.post-body { line-height:100%; } -->

The Supremacy of History


Sun Tzu
History is written by the victors (unless you're a physicist, in which case it's written by the vectors).

We've looked a lot hereabouts at the history of ideas. What we haven't talked about at all, except entirely in the abstract and in passing, is the idea of history. 

I want to talk about the idea of history, why it's important - especially to how we think about things - and, most importantly, why we need to get it right.  Let's start with a story; a history. 

Anybody who doesn't know the importance of Detroit in the history of modern music has been living under a rock which suffers a significant paucity of roll.

Greats who have rightly found their places in the history of music have names deeply evocative of the city; Bill Haley, Bob Seger, Suzi Quatro, Alice Cooper, Glenn Frey, Madonna... the list goes on, and is filled with hall-of-famers of almost every stripe.

The influence doesn't stop there, of course. Detroit and its musical legacy have appeared in reference in very much modern music, literature and movies, not least Detroit Rock City by Kiss and Panic in Detroit by Bowie, and it's the setting for the brilliant 8 Mile.

I want to talk about a particular slice of Detroit musical history.

In 1958, Florence Ballard met Betty McGlown. Betty's boyfriend sang in a group, The Primes. Ballard and McGlown both sang and, after recruiting first one of Ballard's friends and then one of her friends, and at the guidance of The Primes' manager, started a sister group, originally called the Primettes.

They cut their chops, in a tradition as old as the hills - mirroring my own apprenticeship - singing in talent shows, 'sock hops' - parties organised for teenagers - and social clubs. They groomed their look and honed their performance skills, and gained a reputation. They added a guitarist to their line-up, a move elevating them above the lip-synching groups common around them, as it allowed them to perform live. 

They achieved some modest success in this scene, but struggled to break into recording. One of the young women contacted an old neighbour, who had some contacts in the business in Detroit. He liked them, and set up an audition for them with a record company exec but, ultimately, he felt they were too young, so they didn't get a deal. They did do some recording under their own steam, but two singles and no sales later, McGlown left and was promptly but briefly replaced.

They did eventually find work, largely by hanging around recording studios. They eventually persuaded the company exec to let them do some session work, providing backing vocals and hand-claps for other artists recording there. Finally, in early 1961, they were signed as a group in their own right. They hadn't made it yet, though. Their first six releases flopped, failing to chart in the Billboard Top 40, the bare minimum in such a competitive environment, and there were whispers and sniggers about the lack of hits. 

Still, they continued to record, including songs written and produced by arguably one of the best and most important songwriters and producers of his or any generation, but failed to make a significant mark - their first hit peaked at number 23 in the Billboard chart in 1963. They did, however lay down a large body of session work, appearing on many massive hits and bringing the sonic consistency which defined, along with a few other elements, Detroit's signature sound, the legacy of which continues to this day, and has influenced all those in the above list and more, not least myself.

Up until this point, the young women had taken turns singing the lead, each gravitating toward the numbers they liked, or which they felt best suited them. In late '63, though, this changed, when their manager, the company exec we met earlier, decided they needed to settle on a sound, and elected one of them the lead singer. His strategy seemed to work, too. They went on to rival The Beatles in popularity worldwide, and even knocked their album Revolver off the top of the chart. The lead singer went on to have one of the most successful solo recording careers in history, and was effervescent as my all-time favourite singer in a later biopic.

The above is a true and accurate history of one of the greatest groups of all time. There is something about it, though. I doubt there are many who've made it this far yet haven't spotted it. Certainly, regular readers will wonder at the lack of - or skirting over - detail (even setting aside the necessarily summary nature of the presentation). The detail is a large portion of the missing depth, of course. Anybody familiar with the music in question will already know whose history it is, and could probably fill in all the details. Others will probably reach epiphany at some point as I fill in the blanks, especially the names I didn't include. But I'm going to save it for later, because for anybody who hasn't yet unravelled the above, the unravelling might be illuminating.

