The Best of Times. The Worst of Times

Updated: Jun 27

(an addendum to Section 1 of Democracy STRUGGLES!)


Think back on your knowledge of history. When would you say humanity emerged from savagery and barbarism?

  • Was it during the Roman Empire?

  • Because of the Magna Carta?

  • After the American Revolution?

  • At the end of the US Civil War?

  • On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918?

  • With the final verdict of the Nuremberg Trials? (or with the lurch of the last trapdoor?)

  • With the formation of the United Nation?

  • In the dodged holocaust of the Cuban Missile Crisis?

  • With the signing of Civil Rights and Voting Acts of the 1960s?

  • The election of Barack Obama?

  • The impeachment/resignation/25thment of dumvald j trimp?

Or maybe we never really were all that bloodthirsty in the first place? At least not by nature. Perhaps we’ve only behaved in certain ways because of tricks of history? Contaminated understandings and miscalculations? Somewhat toxic social arrangements still needing a little reconfiguration? Maybe all we need is a little attitude adjustment to our political economy?

Does all this sound too silly?

Are we humans essentially “the same” as when our species first popped up into the archeological record about 200k years ago? This same record suggests big game hunters were taller and stronger than descendants later “trapped” by settled agriculture and civilization. More recent records indicate, that in the past few generations, humans in the advanced industrial world have again grown taller. (This is attributed to more meat in the average diet.)

The above is all quite speculative. Even more speculative is the idea of domestication.

An experiment conducted on a Russian fox fur farm may demonstrate something about domestication. It took experimenters approximately forty generations to breed “tame” foxes. And these playful little pets were not only cute and cuddly, they exhibited similar physical characteristics to other domesticated animals (floppy ears, piebald fur patterns, etc.) In this experiment, the only animals allowed to breed were those who displayed the most friendliness and least amount of fear when interacting with humans.

Friendliness and trust.

* * * *

Could we humans be domesticating ourselves?

It’s superficially plausible.

We humans certainly don’t selectively breed ourselves solely on the criteria of friendliness and trust. But friendliness and trust probably make up some percentage of the factors contributing to how we form stable breeding pairs. Friendliness and trust must also play some role in supporting individual survival. And as our human societies grow more complex and difficult to navigate, this may be becoming ever truer.

Or not.

Perhaps, in the very long run, we might already be responding to selection pressures in favor of not only trust and friendliness, but also for abilities to do mathematics and employ still other higher-level thinking skills? And could (on the same extended timescale) empathy, compassion, and tolerance for uncertainty be playing ever more statistically significant roles in human evolutionary fitness?

It’s not impossible . . .

The idea is simply that cultural evolution may affect human biological evolution. This would be little different from the ways we collectively influence the genetic expressions of certain traits in pigs, dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, goats, horses, soybeans, peaches, and Swiss chard.

To think seriously about this may be to find it more reassuring than horrifying. At least I think so. But the idea of us consciously trying to engineer our cultural and biological future does raise certain hackles. And this becomes more understandable if one contemplates just who might “control” such an engineering project. It might be more acceptable and more comforting to imagine “progress” as an organic process emerging from trillions of individual choices guided with “free market precision” perhaps by some benevolent deity, the “cunning of reason”, or the fortuitous “invisible hand” mistakenly celebrated by slack apologists for capitalism.

But engineering is what we do. Termites construct castles. Beavers build lodges in ponds deepened by dams firmly packed and tightly patched with their very own flat paddle tails.

We engineer cities and cultures. And we do so both unconsciously - and with the very best laid plans. And, sometimes, with the very worst.

"Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend," observed the Marquis, "will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof," looking up to it, "shuts out the sky."

The above is extracted from A Tale of Two Cities published in 1859 and written, of course, by Charles Dickens. A more famous excerpt is the soliloquy with the line, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done . . .

But the most memorable line in the book might be it’s opening:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

The age referred to by Dickens is the time of the French Revolution which broke out in 1789. The US Constitution was ratified during that very same year. For this double reason, 1789 might be considered a culmination of the historical era known as the European “Enlightenment” even though it’s sometimes (plaintively?) argued that the “Enlightenment” remains an ongoing civilizing project in Western (and World) historical development.

For the average American it might be tempting to serenely imagine that our Constitution’s ratification represents the “best” of those times, and the French Revolution with its Terror, the “worst”. After all, the Constitution provided some proven measure of stability that has allowed some significant advancements in the actual practice of democracy. French society, it has been argued, is still rocking and rolling on the shockwaves caused by its formative revolution.

But it might be more edifying for a student to do her best to imagine how each of these events may have encompassed both the best and the worst - even if not in the same proportion. That may also be the best way to view 1789 as a pivotal year for “democracy” as we know it in the western world.

