No, I’m not talking about writing. I wish I were. It is way safer. And it doesn’t make me wake up screaming and pummeling the pillow with the fist of death. (We go through pillows like you wouldn’t believe it.)
I’m talking about how we experience history – not just what we think of as “history” but also what we think of as personal history – and what really makes humans tick, which is not real history – i.e. what they’ve experienced – but convincing narration.
I used to have near eidetic memory – I didn’t know this, until my husband informed me of it. To me it was just memory – until I gave myself severe concussion thirteen years ago. What I mean is that it was a total puzzle to me why people needed memo pads or calendars, and most people, even my friends, annoyed me by telling me the same story more than once or by engaging in what I called “rewriting history.”
That last part I now understand – having looked at life from both sides now, as it were – is often not intentional. In fact, I have to tell you that I was considerably more neurotic when I could remember everything in sharp relief and unblinblinking. In fact, I had to remember everything in sharp relief and unblinking. This meant I couldn’t soften the edges of my own mistakes, or attribute to myself less obnoxious motives than what had operated at the real time, and definitely there wasn’t room for the comforting “I meant to mess that shot, ah ah” even ten years down the road.
This meant I lived with the unflinching memory of my own short comings. I’ve come to think much more highly of myself now that my past sort of blurs together. But I also find myself clustering events according to what I now believe were logical impulses and/or changing what I was thinking at the time to a more flattering or less culpable form of twerpitude. What I mean is if I’m faced with something written at that time, I often realize my memory is way too kind to myself.
Most humans are like this, and therefore most humans’ internal narration of the past is flawed in a way that allows them to live with themselves – it also is what really drives them. The driving motor of the world is NOT what really happened but what the most convincing and pleasing narration tells us happened.
My mom was the keeper of the narration in the household, and it drove me bananas in terms of “rewriting history” which, of course, at the time, I thought was intentional, but I now see it was notional, because I do it with my own kids. “One of the kids used to like such and such, now which one? – Oh, yes, it must have been Robert because—”
One of the things that my mom annoyed me madly about was saying that when I was little I used to get car sick. This drove me bananas. Even now, as an adult, I’ve got car sick exactly three times, two aggravated by lack of sleep and having coffee on an empty stomach, and one after having drunk a great deal too much (which for me is an amazing quantity. No, trust me.)
But as a kid, the fact my brother got car sick and I didn’t got interpreted – as just about everything in which we differed – as a badge of adulthood on his part. I did everything including try to unfocus my eyes to make myself sick and/ or hit my head against things. It didn’t work.
However my mom says – and is convinced of – I made our early car trips unbearable because they had to stop all the time for me to be car sick. This makes perfect sense if you factor in the biases: one of her kids got car sick. My brother was older and male. I was female and very sickly anyway. So it must be me. It fits the narration better than the truth does, so it has become part of the myth, and other people in the family (though of course not my brother!) believe it and refer to it as though it happened. They think my brother and I are insane for insisting otherwise.
This was my first exposure to how the power of the myth that fits is what shapes people’s beliefs of what happened, more than reality which they experienced at least peripherally (i.e. – they were there at the time).
Later I experienced this in funnier ways. There was a lady who did the turn of pre-school/kindergarten teacher in the village – though not really, because she taught reading, writing and arithmetic, to kids as young as three, and yep, it was strictly disciplined. What had happened was that the government had got shirty about ages of going into school and there were official birth certificates and everything, beyond the mere “Well, I reckon my little Antonio must be about seven, because he was born three years before the great storm which brought down the oak tree” – which was normal in my dad’s time. Well, the villagers were used to their kids — those of families thus inclined – going to school when the parents thought they were ready to read and cypher, and found it inconvenient to prolong early childhood because the government said so. So at three or four, or when we started to show an interest in knowing how to do things, they would pack us off and send us to Dona Maria, who lived in a cottage at the edge of the village and who was the remnant of the pre-official schooling in the region. And then at six or seven or whenever they were allowed (being born in November, I couldn’t go till seven) they packed us off to “official” school. (Some of the reason to teach you earlier was that many of the farmers needed their kids to start manning the selling of produce and dairy at an early age, and to be able to keep records. The same with women who worked at home bringing their daughters into the job by ten or so – when they left fourth grade. Childhood was considered an uneeded luxury for most of the village, even if I got to have a rather idyllic Tom-Sawyerish one.)
I didn’t learn Dona Maria’s history till much later but it would be familiar to anyone who reads regencies – though of course it took place at least a hundred years after. – She was a young woman of “good families” who fell for a “rake” probably a married one, and ran away with him… to this nowhere village, where he bought her a cottage and established her as his “convenient” until he got tired of her. At which point she traded on the fact that she knew how to read and write – rather well – and how to teach fine work – embroidery, lace, crochet – to the girls in the village, and made a very meager living from this (I mean, half the time she was paid in potatoes or leftovers. She liked having my family in, because we had “real jobs” outside the village and paid in cash.) [I’m not sure, by the way, how it slates with my own great aunt who was schoolmistress before her, quitting the business. I suspect my aunt left it in her forties or so, when her husband was finally doing well enough that she didn’t NEED to teach. She taught my dad who is now eighty, but my aunt had to be in her forties or later because she was much older than my grandmother –and I’m going to guess Dona Maria was twenty or thirty years older than my dad, because she died in her eighties, about twenty five years ago. As an example of history no one thought it important to tell me, I can’t be sure, but I’m going to guess Dona Maria stepped into “village schoolmistress” when aunt Laura either decided it wasn’t worth it, or had already retired.] Anyway, the old lady died respected and respectable in her eighties twenty five years ago. BUT before she died, I met her on the street a year or so after I got married – that this hadn’t happened in about 20 years or so is actually explainable as she lived mostly in the upper village and my parents’ house is in the lower village, compounded by the fact that she used to work all day, and I wasn’t out in the evening. She called me over, very excited to see me, and there was one of those awkward conversations old teachers have with you (which considering she brought me to grandma after a few months and told grandma to teach me herself, could get VERY awkard, trust me on this.) Weirdly, she didn’t mention my decidedly checkered past, and instead went into how she remembered my brother and my cousin Natalia and I “all being little together” and how we used to play around the village. Guys, my cousin is 14 years older than I, my brother is 9 years older than I. Even they didn’t “play” as such together. They hung out a lot as teens, but that’s not the same. And the idea of the three of us (all three bookish, though my cousin and I had broad streaks of hellion) gamboling through the fields of the village like puppies could only occur to someone who no longer remembered us but who fit us somewhere in her own myth.
