Most Recent Events Matter Very Little

T. David Gordon’s book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns is superb. He does a good job of making us reevaluate our presuppositions concerning the importance of sacred music. Throughout the book there is running critique of contemporary pop culture.  Here is a paragraph on why we should give our attention to events from long ago, but shouldn’t give much attention to what happened recently.

A historian, Sommerville has a predictable thesis: there is wisdom to be gained from giving our attention to things that happened some time ago (say, thirty years or more). The consequences of such events can be observed, and a chorus of interpreters of those consequences can place their thoughts before the public, which can judge whether the interpreters of those consequences are right, and whether lessons can be learned. But this cannot be done with what happened yesterday. We do not and cannot know the consequences of a recent event, nor is there time for competent interpreters to develop their interpretations. The news “makes us dumb” because we give our attention to what can never make us wiser…in giving so much attention to what is recent, Sommerville argues, we become contemporaneists, people who intuitively believe that giving attention to what is recent is more important that giving attention to what is not recent. Otherwise, why would I care to read a newspaper account of someone robbing a convenience store yesterday rather than read an account of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.

We often believe and are told that certain recent events will have great impact on the future. That could be laws that are passed or treaties that are made or politicians that are voted into office. But the truth is we rarely can tell the impact of major events until decades later.  Even something as massive as 9/11  with all that followed is hard to evaluate. This does not mean we cannot make value judgments on laws and actions. But it does mean to properly understand the recent past we must immerse ourselves in the distant past. The truth is most recent events that fly across our screens or phones and get us all riled up or excited are transitory and of little significance. Here a couple of closing quotes from this section of Gordon’s book

Many events hold our attention merely because they are recent, proved by the fact that we almost never read a newspaper that is a week old. If a historian wrote a book about the mundane realities that appear in the newspaper ( or on the televised news), no one would read  the book. We expect historians to exercise good judgment about which events are worthy of our attention-an expectation with which we do not encumber “the news.”

The reason The Boston Globe cannot sell me a newspaper is the same reason Time cannot sell me a weekly newsmagazine, which is the same reason I’ve never seen Katie Couric anchor the evening news: I don’t believe recently occurring events are ordinarily worthy of my attention…Further, I am very self-aware of a value issue here: is something worthy of my (limited) attention merely because it occurred recently?