Emma’s Note: Emma Walsh here, managing editor of the Diary. On one of Bill’s earlier visits to his ranch in Argentina, he penned a piece that… reading it now through the lunacy of the COVID-19 lockdowns… seems particularly foreboding.
We’re sharing it with you in a special evening series this week… along with a few other insights from the past that are especially relevant in today’s world…
In the mountains behind our house here in Argentina, the local people live in much the same way they have for thousands of years… or nearly.
Their houses are made of stone or mud. Their floors are made of dirt. They cook over open fires. They eat choclo – a coarse corn – as they grind their grains on granite rocks. It is a desert climate, but they water their crops using irrigation canals that were in use at the time of the Inca or before.
Not much had changed until about 10 years ago. Then, public policy intruded on their lives.
This is meant to be a place where we share our ideas and insights. Today, we describe the ideas contained in a book we wrote a few years back…
In writing our book, we hoped to lay out a map for ourselves… showing us where we are trying to go and how to get there.
But what is it a map of? It is the terra incognita known as the “public space”… the place in which many of our most important ideas, emotions, fantasies, and hopes for the future play themselves out. It is the space in which we hold fast to ideas that can’t be proven true or false, but which we believe with such intensity that we’re ready to commit murder, torture, theft… you name it… under their banners.
Not only do we commit these crimes on others… we submit to them ourselves. Today in America, for example, in the 21st century, we surrender much of our money… and an unmeasured amount of our freedom, too.
We do as we are told… We bend to laws, rules, and regulations written by others… We empty our pockets at airports (even though we have no intention of murdering anyone on the plane)… We hoot and holler at the news like fans at a football game… And we twist and flap in the breeze of public thinking, like the flag above the stadium.
Surrendering Our Minds
We even give up something much more precious than our money and our freedom. We yield our own brain time… our thoughts… our view of the world and what is important to us.
We open up our laptops. Suddenly, our own thoughts vanish as we browse the headlines. Caitlyn Jenner’s latest heartbreak… Ivanka’s snub in Europe… The fate of “The Donald’s” tax package. And what’s this? The Orioles have beaten the Toronto Blue Jays!
Wait… Why do we care? We had nothing to do with any of these things. How can we take pride or pleasure in the achievements of others? How can we engage our emotions in the cares and concerns of people we don’t even know?
Why do we bother to think about public policies that arise out of motivations that are hidden from us, that will have results we can’t imagine, and whose ultimate consequences are unknowable?
You don’t have time or the inclination to dig deeper, but in the second that the page was open, the information has already registered, like a cat’s paw in wet cement. It will be there forever… It will always be a point of reference.
And little by little, our own world – the world of ideas, thoughts, and perceptions that take place inside our own skulls – will fill up. Our thoughts will be those we have been given in the public space. Our information will be that which we have received from the public media.
Our concerns, worries, triumphs… our emotional lives… will be largely taken over by the drama that is the public spectacle.
Here in the Calchaquí Valley, as recently as about 10 years ago, the public space was scarcely to be seen. The distances were great. There was no TV, telephone, or internet reception. The only motorized vehicles were the tractors that worked the fields. And though everyone speaks Spanish – Castellano, they call it – people from the city often say they can’t understand a word the mountain people say.
But now, public life has arrived.
First, the local mayor gave out mattresses. This was a curious move; we supposed he had some deal with a mattress retailer. The local people had previously slept on rawhide beds covered with animal skins or wool blankets. Now, they have put the foam mattresses on top.
Then, the feds thought the voters should have access to electricity and television. Teams were sent into the mountains to install solar panels, batteries, and satellite dishes. Now, people with no running water or heating can watch reruns of Dallas dubbed into Spanish.
But the biggest leap came when the government started handing out money. The amounts are trivial, as little as $100 per month. But to people who have no shops, no Walmart, no restaurants or bars… almost nowhere to spend money… the little payments – intended for poor people – changed everything.
The most dramatic change came at the family level. Before the subsidies began, family life was tight. It took man, woman, grandparents, and grandchildren – all working together – to survive.
There were endless chores to do. Crops to plant. Fields to hoe. Water to run through the old irrigation canals. Goats, sheep, cattle, and llama to herd… to milk… to butcher, and to protect from the puma and condors that preyed on them.
The sheep and llama had to be sheared, too. Then, the wool was worked into threads… and the threads woven into blankets, saddle pads, sweaters, and socks.
Now, life is easier. People can watch TV. Merchants, seeing a new market, now drive up in their vans and display their wares. Food supplies, too, can be bought rather than homegrown.
