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COLUMN: Elders, knowledge and a post-truth moment

“You and I have memories

Longer than the road that stretches out ahead.”

                                                                     -- The Beatles, Two of Us

Age and its discontents

I begin the column with a line from a Beatles’ song, because it describes the situation for someone of my age, and for my peers. We have lived longer now, than we have left of life ahead.

This is a perspective not shared with the majority of people on earth.

Elders once held a guaranteed place of honour in their societies, at least until they were burdens on their community, and their memories and knowledge were commonly held to be accumulated wisdom that their younger tribal members needed, and even treasured. That ship has sailed, and there is no guarantee now that an elder will be assured of respect in modern societies.

The reasons elders are not so revered now are various. One is the simple fact that our sources of wisdom do not now depend on word of mouth, which was true for millennia in human history. In present circumstances of technology, information can be learned through many media other than listening to an elder speak. Books preserve knowledge, perhaps wisdom, and to the ubiquitous books in the public libraries and retail stores of rich nations, we have added a plethora of other data-recording technologies.

Add to that reason the manifest fact that the post-modern world changes so quickly, that what was solid fact and valuable information for one generation can so easily become irrelevant and doubtful in a succeeding period. “There is nothing so old as yesterday’s news.” That small proverb is apparently true now for the once-vaunted wisdom of the elderly.

What can I tell my grandchildren that will help them in the strange new world of the 21st century? The lessons about character and human behaviour that I once believed I have to pass along, might not make much sense as humans change rapidly under new forces and influences of the economy, culture, and biological manipulation of the human being.

Endless life

Yuval Harari, the celebrity historian, predicts that homo sapiens will be unrecognizable in a hundred years; we live in a permanent revolution, according to his analysis, empowered by science and capitalism. Eugenics and immortality maybe at hand, he says.

Humans could easily possess a lifespan of centuries; there is no biological reason why science cannot break the ceiling of human longevity, averaging around 90 in present circumstances, Harari assures readers. In that future, the meaning of the word “elder” loses the significance it has had until now. Whether or not human consciousness, as it has evolved in the brains homo sapiens was endowed with at our origins, will meet the challenge of lives that last centuries, is an open question.

Personally, I find wisdom in the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien, who imagined the race of immortal Elves with a consciousness entirely alien to that of humans. Elves were created by Eru Iluvatar, the One, to live forever, and Humankind was not; when humans attempted to wrest immortality from elves by conquest, Eru intervened. It was never part of the design of humans to live forever, and our fear of death is an illness that humans could transcend, in the Tolkien mythos. I align with that vision. Immortality is not for us, for good reason.

Harari, on the other hand, is quite at ease with projects of scientists working to make immortality real.

Truth and Fact are not what they used to be

What is useful (or wise) information that one person can impart to another?

My thinking on this topic has been turned in a particular direction by a penetrating essay in Atlantic magazine, the September 2017 issue. The author is Kurt Andersen, and the essay in the journal is a precis of his book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. A 500-year History.

Andersen, born in 1954, is an age-peer of mine, and his interest in cultural history puts us in a certain cohort. His study of American history is in support of his thesis that the Trumpian moment in the present, a moment when truth and fact, falsehood and fakery are matters of debate in a unique way, has been a long time developing throughout past generations.

He identifies two major sources for the decline in how Americans understand reality, how the citizens of the only superpower no longer have any common measure of what is real, what is true, what is proven, what is fact. The first explanation is cultural: something profound was altered in the American cultural landscape and mentality during the 1960’s and early ‘70’s, he argues. He makes his points cogently, lucidly and persuasively in the essay, and he substantiates his arguments more thoroughly in his book.

The exceptional American

If it is mostly the USA where this kind of peculiar and unprecedented notion of the Real is in force, the signs that other postmodern wealthy Western nations are tending in the same direction are present now. I know I encounter this kind of thinking every day in Nelson, the new-age Mecca of the Kootenays.

To choose one’s reality has become another “right” of Americans, the most-favoured and unique people in history, Andersen is saying. He traces the idea of Americans’ special place in history (“exceptionalism”) to the era of the founders of the republic and the Constitution, noting how the ethos of the Enlightenment in which Jefferson lived had features that both contradict and encourage the strange new twenty-first world of chosen personal realities and solipsist relative truths.

A reader who knows nothing about the cultural changes of the 1960’s is not going to be able to keep up with Andersen on all points, but a person of my age is not challenged much by his references to events of the 1960’s because that time and those cultural referents are the fabric of my own childhood and teens and twenties. Only someone of my generation could write this essay. Such a reader will recognize parts of their own life story there.

