"21 generations"?

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I haven't yet thought of any interesting linguistic aspects of last night's State of the Union message, or of the various official and unofficial responses to it. But in preparing for the event, I saw some coverage of a recent speech in Iowa where Rep. Michele Bachmann said something that made me wonder about the meaning and rhetorical use of the word "generations", and about her particular choice of the phrase "21 generations" to describe the historical span of American ideals.

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Because it's a single question now
that hangs over our country
and it's a question that Abraham Lincoln raised
one hundred fifty years ago almost to this very night
when Abraham Lincoln asked if the liberties of our country would be preserved
until the latest generation

And a bit later, she added that

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For twenty one generations in America
we've listened to Lincoln's words
we have faithfully performed to the next generation

I'm not very good at mental arithmetic, so by the time I figured out that 21 generations in 150 years works out to a bit more than 7 years per generation, I'd lost the thread of Rep. Bachmann's speech. Tuning in again, I heard something about the 234 years since the Declaration of Independence in 1776; but 21 generations in 234 years, I calculated, is only about 11 years per generation.

At this point, Ms. Bachmann was saying something about the Mayflower:

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They all bound themselves back
to this tradition, this covenant
that was contained in the Mayflower Compact
this covenant that we re-published in the Declaration of Independence

The Mayflower Compact happened in 1620, which was 390 years ago. So I recalculated, and determined that 390/21 is a bit less than 19 years per generation. 19 is better than 7 or 11, but it still seemed a bit short to me. And most of those generations, whatever their length, certainly didn't "listen to Lincoln's words", though maybe that part was sort of figurative.

Anyhow, I went off to read the Mayflower Compact, and then I came back to Rep. Bachmann making it clear that she really did mean "twenty one":

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It's been twenty one generations
that America has survived.
For twenty one nations
we've passed the torch of liberty
from one generation successfully to the next.
And the question we need to ask ourselves tonight is this:
Will it end with us?

The question that I was asking myself, though, was "why *21* generations"? Why not 20, or 22, or 11, or whatever? Is there some traditional or numerological reason? And when did these 21 generations start, anyhow?

I want to make it clear that my purpose here is not to pick nits or to poke fun at Rep. Bachmann.  The "21 generations" theme was clearly an central part of what sounded like a stump speech. She used the phrase as though she could assume that her listeners would know what she meant, and perhaps would even find the phrase familiar. But it's new to me, and a quick web search didn't identify for me any tradition of counting generations in American history that would give us 21 of them from some important reference date up to the present.

Nor did I discover any obviously-relevant biblical reference.  I turned up J. Schwartz, "A Newly Discovered Key to Biblical Chronology", Biblioteca Sacra 1888, which promotes a numerology in which 21 features prominently:

But this seems to be far from the usual interpretation — Schwartz needs to argue that St. Matthew's tally was sadly mistaken, for example. And Schwartz's numerology does not seem to have been widely adopted in the many other discussions of the question of Biblical generations. In one more recent example:

The New Testament opens with the genealogy from Abraham to Jesus Christ. At the conclusion of this genealogy, Matthew 1:17 states, “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.” These three groupings are all considered fourteen generations. When looking at the average generation for each group, we find that the generation length differs.

The average generation from Abraham to David (Matt. 1:17) was approximately 64 years, while the average generation for the other two groups was 38 years.

Turning to more secular authorities, the American Heritage Dictionary's sense 2 for generation is:

the term of years, roughly 30 among human beings, accepted as the average period between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring.

The OED's sense 5.b.:

The average time it takes for children to grow up, become adults, and have children of their own, generally considered to be about thirty years, and used as a rough measure of historical time.

Encarta's sense 3:

time taken to produce new generation: the period of time that it takes for people, animals, or plants to grow up and produce their own offspring, in humans held to be between 30 and 35 years

If a generation is 30 years, then 21 of them is 630 years, and 630 years ago was 1380.  This is too late for Leif Eriksson and too early for Christopher Columbus.

[Update — in the comments, Adrian Bailey points us to Don Devine, "How Long Is a Generation? Science Provides an Answer", Ancestry Magazine 2005, which quotes a study among the !Kung finding "a mean of 25.5 years per female generation [and] a male generational interval of 31 to 38 years"; another study done in Quebec which "determined that male generations averaged 35.0 years while female generations averaged 28.7 years"; and a study in Iceland that found "a female line interval of 28.12 years for the most recent generations and 28.72 years for the whole lineage length", and male generational intervals of "31.13 years for the recent generations and 31.93 years overall". So 30 years is a pretty reasonable overall average.]

So, in sum, what did Rep. Bachmann mean by 21 generations? Did she perhaps divide the 390 years since the Mayflower by 18, getting 21.67 and rounding down to 21? Wherever the "21 generations" theme comes from, is it her own idea, or did she get it from some independent historical or political or religious tradition?

[Update #2 — The links and quotes served up by fev suggest that I was too quick to dismiss Mr. Schwartz's reasoning as atypical, and that multiples of 7 generations, and 3*7=21 generations in particular, do pervade the numerology of eschatological speculation. And Ian Preston has found several links suggesting that for many people such phrases apparently do evoke (as Ben Hemmens puts it) the idea that "the coming of Obama(care) … can be cast as a great abomination foretold by the prophets".]


  1. Plegmund said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 7:10 am

    Perhaps an early draft referred to 'our 21st century generation', a typo and/or abbreviation lost the 'century', and the result was thoughtlessly taken up as a fact in the final version?

  2. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » “21 generations”? [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 7:15 am

    […] Language Log » “21 generations”? languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2926 – view page – cached I haven't yet thought of any interesting linguistic aspects of last night's State of the Union message, or of the various official and unofficial responses to it. But in preparing for the event, I saw some coverage of a recent speech in Iowa where Rep. Michele Bachmann said something that made me wonder about the meaning and rhetorical use of the word "generations", and about her particular… Read moreI haven't yet thought of any interesting linguistic aspects of last night's State of the Union message, or of the various official and unofficial responses to it. But in preparing for the event, I saw some coverage of a recent speech in Iowa where Rep. Michele Bachmann said something that made me wonder about the meaning and rhetorical use of the word "generations", and about her particular choice of the phrase "21 generations" to describe the historical span of American ideals. View page […]

  3. Scott Y said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 7:22 am

    I understand that a "grandfather" in evolutionary biology* is 50 years – so Abe's speech happened three grandfathers ago, i.e. six generations.

    Also, shouldn't Star Trek: The Next Generation have been Star Trek: One of the Next Few Generations?

    *or anthropology, maybe. I don't remember where I read it.

  4. bkd69 said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 7:25 am

    See also, 13th gen:

    That's the only other semantically specific " generation" tag I've heard, and neither have I heard Bachman's phrase used in any of my conservative readings, though I make no claim to completeness.

    A generation as unit of time is a fairly elastic notion to begin with, and it's a pretty safe bet that we can reduce some of the time frames a fair bit, given the eras we're reaching back to. I'd say 20-25 years is probably a closer mark, and nobody would consider it outlandish to drop the lower bound to 18.

  5. Adrian Bailey (UK) said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 7:36 am

    I tend to take a generation to be about 20 years, and it sounds like Rep. Bachmann has a similar figure in mind, if she's referring to how long the white man has been living in North America.

    [(myl) 2011-21*20 = 1591, which seems like an odd date to identify as when Americans started "listening to Lincoln's words", even figuratively, and "passing the torch of liberty from one generation successfully to the next". St. Augustine FL (1565) was a bit too early, and not all that torch-of-liberty-oriented in its early days. Roanoke (1585) would fit from a temporal point of view, but famously was unsuccessful in passing anything to succeeding generations except the mystery of its fate. Clues in the speech suggest that she may be thinking of the Plymouth Colony (1620), but as I observed, it's not obvious why this leads to an estimate of 21 generations. ]

    However, it does seem that 30 years is a more appropriate estimate for the length of a generation, see e.g. http://www.ancestry.co.uk/learn/library/article.aspx?article=11152

    [(myl) Thanks for this very helpful link, which I've added to the body of the post.]

