As Time Goes By: The Met Gala, Einstein and Owning Change


Human chain atop Lion Rock, overlooking Hong Kong/Shing On

Albert Einstein said that time could not be absolutely defined. That doesn’t mean it can’t be leveraged as a political commodity.

Lisa Van Dusen/For the Hill Times

Nov. 20th, 2019

The annual Met Gala, the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s glittery fundraiser and red-carpet bonfire, has not lately been known for going small. The theme of the 2020 Gala, to be held May 4, is time. Specifically, “About Time: Fashion and Duration”—an exploration of the linear and cyclical rhythm of fashion’s dance with time, with an assist from Virginia Woolf. It’s a timely choice for a moment in history when the larger world’s tango with time seems to swing between Nick Pileggi meets Pina Bausch and Soviet soldiers dancing to Benny Hill.

We humans tend to underthink the transformative role time plays as a factor in events beyond chronology. In May 1905, Albert Einstein, per Walter Isaacson’s brilliant biography, was on the verge of abandoning his theory of relativity. “Then something delightful happened,” writes Isaacson. “Albert Einstein, while talking with a friend, took one of the most elegant imaginative leaps in the history of physics.” In his study of the electrodynamics of moving bodies, Einstein had been fixated on the velocity of light, to the exclusion of another crucial factor. “An analysis of the concept of time was my solution,” he said later, reflecting on the eureka moment.

With a global competition underway over who owns change—small-L liberal, democracy-defending interests, or authoritarians consolidating power among corrupt, unelected, and dubiously elected players—time has become a strategic commodity. For most of us, time, now measured in digital timestamps, feels smaller and faster than it used to. And yet, its role in events and outcomes seems more consequential.

In the narrative warfare that is—with the help of technology and politicized covert ops tactics—defining events these days, time is a weapon, providing a window for propaganda, distraction, desensitization, normalization, and apathy to hijack change and rationalize otherwise preposterous outcomes.

After six months of protests that have galvanized global attention on Hong Kong as ground zero for Beijing’s wider war on democracy, the People’s Liberation Army made its first territorial incursion last weekend—ostensibly to help clear debris left by protesters. Time is already clarifying the true nature of the PLA’s mission as a story that morphed from a crackdown on peaceful protesters into a symmetrical battle crashes and burns toward a casus belli of maintaining order and stability.

In the Brexit debacle, time has allowed the proponents of what former speaker John Bercow has called Britain’s biggest mistake since the Second World War to respond to every reversal in their campaign to implement the politically unimplementable by buying more of it. That extra time has produced the Brexit fatigue and disillusionment informing a Dec. 12 election whose result will catalyze an endgame.

In America, time has normalized the presidency of Donald Trump to the point at which there actually remains a question as to his impeachability. Time has, the thinking apparently goes, perverted perception, devalued standards, and distorted public expectations to the point at which any outcome is possible if it can just be rendered plausible by the assiduous hourly curation of enough bespoke bullshit. Time, if maximized cunningly enough, can make possible today what would have been absolutely unthinkable a month ago, a year ago, or four years ago. Time, apparently, can inure us to any injustice, numb us to any previously unthinkable human rights violation, privilege any barbarity, and lubricate any heist.

In a farewell speech last week, outgoing European Council President Donald Tusk said something about Brexit that offers one way to counter the narrative distortions of time. “Hannah Arendt taught that things become irreversible only when people start to think so,” Tusk said. “So, the only words that come to my mind today are simply: don’t give up.”

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.