Historians bring together multiple factors in their analysis of events. Themes, however ranked in their world view, tend to find their way into the popular culture, as conventional mems, archetypes, or even cultural and foundational cornerstones.
Events themselves, like the recipes for specific food preparations, serve in the first instance, as teasers, headlines, stimuli for responses, relying on the basic principle, at least in a traditional democracy, that whatever does happen will evoke both voices of support and other voices of dispute.
Hegel posited a basic construct of history that has come to be known as “thesis, antithesis, synthesis” as a way of organizing how humans could come to wrap our minds around patterns of the larger/longer/perhaps even more predictable river of the narrative of the human story. A postulated idea, theory, proposal, vision serves, in this model as a cognitive starting point in any field of human endeavour which they evokes, from within and without the source of the original concept, reasons why the concept is flawed, worthy of rejection or at least needing modification. As the original concept undergoes the inevitable massage, reformation, and potential transformation, a new “synthesis, incorporating aspects of both the original thesis and its warranted and tested antithesis, generating a synthesis of both.
A similar ‘methodology’ operates in the science laboratory, somewhat more granular and over perhaps a protracted time frame.
The specific time frame itself offers comparative lenses, over a calendar year, a decade, a generation, a half-century, a century, or from an epic perspective, the whole landscape of periods of history and meta-history. Similarly, thought clusters that take shape as ideologies, offer another type of lens through which to view the relationships between clusters of influences that might include the flow of money and trade, the flow of where power congregates, how organizations are organized, how thought leaders grasp and apply various theologies/ethics/morals and social expectations. Some of the more popular perspectives about the relationship between human agency and human events focus on some common ‘street’ motions like “history makes the man” or the inverse, ‘man makes history happen.’
The cornerstone of the perception/belief in the ‘status or importance’ of human agency, both individual and in groups, as the primary driver of events, and the flow of patterns of events seems to have risen to a very high position in the conventional, North American, and especially American, concept of news. Personalizing history, by naming the individual perceived to be primarily responsible for an identified pattern, based on the collection, curation and comparison of gestalts of newly unearthed data, continues to attract both scholars and amateurs to the pursuit of ‘how we got here’. In the vortex of these ‘cognitive’ and ‘water cooler’ conversations, including formal research in academia, news and editorial opinion, and bar-room, and barbeque conversations, individuals participate in what comes to be known as public opinion.
Pollsters have generated a relatively new, and to many suspect, lens through which to anticipate how public decisions will unfold. Attentive to moment-by-moment vacillations in public perceptions, buttressed against formulaic propositions that filter the likelihood of how often and to what degree interviewed subjects tell their truth to pollsters, these opinion polls echo the daily stock exchange numbers of how various indices rise and fall by the moment, only based on a weekly average of data collection, massaged through statistical calculations for verifiability and reliability. (Lies told by ordinary people, on a daily basis, between and among colleagues, seem to pass as normal, tolerated and privacy motivated, while lies perpetrated by political leaders evoke outrage among political opponents.)
When the confluence of what seem like tidal waves of unsettling information threatens the accepted public tolerable level of ‘stress’ (itself a measure of what the political class can ‘get away with, without having to take action) and the pain breaks out in a display of anger, or disappointment, or rebellion or even revolution, then both political leadership and those documenting the ‘first record of history’ (the fourth estate) take note. And for their part, how when and to what degree each of these groups put their ‘hand’ on the scale of public opinion, they might inflame or mediate public action.
If and when a sizeable and perhaps even potentially unmanageable public protest threatens public safety and security, and whether that threat comes in the form of a health or a public security issue, we have traditional ‘buckets’ of legal and/or medical buckets of response. Public discourse that borrows from the legal lexicon or the medical lexicon, (each of these based on the historic traditions of the academic, philosophic, and perceptual as well as the ethical frameworks of their academic ancestors) tends to dominate the ‘coverage’ of such moments. Ordinary conversation, itself, tends to echo basic human emotions like hope and fear, depending on and also disclosing both the anxiety running through the culture, as well as forming an index for decision-makers to discern the level of threat, and the concomitant need for a response.
Weather forecasts, like opinion polls, or perhaps the inverse, have become part of the public diet of information that both reflects and guides human behaviour. Political “weather forecasts” or “body politic’s medical diagnosis” flow from the key-pads and the microphones of those ‘in public life’ including politicians, pundits, reporters and occasionally academics. Among the latter group are men and women who have spent their working lives reading, studying, reflecting, experimenting, theorizing and postulating various theses, sometimes as doctoral theses, and later as post-doctoral research papers, submitting to and dependent on what scholars call “peer review”. Occasionally, one of these theses emerge in the public media, helping people in various demographics and occupations, holding various philosophic perceptions and beliefs to inform and potentially even to shape their own world view.
Attempting to “make sense” of what to a citizenry seems incomprehensible, or even unsettling is a ‘business’ that cannot and will not be assigned to any one individual or any one academic department. And one of the impacts of the digital capacity to dig, to collect and to curate and to reflect upon not only contemporary headlines but also the archives of both thought and events is that these pursuits are now open to people of all persuasions, in all quarters, in all cultures and faith communities.
When the record, for example, of how the ‘white’ western culture has treated those of a different skin colour, or how the industrial-military complex has “treated” the environment, becomes public knowledge, to a degree never before either available or consumed, the public consciousness becomes a new participant in the public square. The private lives of public figures, once preserved in the “off the record” files of reporters, are not the only ‘new information’ to which the public now has to react and to respond. Granular information about the hourly behaviour of hurricanes, and granular information about the decisions of the political class, including the gravitas, or its total absence, of the arguments are now available to everyone. For some, all of this information is considered overload; for others, it is a challenge; and for others this cataract is confusing. Voting percentages of 50% or less of the eligible electorate are only one measure of interest and participation, and the general concept of citizenship.
Seeking patterns that might help curate, and clear much of the confusion of a collision of threatening factors, we have media outlets that, rather than detailing the headlines of the day, tend to take a step back and bring together a fresh compilation of both academic theories and broad strokes of events spanning a century or longer. Feeding both the public appetite for organizing principles or concepts that tend to shift the kaleidoscope’s fragments into a new pattern, The Atlantic, leans on both interviews and academic sources for the perspectives of their various essayists.
Bloggers, without direct access to many of these sources, then lean on essayists and their work, in our modest attempt to bring some of these influences to bear on our “take”. From this scribe’s perspective, the convergence of the personal and the public discourse is only a fledgling blade of grass in a field dominated by conventional discourse based on political science, and stereotypes with which the public has become familiar. Anything that smacks of personal or familial, educational or theological, that does not comport and conform with/to the conventional public discourse, unless deployed as comparative metaphor, too often is relegated to the “family pages,” or the lifestyle sections. It is our contention that the personal/familial/religious/psychological/emotional/theological/spiritual are not only impactful on our public discourse, they warrant a more respectable, if amorphous and less empirically measurable, attention and reflection not heretofore permitted.
It is a primarily masculine, intellectual, academic and cognitive vocabulary, and perspective that not only informs but actually foundationally constructs too much of the language and the temper of public debate. Relationships between and among individuals of different races. cultures, faiths, however, continue not only to depend on a collective blindness and denial of our unconscious biases, but actually continue to foster perpetuation from generation to generation. Breaking out of family ‘myopia’ (too often wrapped in hymns of tradition and even faith) is one of the most difficult thresholds for each of us to cross. Stirring questions that probe our families’ cultural beliefs, vernacular, ethical and moral positions, that bring such ‘hard’ positions into view, at first, and then into and through deep introspection is the only way we can and will shed those constricting attitudes that continue to bind us to our own failures, both individually and collectively.
Policy statements, even political campaign speech inevitably reflects attitudes originating in a personal belief structure. A belief system that, for example, values military might, and a ‘war’ to erase political and social trouble, has a high value on hard, top-down deployment of power. A belief system that considers compromise as weak, that the public interest and need must give way to the personal agenda of those in power relies on a psychological and spiritual insecurity the depth of which is rarely discussed as a significant factor in public life. We love personal indiscretions that feed our insatiable appetite for gossip. However, we categorically refuse to acknowledge our individual and shared habit to dissemble, to deny, to avoid and to cancel, while projecting all of our least admirable traits onto those in public life. Similarly, we also inflate our own impression of our value and worth, and then project our highest ideals on our public figures. Neither of those projections, whether they evoke hope or fear, are acknowledged as integral to our public discourse.
While it is true that we come to know “who” we are by recognizing what we oppose, and this is an essential discernment for each of us, it is also important to know those things we each have to shift in order to come together to co-operate, within our nations and provinces, as well as among and between all nations. The records of our shared history of treating minorities with overt or covert contempt demand our individual critical self-examination of how our families, our churches, our teachers, our clergy and our friends impacted our attitudes. Having been impacted, however inconspicuously and unconsciously, by our parents, our teachers, our clergy, our doctors and colleagues, we each have an opportunity to dig into our formative memories, encounters, experiences that have shaped our least desirable and potentially most dangerous attitudes and perceptions.
The public discourse about pandemics, about presidential lies, about bigoted police officers, and about a widening chasm of wealth disparity, as well as the clearly indisputable evidence of fire, winds, floods and environmental depletion, cannot be permitted to remove our individual and our shared obligation to examine critically, privately and with diligent and vigorous persistence, the sources of our unconscious biases, our hatreds, our dismissals.
High sounding political rhetoric, slogans, and even policies and laws must never be divorced from the narrow and bigoted and frightened personal perspectives of those in public life. And our own denial of our narrow and bigoted attitudes only assures that similar if even more toxic, bigotry and biases will have access to positions of power and influence.
The Lincoln Project, currently engaged in a public and courageous and creative disavowal of the current Republican candidate for president, as former life-long members and devotees of that Republican Party, offer an example of critical self-reflection that brings into light the collision of the personal and the political. The Republican Senators who have genuflected to the president’s power, on the other hand, offer what has become a more conventional example of public attitudes, perceptions and dangers. To go along to get along is an insidious phrase that risks not only personal autonomy but erosion of the public interest.
Failed attempts to reconcile racial, gender and ethnic as well as economic disparities plague the history of western culture. Any effective and lasting changes to this pattern will depend on the critical examination of the personal biases, including the failure to participate and to examine critically our own biases that make it possible for opportunists to seize power.