History is written by the victors, according to a truism as old as history. Whether it's actually true or not is very much a matter of how you define the terms but, certainly, a good portion of what appears in books was written from the perspective of the victors. There have been exceptions, notably the brilliant Historia Ecclesiastica, written by Benedictine monk Orderic Vitalis who, despite being a Norman, wrote about the 1066 invasion to reflect the experiences of the extant population. He wanted a 'warts and all' history for his abbey and his aim was completeness. Such an endeavour must of necessity include what things were like for the conquered population.

This kind of history rarely makes any headway in the mainstream, though. Instead the snippets of the Norman conquest and its aftermath we receive mostly lionise the invaders, raising King Richard I, for example, to almost mythical status (his shield-blazon is the source of the 'three lions' insignia worn by English sportsmen in international tournaments) despite the fact he loathed the place and crippled it financially in the form of taxes for the crusades and for his ransom when he was taken. Because, of course, history is written by the victors.

What do we actually mean by history, though? Why are we almost 1,500 words in without having defined the central term? Because it was in the script, obvs!
 
There are oodles of popular ways to express what history is. 'It's what happened and when' seems sufficient for some. For others, it's what they find in books. My view on books is expounded at length in these pages, but the best I can muster to say is I'm ambivalent about them as a source of information. Which is not to say they're bad, merely that quality of information is a huge variable in them, and many qualifiers must be added to the term 'book' before there's any guarantee of real veridical value. Still others would say it's the sum total of everything that's happened. This would be all well and good but, of course, we don't have access to every event ever and, frankly, it would make for tedious reading. Still, it wouldn't be too difficult to drill down to the important stuff, one would think. Not entirely trivial, given the value-laden nature of 'important', but not intractable.

My favourite expression is at least in part favoured purely by the romantic lurking beneath this curmudgeon's brow, but it also sheds light on what history really is for each of us: history is the lens through which we view the present and the future.

It's an extremely attractive definition, certainly. It's got a nice lyrical ring to it. It has another feature, though, central to our aim here, and there's a way to tease it out by going back to our history above.

Look at your history with this history. I'm going to assume for narrative purposes you've arrived here without knowing who any of the people are in our history, other than the people appearing in paragraph 5. The history through which you currently view this history, then, is a broad-brush treatment of some events in Detroit in the 60s involving several people, two of whose names you know. When I start to fill in some of the names of the other people involved, a picture should emerge.

The record company executive was named Berry Gordy. No? How about when I tell you the friend was Mary Wilson? No? How about when I tell you the neighbour who arranged the audition (also the songwriter and producer) was Smokey Robinson? Lights should be going on all over the house by now, but the final piece should fall into place when I tell you the name of the later lead singer; Diana Ross.

I'm talking, of course, about The Supremes, and the record company was Motown. Also starring a cast of legends, including Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, the Miracles, and many more.

Even without going into any more detail, our history is suddenly quite rich. It's easy to visualise the interplay of some of the most gifted musical visionaries of the modern age and how it led to such an amazing sound, a sound which not only defines a generation, it's become the default setting for an entire genre of seasonal holiday music and brazen commercialisation.

It should be reasonably clear by now what I've done above, but let me make it explicit. 

In the preamble to our history of the Supremes, we talked about some of the musical influence of Detroit, but there's something suspicious about the included list. It fits a particular demographic. They're all important names in modern musical canon, to be sure, but it simply isn't the whole story. There's an entire demographic missing. A whole realm of music causally related to the list - without which the list would not and could not have existed - but excluded entirely. 

This can happen accidentally, though not in a situation reflecting the features of our hypothetical, and it's considerably more probable for it to have been deliberate. It happens routinely on a smaller scale with varying intent, not just in your history books, but in your media. When employed for nefarious purposes, it's very effective, precisely because you have to be looking for it to spot it, especially when employed without the intent to be obvious as I have. 

What I did next, though, was very deliberate misdirection, I used a photograph of another group, The Andrews Sisters, an all-white group. This practice is ubiquitous in media, and is always for nefarious purposes. It takes several forms, such as smearing somebody by randomly inserting their image into an oppositional article using well-understood cognitive shortcuts, often without the pictured person having any role in the narrative. An extremely common iteration is the reverse of what I did here, and we see it in anti-immigration rhetoric the world over, pictures of lines of people at the border in literature about illegal immigrants, overlooking the fact all those queueing at borders are entering legally by definition. Here, of course, I was whitewashing, setting up your cognitive filters to think the history I was giving was one of a white group.

