Ahead of his time?

中国日报网 2018-04-24 11:41



Ahead of his time?Reader question:

Please explain “ahead of his time” in this headline (TheSun.co.uk, April 20, 2018):

Arsene Wenger was ahead of his time and exactly what Arsenal and the Premier League needed.

My comments:

Arsene Wenger is a Frenchman who’s been manager at Arsenal, an English Premier League football club for 22 years, counting this season at the end of which he’ll leave.

To say that he was “ahead of his time” is to say that he was much better than his contemporaries or other managers of his generation. In other words, it is a compliment. He did what others weren’t doing back in the day, such as, if I remember correctly, stopping players from drinking a lot of beer after games (a very British habit). He was meticulous to detail in training and in games. He asked the club to build a modern stadium, etc. and so forth. He did many things other people weren’t doing at the time but are doing nowadays, proof that the Frenchman was ahead of the curve all along.

We often hear the saying “keep up with the times”, meaning we must follow trends and not be left behind. Keep up with the joneses, in other words. This implies the world around us is sort of moving or advancing faster than we are.

Well, this is not the situation facing those who are ahead of their time. Quite the contrary, those who are ahead of their time are the ones who are setting the pace, running in front, and way ahead of their competitors. Sometimes, they’re so much better and more innovative that it may take years and years for later generations to emulate them.

They are pioneers. Their ideas and methodologies are way ahead of their era, so to speak. So much so that these pioneers may not be fully understood and appreciated by their fellow practitioners, companions or contemporaries.

Or the public in general.

Take the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) for example. Even though his works have been fetching millions regularly at auctions, Van Gogh the artist and person was unsuccessful, to say the least. He lived much of his life in poverty. Only after death did he grow steadily in fame and stature as later generations of expressionists began to examine and learn from him.

In life, many people saw him as a madman, a failure. After death, people recognize him as a true artist, a genius.

Sad, but in a way Van Gogh was ahead of his time, doing things in news ways that mystified his contemporaries.

All right, here are other examples of people who are deemed ahead of their time (a compliment, usually):

1. Democratic vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine is a man who claims to be ahead of his time. At a dinner for one of America’s largest and wealthiest homosexual-rights lobby groups, he stated his belief that the Catholic Church will change its teaching on same-sex “marriage,” just as he did.

“My full, complete, unconditional support for marriage equality is at odds with the current doctrine of the Church that I still attend,” he declared. “But I think that’s going to change, too.”

How did the Catholic Church, given her meticulous explanation of the nature of marriage, as described in Scripture, miss the importance of “marriage equality” for more than 2,000 years? How could it have slipped past the attention of her 266 popes, her learned theologians and philosophers, her Fathers and Doctors of the Church, her saints and her educated laymen? How could the Church have so egregiously misinterpreted Genesis, where it is written that “in the image of God, he created them. ... Therefore, a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh”?

Kaine interprets Genesis differently”: “My church also teaches me about a Creator in the first chapter of Genesis, who surveys the entire world, including mankind, and said, ‘It is very good. It is very good.’ Who am I to challenge God for the beautiful diversity of the human family? I think we’re supposed to celebrate, not challenge, it.”

Kaine’s allusion to his reluctance to challenge Scripture is hardly convincing when he does not hesitate to challenge the Church’s clear and consistent teaching on the nature of marriage. What he is truly reluctant to challenge is his own gross and gratuitous misinterpretation of Scripture. Nor does he let the lessons of Sodom and Gomorrah stand in his way. It is not for us, one might say, to judge a man who is ahead of his time by the present time. We must wait and see what unfolds. In the meantime, we must withhold judgment. Presumably, we must all just sit there and wait for Godot.

Being ahead of one’s time is an ambiguous notion. Charlie Finley, the former owner of the Oakland A’s, was said to be someone who was ahead of his time. He promoted changing the color of baseballs to orange and suggested that a walk should be reduced to three balls, while a strikeout be set at two strikes. Charlie O, as he was affectionately called, died in 1996. But he is still ahead of his time — perhaps so far ahead that his time will never catch up with him.

Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was also a man who was considered well ahead of his time. In an 8-1 Supreme Court ruling (Buck v. Bell, 1927), he and his cohorts agreed to the forced sterilization of the “unfit.”

“Three generations of imbeciles is enough,” he wrote. Adam Cohen, in his recent book, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, describes these six words as constituting “one of the most brutal aphorisms in American jurisprudence.” Holmes was echoing the sentiments of several other prominent thinkers who also were considered to be ahead of their time. One in particular was Frank Taussig, a Harvard economist, who reasoned, “The human race could be immensely improved in quality if those of poor physical and mental endowment were prevented from multiplying.” His challenge of Genesis here is only too evident.

