Facts from a Nameless Decade

In the search for truth, no fact is ever truly useless. For example, it may actually be helpful to know that George Orwell wrote one of the most awkwardly British letters ever, thanking a woman for making love to him. And to know that during Barack Obama’s 2008 run for the presidency, his campaigners initially planned to knock on 1.3 million doors in Missouri. These apparently superfluous pieces of information contribute to important stories when contextualized. Obtaining fact, not factoid, is crucial, because the public usually only hears one tiny facet of any major issue, Timothy Garton Ash argues in Facts are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name. Orwell was not a genius writer—he could not even pull off a love letter. Garton Ash claims that the publication of the famous author’s “complete works” in the last decade shows that only Animal Farm was “perfectly composed.” Orwell was (in fact) a weak novelist. As for the Obama campaign, latent racism prompted the need for numbers. Not only did volunteers have to convince voters to support a certain candidate, but they had to try to convince a region that “the ghost of slavery past” still haunted to support a certain black candidate. Garton Ash recalls one woman who said she voted for Obama but admitted both her children were too racist to follow her.

The facts from the 2000s—the “decade without a name”—that Garton Ash provides in a series of political essays cover a range of topics, from the events we already know to be important to the ones it is critical we do not forget. Some issues are lost, even purposefully ignored, in the wake of other, bigger stories. Every American has heard or even told an anti-France joke. (Albino Blacksheep’s French Military Victories, anyone?) Not a big deal. Many Americans who follow world news, though, are aware of anti-American sentiment in Europe (especially in France). What they may not realize is that their French jokes are symptomatic of an inverse sentiment, anti-Europeanism. Americans are losing one of their strongest allies to a belief that Europe is irrelevant. Garton Ash notes that since the boundaries of decades are arbitrary, it might make more sense to say that the last decade really began with 9/11 and ended with Obama’s election in 2008. For such a relatively short decade—only seven years— Garton Ash has unearthed a surprising amount of facts.

Last month, Garton Ash appeared on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, with the full episode now available on Colbert Nation.

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