The Better Letter: Relentless Attachment

We live longer and better than the ancients, but we aren’t any better than they were.

Looking at long ago pictures of ourselves can be mortifying. Our hairstyles were invariably bad and our sartorial selections questionable at best. If we expand the field of inquiry to include more significant choices – who we dated, who we hung out with, who we voted for, what investments we made, what we tattooed on our bodies, who we married – things can get ugly in a hurry. 

At best, we chuckle knowingly, grateful in the certainty that we won’t do that (or some series of thats) again. At worst, we’re thankful to be alive and not in jail. Today, however, we’re sure we’ve got everything figured out. 

When we remember who we were and what we were like in the past, we readily recall how different we were and how much we have changed. However, when we look into the future, we expect that we’ll stay the same person — with the same values, interests, and preferences — we are today.

Researchers call this conviction the “end of history illusion,” whereby we think of the present as a sort of “watershed moment” such that we will continue to be who we are in that present for the rest of our lives. 

A major finding in behavioral economics is that people are present biased, and the future is merely an ongoing string of todays. Everyone “seem[s] to believe that the pace of personal change has slowed to a crawl and that they have recently become the people they will remain. History, it seems, is always ending today.”

The end of history illusion explains why all of us (except Donald Trump) readily acknowledge having made many mistakes throughout our past lives but always struggle to come up with current examples. And when you add toxic tribalism and arrogance to the mix, it can become a witches’ brew of stupidity and evil. That is the subject of this week’s TBL.

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Relentless Attachment

The Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner said, “San Francisco is 49 square miles surrounded by reality,” and the city keeps living up to that promise, if not in the way Kantner meant. The city by the bay…

…isn’t alone in its crazy — you can still make money betting that Donald Trump won’t be president on March 31, 2021, after all — but it seems far and away the leader.

The school board of the San Francisco Unified School District recently voted to move ahead with a plan to change the names of more than 40 schools. The plan called for removing from schools names of those who “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings,” who “oppressed women,” who committed acts that “led to genocide,” or who “otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Among those to be excluded are Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John Muir, Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Revere, and Dianne Feinstein.

The board eliminated Lincoln’s name because of his policies toward Native Americans; Washington’s and Jefferson’s names were struck because they held slaves. The Paul Revere Elementary School will be renamed because of Revere’s role in the Penobscot Expedition of 1779, a Revolutionary War naval assault on a British fort from the Penobscot Bay that the committee assumed, bizarrely and wrongly, was intended to colonize the Penobscot people.

Perhaps it will become Robespierre Elementary and the school board will offer instruction in Maoist constructive self-criticism. 

Robert Louis Stevenson, an important area literary figure, is having his name removed because the poem, “Foreign Children,” from his famous collection, A Child’s Garden of Verses, used the rhyming word “Japanee” for “Japanese.” James Russell Lowell was wrongly claimed to have opposed allowing Black people to vote. It was enough to cancel Lowell. The name of James Lick was ordered removed because his legacy foundation funded an allegedly racist art installation nearly two decades after his death.

Clarendon Elementary, named for Clarendon Avenue, on which it sits, will lose its name because, as the Board of Education explained, the name “can be traced to a county in South Carolina, one of the 13 Colonies named for Edward Hyde Earl of Claredon [sic] impeached by the House of Commons for blatant violations of Habeas Corpus.”

Poe’s Law keeps getting vindicated. And irony is still dead. 

Gabriela López, the head of the San Francisco Board of Education, defended the overall decision along with the decision not to consult any historians during the process because she doesn’t want to “discredit the work that this group has done” despite their questionable judgment and glaring use of false information. In her view, those pointing out even obvious errors are “trying to undermine the work that has been done through this process.” 

López insisted that people are “up in arms” because they “have a problem with the discussion of racism.”

Oh, and “Lincoln is not someone that I typically tend to admire or see as a hero.”

In general, any breach of political purity precluded a name from fronting a school irrespective of countervailing good works. There was one exception, however. When a member questioned whether Malcolm X Academy should be renamed because Malcolm was once a pimp, and therefore subjugated women, the committee decided that his later deeds redeemed prior errors. Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, the Roosevelts, and the others did not receive similar forbearance.

In other San Francisco school news, the school board has deemed acronyms racist, and SFUSD's vice president, Alison Collins, asserted that the concept of merit is also racist. Just this week, after two hours of debate, the board rejected a gay dad of mixed-race children from volunteering for one of several empty seats on a parent advisory group that didn’t have any gay members or men. Their problem was that he’s white and doesn’t bring diversity to the group. Really.

Meanwhile, the SFUSD has no plan to reopen its schools despite the weight of scientific authority establishing that reopening can be done safely and that remote school is bad for kids. Priorities, people.

“I can walk down the streets of San Francisco, and here I'm normal,” Robin Williams said. It isn’t clear that he was joking.*

Most of us — like the SFUSD school board — tend to think of history as essentially a linear (and perhaps heroic) progression towards something. The idea is that human culture develops by the addition of new truths built upon the edifice of old truths, or (more precisely) the increasing approximation of theories to the truth and the correction of past errors. This progress might accelerate in the times of historic change and transformational leadership (cue favorite 1960s documentary here), but the ongoing progress itself is thought to be all but assured.

That is a view of history acquainted with precious little history.

