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.
Seven years ago, my sewing machine got lost in a move. Its replacement finally came out of the box this month. With seven years of mending to catch up on, it was time to relearn. Oh, yes, here’s the pressure foot. Oh, yes, here’s the bobbin case. Where I didn’t expect trouble was in threading the needle. I often thread needles to sew by hand, but the one in the machine refused to cooperate.
Guiding a thread through the narrow eye of a needle must be as old as sewing itself. Our word needle goes back via Old English to Proto-Germanic, and ultimately to Indo-European. Passing an elephant or camel through a needle’s eye is an ancient metaphor for doing the impossible. Later, threading the needle became an analogy for moving through tight human spaces in sports, children’s games, and yoga.
Politicians and managers must sometimes thread the needle to navigate a careful, delicate course between groups with conflicting goals. Most days, at this stage of my life, I’m grateful the hardest needle I have to thread is the one on my sewing machine.
Images: (left) Bonifatius Church portal relief in Dortmund, Germany, re words of Jesus; (right) Johann Vogel, engraving, 1649, cropped, re seemingly impossible Peace of Westphalia.
“I act like an extrovert, but I think I’m really an introvert,” a friend told me. Many of us have used Myers-Briggs or similar instruments to define our personality types. Duke University psychology and neuroscience professor Mark Leary says scientists prefer to talk about traits instead of types. People are infinitely varied. Most personality traits occur not in opposing pairs but along a bell-shaped curve. Some people are very sociable, others just want to be left alone, but the vast majority of us—perhaps including my friend—fall somewhere toward the middle.
Winter, summer; good, evil; dark, light; rowdy, orderly. Is it human nature to prefer dualism over nuance? For some, clear-cut categories feel better than the ambiguity of a continuum. They make for catchier headlines and greater charisma.
I wonder if binary thinking not only reflects but increases polarization. Take politics: Ordinary folk seem more moderate on average than fit precisely into progressive or conservative boxes. Take masculine and feminine personality traits: Are they inherent or socially constructed? Surely some of each. Young men’s and women’s hormones tilt the former to apply physical strength and the latter to bond with their babies, but plotting each on a bell-shaped curve would reveal huge variety and overlap. It needn’t be either/or.
When did you last walk from one room to another, only to forget why you’re there? I do it several times a day. Our brains, finite but efficient, use environmental clues to help choose what to remember. When the setting changes—a different room, for example—they tend to wipe the slate clean to make space for something new. Psychologists call it the doorway effect.
The problem is not so much how to retrieve a memory as how to record it in the first place. I try to follow at least a couple of these tips before I reach the doorway:
Now, why did I come in here to the computer?
A former neighbor dismissed concerns about climate change, saying this warming trend is just another of the climate shifts that occur naturally from time to time. He was right about long-ago climate changes and wrong about the cause of this one. What intrigues me, though, is the assumption that if today’s climate change were of natural origin, it would give no cause for concern.
Thriving Bronze Age cultures of the Mediterranean world—Egypt, Canaan, Crete, Mycenaean Greece, and the Hittite Empire of Asia Minor—disintegrated rather suddenly in the century after about 1200 BCE. Analysis of fossilized pollen reveals a severe drought throughout the region. Famine led to upheaval, mass migrations, attacks by “sea peoples,” disruption of trade, abandonment of Greek and Hittite writing systems, destruction of palaces and cities, dispersal into small rural settlements, and the fall of Troy.
Fast forward through the rise and fall of Rome and beyond. Vikings from Scandinavia raided and settled in Scotland, Ireland, northwestern France, and even southern Italy. They settled Iceland, previously uninhabited except for a few Irish monks, and southern Greenland, separate from the Inuit in the north. After about 1300, with the end of the “medieval warm period,” icebergs made trade with mainland Europe treacherous. Unable reliably to exchange trade walrus tusk for essentials like grain, Norse Greenlanders either left or died out. Iceland survived, but barely.
History gives no reason to suppose climate change is benign to humans so long as humans didn’t cause it. In fact, human-caused climate change could potentially have one advantage. Unlike the natural disasters of past millennia, those caused by humans might potentially be resolved by humans, if we could summon the political will to do so.
Image: Kerstiaen de Keuninck, (c. 1561-1635), Fire of Troy, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
Elders for millennia have complained about the younger generation. Surveys since 1949 confirm that in every decade, people around the world believe kindness and morals have declined—even though their evaluation of kindness and morals at the time of the surveys stays much the same from decade to decade.
The conviction that things are getting worse seems rooted in human nature more than objective decline. Some are nostalgic for the calm, trust, and family values of the 1950s. Others are nostalgic for the activism and sense of purpose of the 1960s. Many traditions speak of a past golden age: the Garden of Eden before the expulsion, matriarchal Crete before conquest by patriarchal Greeks, or harmony with nature before industrial capitalism.
Two biases shape our perception of decline, psychologist Adam Mastroianni suggests. We focus on the negative to alert us to dangers in the moment, as do the media drawn by sales and ratings. As for the past, Mastroianni says the pain of bad times fades faster than the joy of good times. I recall childhood tears as well as fun, but it’s the memories of fun that I dwell on.
Visions of a utopian future are widespread, too. Legends predicted King Arthur’s return some day to save Britain in its hour of need. Zoroastrians believe good will defeat evil at the end of time and restore the once-perfect world. In a Christian hymn, “These things shall be: a loftier race than e’er the world hath known shall rise . . . They shall be gentle, brave, and strong . . when all the earth is paradise.”
Hard times are like the baloney sandwiched between nostalgia and hope. That’s probably not going to change; it’s in our nature. Knowing so may at least add perspective.
Image: A golden age of the past. Claude Lorrain (1604/05-1682), Vedute von Delphi mit einer Opferprozession [“View of Delphi with a sacrificial procession”].
Why am I caught up in the Wagner Group drama? I love a gripping tale. Besides, I share the cultural fascination with groups that operate outside the law, provided they’re long ago and far away. It’s easy vicariously to relish the supposed freedom and adventure of old-time pirates, train robbers, and freelance fighters on horseback.
Freelance is a term from early-1800s Romanticism to mean medieval mounted warriors who fought for profit rather than loyalty to lord or country. We freelance writers will recognize the trade-off between security and independence. Mercenary is much older, from Latin for “hireling.” Soldier of fortune is another classic term for one who fights in other people’s wars, motivated by pay not patriotism.
Long ago and far away? Hardly. Much as the line between legal privateers and illegal pirates in Elizabethan England was a thin one, only a thin line distinguishes some “private security companies” from mercenaries. Remember Blackwater Security Consulting in Iraq, responsible for many civilian deaths? It’s one of many, from Mali to Syria, Sudan to Indonesia. “Business is booming,” Sean McFate of the National Defense University wrote in 2019.
As best I can find, neither the U.S. nor Russia has signed the United Nations convention to forbid outsourcing warfare to mercenaries. The attractions are too great. The contracting nations get plausible deniability. Their contractors get a lack of accountability. It’s win/win for them, if not for anyone else.
Image: From Paulus Hector Mair, De arte athletica II, 16th century.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.