Understanding History

Historian and columnist T.R. Fehrenbach said in his book, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, “History is too often revised to match contemporary views. It has been said that each generation must rewrite history in order to understand it. The opposite is true. Moderns revise history to make it palatable, not to understand it. Those who edit ‘history’ to popular taste each decade will never understand the past—neither the horrors nor glories of which the human race is equally capable—and for that reason, they will fail to understand themselves.”

Indeed, we must understand history in order to perform the necessary process of rewriting it. News has been properly characterized as “the first rough draft of history,” and more formal, considered formats must involve rewriting. The problems Fehrenbach describes arise with the object and intent of many revisions.

His blanket accusation that “moderns” are motivated to revise by a desire to serve their own ends and to protect an audience they deem lacking in discernment may have been prompted by the most flagrant example of this type of revision, which is his own state’s school board. While they commit a heinous crime, born of arrogance and paranoia, such groups and individuals are more appropriately described as bizarre anachronisms than “moderns.”

Truly modern scholars understand more than ever that history is improved by filling gaps, restoring original contexts and exploring interrelationships between events. At one time, too much weight was given to established portrayals by believing and teaching that there was only one way for history to be understood. Michael Conway insisted in The Atlantic that “rather than vainly seeking to transcend the inevitable clash of memories, American students would be better served by descending into the bog of conflict and learning the many ‘histories’ that compose the American national story.”

Much of history in the Western world was written by white men who believed that the universe—Galileo and Copernicus notwithstanding—revolved around them, and responsible and enlightened revision can only provide an improved history that will, indeed, help us better understand ourselves.

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The Unrecognized Beginning of Modern Man

In her book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara Tuchman described the worldview-altering effect of the Black Death, the devastating spread of bubonic plague across Europe that killed 50 million people in the years 1346 to 1353: “Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.”

Before the 14th century, most people believed disasters—earthquakes, floods, plagues—were punishment from God for their sins. But it is a sign of progress that we mostly understand now that the universe does not exist and operate merely to teach us a lesson.

It is good and right to gather wisdom and strength from the experience of life but, as the protagonist’s wife in the 2000 movie, Remember the Titans pondered, “Sometimes life’s just hard, for no reason at all.” It takes courage to deal with the realization that, as Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.

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The Last Blossom from a Dying Plant?

In Never at Rest, largely regarded as the standard biography of Isaac Newton, Richard Westfall describes the moment in history when Newton and others reached a tipping point for how modern man would evaluate the truth of ideas:

“The antipodes of alchemy with its eternal and exasperating secretiveness was mathematics, the very claim of which to be called knowledge rested on demonstrations open to all. Where the one made its way deviously with allusion and symbolism, the other proceeded in the cold light of rigorous logic. The diversity of the intellectual world of the seventeenth century has perhaps no better illustration than the coexistence of two such antithetical enquiries, both apparently in flourishing condition. Only to later ages would it be clear that seventeenth-century alchemy was the last blossom from a dying plant and seventeenth-century mathematics the first blooming of a hardy perennial. Whatever the state of alchemy, certainly it was manifest in 1661 that mathematics was a flourishing enterprise.”

But clearly, each generation confronts its own ideas which live by “exasperating secretiveness” and “[make their] way deviously with allusion and symbolism.” What was manifest more than 350 years ago must be made clear again and again.

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My Heart’s Desire

What does travel do for us? Mark Twain said that it’s “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” That can be true, of course, but certainly the act of traveling is not a guaranteed cure for small, unhealthy thinking.

Several years ago, one of my sisters and her husband sent what I consider the most obnoxious Christmas card ever. Its greeting was, “This year we got to go to Paris. Again.”

Marcel Proust insisted that, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,” and you can do that without leaving home. Ralph Waldo Emerson advised, “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.” And L. Frank Baum’s cherished protagonist Dorothy Gale learned, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with!”

Malcolm Gladwell once proposed a prohibition on ever telling anyone what college you attended in order to remove prestige as a factor in college selection. What if travelers were prohibited from ever telling anyone on their return where they had been in order to remove prestige as a motivation for traveling? Would that encourage us instead—at home or on the road—to “carry the beautiful with us”?

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Getting Better, IV

Max Roser, an economist working at the University of Oxford, said that at the close of 2015, only 6 percent of Americans surveyed believed the world was getting better when, in fact—by many significant measures—it is:

According to Future Crunch, the year 2016 saw:

  • The discovery of potential cures for Parkinson’s, AIDS and sepsis, the rollout of a cheap vaccine for cholera, and dramatic declines in malaria death rates
  • Big wins for LGBT activists in Japan, Finland and Slovenia, and women’s rights in India and Iceland
  • Global declines in executions
  • Drops in income inequality in the US and China
  • Increases in German employment (despite huge refugee intakes)
  • Big conservation wins for tigers in China, elephants in Chad, bees in Europe, forests in Cameroon and oceans in Indonesia
  • The accelerating death of the fossil fuels industry and the incredible explosion of renewable energy around the world

…but these stories were vastly underreported.

