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How to interpret historical analogies | Psyche

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How to interpret historical analogies

They’re good for kickstarting political debate but analogies with the past are often ahistorical and should be treated with care

by Moshik Temkin

Migrant boys at a Farm Security Administration camp in Robstown, Texas, in 1942. Photo by Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress

Moshik Temkin

has taught American and international history and public policy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Harvard University in Massachusetts, and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He is the author of The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial (2011) and is writing a book on leadership in history for PublicAffairs.

Edited by Sam Haselby

Need to know

Historical analogies – basically, the claim that two events or phenomena separated by time, and sometimes also by space, are similar in essential ways – are all around us. ‘History is repeating itself’ is a prominent idea, often phrased as ‘We’ve been here before’ or ‘This feels awfully familiar.’ Given that analogies are not a central feature of historical writing, or even something historians are normally trained to do, it’s worth asking: who makes historical analogies and why? How do historical analogies work? When do they catch on? Why are they so popular? What purpose do they serve? Do they help us better understand the world?

Probably no one loves using historical analogies more than bad-faith political actors. When the George W Bush administration prepared the American people for a war in Iraq based on lies and deceptions, it inundated the public with comparisons between the Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler; the idea was that we cannot ‘appease dictators’ the way that Britain and France ‘appeased’ Hitler in Munich in 1938, one year before he invaded Poland and started the worst war in history. The analogy rendered going to war with Iraq a moral requirement, since not going to war with Iraq would be like allowing Nazi Germany to run amok. Even if historically absurd, the analogy was probably effective politically, given that the then-recent attacks of 11 September 2001 (which, by 2002, most Americans believed were connected to Saddam) had already been analogised to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor of December 1941.

Historical analogies can also be invaluable and enlightening, as long as we remain wary of those using them, and of their reasons. If we are conscientious about the past, we want to learn from it, pay respect to our predecessors, and derive proper lessons from how they might have dealt with their own challenges and hard times. One of the intuitive ways we react to a confusing, frightening present is to reach back into the history we know to find ways to render the current moment legible. All this is normal and natural.

What to do

It is natural, and sometimes important and noble, to invoke historical analogies to help take moral and normative stands about the world in which we live. If, for example, a national leader is obviously venal, autocratic and rapacious, we will seek precedents for that, either in our own national history or in the history of other nations. If armed authorities attack minority communities and their allies protesting against police violence and brutality, we might want to invoke historical events that also involved police or state brutality. In these situations, analogies can help stir the public, convey anger and dismay, and suggest that we might be facing moral and political challenges others have also confronted. Such analogies will never be completely accurate, as every historical event is unique. But they will make a point by directing our minds to events in the past that carry great meaning for people in the present.

Historical analogies are not the same as historical comparisons. A comparison might be more direct or straightforward, between two events that are inherently similar. Natural disasters such as earthquakes can happen at varying moments in history and aren’t necessarily dependent on human activity. But they will interact differently with society given changing social circumstances, political leadership and economic development. In that sense, a hurricane ravaging a medieval landscape will be different from the exact same-sized and same-speed hurricane hitting a modern city. We will be comparing between the effects of, and response to, an otherwise similar pair of events. (Of course, we can also compare between the frequency and strength of hurricanes today and those of hurricanes in the past, establishing a link between natural disasters and anthropogenic global warming.) Likewise, when the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world, the influenza pandemic of 1918 emerged as a tool to help us think through the challenge. The diseases are different, but the human body is pretty much the same, and pandemics, by their nature, have repetitive features. A comparison between the two health crises will focus on the changes in the world – and perhaps specifically in public health policy – that have taken place over the past century.

Historical analogies, by contrast, are somewhat metaphorical in nature, not simply a repeated example of a phenomenon. When we make a historical analogy, as opposed to a comparison, we are taking different sorts of events and suggesting that they are similar, and can tell us something essential about the other. For this reason, analogies are also more controversial. Because political culture is degraded – by a shallow and sensationalist political media, persistent classism and racism, and dishonest and ineffectual leaders – we are constantly subjected to offensive, silly or obtuse analogies that are not worth repeating here. Let us instead focus on those occasions when historical analogies ring true. This is when they are most powerful – and provocative.

In June 2019, when the Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to US immigration detention camps in Texas and elsewhere – where frightened children were separated from their parents (who were often eventually deported without them) – as ‘concentration camps’, it created a public outcry. Ocasio-Cortez used a term that was not only straightforwardly descriptive, in her view, but invoked an analogy with the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War. The analogy itself was flawed, and didn’t teach us anything new about history. But it captured something essential about the banal evil that makes the link between the 1940s and our era so plausible and alarming.

Ocasio-Cortez, like the many historians who attested to the merits of her statement, knows perfectly well that we are not living in Nazi Germany and that the migrants in Texas are not sent to gas chambers, for example. But her analogy (which she made implicitly, since she never mentioned the Nazis) serves as a stark reminder that concentration camps have a long history, one that included (and predates) the Nazi genocide of European Jews; that the US is no stranger to the history of concentration camps; and that its Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) detention camps are in fact the latest iteration of that global history. She also reminded us that the historical crimes of fascism took place while most of the public continued living their lives in normal, mundane ways. Her analogy is also a sort of call to action: understanding ICE camps as concentration camps means refusing to minimalise them, and seeing them as morally unacceptable, with all that this entails.

