A quick note on what seems like a misuse of history — July 8, 2018

A quick note on what seems like a misuse of history

I’m working backwards through my podcast queue, having for a couple reasons developed quite a backlog, so I just got to Ezra Klein’s discussion with Yascha Mounk about whether American democracy is in decline. The discussion is worth listening to, but Klein makes an argument that I’ve heard often and that just seems wrong. The argument is basically that if you’re looking at this period in American history and calling it out as singularly bad (because Trump, say), you’re ignoring the vast swathes of American history that have been much worse. Even going back to the 60s, says Klein, we had political leaders (JFK, MLK, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers) being assassinated, we had riots in the streets, and we had Nixon elected in part on a promise to fight lawlessness.

Now, what do you do with this argument? One approach is to ask: if American democracy is in decline, what is that decline relative to? If it’s relative to the 1960s, then maybe we can argue that it’s not in decline, because it’s never been particularly strong. Maybe, in fact, it’s stronger than it was back then.

Sort of a corollary to that argument is: times have been bad before, and we survived those. We’re supposed to infer from this that we’ll survive this particular era of badness.

This sort of reasoning always rubs me the wrong way, and I hear variants on it a lot. George W. Bush was bad, say, and there were those of us (I was certainly among them) who believed for a time that he and Cheney wouldn’t allow themselves to be removed from office. In retrospect that was a paranoid view. Now here we are under the Trump administration, which certainly feels like an era when the U.S. could turn authoritarian. “But you thought the same thing in the Bush Administration,” the argument goes, “and you were wrong then. Doesn’t that make you think you’re wrong now?”

Well, maybe. If nothing else, maybe it should make me question my authoritarian-dar. But there’s no historical law that says “When the level of authoritarian badness is below some threshold x, we have nothing to fear.” And there’s no historical law that says “If our political leaders aren’t being assassinated, U.S. government will survive.”

Maybe you can assemble some notion of historical law, by which when x, y, and z happen, then outcome O is really likely. I’m not sure I reject the possibility of historical law altogether—maybe I do, maybe I don’t—but I certainly have strong doubts that we finite humans know what those laws are. And normally when people advance the “it was worse in the past, and we got through it” argument, as Klein did, they’re not even reaching for a historical law. They have no causal reason to believe that circumstances x, y, and z always (or even often) lead to outcome O. They only have correlation to point to: x, y, and z happened, and as it happens our government also survived it. That’s a very slender reed upon which to support the notion that we’ll get through this era unscathed.

As time has gone on, I’ve come to expect less “use” from history. History is what the mathematicians call an “existence proof”. For instance: we lived through an era when African-Americans fighting for basic access to American democracy were being murdered with impunity in the South, when political leaders were being assassinated with frightening regularity, and when it felt like the political consensus that had bound the United States for decades was coming apart at the seams—and we survived it. Conclusion: it’s possible to survive those things. It’s not guaranteed that we’ll survive those things. The fact that we survived those things doesn’t even make our survival in the future more likely. It just makes our survival possible.

All that said: if you need to treat history as a machine that deterministically churns toward your desired outcome, because that’s what you need psychologically to make it through the day, by all means use that. For me, though, the uses we put history to often feel like facts about our own brains rather than facts about the way the world works.

What will be the next gay-rights-style debate? — November 15, 2014

What will be the next gay-rights-style debate?

A thought: [foreign: circa] a century ago, say, the thought that gay people deserved equal treatment was probably so absurd that it didn’t even need to be discussed, because no one thought it was true. Then at some point it became a debatable proposition, and now it’s so obviously true that it doesn’t need debate; the generation that believes gay people don’t deserve equal rights will die off soon enough. There are plenty of other obvious examples of this phenomenon. Consider intermarriage between the races, for instance. If you go back far enough, probably religious toleration would fit in the same bucket.

So I wonder what sort of issues are, at this very moment, in the first phase of that evolution: things that even we (who consider ourselves more enlightened than our benighted ancestors) consider so absurd or so obvious that no one even bothers to discuss them, which will eventually become topics of vigorous debate, and will later on become obviously true or obviously false, respectively. I can dream that maybe “the nation-state is a sensible grouping of human beings” or the related “it is right and just that we treat those who live on the other sides of an arbitrary border differently than we treat our own families” will one day become debatable. Or maybe even those are too explicit; maybe the sort of propositions that we take for granted and will one day reject are exactly those propositions that I couldn’t even think to write down.

