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.

No tin pot dictators, please.

If people want to honor military personnel, I’ve no issue with that. But if you start demanding that we honor the military itself, I do have a problem.

The military is just another extension of governmental might. Imagine if someone insisted that we adore the IRS or the CDC. Sounds a bit daft, doesn’t it?

Encouraging citizens to adore the military as an organization tends to push a country in a direction that rarely leads to more personal freedom or civil liberties.

I recently saw an article that discussed a rising trend in some countries where the citizens want a more-authoritarian and militaristic government. Polls show some people in those countries actually wanting the military to be the government.  Not I. I like having civilian control over our military.