Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Racism and Counterfactuals

You know, I was going to write about the hangover I had Sunday morning. I was going to write about it because it is - at this point in my life - a rare and unusual thing and therefore noteworthy and fodder for humorous depiction.

But lately, I've hit upon a funny little piece of synchronicity in the form of two books that are completely unrelated. And yet, I can tell that things are cooking on the back burners of my brain at the moment, which means... these two books, "1493", and "It's Obvious Once You Know The Answer" have a common thread in the form of counterfactuals. Or at least in my head they do.

How so? Well, it's all rather indistinct and half-formed at the moment, but basically, the material in both books constantly make me ask "what if" questions about things. What's so special about this person, this event, at this particular time? And, of course, the answers I keep getting from reading is, there's nothing special. There is no pivotal person or event or circumstance. There is instead, always, a peculiar convergence of linkages and attributes within the network of stuff. And to find out anything more would require a many-worlds test to determine the actual reasons for why, say, Chris Rock made it, or why Facebook is popular, or why Spain chose to fund Columbus despite his hare-brained schemes.

I could go on and on about my favorite themes of counterfactuals and the epigenetic processes with regards to human society and history, but, I'd like to keep this one short and on target.

The successes and failures have less to do with any inherent advantage or attribute that a person or thing has, and more to do with pure dumb luck for the lack of a more scientific term. As my Norse ancestors once said "'It's better to be lucky than smart". I'd rather like being lucky and smart, but you can't have everything.

Or can you?

In any event, this whole idea of counterfactuals, successes, failures, advantages managed to hit me upon reading this Atlantic Monthly article entitled "The Most Racist Thing that Ever Happened to Me" by a gentleman named TourĂ©. I'm not familiar with him. I don't think I have an anecdote to contribute either.   What exactly it was that hit me was a quote early on:
"I asked my 105 interviewees, What is the most racist thing that has ever happened to you? The response I received most often was indicative of modern racism: The answer is unknowable. "I imagine it'd be a thing I don't even know ever happened," Aaron McGruder said. "It would be that opportunity that never manifested and I'll never know that it was even possible." A decision is made in a back room or a high-level office, perhaps by someone you'll never see, about whether or not you get a job or a home loan or admission to a school. Or perhaps you'll never be allowed to know that a home in a certain area or a job is available".
The emboldened and italicized text was done by me, and if that sentence is not a candidate for a very special counterfactual, a particularly twisted and malformed orbit in a nonlinear amusement park ride, I'd be hard-pressed to find a better one.

Here's the thing (getting back to me, of course), is that, despite me bitching about things, I've got it really fucking good, have fallen ass-backwards into good shit more times than I care to think about, and quite frankly, and pretty damn self-aware as to how much I owe to good people around me.

But if anything is crystal clear in the article (my take at any rate), what's made clear (to me) is that in some way those who are making their testimony, those who, having been selected by Touré as noteworthy, have been lucky and smart.

Oh, not the kind of luck I'd want to have, that's for fucking sure.

I think it is a form of luck, like an antimatter version kind of luck. It's transformational - if you can handle the gamma radiation.

The people interviewed have managed to perform a particularly tricky little bit of ju-jitsu on what life handed to them. And I've really to wonder, had things happened that didn't, that they didn't know happened, as happens to us all, just how things might have turned out.

And perhaps that's the modern day horror story for us all.

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