I’m a longtime reader of the Hedgehog Review, and was reading a review in the current issue of a book I’ve recently purchased but haven’t yet read: The Dawn of Everything. The review was very positive–the reviewer was a longtime fan of one of the co-authors, who recently died–but the final paragraph of that review brought me up short.
[The authors’] one undeniable achievement, it seems to me, is to show what a dangerous tool common sense can be. As more than a few people have pointed out lately, no government in the history of the world—not even Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany—has ever had anywhere near the force needed to repress all of its people at once. States have always depended on their people to repress themselves. When most people—most anthropologists, even—deny that we can have iPhones and equal freedom at the same time, the chances of revolutionary change dwindle to zero, and glib cynicism becomes the new wisdom. “The moral basis of a society,” John Lanchester has written, “its sense of its own ethical identity, can’t just be: ‘This is the way the world is, deal with it.’” The Dawn of Everything says, in essence, “This isn’t the way the world has to be. There are literally thousands of other ways.” It’s high time we give some a try.
The “common sense” to which the reviewer alludes is the frequent, confident assertion that hierarchies are inevitable in a technologically-advanced society. (Evidently, the book includes a number of historical exceptions to that “common-sense” rule). More striking, however–and definitely more thought-provoking–is recognition of the undeniable reality that no government can repress all of its people all at once.
We do, as the reviewer asserts, repress ourselves–and although the author didn’t elaborate on how or why we do that, it seems to me that there are a some rather obvious causes of that self-repression: propaganda that encourages beliefs grounded in falsehoods, tribalism that encourages conformity with “our” positions, and civic ignorance. They combine to reinforce the conviction that individual citizens are powerless. Even people who recognize that Fox News and its clones are promoting lies tend to believe there is little or nothing that can be done about it–or about the gerrymandering that they think makes an effort to cast a ballot worthless.
It’s just “common sense,” that the forces that have distorted our democracy and impeded the passage of policies desired by large majorities of Americans–big money, big Pharma, the NRA, et al– are too powerful for mere citizens to vanquish.
Ukrainians are challenging that conviction.
After all, it was also “common sense” that the Russians would easily overpower Ukraine. Russian propaganda–quite probably even believed by Putin–assured its audiences that Ukraine was filled with Russian sympathizers who would greet invaders with flowers (a belief with some uncomfortable resonance with the U.S. invasion of Iraq.) Even if there were no flowers, however, most of the West shared the “common sense” that Ukraine would quickly fall to Russia’s greater military power.
The people who didn’t buy either form of that “common sense” propaganda were the Ukrainians. Thanks in part to their recent history, they knew better.
I previously posted about a documentary chronicling the Ukrainian’s 2014 uprising against the Russian puppet President who had refused to sign an agreement tying Ukraine to the EU. Despite an unbelievably brutal response by the Russian-dominated government to initially-peaceful protests, they prevailed.
As I noted in that post, what was amazing to me was the Immense size of the Ukrainian protests, the enormous numbers of ordinary citizens–teenagers and grandparents, labor and management, men and women– who joined in the demand for change, took to the streets, and actively participated in the ensuing deadly combat with government forces.
The Ukrainians who are having surprising successes battling Putin’s army learned a great deal from that 2014 experience: that politics matters, that citizens have agency, and that “common sense” opinion is often very wrong.
Those are lessons Americans (and especially Hoosiers) need to learn.