Distraction is a serious problem for me. I take distraction seriously because I have learned that it has the potential to suck joy and purpose out of my life. Very few people have a vested interest in me having a meaningful life that is focused on the most important things. On the contrary, private corporations, public administrations and individuals are more often incentivized to distract me away from the joys of life.
If I focus on shameful cultural realities, I very well may forget about the larger structural injustices in our society that brought them about. If I focus on all the things wrong with me, I may keep myself so busy that I need to make additional purchases to save time. I may seek short-term pleasure in manufactured products when I feel ashamed that I have not achieved enough: Books because I am not smart enough; miracle creams because I am not young enough; nutritional supplements because I am not fit enough; clothes because I am not sexy enough; luxury experiences because I am not regarded highly enough at work. Pick your poison… whatever you think will finally make you Enough.
The same could be said of our roles as citizens. Government bureaucracies, especially the military, has a financial incentive to preach that we are not safe enough. Budgets for war and homeland security steadily rise, but we never seem to ever be secure enough. And we never will be. If we are constantly distracted by the latest boogie man, it is more difficult to look at ourselves as, just possibly, the single common denominator in all our problems. Maybe we are willing to pay ever more – both in material and immaterial costs – in order to keep from such introspection.
But you know this. One rarely feels better after watching the nightly news. Often, we gorge ourselves with curated images of people in our social network — or worse, celebrities — who seem to be doing so much better than us. The gnawing creates needs that advertisers on the margins of our screens happily offer to fill.
We all need to find our ways of fighting distraction. One practice I began last year was to develop a set of anchoring questions that I wanted to pursue throughout the year. These questions are not the only questions that are worth pursuing. I ask all sorts of questions. But I realized that I needed a few questions that keep me anchored somewhere. Without a mental foothold, I have found that I am very vulnerable to propaganda and the media’s biases (not to mention our natural biases) toward the present.
These are not magic questions. In fact, some of these questions need some serious editing. Some are merely a conglomeration of small questions that I want to synthesize in 2018. They are imperfect questions. But they are mine. I am committed to pursuing them. Breaking them apart. Improving them. Interrogating their assumptions. Reworking them. I expect them to spark new questions that may need to be addressed before I can answer them as stated. The point is that I am committed to these questions because I need questions to be committed to. The Homo Sapiens is a thinking thing. Without a guide, it will still think. But it will be more likely to think whatever happens to be advantageous for others that have a clear guiding agenda.
So, Why These Questions?
I settled on these questions, like last year, during the American Historical Association’s annual meeting. This year, having just completed my Master’s degree in History, I have a bit more flexibility in my questions that I did last year when I had to submit my mental capacities to an authoritative curriculum beyond my control. Some of my questions were born out of negative reactions against the academic historical profession, which I see as: (1) in danger of becoming increasingly irrelevant due to disciplinary boundaries and specialization, and (2) deeply and immorally exploitative of many of the world’s best minds. Some of my questions intentionally undercut comfortable disciplinary boundaries that I originally found amusing, and have increasingly come to see as dangerous and contributing to the “crisis” of the Humanities. Some of my questions are interests which arose during my MA program that I just did not have time to pursue. Other questions attempt to connect disparate categories of knowledge, such as: intellectual interests with professional interests; hobbies with nagging philosophical questions; or relationships with long term goals.
So, What are the Questions?
- META-QUESTION: What are the most consequential questions that I could ask during my lifetime?
- (For myself? For my loved ones? For my community? For the Air Force? For the nation? For humanity? For the planet? Perhaps instead of asking, “What do I want to do with my life?” a better question may be, “What questions do I want to ask during my life?”
- BIG HISTORY: How big (in temporal scope) can History be?
- Can “Big History” (ie., contextualizing history with the start of the Big Bang) complement or reform the discipline of history? What is “Big History”? What could it possibly become? Why are so many historians hostile to it? How is the academic historian professor threatened by it? Does it change the roles/tasks of the historian? Is a single historian capable of “doing Big History”? Is anyone?
- Key Texts/Authors: David Christian, Maps of Time; David Christian’s Great Courses series
- SPATIAL ANALYSIS: What place does Place and Space have in Intellectual History, and how do our spaces generate or interact with our ideas?
- What relationships exist between identities and our means of spatial construction? How do our physical structures (walls, buildings, trenches, dams, etc) affect the flow of peoples (borders, airport security, traffic control, urban development), the flow of natural resources (water/dams), the flows of information (mass media, internet; firewalls and gatekeepers), etc?
- AUTHORITARIANISM: How do relationships between populism and authoritarianism compare among the United States, Iran, and Iraq? How do religious institutions or rhetoric mobilize individuals and groups for authoritarian figures? How does authoritarianism relate to concepts of Civic Religion
- Key Texts/Authors: Raymond Haberski’s God and War: American Civic Religion since 1945; Philip Gorski’s American Covenant: A Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present
- PROPAGANDA: What is propaganda? How has it changed over time within a given nation-state (United States, Iran, and Iraq)? How have nations sought to influence foreign elections in the past?
- Key Texts/Authors: George Orwell’s essays on writing and propaganda; Randal Marlin’s Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion; Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works
- WARRIOR POETRY: What is poetry? What is poetry good for? What relationships exist between poetry and war? Specifically, how does wartime poetry compare among WWI, the Iran-Iraq War, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003?
- PETTING: What does it mean to touch another person? Why is it meaningful? How does touch communicate varied meanings? What do we give and/or receive in acts of touching another person in intentionally meaningful ways?