The Curse of Cassandra
My wife and I sometimes spend the afternoon trying to wrap our heads around what's going on in the world and why. We try to stay informed, grounded in the facts (which are still a thing, thank you very much) and make an effort to keep things in perspective. The operative word here is try. There's a lot of nuance and intersections to bear in mind after all. The world is a complicated place.
My favorite perspective, personally, is the historical one. The long view. History moves forward like a wobbly toddler, a few steps back, a few more to the side, falling over a few times and crying, repeating the same mistakes over and over until, ultimately, it does inch forward and learns from those mistakes. The further we get the more humanity cringes with embarrassment when it looks back on those clumsy steps and pratfalls. If it's willing to look back at all.
George Santayana once said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." And, likewise, those who do know history are doomed to watch others repeat it.
I suspect many students of history --even recent history-- feel unheard. Students of climate history, of sociopolitical history, of the history of civil rights, the history of the world. Like your attempts to reach out, to pull them out of a vicious cycle are utterly dismissed, and you begin to wonder if the world is mad or you are. They call you names like 'sjw', 'libtard', 'feminazi' or 'snowflake' for trying to put things in perspective and explain your point of view. You get put down for being passionate, for caring, for your frustration and sensitivity. Even when it's from your own life experience. Things that seem like obvious statements of fact are met with willful defiance, if not outright threats, more and more often.
Which is what brought to mind the legend of Cassandra.
As with many ancient Greek tales there are several versions of Cassandra's story. I'm going to go with the one that includes snakes because that's the kind of site this is and the sort of person I am.
Cassandra and her twin brother Helenus were left by their parents, at a sanctuary for Apollo, as children. While sleeping in the sanctuary numerous serpents crawled over them and "licked their ears clean", giving them the ability to prophesize the future. Apollo decided this unasked for gift meant Cassandra owed him something and when she turned down his advances he cursed her so she would be able to see the future with perfect clarity, but no one would believe her prophecies.
As you can imagine this provided Cassandra with a lifetime of frustration. She was called names, abused, attacked, and even when her prophecies were proven right time and time again she continued to be dismissed as insane. She depended on her brother to give people believable fortunes but if they knew it came from her the prophecy would be ignored.
Cassandra warned her fellow Trojans about the Greek soldiers hiding in the giant wooden horse they'd brought into their walls. She even grabbed a torch in one hand and an axe in the other and threw herself at the horse, with the intention of burning
it and revealing the danger, but she was restrained and mocked while the enemy within breathed a sigh of relief. Then Troy fell.
She predicted many things with painful accuracy and no matter how many times she was right, she was belittled, ignored, threatened, sexually assaulted, and eventually murdered. And everyone suffered for it.
I realize this isn't a particularly uplifting story to regale you with at the start of 2017, and I'm certainly not claiming that progressives can see into the future. However, recorded history has been around long enough that we have ample tools to see patterns. Humanity, for better or for worse, is fairly predictable. Climate and our planet's reactions to it even more so.
Add to this the information age. Right at your fingertips is the ability to cross-check sources and read about the life experiences of people all over the world. The opportunity to understand each other using these tools is amazing. A mere hundred years ago the tech we have now may as well have been magic.
Handheld scrying devices free with a two year contract!
Yet there's that age old human resistance to using what we have at hand to better ourselves and the world. Short sighted habit is far more comfortable than progress.
Who wants to check the Trojan horse for enemy soldiers on the recommendation of a crazy lady who just happens to always be right? I mean, she is so emotional all the time. Women, amirite? She's clearly overreacting and my apathy is evidence of my rightness. The horse is the parting gift of losers, nothing more. Back to the victory festivities!
What interests me the most about Cassandra, though, is that despite how ill treated she was, how bad it got, she continued to warn the very people who were cruel to her. It was dangerous, and she knew it was dangerous. But she cared. She cared to the bitter end and did everything she could to keep her terrible predictions from
coming true. Standing up for what's right isn't always celebrated or rewarded. Sometimes it's just the opposite.
Sometimes speaking out and doing what's right can cost you everything.
That's what keeps good people quiet. What makes them look away from injustice and convince themselves that someone else will step in. Someone else will take care of it. Perhaps this is why we don't see much of Cassandra's brother in her tales despite mention of his allyship. Fear is a natural response because good things don't always happen to people who stand up for what they know to be true. We can be shamed, attacked, even killed. That's what history has taught us. How many great civil rights figures have been assassinated? How many have sacrificed for every baby step civilization takes forward? Cassandra knew she would be murdered. History is full of these stories, these patterns. Everyone wants to quote these brave figures but no one, no one with sense anyway, wants to be them.
But we need Cassandras. We need people who are willing to take those risks. People who are willing to look foolish in the face of smug complacency, to stand up for victims in the face of willful insensitivity, and to be willing to endure unspeakable cruelty in the name of something greater than themselves. Without those brave souls who go unappreciated in their lifetimes the slow march toward the future would be a far uglier, more dangerous slog than it is today. We need them and we need more of them. As many as we can get. There's safety in numbers. We need people who stand up for, protect, and listen to Cassandras too. Be skeptical but listen, investigate, open up the Trojan horse just in case. You might be surprised what you find in there.
Do what you know to be right because it is right rather than in hopes of a reward. Do it because it needs to be done for future generations. Utilize your strengths, find your niche (where you can do the most good with your unique abilities and perspectives). Do it for a future you may never see. Brace yourself for the backlash, but stand strong and know that you are needed and not alone.
I realize I haven't made activism sound very glamorous here and that's because it isn't. That's the truth. Progress is difficult and comes with considerable risk and hard work. But even if or when your name and deeds are lost to history-- for someone, someday, your contributions will have a meaningful impact and pave the way for future generations to push ahead even further.
As Carrie Fisher said, “Stay afraid, but do it anyway."