First of all, I believe in facts and by extension I believe in truth. I don’t discount the reality that different people can draw different conclusions from the same set of facts, but I also believe that some truthful statements can be made in any situation. Even in such a contentious scenario as a divorce, it can truthfully be stated that the marriage didn’t survive. When we get into the territory of blame, clearly different conclusions can be reached, preventing us from saying it was all one person’s fault. More facts may give us an increasingly detailed picture of the facts of the marriage, but the truth of the marriage, while existent, cannot be definitively reached by anyone.
Why am I going on so about facts and truth? At the moment in the United States facts and truth seem to be up for debate. Partly, in the case of historical narratives, I think this happens because we become aware of other facts and other points of view. In Plymouth, for instance, I learned much more about the indigenous people living in the area as the Pilgrims arrived. Clearly one truth is that it was very disruptive for the first inhabitants. That truth was hidden when I was presented a scene of a peaceful first Thanksgiving with everyone happily sharing a meal. More facts challenged this narrative. But truth didn’t suddenly disappear.
What about opinion? Here we need, I believe, to have plenty of humility. You and I may both be presented with a set of facts, for instance about trade with China. We can study exports, imports, tariffs and other sundry bits of information. At the end each of us can have an opinion. I may think tariffs are a bad idea. You may think they are beneficial. No matter how strongly either of us makes our points, neither of us will have THE truth on the subject. The only truth available at the moment is what has happened so far. No one can accurately state the truth about the future. We can only hold an opinion.
Sadly, we are presently heatedly yelling at each other over opinions. Yes, it is difficult to know the facts of the Mueller report since we haven’t been allowed to read it. We are caught like children in a divorce with only each parent’s side available. But at some point I hope the American people will have access to a well documented, lengthy examination of the effect by Russia on American elections. We need to know. We are voting again next year. And that is the truth!
One of the hallmarks of teenagers is the line “you could never understand,” hurled at their parents to make a clear distinction between their world and that of adults. I think it is appropriate at that age to try to carve out a niche for oneself that makes one stand apart from parents. However appropriate for teenagers, the stance seems to have seeped its way into American life. There it causes much unnecessary division because it cuts off conversation and sends people into opposing corners, ready for a fight.
It is true that my particular experiences limit my understanding of the experiences of many other people. For example, I have no idea what it would be like to be a man. Similarly, I have no idea how anyone could believe that Donald Trump was sent by God to save the United States. But if I just park myself in the corner marked “female Donald Trump opponent” and maintain that neither a man nor a Donald Trump supporter could ever understand me, I am stuck listening to my own limited thoughts.
One of my favorite books in recent years was written by Arlie Hochschild, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley called Strangers In Their Own Land. Hochschild realized that she lived in a liberal “bubble” and had no understanding of conservative America. She set out to correct that by spending months really getting to know people in Louisiana whose views were polar opposites to her own. She wrote with compassion and concern about the world so different from her own. She was willing to get past the idea that she could never understand. So did they. It is a stance worth taking, particularly now as the American obsessive focus on self and slights at every turn threatens to drive us even further apart.
In one of my first posts three years ago I wrote about the “like” button on WordPress. At the time I was concerned that I might be writing in order to be liked. I was intent on not doing that. Recently several different blogs I follow have either removed the like button from their page or questioned the usefulness of it. I thought I would bring my current thinking to this post
Visitors to my page are either recorded as visits, likes or comments. I always have more visits than likes and more likes than comments. Some people suspect that readers may just click like without reading the post and don’t want that option. I find, however, that I appreciate both likes and comments. Frequently someone I follow and know I am followed by just clicks “like.” I am glad to see that they dropped by. Other times I get a “like” from a new reader. This allows me to check out their blog. I have found interesting writers who simply “liked” my post but didn’t comment on it. I rarely check “like” when I read a post, preferring to comment, but I am happy to get any response to my writing.
My preference, as is true for many other writers, is a comment. I like to know that I have connected with someone. I respond to all comments though I may miss one from time to time. I did change my settings so comments from people I know appear right away. Since I only sit down once a day to write, my responses have a significant lag time, but they do get written. My comments are sometimes pretty brief as are the ones I sometimes receive. Other times we have a longer interaction if the topic calls for it. I have come to consider some writers around the world as my friends after months of comments back and forth. For me this is blogging’s most satisfying outcome.