Unquestionably, we live longer and better than the ancients. But we aren’t any better than they were because human nature doesn’t changeThose convinced of their moral superiority need a good dose of Flannery O’Connor, for whom evil is ever-present and stares back at you from the mirror. Or they should spend an hour on Twitter. 

We tend to miss a key point of every horror story, and the human story: We always offer evil an invitation to the party and we keep renewing the offer.

As C.S. Lewis so persuasively outlined, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”** For example, the suffering of the vast majority increased dramatically after the overthrowing of Tsar and Shah by ideologues, driven toward alleged utopian ends revealed by experimental science or from on high, all pledged to aiding them. As Adam Gopnik noted, “the twentieth century is a graveyard of such attempts.

It was the great liberal philosopher Karl Popper who first destroyed the hubris of historical determinism in his devastating critique of Marxism and fascism. His arguments apply no less to the liberalism he sought to defend. As Stuart Kauffman aptly noted, “James Mill once deduced from what he considered indubitable first principles that a constitutional monarchy remarkably like that in England in his day was obviously the highest form of government. One is always in danger of deducing the optimality of the familiar.”

At the extreme, those with this sort of conviction see those who came before them (like Lincoln) as intellectually and morally inferior for not having embraced the most up-to-the-minute ideas and fads, even if utterly unknown at the time. For them, the “wisdom of the ancients” is something of an oxymoron, with the past offering cautionary tales but little of positive value. In this telling, for example, the American nation was evil from birth (in 1619), and the American Revolution and all that followed didn’t siphon the toxins from the fruit of that poisoned tree.

As Yale’s Dan Kahan explains, “What people ‘believe’ … doesn’t reflect what they know. It expresses who they are.” Believing in something so strongly that it becomes the basis for trying to remake one’s life and one’s world provides a feeling of supreme human agency. That sort of core commitment becomes central to one’s outlook and identity. It explains why, for example, those who quit smoking become such assertive advocates of non-smoking, and it’s not inherently bad. It is inherently dangerous. 

Extreme commitment tends to make sincere authoritarians of us all, despotic dogma transmitted like GHB surreptitiously slipped into a red Solo cup at a freshman mixer. We all need something to live for, a relentless attachment. If only we were as correct as we are commited.

We humans are unique in our ability to imagine different futures. We can see, if darkly, the world as it isn’t, consider how it should change, and act upon those considerations. In this sense, the narrative “fallacy” can be a feature, not a bug.

As Louis Menand has explained, “Present trends don’t continue. They produce backlashes and reshufflings of the social deck. The identities that people embrace today are the identities their children will want to escape from tomorrow. History is somersaults all the way to the end. That’s why it’s so hard to write, and so hard to predict. Unless you’re lucky.”

The SFUSD school board’s Taliban-like clarity won’t seem all that clear in the future. It looks murky to me right now. But my certainties and assumptions are suspect, too.

History hasn’t ended.

Perhaps with delusions of grandeur, journalists sometimes speak of their work as the “first draft of history.” The crucial but rarely mentioned corollary is that history has no final draft. 

________________

* As Ezra Klein argued in The New York Times just yesterday (after I thought I had put this TBL to bed), the problem is much bigger and deeper than the school board’s absurdity alone can display.

“In much of San Francisco, you can’t walk 20 feet without seeing a multicolored sign declaring that Black lives matter, kindness is everything and no human being is illegal. Those signs sit in yards zoned for single families, in communities that organize against efforts to add the new homes that would bring those values closer to reality.”

While nearly half (48%) of San Francisco’s residents are white, only 15 percent of public-school students are white. It’s hardly a coincidence that San Francisco’s private school are open, all but conclusively establishing that the city’s care for “the least of these” is far more symbolic and performative than real. As the Apostle James made clear, believing the right things without action on them is worthless.

** Candidates for different societal moral choices in the future include weapons and warfare, factory farming or even eating meat, care of the environment and climate change, healthcare, abortion, the excessive use of antibiotics and other drugs, gender dysphoria, education, keeping GDP at the center of economic policy and, almost certainly, any number of things or approaches that would surprise us or we haven’t thought of. It’s easy to think something doesn’t count if we choose not to count it.


Totally Worth It

The Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” has become a kind of cosmic spiritual for many since its debut 50 years ago. The universal appeal of Robert Hunter’s serene prose and the band’s performance have made the song a popular choice at big life events. As relevant now as ever before, the enduring optimism of the song is a welcome reminder that better days may lie ahead, when songs will, once again, fill the air.

Eli DeYoe is the son of a TBL reader. Listen to his new single, Ride with Mehere. It was entirely written, played, sung, recorded, layered, mixed, and mastered in quarantine by Eli. It’s really good, too.

Brady has played in as many Super Bowls as Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, and Joe Montana … combined.

This is a fascinating business story. This is the most bizarre thing I saw last week, unless it was this. The loveliest. The most troubling. The smartest. The saddest. The funniest. Perhaps this shouldn’t be funny, but it is. RIP, George Schultz.

We all want to go home, at least metaphorically and especially now.


Benediction

This week’s benediction is a new song that honors God and the late John Lewis. It is spectacular.

There’s a love that’s still turning over tables | And a love making blinded eyes see | There’s a healing that’s waiting in the water | That’s still making saints out of rebels | My God is still making good trouble.


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Issue 52 (February 12, 2021)