Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Why History Can't Explain Current Events

Nationalists and their apologists like to point to historical events as justification for their invasions.  Serbs claim that their military domination of Kosovo and the repression of the people there is justified by some ancient battle there.  Russians claim at least a piece of or a right to dominate just about every country that borders the current state of Russia (and some that don't border them) based on the maximum extent of the old Romanov empire.  China justifies its actions in Tibet with similar arguments.  Many governments and non-governmental political movements (like Hezbullah) argue about historical events - to the point of threatening to assassinate archeologists who dig up inconvenient artifacts.  I could go on and on with examples from around the world.


But do these things really matter?  I say that not only do they have no intrinsic meaning but claiming that they do is an intellectually flawed argument and dangerous in that it gives legitimacy to some really brutal behaviors by some nasty regimes out there.   It also gets us nowhere as far as solving these problems.

So why is history such a rotten place to seek explanations?  Because in most of these countries history is not an objectively definable thing.  While the facts that occurred are objectively identifiable, their meaning and significance are formed by the people who teach those facts to people.  Furthermore, in most of these countries we have highly centralized education systems where the books and curricula are approved by political offices of (usually) nationalist and/or undemocratic governments.

When you have a government that is self consciously using the school curricula as a propoganda tool, you can't really say that "history" is causing this or that widely held opinion in the people.  In such a situation, nationalist feelings among the population aren't a natural consequence of the historical event but a consequence of the way that event is being used as part of a vocabulary of nationalism by the leadership.  

Consider any number of examples in Europe.  Germany conquered a large part of Denmark less than 150 years ago.  Danes still live in the district and yet there is noone in Denmark banging on about German persecution of Danes and the need to get the international community to return the Danish land to its rightful owners.  Same thing for the formerly Danish lands in Norway, Iceland or Sweden.  Or Swedish lands in Norway or Finland.  By the same token, no one in Germany is talking about retaking Silesia, Prussia or the Sudetenland.  This despite that there are Germans alive today who were born in these regions and expelled as a result of the German defeat in WWII.  You don't hear about German demands to rule Alsace either.  Nor do you hear about the English wanting Ireland back.  And you really don't even have a lot of people in Ireland proper making a big fuss about Ulster anymore.  And what about the German speaking territories in Italy?  Or Italian speaking territories in Switzerland?  Even the Basque and Catalan conflicts are gradually cooling off in Spain.

These kinds of historical "rights" to this country or that valley, only matter if the politicians of today MAKE them matter.  And some politicians make these things into big deals for very cynical reasons.  In the context of this fact, it is really problematic to seek explanations for international and ethnic conflicts in the local history books.  In most of these countries plagued by such conflicts, you may as well just read the party manifestos of the local nationalists as a history book.

So, if the historical facts themselves aren't causing the conflict but rather the propaganda built up around them, what causes the propaganda?  I think it is fairly easy to establish that ethnic and international conflicts over issues like this tend to be more frequent and worse among poor populations than among rich ones.  As a population gets more prosperous they care less and less about which side of the line some valley or town or battlefield is.  And they don't particularly get upset about what happened on St. Crispin's Day in 1415 for example.  Or whose fleet sunk whose back in 1588.  

14 comments:

USwest said...

I tend to agree with RBR on this. I think history and understanding how it is presented, is useful in understanding a given't nation's attitudes and cultural baggage, but I don't think it is useful in terms of solving real problems today.

Groups use history as an impediment to problem solving and allows one or both sides to avoid the tough, but necessary negotiations.

RBR mentions economic well-being as one of the facotrs that dampens down speratist tendancies. I suggest that allowing a even promoting free cultural expression among ethnic groups also plays a role.

Cultural repression increases the power of historical narratives to strengthen seperatist desires. This is why you don't see Bretons demanding a seperate state from France.

There has long been an understanding that when you loose territory in a traditional war (where the war is justified and not just a bullying tactic), it belongs to the winner. This is the case because 1)Winners now occupy that territory 2)Winners get that territory as part of a negotiated settlement. This is because ALL BORDERS ARE POLITICAL. Borders degine states; states are political entities, not national entitites.

We have discussed this before: at what point does a group merit its own state and at what point must it content itself with its current sitaution? And how viable, really is a place like Kosovo,Abkhazia, Texas or California on its own? It's not. It still requires the resources of a larger nation to support it. Rather than promoting seperation in places like this, we need to promote federation, representation, and freedom of cultural expression.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Germans are not clamoring to regain Alsace or Silesia, but a significant segment of their society clamors to restrict immigration and keep foreigners (like the Turks) outside German borders. There are strong anti-immigrant movements throughout the Western world, such as in the US and in France. These immigrant movements are almost always directed against poorer peoples. (You rarely hear Americans complain about Canadians.)

