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I saw this headline on a news item the other day: “All This Has Happened Before.”
The headline was over an article about protesters protesting, but it could as easily have been over an account of terrorists terrorizing, or swindlers swindling, or lying liars lying, or where you shouldn't waddle when you're fleeing from a bear.
It would have been perfectly suitable, in fact, for just about any news item on any page of any newspaper going back to the award-winning Athens Post of yore, which is what the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette of today called itself when Boo Plato founded it back in 390 B.C. — the same publication which, by a kind of miracle of newspaper genealogical prestidigitation, has been bringing you local, national, and international news ever since. Even when monks had to transcribe each page by hand.
The headline would've substituted just fine for one of my old favorite headlines, from the New York Times some years ago: “Lepers in India Combat Feelings of Uselessness.”
Lepers in India are combating those same feelings today. They were combating them during the Raj, and when Marco Polo visited, and Alexander the Great. Leprosy and feelings of uselessness have gone together might near forever. And not only in India. And not only lepers.
Consumptives once bore the same burden, as you will remember from Kafka or from your own family lore. And profound feelings of uselessness were said to have attended blind deaf mutes the world over until the Helen Keller miracle glimmered upon them the faint hope of getting their rather skeletal stories told.
Oh, if you narrowed your search sufficiently, you might make a case for a unique occurrence that would give lie to the headline — something that had never happened before. The Apollo astronauts made that assumption when stepping off onto the moon, for example — but the millions watching on TV knew better and could've saved them the embarrassment of learning subsequently that Alice Kramden on the Pow-Zoom Ltd. had beat them there by a decade.
Or the old gfy veep guns down a person of obvious superior character and then, because of the subsequent publicity, acts as if he were the wounded party. Surely nothing like that has shamed the annals previously. Well, you might want to revisit the Burr-Hamilton affray before making the claim, and then mosey on back to ponder the thematic parallels or parallel themes — honest mistake, nothing here our angle, let's move on — that occupied nigh half the weaslier dramatis personae in the Bard's darker plays.
Antiquity indeed veritably crawls with such blackguards. Xerxes didn't shoot pain-in-the-ass innocent bystanders, but he liked to whack them in two and use the two halves as drive-way gateposts. A true fact, and either Cheney foreshadowing or prequel or with the distinctive Cheney olfactive trailing across millennia.
Torturers claiming that torture is justified because it is efficacious has happened before, about as many times as there are stars or grains of sand or Flomax commercials or dittoheads. Leonardo thought up the telephone long before Al Bell did. Columbus these days is not even close to the top of the list of New World discoverers.
I'd guess that before Charles Schultz no beagle aces flying Sopwith Camel doghouses fought World War I aerial battles against scarlet German barons, but maybe they did, and anyway, that's the funny papers, which by tradition don't qualify as legitimate news. Fool George W. Bush barbarisms are news, but sage Linus Van Pelt observations aren't. I don't know why.
Have you heard it argued that this is the first generation ever to tweet? Dip a toe into the endless Livy field gab and discover otherwise. My own translation:
“An emperor might be off somewhere fighting the Punics, or a whole army of guys named Frank, and he would tweet home progress reports. He would dispatch a runner with a message — e.g., ‘All goes well here in sunny Gaul. Slaughtered thousands. Saw a bullfight. Caught some rays. Am off to pillage now.' He was limited to 140 characters, of course, so if he wanted to send longer, more ebullient tidings, he was obliged to wait a spell and then send a second runner.
“If the runners had to cross open water — if the fighting was in Egypt, say — then each runner would be furnished a homebound express galley. With 50 rowers and no wind, one of these small ships might make better time than the runner could make hoofing it over flat terrain, so to keep the runners from lollygagging, the ships were equipped with treadmills, and the tweet runners were obliged to continue running, at a pace ranging from honorable to glorious, from the time they boarded until they disembarked. No provision was made for slowing the pace when the destination hove into view.”
Medieval crusaders sent back tweets in a similar manner to their sponsor popes.
Indian smoke signals were yet another early form of tweeting.
So there you are. Even with the latest fads, it's all happened before.
Bob Lancaster, one of the Arkansas Times longest and most valued contributors, retired from writing his column last week. We’ll miss his his contributions mightily. Look out, in the weeks to come, for a look back at some of his greatest hits. In the meantime, here's a good place to start.