“Dorothy Thompson, who judged Hitler a man of ‘startling insignificance’ in 1928, realized her mistake by mid-decade when she, like Mowrer, began raising the alarm. ‘No people ever recognize their dictator in advance,’ she reflected in 1935. ‘He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship. He always represents himself as the instrument [of] the Incorporated National Will.” Applying the lesson to the U.S., she wrote, ‘When our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American.’”
The over use (and abuse) of historical analogies may seem innocent, but as the historian Linford D. Fisher points out, they are not harmless. The main problem is that “they dumb down our political discourse, cheapen the actual realities of the past, and rob us of the opportunity to genuinely understand and learn from the past.” This outcome is the result of “comparisons [that] are shallow and not rooted in any depth of meaningful knowledge of the past. They rely on caricatures and selective historical tidbits in a way that, indeed, just about anyone can be compared to anyone else.” In other words, they are very bad analogies.
Some of these analogies are a product of ignorance, but too often they are trotted out to serve political ends. If your goal is to discredit Obama, then just keep calling him “Hitler,” “a fascist,” and/or “a communist” (the fact that this is incompatible with the other two is never considered). This kind of extreme rhetoric has been successful at turning a significant portion of the population against the president, making it easier for Congress to oppose him at every turn. Their effectiveness ensures that they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
But there is hope. One way to combat against this abuse of history is through education. This is one reason why the humanities are particularly valuable. They provide the critical thinking skills needed to see through such crude analogies. And, of course, a broad and in-depth knowledge of history is also helpful.
Done correctly, historical analogies can be very useful. As Fisher notes, “history gives us perspective; it helps us gain a longer view of things. Through an understanding of the past we come to see trends over time, outcomes, causes, effects. We understand that stories and individual lives are embedded in larger processes. We learn of the boundless resilience of the human spirit, along with the depressing capacity for evil — even the banal variety — of humankind. The past warns us against cruelty, begs us to be compassionate, asks that we simply stop and look our fellow human beings in the eyes. All of us — grandstanding presidential candidates and partisan tweeting voters — could use a little more of this kind of history, not less.”
Read Fisher’s germane plea here: Your Hitler analogy is wrong, and other complaints from a history professor – Vox
Maya Jasanoff reminds us of the time when anarchists terrorized Europe. The reaction to these acts of terrorism fit a familiar pattern: in response to fear we turn against the Other (immigrants, foreigners, minorities, etc.). The period examined by Jasanoff fits into this pattern, as she notes, “then as now, migrants and civil liberties paid the price.”
While history never repeats itself exactly, there are discernible patterns of human behavior that are instructive and this is one of them. To Jasanoff’s example we could add many others. Unfortunately, the knowledge gleaned from the past is by itself not enough to bring about change. The barrier to making this knowledge useful, as I see it, is also rooted in human behavior. To overcome this barrier we need to turn to psychology.
Here is just a few of the psychological barriers that prevent us from acting rationally:
- the irrational knee-jerk reaction in the face or fear that prevents us from acting or thinking rationally.
- the mismatch between the perception of threat and the actual threat. For example, the actual fear of terrorism does not match the slim probability of being killed by an act of terrorism.
- the tendency to scapegoat those who are different from us even when the evidence clearly doesn’t warrant it.
- the tendency to reject claims that are contrary to one’s intuition, ideology, or preferred positions, rather than on the basis of reason and evidence.
- the tendency to seek out evidence that confirms our beliefs and ignoring evidence to the contrary (confirmation bias).
- our irrational response to cognitive dissonance (the discomfort we feel when we are confronted with two inconsistent beliefs). For example, when an anti-vaxer is confronted with the evidence that are putting kids at risk pits the belief that they are a smart and responsible parent against the claim that they are not. To reduce the dissonance we could change our behavior or our beliefs, but more often than not we find a way to either ignore the claim or rationalize it away.
And of course, we need an educated population with the skills and desire to do the hard work to have informed opinions.
Read the informative article on anarchists here: The First Global Terrorists Were Anarchists in the 1890s – The New York Times
We can learn from history if we are willing to. We remember the Holocaust because of the important lessons it provides. “Never again” is the mantra. Unfortunately, we keep making the same mistakes.
If any peoples should have learned the lessons of exclusion and hate it should have been the Jews. Of course, many Jews have. Unfortunately, the leaders of the Israeli state have learned nothing from the past. This period does provides amble evidence of the dangers of nationalism and racism, especially when they become the guiding principles of authoritarian regimes.
Yet they are making the same mistakes with similar (but not identical) consequences. This time they (the Israeli government and their right-wing supporters) are the victimizers. They may justify their behavior in the name of self-defense, but what they have actually done is locked themselves into a cycle of never-ending violence and revenge.
David Shulman explains the unfortunate situation in Israel today.
