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I Really Hate Flu Season

with 3 comments

Not that I have the flu, mind you.   I’m told on good authority that I  have something called a “sub flu,” which gives flu-like symptoms but is not actually the flu, and therefore my flu shot has been no good to me whatsoever.  It’s at times like these that I begin to think that no matter how much I dislike Florida, I ought to move there.  At least I wouldn’t be cold on top of having one.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking, sor of, when I haven’t just been falling over like a tree and sleeping for hours at a time, and what I’ve been thinking about is that modernity has presented a distinct problem for human beings and their narratives.

In a world with the communications systems of ancient  Rome, for instance, a people could have their narrative and have it virtually unchallenged.   They would be aware of other cultures and other narratives, but they wouldn’t have to confront them on any regular basis.

In modern societies, though, we are all hit with contradictory narratives every day, and we don’t so much pick and choose between them–although we do a little of that–as assimilate what we see sort of willy-nilly.  But no matter how much we know or see of those other narratives, we know them only partially, and we’re no better at really understanding the differences between people, cultures and habits of mind than the Romans were.

I don’t think fiction provides us with narratives.  I think it rather embodies narratives already in the culture around us.   And most people need more than one narrative at a time–a personal one, surely, and one for their country, and one for the world at large. 

The problems come, I think, when one of these narratives will not fit with the others, when we find it impossible to embed ourselves in an explanatory framework that actually explains anything.

Narratives are not wholly self-delusional.  They do and will come in contact with reality, and that means they will sometimes run into it like a car hitting a brick wall.  This is what has happened to a large segment of the Islamic “community.”   Their metanarrative says that Islam is the only true religion and Muslims are destined by God to rule over the earth.  Their reality says that the people who rule the earth are not only not Muslims, but opposed to Islam on so many points they’re almost anti-Muslim.

People do very odd things when their narratives hit that brick wall, and not only things on the scale of suicide bombings. 

Consider the rash of hoax “hate crimes” that occured across the country a couple of years ago, including one where a professor in the Midwest who claimed to have been set upon by a raging Christian fundamentalist because he’d (the professor) said negative things about Christianity on the  Internet. 

After all, if your metanarrative says that you are surrounded by people who are violent and malicious and want to kill you because you uphold Truth and  Right and Reason, and then these people don’t do anything to you  at all, and don’t do anything to anybody that you can see–what does it take for you to go on believing in your metanarrative?

Narratives provide our lives with meaning, and we cannot live without meaning.   What’s more, narratives provide us with self-respect, with the ideas that make it possible for us to look in the mirror and affirm that we are good people.  If our narratives so flagrantly contradict reality that those contradictions cannot be ignored, we’re in big trouble.

One of the ways in which people protect their narratives from reality is to restrict their contact with other people, as far as possible, to  th ose people who accept their narrative.  Conservatives watch Fox News but not MSNBC, read The Weekly Standard but not The Nation.  Atheists read Free  Inquiry and books by Paul Kurtz, but nothing by Augustine or Alvin Plantinga.

But the problem remains–there is no way to restrict our contact with other narraties, not in this technological society, not now.  And that means that we are constantly being threatened by people and events that could easily destroy our narratives entirely.

It’s this–this threat to narratives–that I think is the real explanation for the total insanity of so much in US politics recently. 

We used to be able to disagree with each other and leave it at that, but that is no longer possible for many people on either side of the political divide.

Republicans started out screaming that the Clintons had had Vince Foster murdered and then responded to Obama by calling him a Socialist, a Communist, and–in the case of one  Glenn Beck–comparing him to Hitler. 

And that’s okay, in a way, because liberals spent the Bush administration comparing W. to Hitler, calling him a fascist, and demanding he be tried for “war crimes” becuase he’d sanctioned “torture.’

And those people are back, by the way, now that  Obama is in office.  Fortunatly, the Obama people actually seem to have more sense.

But these are not political disagreements we’re witnssing, they’re the class of narraitives.   The two sides do not see the world and what is important in it in the same way, and one of those ways will, eventually, fall by the wayside and be overtaken by the other. 

The danger of the Bush administration was not that it was evil and totalitarian–it was neither, although I didn’t like it much–but that it portended a world in which that paradigm becomes predominant and the other kind is marginalized.

