A Country that Doesn’t Know Itself
Attempt to articulate these ideas #1
The United States is a country that doesn’t know itself, nor others.
Last week I began listening to the most recent episode of This Is Hell. In the episode, Anna-Lisa Cox discusses some of the themes in her book about black settlers and frontier societies prior to the Civil War. For whatever reason, her discussion of the demographics, cultures, laws, and conflicts in those times and places really made me think about how little myself and most everyone in the United States knows about the history of where we all live. But the question that I am inspired by the most, because of my focus on phenomenology, is the question of the meaning of this general ignorance. What does it mean to be in the world this way?
For a more robust answer to that question, I would need some comparative insight into the quality of historical knowledge people on average have about their homes elsewhere. But what’s immediately clear is that this ignorance is fundamental to understanding more specific details about an individual’s Mitwelt: the social or cultural environment of one’s existence.
In a sense, there isn’t anything noteworthy about a lack of insight into the history of the world’s features. Most of us consistently operate in a world we’re mostly ignorant about, whether it’s our biology and its evolutionary history, products and the features of production and/or supply-chains that make them available to us, or the geneology of ideas and values that we accept as our own. One of the basic features of our existence, according to Heidegger, is thrownness …which itself implies the unfamiliarity of the world. Yet as political agents, we often offer a historical rationale for our positions and actions. Political discourse is constantly invoking historical knowledge by reference to important wars like the Civil War, the history of institutions like the Federal Government, the constitutional foundations for the various rights and duties of citizenship. Historical reference is everywhere, even in campaign slogans like “Make America Great Again.”
George Orwell comments on one way this is important in the often quoted 1984 phrase “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” What is interesting to me about this situation isn’t only the way historical knowledge is produced and controlled. It’s not even entirely about the past. I’m interested in what it means for our world-design to be grounded in ignorance and the consequences of this ignorance on our knowledge of ourselves.
What I’m discussing here is often described as post-modernity, or “the Post-Modern Condition.” However, I’m not necessarily describing a rejection of Grand Narratives. I’m also describing the consequences of Grand Narratives that are wholly accepted, even though they contradict the facts both contemporary and historical. Instead of asking what it means to live in Post-Truth America, what does it mean to live in pre-truth America?
This pre-truth situation leads to political thinking that is based either on myths (that often contradict the facts), or isn’t based on historical conceptualizations at all. We see the first sort of consequence in the diversity of historical narratives particular to various political interest groups. The second sort of political thinking is based on moral absolutes or instead of historical contingencies. For instance, the often referred to Protestant Work Ethic that thinkers like Max Weber identify as the foundation for capitalism. There is a substantial difference in the self-concept of someone who situates themselves in a particular historical narrative that informs their political decisions and the self-concept of someone who takes an absolute moral position in a world where history is unimportant or is even considered an illusion.
In either case, given the lack of insight into the facts, what isn’t possible is a politics that is informed by a knowledge of the world’s actual contingencies. And if this is the case when considering the contingencies of the country one lives in, it tends to be even more the case for the rest of the world. This has a direct impact on the way that individual agency is exercised…
Let’s look at a recent case of political agency being exercised with reference to a world that doesn’t actually exist, the Comet Ping Pong Shooting resulting from what is currently called “Pizzagate”:
“Pizzagate is a debunked conspiracy theory that went viral during the 2016 United States presidential election cycle. In the fall of 2016, the personal email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton‘s campaign manager, was hacked in a spear-phishing attack, and his emails were subsequently made public by WikiLeaks. Proponents of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory falsely claimed that the emails contained coded messages referring to human trafficking and connecting several U.S. restaurants and high-ranking officials of the Democratic Party with an alleged child-sex ring involving the Washington, D.C. restaurant Comet Ping Pong. The conspiracy theory was spread on social media and fake news websites. A man from North Carolina went to Comet Ping Pong to investigate the conspiracy, and shot a rifle there. In addition, the restaurant owner and staff received death threats. The conspiracy theory has been extensively discredited by a wide array of organizations, including the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia.[3“
“On December 4, 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch, a 28-year-old man from Salisbury, North Carolina, fired three shots in the restaurant with an AR-15-style rifle, striking walls, a desk, and a door. Welch later told police that he had planned to “self-investigate” the conspiracy theory. Welch saw himself as the potential hero of the story—a rescuer of children. He surrendered after officers surrounded the restaurant and was arrested without incident. No one was injured.“
“Theorists claimed an underground network beneath Comet Ping Pong; however, the restaurant actually has no basement, and the picture used to support this claim was taken from another facility.”
This is an extreme case, but it does an excellent job of demonstrating some of the consequences I’ve been discussing. The Comet Ping Pong shooting was possible only because the shooter situated themselves as a political agent in a history that isn’t true. In fact, the history contradicts the truth to such an extent that even the physical facts of the restaurant were false. While it may seem crazy for someone to take political action based on such extensive misinformation, what makes this possible are the same circumstances that made it possible for the United States to invade Iraq looking for weapons that didn’t exist. In both cases, important facts were lied about which is itself a problem; however, what is more fundamental is that both cases are possible only because historical facts are so frequently unavailable.
