Monday, February 28, 2011

History Does Not Repeat Itself

I am very thankful for Schaun Wheeler's piece on the pointlessness of historical comparisons:

All historical comparisons, when they are used to try to explain something, make two implicit assumptions:
1. There exists a very limited number of conditions that determine the outcomes the comparison is supposed to explain.
2. We know what the grand majority of those conditions look like for both the historical scenario that is supposed to explain, and for the current scenario that is supposed to be explained.
I have never seen a situation where these two assumptions are valid in attempts to explain events of the scale we saw in Cairo. That doesn’t mean these assumptions may not be valid in some situations. It just means our belief in those assumptions ought to be explicitly justified before we make them. To assume that years of oppressive rule an great numbers of protestors are the only relevant conditions is obviously wrong. But to what additional considerations do we turn our attention to adequately explain the events? Status and loyalty of the military? Foreign involvement? Local economic conditions? Communication’s technologies? There are all plausible influences upon the outcome.
That’s the problem.
The list of plausibilities doesn’t really end. I think we feel pretty safe assuming that “oppressive regime” belongs in the “relevant” category and that “last year’s TV ratings for the Grammy awards” doesn’t belong in that category. But everything between those two extremes is one big gray area.
If we can’t define beforehand what the majority of relevant conditions are, then there is no way to pick an apt historical comparison. I’ve seen no reason to believe that anyone following or analyzing world events has the slightest clue as to what the majority of relevant conditions are. Historical comparisons are by their very nature worthless, at least so long as we know so little about what causes large-scale behavioral changes.

God, yes. These historical comparisons between Egypt and the other revolutions is the Middle East are facile at best, offensive at worst. Not only do they analyze everything through the perspective of how it affects the United States, but they are useless pundit bloviating.  Each historical incident is unique to itself. Everything is multicausal and subject to complex analysis. Comparing Egypt in 2011 to Iran in 1979 or France in 1789 or Berlin in 1989 is ridiculous; comparing the Middle East in 2011 to Europe in 1848 is beyond pointless.

If this entire project lacks value, then why study history? My students love to repeat the cliche that "if we don't learn from history, we are bound to repeat it." That's because they hear the same thing from people who theoretically should know better. But people struggle to deal with history if it doesn't provide an object lesson or direct line from the past to the present. Of course, we can learn from history. To me, that's the point of studying it. But to simple-mindedly place one event in the context of another lacks any value at all.