Monday, June 29, 2020

Losing My Innocence, One Chunk at a Time

An old and wise friend posted this meme on Facebook today.  Of course my first reaction was doubt about the attribution.  One might think that an organization like UNESCO would never post a bogus quotation, but one has learned otherwise over the years.

So I looked it up, and sure enough, it is probably not an African proverb.  I found it attributed to the poet Maya Angelou, though in that version she went on to contradict herself: "I have respect for the past, but I'm a person of the moment. I'm here, and I do my best to be completely centered at the place I'm at, then I go forward to the next place."

I also found a version from the British fantasy writer and satirist Terry Pratchett: "If you do not know where you come from, then you don't know where you are, and if you don't know where you are, then you don't know where you're going. And if you don't know where you're going, you're probably going wrong."  And another variation by the novelist and essayist James Baldwin: “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”  It sounds to me like it's a platitudinous proverb that might have come from anywhere.

But, and I think this is more important, I don't think it's true, whether it refers to individuals or to societies and countries.  Life as a journey is a very old metaphor, but it makes little sense if you literalize it.  I know that I came from a woman's body, I'm going, ultimately, to a crematorium.  For many people, I think this platitude is connected to the poisonous metaphor of "roots," that people are determined not only by where they were born, but where their ancestors were born and who their ancestors were.  As far as I know, my ancestors came from two or three European countries, and none of them has much to do with who I am.  Where I was born -- northern Indiana -- is more relevant, but it doesn't determine who I am either, nor did it tell me what to do with my life.  In most respects, my background is utterly opposed to where I've gone: as a gay man, an atheist, an anti-racist, a critic of my government and my country.  Nothing of where I came from told me where I was going, and when it did, I didn't listen.

The same applies to history, especially since so much "history" in all cultures is myth and propaganda.  Nobody knows where we're going, because the future is not determined; the past can be and generally is used to discourage people from doing what they think right.  It's doubtful that the past has much to teach us, even if we have reliable information about it, because no one knows which lessons to draw from history.  Usually people construct a historical narrative to suit their wishes and plans, but to repeat: the future is not determined.  The events of the past few years, most dramatically the coronavirus pandemic, have shown us very forcefully how little we can predict the future from the past.  It was a good idea to prepare for future epidemics, and a very bad idea for Trump to dismantle the agency set up to make such preparations, but little specific knowledge of history was needed to know that.  Nor did it take much knowledge of history to know that the current economic system was going to lead to another crash and depression eventually; it only took working knowledge of events in living memory, and both Obama and Trump ignored that.

It makes me very uncomfortable to say all this, I admit: I grew up on Santayana's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it", I've read a lot of history, it interests me and it feels important to me.  But when I think about it, I wonder how much it really matters, not despite but because I've read so much history.  And while experience can teach us some things, such as the necessity of planning for disasters, it can't tell us where we're going.

As Barack Obama's presidency destroyed the last remnants of my naive faith in the effectiveness of voting; as the flipflops of epidemiological experts on the value of masks (and other matters) have undermined what remained of my trust in scientific expertise; so this meme revealed the crumbling of my faith in the value of history.  What will go next, I wonder?