7 Things I’ve Learned About History Since Moving to the Land of the Future

April 25, 2014

“Why on earth did you study history?” I was asked last night, and on many days since I arrived in what is perhaps the world’s most future-oriented place. What answer can I give to an engineer or venture capitalist who can’t rotate his perspective enough to look backward, or see the importance of doing so? I usually say that I love to explore the rich context of our modern world, so much of which was influenced by the past. Or that history, like all the humanities, is a mirror that shows us a different version of ourselves.

But such answers will not satisfy many people here, and in wondering why, I realize I’ve learned a few things about history and its uses since learning the way (to San José):

1. America ≠ California and American History Californian History.

I write a lot about nationalism, because it is one of the ways we identify as part of a group, with shared history. I feel very Canadian, and not very Ontarian at all because I don’t see Ontario’s history as disconnected from that of the Canadian historical narrative. So I assumed it would be very “American” here, like places I’ve been on the East Coast and Midwest.

I was wrong.

The United States, though a young country, seems to be very aware of (certain parts of) its history. After all, how many other countries refer so frequently to and preserve so faithfully the intentions of their founding documents? America has an acute sense of its founding myths, and the historical reenactment culture here is an ongoing source of fascination and delight. (Who wants to be that Union solider who gets shot the first moment of battle and lies on the field the rest of the day in period costume? Is there a hierarchy, and does one get promoted each successive year based on seniority until eventually he is General Lee, or is it merit-based and depends on how well you keel over in your fleeting moment of glory? Such pressing questions.)

California Republic

California is not, however, America. It is, as the t-shirts say, “California Republic,” with its “Governator” and strange direct democracy and fiercely independent, contrarian streak. Very few people here identify as “American” so much as “Californian,” and they don’t seem to share the same historical touch points. More common are nods to the Spanish and Mexican roots of the region, through the missions and street names, or a focus on the history of global trade and cosmopolitan capitalism.

2. People have a different definition of “history” in Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley is a whole other animal altogether (a shark, perhaps?).

In a place where the next iOS release, must-have gadget or earnings report is breathlessly anticipated, “history” becomes something that matters mostly in your browser. “Legacies” and “artifacts” are usually bad things to Valley dwellers, being outmoded or standing in the way of progress. The tech industry does not look kindly on the past – or rather, doesn’t think much of it at all, an indifference which is, as we all know, much more the opposite of love than dislike.

San José then…

Silicon Valley isn’t kind to its physical history either. The historic orchards and cherry trees that once ringed San José have been paved to make way for sprawling, two-story rental accommodations and carefully landscaped corporate lawns. Giant redwoods are regularly felled to allow for a better view of the advertisements on the side of buildings (seen from the freeway, of course). Dome-shaped Space Age cinemas one frequented by Steven Spielberg are in danger of being torn down, likely so newer, bigger malls can rise up in their places.

Even churches, those bastions of beautiful architecture, look like something out of an IKEA catalogue, all light wood and glass – nary a flying buttress in sight. It’s a full-on assault of the past by the present, in the name of the future.

3. Transience produces ambivalence and a lack of investment in the past.

Many people are new here, as the region’s explosive growth in the last 30 years can attest. Others are “just passing through.” So a lot of people feel disconnected from anything greater than their jobs or family/friend networks here, and there is a pervasive sense of rootlessness.

So why bother to invest in their communities? Or care what they used to look like? So goes the logic and thus the “San José Historic District” encompasses a single square block, with fewer than ten historic monuments. These are mainly just buildings that have survived – earthquakes, vacancy and neglect. This website catalogs the “boneyard of unwanted San José monuments” that are slowly crumbling away near the freeway and very shiny corporate HQ of Adobe.

Santa Clara County Courthouse

The courthouse, crumbling in disrepair. San José is falling down, falling down, falling down…

It’s not all that surprising though when you consider that…

4. …it is personal history that fosters pride and connection.

