It was February, 1968, and I was just turning eighteen. I was sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Callao, the port city adjacent to Lima, Peru, reading an English language Time magazine that was reporting on the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. And I remember thinking to myself, “This is an important moment in history!” 

I was right. But I’ve seldom been since. Like most people I miss the moments that turn out to matter. For example, on that Tuesday morning I was driving to campus when the radio reported a passenger plane had hit the World Trade Center, and I remember thinking, “Wow, what are the chances?!” As I pulled into the parking lot it reported the second plane, and I remember doubling down on the same thought. In fact I was almost at my office before the penny dropped. For a guy so widely regarded as brilliant – I have the focus group data to prove it – I can sometimes be amazingly thick. 

But I also see moments that aren’t there. For example, I keep looking at what’s happening with race relations in America, and I keep thinking to myself. “Something’s going to blow!” And then it doesn’t. But these misconceptions are easily explained. Because the news is really just entertainment, the cameras are aimed at where there’s action. But a block to the right or left of the mis en scene, the busses are running on time and the kids are tossing frisbees in the park. But busses and frisbees aren’t newsworthy.

So in the sense of the busses not running on time, and the frisbees being grounded, I don’t suppose something’s ever going to exactly blow. It’s just going to simmer and occasionally boil.

A society built on the sweat of slaves doesn’t shake off the stench of it with a hand-wave of dismissal. This simmering to boil, and then back again, is going to go on for as long as blacks rightfully resent those whites, long-since-dead, responsible for their ancestors’ slavery, and so long as those whites, who are wholly innocent of that past, rightfully resent that resentment. So Trump was right, though not in the sense he meant it. “There were good people on both sides” in Charlottesville, in the sense that there were no bad people on either side. There were just people, black and white, each thoughtlessly accusing the other of something for which neither can be asked to take responsibility.

I’m a news junky. It’s my guilty pleasure. I want to see the camera doing a full 360 to capture the busses in flames and the kids running for cover. There’s a bad historian in me telling me that things change in these kinds of leaps and bounds. But there’s a better one in me who knows that’s almost never the case. It’s just that watching paint dry isn’t as much fun. I guess I’m just feel nostalgic for that day in Callao.   

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask

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9 replies

  1. What society built on slaves? That was destroyed in our Civil War. Look at old B&W photos of destruction of every major southern city, govt, industry, culture, etc. And Blacks “rightfully” resent whites long since dead, for ancestry, and as long as innocent whites resent the resentment. I admit terrible paraphrase, but “rightfully”? Clearly you jest. If ancient history is never consigned to history, and instead kept in the present, there can never be end to resentment, in anyone, for anything. Zero sum. My east Euro ancestry would excuse a never ending conflict against almost everyone, eh? Until death did us part. That cannot be the end game.


    • I suppose the question is always: what’s the statute of limitation on historical grievance? Celts protesting the Norman invasion of 1066 would be silly, but does Tom think the Jews should forgive the Germans? Slavery in America seems to sit somewhere in between.


  2. Thomas Sowell recently tweeted: “It is self-destructive for any society to create a situation where a baby who is born into the world today automatically has pre-existing grievances against another baby born at the same time, because of what their ancestors did centuries ago.”


  3. I’ve a few cursory comments,

    1) I guess, and I’m sure literature exists on the matter, that the reason the news is the news — sensational — is in no small part due to some evolutionary feature that drives us to share news with others. Food sources (think of the foodie blogs) are one category of things we’ve an impetus to share with others (in our groups), and warnings all the more so. Look at the behaviour of other animals, squawking warnings to members of their groups. We do the same thing. But, we have to recognize the thing we are squawking about is squawk-worthy. Ironically, that a thing is unrecognisable is a feature we recognize requires a cautionary call-out. Novel things might be met with curiosity or dread, but they do draw our attention. Another is that what we see resembles something we’ve learned is dangerous. And we’ve not only the impetus to call, but also an impetus to listen and heighten our senses.

    Anyway, I’m working through the above notions for a blog series on the perlocutionary force of political rhetoric. That is, what sorts of things comprise our mental states, cf Aristotle, such that political rhetoric moves us in some direction (has its persuasive effect, or fails to).

    2) I think my blog-entry ‘Fist-pumping’ dovetails with the ordinary scenario omitted by media clips, as Paul describes. https://pam-mentations.com/2020/06/27/pam-toons-trust/

    3) Recommended reading: Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow; Aristotle’s Rhetoric (Google Project Gutenberg); Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death.

    More later, P


  4. Something that bothers me. Are the 24 hour-infotainment stations e.g. Fox, CNN, MSNBC — in a feedback loop with the stories they feature? I’m thinking of something akin to an arms race.

    A station flogs a story for sometimes weeks on end, the situation being reported worsens because it’s amplified (fuelled) by the news, the news station then reports that things are getting much worse, which further worsens the situation, which then gets reported as getting much, much worse … and so on. Until another feedback loop begins for a new story. Or maybe, rather than a feedback loop, what I’m noticing is that a news-run simply escalates to a climax before dropping off as happens in fiction novels. I’d say the story has to end or people will lose interest, but the popularity of long-run soap operas falsifies that statement. Anyway, that news-runs climax is not mutually exclusive with the idea of a feedback loop.

    I’m not suggesting the news media stations are intentionally creating these feedback loops, if they exist. They might, and they might. I don’t know how much influence these media outlets really have. But I can’t think of any way to run a control to make the measure.


  5. Then again,

    No, Virginia, The Trump Thing Ain’t New.

    Who said the following:

    “I wanted to dispel the fictions of hearsay, and to ask people into whose hands my book may come not to prefer widely circulated and eagerly accepted fantasies over truth uncorrupted by sensationalism.”*

    Did you guess Tacitus? Tacitus, the renowned Roman historian, writes these words in the Annals sometime around 117 CE. Yet both the quote and the worries expressed therein are entirely modern. Both CNN and Fox News provide many examples of sensationalism. (And it’s worth paying attention to your inner life while watching your preferred station.)

    If you are surprised that Tacitus’ imploration perdures across two millenia, you oughtn’t be. “What has been will be again, and what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NIV) A little study of ancient texts in order to gain some perspective about current situations and human behaviour is time well spent.

    *Tacitus. The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. Oxford World’s Classics. Translated by J.C. Yardley. Introduction and notes by Anthony A. Barrett. Oxford University Press Inc.: New York. 2008. (Book 4, 11., p 142.)


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