So I am thinking that propaganda, nationalism, and border issues do not subside with prosperity... They just manifest in a different way. Poorer peoples see their neighbors as a source of wealth, thus they want to claim their neigbhors' territory to exploit the land and the people living there. Richer peoples see their neighbors as drain on wealth, thus they want to isolate themselves from their neighbors and keep the destitute people out.

Raised By Republicans said...

Dr. S raises an interesting point about xenophobia. He's of course correct that large segments of rich societies are xenophobic (Australia, France, Germany, the US and really most rich countries all have this unfortunate feature to their politics).

But I would suggest that this is a qualitatively different phenomenon (albeit somewhat related) from the kind of irredentist aggression or ethno-nationalist violence I was talking about. Besides, think about who the xenophobes are within these rich countries. They tend to be the most economically insecure people. You don't see large demonstrations of professionals like lawyers, doctors or professors demanding to close the borders down or otherwise curtail immigration.

As for cultural expression. I'd put that in the same category with general freedom of speech/civil rights. Those things also tend to correlate with prosperity.

Raised By Republicans said...

Viability is another issue I think. Certainly I think the 70,000 or so people who live in South Ossetia are nuts if they think they can be a truly independent and sovereign state. They're just going to be a tiny province of Russia instead of a small province of Georgia. Abkhazia is a little bigger (just under 200,000 people) but again, we're talking about an area with less than half the population of Luxembourg.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Henry Ford famously said "History is Bunk." For five generations thereafter, Americans who believed that have been paying the price.

We need to distinguish between normative and predictive arguments here. History often has great predictive value. But it can be overused. There is almost no disliked action by a foreign government that Americans of a certain political stripe have not compared to Munich (arguing that the events at Munich are good predictors of the folly of certain courses of action). Similarly, Mexico avoided closer connections with the US for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, because of repeated US invasions (1848, 1913) and the invasions by the US of Mexican neighbors that had become too intertwined on US business interests. History was persuasive there as to predicting US policy if Mexico allowed the US to get too close.

The argument that a certain territory should be independent or should be part of one country or another is a normative argument for which historical facts are just a part of the calculus. History does matter in our judgments about political status of regions. Part of the reason for this is the gut understanding that secession, like schism, can be a slipperly slope. As countries like the Maldives or St. Kitts show, there's really no effective standard for size or population that we apply before accepting self-determination. The historical fact of independence is the *primary* justification for the sovereign status of teeensy places like Liechtenstein, San Marino, Andorra, Bahrain, Nauru, and half-a-dozen Caribbean islands. Moreover, the borders of almost all countries are the result of history, not normative determinations about what should belong where. As RBR points out, the Dano-Germanic border is not contested, but it certainly could be. The US-Canadian border wasn't even negotiated by Canada (but Britain). And it was drawn through territory occupied by native nations not recognized as possessing the capabiity of sovereignty. So it is both logial and accepted that the historical fact of independence is to be weighed in evaluating a claim to self-determination. East Timor, Macao, Hong Kong, and Gibraltar are four examples of places where the historical fact of connection to one country or another is probably the primary reason for the current political status. History also matters in terms of predicting the success or failure of a state. I think it is no accident that the three former non-Russian Soviet republics with the best functioning governments are the three Baltic states, which had a long history of not being part of Russia, then a history of considerable cultural and political independence within the Russian empire (e.g., the University at Riga was a German-speaking institution until the very end of the 19th century), then actual political independence.

History often matters, too, because it matters to the people on the ground. Saying that history only matters if politicians make it matter is a curious way of putting all the agency in the politicians' hands. In fact, politicians are as often followers as leaders with regard to strong feelings about right and wrong based on history.

USwest said...

LTG: "Saying that history only matters if politicians make it matter is a curious way of putting all the agency in the politicians' hands. In fact, politicians are as often followers as leaders with regard to strong feelings about right and wrong based on history."

I don't think that is what is being said. I think that RBR and I are questioning those that claim they have some right to a place because of something that happened in the Bible. Understanding history only helps to understand the reasoning of *some* Israelis. Others will point to WWII. But it isn't useful at all in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. When Israeli says, "well, we where here first and they destroyed the temple." It's sort of an absolutist argument that shuts down discussion.

LTG: "Moreover, the borders of almost all countries are the result of history, not normative determinations about what should belong where."

You are correct. That is the point that I was trying to mak. Borders are political. Countries were formed largely from war . . . from a history of wars or by mutual agreement between the more powerful. Andorra, which you mentioned, was carved out in the 13th century by a French Count and a Spanish Bishop. At the end of WWII, Stalin and Roosevelt drew a line on a map and divided the world into spheres of influence that have stayed put to this day. At the end of WWI, countries were carved out of the Ottoman Empire based on negotiated settlements. The criteria for where a border was to be drawn varied, but ethnicity or cultural affinity was pretty low on the list if it figured at all.

