A Plague on All Our Houses

Even the most steadfastly unquestioning among believers in various versions of mainline religions will allow that, if their deity cares for them as a shepherd cares for sheep, their own religions, yes, even their own temples, mosques, and churches, sometimes harbor wolves in sheep’s clothing. Partisans of every political and philosophical school of thought have seen the unmasking of many such monsters that have hidden behind the guise of goodness and faithfulness, selflessness and judiciousness, or at least experienced the dire effects those have on the lives of the truly committed. There are reasons most languages have such large inventories of words like heretic and traitor, infidel, apostate, renegade, impostor, infiltrator, double agent, betrayer, and hypocrite.
Digital illustration: A Pox on Both Your Houses!

So it astounds me every day that such experienced, otherwise reasonable people are either afraid, or simply refuse, to regularly and thoroughly question and examine the sources of their information, whether they are people or inanimate forms of evidence. Even among the most dedicated, wise, and well-meaning persons the human flaws we all bear cause mistakes and missteps. The most widely accepted proofs of truth may have come about by means of equally imperfect human study and the telephonic accidents of human transcription and translation. No matter how inspired the origin of the wisdom, it can’t be guaranteed to get to the page and from hand to hand, meeting to meeting, one end of the surprisingly not flat earth to the other, without sometimes being misinterpreted or co-opted, whether it’s by the false sheep in the flock or by our own good intentions.

All I can say is that if such stubbornness against rigorously examining our beliefs and every source of them is at its roots a terror of self-examination, we are doomed. We will forever repeat the grim side of human history, by acting out of doubt, cowardice, and ignorance, assumptions that have as much chance of being incorrect as not, and hidebound inability to see the wolves in our very midst for fear of discovering our own culpability. Circling each other with rapiers drawn and fighting to uphold traditions or beliefs or codes that we have so ingrained that they are unquestioned no matter how wrong, we will only deserve the curse of Shakespeare’s Mercutio—who, by the way, may or may not have said “A plague a’ both your houses,” in the original text, but various scholars over the years have guessed at such a reconstruction of it. Even Shakespeare, that demigod of English literature, is only as reliable a source as the many readers and interpreters since his time can determine, assuming that there was one playwright and poet of that name and not, as some believe, some cadre of the great literary minds of that era. Don’t get me started.

I will say right out that I know full well that I am guilty of being poorly or misinformed on a host of topics, and a stubbornly slow learner on top of that. I am trying, however I may stumble along the way, to grow beyond such ossified thinking. If only we could all begin with the premise that the fault might be not in our stars but in our selves, I think we might discover that our reliance on incomplete or incorrect information puts us constantly at risk for inner and outer conflicts we ought to have laid aside or, better yet, avoided altogether. The Other Guy might in fact deserve a listen, and acting first, asking questions later is not a conversation but is likely instead to end in swords crossed and lives lost. Acting in haste or acting in hate, the result may be the same because we were ill prepared to ask the right questions, let alone come to a wise and humane conclusion as a result. There are, sadly and unquestionably, baddies among us. But even so, if we all insist on clinging to our own versions of the truth without regularly and rigorously questioning their verity, then the attack we are all under begins inside, not from any external enemy, real or imagined.

We were So Civilized

Digital collage: We were So CivilizedNo matter where I am on the Fourth of July I am likely to think about the country in which I was born and have lived all of my life thus far: the United States of America. The Fourth is the official birthday of the nation, though many of the current states joined the union long, long after that July in 1776 when it was established by its founders. Like so many nations around the world, this country and its history are a tremendously complicated and varied patchwork of fact and fiction, hope and fear, two steps forward and one step back. Over and over and over again.

Imagine this: a pack of refugees from religious persecution left their homeland and sailed into the unknown across an ocean of which they also knew very little except that their passage across it was dangerous and miserable and killed plenty of them before they hit the new shore. When they landed, to their surprise there were already plenty of other people living on that new turf, and did that stop the interlopers from moving in, too? Of course not. I don’t expect it ever occurred to them, to be honest, that there wasn’t room for everybody or that if they took a ton of the resources around them that might just mean there were fewer for the previous residents of the land, folk who had, indeed, already long established a very different relationship with the continent.

That the illnesses and diseases the newcomers brought with them from Home would endanger and kill many of their new unwitting and unwilling neighbors could never have entered these interlopers’ minds, when they were so preoccupied with not only their current survival but their escape from the hardships and sorrows back in their own homeland. That they themselves would suffer privation, fear, danger, loneliness, and the loss of their lifetime homes, belongings, families and friends across the vast ocean they had crossed was a stark enough reality that perhaps they willed themselves not to think too hard about all that they faced next also affecting the long-tenured native peoples across whose lands they moved like human bulldozers.

The establishment of this new home was far from smooth and easy too, as anyone could probably guess, though I wonder if any of them really considered that the goal as much as simple escape from what they’d known before. Still, none of those inhabitants of North America—invaders or original denizens—could possibly imagine at the time, I suspect, quite how vast the whole continent was and what that meant in terms of creating new colonies within it, let alone new nations. In the years that followed, the westward migration confirmed the existence of innumerable tribes and clans of people not before known to the new arrivals, but also of wild creatures unimagined, of terrain unlike any they had dreamed possible, of climates that had been the stuff of legend until then.

In those many decades of carving out new paths and territories, it was inevitable that, just as it had been with the foregoing generations of various indigenous peoples, there would be struggles over who had access to what, who could live where, and who belonged together with or as far as possible away from whom. No surprise that this led not only to separated towns and enclaves and ethnic, religious, political or philosophical communities but also, in turn, to a wild array of accents and ideas that might as well have been different languages and different species altogether.

Amazing that all of this could remotely possibly coalesce into what is known as the United States of America. Today’s states are still so diverse, even sometimes from county to county or one side of the railroad tracks to another, that it’s nearly laughable to call them United. We fight like pesky siblings with each other all the time; it’s a miracle, in my book, that the so-called Civil War, one of the most uncivilized events in the country’s history, hasn’t simply continued from its beginning to the present day. It does, perhaps, at subtler levels. Just because the invasion of the continent by a bunch of frightened Pilgrims who only thought themselves seeking freedom from tyranny didn’t destroy the whole land and kill every one of them off outright, and because the various internal skirmishes that led to, but were far from limited to, the Civil War didn’t complete that annihilation doesn’t mean we’re not still perfectly capable of incredible incivility at every turn. We try, we fail.

On the Fourth of July, I think of how astounding and—generally—good it is that this messy nation has managed to survive this long without self-destructing. But I can’t help also thinking this of most of the rest of the world. Humans just plain are messy. We form and break alliances; we argue over being Right instead of being compassionate or practical, let alone pursuing justice. We blunder around, hog resources, ascribe privileges and powers to ourselves and our chosen comrades that we willfully deny others, or just pretend the others don’t exist, and thanks to our weirdly, wonderfully diverse array of accents, when we do get around to discussing the least of these things, even those who ostensibly share a language can’t understand each other half of the time anyhow.

Just possibly, our life form may have been civilized at a few choice moments. There is plenty of potential in this odd species of ours, I like to think. Even we Americans aren’t entirely irredeemable; we keep bothering and beating up on each other like so many brothers and sisters, and yet most of us still manage eventually to just agree to disagree and, in moments of precious lucidity, even to see each other’s point of view and operate in an environment of respect and hope. As rotten as we can be to each other, we care enough to wrestle it out and try to find ways to go forward. Together, even. If that isn’t a family worth saving, I guess I don’t know what one is. Happy birthday, USA. Go forth and get a little more civilized, if you can.