Was Carrie Buck, whose name has been immortalized in the history of American jurisprudence, truly “unfit”? She married twice, sang in her church choir and cared for elderly people. Having been forcibly sterilized at age 21, she always mourned her inability to have children. She, most unfortunately, was a victim of men who were ahead of their time.

- A Man Ahead of His Time vs. a Man for All Seasons, NCRegister.com, November 5, 2016.

2. Already, in the hours since the death of Doris Lessing was announced, many people will have watched a widely circulated video, filmed on her doorstep in 2007. In it, she has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the news of which is relayed to her by reporters who greet her as she alights from a London taxi. “Oh Christ,” she says in apparent irritation, and puts down her shopping bags. Watching, you think she must have heard it wrong. But no. Pausing to check whether she or her companion have left anything behind in the cab, she turns to the assembled camera crews and sighs. “I’m sure you’d like some uplifting remarks of some kind,” she says.

Bids for popularity were not Doris Lessing’s thing. Of course, in many ways that made her more appealing. You might call her misunderstood, or reappropriated, or simply taken to heart — in any case she was popular in ways she never meant to be. Take her best known work, The Golden Notebook, which Margaret Drabble described as “a novel of shocking power and blistering honesty”. Its most striking formal aspect — the several notebooks of its make-up — and attendant suggestion that writers (or all human beings) are divided selves, was largely ignored in favour of its much more controversially intimate aspect. In a later preface to the book, Lessing wrote that it had been “instantly belittled as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war”.

Well, yes – though it wasn’t belittling. Lessing wrote about women’s ambivalence about motherhood and sex and work in a way that was simultaneously shocking and influential. If she rejected the feminist label it was perhaps because she had no need for it. If others gave it to her it was perhaps because they needed her. It’s often said that what we think of as the Fifties and Sixties are more cultural concepts than chronological ones, and that the Sixties as we now think of them didn’t begin until well into that decade.

The Golden Notebook, which was published in 1962 — in other words, the Fifties — was not only ahead of its time but a blueprint for women in times to come. As Lessing herself put it, it was written “as though the attitudes that have been created by the Women’s Liberation movements already existed”.

- Doris Lessing: a woman ahead of her time, Telegraph.co.uk, November 17, 2013.

3. On January 10th, 1878, California senator Aaron Sargent proposed a constitutional amendment that would grant women the right to vote. It would take 42 years to pass, finally happening in 1920. The amendment—like those behind it—was one of many advanced ideas whose primary flaw was that it was simply ahead of its time.

In honor of the 19th Amendment’s passing, we look back at other ideas, figures and inventions which came before most people were ready for them.

Hand Washing

While it’s common knowledge these days that hand washing is the best defense against pretty much any germ with which you could possibly come into contact, it didn’t really start to catch on with doctors until the mid 19th century. In fact, the words of the doctor who first told his students to wash their hands proved so controversial that he lost his job over it.

While working in a Vienna maternity clinic in 1847, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis noticed a disturbing trend: new mothers were dying in droves due to some mysterious ailment known as “childbed fever.”

Semmelweis resolved to figure out what was behind these deaths, and started by looking for disparities between the hospital’s two maternity wards. Midwives managed one ward, with male doctors and medical students in charge of the other. Semmelweiss found that the women treated by the latter were dying at a rate nearly five times that of those in the midwives’ clinic.

When a pathologist operating in the latter ward died of childbed fever, the Hungarian doctor got his most important clue to solving this puzzle. The major difference between the doctors and the midwives was that doctors performed autopsies in addition to delivering babies — and often, they went straight from one procedure to the next. When Semmelweis figured this out, he realized that the doctors were spreading material from dead bodies to maternity ward patients. If he could prove that this was the route of transmission, he could likely stop the spread of the fever.

Semmelweis then pioneered disinfection measures, mostly using chlorine (which he thought would do well to cover up the smell of death). When the rate of childbed fever dropped dramatically, he realized that the answer had been pretty simple all along: the maternity ward needed to be kept clean, and doctors needed to wash their hands.

Doctors at the ward resisted his attempts to impose these measures, however, mostly because they felt they were being blamed for the mothers’ deaths. They soon stopped washing their hands and disinfecting and, sure enough, childbed fever returned.

Semmelweis eventually lost his assignment at the ward, and abruptly left Vienna in 1850. Over time, the man went insane and was committed to an asylum. The irony? Some historians believe he died of sepsis —the same thing that killed all those women on the maternity ward. He was 47 years old.

- 5 People Whose Advanced Ideas Were Way Ahead of Their Time, AllThatsInteresting.com, February 10, 2018.


About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

(作者:张欣 编辑:丹妮)

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