Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
Title text: HISTORIANS: We've decided to trim the past down to make things more manageable. Using BCE/CE, would you rather we lose the odd-numbered or even-numbered years?
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This comic quotes a lengthy section of the Bloomington Daily Pantagraph's September 30, 1881 issue. The tragic event referenced throughout is the assassination of President James A. Garfield. Interestingly, the article is about how closely studied the incident will or will not be in the future. Garfield's assassination is rarely more than a quick note in a history class, leaving only the "dry and tedious" historians to comb through the details.
The writer also notes that vast quantities of accounts exist of the national grief and trauma caused by Garfield's murder, and wonders whether students in the future will bother to read those accounts to understand it, or simply let historians sum it up without conveying the vastness of the response. That fear at least did prove well-founded; most students are not aware of the fallout of the assassination, or indeed, of Garfield at all. Cueball and Megan are discomfited by the fact there exists a vast, untapped store of information that they have never read, about an event they know little to nothing about despite it apparently causing nationwide trauma. This leads to a larger point about the vastness of history, and the extreme difficult of learning all of it.
The article itself references other events that would have been in recent memory at the time of publication and draws some conclusions about which will be considered more important in the future.
For example, it cites the defeat of Roscoe Conkling as a serious event that would fade in importance when compared to Garfield's assassination. Conkling was a senator in Garfield's party who resigned in protest of Garfield's policies assuming that he would easily win re-election by the state legislature--but then failed to achieve re-election due to party factions and political infighting.
Interestingly a comparison of Google search frequency for the years 2004-2018 shows that Garfield is indeed searched for many times more often than Conkling. Conkling's failure to be re-elected by the New York state legislature, which seemed so vitally important at the time, is summarized by a brief two sentences near the bottom of Conkling's Wikipedia article and not even mentioned in the biography's summary. So the writer does appear to be correct that Conkling's re-election defeat was an episode that was of high importance as a current event that in the future was to become not much more than an obscure footnote.
The writer speculates that there may not be any event in American history that matches the level of grief caused by Garfield's assassination, not even that of Lincoln. Here the writer is further off the mark, because in current historical memory, the Lincoln assassination is still a towering, defining event, whereas Garfield's is, comparatively speaking, a footnote.
The bolded sections of the text emphasize some of the main points of the article for the modern reader and may also be another way Munroe makes the point that future readers are unlikely to have the patience to read lengthy, detailed explanations of past events. If they have time to pay attention at all, future readers will want the essence boiled down to a few major highlights.
The title text indicates that there is more information about the past than can be researched by the manpower of available historians at this time. For whatever reason, be it lack of funding to carry out research or lack of interested people becoming historians, the facetious solution is to just ignore events of either even or odd numbered years. This would essentially halve the amount of data to go through and the amount of time to go through it, but it would be at the detriment of our understanding of all of the context of said events. As an example World War 2 started and ended on odd years, but some of the most tide-turning battles (Fall of France, most of Stalingrad, D-Day) happened on even years.
Although this format with small panels above and below a larger one has been seen before, there could be an extra joke this time, if it is seen as if there were originally five panels to the comic, but the second and fourth (the even ones) were removed.
- [In a small panel top left, Cueball walks up to Megan who is sitting on an office chair holding a tablet showing a screen full of (to the reader) unreadable text.]
- Megan: I read this article in an old newspaper, and I can't stop thinking about it.
- [Below is a large panel twice as wide as the first, and much longer. It contains the newspaper clip that Megan talks about. Three sections of the text is in normal black font, the rest is in gray font:]
- The public events of the last three months are of the class which will go into its permanent history. We have been living in an atmosphere of history which will be immortally preserved. Even the brief series of important dates to be collated for the use of the schoolboys of centuries hence will contain the day of the assassination, and the day of the death of President Garfield.
- The intermediate events co-related, like the defeat of Roscoe Conkling, will be of great interest, but will scarcely be likely to stand prominently out from the page of history written in 1881. To us who have been the witnesses, so to speak, of the tragic incidents of the times, it seems entirely probable that future generations will eagerly scan every feature of the recent bereavement which the nation has suffered.
- How accurately will future generations know the immense volume of grief and sorrow which has rolled over the land? Will those who come after us ever be able to understand the extent of our loss? Is there anything in the first century of our history—even the death of the great Lincoln—which can be used as a parallel?
