Parochialism in time and space

When people who haven’t been to America talk about it, they get their ideas from the distorted cliches of the media. A land of gun nuts and COVID deniers, rife with racism and obesity! This annoys me. I’ve lived in the US and have family there. I know these views are absurdly one-sided. People who’ve lived in Africa get a similar twinge when the clichés come out: “Africa, land of rape and lions”, as the Wronging Rights blog puts it. Not going abroad makes people parochial. Their experience is limited, and what they know of other countries is refracted through the biases of the local media.

We are less geographically parochial than ever before. Growing up in Herefordshire, I knew a woman who kept sheep and chickens on a smallholding with her brother. Until late in her life, she had never crossed the county border. A few years ago her cousin, who mended cars, told me about a recent family trip to Cuba. “They treated us like gentlemen!” he said.

Millions of people can take holidays anywhere in the world, whose parents could not have dreamed of it. Millions live abroad, and billions know somebody who has immigrated from a foreign country.

These experiences aren’t evenly spread. Some take an annual holiday in Spain. Others have lived abroad, work with international colleagues, and speak foreign languages. They might look down, if not on the others, at least on their attitudes to the rest of the world.

There is also still a long way to go. For all that we feel ourselves to be international, how many cities can you name in China? Shanghai, Beijing and of course now Wuhan. What else? Um, Shenzhen? Much beyond that… me neither. But there are ten cities in China with more people than London. And my view of history is very Eurocentric. I can tell you details of World War One, but barely anything about the Taiping Rebellion, which killed as many people.

We have become less geographically parochial, but I think that at the same time, we have become more historically parochial.

You can’t visit the past, but you can read about it. When you read an old writer, it’s like talking to an immigrant from the past who knows nothing of your country, but can tell you a lot about theirs.

We do this less than we did, I suspect. An educated person of the eighteenth century could read Latin fluently. He would have been taught Cicero and Virgil, and if he wanted, he could read many other authors going back two thousand years. Many were common knowledge. Writers used Latin tags and quotations, expecting their readers not just to understand but to recognize them.

Just because there was less new stuff being produced, people were more exposed to old stuff. Even outside the elite, an ordinary 19th century family’s one book beyond the Bible (thousands of years old) might be Pilgrim’s Progress (about two hundred years old).

People who read very few books today are probably not reading anything from a hundred years ago. They may have had to read Shakespeare at school. Even among people who read a lot, there’s not much appetite for old stuff, perhaps with the exception of novels. That’s not because there’s no interest in history, just that they read modern writers. Dava Sobel had a bestseller with Galileo’s Daughter. But you could read Galileo’s own dialogues, which are actually a lot more fun. (Maybe that’s not surprising? Galileo was a world-class genius, so he’s quite likely to be an interesting writer.)

Reading modern writers about history is like hearing about the US from European media. With the best will in the world, they refract the world through their own prism. For instance, modern academic historians — I think it is fair to say — write about gender and sexuality a lot. That’s fine, but fifty years ago concerns were different, and in fifty years’ time they will change again.

You can only escape this prism by reading writers from a long time ago. Otherwise, you will be historically parochial. You will have met people from all over the world. But you will never have met people from the past.

Why did this change happen? One reason is very simple. Society produces more information every year. Counting in bytes, humans have produced more information in the past year than all of the rest of history. Even before the rise of the internet and the Doge meme, the number of books and newspapers printed rose steadily. The human population grew, and the number of possible interactions grew as the square of the population. On this account, it’s not surprising that humanity should focus more and more on the present: there’s more of it to focus on!

There might also be a more specific reason. There is an enigmatic quotation from Michel Foucault: “certain ideological conflicts animating present-day polemics oppose the pious descendants of time and the determined inhabitants of space.” I think what he was referring to was this double-sided process. Perhaps the very process of learning more geographically has made us forget our past, or question it, or reinterpret it. Sometimes it feels as if there has been a wholesale break, so that people describing even the quite recent past talk as if they are anthropologists visiting a strange country. We lived in a national, Eurocentric world… now we live in a global one.

Of course, with the latest revelations, even Foucault himself might seem to be from a bygone, very different, era… slowly the liberationist 1960s is slipping behind the curtain labelled PAST!

This argument has been had before. The eighteenth century saw a fight between the ancients and the moderns. Were the ancients best, or had modern writers put them in the shade? In the end, as our understanding of historical differences deepened, the question seemed irrelevant, so that the nineteenth century, with its breakneck progress, could still show a deep fascination with the past. (Think of all the medieval murals on the Houses of Parliament, the seat of government of the world’s most advanced nation.) Perhaps we too will find new ways to learn by looking backwards.

I have made this whole argument without evidence. Here’s some, from playing with Google ngrams data, which counts words from books published in each year.

For each year, I counted references to previous years. The picture above shows the raw data. Each point represents a number of references from one year, to one year. The diagonal line in the data is the present day: above that are references to the future, below it, to the past. As we move forward in time, the glow gets brighter at the edge of the present day.

This picture plots quantiles. A reference to 1789 in 1800 goes back 11 years. The same reference in 1850 goes back 61 years. I plotted the 20th, 50th and 80th percentiles of age for each year. The green line below is the 50th percentile. Half the references went back longer than this. In 1800, half the references were to 70 years ago or more. This number keeps shrinking. By 2000, half the references go back just 20 years or less. We are focusing more on ourselves!

If you liked this content, then I would love you to do three things:

  1. Subscribe to this newsletter. It’s free and spam-free.

    Subscribe now

  1. Share Wyclif’s Dust on social media, or forward it via email. By telling your friends and/or followers, you’ll be doing me a huge favour.

Share Wyclif's Dust

  1. Read about the book I’m writing. It’s called Wyclif’s Dust, too. You can download a sample chapter.