Blogs > Cliopatria > "Sudden"... really?

Feb 27, 2005 6:57 am

"Sudden"... really?

"What else can history teach us? Only the vanity of believing we can impose our theories on history. Any philosophy which asserts that human experience repeats itself is ineffectual." -- Jacques Ellul
David Brooks is talking about Kuhnian paradigm shifts; Thomas Friedman is talking about tipping points; things are changing quickly, so of course something recent must be responsible and the most recent large-scale event in the Middle East was the US invasion of Iraq, so it must all stem from that, right? Well, let's start with the fact that the NY Times headlined its most recent story about Egypt"Mubarak Pushes Egypt to Allow Freer Elections" when he's really being dragged, kicking and screaming away from plans to create a modern dynasty. But Derek Catsam is talking about Ariel Sharon as Nixon in China, so it's not just the Times.

[I love the Times, don't get me wrong, but it's journalism and needs to be taken with a grain of salt; commentary needs to be taken in small doses. Today, they've got stories about Jewish GIs who were captured by Nazis, a review of a new bio of Pol Pot which is a fine exercise in the difficulty of speaking about the unspeakable, and a bio of some joker I never heard of but who illustrates the difficulty of understanding people who really don't want to be known for themselves. So it's a pretty interesting day for a historically-minded reader with a strong constitution.]

I'm not saying events can't move quickly from a specific trigger (I'm a Meiji specialist, after all), but that sudden fundamental change is most often the result of long-term processes with a trigger, than the result of short-term stimuli, however powerful. The challenge-response model of Westernization had its heyday in Asian historiography in the 60s and 70s, along with the modernization theorists (who haven't breathed their last yet) whose teleological conceits and self-referential stages of development still haunt our textbooks and seminars. But good scholarship of the last twenty years has shown many of the assumptions of these theory-driven studies to be false, or at best true only at a very shallow level. Societies are not physical systems.

In the case of the Middle East there are dynastic issues (Syrian, Saudi and Egyptian succession, at least, the death of Arafat has to factor in, as well, and nobody is claiming responsibility for that), long-suffering democracy activists and movements, long-standing information campaigns (for example, Voice of America's been operating for decades now, though only relatively recently in Arabic, I believe) and the general seepage of information through news (even heavily censored and slanted news can convey a great deal of real information to a recipient who is used to the form), personal exchanges and contacts, etc. There is also the fact that we are in a (soon to be looked back at as) brief interval of unipolarity, with the US standing as the sole superpower in the interim between the fall of the USSR and the rise of the Chinese beyond regional importance (possibly the Indians, as well).

Then, of course, is the question of whether the changes we seem to be seeing now are really fundamental and irreversible. Friedman has the good sense to hedge on that question. There's the question of whether the changes will move in the direction we want them to move: systemic change is notoriously complex and unpredictable (though a little long-term perspective often helps). The question of whether we really know what we're in for when we push for democracy is still open, too: our recent record of dealing with real democracies is quite mixed, as they are often instrasigient where oligarchal systems can be bought off.

I'm not saying that our national agenda in the Middle East has not played a role, and in the long run credit will go where credit is due. But we're still at the post hoc ergo propter hoc stage here and we need to calm down a bit and deal with reality instead of theorizing ourselves into a tizzy (and bad policy).

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mark safranski - 3/1/2005


That begs the question of what constitutes " rational" policy. It is certainly possible to institutionalize irrational as well as rational policies. When institutions change because they begin to subscribe to newly deviant ideologies, they become part and parcel of the problem needing mitigation. Or perhaps a sign that institutions are failing in their task to mitigate social ills.

I think you have an important point about overuse, abuse and the limits of the reliability of systemic models for purposes of historical analysis. Discarding them entirely, in my view, would be a mistake on the other end of the spectrum.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/1/2005

Your list of social ills and overreactions which are supposedly unmitigated by institutional lag is quite presentist, and ignores the ways in which these events were often quite rational and institutionalized in the context of the societies of the past.

mark safranski - 3/1/2005

"is mitigated in social systems by the lag between emotional reactions and institutional action."

Except of course, when they are not.Revolutions, war fevers, race riots, crusades, witch hunts, state terror, genocide and similar phenomena come to mind as times when "the lag" seems to be conspicuously absent.

Social and political markets are not exactly the same as either markets or physical systems. All however are dynamic, complex, systems which allow the use of *careful* analogies,paralells and simplified models. This is why CIA analysts find Bayesian probability methods to be a useful analytical tool.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/28/2005

Markets aren't much better as models for social and political change than physical systems; for one thing the tendency of markets to panic (what you call the "disproportionate response") is mitigated in social systems by the lag between emotional reactions and institutional action. They are too one-dimensional.

mark safranski - 2/27/2005


I think you're correct that frequently, perhaps most of the time, dramatic social-political change is preceded by a long build-up.

However, the change does occur on the margin with some event that, at that particular moment, for some reason becomes the final straw that is too much for " the system " to bear and provokes a disproportionate response. It is certainly the case with markets so why not in other spheres ?

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