Saturday, July 7, 2012

History and My Discontents: The Problem of History and Historical Presentism

I have been following a discussion and debate on the World History Association discussion forum on Linkedin between those who see only short term factors as giving rise to World War One, Great Depression, and World War Two, factors like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the inactivity of the Fed, the supposed government manipulation of the money supply, and Versailles, and those who, like myself, see, in addition to short term factors being responsible for WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII, also see long term factors playing a role in bringing about World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II as well, long term forces like nationalism, Great Power politics, colonialism, imperialism, and science and technology. All of these long term factors, of course, were major factors in the making the modern world.

What is so interesting, and this by the way is almost always the case with "discussions" and "debates" in these ideological culture war days particularly online, is how often one side of the debate, in this case the short terms, largely ignore the empirical points made by the other side, in this case the long termers. The fundamental theoretical and methodological problem here is, of course, that at some point one would and should expect, on the basis of intellectual and academic tradition, that those ignoring the points made by one side in the debate would offer a point a point by point empirical refutation of the claims of the other side. But they too often don't and that is the problem.

A few thoughts:
Yes, the Fed's lack of action was a short term factor in the coming of the Great Depression. Not as significant a role, in my reading, as market manipulation by insiders. What Fed inaction shows more than anything else, in my opinion, is how important ideology is in creating reality. In this instance, of course, it was the ideology of free market capitalism, an ideology that impacted most of America's economic elite, that led to certain types and forms of action and certain types and forms of inaction.

Ideology, the ideology of optimism, the ideology that markets would never collapse--an ideology that, given the reality of numerous booms and busts in Western history that borders on if it does not cross into the looney--also played a role in the 1920s and the 1929 collapse. I give you Roger Babson who, when he argued that the market would collapse, was accused of being un-American by true believers and good old market manipulators in the 1920s. Brooksley Born, of course, played the Roger Babson role in the Clinton administration in the 1990s.

You cannot, by the way, isolate short term economic factors--market manipulation--and cultural factors--ideology--from longer term historical trends. Market manipulation has been going on for quite some time in modern mass capitalism (merchant, industrial, financial), specifically at least since the manipulation of the Tulip Market by market insiders in the 1630s. Modern capitalism, as history shows, has long been characterised by booms and busts grounded in manipulations of modern mass markets particularly by financiers. And ideology has been creating realities, identities, and communities since the beginning of "civilisation". If you don't believe me explore the varying meaning systems, meaning systems which vary, across time and space, that have existed and continue to exist around the globe. Modern meaning systems, and the power behind the Western meanings system(s) throne, of course, have, thanks to modern forms of communication, allowed for the mass dissemination of meaning systems around the world particularly since the 1600s. Some people would call such mass socialisation propaganda or brainwashing.

Another thing that really bugs me about some of the posts of some of Linkedin's short termers is the moral sense of superiority that comes out in many of their posts. One short term poster, for instance, blames Neville Chamberlain for his "moral" failure in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. There is a fundamental problem with such discourse beyond the issue of whether an empirical history is compatible with such moral pronouncements, and that is the issue of whether such moral pronouncements are a form of Monday Morning Quarterbacking. I think they are and that is why I think that such moral superiority history is just bad, very bad, empirical analysis.

One of Chamberlain's real empirical contexts, empirical memory contexts, was WWI a war that resulted in the death of significant numbers of Brits. Neville and many others didn't want another war so soon after the "great one" for rather obvious reasons. The second big context of Chamberlain's actions is, of course and again rather obviously, propaganda. Mass propaganda had been used the Brits to demonise the Germans (yet another example of an ethnocentrism that has been around since the beginning of the human world) in WWI and soon after the war many in the UK and in the US came to realise just how how much they had been manipulated into WWI by this manipulative manufacture of an ideologically created good versus bad binary "reality".

For both of these reasons and more most people in the 1930s West simply could not fathom what history has shown to be fact after WWII and the Shoah was over, namely that Hitler was an anti-Semite of the genocidal variety. Most people in the 1930s simply did not have a genocidal vocabulary to draw on and most of them were, as Hitler noted at one point, unaware of the Armenian genocide, probably the very first instance modern mass genocide (there's that word modern again).

Presentism, of course, is bad history and moral presentism is really bad history. I sometimes think that if we could transport presentists with their self righteous sense of moral superiority back in time they too would believe and act in much the same way as Chamberlain did and they would, I suspect, be among those to welcome him back at the aeroport and salute him on his return from Munchen. I also suspect that those who argue that Dimitry Dimitrovich Shostakovich suffered a lack of moral courage would act much the same way he did during the Stalin era in the USSR. After all, to paraphrase the Dead Kennedys, most people will crack in the face of power arrayed against them and obey authority. Milgrom's 37. Welcome to the modern world.

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