Such was the title of The Atlantic’s “The Big Question” column of March, 2013.
This is the sort of piece one finds uppermost in the toilet’s magazine rack. So now you know exactly where this blog belongs, because we’ll all have a turn answering.
Eleven celebrity intellectuals were queried. No answer would make a university’s Chief Diversity Officer cringe.
W. Kamau Bell, who the internet informs me is the gentleman who placed the Superbowl white-guys-with-Jamaican-accents on his “The Most Racist Things Of All Time” list, thought the most momentous day was “when Michael Jackson first performed the moonwalk on TV. I think itâ€™s one of the reasons we have a black president today.” I gather this was meant humorously. Very funny.
Neera Tanden (pres., Center for American Progress) said it was when American women won suffrage. Oliver Stone, emailing from his secret hideout, entered Henry Wallace’s defeat by Harry Truman in 1944. Stone says Wallace would not have nuked Japan. Anne-Marie Slaughter, who might have won her post(-ing) position by being a contributing editor, said the Fourth of July. Equality of sexual orientation, she said. Would John Hancock’s quill have ventured those political alleys?
Higher up the ladder of reason we find Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series (these any good?), who said the best day was when Anton van Leeuwenhoek peered through his microscope. Christina Paxon, president of Brown, said it was when Johannes Gutenberg’s physical blogging machine went live.
Professor Philip Jenkins thought the day when Hitler attacked Stalin, in Operation Barbossa, was tops. Professor Timothy Snyder put it as 11 December 1241, the day Batu Kahn keeled over unexpectedly, after which the Mongol horde went all Shakespeare. Ken Burns said it was the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand met an activist who wanted change; and boy, did he get it.
Finally, the entry which takes top prize, is Freeman Dyson who said all history shot off in an orthogonal direction when a hefty asteroid crashed in the Yucatan.
None of these are entirely satisfying. Only Dyson’s is in the true spirit of the question: the day which most changed the course of history. This is a stringent qualification.
Women winning suffrage in the States did change the flow of history, but no more than putting a fair-sized boulder on the banks of the Mississippi would divert its waters. We always see Gutenburg, may God bless him, on these lists. But writing existed before him, and don’t forget that it’s the press that churns out such fare as Donald Trump’s autobiography.
I vacillate between two entries.
The day when the first man—call him Adam—stood erect and realized he was different than the other, similar looking animals around him. Or perhaps it was the time shortly after when he first uttered, “Madam, I’m Adam.” In the days afore the Fourth of July, it took two of opposite biology to tango, you see. It was Adam and his mate who, by doin’ what Irving Berlin said comes naturally, set the course of history on its path.
And then there was the horrible, yet glorious in hindsight, day when Christ was crucified. Even if we moderns are too sophisticated to believe in Jesus’s divinity, many tens of billions have. Islam might not have emerged, or at least it would have been radically different, were it not for Christ. Music, art, architecture, literature, politics, hospitals, etc. almost without end.
A similar case can be made for Buddha. Moses and Confucius also make the short-list. All four men (sorry, ladies) surely perturbed the phase space of events to a much vaster extent than did Batu Kahn, Hitler, Henry Wallace, or Gavrilo Princip (the Archduke’s assassin).
So much more influential were these men that it is a wonder none of the intellectuals thought of them. Maybe we are so saturated with their influences we have become like the lady who complained the Bible and Shakespeare were full of clichés.
Those are my entries. What are yours?