Monday, September 3, 2007

Idealization of the Past, of the Oppressed, and of everything else

It is so terribly annoying to see the past so idealized. No matter what day it is, or what year, or what century, you can pick up a paper (or a clay tablet) and read how everything is going downhill and how horrible things are today and just wasn't it all find and dandy in the past.

Except it wasn't. Generally speaking, things are MUCH MUCH better today than they ever were. Abject slavery has been all but eliminated from the planet. It used to be pervasive everywhere. The standard of living is much higher than it has ever been. Life expectancies in much of the world are way up. Science has advanced tremendously. In countries the world over, minorities are treated better, women are in power and have equal rights, and things are just dandy compared to how they were even just 100 years ago.

People really ought to study history more. All of it. Because guess what - the past was not an ideal time. And it also shows you that the oppressed are not ideal, either. There seems to be another myth - the "noble savage" - that somehow everything was perfect, for instance, in the Americas, in the years before the evil white men arrived. Yet that wasn't the case at all. The "red" and "brown" men and women who were here before, they did just as much atrocities as the Europeans - they had wars, human sacrifice, they conquered and subjugated enemies. In short, they were prime examples of humanity. Just because a group is oppressed doesn't mean that they are any better than their oppressors. Reverse who is in charge and the oppressed usually just become new oppressors.

So demonizing some and lionizing and idealizing others - that is stupid and it is terribly annoying. Heck, the U.S. used to be held, for good reason, as a shining example to the rest of the world of democracy and civil rights, and even we screwed that up. Eternal vigilance is what is required. And a realization first, that while people individually can be pretty decent (and in actual fact usually are), power corrupts. And that humans are tribal, and always have been, and so tribalism, like corruption of power, needs to be accounted for and compensated for.

"Oh, if only we had a revolution and women were in charge," I see repeated often in certain feminist circles. But never do I see what form that revolution would take nor do I see how they'd really do anything different. I suspect we'd end up with more of the same. And perhaps they do, too, which is why the talk of "revolution" always remains rather vague and noncomittal.

People are people. Most are decent. Most will get along in some form or another. But you always have to keep that in mind. I think it would be great if I were supreme dictator. And maybe some things would be better if I were, but I'm sure I'd eventually be corrupted by the power, as all are, and we'd end up with more of the same. That's just the way of things. The best we can do is set up a system that legally gives equality to all and also gives as little power to government as possible (while still being a viable society).

I'd be depressed, but I'm having too much joy with my daughter for this extended weekend - she turned two, she got a lot of presents (some hand-me-downs from my sister's kids), and so I've been very very busy having pretend meals at her new little table, in a tiny chair that strains my back (but she just INSISTS on me sitting in it). Oh, and she loves her new train sets. My wife is going to spoil her rotten, I think.


Replicant said...
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Replicant said...

Wow, looks like Tara's got it made ;)

If the environMENTALists have their way, we'll be back in the dark ages sooner rather than later. They rail against all the advancements you mention, DBB. Some feel banning DDT is an effective population control method, as is denying food to a starving population. The problem is, those populations are always non-whites in Africa, Asia, etc.

And Global Warming is their new reason for de-industrializing the world. The leaders of these groups don't want clean, cheap energy, they want us to regress to a hunter-gatherer society, where the total human population is only about 20 million, where we can have no impact on the planet. Of course, unless you somehow make everyone too stupid to make things, we'll end up back where we are, eventually.

Yet, NONE of them are willing to take that step and give up all their infrastructure-realted amenities (which is pretty much averything they own.)

I know, this is only tangentially related to your post.

Daisy said...

My own pet peeve, along these same lines, is people who think they would have been so MORALLY ADVANCED AND PURE in the past. They think they would still be feminist, anti-racist, abolitionist, hidden Jews in the attic, etc. I have no such illusions about myself, and I can make no such declarations. I am amazed people seem to think they would be more moral than other people of any particular time, place, education, class and mores... no, that's why we RECOGNIZE and APPRECIATE the MLKs, the Dietrich Bonhoeffers, the Gandhis, etc, precisely because THEY WERE VISIONARIES and could see what many others could not.

