Is History Destiny?

Don’t tell anyone, but I recently abandoned my longstanding resistance to both podcasts and NPR and binge-listened to a bunch of Planet Money episodes on a couple of bus and plane trips where I couldn’t really focus my eyes on a screen. There was one about the difference in attitudes toward absenteeism in Northern and Southern Italy. Somewhat astoundingly, the most credible argument for why there is this difference extends back hundreds and hundreds of years. During the Middle Ages, the argument goes, Southern Italy was frequently overrun by invaders, while Northern Italy was composed of fairly stable city-states. This led to cultural differences in both attitudes toward authority and feelings of belonging to a greater community versus loyalty first and only to the family unit. In Southern Italy apparently this has manifested as an awful lot of getting doctors to sign fake notes so people can spend work days playing football.

I was listening to this close on the heels of an interview I had done with George McCarthy, director of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. He was telling me all about this idea to make property taxation fairer—removing windfalls for speculators who just happen to be sitting on land that government action makes more valuable by taxing that added value. It’s called value capture. Many cities in Latin America are making very good use of it, and it would help with a lot of the problems that feel insoluble with regard to financing in our cities.

Why, I asked him, was it not happening here? Well, he said, he wasn’t sure, but it seems like it might have something to do with attitudes toward property that stem from the fact that our legal system is based on British Common Law, while Latin America’s was based on Spain’s.

Then I came home and began reading again about the recent findings that experiences of trauma may actually cause inheritable changes in how people experience stress, through “epigenetics,” or the differing expressions of existing genes. A recent New Republic article on the topic connected the experiences of children of Holocaust survivors and Khmer Rouge survivors.

I find these reminders of just how far something long-forgotten can echo through a culture both frightening and also somewhat hopeful. It reminds me of when I realized in women’s studies in college that “not biologically determined” was not in any way the same as “a choice” or “easy to change.” Something can be culturally determined and still be so deeply programmed that it seems immutable and organic.

Of course this is scary because there’s plenty enough to be contending with right now in the present, without feeling like we’re trying to deal with the repercussions of hundreds of years of truly horrible human doings. It’s also scary because it’s hard enough to convince many people that the effects of Jim Crow are still with us today, despite the fact that that was within many living people’s lifetimes. And it’s scary because our society is pretty pitiful about knowing its history in the first place.

On the other hand, it feels a wee bit hopeful too. If Italy’s pasta factories are still contending with the history of the Middle Ages, it should be no surprise that this country, given our last two to three hundred years of history, for example, is still working on race relations and racial equity. This is not to excuse anyone who is individually perpetuating hate, or even refusing to examine structural inequality. But thinking about it on a societal level, it feels like, OK, maybe it’s not entirely that we just suck as a species, but that this shit is hard.

I don’t usually take inspiration from a capitalist’s strategy to improve factory attendance, but setting that aside for the moment, the fact is that the Italy story did not end as a matter of historical determinism. Against that backdrop, a new plant manager set about (1) implementing strategies to show that he actually cared about workers’ families and was not, symbolically, merely a foreign overlord and (2) tried to create an atmosphere where the workers actually felt responsible to each other collectively. And there was some change. Again, I don’t necessarily like everything the guy did (though at least with much stronger labor movement than here, it’s not like their underlying working conditions were quite so draconian). The point is history is not destiny, even if it has a lot of power.

But to make sure it isn’t destiny, we have to pay attention to it, understand it, and not dismiss it as old and irrelevant news. Authorities in Ferguson, Mo., should probably be thinking of that this week, long and hard.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Nov. 20, 2014.)


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