“What happened?” It’s a fundamentally human question, maybe the closest we get to simple curiosity. And it’s not simple, not at all. Eyewitness accounts can be flawed, even events from my lifetime can take on a dreamy reality as time passes. My kids remember things that they weren’t part of, having heard the stories and filled in the blanks, making the story more personal, funnier, better. Who’s to say what happened?
When we lived around a campfire the oldest person was probably the keeper of cultural wisdom, at least until they were routinely wrong, or obviously nutty. When most of us died young, anybody who lasted 30 to 40 years was a treasure, venerated, and a leader. They could probably make stuff up and assert their truth to get their way. Or some shaman character, wrapping their thoughts in visions and folklore, could lead their tribe out of trouble or into it. But the tribe could stand together.
A cohesive society must have shared beliefs, at least with regards to “who we are,” which must include something about “how we got here.” Some mixture of truth and legend seems unavoidable. I suppose each of us struggles with that balance, believing our story is true and any deviation therefore false. Wars can be driven by insistence on “the one true path,” though I suspect convenient plunder plays a substantial role.
America is maybe uniquely post-tribal, at least on paper. Separating church and state is a pretty radical idea really and always challenged. “Us” and “them” goes pretty deep, and our attempt to consider a culture of diverse ethnicities feels pretty hard these days. My patriotism is based on my optimism on that issue.
Our “how we got here” story has some tragedy in it. People can be cruel. Lots to be proud of, lots to learn from. The truth and nothing but the truth seems like a high bar, but our public education institutions have a responsibility to reach for it. I learned, innocently enough, that nothing important happened in the whole world except wars in Europe, things were rough and then America, the correct answer (of course I’m exaggerating, but I hope you can see my point).\
I’m comfortable with young kids hearing mostly heroic history lessons, but how is that at the age of 70 I just heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921? That’s not some Battle of Hastings trivia question (1066). I’ve been to Tulsa, maybe you have too. Nice town. I just learned about Chinatown being burned down in Tacoma during our own race riot (1885).
Of course, you and I are not responsible for it or any of a thousand other atrocities committed in history. But I want to know about it and I want my fellow Americans to know.
But who decides “what happened?” Vietnam was my first exposure to splintered realities. To some it was a heroic battle between good and evil fought at great expense in lives and treasure, because we owed it to our fathers who fought the same fight, and their fathers, and on and on. Others saw post-colonial brutality, mechanized horror and futility. My memory is that it ended when Walter Cronkite, whom we all believed, went there and told us all over dinner that it was unwinnable. We fought on for a while, but it felt over. Now I read reports of the valiant Ukrainian forces finally pushing the Red Menace back, and I believe them joyously, but I wonder what the press was saying in China and the USSR when Saigon fell. Probably pretty close.
What we no longer have is a Walter Cronkite, so our fractured truths sustain themselves. The closest to truth I find these days is Wikipedia, which is a weird idea. I know Cronkite was a product of CBS News, and I could follow the money and prove to myself that his “truth” had its biases. The key was the shared belief.
Wikipedia is a product of the information age, and I suppose all of us are learning about how tricky “truth” is now, but it’s still quite a transformation to trust my phone more than a person, any person. The information on Wikipedia is crowdsourced. It’s curated, by people, but anyone can suggest edits and additions. It’s a collected truth, and maybe that’s all that matters.
Jack Dunne lives gratefully in Lakebay.
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