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The Repetition of History

Progressives, and some strains of neoconservatives, like to believe that history is constantly progressing upwards and forward, and that each age brings a type of advancement that will eventually lead us to an 'end of history' as espoused by the thinkers and leaders of this century-old movement. The United States has gone back and forth in believing this theory, with our citizenry never quite buying the argument that tyranny is a thing of the past and we are entering some sort of peaceful era of the enlightened administrator. Europe, for the most part, has long capitulated to this idea of permanent advancement and peace-- they believed it before and after the Great War, they believed it after WWII, and they believed it when the Berlin Wall came falling down. Indeed, after the Cold War we were momentarily swept up into this fanciful idea until the attacks on our country ten years ago woke us up. If there is anything within the realm of politics that destroys the Progressive notion of the unstoppable progression of the peaceful administrative state, it is foreign policy. Simply, there are bad people out there, and self-interested nations out there, and sometimes they try to kill us or each other. Even simpler-put, the times and surroundings may change, but human nature does not. Our Founding Fathers realized this, hence the creation of a government that manages to peacefully contain the extremes of human nature while allowing its better parts to justly be drawn out. Hence the constant annoyance of our Progressive friends at the Constitution and, to some, the Declaration, and constant historicist attempts to discredit the Founders and contain them and their ideas within their time.

A famous phrase that is unfortunately repeated too often is that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it; it is often the last cry of the high school history teacher to get many of his otherwise uninterested students to pay attention to those dreadfully boring textbooks (most shrug it off). It is a false notion, though, that if we know what happened before then it won't happen again. History is repetitive. We seek to know and understand the past so that we can better understand the present and draw from the common experience and wisdom of humanity lessons to help us when we meet the same challenges met by others throughout history. Too often we ignore that though, thinking that just because we know that things like tyranny and war have been bad in the past, we'll never have to deal with them again.

Luckily there are fellows like Victor Davis Hanson around, reminding us of the past to help us better understand the present. In this latest piece over at NRO, Hanson discusses the current crises in the world and explains how we may be at one of those rare pivotal points in history; he contends that the present ills will either fizzle out like the revolutions of 1848 did, or vastly alter the status quo in a way that Constantinople's fall or the World Wars did. History is repetitive, and that requires our constant vigilance to thus pay attention. Greece's collapse could unravel the entire project that is the European Union, returning Europe to its former gloomy conditions in the 1970s and vastly altering the geopolitics of eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Germany is once more finding itself unfairly burdened by the excesses of its neighbors, and an angry and slighted Germany is usually part of a recipe for disaster. China's regional influence and wealth is growing as fast as Imperial Japan's, and the Arab revolutions unfortunately are seeming all-too-similar to the revolutions that swept the European empires out of Africa and Asia in the first place, that established the dictators they now overthrow. Through it all, though, the United States remains remarkably well-positioned, despite our present woes. Hanson points out that our greatest problems--dependency on foreign oil and our massive debt--are entirely optional ills that we could be rid of if we were willing to be rid of them. We still produce more food than ever before, have more fossil fuel reserves waiting to be tapped than anyone else, have the most successful and tested military power in the world, and continue to be the center of innovation and entrepreneurship. "America has never had greater strength or potential - and we should remember that as the rest of the world around us seems about to be turned upside down."
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Discussions - 11 Comments

Sorry, I just couldn't get past the first paragraph's seemingly endless parade of witless and inaccurate generalizations: "Progressives ... like to believe that ... [etc.]," "Europe ... has long capitulated to this idea ... [etc.]." Still, when you want to take a stand against something, whatever that thing might be, might as well say that "progressives," "liberals" and "Europeans" are all for it, eh?

Have you ever read anything by progressive leaders? His "generalizations" aren't all that inaccurate. Just go read Hegel, Wilson, FDR, Dewey, etc. I think he doesn't give enough credit to some of the better parts of Europe and how a lot of them have leaned against this idea over the past ten years, but in general he's accurate. That's a lot of the whole philosophy behind the EU.