  6. Josh said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 7:44 am

    Another data point: John Edwards said this in a political ad:

    "Twenty generations of Americans have left their children a better life…. Now corruption and corporate greed mean that we could be the first generation to fail… I want ever American to be able to give their children a better life: That's the moral test of our generation."


    [(myl) Interesting. The Edward ad is from 2007:

    Of course, Edwards didn't invent this trope. An earlier one is the Gettysburg address:

    Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

    Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. […]

    But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. […] It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

    And as Ms. Bachmann suggests, Abraham Lincoln used similar ideas in other speeches. In fact, the basic theme goes back at least to his Lyceum Address in 1838:

    Their's was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; 'tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know.

    Lincoln closes that speech with a proposition that I would have been surprised to hear either Mr. Edwards or Ms. Bachmann quote:

    Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.


  7. James R said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 7:57 am

    Another Gen 13 cultural reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gen%C2%B9%C2%B3

    Though the comic book may well have taken its title from the book mentioned above.

  8. Kylopod said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 8:09 am

    21 is 7 * 3, both regarded as significant numbers in a lot of traditions.


  9. ilir guri said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 8:17 am

    (2011 – 1492) / 21 = 24.7142857

    this looks like a good number of years used for generations:

  10. Mark P said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 8:18 am

    I have always thought a generation was taken to mean about 20 years, which over the long run is probably about when humans started reproducing. On average today the age might be greater. But 20 years seems to make the timing about right for when Europeans started colonizing. And that would make sense from the political perspective, since the colonists most often spoken of were those who came to escape religious persecution, and then institute their own. But the choice of 21 generations, instead of rounding to 20, still seems odd. And it ignores the fact that the Constitution defines the US political system, not the Mayflower Compact.

    [(myl) As unexamined impressions often are, your impressions are plausible but apparently quite wrong, according to the studies cited in the article that Adrian Bailey linked to. The average generational interval, defined as the time from birth of mother to birth of child, or birth of father to birth of child, is apparently about 30 years, in a wide variety of cultural groups and historical periods.]

  11. John Roth said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 8:18 am

    To shortstop this a bit – the Gen X = Gen 13 stuff is from Strauss and Howe, who've written quite a bit on their view of cyclic history in the US. They're using cultural similarity to define generation, not a biological one, and the times for each of their generations vary significantly. It's not possible to use simple arithmetic to divine where they put the boundaries.

  12. Lance said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 8:35 am

    Casual skimming of the web and of Google Books suggests that people who use the phrases "20 generations" or "21 generations" are talking about either (a) time since the 15th century or (b) biology experiments with mice or fruit flies. It's really striking, though, that both Edwards and Bachmann are using this nigh-incomprehensible number, as if it's some sort of standard political trope. I wonder where they could have both gotten it…

  13. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 8:36 am

    Should a generation be reckoned from birth of parent to birth of first child, or from birth of parent to birth of average child? In working out when someone's great grandfather, etc., is likely to have lived, the second may be more relevant. In this case both Mark P and the studies cited by Don Devine may be right.

  14. Trimegistus said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 8:39 am

    First colony: Jamestown, 1607.
    2011-1607 = 404 years
    404/21 = 19 years per generation, about right for most of American history pre-1900.

    Why always the assumption that statements like this have to have a hidden meaning?

  15. Mark P said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 8:44 am

    That's interesting if the data are accurate about the average length of a generation on the larger scale. There certainly seems to be enough data to make a good estimate. The writer looks at his own family and finds the longer span to be accurate. He's lucky he can look that far back in his own family (he has an advantage given his position); I can't. The longer span is reasonably accurate for my own immediate family, but not so much for the families of my aunts and uncles, nor for my grandparents' families. Of the people I know well enough to make an educated guess, the shorter span is also more accurate. But, as they say, the plural of anecdote is not data.

    But he also says that, "We also generally accept that the length of a generation was closer to 20 years in earlier times when humans mated younger and life expectancies were shorter." (Which he then goes on to show appears not to be not accurate). Given that, it seems reasonable to assume that Bachmann was using 20 years for a generation. If we assume that, we can then try to figure out what she's talking about. Unfortunately, that puts the date at 1590, which is 30 years too early for the Mayflower Compact. Pope Leo threatening to excommunicate Martin Luther? The discovery of the empty colonial town of Roanoke?

  16. Mark P said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 8:47 am

    Trimegistus, 404/20 = 20.2, which is closer. Why say 21 generations instead of 20?

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 8:50 am

    Look directly at the Strauss and Howe pop-cyclical theory, which purports to account for Anglo-American history all the way back to the Wars of the Roses: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generations_(book). Today's American kids (the "New Silent Generaton," born in 2001 and thereafter) would be the 21st generation if the "Elizabethan Generation" (born 1541-1565) is taken to be the first. I would put most of the prominent personalities in the founding of the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies in the generation after that (the "Parliamentarian Generation," born 1566-1587, which would include, e.g., John Smith, John Rolfe, William Bradford, and Miles Standish), but a few of the older settlers would have been born before 1566. I don't know if that's where this comes from, but it's suggestive.

  18. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 8:59 am

    Null hypothesis: it's just random mystical-sounding ***t. She's saying it for the same reason the gangster in Pulp Fiction spouted Old Testament stuff just before shooting someone.

    Related to the following:
    "Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
    Told the first father that things weren't right
    Let me tell the second mother this has been done"
    But the second mother was with the seventh son
    And they were both out on Highway 61"

    Why did Bob write that? Just 'cause it sounded cool, and kind of portentous, I guess.

    In Bachmanns case, its kind of a way of invoking a bit of last days atmosphere, without using any firearms allusions, which are temporarily out of style.

  19. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 9:02 am

    Oops, maybe I meant evoke. But isn't it funny that invoke and evoke are not really opposites?

  20. chris said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 9:17 am

    If you take "For twenty one generations in America we've listened to Lincoln's words" at face value, it's explicitly claiming that all twenty-one of the generations come after not only Lincoln's birth, but some appreciable portion of his political career, that is, in only 140 or so years. That's well below any reasonable or even possible estimate of human generation time.

    Maybe she meant 21 generations of dogs?

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 9:20 am

    Just in terms of 20 v. 30, the thing is, looking at family trees, that the typical person is not going to be the first-born child of a first-born child of a first-born child etc. up every branch of the tree So what will matter over a long enough run of generations is closer to parental age at birth of median child in the family (among those surviving to adulthood). Whether that age is more historically stable than age at birth of first child is obvously an empirical question.

  22. David T said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 9:22 am

    What are her reasons for choosing 21?

    Her reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you
    shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you
    have them, they are not worth the search.
    -Merchant of Venice

  23. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 9:25 am

    More to Trimegistus: Not looking first for hidden meaning, but when the math won't work out, it's either an error or it's not. If it's an error, there is no story. If it's not an error, then either the math is irrelevant or there's something relevant at a point in the past we don't perceive. We have to consider both possibilities whose meanings are (temporarily) hidden.

  24. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 9:29 am

    @J.W. Brewer: Dog years. LOL. I understand there's a German proverb that states that a fence lasts three years, a dog lasts three fences, a horse lasts three dogs, and a man lasts three horses. Maybe this math will help.

  25. Ian Preston said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 9:29 am

    Glenn Beck has counted the generations up similarly. There's an instance from 2009 of him having an actor dressed as Thomas Paine declaring:

    Your cell phones, iPods and big-screen TVs, even your right to declare you are a victim and blame everyone and everything for what's happening to you except the face staring back in you in the mirror was bought by the blood and lives of 21 generations of our war dead.

