Wednesday, January 23, 2013

New York City, Napoleon, and Big History

Listening to Donald Sutherland’s audio lectures on Napoleonic France, I’m struck by the way in which different time horizons influence the way we evaluate the overall impact of revolutions on human development.  Should we thank Napoleon for burying the French Revolution or condemn him for reviving the notion of royalty?  Was the French Revolution a good thing or a bad thing?  Taken as a whole, did this great event, this frenzy of social innovation and radical ideas, help people or hurt people? 

By analogy, I think of a recent trip to visit New York City for the weekend.  Was that a good idea or a bad one?  If you had asked me a two weeks before my wife had bought the tickets to go on this short tourist excursion, I would have said this was a bad decision:  the trip would be short, tiring, and expensive.  In order to keep the ticket cost low, my wife had even felt bound to accept an itinerary with a Philadelphia layover between Chicago and New York.  If you asked me the night before I got up at 4:00am to catch our plane, my opinion of the decision would have become ever more negative. Even ignoring the cost of transporting five people to the country’s most expensive city, how could many hours of round-trip travel possibly justify or outweigh 36 hours of tourism? 

Sadly, my opinion of the decision deteriorated yet again when we landed in Philadelphia, waited on a delayed plane, and eventually learned that our second flight had been cancelled altogether, forcing us to rent a car and drive the rest of the way to New York.  All told, we had spent about 14 hours to reach our destination, and would need to leave in less than two days.

But different time horizons lead one to radically different appraisals of the same facts.  And nowhere was this more in evidence than when I found my children standing in awe of the electric magnificence of Times Square, sitting on a fence in sprawling Central Square, driving past the historic Apollo Theatre or Guggenheim Museum, or circumnavigating the whole island of Manhattan Island for the first time in any of our lives.  Truly, as we cruised past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, I had no doubt whatsoever that this decision to land in New York was a masterstroke of life wisdom and good planning.   When else would my Tunisian mother-in-law ever see something so quintessentially and recognizably American?  When else would my young children see New York with such youthful exuberance? 

If the reader will bear with me just a little bit longer, the story of this decision to go on a New York getaway may be scrutinized from just a few more vantage points.  On the way home, our plane from Philadelphia was delayed again.  We waited hours before leaving the city and only arrived at home after midnight.  Trying to get my grumpy second-grader ready for school was torture for both of us.  Surely, the decision to go to New York had been a blunder, pure and simple. 

How will I ultimately appraise our trip to the Big Apple?  It’s impossible to say.  One thing seems clear:  there will be no ultimate appraisal.   History is relative.  Past events can only be measured by our present circumstances and current psychology.   The decision to go to New York was a complex, or at least had complex outcomes.  Soon, the credit card bill will come due, and the trip may then eventually be classified as a minor consumer tragedy rather than an innocent blunder.  Going on the trip meant all sorts of petty trade-offs, sacrifices, and what economists call opportunity costs.  By going, one son missed an important soccer tournament, another stayed up so late that he have done poorly on statewide exam, my wife failed to work on a research proposal, and I racked up enough debt that it’s quite possible I’ll cancel a larger trip I had hoped to make in the Spring. 

But the fascinating thing about time horizons is that they can be broadened almost indefinitely, or at least until our deaths. I can imagine that in ten years things the decision to go to New York may look very different once more.  In ten years, will we stare at these happy photos of this little family adventure and be grateful that we took an ailing mother-in-law on a last trip?  Will be content to know that we took such family trips while our children were still in their formative years? 

I’m listening to another set of lectures.  These are on the concept of “Big History.” They make the point that the human story can be told holistically, and from the beginning, from a biological, geological, or even astrological perspective.  The French Revolution should mean a lot to us now, but it’s not exactly clear whether the French Revolution helped or hurt people in the long run.  And the lens of history can be adjusted indefinitely.  We can ask different questions from different vantage points.  Did the French Revolution help people or hurt people?  It is better to ask that question from the point of view of those who lived through it, or is it better to ask that question from the point of view of those who lived with its long-term consequences?  Or should we try to broaden our perspective to level of a bigger history?  If I analyze our decision to go to New York City, I try to achieve a bigger history by imaging how I will feel about things on my own deathbed, on the brink of eternity.  When I do this, New York seems like a wonderful decision.  Like Gogol, I see myself high up in the sky, looking down from the heavens at a troika, or at least a Central Park horse carriage.  Within it, there’s just me, my sons, my wife, and my mother-in-law.   Whither are we going? To Times Square, all together.

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