Perhaps I and others feel disconnected from the history here because so much of historical connection depends on identifying with who made the history in the first place. Several recent studies from the British Commonwealth (Britain itself, Canada, and Australia) and the US indicate that museum attendance increases where a greater percentage of the population identifies with the ancestry of the area. That is, if you are of Scottish origin in Toronto, you are more likely to be interested in a museum about Canadian history, which was largely architected by Scots, than if you are a Native Canadian whose world was essentially trampled on by those same Scots. You’re likely still less interested if you are a recent immigrant to Toronto from Bangladesh. Feeling as though a part of you helped to make a place what it is makes it more real and more interesting. Rightly or wrongly, you feel as if you have more of a stake in the future because “your people” had more of a stake in the past.

Even people that grew up here can barely recognize it, so feel as though a part of their past has been taken from them. Wherefore the cherry blossoms and apple orchards that used to dot the landscape of the “Valley of the Heart’s Delight”? One woman told me her family used to live bordering a fruit farm, and moved six times as the farms were paved over by housing divisions, until “we lived backing on to the mountain, and there were no farms left.”

…and San José now.

And yet, I can only feel that history is critical, from my experiences in Toronto where historical consciousness, like love and Christmas, is all around.


5. History is often the most beautiful part.

I used to love walking through downtown Toronto because every so often a beautiful Art Deco or neo-Gothic gem would emerge amid the drab tower blocks of the 1960s and 1970s. Variations in architectural style provide interest and colour in an otherwise monotonous world of glassy office towers and utilitarian apartment buildings. Grand plazas, churches and monuments make statements about what is important to a place, and what it values.

What do these people value? It is worth cherishing and celebrating the few beautiful examples of history that exist here.

Like this one!


6. Historical traditions provide comfort.

This surprised me. History, of course, is about customs passed down as much as it is about actual events or physical buildings. Traditions ground us and give us some consistency in a world that changes rapidly. This is part of the reason weddings, funerals, and general church-going still exist. We need traditions to mark the big events in life.

We also need traditions to mark out who we are and how we should behave. To take a small but non-trivial example I wrote about recently: our clothing sends out signals about who we are and what we expect from life. There are no standards of dress here, at work or at play. Twenty-five-year-old men dictate the business ambiance, so beards, flip flops and holey t-shirts abound, and you can’t find a restaurant in California fancy enough that you can’t wear jeans.

It is utterly unconventional, which is perhaps just a bit the point. Wearing jeans to a meeting with someone in a suit will instantly destabilize them. It’s the same idea with non-standard working hours, perfected by the tech industry, and turning work into play (both the work itself and the space in which it is done). Even the critical and traditional accent in “José” has all but disappeared, which leads me to wonder if people in future will think this city was pronounced as something that rhymes with “banjos.”

It is groundbreaking to blow up established norms, but also somewhat unsettling. And history is necessary, if only to have something to conscientiously reject.

7. Culture clusters around history.

Life without history would not only be ignorant and untethered, but very boring.

People often view San José and its surrounds as soulless, and it’s easy to see why. One need only look at the cultural draw San Francisco has on the region to appreciate why places with deep roots are attractive. Most of San Francisco’s biggest tourist attractions are historical landmarks. What would the City be without the bridge, cable cars, Alcatraz, Haight-Ashbury, the Ferry Building, or Pier 39? Just a bunch of expensive apartments and hills, really.

History infuses places with meaning, and communities gather to add more layers. So next time someone asks me why on earth I would bother to study history, I think I will tell him that it’s because I care about beauty and culture and connection to the people and places around me — and that if he wants to live in somewhere even half-decent, he should too.

History, paved over

History, paved over

How people we hardly know cause us to have more serendipitous, lonelier, busier lives 

April 11, 2014

Imagine you live in a small town, circa 1750. Your daily life is spent working – maybe farming, or maybe you make shoes or are a teacher. You eat, drink, sleep, look after children, and socialize. Your social circle consists of others in the same class and gender, for the most part, and you will most likely spend your whole life living with, farming with, marrying into, reproducing with, and dying with the other families that live in your village.  You know these people really, really well.

Perhaps someone in your family emigrates – to London, or to one of the settlement colonies, say – and so you spend a bit of time every month writing letters to them, but know that it’s a bit pointless, because anyone who had moved more than a few hundred miles away would likely never come back. Every so often a traveller or vagrants will come by, and sometimes people will move in or away, but for the most part social circles are set. There is no networking to change your lot in life, or make new friends, just living.

