Kate's Six Principles of History

Election Day is nearing. And I've become aware--all over again--of how much I dislike political rhetoric. Seriously, if you want to persuade me to do something, just send over your opposition to hammer me with rhetoric.

I'm not completely susceptible to reverse psychology, and I'm not completely immune to well-reasoned arguments, but the argument, "But this must happen or society will fall to pieces" has never, ever succeeded in convincing me to do anything (no matter which way the pieces are supposed to crumble).

My reaction is, to a degree, based on my study of history. Here's what I believe about history. Some of these things may seem contradictory, and, well, they are (superficially), but they all happen to be true (I think), so contradiction smontradiction, I still believe in them all:

1. Individuals do make a difference. An Abraham Lincoln or a Marie Curie can change the course of future events.

2. Society survives because ordinary people get up and go to work . . .

. . . or whatever they are supposed to do. Politicians do not enable societies to survive. England went through the War of the Roses, the Tudors (Henry VII, Henry VIII, those kids who lasted two seconds, Catholic Mary, Protestant Elizabeth, not to mention the Spanish Armada, and whatdoyaknow, England (part of Britain now) is still there. And it's still there because people got up and tilled fields or baked bread or sharpened swords or mined or traded or had babies or whatever. If they hadn't, there wouldn't have been much of anything for the politicians to "save".

3. The world has been slated to end many, many times. It hasn't yet.

In case no one noticed.

When I was growing up, the world was supposed to end when the Soviet Union nuked us. There was even that movie on television--The Day After--and everything.

It didn't happen.

4. If the world ends, it will be in a way no one imagined.

Call it the Black Swan effect--but it's true. When the Holocaust was going on, survivors and witnesses coming out of Europe told the British and U.S. authorities about the camps. They weren't believed. This has been put down to antisemitism, and that was a factor, but I don't think it was the only factor. The Holocaust was simply not imaginable. It was nothing that anyone had anticipated; therefore, it was nothing that anyone could imagine being true. Call it a failsafe device to the human capacity to suffer mentally. We can think up atrocities, but we can't anticipate them.

Not to mention, we can't even anticipate less horrific things--like the weather or the stock market.

5. Paranoia never did anyone any good.

Which means that expecting the world to end in THIS PARTICULAR WAY THAT FREAKS ME OUT isn't very helpful. Historically speaking, it's hard to get anything done when people think that THIS ONE PROGRAM/PIECE OF LEGISLATURE/DESIRED OUTCOME must or mustn't happen, otherwise, the human race should toss in the proverbial towel. Such thinking tends to make said people somewhat irrational and a tad on the non-constructive side when they don't get what they want.

6. On the other hand, sometimes things are over.

This is actually a problem that fascinates me since there's no one right answer. There are times when it is right for a country to have a revolutionary war, and there are times when it is dead wrong. There are times when it is acceptable for a couple to divorce and times when it is callous and cruel. There are times when it is right for someone to leave a job and times when it is a really bad idea. There are times when it is right to say, "Continuing in this direction must stop now," and times when such a statement is simply hubris.

My general rule of thumb--which is why, probably, I am a more conservative than liberal Libertarian--is that it is usually hubris, and if it's not, the people involved should be very, very, very careful. So careful, in fact, that time might actually solve the problem!

American Revolution = good idea
French Revolution = not so much

All this is to say that if someone approaches me and says, "You MUST do this right now or everything will unravel!!" I tend to go, "Ye-ah, right there, what you said, that's a good reason for me not to believe you."

When I get it from both sides, I either sit the issue out or vote my gut, I-just-can't-vote-any-other-way reaction. (Example: Maine had an anti-bear hunting ordinance up a few years ago. I'm not a big hunting fan, and I think trapping bears is kind of mean and not very sportsmanlike; I have this Medieval idea that hunting should involve horses and dogs and javelins, not rifles with infrared devices. On the other hand, a lot of Mainers are pro-hunting, and a lot of Mainers, especially upstate, make their living off of hunters, including bear hunters. The ordinance would have hurt them badly, particularly since the anti-bear-hunters are mostly the same people against bringing industrial jobs to Maine. So I couldn't decide. I got in the booth, and every piece of 19th century literature about high and mighty lords sending poachers to prison to preserve their lovely estates popped into my head, and I voted for the poachers--I mean, hunters.)


Cari Hislop said...