Here they are, then. The brilliant Supremes.

Finally, I obscured the history itself, carefully avoiding any names with potential to give the game away. I took the risk that, unlike Mary Wilson and Diana Ross, Florence Ballard might just about be sufficiently obscure to get away with including her name, but I hid every instance of a famous, obviously black person. I did it here in a very deliberate manner, and I chose this particular group only for the cognitive trigger in their name and it's relationship to the title and theme of the piece. I could, in fact, have chosen a different group from almost any point in the history of modern American music, and much of modern music elsewhere, and had a much easier time, especially had I chosen a predominantly white group. Alternatively, I could have written it in a less clunky and more elegant way, so the omission of bio information wasn't as obvious, or included more of other kinds of detail to pad it out, making it feel more complete. I wanted to demonstrate how easy it is to show you a factually correct past while obscuring important detail, especially when history is written by the victor. 

Obviously I could, were I so inclined, write a completely different history of Detroit music, factually accurate in every respect, but completely vaporising whole swathes of critical history. Three completely different ways of changing the narrative, all commonplace, and all known tactics of propagandists. 

And yes, there is an example of this in modern history. Fortunately for us, the particular example I have to hand is from science, because science is very protectionist of completeness in history; the race to land on the moon. I talked about it in my tribute to the unsung feminine heroes of science, which I'll link at the bottom along with other relevant sources. It involves three black women who worked as 'computers' at NASA in the sixties, mathematicians responsible for carrying out the reams and reams of calculations to convert the theoretical models into engineering reality. Kennedy's famous promise was reified by these women in ways so fundamental it almost certainly took them to do it in the same way it took Einstein to figure out relativity, yet they were effectively eradicated from popular historical treatments of events. Katherine Johnson resolved the problem of transferring from an elliptical orbit to a parabolic one and back again, a critical step for returning the astronauts safely. Dorothy Vaughan taught herself and others COBOL, a programming language required to programme the humongous electronic computer NASA had purchased specifically to get rid of her department, but that they had nobody capable of operating. Mary Jackson was an engineer, whose work in aerodynamics still informs design work today. We were particularly lucky science protects its history so fiercely for completeness, because these three women, who should be every bit as famous as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, would probably have constituted a forgotten footnote at best in almost any other sphere. And these are just a couple of the instances we know about.

There are other methods. There's one particularly pernicious tactic for suppressing bits of history, and it's really found its feet in the social media age. It appears with the predictability of a Cepheid variable in any discussion of polarising issues, and it has a single purpose; to shut down discussion by making any disagreement seem unreasonable. It comes in the form of a statement which seems on the face of it to be perfectly benign or even reasonable, but which is instead a euphemism or code for something else, something recognisable to those in the know or 'with ears to hear'. For this reason, it's known as 'dog-whistling'. Here's an example:

All lives matter.

Seems perfectly reasonable in isolation. Simple, clear, concise, repeatable. Easy to make a mantra from. Difficult to argue with, one might think. Except...

Except when it's raised specifically as an objection, as it has been. 

Before I unpack it, I've seen some truly beautiful analogies exposing the flaw in this as a reply, but none quite so on the money as this:

Your wife: My father has died.
You: Everybody dies.

The notion 'black lives matter' shouldn't be a controversial one, especially to anybody who genuinely thinks all lives matter, and yet these two statements are set up in opposition to each other. So what's actually happening here?

Well, you're being encouraged to think in a certain way. Specifically, you're being encouraged to view the statement 'black lives matter' as meaning 'only black lives matter', which is not a statement evinced by any supporter of the notion that black lives matter I'm aware of. Even were it the case, however, there were supporters of this revised statement, it would not indicate this was a view supported by a significant fraction of those uttering the original statement (let alone a majority), nor that it contains this as a hidden meaning.

The simple fact is, on a societal level (and not just in the US), it's pretty clear the statement 'all lives matter' is a fiction, because the numbers don't lie, and the lives of some demographics matter to society significantly less than others in ways which are measurable, have been measured, and the results are in. 

