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At one point not too long ago, I had to ask myself: Why are so many dramas that examine social evils set a generation (approximately) before they were made? From Auntie Mame to Mississippi Burning to comedies like Ruggles of Red Gap, the easiest way to talk about systemic social problems is by looking at the ones you can see in your rear view mirror. Criticizing your parents (or grandparents) is way easier than taking a careful look at your own flaws.

We’re all familiar with people who imagine themselves heroes of the past, saying exactly the sort of thing this comic mocks. (I encourage you to click that link. It’s great.) But would we have been paragons of progressive virtue? Or would we have accepted the status quo with a shrug and an unconvincing rationalization?

We all like to imagine ourselves to be good people, and to be on the right side of history. Of course, when we look back we see that the ones on the right side were often killed for the cause. For people who think they would have joined the righteous protest back then, it’s important to ask if you’re doing it now. Getting tear gassed by NYC cops after they stick you in an enclosure? Getting shot with rubber bullets for marching in the street? Getting arrested at a demonstration because you flinched when a police officer reached for you? No? Hmm.

And, as mentioned above, the people on the wrong side of history were not monsters. They loved. They did charity. They worshiped with sincerity. They had strong ideas about good and evil. They acted with honor and kindness.

But they also bought into a corrupt system that was so pervasive they couldn’t even recognize another way to be. That doesn’t make them monsters, and it doesn’t make them mustache-twirling villains.

It doesn’t help that the narratives we tell are full of Evil Baddies of Evilness, who are irredeemable assholes rewarded with a bullet at the denouement. Hell, right now I’m reading Tom Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century and I plan to reread a one-volume edition of Lord of the Rings right after, to see if I can get through it without skimming.

That book is the archetype of othering your enemies and making monsters of them, and I’m going to read it again (right after I rewatch the movies).

Obviously, there are real villains in this world, just as there are real heroes, but everyone thinks they’re one or the other. Most aren’t. Most are caught up in the cultural assumptions around them, and are living their lives the best way they know how.

To make note of the “fossil fuel” comment by Ta Nehisi-Coates, I want to tell a brief story: Earlier this week I took my family to see INSIDE OUT. Not having a car, we walked six blocks to the bus stop. On the way, a neighbor who lives in our building drove by and parked right beside the stop. He and his girlfriend (both young and healthy) were running an errand and instead of walking on a hot June day, he drove. Six blocks. And it’s not like he was picking up a mattress or something huge.

I don’t want to seem like I’m picking on the guy; if I sold more books, I’d have a car, too. But driving six blocks? Hey, maybe he was in a hurry. Maybe he didn’t want to get all sweaty. Maybe he had another errand to run across town (it’s possible!) But getting into your car and going is how Americans live. We know the damage it does, not just to the environment but to our bodies, too, and yet we still build cities to accommodate them. Those cities that predate the car get retrofitted for them. That’s how our world is designed, from getting to work to shopping to school to everything. Going against that is hard. I know, because we’re doing it. I waste a shitload of time, comparatively, just to go to the library. I walk for an hour to take a trip that is less than 15 minutes in a car. It’s good for me, but I know the time I’m giving up is writing time, and that sucks.

But I’m not an anti-climate change hero. I’m not fighting for a better world, or setting a good example. I’m just poor. When future generations look back on our wasteful choices, I hope my descendants don’t try to defend me by saying I’m not a monster. I hope they know better.

It’s easy to look back at the moral failings of past generations and pretend that we’re different. We aren’t. The fact that they did awful things, or fought to sustain evil institutions, or turned a blind eye to injustice doesn’t make them any different from us. Most of us do the same.

Mirrored from Harry Connolly. You can comment here but not there.



( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 29th, 2015 04:16 pm (UTC)
The generation before thing has been a Thing ever since the novel reached maturity, George Eliot, Thackeray, Dickens, most all of them set major novels the generation before. Sometimes it was their childhood setting they were evoking. I think a lot of them were set Before Trains. You get a nostalgic sense of what it was like to own a carriage and travel peacefully about the verdant countryside . . . but if you compare that aspect to eighteenth century novels, which are full of highwaymen, rotten roads, coaches coming apart and flinging characters into ditches (comedies) or death in tragedies, or getting stuck in muck, you begin to perceive a sense of "a generation ago when life was quieter and better". Pre tech, pre anxious change.
Jun. 29th, 2015 05:03 pm (UTC)
That's the counter-balance to the smug, critical eye looking backwards: the misty nostalgia.

To generalize, if the backward-looking smugs are trying to engage with social flaws of the past, the nostalgics try to engage with the social flaws of the present. Unfortunately, I don't often find useful criticism there.

For example, one of my wife's friends is a wiz with Photoshop and has a hatred for modern social media. It's amazing how many ways this guy can combine silly criticisms of Facebook with pleas that "We should just *talk* to each other!"

Engaging with our modern world is hard.
Jun. 29th, 2015 07:01 pm (UTC)
I own a car. We've put less than 36,000 miles on it in seven years. Our next car will be electric. Neither of our kids has a car.

My great-great grandfather was an Abolitionist politician; he was easily rich enough to be a slave owner, but chose to oppose the institution instead.

We think, but cannot prove, that my great-great-great grandfather was an escaped slave; he had no money, but resisted in his own way as best he could.

I never got arrested, but I marched against the Vietnam War and campaigned to impeach Richard Nixon.

I remember once when my parents were going out, they warned the six of us kids that they might not be back on time, as there was a chance they would be arrested -- they were going to a Margaret Sanger speech that was, at that time, an illegal gathering under Massachusetts state law. (They weren't arrested. But the cops broke up the speech.)

My parents and grandfather were members of the NAACP. (My other three grandparents were British.) My mother was the secretary of a church that was active in both the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement; she never went south herself, what with six kids at home, but she did help organize freedom rides, rallies, marches, etc.

Coates has a point but takes it too far; these moral failings would not have ended if there weren't people who recognized them as moral failings and took action against them.

Jun. 29th, 2015 08:48 pm (UTC)
Coates's tweet is a response to the descendants of Confederate soldiers. He was clear (as was I) that every time has people who do the right thing.
Jun. 29th, 2015 07:33 pm (UTC)
My history professor used to say, "Man is a slow-evolving creature." He meant that people a hundred or more years ago were not so different from ourselves.
Jun. 29th, 2015 08:52 pm (UTC)
I think the biggest change is in the culture is the expansion of what we consider to be our in-group, reducing the number of people we consider Outsiders.
Jun. 29th, 2015 09:10 pm (UTC)
This, or an aspect of it, is something that drives me nuts: people like Margaret Sanger, who was a suffragist and the founder of what became Planned Parenthood and a huge, massive proponent of safe, legal birth control for women, including abortions, was probably also racist. And I hate that so many modern people are eager to condemn her for that, when she was (it appears) at worst only a product of her time in that regard, whereas she was hugely, hugely progressive in the matter of birth control. I don't think people should be damned for being products of their time, even if they manage to break out of that in one particular regard.

Also sort of relatedly, I always think it's kind of funny that people seem to assume that if they were alive 100, 300, 500 years ago, whatever, that they'd be of the upper class, and noble about it to boot. Well, assuming you were born into the same family line you are now...I personally would have been a peasant doing back-breaking labor and presumably popping out a baby every 18 months. Noooo thank you.
Jun. 29th, 2015 09:35 pm (UTC)
And some people were vicious even for their time, and it can be hard to judge where they fell on the bell curve for their culture. Just one of many reasons it can be difficult to judge the past.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )