Notes to Myself: Waking up from History

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Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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  1. Avatar Murali
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    I’m pretty sure we’re overall, less violent and more tolerant than we were 200 years ago. But then, my grasp of history is worse than shallow so in my imagination the past is nothing but people dying from violence, starvation or communicable diseases.Report

  2. Avatar Michael Drew
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    I definitely think there are certain practices from the past that it’s too bad have gone.

    And I may be among the benighted in your view in that I do think I think that, net-net, things are overall better today than most times in the past, and on a fairly (though not at all perfectly) continuous upslope in that direction, albeit with some big hiccups.

    But to me what is important, even though we might think that people who lived in earlier times may have lived in worse times overall, and even that many of them might have been (deeply) morally culpable for their being worse times, is never to forget that everyone who has ever lived has lived among a group of people who was the most modern group of humans ever to have lived on the planet. Their world was as fully theirs – their only one, and they were as fully in it – as we are now. Every group ever. Their reality (though not their world views) was as completely modern and present, and sometimes seemingly overwhelming and impervious to attempts to affect it, to them as ours is to us. Trying to sustain that sense in thinking about history is the main reason why I like to think about it so much. They were real people. It’s simple and obvious, but I don’t know that people always are truly internalizing that whenever they go into history mode. Even now (not that I have al that much experience thinking about history), it;s still a bit of a jolt when I manage to get that sense to really click into place so that I’m feeling it.

    I think we can think that history is progressing morally (I’m not fully wedded to that, but I do think that there have been clearly worse times than ours, and that ours are among the best), without forgetting any of what I just said it is important for us to remember.Report

  3. Avatar North
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    I’m going to just lay my cards on the table; I do think it’s better today than it has been before. I’d be interested in some specific examples of what areas you’d identify where you think we’d backslid badly.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to North
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      @north I’m in agreement that thinks are better today than they were in the past. The problem is depicting the past as a universally dark place of grime and crime. The West as depicted in fiction is a lot less orderly than the actual West. There were outlaws, prostitutes, and some wild frontier towns but there were also a lot of well-organized and run communities that would not tolerate this foolishness. Prosperity existed to.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to North
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      I’m just so uninterested in that discussion, frankly. My point here was not at all to do a cost benefit analysis of some point in the past versus today. What interests me is how many people jump from a fully respectable position that on the whole we’re better off today to the argument that people at all times before our own lived lives that were nasty, brutish, and short. I’m interested in where that comes from.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Rufus F.
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        Well, by todays living standards the living standards in the past probably were by and large nasty, dirty and unhealthy. The average person in 2015 would look at the prospect of living in the average conditions in 1915 with unadulterated horror. The average person in 1915 would look at the prospect of living in the average conditions in 1815 with unadulterated horror. That’s sort of a given right?Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to North
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          I think it depends on how familiar you are with the period in question. I spent a number of years studying 1815, roughly, and there were certainly many things I prefer about today and some things I preferred about 1815, but on the whole I was just confronted by difference. They do things differently in those other times. Unadulterated horror seems a weird leap.Report

          • Avatar North in reply to Rufus F.
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            Well you know, 2015 ->1915, no air conditioning, no synthetic fabrics (that’s a big one if you think about it), no TV. 1915->1815, no music unless it’s live, no radio. It just goes back and that’s without talking about society. As a gay man I am keenly aware that the only golden age gays have is right fishing now.Report

            • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to North
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              No love for antiquity, North?Report

              • Avatar North in reply to LeeEsq
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                Like the Greek era or the Roman era Lee? Sure they had their poets and the like but would I want to live in those eras? Hell no?Report

              • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to North
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                You refer to this age as the only golden age LGBT people have known. While this has been the best era for LGBT people in the West since Constantine converted to Christianity, it is not the only golden age LGBT people have known. While not like us, the Greco-Roman world was not an unfriendly place towards LGBT people. One of the greatest Roman Emperors, Hadrian, was for all intents a gay man. There were other non-Western cultures that were more open to homosexuality than the West after Constantine like Tokugawa era Japan.Report

            • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to North
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              But that raises the question of whether it’s somehow offensive politically to champion some aspect of the past in separation from its context. I’ve met some really die hard rockabilly lifestyle people who try to live as much in the 1950s as they can. Actually, I went to a young woman’s apartment not that long ago to find she had really tried hard to live as if in the 1920s. I often wonder if people like that get confronted and grilled about their opinions on things like integration and gay rights. I’m fairly certain those people were not reactionaries politically, but I wonder how they square that circle.Report

            • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to North
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              @north 1915 is also in the middle of World War I and one of the largest pandemics in world history is three years away. Besides the lack of creature comforts, 1915 was not a good time.

              I have to admit that even though I should know better, I am particularly fascinated with the period between 1890-1914, particularly the 1890s. A lot of the modern world was born in this period both in terms of creature comforts and ideas. At the same time, the world of 1890-1914 still had many features of traditional life that makes the past such different from the present. I wouldn’t like to live there but it would be a fascinating time to visit.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to LeeEsq
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                Well yes, I grant you that. I was being simplistic by simply dialing back a century from our current date. I think my fundamental point stands though.Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to North
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                Which one though? The point that, for a gay man, this society is objectively superior to past societies? I would certainly agree with that one. The point that a world without TV, radio, and synthetic fabrics is a self-explanatory source of unmitigated horror seems overstated to me. I far prefer live music to the radio and haven’t got a TV but those seem like subjective aesthetic tastes more than objective facts.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Rufus F.
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        people at all times before our own lived lives that were nasty, brutish, and short. I’m interested in where that comes from.

        Stories from the grandparents mixed in with a good shovelful of historical quotations (every generation going back a couple thousand years) talking about how much better our grandkids have it than we had it.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird
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          There’s also a teleology to it that strikes me as magical thinking. Understandable magical thinking, of course.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Rufus F.
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            Technology keeps getting better and better. Some of this technology allows us to abandon some of the old, hard compromises.

            We look back at those old, hard compromises and assume that the choice was between what we’re doing now and what they did then. When, really, the choice was between what they did then and, almost uniformly, worse choices.

            I mean, it takes me an investment of minutes to do a weeks’ worth of laundry and bedding. It takes longer to sort it than to throw it in the washer and then transfer it to the dryer and check on it periodically. Moreover, I have so many clothes that I can wear seven different outfits in a week and still have clothing left over… so I can put off doing laundry until the weekend. (The only time we use the washer in the middle of the week is when there is either a mishap with the cats or a mishap with some kind of tomato sauce.)

            So when we look back at the past and say “Can you believe that they treated women like domestic help?!?”, we forget that that was a hard compromise.Report

            • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird
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              Technology does improve. Getting new ribbons for my typewriter to type a letter is harder than sending an email for sure. It’s just hard for me to draw the lines. For instance, I suppose if your choices for bedding are between having a quilting bee or going to Walmart and getting something made in a Chinese factory, the second choice is easier and I’d imagine choosing the quilting bee would be pretty hard for most of us. But, I don’t know- they both have their advantages. It’s hard for me to say of course nobody would ever choose to have a quilting bee if they didn’t have to.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Rufus F.
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                After the EMP, the folks who have gone to a non-zero number of quilting bees are more likely to have successful tribes than those who never, ever had to deal with anything but Walmart.

                Indeed, Quilting Bees do more than one thing. As the quilts get made, social bonds are strengthened, information is traded, and the society benefits in all sorts of intangible ways beyond the mere creation of quilts (and art! there’s artistry at play in quilt creation!).

                But it takes all day.Report

            • Avatar Kim in reply to Jaybird
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              Oh, yes, technology does improve!
              Wonderful stuff, technology!Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Rufus F.
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        Watching Danny DeVito on Taxi.Report

      • Avatar Maribou in reply to Rufus F.
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        It’s the inverse of the “golden age” argument, right, and just as obviously false? Same reason so many people either dismiss science as a basic for decision-making, or lionize it.

