Agency: The Correct Historical Perspective

When I was in my undergraduate years at Penn State and SUNY Oswego, I chanced to pass through a series of classes in the humanities that defied my expectations and presented me with ways of looking at the world that had never been open to me before due to a particular set of biases typically evident amongst educators.  I was one of the rare lucky ones.  Most kids who enter college these days get a parade of professors with the same political and philosophical biases as the ones they encountered when they were in public schools as a child.  Most kids don’t get a playwriting professor who, when reading their rather traditional and family-friendly storytelling, express a fond desire to see that person hone their talents further and tap into an under-served market for comforting and spiritually uplifting theater.  Most kids don’t get to take a philosophy course taught by a fierce Christian apologetic whose disregard for Nietzche and Marx and Sanger is rivaled only by his love of Plato and Descartes and John Locke.  Most college students don’t get to take a history class that treats Native Americans like logical, full persons, rather than like hapless victims with no sense of the peril posed by white Europeans.  And most of us don’t get to take a course in European history that treats the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Renaissance no differently and no more positively than the supposed Dark Ages.

That was my good fortune.  I learned, purely by luck, to love history, literature, art, and philosophy, because I was taught largely by professors who approached their subject-matter objectively and dispassionately.  Not all of those profe4ssors were conservatives, so it isn’t a political affiliation that drew me to my increasing well-roundedness or made me more receptive.  But I always hated the humanities growing up because I felt that they were taught in an incomplete and unfair manner – though I didn’t realize it at the time.  What was missing in all of those discussions of history and literature and theology and psychology and anthropology was the application of logic.  You see, people of a liberal mindset believe that history is a narrative – a story with a destination that they are hurtling towards.  They see a potential for a positive outcome (utopia – a society with no flaws and no suffering), or a negative one (regression, annihilation, or decay, as in the fall of Rome).  When you think of history as a narrative, you treat every conflict as a clash between someone who was wrong and someone who was right, every change as progress and the past as an inferior state to the present and the present as inferior to the ideal future.

And none of that is supported by the facts.  The facts paint a picture of societies rising and falling cyclically, of conflicts driven by competing philosophies, both of which generally had an internal logic and whose righteousness could only be tested by their effects on the world.  The facts make humanity more complicated, more capable, and less tribal than your history teachers in high school would have you believe.  And most of all, the facts demonstrate that Burke and Locke were right all along – that humans are selfish bastards (sorry, but it’s true!) and that history is driven by competition between humans exercising what my US History professor at Oswego dubbed “agency.”  In her words, agency was a collective set of tools used by a group fo people to maximize the quality of their particular lives.  In short – people do whatever they need to do in order to enrich themselves and the their compatriots.  And further still, people believe the philosophy or ideology that conforms with their life experiences and results in net gains for them.

Let’s go back to that bit about Native Americans for a moment.  What were taught about the many tribes that inhabited North America at the dawn of European exploration and colonization in the new world?  A rather idyllic portrait was probably painted for you with the tribes coexisting relatively peacefully in the vast, untapped lands of the Americas, each living harmoniously with nature and establishing cultures and beliefs possessing an almost sacred beauty and charm.  Though they lacked the scientific knowledge and wealth of the pillaging masses of Europeans heading their way, native peoples developed sophisticated and in depth naturalistic knowledge and much of what Europeans would later decry as savagery and superstition actually had a basis in fact.  That sound familiar to you?

Well here’s what I was taught in college.  Native Americans were a deeply divided people – split into mostly non-cooperative tribes and widely distributed across the landscape from South America to Canada and Alaska.  Where there was significant competition for resources and where tribes interacted, there was a nearly constant state of war.  Lacking the sophistication of European scientific and practical knowledge, their warfare ranged from gruesome to unbearable at times.  Where there was little or no confrontation over resources, tribes existed largely peacefully.  The more cooperative tribes (such as, for example, the Iroquois and the Cherokee) forged alliances to stop the bloodshed, but those pacts were always based on capitalism and common cultural linkages that alleviated the potential for tension.  When Europeans arrived in the new world, the reactions of the natives varied greatly – some chose to attack (and were merciless and brutal when they did), others chose to seek alliances with the white man to further their conflicts with neighboring tribes.  At all times, they were proceeding logically based on the best interest of their tribe, but because they were a divided people, and because we happened to bring diseases to which they had no immunity with us, their huge population advantage was meaningless.  We divided them and we conquered them, and much of what we did, we would now consider abhorrent, but we, too, were following our agency and neither side could rightfully be considered innocent in this three-century war.

