Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Mindset Mindset

That blogs are a colossal time-waster -- if lots of fun -- can be illustrated by reference to an excellent cyberlocale called A Commonplace Book, and my discovery through it of something called The Mindset List. In the one for the class of 2008, I learn, for example, that to my younger son's contemporaries "Castro has always been an aging politician in a suit," which -- having met the man in his perennial field-green guerrilla uniform -- is a striking thought to me.

The list takes popular culture as an 18-year-old university student would know them and compares that to what an older person would know. What if we did that for generations of the past?

For example, people my age, who turned 18 in 1970, had no recollection of Stalin as a living person or of a time without television and radio. We had no real feel for the Great Depression and if we had encountered poverty it was almost surely outside the United States.

Conversely, and here's the interesting thing for people who are younger, we could not conceive of a world that was not divided into Communist and non or of a single Germany. (DeGaulle famously said that he loved Germany so much he always wanted two of them.) There you go, we could not envision a world in which DeGaulle, Eisenhower, Mao and Kennedy were not larger than life figures.

That's fine. Everyone has heard about Boomers to death. But what about previous generations?

My father at 18 (1939) would never have imagined the atomic bomb, nor a Slurpee nor a jet plane. There had only been one World War, but he had no memory of it. The word "Holocaust" would have meant nothing to him. The United States had never been a superpower -- indeed, no one even knew what a superpower was.

Compared to his father, he was completely ignorant of a world without radio or automobiles. Unions had always existed, as had the 8-hour workday. He had never heard Ragtime music.

My grandfather at 18 (1904) could not have thought a World War possible and travel to the moon was the stuff of Jules Verne's novels. European nations were governed by monarchs and Africa had always been divided into European colonies.

My greatgrandfather at 18 (1879) probably believed people who feared the death-defying velocities of 30 miles an hour at which trains and streetcars traveled. He wasn't old enough to remember slavery or its abolition nor even Lincoln's assassination, although he had surely heard of all of them. Did he know about the telegraph?

I have always been a historically minded person. To me, the evocation of a time in the past is the evocation of music, art, architecture, as well as the famous dates and names. You get into the feel of 1759, when you think of the battle on the Plains of Abraham: the mud, the carriages getting perennially stuck, the horses whinnying, the use of strong drink to allay a toothache, the expectation that life was, indeed, nasty, brutish and thankfully short.

The same thing with languages. Humor is so different in various languages that if you are really going to get it, you have to be thinking in that language.

We are defined by our limits and our ability to transcend them.
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