There are two seemingly contradictory tendencies in the very act of being human and acting them out leads to conflicts and dissonances that are almost impossible to avoid or to reconcile when or if they are ever acknowledged. The first is the urge to find out our origins and root ourselves in time and space. The second is the urge to explore, to go beyond what we have now and seek out the new. These two tendencies can drive the same person at the same time, or influence them at different times in their lives. They have political and cultural consequences and just one of them is Them And Us.
Some people really, really want to find out who they are. The family historians and the amateur genealogists. They can tell you what their ancestors were doing and who they were doing it to in some remote and rural part of the country when Jack Cade was having his rebellion. They’ve been through census records online, rocked up to local museums and record offices, taken photographs of church yards, caught obscure lung diseases from the dust on long-unread muniments, and all to find documentary proof that some distant ancestor once could have been ignored by Henry VI or something. I don’t know.
Others might want to prove a long-standing connection to a place or a thing. Some families have been in the same area for generations. Even now, when we have a very mobile population and your neighbour can come from the other side of the world, you can still find people living a handful of miles from where they were born and brought up. I don’t know whether people have a deep connection to a place like that. Some might, others just haven’t moved away because it never really occurred to them to do so. I know that we are supposed to be explorers but now we have settled just about everywhere where settlement is possible. Now we prefer to stay put, by and large, if only because there seem to be people everywhere else we might care to go.
The Out of Africa Hypothesis suggests that there were a number of small scale migrations out of Africa, across the Middle East and Asia and up into Europe by our ancestors from 70,000 years ago, give or take. They spread out by about 10 miles per generation along coasts and up rivers. Even when it was possible to go anywhere at all, people didn’t really stray very far from familiar territory, until they had to cross oceans to reach Australia.
(I really would like to know who thought that was a good idea, and even why they thought they should stay there given everything in Australia can bite, scratch, kick, poison or just swallow you whole. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were some fucking vampire butterfly down there waiting to be dredged out of my nightmares and into reality in suburban Perth.)
Anyway, nobody wanted to stray far is my point even if there weren’t many people elsewhere preventing them. I’m assuming that people were able to walk and carry what they needed with them even if they had no pack animals for the first 60,000 to 65,000 years. I am not at all certain that anyone would want to claim ancestry back that far but there have been studies in the UK which have shown descendants of people buried in medieval graveyards in an English village still living locally. You might remember Julian Richards’ BBC series Meet the Ancestors which covered this. I remember the series mostly for the anthropologist who did the facial reconstructions who kept coming back every time anyone on telly wanted a facial reconstruction and they methods she used changing from modelling clay to computer graphics.
Adam Rutherford in his book A Brief History of Everyone Who has Ever Lived said that we’re all related to one another anyway, at least everyone in Europe. I think that’s what he said anyway. It’s a while since I read it and I can’t find my copy to revise so I might have to issue a correction once I’ve had a chance to read the relevant chapters again. Since we all have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-grandparents and so on, the number of ancestors doubling with every generation, it takes surprisingly little time before we find that any two people in the country have the same random ancestor. It’s not quite Six Degrees of Separation, or your Bacon Number or your Erdős number but somewhere in the past 600 years it’s very likely that the same person will crop up in the family trees of both me and my wife and we come from very different parts of the country.
Now this is a bit of a contradiction, given what I said earlier about people tending to stay in the same part of the world but even so, some people chose to move or were forced to move for work, or to avoid famine, imprisonment, oppression or just because they were a bit more restless than the norm. Whatever, it seems that if you come from one part of the country then you come from all parts of the country and if you go back further in time, then you come from all parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Everybody essentially comes from everywhere. That’s not the same as saying that we are rootless and it’s the need to feel rooted to a place or to find our family’s place in the world that the amateur genealogist does their thing.
I’ve mentioned the urge to go beyond where we are geographically. Gene Roddenbury’s “Space, the final frontier” line is one with which nearly all of us have grown up. That urge to boldly go is not one with which I am personally familiar. I’m too comfortable where I am now, although I do like standing at the counter in a cafe in Venice with an espresso doppio hearing but not really understanding the conversations going on around me. Some of us are explorers and without them we wouldn’t have ever left Africa and ended up all over the world.
As well as the physical explorers, there are the people who have to explore the limits of our understanding of the world. The theorists who come up with new ideas and the experimentalists and engineers who then have come up with ways of testing those ideas, sifting facts and sticking them together. It’s not just scientists and engineers. There are artists and poets and philosophers and athletes and teachers and even priests continually pushing beyond what we know and what we have achieved and showing us that the limits are just a little further away than we had thought.
And in spite of the wonder of it all, the unceasing expansion of What We Know and What We Can Do there are still countless arseholes who can’t see the value in any of it. If you can’t stick a price tag on it then it’s worthless, they think. And if you can put a price tag on it, then it better be a small one unless they are setting the price, in which case add a couple of zeroes before you get to the decimal point. And the people from Over There can’t come Over Here because this is Ours and We don’t want Them because they look different, have funny ideas, smell odd, eat the wrong food and will use up all Our Stuff. It’s all bollocks.
If someone is telling you that a third party is not One of Us, have a look at that person with some criticality. Do we share the same values? How much do we really have in common? Do they express their values in actions you find acceptable? I don’t like the politics of class, really, but I understand why class politics has its place. I’m not a fan of nationalism, in spite of being very proudly Scottish. The history of nationalism is not a happy one, especially in the 20th century. Going back to the start of this paragraph, if someone is telling me that someone is not one of us based on their race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, cultural practices or anything else and yet I have more in common with that third party based on values, aspirations, fellow-feeling, economic status and physical proximity then fuck it, the Us is me and that third party not me and, just for a random example Vote Leave, Leave.EU and Jacob Rees-Sodding-Mogg.
There’s a book in this. There are several, in fact. There are political manifestos and campaigns and all sorts and if we ever find a new kind of normal when all the travel and social restrictions are lifted, I hope I’ll have some to sell. I’ve proven already that I lack the concentration and organizational skills to write more than random, ranting blog posts myself. There will be a life after Covid19 and it will be different. If we allow the politics of Them and Us to continue, it will be a narrower, sadder, much, much stupider life than it could be. This emergency has shown that wherever borders have been drawn, we need to co-operate across them. There really isn’t a Them. We need a more inclusive approach to everything.