Opinions Turn to Stone

A petrified object is one that’s made of stone, but looks just like the tree or animal that used to exist before being filled in. The object looks just the same, but it’s hard and heavy and unchanging. In other words, in some very important ways, it’s completely unlike the original tree or animal.

I think the same thing happens to our perceptions of historical opinion. We look back and it feels as though there were clear sides to the issues and it’s obvious who believed what.

This feeling gets challenged as we learn that a significant minority of early Americans were against independence, or that some Jews supported the Nazi party.

I’m reading Aristocrats (no relation to the movie), about the lives of four sisters, daughters to a duke and great-granddaughters to a king.

They were exceptionally well-connected (one sister was head bridesmaid at King George III’s wedding) and wealthy (the “poor” relation only had one house in the country and one in the city. The richest was married to the richest man in Ireland).

It’s a small part of the book, but each of the four sisters felt that the “rebels” were right and the king was wrong in 1776 and onwards. Throughout the war, they and their relatives considered the King’s position to be against liberty.

It reminds me again that that war was unpopular over there, and that the rebels won partly because so many people in England wanted to stop fighting. When thinking superficially, I just think about England being the bad guys and the Americans being the good guys. Of course, it’s never that simple.

2 Responses to Opinions Turn to Stone

  1. JB August 24, 2009 at 4:52 pm #

    I think there are different kinds of distance, which all wind up creating the effect you describe. A sort of superficial knowledge that smoothes the wrinkles out. Everyone in Ethiopia is starving. All of Africa is hot all the time. All Americans are rich. All Americans have guns.

    I guess I faded into stereotype there a bit, but I don’t mean stereotype (or maybe I do?). I mean distance either temporal, physical, or cultural, and just enough knowledge to think you’re not ignorant when you are.

  2. weeklyrob August 24, 2009 at 7:38 pm #

    Yup, I think you’re right. Any serious distance does the trick. We know that Iraq is made up of lots of competing factions, but most of us didn’t know that until we were neck deep in Iraq.

    A good rule of thumb is that it’s ALWAYS more nuanced than we think.

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