Understanding the past differently

When walking around taking photos, as a hobby, of buildings, trees, landscapes, lakes, rivers, marshes, parks, gardens, and other things, I have learned that things may look one way when approaching them from one direction, but be much more interesting when returning and looking from the other direction.  This is key to my satisfaction in writing Upon Reconsidering.  In life, too, learning how events and matters in my past and in our collective history look when turning back to examine them, can very fulfilling. Margaret MacMillan’s The Uses and Abuses of History is an excellent example of this:  she points out that should want to know how a major conflict began, it is important to decide how far back you will go for the answer, because there can always be yet one more determinant earlier than the one you chose (who started the Middle East conflicts, and when?).  Going back ever further may help deepen understanding of current events, although they may not bring you closer to solving the current problem.  Nonetheless, it can help to understand that neither side has all the angels of history standing at its shoulder exclusively.

That may lead to some humility – an adjusted sense of the importance, righteousness, rightness, and justification for one’s cause, leaving some room to acknowledge that the other side or sides, too, may have some of those qualities.

This has been, an opportunity to look at today’s history writings, to help understand what really happened around me, and earlier, that affected me.  For example, being dissatisfied with what I could glean at the time about how and why the U.S. got involved in Iraq (and Canada in Afghanistan), I am reading Robert Draper’s To Start a War:  How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq.  It provides wonderful detail and excellent stories, but my question is left without a credible answer.  I think the answer is still missing to the question, why Iraq?

Some reading is correcting either my misunderstanding of recent history, or providing me information I never encountered.  Richard T. Ford’s Dress Codes:  How the Laws of Fashion Made History forces me to think about the significance even in law of some peoples’ freedom of expression — makeup, gender-designating or non-designating clothing, and the way they present themselves in general.  Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law:  a Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America confronts me with facts about deliberate structural segregation of which I was totally unaware.  I am re-reading Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report when more unmarked individual graves near or at the closed schools for Canada’s Aboriginals are being discovered.  Even though I read the report years ago when it first came out, I am surprised by these discoveries.  I have it in one hand. In the other I hold UNDRIP (The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). Canada has committed to enshrine this in law, which will be difficult because our courts have already taken decisions which contradict some of these provisions.  At this moment, while unmarked graves are being discovered, caveats are being raised by the discoverers:  it is uncertain whether all are children; whether all are from schools; it is known that some had been marked with headstones and crosses, but unknown why these were removed.  Some records, hopefully actual burial records, are just now being released.  While there is no doubt that these schools were established primarily to irradicate the native culture, just how these newly discovered graves fit into that effort is unclear.

Some reading fills in total blanks.  Recently I read an essay (sorry, can’t find citation) by an immigrant to Canada which made me realize that my understanding and knowledge of “the third world” is seriously out of date – far too many years have gone by without my keeping up with events there.  I had arrogantly assumed that reading the daily press about (usually) the latest crises there would keep me informed.  I am not so much looking back to perceive changes, as getting an education as if I had never known anything about them.  Robert I. Rotberg’s Things Come Together:  Africans Achieving Greatness in the Twenty-First Century is a real eye opener, although the enormous detail and overall narrative do not seem to support his assertions in the final chapter that things are improving greatly there.

A great contrast is Joseph Patrick Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World:  How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.  With a great deal of research but also a great deal of mere assertion, e.g.,  “we may conclude,” “quite possibly,” and other uses of phrases which might seem to prove a thesis but do not really do so, this proposes that western nations developed unique values in comparison with the rest of the world.  It claims to explain why and how.  Notwithstanding my caveats, I learned much about how our individualistic, non-family centred values, make us very different from others in the areas of government, commercial processes, and sense of justice.  No wonder our theories of democracy and capitalism aren’t as popular as we expected when we tried to export them.

Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: a New History of the World, and The New Silk Roads:  the Present and Future of the World have helped me learn more about China, past and present.  This seems quite important and relevant today.  Valerie Hansen’s The Year 1000:  When Explorers Connected the World – and Globalization Began and Linda Colley’s The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen:  Warfare, Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World help me perceive the overarching trajectories of history in ways that I never would have imagined.  The last’s thesis is that portions of western empires wanted to identify their own values as if they were countries unto themselves, in response to imperial wars that consumed their people and lands, i.e., the imperial wars led to the writing of constitutions.  I’ll bet that never occurred to my readers, either.

Reading these books compels humility — I must acknowledge so much which I do not know, or thought I knew, but wrongly.  And it produces humility as I learn the lessons. I am not surprised that the topic of humility is showing up in recent major writings.

One is Mark Carney’s Values:  Building a Better World for All emphasizes the virtues of humility.  He writes amidst the surprises of the pandemic, the changes wrought, and new insights which came to him.

