Saturday, July 19, 2014

Selecting our History

I was listening to a panel about using history in fiction. There was a discussion of  different views of history and when the gentleman raised in England was asked what he had been taught in school about George Washington, he jokingly answered “Washington Who?”  He went on to talk about the fact that for British school children the American revolution was not a big focus and that other events in British political history were emphasized instead.
        There seemed to be a feeling on the panel  that this was indicative of some sort of flaw. That is was somehow not quite ideal that in different countries basic education in history should be radically different in what parts of history were emphasized or even covered. I do agree that contradictory facts being taught do indicated that there is a problem somewhere. But I don’t think this is what is being referenced in regards to the difference between American and British education.
         Teaching children history does not only have one goal. It’s not only to provide an abstract sampling of how humans and human societies have reacted in the past. It is also to show the child where he or she fits into the world in a broads sense. History should illuminate to context the child is going to have to function in by explaining it’s roots and development.  
         In America, as in many countries, the state takes a role in providing children with education. This connects in my mind to an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates called The Case for Reparations. The article is fairly long so here are a few quotes that relate to the point I want to make:
“ The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte. A nation outlives its generations. ... If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.”

“And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.”

“What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”

          Sometimes in history a state has been defined by the rule of a royal family, regardless of whether there was any other relationship between various territories they controlled, or by a certain land area regardless of who was living on it or governing over it. But America aspires to be a Nation-State, defied be a national identity that is more than the sum of its parts.
from US army photo Essay
          Individuals, laws, government bureaucracy, land areas, these are all things out there in the world that have in various ways a substance independent of anyone’s beliefs. But what ties these disparate things together is a nation. A nation is something that functions because  we all make-believe really hard that it is actually real. It’s true that in some cases a nation mostly overlaps with a sort of meta-tribe, where shared ancestry, shared food, shared language, shared social expectations create a sort of kinship, the feeling that other members are distant relatives, of one extended family, leavened by only a few outsiders who have identified with the family and been adopted. But America is too large and too diverse for a sense of blood relation to serve as an anchor for national identity. Our nationhood can only have and much power as our shared commitment to pretending can give it.
          That’s what national identity is really about. A shared set of beliefs about what it means to be an American. A set of values and historical presidents that we claim as defining. The act of taking parts of history and saying this is our story makes us one people who can then act in continuation of the themes of that story
An alcoholic is bound by the facts of physical and biological reality to the events of his past. If some of those facts are negative or disreputable, that doesn’t threaten his self identification. Steps he takes to acknowledge and repair past mistakes can only strengthen his integrity.
National identity is something different. There are going to be bad things and things no longer approved of in every nation’s past. And these should not’ be denied as facts of history nor their consequences ignored. But if the bad things are primarily the stories we choose to tell ourselves about who we are, if the mistakes are not relegated to dark corners but put on center stage and emphasized, if past crimes and failure are what we choose as defining moments for our nation, there can be only two results.
First individuals can cease to identify as part of a nation. They can lose all enthusiasm for exercising, and working and fighting to make America stronger and better. Inhibitions against damaging the nation and depriving future generations can be lowered. In this case government taxes and other requirements come to be seen not as contribution to a common community but as an imposition to an evil organization foreign to this individual. Government benefits cease to be seen as a gesture of solidarity that ties us together but instead seen as an appropriation of the Other that deserves to be taken for a sucker.
The other option is even worse. Individuals can choose to identify with the nation but re-interpret those stories as good. They can take stories meant to be cautionary tales and instead use them as models of praiseworthy behavior. We could end up with people who shout ‘patriotism’ and  waive symbols of racism all the more fervently  on the basis of this logic: I’m proud t be an American, Americans are racist, therefore I’m proud to be racist.
We need to avoid both these outcomes. We need a national self image that is truly positive and that can inspire individuals to good acts. We need to bind ourselves together as a community of good moral character with momentum towards accomplishing good ends. And this brings me back to how we select which parts of history to teach in our schools.
While it is good to include a few cautionary tales of weaknesses we can fall into, the overwhelming majority of teach to the very young and proclaim most loudly to the world, should be positive tales. We should be putting the emphasis on times we showed the character we want to continue to embody. We should select from history, to tell first and repeat most often, those incidents that reflect what we aspire to be. When we are forming coming generations, we should be focusing the majority of our teaching on those parts of the past that we want to form the pattern of our future.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

good or no, these things must be built

         Men’s souls are crooked and unsound things, not good materials out of which to build friendships, families, households, cities, civilizations. But good or no, these things must be built, and we must craft them with the materials at hand, and make as strong and stubborn redoubt as we make, lest the horrors of the Night should triumph over us, not in some distant age to come, but now.”    
                   -John C. Wright    in Awake in the Night

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Importance of Impossible Standards

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
    - Matthew 5:48(HCSB)

           Why is Jesus saying this? Surely He knows that no natural human is ever going to perfect? Yes, He does:

           If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say, “We don’t have any sin,” we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.       -1 John 1:8-10 (HCSB)

            Yes, Jesus knows that to be perfect as God is perfect is an impossible standard. And I think that is why He set it as a standard.
            It’s human nature to want to meet the standard of essential goodness, and that’s a good thing. Where it can become a problem is when we are tempted to turn from amending our attitudes and action to amending the standard. And if we think the standard ought to be meetable we will naturally be temped. First we’ll care off anything which is “obviously impossible” and then “Impossible for all practical purposes” then “impossible while living a normal life” by which we will actually mean significantly inconvenient to us.
            We’ll end up with a self created standard of righteousness that fits just fine into the life we were already living and are able to pat ourselves on the back at how well we’re doing. We can bask in the warm glow of our own moral accomplishments. And we get to look down on those lives that don’t match our carefully trimmed version of righteousness as well the the exact life it was trimmed for.