    There's a Fox News transcript here and a Daily Kos video here – go to about 1:30.

    And then, here on what appears, as far as I can tell, to be an anonymous right-wing blog in 2009, there's:

    Mr. Barack Hussein Obama crossed a reception room and bowed from the waist to a Saudi King. The incident was recorded and sent around the world. This diplomatic break with twenty-one generations of American tradition summarizes his foreign policy, his world view and his mindset.

  26. Fluxor said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 9:33 am

    Another data point the in years/generations. According to genealogical records, I'm the 100th generation of my clan, which dates back to ~400BC. So that's ~24 years/generation.

  27. Zeno said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 9:46 am

    The "21 generations" refrain puzzled me, too, since I understood a generation to be in the general vicinity of 30 years. It made no sense. Then I took into account that Michele Bachmann is a moron-American. Now it makes sense.

  28. Greg said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 9:47 am

    Wait a minute. Is she using "generations" to mean "decades"? Or maybe "21 generations" is specific to her family history (mythical or not): I can see grandparents telling her "Our family has been in this country for 21 generations!" and she never bothered to do the math. I also like the reduction of "21st Century generation" explanation above.

  29. Elliott P. said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 10:07 am

    I found it interesting that BHO pronounced cars as "carss' instead of "carz." Is that common?

  30. language hat said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 10:30 am

    404/21 = 19 years per generation, about right for most of American history pre-1900.

    It is not "about right" at all. Pay attention.

    Is she using "generations" to mean "decades"? Or maybe "21 generations" is specific to her family history

    It is quite clear that this is some kind of right-wing trope (see Ian Preston's comment referencing Glenn Beck and a right-wing blog); it's not clear yet what the source is, but it's certainly not some kind of one-time error or personal usage.

  31. Luke Bradford said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 10:39 am

    William Bradford is my great-times-eleven grandfather, and many of my cousins have kids, so 14 generations from the Mayflower (28 years per generation.) Then again, this is a male line so it could be on the long side.

    Personally I think it's more plausible that Bachmann made the silly assumption of 'generation' meaning 'decade,' rather than trying to calculate a generation and failing. (She then used 1800 as a rough benchmark for when the U.S. was up and running? I admit this is not so likely.) But this could also explain why she used "21 generations" in 2011 and Edwards used "20 generations" in 2007.

  32. Theophylact said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 11:00 am

    I love the discussion. But the most parsimonious explanation is that (as usual) Bachmann has no idea what she's talking about.

  33. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 11:21 am

    I think the word "generation" sometimes refers not to the time span between parent and child, but rather is used as a way of distinguishing whose ages are just far enough apart to be significant.

    One sometimes refers to people 10 or 12 or 15 years older/younger than oneself as "not my generation" or "a different generation". The assertion is not that the people are the same age as one's parents or children, but simply that they have grown up in a different era.

    Labels such as "the baby boomers" or "generation X" are vague, of course, but I think they're often used to refer to "windows" of about 10-15 years, as opposed to 20-30.

  34. Harold said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 11:26 am

    twenty-one is a multiple of seven — always a resonant number when talking about the ages of man, days of the week, planets (in former time) and the like.

  35. Ian Preston said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 11:32 am

    Some more evidence that it's an established enumeration in certain right-wing quarters, this time from miscellaneous blog comments:

    We're giving the country (that took 21 generations to build) away to enough NON Americans now,why in the HELL would we let Europeans decide what's best for the greatest nation ever conceived? ASININE!Although not inconceivable under the current regime.

    When everyday normal Americans stand by & do nothing, when their dumb ass president & congress just spent 3 times more in 3 months that Bush did in 8 years, & do nothing to prevent socialism in the country 21 generations of men much better than you & I spilled their blood for. Then we would be negligent in our duties as Americans to preserve this great nation.

    I find it difficult to think this isn't coming from some common source.

  36. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 11:48 am

    I think politicians and pundits of all stripes often exhibit a magpie-like tendency to pick up an interesting-sounding claim from goodness-knows-where and uncritically repeat it. The 21-generations trope doesn't seem that conceptually different from the bipartisan sin of pols/pundits saying "hey, did you know that in Chinese, "crisis" = danger+opportunity?" One difference is obviously that this trope is more likely to lead skeptics to start checking the math, but as the thread shows, lots of people who haven't dug deeply into demographic history or family trees will find 21 a plausible-sounding approximation of time back to the Mayflower, if not to the Gettysburg Address. (I think my daughters are something like 13th-to-15th-generation Americans in the oldest lines of which I am aware, which crossed the Atlantic starting about 10 years after the Mayflower, although they are as low as 3d-generation in other lines.)

    I had no knowledge of the Strauss and Howe theory before going to wikipedia this morning in reaction to this thread, but it does seem to fit fairly well. It doesn't seem obvious to me that S&H would have a particularly right-wing valence, but I think this magpie tendency often picks things up somewhat randomly, with a particular factoid thus propagating within a particular subculture for some contingent path-dependent reason, and Strauss and Howe do sound like they might be the sort of pop-theorists who could be dismissed/ignored by academics but develop a long-term following or influence outside the academy. FWIW, Newt Gingrich was a big booster of Alvin Toffler's "Third Wave" pop-theory, although Toffler does not strike me as, um, an obvious heir to the right-of-center intellectual tradition that runs through e.g. Burke and Hayek.

  37. Language And said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 11:57 am

    Perhaps Rep. Bachmann (or more probably her speech writer) did a Google search on "American Generations" and selected the data from the third site down on the list, http://www.timepage.org/time.html. Although, this site may explain John Edwards's "20 Generations" better than Rep. Bachmann's 21.

    All in all, it seems most likely that she is referencing "cultural generations" as hinted to above. In that case, it would not be unreasonable to add a generation to the above website from 1492 to 1583 under a label like "Exploratory," "Imperial," or "Conquering." A "cultural generation" has no specific duration associated with it. By my math, each modern one seems to average just over 24 years, but there is a large variance of around 10 years.

    As much as a hate to admit it, trying to reconcile the actual scientific data from "biological generations" with the pseudo-scientific "cultural generations" makes for interesting debate, but can be considered trying to mix oil and water. [As for which is on top is your decision.]

  38. Mark F. said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

    ilir guri's answer, that somebody took a generation to be 25 years and calculated back to 1492, seems to make sense for a lot of reasons.

    – It's plausible that someone could start with 25 years as the length of a generation, even if data shows that it's a little short.

    – 1492 is the second most salient founding-related date in American history, after 1776. It's not as logical a starting point as 1607, but it's much better remembered.

    – It actually gives you 21 generations rather than 20 if you round to the nearest integer.

  39. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 12:41 pm

    I think that the 21-generation thingie is just another TP dog whistle. The faction to which it was addressed will react to it instinctively, not rationally, and any attempt to ground it in reality is wasted cogitation.

    Along the same line, note Paul Ryan's inclusion of protect innocent lives among our national goals in his official GOP rebuttal.

  40. James said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

    I won't even pretend to have any idea what Bachmann was talking about, but just as a practical matter, it doesn't make sense to count the generations of Americans who've "listened to Lincoln's words" by going only as far back as 1861. Everyone who heard (and understood) his words when they were first spoken was born well before the 1860s, so that's several generations right off the bat.

  41. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

    Did Dan Lufkin miss the references to John Edwards' usage earlier in the thread? Or does he have a more sophisticated theory whereby "21 generations" is a right-wing dog whistle while "20 generations" is a left-wing dog whistle, due to partisan disagreement on questions of numerology?

