Monday, March 12, 2012

Some current musings on why I study history

What is studying history good for? This is a question that has been asked by many more qualified people than me (sometimes with the answer of “nothing”) but it is something that anyone interested in spending a lifetime studying a period of long dead time really needs to think about from time to time.

I want to begin by talking about what history is not good for, namely that it does not predict the future. The old adage about “those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it” is just that, an old saw (albeit one I believed strongly back in high school). Those who know the past, if anything, seem more likely to repeat it, at least if people like Gingrich and Robert Kagan provide an example. There is no way to truly get the correct message from history without a lot of luck. So far, every attempt I know of to use historical precedents to try and predict the future requires the predictor to oversimplify everything in their attempt to draw a single lesson from the past that can be applied to the future.  Successful predictions are either so vague they would have had trouble being wrong, or they are simply lucky.

As much as I would love to say I could tell you what will happen in the future if you just pay me to study history long enough, any such statement would be self serving and frankly disingenuous.
This isn’t to say I do not see a value in studying history, obviously I am in the wrong career path if I thought anything of the sort.

Rather, I see several reasons to study history:

The first, and lesser, of these reasons is that I do not think you can ever know what knowledge will be useful to the future. By studying history you are studying the past activities of humanity, and this means you learn a vast amount of information about what humans have done in various circumstances, when you write history you make those ideas and information available to others, and this can change the world. It can inspire both governmental systems and revolutions, and so on and so forth.

But this is really a lesser reason as far as I am concerned, the most important reason is that I see a constant study of history as one of the best ways to develop a critical mind and an understanding of how the world works and why. Basically, the more you try to understand how and why something was the way it was in the past, the easier it is to come up with theories about how and why things work in the present. Basically, history provides, at a much faster rate, the same sorts of lessons that life teaches people. The mind can only work with the data that it is provided, after all, so providing it with a large diet of history effectively adds massive amounts of material that can be used when processing any new issues that are presented to it.
Any systematic study would do this, but some bodies of material are more useful than others for questioning how and why the world works, also history tends to suggest an approach that is questioning of the material rather than accepting. I could gain just as much “raw data” about human interactions from reading hundreds of novels a year as I do from history, and I did so during much of my childhood, but that data is not designed to be questioned. It is just a story that you are supposed to read for enjoyment and accept.

By developing a historical mindset, one in which I am constantly asking questions about why things are the way they are, and one in which I am quite used to questioning the truth value of my sources, suddenly all that basically useless data about science fiction and fantasy worlds became useful again. Where before I just enjoyed and was, in fact, molded by the ideals and ideas presented as stories in novels, now I can see how each of those ideas was itself a product of a modern historical context and I can question and reject or accept those ideals in a way that would not have been the case if I had not been fascinated with the stories that were based on real events as well as those that humans had made up entirely.  Tolkien is just as enthralling as he was in fourth grade, but now I read his stories as Epics that consist of a truly impressive collection of modern day myths put in an archaic guise, many of which I can point to specifically as important to my own worldview.  Sometimes I wonder if I would be significantly more detached from reality than I already am if I had not been interested in history to the point that I started viewing novels as primary sources for the modern day.

Speaking of primary sources, the historical method is easily one of the more useful things in my life on a regular basis. The systematic rating of sources by their relevance to answer whatever question I am asking at the time is something that is useful for any issue. Take, for example, a presidential speech:

If the question is “what did he say?” the articles written by those who were present are secondary to the actual text/audio of the speech.  

If the question is “what did the pundits make of it?” the pundits become the primary source, and the speech itself becomes a control by which I can see exactly how the pundits manipulate the material to fit their own goals.

In this new world of google news providing dozens of links for any news story, this sort of sorting process becomes incredibly useful for trying to understand the world around me.

Ultimately, the most important thing that learning to write history teaches, to my mind, is to never quit asking questions and to never really be satisfied with your answers until you cannot find problems with them anymore. It is not the only discipline to teach this, any academic discipline worth studying should teach this, but this is easily one of the most important lessons that I think anyone can learn in life.