        I’ve thought for a long time that we have some kind of hard-wiring (or maybe heavy-duty cultural soft-wiring, or OF COURSE, maybe something somewhere in the middle or off to one side – but a SOMETHING) which supports dichotomous thinking, and that’s where this sort of thing comes from. It *does* feel more reassuring to think of anything that isn’t right in front of us (physically or metaphorically) as All One Thing, even when one should know better.

        As a personal example, I remember how incredibly furious I was with Ernest Thompson Seton, whose books about animals I loved as a child, when I was reading one of his books about exploring and found page after page of racist screed (particularly offensive since it was OBVIOUS that the guy he was castigating with all kinds of stereotypes saved his bacon about 8 times, minimum, just from his own narrative of events). I was SO MAD AT HIM. HOW DARE HE… just be the same dead guy, morally complicated and of his time that he had been all along… sigh. (Funnily enough, his sexism – or other people’s sexism from that time – doesn’t particularly upset me. Because that was already part of the lumpen pudding I had categorized in my mind as “turn of that century”, having read lots and lots of books written then. But, you know, I forgot how recently people of otherwise good judgment who lionized “the other” in some ways and had great respect for the theoretical ideals of said other could also be flat-out RACIST ASSHATS. Well, we still do that now sometimes. BUT NOT SO DAMN BLITHELY. (Mostly. Not the people I already think have good judgment anyway. *mutter mutter mutter*)Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to North
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      Multiple first world countries putting genocide on the books.
      Apartheid under open consideration between first world countries, as well.
      Convicting people as traitors for refusing to purchase certain products.

      Is this better than Nazi Germany? I am uncertain. But I’d rather we not contemplate Nazi Germany as “normal” either.Report

  4. Avatar LeeEsq
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    Ahistorical thinking is more common than historical thinking. The book Historical Thinking and other Unnatural Acts argues that the ability to think historically is an uncommon one. Since ahistorical thinking is more common than historical thinking people tend to over romanticize the past or turn it into a nightmare. This seems true for history that was in living memory. In media, the early post-war period in the United States, say from 1945 to 1964, is depicted either as a prosperous and idealistic time of social cohesion or a time of repression racial and sexual. I’ve noticed a similar treatment of the same time period in the media of other Anglophone countries. When you go further into the past things become even muddier. Americans seem really bad at this even compared to the citizens of other young countries. We have a lot of mythologized or demythologized Westerns, some Civil War, Gilded Age, or Roaring Twenties/Great Depression/WWII period pieces but not a lot else.

    A lot of this is because people really don’t care about history. Historical settings in fiction are just a way to make a story more interesting. As long as people find it entertaining most are happy, historical accuracy be damned. It riles me because I care about these details.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to LeeEsq
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      “Since ahistorical thinking is more common than historical thinking people tend to over romanticize the past or turn it into a nightmare.”

      That’s precisely what interests me. I sort of understand where the romanticized version of the past comes from- it seems obvious that a person who is unhappy with the modern world would imagine things were far rosier in the past. But I don’t understand the need to imagine that, in spite of human nature not having changed terribly much, at some point in the recent past we were all savages.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Rufus F.
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        @rufus-f a lot of this depends on what tribe you belong to. I’m a Jew and for the most part, the period between the Destruction of the Second Temple to the mid-20th century was a history of savageness for us. There were some triumphal parts but a lot of our history was not that happy for centuries. The same goes for other disadvantaged groups like LGBT people, African-Americans in the United States, or women in general depending on your opinions. For many groups, the past is not only a different country but an actively belligerent one.

