Sunday, September 05, 2004

Placing Excessive Historical Importance on Events of the Recent Past

A long title for a simple complaint. This is something I've observed many times, in many guises, and just seethe at. Whether it's a movie theater pre-show quizzing me on "classic quotes" for movies no older than a year, top 10 or top 100 lists for music, books, movies, greatest moments in sports, etc. dominated by events of the last 5 years, or any other 'look back', we all have this irritating tendency to place undue value and significance on recent events.

For Christmas, I got that big New York Times book that has the big front pages from the last century. Titanic, Pearl Harbor, the moon landing, all as they originally appeared. But something strange was going on. The years 1997-2003, at the end of the book, were overrepresented to the point of lunacy. Tiger Woods winning the masters? The arraignment of Terry Nichols? The death of Dale Earnhart? Meanwhile, if you turn to the WWII pages, you get
maybe half the coverage.

Ask the average dude on the street to name his favorite 10 movies. How much you wanna bet he starts naming The Matrix, Spiderman, etc? I just opened Entertainment Weekly the other day, and they had an article on the top 20 or so moments of President-Celebrity encounters. JFK meeting Marilyn Monroe was #1, but #3 was inexplicably Bill Clinton playing sax on Arsenio.

Bill Clinton playing sax on Arsenio is not "the third most 'top moment' of President-Celebrity encounters" as dumb as that category is. That moment is not in there because of its historical importance, but because of its important membership in a category called The Recent Past.

One more off the cuff example. Back around 2000, A&E ran a much touted series called "The 100 most influential people of the millenium." This is THE MILLENIUM, folks. Not just "The 90's" or "The Twentieth Century". Things that happened in 1001 AD have to be considered. And somehow, Steven Spielberg is on the list. Now, nobody respects Spielberg or enjoys his movies more than me, but come on now. This is retarded. Spielberg can't influence the millenium. He was only an adult for the final 25 years of it.

The man made some damn good movies, and his Shoah Foundation does great work, but no matter how much respect we have for him, he just isn't influencing the millenium. Monteverdi, 16th century father of the modern opera, to pick one historical person at random, inlfuenced the millenium QUITE A BIT more than Spielberg, but was not on the list. (not that he should have been)

Why are we all so prone to overhype the significance of the recent past? I can think of a few possible causes. #1, we all have a warm, fuzzy, nostalgic regard for our childhood. We all would like to imagine it as some sort of idealized time. How else can you explain the sequential nostalgia boom of the last 20 years for the 60's, 70's, then 80's?

#2, we all desire, vainly, to have been around during historical events of great importance. Remember "Where were you when you found out Magic Johnson had AIDS?" Yeah right. That deserves comparison to the Kennedy assasination. Let's face it, the biggest historical event of our lives has likely already happened. It was the fall of the Soviet Union and European communism.

Even 9/11 is just a blip on history's radar. Maybe it will turn out of be an event that sparks decades of other events, like the assasination that led to World War 1 - but in terms of lives lost, there are events going on RIGHT NOW that exceed 9/11's death toll. Sudan. Congo. Chechnya.

#3, we're all short attention spanned idiots.

My modest proposal on this issue is that we place a 10 year buffer-zone in all future top 100 lists. When considering best movies, most influential books, greatest political speakers, greatest works of architecture, greatest World Series moments, etc. etc. we cannot consider anything from the last 10 years. We must force events and accomplishments of the recent past to pass the test of time before elevating them to classic status.

1 comment:

Cletus Van Damme said...

Imagine you're some 23 year old loser and all you've ever wanted to do was write quotable blurbs for a major magazine or television show. Now, one of the higher ups asks you to think of history's ten most important pieces of music. The list you get off the top of your head is almost entirely hip-hop. You know your parents and their friends like the Beatles, so you throw in "Abbey Road". Out of shame, you google "opera" (because you feel you have to), and add Don Giovani to your list. Your supervisor insists on putting his favorite band's album there because it's always *meant* so much to him. Now you've got a list so droolingly stupid that only someone with less knowledge than you could appreciate it. Lucky for you, the bored higher-ups could give a shit about stuff like this, so off the printer it goes!

Here's a hint, Madison Avenue. When you publish lists or article about things that only an expert would know, make sure you ask an expert. I don't want to see lists of great books with "Everything is Illuminated" at the top. And stop asking me about which direction NASA should go in little pop-up surveys. Not only don't I know, but neither do 99.9% of the people you're asking. You might as well want my input on which heart valve the surgeon should replace on his ailing patient.