To believe something is to think it’s true, right? What other kind of believer could there be? The other kind believes something’s true but will consider new evidence or perspectives. True believers cling adamantly to an idea regardless of evidence. When this goes beyond core values to making every issue a moral absolute, any concession is a compromise with the devil.
Since the late Middle Ages, compromise (from Latin for a mutual promise) has meant settling differences by mutual concessions. The negative meaning is more recent, as in a compromised reputation or immune system. I wonder how much of today’s polarization is because we’ve glorified the second meaning and disparaged the first.
So here we go again, hurtling toward another government shutdown. Yawn. True believers disdain settling differences or getting to yes. Sound bites, memes, and the nature of charisma favor fiery rhetoric over nuance. What a joy it was to hear UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tell the General Assembly last week, “Politics is compromise. Diplomacy is compromise. Effective leadership is compromise.” Do you suppose any true believers were listening?
Image: Satan (dragon, left) gives scepter to the beast of the sea. Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, detail from Apocalypse Tapestry, Angers, France, 1377-82.
Hearing last week’s commentaries on the 9/11 tragedy in New York City, I marveled how much can change in twenty-two years. Back in 2001 the nation hailed Rudy Giuliani as a hero for how he led the city’s response to attacks on the World Trade Center. Today the former mayor faces felony prosecution for his efforts to overturn a presidential election.
The rise and fall of his career hold enough dramatic tension for a fictionalized film, based on Giuliani (let’s call him “G” for now) the way Citizen Kane is based on William Randolph Hearst. Highlights:
Photograph by Gage Skidmore (Wikimedia Commons).
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade . . .
- Rodgers and Hammerstein, South Pacific
As an infant, my child cried each time someone without glasses tried to hold him. All the adults in the household wore glasses. The familiar brought comfort; the unfamiliar or different, distress.
The 1949 musical South Pacific is not just a war story and a love story. It’s also a story of well-meaning, previously sheltered young white Americans struggling with difference. Nellie says racism was born in her. Lt. Cable says no, we’re taught it from childhood. Rogers and Hammerstein refused pressure to remove Cable’s controversial song, saying “You’ve got to be taught” was the point of the show. Georgia legislators called its rationale for interracial marriage a Communist-inspired threat to the American way of life.
Is it true you have to be taught? I think we’re born to distrust difference, a survival trait stronger in some people than others. Parents and others teach us which differences matter. Glasses? Race? As a separate trait on its own bell-shaped curve, babies show varying degrees of curiosity, which their parents then nurture or discourage. If we’re lucky, high curiosity and low fear of difference will offer us a lifetime of learning, fascination, and growth.
Image: Anonymous parent with glasses.
The Californians among you may scoff it's commonplace, but here in the Upper Midwest any sight of a hummingbird is reason to gaze in wonder. This tiny Western Hemisphere native weighs only a tenth of an ounce. Its wings flap so fast that it hovers like a helicopter and can fly in any direction, even backward. Visible most often at bright red flowers for their nectar, sometimes one hovers two feet in front of me to stare me in the eyes. I’ve rarely seen one fly away and never on a branch. Instead, they seem to disappear as suddenly as they appeared, by magic.
These spellbinding birds have inspired literally dozens of poets. Emily Dickinson celebrates their evanescence. D.H. Lawrence pictures them flashing ahead of creation. Mary Oliver calls them “tiny fireworks.” And Robert Frost prays in springtime,
And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.”
Image: Female ruby-throated hummingbird sipping beebalm nectar. Photo by Joe Schneid.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.