        For the people who don’t belong to a particular disadvantaged group, the tendency to perceive the past as a nightmare probably has a lot to do with creature comforts. People like their creature comforts. Standards of living are higher today than they were at any previous point in human history for the majority of the world’s population even in really poor and undeveloped nations. People are kind of aware that things weren’t so great in the past and extrapolate social conditions from material conditions.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to LeeEsq
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          Right, and that was something in the back of my mind, although not in my note. I remember when Jason would talk about history here, he painted a fairly bleak picture, which made perfect sense to me because he’s a gay man, so of course it would have been horrible for him at most points in the Christian West. It’s interesting to me how many gay men became classicists in the 19th c. however because the Greek views on homosexuality were so different from those of their time.Report

  5. Avatar Kolohe
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    There’s a strange complacency to this mindset and an underlying fear that we might be traitors to the present age were we to see as superior some past ideas or practices. The past is a different place and we’re the gung-ho patriots of contemporaneity. It then becomes clear how easy it must have been for totalitarian states to abolish historical knowledge given the psychological threat that the past seems to pose to our sense of self.

    Is this a thing anymore though? Year Zero movements seem to have gone out of style about the time the Khmer Rouge did. *Both* major parties in the USA run basically on the idea that they are going to restore a mythic past. (and the other side is trying to transform the country away from that idyllic state)Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Kolohe
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      Thankfully, it isn’t much of a thing. I think the revelation for me was that, for many people, it really would not be such a terrible thing to have the past erased by the state because it’s actually very pleasant to place a sign over history that says “Beware! Stay out!” and think we know all there is to know about living.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Rufus F.
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        Well, not so much all there is to know, but sufficient to get by? For most of us that seems true. I’ll cop to being the guy who is fully complacent in my ignorance of history. What would you say to me to move me out of my complacency?Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Murali
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          My endless fascination with the past is just based in how weird and surprising it is. I think there’s an artistic element to it as well- artists tend to be magpies and collect whatever is interesting from other cultures and eras. I find that the artists I know aren’t as concerned with the question of what era was better or worse. In general, when I taught history, I emphasized the strangeness of past ideas and practices and asked the students to just be in that strangeness for a bit and try to make sense of it. They seemed to find that more compelling than the endless recitation of one damned thing after another.Report

    • Avatar j r in reply to Kolohe
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      I see some derivations of Year Zero movements.

      For instance, lots of neoreactionaries are so disgusted at modernity that they long for some sort of great war or catastrophe to come along and reset history to where they think it ought to be. Likewise, at the other end, there is some element of the social justice movement who feel that the world is so riddled with racism and misogyny and other variants of evil that incremental change will never be enough; the only way forward is to erase the norms of the past and recreate them from whole cloth.

      These are obviously the extremes, but they exist.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to j r
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        I’ve sometimes wondered just when the hipsters I see trying to revive old folkways and clothes and lifestyles and the sort of Wendell Berry conservatives are going to put aside their differences and start farming and churning butter together.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to j r
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        In a slightly different context, I’ve encountered people that argued the only way to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict is to force a lot of mixed marriages between Israeli Jews and the Palestinians until both groups meld into one. The fact that this would resort in the wholesale destruction of some very established cultural identities that would be deeply resisted by millions of people never occurred to them. I really can’t stand it when some ideologue thinks they can use people as sociological experiments. It never ends well.Report

  6. Avatar Saul Degraw
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    We yearn for the Bohemia that we were too young to experience.

    I’ve met way too many old-timers who talked about being able to get Greenwich Village apartments on the cheap in the 1960s and SOHO lofts in the 1970s and that makes me envious. Yet there is probably a lot about the 1960s and 70s that I would not like. The feeling of envy about an affordable Manhattan is still there but what made Manhattan affordable was its bankruptcy. I could probably buy a lot of property on the cheap in Detroit but I am not willing to do so. There are stories of people moving to Buffalo and also buying housing on the cheap. Again, I am not willing to do this. Nor are many people.

