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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:

“History 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:

According 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.

April 19, 2007