Yesterday, I wrote “The beauty of King’s divine dissatisfaction“ about reading more of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words. This morning, as I continued reading The Radical King, I encountered a man I’d not yet met in any of my prior readings: Norman Thomas.
This June 1965 King article excerpt on white socialist Thomas began thusly:
Truly, the life of Norman Thomas has been one of deep commitment to the betterment of all humanity. In 1928, the year before I was born, he waged the first of six campaigns as the Socialist Party’s candidate for President of the United States. A decade earlier, as a preacher, he fought gallantly, if unsuccessfully, against American involvement in World War 1. Both then and now he has raised aloft the banner of civil liberties, civil rights, labor’s right to organize, and has played a significant role in so many diverse areas of activity that newspapers all over the land have termed him “America’s conscience.”
(In 1963, King’s father described Thomas as “for us before any other white folks were.”)
As I read through the essay, it seemed more and more remarkable Thomas wasn’t included in any history I remember reading. I closed the book and reflected on that for a moment, and upon “history.”
I read mathematician Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction on human-hurting algorithms a couple of months ago. I’m now reading it again for a book club.
We’ve only just discussed the introduction and the first chapter, which means that it’s too fresh in mind for me to not draw parallels. It struck me: Written history is a kind of model.
About models, O’Neil writes:
A model, after all, is nothing more than an abstract representation of some process, be it a baseball game, an oil company’s supply chain, a foreign government’s actions, or a movie theater’s attendance. Whether it’s running in a computer program or in our head, the model takes what we know and uses it to predict responses in various situations …
In creating my [formal external model of my family meal preparation process], I’d be extending my power and influence in the world. I’d be building an automated me that others can implement, even when I’m not around.
There would be mistakes, however, because models are, by their very nature, simplifications. No model can include all of the real world’s complexity or the nuance of human communication. Inevitably, some important information gets left out.
Whether in finance or history, the person who creates the model will leave things out. In some cases, important things will be left out by accident or oversight; in others, exclusions will be intentional, leading users and/or victims to look upon deeply flawed models whose flaws are invisible to them and think, “I guess that’s just how it is.”
But those models? I’m coming to see how they leave out the very best parts (like, in American historical models, Norman Thomas), at least from the perspective of those forced into powerlessness–in part–by destructive models. By limiting most people’s perception of what was, their conception of what might yet be is also limited.
How can impacted populations begin to decipher the biases of a model? The best I can figure, that’s by (1) looking at who created the model and (2) asking what biases in the model would lead the creator to benefit.
A couple years ago, I didn’t understand how many critical questions go unasked by Americans. Now, I understand that one of the most important questions of all is: Cui bono? (Who benefits, and is therefor likely the culprit of a crime?)
Reading King and O’Neill in conjunction, I see clearly how citizens without significant power are harmed by accepting models as they’re dumped on us.
This morning, as yesterday, I find myself appreciating the beauty and power of King’s “divine dissatisfaction,” which is to say: non-acceptance of destructive forces which should not ever be accepted.
“History’s going to be as flawed as who writes it.”
— my husband, after I read him this post