The Long View 2004-07-07: Edwards; Gen-X; Arthur; Doppelgangers

I hadn't know until now that Pelagius was from Britain. Even now, John can surprise me.


Edwards; Gen-X; Arthur; Doppelgangers

There was another instance today of duelling columns on the New York Times editorial page. Commenting on the dour John Kerry's choice of the sprightly John Edwards as a running mate. William Safire remarks:

A larger question looms that confronts every presidential nominee: what if he wins and dies in office? In making his decision yesterday, Kerry should have kept that criterion of "the best man ready to take over" upper-most in his mind.

In my view, he failed that test. In the choice between the Democrat most ready to be president and the Democrat who would enliven a stalled campaign, Kerry played it safe and chose the political hottie, Edwards.

Meanwhile, exactly eight inches up the page and to the right, Nicholas D. Kristof retorts:

Is there a risk in choosing Mr. Edwards? Sure, Mr. Kerry might drop dead. Then we'd have a very inexpert president -- again!

What happened here is that John Kerry walked into an ice-cream parlor, studied the menu for five minutes, and, predictably, ordered vanilla. In fact, there is nothing wrong with John Edwards. Although he often sounds (and looks) like an infomercial, his unrehearsed statements show some capacity to deal with the unexpected. This is better than President Bush, who always sounds like he is answering a phone call at three in the morning. However, the greater contrast is actually with Kerry, who answers questions by throwing out strings of phrases that look like they have been generated from a thesaurus data base.

In fact, someone should create chatterbots for all these people. Ample archives of interviews are available online for the memories. Interviews and press conferences would be better than speeches, I think: you never know who writes speeches.

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Continuing my interest in the generational model of American history, I noted this piece in the Sunday (July 4) issue of The New York Times: Look Who's Parenting, by Ann Hulbert. The article remarked on something I have noted myself: Generation X parents are less likely than Babyboomers to badger and plan their offspring into a state of perfection. They are also more likely to just be around to raise them. To use a contrast that does not appear in the article: Babyboomers were keen on planning "quality time" with their families; Gen-Xers are generous with "junk time," which I always thought was what families are for.

So this is what happened to the no-hopers from The Breakfast Club (1985), or at least the ones who are not dead or arrested. One can only compare this historical snapshot with the picture of the intolerable Boomers at the same stage in life in The Big Chill (1983). There is justice, maybe.

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May I remark how hard it is to find top search-results that don't have aggressive ads? Those links in the paragraph above are to movie reviews. I chose them, not so much because of the content, as because they did not have graphics that make you sit through a commercial before you can read text.

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On the subject of movies, I see that yet another film about King Arthur premiers today. This one sounds like a particularly dismal exercise. It throws away the legend, which is one of the great mythos of the world, and replaces it with a backstory that looks like the Soccer Hooligan Age of British history. Of course, I am responding here just to reviews of the film. It might be wonderful.

The most persuasive account of the "Arthur of history" I have read comes from The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650, which was published in 1973. Yes, there was a historical Arthur, more or less, who took charge around AD 470 of a successful Britano-Roman counter-offensive against the Anglo-Saxons. Actually, by Arthur's time, the resistance was more "British," in the sense of early Welsh, than Roman. The Roman province of Britain had broken down thirty or forty years before.

The last days of the province are the interesting part of the story, if you ask me. Britain was the only major part of the Empire to escape invasion in the fourth century (AD 300-400). At the beginning of the fifth century, while Rome was being sacked, Britain was unique in successfully fighting off barbarian incursions (which were not just from Europe; they came from the Pictish north and from Ireland, too). There was a twilight period of a decade or two. The economy became demonetized, because the continental mints closed down, but the great country villas were still occupied. So were the cities, where there was enough intellectual life to produce the heretic Pelagius.

The provincial government was under the control of a man known as "Vortigern" to history. That's not a personal name, but some garbled title. He organized the defense of the province by hiring Germanic mercenaries, to whom he gave land in what were supposed to be tightly restricted areas. The government had no way to control the mercenaries except by hiring more mercenaries. The rest of the story writes itself.

By the way: is it really possible that I am the only person to note the similarities between the Arthurian mythos and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which is set in a comparable twilight era in Chinese history?

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And while I am conflating fiction with reality, I must confess that some coincidences of appearance have been bothering me.

For instance, why is Doctor Who reporting from Baghdad for the New York Times?

And when is someone going to admit that Mr. Giles has been running the Department of Defense for the past three years?

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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