Saturday, March 29, 2014

"Tuchman's Law", and other reminders of A Distant Mirror.

I was conversing with the Bookseller and commented that the historian Barbara W. Tuchman's The Guns of August, an examination of events leading to the start of World War I, has not maintained the reputation it once enjoyed. This may be overly glib, based as it is on cursory glances at contemporary essays, but it got me thinking about Tuchman, and the book of hers I always enjoyed the most: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.

Kindly permit me to offer two excerpts. First, a reminder that the Creation Museum isn't far away, and neither is the prevalence of superstition -- in the 14th century or the 21st.

“History was finite and contained within comprehensible limits. It began with the Creation and was scheduled to end in a not indefinitely remote future with the Second Coming, which was the hope of afflicted mankind, followed by the Day of Judgment. Within that span, man was not subject to social or moral progress because his goal was the next world, not betterment in this. In this world he was assigned to ceaseless struggle against himself in which he might attain individual progress and even victory, but collective betterment would only come in the final union with God.”

Then, the so-called Tuchman's law, which was formulated long before social media.

“Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening--on a lucky day--without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman's Law, as follows: "The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold" (or any figure the reader would care to supply).”

Occasionally, maybe we all just need to take one, good, deep breath.

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