Sunday, March 26, 2017

Autobiographical Note

Biography is interesting because a variety of narratives can be drawn from the same set of facts.  I don't mean that writers are (necessarily) dishonest or stupid. We see different things, assemble them into a plot, and that story takes on an energy of its own, suppressing some bits and highlighting others. This is even more true for autobiography, as the reasons for choosing one explanation over another are invisible to us, and likely for self-protective reasons. I know the details of my life better than any other individual by far, even if I get some things wrong that others might correct.

BTW, I wonder if Obama will go on to break the record for most autobiographies written.

This is related to blind spots of experts in general. Alfred Wegener, one of the key figures in the development of the theory of plate tectonics, was a meteorologist, not a geologist.  Any real geologist could have run rings around him...

No, wait.  That isn't where I was going at all.  Ahem.  I am an expert on my own life, but that does not mean that my own story of what happened is the best one.  I am likely the best source for disproving some theories based on inaccurate facts - no, I did not go to London as a child and was not frightened by a bear at the zoo there. Though even at that, we do tend to mix things up, placing events in wrong years with different companions. But others might make observations or draw lessons about my life that are superior to my own. I am likely to be badly wrong in spots.

When browsing through a folder not-much-related to politics in my memory, a fact dropped out. I hadn't forgotten it or suppressed it or refused to acknowledge it. It was just a small thing, not much related to other things.  Memories are not fully cross-referenced.

I have always said that I started out on the political left right out of the gate in 7th grade and became even more leftist rather quickly, identifying as socialist/extreme pacifist/America-as-racist oppressor. I still think that is true, though I may be rethinking a lot of this.  From that point, I described a gradual journey rightward over the decades, to my current point of sympathising largely but not entirely with conservatives.

Except that I just remembered a conversation in 1978 with my pastor when I was a Lutheran, who was giving evidence that Christians are not commanded to be mostly uninvolved with all nations and government.  I remembered that I had been advocating exactly that - and it was not a new idea to me. The peace churches, many in the early Church, Jehovah's Witnesses, American fundamentalists before Jimmy Carter - all of these taught something vaguely like that. Our focus was Christ and the Gospel, no time for other causes. Yes, a radical restructuring of society was needed, but that was to be based on individuals, not nations. 

I traced it back well into the early 70's.  William and Mary was something of a bubble and events in the outside world did not loom large among 18th C buildings, music, and performances, nor among those fascinated by heroic fantasy and the stories of Arthur.  OTOH, if you are singing lots of Eagles and CSN&Y, you are going to be reinforced as liberal at every rehearsal.  Plus theater.  I traced this essential apathy toward political matters forward well into the 80's as well. I retained a default liberalism, though Lewis and Tolkien undermined my confidence in pacifism and government intervention to produce justice.

I was mostly an outside observer, which is what I think allowed me to observe the political comments of the people I worked with, went to church and Bible study with, or shared a family with - and to compare those comments to how they lived their lives.  This was rather mixed, especially among the relatives, but the liberals did not do well here - not at work, not at church and church camp, and not in the journal of the Prometheus Society. I noticed arguing-by-condescension and sneer, directed against people and groups I knew to be quite decent.  Screwtape tells Wormwood about a group of friends he would like his nephew to cultivate with his patient.  They make reference to Christianity, and many virtues and traditional things in general, as if the joke has already been made, though no one actually takes the time to elucidate exactly where the ridiculousness is.  Or if they do, it is social, not logical.  We don't believe that anymore.

That stuck with me.  It has been one of the key thoughts in my understanding why people do not even consider the claims of Christ - they live in environments where they are told that the matter need not even be seriously entertained.  I saw that.  And I saw also that they did the exact same thing about political matters.  The joke has already been made.  Don't you read Doonesbury?  When I emerged from the less-political universe, I already had many conservative sympathies in place, though I still thought of myself as a Democrat.  I voted for Al Gore in the NH primary in 1988 because he was a more conservative Democrat.  That was about the time when I started actually reading the news again. My oldest son was 9 at the time.  I doubt he remembers a time when his father had different politics.

So my previous narrative may have some truth-values, as they say.  But I actually didn't move across the political spectrum from 1972-1989, as I have believed and written.  I went to some underground river in those years, not thinking about it much at all, entering as a European socialist on one end and emerging as someone who liked 10 of his his 15 minutes of Limbaugh every day. I don't want to draw harder edges than are real.  The river wasn't entirely underground, because I had friends interested in politics. The boundary years are flexible as well.

Still, it's unnerving to re-look at some developmentally critical years this way. Sumus quod sumus.  Except we may not know who we are.  We mostly only know who we aren't.


GraniteDad said...

I recall you making a comment about Ken and Jean that "They voted for Bush" in a very disapproving tone. I am guessing that was for 88 instead of 92, because I would've remembered it more clearly later.

Christopher B said...

I can see how shifts in what is considered liberal vs conservative could also confound your recollection. If someone who passed in 1961 was resurrected today, I think they would be unlikely to correctly identify the party/philosophy of many current politicians from sample quotes. I'm talking major themes since it's always possible to find a Jon Huntsman or Zell Miller, and policy details get compromised. We forget how radical Reagan's 'government is the problem' message sounded even to Republicans. After all they had just nominated and elected a guy who helped create Amtrak, the EPA, imposed wage and price controls, and proposed enacting universal health insurance. There's been a steady drift towards broad acceptance of strong federal government social action by liberals since at least 1964, with Republicans moving away from that position strongly since 1980, especially during the two most recent Democrat presidencies. Your feeling of drifting from liberal to conservative over the same timespan is probably, as you imply, more a matter of a shift in thr popular definition than a fundamental change in philosophy.

james said...

"I contain multitudes"
And the multitudes take different paths. Depending on which ones you clump together to form the narrative, you get different stories.

Texan99 said...

My father used to say he supported FDR wholeheartedly in his first term, but was quickly disillusioned and soon became a lifelong conservative. His atheism, however, was a constant from his birth to his death.

This Lenten season is an introspective one for me. I feel as though parts of me were waking up after a very long sleep.

Grim said...

"We mostly know who we aren't."

That is also how we know God, mostly, according at least to some powerful theologians: not by what God is, as even the terms we use ("good") can't mean the same thing when applied to God as when applied to men. When applied to men, Aquinas suggests (as does Avicenna), a word like 'good' only implies a kind of reflection of God's nature. God is good in a different way, and since we only encounter the reflections, we can't really know what that way is.

But we do know that God isn't bad. And that's a real sort of knowledge, in an interesting way.

I wonder how well the parallel holds up to self-knowledge. Perhaps we only learn things by learning what we are not. Still, that's not nothing.

Sam L. said...

Obama may write more autobiographies (or have them ghost-written, more likely; cynical? Moi?), but they mostly won't be read.

Richard C. Lambert said...

Nice blog and absolutely outstanding. You can do something much better but i still say this perfect.Keep trying for the best.