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A terrible personal setback!


 

FT’s Christopher Caldwell thoroughly exposes one of my favourite rhetorical/opinion-writing stunts and does it to death:

Putting things into quantitative chronology rather than sentimental chronology can lead us to reassess a lot of historical prejudices. How new a country is the US? Benjamin Franklin’s birth in Boston (1706) is nearly as close to Dante’s and Chaucer’s 14th century as it is to the present. That makes the US seem positively ancient, not really a New World at all any more. On the other hand, to know that Ronald Reagan’s birth (in Tampico, Illinois, in 1911) is closer to Waterloo (1815) than it is to us makes the country sound as if it were just founded. How recent a problem is the automobile? Well, the first car that Karl Benz manufactured (1885) is as close to the reign of George II (1727-60) as it is to us. How modern an ideology is communism? Marx’s and Engels’s Communist Manifesto (1848) is closer to the English and Scottish Stuart monarchy (which ended with the Glorious Revolution in 1688) than to us.

On and on and on he goes, using up dozens of examples that I’ll now never get to shock people with myself, and even offering what I think is the correct diagnosis of the apparent “acceleration of time” relative to cultural innovation. This is a column I should have written sometime, and the really sad part is that it doesn’t require any research, properly speaking, at all: just access to Wikipedia. When you’re on a deadline, those are the best kind!


 

A terrible personal setback!

  1. How modern an ideology is communism? Marx's and Engels's Communist Manifesto (1848) is closer to the English and Scottish Stuart monarchy (which ended with the Glorious Revolution in 1688) than to us.

    Not to mention it was written when the US still had slavery. But I digress…

  2. I don't think some of those example's are very meaningful.

    Using Ronald Reagan; we might measure from his term in office and with Communism we might measure from it's hey-day ie. when it was embraced by the largest number of countries.

    Caldwell's point is taken though, especially with colonial America.

    Here's perhaps another related point. That the Moorish kingdoms of Spain lasted twice as long as the inhabitation of the North America by Europeans; and the Moors were kicked out!

    • 454

    • "I don't think some of those example's are very meaningful.

      "Using Ronald Reagan; we might measure from his term in office and with Communism we might measure from it's hey-day ie. when it was embraced by the largest number of countries."

      I think that was the point, wasn't it?

  3. Hunter Thompson once wrote that he used a lot of Bible quotes because he often wrote in hotels and all that was around was a Gideon Bible. Wonder whether the internets have degraded journalistic swiping along with much else. I wouldn't know as I can rarely even be arsed to Google.

    • By natural law, our laziness grows in exact proportion to the ease with which we could conceivably do research and fact-checking. I'm just grateful to be part of the generation that does have the "You can just Google that" software installed.

      • Rob Nicholson could use you to promote one more new casino in his riding. Wouldn't that be grand?

      • "By natural law, our laziness grows in exact proportion to the ease with which we could conceivably do research and fact-checking."

        Heh.

  4. I spent a year on an archaeological project in Hong Kong. The initial strata were "only" a few hundred years old, and the pottery shards were simply tossed aside as garbage. It took some getting used to, having spent time on Canadian sites where material less than a century old was still considered valuable and worthy of preservation. It's always stayed with me as a powerful lesson in the relativity of time and history.

  5. I think I'm missing something.

    "Putting things into quantitative chronology rather than sentimental chronology can lead us to reassess a lot of historical prejudices."

    This seems like an instance of the false dilemma fallacy, suggesting these are the only two options, and his intitial example–coupling Franklin's birthdate with the age of the USA–furthermore seems wrongly to place numerical quantity over the qualitative effect of historical developments (e.g the elision that blurs Bush's 2000, practically-Thatcher-era 'election' into the 2009 conclusion of his War-on-Terror/Axis-of-Evil 'presidency,' with which we are all now living–or dying, as the case may be).

    What does it mean to our sense of how old the USA is to note that one of the principal revoluntionaries was born closer to the start of the eighteenth century than to the end. Hamilton was born fifty years after Franklin–so what?

    Surely the focus should be on how the relevant documents speak to the audiences they addressed in the ages and under the circumstances in which they addressed them, and not to game-playing with calendars.

    Take Caxton. Sure, his birthday is far closer to Chaucer's than to any of ours, but since he lived through a qualitative change Chaucer didn't know–mass production of printed books–he's closer to us in his prefaces than he is to Chaucer. In writing them, he joins us in modernity in a way Chaucer cannot.

    Or take Bertrand Russell, born in the 1870s. Does that birthday fact make the Rusell-Einstein manifesto of 1955 more like the product of the 19th century than of the post-nuclear-weapon era it addressed?

    I'd say no.

    The Russell-Einstein Manifesto, issued under the shadow of nuclear destruction, seems far more like a "present-day" document than a document of an era defined by some arbitrarily chosen date such as 1905–as long before the Manifesto's Issue as we are after it.

    Again, I think I'm missing something, or perhaps a lot of things,

    • Well, I would definitely disagree with you if you're arguing that there was nothing of the reforming Victorian liberal in Russell's postwar political activity (or Einstein's for that matter). I find it weird that anyone would find abundant contemporariness within its faith in global institutions and in pre-WWII disarmament doctrines.

      • I see your point.

        I think I was getting hung up on the numbers game.

  6. FT's Christopher Caldwell thoroughly exposes one of my favourite rhetorical/opinion-writing stunts and does it to death:

    Colby Cosh — Stunt Man Extraordinaire.

  7. … Fortunately, there are no interesting or important issues in our nation to discuss.

    • If you want something else Iain, your welcome to move on to another post and stop bothering us with your useless comments on this one.

  8. Which half of the 20th Century was more turbulent? Did the world change more between 1901 and 1950 or between 1951 and 2000? I once argued this was someone, I argued that the first 50 years had more change mainly because of WWI, WWII, Russian Revolution and automobile mass production. Consider that airplanes went from being invented to breaking the speed of the sound within those years.

  9. Put into personal terms, my birth year (1965) is closer to the end of WWII than it is to today. Thinking about the history that happened in that twenty years makes me dizzy…

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