Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017
Today is U.S. Thanksgiving, and I am thankful for one very important thing: us. I am thankful for all of us, children of a common mother and children of a map maker. I’m thankful that we are a community of familiar strangers, and I am thankful for being alive, right now, with you.
On this uniquely North American holiday, we can see that human societies, as always, are very much the same as each other. Indeed, it’s unlikely (if not impossible) that you’ll ever come across a community or a society of humans that is not like the other. A community or society might appear on the surface to be different, but look closely and you’ll see that we’re all distributed evenly across the same standard deviation bell curve. We’re just in the middle, and for that I’m thankful. Time after time, people encounter other societies or communities, and, time after time, we always turn out to be the same as each other. As humans, we congregate toward one point, and that point is urban, industrial, educated, secular, consumerist and science-friendly. We are all familiar strangers, and for that I am thankful.
To put this into perspective, and before we sit down to enjoy our turkey, let us step back a little in terms of both space and time, and think about where and when we are. Both the universe and time are about 13’800’000’000 years old (13.8 billion).
There’s a big bang. Stuff rapidly expands outward. Time begins. Expansion, heading ever-outward, ever-onward, continues. This takes up about two thirds of time as we know it, and most of space as we know it.
Then three things happen one after the other. First, our solar system forms about 4’600’000’000 years ago (4.6 billion), eventually constituting one small star, nine little planets and two cloud belts. Second, the Earth forms about 4’500’000’000 years ago (4.5 billion). Almost immediately following this, third, we become complex organic compounds and life starts about 4’100’000’000 or 3’800’000’000 years ago (4.1-3.8 billion).
We settle down for a bit. Time passes. Space expands. We are Earth.
Dinosaurs show up about 243’000’000 or 231’000’000 years ago (243-231 million). Roar! However, we as dinosaurs are mostly extinct by about 66’000’000 years ago (66 million). We walked around as dinosaurs here for some 165 or 177 million years, give or take. That’s a pretty good amount of time, considering the length of our lives. It was much longer than we’ve been here as humans. Think of these big lizards as a beta version of our current life. With no opposable thumbs, no bipedal stance, no large cranium, no bifocal vision and no homeostasis, it was tough for us as dinosaurs to live through things like meteorite strikes.
Then more time passes and more space expands.
We in our current form begin to grow about 200’000 years ago. We go through a few more versions of us before we land on Homo sapiens. We start to behave like humans about 50’000 or 40’000 years ago. We pick up stones and sticks. We start to paint caves about 16’000 years ago. We eat fruits and berries, and follow seasonal herds. We discover agriculture about 10’000 years ago, and then we immediately domesticate cats. We grow surplus grain to support non-farm employment. We start to live in cities about 6’000 or 5’000 years ago. The U.S. Revolution was about 240 years ago. We leave the planet for the first time about 50 years ago and make digital watches, a pretty neat idea. I was born just over 40 years ago. A child will be born next year.
Think of all this as a progressive process. We progress. We don’t regress.
As components of this time and of this universe, as currently-existing life forms, the current position of us familiar strangers, in and among all of this, is as follows: we are urban, industrial, educated, secular, consumerist and science-friendly. That’s us, and I’m thankful for it. The societies and communities that support us tend to lean toward having a technocracy, toward state surveillance, toward mass mobilization (social, political, economic and military), toward affecting the environment around us, and toward urban anomie. That is the price, so to speak, we pay. Note that this isn’t the end, but this is where we are currently. We may not be rational yet — we may never be rational — but at least we are urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible.
Every now and then, however, some group of humans tries to stop this progress and tries to make us un-human. The list of new groups that come along and think they can improve on humanity is as endless as time is large: ancient Zoroastrians, ancient Israelites; Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Socrates; early Christians, early Muslims; Calvinists, Anabaptists; Sunni, Shia, Sufi; Puritans, Old Believers, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Rastafarians; Achaemenids, Romans, Yuan, Mongols, Mughals, Qing, British, Americans; Confederacy, Union, Free State, Home Rule; Jacobins, Saint-Simonians, Anarchists, Anarcho-syndicalists, Marxists, Socialists, Communards, Bolsheviks, Communists; tech visionary, New Age, futurist; beatniks, hippies, yuppies; and, inevitably, whoever’s over the next horizon next season. None of these groups have ever succeeded. Like an arcing parabola, they all rise, peak and then fall. The more prominent writers among them want to hasten some grand apocalypse (religious) or revolution (non-religious) and build a kingdom of Heaven (religious) or utopia (non-religious) here on Earth. However, they all fade away after a few years. It’s quite an entertaining cycle, to be honest. Such groups try so hard… and fail so spectacularly. Ignoring these activists completely, humanity just continues, tick, tock, tick, tock, and the familiar strangers are contentedly unabated.
Amid all this frantic hopping up and down — all these groups trying to make us un-human — those of us who thrive tend to be flexible and mercurial, and I am thankful for this. We are familiar strangers, at ease wherever we live and with whoever is around us. In terms of our social role and what we provide to society in return for a pay check each month, we are service nomads. We service the society around us, accepting whatever social contract allows us to continue unabated. Familiar strangers move around and we vote with our feet. The world from which we come and the world to which we go are the same. They are the same overweight plurality that is rooted, agrarian, martial, and much more populous. As we move through these all-same societies and communities, it dawns on us that it is the act of immigrating that is human. For that, I am thankful: to be unfettered by the bonds of obeisance. We are wanderers and explorers, and we want to see over the next hill and to swim the ocean depths; to read every book and to learn every language; to sample every fruit and to drink every beverage; to know God’s thoughts and to see with eyes unclouded. Our time and space are short, and we are but small.
So on this U.S. Thanksgiving day, a true immigrant’s holiday, I am thankful for us. I am glad that in the face of the oh-so-common idiocy that we see around us every day, we nonetheless emigrate. I am thankful for being here and being now, and I am thankful that we have chosen to be, to paraphrase that Danish prince. We hope for a better future for our children. We hope for progress. We hope. Hope. This is not because we are simply Americans. This is because we are familiar strangers. We are a city on a hill, a favela built by the tempest-tossed and huddled masses, a great experiment, an imagined community. We are named after a map maker and we are familiar strangers. We are Amerigo’s children.
Happy turkey day.
Gregory C. Eaves
Note: Many philosophical and social concepts herein were inspired by Yuri Slezkine, including the phrase “familiar strangers,” and some of the turns of phrase were copied from a recent New York Review of Books article.