So historical analogies, done in good faith, can make crucial points about the present and help to clarify where we stand on moral and political issues. The problem begins when we begin to substitute historical analogies for historical analysis – or, even more problematically, when we come to believe that history ‘repeats itself’. This sort of cliché has become a bane of our public discourse, especially regarding the sorry state of the US.

We can say that ICE’s detention camps are part of the longer history of concentration camps, and that they evoke the history of fascist regimes. We cannot say that European fascism of the interwar years is the reason that the US has concentration camps in 2020, or why ICE behaves the way it does today. Nor is saying that ICE follows in some US ‘tradition’ any kind of historical explanation. Xenophobia and nationalism are not physical things that travel through time. They have no agency. To explain ICE, we need to account for recent history, viewing its customs and power as products of a historical process. We should ask: what causes this migration in the first place? What responsibility does the US bear for the arrival of desperate asylum-seekers at its borders? Who created, funded and empowered ICE, and for what reasons? US racism of the past is not an explanation. To paraphrase the historian Barbara Fields, racism is something that we create anew, every day. Who, or what, creates racism in our own day? Under what conditions do racism and xenophobia thrive?

Another way to think about this issue in historical perspective is to take the example of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the rise of the Bolsheviks to power. There are historical sociologists and other scholars who have emphasised the similarities between revolutions across space and time, or even showed how one revolution might have helped set up a subsequent one. People looking for historical precedents to the cataclysmic event of 1917 in Russia might focus on, say, the French Revolution, which started in 1789. They could plausibly point to the social, economic, intellectual and political dynamics that led to the fall of the French monarchy and to the possibility that similar dynamics played out in the demise of the Russian tsar. They might highlight the ways in which Russian revolutionaries were inspired by, and modelled themselves after, the French revolutionaries of the 18th century, and how ideas from the earlier revolution permeated the later one. The two events are not entirely detached in history.

But no serious historian would consider the French Revolution an explanation for why the Russian Revolution happened or for how it played out. Nor would they presume that because the French Revolution produced certain outcomes, the Russian Revolution would have to produce similar ones. Except maybe at some high level of abstraction, very little that occurred in late 18th-century France had any bearing on the actions of most Russians in the early 20th century. For the overwhelming majority of Russian people in 1917, France in 1789 might as well have been another planet.

Instead of simply looking to another major revolution, an understanding of the triumph of Bolshevism would require an analysis of Russian history itself – how far back one wants to go would really depend on the individual historian, but she would probably put the greatest emphasis on developments in and around Russia most immediately preceding the outbreak of the revolution: the various failures of the sclerotic, incompetent tsarist regime, including losses in the First World War and the earlier humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05; the crushing poverty of peasants; agitation among the growing urban industrial working class; an intensifying demand for democratic participation; and the leadership and strategic abilities of the Bolsheviks themselves.

Key points

  • Historical analogies can be powerful tools for connecting the past to the present, but they are only one such tool that history provides us.
  • Historical analogies should be understood primarily as political statements in a market-driven media environment. They are not a replacement for historical analysis.
  • Historical analogies are not algorithms and they cannot tell the future; history does not repeat itself.
  • Historical analogies can be great starting points for discussion and debate. At their best, they illuminate history in new ways and create an urge to learn more about the past.
  • Historical analogies can clarify where we stand on moral issues, by using examples from the past to make a powerful point about the present.

Learn more

We often see in the public sphere in many countries the widespread invocation of historical analogies to analyse the present, and sometimes with the hope of predicting the future. This mode of analogising, of communicating the connection between the past and the present, isn’t driven by historical enquiry but by political motivation. The difference between how historians learn and practise their craft, and how the historical analogies feature in the public and political worlds, is stark. Historians rarely use analogies in their writing and teaching. But when they comment on current affairs, it’s often to discuss some analogy that has gained traction among pundits and the political class. Thus, we need to understand historical analogies not only as political speech (for better or worse) but also, not unrelatedly, as a market-driven phenomenon.

Historical analogies tend to give the double-false comfort of both knowing in advance what will happen (since all we have to do is glimpse backward to find out) and also that the ending will be one that we’ll welcome (since we tend to choose analogies not to conduct any genuine thought experiment or study but in order to confirm what we already think is going on). All historical thinking and writing is based in the present, since that is where we always are, and is rooted in a contemporary worldview. But historical analogies in the public sphere are often little more than dressed-up political statements. They are born from wishful thinking about outcomes, and they’re premised on the idea that they can, in fact, anticipate the future.