    I agree that the "cultural generations" point may be significant here. The problem is that (as should be unsurprising when you think about it), the variability in length of a given "cultural generation" means the members of generation n may in some cases be predominantly the children of generation n-2 rather than of generation n-1. Thus, when you start adding generations up and saying there were X generations between event Y and event Z (or just "the present") it is easy to get confused about what the total number of generations is supposed to mean. I think "cohort" might be a more useful word for the "cultural generation" concept, but I accept that it may have too much of an academic vibe for popular use.

  42. Mark P said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

    The crux of this matter is not how long a generation is, but how long Michelle Bachman thinks a generation is. Or, probably better, exactly what date in the past is she aiming for?

    [(myl) Thanks to sleuthing by Ian Preston (also here) and others, it's clear that the "21 generations" meme (or maybe 20 generations, in John Edwards' version) is far from being hers alone. We still don't know who started it or exactly what they meant by it, but this is an inquiry about a political meme, not about one politician.]

  43. Brian said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    It's always a little creepy when you discover these dogwhistles infesting the speeches of politicians….

  44. the other Mark P said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

    I assume the big number is to show that the values are time-hallowed, whereas pointing out Abraham Lincoln was less than 6 generations ago wouldn't work so well (there will be someone alive today who met someone who heard the Gettysburg Address live).

    But generally the conservative meme is that the US is a young and, by implication, vigorous country. Is this changing, with the desire to stress Constitutional continuity?

    (That the US is newer than many European countries – Belgium, Finland – is passed by because these people often have no knowledge of real history.)

  45. the other Mark P said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

    That the US is olderthan many European countries – Belgium, Finland – is passed by because these people often have no knowledge of real history.

  46. Beth said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

    21 is a magic number: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/17/opinion/17gilbert.html

  47. Mary Bull said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

    @Beth, who said,
    "21 is a magic number: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/17/opinion/17gilbert.html "

    Now that is something worth thinking about!
    Many thanks for the link. It's a fascinating article.

  48. bfwebster said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 5:58 pm

    Here's a great bar bet: President John Taylor (who served as president from 1841 to 1845, after Pres. Harrison died) fathered a son Lyon Tyler, who in turn fathered two sons, Lyon Tyler Jr and Harrison Tyler. When did those two grandsons die?

    Answer: they're still alive, at least as of last year. Lyon Jr was born in 1924, and Harrison in 1928; their father, Lyon, was born in 1853 and was apparently quite virile to the end of his life (his first wife died in 1921, and he remarried).

    That's always in the back of my mind, so the "21 generations" made me go, "Huh? Hasn't been that long." ..bruce..

  49. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 6:33 pm

    I happened to have a concordance of the Bible to hand, because I had to look something up for a translation, and of course there's plenty of stuff about generations in it. E.g Matthew 1:17: "so all the generations from Abraham unto David are fourteen generations; and from David unto the carrying away to Babylon fourteen generations; and from the carrying away to Babylon unto the Christ fourteen generations"

    Seems like someone has made something up so that the coming of Obama(care), not to mention Michelle O's campaign for children to eat healthy diets, can be cast as a great abomination foretold by the prophets.

  50. Mark P said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 7:23 pm

    Yes, it seems that "21 generations" is a political meme, but it would still be interesting and possibly informative to know what Michelle Bachmann thinks it refers to, since she's the one who started the current discussion. Based on some Googling of my own, I suspect that it originates in Biblical numerology, although its history might be lost for some who use it.

  51. Mark P said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 7:26 pm

    I have emailed Rep. Bachmann to ask what date she has in mind. I will certainly comment with any response.

  52. Mr Punch said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 8:26 pm

    Assuming the intended meaning is since the Jamestown settlement, we must bear in mind that the first generation arrived as adults, and the latest is still in childhood. That makes 21 generations if a generation is 21 years – below average, but not beyond the bounds of reason. I believe I was told, some years ago, that 15 generations of the Saltonstall family had graduated from Harvard, beginning about 1660.

  53. GeorgeW said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 9:05 pm

    @Mark P: Excellent idea!

    I hope that somehow you can report her response back without it being lost in the dusty archives of the LL

  54. army1987 said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 9:15 pm

    If I *had* to assume that the number is supposed to make any sense at all, I'd buy the interpretation of 25-year generations since 1492.

  55. Mark P said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 9:21 pm

    I don't really expect a response to my email to Rep. Bachmann, mainly because the email form requires a home address, and I doubt that any member of Congress would make much effort to respond to someone out of their district.

  56. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 9:28 pm

    @J.W. Brewer — I have an even more sophisticated theory: John Edwards will blow any dog whistle that pops into his mind whenever you put him in front of a TV camera, even if he gets it slightly wrong.

  57. the other Mark P said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 11:41 pm

    That makes 21 generations if a generation is 21 years – below average, but not beyond the bounds of reason.

    It is not "below average". It is wildly too low and utterly outside the bounds of reason.

    It would mean that the average person would have a great-grandfather was only 63 years older than them! Most of us find that 60 years is about right for two generations, averaging grandad and grandma.

    A generation goes from the median age, not the first child born: assuming a rabbit-like propensity to breed from 16 through to 30, that would still only give a median child at 23. It also includes the men, so that would mean most men fathering for the first time at 16 too.

    In fact in the West people have tended to put off children long after they could start for a very long time. Most people did not marry into well into their twenties in the 18th century.

    The "generation" of about 30 years has stood well for over 2,000 years because it is how humans work. Please get rid of the idea that previous generations were somehow marrying and breeding while still children – it's a myth.

  58. fev said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 12:33 am

    "From a review of Bible history, Bible genealogy and Bible prophecy, it is reasonable to conclude the 6,000th year of sin occurs between 1998 and 2017. The twenty-year margin is the result of co-regent reigns of kings and the lack of precision in dating the records of 21 generations from Adam to the Exodus."

    "Luke also presents the genealogy in multiples of seven, but not so obviously as Matthew. Lukes genealogy totals 77 names.
    * There are 21 generations from Adam to Abraham.
    * There are 14 generations from Abraham to David.
    * There are 21 names from David until the exile.
    * There are 21 names from the exile to Joseph."

    Dog whistles. Gotta love 'em.

  59. Kenny Easwaran said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 2:57 am

    Along the lines of how few generations have passed – I recently listened to an NPR program (http://www.radiodiaries.org/transcripts/OtherDocs/civilwar.html) about "Civil War Widows" – at least two of whom were still alive in 1998! They were women who had, when they were very young, both married very old veterans of the Civil War, who had been among the youngest soldiers to fight on each side of the conflict. (I believe they still collected pensions established in the 1860s.) If we traditionally think of a husband and wife as being of the same generation, then the Civil War generation was still alive as of just a few years ago!

  60. Rodger C said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 8:10 am

    @bfwebster: You mean Zachary Taylor, don't you?

  61. Ian Preston said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 9:43 am

    It strikes me that the sort of calculations being made in comments above are appropriate more to counting generations within a single family line than to a doing so for a community. Clearly, if it takes each generation within a family thirty years on average to raise the next to child bearing age then in 210 years seven generations of that family pass. It doesn't have to be like that for a community though. Suppose, say, that a community consists of three families with birth cycles each offset from the others by ten years. You can imagine leadership passing between families every ten years so that each generation within each family has ten years to set values for the governance of the community. It would seem entirely natural to me to talk then about 21 generations passing over 210 years. Of course, things are far less regular than this in reality and there are many many interconnected families. From this perspective though that just means that a generational turnover rate of one every thirty years is only a lower limit on a rather ill-defined concept.

  62. Trimegistus said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 11:07 am

    Jesus H. Christ. Talk about "dog whistles." You guys are going around like a bunch of medieval theologians trying to tease out what's the Sekrit Christian Racist meaning in a figure she probably tossed off on the spur of the moment.

    I love how it is simultaneously fraught with deep arcane hidden meaning AND proof that she's stupid.