The other source for Americans’ inability to distinguish the real from the unreal is a technological change, not a cultural one: the Internet and the world-wide-web, enabling sharing of data at a speed and on a scale unimaginable only a generation ago. Everyone can find someone who will listen to their version of truth, and every truth can find a cohort of adherents.

The internet recognizes no authority to separate truth from fantasy, and the reality created by online communities of bloggers and websites, fantastic stories that are believed, conspiracy theories that are unfalsifiable, is a consensus reality. One can believe in any reality when there are obviously many like-minded people out there in cyberspace.

To sum up, Andersen says that the Sixties’ ethos taught a radically-different notion of what is real: Do your own thing. Find your own reality. Everything is relative. Your truth and my truth need not be the same and neither of us is wrong, is the gist of how modern American minds understand reality today, Andersen argues.

Elders’ stories and the Story of human history

As a teacher of history for elders in the Learning in Retirement program at a local college, I tell my students that our place in historic times now gives each elder a motive for the study of history. In other words, we have lived over fifty years, experienced the making of history in the news stories of the days we have lived, and we have formed some notion about how our lives are part of a large story called History.

I am the one person in the classroom with the professional education and skills learned in the academic discipline of History, yet that does not make me more certain of how our lives fit into the history of our times, I tell them. It only gives me a professional perspective on history, and a larger data bank and longer historical view.

At the end of November, my class and I were discussing the Scientific Revolution. I made the point that in our youth, in the 1950’s, the cultural valuation of Science was very high, and whatever had the stamp of scientific proof was held to be worthy of our faith.

I outlined to my class Andersen’s thesis about the devaluation of science and the doubt as to what is true and real by the former standards of our culture. I learned that some of my students do not have faith in the scientific evidence that vaccines have worked to eliminate epidemics in our lifetimes, of maladies like tuberculosis, smallpox, and polio. I heard the phrase “it’s all relative,” and “if you believe one thing and I believe something else, that’s okay. You can have your truth, I can have mine.”

Reality is a choice, like a religious doctrine or preferred way of life. This is the landscape Andersen describes and I recognize around me.

Why learn History from a credentialed historian?

Now, I ask myself, if the credibility of scientists is in question for matters such as vaccines, the moon landing, prehistory, or climate change, then the credibility of a professional historian is surely not going to amount to much.

Why would a student take my word for it when I assert something to be a historical fact? Why should a student not choose to believe Zechariah Sitchin that extraterrestrials visited earth and enabled humans to get civilization under way in Sumeria and Egypt?

No historian of any reputation in the “international community of scholars of history” would endorse Sitchin’s hypothesis. But anyone can question the objectivity of historians. They might be keeping a the true history a secret from the masses, they might be profiting from knowing facts that they withhold from the masses, or they might simply be prejudiced against explanations that are antiscientific, magical and esoteric.

Historians are just one more category of experts that we can reject, as we reject the advice of Western doctors and scientists.

I am aware of websites devoted to promoting a view that the profession of academic historians is suspect, as dubious in its claim to be telling the objective truth as scientists who claim they tell the truth about vaccines. On such websites as Gaia, one can see arguments against the orthodox history of ancient Egypt and Sumeria, of Stonehenge or ancient America. The websites imply historians do not want the truth of history to be revealed because the real, true history challenges vested interests, established careers, and/ or creates doubts in the public about the veracity of authorities in university or government.

In regard to claims that extraterrestrials were the origin of civilization on earth, it is argued that if people knew about the ET’s, then the people would demand to know all sorts of supressed information about scientific experiments or technologies kept secret from us by untrustworthy men in power. It is true, as Andersen says in his essay, the internet empowers conspiracists in a manner unimaginable mere decades ago.

The personal perspective

I am not professionally engaged in the battle against nonsense, irrationality and magical thinking as an historian – because I have retired. If I were still teaching history or practicing as a reporter, I would have to fight this tide Andersen describes in the arenas of public schools, university, and journalism.

The prospect of our public discourse losing touch with verifiable reality is disturbing to me as a citizen and a conscious individual, but I am not quite so involved in the war against irrational, ignorant, bizarre denials of reality as those who still work in education and journalism.

Still, the downgrading of fact and truth that Andersen lucidly describes in our new social reality, disturbs me. The particular undervaluation of how scholars ascertain truths about human history is most pertinent to my own life.

The return of occult truths and odd superstitions

Science was supposed, when I was young, to have driven superstition out of our minds. Astrology, alchemy, kabbalah, numerology, Tarot cartomancy and a host of other “pseudo-sciences” handed down to us from the time of ancient Mesopotamia, the classical era and the medieval period, to say nothing of traditions imported from India and China, were declared out of fashion and not credible for Western humanity.

