“The only trouble is, one thing remains with you. Somewhere you picked it up so hard that you can’t shake the idea ‘liberal’ means good and ‘reactionary’ means evil. That’s your frame of reference, two words. That’s why you don’t know a damn thing.” -The General, The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
“The study of the past with one eye upon the present is the source of all sins and sophistries in history. It is the essence of what we mean by the word “unhistorical”.” The Whig Interpretation of History by Herbert Butterfield
It’s hard to get myself to care about the most fashionable modern activist cause. I don’t think that’s a good thing, but I’ll try to explain why it might not be bad.
Currently there is political tension for the North Dakota access pipeline. An oil pipeline is being built, Natives are protesting it, and as a result many are being arrested. These events always map to a view on historical justice, morality, and how it weaves through history and is attributed to past groups and their modern counterparts. It’s easy to build a shared story that traces these roots back over time. When you start to dig, the story falls apart. History is complex.
All of our ancestors did horrible things, many suffered. Trying to reconstruct the score-card of history and balance the accounting today is pointless. Some people conquered others, and the world continues. The conquered people sometimes are all killed, assimilate, dissipate, or linger. Looking back through history and thinking “that was a bad thing your ancestors did” is meaningless. We’re all only a few generations removed from atrocity.
I’m not an expert on Native American history, but the rosy image of a peaceful pre-Columbus America is absurd. The only real difference was the Europeans had the power and a sort of accidental biological-warfare WMD to unilaterally take the lands. Else the enslavement, rape, and murder, of intra-tribe conflict was commonplace. The state of nature was always hellish, the European men probably weren’t morally worse.
The same thing is going on now in Syria. Assad’s forces have overseen atrocities and attacks on his own people. If he were to fall the strongest prediction is Islamists would take over. I’m not going to guess who would be worse, but when both counterfactual are horrible, how do you evaluate the situation?
A counter-argument is that not knowing the counterfactual isn’t a sufficient argument for not trying to do something, such as topple Assad’s regime. And that these abstractions conveniently ignore more concrete examples, such as credible examples of police brutality on Native tribes.
The first point is fair, but it’s empirical. I would like to see way way less theorizing on what we ought to do, and more concrete predictions. Human rights groups shouldn’t try to operate on first principles, but instead on empirical methods. Given a set of resources, whether monetary or political capital, what are the best returns we can hope to achieve? With what probability do we expect interfering in the middle east will improve a key set of measurable outcomes? If this methodology had been followed over the past few decades we could ask questions of our past predictions data.
The second point is also fair, and I have no problem at all recognizing these issues. Individually they are awful, and signal that the dynamic between authority, civilian, and capital/property in the US could be better optimized. My point is that we should be scientific in these issues rather than accepting the party line of some specific conception of history. The reason the native American story is more popular than anything else going on in the US–and there are always a lot of things going on that aren’t reported–is because it confirms a model of the world that is built around supporting oppressed minorities.
One view of the world is that this is very important, as it highlights a long-standing persecution or oppression of native tribes, and standing up for them and devoting your energy to this cause is the morally just thing to do.
My own view is that these causes are cherry-picked out because they confirm the biases of a base set of models that are found to be the most efficient at uniting a series of groups together. A series of groups who in combination constitute a rough 50%+1 cross-section of the US voting population. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s the way collective action algorithms try to solve democracy. But it is why I don’t feel that same sense of outrage or deep concern.
The collective action algorithms have no reason to paint a representative picture of reality. They exist only to optimize political power, which is why they find events that support the model of the world, build outrage, and generate political action for the in-group. The ‘other side’ is focusing on instances of illegal immigrants killing American citizens. More boring issues that don’t intersect with identity groups or voting blocks are ignored. How many lives could be saved with a few common sense changes to organ donation policy? That’s boring.
The problem though is this all gets messy and requires thinking about how we individually contribute to aggregate political algorithms, thinking about how they would run in a counter-factual world, and knowing enough about what is happening in the world by spending an incredible amount of time reading boring news and history to recognize when the causes that we are supposed to care about are instead fitting within a pattern of politically convenient confirmation bias.
When people are emotionally invested in a cause, excitable, angry, and pumped up to fight for justice, it’s sort of awkward, and even impolite, trying to say:
“Yes, that issue does have aspects that are awful and unacceptable, such as too much police abuse against the tribe. But it was generated by a model that is biased towards supporting a specific view of history, which itself implies a policy set that tries to fix the past by re-weighting benefits in the present.
We should instead focus on a model with a view of historiography that takes into account the fact that there is no reason to believe the counter-factual world where the ancestors of modern oppressed minorities had won the game of rapid technological advancement, and instead focus on a universal set of standards free from overtly distinct attachments to past identities.
While this specific circumstance is bad, it provides really low returns on investment. If we actually cared about human suffering, there are about a thousand other non-partisan issues with already established solution concepts that are waiting to be tested. That’s why I don’t find myself particularly interested in helping out or caring about this specific issue, and would rather we work to find a model of the world that is less biased in the causes we should devote our energy towards.”
That’s hard though. It’s slightly easier to instead build up the opposite viewpoint in support of Ann Coulter, after all, there are more than enough crimes committed against whites by illegal immigrants to cherry-pick a compelling counter narrative. In the end though, it’s not at all scientific. It’s a farce.