Of course, the most important reason I study history, albeit one that is entirely personal, is that I pathologically cannot stop studying it. If I wasn’t doing it for a career, I would be constantly working on a historical project as a hobby (and probably starving as I am singularly unsuited for most jobs that do not involve studying dead things). So, all of the above rationales should probably be taken with at least a grain or two of salt as the self congratulatory musings that they almost certainly are. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Musing on anti-proliferation

One of the parts of our foreign policy that I find most problematic is our idea that it is in our interest to police who gains new nuclear capability. This isn't to say that I think it would be good if every country had nukes, far from it, but that our policy does not stop nuclear proliferation and in fact guarantees that any country that does develop new nuclear capability will consider the US to be its enemy.

Take the case of Iran. They would have to be monumentally stupid to not want nuclear capability, given that the las decades have proven repeatedly that countries without a nuclear deterrent are destroyed. Now the problem with the fact that our foreign policy has basically forced every almost-nuclear country to consider getting a nuke ASAP is that we have also internalized that in our thinking about other countries.

Take this quote from a CSM article on what a nuclear Iran would be like:

"If I was an Iranian national security planner, I would want nuclear weapons," Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA now at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in January.
"Look at the neighborhood that I live in: Everyone else has nuclear weapons who matters; and those who don't, don't matter, and get invaded by the United States of America," Mr. Riedel said on a panel hosted by the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

Now to a great extent he is probably right, but it was exactly this sort of logic that got us into Iraq. We know that our foreign policy puts almost-nuclear states in a very bad position, therefore we assume that they are doing what they should be to move into an untouchable status, actions that to our foreign policy represent a valid casus belli. It all becomes very circular.

This really creates a no win situation for our targets. If they don't develop nuclear capability then they will always live in fear of us. If they try to develop nuclear capabilities we will attack them. Even if they don't try and develop nukes, there is a solid chance that we will not believe them because we cannot imagine a country choosing to live in fear of empowered countries. So once they get targeted, they lose unless they find a game changer. The only game changer is to actually get a nuke and do so without us knowing about it. Either we invade a country that was no threat to us, or we create a hostile nuclear power. There is no win for us either.

In other words: our anti-proliferation foreign policy actively creates new enemies that would not have been a threat to us. We continually beat the drums of war to build up support for wars against enemies that only exist because of the short sighted and hypocritical foreign policy that is trumpeted by both of our one and a half political parties. Destabilizing whole countries will not make the world a safer place for us, and the sooner we realize that the better off we will be.

Byzantine studies in the economist

This article on the recent drama in Byzantine studies and the problems the field is facing is a surprising sight to see in something like the Economist. I have nothing to say about the main subject of the article, but the closing paragraph caught my interest.

"Despite all the razzamatazz of exhibitions at prestigious venues, the field has been facing serious problems since the 1980s, Mr Koder says. In most Western countries, the number of people who study Latin and Greek at school or university has plunged. It used to be that a classical education was a basic precursor for the study of the later medieval period. For Byzantinology to survive, Mr Koder reckons it will have to be better integrated into the broader field of Mediterranean studies, to illustrate the relationship between Byzantium and the rise of Islam and later of Renaissance Europe. Perhaps the first step in that direction will be the Met’s forthcoming exhibition, which will concentrate on the early Muslim centuries: a time when, in between fighting, the Byzantines and Muslims were exchanging artistic techniques."