I think you should run for President. I'd vote for you!!! The nutters who jump up and down screaming hysterically, "Do this or Die!" (Whatever it might be) frighten me more than any possible natural calamity. I don't care if I agree with them or not...once people turn their ideology into a religion they mutate into scary people who seem to think they have the right to force their views on other people ie they become fascists. I find the whole Green movement really disturbing. Of course we should take care of the planet, it's not like we can climb into a space ship and move to the moon...or Vulcan (and frankly the Vulcans wouldn't want anything to do with us anyway) so I'm all for recycling, unpoluting forms of energy and not chopping down the last tree etc. but the Greens are highly intolerant of anyone who disagrees with their theories or statements as if its an act of heresy to believe the North Pole won't have ice in fifty years. At one time Europe and America were covered with ice...did the natives sit around their camp fires worrying about the loss of ice? Probably!

I love how you summed up history. Its so true!!!

Kate Woodbury said...

Thanks! :) Unfortunately, or fortunately, being a Libertarian means belonging to a party of people who don't like parties. I don't think Libertarians even have bumper stickers! (Although Charles Murray did write a book.)

I know what you mean about political causes becoming religious and vice versa. When C.S. Lewis delivered/wrote Mere Christianity, he called it "mere" to detach it from "Christianity and [insert current political crusade]." He said that when the latter happens, the "current political crusade" eventually takes over the equation, and the Christianity part gets lost. (Considering that he delivered/wrote the series during WWII, this is a remarkable statement!)

And, of course, political crusades can turn themselves into religions—like the Greens! There's a really awesome book called Cool It by Bjorn Lomborg. He argues in favor of environmental legislature, but all his arguments are built on cost analysis—as in, will measures suggested by Kyoto actually end up costing countries more money than adapting to changing weather conditions? (Humans are amazingly adaptable.) Bjorn points out that more people die in winter from freezing/slipping, etc. than in summer from heat exhaustion (even though the heat exhaustion stuff gets more press right now), so global warming actually saves money and lives!

This kind of analysis is very relaxing to read. Unfortunately, the Bjorn Lomborgs out there (on all political issues) often get lost amidst Chicken Little hysteria.

Dan said...

Is aversion to mass marketing genetic or learned?

This is a fascinating question from the Woodbury perspective. A big reason we did not have a TV is because dad detested the commercializaton. It appears his offspring have embraced the TV but remain skeptical about the "facts" that it claims to broadcast.

Dan said...

This describes my household


Outside of sports, "The Biggest Loser" and a few random edutainment shows like Mythbusters my kids are usually watching DVDs of I Love Lucy and Dick Van Dyke and never view modern Hollywood fare.

Personally, I'm not as bad as VDH but I usually wait 2 to 3 years before tuning into a pop-hit or movie. My gut philosophy is why waste time on music, movies or shows that won't stand the test of time. If they are any good they will still be around in several years.

Kate Woodbury said...

I actually prefer watching things after the fact! As you say, Dan, if I don't care enough to wait, I'm probably not that interested to begin with.

The one exception is the occasional movie--the big screen experience can make a difference. I saw all the LOTR movies in big movie theatres plus the latest Star Trek. But in general, not that much is lost by watching stuff on a smaller screen.

And not that much is lost by limiting one's options. When I moved, I basically told myself, "You can get cable or you can support your local videostore," and I decided to support the local videostore. Everything I want on cable comes to DVD eventually,* and this way I feel good about myself for supporting a local merchant!

*Although Netflix is doing that obnoxious thing where you can watch things on the TV or computer with their special equipment (how is this different from cable?), so they aren't transferring things to DVD. In which case, I feel no guilt about accepting pirated copies! Stupid corporate manipulators!!

Cari Hislop said...

You don't have to be a Libertarian to belong to the "Free of Party Politics brigade"! :) At eighteen I signged up as an Independent and I hope to stay that way. I don't think it's necessarily a good thing to have political leaders driven by causes. I like the Swiss version of democracy. The leaders don't lead long enough to become "The Story" and people vote on everything. Probably irritating if you have to go vote every month or so, but the people really do have the power as opposed to most other countries where "people power" is barely more than a facade. As an American living in England, I think the so called cradle of democracy is more fascist than free. I'm ill, so my latent cynicism is coroding my natural opitmism. I think its time for lunch! :)

Kate Woodbury said...

Ouch! You should read my post--probably in a couple of weeks--where I talk about how great modern life is (in America)! :)

Kate Woodbury said...

Hope you feel better!

A calvinist preacher said...

A historical perspective underlies the motto of the Hitchiker's Guide - DON'T PANIC!

Panic does not motivate me. It irritates me, because the one thing you can be sure of when dealing with people in panic is that they're not thinking straight, if they're thinking at all.

Politics is useful, and can even be fun, but not everything is political.

Which is why I don't watch TV unless I'm travelling and then only long enough to reinforce my decision not to watch TV.

Mostly I dream of a day when I can safely ignore my government again.