Historical News and Death

Try watching the news as if it were news from two decades ago–or better, from 150 years ago. Or dig up some old newspapers on the internet; preferably polemical ones, the equivalents of Fox News or CNBC. Does it feel the same? Do you still get so angry and resentful when you see what the fools are saying and doing? Do you still feel so tense at witnessing the parade of disasters, atrocities and everyday violence? Do you still have the feeling that we are at the edge of a precipice, that we are going to hell in a handbasket, or that we are in the midst of great change and that we’d better get up to date if we are not going to be left behind? In short, does the news matter so much?

I suspect not. My experience after reading plenty of historical news is that nothing ultimately matters so much as it seemed at the time. That the things that really did matter in the long run were rarely reported in the news. That atrocities, agitated polemics and prognostications of doom are par for the course. So are predictions that we are on the cusp of a new age, that old-fashioned ideas are no longer valid, that we’d better update ourselves if we want to live meaningful lives. And despite all the atrocities and violence and stupidity, life has gone on. And would probably go on even better if we stopped getting so upset and agitated because we watch too much news. And everything we are informed about today we will forget next month, usually having learned nothing. Being “informed” is a death kiss for the good life.

But one thing I’ve always found puzzling is why death and violence seems to lose their edge as we go back in time. When speaking about contemporary atrocities and violence we usually get so worked up that we can’t think straight and devolve into polemics, sensationalist anecdote, platitudes, denial, and other moralistic browbeating. The huge atrocities of the last four centuries that still have reverberations in the present—such slavery, colonialism, WWI or Nazism, WWI—can still generate some heat. But they are just as likely to generate reflective analysis or the sense that it is time to get on with life. And the farther back we go—the Mongols; Roman gladiators the Athenians massacring the Melonians; Jehovah helping the Jews massacre Canaan, Sihon, Horem, Rephaim and Caphtorim; one tribe of hunter gatherers massacring another—the more violence becomes merely fodder and data for reflection, metaphor and analysis. But all of this analysis and reflection rarely informs our perceptions of contemporary violence, which remain driven primarily by emotion (both the thrill and terror of violence; as well as the fear of death).

Does the pain and suffering of people who would have already died anyways still matter? Sometimes we hear that we have to put it into cultural context, or that earlier peoples did not value life the same way that we do. I have spent enough time among Chinese and Thais (also frequent objects of these comments) to know this is just bullshit. They are as fearful as us—just as other peoples also tend to glorify violence as much as we do. And of course most historical violence is not even remembered at all. It goes to the same place as contemporary violence and suffering that is not reported in the news—into the black hole of indifference and irrelevance to those who did not experience it. Do violence and death matter if the fear is gone and nothing is memorialized?

For a while, during the period when I knew little more than books, I often sought out historical accounts of pain and suffering. After a while I bridged that gap between past and present, and found it nearly impossible to distinguish between an account of pain and suffering that took place in a distant land two thousand years ago and one that was happening now. At first it was exhausting. The drive that made me seek out such stories quickly collapsed under the weight of the horrors. But then I realized that life still goes on, societies have become even become more complex and interdependent, and we even continue to believe that we can plan for our futures. That was a strange realization, given the apocalyptic scale of some of these atrocities. But one result is that I more frequently bring my analytical approach to the past into the present—which often makes it very difficult to communicate with people.

Is empathy and compassion and the feeling that “we should do something about it” the best way to deal with death and violence? Let’s face it, anything that we “do about it” is as likely to be perceived as an act of aggression as an act of peace—whether that doing means building up an army and border patrol; or trying to persuade people to not have children and remain on the farm with ‘sustainable development.’ Doing something is less about compassion than about fear. And fear inhabits—and compels us to inhabit—short time frames and narrow world views, regardless of how much we learn to express it as concern for the health of the planet or fate of the nation. These are the time frames and world views of news. We can not live anything other than a life bound by fear until we escape news (at a minimum). The pain and suffering of the past can matter, because it helps us to recognize the inevitability of death and the futility of security, and to live accordingly.

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Posted on July 15, 2012, in The Big Questions and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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