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What History Should Teach Us: Humility

As a former history major, this essay by Adam Gopnik really caught my attention. He is so right in so many ways.

First, he appropriately focuses on our "presentism" - an affliction that is reinforced by our breathless 24/7 news cycle which careens from craziness to crisis with barely a moment of measured perspective.

I agree with Gopnik that an intelligent reading of history should lead us to a less reactionary and more humble approach to interventionism. Citing our disastrous wars in Libya, Iraq and Viet Nam he suggests that, "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"

Here is a longer excerpt:

...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.

Those of us who obsess, for instance, particularly in this centennial year, on the tragedy of August, 1914—on how an optimistic and largely prosperous civilization could commit suicide—don’t believe that the trouble then was that nobody read history. The trouble was that they were reading the wrong history, a make-believe history of grand designs and chess-master-like wisdom. History, well read, is simply humility well told, in many manners. And a few sessions of humility can often prevent a series of humiliations. What should, say, the advisers to Lord Grey, the British foreign secretary, have told him a century ago? Surely something like: Let’s not lose our heads; the Germans are a growing power who can be accommodated without losing anything essential to our well-being and, perhaps, shaping their direction; Serbian nationalism is an incident, not a cause de guerre; the French are understandably determined to take back Alsace-Lorraine, but this is not terribly important to us—nor to them either, really, if they could be made to see that. And the Ottoman Empire is far from the worst arrangement of things that can be imagined in that part of the world. We will not lose our credibility by failing to sacrifice a generation of our young men. Our credibility lies, exactly, in their continued happy existence.

Many measly compromises would have had to be made by the British; many challenges postponed; many opportunities for aggressive, forward action shirked—and the catastrophe, which set the stage and shaped the characters for the next war, would have been avoided. That is historical wisdom, the only wisdom history supplies. The most tempting lesson that history gives is to not tempt it. Those who simply repeat history are condemned to leave the rest of us to read all about that repetition in the news every morning.

Read the entire essay in The New Yorker here.