0605 – watch good documentaries and think

I’ve watched a couple of documentaries lately and I want to reflect on them for a bit.

The first was Masters of Doubt, which was about the PR folks who work for corporations (such as big tobacco) to generally obstruct progress when it comes to the public’s understanding of adverse health effects, climate change, and so on. It’s an exploration of the tactics and strategies they use to slow things down, muddy things up.

The second was Thirteen, which walks us through the history of black America – from slavery to segregation and Jim Crow all the way to the troubling Amerian pandemic of mass incarceration. You really get a sense of the suffering that black people have endured ever since being brought to America as slaves, how they were beaten and abused and attacked and arrested and jailed and criminalized, and how the State, maybe even without overt racist intentions, has encouraged and enabled that over the decades. A mythology of black criminality. And how the fear of black men has been almost engineered and inculcated in people systematically. It’s quite mindblowing that a people can undergo so much suffering – and I find myself wondering now about colonialism in India, and in Singapore, and what the effects of those were on people, and what it means to live in the shadow of that. I say shadow because I think these things can be incredibly subtle, and it can require a tremendous amount of finesse to discern.

And yeah, I’ve seen first hand how some people are quick and eager to declare themselves as victims – and it’s messy, it’s problematic, I don’t want to be prescriptive about it. I think each person needs to confront their own circumstances, their own personal demons, survey the landscape themselves, read up their own history, and figure out for themselves who they want to be. We don’t start equal, and we don’t end equal, and the schools we go to tell us a sanitized story (and don’t get me started on schools themselves, lmao) about our histories.

So it’s really up to us to educate ourselves. The second part of this is… after watching a documentary and hoping to look for some enlightened discussions about it, I get on reddit and I see people who miss the point, who talk about black-on-black crime, who complain that they can’t bear the documentary because there’s a ‘hippie white guy’ who says that it’s ‘all white people’s fault’. Why do people have to oversimplify things like that?

But that’s one of the points I wanted to bring up. While watching the part about the mythos of the black man as a rapist, I found myself thinking about what Amy Schumer wrote about Odell Beckham Jr, and how privileged she was to be able to be so careless about something like that. (And yet, of course, women have their own share of struggles too, their own history of being subjugated, treated like property… so yeah, it’s complicated.)

I fee like there’s some fundamental, underlying thing that i’m trying to make sense of here about what it means to be a human living on this planet in the post 2010s. [1] But what exactly? I guess it’s something along the lines of – we are products of our history, and yet we’re a very myopic people. We don’t look very far into the past unless we’re forced to out of necessity, or because we happen to be curious about it. And I suppose we’re maladapted in that sense – our ancestors didn’t really have to care about history, they simply had to survive in the present moment. We still need to survive in the present moment, but that’s somehow simultaneously easier and more difficult. It’s easier to stay alive, but it’s harder not to feel terrible the whole time you’re alive – despite the creature comforts, sanitation, healthcare, etc. Or maybe I’m just naive and ignorant and we really do live in the best time ever to be alive.

But I doubt it’s so straightforward. My gut tells me that there are definitely things that we have “lost” – not in a linear sense; I don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that past civilizations were necessarily better. In fact it may be that there are flaws and weaknesses intrinsic to modern civilization itself – loneliness, boredom, a lack of sense of community, communion and so on. Watching Human Planet, I found myself thinking that there seemed to be a joy in the hunt for food that we don’t quite get when we’re pulling things off of shelves in the supermarket. Yet surely they’d trade places with us? [2]

Recently I saw some of my old statuses thanks to Facebook’s On This Day feature, and I was amused by the sort of thing I used to think about. “Is an idea a thing?” or “What is an idea?” – a part of me thinks that I no longer have time for such ‘frivolous’ or ‘idealistic’ thoughts, and that I have to be more concerned with pragmatic, day-to-day concerns now. A part of me mourns that tradeoff. But is it really a tradeoff? Maybe that was a necessary process for me to go through, and I’ve gone through it now, gotten what I needed to get out of it, and I’ve now moved on to a new thing. It’s still fun to talk to young people about these things, to ask them questions and help them along, and to watch them learn and grow. But I don’t personally need to spend a lot of time on that because I’m done with that, at least as far as I can tell. It’s on to the next thing for me. Which is good. Which is what makes life interesting and worth living.

[1] Interesting that it feels like I can’t just say post-2000s – there seems to be a difference between the first and second decades of the 3rd millenium. It seems probable that there will continue to be more differences between each coming decade.

[2] Look at me, second-guessing myself with every sentence. But that’s fine, that’s just how I process things. It’s a sign that I’m thinking about something a little new and a little unfamiliar. I’ll be able to tidy up my thinking later on once I’ve gotten through with it.

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