On Being a Pessimist
History is fascinating and the way we tell stories about ourselves is revealing. When I was in elementary school I was enthralled by military history. I dabbled in World War I and the various battles and skirmishes throughout the nineteenth century but I spent most of my time learning about the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II.
As I learn more about the history of my country and the world, it’s become more clear why I was enthralled by the particular history that I was. I found World War I interesting but it didn’t grip me. Its outbreak was a maze of diplomatic triggers and international politics and, though there was an aggressor, all countries mobilized and lept to war. The casual manner in which human life was cast into the no-man’s-land of machine gun and artillery fire and the utter devastation wrought by the massive armies brought shame to all participants. Like Korea and Vietnam after, it is portrayed as a gray war. A war of geopolitics and unprepared fighters killing in a war they were never trained properly to fight.
World War I and the other major American conflicts that never quite sparked my interest have that in common. They are gray wars that are morally murky and difficult to portray otherwise. It’s challenging to cast any one side as the good guy; the freedom fighter. None of those wars are packaged neatly into narratives that end with the cause of freedom and its champion (the United States) emerging victorious.
The Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II really are. Good squares off against evil and the cause of freedom prevails. The Revolution is a bedtime story for patriots. All parties move on from the Civil War with problems solved and brothers reconciled and slaves freed into a country of opportunity. The Nazis are defeated by the advance of Western Democracy; set on their heels during D-Day and broken in the charge following the Battle of the Bulge. I was fascinated and instantly gripped by the narratives – the ease with which I could root for characters in the stories. The easy morals and the role my country played in keeping the torch of freedom lit. But those narratives don’t square with the reality of wars that were almost as murky as any other.
The American Revolution was a war over taxation fought by the poor on behalf of a white, landed, slave-owning aristocracy that restricted the franchise and wrote slavery into their national government upon winning. The Civil War ended slavery but unleashed a century and a half of bigotry and legal discrimination. World War II was fought in many theaters but Nazi Germany was brought to its knees in large part because of the brutal war of attrition and campaign of terror fought across a thousand miles of Eastern Europe by a Red Army at the disposal of Josef Stalin, an ally of the Western democracies whose murderous evil rivaled that of Hitler.
The founding fathers rode their victory into the three-fifths compromise. Half the country fought tooth and nail to preserve slavery. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. Sherman marched to the sea. Johnson crippled Reconstruction. The idealism of Communism collapsed quickly into repression and killing. The world turned its collective shoulder to the fate of the Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe. Roosevelt shook hands with Stalin and interned Japanese-Americans. Stalin liberated the people of Eastern Europe and promptly forced them into labor camps and collective farms, and jailed and murdered political opponents. Truman dropped the bomb.
This tendency to fumble for positive national mythology pervades our country’s understanding of itself. If history books are any indication, our founding fathers were “freedom loving heroes” and slavery was a product of its time, eradicated at our earliest convenience. The progression of civil rights was slow but constant and ultimately embraced. We are and have always been a haven for those from all over the world who flee broken economies and long for opportunity. These narratives, too, are difficult to square with reality.
We shape all our history into useful parables about good and evil, freedom and oppression, democracy and opportunity. We are unwilling to look history in the eye and instead smear the details into more pleasing patterns and squint to see only the start and finish. We ignore the middle and don’t turn to see the whole picture. Mere pessimism is not necessarily useful, but reality is instructive.
Our story is dark. The arc of our moral history may bend toward justice but that trajectory is aided by a starting point of profound injustice. That arc is guided by periodic victories for civil liberties but moves toward liberty are met with massive resistance and devastating retaliation. Threats are often met with moral bankruptcy and fearful prejudice.
Our borders were hewn from indigenous nations by means of forced relocations and violence. The country was built on the backs of enslaved people dragged in chains from Africa. Emancipation was met with violent terrorism in the form of lynching and the Klan and, in the face of that opposition, collapsed into Jim Crow. Our melting pot and vibrant pluralism is in spite of violence and legal discrimination against Irish, Italian, East Asian, and Latino immigrants. Integration of schools was met with Byrd, Thurmond, Faubus, and Wallace and eventually halted in all but name. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream in spite of being harassed by his government, but a bullet ended any chance he had of seeing it come to fruition.
Over the last three months it’s been tempting to look at our political situation and repeatedly tell myself that what's happening is not normal but I’m not sure that’s true. Particular aspects of what's happening and particular individuals involved are exceedingly bizarre. This specific administration is abnormal in the extreme; but the politics that brought us to this point are old hat. Fear of outsiders has always been a mobilizing force. Convincing people that prosperity is zero-sum and that immigrants or the underprivileged threaten their share has never been difficult. And that’s important.
Unusual occurrences are outliers. After abnormal events we revert to the mean. This politics of backlash are not abnormal. If we assume they are and wait for the correction, it may never come. Acknowledging that a predictable and normal political attitude with roots three centuries deep can lead to such bizarre, disheartening, and potentially devastating consequences requires admitting that our ‘normal’ needs changing. Squaring with our unpleasant and vindictive inertia begs resistance not just of the abnormal threat of this administration but of the darker parts of our ‘normal.’ In addition to opposing this specific authoritarian, it’s important that we change root and branch the conditions that put him in a position to wreak havoc and that will still be there when he’s gone.
Over three centuries the arc of moral history may bend toward justice but it’s not by design. It’s not predetermined. Fate is not involved. It is not inevitable. Our tendency toward individual liberty may be greater than ever but the means by which our country can exert its reactionary energy are as well. This is how our country wants to be. Resistant to change, bitter and vindictive when it’s achieved, close-fisted with equality, quick to claim that a problem is solved, resistant to acknowledging its reemergence. Changing that requires changing our nature. A big, slow change in every institution at every level. But the first change must be in how we see ourselves.
As I grew older, I began looking with head tilted and eyebrow raised at the hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson and the other architects of the Revolution. I stopped playing with the gray toy soldiers and eventually with the blue as well. I realized that, after Stalingrad, I really had no idea what happened east of Berlin and that for several years, it hadn’t occurred to me that I didn’t.
Most of what I read in elementary school, middle school, even high school were story books. Historical fiction of a sort. Stories that followed real characters doing real things but altered the context to better instill the moral. That we fought for freedom – no matter the slaves, no matter the tribes, no matter the segregation, no matter the monsters with whom we allied. That we welcomed all – nevermind the Irish, nevermind the Italian, nevermind the Filipino or Chinese or refugee.
We have to stop grasping for the easy morals and seeing only the positive narrative in our history. The one-dimensional stories. We have to stop insisting on happy endings and recognize that our stories often end badly. We can’t just change the ending to a story that is three centuries old. We have start writing new ones immediately. Writing new stories that end well requires reading the old ones and seeing their flaws. Recognizing them for what the are; long, dark, unpleasant, and short on good guys.