It turns out that while Chou was quoted accurately (thus distinguishing the comment from the raft of apocryphal quotes too often bandied about), the originating inquiry may have been lost in translation. It seems that Chou thought the question was referring not to the Bastille etc., but to the riots and demonstrations that had paralyzed Paris in 1968; a recent event, noteworthy in its own right, but one that has resonated less deeply across the years.
The (mis-) quote is, nonetheless, too juicy to constrain it to the facts of the 1971 discussion.
Indeed, the essence of the quote is at the heart of what historians do. We interpret and reinterpret (and reinterpret, and reinterpret…) the known facts about historical actors and developments. It’s called “revisionism,” and while it may connote a disregard for the “true” (i.e. original) interpretation, revisionism is really nothing more than a long-running debate about how to make sense of the past.
The French Revolution (1789 version) is itself the best exemplar of this. Debates about the relative weight of cultural, social, intellectual, economic, and political causes and effects constituted a notable percentage of French historical output for over 200 years. Ditto for assessing the causes of WWI, or the reasons for the US defeat in Vietnam (or Afghanistan), or (literally) thousands of other historical questions.
Given that History shows us that human events twist and turn in all sorts of unpredictable directions, the question of whether a particular event was beneficial or evil depends on when you are asking (among other things). The responses to such a question about the French Revolution would have garnered different answers in 1789, 1791, 1793, 1799, 1815, 1820, 1848, 1871, and so on at least until late in the 20C (the French love to argue!).
For a more current example, the current death/illness toll from COVID seems appalling (and we’re quite a way from getting things “under control”). That’s the way it seems in the summer of 2021. Still, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which our collective COVID experience teaches us how better to be prepared for pandemics so that the next one, instead of causing 100M deaths, only causes 10M. A History written fifty years from now might well say that COVID19 wasn’t such a bad thing, after all.
I was thinking about how and when we make judgments as I was recently reading a discussion of the impact of Western Modernity on the world: the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment program and all that. Lots of important discoveries and inventions: Rembrandt, flush toilets, optical perspective, electricity, representative democracy, emojis.
The mainstream, “conventional” thinking has been that this has been a good thing; enabling more people to live longer, healthier lives with greater freedom. To be sure, there has long been an undercurrent of dissent, from Pope Pius IX’s encyclical Qui pluribus to Nietzsche and a range of other spiritual and popular thinkers. Still, most of the PR for modernity has been good.
The recent spate of floods and wildfires have highlighted the environmental and global costs of our cultural religion of “progress,” development, and modernity. It’s not so clear how well Modernity will fare in the Histories written a hundred years from now (or whenever we recover/escape from the climate crisis).
At another level, the whole concept of “too early to tell” begs the questions of who is making the judgments and why they need to make judgments about the meaning or moral significance of historical events/developments in the first place. Of course, it’s the winners who write the history and who is a “winner” at any particular point will vary (ask the French about their fights with the Germans in 1870, 1914, and 1940). Assessments will differ by political outlook, economic status, gender, nationality, etc. I’ve written before about historical judgmentalism, so I won’t repeat that commentary here.
If, as the 20C English Historian E.H. Carr wrote, “history is a dialogue between the past and the present,” then it’s never “too early tell.” We are where we are, and we have to frame and understand the past from our own perspective. It’s not a little hubristic to think that we are uniquely possessed of the true understanding of, e.g., the French Revolution
The flip side is that it’s always “too early to tell.” Just as we look back on the assessments of those events made in the bourgeois Third French Republic at the turn of the 20C, or the differing mid-20C characterization that reflected the influence of the French Revolution on the Russian Revolution of 1917, in order to criticize their historians’ take on history; so, too, will 22C historians look back on our (post-fall-of-communism) early 21C interpretations and sigh. In other words, future generations will make their own judgments in light of their own concerns and intervening developments. (Those of a slightly cynical nature might perceive that all this is merely to justify a “Historians’ Full Employment Act.)
In this way, History isn’t all that different from Science. In 1903, the Nobel prize-winning physicist Albert Michaelson said “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and … the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.” He was saying, in essence, that for physics it wasn’t “too early to tell.” This was, of course, before we had relativity, quantum mechanics, black holes, etc. Oops.