This blog is mostly focused on writing. I’ve occasionally touched on other things, but this is mostly about writing. Today I don’t speak as an editor or writer; I speak as a historian and American who witnessed history being made this past week and not in a good way.
Those of you who know me outside this blog know I went to college for history. I studied mostly Rome through the Renaissance in Europe, and that is what I have my B.A. in. I use that mostly for the purposes of helping my editing clients who write about history, but this week it has given me perspective on what happened in the Capitol of the United States of America.
This blog isn’t about partisan politics, before you tense up expecting such a thing. I am not here to do anything but report the facts as faithfully as I know them based on my understanding of history, my viewing of far more hours of footage of what happened than is probably good for my mental health, and having watched the events from literal start to finish via PBS’s stream.
I tuned into PBS’s live stream with the intent of watching Congress debate the votes, as we all knew was coming. While I find watching these events extremely boring, I view them as part of my civic duty. Just as I watched the entire impeachment on C-Span. No, really. The entire thing. I was tuned into their coverage all day, and when I was unavailable to watch, I caught up later.
I give you my sources because I am hopeful you will recognize those as not partisan. At the very least, C-Span is non-partisan because it provides no analysis whatsoever and merely explains some of the definitions of terms or will explain what bill is being referenced and so on. They are exceptionally dull to watch, but they are real-time and with the lack of analysis they are free of partisan taint. Likewise, both by my own quite extensive research as well as labeling by multiple bias-detector sites, PBS Newshour is also virtually unbiased, though individual speakers sometimes show some.
My personal political leanings are irrelevant to this post, so I’m not going to discuss them, and there’s a good chance that if you attempt a guess, you will be wrong.
I was watching when this all started, and I saw and heard the riots happen in as close to real time as was possible without being physically present. During these riots, I felt the same sort of gut-dropping, heart clenching pain I felt watching the Twin Towers fall on 9/11, which I also witnessed in real time. It is going to be one of those events that, for the rest of my life, I will know where I was and what I was doing. Just as many others remember things like the Challenger disaster or, on a happier note, when humanity first arrived to the moon.
Those who don’t note the seriousness and gravity of what has occurred perhaps do not understand just how close we came to the brink of an actual, successful coup d’etat occuring here in the United States of America. One driven by the words of a sitting president. Keeping my personal views out of it, at the very least, I can say with certainty that the address to the rally prior to the ransacking of one of the most sacred buildings of our country by people whose intent was to murder elected officials and cease the peaceful transfer of power that is the bedrock of our country’s form of government was the spark that lit the wildfire.
Make no mistake. I heard the chants of “hang Mike Pence” and saw footage of the men with zip-cuffs. I saw the faces of the people in the Capitol. Do I believe all of them were there to perpetrate horrible acts of unspeakable violence? No, of course not. There were many people milling about certain areas who were swept up in the energy of the crowd with no true understanding of just what they were doing. Crowd psychology and mentality is a very different beast than the intentions of singular individuals. However, I do know for absolute certain that there were enough people there who were hellbent on doing whatever it took, who claimed that “this is 1776” who claimed that it was a “revolution” that I cannot pretend that the crowd wasn’t one spark away from burning the buidling down.
In fact, someone was arrested with molotov cocktails intended for exactly that purpose. Many others had weapons of various kinds including knives, firearms of various types and forms, and that one man with a spear. As well as the number of people I witnessed assaulting police officers with whatever came to hand: crutches, bottles, sticks, riot shields, the barricades themselves, and anything else they could weaponize. At least some of that crowd was out for blood.
Now, pulling back to a larger view, this kind of mentality has been present in crowds during such events for as long as history lasts. In many circumstances crowds have gone from protesting to extreme violence without much pause and if you don’t study crowd psychology, you might not know why. But for people wound up tight and armed with what they belived wholeheartedly was an attempt to steal the country from them by dictators, it was a powderkeg. The spark of which was the president’s speech. These are the unfortunate facts as I have seen them. Now, whether the president lit that powderkeg knowingly or unknowingly or maybe misunderstood the impact and power of his words could be argued. I’m not here to make such assessments.
I do think our country needs to learn a lesson from the ease with which these people breached into the Capitol, overwhelming the police despite concrete fore-knowledge of a volatile protest. We know they are very capable of enacting security measures as seen during the BLM protests, and the contrast between the degrees of security is stark. Foreign actors could easily have embedded themselves in that crowd to gain access to the Capitol and to some of the secure documents and such located within. I don’t believe any foreign adversaries are responsible for what occurred, but it is not a stretch to say that such a security breach with such ease is something we will need to prevent in the future when considering security for our country’s elected officials while they undertake such grave and important business.