The danger of the Obama administration is not that it’s evil and totalitarian, but that the man’s sweeping victory seemed to indicate a sea change in the attitudes of the  American public, suddenly marginalizing conservative ideas and beliefs and making them irrelevant to the wider society.

The good news is that the majority of the American public seems to be on neither side.  I think Obama’s biggest selling point was his repeated assertion that there are not liberal Americans or conservative Americans, but just Americans.  The United States actually has a pretty good metanarrative that is servicable for people of many different faiths and philosophies, and it’s one of the better omens of the future that a majority of people want that one and not one of the two more partisan ones that have taken over so much of our discourse in the past few years.

It’s of course never been the case that every single American has been able to adopt the American metanarrative as her own–that would be impossible with so many other options on offer-but the emergene of two large and vocal minorities both of whom reject it in favor of narratives that are considerably less congruent with reality is an interesting circumstance, and one  I don’t know I’m able to solve. 

If I’d have to make my best guess, I’d say that the majority of the militantly “evangelical” wing of the Republican party only says it believs in God.  It is apparently unable to maintain that belief in a society that does not support it both officially and unofficially. 

I’d say the view from the other side is similar.  There are some atheists who, like me, essentially just grew up with atheism.  We never believed in God to begin with, and so we don’t now, and it’s no big deal.

A large part of the atheist movement, however, is made up of converts, and like all converts they tend to be far more fanatical than the average. People like me have n o problem with calling the December concert the “Christmas Concert.”  People who have left what were once strong attachments to faith often do, and  I do think that that is, in part at least, a result of the fact that they’re not really 100% sure they’re right.  I knew a man on the Internet for a while who would get absolutely hysterical if you even suggested that you thought Jesus Christ might have been an historical person–if it was even possible for  Jesus to exist, this man seemed to be coninced he was going to hell.

I have no idea what we’re supposed to do with all this.  The Founding Fathers thought that some things–religions and personal philosophies, certainly–would be best handled by keeping them private and out of the public areas of contention.   There is no way for us to keep any of these things private any longer, because just turning on the televisoin set means that we will be assaulted by ideas that oppose ours.

On one level this is the good news–an awful lot of creativity is born of this kind of friction–but on a personal level, for many people, it can be profoundly psychologically destabilizing.  Even small challenges to our personal narratives can be that.

I have no idea what we’re supposed to do about any of this.   At the moment, my chief desire is to make some chicken broth and go watch Matilda, which is what I do when  I’m too out of it to function. 

With any luck, I’ll be feeling more human tomorrow.

And the cats will stop fighting me for the ice cream.

Written by janeh

February 8th, 2009 at 9:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'I Really Hate Flu Season'

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  1. The doctor I saw as a child used to insist irritatedly that his patients didn’t have the ‘flu’, they just had the common cold – which baffled me until it was explained, because EVERYONE called those illnesses ‘flu’. I was a frequent sufferer from whatever it was, although the frequency and severity dropped after I stopped teaching. I’m not sure if that was because I was exposed to fewer people and therefore fewer germs, because my stress level went down and my immune system perked up, or for some other reason. I’m almost recovered; well, totally recovered except for the cough, from this winter’s fairly mild attack. It’s only been a month or so. I don’t use broth. I sip constantly on soft drinks or water, add aspirin and cough syrup as needed, and, if I must eat something, make some Cambell’s tomato soup with crackers, which I never eat at any other time. You’d think that regimen would result in drastic weight loss, but it never seems to.

    And my cat contributes to my cure by curling up on my chest with his fur sticking up my nose.

    I’ve sometimes wasted a bit of time trying to come up with a parallel to: More papist than the Pope; More royalist than the King; More atheist than the….

    I can’t think of anything suitably generic and appropriate. But yes, it does seem sometimes that when people adopt a new view, some of them go through a period of being extremely defensive of their new position and obsessively angry about the old one.

    This mental process works on the very personal level too. Sometimes people can be mortally offended by a reference to an unhappy marriage, having managed to convince themselves otherwise – or come up with a narrative describing a happy marriage ended only by death. It’s easy to simply dismiss this sort of thing as denial, which might in fact play some part in it. But it’s also a choice in a way, at least as much a choice as the decision to believe that Democrats are socialists or Republicans are fascists. In each case, you start with the conclusion and pick your evidence, although I think few people realize that they are doing so – or do so rationally.

