When we look back at a long-ago era, what wasn’t obvious to the people then can be plain to us today. As with a tree’s hardening resin, an era’s scurrying, uncertain lives eventually become fixed like insects in amber.
It used to be in Europe that religious institutions were as important as national governments and departure from orthodoxy was savagely punished. Atheism was all but inconceivable. Likewise, democracy wasn’t even a glimmer in the eye of people who had never experienced being ruled other than by monarchs. No Englishman during the reign of Henry VIII could have imagined submitting a proposal to a national vote. In America at the time of the Revolution, despite democratic aspirations, few imagined former slaves, or even women, casting votes in elections.
Time and place determine the scope of what we can do and say, and even think. One day, we in this era will turn into amber-trapped insects. If we’re lucky, we are doing some good. But odds are, considering how every generation before us got so much wrong, assumptions we don’t even realize we’re making are mistaken. They will seem as obvious to later generations as those made by past ones are to us.
When thinking historically, we identify each era’s prevailing theme: civil wars over religion, the decline of monarchies, the rise of science. What will be the prevailing theme of our era? A few decades ago, it might have been the rise and fall of fascism and communism. For the era we’re in now, it could turn out to be climate preservation, breakout medical advances, perhaps the foundation of extraplanetary settlement.
Lately, however, I’ve been wondering whether it might, at long last, be the overcoming of tribalism. Tribalism seems worse than ever, but a phenomenon’s peak can signal its end.
The pressures to see other people we’ve never met as less than human can be intense.
Early in our friendship, a Turkish immigrant talked to me about Britain’s occupation of Istanbul in 1918, right after what was then called the Great War. He’s such a considerate and kind, as well as talented and skilled, man that I can’t conceive of ever wanting to do him any harm, but in that war, had we met fitness requirements, we would have been antagonists. We might have found ourselves on opposing sides at Gallipoli, that 1915 catastrophe for British and British commonwealth soldiers, a battle the Ottomans won near the start of a war that they’d go on to lose.
Of course, I’d have known nothing about him, nor he me, except that we wore different uniforms and were each out to defend ourselves by killing the other. Perhaps I would have projected a life for this enemy soldier that resembles his present-day story: a teacher, a man who cared about his students, a loving husband, a man who thought critically about the government in Istanbul. He might have gone through a similar process on facing me across that demarcation line. Yet there we would have been, in the midst of battle, shooting at each other. We might even have found ourselves in hand-to-hand combat. Had we refused to fight, we would have risked being court-martialed and shot.
The year 1847 is on my mind after reading Something in the Blood, David J. Skal’s biography of the Irish writer, author of Dracula, Bram Stoker. Few windows into historical events have more impact than biographies of those who lived through them.
1847 was the year of Stoker’s birth, in the depth of Ireland’s potato famine. The potato crop had been destroyed by a fungus called Phytophthora, brought over from North America. It was cruelly ironic considering that the famine drove so many Irish back in that direction. The potato itself was an American vegetable unknown in Ireland and Europe just two and a half centuries before.
I found it hard to believe that so much of Ireland survived on a single crop. In fact, Ireland’s grain production was set aside for shipment to England, a policy backed up by soldiers guarding the granaries from the Irish people.
Ignorant of Ireland’s history, I arrived in America from England at the age of thirteen with a generic anti-Irish prejudice. I say “generic” because I was unaware of having known any Irish people. I’d picked up my bias perhaps from tiny signals sent by my Irish-critical father, perhaps the aid of television stereotypes—I’m not sure.
English sentiment against the Irish would deepen after I left with the advent of the Troubles, Bloody Sunday and the IRA bombings during the late sixties and beyond. However, on visits to England in recent years, I detect little or none of that prejudice. Indeed, one childhood friend married an Irishman and another regularly visits friends in Ireland.
In my case, it was friendships with descendants of Irish immigrants in America that changed my attitude. Six decades ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer dispelled the myth of America as a melting pot, with all its ethnic and racial groups homogenized into an indistinguishable American mass. That metaphor diminishes the richness of our experiences, especially in an American city, most especially New York, where I’ve lived for forty years. I enjoy Italian-Americans being Italian, to the extent they remain so, as I do Chinese-Americans who retain vestiges of their national heritage, Latinos who retain theirs, Haitians who retain theirs, and so on. But given my history, I’m particularly glad about how I’ve grown to appreciate the humor, warmth and generosity of Irish-Americans.
At times, I marvel that people from Ireland and their descendants are willing to be friends of mine. Proud as I am of my English heritage, I could imagine them hating the English as much as Jews might hate Germans for what the Nazis did eight decades ago.
Had I lived in the American South in 1847, I would have lived side-by-side with slavery. Is it even possible I would have been a slave holder? A harsh master? Either way, I worry I would have absorbed the terrible myth of African-Americans as an inferior, not-quite-human race that needed to be governed by their white self-proclaimed superiors.
Even if I’d had a sense of African-Americans as human beings, deserving of the Declaration of Independence’s promise that all are created equal, what capability would I have had to ameliorate their conditions? Suppose I’d inherited slaves but somehow overcome prevailing social attitudes, I could have freed them: a significant, investment-sacrificing act but, history shows, not a society-changing one. I could have gone further by making public my opposition to slavery, thus risking my safety but without any clear goal. One person’s protest accomplished little, if anything, and might even have backfired.
Might I have been courageous? Morally or physically?