I have been saying to those around me since September that I expected something like this to happen. Not because of any political persuasion but because these kinds of events have happened many times through history and always ended the same (insomuch as causing a violent culimation of events). Regardless of one’s political affiliation, the rampant and virulent spread of conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric since before the election had me saying that no matter who won this election, there was going to be violence, protests, and a very dark and difficult time for this country.
I grew up surrounded by Republicans. Both my parents and all my grandparents were steadfast Republicans to the point where my grandfather has plaques and such dedicated to his contributions to the party over the years. I’m not saying this as some kind of “ultra-liberal” extremist because I’m not one. But our country is broken. The screaming and finger-pointing that has become the common go-to behavior of people discussing politics in more recent years has given birth to extremism–as it would by nature. You put people in a pressure cooker, surround them with vitriol, and blame the “not us” for the problems of the “us” and you incite war. Which is exactly what has happened.
Humans have always been tribalistic. Going back to our earliest ancestors and, truth, even before, we are creatures of identity. Our tribe, our group (our team, our block, our city, our country, our town, our political party, our race, our gender, our. . .) is a major part of how we identify safe from not safe. Safe is us. Not safe is them. This is base human behavior and psychology. I’m not saying it’s all right by any stretch because it has also created sexism, racism, classism, ableism, and all the other awful “ism’s” we have in our world right now. Because we divide the world into “us” and “not us.” I recognize that my explanation here is simplistic, but it’s intended to be. I’m also not going to say “can’t we all just get along!” becuase there are damn well people we should not get along with and should never, ever give voice to. (The KKK, neo-nazis, and others spring to mind.) We have fought wars over some of these principles and rightfully so.
Part of the reason some of our founding fathers opposed the notion of parties was this exact us/them mentality that we have seen grow from it. People who otherwise might well agree with one another on important and, indeed, vital subjects feel the need to pick a party that best aligns with their values even if that party doesn’t really represent them well. Then, once they have selected a party, the other party becomes the dreaded Them. This inhibits our ability to work out solutions to problems as people. And the majority of the time, it is as people who see the same problems but disagree on how we get there.
The roads we have tread on have only ever lead to where we are. I have watched this happen over and over again through history–most notably in Rome. Rome crumbled under very similar pressures and very similar circumstances. They had similar income disparity between the hyper-rich and everyone else trying to survive. This happened during the French Revolution as well. The Romanov Execution, too, had similar themes and similar events. I am not advocating for a violent overthrow; I am drawing parallels through similar pressure causing huge fractures to society.
So what do we do and where do we go? As people living through this incredible and horrible time, how do we handle all of these things and move forward? Where do we turn?
My recommendations to you are as follows:
Make sure the news sources you consume as as non-partisan as possible. For what it is worth, I have found this chart to be extremely accurate and helpful when selecting my news sources: https://www.adfontesmedia.com/ Anything at the top of the green block should be considered both reliable and trustworthy. If you have trouble reading the chart, the sources is sees as most reliable (and least partisan) are:
- The Weather Channel
- The Denver Post
- Houston Chronicle
- USA Today
That said, certain segments and certain hosts may be more or less partisan even on these news sources. So approach them with some degree of caution. My method tends to be to read stories from multiple sources and look at where they cross over to find truth. I know current trend is to blame all of these news sources as “hyper-liberal” but they truly aren’t, no matter what you are being told.
Question stories that seem extremely attractive to you. The reason I say this is that the job of (actual) fake news is to emulate the real thing and affirm bias as well as introduce dishonest things. Look at some of the propaganda from WWII for information. The way the Jews, Romani, disabled, gays, and anyone who wasn’t “German Enough” was at fault for the extreme poverty that followed World War I. This was a clear example of scapegoating which is occurring even now (making it Their fault). This mentality that if you are not “us enough” you are “them” is something to view with extreme caution because it is easy to manipulate. McCarthyism, for example, did that exactly as you would expect. Governments across the world and all throughout history have used this rhetoric to achieve their desired outcomes.
Confirmation bias is something we all must wrestle with. The more we agree with a source, the closer we must question it. That goes for everyone for everything. This kind of critical thought is wearisome and stressful and requires constant vigilance, though you eventually pick up on the cues that identify bombast from honesty.
