Tag Archives: Politics

Does It Help to Know History? By Adam Gopnik


About a year ago, I wrote about some attempts to explain why anyone would, or ought to, study English in college. The point, I thought, was not that studying English gives anyone some practical advantage on non-English majors, but that it enables us to enter, as equals, into a long existing, ongoing conversation. It isn’t productive in a tangible sense; it’s productive in a human sense. The action, whether rewarded or not, really is its own reward. The activity is the answer.

It might be worth asking similar questions about the value of studying, or at least, reading, history these days, since it is a subject that comes to mind many mornings on the op-ed page. Every writer, of every political flavor, has some neat historical analogy, or mini-lesson, with which to preface an argument for why we ought to bomb these guys or side with those guys against the guys we were bombing before. But the best argument for reading history is not that it will show us the right thing to do in one case or the other, but rather that it will show us why even doing the right thing rarely works out. The advantage of having a historical sense is not that it will lead you to some quarry of instructions, the way that Superman can regularly return to the Fortress of Solitude to get instructions from his dad, but that it will teach you that no such crystal cave exists. What history generally “teaches” is how hard it is for anyone to control it, including the people who think they’re making it.
Roger Cohen, for instance, wrote on Wednesday about all the mistakes that the United States is supposed to have made in the Middle East over the past decade, with the implicit notion that there are two histories: one recent, in which everything that the United States has done has been ill-timed and disastrous; and then some other, superior, alternate history, in which imperial Western powers sagaciously, indeed, surgically, intervened in the region, wisely picking the right sides and thoughtful leaders, promoting militants without aiding fanaticism, and generally aiding the cause of peace and prosperity. This never happened. As the Libyan intervention demonstrates, the best will in the world—and, seemingly, the best candidates for our support—can’t cure broken polities quickly. What “history” shows is that the same forces that led to the Mahdi’s rebellion in Sudan more than a century ago—rage at the presence of a colonial master; a mad turn towards an imaginary past as a means to equal the score—keep coming back and remain just as resistant to management, close up or at a distance, as they did before. ISIS is a horrible group doing horrible things, and there are many factors behind its rise. But they came to be a threat and a power less because of all we didn’t do than because of certain things we did do—foremost among them that massive, forward intervention, the Iraq War. (The historical question to which ISIS is the answer is: What could possibly be worse than Saddam Hussein?)

Another, domestic example of historical blindness is the current cult of the political hypersagacity of Lyndon B. Johnson. L.B.J. was indeed a ruthless political operator and, when he had big majorities, got big bills passed—the Civil Rights Act, for one. He also engineered, and masterfully bullied through Congress, the Vietnam War, a moral and strategic catastrophe that ripped the United States apart and, more important, visited a kind of hell on the Vietnamese. It also led American soldiers to commit war crimes, almost all left unpunished, of a kind that it still shrivels the heart to read about. Johnson did many good things, but to use him as a positive counterexample of leadership to Barack Obama or anyone else is marginally insane.

Johnson’s tragedy was critically tied to the cult of action, of being tough and not just sitting there and watching. But not doing things too disastrously is not some minimal achievement; it is a maximal achievement, rarely managed. Studying history doesn’t argue for nothing-ism, but it makes a very good case for minimalism: for doing the least violent thing possible that might help prevent more violence from happening.

The real sin that the absence of a historical sense encourages is presentism, in the sense of exaggerating our present problems out of all proportion to those that have previously existed. It lies in believing that things are much worse than they have ever been—and, thus, than they really are—or are uniquely threatening rather than familiarly difficult. Every episode becomes an epidemic, every image is turned into a permanent injury, and each crisis is a historical crisis in need of urgent aggressive handling—even if all experience shows that aggressive handling of such situations has in the past, quite often made things worse. (The history of medicine is that no matter how many interventions are badly made, the experts who intervene make more: the sixteenth-century doctors who bled and cupped their patients and watched them die just bled and cupped others more.) What history actually shows is that nothing works out as planned, and that everything has unintentional consequences. History doesn’t show that we should never go to war—sometimes there’s no better alternative. But it does show that the results are entirely uncontrollable, and that we are far more likely to be made by history than to make it. History is past, and singular, and the same year never comes round twice.

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