Putting the extreme cases aside, there are plenty of rather mundane consequences to consider. One of them is that there is a strong tendency to rely on thought experiments that demonstrate internal, logical coherence for a position. Like Adam Smith’s famous, especially inaccurate thought-experiment about the origins of currency. Another consequence is a general sense of rootlessness that motivates all sorts of behaviors and myth-making; such-as the popularity of ancestry websites, or WASPs adopting blood and soil ideologies when there couldn’t be less of a connection between their blood and this soil. There is also extensive ignorance about current socio-cultural norms, demographic distributions, legal frameworks and institutions, international relations, and many other facts about the structural composition and daily operations of the United States.
Why/How did this happen? Anti-Intellectualism in American Life
What kind of history and what sort of facts matter? Spiel about intelligence (as in meaningful information, not IQ)
Attempt to articulate these ideas #2
The United States is a country that doesn’t know itself, nor others.
What does this mean? Why does it matter?
58,220 U.S. citizens died in the Vietnam War; the last war the United States had instituted the Draft. At the time, it was immediately obvious to anyone of draft age that geopolitical circumstance had a direct impact on their own lives. This awareness was so compelling that thousands flooded the streets in opposition, groups dedicated to direct action intervened where ever they could, and the character of an entire generation was defined by the situation.
Thinking about the relationships between the Individual, the State, and other nation-states was far from a merely academic exercise. Very little may have actually been known about Vietnam, the history of the United States, and geopolitics in general; but, there was a very loud conversation about the overall project of the United States. The high visibility and personal impact of international relations magnified the importance of this conversation. And the significance of that conversation is still a big part of our cultural DNA, as Adam Curtis so beautifully points out in his film, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.
Attempt to articulate these ideas #3
The whole point of writing this is to draw an analogy between the important role played by one’s personal history in self-knowledge and the role played by the history of one’s home.
Psychologically, our memories of the past are granted significance by the present situation. Memory is a state and context-dependent phenomena. The past isn’t inherently meaningful. It becomes meaningful for us in the present moment according to the way it relates to our personal matrix of meaning, what Ludwig Binswanger calls our “world design”:
“Binswanger and other existential psychologists make a point of discovering their client’s world view (or world design). This is not a matter of discussing a person’s religion or philosophy of life, necessarily. Binswanger wants to know about your Lebenswelt, Husserl’s word for “lived world.” He is looking for a concrete, everyday world view.
He will, for example, try to understand how you see your Umwelt or physical world — things, buildings, trees, furniture, gravity….
He will want to understand your Mitwelt, or social world, as well. Here we are talking about your relations to individuals, to community, to culture, and so on.
And he will want to understand your Eigenwelt or personal world. This includes both mind and body, whatever you feel is most central to your sense of who you are.
Binswanger is equally interested in your relationship to time. He would like to know how you view your past, present, and future. Do you live in the past, forever trying to recapture those golden days? Or do you live in the future, always preparing or hoping for a better life? Do you see your life as a long, complex adventure? Or a brief flash — here today, gone tomorrow?
Also of interest is the way you treat space. Is your world open, or is it closed? Is it cozy or is it vast? Is it warm or cold? Do you see life as movement, as a matter of journeys and adventures, or do you see it from an immovable center? None of these things mean anything all by themselves, of course, but combined with everything else, learned in the intimate relationship of therapy, they can mean a great deal.
Binswanger also talks about different modes: Some people live in a singular mode, alone and self-sufficient. Others live in a dual mode, as a “you and me” rather than an “I.” Some live in a plural mode, thinking of themselves in terms of their membership in something larger than themselves — a nation, a religion, an organization, a culture. Still others live in an anonymous mode, quiet, secretive, in the background of life. And most of us live in all these modes from time to time and place to place.
As you can see, the language of existential analysis is metaphor. Life is much too big, much too rich, to be captured by anything so crude as prose. My life is certainly too rich to be captured in words that you thought up before you even met me! Existential therapists allow their clients to reveal themselves, disclose themselves, in their own words, in their own time.
Existentialists may be interested in your dreams, for example. But instead of telling you what your dreams mean, they will ask you. They might suggest that you let your dreams inspire you, let them guide you, let them suggest their own meanings. They may mean nothing, and they may mean everything.” – http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/binswanger.html
However, my question is only concerned with individuals in the United States in-so-far as they share the common circumstance of historical ignorance. Not just an ignorance of their own history, their own family’s history, or even their own demographics histories, but also – crucially – an ignorance of other individuals, families, and demographics histories. What does it mean to operate socially without an accurate social map? What does it mean to operate politically without a working knowledge of political history… the history of political institutions and political relationships? What does it mean to be disconnected from that matrix of meanings?
On a related note, even if someone does have these maps at-hand, there are still consequences from living in a world where others do not.
Overall, the question I want to get at is: what are some useful strategies and tactics for navigating this socio-poltical context? Does it even make sense to offer a historical rationale for one’s political positions in a world that can’t possibly appreciate the rationale because they lack the historical context? Or, since at the psychological level, we make use of history vis-a-vis the situation at-hand, is it worthwhile to articulate a robust past for one’s positions?
Can someone survive in a world they don’t know? Yes.
Can they thrive? It appears so when you hear some of the shit that the rich say.
But can they do politics? No. Not really.
Politics is history.
Politics is concerned with categories that transcend individuals. Categories that live in a world of legal concepts and group identities. Even the concept of “individual” is defined within the context of these categories.
Ok. So when I say, “The United States is a country that doesn’t know itself, nor others.” this also implies that for the most part, citizens of the United States are limited to a scope of political thinking that is defined by these maps of history and institutional functioning.