Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Sophistry's Choice

I'm as big a fan of the grand statement or the sweeping generalization as the next person, but lately I've picked up on a journalistic trend that crosses the line from informed objectivity into subjective dark-stabbery.

These statements roughly fit the following equation:

"Without the trailblazing of (X) there would never have been a (Y) or (Z)."
Without The Andy Williams Show, Sly and the Family Stone wouldn't have this pic of themselves.

Here's an example from the otherwise excellent August Vanity Fair article "Sly Stone's Higher Power" written by David Kamp (p.175):

"... his December 1969 single "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," which, with its chanted unison vocals and slap bass, effectively invented 1970's funk–without it, no Parliament Funkadelic, no Ohio Players, no Earth, Wind & Fire..."

I have no issue with the statement about 1970's funk, as Family Stone bassist Larry Graham's new "Thumpin' and Pluckin'" technique marked a sea change in funky rhythm sections. What seems preposterous is the "without that song, no P-Funk, Ohio Players, etc" assertion. There's a huge difference between "influenced by" and "would never have existed without," no?

without Larry Graham, there would have been no Graham Central Station.

Especially when you look at the facts. George Clinton formed The Parliaments in 1956, and his first album as leader of Funkadelic was recorded in 1969 and released in 1970. The Ohio Players were playing under different names as early as 1959. Earth Wind & Fire was founded in 1969.

Even if Kamp was trying to say (as I think he was) that those bands wouldn't have existed as we know them today, his reasoning still has logic and history holes in it.

This summer's Wimbledon saw Roger Federer equal Bjorn Borg's record of winning five consecutive titles. Borg himself was in the stands watching the semis and finals, which gave rise to repeated comments from the announcers along the lines of "without Borg, there would be no Federer." Huh?

This year Major League Baseball celebrated the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier when he was called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. In a pre-game special on Robinson, the host said (and I'm paraphrasing from memory here), "not only would there be no Barry Bonds without Jackie Robinson, but there wouldn't have been a Rosa Parks either."

we have only Jackie Robinson to blame for this.

I think I can safely say, with no disrespect to Robinson's amazing and hugely important legacy, that if it wasn't him, it would certainly have been someone else. Sure, Larry Doby or whoever else it would have been might not have handled it with the stoicism and grace under pressure that Robinson did, but history (including Ms. Parks' act of definace eight years later) would ultimately have played out in similar fashion.

If you think of it, let me know if you've heard other examples of the "if not for the genius of (X) there never would have been a (Y)" argument.

And you writers out there, let's try and keep the WHAT IF?-style alternate universe hyperbole to a minumum.


Darth Weasel said...

excellent post and dead on. without this post there would be no reply...

Anonymous said...

Without Green Day there would be no Blink 182. So, clearly, we should go back in time to kill Green Day.