Choosing Your Moment

You may have missed it.

Thursday, January 21 at 9.21 p.m. This was the twenty-first minute of the twenty-first hour of the twenty-first day of the twenty-first year of the twenty-first century.

I would say that the chances are good that I will not be around for 10.22 p.m. on January 22, 2122. Nor am I venerable enough to remember January 20, 1920, so it seems safe to say that such an auspicious moment will not be repeated in my lifetime nor I suspect in most of yours.

At this point, I should point out that I am a historian by profession, and History has been defined as the study of Mankind in Time. Hence, you might think that I would be more attentive than most to dates and other chronological matters. You would be wrong. At the most personal level, I have a dreadful memory for dates and observe with genuine respect people who can immediately recall birthdays, anniversaries, and other points of commemoration. At the professional level, thankfully, things are better, but I always think it prudent to check my facts. For instance, it would appear that January 20, 1920 is not really a milestone of the twentieth century. For Italians (and I am living in Italy at the moment), it was the day that the League of Nations issued an ultimatum for the newly formed Yugoslav republic in which to permit Italy to take control of the Adriatic port of Fiume within four days. Since the city was subsequently ceded to Yugoslavia and hence to Croatia after World War II (As Rijeka, it is that nation’s third largest city), the decision was indecisive. Italians might feel better remembering that January 20, 1920 saw the birth of Federico Fellini, the celebrated film director. In the same way, ardent Star Trek fans might be pleased to learn that DeForest Kelley, who played “Dr. McCoy” in the series was born on that day. Elsewhere, things were looking grim for white Russians in their fight against the Bolsheviks and for Armenians living within the tottering Ottoman Empire. In other news, the Spanish flu pandemic of the previous year was faltering.

To be honest, though, historians don’t usually spend a lot of time thinking or talking about time. Many just work unself-consciously within its conventions. All of us believe that sequence defines causation and we regularly berate students who try to explain what shaped an event by referring to later events. We even try to explain that coincidence doesn’t prove causation either, and that can be hard for some to accept. Generally, however, the guild of historians (if there were such a thing) accepts the date on authentic documents. Of course, I immediately see this as a very Western, Anglophone viewpoint. If you are a historian of the Islamic world for example, you will know that we are currently in 1442 and will be until August 9th. It is more complicated again if you are a Buddhist who is living currently in the year 2563 B.E. Of course, these variants highlight the fact that our calendar is the Gregorian variant of the Christian calendar which superseded an earlier Julian one. In short, the labels are pretty arbitrary, and reflect cultural dominance.

Since I am an Englishman in Italy, I am more aware than usual that the clocks are defined by time zones so that my family in the UK experienced 21:21 p.m. an hour later than I did. Time zones crystallized over the course of the nineteenth century in response to the transportation and communication revolution associated with industrialism. Each city was apt to use local solar time and even in a relatively small country like England, this produced variation. In continental nations like the United States and Canada, and to administrators of the British Empire, the variation presented a formidable obstacle to the creation of railroad timetables and a more general sense of unity. Eventually, this built upon the existing longitudinal system established by the Royal Observatory at Greenwich for mariners: ground zero in temporal and spatial terms. But even today, this can have its inconsistencies as citizens of western China and parts of Australia and Argentina will attest. I have had reason to ruminate on this professionally as I tried to get my head around how the world responded to news of the JFK assassination. It wasn’t just the fact that in 1963 most humans had better access to a radio than to a TV signal that affected how they got the news. The news arrived at a different moment of the day. What was essentially after lunch in New York was after dinner in London. Hence, the shock interacted with different cycles of people’s daily routine. 12.30 on November 22, 1963 Central Standard Time in Dallas was 03:30 a.m of November 23rd in Tokyo. Visiting Americans recall being greeted at breakfast by hotel staff offering condolences.

