Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The loose use of history

The cartoon above dates from the imposition of US power over the Philippines after the Spanish-American war. Philippine rebels had been fighting Spain before the war and they didn't take kindly to a new colonial master, so a long and very bloody guerilla conflict resulted.

This war has hardly made a dent on most people's realization of American history, even though it was quite controversial in the United States at the time. By virtue of the occupation of the islands, the USA was clearly entering the new era of European colonialism that took place in the late 19th century. Not everyone thought this was a good idea (see cartoon above and try clicking for a larger view).

I bring this up because the Philippine War is being brought up as a historical example that the US adventure in Iraq, despite current problems, might end up a success in the long term.

I am deeply skeptical of this argument, for reasons brought up by Jon Wiener in the LA Times and for others. My skepticism goes beyond this to more general considerations. Despite my firm belief in the value of comparative history (one reason I gladly teach intro World History), most arguments of this sort are cheap and sloppy. I have this nightmare vision of people putting expensive, dangerous policies in train after being exposed to shallow arguments of this sort, and public support being won by those same arguments. (In particular, it always seems to be Munich, 1938, in some corner of the world, when logic would suggest that it's hardly ever Munich in 1938 anywhere, and it's not clear -- to me at least -- what could have been done differently in 1938, anyway.)

There is a prominent medieval historian named Bernard Bachrach who decries the idea that professional historians have any special competence in commenting on current events, and says that they should not trade on their positions in doing so. I've often thought he went a bit too far, but today I really see his point.

The use of historical examples is subject to a lot of abuse. Anything a professional historian says about the present in the light of the past should be treated with all the same care you would exercise in regard to say, a classmate lying down the law in a casual discussion. You've got to check both logic and facts if you are going to have a well-founded opinion.

It is especially necessary when listening to or reading "pundits" who may not have read one whole book on the subject of, say, the Philippine War.

All this applies to what I say, here or elsewhere. I try to be careful, but you don't know how careful I am. When it comes to important matters, especially war and peace, you can't rely on me or anyone else. As a citizen and as someone whose well-being is affected by foreign policy decisions, you have to be careful.

Update. Matthew Yglesias at on the lessons of the 1930s.


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