Now imagine the richness and diversity of your current social circle. It is probably more like a multi-national organization than a village. It probably includes people living in several countries, from different backgrounds. It is probably quite large. You probably don’t know many of them very well, but may spend a lot of time, like I do, writing emails, talking on the phone, or communicating in other ways with them. I spend much of what time I have leftover in my day feeling guilty that I haven’t spent more time writing more emails or making more phone calls. When I lived in Toronto, I must have had 25 people at any given time that I had honestly been meaning to “catch up” with for about six months. Now I live further away, it is even more important (and time-consuming) to keep up links with everyone back “home.” (I am that immigrant mentioned above! Doubly so. So many letters.)

Of course, this doesn’t even include time spent on the more common definition of “networking” – the kind that makes me want to take a shower – which is to purposefully make connections with the hope of them being useful at some point hence, in a search for a new job or piece of advice.

Network Proliferation

The abundance of methods of communication and social networking technologies has made all kinds of networking almost unconscious, but quite time-consuming. Modern networks are kept alive by either the acceptance of an inferior means of communication (email, letters, FaceTime) as satisfactory grounds to sustain them, or the faint hope of a better way of interacting occurring again in the future. But it appears that quality decreases even as time spent increases, and we are left accepting many more threads of connection without time to forge many into lasting companions.

If we are being honest, it is highly impractical to spend so much time maintaining friendships with friends of friends, those who live outside of our immediate geography, or people who were major players in our lives years ago but no longer cross our minds very often. So why do we do it? What is so inherently appealing about having far-flung networks of others who share our interests and experiences?

I see the main points of the cost-benefit analysis as follows:

  • The social inclusion high. With the breakdown of actual barriers of geography through telecommunications and easier global travel, and imagined barriers of social class, we are much more likely to find others who share commonalities with us. And most of us are willing to spend time and energy building a social circle of like-minded peers, over and above the time and energy required to simply exist in the world with those who may not necessarily (e.g. colleagues, extended family members, baristas at the coffee shop, the mailman, etc.).
  • Imagined future benefits. Slightly more self-serving, but no doubt also a factor is the potential usefulness of knowing an old travel companion who lives in Auckland, NZ in case you ever need a place to stay, or a contact in the federal government in case of a future career change. This is, basically, the only reason LinkedIn exists.
  • Guilt. It’s harder to terminate a relationship than keep it vaguely open-ended. It is much easier to have friends from elementary school connected by a thin thread on a Facebook feed than acknowledge that there is no real reason to be part of each other’s lives. In this case the cost may be low (provided they don’t constantly spam us with game requests or multiple smarmy medical school acceptance status updates), but it also makes me wonder if our village-dwelling ancestors were more comfortable with saying goodbye and just letting go of outdated relationships.

Dunbar redux

There are very real advantages to having large, loose networks of connections, but the cost of all of this network upkeep is time and anxiety. According to a well-known study by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the optimal size of a human’s social network is about 150. This number refers to how many people we can cognitively sustain stable relationships with, and is directly related to the size (and thus functionality) of our neocortex. (For a fantastic and hilarious illustration of Dunbar’s number, see this piece.)

Dunbar’s number has obvious applicability to real-world organizations, but has more recently also been found to apply to our online social networks, in the number of people we frequently interact with online. But with ever-larger networks to maintain, something has to give: the quality of the relationship, the amount of time humans are willing to spend communicating with others, or a shift in our physiology so that we are able to cognitively adjust to a greater size of stable connections.

It seems that quality is the first thing to go. A 2007 study showed that Facebook has many positive social attributes, in that it enables us to “keep tabs” on others very easily, thus “convert[ing] latent ties into weak ties,” increasing the serendipity factor in our lives. As is already widely known, however, it also carries costs. The constant identity curation necessitated by Facebook and similar social networks is exhausting. We want to project an image of ourselves as (relatively) happy, successful and social. It’s stressful, and it also makes us lonely.

