Sunday, March 29, 2009

Historians don’t repeat, do they?

David Bercuson, director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary recently published an article in Canada’s Globe and Mail - How long will this madness last? Don't ask the historian. He asserts that “People who study the past are no more likely to know what the future brings than people who read tea leaves.”

I take issue with a number of points in the article, but most of all it is the copout in his argument that history does not in fact repeat itself. Bercuson limits his view of potential repetition to exact circumstance, which is plainly a nonsense, ignoring the potential of replicating broader dynamics in favour of replication of the minutiae.

Even so, understanding historical background, I concede, is not an act of fortune telling, simply an indication f potential outcomes. However limiting historical vision will almost certainly produced flawed predictions.

Take Bercuson’s primary interest area and his reflection that: “In the past 110 years, Canada has been involved in two world wars, the Boer War, the Korean War, the Yugoslav civil war of the 1990s, the Kosovo air war of 1999 and the war in Afghanistan. There is no similarity whatever in the way these wars began.”

I note firstly that he omits several major conflict in which Canada was not involved, thus perhaps skewing his argument to fit his vision. But take his first example, the Boer War, which was firmly part of British expansionism, expansionism being a repeating basis for a number of the conflicts mentioned.

He did not mention Vietnam, as Canada was not involved, but it has strong historical links to the current Afghanistan conflict – illegal drugs trade. At the same time other conflicts and actions he omits, say Palestine or Cyprus, like Kosovo were, from Canada’s position, humanitarian endeavors. The Suez crisis comes right back to expansionism.

“History isn't a science. Neither is economics”

Quoth Bercuson, but if that is his position one must wonder, as an historian, how he justifies his tenure. The view almost suggests history is a simple waste of time. I doubt anyone would claim either pursuits are science, neither in broad terms can be exactly replicated. Yet I would argue that elements of both can be replicated in the right conditions.

Politics is not science either, but any politician worth his salt concentrates on the conditions of three key indices come election time; Trade balance, employment levels and CPI – those hip pocket Even though the available statistics might become harder to source the reality can’t be hidden.

I believe Mark Twain said something along the lines of ‘history doesn’t repeat it rhymes’. Semantics; but regardless there are still constants, indicators which are there to be found. Only a fool needs to see an exact overlay to spot the repetition, repetition in detail rather than the broad picture.

An art historian looks at detail, brush strokes and other signature marks; any forensic analysis looks for a swath of detail indicators, not the broad picture. Call it rhyme, call it history, but the repetition is there all the same.


abi said...

I can't imagine what Bercuson had in mind with that article, especially since he's a historian. It's a little like spending years and tens of thousands of dollars as a patient of a psychiatrist, and then one fine day the psychiatrist tells you that psychiatry is pure bullshit.

Cartledge said...

Just on the basis of Intellectual integrity I can't see how this guy has maintained tenure. Even if he wasn't an historian his argument is questionable. But then he is only teaching militarists I guess.

lindsaylobe said...

Staying with the Mark Twain theme here is another - “There are many humorous things in the world; among them the white mans notion that he is less savage than the savages”.

I would add to that there is no notion more foolish than to think every event or cycle is so unique that traces of it’s elements or its substance can never be repeated so that we can never learn anything from history. It was once thought the Universe uniquely began with the big bang but we know there may be an infinite number of parallel universes replicating that unique beginning. Indeed our very own universe is constantly replicating new stars as old ones die just as history repeats itself on planet earth. Best wishes

Cartledge said...

Lindsay, MT did have a way with words.
The rest of your observation I agree with as well. It seem to me to be about pattern recognition. Now with math I’m hopeless at pattern recognition, which is a pity as they are eminently provable – I think. History and other concepts are always tainted at various levels, hence the non-science claim, but the repeating patterns can still recognised.