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Changing the Past

Laura‘s question this week was a good’un:

If you could change five events—historical or personal—from the past, which ones and how? What outcome would you hope for?

You know, I’ve posed this question to two very different groups of students during my years teaching here in Korea. The first group was an assortment of adult students whose English was of the highest level in our school, meaning that at least half the students had been abroad. Some of these students were considerably older than me. The second group was a pack of middle schoolers.

Now, their answers may have been a little influenced by the movies that were popular at the time: the very reason I posed the question was because I’d recently watched a Korean SF movie featuring time travel and the righting of a wrong that the Japanese caused by traveling back in time to kill one of the famous assassins who helped destabilize the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula. In the film, the Japanese occupation had continued, uninterrupted, into the year 2009, and Japan had sided with the USA in World War II. The movie, the English title of which was 2009: Lost Memories, was fascinating, albeit with a regrettably cheesy ending.

But anyway, the way each group answered differed in a way that fascinated me: the kids responded citing historical events that they would like to change, while the adults spoke much more personally about mistakes in their past. Perhaps this was a function of experience? I imagine that my adult students had a lot more to regret in their pasts than the kids, and therefore were more interested in the subject of regrets, unlike the kids who, lacking a lot of time (but also freedom and power over their own lives) in which to have done things that are highly regrettable, turned to historical events to speak about what needed to be undone in the past. The kids, needless to say, had a lot more interesting things to say than the adults… in my opinion, anyway.

So I’ll take a cue from my middle-schoolers, and avoid just talking about personal mistakes. After all, most of them only involve women and goodness knows I through with complaining about that half of the human species, for now anyway. I realize, of course, that changing major historical events is a big deal, that all of history can be altered, and sometimes when it happens, it’s for the worst, far more than for the best. Still, I think that some events would be worth changing, either because of their immense horribleness, or because it’d be worth seeing what would happen in history afterward.

Here’s the thing, I don’t have any parameters about how I can go about changing history. So I’m going to assume I have fairly free access to the past. I’m going to assume I can bring tools, weaponry, gadgets of any kind, and numbers of people along if I want. Why the hell not? Still, I’m going to assume I have significantly fewer people than, say, the standing army of a small country. I’m gonna assume, if I have a time machine, I have a small group of trusted specialists and some cool gear, but that’s about it.

  1. I’d warn (or, ahem, convince) Ralph Nader not to run in the election he ran in, and see if that blocked Bush from the White House. I have a feeling Gore would not have fucked up as badly as Bush. That’s just a slight tweak in the direction of a more decent recent history. Who knows, though, maybe Gore was a worse madman. One never can tell… but I’d be willing to wager he wouldn’t have been.
  2. I don’t know if I would (or even could) avert the Holocaust—doing that would be tricky, considering that not even World War II, an event with huge numbers of very powerful participants, managed to avert it. I don’t think it’d be possible to carry it off just by assassinating Hitler, either. But, there was another mass-death that could easily be averted, with proper medicines, and that’s the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. That thing killed more people than the First World War, according to what I’ve read. It was the worst plague in human history as far as total casualties, though of course there were a hell of a lot more humans to die off by 1918 than in any time before that. If I could go back with medicines and doctors, we could halt that thing, enamour the world of vaccines, and start the whole biotech revolution maybe 20 years earlier with all the manpower we had. Yeah, that’s it. Or, wait, maybe we only got so interested in vaccines because of the Spanish flu? Oh, man. I dunno. But still, it’d be interesting to see what might have followed if the flu hadn’t killed all those people.
  3. I’d hire a bunch of people to convince the crowds to let Jesus of Nazareth go instead of Barabbas. I’ve read a fascinating essay on what might have happened if this had occurred (in this book), and while it might be heretical to Christians round the world, I’d like to know what might have happened if they’d let the man go, and he’d died of natural causes. It’s a fascinating thought, isn’t it?
  4. Okay, and a couple of personal ones now:

  5. If I could, I not given up the saxophone for all of those years I was in graduate school. I did it because I thought that I “had to focus on my main thing” and now, when I see kids doing that here in Korea, dropping out to school to play in a rock band, I am shocked because it looks so profoundly self-limiting. And yet, that’s what I did, in reverse. I decided I couldn’t be John Coltrane, and so I might as well give up music altogether. How stupid. And even now that I sometimes practice, I still after two years of regular playing haven’t regained what I once, long-ago, used to have in terms of tone, technique, and the quality of my improvisations.
  6. Marie. If there is one personal event I’d eradicate from my past, willingly taking the risk that my life would have gone in a totally different direction, it is getting involved with her. I don’t mope about it, it’s in the past and I cannot change it, but that episode was the most misguided, hurtful, expensive, and stupid thing I’ve ever done in my life. Perhaps I’d be a jazz music prof in Toronto with three kids by now, or maybe I’d be working with the poor in Calcutta, I don’t know. I’m relatively happy with my life as it is, mind you, but I’m telling you: I would go back in time and warn myself if I could. I would totally change that.
  7. Of course I have runners up, one personal and one historical:

  8. In Thailand, I would not have slipped those travelers cheques into my wallet, nor would I have kept too much of my money in it. I would have been more careful with my wallet, too.
  9. I had a long discussion with a very cool friend of mine last night about alternate histories of Korea. We were discussing the reign of Park Chang-Hee Jeon Du Hwan and how he took control of the Korean populace by setting up a baseball league which, according to my friend’s readings, distracted the populace so shockingly that civil society’s growth in Korea was stunted for a long time.

    We discussed at length possible alternate histories for Korea, including one where, after the Korean war had commenced, for some shared reason the USA and Russian (as backers of North and South Korea) might have dropped out of backing the divided peninsula’s halves in the war… perhaps some kind of major disease outbreak, for example, or a “more pressing outbreak of hostilities in the West”, perhaps. The possibilities we worked through were quite fascinating, and I realized just how little I actually know of Korean history because my friend kept reminding me, “But you have to remember, this was because of that…” and so on. I think it could make an interesting alternate history novel, but I think it’d be far better for a Korean to write it than for me to attempt it. Ah well… but it did aid me in confirming that what I told one arrogant American guy is at least true: the American notion that American involvement “saved” Korea is not really realistic. American involvement and Russian involvement combined pretty much screwed Korea up in some pretty drastic ways, from which it’s still far from recovering… and the political life is a good example of that. But if you want to know more of that little mess, I’d recommend you go look at some great Korean blogs like the Marmot’s Hole, Flying Yangban, and Don Park’s Daily Habit, and Oranckay.

But, ah, the difficult decisions, the trouble and confusion of it all, is alas closed to us; for we cannot change the past, not one whit.

Hmmm. Perhaps it’s a good thing. Leaves us free to figure out the future instead.

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