Which also means the retort 'all lives matter' is gaslighting, a truly evil form of mental torture which inflicts psychological pain by insisting your problems only exist in your mind.

______________________________________

Important: In what immediately follows this authors note, it will appear that I'm equating or conflating two very different things. I'm aware of the potential for this to put readers off, so I want to make it clear that I'm not doing so. In order to interrupt the flow of the piece as little as possible, the explanation is in the footnote indicated by the asterisk (*).
______________________________________

Here's another example:

I don't see colour.

Again, this seems perfectly reasonable until you unpack it. Certainly, the notion of a colour-blind society is superficially very attractive, and I honestly can't think of an objection to it. Except...

Imagine being blind*. What sort of challenges do you face in the world, and how do they impact your chances of success in life? Would it be equitable to ignore those challenges and require them to rely entirely on other people to achieve any measure of success? Or would it be more equitable to shape society to mitigate those challenges? Which of these is the better outcome for the individual? For society as a whole?

Many societies have answered these questions with legislation. In the US, there's the Americans with Disabilities Act. It's imperfect, both in conception and implementation (implementation is shockingly bad, especially in government facilities), but it significantly impacts the challenges faced by people with disabilities.

Imagine if we'd simply decided not to 'see' disability (ask anybody suffering an invisible ailment, especially long-term chronic sufferers, what this is like).

A society blind to differences is a truly noble goal, in my opinion, but it comes with a whole slew of caveats, not the least of which is a precondition for such a society to have successfully mitigated the challenges inherent in those differences. I'd really love to live in a society in which skin colour was completely irrelevant to lived experience, or where I could order a wedding cake without having my 'choices' (another nasty dog-whistle) judged, let alone be denied service on such a basis. Unfortunately, this is not such a society, and cannot be while we fail to acknowledge the glaring rhetorical pachyderm looming over us.

The society we live in is one in which those differences really do matter; their impact on lived experience is undeniable. Again, the numbers don't lie.

Once the content is unpacked, it also becomes clear this dog-whistle is another instance of gaslighting. 

It should also be telling us something important when much of what applies to history also applies to words and their definitions. When we combine this with the tendency toward passive listening (listening only for keywords while formulating a response, rather than listening for all content and context), it becomes particularly problematic. An example of this highlighting the problem is something so obvious it shouldn't need to be pointed out, and yet... 

There's one word which sets bombs off every time it gets a mention, and it's clear from the ensuing exchanges very different definitions of it are being applied. Some of this is deliberate, of course, because it's exactly the same sort of counter-propaganda we've already encountered. The word in question is privilege.

It's perfectly obvious; no matter how carefully this term is defined and shown to be applicable to a complex spectrum, people think of it as binary; as something you either have or not. 

Think about privilege in terms of the impact of differences, and it resolves easily. It's apparent to me there are challenges faced by demographics I'm not a member of which I don't face or even have to consider. I don't face the same obstacles as somebody who's blind, or who's a woman, or who's gay, or who's black, or any number of other characteristics or combinations thereof I don't possess which measurably impact our chances of success in and quality of life. My privilege is the privative of these impacting difference. It's a degree of homogeneity, if you like. 

Does this mean I've led a charmed life? No, far from it. It's been a slog, and more are the days when I wish I hadn't woken than have given me any sense of joy at being alive. I've faced challenges unique to me, and everybody else is privileged not to have faced them, just as I'm privileged not to have faced very many of their challenges - whether unique, statistically weighted by demographic or any and all points and combinations of points in between. It merely recognises my position of being immune to some of the challenges faced by my co-travellers; of having privilege. 

Another issue with how we think about history, especially in terms of its lensing effect is this; we often think of it as being in the past. It's clear our personal histories are very different, but we think of them as separate and distinct from history. In fact, they're the same. The bits of external history we learn - including current affairs; also history - get subsumed into our personal histories, but our personal histories are themselves part of the history of our species. It's all one, and we dip in and borrow what we need. What we borrow from history, past or present, informs the way we interact with the world and other people. When we borrow untruths and half-truths, we wilfully obscure history, and society suffers as a result. 

