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!

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