WSJ Historically Speaking: The Backward Seating at the State of the Union

Photo: PETER ARKLE

Photo: PETER ARKLE

The end of January brings two certainties: another 49 days until spring and the president’s State of the Union address. In the past, the president often used to palm off this constitutionally mandated chore to a clerk; nowadays he (or she) is expected to deliver it in person. But in every other respect, the rituals associated with the event haven’t changed at all: The president speaks for about an hour, ecstatic applause erupts from one side of the chamber, and grim silence exudes from the other.

Many foreign observers find these partisan reactions reassuringly familiar. What they find puzzling is the placement of the Democratic Party to the right of the aisle and the Republican Party to the left. Equally confusing is the U.S. media’s long-standing allocation of the color red to the Republicans and blue to the Democrats. In the rest of the world, right-wing parties sit on the right and left-wing ones on the left; blue is the color of conservatism, and red is the color of revolution and communism—or pink, if one leans toward socialism—something apparently unknown to the networks and CNN.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Resolved: No More New Year’s Resolutions

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Few New Year’s resolutions actually make it past January. If everyone followed through on their resolutions, the consequences for humanity would be dire: The fast-food industry would collapse, the gym would become unbearably crowded, and lifestyle magazines would have nothing left to say.

It is human nature to start off the year with a host of resolutions. The ancient Babylonians are known to have done it. The Romans even made a virtue of it, leaving us with January—named after Janus, the god of new beginnings.

The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, scorned the idea. It wasn’t humanity they doubted but the willingness of the gods to refrain from interfering in our affairs. “Men should pledge themselves to nothing, for reflection makes a liar of their resolution,” wrote Sophocles. Indeed, at the heart of almost every Greek myth was a warning of the terrible fate that awaited those who believed that all things were within their control. From Arachne to Oedipus, the message was clear: Don’t challenge the power of the gods lest you end up as a spider, or killing your father and marrying your mother.

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‘WSJ Historically Speaking: Tis the Season to Stop Fighting

PETER ARKLE

PETER ARKLE

For some, a traditional Christmas means church and carols; for others, it means presents under the tree. But for countless millions, Christmas also means a day of epic family arguments. As the novelist Graham Greene once observed, “Christmas it seems to me is a necessary festival; we require a season when we can regret all the flaws in our human relationships: it is the feast of failure, sad but consoling.”

A recent survey conducted for the British hotel chain TraveLodge appears to support Greene’s gloomy contention. Two years ago, the chain noticed a sharp upswing in bookings for Christmas Day. Hoping to capitalize on the trend, its marketing department commissioned a poll of 2,500 households to see how the typical British family spends Christmas Day. The findings offered few useful insights for the company but proved a gold mine for sociologists.
The respondents revealed that, on average, the first fight of the day takes place no later than 10:13 a.m., usually after the discovery that someone has consumed all the chocolate. A lull then ensues while presents are opened and the drinks cabinet raided. At 11:42 or so, the children express their disappointment with their haul while the parents become enraged by their lack of gratitude. At noon comes a “discussion” of the level of alcohol consumption before lunch, followed by simmering tension until everyone finally sits down to eat around 2:23. The fragile truce established during the turkey carving is destroyed by a massive family row at 3:24. Exhaustion then sets in until 6:05, when tempers flare over the remote control. At 10:15, there is one final blowup before everyone goes to bed.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: How to Fake It in America

Peter Arkle

Peter Arkle

The philosopher Gilbert Ryle coined the term “ghost in the machine” to make fun ofDescartes’ influential idea that the human mind (“the ghost”) is utterly separate from the body. But it was the English rock band The Police who popularized the expression, making it the title of their classic 1981 album. Today “ghost in the machine” shows up everywhere. It has become a metaphor for the assorted forms of fakery that are constantly revealed in the mashup of modern culture.

The anger directed at Beyoncé for lip-syncing the national anthem during President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January reflected the country’s disgust with performers who fake it. The mere hint that a singer is no more than a dancing puppet can create a scandal—or even end a career. As the disgraced front men of the 1980s pop act Milli Vanilli will attest, you can’t pretend to perform and keep your Grammy. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: A Hairy Issue: Beards Through History

Image by Thomas Fuchs

Image by Thomas Fuchs

There is a reason you may be seeing more beards these days on TV or the street. It has nothing to do with a resurgence of Victorian aesthetics, a mass outbreak of folliculitis or the conquest of the U.S. by hipsters.

The embrace of cheek-fuzz is actually part of a world-wide hair-a-thon to raise money for cancer charities. No-Shave November and its Australian-born cousin, Movember, are annual events that invite participants to forswear their razors for a month. The point, as the No-Shave November website puts it, is “to grow awareness by embracing our hair, which many cancer patients lose, and letting it grow wild and free.” Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Bad Idea of Daylight-Saving Time

CHRIS SILAS NEAL

CHRIS SILAS NEAL

Every November, a great theft is perpetrated against hundreds of millions of innocent people. They are robbed of an hour of afternoon sunlight by the government decree that divides the year into standard and daylight-saving time. The switch to standard time occurs precisely at the wrong moment, when the days are already growing shorter.

The arguments used to justify the DST arrangement always employ the language of cost, savings and safety. But, as the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies once observed: “At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy and wise in spite of themselves.”

It was in the 14th century that humanity was liberated from relying on the sun or water for telling the time. In place of sundials and water clocks came the wonder of mechanical devices that worked independently of cloudy days and freezing weather.
The oldest working clock in the world is said to be the hourly clock in Salisbury Cathedral in the west of England. Designed in 1386 to strike a single bell on the hour every hour, it was built with one purpose in mind: to bring people closer to God by reminding them of service times. For the medieval peasant and noble alike, time wasn’t the handmaiden of money but an expression of religious faith. Continue reading…