I pick on Facebook, but we use the same techniques to keep up appearances across networks with all of our weak ties, and this is facilitated by not being near people for sustained periods of time in person. And it isn’t just in our personal lives. Image production has become an increasingly useful skill for knowledge workers who have to justify the value of their work through self-promotion or “personal branding,” either within an organization to get that excellent performance review, or to win more business as a sole proprietor. Such conscious displays of our better sides (I won’t go so far as to say artifice) would have been impossible to keep up in the village with so many strong ties and so few weak ones.

Back to the village…

Perhaps it is a symptom of our modern greed that we expect to have so much capital interpersonally and intellectually, as well as physically. Since we have “progressed” beyond the village, we can now create and maintain more opportunities: opportunities for more knowledge about the world, more interesting friends, better social activities, and better jobs. This is good news if you don’t want to be a shoemaker who sees the same 50 people every year for the rest of your life, but bad news if you want to have an empty inbox and be ulcer-free.

I see it as a social manifestation of the “paradox of choice” (a book I highly recommend for anyone feeling swamped by choice). Having more options actually makes us less happy, because the stress inherent in choosing between them, and the time it takes to do so, often outweighs the potential benefits of a better choice (if there even is a better choice). More weak ties naturally means more choice, and more stress.

So maybe those who withdraw from frequent socializing are (intentionally or not) limiting their options, and maybe they are happier for it. They moved back to a slightly bigger village, and they’re enjoying the lifestyle.

Nations of Extroverts and the Friendliness of Americans

February 3, 2014

Picture this: a bus full of people, mid-day on a Tuesday. A passenger with a seeing-eye dog chatters away about her experiences to the lady beside her, who also has a dog. She then asks a family visiting from Italy what sights they have seen in the area. Further back, two men joke about how their knees are too old to bend sufficiently to fit into the seats. When one gets off the bus, he shakes the other’s hand, saying “Pleasure to meet you!” An elderly couple asks a young, pregnant woman about her children and say “God Bless!” to every passenger that exits the bus.

This is a typical bus ride in San José, at least in my experience riding public transit. Far from scowling at the lack of elbow room, passengers seem to use their proximity to other travellers as an excuse to strike up a new friendship, or at least pleasant conversation for the duration of the ride. On my way back from a book club once, a man told me about his opinion of every Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje book he’d read after finding out I was a recent transplant from Canada.

It’s all very unusual for me, and left me wondering: why are Americans so friendly? Several transplants I know from Europe think it must be false, that a waitress in a restaurant can’t genuinely care whether you liked your cajun pasta or had a good day – but is it?

To get a sense of whether there might be a national character at all, and if that might explain my transit experiences, I looked into what is often referred to by psychologists as the “Big 5 Inventory” personality test, or “five-factor model,” which measures the following traits:

  • Openness to experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

My hypothesis was that Americans might, on a stereotypical, national level, score highly on the extroversion and agreeableness scales. Many have noted that at least two thirds of Americans are extroverted (see, for example, Susan Cain’s excellent book and TED talk on Introversion), and high levels of extroversion have also been correlated with traits such as assertiveness and individualism, other behaviours oft noted as common to Americans.

I wasn’t the first to have this idea. I recommend watching this short video, which maps out the Big 5 by nation:

It’s a fascinating study, and largely confirms that Americans are likely to be, on average, more extroverted than people from other nations, and more agreeable. They are also more calm and “hardy” than the average, and able to withstand setbacks, and are extraordinarily conscientious and disciplined.   These would all seem to be important traits for immigrants seeking to build new lives and a new nation.

The French, to take a comparison, are among the most introverted nations on the map. They also tend toward disagreeableness and prefer stability and routine to variety and new experiences. (Interestingly, they are very organized and conscientious, even more so than their German neighbours, which may surprise some in European politics.) An individual with these traits would undoubtedly find the can-do friendliness of the stereotypical American quite unpleasant, and the American, in his turn, would find the reserved Frenchman similar to the fellow below (which I found while searching for “American perceptions of French people”):


It would also seem that my experiences in Argentina were not abnormal: Argentines, according to this video, also tend to be disagreeable, yet quite calm and emotionally stable, enjoying variety. This would explain the tendency we noticed to shrug in an irate fashion and bemoan the state of the economy with no expectation of it changing, then stomp off to dance a tango.