There's a closely-related propaganda tactic which shows just how damaging to history dog-whistling can be, and it's all about controlling the narrative. This has taken on some life here in the UK in recent weeks, in response to some goings-on in a football tournament (round ball with feet, as opposed to handegg). Members of the England national team (who proudly wear the badge of the French man who hated England) had jointly decided to add their voices to the choir and take the knee. Some 'fans' have determined this was a bad idea and took to booing them in a stunning display of patriotism and national unity - but not racism, oh no!

The 'fans'' twisted apologetic for this is as follows:

Taking the knee is a symbol of the organisation 'Black Lives Matter', which is a Marxist organisation (I'm possibly not summarising it fairly, but this is the takeaway; yes, boys and girls, the McCarthy mind-virus can be found on this side of the pond as well), therefore taking the knee is a Marxist symbol (I'll link to a thorough debunking of this below).

Let's set aside whether the organisation going under the moniker 'Black Lives Matter' actually has any connection to Marxism, not least because this is a massive red herring. The players and management of the England team have stated and restated their aim in taking the knee. They've acknowledged the spurious connections some are making, but have clarified exactly what they're saying: black lives matter and society needs to own this statement and make it meaningful.

However, by recasting how things are defined and making enough noise, it's possible to have significant impact on the prevailing view, which is always the first candidate for what's written down as history. This has become especially pressing in a time when the vast majority of 'journalism' has been reduced to copying the blogosphere uncritically. Do we really want 'history is written by the victors' to be semantically equivalent to 'the lunatics have taken over the asylum'?

This vilification by equivocation is a very effective tactic in leading your thinking in a certain way. I recall in the protests last summer the term 'antifa' was being thrown around like there was some secret cabal up to no good. This, of course, less than a century later than the rise of Fascism which, to a first approximation, everybody thought was a bad idea. Do they really want us to think we've rethought our position on Mussolini? The deep irony of opposing opposition to a political ideology which turns every member of society into the literal chattel of the state, and doing so in the name of liberty in the 'land of the free', is only lost on those who promote such toxic idiocy.

We've learned, then, even factually correct histories aren't always complete, and we each have our own version of history we carry around with us. Additionally, each of us has models of words shaped by history, and whose precise semantic content is constrained by our history, and history is written by the victor.

There's a final term there requiring a little inspection; victor.

What is victory? Does victory mean being the one in a position to write the history? 

For some, it's clearly viewed as a zero sum game; somebody can only be winning if somebody else is losing. Still others - the majority, it seems, in the social media age - think it's a kind of 'king of the hill' dealie, where whoever's shouting the loudest is controlling the current narrative and is therefore the current winner. There's a danger in this kind of thinking, to my mind, and I prefer a different approach.

For me and, I suspect, for many, winning is defined differently. From the perspective of history as a branch of epistemic study, it most certainly is defined differently. I have a ready analogy, taken from my 'top tips for debating a sceptic' post (where it wasn't an analogy but advice).

One of the most common mistakes we make in debate, in my opinion, is trying to win. There are reasons for this which aren't entirely unreasonable, mostly predicated on our view of debate as having become very much a spectator sport, rather than an exceptional tool - if engaged in openly and honestly - for exposing knowledge and drilling down to logical problems. In this respect, it's done almost the opposite of mathematics, which used to be a spectator sport and has become the tool for exposing knowledge [/glib mode]. It's a truly excellent tool, because it raises questions unlikely to arise as effectively or quickly through thought alone, if at all.

The real goal of debate isn't victory, it's learning. If nobody learns anything, nobody wins. If somebody learns something, everybody wins. If everybody learns something, flawless victory!

History is the same. The goal of history should be knowledge because, if history is the lens through which we view the world, it really does matter how accurate and complete history is, because completeness and accuracy bring clarity. 

I'm going to suspend defining victory here and save it for my conclusion while we look at other impacts on our histories.

Unfortunately, people are very protectionist about their personal histories, and the sophistry and mental pretzels they engage in when protecting external elements of it they view as under attack can be truly spectacular. Take statues. No, really, take them.

