[I’m not one for alternate histories. I think there are no ifs. But I’m not oblivious to the attractions of the genre, and, after recent thoughts on Jimmy Carter, visions of what might have been flitted through my mind.]
Election Day 1976: after a grueling primary and a difficult election, Ronald Reagan, former governor of California, sweeps to victory, bringing with him a cohort of new Republican congressmen. In his victory address, he promises to restore America’s power and moral standing. Read More
The political revolutions of the 18th century were not unprecedented. Though their ideas went against the general stream of thirteen centuries of Western political thought, they had examples. The American Revolution could and did appeal to the Dutch and English Revolutions, the French to the American, and all of these looked backward to Republican Rome, Pre-monarchic Israel, and democratic Athens.
But then new things appeared. Locomotives that could pull great loads across land at speeds exceeding twenty miles an hour. Ships that ignored wind and current. Devices that harnessed that bizarre new substance, electricity, to transmit human speech across continental distances in an instant.
There were no examples for any of these. They were Strange. And from them, the Strangeness has never stopped.
Each generation of Americans dies in a country alien to that into which it was born.
Every fifty years, to arbitrarily pick a round figure, sees a new America.
From the invention of the telegraph and photography, media and communications technology proceeded so quickly that future historians may see them not as separate technologies, but as different phases in the development of one thing.
Until the Unprecedented Era, technology and natural philosophy were separate. When gunpowder was developed, it was because it worked, not because anyone realized that sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate could be combined to produce an explosive (as opposed to nitroglycerin, which was developed from chemistry). When medieval peasants spread marl on their fields, they didn’t know they were returning calcium and magnesium to the soil. They had no idea what was happening. They just knew it increased yields.
Which doesn’t mean that a natural philosopher, if asked, would not have come up with an explanation of why it increased yields. Great men of learning, with long forked beards and impressive academic robes, did not get to their status by shrugging their shoulders and mumbling “I dunno.” If anyone ever inquired, they would have had long and elegant theories, rife with Aristotle and Plato. And if any other natural philosophers had been within earshot, they probably would have produced their own theories, leading to extensive and erudite debate.
And they all would have been wrong. Just because you have an explanation–even an impressive explanation–doesn’t mean that explanation has the slightest connection to reality.
“In 1641, that curious ruling prince, Charles IV de Lorraine, found himself short of cavalry horses, and without means of buying any. Nothing daunted, he raised the cry of the Church in danger, convened his clergy, and made them an eloquent address in the principal church of his capital. While he was doing so, his troopers stole all the horses of the assembled ecclesiastics.”
–W.H. Lewis, The Splendid Century
Welcome to my Christmas song
I’d like to thank you for the year
I somehow never heard Elton John’s “Step Into Christmas” before 2014. I don’t know how I missed it for forty Christmases. When I finally did, it came as this lovely discovery of middle age. It’s such a happy song, with a vision of the season, wry and sincere at the same time, relishing the past and looking forward to the future. When the ad nauseum Christmas music radio stations play it, I turn it up. I love that song.
What could this awesome song have been like in context? When was it was first released?
“Step Into Christmas” was released in the Christmas season of 1973.
In our time, to be one who “stands athwart history, yelling Stop” is to be doomed to perpetual disappointment. In the Unprecedented Era, change is a constant. The only way to stop one track of change is by forming another, so if one manages to stop Change X, it will cause Change Y. Either way, change wins.
The only way conservatism has managed to achieve any victories in the Era is by allying itself with capitalism. But capitalism is a fearsome champion of change, a universal solvent. No past can maintain itself where capitalism prowls. A fire might as well try to win by allying itself with the ocean. Thus the conservative becomes a tool of his own disappointment.