History Is Bunk

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In early 1998
I had a very long (about four hours) business lunch with a vice-president
of a major Moscow bank (now defunct). My interlocutor was a young
and bright Armenian guy, born and educated in Yerevan (Armenia's
capital). Unsurprisingly, he invited me to a fancy Armenian restaurant.
The meal was delectable — a never-ending procession of meats, vegetables,
cheeses, rice, etc., all washed down with copious amounts of fine
Armenian brandy
. Armenian cuisine in particular and Caucasian
cuisine in general is outstanding — try it if you have a chance.
At one point, we were served a plate of delicious dolma.
Ah, said I, I know this dish — it's Azeri — the mother of an Azeri
acquaintance cooked it once. At that point, my lunch (dinner?) companion
suddenly became livid. No, said he, it's Armenian through and through.
Azeris and Turks may cook it, but they are just usurpers who stole
this and many other recipes from Armenians! Moreover, added he,
Armenians are the original Caucasians, while Azeris are invaders
and newcomers.

At that point
I became confused. OK, so they are newcomers… how long have they
been around the Caucasus?
The answer is around a thousand years, give or take a century. To
be sure, Urartu
(Armenia's ancient name) is an extremely old civilization which
originated over 3000 years ago! But "newcomers" after
a thousand years??? Hmm… it is often said that people in the Middle
East have long memories; this is but one confirming example.

This and many
other examples strongly tempt me to agree with Henry Ford's assessment
of history as bunk. To be sure, "history is bunk" is an
inappropriate and oversimplified generalization per se, but
Ford did not put it quite so bluntly. Instead, he
said the following

is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition.
We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth
a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.” (Chicago
Tribune, 1916).

This paragraph
is still an oversimplification, but a more nuanced one. It's about
thinking about the present and the future rather than dwelling in
the past. But
here is a further quotation from Ford:

As a young
man, I was very interested in how people lived in earlier times;
how they got from place to place, lighted their homes, cooked
their meals and so on. So I went to the history books. Well, I
could find out all about kings and presidents; but I could learn
nothing of their everyday lives. So I decided that history is
bunk. (1935).

Now, this is
a great observation! Many of us remember having to memorize historic
dates and how pointless it was. It is also a known historical fact
that the politicians who blundered into the WWI were students of
history, but look how much good did their historical expertise do
to them or millions of victims!

Human beings
naturally try to use historical knowledge to predict the future,
often with disastrous results. Forecasters should rely on a priori
knowledge created by praxeology more than on contextual historical
experience. But historical experience is still a valid forecasting
base, since all human experience is historical in nature. See my
article about predictions

What I find
really bothersome and disturbing are attempts to inspire and
justify future actions relying on historic grievances. Look
what history did to former Yugoslavia. For over six centuries, Serbs
remembered the Battle
of Kosovo
, which marked the end of their independence and centuries
of the brutal Ottoman Turkish rule (or misrule). Serbs remembered
that the Turks converted Bosnian and Albanian Christians to Islam.
Serbs also remembered that Croatian Ustashi allied with Nazi Germany
exterminated hundreds of thousands of Serbs. Here
is Wikipedia

to the Simon Wiesenthal Center (citing the Encyclopedia of the
Holocaust): “Ustasa terrorists killed 500,000 Serbs, expelled
250,000 and forced 250,000 to convert to Catholicism. They murdered
thousands of Jews and Gypsies.”

Now, history
unequivocally proves that Serbs suffered terribly. So, based on
their knowledge of it, Serbs decided to strike first, to remedy
the past wrongs and prevent the future ones. As a result, thousands
and thousands of people died and hundreds of thousands were ethically
cleansed. Kosovo and Kraina
are all but lost to the Serbs. The economy is in ruins. Much good
did history do to them!

But what if
the Serbs actually had prevailed? Albanians and Croats would then
have had a martyr history of their own, calling for action and revenge
(well, they actually do have that history). Sooner or later, they
would have stricken back.

The former
Yugoslavia is but one example of history stoking the flames of hatred
and vengeance around the world. If this is all history is useful
(or used) for, then it is indeed bunk (or worse)! Let's stop using
history as a trumpet call for revenge. "Vengeance is mine"
says the Lord and "do not be overcome with evil, but overcome
evil with good." I agree that the guilty should be punished,
but their children and grandchildren? Even Stalin said that a son
is not responsible for his father. Should we be more bloodthirsty
than this tyrant?

So let's treat
history as it should be treated — the past. It's gone forever (unless
you reject the linearity of time). Let the dead bury their dead.
Even tragic history should be a matter of quiet meditation, but
never a call for a vendetta.

19, 2007

Boukhonine [send him mail]
writes out of Austin TX.

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