    I also have a fascinating with daydreaming about what my life would have been like if my 20s were during the early to mid 1990s. Maybe this is because I watched Singles as a very impressionable 12 year old and thought “this is what my 20s are going to be like!!!” My 20s were not like that.Report

  7. Avatar j r
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    By the way, let me just say “thank you,” but really “eff you” for getting Jesus Jones stuck in my head.Report

  8. Avatar Tod Kelly
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    @rufus-f “What interests me is how many people jump from a fully respectable position that on the whole we’re better off today to the argument that people at all times before our own lived lives that were nasty, brutish, and short. I’m interested in where that comes from.”

    It’s funny, but up until recently I would have said that it comes from some kind of psychological hardwiring. But because of books I’ve been reading recently, I am now wondering if we think this because it’s largely true.

    As I noted in Jay’s Sunday post this week, I’m reading two books that look at life in the past. One, Midnight Rising, is about John Brown (he of Harper’s Ferry fame) and deals with life in the mid 19th century. The other is The Lost City of Z, which is about Percy Fawcett, the last of the great Victorian-era explorers and deals with life in the late 19th century through just before the Great Depression. Neither is my lifetime or my parents’, but it’s not that long ago. (In fact, Fawcett’s time overlapped greatly with my grandparents.) And I have to say, much of what I’ve been reading strikes me as being not simply non-modern, but downright barbaric.

    Here are two examples, one from each book:

    In the mid-19th century in the US, when a man was executed for some crime, it was not uncommon for some piece of him (head, arm , foot, etc.) to be hacked off and sent to the victim or the victim’s family as a kind of trophy. It turns out that Nat Turner was never buried after his execution, because there were so many families that needed trophies after his failed uprising.

    In the late 19th/early 20th century, upper crust families in Britain sent their teenage boys to military academies to learn how to be “proper English Gentlemen.” Much of what these academies did to turn them into gentlemen would be considered torture today. Regular “curriculum” included flogging, having hot pokers held against student flesh, forcing student to stick bare limbs out windows for hours at times of the year when temperatures were sub-freezing, and — the oddest of all — have the students put a stool on top of a table, and then another stool on top of that stool, make the student climb and stand on top of it all until they were rightly balanced, and then choose another boy to come and kick it all out from under them.

    Life was qualitatively shorter in earlier times, obviously. But the more I’m reading about lifestyles of our own ancestors from not that long ago, the more I am of the opinion that it was actually nastier and far more brutish as well.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Tod Kelly
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      Gross to both.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Tod Kelly
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      I will just say that one could find aspects of brutality from this era and still find it odd to out of hand dismiss everything about us. Saying, for instance, that a society in which jokes are made about the quietly accepted fact that prisoners are likely to be raped while in jail couldn’t possibly offer anything worth valuing seems weird to me.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Rufus F.
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        I think one problem is not only the brutality but the thought process behind it. Think of how many people are struggling to understand ISIS. Many people in the present would not only shudder at the brutal practiced in British boarding schools but just be at a lost to comprehend that it was supposed to be educational.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Rufus F.
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        @rufus-f I think in order for that argument to have more sticking power with me, you’d have to show that people in the past were actually *better* — either with how they treated prisoners, how they dealt with victims that alleged rape, or the degree to which they strived to keep prisoners safe from other prisoners.

        Because unless they were really good at those things — and I believe they were terrible at all of them — you’re not actually making an argument that we’re just as nasty and brutish as they were, you’re just making an argument that we’re not perfect.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Tod Kelly
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          No I’m definitely not making an argument that we’re as nasty and brutish as they were. I’m not trying to either.

          What I’m saying is that we don’t dismiss entire cultures out of hand for their brutal aspects. We don’t say that because the United States in 2015 has jokes about prison rape and horrific instances of police violence that nothing from this society has any merit. Nor would we say that India, for example, because it has a racist caste system, has no art, ideas, beliefs, or practices worth knowing about. But plenty of people do say that about “the past”- they boil down entire societies and eras to the most horrific instances of brutality and write off the rest of the practices, beliefs, ideas, etc. as not worth knowing about.Report

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