It may also be possible to explain the friendliness of Americans as a lack of the formality and respect for hierarchy that characterizes many Old World nations. There is no easy correlation with any one five-factor model trait here, but it would make sense that a society founded on principles of extreme meritocracy would support individuals bypassing the usual deferences common to aristocracy and other Old World power structures. If all men are created equal, why not say hello to those tourists on the bus?

A side note

Their friendliness doesn’t spare Americans the derision of the world in other areas. Keying in “why are Americans so…” into a search box does not yield very friendly autofill results: “stupid” and “ignorant” are the most common hits.

This perception might also be explained by the Big 5 model. In the “Openness to Experience” dimension, Americans score at a fairly average level. Examples of this trait include being “intellectually curious, open to emotion, interested in art, and willing to try new things.” (Denmark scores highest on this trait. Might explain Lego, The Little Mermaid, and vikings.)

Certainly, Americans are inventive and curious. However, many have also noted a national pride that can extend to an inward focus, a lack of interest in or awareness of the world outside its borders. The persistent and oft-debated data point of fewer than a third of Americans having passports would support an argument for isolationism.

Why bother to travel, though, if everyone will only respond to their friendly overtures with disagreeableness and scorn? Fortunately, there is a place where, according to this map, the locals are even more friendly, sympathetic, and kind, perhaps so much so that they’re willing to forgive some old bad blood and show American tourists around…


Have fun at Sochi.

25 Reasons Today Is a Great Time to Be Alive

June 22, 2011

Amid all the morose and maudlin whinging about how we are losing our sense of self, our ability to self-moderate, or more generally our minds, merit, and money, today I offer up a list of things to get excited about in 2011.

Here are 25 reasons life (and mine specifically) is better today than it would have been…

250 Years Ago

25. I can reasonably expect to live longer than 33 years.

24. In my life, I’ve visited over 10 countries on 3 continents. And among my friends, I’m not well travelled. In 1761, people rarely left their hometown, let alone the country.

23. Last night I heard superb music by 10 different composers, played by a world-class orchestra, for under $30. (And I waved a Union Flag while doing it! “And did those feet, in ancient time…”) In 1761, only a fraction of the population could hear such music – and not cheaply.

22. Indoor plumbing! Sewers! Need I say more?

21. I can buy a great book for under $5; in 1761 it would have cost the equivalent of about $1000.

100 Years Ago

Hunger Strikes Among Suffragettes

20.  As a woman, I can choose who runs my country/province/ city (at least in theory). And I didn’t have to be jailed and force-fed by a tube in order to have the right to do it – all I had to do was reach majority.

 19. I didn’t die of chickenpox, infection, or the flu when I was a child, as many children did in 1911.

18.  I do laundry by putting a bunch of clothes into a machine, pouring in some liquid, and pressing a few buttons, instead of spending two days with the household staff, soaking it, wringing it out repeatedly, and stirring it around in crazy chemicals with washing bats. It’s like magic.

17. Electricity — in my home! Amazing.

16. In one of my history classes we watched 1900 House, a documentary in which a family of six lived as they would have in 1900 for three months. A memorable take-away? Modern shampoo is a hell of a lot more effective than egg yolk and citrus. “I just smell really, sort of, omlette-y.”

50 Years Ago

15. I did not have to promise to obey my husband when we got married.  In fact, I didn’t even have to get married to get all the legal benefits of a long-term committed relationship.

14. I can wear pants! and shorts! And neither is prohibited by law.

Katharine Hepburn, a pants-blazer and personal heroine

13. I can eat any kind of food I want to, and could probably find somebody from its country of origin to talk to about it. Every day just walking down the street I see a greater degree of diversity than at any other time in history, all in once place, living (relatively) harmoniously together.

12. I can choose whether or not to spawn, with near-certainty that my wishes will be protected by law and the wisdom of modern medicine.

11. A century old saying has it that “horses sweat, men perspire — ladies merely glisten.” But when I go to the gym, I can sweat all I like, and feel healthy doing it. Moreover, certain terrifying Amazonian female athletes step it up a notch by adding a soundtrack.

