Monday, October 3, 2016

A Message From Your Local History Major

History always fascinated me, from the time I was a little kid. I don't ever recall not being able to read; my mother tells me I started early, that she helped me when I was a pre-schooler, and I definitely remember being able to read when I arrived in kindergarten. And reading infused me with an intense desire to figure out what was going on in the world, and also with an intense desire to know what had happened previously, why the world I was learning about was the way it was. By the time I was ten, I had read through the entire encyclopedia set my parents owed, and had read all the remotely-interesting parts of the Bible, too. And I discovered that I liked being informed, and I was actually kind of obscenely pleased to realize that I knew more about almost everything going on in the world than most of the adults, much less other kids, around me. Honestly, that pleasure was a major component of the arrogance I felt and have displayed, in one form or another, for most of my life since.
I've tempered the arrogance quite a bit in recent years, in the sense that I don't use my knowledge and intelligence as a club to beat other people down with constantly like I once did. But I still revel in being informed, of knowing what's going on in the world and (more importantly) why. And I still have very limited patience with people that are willfully ignorant, more so with that type of person than the genuinely stupid. I try to use my knowledge and ability to comprehend complicated matters relatively easily as a way to be useful to the society I live in, and for the benefit of the people that live in it. I'm sorry if that sounds hippyish or corny, but it's the truth; that's what has happened as a result of the journey I've been on for the last couple of decades.
But it comes with a cost. I've written a few times in the past of my fascination with one minor figure in Greek mythology. Cassandra, daughter of King Priam of Troy, was blessed and then cursed with the same gift from the gods--the ability to see the future accurately, only to find that no one around her would believe her. I often feel that way; time and again, in matters small and large, I have known what was coming down the pike, what was likely to happen in the future, and watched impotently as the input was ignored and small and large-scale disasters ensued. And one of the prices that I pay for this happening again and again is that I become very reluctant to get involved with many enterprises involving other people, from great political movements down to simply trying to keep friends and loved ones from embarking on self-destructive courses... I know what this sounds like, but I don't care. I can think of several times in the last few years where someone I've clashed with has said, "You always think you're the smartest guy in the room." Quite honestly, that has been a consistent goal of mine since I was a little kid. And bruised egos aside, it's usually true. What I didn't expect when I was little, and often have a hard time accepting now, is that being the smartest guy in the room is ultimately more frustrating than anything else. Sometimes the rest of the world catches up, sometimes it doesn't, but invariably--invariably--we all have to go through bullshit we could've avoided before most of the world catches up. I've come to terms with this--quite honestly, this has been the most lasting and most beneficial aspect of my recovery program--and I am no longer consumed with rage and frustration with the world around me and the people in it. I still feel it, a lot. I'm just not consumed with it, and don't feel compelled to act out on the anger and frustration like I did for a long time.
Having said that, I remain active and interested in the world around me. Watching this election cycle play out, watching what is happening around the world, and looking at how my fellow travelers on this planet are conducting themselves, my gut feeling is that we are all in a lot of trouble. I've learned my limits as far as seeing likely consequences far into the future, and I'm not going to push them in this essay. But I am totally comfortable in stating this much. The society of the United States of America has become, in the last few decades, incredibly polarized. This has not been an accident; there was a concerted effort made by the wealthy elites that controlled the political apparatus of this country to turn large segments of the population against one another, to convince the masses holding the ballot that certain Thems were and are responsible for the country's ills. By doing so, the elites consolidated their own hold on the levers of power and, more importantly, the incredible wealth that this society had created for two centuries. Some of the duped have wised up, and a considerable number of us were never fooled to begin with, and as a result, we have a very, very sharply divided society, of roughly equal-sized camps, each convinced that the members of the other side are the ones whose motivations are evil and who Must Be Stopped At All Costs.
The point I'm making today is not that one side is right and the other is wrong (anybody who reads this regularly knows where I stand). The point I am making is that this sort of polarization is irreversible. Imperfect as it has been, the United States of America has been a functional republican democracy for nearly two and a half centuries, longer than any other quasi-democratic society has ever remained functional. But it, too, is going down the path of every other historical predecessor--the division of that society into two camps of diametrically opposed groups, who disagree about nearly every matter of importance and who are convinced that the opposition are not only wrong, but morally repugnant for holding the views that they do.
And the conflicts aroused always--always--lead to violent confrontations, with one side or the other eventually imposing its views by force and the shedding of the blood of those opposed to them. This is our future; there are too many people out there locked and loaded into the correctness of their views and convinced that those that disagree with them are not just wrong, but evil, to some degree. And when you have convinced yourself that someone else is evil, you can justify any action taken against them, up to and including extermination. And if you think I'm wrong, just listen to the rhetoric heard in American political discourse now. Not as you wish it was, but what actual words and concepts are being expressed.
And you will see and hear that as much as we say we value diversity and freedom of speech and the ability to express dissent--we really don't. And there are an increasingly large number of people willing to take action that will stifle those holding opposing views.
Someone writing in the late 1930's--I wish I could remember who--said, when trying to make sense of what happened in Germany a few years before, "When someone tells you he is going to kill you, pay attention." And there are a lot of people in this country that need to paying attention to the voices that are saying, out loud, that elements of our society do not deserve to be breathing. Because they're not bluffing, and they are not engaged in hyperbole, and they not merely expressing their frustration.
They mean it. And we ignore them at our peril.

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