There’s an old line: “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” I was thinking about that as I continued my marathon reading of American history filling in the numerous blanks left by my early schooling. The most balanced book I have read is These Truths by Harvard history professor Jill Lepore. She took up a challenge to write a one volume comprehensive U.S. history book after hearing that not only had not one been written since 1965, but also that it was impossible to do so. She incorporated much scholarship from the last 50 years and added it to what we generally(us non history professorial types) knew. It makes for challenging but enlightening reading.
No good comes from just highlighting the evils done by our forebears if we don’t learn from them. No good also comes from painting all who came before us as ignorant or intentionally destructive. It also serves no purpose to flip our sympathies from one group of people to another. All humans “fall short of the mark.” We are required to abandon simplistic “America All Good” or “America All Bad” and take up complex thinking. We live in a time of simplistic thinking, so it takes some effort!
But I am comforted by learning that the struggles going on in the United States have been going on for the duration of our nation. We have disagreed more often than we have agreed. We have even had Presidents as bad as the one currently in the White House. I am encouraged to know that I am learning more than the monolithic view of America than I was taught in high school. We are still living out a remarkable experiment in democracy. I pray that we will continue to work towards a “more perfect union.”
When I was 11 and in New York visiting our East Coast cousins, my 12 year old cousin asked me about cowboys and Indians. He had the impression that they were a regular part of my life in Oregon. I had to tell him, in no uncertain terms, that he had a very wrong impression of Oregon! We lived normal lives, free of shoot outs on the back 40 acres. We did frequently play at cowboys and Indians, though we were always all cowboys. No one in my circle wanted to be an Indian. We weren’t sure why, but we knew on some level that the Indians lost.
Donald Trump and I were near contemporaries in school. We both were taught American history as a story of constant progress, exceptionalism and power. We were not taught about the “losers” in America, those people displaced, enslaved, deported and exploited. Slavery was an unfortunate blip in an otherwise sterling American story. When he says he wants to “Make America Great Again,” he implies that somehow we need to get back to that sense of the United States our textbooks portrayed.
I reflected on that a lot when visiting Plymouth. I thought about it most deeply when I encountered this plaque:
I began, not for the first time, to wonder whose story I had been taught so many years ago when we dressed up like Pilgrims and Indians to share a Happy Thanksgiving.
We entered the English part of the village down this dirt road lined with about ten small homes. Each had the name of one of the original families over the door. I was immediately struck by how English these houses looked compared to the ones in the 1830 living history museum, Old Sturbridge Village, near us. We would continue to find how radically living conditions had changed between 1627 and 1830 in New England.
We had a lovely chat with a young man who had come under contract to a settler who had since died. He was housed with another family now. He was pounding out bent nails since iron was scarce and unavailable in the Colony.
We were intrigued that each house had an individual style to it, though they were all about the same size. Most had a double bed they had brought over from England and assorted straw filled mattress-like pads piled in a corner for the other family members to sleep on. But each bed was positioned differently in each home; each had its own kind of curtain around it; and each bed had been individually made. All homes were dark, dirt floored, small and equipped for cooking. Each had a small garden outside. Chickens wandered freely all over the village and were rounded up collectively each evening into a shared chicken coop.
We left grateful for electricity, running water, heat and windows. But we also left with a very clear understanding of what life in 1627 had been like for both the English and the Wampanoag.
A highlight of our visit to Plymouth, Massachusetts was a half day spent at a living history museum Plimouth Plantation. It features a Wampanoag village and an English village, both replicating how each would have looked in 1627. The interpreters in the Native American village belong to various nations, and they respond to questions in the present. The interpreters in the English village are Americans, and they respond to questions as if it were 1627.
Today’s photo was taken inside a reproduction of a Wampanoag summer house near the Eel River. The summer houses were made of a tree branch framework covered with overlapping mats made of cattails. The sleeping, sitting, eating, working platforms on the sides were covered with animal furs. I am resting on a black bear hide. The Native Americans lived near the river in the summer, gardening and fishing to store food for the long hard New England winters. In winter they moved inland into the forest where they had more protection from the elements. Their winter homes sheltered from one to four families and were made of bark over a branch frame.
Just before the arrival of the band of English Pilgrims the Native people had been decimated with a plague, the specifics of which are still unclear. The same disease swept down the New England coast from what is now Maine and is assumed to have been introduced by European sailors. The area where the Pilgrims landed was therefore uninhabited.
Tomorrow I will show you the English village.