25 Years Ago

10. I live in the charmingly-labelled “Rainbow Village” area of Toronto, where I can watch men walk down the street holding hands, or carrying impossibly tiny dogs wearing designer hats in large purses.

9. I can find out what’s going on in any part of the world in under 10 seconds, at the click of a button.

8. I feel reasonably secure knowing that many heinous crimes are solved using DNA evidence. Bonus: I can watch any of the fascinating procedural dramas stemming from said advancements in forensic science. Bring it on, Grissom!

7. I can listen to “Tarzan Boy” over and over and over again without having to rewind, ever.

6. It’s exciting that people are taking steps to protect the environment more than at any other time in modern history. Or, at least, they’re aware of how to protect it.

10 Years Ago

5. I can press a button on a machine and be talking to my grandmother, 3500 miles away, in under 10 seconds. For free. (And I feel like God every time I do it. Think about it: your computer is calling someone else’s! This is the kind of thing they dreamed about in SciFi movies 50 years ago.)

4. I can access the Internet everywhere I go. Want to know if the restaurant I’m walking by is any good? I can read reviews. If I’m lost? I can get directions. Wondering if it’s going to rain? I can check the weather. Instantaneously.

3. Buying a home during a recession meant we got an insane deal on our mortgage.

2. I can watch things like this all day if I want to:

1. I have a place to share my latest thoughts, pictures, or links to rambling blog posts with my closest friends, and get feedback from any or all of them, immediately. Communication is more frequent than ever before. I can feel like part of  a community without even having to leave my desk. (Or put on the pants I was so excited about earlier.)

What are you excited about in 2011 that you would add to this list?

Scandal, Scandal! Lisez Plus Ici…or Not

June 7, 2011

What is it with the French?

Despite the puritanical Anglo-American attitude toward sex that supposedly stifles our expression of sexual content in North America, the French press is muzzled to a far greater extent than our own. Titillating details of adultery, hypocrisy and intrigue remain untold. As one weekly puts it, “News always stops at the bedroom door.”

There has been a wave of self-examination on the part of the French media in response to the recent scandal involving former IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a hotel maid, and a rape charge. In response, Matthew Fraser, formerly editor of the National Post and now an academic in France, wrote a thought-provoking explanation of why the French media clam up just when politicians’ private sins and indiscretions could be selling millions of papers. He describes modern France as a guilt-free land of entitlement where power essentially allows the ruling elites – historically monarchs, but now politicians and top-level bureaucrats – to do whatever they want without fear of it being reported. And even if it is reported, they respond with a Gallic shrug as if to say, “And?”

While I’m not sure I agree that a culturally Catholic country can be devoid of guilt (!), or that French journalists are mostly unconcerned with facts (another argument Fraser makes), I am intrigued by his remarks on privacy. In France, privacy trumps freedom of speech. In Canada, the US, and especially Britain, it is just the opposite. Britain doesn’t even have a formal privacy law; thus, newspapers tend to print first and ask questions (or defend against a libel claim) later. Case in point: my favourite footballer is currently embroiled in an adultery scandal that he (unsuccessfully) attempted to quash before publication with a full court superinjuction. The matter even came up in Parliament.

Going to such lengths to stop the presses seems ridiculous, but on the other hand, once a story is out, and has been seized upon and exaggerated beyond recognition by numerous blogs, tweets, and other retellings, the damage is done – even if the content is inaccurate. Such lengths are standard in France. The French legal system, in order to treat all citizens as equals before the law, grants everyone the same level of privacy. For famous people, this amounts to establishing legal walls which severely limit the stories that can be told by the official press. There are cultural walls too, which results in a lot of open secrets in France that are never officially acknowledged.

The Public Face and the Tipping Point

Do we really need to know all the gory details? Perhaps we Anglo-American types have baser instincts for needing juicy gossip, because I suspect that if the French public were really clamouring for a story, the media would give it to them, particularly in an age when newspapers are going bankrupt on a weekly basis. But it is difficult to argue that salicious tales of seduction by the ruling elites are really essential information for the public at large.