So, what does this have to do with anything?
Well, this is far more complex when it comes to national myths. And part of the national myth they’re trying to institute has failed, but another is taking remarkable hold, and it worries me, because I’ve seen this play before.
It was easier to establish a national myth back when there were no dissenting voices, but just the main stream. So, for instance, when Clinton was elected, I watched the Reagan years being turned into a decade of greed, when working people went in rags, while the millionaires sipped champagne off street urchin’s belly buttons. Or something.
I was there. I lived through it. The eighties were more “the decade when we shut up and went back to work.” Yes, there were excesses, but nothing to compare to the 90s. Mostly, there was renewed faith in shutting up, taking baths and going to work. And it worked.
So did the myth making. Suddenly it was all about “caring” and “caring” was going to get us out of the hole (!) caused by the “decade of greed” (and not by the George H. W. Bush tax increase.)
That type of myth is not taking hold as well – they’re trying, and you can see it with the “Summer of recovery.” The MSM – even those you wouldn’t expect. Yes, I’m looking at you WSJ – all jumped in the first year, and the second and the third, and are still talking like “of course we’re in a recovery.” But you listen to conversations in line at the grocery store. No one is buying it.
OTOH… OTOH it’s taking hold in a weird way in wonkish cycles. I’m so tired of hearing nonsense like “in real terms middle class salaries haven’t increased in 30 years.” There’s lies, damn lies and statistics. What are they considered “middle class”? Because in thirty years I’ve seen that change, and besides it wasn’t that clear to begin with. Are retail clerks middle class? Retail managers? Garage mechanics? Computer programmers?
It’s pretty hard to track that over a drastic tech change, which we’ve undergone. Look at it this way – when Dan started out in computers (programming in machine language, which he learned when it became clear that the only path for a mathematician was academia and that he was sick of college) it was a pioneering field, even though it was twenty years old or so. If we met someone and he told them what he did (in Charlotte, NC, granted) he got the “Oh, you’re one of them. The fad will pass.” Now, I’d say most of the “middle class” – skilled and semi-skilled — works with computers in some capacity.
Retail clerks and managers can only be considered middle class on a case by case basis. Because what happened is that what is “middle” shifted. There are very few manual laborers and factory workers, which I assumed were “working class” thirty years ago. Instead, most retail and low-level service has fallen to “working class.” And since their salaries have fallen in real terms (My friends in retail make now what they made 30 years ago. Blame out of control low-skill immigration) that actually means that if you count them as middle class, middle class “real salaries” have fallen.
But that’s not what most people think of when they read “middle class.” They think programmers and teachers, writers and specialized repairmen. And for those – I’ve been there, okay – salaries have risen IN REAL TERMS until about 2008 when they have been falling – again in real terms – at an amazing clip due to the inflation we’re told we don’t have.
Why this concerns me – even smart people who think for themselves are falling for this. It’s easier to lie at a distance and with statistics. It’s easier for people to go “Oh, well, it seemed like the eighties were so much fun, but I guess some people, over there, were really starving and I didn’t see it.” And debt wonks, who don’t like the growth of our debt (I don’t either) over the last thirty years, are all too eager to believe this nonsense. No, guys, we made a lot. We just spent a lot more. However, most of it was just flushed away, because that’s what government does with money.
Why this is important – because I’m seeing another myth fall neatly into place. I’ve caught whispers of it. It’s called the “This is bad, but ten years ago was much worse.” This isn’t true, it isn’t true in any way that doesn’t involve the kidnapping, handcuffing and rape of statistical science. And it’s not being said out loud yet, but it’s whispered. That way in another two or three years, as collective memory fades, it can be brought out as “everyone knows” and you’ll remember the whispers… And it will seem plausible.
If I sound like I’m crazy because I think someone is coordinating this, remember Journolist. Of course someone is. A lot of someone’s. And it doesn’t need to be a central directive, just the human drive to make us look good to ourselves and a faulty memory. If these people supported the most economically disastrous regime this country has ever seen, they’d be ashamed. Fortunately they don’t need to be. They can tell themselves “it was worse before.”
I’ve seen this happen in Europe year by year whenever socialists are in power. It was always worse before. Even when it wasn’t. But the majority of people don’t remember and they want a “rational” or at least “inspiring” narration and “we’re repairing the mess we inherited” is inspiring. “We’re pissing fifty years of accumulated capital and international relations away” isn’t.
This is why in socialist countries, you always know what the future will hold. It’s the past that keeps changing. And we’ve always been at war with Eurosia. And dear leader has the rudder firmly in his hands, as he pilots us to the bright future of Utopia.