Rachel Marsden: What Hemingway can teach us about New Year’s predictions


Predicting events can be a dangerous game. That’s because some people simply project wishful thinking, allowing their personal biases to obscure reality. We see it repeatedly during election season. The key to making accurate predictions is absolute objectivity: observing patterns in a detached manner, drawing inferences and applying them to new developments in order to predict their likely trajectory.

The big problem these days is that this requires the absorption of large amounts of information across an enormous landscape — sometimes straddling disparate points in time and space. This information isn’t delivered in a convenient little package like a piece of Ikea furniture, ready for your brain to assemble. As with everything else, we expect a quick fix — but it takes time to formulate predictions. Often, it’s that one puzzle piece you stumble over when you least expect it that slams the whole thing into focus.

Over the Christmas holiday, life tends to come to a standstill, leaving us workaholics to fill in the gaps left by others with something resembling leisure. For some of us, this “break” is an opportunity to binge on information in the absence of the usual day-to-day interruptions. While everyone else was stuffing turkeys, I was stuffing my brain with Ernest Hemingway’s old Toronto Star columns from 90 years ago. Little did I know that they would provide insight useful for making predictions heading into 2013.

Though he’s been dead for over half a century, I bump into Hemingway often. We both started our columnist careers at Toronto newspapers before eventually moving to Paris. Then, on the airplane ride from Paris to Toronto for Christmas, there he was again on the in-flight movie screen, portrayed by Clive Owen alongside Nicole Kidman’s Golden Globe-nominated portrayal of Martha Gellhorn in “Hemingway and Gellhorn,” the story of his wartime relationship and marriage to the renowned war correspondent.

Like all the best journalists, Hemingway constantly searched for fires into which he could run. It’s that character trait, conveyed so well in the film, that has always appealed to me — and led me to spend some holiday downtime digging through the Toronto Star archives to see what other trouble he got into. I didn’t have to look far.

In 1920, Hemingway wrote in a column entitled “The Wild West Is Now In Chicago” about the city’s record number of murders, noting that “one hundred and fifty murders in ten months means a murder every forty-eight hours.” He also wrote of a kill list that emerged as the result of a municipal political rivalry in the 19th ward.

Last week, we heard that Chicago’s murder rate “spiked” in 2012, with gang violence to blame. Apparently the only difference that has emerged over the course of 90 years is that the ethnicity of some of the gang members has changed.

The prediction? In another 100 years, the Chicago murder rate will most likely still be “spiking,” regardless of the underlying details.

And when Hemingway moved to Paris in 1922, he noticed that “a Canadian with an income of one thousand dollars a year can live comfortably and enjoyably in Paris.”

“It is from tourists who stop at the large hotels that the reports come that living in Paris is very high,” Hemingway wrote. “The big hotelkeepers charge all they think the traffic can bear. But there are several hundred small hotels in all parts of Paris where an American or Canadian can live comfortably, eat at attractive restaurants and find amusement for a total expenditure of two and one half to three dollars a day.”

As a resident of Paris myself, it’s precisely the same observation that I try to convey to tourists who have trouble believing me because they frequent restaurants that charge 50 euros for a hamburger when I can buy one down the street for three euros.

The take-home message? Despite being a hub for WWII, surviving the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust, the underpinnings of Paris specifically and France in general don’t change much in nearly 100 years, tourist rip-off schemes included.

This is why the system chewed up and spit out former French President Nicolas Sarkozy before he was able to make a significant dent in the country’s problems, and why it was inevitable that, last week, France’s Constitutional Council, around since 1958, rejected the measure proposed by Socialist President Francois Hollande to tax French millionaires at a rate of 75 percent.

Just because it’s easy to get swept up in the 24-hour news cycle doesn’t necessarily mean the world is changing any faster — nor should our predictions for the new year reflect such rapid transformation. Thank you, Hemingway, for leaving us with timeless tangible proof of that.

(Rachel Marsden is a columnist, political strategist and former Fox News host based in Paris. She appears frequently on TV and in publications in the U.S. and abroad. Her website can be found at: http://www.rachelmarsden.com.)

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