Unless, that is, they reflect poorly on a leader’s judgment or character. Does personal biography matter? So asked the New York Times recently, in an interesting series of short opinion pieces that explored how much we really need to know about our elected officials. Should they be considered differently because they are famous? The general consensus is no. Should they be considered differently because they are powerful? Absolutely. Hypocrisy and corruptibility are certainly unattractive characteristics in figures of authority, and even I will admit to a healthy sense of schadenfreude when an undeserving hero is brought down by an enterprising journalist. The trouble arises when determining what information the public needs to judge a public figure’s accountability. What is the line between a public role and the private person? Are both real? Are both fair game for reporting?

An important duty of the media is to hold public figures to account for their actions. Sometimes they don’t go far enough. Fraser writes that in France:

…there a legal barrier between private and public lives — though when Mitterrand installed his parallel family in a state residence at taxpayers expense, the French media still observed obedient silence.

Then-President Mitterand’s tacit second family may not have been newsworthy, but there is evidently a tipping point, and one that has been reached recently: with the explosion of the DSK scandal in all its gory detail, particularly the charge of rape, a line was crossed and the media floodgates opened. Several prominent French women have since opened up about the sexual harassment they faced from politicians, colleagues, and others. It’s a dialogue that needs to be had, certainly, in order to advance women’s rights in France and break down one more barrier that prevents women from speaking up.

It is the job of the media to advance that debate, and perhaps they can do so most persuasively by bringing in anecdotal evidence of famous persons and their misdeeds. The joy and curse of leadership is the opportunity to set an example for others. Those in the public eye are often leaders, by virtue of their skills, hard work, or simply that others look to them for guidance. As such, they are not mere private citizens, and their actions – all of them – deserve scrutiny. Scandals show that leaders are human too, for better or worse, and knowing about them helps the public evaluate which leaders should stand and which should fall.

Democracy Rules! 10 Great Reasons to Vote

October 25, 2010

Voting is both a privilege and a duty. If you’re an apathetic type, consider the following 10 less commonly heard (and only slightly sanctimonious) reasons why you should take some time off work to mark an “X” on a ballot today.

1. You’re one of the lucky few in the world who is able to do so.

Accurate numbers on this score are not easy to come by, but this report from the Hoover Institution ranks about 60% of the world’s nations as democratic in the broadest sense, namely that they hold elections. The more stringent classification of a full “liberal democracy” includes electoral competition for power but also:

  • Freedom of belief, expression, organization, and demonstration
  • Protection from political terror and unjustified imprisonment
  • A rule of law under which all citizens are treated equally and due process is secure
  • Political independence and neutrality of the judiciary and of other institutions of “horizontal accountability” that check the abuse of power
  • An open, pluralistic civil society
  • Civilian control over the military

By this measure, the number of global democracies drops to only 37% of nations worldwide. Wikipedia tells us that this is less than 15% of the global population. When you think that (due to age) only about 60-70% of the population in a full democracy can actually vote, that number drops to under 10% of people living in the world today.

2. Voting makes you disproportionately powerful over your fellow citizens.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Modern Good Life, Part 2: History and its (Ab)Uses

March 24, 2010

My brother was a history major 10 years before I ever was, and I distinctly remember one weekend when he was visiting from university and asked me why we (as a people) study history. “Because we need to know about the past so we don’t make the same mistakes in the future,” I answered, quite proud of myself. (Not the most inspiring answer, but I was 8. Give me some credit here.) I think he was impressed too – little did he know I would grow up to write a nerdy history blog! Ha HA!

What I said then is not a novel idea: historians have long advocated the necessity of knowing about the past in order to inform our decisions in the present, and justifying those decisions once made. And everybody loves history, because they love the stories of overcoming great odds, or seeing how much things have changed (or, indeed, stayed the same), or thinking about how with one small shift things could have been very different.

But we tend to forget that our fascination with the past is unique. Other worldviews don’t see it this way. To the followers of many Eastern religions, and humans from most of human history, the past was just a series of fluctuations around the same human constant. I’ll go back to John Gray’s Straw Dogs to where he argues that attempting to make sense of history and giving history meaning that has the potential to inform the present and future is just a “Christian folly,” part of Christianity’s central, mistaken assumption that humans are different from other animals and can direct our lives. “History” was never before considered cumulative, or linear, but cyclical. It was not studied. It was not important. It was as much an unknown as the future. And it certainly did not direct anybody’s actions in the present.