Here in the Argentine mountains, as in America’s inner-city ghettos, the welfare system favors unmarried women with children. “You get what you pay for,” said Milton Friedman. A few years ago, it was almost impossible for a single mom to make it on her own in this harsh and remote place. Now, they are almost everywhere. The young men father children… and move to the city for work.
The women and children are left living on government subsidies and forgetting the many skills that used to be part of mountain life. “Progress” has arrived in the Calchaquí Valley.
Readers who share our cynicism will be quick to wonder whether this is real “progress” or some kind of bamboozle. Are these people really better off, we ask?
We don’t know the answer. People respond to the incentives offered to them. Now, they have an opportunity to spend money they didn’t earn.
But who did earn it? And what happened to them? If one is better off with more money he didn’t earn, is the other also better off with less money he did earn? Or is one better off and the other worse off? Does the better outweigh the worse?
Who knows? No one.
A Constant Struggle
But up here in the high, mostly desolate corner of Northwestern Argentina is a good place to think about it, to contemplate the public spectacle and what effect it has on people. Even with the recent intrusion, we still feel very far away from it.
The sun is hot. The nights are cold. We get no newspapers. There are no discussions of policy – foreign or domestic. There is almost no discussion of politics.
There is just no time for it. When will we get the vaccines for the cattle? Why are the calves dying? How much water is left in the reservoir? Do we have gas for the tractor? Is there any lettuce left in the garden? Should we kill a lamb or a calf for dinner?
Day by day, the questions keep coming. It is a constant struggle to keep up with reality, things we can see and understand… things that will have very real consequences for us. The private space is so demanding, there is little energy left over for the public space.
I am writing from my office in the farmhouse. I have on a t-shirt, a llama-wool sweater, a flannel shirt, and another sweater over the whole thing. And I’m practically freezing. We are out of firewood. But the chain on the chainsaw broke. Getting another one means a 10-hour roundtrip to the city of Salta. We will have to shiver for a while longer.
Global warming, you say? Maybe. But the cold wind blows in through the cracks around the door. Did the O’s win their last game? How nice for them.
Yuval Noah Harari, in his popular book Sapiens, made the point that almost everything that happens in the public space is “myth.” The word seemed loaded.
We think of myths as things that aren’t true. But there are different kinds of myths. There are myths – such as Captain Cook discovering Australia or Nero fiddling while Rome burned – that can be debunked by historical research. They are linked to things that are not myths at all… but things based on real events, private information… things that actually might have happened in the real world and can be reasonably verified by normal methods.
There are other myths – such as the myth that throwing a virgin into the hot lava will calm a volcano… or that the citizens of a democratic nation determine its future… or that terrorists pose a danger to Western democracies.
These are the myths that public life depends on. They are public ideas. They are “myths” in the sense that they cannot be proven.
But they can’t be disproven, either. They are associated with the real world, and affect it, but they are not firmly attached to it. You might call them “theories” or “ideas.” But they are not theories in the scientific sense, because they can’t be disproven. And “ideas” is too broad a term.
Harari calls them myths. But to avoid confusion, I propose calling them “public myths.” They are features of public life. They are neither true nor false, and in themselves, neither good nor bad.
But they are responsible for huge, real-world consequences, such as the robbery, poverty, starvation, and murder of millions of people.
In the last century alone, 16 million people died in World War I. That was a “war to end war.” It was also a war to make the world “safe for democracy.”
But wars – lethal features of public policy – didn’t end. Nor was the world any safer for democracies. Before the century was over, 150 million more people had died in another 97 wars.
In other acts of public policy, the Germans killed 11 million Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables” in the belief that they were protecting and improving the master race.
The Soviet Union’s forced collectivization of the country’s farms produced an estimated 6 million famine victims in the winter of 1932-33. Their treatment of the prosperous farmers – kulaks – caused 6 million more to die.
And Mao Tse-tung’s farm policies caused the deaths of as many as 45 million people between 1958 and 1962.
None of these things could happen without the public space, public thinking, and public knowledge. They are all part of the public spectacle, a part of life that is very new. (It has existed for the last 2,000 or so years… but only intruded into most people’s lives with the invention of cheap newsprint in the 19th century.)
What to make of it? What real meaning do “public myths” have? What value do they give us? What advantage? At what cost?
We live with them. But we don’t know what they are.
And we seem to be poorly adapted to them, unable to distinguish between a sensible, useful public policy and one that is loony and disastrous.
Emma’s Note: Public myths and loony public policies seem to have taken an even stronger hold in the years since Bill wrote the essay above. Today, people tear down monuments… and demand a universal basic income, free health care, and reparations… Others dig in their heels – trying to protect what they’ve got with walls, trade wars, bailouts, and lockdowns.
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