An excerpt: “But Israeli McCarthyism has an additional, distinctive element that deepens the madness. It is directly linked to Israel’s colonial project in the occupied Palestinian territories. Anyone who opposes the occupation in word or deed is now at risk. For the right, patriotism is synonymous with occupation and all that comes with it, above all the dispossession and expulsion of Palestinians and the theft of their lands. One can hear overtly racist rationalizations of this aim any day on the public radio talk shows. Put simply, the occupation system as a whole is ruled by the logic of stark division between the privileged Israeli occupiers and the Palestinian occupied, who are totally disenfranchised and stripped of all basic human rights.”
hat the rise and fall of a 12th-century Islamic empire does (and doesn’t) tell us about the rise (and fall?) of ISIS.” Before comparing the vastly different Islamic movements, Fromherz reviews the history of the Almohads, a radical Berber sect which briefly ruled in Muslim Spain (A great history lesson in its own right).
He is careful to note the many differences between the groups, but notes one important “possible comparison.” He observes that it is likely that “the process of routinization—that is, the process of ideological compromise and moderation needed to practically govern as state—will probably begin soon. There is no reason to believe ISIS will not follow the path of so many religious and millenarian movements before it. In this case, the best long-term strategy for ISIS’s would-be targets and victims may be to wait for ISIS to destroy itself.” I like this option!
Fromherz is not the only to note this trend toward routinization as a factor in bringing down radical movements. Rationally, based on a cost-benefit analysis, this is probably our best strategy. But, realistically, this is not emotionally or psychologically appealing, and therefore it is unlikely to be adopted. But we should heed Fromherz’s warning: “If parties and politics in the West become increasingly intolerant and nativist in their reaction to ISIS, the West may indeed inflict more harm on itself than anything the charismatically apocalyptic minds behind ISIS could imagine.”
Christian Appy, author of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity, in an interview reflects on the legacy of the war. As usual, he offers great advice based on years of study. For example, he proposes “that we fully and finally dispense with American exceptionalism. I don’t think the historical record justifies the faith, it alienates other people and nations (for obvious reasons), and it contributes to public acquiescence to the tiny few who make foreign policy in our name and are all to ready and willing to assure us that they can be trusted to use our ‘indispensable’ power as a force for good in the world.”
Read the entire interview here: History News Network | Christian Appy on the Legacy of the Vietnam War: An Interview
Last week Carly Fiorina stated that her “degree in medieval history and philosophy has come in handy, because what Isis wants to do is drive us back to the Middle Ages, literally.” Knowing the relevant history is helpful in understanding the current events in the Middle East, but it’s not enough, especially if your understanding comes from a single period of time and which you studied at the undergraduate level forty years ago! And as David M. Perry points out, “While the Middle Ages do in fact shape contemporary events all the time, Fiorina unfortunately almost always gets the lessons of history wrong.”
And what is more troubling in Fiorina’s statement is that she’s using “medieval” in a particular way that it not constructive in dealing with the present situation. As Perry explains, “When we use the word “medieval” to characterize something we don’t like, be it Isis, the Ferguson Police department or Russia’s driver’s license regulations, we are trying to impose chronological distance between ourselves and things we find unpleasant. Thinking of distasteful or evil aspects of the modern world as belonging to the past makes it harder, not easier, to understand their causes and fight them.”
The historian Timothy Snyder, with his usual insight, challenges us to re-think our assumptions about the Holocaust: “Seeing the Holocaust as an encounter of general anti-Semitism and local statelessness helps us to make sense of the two great geopolitical disasters of our century: the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. In part because Americans misunderstood the Holocaust as the oppression of a minority by an authoritarian state within its own boundaries, they could believe in 2003 that regime change by force of arms in Iraq would automatically bring positive consequences. By the early 21st century, we had convinced ourselves that the Holocaust was caused by an authoritarian regime acting against a minority within its own borders, which in the main it wasn’t, and that we acted to stop it, which with a few minor exceptions we didn’t. The Holocaust was the mass murder of Jews beyond the borders of prewar Germany, in a zone from which conventional political institutions had been removed, and the Holocaust was largely over by the time Americans soldiers landed on Normandy. American troops liberated none of the major killing sites of the Holocaust, and saw none of the thousands of death pits in the East. The American trials at concentration camps reattributed prewar citizenship to the Jewish victims, helping us overlook that the eliminations of citizenship—usually by the destruction of states of which Jews had been citizens—were what permitted mass murder. A large body of scholarship on ethnic cleansing and genocide concludes that mass killing generally takes place during civil wars or regime changes. Nazi Germany deliberately destroyed states and then steered the consequences toward Jews. Destroying states without such malign intentions creates the space for the kind of disaster that continues to unfold in the Middle East: in its civil wars, religious totalitarianism, and refugee crisis.”
Read his entire essay here: Holocaust history misunderstood: It has provided moral cover for the wars in Iraq and Ukraine.