There is a concept within the discipline of the “silent referent,” a particular narrative or idea that acts as the standard against which something else is measured. The narrative is usually the European, Marxist master narrative that charts the “progressive” transition from a feudal, mythical, communal past to a capitalist, secular, modern present. This narrative is celebratory, teleological, and complete. It wraps us all up in the confidence that we have trod a good path that has ended in a happy, modern present. [More on this in my next post.] The idea of the “silent referent” is often used in postcolonial history, most notably in a landmark book by Dipesh Chakrabarty titled Provincializing Europe. Chakrabarty argues that Indian history needs to escape from this master European narrative in which it was never a part and can never measure up.

We would all do well, I think, to take note of his caution. I’m not sure even we can measure up. We run the risk today of being so tied to this celebratory history we have told ourselves that we can barely function without referencing it, or live outside of its temporality. The silent referent of our lives today is the past.

Perhaps this is a simplistic statement. It is natural that the future we imagine for ourselves is a direct output of the past we have experienced. We can hardly imagine anything else. (This is why aliens in movies look like small, green people.) But our high regard for preserving our history – even if it is largely unconscious – is unique to our species, our culture, and our age. We live very historically contextualized, temporized lives. The title of this blog (elitist meta moment alert!) is an ironic note that even those who are trying to escape “time” or “history” by adding the prefix “post-“ to things are still temporizing themselves by saying that we are in the temporal phase that comes after it and thus reinforcing the idea that linear time is of paramount importance.

There are two traps in particular that we might fall into: overspecialization, and overgeneralization. The first can occur when we endlessly analyze, categorize, and pull apart the past in an attempt to preserve it for future generations. This kind of history in the end takes everything from the past as equally worth preserving, with no distinction (historians specializing in German shoemakers from Frankfurt between 1522 and 1523, take note!). Wallowing in the “good old days” is a recipe for disaster, especially because even the most objective historical narrative has a bias and an angle. Nietzsche wrote about this tendency in The Genealogy of Morals, warning that it can effectively prevent any innovation or aspiration for the future.

I have written before about the dangers of over-specialization: information overload leading to a societal inability to discern what is really important, and even paralysis by analysis – the inability to do anything for fear of breaking too strongly with the past. This is exactly what Nietzsche was talking about. Individuals become slaves to history and cannot act outside of or without it. Is this, perhaps, some of what plagues us today?

Maybe. I do suspect we as a population need to be wary of those who seek to ‘preserve’ a traditional way of life, or go back to it – and I don’t mean that we should stop the trend of going back to 80s fashion before it really takes off. I mean that factions arguing for “traditional family values” or established religion carry mistaken and destructive beliefs that contribute to our present woes.

However, I think we are more often slaves to the past in a different way, and another that Nietzsche considered problematic: overgeneralization. This is the kind of history that seeks out role models and teachers from the past when we feel unable to find them in the present. And it can, in excess, create typologies to serve as standard scripts for the present, which, as Herr N. wrote, “generalize and finally equate differences” and as such it does a disservice to the past in masking its historical (and geographic) particularities.  Think of how many times you’ve heard “the worst economic climate since the Depression” or “the largest deficit we’ve ever seen” in the past two years – is this contextualization helpful? Does it help to know that Hillarycare failed in 1993? It isn’t 1993. How many other unchecked assumptions about the past are we dragging around and using as props to justify not changing or trying something new?

History is an anchor, and a necessary one, but it can also be a deadweight that prevents us from moving on. Being tied to the past, afraid to spend more money because we have never spent so much before, unwilling to make bold moves in favour of merely speculating over our downfall as a society doesn’t serve us well because we have no script that prepares us for the present. History never repeats itself, except in overwhelmingly general terms.

There is much to learn from the past. We can find the human characteristics that will inspire us in the present – perseverance, ingenuity, humility, and many more – but not the right political or economic blueprint for the future we’re trying to build.

Previous post in this series: The Bias to Action

Next post in this series: The End of Progress