And yes, a past that includes independence is a definite factor in determining independence today. It does strengthen the claim of a would-be state. But I would argue that it isn't the *primary* factor. I would argue that the desire of the people ideally the *primary * factor followed by the potential viability of a region to operate as a state, and recognition by a number of other states. Not size. But usually the smaller a state in terms of population or geographic space, the less viable.


LTG: "Similarly, Mexico avoided closer connections with the US for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, because of repeated US invasions (1848, 1913) and the invasions by the US of Mexican neighbors that had become too intertwined on US business interests. History was persuasive there as to predicting US policy if Mexico allowed the US to get too close."

What LTG is saying is that there are lessons that history holds. Yes. But this situation described above does little to solve the immigration problem today, for instance. Also, US and Mexican interests have evolved over time and there is no guarantee that things would be the same as in the past. To use LTG's argument would be to say that no past wrong is ever forgiven and no problem really solvable. Nor can one apply past lessons to new situations. Just because the US was successful at establishing democracies in Germany and Japan post WWII doesn't mean we can do it in Iraq, as we now know and should have before hand.

Either way, when someone tries to justify Russian actions today based on history, that begs the question. To stay that Georgia never had independence before the fall the of the USSR, therefore they really should be a part of Russia (whose claim to that which was once part of the USSR was questionable for sometime after the fall) or that Russia has some right to operate in Georgian affairs is a very wrong and dangerous argument. Georgian people made clear that they wanted independence from Russia. Now, if there are small regions of what is accepted as Georgia that want independence from Georgia, that is a settlement that must be made between them and Georgia. Not them and Russia.

As for viability: Places like Andorra, Monaco, San Merino can stay as little duchies because they are useful tax havens and tourist destinations for the richer countries. I'd argue that these are examples of successful autonomous republics within larger states. They exist based on some agreement between them and their neighbors. Let's take Andorra. It isn't viable as a state on its own. I'd argue that it isn't sovereign, really. It doesn't have an army; it has a tiny civil service; it doesn't have much in terms of a legal code. Andorra didn't have a constitution until 1991 and any law it has is based solely on Spanish and French civil code. It has political parties and a legislature, but its chief of state is the French President. I don't even think there are foreign embassies there. Most nations use their embassies in France or Spain for Andorra.

Now if you can work out that deal for places like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, then great. But that won't happen so long as Georgia and Russia use them as pawns in their larger conflict or is Russia is using it as a game in a conflict with the US. It will break down into chaos with all sorts of separatist groups running around killing each other and blaming one or the other state for it.

Dr. Strangelove said...

It seems that everyone agrees here, pretty much, on two main points.

1. History provides valuable lessons and has great predictive value.

2. Land and water do not flow in our blood, and memories are in fact rather short. In the absence of continuing repression of one ethnic group by another, old feuds between those groups about who should own what territory will peter out within a few of generations. In modern times, most such feuds have been dug up and revived--or simply invented--by politicians for their own purposes. History is massaged to provide justification for actions already decided upon: History is not the cause of these actions. (And disputing the fanciful "historical" narratives each side likes to tell will get you nowhere.)

The Law Talking Guy said...

"To stay that Georgia never had independence before the fall the of the USSR, therefore they really should be a part of Russia ...or that Russia has some right to operate in Georgian affairs is a very wrong and dangerous argument."

I agree with that statement. However, I would make the following statement:

One reason Russia behaves differently towards Georgia than it would toward Turkey or Finland is that Georgia was part of the USSR and the Russian empire for a good long time, so the Russian leaders believe Georgia's independence and sovereignty to be something novel, perhaps even contestable. One reason Russia behaves less respectfully of Georiga's borders is that the Russians know from history that they were drawn by Stalin in an effort to create ethnic disharmony (such as splitting Ossetia in half) and these borders were not negotiated by Russia and Georgia post-breakup of the USSR. Therefore, Russia's behavior towards Georgia and its borders is not necessarily indicative of any generalized level of threat from Russia to other countries that do not share this history. Concluding that Poland, Turkey, or Mongolia is in danger because of what is happening in Georgia - based on proximity or geography - is probably a mistake.

See what I'm saying? History doesn't excuse bad acts, but it can explain a lot for us. History also can persuade people to behave in ways that seem reasonable to them, even if not reasonable to those who wouldn't understand the history.

I will argue that it matters a great deal if a foreign leader believes he (or she) is acting reasonably as opposed to believing and knowing that he is violating rules and norms of conduct and trying to get away with whatever he can. If the Russian government believes (for historical reasons) Russia is acting reasonably vis-a-vis Georgia, rather than using history as propaganda for naked aggression, that makes a huge difference to US in how we expect Russia to behave elsewhere.