  63. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 11:14 am

    @ Trimestigus Magnus — This is why פלפול pilpul gets 220 megaGh.
    We goyim do not have a word for it.

  64. Mark P said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    Trimegistus, there has been some discussion of what a generation is generally accepted to mean, what a true generation is (depending on your definition), and what Michele Bachmann means when she says "21 generations". There has also been some discussion about where that term comes from in current public discourse and what it means to those who use it. What's the problem with that?

  65. army1987 said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 11:24 am

    Why should it be the median rather than the arithmetic mean? Your great-grandfather's age when you were born is the sum of your father's age when you were born plus your grandfather's age when your father was born plus your great-grandfather's age when your grandfather was born, i.e. thrice the arithmetic mean. Am I missing something?

  66. Catanea said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 11:41 am

    I had always been told (and have uncritically passed on) that "a generation" was 20 years. As my sister is 18 years older than me, we have always seemed to be (by our experience) "almost" in succeeding generations. Now I find I have lived nearly 60 years under a misapprehension.
    What an enlightening post!

  67. Plegmund said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

    Apparently Ussher's calculation of the age of the world was based in part on 21 generations mentioned in the Old Testament. Does that help?

    I suppose "twenty-one generations" might from there have entered the minds and speech of KJV-reading folk as a phrase poetically indicating a very long time. Not that I've ever heard of that before.

  68. Liz said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

    [insert frantic waving of hand] Pick me! Pick me!

    I've got it. see: http://www.lastdays-eschatology.net/covanenteschatology.html

    The trick is to google "20 generations AND eschatology". The generations are not the kind everyone is trying to calculate. Instead it's a shorthand for the generation of the 1st Century; 2nd Century; etc. Thus, in 2011, we are in the 21st century, hence "21 Generations". Edwards clearly had grown so accustomed to "20 generations" that he forgot that of course in 2007 it was time to update himself to "21 generations".

  69. Mark P said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

    Liz, what you have found is consistent with some of the things I have found, although not necessarily in detail. There is great interest among certain religious groups in understanding what a generation means because of the problems posed by Jesus's statement that he would return before "this generation" passes. The early Christians expected Jesus's second coming within their lifetimes. When he apparently did not return, they were left trying to explain why. Considering one generation to be one century doesn't help in that respect, but it's consistent with the general interest in "generations."

    But 1 generation=1 century doesn't explain why certain politicians talk about America and its 21-geneartion history. Is there some conscious or unconscious conflation of AD history with American history?

  70. JR said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

    The argument that a generation is best understood to mean a period of about 30 years because cross-cultural studies indicate that about 30 is the age that children begin having children is kind of missing the point, and kind of putting the cart before the horse.

    A generation is an ambiguous measure for roughly the period of time it takes for children to grow up to have children of their own. Many people probably assume that children start families soon after reaching majority, so a 20-year-generation is a reasonable rule of thumb for them. What social science has to say about how long children wait to have children on average is beside the point: "generation" is not intended for scientific accuracy.

    Generations are probably most commonly discussed in terms of Strauss & Howe-styles memes: Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y. These assume a roughly 20-year generation (or less). It's a weirder definition: a roughly 20-year period in which people with similar, stereotypical personality characteristics and attitudes are born.

  71. Liz said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

    Mark P writes: Considering one generation to be one century doesn't help in that respect, but it's consistent with the general interest in "generations."

    But 1 generation=1 century doesn't explain why certain politicians talk about America and its 21-geneartion history. Is there some conscious or unconscious conflation of AD history with American history?

    It's a very conscious conflation of AD history with American history. Although, I think their sources for AD history lack depth, breadth, or for that matter, any knowledge of historiography. But that wouldn't get me far with that crowd.

    To this crowd, American history, or rather the sanitised heroic version that they subscribe to, is simply proof the America is the Promised Land, the City on a Hill, etc etc. For that matter, they refer to Europe as "post-Christian".

    If you ask, who will be taken in the Rapture, it will be "Real Americans". And I don't think either you are me are on that "list". Although won't they be surprised when we're there and some of them are not?

    IOW, there's a whole consistent world view in that "21 generations" reference and it's a heroic view of history with this bunch as the stars.

  72. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

    I think the dog whistle here is that the End Times are upon us and that Pres. Obama is the Antichrist.

    Corroboration here.

  73. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

    Dang! Not again. Worked fine when I checked it.



  74. richard howland-bolton said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

    @Dan Lufkin

    And I thought Adam Young* was the Anti-Christ.

    *who should never be confused with William Brown

  75. the other Mark P said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 3:22 pm

    Why should it be the median rather than the arithmetic mean?

    Yes. In practice they will be the same, more or less.

    Many people probably assume that children start families soon after reaching majority, so a 20-year-generation is a reasonable rule of thumb for them.

    Does anyone seriously assume people start having kids at 16 and finish at 24? Because to get a 20-year generation that is what is required.

  76. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

    @Dan Lufkin: All I see there is that some people apparently think Obama is the antichrist, but the authors of the article doubt it. I didn't see anything about 21 generations.

  77. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

    @Liz: While I'm at it, I don't see anything in the link you posted that suggests that the author uses "generation" for "century". The author is arguing that all the eschatological prophecies in the Old Testament and some in the New Testament refer to the end of the "Old Covenant" with the Jews alone, replaced through Jesus' actions by a New Covenant", and to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A. D. There are references to the "first century generation", but this seems to just mean the generation that witnessed Jesus and the destruction of the Temple in the first century.

    One of the author's main points is that 21st-century political events have nothing to do with Biblical prophecies. This seems quite dissonant with the idea that there's something eschatologically significant about this century or generation (and dissonant with most current American fundamentalist eschatology, I think).

  78. Mark F. said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

    the other Mark P –

    It is entirely within the bounds of reason to assume that the person who came up with "21 generations" was thinking of a generation as being around 20 years, since we have conclusively established that a lot of people imagine that's how long a generation is. Whoever came up with that meme might have been one of those people.

  79. chris said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 4:13 pm

    If you ask, who will be taken in the Rapture, it will be "Real Americans".

    It suddenly dawned on me that that phrase is *itself* a dogwhistle for "Real Christians" — or as Fred Clark puts it, "Real True Christians" — which doesn't quite mean what you'd expect if you are a Christian but not in their particular community.

  80. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 5:39 pm

    The point of the link is that there exist people who treat the question of whether or not B.Obama is the Antichrist as a problem in logic. That's all it takes to hear the dog-whistle. (Garden path without the hyphen.)

    My memory is drawn back to a Partially Clips strip that once appeared in this forum.


    BTW, who can provide us with the proper technical rhetorical term for a dog whistle? I went through Fowler's list and don't see anything pertinent. Did the Greeks not have a word for it? Did they need one?

  81. linda seebach said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 6:11 pm

    I belong to a tribe — journalists — who are notoriously, but correctly, regarded as innumerate (on average). It's not that they manipulate numbers for some political purpose (though that does happen) — it's that most of them never *think* about numbers at all. I have a little flag that pops up in my head when numbers don't make sense (because I was a math professor before I became a journalist) and most people don't have a little flag like that. Doesn't matter what party they belong to (e.g. Edwards as well as Bachmann), or what sex they are, or whether they're politicians; as myl's posts exhaustively demonstrate, many people's intuition about numerical data is way off base. Politicians, and journalists, are probably not worse than average, but they're not obviously better, either.

  82. Nijma said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 6:26 pm

    "generation" for "century"
    This is from Benny Hinn's Blood in the Sand, prominently endorsed by Pat Robertson and Tim LaHaye (Left Behind endtimes book series) inside the front cover:

    [following a discussion of biblical parables of fig trees as a representation of Israel]

    The most significant aspect of this parable is that from the time the "leaves" of Israel would begin to blossom again, "This generation" will by no means pass away till all these things take place" (Matthew 24:34).

    One sign! One generation! What does this mean for you and me?

    It is important to note that on God's timetable, a generation is one hundred years. Remember, prior to the children of Israel being held in Egyptian captivity, the Lord told Abraham, "…your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years….but in the fourth generation they shall return here" (Genesis 15:13,16).

    Since this is true, and the Lord was speaking about Israel's rebirth in 1948, the one hundred years for these things to be fulfilled means they will come to pass before 2048.

    The things to be fulfilled are of course "Christ's return and the end of the age". Elsewhere in the book Hinn reminds us that to God a thousand years are like a minute, but I'm not up to the math for that one quite yet. Might be useful though in 2049, if Hinn is still around at the age of 103 and hasn't been "taken up" yet.

  83. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 6:29 pm

    @Dan Lufkin: I like your avoidance of the garden path, but I disagree on the dog whistle. You don't just need belief that Obama is or may be the antichrist; you also need some connection between 21 generations and the Christian end times. I don't think we've seen that yet.

  84. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 6:38 pm

    @Nijma: Since you showed that some Christians do take "generation" to mean "century", that might strengthen a resonance between "21 generations" and "21st century".

  85. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 6:39 pm

    I was poking around for other numbers. http://tinyurl.com/4klqscy
    is a promotional piece for a proposed U.S. Army museum, which claims that there have been "fourteen generations of American Soldiers" and "fourteen generations of men and women who have worn the Army uniform." If they're only going back to the founding of the Continental Army circa 1775, those are pretty short generations.

    Do they think a "generation" in fact = approx. 17 years? Are they instead going back to the very first colonial conflict betwen settlers and Indians? Is it a dog-whistle invocation of the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew, where Christ's genealogy is set out in groups of 14 generations? Is it an extrapolation from Gen X as the "Thirteenth Generation" per Strauss & Howe, since today's new enlistees are now typically from Gen X + 1? (In the Strauss & Howe schema, the generation that counts as the first "Americans" if Gen X is #13 would have included some of the oldest participants in the Revolution, such as Gen. Israel Putnam, born 1718 and thus 14 years older than Washington.)

  86. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 7:01 pm

    By the way, Congresswoman Bachmann is widely known to be a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran. They are pretty darn hardcore in their own way (as one would expect from a group that considers Missouri Synod Lutherans to be a bunch of fatally-compromised squishy liberals), but if you think they're taking numerological guidance from the Benny Hinns and Pat Robertsons of the world, I would respectfully suggest that a refresher course in Christian comparative zoology might be in order.

  87. Liz said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

    @ Jan Brewer but if you think they're taking numerological guidance from the Benny Hinns and Pat Robertsons of the world, I would respectfully suggest that a refresher course in Christian comparative zoology might be in order.

    That groups have competing interests does not mean that they can't also have some common interests too. End-timers compete with each other, but they also compete as a group with other Christian traditions too. Religion in America has always been both business and calling. You have to sell materials to folks who are outside your particular narrow vision in order to make serious money. Naturally, that will yield some critical log-rolling along the way.

  88. James Kabala said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 8:36 pm

    The probability that Bachmann is bad at math (or that she uncritically lifted a number from another source, perhaps the same one from which Edwards cribbed) seems to be much greater than the probability that she is using some kind of subtle dog whistle, since no one has yet provided a convincing explanation of the alleged hidden meaning and the attempts to do so have mostly contradicted each other.

  89. Nijma said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 8:48 pm

    Ooops, Psalm 90:4 "For a thousand years in your sight are like a day (NIV)…," not a minute, hope that didn't mess up anyone's calculations.

    @Jerry Friedman: Exactly. What other event can you think of offhand that took place 21 generations of 100 years (or 21 centuries) ago?

    @J.W. Brewer: Wiki doesn't say what church Bachmann belongs to now—it would be interesting to know whose sermons she listens to—but it does say she received her J.D. degree from Oral Roberts University

    In 1986 the university "shut down its ailing law school and sent its library to Pat Robertson's Bible-based college in Virginia" which subsequently founded the Regent University School of Law.

    so it seems they are at least on speaking terms. Same Bible, anyhow. WELS does believe in the second coming at the end of the world.

    FWIW, my copy of NIV (but not my KJV or RSV translation) inserts a footnote in Matthew 24:34 at "this generation" saying "or race". Several denominations of the literalist persuasion use NIV; I checked a Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod newsletter and they do use it for their mouseovers of biblical text. So hmm, maybe Bachmann's "For twenty one nations we've passed the torch of liberty from one generation successfully to the next" wasn't a slip of the tongue after all…..

  90. Nijma said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 8:50 pm

    Oh, oh, I think my last comment went into moderation.

  91. Mark P said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

    Even if this meme originated in some particular religious group for which it had some specific, eschatological meaning, it could have been appropriated by others without necessarily taking all its baggage with it.

  92. army1987 said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 1:52 am

    Yes. In practice [the median and the arithmetic mean] will be the same, more or less.
    Dunno, in my experience it is much more common for a couple to have two children a couple of years apart and a third one about a decade later than the other way round, so I'd expect the median to be lower than the arithmetic mean.

  93. Daniel said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 8:01 am

    It would seem conventionally accepted that it takes ~30 years for one generation to grow up and give birth to another generation. However, this does not mean that generational cohorts are 30 year spans. In fact, it would seem by common popular descriptions that it is closer to 15 or 20 years (10 central years plus hazy borders on either side). This can be achieved by two generational sets alternating birth of two subsequent generations (gen 1 births gen 3, gen 2 births gen 4, 3->5, 4->6, etc.) as well as by a large spread in age at which one has a child. (I would say it's mixture of both.)

    These days, popular media define generations even finer: By common definitions of Gen X, Gen Y, and Gen Z, the middle one spans roughly just 10 years of births.

  94. chris said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 9:13 am

    BTW, who can provide us with the proper technical rhetorical term for a dog whistle? I went through Fowler's list and don't see anything pertinent. Did the Greeks not have a word for it? Did they need one?

    Maybe the Greeks weren't culturally fragmented enough for it to be possible? If all possible audiences have pretty close to the same set of background knowledge, then there can be no dogwhistling.

    The fact that a Greek orator would spend 90+% of his time addressing people who lived in the same polis as him and each other would probably make it difficult to develop the art.

  95. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 10:15 am

    … if you think they're taking numerological guidance …

    I think it's much vaguer than that, much more post-modern. They just throw the 21 generations into the mix because it conjures up a general sense of living in fateful times. Goodness knows, it might have been invented by some atheist in whatever agency is advising Bachmann on communication. Like I said way back up there, it's like something out of the menagerie of Bob Dylan's classic albums.

  96. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 11:18 am

    The trouble with a numerological interpretation is that up to some value for n that's greater than 21, pretty much any number one picks will turn out to have numerological associations somewhere (sort of like the comical Dylan lyric quoted by Ben Hemmens, where "seventh son" was certainly extant in prior blues lyrics, and the others sounded, considered in isolation, as if they could have been). If the Congresswoman had instead talked about 19 generations, a little bit of googling would reveal that the mystical significance of 19 has been touted by, e.g., Louis Farrakhan and the Bahai. (And if you can't get from Farrakhan to Bachmann in one or two degrees of separation, your googling skills and/or conspiracy-theory epistemology are weak.)

    The other problem with the eschatological spin is that it's clear from the block quotes in the original post that the speaker is expressing the hope that the 21st generation will not, in fact, be the last one (and experience the Rapture or the Singularity or the insolvency of Social Security, or occupation by UN-affiliated black helicopters, or whatnot). Rather the overall point seems to be that generation n has been consistently handing on the American way of life to generation n+1 for many centuries now, and we should all want that process to continue way out into the future (unto generation and generation, in Scriptural terms), except that continuity is now threatened by my political opponents, which is why you should vote for me, so that we can continue on to generation 22 and 23 etc etc etc. I am skeptical that that message is going to be more persuasive for a broader audience if you plug in "21" rather than some other number for where in the sequence we are now.