Humility matters…Humility is recognising that there will be surprises. I have learned that it is worth asking what could happen if things go wrong, even when you think it unlikely {see also Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk].What if subprime isn’t contained? What if a cyber-attack is successful? What if there is no deal? Humility admits the limits of our knowledge, that there are unknown unknowns which make resilience and adaptability imperative. The humble can plan for failure, even if they don’t know how or when it will happen.

The humble recognise the limits of meritocracy. Humility admits the role of good fortune and the responsibilities that success brings – the duties that should be put into the service of purpose. Being humble is recognising that we are custodians of our companies, communities and countries. And that all are equal within. That the common good trumps utilitarianism….

Humility is the theme also in The Tyranny of Merit:  What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel.  The thesis is that the values associated with merit in the U.S. have become overwhelming, fostering assumptions that those who are getting ahead deserve to do so by virtue of their merit. But often they have inherited status, money, connections, and access to the best schools and jobs.  There is little room in such lives for honest appraisal of their own qualities and the true value of their character and accomplishments, aside from inheritance and their social status.  Humility requires those self-appraisals.

The reader knows that the overarching theme of these posts is informed consent.  In earlier posts I have discussed the need to reconsider what I have known and learned, and to cast my intellectual gaze outward to perceive the broader issues and actions underlying such information.  This has required organizing the information so I can keep track of material from so many books. I discovered in Thomas E. Ricks’ First Principles:  What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks the Romans and How That Shaped Our Country (cited also in earlier posts) that the founders kept information organized in “commonplace” books.  These were essentially bound or loose-leaf volumes in which they kept notes about information, or they cut and pasted (apparently there were early versions of the glue which we now have on sticky-notes, because these notes could be lifted from one page and shifted to another!) sections of newspapers and books.  These were their personal easy-reference books.  I learned even more about this in Judith Flanders’ A Place for Everything:  the Curious History of Alphabetical Order.

Reading all this helps me examine how decisions were made by individuals or groups within powerful organizations.  I am forced to wonder why those decisions were taken, as well.  I encounter unknowable actions.  Officials in the Canadian government’s bureaus which oversaw our first nations peoples, made decisions so odd that, even with explicit explanations from the decision-makers, I sense that there is something not being said, or revealed.  My work in the military showed me this curious way of large organizations. A senior briefing officer in a major U.S. “specified” command, I was once instructed to deliver a briefing from another staff.  The briefing had to be word-for-word (by memory).  I was told which questions from flag officers I could answer on in my own expertise, and which to defer to attending senior officers from the tasking office.  After I delivered the briefing to a senior flag officer, there was silence in the room. 

“Brownie, is this your own staff’s work, or were you directed to give this briefing?”

“General, this is a directed briefing.”

“What do you think of it?”  You can imagine my nervousness.  You can imagine the looks I was getting from the senior offices sitting in back.

“General, I don’t see how the information compels the conclusions.”

“I agree.  I’m not going to ask whose briefing this is, but if I ever get another one like this I will ask…” and then he suggested that the offending parties would have fewer functioning body parts in the future.

I didn’t understand why that conclusion was being peddled.  I often don’t understand the reasons for so many poor “management” or institutional decisions.  I often hear people explain such matters by suggesting institutional or individual incompetence (quite possible, I know) or evil intention (see my earlier remark about not understanding why people want to injure others).  There is the possibility of poor communication.  In any organization there is always, of course, SNAFU (situation normal – all fouled up).  See also my post https://uponreconsidering.blog/2018/11/17/nothing-gets-completed-it-just-becomes-more-complex/.  While understanding and accepting the reality of these, as an ethicist I want to know that people with major responsibilities actually thought about and felt the moral consequences of their decisions, and didn’t simply palm them off onto one or more of the categorical reasons listed above. 

Too often we hear people say, “I made a mistake.”  2 + 2 = 5 is a mistake.  Decisions with moral and ethical qualities are different.  Here there may be inadequate thought because of an inappropriate sense of responsibility.  I want to be able to give intellectual consent to their having fully understood the dimensions of their decisions, and the moral consequences.  I want also to know that they got to the point frequently of looking at themselves (as required by humility, above) and caring and knowing deep down whether they had done their best in the situation.

As an ethicist, a practicing religious (I’ll get it right some day, but I keep practicing) who is accustomed to the need for forgiveness from God, from others, and from myself, and as an experienced decision-maker, I want to know how these people regard themselves in the end.  I don’t want to judge them (although I will judge their decisions).  I want to know that they judged themselves, and did not pass off bad decisions as “mistakes”.

I read all these books in the hope of being able to do that.  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

A great deal to reconsider.