I know almost nothing about Koder, but I really like the idea of moveing towards integration into a broader Mediterranean field. (though I do wonder where Mediterranean ends, ie is Persia Mediterranean?) Working to show how the Eastern Roman Empire interacted with the cultures around it is one of the ways I see to try and break the insularity that allows a vibrant and extremely influential historical culture to not be understood by the people who study it's temporal and geographical neighbors (and causes the people wanting to study it to perpetually be in fear of not getting a job), and the broad Mediterranean field is a way (though certainly not the only one) to do that.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Misusing History

There is a rather widespread movement lately, especially among the new Ron Paul and tea party conservatives, to use historical precedents as a justification for modern policy. This approach has a great deal of power, especially when the vast majority of politicians and pundits seem to live in a post-historical fantasy land. Part of what made Glen Beck's lunatic ideas into a fortune for him was his willingness to appropriate historical footnotes to support his arguments. This was a misuse of history, to say the least, but the mere act of citing historical precedent is a powerful tool for argument, easpecially if the opposition does not have the historical savvy to play the same game. Beck is an extreme example, but he is a symptom of a much more prevalent misuse of history throughout society. The problem with any attempt to use history to try and inform policy decisions is that it only becomes possible to do so if the history lesson is simplified beyond recognition.

To illustrate this I want to look at a recent article by Robert Kagan in the WallSt Journal which argues that the world needs American hegemony.

This article opens on a ringing note of: "History shows that world orders, including our own, are transient. They rise and fall, and the institutions they erect, the beliefs and "norms" that guide them, the economic systems they supportthey rise and fall, too."

The argument that institutions are connected to the powers that create and enforce those institutions is true enough, but it is stated far too strongly throughout the article.  For the statement to have the scare value that it seems designed to have, the reader has to also buy the rest of the argument; namely, that it is a bad thing to have such a change in world order.

Also, whenever someone says "history shows" it is best to be wary. History is complicated and shows many things, not all of which demonstrate the same message. The statement of "history shows" is one designed to simplify history and to claim authority for the author, i.e. this particular author is claiming that he actually knows what history shows and that you should listen to him because of it.

Now, if we are to accept his history shows, Kagan has to provide examples of history showing the issue he wanted to illustrate, and here is where things start getting really problematic. What I want to focus on here is his use of Rome as a scare tactic to emphasize his modern point.

"The downfall of the Roman Empire brought an end not just to Roman rule but to Roman government and law and to an entire economic system stretching from Northern Europe to North Africa. Culture, the arts, even progress in science and technology, were set back for centuries."

This reading of the fall of the Roman Empire is a classic one that could come straight out of Gibbon's Decline and Fall. It is also a deeply problematic narrative. The purpose of this version of the fall of Rome was a myth created for the purpose of linking the enlightenment era to Rome. The logic runs something along the lines of "Rome was good, the middle ages were bad, the renaissance rediscovered Rome, and therefore it and the following enlightenment are good."

There are quite a few problems with this narrative. First, you have to accept that Roman culture was actually "good," or at least that it was better than what followed. I won't go into all the details of this here, but suffice to say there are some rather massive problems with using Rome as a model in the modern world.

The second problem is that the line a out culture, arts, and technological progress being set back is complete and utter garbage. Culture is subjective, so I will not deal with it, the idea that it can be set back is in and of itself somewhat worrying. Art is equally subjective, but it can be demonstrated that in the Byzantine empire there was no real break in the development of art. While the art certainly became more abstract, the idea that abstract art is somehow worse than realistic art has distinct problems in today's world of abstract modern art. 

The biggest flaw with the statement is that technological progress actually increased as the successor states to Rome had to deal with the reality that they no longer had the kinds of manpower and territorial resources that Rome had. In the east, Roman law as we know it was codified a century after the fall of the western empire, at about the same time that the most technologically sophisticated monument in the Roman world was constructed and the first western silk production began. A century later naval warfare was revolutionized by the introduction of what can best be described as a full blown flamethrower, which hardly could have happened in an era of technological backwardness. And that is just a few Byzantine innovations that come to mind off the top of my head, if I actually made a list of the innovations of the sixth to eight centuries in byzantium, Persia, and the Arab states I would be writing this for a very long time.

In the west there was a collapse of infrastructure, but even there the idea that technological advancement ceased is problematic. For the recently conquered Romans, there would have been a loss of technology, but for their new rulers the period was one of incredible technological advancement as they incorporated parts of the roman infrastructure into their lifestyles. It should also be pointed out that the very fact that the western empire was overrun by foreign invaders invalidates it as an example that can be compared to modern US hegemony.