    One perhaps broader linguistic point: while "generation" turns out to be a fuzzy concept for many people, 21 seems to provide an expectation of precision, which is why people get so frustrated when they can't make the math work out plausibly. I was thinking by comparison of the early Wailers song "400 Years" (by Peter Tosh rather than Bob Marley, first recorded circa 1970 but better known in a 1973 version). I don't think most would interpret that as a claim that the mistreatment of black people in Jamaica, or the New World generally, started in exactly 1570 (which can thus be debunked by arguing for a different starting date), and I don't think that's because people expect less precision from songwriters than politicians. Rather, my intuition is that in general (unless specific context indicates a greater degree of precision) a claim that something has been going on for 400 years is easily understood as an approximation coming with a certain plus-or-minus implication, although intuitions might differ about whether the implied range is, say 380-420 versus 350-450.

    [(myl) These are all excellent points. But it seems to me that the (admittedly diffuse) connection with eschatology is the implicit idea that we are (or might be) at the end of one era and the beginning of another. Thus the (interpretations of) the bibilical begat-lists sometimes go from X to Y and then from Y to Z, with the implicit or explicit idea that Y is a sort of cultural or theological or world-historical frontier. While Bachmann and others are arguing for cultural and political continuity, they're simultaneously arguing for cultural and political change, and (it seems to me) evoking the idea that the next generation(s) of cultural transmission should or must involve a significant break from the trends of the recent past.]

  97. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

    "the speaker is expressing the hope that the 21st generation will not, in fact, be the last one "

    I think in the course of US history, so many groups have gone up hills to wait for the rapture, only to return home sheepishly some time later, that not even true believers in the end of the world really believe in it in such a factual way.

    But everyone likes to believe that the tide of history is turning and their generation will witness momentous changes* (so long as the changes aren't going to hurt too much); this attachment to eschatology is not by any means restricted to Christians. Belief in a past golden age and/or a future millennium is common to almost all religions and many on-the-face-of-it nonreligious ideologies (e.g. Marxism).

    * I guess, since a lot of nasty and difficult changes are in the offing (having to face up to environmental issues, coping with realignments of economic and geopolitical power, emergence of new threats in the world 20 years after the demise of the evil empire), many Americans would settle for a bit of momentous sameness – not losing one's job, gas prices not rising, etc. – but that seems to be what the T party is promising. And to return to where I started, people may neither believe there will be no tomorrow, nor want there to be no tomorrow, but we often want license to behave as if there was no tomorrow … I guess the end of the world is just something humans have a lot of ambivalent feelings about.

  98. Paul Terry Hunt said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

    Forking the discussion to an earlier instance of a politician talking about generations, I am reminded of Neil Kinnock's rhetorical query in his 1985 Welsh Labour Party speech as to why he was 'the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to go to university.' Had I been in the audience present rather than listening to a radio broadcast, I would have been tempted (though would not have dared) to answer "because for the first 950 of them them universities hadn't been invented."

  99. Nyq Only said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 5:54 pm

    It occurs to me that her counting might be referance to presidential "generations".
    Obama is 44th, Lincoln was 16th – so 21 would still be quite wrong, but perhaps closer to an appropriate scale of unit.

  100. Scott said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 11:35 pm

    I would side with those who suggest the "generations" in this meme refer to 20-year "cultural" generations. By starting the count at the 1607 founding of Jamestown it would put the current time in the 21st such generation, and 2007 (when Edwards' ad was made) would've been the last year of the 20th such generation. I certainly don't buy any of the suggestions of a "dog whistle" or religious numerologies or anything so complicated.

  101. Colin said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

    It's funny that we all sit around crunching the numbers to figure out what Michele Bachman means by "21 generations", as if Michele Bachman labored over some equation to come up with that number. I've never heard of anyone replicating the numbers she comes up with. (Can't you see her in a room shouting out, "The Liberal Elite will never crack this code!!!". In a strange way, it seems almost mesmerizing, and I tend to believe that it's simply a magical/biblical sounding number.

    I don't know anything about this website, which Professor Google found in a search of "number 21": http://www.ridingthebeast.com/numbers/nu21.php, but it's interesting nonetheless:

    Properties of the number 21

    * Symbol of the person centered on the object and either on himself.
    * Number of the perfection by excellence, 3 x 7, according to the Bible.
    * Symbol representing the unknown superiors or the great spiritual Masters of the humanity.
    * This number "contains the ratios of the principle of individuality 1 with the cosmic differentiation 20", according to R. Allendy. These ratios would constitute an act of organization – 2 + 1 = 3: "Thus the principle of individuality, placed between the world of the spirit and that the matter, realizes in itself the meeting of both."
    * Represent the harmony of the creation.
    * Number representing the union of Trinity, whose result of their common action makes emerge the creation.
    * For Claude of Saint-Martin, "the number 21 is the number of destruction or rather of universal termination, because, as 2 is separated from 1, it is necessary that it has a means of to unite there if it wants it. This number shows at the same time the command of the production of things and their end, as well in the spiritual one as in the corporal one."
    * The "21, the highest possible number of 3 in the corporal, is in relation with the spiritual and shows the quality of the renewal", according to Eckartshausen.
    * Number representing the maturity and the responsibility for an individual. It expresses also the notion of chief.
    * It is the numbered representation of God and the Temple, and for this reason it is considered by the esoteric texts as a divine number or sacred.


    * The 21 chapters of the Gospel of saint John, totaling 879 verses.
    * The 21 attributes of the Wisdom. (Ws 7,22-23)
    * Number of chapters of the book of Judges in the Old Testament.
    * During 21 days the Prince of the kingdom of Persia (protective angel of the enemy nations) resisted to the Michael Archangel as well as to the angel of the prophet Daniel. (Dn 10,13)
    * Jacob worked three times seven years to keep the herds of his uncle Laban to obtain two wives and two maidservant, who were used to him also as concubines as it was the habit to the period. (Gn 29,15-30)


    * The Blessed Virgin was 70 years old when has occurred her Assumption. Thus she lived 21 years after the death Jesus, just like there were 21 years between the presentation of Jesus to the Temple at 12 years old and his death at 33 years old – according to visions of Mary Agreda and Maria Valtorta. Thus Mary, after the Ascension of Jesus, remained still 21 years on the Earth to serve as attentive Mother and prioress to the Church in the childhood, also of adviser to the Apostles for any difficulty being able to occur.
    * The text called "Sermo angelicus" or "Hymn of the angel", that saint Brigitte of Sweden (1303 to 1373) wrote under the dictation of an angel, is composed 21 letters. They were read during the matins, in the convent of Vadstena, in homage to the Mother of God, as an Office of the Virgin Mary.
    * In a same day, Jesus appears in 21 different places of the Palestine to confirm in His Resurrection those who believe in Him.
    * It is the number of ecumenical councils – the 21th is Vatican II.
    * Saint Ann and saint Joachim gave birth to the Virgin Mary 21 years after their marriage, according to visions of Mary Agreda.
    * In the encyclical of the Pope Pie XI on the unit of Christians, "Mortalium animos", 1928, it is surprising to note that there is no mention of the Holy Spirit, while in the encyclical of the Pope John-Paul II, "Ut unum sint", the "Holy Spirit" is mentioned 21 times.
    * When the religious tradition of the Orient refers in its lesson to the psychic nature of the man, it uses the knowledge of the "centers of force" called by Hindus Chakras (wheel) or again Padma (lotus). These centers are to the number of 7 majors, 21 averages and 49 minors, but only the 7 major ones held the attention because of their importance in the initiatory process.
    * The 21 leaves that contain the alchimical book of Abraham the Jew.
    * The 21 divisions of the "Yama loka", for the Indians.
    * Louis XVI became engaged on January 21, 1770, marries on June 21, 1770. He promulgated the suspension of a tax on January 21, 1782 and on January 21, 1784 an enormous obelisk of snow was raised for him on the place Louis XV. Louis XVI is arrested to Varennes on June 21, 1791 and goes up to the scaffold on January 21, 1793. Finally, the 5 letters of his first name added to XVI gives 21.
    * Number of letters of the Italian alphabet.
    * It is around the age of 20 or 21 years old that the man reach his final size. Moreover, at much of peoples, the age of 21 years old is chosen as the age of the majority. If the astral body of the man is completely developed at the age of 14 years old, the mental body reaches its full blooming at approximately 21 years old.
    * There are 21 amino-acids.
    * Magic square of 21:

