Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Arguing on the internet

Dear T,

I read somewhere in Orwell that Sir Walter Raleigh tried to write a history of the world -- while he was locked up in the Tower of London.  As he was penning away in a fury, two workers outside his cell window got into an argument, the argument turned into a scuffle, and the scuffle ended in a killing.  Raleigh began asking why they were fighting but couldn't get a solid answer; and when he realized he couldn't find out what happened right outside his own window he took his manuscript and threw it into the fire.


I don't know whether this kind of resignation was helpful or not, but I think the story is fun and serves a purpose.  It reminds us that much of history is what we've got left of what someone could figure out.  How the historian compiles this remnant, most usually things he didn't experience, reflects not only what he's been looking for but what he decides to see and how he interprets it.  History is a fusion between many men and the spirit of one particular man.  It's too big for us to actually know in totality.  When we view his story we're viewing a part of him.  The world is somewhat slippery, but the man?  We have him here in front of us*.

There have been countless revisions of history, of course, due not only to variances in the spirits of our historians, but due to newly-released documents and letters; the latter of which, most of us believe, are responsible for a more personal history.  This kind of history is told not from mass agreement, but from the mind of the person who's living it; full of all the prejudices, the worries, the theories, the mannerisms, the ignorance, and the possibilities, both good and bad, about what might have happened.  Alive, in short**.  Aside from this we have the public documents which tell, from the government's or newspaper's viewpoint, what the establishment says has happened, and what they needed to do about it.

Unfortunately our personal view of history was stunted badly by the telephone.  The arrival of the future has meant the disappearance of the past.  We'll no longer, except in rare instances, have the letters penned by presidents to wives and sons and friends and generals.  What they say will be less thought out, essentially on-the-fly, and the immediately relegated not even to the trash heap, but into thin air.  What we'll be left with, aside from stunted tweets and texts and mountains of cat memes, are the "official" memos and other state papers -- things which show one side of things and little of the others; certainly little of the emotions of those in power.  We'll have lots of things printed in public and little of the things kept in private.  I doubt any post-Millenial president will get anything like Team of Rivals.

There is of course the fact that great men's Facebook info will be bought and sold by big companies.  Biographers will fight over these gold-mines of old arguments, comments on articles, and letters to ex-girlfriends; but these themselves will be stunted -- mostly short, and lacking in the nuance of a letter dreamed up and well-written, mid-afternoon, in the span of fifteen to twenty minutes.  I don't believe that a letter is necessarily more honest than a tweet; but I do believe a more public man's tweets will be less honest than a private man's.  He has much more to hide after all.  If he's in business, he can lose his best customers.  If he's in politics, he can lose his constituency.   Either way the lies and shibboleths we tell ourselves and the public are just as much a part of history as the truth.  But will biographers be wise enough to tell when we're lying?

The arguments we have online are probably the most valuable aspects of our internet record; and these are the things we have less of as we age.  In fact we take pride in not having them.  When we're young we love to take stands and throw blows; but the hours we lose on it, and the mountains of non-converts and angry relatives left afterwards, lead us to wonder if any of it was worthwhile.

This is a picture of Paul Giamatti arguing
I believe that it was.  Aside from the fact that stating our beliefs leads us to refine or abandon them, we find almost nobody loses an argument and admits it; that a long reply is as bad as no reply; that bad writing, for the idea it carries, might as well be a coffin; that the best weapon in a dog-fight is a good joke; that clarity is king; that gentleness invites honesty; that you should never tell the whole truth to anyone who'll just hurt you for it; and that in terms of unmasking ignorance, as Socrates taught us, asking questions is more effective than making statements.  You put these things together and the hours spent arguing were worth it.  You weren't even spending them on those arguments.  In the end you were spending them learning when and how to argue.

Your father,
-J

*A good biographer makes you fall in love with the subject.  A great biographer makes you fall in love with himself.

**For a great example of a living history, full of the boots-on-the-ground I-was-there feeling, try Shelby Foote's Civil War Trilogy.



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