I won't go into detail on the rest of Kagan's article, as he moves into more modern comparanda, but I think the problems with the Roman section should cast the rest of his narrative into doubt. What his use of rome is designed to do is to illustrate just how bad losing hegemony could be. Even if it was a relevant comparison to the modern us, and even if he wasn't vastly overstating how complete the post Rome collapse was, the point would still be to scare. His argument hinges on the belief that a change in the economic and social world order would be fundamentally a bad thing, and the example of Rome serves as an exclamation point and worse case scenario, despite the fact that he both misreads the roman collapse and forces it into a comparison where it really does not belong.

The point to all this is that it is incredibly difficult to use history to inform political arguments unless the message is that things are always more complicated than they seem. Political arguments tend to use history in  a manner that is diametrically opposed to good scientific methodology. They start with a thesis "it will be bad if the US declines" and then find the historical evidence that backs that thesis up, usually ignoring any evidence that runs against their thesis and simplifying the data to match what they already believe to be true. This is a very human approach, and one that I suspect every historian succumbs to from time to time, but it is also an approach that effectively guarantees the misuse of historical evidence. 

In short, be very careful about trusting historical anecdotes when they are being used to argue for modern policy, usually the history being cited is also being simplified dramatically for the purposes of a modern agenda. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The "single demand" myth.

One of the most intellectually offensive lines to have come out of the media in the last year is the utterly pernicious idea that a protest movement needs to have one demand. The "demand for a demand," as I call it, was a beautifully designed piece of propaganda that was never an actual critique of the movement, but rather a line designed to belittle and derail the occupy movement rather than take it seriously.

Article after article over the last six months have presented claims about the Occupy Wallstreet movement that tend to run along the lines of this rather extreme article.  The basic gist the critique that keeps appearing in editorials and in the news is that the occupy was never *really* a movement for anything but anarchy because it failed to ever come up with a single demand.

This is an line of thought was purposely designed as a piece of hostile PR against the occupy movement.

The idea that a grass roots protest movement could or should have had a single demand before it started protesting a problem is utterly absurd. No movement in history has ever only had a single demand. Some movements have had overriding concerns, for example the suffrage movement coalesced around the specific issue of women being able to vote, but the movement itself was much more varied than just that single issue. Every social reform movement is varied, every movement has a plurality of opinions. I have trouble coming up with a scenario in which the idea that the occupy movement could or should have had only one demand could have come into the public discourse naturally rather than maliciously, there is just no reason that anyone reasonably should have expected them to have a single demand.

Which brings me to my main point here, which is that the critique of the occupy movement that went viral through the media was designed as a hit piece rather than being the result of an actual confusion about why the Occupy people were there. The demand for a single demand was an inspired piece of anti-protest reporting because it created a win/win scenario for those who disliked the movement.

If the occupy people listened and tried to respond with a single demand or a list of demands, then the people behind the idea that the movement needed a demand won several victories. The movement would immediately waste time discussing what their demands were instead of raising awareness as to what the issues were. Furthermore, there was a high chance that any attempt to nail down solutions to the problem of income inequality would split the movement into its component parts. On top of these, if they actually came up with a single demand that would have actually hurt the Occupy movement as the demand would have either been too radical, and therefore been ridiculed, or too timid, in which case the movement could be easily curtailed by their demand being fulfilled.

Now, if the occupy movement didn't listen to the demand for a demand, (which is basically what happened) then the people behind it still won. The media line became how those loonies living in tents didn't know what they wanted, how most of them were there just for the party, how the movement wasn't actually a movement and wasn't actually accomplishing anything. And then once that line had gotten traction, the lines switched to how much the movement was costing, how unclean they were, and how they were a public menace that deserved the harsh police reaction it was receiving. The refusal to name a single demand became part of an overall campaign to vilify the movement, one that justifies the excessive use of police force to shut them down.