To actually believe you would be above the morals of the past if you had been present, is what Nietzsche said was symptomatic of what he called "The Last Man": We know everything that has ever happened, and there is no end to derision. "Last men" think they already know everything and there is nothing to learn from the past.

This is why they can so easily romanticize the past, IMO.

ballgame said...

A lot of good points, dbb (except the one about tiny government).

Have you ever read Marvin Harris (Cannibals and Kings, etc.)? If you haven't, I think you would really enjoy it.

DBB said...

What's wrong with limited government? I'd have thought that six years of GWB would have been a huge advertisement and endorsement for small government. Every civil right you have reduces the power of government.

So government should be as small as possible - or do you enjoy knowing big brother is watching you? This does not mean we eliminate government, it just means we make it OUR servant and not the other way around.

beansa said...

Wow, dbb, you seem a little grumpy! While I'm not sure what you've read recently that set this off, I do agree that there's no time like the present. Well, maybe the mid to late 90's were a bit better for my family economically - before the dot bomb - but that's not really historic, yanno?

I remember in high school, it used to drive me crazy when people would wax nostalgic about the 60's. Or kids my age would wish they'd been born then, when everything was better and people had ideals. I was like: Are you insane? There was a hideous war! With a draft! Civil right? Pre-feminism? Aye yi yi.

So, yeah, revisionist history, the grass is always greener, whatever. I'm glad I don't have to lace myself into a corset and milk cows at 5am everyday, give birth on my kitchen table, and watch half of my kids die before they turn 4. Things are definitely better, at leat in the US/Western Europe.

My only disagreement is about slavery. We did a unit on that in a global studies course I took last year. Still more prominent than you might think. Parents sell their kids into slavery to relieve debt, and many women and children are sold or abducted into slavery and prostituted every year. I'll try to round up some figures on that, if you want. I was shocked, really, to learn about this stuff.

DBB said...

Beasa - guilty as charged - I was in a bit of a grumpy mood, only in part based on things I've read (more of a cumulative effect) and also from stress/lack of sleep/worry - I posted about that a bit back. I'm more rested today - and with the latest test results, much more relaxed and less worried about my wife and child number two.

With regards to slavery - while it hasn't been entirely eliminated, compared to how it used to be, it is way way way better. You don't see the world powers all partaking in it as official policy. It is more of an underground, fringe thing, something that we seek to stomp out not invest in. Maybe we can never get rid of it entirely, but certainly we can make it illegal and minimize it. Which we have.

hedera said...

Yes, there's a lot to be said for taking the long view. Years ago I read about an Egyptian papyrus from 2,500 BC or something, in which the writer complained at length that the younger generation was rude and mannerless, behaved weirdly, the government was corrupt, and the world was going to hell in a handbasket (translated from the hieroglyphics). Every time I find myself muttering about awful kids and terrible hip-hop music (I hate the stuff, and while I'm willing to concede it's a form of performance art, as a classical singer, I refuse to classify it as "music"), I remind myself about the ancient, complaining Egyptian and realize that every generation thinks that the new generation isn't as good as THEY were when THEY were that age. What's really going on, of course, is selective memory: the complainers weren't that great either.

Beansa is right about slavery: it's much more of a problem than you admit. I concede you're right that it's much better than it was 200 years ago. But when you say that "none of the world powers partake in it as official policy" - have you looked at Sudan recently?? None of the European powers makes it official policy but it's pretty rampant in North Africa generally, especially in the poorer areas.

DBB said...

Hedera - I don't mean to minimize what slavery still exists so much as point out that it used to be a thousand times worse.

Sudan is not a world power. When I say world power I mean first world countries with large economies that have great influence on what happens globally. Obviously, there are more problems than just slavery with tinpot dictators who run tiny third world countries. But they don't set the global agenda.

That is a great thing to keep in mind (your hieroglyphics example) - I wish that would be taught and repeated every time someone complains about how things are all going to hell.

Replicant said...

Exactly. Every generation thinks theirs is the worst. Misery loves company. We're always reminiscing for the past or pining for the future.