While I will never, ever tell you to keep people in your life who are damaging to your mental health, it is important not to create an echo chamber where all you hear and encounter are the resounding reverberations of a single, potent political ideology. I don’t mean that you need to listen to the outlandish conspiracy theoriests with the same weight you provide a trusted source, either. However, you should be open to hear what people who believe differently than you (and are willing to have honest, fair discussions about it) have to say.
Nor do you need to deal with people whose sole intent is to troll you. People who refuse to adhere to the rules of polite discourse and who engage in constant logical fallicies that damage the capability of people to have discussion shouldn’t be allowed to dominate the discussion.
Likewise, don’t get into a poo-slinging war with a stablehand. They probably have a shovel, and you won’t win by ending up covered in muck. You cannot, sadly, convince through vitriol what civil (if forceful) words will not convey. That isn’t saying we don’t all have times when we get so frustrated we say things that feel good at the time but aren’t the sorts of things we’d say at dinner with the Pope. There is also a time and a place to address something with outrage and force, but recognize that if you start a conversation that way, you likely will never get your point across in a way the other person will receive it–no matter how justified your anger is.
Identifying someone who is acting in bad faith is an important part of this process. I have friends with whom I have significant political disagreements, however I keep them in my life because I know for certain that they are not acting out of bad faith. They are honest, kind, good people at their core with whom I have disagreements. They are not the sorts of people who would have done what happened at the Capitol, for instance. I also want to be clear that political disagreements are different than if those people think as though I as a person should not exist and am not valid. When I say politics, I mean we disagree on how we are going to handle the crisis of medical care in our country, the specifics of what firearm laws should be enacted, and so on. They aren’t people who would, given the choice, see me harmed for existing. Anyone who is toxic in that manner has no place in my life and will not be tolerated, and I do not encourage you to keep such people in yours.
We are tired, and we are hurting, and we are frightened. However, during this period in our lives, we must also not allow our hurt, fear, and anger to destroy our nation. I’m not saying you should not protest or speak your mind. I am not saying you should just sit with your anger and pain and not exercise your rights to free speech and assembly (where applicable since we do have a raging pandemic, so use discretion). However, what happened at the United States Capitol is an example of anger, fear, and hatred overruling any sort of good judgement these people may have. There is no excuse for it, and let it be a warning to the rest of us. Giving into our emotions and venting all our fears and angers and grief in such a manner both will not accomplish its goal (congress still completed its duty in counting the electoral votes) and will not serve whatever cause we have. Speak with eloquence, power, and force. Speak as one voice. Use your megaphone. But put down your torches and nooses. Such barbaric behavior does not belong in the society we have built.
In addition to this, remember that if we are all tired, hurting, and frightened, we are all–as a world–in a more volitile and fragile place than we have been at any time in living memory for most of us. Our friends and loved ones are more vulnerable and more fragile even as they are also more angry.
One of the few pieces of wisdom I have from my father–echoed by my mother–is that anger often covers fear. Fear makes us feel helpless, exposed, and weak while anger helps us feel powerful. We are all, whether internally or externally, feeling helpless, exposed, and weak because this pandemic spares no one. From the rich and powerful to the homeless, this disease has no mercy. Much like the Masque of the Red Death, it spares none. On top of that, our country has been at the mercy of people in power whose goal has been to deepen divides and profit from the hatred. Demogogues of any flavor are often dangerous, and we have seen a notable rise in their number as they prey on the cracks in our society borne of many years of war and financial catastrophies.
If you can, if you have the space and energy, be kind. Whether you agree with someone or not, see pain and speak to it. Be honest, be genuine. Think before you speak.
No more powerful and poigniant example of the power of language can be shown in immediate history than the effect of the president’s speech on the crowd. His words lit the fuse of what happened at the Capitol. If you are on my blog and read it, then I presume you are a writer. This example should show all of us the power of words. We can inspire or incite. We can hold up or rebuke. Words have power. Use them with intent. Use them with discretion, and use them with love.
I know our country is seeing its darkest winter in living memory. Thousands of people are dying every day, and the divides between our nation feel like they are too deep, too jagged, and too raw to ever mend. But remember we are the country who had the Civil War and survived. Our democracy survived a civil war and was able to come back from that. Our country has seen hell and continued. We are strong, and the guardrails of our democracy do work. We have seen them in action if you have been looking for them. They function, and they protect us.
As Benjamin Franklin said just after a session of the Constitutional Convention: “A democracy, if you can keep it.”
Breathe and know this isn’t the end of everything. It may feel it, but through the hard work, dilligence, watchfulness, and continued work of every person in our nation, we can keep it.
We can keep it.
2 thoughts on “As A Historian”
Thank you, dear friend.