Friday, April 01, 2005


With the last bit of profit wrung from the passion of Terry Schaivo, the media looked anxiously around for its next obsession, trusting that just as Diana succeeded O.J. and Jackson followed Monica, some fundamentally trivial but sensational happening would provide the occasion for a fresh round of moral theater featuring artificially sweetened sentiment, recreational grief, and/or fabricated anger. It didn’t have to wait even a day. I guess it is appropriate that the Catholic Church got around to supplying the entertainment this time since the papacy pioneered the creation and exploitation of emotional hysteria. St. Bernardino, the Rush Limbaugh of the 16th century, could have stepped into a job at Fox without a moment of further training. Of course the death of a very old and very sick man is not remarkable or tragic; but properly spun it can supply yet another way to deflect public attention from important issues, including, in the case, the very important and very problematic things John Paul II did when he wasn’t dying.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Lines Masquerading as Volumes

Young historians attack the archives armed with hypotheses, which, though it is probably the best way to get your degree, has a signal disadvantage. It isn’t just that the people in the past weren’t doing their damnedest to give birth to the present. Their preoccupations don’t normally have much overlap with ours. An historian expecting to find Philip II obsessing about the rights of the unborn is like the gnat that asked Alice what insects she rejoiced in back home. Or, to reverse the temporality, imagine a time-traveling imperial chancellor asking W about his stand on the Investiture Controversy. Whole eras doubtless have more bandwidth than individual human beings, but the agenda is necessarily extremely narrow since in the absence of radical selectiveness, disagreement would be as impossible as consensus in the vast, deserted forest of the possible. It follows that to actually encounter the past, it is first of all necessary to become familiar with its hobbyhorses and that requires a certain amount of aimless rambling in the sources, not a very popular activity in our rapid age.