Learning from history (if that’s possible)

In my last post, I suggested that history teaches some lessons to folks trying to assess Sanders’s and Clinton’s outlooks on change.

It got me thinking: What can and can’t you learn from history?

Nobody buys Santayana’s famous quote anymore. Some, like the radical historian Robert Fisk, say we could learn from history but never, ever do. Others, like the late Boaz Neumann, think you can’t learn a damn thing and shouldn’t even try: “Every phenomenon… has its own language and grammar, which is irrelevant to any other phenomenon. History is an intellectual pleasure. It is dangerous to learn from it.” No patterns, no possibility of patterns, just one thing after another.

(But then, we live in an age where literature and philosophy professors say similar things, and wonder why their enrollments are plummeting!)

The not-really-Twain quote “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes” seems a bit closer. Then, of course, there’s The Onion, resonant as usual. 🙂

History certainly can’t teach “what’s going to happen next,” or “exactly what to do about it.” Seriously doubt the person who thinks every new historical situation is the next Munich, or Vietnam, or even — maybe I’m guilty of this — the next Reichstag Fire. Such people often seem to possess one fact, like a dog with a chew toy.

Just maybe, however, history at least gives us some context for contemplating the long term (or at least recognizing that it exists). For assessing whether decision-makers are being sufficiently thoughtful. For more completely considering the range of possible outcomes.

Above all, for being modest about one’s own understanding. For that, we need all the tools we can get!

So here are a few things history seems to teach me, as a mere amateur and grad student:

  • Nothing lasts forever, no matter how much it looks like it will.
  • Sometimes, when things start to change, or to collapse, it happens stunningly fast.
  • It’s possible for smart people to blunder into disaster.
  • Similarly, some leaders (not just in politics) look smarter than they are.
  • But occasionally the reverse is also true. Don’t always assume they’re as stupid as they look. They might be responding to incentives or motivations you don’t know about, or just playing their cards close to the vest.
  • Disasters caused by blundering, sleepwalking, or foolishness are more common than those caused by successful conspiracies, which require rare levels of skill and competence.
  • Events have a way of getting out of control.
  • The ability to keep complex events under control sometimes degrades over time — working perhaps once or twice, but not the third time.
  • People always act on imperfect information and imperfect understanding. (Sometimes, “imperfect” is being generous!)
  • Leaders are somewhat more likely to make effective decisions when they know more about their adversaries’ motivations, and the dynamics of the environments they hope to impact. Having a clue is no guarantee of success, but it can help.
  • Failure to act can have consequences, too.
  • Humans behave badly, tolerate worse behavior, and become more tribal when they’re afraid.
  • Often, people who frighten them are deliberately attempting to achieve these ends.
  • Worsening hatred is one of the “events” that can easily spiral out of control.
  • Over the long term, cynicism makes productive societies harder to sustain.
  • It’s horrible to live in times and places with failed institutions. And it’s much easier to tear institutions down than to build them.
  • Bad times can last a very long time. (Centuries. Many of them.)
  • What you know for sure will eventually be forgotten, contradicted, or superseded. This is likely to be true even in science and medicine.
  • The aforementioned does not suggest that notions you pull out of your posterior are as valid as peer-reviewed research.
  • The salience of today’s passions will fade. Conflicts that seem “perpetual” eventually will end. Even ethnic and religious conflicts.
  • Don’t assume unfamiliar people and groups are either exactly like you, or diametrically opposite. (Having said that, most people in most places and times are just trying to keep their heads down and get through the day.)
  • Utopias don’t work. It’s unrealistic to build systems requiring human beings to change dramatically.
  • But it’s also unrealistic to assume people will never change at all. They have, and will.
  • Some aspects of human behavior seem more malleable than others.
  • We still do not understand the interactions of culture, family, sexuality, society, and genetics; nor the impact of changes in these. But we know enough not to oversimplify them. Therefore, resist reductive arguments about these issues, especially arguments describing certain potential changes as either catastrophic or likely to have absolutely no wider impact at all.
  • Markets and money are incredibly transformative human institutions.
  • Humans have not yet proved they can sustain societies for the long term without something like religion.
  • Humans remain embedded in natural systems that often powerfully intrude on their plans.
  • Occasionally, one side in a dispute is 100% or nearly 100% right. It does happen. But that’s not the way to bet.
  • Human courage and nobility are real phenomena. We humans can be awful, but also magnificent. Most of us sit somewhere near the center of some kind of Bell or Power Law curve of human behavior.
  • Things are almost never simple. Beware those who tell you otherwise. Especially if they actually seem to believe it.




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