|[a] Intertwined RF|
As readers of Round and Square can probably sense from my Fieldnotes from History posts, I was feeling my way around ethnographic methodology back in the mid-1980s (after college and before graduate school), as well as the nuts-and-bolts of Chinese history and culture. I had two problems, shared by almost all students at the beginnings of their careers. I didn't know how to proceed (I didn't understand "methodology") and I didn't know much stuff, either. It's not a good combination, but it is pretty much built-in to all learning. I didn't know how to learn more, and I didn't know much of anything to begin with. Not good.
|[b] (En)treaty RF|
The answers were fascinating. They ranged from "The Republic of China is the legitimate bearer of political power in China; it happens to control one of the provinces at the current time" to "Taiwan has been the unhappy meeting ground of colonial powers from the Chinese in the twelfth century to the Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, and Chinese again...in 1947." The answers "in-between" were just as interesting and, mulling them over even today, I have a slice-in-time of island politics and culture that will never be the same. I took notes back then. Careful ones.
|[c] Thousand-tell RF|
Only a year into my stay, Taiwan (the Republic of China) held its first set of local elections. Utter chaos. But something was happening, and my "naive" question could not be asked even (mid-1986) in the same way that I had asked it in early-1985. Through my thousand-ask methodology, I was learning about history, too. Time was changing everything. The question that seemed sincere and well-scrubbed in the spring of 1985 looked calculated and increasingly mean by the summer of 1986.
I changed questions, but I had learned a lot already.
|[d] So many questions RF|
Culture is like that.
These questions work everywhere. Starting graduate school in Chicago in 1987, I was struck by how divided American politics "felt" in the last years of the Reagan administration—on the eve of Iran-Contra, Robert Bork, Willie Horton, and Michael Dukakis mocked in helmet and tank. It probably is relevant that one of my professors at the University of Chicago was Allan Bloom, who had just written a bestseller about how divided we all were (and what was wrong with us). The thousand-ask methodology started to rev its gears; I erred on the side of basic questions.
What's a liberal? Who is a liberal?
What's a conservative? Who is a conservative?
|[e] Governor RF|
...written them down. Note to self and to any young ethnographer listening.
Write it down, damnit.
You'll remember (at least I do), but you won't have it there for your continued edification. It makes all the difference in the world. Comparatively speaking, I record my life and thoughts pretty well. I have drawers and binders and notebooks full of jottings. Still, I never thought to write down the answers to what was already becoming a "methodology" of thousand-ask questions. I finally woke up to this in 2002, and have been jotting again ever since. I lost fifteen years to mere memory, though, because (how common is this, historians?) I thought it was too obvious to write down, and I was dead wrong.
That is why we will never know anything about the past (more on that—and much more upbeat—later this year).
Conservatives. Liberals. The world was complicated and changing. Far more people were willing to call themselves the latter back then. Surprisingly, or not, far fewer people were willing to call themselves the former back then, either. Monsieur Rush had his work cut out for him. You had no idea...unless you are my age or older.
|[f] Questions RF|
What's a conservative? What's a liberal?
We're still asking these questions today. If you really listen to your "thousand" answers, you'll learn far more about our political culture and shared world than you ever could by asking about the future of the Federal Reserve or whether we should have an education department.
Think about it, and we'll head to China's sacred mountains tomorrow for the last post in this miniseries.