This presentation (it really is a bloody slideshow . . .) is expressly intended to avoid any glorification of democracy. This is not to disparage democracy - nor to diminish its importance in any way. Rather, the idea is that democracy is too fragile, too contingent, and too shallowly rooted in human culture for it to be taken for granted. Democracy is far too delicate and uncertain for it to be spoon fed like Dylan’s Casanova in “Desolation Row”

“ . . . to get him to feel more assured

Then they'll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words”

And it might be the same with what we call “civilization”.

* * * *

In a perfect democracy there still might be some differences between the ideal role of a scholar and an educator. The mandate for both is always to be honest: to tell the truth to the best of her ability.

The scholar seeks new knowledge. The ideal educator strives to create robust learning environments for allowing everyone opportunities to understand and choose the best knowledge most useful and pleasing to them.

The scholar provides his research and knowledge to political, social, and economic leaders. In a perfect democracy those leaders would be (at least potentially) all the active citizens. Educators should do everything possible to encourage everyone to be (or become) fully active citizens with the wherewithal to find, analyze, and disseminate all the ideas and information needed to participate in democracy as effectively as possible.

In a perfect democracy there would still be myths. There will always be myths.

Scholars might be crucial in creating, curating, and monitoring the mythologies of a society. But, in a perfect democracy, both educators and scholars would take care to provide the general public with the motivation and cognitive tools for identifying and appraising the myths that animate each citizen’s understanding of their own worlds.

The idea of a perfect democracy is certainly a type of myth. So is capitalism. So is “common sense”. So is “progress”. So are “human rights”. Even the idea of a minimally functioning democracy might never be better than a benign guiding myth.

There are many types of myth in the human cognitive toolkit. There are “creation myths” with turtles all the way down. There are “founding myths” such as cloud vanishing Romulus, wall leaping Remus, and the whole haggle of Sabine Rapists. But all serious myths, as opposed to some flittering or persistent memes, are “guiding myths”. And while individual myths may die and be forgotten, mythology itself is neither disposable nor escapable.

As a species, we’ll likely never know the actual limits (or all the deceptions) of empirical knowledge. We will always be required to choose ideals based on our values, affinities, and dispositions. A society rife with deprivation, insecurity, and panics is likely to be ridden with a certain set of dispositions quite unlike a more stable and prosperous society. But we may not have solid knowledge of what’s required to make such a society in all cases, and even less about whether such societies can be maintained for any significant number of generations.

We don’t know how much equality is possible - or desirable. We don’t know if a majority of any general population has the capacity to be serious, well informed, and critically active citizens even if they could be induced to aspire to that.

But we also don’t know what’s impossible.

So, we must not surrender to cynicism or hopelessness. And we must take care that myths which entice us are not seductions from the Sirens of our exhausted desires for destruction.

* * * *

Thomas Jefferson had the legal authority to buy, sell, and flog the bodies of black men, women, and children forced to toil in his home, his kitchen, his bedroom, and in the slave labor camp that produced his wealth. Those were his actual circumstances when he wrote “all men are created equal”. Did he believe that? Did he believe in a creator who endowed all men to certain rights including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Does it matter what he believed?

It matters what we believe. But how we believe also matters. To believe in “rights” and “constitutions” as magic talismans that are self-protecting and reinforcing, never mind self-evident, is an abdication of human responsibility. It’s an abdication of our responsibilities to ourselves -- and also to each other. To believe in these myths as worthwhile goals, however, might be an essential part of realizing our full potential as individuals and as a species - no matter how limited our collective potential may be.

  • Do the majority of humanity value peace and security more than freedom and mutual trust?

  • Does freedom require all individuals to be well armed and proficient in the use of deadly force?

  • Is “civilization” as we know it more robust and adaptable - or more fragile and self-destructive?

  • Is “intelligence” a “lethal mutation”?

  • Is “Man” always to be liable to be “wolf to man”?

  • Will the urge to dominate or to submit define how our societies are ordered?

We don’t know.

And any answer is less likely to be revealed than created.

****

Louis Capet, the sixteenth royal Louis of France, was apparently a benign and gentle man. Perhaps, under the right conditions, we would all be benign and gentle, just as under other conditions any of us could be an executioner or a hapless victim.

The year 1789 is generally accepted as the most recent landmark year plausibly used by serious historians to mark the dawn of the “modern” era. It is certainly a suitable year to commence a thoughtful study of democracy which, in addition to being a worthy myth, is also a process freighted with tedium and inspiration, frustrations and victories, defeats and promising lessons.

And sweat and tears -- and blood.


Joe Panzica is the creator of Democracy STRUGGLE'S.  He is also the author of the unpublished Saint Gredible and Her Fat Dad's Mass and is working on a second novel: I Want to be Evil.

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