Context Matters

A few weeks ago I went to see the movie Argo. It’s one of those historical movies where we already know the ending–that a group of Americans who had escaped being held hostage by the Iranians had hidden in the Canadian Ambassador’s house before being rescued. In 1981 the rescue came from the Canadians themselves, in 2012, once the mission was declassified by the CIA, we learned the true story. That an American Intelligence Officer had entered the country as part of a fake film crew and had led those individuals to safety.

The film is great both for reasons you might expect (intense, suspenseful, heroic), but also because of the first five minutes in which we are given context. In those five minutes we are told in wide brush strokes the key elements of Persian/Iranian geo-political history…and the active role of the United States and Britain in that history, emphasizing, that nothing happens without a precipitating action.

History is complex. It is easy to hold up a single individual or group of people and have them shoulder the blame. It is also easy to look at those who came before and ask the questions we ask as historians, and as citizens: why did he make that choice. Why wasn’t she stronger. Why didn’t they speak up.

It’s easy to stand where we stand, ten, fifteen, twenty, a hundred years later and say I would not have reacted that way. Just as it is very, very easy for us to stand and pass judgement, not only on those we disagree with, but also with those who stand with us.

A week ago I was asked how I would feel if I lived in the time of George Washington, as I certainly would not have had the same standing as other colonists (being of Indian decent). My answer is this. I cannot say how I would have acted. But my reverence of the icons of our American past–Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson is not limited to their so-called-perfection but rather an understanding that they too were human. Their ability to speak up and make change was dictated by very specific circumstances, and often they acted with the recognition that their private and public actions conflicted. After all, context matters.

But for each of us, our context is only what we’ve seen in our lifetimes. We are not far enough away to truly understand the impact of our generation on individual lives, and nations. But we have the ability to speak up. To strive for change. To push us forward.

So look around you. In what context are you looking at the facts, seeing the patterns, becoming informed? What is the full context, the full story for our current situation.

Gather the full understanding of where we stand in this moment…

…and go vote.

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