Friday, August 23, 2013

What People Know

When writing my little blurbs on both Deliver Us, and Bloodlands, I went to many websites I would not ordinarily encounter.  It’s one of my joys of the internet that 50% of the sites I go to are ones I “would not ordinarily encounter:” hobbies I have only tangential interest in; monomanias whose importance is opaque to me; studies referenced by a writer I just followed a link to, from a blog I hadn’t previously heard of, that was on a sidebar of a site I visit occasionally; sites with intriguing names.

It’s not just the idea of hyperlinks and the invention of search engines, but the existence of the “back” button that enables all this. The Hansel and Gretel strategy of retracing your steps actually works on the internet. You can go on long journeys and get safely out with ease.

Which is important, when the phrase “fever swamps” fits nicely.

There are lots of ways that reasoning can go wrong. I mention here one interesting one which I am sure I have encountered previously many times, but just mentally categorised into a type this past week: those whose basis of authority is “I was there. I was part of it.  It happened this way, and that’s the end of it.”  This would be generally reasonable, except that a quick check often reveals that they weren’t there, exactly. They lived two towns over twenty years later, or their parents came from there, or they belong to the same ethnic or religious group, or some other 3 degrees of separation. There are not many people who were adults in the late 40’s who were also deeply involved in questions of Roman Catholic discipline left, but I imagine there are a few. Everyone else is in the position of “well, I grew up in the Still River community and we were always told…” or “my uncle was a priest involved in the reconciliation of SSPX…”  Those are valuable sources of information, but not definitive.  Even less do we have many who were actually present in a rural Kharkiv district of Ukraine in the early 1930’s.

Yet people pound the table and say “I am from Ukraine and you are not.  These things did not happen and are only Nazi propaganda that has been repeated for decades.”

A story.  I read up on Romania and its history before I went on my first short-term mission there in 1998.  Not a lot, but I was curious, and it seemed wise, if I intended to get into any discussions with people. I went deeper when it became clear that we would get to adopt two Romanians. Robert D. Kaplan recorded in Balkan Ghosts that no one in Romania in the early 1990’s seemed to have heard of Queen Marie – one of the few decent rulers that poor country has ever had.  Word of her was suppressed, because there was still a descendent king in exile in Switzerland. I wanted to see if this was still true in 2001.

Not only had most Romanians not heard of her, my sons’ history teachers had not heard of her. It’s a poor country, textbooks don’t change over quickly.  I imagine it will eventually get better, and likely is greatly improved even now. Another story, about what happened to the Transylvanian Jews during the Holocaust, I recorded before.

So even being there is sometimes not enough.  In fact, sometimes it is the worst place to be, if you want to know the truth. The local will know a thousand things an outsider never will – when autumn comes in and what flowers bloom; who was mayor and whether he was honest or corrupt; in what years the church was full and which it was empty.  Yet precisely because they are in a place where the answers matter greatly, people take care to forget some things and remember others, and to punish those who try to remember. In a few years, it all becomes what everyone knows, and no one pushes too hard against it.

We see it in smaller ways in our places of work, in all our subcultures, in our circle of friends.  We sit in living rooms in which everyone knows that evolution isn’t true, or that it is, though no one present could give more than an outline. (Even professors of evolutionary biology would be hard pressed to independently make the case.  We all rely entirely on the work of others.)  We just know that organic food is better, or that public education doesn’t teach the basics, or that WWII was the one really justifiable war we fought.


Sam L. said...

If you are interested in Queen Marie,

Sam Hill (his real name) provided relief work after WWI in Romania.

Was there this summer; highly recommend it.

Sam L. said...

And some of us did not drink the Kool-Aid.