I have been wrestling with a difficult issue for many years now, my seemingly all but final estrangement from two people I was always close to. Their loss was a kind of ‘collateral damage’ resulting from the demand to hide someone else’s well-founded feelings of shame.
Seen in the worst light, my constant return to this painful subject is what psychologists call perseverating, self-inflicted pain from regretful preoccupation with an ultimately insoluble tragedy, the neurotic need to constantly relive the past suffering that caused deep wounds.
Seen another way, the way I prefer to see it, I’m searching for an elusive solution to an ongoing tragedy. I’ve been turning the evidence of our estrangement over in my hands, looking at it from every direction, shining light on it from every angle, seeking a creative solution to something important to me, an inventive idea that has been evading me.
Last night I thought of two questions, one for each of them, that sum up my long musings, without divulging anything of underlying shameful events to anyone involved.
They are a sister and brother, the girl a history buff, the guy a poet and a fiction writer. Sadly, I lost touch with them over the last few years. My intermittent attempts to maintain the relationships are finally met with mostly silence. Yesterday, while thinking about something else, I stumbled on a final question I could ask each of them. If I had only one last question to ask, I think it might be these (note the lengthy illustrations to the historian’s question).
To the young historian:
Q: Is history the fact-based inquiry into the nuanced reasons events and trends happen in human society, pursued to give us insight into the challenges of the present and the future? Isn’t the alternative to factual history propaganda, a false narrative supporting a pre-determined outcome?
Historical narratives emerge to make sense of the past. From earliest human history people were strategically erased from memory. In the days of the Pharaohs the new dynasty would send slaves to scrape the faces of their predecessors off the tomb walls, fucking them in the afterlife, erasing them from history. This is an ongoing pattern in human affairs.
When Germany lost the first World War certain Germans came up with an infuriating myth, The Stab in the Back — the victorious German army had been betrayed and humiliated by treacherous enemies who would be made to pay with their lives. The endlessly shifting narratives of history often swing wildly between opposite interpretations. A school of history will hold forth its theory — insist and largely prevail for generations (like the Dunning School at Columbia rewrote the history of the Civil War) inverting the previous understanding. In the case of the Civil War, the revisionist early twentieth century history (influential for decades) held that the Confederacy did not secede over slavery, that in a real way they never lost the glorious war to preserve their way of life, that the people they massacred were the real traitors to the Constitution.
We are watching a historic battle for the soul of history at this fascinating, scary moment in history. The recent riot at the Capitol, the ascendant far-right tells us now, in one voice, was done by leftists posing as Trump supporters, to make Trump look bad after they stole the election from him.
Isn’t inquiry into the facts of what actually happened in the past the crucial work of the historian? Isn’t good history the business of making the often irrational human endeavor understandable by placing carefully uncovered ideas and events into context?
Senator John Tester (D-Montana) told Bill Maher the other night that the original purpose of the filibuster was to promote bipartisanship by requiring a 3/5 majority vote to hold a legislative debate or a confirmation hearing . Maher had no comment on this origin story, a dubious story Tester offered in passing, one he had no obvious motivation to promote.
Tester’s comment leads to a reasonable question: was the filibuster designed and used to promote bipartisanship in the senate?
Would even a cursory reading of history, or Wikipedia , show that John C. Calhoun, our nation’s greatest defender of slavery in the Senate, refined the use of the filibuster to allow the proslavery minority to block legislation that could threaten the viability of the Peculiar Institution? Would we learn that virtually every use of this minority tool during the twentieth century was to oppose legislation that would favor the greater rights for the majority? Does this not strongly suggest that bipartisanship was not the original motivation for this parliamentary device that can instantly disable a majority’s ability to pass laws?
Or, does it make no difference, historically, like whether or not the 2020 Election was actually stolen from the rightful winner by an illegitimate president who was sworn in over the strenuous objection of countless patriots?
In the case of the 2020 election there is a great deal of evidence to suggest this claim of a stolen election is a lie, and no evidence of substantial voter fraud has ever been produced, but couldn’t you say, without being judgmental, that it’s really just a hotly disputed matter of opinion that people of good faith could agree to disagree about?
Or, is there even such a thing as historical fact?
For the young writer:
I was more than forty years old, after solid decades of senseless war with my heavily defended, often aggrieved father, before I got a glimpse of understanding into his desperation, what made him so intent on winning an imaginary war against his children. His mother, it turned out, had whipped him in the face from the time he could stand on his little baby legs. Trying recovering from that primal betrayal.
Learning this, from a relative who’d witnessed it many times and sadly related it to me, flooded me with sudden sympathy for my poor battling old man. I understood, in a flash, the humiliation that led to his desperate lifelong battle against his children. It didn’t fix the years of senseless brutality or reverse the damage he’d done, but it gave me an insight that opened a door I’d never seen. A few years later that insight, and months with a good therapist, enabled me to stand by his deathbed and gently listen to his regrets, help him die as peacefully as he could.
If you are writing about a character who is depressed or angry, or conflicted, or up against it, is it important to show the stress, provocation, abuse and other stresses she underwent that led to her dramatic situation? If you tell the story of an unhappy, angry, anxious character compelled to dramatic action without giving the reader these things, what kind of story are you telling?
Or is all shit simply stuff that just happens? A Zen koan unfolding against unhearable music?
And if someone reaches out to you and you don’t acknowledge it, after a while, shouldn’t that idiot eventually get the message that the continued reaching out is folly? Seems straightforward enough, no?
I just realized, the filibuster– requiring 3/5 of the Senate to vote to hold a hearing on a bill or confirmation, was our nation’s second 3/5 Compromise (the first being in the Constitution, to increase the power of the less populous plantation states by increasing their populations for Congressional representation by counting 3/5 of each slave towards apportionment in the House).
Reliance on Wikipedia, in this case, would result in a skewed understanding of the filibuster, which in this telling was first used by Alabama Senator (and future vice president) William Rufus Devane King, and was not the favorite obstruction tool proslavery and later anti-Civil Rights minorities in the Senate, liked the good old boys who blocked anti-lynching legislation for decades during the height of anti-black terrorism in the U.S. Although, you will read: