History as a Comparative Tool and Causation


I am currently reading The Trial by Franz Kafka, as a bit of a step away from the nonfiction pile of books, but my next planned read is What Is History? by E. H. Carr. As I have done with a couple of books prior, I’ll probably write some thoughts about it when I read it, but there is one point about history that I believe is quite important. The catch is, it’s not a very popular opinion to some, and more than once I’ve found myself on the receiving end of some unsavoury comments. It is this: that it is necessary and beneficial to draw comparisons between different people and events to gain a better understanding of what is occurring today, and to understand the cause of current events as a result of history.

When I say it is an ‘unpopular opinion’, it usually stems from the fact that I have drawn comparisons between the Trump and Obama presidencies, or some other ‘hero’ to a despot. It’s not as much a disagreement with the concept as much as it is offense taken by even considering making those particular connections. I’ll make it clear now that when I say compare people and events, I mean it in the context that is given. I was no big fan of Obama or Hillary, but would have been first in line to vote for Clinton in 2016 if it meant stopping Trump. Given the events of the last two years, those who voted in protest will likely not make that same mistake again.

One comparison that landed me in hot water was when I compared the US to North Korea: “North Korea is a dangerous threat with nukes in the region. The same could be said about the US since 1945.” Provocative, almost certainly, to an American audience. But based purely on fact alone, it is entirely true and the importance of that comparison cannot be understated when you try to comprehend the reasoning behind North Korea’s hostility. It is easy to take a snapshot of history, or indeed forget history all together, and create your own narrative, but it does no justice to the truth.

The irony here is that it’s only those comparisons that put ‘heroes’ in a negative light that cause controversy. Positive comparisons are still legitimate, but are just more acceptable in general discussion. For example, Obama’s approach to Iran, while still quite distrusting, was an attempt to ease tensions; Trump has instead pulled out of the conceived international agreement, and thrown immeasurable support behind Israel and Saudi Arabia who are no friends to Iran. This shows Obama in a more positive light than Trump, but if, say, you were to compare the number of governments toppled or wars started, Obama is in the red. Honduras, Libya, and Syria have all fallen into disarray, with the former under a violent dictatorship, the middle shattered with conflict, and the latter deemed one of the great humanitarian issues in the world, second only to Yemen (which also began under Obama, who aided Saudi Arabia).

To be fair, Trump’s foreign policy has been an absolute disaster as well. The above countries still face the horrors of US interference; Trump congratulated the Honduran President on a successful (rigged) election in 2017, has increased support of Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen even as it comes under more scrutiny, and his third announcement to pull out of Syria has no credibility, whether he does pull out or not. So when you compare the two administrations, or any US administration since at least 1940, they are all just the same – imperialistic. The only difference is just how it is marketed to the people and/or how wily a leader is with their image.

History, when laid bare, is not pretty, and doesn’t care for partisan biases. History should be used as a tool to compare the successes, failures, and actions of each successive government in any part of the world (the US just offers the greatest spread of modern examples), and as a way to understand why things are the way they are today.

Liked this? Read North Korea: A Question of History

Previous piece: Election Cycle Begins in the New Year

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