Monday, April 15, 2024

On Historians And Impotence

The great curse of the historian is they often function as the closest thing to an accurate fortune teller that we have, at least without supernatural intervention.

The historian can look back to similar sorts of things in the past (and trust me, there are always similar sorts of things) and while perhaps not being able to complete predict what will occur, can render an opinion on likely outcomes.

Those who just look at current and future trends suffer from the opposite sort of thing:  by basing things on what they think likely to happen, they spin all sorts of ideas about what they think will happen or - worse - what they "feel" will happen.

Humanity, though, is much like any other organism:  when under stress or challenge, we tend to revert to form.  And history, if nothing else, is filled with all sorts of form.  To be fair, it is not quite the "cause - effect" of scientific laws, but at worst one could say that there are a very narrow sort of potential options.  

The temptation here, of course, would be to insert some sort of commentary about a current situation and then point out how it will "not go as planned". But I am not nearly so good a historian as to be able to do so and like with any soothsayer, to predict wrongly is to undercut your message.

But given that the historian is more likely than the current/future trend follower to understand the outcome, they find themselves in the awkward position of not being able to actual use that knowledge to impact the course of events.

Oh certainly, they can raise the alarm, be the Cassandra in their Troy crying warnings that no-one will hear.  But warnings from individuals are simply words without any power to enforce them; they are often to their societies either amusing (at first) or tiring (later on) commentary on the state of the world.  Things inevitably are going well and looking better; why muddy the waters with constant reminders of Ozymandias in the desert?  One thing about the past, society says, is that it is gone:  we as humans can set any course we want.

We can set any course we want, I suppose.  Yet history points out that overwhelmingly when the storm hits the ship, the crew will most likely react as they always have.  And the historian will be there, pulling with the rest, sadly confident in the fact that this, too, was likely to occur.


  1. I always describe this as watching a slow motion train wreck. You know it is about to happen, there is nothing you can do to stop it, and yet you can't look away. You end up just watching the inevitable happen.

    1. Ed, it really is like that. One of the more surprising things to me is the fact that I keep thinking that the train is coming off the track and yet the slow motion fall continues. There is indeed a lot of ruin in a nation.

  2. Passing Peanut9:33 AM

    Counterpoint: the problem with perceiving a fall is that any sandwich board-clad doomsayer howling on the street corner will be right... eventually. The good times -will- stop (at some point), the end -will- be nigh (in time), and it -will- all come crashing down about our ears (just you wait). So, it's easy to dismiss well-meant naysaying as the ravings of a rat-chasing street preacher by accident, much less purposefully.
    I think part of the trick, inasmuch as there might be one, is to temper such predictions when talking with others. It's one thing to hear a weary "I told you so" from someone with a relatively even keel; quite another to hear Ol' Barking Jim go tearing down the streets, clamoring that this was all ordained in the runny trails of the great Lizard Gizzard Gumbo as it slid down the tenement walls when he was but a lad.

    1. Passing Peanut, it is fair to say that "The End is Nigh" has been an issue - but it has always been an issue, or at least as long as humans have been humans.

      I will say that I have largely stopped talking (at least publicly) about such things and just listening and watching. What is fascinating to me is that there is a large contingent of people I would call "normal" that grasp that something is wrong and things are getting worse, although they cannot put their finger on the reason why. It is at this point that some fruitful discussions can be had.

  3. Agreed, but with certain reservations.

    We live in an age of artificially created and maintained opulence. Even our poorest are fat and obese. We are so rich, that we have entire neighbourhoods and generations populated by drug addicted zombies. Our institutions are run by people with no actual grounding in common sense or reality. Rome burned when they got a Caligula, or a Nero or a Commodus... yet for us, the plates keep spinning. We have outright lunatics of every stripe and color in critical positions, starting fires all over the world from the safety of their own backyard. Most of us could list 4 or 5 existential brewing crises right off the tip of our heads - any one of which can finish us when the music stops.

    The mind wobbles... never in the history of mankind has an empire been able to stagger along like this.

    1. Glen, I do not think that you are wrong in that you identify that our wealth allows us to stagger on when any of the existential crises that faces us would have crushed less wealthy civilizations. I think that technology plays a part as well in that we are not reliant solely on human intellect, human/animal strength, and basic equipment. But that is our Achilles heel as well in that we have become so dependent on the technology that when it fails, so do we.

      I think we are starting to see the edges fray even now.


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