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Keith Rankin: Peasants versus Pedants

Peasants versus Pedants
by Keith Rankin
4 January 2001


I hesitate to bring up the divisive topic about which millennium is the real millennium. But I do so for two reasons. First, I am interested in the sociology of the divide. Why did the issue polarise us to the extent that we lost interest in what should have been a uniquely special time in our lives? Second I was somewhat offended by Arthur C. Clark's assertion, published in the Herald of 01/01/01 that "the intelligent minority of this world will mark January 1, 2001 as the beginning of the 21st century and the third millennium". (He might as well have said, in addition, that it was the first day of the 201st decade.)

The divide is a simple generation gap. The divide is also a clash between the modern equivalent of the peasantry of yore - whose predominant philosophy might best be described as populism, but who do understand computers and odometers - and a pseudo-intellectual anti- populist pedantry, wowsers of the modern age. In acceptance of the unpopularity of their views, the pedantry kept their heads down last year; until that is the last two or three days.

The issue of the real millennium can never be finally resolved, because it is, like beauty, subjective. Instead, I would like to argue that the peasant case, when enunciated, is not unintelligent. And, I would like to argue that the pedant case is based on assertion rather than reason.

I am most interested, however, in what motivates the pedantry. While the calendar may seem a trivial issue, the same attitudes run into other spheres of our lives. There are deeper issues of intellectual authoritarianism which surface in academia, in politics, in theology, and in literature. It is the tragic clash between Tess's (of the d'Urbervilles) forward-looking populism and Angel's pedantic application of past benchmarks to guide his present. It is also the clash between those who believe in a 'correct' and unchanging English language, versus those on the vanguard of language change.

In academia, it's always easier to forge a career by remaining within the constraints of 'received wisdom' than by challenging that "wisdom" with an entirely new perspective. The defences that shore up received wisdoms are more authoritarian than intellectual. The argument about the real millennium has that taint of 'received wisdom' written all over it. Arthur C. Clarke puts down the peasants on the basis of his own authority as a gatekeeper of the received view, and not on the basis, as he claims, of intelligent reasoning. In theology, it was a group of pedants who prosecuted the New Year "knight" Lloyd Geering, in 1967, for heresy. Geering dared to intellectualise the emerging peasant view of The Resurrection.

In politics, the recent US presidential "election" saw a desperate attempt by conservatives to use autocratic legalisms to override basic democratic principles in order to fend off, successfully, the populism - the rule of the rabble that would ensue if everyone voted and all votes were counted - that patricians always feared democracy would bring. Interestingly, the three countries that made the biggest noise about celebrating the "real millennium" - Cuba, China, Malaysia - are all ruled by autocrats.

Let's check out the two sides' arguments about the millennium. While I call those who recognise the popular millennium as the real millennium as the peasantry, and those who do not as the pedantry, neither term should be regarded as more pejorative than the other. Although I personally agree with the peasantry on this issue, I certainly do not hold that popular views are always correct (take longer prison sentences as an example). Democracy complements rather than displaces science.

Before continuing, I should note that populist assumptions about the millennium transition are not unique to the 20th and 21st centuries. The populist fear in western Christian circles 1001 years ago, was that the transition from AD999 to AD1000 (from CMXCIX to M in the numerals of the time) would lead to Armageddon. There certainly was a Y1K problem; or at least, in 999 as in 1999, a perceived problem. So the last peasants' millennium (beginning on 01/01/1000) ended 1000 years later much as it began, with a wave of mass hysteria. (For a general historical analysis, see my Ri ght Time to Count out the Sceptics.)

There is no reason that I can see that makes special 01/01/1001, the beginning of the just completed pedants' millennium. The pedantry ignore the year 1000, preferring to make assertions about the beginnings of the previous millennium, the one that contained the 'dark ages' in Europe, but which did not lack culture on the Indian Ocean rim, in Polynesia, or in Meso-America.

But back to the peasantry. The years, to most of us in this age of decimals and digitals, represent cardinal rather than ordinal numbers. Cardinal numbers represent a continuum, starting at 0.0 and with the century being represented by the number 100.0. As a cardinal number, 1 July 2000 would be represented as 2000.5, and 1 July 1999 would be 1999.5. On that basis, the millennium rollover clearly occurred exactly half-way between those two July dates. It's not an unintelligent point of view.