- Perhaps a careful reading of the daily papers of the present. period may give some future antiquarian a fine idea of the feelings of the nation during the past summer. But these journals are so large, so full of detail, that we imagine the coming American will never find time to read the record. He must depend on a brief statement, meagerly compiled by some dry and tedious historian.
- -The Bloomington Daily Pantagraph
- September 30,th 1881
- [The third and final panel is the same size as the first, below and to the right. It contains a zoom in on Cueball and Megan talking.]
- Cueball: Man. The past is so big.
- Megan: How do historians even cope?
- Cueball: I have no idea.
- Megan: I honestly have enough trouble just with the present.
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Heh. I accidentally misread the line, so I thought it said: "I honestly have enough trouble with just the president". Linker (talk) 11:48, 11 April 2018 (UTC)
- Same here. Then I thought "What the heck?" and read the last line again. Lol. Herobrine (talk) 13:20, 11 April 2018 (UTC)
- And same here, lol! I was actually wondering about what the possible motivations could have been to use Megan as the character to say that. Then I read it again :D 126.96.36.199 14:26, 11 April 2018 (UTC)
- Considering Randall's opinion on Trump, it made a little sense. But he hasn't ever attacked him directly.Linker (talk) 15:22, 11 April 2018 (UTC)
- It's a reach, but it's POSSIBLE this was the intention. Planting the seed by talking about a president, then a comment closely resembling "I honestly have enough trouble just with the president". It may have garnered the intended response. 188.8.131.52 14:04, 12 April 2018 (UTC)
I only make comments, and let others figure out how to edit it into the above. I once read someplace that there is a reasonable limit to accurate historical research at about 3 centuries- events more than 300 years in the past become more mythological than factual, and events more than 500 years in the past are so remote that we can't even begin to understand the culture in which they occurred. While there are famous exceptions to this rule, they occur entirely in the realms of either archaeology or theology and religion, not in the science of history.Seebert (talk) 13:32, 11 April 2018 (UTC)
- What is "accurate historical research"? No scientist would use those words. And a historian as an expert - let's say of the Roman Empire or the medieval - would strictly disagree. --Dgbrt (talk) 15:12, 11 April 2018 (UTC)
- Even shorter periods of time. There were a lot of changes in the twentieth century. I was born in 1960. At that time, there were people alive before the automobile, powered airflight, the telephone. How about photocopiers which really got going in the 1970s? Can any of you younger people understand not being able to photocopy something? Then, there are the developments in computers and mobile phones.
- On a USENET newgroup that I follow -- alt.talk.royalty -- there is one monarchist who posts a series of posts on Queen Elizabeth II. Sort of. He takes the current length of her reign and goes back that far before it (less a day, I think). He then describes the world at that time and finishes with "Consider all the changes, natural and manmade, visited upon the world in all the time since. And now consider this...Queen Elizabeth II has been on the Throne for MOST of that time since then." Twice her reign length from present time is now in the 1880s. A very different world.
- 184.108.40.206 15:16, 11 April 2018 (UTC) Gene Wirchenko [email protected]
My maternal grandfather was born in 1873. When I was a child, he told me glorious stories about living in a log cabin in Michigan as a child, riding his penny-farthing bicycle as a teenager, and moving to a boomtown called Venice (CA) in the 1920s. He was 30 when the Wright Brothers made their first flight, and he wound up manufacturing aircraft parts during WWII. 220.127.116.11 08:36, 12 April 2018 (UTC)
The link to the actual page of the paper is fantastic - especially the ads along the right side - "Anti-Morbific, the Great Liver and Kidney Remedy" and "Trash's Magnetic Ointment". So, a question - there's no by-line. Is there any way to figure out who wrote this? I assume maybe multiple people, like and editorial board? DanB (talk) 13:36, 11 April 2018 (UTC)
Regarding the link to the actual page of the paper, the article immediately after it talks about a discussion over the tariffs on whiskey, beer, and tobacco covering the differences of opinion within the Democrat and Republican parties and protectionism vs free trade and producers vs consumers concluding that the tax is good because it could be used to pay down the national debt and finance national education initiatives. Despite burgeoning taxes the speculated benefits never arrived. We deceive ourselves if we believe that the discussions we have today were never debated before. The debate is eternal and the promised goods are never delivered. Rtanenbaum (talk) 21:15, 11 April 2018 (UTC)
I think this comic is referencing how so many people are commenting on how unprecedented Trump’s presidency has been, how it’ll be the sort of think future students will read about in history classes, and overall how dramatic it is, like you’d find unbelievable, even in a movie. This comic is commenting on how people in the moment often think that way, yet Trump’ll likely be a footnote in 200 years too. PotatoGod (talk) 19:24, 11 April 2018 (UTC)
- I need to comment, but I'll do my best to temper it a bit. I think it's a stretch to think this is saying anything about Trump. It seems like this comic is just a reflection on how difficult it is to ever have a complete and thorough account of everything that happens in the history of our world. The best we can hope for is a summary of the general facts, but that will always omit important details - as it says, history is BIG! In summary, can we not make every comic about Trump, please? Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 20:43, 11 April 2018 (UTC)
There is an erroneous period at the end of the first line of the last paragraph: "...the present. period may...". I added the period to the transcript, but I'm not sure if the local policy is to include "[sic]" in the transcript, to note that in an "errors" section, etc. I'd invite someone who knows the policy to edit the page accordingly. --18.104.22.168 20:50, 11 April 2018 (UTC)
Seems to me like most of the major events in history classes (at least the events I can remember the year of) happened on even years: 1066, 1492, 1776, 1812, ...