Europe was not miserable in the 1970s. It was less affluent than it is today (something true of most any country outside of tropical Africa, the former Soviet Union, and the oil sheikhdoms); it was sundered by the Cold War (a set of circumstances unlikely to recur); it was facing some novel macroeconomic irritants (of less consequence than we face today); it was suffering a novel political irritant in the form of terrorism (consequential in Ulster, Navarre, and Italy). A selection of places (e.g. Britain) suffered severe industrial disputes. It had also had thirty years of reconstruction, peace, and living standards improving at a comparatively rapid pace and it was not suffering the dangers and dilemmas which attend incipient demographic implosion. Germany in 1975 was amply supplied with people who could remember eating tulip bulbs from the garden in order to avoid starvation and retained a corps of old folks who could recall carting along your Deutchemarks in a barrel to do one's mundane shopping. Five percent inflation, the antics of the Red Army Faction, and strikes in Britain were not near enough to make these people miserable.

Someone should also point out to Dr. Hanson that oil is a fungible commodity. The economic effect of an interruption in supply of a given magnitude is likely to be similar without regard to where the interruption occurs. As long as ordinary international trade proceeds, it does not much matter the the oil you consume is imported. Miscellaneous oil exporters are generally too dependent on the revenue therefrom to run a politically-driven embargo for very long, and, with the possible exception of Russia, do not bother much about international politics outside their immediate environment. You want an accessible physical supply in time of war, when international trade is severely disrupted. One way to have one in that contingency is to leave your domestic supply in the ground.

(I do not think we are likely to see a resurgence of violent revanchism in Germany, either).

after tasting wealth, the 1970s might feel pretty miserable to go back to.

Yeah, I don't think Germany's response will necessarily be violent (and I don't believe Hanson thinks so either), but their potential indignant feelings could find other ways of lashing out. If the EU gets its act together and figures things out, good for them; if not, Germany is going to be left with the check and won't be happy about it at all.

An economic contraction on the order of that suffered by North American in 1929-33 (>25% reduction in domestic product) would do that and did that because it was accompanied by mass unemployment and debt obligations due in deflated currency (not because the standard of living was so miserable). You are a severe bear if your forecast is that Europe will suffer an economic implosion more severe than it did during the Depression (and more severe than any sizable country has suffered due to a financial crisis in the last 35 years).

"Gloom" is probably a better use than "misery" here; updated to reflect that.

"A famous phrase that is unfortunately repeated too often is that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it; it is often the last cry of the high school history teacher to get many of his otherwise uninterested students to pay attention to those dreadfully boring textbooks (most shrug it off). It is a false notion, though, that if we know what happened before then it won't happen again. History is repetitive."

I believe that the injunction to study history in order to avoid disaster was not meant to suggest that mere knowledge of history would secure people from making the same mistake their forbears did, but surely that knowledge is indispensable. I have a large poster of Winston Churchil, framed and hanging on the wall of my family room, that has him saying, "Study history! Study history! Study history!" Surely no one believes that Churchill succumbed to the false notion that mere knowledge can spare us calamities. I think you mean to say that, while studying history is not a sufficient conditon for avoiding a similar sad fate, it is surely a necessary condition.

I agree with AD's posts.

No one really has standing to speak on behalf of the End of History. Rather it is more like a series of news stories that speak for themselves. But if it works for selling books, then you are talking copyright law. Fukuyama hardly unpacked what that meant. It is pretty damn loose, it means something like liberal democracy is generally good, and self-evidently good, and good in some respects for both the tyrant(master) and the slave. It is a plausible interpretation of Fukuyma to argue that China is a liberal democracy, as it continues to add indicia of liberal democracy, high speed rail, solar, wind, coal power, acceptance of the WTO, membership in the UN, embrace of arbitration, acceptance of contract Law and the UCC, excetera. That is for Fukuyama indicia are less inert, belief that you are free, and the incredible growth of BAIDU and internet apps in China, are potentially material factors and components of liberal democracy.