Peasants treat the calendar much as we treat our own ages. When we were 9 months old, our age was 0.75 (which truncates to 0), not 1.75 (nor, in the truncated form that we normally use, 1). We were not born on our first birthdays.

The pedantry, unlike the peasantry, interpret the calendar as a set of ordinal numbers. Thus to a pedant, a baby is not aged 0, but is in her 1st year. The Queen Mother is not aged 100 but is in her 101st year. (Many of us will have had great-uncles, who, when we were 9, told others that we were in our 10th year. In the pre-decimal era, people tended to think only in ordinal numbers.) The year 2000 was, to the pedants, the 2000th year. If asked to express the midpoint of the 2000th year as a decimal, one would say 1999.5. Therefore the pedants' millennium transition was reached at the end of 2000, the 2000th year.

For the peasants, the calendar is like an odometer, a thermometer, or a tape measure; all based on cardinal numbers. When the one's digit moves, we celebrate New Year. When the ten's digit moves, we reflect on the end of a decade and look ahead to a new decade. (How many of us commemorated the end of the 1990s' decade last weekend?) When the hundred's digit moves we celebrate the transition between centuries. And when the thousand's digit moves it's a new millennium. (Beyond that, I presume, is the decamillennium (Y10K), centamillennium and megamillennium.)

From that peasant point of view - based on sound arithmetical common sense - the date 01/01/2000 is the crucial reference point. Given that we define our millennium, then the millennium before the millennium before the present millennium began, by popular consent, on the date 01/01/0000.

The pedants squirm. They blurt out: "but there was no year zero". But they never justify this statement. In an act of casual empiricism - a sin-binning offence in academia - they merely assert that there was no year 0.

I believe that it all boils down to a deep historical distrust of the number zero. In other words, it appears that the pedantry are slaves to superstition re a particular number, whereas the peasantry just take the number zero for granted. There are at least two recently published books about just the number zero. (The most recent is Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, by Charles Seif; the other is The Nothing that Is: A Natural History of Zero, by Robert Kaplan.) The subtitle of Seif's book elegantly expresses the disquiet that lurks deep within the pedant mindset.

The pedant argument rests on a single assertion. Pedants assume that some authority in antiquity declared that there was no year zero, and that we should accept that authority, even in the face of common sense. There was in fact no such authority. But even if there was, we potentially face a scenario of Galilean proportions. About 400 years ago, Galileo, an astronomer among other things, was forced to recant his view that the earth went around the sun because the backward-looking Florentine authorities, on the basis of received wisdom, asserted otherwise. As Brecht's play emphasises, Galileo's findings were very liberating to the peasantry of his day; they cost the ruling authorities their credibility.

The only conceivable authority for the "there was no year zero" assertion is an obscure French astronomer Denis Petau, a contemporary of Galileo, who was the first to use the BC dating system. Petau called the year before AD1 BC1. But that is not a claim that there was no year zero. A year can have more than one label: BC1=AD0; BC0=AD1. No problem. After all, the temperature can be 0 degrees on one side of the Niagara Falls and 32 degrees on the other side, with neither side being colder than the other.

The pedants have, for whatever reason, chosen to assert that the start of the millennium before the millennium before the present millennium was at the completion of the year BC1. That is their non-negotiable reference point. Two thousand years after that date we get 31/12/2000, which was, for them, the end of the "second millennium". It makes about as much sense as the once non-negotiable view that, based on calculations from Genesis, the earth is just over 6,000 years old.

I guess we can say that both the peasants and the pedants are correct; they just adopt different, equally arbitrary, reference points; either 01/01/2000 for the peasants, or 31/12/BC1 for the pedants. The peasants count backwards to locate the beginning of the last two millennia. The pedants count forwards from their benchmark to locate the end of each millennium. They both agree that 2000 is our millennium year. They simply dispute whether the transition was at the beginning or the end of that year.

Now that 2000 is over, the two sides will quietly agree to disagree on this issue, at least until 2010. The peasants will then argue that 2010 belongs to the new 2010s' decade, while the pedants will claim it is still a part of the noughties. Of course the pedants won't call the present decade the noughties. They will revert to the comfort of ordinal numbers; for them it will be "the first decade of the twenty-first century". What a mouthful!

(c) 2001 Keith Rankin


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