22.214.171.124 23:29, 11 April 2018 (UTC)
- Second lesson
I think, there is a second lesson in this strip: We tend to massively overestimate the importance of current events, and Americans specifically tend to overestimate the importance of their presidents. Today, Garfield is just
a cartoon character one of many presidents, in 100 years Kennedy will also be seen as just one of even more presidents, and one day, even 9/11 will be only something that happened sometime in the distant past.
In other words: Not only is history bigger than we think, we also tend to exaggerate the importance of current events. --126.96.36.199 12:51, 12 April 2018 (UTC)
- Conkling vs Garfield
Quoting the current version of the article:
- For example, it cites the defeat of Roscoe Conkling as a serious event that would fade in importance when compared to Garfield's assassination. Conkling was a senator in Garfield's party who resigned in protest of Garfield's policies, then failed to achieve re-election; contrary to the writer's belief, both these events have faded into roughly the same level of obscurity.
I'm going to disagree that Conkling's defeat & Garfield's assassination are events at the same level of obscurity. First off, Garfield is at least mentioned on lists of U.S. presidents and lists of presidents who were assassinated. This type of material is available in, for example, pretty much every U.S. elementary school. I believe I've got a placemat with Garfield's name, face, and dates (along with those of all the other U.S. presidents) in my kitchen at this very moment. Kids love it . . .
Meanwhile, Conkling's name is not widely known at all even in the U.S. and his re-election defeat is not even mentioned in the top-line summary of his Wikipedia article (it's way down in the detail section halfway through the article, but doesn't make the article summary). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roscoe_Conkling
I don't know how you objectively measure the prominence of one historical character or event over another, but just for example Garfield's wikipedia article is about 4X as long as Conkling's. And mentions the assassination in the very first sentence. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_A._Garfield
188.8.131.52 14:18, 12 April 2018 (UTC)
- The number of Google searches might also be a useful indicator https://trends.google.de/trends/explore?date=all&q=%2Fm%2F0b22w,%2Fm%2F03x0cd 184.108.40.206 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
- Aha, yeah. That puts the Garfield/Conkling ratio at 34/2 over about 14 years of Google searches. So Garfield is searched for roughly 17X as often as Conkling.
- Abraham Lincoln compared with Garfield comes out as 37/1. So Garfield is indeed far more obscure than Lincoln, but Conkling is more obscure yet, according to the Google searches. 220.127.116.11 21:54, 16 April 2018 (UTC)
Can anyone speculate on what Randall was trying to achieve with the selective use of boldfaced text in the comic? JohnHawkinson (talk) 16:41, 12 April 2018 (UTC)
- Interesting question. I've entered it into the incomplete reason. --Dgbrt (talk) 17:25, 12 April 2018 (UTC)
- I believe it's Randall's way of providing a "TL;DR" version, that anyone not inclined to read that entire (rather large) block of text can just read the bold parts to grasp the gist of what the article, and by extension Randall, is trying to say (I DO feel like if someone only reads the bold text, they'll get the point of the article, at least the part that's striking Randall/Megan). NiceGuy1 (talk) 05:16, 13 April 2018 (UTC)