It might be the end of History if:
1) Germany, Italy and Japan are forgiven for World War II
2) Germany focuses on green tech, and sells billions of it to "communist" china.
3) No one studies History to know who they should hate, the Zulu did not win.
4) Global disasters are generally met with an outpouring of charity, and very little Schadefreude.
5) No one takes Osama Bin Laden as a serious law giver.
6) Osama's relatives complain about violations of international law.
7) The National Debt, and concerns about floating currencies enter the political conversation.
8) A german politician says something critical of Obama, and Al Queda thinking it might have backing admits that Osama is dead.
9) The Olympics grows in popularity
10) Scientists from around the Globe share discoveries.
11) Globalism=The End of History.

The end of history is more like a Letterman top 10, or perhaps a Yahoo news feed. It really is different this time.

Also nothing you have said ROB violates the End of History. Since you play Chess I will put it this way, the End of History is sort of a loose synthesis that ties together the opening lines of the Ruy Lopez, the French, +The Sicilian, and manages to say something so general that it should be criminal. It is not itself an opening, it is not itself a technique, it is not disproved by a variation, it simply says, these are the ten plausible variations and on closer inspection they all have these characteristics, and I am chosing to call these characteristics liberal democratic. In so far as the ten openings differ they have similar theories and the french and Caro-Kann can ironically yield identical boards, and very similar play, so the transpositions, make them liberal democratic, the end.

In other words a China with Wal Mart's that is so interconnected with Germany and the U.S. is more or less a liberal democracy by operation of Weltanschauung.

And if China is a liberal democracy, then none of the distinctions between the tea party and Obama really matter(on the level of HISTORY), as opposed to history where distinctions between Romney and Pawlenty are serious business.

It is really devil may care vs. devil is in the details.

I often open with a variation of the Polish followed by a Grob attack (or vice-versa). Unconventional and sometimes chaotic, I know, but that's part of the advantage, especially against players unused to dealing with an opponent that doesn't seem focused on the center. However, I've recently started trying to refocus on more conventional center-based openings and tend to only play from the sides now when playing with friends.

The general gist of the end-of-history argument that I usually get from its subscribers is that liberal democracy (in various forms) is inevitable, tyranny is doomed, and politics classically understood will eventually become unnecessary. Yes, the various arguments they make for how we reach this vary dramatically as you said, but in general those are the beliefs (not necessarily principles). This explains Pete Stark's declaration that the federal government can do what it wants, and Nancy Pelosi's recent complaint that elections ought not matter as much as they do-- in our enlightened end-of-history, we must focus on administrating and not politicking; politics gets in the way of those who know best how to govern and are thus an unnecessary distraction from the progression of mankind. As have studied history, we are enlightened now by the fact that tyranny is self-evidently bad and liberal democracy is self-evidently good. Because we know this, we no longer have to fear the ills of the past; we can trust the enlightened administrative state to govern with benevolence.

Which, of course, is pure madness. They look at history as if it were alive and growing and pushing this along, reaching ever-upward. While it is true that most ages make huge advancements that previous ones could not even dream of, human nature doesn't alter and certainly doesn't become permanently enlightened; the fact that the lights of Europe went dark for a thousand years after the fall of the Romans is proof enough of that.

Yes, it is important and necessary to study history. People who do not study it and do not understand it are ill-equipped to recognize the sources and consequences of past, present, and future ills. If people had listened to Churchill and paid attention to history, they may have been able to recognize that, yes, maybe this loud Austrian with the funny mustache is something to be worried about. Instead they looked at history and said, "All this bad stuff happened, but now we know better and it won't happen again." They didn't, and their intellectual heirs don't, believe that History would let that happen again, just as they think that History won't let any form of tyranny show its ugly head within our own shores ever again. They sometimes fail to understand how rare and fragile liberty and peace are, especially when the two are put together.

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