Blogs > Cliopatria > One of These Things Is Just Like the Other

Jan 7, 2004 4:09 pm


One of These Things Is Just Like the Other



I never quite know what to make of the conventional blogging tactic of finding the most extreme, imprudent or ridiculous position out there and taking it to be representative of some larger whole. Certainly it can be fun--or horrifying--to ride a link to some utterly insane, nonsensical argument. It tends more towards the horrifying when you drop into the comments section at the offending blog and discover that there appear to be many people who agree with an extreme position or who use it as a springboard to even more disturbing ideas and sentiments.

Characterizing--or caricaturing--the whole from a single example is something we all do, and have to do, and there is always an element of error or exaggeration in such characterizations. I know that I’ve been quite legitimately criticized by some for talking about “the left” when I’m talking about some very particular, possibly peripheral, fringe or fractional constituency or position.

But on the whole, it seems to me that the best online discussions are those that arise from usefully provocative arguments, where there is a willingness to engage in persuasive dialogue and everyone is trying, more or less, to share a common language and agreed-upon standards.

Of these standards, I think the hardest to articulate and maintain is the use of historical analogies, a problem that has also preoccupied some of my colleagues here at Cliopatria. I found a website that explains very well some of the reasons why we all make recourse to analogies to describe and predict situations that in some ways are strikingly novel, like the current war on terror and the conflict in Iraq. Doing without historical analogy would be like trying to do without metaphor--and in some ways, it would also be like doing without the empirical substance of informed policy making. We can only predict what might happen by thinking about what has happened: it is the only data we have. Though one of the things we know about the past is how unreliable conventional wisdom about the applicability of historical analogies to new situations often has been. (I confess that one of my private, shameful pleasures as a historian is reading old newspapers in sequence and feeling a kind of unholy delight about how wrong the pundits of the day are about what’s going to happen next.)

I have been trying to think about whether there might not be some loose, informal standards of discursive fairness when making explanatory historical analogies in general public debate, so as to preserve the mutual transparency between all participants. A few have occurred to me, but I think HNN readers might be able to add to the list. My own list includes:

1. Commonality

A useful historical analogy should be one that a generally educated person not only recognizes but can evaluate fairly, either because they themselves have lived through the events being referred to or because there is sufficient density and richness of knowledge about the analogy.

If one is going to use an unfamiliar example (and this shifts depending on where and when the discussion is happening)-- ay I used a precolonial African historical example of some kind--it seems to me incumbent on the person citing the analogy to provide some details at a very high standard of preemptive fairness to those who might disagree with the reasoning. Meaning, if I use an unusual or unfamiliar analogy, I should provide the kinds of details that I myself might use to argue against as well as for the relevance of the analogy in question.

2. Causality

I don’t find it very useful when someone says something like “Dean is like McGovern” or “Dean is like Neville Chamberlain” as if the meaning of the comparison was obvious. This is generally the kind of analogy-making that isn’t about fostering productive conversation, but is just instead a kind of rhetorical dirty-pool or name-calling that rapidly gives way to tit-for-tat exchanges. “Your guy is Pol Pot”, “No, YOUR guy is Pol Pot” and so on.

To be useful, an analogy has to involve a deeper, more fleshed out assertion about causality, about why something happened in the past and why the same kinds of causal mechanisms are in place now. To analogize a contemporary negotiation to Chamberlain’s meeting with Hitler is not useful unless you are simultaneously asserting a direct causal relation between some later event (the Nazi invasion of Poland, World War II in general, or the Holocaust) and the specific mistakes or actions of Chamberlain at the time. That argument has become something of a shorthand assumption that everyone makes, but it actually requires a pretty precisely weighted case about the primary or necessary causes of Nazi aggression--and using it as an analogy requires that you take on board most of that argument, from its theoretical roots to its empirical specificities, as being relevant to some highly particular contemporary situation. You can’t just say, “Appeasement is always bad” as if the particular analogy demonstrates that case as a self-evident universal. A good analogy in public debate requires a precise sense of the ideas about causality it invokes.

3. Multiplicity

The good use of historical analogy requires more than one particular instance to make meaningful claims about the likely course of future events. No analogy is so overwhelmingly perfect for describing the present that it can stand alone. Nothing ever happens quite the same way twice.

If, for example, you want to liken Howard Dean to some past candidate for the Presidency, I think you need to offer at least two or three useful, related analogies, unless you’re only trying to smear or celebrate him, in which case you’re not very interested in actual debate or conversation in the first place. Analogies, used well, are partly about building models, and any useful social model requires more than one instance or case to be more than just a rhetorical drive-by shooting.

4. Contingency

The productive use of historical analogy takes a certain amount of humility, a belief in the open-ended and debatable applicability of the analogies that one is suggesting. Making analogies is like offering a historical counterfactual, a what-if: it is a hypothesis, and one that has to be presumptively open from the first instance to skepticism. I am always amazed when analogy-makers plant their feet and fight like alley cats for the singular, immoveable truth of the analogy they’ve offered

The good use of analogy should always incorporate an if-then structure, with a sense of contingent outcomes in the past and present. If I am going to say, “Contemporary states can learn a lot from the experience of late 19th and early 20th Century regimes in the West in their dealings with anarchist and socialist Terrorism” or “The American experience in the Phillipines has powerful resonance with contemporary operations in Iraq”, one of the things I ought to do from the outset is talk about the different possible ways to understand that analogy, and make a reasoned if short-hand case for the particular use I am proposing.


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Timothy Burke - 1/8/2004

Off to have a look at it--I'd heard of it but I haven't read it before. It sounds really useful.


Chris Genovese - 1/8/2004

Great post, Tim, as usual.

I'm curious what you think of Neustadt and May's book "Thinking in Time", if you've seen it. They analyze several cases of decision making based on historical analogy and offer practical techniques for using historical analogies effectively. Although their emphasis is on decisions, I've found their tools helpful for evaluating the rhetorical use of analogy as well.

(Amazon link to the book http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0029227917/qid=1073577769/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/104-6032548-1503920?v=glance&s=books">here.)


Timothy Burke - 1/8/2004

I think the difference is also between romanticism and rationalism in the use of history. Those who become attached to a singular analogy are attached to it because it invokes for them a structure of feeling, an empathetic connection between some past moment or representation of the past and the present. And that's perfectly legitimate, and a productive use of history. I think the problem comes in when the wires get crossed, so to speak, and someone who finds a sympathetic resonance in the past then uses that resonance to argue for an absolute, mimetic, literal resemblance between a past moment and the present, a resemblance that has real predictive value that tells us what we ought to do next. That's a different kind of use of analogy, one that is less about empathetic understanding of what it feels like to be human in particular times and places. Once you're trying to be predictive and to counsel others about what to do next, you can't become too attached to a singular and inflexible reading of any given analogy.


Ralph E. Luker - 1/8/2004

Like much of what Tim writes, this post should be read several times, thought about afterward and then re-read.
JBJ's gloss on the fourth criteria about historical analogies in public discussion seems to me quite apt. Perhaps it is already implied in Tim's use of the word "contingency," but I suspect that one of the differences between those who absolutize an analogy and those who don't is that the latter are willing to contemplate the possibility that the world is, so far as it can be known, meaningless. That disposition, it seems to me, prepares one to enter a discussion with an attitude that assumes that I could be wrong.


JBJ - 1/8/2004

Charlotte Bronte's _Shirley_ is consistently interested in this problem of historical analogies, and why they seem to salve the wounds of modernity (which in the novel means industrialization). To her, the reason people "fight like alley cats for the singular, immoveable truth of the analogy they've offered" is that to do otherwise risks making the world meaningless.

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