Tuesday, June 2, 2020

When you think the problem is solved

If Conan Doyle liked to put anything in his Sherlock Holmes stories, he liked to put things to be fearful about. Weird American religious movements, weird short people of color from the South Pacific, the Romani, Germans, people with facial tics, bicycle stalkers, voodoo practitioners, South Americans, sea creatures, harpooners, Italians, unions, monkey-men . . . fear made an excellent foe for the clear logic of Sherlock Holmes to cut the fog and put an end to.

And Sherlock Holmes always showed people not to be afraid, through simple facts.

Foreigners were a special favorite of Doyle's, and Americans were well represented among them. The very first Sherlock Holmes story has everyone who's doing bad things coming form America. The third story features an American female troublemaker. The fourth story revolves around an American-based con. And in the seventh tale, an American secret society reaches out its mysterious hand to kill innocent Britons. Americans. So much trouble. I'd be afraid of us, if I were you.

As much as I used to think of the stories of Sherlock Holmes as a place to escape from the cares of the day, of late, the cares of the Victorian era seem too close to our own. It's very hard to read "The Five Orange Pips" this week, that seventh tale I just mentioned, without thinking of current events. And being frightened of Americans.

No black people are involved in "The Five Orange Pips," just a grown-up British kid who had a truly racist uncle who lived in America for a while. It turns into sort of a family curse situation, and holds the racism at a distance. Even in Holmes's books, it's "Well, there was this Klan thing in America, but it's mostly gone." The Victorians, like every generation of humans, liked to think they were better than their predecessors, the new improved humans. Better than the previous generations, better than Americans, better than those wee little Andaman islanders.

And that's where the problems come in.

It's never "been there, done that, done!" We brought in Prohibition, we got rid of Prohibition, alcoholism remains with us. We broke up a phone company monopoly, we got some fair labor practices, and now . . . Walmart and Amazon. We elected America's first black president, and, yeah, that just echoed what happened when Australia elected their first woman president: People kinda went "Checked that box, don't need to think about the old 'ism' any more!" And then the trouble starts.

Any time we get to thinking we're something better than other humans, past, present, different, whatever, the same old shit comes back. "When one tries to rise above Nature one is liable to fall below it," Sherlock Holmes once said about a human-animal experiment gone wrong, and to deny the existence of our natural failings, those lower-brain functions from our animal origins that drive so much in us, we fall.  We go tribal, we start looking at "the other" as lesser -- that's pure monkey-brain, just like sexual appetite, mothering, etc. It's in all of us.

And the minute you take your eye off those inner basic functions, those parts of us that are Nature itself, we fall. Being human is a constant climb of trying to be better than our worst instincts. Sherlock Holmes, like many of our other stories we tell ourselves, is one of those legends we use to model our better selves, they feed the hope that we can rise above, be a better person, and keep trying for one more day.

Things are hard. They may get harder. We can't say "I'm not a part of this" and look away (though if the stress gets too much, and you feel you might break, do look away for a bit and do self care). It's our very nature as humans that brings us to these points, but there is definitely something in us that makes us look up to a star, a hope, a dream of better, and try to make life better, for ourselves and others.

Sherlock Holmes once said he would give his life to rid his city of an evil, and he almost did give his life. Maybe we can't all live up to that, but as he also said "We can but try," with whatever is within our reach. And maybe we can all start making everybody else a little less afraid of us Americans, especially our fellow Americans, who are pretty much afraid of each other right now -- a lot of folks with a very damn good reason to be.  Murders will do that. (Step one, as I'm sure Sherlock Holmes himself would tell us, is always "Stop the murders.")

We can but try. And we all gotta try just a little harder right now. And then keep trying.

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