Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Four Lessons of History

"We can't change the present or the future. We can only change the past, and we do it all the time."

That's a quote from Bob Dylan's interview with Rolling Stone in the September 27 issue. Like much of Dylan's work, it can be interpreted many different ways. I take it to mean that history is often written to suit the interests of its author. That's why we need to know history; we need to protect ourselves from the warped versions of history that are used to justify destructive politics, science, religion, etc. If we don't want to repeat history's mistakes, we have to know what really happened and why. Unfortunately, our schools teach history in a boring way that reinforces the social order. It's in the interest of the elite to make learning excruciatingly dull and misleading. An ignorant public is easy to manipulate. The truth of history is fascinating, liberating and energizing.

The first lesson of history is that things haven't always been the way they are now. The second one follows from that, though not inevitably: Things don't have to be the way they are now. The third one follows more easily: The reason things are the way they are now is often arbitrary and not always in our best interest. History should explain how the current status quo came into being, because the process is never a natural evolution of institutions designed to best serve human nature. It's a struggle among competing groups who (no matter how strenuously they profess their selflessness) always privilege their own interests above all others' once they come to power. There is no enlightened historical progression in which the best system (e.g., capitalism) eventually comes to the fore. Just because capitalism is the most successful economic system right now doesn't mean it's the one best suited to meet human needs. Capitalism has many benefits, but it has also always had a regime of violence enforcing its demands.

The fourth lesson has eluded many in the modern age: Things don't always get better. We've been led to believe that our society is the fulfilment of history's destiny. All those old civilizations were just experiments laying the foundation for our society, which is the best, most just, most equitable society in history. Granted, we've made significant strides, but we have problems that never afflicted previous societies. Social isolation and alienation are endemic, and racism is a post-Columbus invention. No one dismisses the historical record of civilizational decline, but we've decided the rule that what goes up must come down no longer applies to us. Our technology has supposedly freed us from the limits that pulled our ancestors back to earth. In reality, we're subject to the same limits on natural resources; no matter how sophisticated our technologies become, we'll never be able to extract energy from alternative sources without expending much more energy than we do now pumping oil or natural gas or digging coal out of the ground. We've probably already begun our descent.

Knowledge is power, and the ability to deny knowledge to others or trick them into ignorance gives one power over them. Therefore, I strongly urge everyone to learn history, no matter how difficult it may be to find the truth. Not only do you have to fight the Man's machinations; you have to fight your own conditioned resistance to uncomfortable truths. But it's well worth the pain. (I hope.)

Monday, September 03, 2012

Back to Middle School

My annual State Fair pilgrimage was somewhat spoiled by a group of kids who looked to be in high school. (In other words, to a 30-something like myself they looked very immature and disrespectful.) I was sitting along one of the fairgrounds' main thoroughfares when I felt a pebble strike my forehead at incredible velocity. (Two notes: 1. It did not produce any pain. 2. It was slightly bigger and rougher than a pebble, but I couldn't think of a better word for it than "pebble.") I looked around, saw no signs of an assailant and didn't think much of it.

Then I noticed a tall teenage guy sneaking glances at me and smiling. The glances and smiles spread to the short guy and girls with him, accompanied by laughter. The short guy whipped a pebble into the street, reinforcing my case. They were also doing things with their smartphones, a diabolical new tool in the imagination of the tormented. I quickly found myself back in school, specifically middle school. Once again I was paralyzed by fear and humiliation. My face seemed to be reddening along with, possibly, my eyes, presaging the onset of tears.

How could I still be terrorized by teenagers? Am I not an adult with a college degree and a corporate job? I passed my academic tests with flying colors, but I'm not sure if I ever passed the Bully Test. The physical bullying I experienced never exceeded the nuisance level. It was the verbal bullying that ground my self-esteem down to a nub. I would usually just take it, sometimes attempting a timid comeback.

Like many victims of bullying, I carry a chip on my shoulder. Even 20 years after leaving middle school, the seeds of doubt about my self-worth planted back then still bear the occasional fruit. When those kids started smiling and laughing at me, my nerd rage emerged from dormancy and contemplated revenge. ("Nerd rage" is a term I first heard from stand-up Brian Posehn, whom you may know as the tall, goofily endearing guy on Mr. Show and the tall, goofily menacing guy on Just Shoot Me.) Of course, the rage limits one's mental faculties, and my vengeance was predictably unimaginative.

After a few minutes of absorbing the humiliation and hatching a plan, I got up to leave. The tall guy, who I assumed was the guilty party, was standing with his back to me, holding a large, bouncy, blue ball. On my way from the scene, I came up behind him, knocked the ball out of his hands and swatted it up to the walkway around the agriculture building a few yards above us. The nerd rage probably made my swatting look undignified, but I kept a lid on my emotions the best I could. The incident ended with me walking away. I didn't hear or feel any reaction from them, which was a relief.

After I'd put some distance between us, I began to wish I'd taken the ball with me. That would've been the smoother thing to do. But I think I got my point across, and hopefully I didn't look too nerdy doing it. There's a sore spot on my wrist from hitting the guy's arm when I dislodged the ball, a reminder of something I'd much rather forget. Just writing about it brought back the fear, humiliation and self-doubt, but I wanted to get it out of my system.

My favorite comedy-rock band of all time, King Missile (I love Tenacious D, but in terms of laughs-per-minute King Missile still takes the cake.), had a song called "Wuss." The masterful John S. Hall tells us of the many indignities of being a wuss in junior high. The lyric ends with these lines:

...and even now,
Now that I'm not nearly as much of a wuss as I once was,
I still feel kind of wussy from time to time:
Residual wussiness-
The kind of thing you can never really leave behind.

I have plenty of residual wussiness left over from my school days. Luckily, the adult world does not operate by the same rules as the kid and teen worlds. It's humiliating and enraging to be reminded that I'm still vulnerable to bullying by teenagers. At least now I have the emotional security to get over it, even though it might take a few days.

So I've managed to put the experience in perspective on a personal level, but it raises a larger cultural question: How do you discipline kids you don't know? Should you even try? I think we should; after all, as the title of Hillary Clinton's book said, It Takes a Village (to raise a child, I think). But I have no idea how to do that in an effective, non-violent way. If anyone has any ideas, I encourage you to share them here.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Art for Love

Artists refine their technique for attention, in the belief that the excellence of their art justifies the feelings that inspired it. How could a crudely phrased note express true love? What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me? Friends don't do that, of course, but artists are reaching out to strangers for validation, and that requires skill.