What on Earth Were We Thinking?

Posted: August 25, 2018 in Culture, Debate, Ethics, History, Politics, War
Tags: , ,

Not a person alive having reached even a modest level of maturity hasn’t looked back at some choice or attitude of his or her past and wondered “What on earth was I thinking?” Maybe it was some physical stunt resulting in a fall or broken bone (or worse), or maybe it was an intolerant attitude later softened by empathy and understanding when the relevant issue became personal. We’ve all got something. Some of us, many somethings. As a kid, my cohorts and I used to play in leaves raked into piles in the autumn. A pile of leaves isn’t a trampoline and doesn’t really provide cushion, but as kids, it didn’t matter for the purpose of play. At one point, the kid next door dared me to jump from the roof of his front porch into a pile of leaves. The height was probably 15 feet. I remember climbing out and peering over the gutters, wavering a bit before going back inside. I didn’t jump. What was I thinking? It would have been folly to take that dare.

Some youthful indiscretion is to be expected and can be excused as teaching moments, but in truth, most of us don’t have to go far back in time to wonder “what in hell was I thinking?” Maybe it was last week, last month, or a few years ago. The interval matters less than the honest admission that, at any point one might believe he or she has things figured out and can avoid traps that look clear only in hindsight, something will come up and remind that, despite being wizened through experience, one still misjudges and makes egregious mistakes.

Individuals are also parts of societies and cultures at multiple intersecting levels. While the notion of a global village where all men are brothers (and women are sisters) is an appealing metaphor, organizational levels with members numbering in the millions are arguably more diverse than alike. Even within small polities where a majority vote holds sway (e.g., the U.S. Supreme Court), dissent is often vociferous and the resulting law, legal precedent, or decision cannot be said to represent everyone’s thinking. This is true as well within purportedly monolithic communities divided by race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Nonetheless, we tend to ascribe to those groups and ourselves a dominant view that represents the whole albeit imperfectly.

Let’s take for instance the nation-state, which may not act in uniform agreement but is nonetheless viewed as singular. What were we thinking when we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, launching what appears now to be forever wars against revolving phantoms mostly partly of our own making? In truth, we were propagandized into the wars while still reeling from the shock of 9/11, but not all of us. Not me. I daresay most of the American public has yet to revise their thinking about these ongoing wars. And what were we thinking when we decided to take over the Vietnam War from the French? (Not wholly unlike failing to learn from the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and going in ourselves only to experience the same stupid failure.) The public finally recognized the folly of the Vietnam War and erupted in widespread dissent. Not so with our current military escapades. Lots of reasons for that I’ll leave unstated.

History is littered with episodes of “what were they thinking?” The big bad everyone cites as a specter never, ever to be repeated is Nazism (and with it, the Holocaust). It’s hardly the only big bad. For the U.S., it was chattel slavery. As a point of comparison, Nazism had a roughly 10-year span in vile deed, whereas the underlying thinking had a much longer history and is arguably not yet really over. However, we don’t prosecute and punish thought-crime just yet; we mostly denounce. (Some might argue that contention, especially when the court of public opinion turns on people, e.g., Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey.) In the U.S., chattel slavery endured more than a century. What the fuck on earth were we thinking? It looks so clearly wrong to us now. How could the hallowed Founders have allowed this abomination to exist when establishing our republic? Short answer: compromise. The festering issue eventually boiled over and resulted in the Civil War, during which slavery was abolished. However, the underlying thinking persists, and in the 150 years since, those who would exploit others have found numerous workarounds to trap the powerless in distinctly unsavory conditions. What are we thinking (still)?

Nazism and slavery are hardly youthful follies to be chalked up to reckless enthusiasm. Nor are U.S. militarism and exceptionalism. I can’t judge how the rest of the world assesses U.S. attitudes and behaviors, but I’m aware that ancient cultures (thousands of years) consider the U.S. (not even 250 years old yet) a young nation. Comparatively, modern Germany was formed in 1871 (later divided into East and West, then reunified), but German/Prussian culture has a much longer history. Moreover, countries where international wars (notably, mechanized wars of modernity) were fought on their own soil take different lessons from the experience than does the U.S., where such wars have only ever been fought “over there.”

Regarding thought-crime, various ideological groups have taken it upon themselves to denounce historical leaders for failing to anticipate modern sensibilities, since (doncha know?) we’ve got it all figured out now. Again, Nazis and white supremacists get called out, and in the U.S., a mad rush to take down Confederate statues and monuments has arisen. Washington and Jefferson are likewise denounced as slave owners. Actions to sanitize the past, subjecting historical figures to analysis and values far outside the thought-worlds of their day, include lots of competing motivations. Some want to preserve, contextualize, and remember, others want to remove, erase, and/or forget. Here, Germany might be instructive.

I visited Nuremberg a few years ago, which was understood as the spiritual home of the German people during the Third Reich. Accordingly, it was the site of numerous events and monuments such as the Nazi Party rally grounds (German: Reichsparteitagsgelände). The grounds have never been demolished but instead have been allowed to decay naturally. Near as I can tell, the site and memory is neither fetishized nor ignored. Similar sites include concentration camps (labor camps, death camps). I visited Flossenbürg and was intrigued to learn that locals, for decades after the war and liberation of the camp, were mixed in their attitudes whether the site should be preserved or repurposed. It was for a time a factory site before eventually being turned into a museum/memorial. It’s difficult to judge the wisdom of one path or another, but unlike the U.S., German self-examination and shame over “what were we thinking?” has never been shoved aside or out of sight.

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