Raised By Republicans said...

Actually, I'm trying to make an argument about causality. When LTG says "Similarly, Mexico avoided closer connections with the US for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, BECAUSE of repeated US invasions (1848, 1913) and the invasions by the US of Mexican neighbors that had become too intertwined on US business interests. (emphasis added)" he is making an argument that I think is seriously flawed.

There were undoubtedly Mexican elites who benefited from keeping the US at arms length just as there are currently Mexican elites who benefit from closer relations. I would argue that it was the power relationships between these competing political forces that drove Mexican governments' policies towards the US rather than some inherent causal potency in some historical event.

I note with interest that LTG blew completely past my basic assertion that how historical events are interpreted and given meaning is subjective and vulnerable to political manipulation.

LTG said: "One reason Russia behaves differently towards Georgia than it would toward Turkey or Finland is that Georgia was part of the USSR and the Russian empire for a good long time, so the Russian leaders believe Georgia's independence and sovereignty to be something novel, perhaps even contestable."

Here we have a classic example of using history as a short cut for really figuring out a situation. Why does Russia treat Georgia different from Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia or Lithuania? Is Finnish sovereignty so much less novel than Georgia's? What is the time limit for probationary sovereignty? 10 years? 30?

The real reason Georgia gets treated differently is because it is much weaker militarily, and has fewer and less credible allies, than the other countries LTG mentions and has a big juicy oil pipeline running through it.

LTG said: "History often matters, too, because it matters to the people on the ground."

In a country with a relatively free press and locally controlled education system, you may be right to make this distinction. However, in countries that have centrally controlled education systems in which curricula are politically controlled you can't argue that public opinion isn't at least in part a function of government policy. We even see this in democratic Japan where their history books are a joke when it comes to objective accounts of the period from about 1925 to 1945. Imagine how warped the history lessons would be in a country like Iran or Venezuela - forget about North Korea! People are not immune to massive propaganda campaigns and politicians in many countries are very good at using the school systems to do it.

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR, the assumption that only current economic and military status matters strikes me a the lazy shortcut for those who don't have the patience to learn history. The fact that beliefs about historical events are subjective doesn't mean they aren't real or important. Everyone in the world isn't as materialistic and ahistorical as Americans. Sorry, but this really angers me. I think any policymaker will be totally baffled by what is happening in Georgia without getting the history. I notice you completely ignored my main point that HOW you interpret Russia's actions depends a lot on whether you appreciate the history. RBR assumes that Russia would behave towards ANY neighbor the way it behaves to Georgia based on its pipeline and relative military strength. I think that's a dangerous conclusion. Do you think that China behaves vis-a-vis Taiwan the way it would behave toward Vietnam, Laos, or Nepal?
Russia's treatment of Georgia is not different from the other 14 republics.

Russia threatened intervention in Estonia in the 1992-1994 period over Russians in Narva (about 1/3 Estonian population) who were being denied Estonian citizenship based on their inability to speak Estonian. And in Latvia where they are about 40% of the population for the same reaons. The Baltics backed down.

Russia and Ukraine came nearly to blows over Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet.

Russia and Moldova is a long-simmering nightmare.

Russia does not border Armenia, but Armenia and Azerbaijan fought brutally over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1991-1993.

I can see a clear difference between Russia's involvement in parts of the former USSR and, say, Finland, that was decided through two world wars and 100 years ago. At least I can see that these very different sets of facts might cause different sets of beliefs.

Raised By Republicans said...

"The fact that beliefs about historical events are subjective doesn't mean they aren't real or important."

They are real and important - especially in the short run. My objection is to your implication that these beliefs emerge inevitably and automatically. I only argue that they can be manipulated. Once we agree that they can be manipulated then we should pay more attention to the manipulation than to the event itself.

You can't just look up some ancient battle or Kingdom in a history book and say, "Aha! That's why the Serbian government is so committed to retaining control of Kosovo!" or "Aha! That's why Russian foreign policy towards Ukraine is so aggressive."

Lots of countries have similar events in their pasts, including their recent pasts, to the ones we're talking about with regard to the various Russian empires and their hapless neighbors. But they don't lead to festering international disputes. The missing ingredients are politicians willing to use the historical events as rallying cries and a population that is sufficiently discontented with their lives to follow someone to war.

One last thing, I'll not be called out on a supposed lack of knowledge about history. I can out geek 99% of the people out there on historical events etc.

USwest said...

Yes, RBR, you can. You geeked on on me when we watched "Monty Python's Search for the HOly Grail." It was a farce, dang it!;-)

The Law Talking Guy said...

I want to apologize for the tone of my last email. I should impose a mandatory 40 minute gap between drinking coffee and blogging. Like eating and swimming.

Raised By Republicans said...

Those cocoanuts were totally anachronistic!