Such dilemmas, about how we might have conducted ourselves in a long-ago society, lead to speculation tainted by our sense of ourselves today and our idealized notions of who we’d like to be. All we know for certain is that it would take armies, four years of war and a million deaths to banish slavery from America.
In more recent memory, the history of France during the time of German occupation, 1940-1944, has some parallels. Perhaps beginning with the documentary film, The Sorrow and the Pity (1969, American release 1972), France has wrestled with truth and myth about that time. Against a patriotic perception that the population rebelled, it now seems clear that most French people made accommodations with the German occupation.
Who are we to judge? Chances are, intent on saving ourselves, our families, our friends, our livelihoods, most of us would have joined France’s majority in keeping quiet, if not actually collaborating. Not having lived in France in those years, I cannot sit in judgment.
Even more poignantly, I ask myself whether I would have had the courage to protect my Jewish neighbors. Would I have become complicit in Germany’s and Vichy’s genocide machine? The answer to this agonizing question might have depended on a web of imponderables, such as what I knew at the time, whether I’d made Jewish friends, who and what might be sacrificed had I protected Jews in hiding. Today, with decades-long close Jewish friends and having married into a partly Jewish family, I have some confidence I would have done the right thing, but back in 1940, I might well have been married to a staunch conservative traditionalist. I might even have been, God forbid, an anti-Semite.
These reflections bring up questions of identity and the accidents of birth. Who am I? Would I have been different in 1847, 1915 or 1940? How about if I’d been born in France or America rather than Britain?
The answer is, of course, yes. But there remains my sense of myself as a distinct consciousness that survives time and circumstance. I think this is what is meant by “soul.”
It’s this soul that Hinduism says is reincarnated, returning as a despised insect, a sacred cow or a new human being. Back in 1847, my soul might not have been that of a white person. I might, instead, as been the child of African slaves, hence a slave myself.
Reincarnation or no, there’s nothing inevitable about my belonging to the white race. As far as I know, we don’t get to choose our parents or the setting into which we’re born.
The notion of tree resin to harden one day into amber came to mind as I read a New York Times article about an instructor at Georgetown Law School caught on video commenting privately, or what she thought was privately, about her students to a colleague:
I hate to say this. I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are Blacks — happens almost every semester. And it’s like, ‘Oh, come on.’ You know? You get some really good ones. But there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy.
I see no reason to interpret this quotation as other than a dedicated teacher stating facts and expressing frustration. She isn’t saying all African-Americans are stupid; in her experience, some perform well. She isn’t even saying the poor performers are stupid. It’s entirely possible she has a good idea of the disadvantages they may well have faced. Rather than dismiss or condemn them, she seems frustrated that a whole category of student has come in consistently last. She does obviously believe in the grading system, and one might argue that this system has inherent biases, but to have faith in it is hardly a sign of prejudice. Likewise, lamenting poor performance isn’t evidence of bias.
However, for those quoted words, the instructor simultaneously resigned and was fired. In her resignation letter, she wrote: “Regardless of my intent, I have done irreparable harm and I am truly sorry for this.” The sentence reads like a confession at a communist Chinese reeducation camp. She may well have felt sincere as she wrote, but it’s at odds with her earlier, forthright expression of frustration.
From that same article, I learned that at Georgetown, to be disciplined doesn’t require words. The colleague to whom she spoke was placed on leave. Why? For failing to voice disagreement.
When the resin of our era hardens and the participants in such dramas are captured like insects in amber, will our descendants marvel in disbelief?
It used to be that some people felt free to say, “Look, I’m a reasonable guy, but I just don’t like black people.” Such faux honesty blocks progress toward change. With that history and experience in mind, the determination of an institution like Georgetown to regulate all speech around race makes some sense. But while censoring teachers from speaking about their experiences may placate feelings, I doubt it does anything to end prejudice or advance equality. When we pretend away experience, we elicit innocuous slogans.
As the radical change in social attitudes in recent decades toward gays demonstrates, having colleagues and neighbors who puncture our prejudices is what brings about change. It’s happening all across America. It may well explain why those who wish things to stay the same have become so loud and, as the January 6 assault on the Capitol demonstrated, violent.
But of all the prejudices, it seems racism is the most entrenched. I believe in desegregation because my experience has shown me that contact with people from other backgrounds breaks down prejudices. But racial desegregation is perceived by liberal and conservative whites alike as threatening our living standards, exhibited most plaintively when it comes to the futures of our children. In New York City, residents in prosperous neighborhoods resist having their children be forced to attend more inclusive schools in other, often less safe neighborhoods. Many either move out of the city or send their children to private schools.
The motive for this resistance might well be less racist—it may not be racist at all—than an overriding determination to have one’s children get the best and safest education possible.
Anyone who doubts this terrible school dilemma need only read Nicholas Casey’s account in the June 15 issue of the New York Times of growing up as a mixed-race child with a white single mother and being sent to a mostly black school.
We can no more discern how time and place circumscribe us than those who lived in past times could see it in their world. Just as people in past centuries were incapable of contemplating a world without God or a monarch, we are almost certainly missing something that will be plain to future generations. It’s only when the insect is trapped in amber that we can view the entire picture, with its beauty, its scariness and its boundaries.
Still, our society’s current battle lines do give us clues about how our world will be viewed in times to come. The theme of our age might lie over there by the windfarm, or in some biotech lab, or far-off in outer space awaiting Jeff Bezos’s and Elon Musk’s rocket passengers. Or just maybe, we’ll say farewell to tribal divisions and welcome to diversity.