was still a dedicated, born-again Christian. But I had a growing batch of doubts. By 18 I was a full-on atheist, but I was still convinced that the supernatural existed. It took me another 15 years to scrub that out. If things like telepathy actually do exist, we’ll eventually figure out the mechanism, and it will be comprehensible to scientific inquiry. Same for ‘spiritual’ experiences. I’m talking about things like overwhelming feelings of connection to the world, other people, and beauty. I now understand such experiences as happening in our brains as we process information about our relationships with other people and with the world around us. Doesn’t make them any less meaningful. I’ve come to see gods and demons as symbols our brains use to understand what’s happening to us. I’ve given up any need to find higher meaning. At our best, humans are our own higher meaning.

At 20, I thought that ‘the government’ (which I thought of as being monolithic and ‘out there’ somewhere, not as something that I was part of) was a bad thing in every case. I was convinced that people, given the right (non-governmental) organizing structures, would do the right thing. I was an idealistic anarchist-libertarian, probably. I no longer believe that. I think that people make rash decisions from greed and rage and fear and incomplete data. I’ve grown to realize that ‘the government’ is us working together to find a way to live together… it’s also, sadly, a way for powerful people to keep their power and wealth, which means that ‘the government’ doesn’t work well for the average person, but there’s no way that I can negotiate agreements with each person I deal with on a given day, so whatever happens, we need some sort of structure that we can use to set expectations and limit bad actors. I think that in every generation, some people are struggling to move our governing structures more toward fairness and others are struggling to keep those structures unfairly supporting them in their power and wealth. I don’t know what governing structure would be best, but I know that plutocracy, fascism, oligarchy, aristocracy, autocracy, and other forms of totalitarianism are not. I’ve seen that unregulated industry will poison the world, that unregulated bankers will rake all the profits into their own pockets, that, essentially, any group that can work in secret will eventually start doing bad things. Today I’m leaning toward some sort of utilitarian democratic socialism, something that may take another 500 years to figure out how to do properly, assuming there’s a human race in 500 years.

I used to think that I was one of the good guys. It took me a long time to recognize and admit that I was hurting people around me. It took me a long time to forgive myself for my mistakes, and realize that it’s not possible to go through life without hurting people. I’m still not good at admitting the harm I’ve done, apologizing, and asking for forgiveness. It was really hard for me to figure out that I’m easily swayed. I’ll do bad things if I’m surrounded by bad people. I’m closer to the guy I want to see myself as when I associate with people who are trying hard to be good people. It’s hard to admit that, because I’d like to be the true good guy, the upstanding guy, bellwether, the one leading the march toward fairness.

I used to believe that people could be just bad or just good. That’s part of the idealism I was raised to believe in. It took me decades to recognize that people are just people. Some really are bad people, but that doesn’t mean they kick every dog they see. Some really are good, but that doesn’t mean they never make mistakes or do selfish, harmful things.

I used to believe I was useless. I was always holding myself up against people I saw as icons, and was crushed to realize I’d never live up to those standards, whether they were successful with money, had physical skills, or did wildly creative things. Finding a way to give and feel good about the contribution is hard when you’ve been told since you were a kid that if you’re not the shining son, the star athlete, the top earner, the leader, you’re nothing. I’m glad that I can see my value now, and particularly glad that I’m not in (much) danger of overstating my value. I am who I am, doing what I can.

It seems I’ve gone from being a confused idealist to being a guarded optimist.

I’ve gradually learned to distrust idealism. To recognize that calls for purity are always misguided because humans are not pure. People have gone out in masses and killed other people for thousands of years under the banner of purity, and it’s all a lie. It’s an infinite regress of the No True Scotsman fallacy. But I didn’t end up in despair. That’s my guarded optimism. I keep finding people who struggle against cruelty and greed and rage, both in society and in themselves, who aren’t true believers, aren’t fanatics, and aren’t perfect, but who keep trying. They give me heart. They give me a bit of hope that we can find our way out of the dark and frightening forest of the childhood of humanity (if only we can keep from killing ourselves in the meantime).