Statues are funny things. They're seen as representing our history, a view with kernels of truth, but also elements of self-deception. 

What statues really represent is what we want to say about ourselves and our society. Statues are there to vaunt the societal heroes who embody elements of our social identity we think are desirable, or honourable, or somethingable. They are snapshots of history, but what they represent is more ephemeral, they represent what we think is good about ourselves; our glory.

Does this mean statues of holders of views we now recognise as abhorrent should be destroyed? Certainly not, for reasons regulars here will be aware of, as I discussed in my offering about the fire in Notre Dame de Paris some years ago, and for reasons central to the importance of our discussion. We no more progress history by expunging the bits of it we no longer like or are comfortable with than we do dogmatically clinging to a preferred narrative. We progress history by exposing and learning from it. Nobody wins when our histories are sanitised. We need the darkness in our past to inform us of the dangers inherent in the future. In reality, the realisation those we've glorified in the past also engaged in shitty behaviour we'd rather distance ourselves from is one we should preserve, and highlight, and pass on, and should be filed along with not meeting our heroes and other nuggets of wisdom. Because history is written by the victors.

The best place for the statuary whose lessons we're coming to late is to preserve them, intact and on display, with complete histories of their contributions to society, warts and all. More importantly, the good things done by people who also did bad things are, well, part of the package. In my view, there are no good people and bad people, only actions and consequences in terms of benefit or deficit. People are generally benign or at least not actively malignant, with few exceptions, and are often driven to bad actions by circumstance and crappy thinking, usually of the dogmatic variety we've seen here or its kin.

The penultimate stop on our tour of the idea of history requiring a coat of looking-at, related to some of what's gone before, but adding perspective, concerns viewing history as the past.

One trap in history is how we view events, and especially their significance. For an example of what I mean, I'd like to look at the Emancipation Proclamation. 

There's no doubting the momentousness of Lincoln's famous executive order. All else aside, it infuriated the confederate states and firmed up who was fighting for what. Did it really free anybody, though? John F. Kennedy answered this question in 1963:
One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.
In reality, the Emancipation Proclamation freed very few people. It's trivial to argue the second wave of the plague in Europe as having done more for freedom. What it did in the majority of cases was simply to redefine the nature of the chains, and for obvious reasons, and the aftermath of the proclamation was devastating for very many people. According to one eminent historian and expert on the American Civil War and Reconstruction, up to a quarter of the emancipated slaves suffered serious sickness post-emancipation, with maybe as many as four hundred thousand (10%) dying of starvation and sickness[1]. For very many more, emancipation meant remaining with or returning to their oppressors and working for subsistence in conditions only notionally removed from their version of SSDD.

For those who managed to survive on their own, it was the grind of life at the very bottom of the ladder, a place which brings challenges all its own.

Poverty is an exponent. Every single challenge is so much harder, often by orders of magnitude. You can think of each of the individual challenges in your personal daily life to the power of poverty. Worse, what it multiplies mostly is... poverty. A life of scrabbling for subsistence is not a life of progress. Simply living from hand to mouth takes everything you've got. The cheapest food is nutritionally barely food at all, which leads to cognitive issues and trouble learning, let alone energy problems and other health risks. In a country in which healthcare is an entirely for-profit business, even the most mundane of medical issues becomes life-threatening. Something as simple and commonplace as an ingrown toenail can kill you if you can't get it treated. 

Worst of all, though, is poverty of aspiration. It's like a second-order exponent, and it's crippling. It renders even what should be fairly straightforward challenges insuperable and stymies all forward progress. You come to a point where the only ways out are death, a hail-mary get-rich-quick scheme or cheating and turning to crime.

Crime is a nasty thing. The US government at all levels has weaponised crime, and monetised it, and outsourced it. Crime is one of the most lucrative portions of the government. Making it a crime to own a plant - a policy specifically designed to oppress people of colour (as well as political opponents such as the anti-war movement) - led to colossal incarceration rates. Somewhere on the order of twenty-three percent of all people currently incarcerated in the US are serving time for non-violent drug offences. Of those, more than a quarter haven't even been convicted. Many are serving time because they cant afford to bond out. This whole system is yet another form of slavery, as well as being a cash cow for the government. Since the prison system was privatised, of course, companies get paid for occupancy, so they have to keep occupancy up, which has led to levels of corruption seen only in predictions of this sorry mess. Law enforcement officers, judges, and others can buy shares in these private prison companies, and make even more off the misery they're inflicting on citizens. And all this is before we get into the ubiquitous 'disorderly conduct' and the various iterations of charges for 'contempt of cop'. 

