Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Dangers of Using History to Compare with Today's Issues

By: Dianne Heath


It's a typical news day with reports about the economic crises delivered under a veil of monotone composure. This time the reporter is droning on about the possible implications of TARP, a controversial corporate bailout. Ben usually avoids the news, but since his financial fate is intimately entangled in Great Recession he decided to tune in. There have been uneasy murmurings at his workplace about possible layoffs. Just as Ben begins to doubt his decision to get more informed via cable news and lethargically reaches for the remote, a fiery commentator is invited to present his scathing quips. The commentator is full of righteous indignation and begins to forcefully warn about "Fascism, corporate fascism!" Ben's head becomes flooded with images of merciless, bloodthirsty and brainwashed masses marching in unison as a ruthless dictator's arm guides them to the next kill, as the commentator rants in the background. Suddenly his shoulders are filled with tension and a rush of urgent emotions flow over him. He is no longer lethargic as his mind is actively reaching epiphanies about corporate fascism taking over government.
The Shortcut

     Associating and comparing historical events with problematic present issues, attempts to highlight, clarify, enlighten, familiarize, normalize, simplify and even romanticize or inspire. Associations utilize a store of available emotions, instead of compelling the public to sap away potential emotional energy with intellectual pondering needed to grasp the intricacies of complex and perplexing events. By using direct comparisons, seemingly unprecedented issues with a blank slate with imprecise and shallow emotional and intellectual attachments, can take on greater meaning since deep emotional investment to historical events can be applied to new instances that you might not have cared as much about. These emotions make sure to highlight the significance of the new event, convey what is important and make sure that it is not ignored. This is especially important when a shocking crisis when urgency is almost demanded. But this also stifles other emotions and consequently actions that are more suited to the occasion. This dilutes the quality of citizen participation.

      But why do some historical events have the capacity to generate such a powerful emotional response? Well, horrific historical events are generally infested with emotional wounds such national regret. Events with a paradox of emotional pain and triumph, are ripe for generating a visceral emotion filled reaction, especially if the negative emotions are suppressed and unresolved. These historical wrongs must have widespread awareness that is infused with cultural meanings and shared understandings on what should have happened. Usually associations manipulate historical traumas when, before the triumph, mass scale efforts were futile, when the masses are perceived to have acted as sheep consenting in their own demise or simply remained as weak bystanders.

     Some historical events always with today’s issues more than others because some wounds are more valued than others. For example, events with pain that can remain overlooked since it’s overshadowed by the eventual triumph like in the Great Depression and the Holocaust are frequently evoked as opposed to the Stalin's forced famine that killed millions. Referring to the well-known emotional wounds of other nations that were saved by your nation can be safer and less painful. The goal is not to conjure helpless and paralyzing emotional pain but just enough to scare away the apathy.


Courtesy of  the Library of Congress;
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Beware
Ben has now turned in a Googling maniac. He looks up corporate fascism, and then he looks up talking points about TARP. The resemblance is uncanny. The context and inner-workings of neoliberalism, the rise of 1980's deregulation in a backlash against the New Deal and financial dominance are rendered useless and fade in the dejected background. Its fascism, point blank and a sinister corporate takeover abounds. Ben is livid, nervous and stricken with horror that compels him to act. Now he has the confidence to oppose TARP. What exactly should he and can he do?

      Direct comparisons to history bestow the misleading illusion of thorough knowledge and education. The new challenge appears deceptively familiar because nuanced details that don't fit the figure's agenda are slyly escorted out the narrative or strategically misapplied. Thinking you know more than reality stifles genuine curiosity to learn more, demands for more information and encourages you to uphold undeserving demagogues as experts. Then the brain is subconsciously constricted to a narrative that is under a historical context and events appear to neatly reflect one another.

    In addition, cultural narratives of history are often riddled with assumptions that tell you how to interpret the new event, thus constricting the meaning and implications of the new crisis. When historical narratives are recklessly applied to new issues, your reaction is framed and misdirected accordingly to the historical crisis. But the dynamics of today are new so updated reactions are required since modern life isn't stagnant.

      When a figure uses historical comparisons as a template for comprehension and not as a loosely based guide or reference point, the question should become what is the agenda? What emotions does this figure or entity want me to feel then what type of action based on these emotions to take. For example, if you directly relate the Great Recession to the Great Depression, you'll perceive absolute calamity and sure financial collapse. You might be more willing to accept government intervention in the form of TARP and relate it to the celebrated New Deal. If you truly believe that the Great Recession is directly comparable to the Great Depression, then you will possess perpetual imperfect information since your interpretations of current economic conditions will be faulty and you will be unable to make the rational decisions to survive in the maturing capitalist system.

      What's even more disconcerting is that popular understandings about historical events are not wholly accurate. Cultural interpretations of events are often too shallow, biased and filled with imaginations that depart from reality for genuine understanding. For example, background events become nonexistent which creates a lopsided and one dimensional image of history. Overarching lessons about the stock market and greed contributing to the Great Depression erases a background contributor to the bubble, the discrepancy between the maturing manufacturing industries and speculation. As evidenced, focusing on a single factor within a false narrative will completely misconstrue the present.

How can this be combated? Fight it with contemplation and investigation. Broaden your knowledge of history from a variety of perspectives, learn about obscure events with less happy endings and don’t box yourself into any narratives about current events.

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