    5 12 4
    6 7 8
    10 2 9

    * Sum of number one to six, which is the total of the numbers written on the of die.
    * Anniversary of marriage: weddings of watch.


    * The number 21 is used 7 times in the Bible.
    * The Gospel of saint John uses on the whole 21 different numbers, which are numbers 1 to 8, 10, 12, 15, 25, 30, 38, 46, 50, 100, 153, 200, 300 and 5000. In the Gospel of Matthew we find also 21 numbers different which are 1 to 7, 9 to 12, 14, 30, 40, 60, 77, 99, 100, 4000, 5000 and 10000. And the Gospel of Mark uses on the whole 21 different numbers, which are numbers 1 to 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 30, 40, 50, 60, 100, 200, 300, 2000, 4000 and 5000.
    * The numbers 16, 2000, 5000 and 20000 are used 21 times in the Bible.
    * The word angel is pronounced 21 times by Jesus, always to the plural.
    * The words Flood and star are used 21 times in the Bible. In the Revelation, the word "capacity" (capacity of decision or to act, by opposition to "power") is used 21 times.
    * In the New Testament, 17 chapters have 21 verses.

  102. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

    Thank you, Colin, I'm glad we could clear that up. I'll go with the interpretation of Claude of St. Martin; it fits well with the rest of her speech.

  103. albtraum said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 7:37 am

    They're saying that there have been 21 generations because it's the 21st century. Confusing centuries and generations. That's all. Same way that references to America's "52 states" were common in hip-hop for a while. 52 cards in a deck, so there must be 50 states. People aren't very smart.

  104. albtraum said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 7:39 am

    *"…must be 52 states". Goes without saying that I'm not very smart either.

  105. John Burgess said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 11:17 pm

    Just a data point here…

    I just saw a TV ad for an American frozen vegetable company–Pictfresh. The ad states that their family has been growing vegetables 'for four generations'. Later in the ad, it's noted that the company 'has been in business since 1945'.

    That's roughly 60 years for four generations, 15 years/generation.

    There was nothing religious or eschatological in the ad.

  106. Matt McIrvin said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 1:45 am

    In that case, it's probably just the number of generations of people in the family who have been involved in the business. Given the overlap in human lives of different generations, four is quite plausible for a 60-odd-year span.

  107. Joshua said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 4:49 am

    I would argue that Bachmann's use of 19 years for a generation comes not from any religious or scientific source but from the Tea Party's worshipful dedication to the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson consistently used 19 years as the length of a generation, defined be him this way: "generations, changing daily by daily deaths and births, have one constant term, beginning at the date of their contract, and ending when a majority of those of full age at that date shall be dead." He determined the length, in his typically precise way, from Bouffon's writings on mortality rates. His main use of this number was as part of his argument in favor of "generational sovereignty" and his belief that neither debts nor laws should be carried from one generation to the next, and thus the Constitution should expire after 19 years. His argument rather undermines Bachmann's insistence on American tradition and is much more progressive than she'd probably like, but I suspect she trusts Jefferson's calculations more than "Ancestry Magazine."

  108. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 1, 2011 @ 6:25 pm

    @Joshua: That could be it, whether Bachman or her staff worked it out or she just picked it up from somebody else who liked Jefferson's theory.

  109. Joshua said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 4:01 am

    @Jerry: It is perhaps a silly assumption, but I do think it's not unreasonable to think that most Tea party staffs have at least one Jefferson nut on board. And as a Jefferson nut myself (though of a rather different political persuasion), as soon as I saw the calculation of a 19 year generation, I thought of Jefferson. The number is so central to one of Jefferson's more intriguing and bizarre political theories (and one of the more enlightening conversations between him and James Madison) that most serious Jeffersonophiles would recognize it. In fact, if someone asked me to calculate the number of generations in a particular time frame, I'd be highly inclined by instinct to use Jefferson's number, however inaccurate it may have been then and however inaccurate it surely is now.

    [(myl) Thanks, Joshua! You've convinced *me*, at least; and as an apprentice Jefferson Nut, I'm intrigued to learn about his theory of political generations.

    But although Michele Bachmann does quote Jefferson from time to time, I can't find any evidence that she's studied his work seriously enough to assimilate his theory of political generations, especially given its implications for her (pretense of?) constitution-worship.

    So presumably, as you suggest, we should look to whoever wrote her speech. Any notion who that was?]

  110. James Kabala said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 6:20 pm

    A Jefferson-based theory is more plausible than a Bible-based theory, but I still see no real evidence for either. Even though it is biologically incorrect, the media consistently treat generations as being twenty years or less – the most famous being the Baby Boom (1946-1964), but also those before and after (Silent or Pre-Boomer generation from late 1920s to 1946; Generation X from 1964 to early 1980s).

  111. Joshua said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 3:12 am

    @myl: I don't know who writes Ms. Bachmann's speeches, and considering her recent "gaffe" in referring to John Quincy Adams as a "Founding Father" (and her ridiculous assertion that "all" of the Founding Fathers worked to end slavery), it may well be true that her writers aren't particularly historically savvy. But Jefferson is a special case, in and out of the Tea Party, and the strangeness of his insistence on a 19 year generation, and not a more useful 20 year generation, makes it quite memorable.

    Of course, we shouldn't forget that simple bad math might have produced the result!

  112. Ian Preston said,

    February 5, 2011 @ 6:20 am

    There's an interesting book here that counts twenty generations of black Americans since first arrival in 1619. What is interesting is not that this particular source might have influenced Bachmann but that it is an example of a calculation which is explicit: 30-year-long generations over 396 years in lines each overlapping by ten years.

    There's also another Tea-Partyist blog here which refers several times in different postings to the relevance of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers to the current twenty-first generation:

    Those who claim the Constitution is not applicable to a twenty-first generation truly have no concept of what freedom and prosperity MUST rest upon — GOD.

    The author seems heavily influenced by the writings of Cleon Skousen, whom Glenn Beck cites as an important influence, especially The 5,000 Year Leap. That may be suggestive of the sort of literature this is coming from. Maybe Jefferson is behind this somewhere but I can't believe that Bachmann or her speech-writer would have made such a recondite calculation for themselves without mentioning their reasoning. The way that it is being cited without explanation persuades me that it is being drawn from some common "authoritative" source.

  113. Ian Preston said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 12:09 am

    Just to follow up, I contacted the author of The Right Blog to ask him how he was counting generations and whether he recognised a shared source with other Tea Party advocates. I thought this might clear the question up. Not so. It seems that his several references to the 'twenty-first' generation were simply pointing to the twenty-first century and he has no better suggestion than anyone else here as to why the number twenty-one might have been used by Bachmann or Beck. This doesn't really support the view that her audience would have readily picked up on any historical reference or token of millennial significance commonly understood in that political community.

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