For example, in recent history, the media gave host to a continuous analogising between the US presidency of Donald Trump and the Watergate scandal that brought down his fellow president Richard Nixon in 1974. The analogy contained two central ideas. The first and more reasonable one was that the scandals of the Trump presidency resembled the criminal activities of the Nixon White House. The second was that Nixon’s forced resignation was a bad omen for Trump, who would, simply by the force of the analogy, also suffer such downfall and disgrace. But 2020 is so different from 1974 that to expect a presidential resignation to simply repeat itself requires a kind of political wish-fulfilment, not historical thinking. And so, when looking at a historical analogy, it is also important to ask: who are the heroes and who are the villains? In the case of the Watergate analogy, the fact that the political press was the hero in bringing down Nixon likely contributed to its media popularity as an analogy to think about the Trump presidency.

Looking at precedents in order to try to predict what might happen in the future is also a form of escapism – shying away from an examination of the historical developments that actually led to where we are.

We can take cases from around the world to see this dynamic. In India, the authoritarianism and jingoism of the prime minister Narendra Modi can’t be explained by looking at the ‘Emergency’ period of the mid-1970s, when the then leader Indira Gandhi suspended democratic freedoms. Instead, to think historically, we must look at the more recent rise of Hindu ultranationalism, tensions with Pakistan, and the social effects of economic inequality in a freemarket economy. In Brazil, the arrival in power of the buffoonish chauvinist Jair Bolsonaro has little to do with the rise of military dictatorship in the 1960s. Rather, the historical forces behind Bolsonaro’s rise include Brazil’s deep corruption, the collapse of public trust in government, and ongoing environmental destruction. In the US, earlier presidents have less to tell us, historically, about the rise of Trump than the significant historical events and phenomena of the recent past, such as the collapse of industries as well as xenophobia and racism, rising inequality, voter suppression, and public and media worship (and fusion) of money and celebrity.

We need to recognise the limitation of all analogising from the past. History does not repeat itself; and this means that everything that happens is new in some fundamental way. Analogies are good in so far as they are useful in helping us begin to think historically, rather than trying to formally define whether, for instance, Trump, or Bolsonaro, or Modi, or Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, are fascists. If we came to the conclusion that these current-day wannabe autocrats are not fascists, would that mean that the imperative to seek out better leadership would become less urgent? If we conclude that they are fascists, would that make a real difference in terms of how people experience this era or what we can do? In all likelihood, the necessary political action remains the same, either way. Thinking historically is not about finding discrete past events that might resemble things happening today, but rather trying to understand how the world came to be what it is – and how it could be different.

Links & books

Though we shouldn’t mistake historical analogies for historical analysis, we should embrace their spirit of optimism about history. They speak to a deep human interest in the past and its power, one that we should acknowledge and encourage. When you come across a compelling historical analogy in the public sphere, take it as an opportunity and invitation – not to make a political point or try to anticipate the future, but to learn more about the past itself. The one commonality between all historical events (there is no need for specific analogies) is people – us.

If we see ourselves as historical actors, the products of the past and producers of the future, studying history teaches us everything about the world we have created. We learn that all our major problems are man-made and, in our search for solutions, we can look to the past for inspiration and ideas. There is no need to fear so-called presentism – the idea that it’s wrong to place the present at the centre of our historical investigations. Some of the best works of history acknowledge the present, speak to our contemporary problems, and try to understand how they came to be; and if the events are too remote, they nonetheless try to understand why we behave the way we do and how we make decisions. In that sense, reading about the history of the Roman empire, or the Industrial Revolution, or the Spanish conquest, all shape our thinking about our own time and ourselves.

In particular, there is something to be said about works that show how themes, concerns and dilemmas recur over time. Material concerns and economic competition, leadership struggles and geopolitical tensions, oppression and revolt, are all as old as the human species.

A thoughtful study of the appeal of a despot to impoverished peasants, such as Foundations of Despotism (2002) by Richard Lee Turits about the rule of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in 1930-61, can help us understand why many poor people might forego democracy if they determine that their lives are materially better under dictatorship.

Racecraft (2012) by Barbara J Fields and Karen E Fields helps us understand how racism actually works in a capitalist society that constantly reinvents it as an ideology.

The speeches and interviews of Malcolm X are a great source for viewing how public figures can make powerful use of historical analogies to communicate moral and political imperatives for their audience. They can be found in many places online, including on YouTube.

Great history doesn’t have to be written by professional historians; Arundhati Roy’s searing The Doctor and the Saint (2017) uses the historical debate over caste and national independence between Mahatma Gandhi and B R Ambedkar as a way to understand the injustices and inequalities at the heart of Indian society today.

Films about history can be some of the most compelling ways to learn about our own day; the Gillo Pontecorvo classic The Battle of Algiers (1966), about the start of the Algerian War of Independence against French colonial rule, is profoundly insightful about all situations of oppression, revolt and political violence.

Some historians have written reflections on historical thinking for the general public, and one of the most insightful of these is John Lewis Gaddis’s The Landscape of History (2002), which likens the discipline to such physical sciences as astronomy, geology and palaeontology.

Other historians explicitly link a present-day concern to the past: one example is Nikhil Pal Singh’s Race and America’s Long War (2017), which focuses on the connection between domestic racism, capitalism, the so-called War on Terror and the roots of Trump’s rise.

None of these books are definitive or have all the answers. But they are examples of how good historical thinking (and writing) not only explains the past, and illuminates the present, but also prods us to envision a better future.

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22 July 2020