Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Historiography: Near and far views

For somewhere in the mid-twentieth century...history at last blends into the clamorous world of current affairs. Time's locomotive slows and the broad horizons of the past are obscured...Gathering up his cherished omniscience, the historian must get down from the air-conditioned express with its tinted windows, cross the tracks, and elbow his way aboard a slower, noisier train whose windows have no glass, and whose doors are never closed.

With nose pressed against a knobby reality, the historian soon makes a disconcerting discovery: He has just been downgraded to the role of an observer, just another one of those contemporary chroniclers whose testimony he has so often found wanting... 
~John Keay, India: A History

Keay's observations on the differences between the field of history and the study of current affairs are bang on. The big sweep of events in motion is almost entirely without clarity when we're caught up in the swelling tsunami that is historic change. The shapes and currents only becomes clear with the receding passage of years. In many ways journalists and current affairs analysts have the unenviable job of trying to drink this ocean of swirling and murky data through the straw of limited perspective, with only a very finite amount of time in which to gulp it all down and process it.

It's a realm that even brilliant historians dive into at their own peril.

The best exemplar of this, for me at least, is the scholar who first instilled the love of history as a field of study in me. Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was revelatory for a sixteen-year old in Nevada. A profound analysis of economic causes driving battlefield methods and outcomes in a five-hundred year span of European history, and written at a time when nearly all my teachers insisted that history was a collection of data from which no useful patterns could be discerned. Or if one could be seen, it always seemed to pigeonhole way too neatly on one side or the other of the political spectrum.

Not only did Kennedy manage to link a number of period economic indicators to military practices and outcome in ways that neither the Democrats or Republicans in my life wholly approved of, but he introduced in Rise and Fall a novel thesis for explaining Western Europe's surprising imperial ascension. Surprising, because Western Europe had spent nearly all of historical time lagging well behind much larger and more advanced Eurasian civilizations. Cities had been round for thousands of years elsewhere on the continent, but had only made the jump north of the Alps around 1000 AD. Even in 1492, with Spain poised to conquer much of the New World and Portugal on the cusp of bypassing the Silk Roads, all of Europe was still considerably behind in technology, military power, and continent-spanning cultural influence compared to Ming China, Europe's Islamic rivals, or the cultural power-house conglomerations of princedoms and  sultanates that would much later become what is now Bangladesh - India - Pakistan.

Kennedy's new explanation for Western Europe's rise to global power was that it was a product of geographic divisions. The land was so segmented by mountains, dense forests, and bisected by major rivers that no one was able to impose a centralized rule through conquest. And so Western Europe as a whole never fell into dynastic orthodoxy and technological stagnation. Elsewhere in the world, the crowning political and military achievement of forging a large nation out of conquests and absorption by Caliphs, Mugahl or Ming or Manchurian emperors, or Tokugawa Shogun aspirants, was followed up by the slow fall into imposed stasis and the rejection of new technologies or war fighting methods that threatened members of the ruling elite or warrior castes.

Fleets were scrapped, long-range exploration curtailed, firearms restricted, and disruptive philosophers or reformist schools of thought violently suppressed.

This geographic thesis is far from being the end all explanation of the last five hundred years of international power dynamics. Jared Diamond incorporated it as just one of several geologic and ecological factors in his famous Guns, Germs, and Steel. Other factors such as such Spain's gaining control of huge sources of South American silver at a time when the world's two largest economies, China and much of India, were moving towards silver-backed currencies, also impacted the course of events. Still, the idea of Europe's unconquerable geographic divides giving rise to its empire-building conquest states was both revolutionary at the time, and has proven durable in academic circles over the past thirty years.

I was also impressed by Mr. Kennedy's boldness when it came to looking forward into the future. When the Rise and Fall was published in 1987 he predicted on the basis of his historical analysis that the US was tipping over into a period of hegemonic decline under debt and military overreach, while Japan would continue its economic ascent. The Soviet Union could be expected to maintain its current levels of military and fiscal clout well into the foreseeable future...

Uh, well, shit.

Yes. Historians. Present. Peril.

It was astounding that someone had gotten the past so brilliantly right managed to get the very near future so completely wrong. At the same time it was hugely instructional. Looking into the question of how Kennedy made such a bad set of calls revealed a layer of faulty premises and bad assumptions, which in turn granted insight to just how often we people construct worldviews and paradigms out of such shoddy material. Or about how even good concepts can become a liability in other contexts. What works analyzing the past can be dangerous when attempting model the future.

Which isn't to say that History has nothing to contribute when looking at the present. Most of us have at best a nodding acquaintance with the histories of our nations, at a time when mainstream narratives on both the left and the right are hugely simplistic. Filling in the gaps in our knowledge gives the past a complexity that matches the present, and more fully explains how we got to where were at. Sometimes, the discipline of studying the past can even recast the present in a wholly new light, transforming a chaos of disconnected ideas into logical consequences living on a braid of interwoven causes and effects.

Next up: Getting the Past Right: Explaining the Now

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