Media gratuitously throws term 'historic' around

    Weeks ago, our one and only citywide newspaper — that lighthouse of erudition, the ineffable San Diego Union-Tribune — commented on the Oscars with the following headline: “”HISTORIC AWARDS”” (with capitalization in the original).

    As I am not in the habit of watching the Oscars, I was quite worried at first that by choosing to go out with friends on that Sunday night, I might have missed something truly momentous.

    Then, of course, I came to my senses: “”Historic”” is a term we use for something like the fall of Constantinople: It happened in 1456, and we’re still talking about it.

    The Oscars, by contrast, are a cinematographically irrelevant, self-celebratory ceremony. The films that are rewarded consider themselves a success if they can hold the box office for three consecutive weeks at the multiplex in a shopping mall. Its stars are, for the best part, idols of a teenage generation that in five years will have forgotten them.

    Almost nobody remembers what won the Oscars as little as 20 years ago. (Don’t go look it up: It was “”Chariots of Fire.””) Do the folks at the Union-Tribune really think that people will be talking about this year’s awards ceremony — whatever may have happened in it — four or five hundred years from now?

    As I was pondering the likelihood (or lack thereof) of this circumstance, I also found myself pondering the altogether excessive use of the adjective “”historic”” that I have seen in the last few years. Luckily, I have a particular neural condition known as “”ponderatio subdivisa,”” which allows me to ponder two things at the same time.

    It looks like hardly anything can happen without this or that pundit calling it historic. Every decision made by whatever third-class politician happens to be handy for decision-making becomes, by the very fact, historic. Every ceremony commemorates a historic fact even though most of the time, nobody can remember what the fact was, and the people who attended showed up solely for the free hors d’oeuvres. I am sure that, were I a sports aficionado, I would see that every victory with a better-than-average score, or against more-than-average-odds, would be claimed as historic.

    If all these occasions are truly historic, I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of the next generation of history students. At the current pace, I figure that in 20 or 30 years, grade school history books will come in 50 volumes — 50 CDs in the suburbs, 10 DVDs in La Jolla — and studying history will be hell.

    It seems quite unlikely that this will happen, so there must be something wrong with the ease with which the adjective “”historic”” is thrown around at pretty much any available occasion.

    One might think that this peculiar habit stems from an outright excessive love and regard for history. It seems to me that the opposite is true: The problem is but one of the consequences of the postmodern crisis of history, of the absence of the sense of history in today’s culture and, in particular, in the media.

    The media and society exist in a very compressed frame of reference, dictated in practice by the accelerated needs of business. Everything removed at a distance of more than six months in the past or future is nonexistent for all practical purposes — with the possible immunity of a few exceptional occurrences such as the terrorist attack on New York, which can last a little longer in the memory and which might actually end up in the history books.

    The unlimited expansion of the present that is suffocating the past and future — the eternal illusion of the end of history — is giving an enormous importance to the trivialities on which the media thrive.

    The historic value of a fact is very often a function of its consequences on the future unfolding of history, and therefore can only be evaluated once a certain historical perspective has been achieved. Today we are perfectly able to determine the historical weight of the Battle of Lepanto, a naval engagement between Europeans and Turks in 1751, but we can’t determine the historical value of the war in Afghanistan.

    This attitude, of course, flies in the face of the exigencies of marketing, which is concerned with the immediate present. In a culture dominated by marketing, such an attitude has no place.

    Can you imagine the Union-Tribune (or NBC or CBS) reporting an analysis of the Battle of Lepanto? I have seen something of that kind in the best European press, but never around here. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard didn’t call us the cradle of postmodernism for nothing.

    A historically grounded culture is not of the postmodern world, which has replaced the flow of time with the comprehensive space of globalization, and has accepted the rhythms it imposes.

    In other words, we believe that so many things are historic not because we have too much memory, but because we have none.

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