by Barry Edelson


History Matters

If We Could Only Agree on What It Is


We are constantly exhorted to "learn from the lessons of history", as if such lessons were obvious or that all of humanity were in agreement about them. As events have unfolded in Tunisia and Egypt in recent weeks, we have been treated in the op-ed pages to the purported wisdom of one so-called expert after another, expounding on the history of the region and what that history can tell us about what is likely to happen next. Without knowing a great deal more about the authors than the single line of credentials offered by the papers, we would be prudent to read these analyses with a healthy degree of skepticism.

Take the example of Robert D. Kaplan, whose offering on the uprising in Tunisia appeared in The New York Times on January 22. Kaplan explained that Tunisia has a unique history and social system (a statement that could of course be made about any country), and that we should therefore not expect its quest for liberty to be duplicated elsewhere in the region. He ticked off a well-worn list of repressive regimes, hijacked revolutions and still-born democratic movements as evidence that the Arab and Muslim nations are simply not primed for political change of this kind, and are more likely to slide back into autocracy than to advance to anything resembling a liberal democracy. The ink was hardly dry on that day's paper when Egypt's own popular uprising exploded into the headlines. There is still plenty of room for Egypt's rebellion to go awry, but not for any lack of conviction or bravery on the part of its millions of proponents, of whom many self-proclaimed experts were entirely oblivious. (We should probably be grateful that Kaplan did not trot out the ancient canard that certain peoples are just not capable of living in anything but a dictatorship, a shameful slander that has been raised in the waning days of the Mubarak regime by senior members of Egypt's ruling elite, who have self-serving reasons for promulgating such nonsense.)

How do writers like Kaplan come to prominence in the first place, and why do their contradictory and unfounded ideas persist in the public domain? Kaplan came to fame in the early 1990's for a book entitled Balkan Ghosts, in which he argued that that region was riven by centuries of inter-ethnic conflict that was little understood or appreciated by outsiders. In this seething landscape, there were no national loyalties but many tribal ones, with each group hell-bent on re-establishing a mythical, long-lost empire in which it held its greatest political and geographical sway over it neighbors. These hatreds had been suppressed under Communist rule, and any attempt by other nations to quash their violent reappearance was said to be sheer folly. The book was widely thought to have influenced the Clinton Administration's early policy of nonintervention in the war in Bosnia, a disgraceful passivity matched by the moral cowardice of our European allies, and indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

That Kaplan is a "journalist" and not a historian does not render him incapable of offering astute observations of history, but his being so consistently wrong about its ramifications ought to give us pause before we give credence to any article carrying his byline, let alone allow him to participate in the shaping of foreign policy. Balkan Ghosts, though engaging and superficially convincing, was not a work of scholarship but a thoughtful travelogue. In fairness, he was probably as surprised as anyone by the book's influence, and he later criticized the American government for using his book as a justification for inaction in Bosnia. On the other hand, he appears to have ridden the wave of celebrity that this notoriety handed to him and reaped the benefits thereof. He can be counted, for example, among those consulted by the neoconservatives of the Bush Administration when they were courting supporters for the invasion of Iraq. He was an early advocate for the war who, like many others, later recanted only after the American government had made a hash of it. But how could someone truly believe that history is destiny in the Balkans and the Maghreb, but not in Ba'athist Iraq?

Once Egypt erupted, it would not have been the least bit surprising if Kaplan had already published something somewhere explaining away his assertion that Tunisia's revolution would not spread to other countries. Indeed, a mere six days after warning in the Times about Egypt's "Islamic militants waiting in the wings for any kind of opportunity" and that "we should be careful what we wish for in the Middle East," he wrote in Foreign Policy, "The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt functions to a significant extent as a community self-help organization and may not necessarily try to hijack the uprising to the extent as happened in Iran," and "The differences between 2011 in Egypt and 1978 in Iran are more profound than the similarities." Less than a week after writing Egypt off as just another autocratic basketcase like Saudi Arabia or Jordan, he now insisted that the overthrow of regimes in those two countries would truly be a lot worse for Western interests than in either Tunisia or Egypt. If democratic movements should arise in either of those countries, or in any of the other benighted Middle Eastern tyrannies like Syria or Libya, the experts will no doubt be able to explain those away, too. Pundits of the Kaplan variety have shown themselves adept at changing their opinions as circumstances demand. Just like any politician worth his salt.

How is it that writers with such questionable records continue to be widely read, their opinions sought by policy makers and major publications? In a society in which the study of history was taken seriously, many of the views that find their way onto the op-ed pages of important newspapers would never see the light of day. But we are not such a society. Politicians routinely re-write history for their own electoral advantage, knowing full well that the anti-intellectualism of the American public makes it highly likely that few voters have enough education to distinguish fact from fiction, and that even if they are challenged, they have merely to paint their opponents as eggheads or partisans to fend them off. Many journalists, once members of a profession in which verifiable fact was a minimum requirement for publication, are barely distinguishable from the mendacious political actors they cover. Moreover, the deplorable journalistic practice of predicting the future gives writers a vested interest in their prophecies, much like office-holders who are reluctant to change a position once they have invested political capital in it. Which, needless to say, is why journalists should stick to reporting what is actually happening, not trying either to predict the outcome of events or influence them.

With the vast canvas of cable news and the Internet to fill every hour of every day, many editors and publishers long ago decided that any words or pictures will do, as long as they attract eyeballs and the advertising revenue that follows them. Politicians, journalists, academics and garden-variety blowhards are all mixed together on the air and in cyberspace, their views flattened into a two-dimensional space so as to appear as equal in truth and significance. In this climate, history is just another commodity, sold to the highest bidder.

We may not know what historical lessons apply to the situation in Egypt, but one thing is clear: the people camped out in Tahrir Square don't seem to believe that they are destined to live forever under the thumb of a tyrant just because that has been their history. One can reasonably presume that there are victims in every one of the world's dictatorships who share that opinion, despite any attempts by bogus historians to declare some people less worthy or capable of living in freedom. All societies are chaotic and unpredictable, and making guesses about where they will lead is a fool's game. People don't change the course of history. They make it.

February 11, 2011


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