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Dubious Influences

4 minute read
Richard Stengel

We all know about Carlyle’s Great Man theory of history, but what about the Creepy Guy Behind the Curtain theory of history or the Meddlesome Housemaid Who Spikes the Punch theory or the Wife Who Whispers in the Great Man’s Ear theory?

History is written by the victors, but what of those who called in sick that day? Or those who opted not to play? What of the individual who performed one small act that set in motion a great, grand tumult of actions that changed history?

Consider Gavrilo Princip.

He is the 19-year-old Serbian student who assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, which ignited the conflagration of World War I, which yielded the Treaty of Versailles, which deeply embittered an Austrian corporal named Adolf Hitler, who in response booted up the great horror of World War II, which yielded the Treaty at Yalta, which divided up Eastern Europe in such a way that another Serb named Slobodan Milosevic felt the need to ethnically cleanse Kosovo.

Gavrilo Princip, Trigger of the Century.

History belongs not only to the victors but also to the morally unambiguous. We tend to cite those individuals who divide most conveniently into black and white, good and evil, like characters in an old western. Those who are shades of gray, who are moral relativists, are relegated to a place outside the canon. This group includes those who may have the right idea but whose biography is dodgy, to say the least.

Heidegger was a towering philosopher but an odious man with Nazi sympathies. Whittaker Chambers was mostly right about communism and Alger Hiss, but he was a nasty piece of work and no one likes a snitch. Even Joe McCarthy may have been on to something, but he was a crude and cruel man who ruined people’s lives for 48-point type. You might call this the When Bad People Spoil Good Things school of history.

Of course, there are those whose intentions were malign but not all that influential, whose perniciousness petered out. Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitic rants on the wireless never really amounted to much. Preacher Billy Sunday swore that when Prohibition finally came, “Hell would be rent forever.” Fat chance of that happening anytime soon. George Wallace’s cry of “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” lasted only a decade before it was relegated to the dustbin of ugly 19th century prejudices. Call this the When Bad People Don’t Do All That Much Damage theory of history.

There are those who started a movement or hitched their wagon to an idea that never quite panned out. Or the idea succeeded, but it’s one that makes us uncomfortable. Chiang Kai-shek was a contender for a billion people’s loyalty but played his cards wrong. Marcus Garvey preached racial separatism and opposed interracial marriage; his ideas seem almost quaint now. Whether Hugh Hefner was a pioneer of the sexual revolution or just piggybacked on it is impossible to know, but in the age of AIDS and poverty caused by out-of-wedlock births, his hedonism-without-tears philosophy makes him look like Austin Powers with better teeth. Timothy Leary preached the liberating power of psychedelic drugs, but aside from Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the legacy of LSD seems to be a lot of boring baby-boomer anecdotes and some black-light posters in the attic. But who knows: Is Leary’s time past, or is it yet to come? The great caveat of historians is “It’s too soon to tell.”

Then there are those folks who altered history but in ways that make us a little bit squeamish. They launched notions that we’re not all that proud of and that may have engendered consequences we regret. Edward Bernays, the father of public relations (what we now blithely call spin), figured out how to get people to buy things they did not really want and feel things they did not really believe in. His legacy may be political campaigns without content, women who thought Virginia Slims were liberating, and an epidemic of credit-card debt.

History looks backward, not forward, so there are those for whom the jury is still out. Legions of computer whizzes in Silicon Valley are certain that they’re remaking history even as we speak. Maybe they are. Patrick Steptoe, the British doctor who created the first test-tube baby in 1978, has certainly changed the history of thousands of families. And who is to say that one of those test-tube babies will not change history? What new Gavrilo Princip is yet to be born?

It’s too soon to tell.

Richard Stengel is a senior editor at TIME

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