    I think sometimes people have difficulty agreeing to disagree. First of all, as you point out, there is the fear that the competing narrative will drive out one’s own. I’m not sure that’s entirely true for the big narratives that can take generations to take hold and develop, but I’m sure it feels that way, and that in turn explains why people get so seemingly irrationaly angry about comparatively minor changes in practice or belief. they see these things as harbingers of the complete loss of a (or the) worthwhile way of life. Secondly, in some cases (abortion, euthanasia) the conflicts don’t allow for compromise. You can’t partly carry out abortions, or partly euthanize someone, and allowing everyone to choose their own way simply means that the opposing groups are both going to be unhappy with the results when it becomes painfully obvious that not everyone is onside.

    I’m not sure it is impossible to reduce the degree to which such issues are considered private rather than personal. You’d still have the problem I just mentioned, of having people’s noses rubbed in the fact that their beliefs are incompatible in life and death situations. But you might get more civility in public discussion.

    There was a time when I would have called this sort of approach the worst kind of hypocrisy. Keeping your mouth shut in the face of conflicting beliefs can be taken as demonstrating approval, and when this is discovered not to be the case, condemned as hypocritical. I’ve been re-thinking this. I think that if there is an agreement that certain topics are private, interactions would be easier and less fraught. One major problem is that attempts to legislate some of these most contentious of issues would have to stop. I don’t think that’s likely to happen soon in the US, and that may mean that my hopes for respect for private opinions and the elimination of some of them from public political discourse are overly optimistic.

    It’s really odd that the country with offical separation of church and state is the one in which religion has the most public political squabbles involving religion. (I’m not counting theocracies, which of course, don’t claim to separate church and state).


    8 Feb 09 at 3:52 pm

  2. Yes, I think the political bell curve has reshaped itself somewhat: fewer close to the center and, if not more Communists and Klansmen, more at the left end of the Democratic Party and the right end of the Republicans as well as a more general sorting-out between the two parties.
    The discouraging thing is that greater political awareness and involvement seems to move one toward the extremes. Perhaps ignorance and apathy had a beneficial side we didn’t properly appreciate.

    I’d have said that the narrative problem is that certain points are more or less fixed because people want to believe them so badly, and when these are false to fact, the rest of the narrative needs to be even further into fantasyland to make sense of observed events. If my belief in the superiority of my race/religion/culture/ economic system/sex is a critical part of my identity, and yet it’s clearly losing ground in the wider world, the obvious answer is that the game is somehow rigged. The ZOG hates white males, the Freemasons won’t promote Christians, the Christians have formed a Satanic alliance with the Jews, the Trotskyite wreckers are upsetting the Five-Year Plan, and the Patriarchy continues to oppress women. It takes, if you will, less mental energy to believe in the conspiracy than to accept the falsity of the core belief, and I suspect most such people are not converted, but outlived.

    It’s a solution, if you’re patient enough.


    8 Feb 09 at 9:33 pm

  3. “Yes, I think the political bell curve has reshaped itself somewhat: fewer close to the center and, if not more Communists and Klansmen, more at the left end of the Democratic Party and the right end of the Republicans as well as a more general sorting-out between the two parties.
    The discouraging thing is that greater political awareness and involvement seems to move one toward the extremes. Perhaps ignorance and apathy had a beneficial side we didn’t properly appreciate. ”

    I’m not sure I agree that the bell curve has shifted. What I think has happened is that political discourse has been affected by the general degradation of the common courtesies that seem to have reached the very edge of extinction. People no longer stop talking long enough to listen to other people’s views. There seems to be a strong tendency for people to need to shout down any opposition.

    In this regard, it’s almost impossible to conduct a civilised debate about important social issues in this country (Australia). This is particularly true whenever such debates are scheduled in the Universities or in any public forum. One side or the other, but moost frequently the left, will attempt to stack the venue with their lie-minded supporters, who will literally howl down all opposition.

    I still think that the majority of people sit well within the normal Bell curve distribution, but those towards or at the extremes are simply louder, ruder and more generally obnoxious.


    10 Feb 09 at 2:06 am

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