Phrased this way, it could be seen as a hopeful question — part of our habit of viewing history as a vanguard marching ever forward in the direction of social liberalism. (I think this might be “The Whig Interpretation of History”, after the book of the same name by Herbert Butterfield. Though it sounds slightly different.) I can see this going in a very illiberal direction as well, however. E.g., maybe there was a time when it was considered obvious beyond the point of discussion (or even of conscious thought) that we lived in something called a “society” in which we were more than just disjoint libertarian billiard balls colliding inelastically into one another. Maybe it was once considered obvious beyond the point of discussion that the main way in which an industrial democracy cares for its least fortunate was by way of its government, which was largely expected to spend money wisely. And so forth. You can imagine any of these slowly becoming less true. And when they become less true, you can imagine them becoming less true in an exponentially-increasing way: if all your friends believe that the less-fortunate are largely shirkers living off the dole, that might cause you to feel the same way (or maybe it’s not causal).

So there’s nothing necessarily liberal about this sort of change, if indeed it happens. I’d like to talk to an actual historian about how one might measure this sort of change. I imagine it would be difficult: almost by definition, the ideas which are believed so widely that they’re beyond the reach of conscious thought are those which few people will ever bother to write about. Extracting earlier societies’ unconscious beliefs might involve digging into the unspoken assumptions behind what they *are* saying.

New York Review of Books bleg slash German Empire mini-obsession — January 27, 2014

New York Review of Books bleg slash German Empire mini-obsession

It occurred to me today that being the banker to a world-historical figure is a pretty big deal on its own. I’ll be lucky if anyone’s writing about me more than a century from now; Gerson Bleichröder (later von Bleichröder) has that honor, as a man who financed Otto von Bismarck’s rise to power. I’m now interested in reading more about Bleichröder, including a book that Pflanze cited heavily, namely [book: Gold and Iron].

Now then. I see that there’s a review of [book: Gold and Iron] from 1977. It’s on the [mag: New York Review of Books], to whose website I don’t have access. Do any of y’all?

French Revolution reading plan — January 5, 2014

French Revolution reading plan

I read Hobsbawm‘s “long nineteenth century” series years ago, but I probably wasn’t ready for it. And it’s very British, in the sense that it just sort of ambles around for a while; I’m sure it has a plan, and I’m sure that someone who came at it with a different background would get more out of it than I did. Other very British works, like [book: The Victorians] (a gift to me, on the occasion of my 30th birthday, by the sadly departed Dan Weinreb), or Gellner’s astonishing [book: Nations and Nationalism], work great, so I don’t know what my problem with Hobsbawm was.

Anyway, so I picked up Carlyle on the French Revolution the other day and made it literally one page before realizing that this was not the book for me. Whereupon I turned to Google.

So now on the list:

* [book: The Oxford History of the French Revolution] by William Doyle. It backs up a few steps and should, if I chose wisely, give me Just The Facts, Ma’am. I’m in the middle of it now. It’s very good so far. I’m up to Jacques Necker.
* [book: Twelve Who Ruled], recommended effusively by Lynn Hunt:

Palmers [book: Twelve Who Ruled] is my single most favourite book on the French Revolution. He does precisely what I was just talking about. He doesnt do it for the tens of thousands Im more interested in the tens and the hundreds of thousands but for the 12 who ruled. Hes incredibly good at giving you a sense of what these people are confronted with, the incredible difficulty of their situation and the unbelievable stress of the circumstances they find themselves in. Hes just fantastic at recreating that atmosphere and, as a result, forcing you to sympathise with these men. His position is much closer to my own position. He sees this as trying to do something really important, coming up against enormous obstacles in the course of trying to do it, failing, but completely understanding why this would happen in this particular way.

* [book: France, 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution], recommended in the bibliography at the end of Doyle’s book.
* Alexis de Tocqueville, [book: The Old Regime and the French Revolution].
* Edmund Burke, [book: Reflections on the Revolution in France].

This should help me understand the period up to the Congress of Vienna (covered so ably in Kissinger). It’s not much of a jump from there to Bismarck — such a short jump, in fact, that I may know everything I need. And I’ve got there to World War I covered. Then maybe I’ll be able to re-digest Hobsbawm and Gellner as thoroughly as they deserve. And I dunno, maybe Hegel and Kant would fit well into this reading plan. Unsure. Check back later.