The most important thing I want to get across here is that the point of these movements in their earliest stages is not to fix the problem, but to make people aware that the problem exists, and that anyone complaining that the occupy movement lacks purpose is propagating a piece of anti-social reform PR rather than advancing a valid critique of the protests. The occupy movement has done a marvelous job at raising awareness of the growing problem of income inequality in this country for a movement that is less than a year old. The rallying cry that highlights the scary income inequality statistics of the post-Reagan era is a powerful one, and one that I truly hope will not go away.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Thinking about the middle class.

This article in the Atlantic highlights something that I have been thinking about a lot over the last few years, namely the issue of what defines the middle class. In it, Ta-Nehisi Coates points out how the campaigns stress traits like "'playing by the rules,' 'hard-working.' and 'middle class,"  and rightly wonders why only the middle class gets the label of "hard working." 

For me, this highlights one of the things that I find the most strange about modern american culture, namely that it seems like almost everyone claims the status of middle class whether or not they have a great deal of money, or no money at all. 

The term is so wide that we have both an actual class system that was created in this country over the last couple centuries, and income brackets that both lay claim to the title of middle class. So its possible to be middle class, that is act like a person from the "typical" american family, while being dirt poor. In this sense being middle class involves things like valuing the concept of going to college, generally being a "good citizen," expecting to be able to find a steady job that allows for ideas like the American dream, that sort of thing. Where you are on the income bracket does not matter so much as how you act. The rags to riches success story does not leave the middle class by becoming a multi-millionaire, at least if you understand it as a set of ideals. 

One thing I have to really give praise to in the originally linked article on this point is that Ta-Nehisi suggested looking at Appalachia for an example of non-middle class people, as it really is one of the only places I have ever been where I met people who were proud to *not* be part of the middle class. The other places I would look for those few people who aren't "middle" in this country would be lower income minority neighborhoods and people who come from multiple generations of wealth, neither of which are groups I have had enough contact with to write about with any authority. 

All this is opposed to our income brackets, which also use terms like "upper middle" and such. This creates the weird situation where the expensive RV owning self identifying redneck who happens to make a 100,000 or so a year would be both "upper middle class" and a "redneck" at the same time, categories which should to my mind be mutually exclusive. But somehow, probably in the 50s by my guess, we managed to effectively eliminate all of the classes except the middle class, to the point that distinctions like working class vs gentry are mostly meaningless even while the monetary inequality remains. 

All this said, there are worse class systems out there. To pick one of my favorites, the ancient Athenian label for being a respectable sort was kalos k'agathos, "the good and the beautiful." To massively oversimplify, if you were pretty in ancient Athens, then it could be assumed that you were from a decent family. 

It seems absurd, really, but even today you can see how such a system of categorization would come into existence. All of the factors that John Scalzi writes about in this old post on the subject of being poor all lead to a reality where you can tell at a glance who is poor and who is not by how they look physically, this was even more true in a world where the *only* health care was for the wealthy. We have created a myth of a universal middle class, but I often wonder how long an idealized middle class can last and whether we will see a return to a more stratified set of ideals as the income gap grows. 

The concept of homeschooling

I find the increasing acceptability of homeschooling to be a fascinating development. See this article: Article on homeschooling

I wonder if there is any correlation between bad public school experiences and the decision to homeschool. Certainly, I could not imagine sending a child to the hell that is the public school system. But I don't know how much of that sense that public school is hell would apply to someone who is less of an autodidact than I am. It would be quite interesting to know if people choosing to homeschool have a similar sense of public education as utterly broken, or if they have other reasons. Conversely, it would be interesting to know if people who had positive schooling experiences actively look for the closest comparison to their own education.

Odd first post for a blog, I guess, since I am asking questions to a readership that does not exist. Then again, I think it would be rather silly to expect an audience, and the question of "I wonder if" is likely to be the most commonly used phrase in a blog dedicated to writing down my thoughts.