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. 

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