Quick update and introduction: this week’s education Tuesday was pushed back out of necessity, because today was a very special day. On one hand, it was the last day that the piece you’re about to read could’ve been published elsewhere, which it was not. But on the (spectacular) other hand, I gave a presentation on Banksy today, which means that I’ll be publishing some thoughts on his specific significance as well as the nature of art on a broader scale in the next few days. I’m excited to share both this piece and the next few with all of you, and I hope you’re enjoying the first bit of summer!
A few days before my sixth birthday, I woke to hear my mother on the phone with someone and traipsed in to see who it was. Confusion replaced blissful naiveté as I tried and failed to get her attention, exacerbated by the wholly unintelligible picture her side of the conversation provided. “Oh, my God,” she said, over and over, pausing only to let the person on the other end fill her ears with tinny gibberish. Something had to be wrong, but there was no way for me to know what it was; I could process nothing but her furrowed brow and trembling voice, and I was powerless to fix those. After an eternity of frustration, she finally hung up and explained to me that there had been a plane crash in New York City, and that she would have to make another phone call to check up on some family friends of ours who lived in the area before she could take me to school. I was momentarily alarmed, but I sprang right back when we discovered that all of LA’s schools had shut down in response to the crash. This seemed abnormal to me—New York was all the way across the country from us!—but I was missing a few important details. It wasn’t a mere plane crash that had halted our normal activities. It was the September 11 attacks.
Like my 5-year-old self, we’re all missing a few important details. This is what disempowers us. Globalization and the growth of news media and the Internet have made it difficult, if not impossible, to be ignorant of current events, and it’s easy to feel like you’re being surrounded by the tragedies of every nation at once. Without explanation to ground us, we’re lost in randomness, unable to fight the cascade of catastrophes pinning us down. But calamity isn’t arbitrary. There are ways to prevent it, and ways to experience it without letting it debilitate you. Most people just look for these answers where they don’t exist (in events themselves), and snub the door to truth that exists in the most counterintuitive of places: the past.
Strip away the dates, the titles, the statistics, and history at it’s most basic is the ceaseless struggle of countries and peoples to maintain a favorable balance of power. We’re capable of understanding the cause and effect chains that interweave to form the world we live in now, but we tend to be unable to bridge the chasm between our present reality and even recent history. This rift often leads people to experience misfortune through the nightly news alone, completely separate from its historical context, thereby sabotaging their pursuit of sanity in a flawed world.
This is where that lacuna between history and the present becomes important. We’re born with no knowledge of the political, economic, and social fabric, let alone a functional understanding of its origin. There’s no frame of reference for what we experience, so it doesn’t all make sense. By the time we’re old enough to understand things like war, genocide, and discrimination, everyone’s already assumed to know the factors at play behind them, so no one bothers to contextualize things like the KONY 2012 campaign. Our picture of the world at large consists of a continuously updated stream of occurrences that modern reporting presents largely as islands. We experience such events with no anchor, no reason, and it leaves us feeling powerless, bewildered, and often cynical. History is the ballast we need, the knowledge that gives us back control.
I was barely in school when 9/11 happened; there was no way I could’ve comprehended terrorism then. I had no idea what “reformist Islamism,” “imperialism,” or “nationalism” meant, either, so I had an even less complete idea of the attack’s causes. But I don’t think this was a function solely of my age. Many, many people saw this as an isolated incident (not isolated in the sense that it was an anomaly, just that it was looked at independent of integral background information), an act of senseless atrocity. The U.S. government, at least, tried to gain back some control through the instigation of extra security measures, the Patriot Act, the invasion of Iraq. But how are we meant to reclaim power if we simply remain here, estranged from but inextricably linked to our past?