Yosemite Valley was carved, not overnight in a cataclysm of explosive fire and fury, but millimeters at a time, from snow falling, melting, freezing expanding and forever moving in a trajectory. The results for the generations of our memory have been that it is a place that takes your breath away—a place we assign awe and marvel at the brilliance of its design. We are struck by how majestic the valley is and yet we give only cursory attention to the time it has taken to create such beauty. We drive our fast powered vehicles around, snap photos with our instantaneous catchers of light, tweedle it off to friends and post it for the world to know how centric we are to the story of nature. We spend what amounts to but a whisper of breath of time in the park. We may even find ourselves overwhelmed with emotion or wonder, but we are soon off again to endeavor into our spaces of frenetic hurry and self aggrandizement.
If anything has happened in my lifetime that I am sure has damaged our humanity, it is the ever pressing need to be in a hurry. Looking back, everything about the 20th century was pointing to the moment we are living in. Efficiency is King. Living is necessarily narcissistic. The world is my canvas, and it is the obligation of society to me that I be assured that my painting is the one held front and center on the wall of the museum. I am here for this time, and this time is most assuredly here… for me. We have lost something so critical to civilization, we won’t survive if we can’t find it again quickly. Our inability to be patient with progress will undo our living.
I realize no one wants to talk about dead 18th century white guys in America right now. Their ills are easy to shoot at with 21st century eyes.
They also would not recognize the country we call home, mostly for good reasons. But we can’t ascertain what is happening in the United States until we understand that those dead, slave holding, imperfect white guys were the catalyst for our ability to change things and societal trajectories we don’t like. Humanity, and human history is a slow moving glacier. And historically, no civilization has survived long enough to be moldable. Empires have come and gone from the Earth. Each one a victim of its own hubris about its righteousness. The Egyptians were destroyed because of their insistence that they were the supreme culture of the world. The Greek, Roman, British, and Ottoman empires all fell because of their inflexibility. The powdered wig guys from the 18th century were the first to call out the opportunity for a country, a government, a culture to move in non-violent ways towards the changes that were necessary for the civilization to survive. Their outcome was the first country in history to have the functionality of course alteration.
The sloppy arguments of today insist that the Founders should no longer have any say at the table because they were monumentally and unforgivably awful in their living. The list of grievances is long: slave holders, racist, conquerors, etc. etc. All of which are shouted out loud as reasons to dismiss them as people and along with it, their ideas. Of course the Founders were fallible. What intellectual folly to insist that only good thinking can come from perfect people. It is such a fundamental misunderstanding of the inherency of humankind. To the contrary, these thinkers understood this built in time bomb that humanity is predisposed to destruction. They knew that when changes were required it wouldn’t happen overnight but that it would happen efficiently enough for people to recognize that something was on the move. Progress was intended to come as small doses of victory that would keep people comfortable enough to not storm the castle every time something needed to be done.
But we live in an iPhone era where everything happens at the speed of now. Our government was never designed to be fast.
Democracy and its expediency was, and should remain, a feared institution. Ben Franklin allegedly called democracy “two wolves and a sheep deciding on what was for lunch.” This incongruous, irreconcilable fight between the slow measured pace of progress and our wiring to be the star of every Tik-Tok video causes extreme consternation when we don’t get what we want, when we want it. Because we are programmed in our nature for this immediate gratification, when it doesn’t come our way on our terms, then it’s time to scream and kick and tear down everything. Nothing good will come of this. Regardless of whose statues are being torn down, no dialogue about progress happens absent of virtue at the tip of a spear.
The lack of intellectual diversity and honesty is not simply sad, as it luxuriously has been for the last twenty years, it is now frightening. The ideas behind cancelling history, thoughts, and people is something no individual should ever want or be a party to. Simple questions of honesty are evaded. History (and no, not just confederate statues) is being evaporated. The point of history isn’t to make us feel good. It is to have markers set upon our course so we know where we have been, where not to return to, and where we might navigate in the future to avoid or support past mistakes or positive outcomes. If history makes you angry, good! It should make you aware of what has happened. It isn’t intended to be washed away so that people feel good about their world. History is factual. It isn’t a moral stream. There may be morals to find within the historic context but it is simply a record of what was. The inherency of humanity is what has to be assessed by our witness of history. When we fail to do so, we damage our ability to discern what choices we should make towards progress.
I saw a picture of an elderly woman holding a protest sign from one of the recent COVID free gatherings that said “I’ve been protesting this same stuff my whole life and I’m tired.” I don’t know if there is a more poignant visual to demonstrate the idea that we believe we are the only thing that matters. Pick a topic and it becomes self evident that the ideology of now is based entirely upon the success of what happens in my lifetime. Environmentalism, racism, economics, land use, health and science each point singularly to the concept that I am the center of the universe. If I don’t stop using plastic grocery bags then the results are that the world will end in my lifetime. If I don’t find a way to stop another land owner from utilizing his property in a way that benefits him, then the world will end for me. If I don’t stop people from talking in hurtful ways towards me or my tribe, then the world will be no place I want to live in. Without a fundamental understanding of the inherent depravity of humanity, there will not be a change in our ability to dialogue and subsequently, progress as a society will stop.
The western tradition of the enlightenment has its historical heritage in everything from Judaeo-Christian philosophy, Greek thinkers, the Reformation to the Great Awakening. It’s domination of thought may be argued as to its validity by many in todays post-Christian world, but the results of this heritage are staggering. No society has ever survived this long in peaceful operation under one system of government in the history of the world. That stability has led to an unprecedented society filled with successes that are economic, socially conscious, progressive, and ever molding into the world we have wanted to construct as a civilization. Say what you want about the Founders’ struggles, and there were many, but their philosophy was built on the inherent depravity of humanity, and because of it we are inheritors of staggering benefit.
The glaciers of Yosemite are gone. Their remnant is the valley we venerate. If our current impatient culture had a say in the course and pace of the glaciers I’m afraid we would not have had the patience to wait for the outcome. Instead we would have protested the lack of pace. Scientifically modeled how if something isn’t done we will never bear witness to anything but destruction. Humanity has a short lifespan and an even shorter memory. We must find patience in the midst of our frustrations about a “lack of progress” in our society. The list of beneficial changes to the expansion of Liberty in every individuals life is staggering in the relative short course of the United States. Finding fallibility in any given moment from the past is easy, sophomoric intellectualism that may sound appealing but is disingenuous to the true outcome that humanity in this society benefits from.