The intrinsic fascination with the numerical echoes of January 21, 2021, however, has nothing to do with History. It belongs more plausibly to the realms of astrology and numerology, the long tradition of attempting to read the signs or portents. As a belief system, numerology has a very long history and believers can choose from a range of interpretative systems, such as the Pythagorean or Chaldean, but all rest on the assumption that numbers possess what might best be described as a magical significance. From this premise, the systems develop procedures for the assignment of meaning in the same way that astrology builds on the assumption that cosmic entities have significant impacts on terrestrial matters. Whether these systems can be proven or disproven is not my point. What is more significant for me is the sheer enduring power of such cultural practices. Many people were shocked to learn that as First Lady, Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer and insisted that her husband’s presidential schedule comply with a calendar of good or bad days. However, once one realises that she did this in the period after his near fatal shooting in March 1981, as she processed the full horror of what had so nearly occurred, one has to feel a certain sympathy. She had been petrified every time her husband had gone out since the shooting and being guided by an astrologer, she benefited from what might accurately be called a “placebo” effect.

While it is fair to be skeptical of large generalizations, the idea that human beings have instincts of both desire and fear makes sense to me. Psychologists even argue that we should consider fear a central state of the human organism. It is integral to our conscious experience and in changing contexts it determines how we react to particular stimuli and/or circumstances. If one accepts that people can be fearful even when they are not in a situation where there is visible reason to be afraid, then it is plausible to suggest that humans live, at least in part, in a state of fear. Much the same thing can be said of desire. It is fundamental to our consciousness and it too will affect how we behave in response to varying triggers and contexts.

Decades ago, I wrote a Master’s thesis about the American Revolution that argued that the momentum for American separatism was more clearly linked to the level of apprehension Americans felt towards British actions rather than the actual level of oppression or injury experienced. What they believed was what determined their actions. Conversely, British ministers’ policies were shaped by the fear that to delegate or concede authority to Americans ran the risk of undermining the central principle of unity as a sovereign nation. On balance, both sides risked the war that ensued because of fears that were in several instances more fully realised in the ensuing conflict than they had been before. Similar arguments are made about the American Civil War. Secession occurred on the basis of fears about what the Republican government of Abraham Lincoln might do about chattel slavery, even before there was any certain proof that it would. Republicans themselves had in many ways been mobilised by a fear of what was termed the “Slave Power Conspiracy,” which was as much about how the South might orchestrate policies in the territories and indeed in the existing union as it was about how slave-owners in Southern states treated the enslaved. Lincoln’s famous observation that “a house divided cannot stand,” concluded with the threat that America would have to choose to be either entirely slave or entirely free, and he made the threat in the context of the pro-Southern Dred Scott Supreme Court decision and a perception that this reflected the dominance of the Slave Power in the national government. So, let’s just say there were potent fears on both sides, and leave it at that.

At the personal level, you may be able to recall moments when you did not do what you wanted to do because of fear. Given the pandemic around us, it should not be hard, but I am mainly thinking of inhibition or self-regulation rather than compliance with external rules. However, to return to my main point, if one accepts that fear is not a passing emotion but a permanent framework for human beings, it is not surprising if we have devoted a lot of our cultures to mitigating its effects. One might sadly point to nuclear weapons and the arms race as one byproduct of fear, but one can also point to a broad range of mental and cultural practices intended to offer reassurance. We all remember that as the final days of 2020 approached, there was a chorus of welcome for the approaching New Year, even though most of us are rational enough to realise that viral infections are not particularly responsive to human calendars. We needed the hope to assuage the fear.

And so I return to 21.21 p.m. on January 21, 2021. Admittedly, it would have been more consistent if we had a 21st month in our calendar and not only because it would mean that I might have the date ahead instead of behind me. But having pointed it out to you and implied that our fascination with such numerical coincidences is a product of cultural practices, I want to offer you the salve of hope. If the labels we give to our hours and days are arbitrary, the future is more malleable than you may ever have imagined. Today and tomorrow and tomorrow and so on are yours to choose and name, and if you can harness your fears and desires, they may be historic indeed.

Historian and biographer but thankfully with a sense of humor

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