           We’ll make a pro forma statement that of course we’re not perfect. But implicitly we reject perfection as inhuman and undesirable. We position ourselves as like the littlest bear’s bowl of porridge, not too cold and too hot, but just right. We slip into the feeling that we’re perfect by the standard that should really apply.
           When I hear people railing against impossible standards, it makes me suspicious that they want to boast in their own works. I’ve found that the frustration of an impossible standard is because I want to check that box, put the trophy on the shelf, and get on with the fun stuff I really want to do.
But that’s going to take my focus away from a perfect God and direct my effort to lesser things. And as much as my sinful nature want to strive for something easier, seeking after God is really the best thing I can do with my life. So I accept the call to be perfect, I embrace the impossible standard. I accept that I’m not going to meet that standard but that’s my problem, a fault in my character, not a problem with the standard.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Review: Throne of Bones

                On his blog Vox Day has a very black and white combative style. He’s very logical and interested in facts, but there is no graciously presenting his opponents’ argument in the best light or giving the benefit of the doubt when someone says something incoherent. If you make a misstep in an argument with Day he’ll nail for it mercilessly. I don’t always agree with him but I enjoy reading the blog. It has the same sort of high energy, no holds barred, feel that watching WWF does.
                I wasn’t sure I would enjoy the same style translated to a novel so I didn’t pick up Summa Elvectica until it went on sale. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that in fiction Day is one of
the best authors I’ve ever read at showing different sides of a question. I was also very amused to find that while most authors, many theoretically enamored of a pacifistic ideal, need an epic battle to create an epic fantasy novel, here was an author who embraced confrontation and managed to magnificently pull off an epic fantasy where there was no battle but instead the plot revolved around scholarly debate of philosophical issues. And he managed to make that thrilling, intriguing and believable.
            Throne ofBones if set in the same world and includes some of the same characters. But the story also widens its scope to include many more characters and countries. The basic plot is more the standard Epic fantasy dark-forces-threaten-the-world. One of the things that first struck me was how standardized and predictable most fantasy is as this book shattered expectation after expectation. Throne of Bones has the grand sweep, the magical feel, and the sense of walking with legends that I look for in fantasy novels. It is also intricately and complexly three dimensional in a way that I didn’t realize I was missing in other works.
            Instead of just a “this is the way this world works” world building, each culture, and sometimes each character has a slightly different vision of how the world of Selenoth works. You can see them interlocking is areas of shared experience and sometimes conflicting in areas where one or both cultures lack concrete experiences. There are intriguing nooks that invite speculation on which way the world will actually work in practice. We get to share in the adrenaline as characters get their mental world expanded as they learn new bits of lore.
            Throne of Bones uses clearly identifiable historical patterns. But there isn’t the sense that a chunk of plot has been lifted out and is playing on autopilot against a different background. The historical presidents set the stage and then the interactions with different challenges are allowed to play out to their own end. For example Amorr is clearly inspired by ancient Rome, however it isn’t the Rome of and particular sequence of events. The impulses of later Christian Rome and the impulses of earlier republican Rome are allowed to blend and integrate with each other. The questions of whether citizenship should be expanded and whether preserving the republic and the real power of the senate is worth any cost, are one again lie issues and there isn’t a clear answer because the history hasn’t been written yet.
            The exact threat to Selenoth and its root cause are also complex and continue to surprise. Exactly how the protagonists should respond to the various subsidiary threats is presented as grounds for legitimate differences of opinion. My own evaluations of some of the characters often when through several revisions (even as the characters stayed consistent) as I saw them against the backgrounds of different issues and problems. I changed my mind several times on the goal the characters should be pursuing as they dug more deeply and discovered more of the problem they were facing. There were conflicting goals among the characters that changed and compromised so that which characters were truly irreconcilable and which allies was not set in stone.
            But what I most admired was that with all the things that were shone as relative and changeable the book still maintained a sense of right and wrong. None of the characters was perfect. All of them had at least some fault, not just of skill and knowledge but of moral fiber. I had to think about the moral dilemmas that came up, not just automatically agree with the “good” characters. The characters struggled with questions of the right thing to do very realistically but the book still managed to project very strongly that there was a morally right thing to do. It showed that choosing that was satisfying and good in itself, even as there were times when the results of doing the right thing didn’t seem fully satisfactory.
            This wasn’t a quick, easy read for me. There were passages where I felt a little battered by the reverse and alarms the characters were going through. I was challenged to think beyond what I’m used to in a fantasy novel. But I feel I’ve been stimulated to new understanding and new ideas. The story arch didn’t reach a complete conclusion in this book, and I’m not entirely certain where it will end up going. I’m looking forward, with trepidation as well as excitement, to reading the next book when it comes out.