A couple nights ago Jimmy Kimmel aired a segment that followed “Jake Byrd” at last fall’s Flat Earth Conference in Dallas. In true “Jake Byrd” fashion, he is quick witted and irreverent. But I am not particularly interested in Byrd’s performance or the content of the segment itself.1 I am more interested in Jimmy Kimmel’s opening comments:
Today’s a notable day for our galaxy. On this date back in 1610 Galileo, you know the guy from the Queen song, Galileo discovered that the universe does not revolve around the earth, on this day. And yet there are many people who not only do they still believe that the earth is the center of the universe, many of those same people believe the earth is flat, like a tortilla. They’re called “Flat Earthers” and they have conventions, and talks and shirts and mugs, the whole deal….”
Hmmm. I suppose Jimmy Kimmel is referring to Galileo’s observations on January 7, 1610, when he first saw three bright spots in a line near Jupiter. As he tracked the bright spots over a number of subsequent nights (and noticed a fourth), he concluded that they were moons orbiting Jupiter.
I am impressed that Jimmy Kimmel linked the Jake Byrd segment to what is an obscure little bit of trivia about Galileo, though he had to work to get from center of the universe to flat earth.2 I am less impressed with the whole “discovered that the universe does not revolve around the earth” bit, but baby steps.
Historians of science might think Galileo’s observations are anything but obscure trivia, but they would be wrong. Even the nerdy, NPR-listening crowd is largely ignorant of such minutia. Sure, they can tell you who Galileo was and what they think he did, generally with some historical accuracy, but the date of his initial observations of the moons of Jupiter is beyond the scope of their concern. So props to the writers on the Jimmy Kimmel Live show. ↩
Kanye West’s recent interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live took an unexpected turn when West invoked Galileo, implying that they were both misunderstood geniuses who wouldn’t be silenced by bullies telling them what to think. West was responding to Kimmel, who had asked about West’s views on the president. I’m not interested West’s opinions about the president. I am, however, fascinated by his use of history.
In a long, meandering reply that didn’t actually answer Kimmel’s almost question—“Do you like…? Do you think he is a good president?”—West seemed to be saying that he, West, was a free thinker and that he would not be told by anybody what to think. A minute or two into his reply, West enlisted Galileo as predecessor and partner in resisting the thought police and societal oppression:
[West] Right or wrong or even if I changed my mind about it or thought about it more, which I’m not saying I did, just place a thought out there that everyone’s not thinking sometimes. Galileo, they wanted to chop his head off for saying that…the earth uh that, what did he say?, the the the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa …. So when you have modern, futuristic ….
[Kimmel] But the sun…but…but the sun…
[West] I’m not concerned about specifics sir.
Here’s the audio of that portion, if you want to hear it:
Wow. Let’s pause for a moment and process West’s hesitation. He stumbled over whether the earth revolves around the sun or the sun around the earth. That’s not history. That’s not science. That’s just basic life. So basic, in fact, that I can’t excuse West’s uncertainty as a nervous misstep.
Invoking Galileo as some martyr for free and rational thinking who stood up to the dogmatic, oppressive Church that wanted to execute him is nothing new. But usually people who conjure up the ghost of Galileo know that Galileo espoused and argued vigorously for the Copernican, heliocentric system, the model in which the earth revolves around the sun. And while we no longer think the sun is stationary, we still accept today the core features of the Copernican system as valid and verifiable (as Kimmel seemed to be fumbling towards saying). And usually people who invoke Galileo do so because, they typically claim, they are concerned about the specifics. Galileo got it right, as the evidence we have today demonstrates. Those specifics usually matter.
But as West says, the specifics don’t matter to him. History, after all, is holding “us back as a race of beings:”
I think people focus too much on the past and focus too much on regret. Even like when you deal with schools, you take like my slave idea. My my point is I’ve heard of history class. I’ve never heard of a class that breaks down how you, ya know, balance a checkbook or how you control your finances, which uh my father never taught me that, and I’ve never heard of a future class. So they keep us so focused on history that we start to believe that it actually repeats itself and we become overly traditional and we can’t advance as a race of beings. We get too caught up in the past and what everyone’s saying and what everyone’s tweeting ….
I have a different idea here, one I’m going to place out there even if everyone’s not thinking it: History does matter. And paying attention in history class, not just hearing “of history class” but listing in history class, matters. And history classes are not the problem. Focusing on history doesn’t convince us that history “actually repeats itself” and prevents us from “advanc[ing] as a race of beings.” No, ignoring history, thinking history and historical facts are infinitely malleable or that the specifics don’t matter, that’s the danger that prevents us from “advanc[ing] as a race of beings.” Such willful ignorance, such open rejection of history empowers factions in society to “become overly traditional,” because once you deny history, society can and will continually make up whatever tradition that suits its immediate needs. Winston’s dystopian future will become our present:
All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.
History matters, as West instinctively realizes in his use (and abuse) of it to validate and justify his own position, because of the specifics. Once we lose the details, the historical facts and the evidence, then we’re just making stuff up.
If for some reason you want to watch more of the interview, this search should produce a link to the YouTube video.
Unlike West’s response, Kimmel’s question about the president was anything but unexpected. ↩
West said he was going to answer the question Kimmel was going to ask but didn’t, the question about liking the president. ↩
I.e., West’s ideas and opinions about the president. ↩
The irony of his having just deployed one of the more famous episodes in Western history to support him and his position seems to have been lost on West. ↩
Yes, other classes matter too. And yes, West is right, classes on basic economics and finances are worthwhile (and offered in many schools and colleges). ↩
I need to point out that I have no idea what West means by “advance as a race of beings,” especially the retro–1950s, invaders from another planet “race of beings” bit. ↩