Even religious belief was supposed to be disproved by scientific fact; a battle between the two forms of thinking has marked Western history since the Enlightenment. But human consciousness, it turns out, does not operate in linear, rational ways, much to the chagrin of intellectuals and scientists of the West.

The question of belief in studies such as astrology, Tarot, or alchemy touches on my personal life, for my daughter is committed to what she calls Wiccan religion and is a reader of Tarot cards. Her husband is deeply into esoteric lore such as kabbalah and alchemy. All around me in Nelson people are variously credulous about karmic law and the I Ching, Taoism and astrology, and so forth. I cannot be forever telling my friends that their beliefs are wrong.

No one can live in today’s pluralist culture and not encounter this blend of multitudes of old and new, Western and Asian, cultural artifacts. It is our present reality, made all the more potent by the marketplace where products and services founded upon such occult practices are offered. I am certain every reader will know at least one person who offers lessons, sells products, or practices esoteric crafts as a means of earning a living. One does not choose friendships on the basis of whether a friend has superstitions or not.

It was the cultural evolutions and gyrations of the 1960’s that brought a lot of this medievalist and superstitious corpus of “knowledge” back into vogue. Who cannot recite the words of the song Age of Aquarius?

Confronting the unbelievable

I am willing to suspend judgement of people who need the comfort that the occult and esoteric provide for their lives. Religion is a private matter in my view, and so too are the practices I have outlined. The refusal of vaccines for children is a more serious affair, and yet I am not inclined to turn to the force of law to make parents conform to scientific reality. Education is still the best instrument for turning the tide of wrong conclusions.

Clearly, education may not make any inroad into cultural systems of belief. My daughter has to be a loyal member of her tribe in a community of belief where vaccinations are shunned, and that cultural force is greater than the force of science, at present. Perhaps the tide will turn in my lifetime, perhaps not. A new epidemic of disease, when a vaccine is discovered but large numbers refuse it, is a definite possibility in my lifetime, I am sure.

A final observation: belief in nature spirits, fairies, pagan deities, and all the litany of non-scientifically imagined beings, may enrage the most ardent materialist, and at very least affront the person who respects rational thinking. I would only say to the most-agitated among the opponents of esoteric belief, scientific materialism has had a very uneven historical record for benefitting humanity. Our sciences and technologies have always been subject to the forces of politics and economics.

The world we inhabit, with all the crises hanging over us, most notably the environmental ones, are the consequence of using technology for human ends with too little knowledge of the damages. Nuclear physics has given us weapons we are not wise enough to own, in my opinion. One cannot hold up science as an absolute standard of truth. It has harmed us too many ways to claim our respect. That is not the fault of science as an ideal but the practice has been dismal. A child with a flame-thrower in hand is the apt imagery for humanity and its technology.

Conclusion: the Elders and Leaders

Being an elder is not a ticket to being a leader in our society, no matter that many of the world’s leaders are old men. The power of leaders has not come to them with age but with mastery of the systems of power and economy in which they have operated. Yes, old men sit atop the pyramids of power, but there is nothing necessarily positive in the fact of their advanced age. They will not be wise just because they are old.

But we used to count on leaders being in touch with a reality we shared, and the point of Andersen’s book is that at present America is led by a man who does not share a reality that rational people understand. Trump is leader at a moment when North Korea has a younger man as autocrat, who apparently is not acting rationally in face of terrible consequences if he uses his weapons. It is a horrendous moment indeed when two such leaders are playing politics.

My personal hope has been that there is still some cultural wisdom in Korea’s neighbour, China, where an ancient civilization has flourished for many centuries, and produced classics of political philosophy before Mao and his little red book. (One suspects that it is now a little-read book.) Perhaps there is still sufficient wisdom, in the patriarchal gerontocracy ruling China through the Party, that some way to restrain Kim Il Jong will be attempted.

For those of us who are old folk, observing a world in which we have less power than in our primes, our role is not so different from roles in the past. Despite the insane speed of global change today, we still have influence through our relationships. We can effect some contribution to social and political life in our communities by our effects on the younger people who have authority in business, governance, and culture. That is as much as I can see for my own role, as one without power in those spheres.

One certain guide for my conduct is not to let the irrationalism of Trumpian post-truth thinking become the norm. I will battle it where I can, most often by teaching history. Not only with factual argument pitched to the intellect, but to emotional and spiritual aspects too. An arid intellectualism is not the way forward either.

The most important question to ask your opponent when engaging in an argument now, according to Charles Eisenstein: “What does it feel like to be you?” That is as much wisdom as I know today.