It's easy to overlook all of this in the way we view history, and to blow events up beyond their impact. The Emancipation Proclamation needed to be part of a package. A necessary first step, a defining of conditions, but it was never going to be enough to fulfil the blurb as evinced in Jefferson's momentous Dear John, and was ultimately treated as victory, because history is written by the victors. 

This has been true of every single gain between the first landings in 1619 and the conviction of Derek Chauvin; we treat it societally as some sort of Rubicon crossed; some species of quantum leap, rather than the quantum leap it really is. In reality, it's an attempt to fix a bottom-up problem with a top-down, piecemeal solution, when even a whole top-down approach can't solve a bottom-up problem, let alone incrementally. It's sky-hook versus crane, and we all know where that leads.

Another easily-overlooked consequence of an incomplete view of history is how society as a whole has benefited from oppression. The histories of many (most?) developed nations, and their subsequent and current economic power, involve imperialism and the subjugation of less-thans. In the US, all of the wealth and power accrued in its history was accrued on the backs of such subjugants. It hardly seems equal, then, to remove one kind of chain for another, to set them aside to live among the wealth they created but do not benefit from while others benefit greatly.

This matters. Being the beneficiary of oppression doesn't sit well with me. I can't speak for anybody else, but I dislike it. Being born into an unearned position of privilege while the progeny of the architects of said privilege derive no benefit from it sits even worse. It makes me complicit in a way I can't simply divest myself of. 

There will be those, no doubt, who suggest that I'm saying all of this because I hate my race. Nothing could be further from the truth. My race is the human race, and I love it so much I want it to be as good as it can be, and this ain't it, not by a long stretch.

There is so much more to be said, yet I'm keenly aware I'm at 7,000 words now, probably 5,000 words past the point where anybody cared enough to keep reading, and there are many things I haven't even touched on, like the sops to progress represented by, for example, making Juneteenth a federal holiday and other pernicious forms of tokenism at the heart of society and supremacist propaganda, and I haven't talked about what things like 'defund the police' really mean, which is hugely important and a fuckton more nuanced than popular treatments might suggest (ask yourself; what's the role of police in a truly civilised society?) I didn't talk about the Louisiana textbook for eighth-graders whose hot take on the civil war is one of it being something of a bother for a white woman with 150 slaves who had to send most of her slaves to Texas for fear they'd be freed by the Union army. I didn't talk about the enormous topic of 'reparations' (just the unpacking of that term and what it might look like is a doctoral dissertation). It simply isn't possible to cover everything here in one post. 

So, one final point before I get on my soapbox and talk about what victory means to me.

What I've presented here is my presentation and analysis of a set of ideas. I have to stress this forcefully; it's MY analysis. It's entirely possible, even probable, I've overlooked subtleties in this set of ideas at least, or I've simply gotten some things wrong. I've definitely been incomplete. There's probably another two or three thousand words before I feel like I've even done cursory justice to the topic, let alone delivered (or even achieved) any deep understanding. It's my pass, from the position of somebody who thinks about how we think about things and possesses a very particular set of skills (I will find you) applied to the best-regarded sources I could find. It's a précis of the material whose epistemic status is exactly that of every other topic I've discussed. I look forward to honest and well-motivated correction and reasonable discussion, and have provided space below for such an eventuality.

I don't think anything I've said here is very controversial, at least in scope, if not in detail. Everything I've said about how propaganda manifests and in particular how it guides your thinking in very specific ways is a matter of voluminous record, most of it straight out of the Bolshevik and Goebbels playbooks (and the lessons learned from two millennia of church propaganda). The examples of dog-whistling, juxtaposition and other cognitive priming methods (priming is the underlying phenomenon of encouraging you to think in specific ways) are entirely uncontroversial.

