14 March 2006

Reflection v. Immediacy

I’ve found myself less and less interested in daily news of late. Not that the news isn’t important – just that I don’t care what happened precisely today, as opposed to yesterday or last week or whatever. I do often still get my daily news fix, although that’s usually from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. I haven’t even been paying much attention to my state’s current legislative session, other than to occasionally note some of the more egregiously regressive measures being proposed by its GOP majority. (It could be worse – I could live in South Dakota, which just passed a near total ban on all abortion procedures.)

As far as the political side of my blogging goes, this is a problem I seem to have in terms of fitting in with the “blogosphere”, the now-common term for the world of online blogs. Much of the commentary that’s out there is based on the 24-hour news cycle, immediate reactions, and staying one step ahead of whatever’s breaking news at that particular moment. Frankly, I just don’t care what’s breaking at this particular moment. In fact, I think that the 24-hour news cycle whips up a frenzy around truly meaningless stories, thus obscuring the meaningful ones. Thousand of refugees are dying daily in Darfur, but we can’t be bothered to cover that story, because there’s some upper-middle-class white teenager lost somewhere. The entire campaign finance system in this country is completely at odds with the public interest, but we can’t examine that in depth because we found a Congressman who might have played golf for free.

I’m even finding it less enjoyable to spend time reading good newspapers, at least the front sections thereof. When I pick up my Sunday NY Times, the first section I head for isn’t the daily news, but the Week in Review. Even that sometimes seems a bit too focused on the immediate, so then I’ll pick up the Sunday Magazine section, with longer-form pieces on a single topic. It just seems more important these days to get some sort of perspective on daily events and be able to fit them into a greater context. This is a skill that seems dangerously lacking in most of our elected officials of either party.

As a quick example of how historical perspective might add to our understanding of world events, most discussions in this country about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 focus on the moniker “9/11”, thinking that maybe this was an assault intended to invoke widespread panic and a sense of emergency with concomitant references to the common emergency phone number, 911. Not often does one hear of the Battle of Vienna, which took place on September 11, 1683, where the Habsburg and Polish armies defeated the Muslim armies of the Ottoman Empire, turning them away from the very gates of Vienna. Historians often consider this to be the turning point in the 300-year struggle between the European Christian forces and those of the Ottoman Empire.

My real point is this: Knowledge without understanding is not very useful. Or put another way, as did George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Our society is so focused on the what, who, when, and where that we often forget to ask why. Americans think that our 230-year history, with perhaps half a century of being the leading nation-state in the world, means that we’ll always be the leading nation-state. Our Chinese rivals look at us and laugh, calling upon their history that’s at least ten times as long as ours, figuring that they can afford to be patient and surpass us gradually, if not this century, then perhaps the next one. For that matter, we homo sapiens sapiens think that our relatively brief span of being the dominant terrestrial creature means we’re the pinnacle of all creation, forgetting that we are but a blip in the multi-billion-year history of this planet, let alone the larger history of all of creation.

I didn’t start this out intending to sound quite so depressing, so let me try a different tack. I’d like to think that the history of violence in our species doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll always be that way. If we look at our nearest evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees and the bonobos, one of those species (chimps) has evolved to be a rather nasty and violent species, while the other (bonobos) is much more attuned to social interaction and caretaking and altruism. Maybe we’ve reached the point as a species where it’s time to take more conscious charge of our evolution, and choose which path we desire to evolve along. Maybe it’s not genetically impossible for us to cognitively choose to be more like the bonobos and less like the chimps. Now, just because I’d like to think this doesn’t mean it’s true. Maybe it’s neither true nor false just yet (does that sound enough like Schrödinger’s cat?); maybe it won’t be either until we as a species reach some final tipping point to ultimately push us in one direction or another. Where is that tipping point? I don’t know, but it doesn’t make sense for us to assume that it’s millions of years away. What does make sense is for us to find a way above the day-to-day preoccupations that weigh so many of us down, and take the time to gain a little more perspective on our journeys, individual and collective.

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