Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Why study history?

"We do not live in the past, but the past in us."
(Ulrich Bonnell Phillips)

Now that I have reached middle age and am firmly settled into a contented wonkdom, I enjoy watching The History Channel on television, and I enjoy reading history, as there is so much of it to learn and so dern little I know about it.

Lately my Dreamboat and I have been watching (on DVDs) the riveting TV miniseries made of Stephen Ambrose's book, "Band of Brothers" (the story of Easy Company of the U.S. Army Airborne Paratrooper division during WWII) and the equally complex "Heimat" (the German 1984 television miniseries of a rural German village between the years 1919-1982).

Watching movies is an entertaining way to absorb some history, but I especially enjoy learning history through the words of straightforward and clear-speaking writers who seem to have both a broad and deep familiarity with their subjects and who are then able to offer some lessons to be drawn from the past concerning our present times, which they can support with much researched evidence in a logical and compelling way.

One of my favorite historians and essayists, Victor Davis Hanson, has written an article ("Losing Civilization: Are we going to tolerate the downfall of Western ideals?") on the larger perspective of the current clash of civilizations going on of which the Danish cartoon controversy is only the most recent canary in the coal mine (he says the Salman Rushdie affair was the first canary). Read the whole thing, as it is mournfully eloquent (and I hope, while cautionary, not prophetic). Just one good point, out of many:

Like the appeasement of the 1930s, we are in the great age now of ethical retrenchment. So much has been lost even since 1960; then the very idea that a Dutch cartoonist whose work had offended radical Muslims would be in hiding for fear of his life would have been dismissed as fanciful.

Insidiously, the censorship only accelerates. It is dressed up in multicultural gobbledygook about hurtfulness and insensitivity, when the real issue is whether we in the West are going to be blown up or beheaded if we dare come out and support the right of an artist or newspaper to be occasionally crass.

I appreciate historians who can remind us of our traditions and our legacies, of our victorious battles and smart or brave achievements, or our tragic missteps and near-misses, whether they are speaking about the history of the last decade, of the Cold War, World War II, the Revolutionary War, or the Pelopenysian War. These stories should not be lost! That so many in our country are ignorant of even our most recent history (including me among them) and of world history is both alarming and embarrassing.

Kenneth Timmerman is another author I respect for helping me learn about recent history in the Middle East. After 9/11 when I was searching for more background information on that area I read two of his books, Preachers of Hate: Islam and the War Against America and The French Betrayal of America. Sensationalist titles, perhaps, but as a journalist who researches his history, he is able to offer some shrewd observations and a decidedly alarming warning:

I argue in Preachers of Hate that everything changed in 1979. That was when the shah of Iran fell, and when the Saudi royal family out of fear and trembling agreed to finance a worldwide expansion of militant Wahhabi Islam. To my knowledge, no one has really focused on those two key events before as the genesis of the war of terror launched against the West by militant Islam.

Timmerman's books opened the door for me to so much that I didn't know before (and am still learning).

Another one of my favorite historians is Thomas Sowell, for his dispassionate and well-documented explorations into complex "big" subjects guided by unprejudicial curiosity. His ability to apply economics principles in analyzing the large movements of history and cultures has been particularly intriguing to me, as so few historians do this, but should. I've been reading his Conquests and Culture: An International History and come across passages like this:

While such geographical influences as rich natural resources--petroleum in the Middle East or gold in South Africa, for example--have played major roles in the economies and in the histories of particular nations, it is also very common for countries with rich natural resources (such as Mexico or Nigeria) to be poor countries and for countries with very few natural resources (such as Japan or Switzerland) to have standards of living that are among the highest in the world. Similarly, it is not uncommon for immigrants to arrive destitute in a new land and then rise above the average income or wealth level of the population of that country. Whether with nations or with individuals and groups, it is human capital that is crucial to the creation of wealth and higher living standards, often far more so than their initial endowment of natural or other wealth. Immigrants who arrive without money but with occupational skills--Jewish immigrants to the United States being a classical example--are analogous to nations without natural resources but with the skills and entrepreneurship to import other countries' natural resources and process them into valuable finished products, as Japan has done in its rise to industrial pre-eminence....

Human capital must not be confused with formal education, which is just one facet of it, and still less with the growth of an intelligentsia, which may be either a positive or a negative influence on economic development and political stability, depending on the particular kinds of skills they possess and the particular attitudes they take toward those with the productive capacity to advance the economic level of a country. Modern Western industry and commerce developed at a time when the intelligentsia were a small and relatively uninfluential group. However, many Third World societies in the twentieth century became independent nations led by elites based on formal education and political charisma, but with little or no experience in economic matters and a hostility toward autonomous economic institutions and toward economically productive minorities in their own countries....
[my bold]

I find Sowell's books fascinating for pointing out facts I never knew and, after gathering exhaustive research, arriving at conclusions I'd never considered. For example, it had never occurred to me to wonder why Hong Kong is such an anomalous economic success story. Sowell tells how when the British empire was sending out leaders to run its colonies, the one sent to Hong Kong happened to be a free-market devotee, alone among the group. The intellectual and legal foundations he set up to organize Hong Kong society into one of the bastions of relatively free trade in the world were so successful that successive governors could not then in good conscience or in fact dismantle them, even though they did not share their predecessor's free-trade views. There is much more of interest in this book about various world and historical cultures and the results of various means of conquest and clash among them, with many of the conclusions drawn being quite surprising.

Another tremendously interesting book by Sowell is Ethnic America, a study of several different ethnic groups of immigrants to America: their histories, what cultural baggage they brought with them, what they encountered in immigrating, what struggles they engaged in, and to what extent and in what ways they succeeded or failed once in the U.S. The long chapter on black history alone is worth the price of the book. I had never known enough of their history to contrast the experiences in America of West Indian black immigrants, American-born blacks descended from slaves, and those descended from freedmen, but Sowell does, and it is enlightening.

There is much to learn about the past in his books that I never knew, and much to ponder over as far as what lessons can reasonably be drawn (and what conclusions should not be drawn) in dealing with similar situations or policymaking in the present.

Another historian I enjoy reading is Steven Ozment, who wrote A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People. His books on the history (including social and religious history) of Europe and especially of the German people (long before the Nazi era, which most ordinary Americans think of as the be-all and end-all of defining German history) have helped to start filling that huge gap in my historical knowledge that my formal education never touched upon.

Fun history I read these days for pleasure are Simon Winchester's two books, on the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. It is both entertaining and instructive to read his stories artfully intertwining the geological history of millions of years of the earth's development with transient moments of intense crisis for human beings caught in the crosshairs of a specifically tragic time and place.

How are we to best live our own (brief) lives and make our own (hopefully wise) decisions, whether as individuals or societies? I believe that as the wise person calls upon those older and wiser, who have seen more of life and life's lessons, for advice and a guiding perspective, we should read history for the friendly sound of older, wiser voices teaching us--"this is nothing new, this was our story, and here's what happened to us." Circumstances are constantly changing as cultures evolve, but human nature remains the same. By remembering and studying the successes and failures, triumphs and tragedies of human endeavors in the past, we can draw on wisdom and learn from mistakes as we face our own challenges and tribulations.

Or, as historian Paul Johnson said, "The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false."

Why study history? As an antidote to hubris.


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