This is my presentation - extremely cursory and incomplete - of some of the core ideas in something known as 'critical race theory'. It's currently under fire, and the subject of much talk, especially in state boards of education in the US. Florida, for example, has banned its teaching, despite nobody really teaching it. I'll link to more comprehensive and better-informed sources below.

Victory is, to my mind, a fair and equal society. A society easily selected with only Rawls' Veil of Ignorance as a guide. A huge factor in achieving such a society, to the extent such a society is even a realistic proposition, is understanding the vast interplay of cause and effect in society. Of course, this could be my bias as a physics nerd, because I view many things in this way as a result. Still, only a complete and accurate history can help us solve some of these problems.

Has Neil Armstrong's contribution to history been in any way diminished because he couldn't have made it without Katherine Johnson? Is it diminished because I know what she did to make it happen? Does knowing Diana Ross' contribution to the musical history of Detroit change the fact that Night Moves still kicks me in the feels every single time (bugger; got a Bob Seger earworm now)?

Of course, not. This is the paradox of protectionist views of blinkered histories. What it does do, though, is give them proper context and this, it seems, is sufficient to diminish them for some. It must be said, of course, a telling of American history in which the contributions of the oppressed were properly placed would look very different, rather akin to how Greenland compares to Africa on a properly scaled map not subject to Mercator problems, and the comparison to economic history would look starkly different. I can see why some would fear it, but fear is a really shitty guide to the truth about reality.

In this light, then, and in the context of what's gone before, victory is every extant challenge rooted in difference having been mitigated by society to the extent possible, with clear mechanisms and strategies for dealing with unforeseen challenges. Victory is a society in which everybody can genuinely fulfil every ounce of their potential and in which society facilitates that fulfilment; where no potential Einstein is lost to crushing poverty. Victory is a society in which our histories are one, in which we are one. Victory is a society in which our history is complete precisely because history is written by the victors.

[1] Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction - J. Downs 2012

Further readings:

EXPLAINED: The Truth About Critical Race Theory and How It Shows Up in Your Child’s Classroom A wonderfully comprehensive and pragmatic overview of what CRT really is, with oodles of links to resources. 
The 1619 Project An attempt to write a more complete history of the US.
Michael Harriot, writing in The Root about previous iterations of the 'Marxist' trope.
Critical Race Theory Explained Michael Harriot again
Yes, My Dear, All White People Are Racists Marley K with a painful lesson, brilliantly executed.
We The People Dr Elwood Watson on the history of Juneteenth.

Patterns and the Inertia of Ideas Cognitive biases, pattern seeking and cognitive inertia.
The Map is Not the Terrain Some of the pitfalls of natural language; semantics.
That's Racist! A study of the difference between vernacular and academic usage in terminology; terms of art. Some of the unmotivated reasons we talk past each other.
On the Shoulders of... Unsung female heroes in the history of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

*Gosh, nearly 3,000 words before my first footnote. This is entirely unlike me. Anyhoo, I want to be absolutely clear here that I am most definitely NOT suggesting that being black is a disability of any kind, or indeed anything like it or equatable with it. The analogy holds, however, because society behaves as if it's a disability - and also as if it isn't. Indeed, this is how society treats pretty much all minorities of whatever demographic. That's what 'otherising' does, and its intent is to render the target 'less-than'. 

‡ I saw one tweet about this in which is was suggested the players weren't free to define the taking of the knee as they saw fit, because it had clearly been imbued with another meaning, so the fans were perfectly free to interpret the gesture any way they liked. He didn't get the irony that, when this meant that others were free to view his gesture as racist, he didn't like it. I've written a lot hereabouts concerning the asinine notion that words or gestures have intrinsic meaning, if you're interested.

† Most of my regulars will be aware that this is a comedic reference to the difference between the map and the terrain. We think of a quantum leap as a huge thing; a change in our understanding, or something like that. In fact, a quantum leap is a change in the height of an electron's orbit, and is exceedingly tiny, in the Angstrom range. The conflation arises because this change in orbit happens all at once without the electron passing through any of the intervening space, hence a leap.

No comments:

Post a Comment