Now a leftist will look at those two stories and think that the second account is less flattering to the Natives and, because we (the whites) were the aggressors in net, we must be the guilty party.  But I would argue that, in fact, the first account is insulting to American Indians.  In order to treat them as wholly innocent, one must rob them of their humanity.  In that account, they are little more than animals – scurrying from tree to tree and living off the land and their own baser instincts.  That must be true, because to assume that natives did NOT pursue their own agency is to assume that they were intellectually inferior to Europeans.  There’s no doubt that we had better weapons than they did…but a savvy tribe proved many a time that our muskets were no match for their knowledge of local geography, cooperative combat strategies and hunting prowess.  When the Spaniards arrived in Central America, there were about 9 million natives in Northern South America and Central America (including Mexico) alone.  And yet, within a few decades, an entire empire collapsed and the Spanish – having brought like 2000 total warriors, mind you – had unquestioned territorial claims over the entire region!  In a game of risk between 2000 tanks and 9 million infantry, I’ll take the infantry – even if the infantry have a high mortality rate due to smallpox and gonorrhea.  To take the liberal story at face value, the natives would have to have been literally the worst military strategists or least savvy politicians in the history of the universe to lose with those initial odds.  What makes more sense to you folks – really?  The story that claims that, although the natives were logical creatures just like we were, they lost because they were already at war with each other when we arrived and therefore couldn’t build coalitions to push us back?  Or the one that asserts that natives had no idea what was coming, even after we’d managed to wipe out (say) half of them in a single century.  I’ll go with column A.  If you go with column B, you’re a racist (how do you like THAT, libs? you play that card all the time – how does it feel to have it thrown back at you?).

History makes way WAY more sense when you view it in terms of people making logical choices to further the cause of their agency.  Why am I bringing all of this up now, you ask?  Simple – agency is at play in modern politics as it has always been.  The story of the battle between progressivism and conservatism in America is a story of agency.  At least among the powerful and monied interests that drive political discourse in any state, including America, neither party is the sole beneficiary of support fro the wealthy.  Large corporations and firms divide evenly down party lines.  Oil companies need a break from environmentalist furor and thus back republicans.  Telecommunications giants reaped enormous benefits from deregulation and the fight against censorship of information and likewise, will back Romney.  Green energy firms will back Obama, as he has kept their trough thick with government pork slops.  The leaders of big wall street firms protected by Dodd-Frank will also back Obama, while lesser banks will back the Republicans to fight the unfair favoritism they perceive to have been put into effect for the big six banks.  GM backs Obama as he promises further union bailouts, while Romney wins the support of Apple, since they are hoping for a cheaper skilled labor force here at home and Romney plans to reduce their corporate taxes.  Investors, like George Soros and Warren Buffet, who specialize in property investing for government-supported industries like Amtrak and commuter airliners and such back Obama as he’ll be working to increase public works projects and will maintain their protected status in the tax code.  The Koch brothers back Romney, since he’ll be working to remove tax loopholes while cutting taxes – especially on manufacturing, where Koch is king (they manufacture paper products here in the US).

You are a fool if you believe that the large political investments you see on either side of the aisle are ever truly an expression of altruism.  You don’t get to be wealthy by cutting a ton of checks just because you feel like being a nice guy.  The wealthy do have charitable causes, so it’s not as though they’re evil men, but they have to protect their estates if they want to continue to have some say in their own future and the future of their companies (which they have worked extremely hard to build).  And the agency game goes all the way to the bottom of the wage spectrum.  The very poor depend on government support to live – it’s in their best interest to make sure that support increases – thus they vote democrat.  The leaders of the civil rights movement – their mission largely completed – must convince America that there is still a race-based crisis in order to cintune to be wealthy and influential.  They push race based clients to vote democrat and paint the opposition as racist to gin up financial support.  Middle class families need less government, since government gets in the way of the freedom most parents feel to raise their children in the way they see fit – and since government is less important when you can rely on your family in times of need.  They vote republican.  Unless, that is, the wage earners in the family work for state-funded public-sector enterprises.  Unions vote democrat (because democrats are more willing to hand them money and power), union workers also vote democrat (because a smaller government will require their services less and because their benefits packages and pensions could suffer without government support).  That includes the people who control the narrative – teachers, academics, the media and those working for state and federal agencies.  I could go on, but the point is that no demographic group votes the way it does purely out of the goodness of its’ collective heart.  It’s agency at play.  And don’t let politicians tell you otherwise.

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