“Forget fake news,” Future Crunch said. “Our real problem is balance. Respectable news outlets say they’re giving us an objective view of the world, yet drown us in a daily deluge of conflict and negative headlines. It’s manufactured drama and we can’t tear our eyes away. Bad news is great for business…because it’s an addictive product. That’s why it’s everywhere.”

Roser gives three more reasons for these overwhelmingly negative erroneous views:

  • It is hard-wired in human psychology to watch for signs of danger.
  • The 24/7 structure of the media highlights negative subjects.
  • We are unaware of how inconceivably exceptional our current living conditions are from the perspective of our ancestors.

Each of us controls the information we consume and the worldview we form as a result. Are you brave and discerning enough to recognize how far we’ve come and help continue to make things better?

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I’m Doing Something

Elvis Costello said, “I don’t go out much at night; I don’t go out much at all.” In fact, many people now often prefer staying in to going out for reasons that include:

  • Feeling free to act and dress however they want.
  • Saving their money.
  • Avoiding meaningless conversations.
  • Avoiding competition for parking, seating or using the bathroom.

But if I want to spend a couple of hours reading a book or the news online, I often prefer going out to a café or a public space to sitting in my living room. And I’m all over this scene from Seinfeld:

GEORGE: Do you mind if I watch [this tape] here?
JERRY: What for?
GEORGE: Because if I watch it at my apartment I feel like I’m not doing anything. If I watch it here, I’m out of the house; I’m doing something.

Even when I do go out, however, I don’t necessarily want to talk to anyone. Again, Seinfeld:

ELAINE: Come on, let’s go do something. I don’t want to just sit around here.
JERRY: Okay.
ELAINE: Want to go get something to eat?
JERRY: Where do you want to go?
ELAINE: I don’t care, I’m not hungry.
JERRY: We could go to one of those cappuccino places. They let you just sit there.
ELAINE: What are we gonna do there? Talk?
JERRY: We can talk.
ELAINE: I’ll go if I don’t have to talk.

It seems, however, that despite my lack of a social impulse and my squeamishness with conversation, I do feel sympathy for the idea of a “third place.” Ray Oldenburg said that third places—”public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact”—are “central to local democracy and community vitality.” They should be:

  • Neutral—”in which we all feel at home and comfortable”
  • Level—”by its nature, an inclusive place”
  • Conversational—”the cardinal and sustaining activity of third places everywhere”
  • Accessible—”one may go alone at almost any time of the day or evening with assurances that acquaintances will be there”
  • Regular—”the right people are there to make it come alive, and they are the regulars”
  • Unpretentious—”typically plain”
  • Playful—”joy and acceptance reign over anxiety and alienation”

Johnny Dzubak said that a third place “puts you in touch with people who are unlike you, which is an important part of growth for every man.” But he also said, for a third place to be right for you, it needs to have “the kind of people you’d want to spend time with.” I don’t know if such a place exists for me; I don’t know if I can be comfortable in a place “where everybody knows your name.”

Is it just the sounds of a public place that I like, not the interaction? What is it about third places that I like when I don’t particularly like talking with people or getting to know them?

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Reason Alone is Sufficient

Astrophysicist and science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson is a big fan of Jonathan Swift’s eighteenth century novel, Gulliver’s Travels. He told The New York Times that it’s his favorite novel of all time, and he regularly includes it among books he recommends to both adults and children.

Swift’s satire on human nature aligns with Tyson’s own devotion to reason and his caustic view of the seeming disdain many people have for it.

“I call people’s attention to Part IV [A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms],” Tyson said, “in which Gulliver meets a community of intelligent, logical horses. Their debates are short. Their decision-making is efficient. Their governance is rational. Their society is a model of function and performance. Meanwhile, running hairy, smelly, and naked in the woods are the Yahoos—the first appearance of that word. They are savage and irrational creatures. And they look just like humans.”

The reaction of one of the Houyhnhnms to Gulliver’s description of English society reads like many of Tyson’s descriptions of contemporary society:

“He said ‘he had been very seriously considering my whole story, as far as it related both to myself and my country; that he looked upon us as a sort of animals, to whose share, by what accident he could not conjecture, some small pittance of reason had fallen…that we disarmed ourselves of the few abilities she had bestowed, had been very successful in multiplying our original wants, and seemed to spend our whole lives in vain endeavors to supply them by our own inventions…that our institutions of government and law were plainly owing to our gross defects in reason, and by consequence in virtue; because reason alone is sufficient to govern a rational creature.'”

Indeed, Gulliver relates:

“It was with extreme difficulty that I could bring my master to understand the meaning of the word opinion, or how a point could be disputable; because reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain; and beyond our knowledge we cannot do either. So that controversies, wranglings, disputes, and positiveness, in false or dubious propositions, are evils unknown among the Houyhnhnms. In the like manner, when I used to explain to him our several systems of natural philosophy, he would laugh, ‘that a creature pretending to reason, should value itself upon the knowledge of other people’s conjectures, and in things where that knowledge, if it were certain, could be of no use.'”

Tyson insists that “reading this novel is fun, on the cynical side” because, he says, it’s “a reminder that, most of the time, humans are yahoos.”

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