Archive for December, 2007

So how exactly do you choose a “Person of the Year”?  Here’s more from Time’s Richard Stengel:

People tend to think that choosing the Person of the Year is a scientific process. It’s not; it’s a subjective one. There’s no Person of the Year measuring stick or algorithm…We have meetings…But in the end, it has to be someone or something that feels right, something that’s a little unexpected, someone our readers will be eager to know more about. [Read the full article here.]

This contradicts what was said in Stengel’s other explanation, which focuses on what is indeed a viable, objective criterion, namely historical significance. Of course, one can hardly expect modern journalists to be consistent, but what about an “algorithm” for choosing a ‘Person of the Year’?

Could there be such a thing? Is it possible to objectively assert that one person is the most important person in the world at any point in time?

I think it is, and I think the algorithm is in principle fairly straightforward.  (The details, of course, are tricky!)

One element of the calculation that makes it seem daunting at first is that it is impossible to measure a person’s full historical footprint in the present. Although one can certainly anticipate the historical import of an event or action in a journalistic context, historical significance emerges gradually, and it is most easily measured from a distance, with the benefit of hindsight.

One reason for this is that the future does have a way of yielding the unexpected.  Free will and unanticipated consequences mean that despite context, trends, and traditions, accidents do happen, and the truly unique or “sui generis” does appear.  Both of these have affected the course of events at many junctures in history.  For instance, when Corsica became a part of France in 1768 despite its close cultural ties to Italy, one could hardly have expected this minor transfer of European real estate to matter in the larger scheme of things.  One year later, however, a certain Napoleone di Buonaparte was born there, whose subsequent entry into French military schools as a youth, rather than schools in Italy, changed the story of the world.

If one can see the “big picture” of history, one can absorb shocks like these, and still plot out a general course for events based on fundamental trends. Even in the context of the Napoleonic upheaval, for instance, one could have predicted that a longer term struggle between the new liberal socialism of the French Revolution and the traditional monarchism of Europe would extend for generations. Such a prediction would have been based on a variety of factors, including on the one side the success of the American republic, the moderate course of England’s constitutional monarchy and its prestige on the continent, the current shocks being dealt to the decaying structure of feudalism by the Napoleonic presence throughout Europe, and on the other side the sustained ideological alignment of Russia, Prussia, and Austria during that period.

Still, there’s no question that Napoleon would have been “Person of the Year” for a good 15 years running, which fact helps us to see the first basic principle that applies in the “Person of the Year” algorithm. 

In a word, that principle is “preeminence.”

When one person occupies a place in world affairs that is incommensurably greater that all others, then the choice is easy.

Applying this principle, though one might like to choose, say, Thomas Jefferson in 1801, as third President of the nascent American republic and leader of that infant nation against the Barbary Pirates–or James Madison in 1812, the fourth President, standing up to Britain’s imperial might in defense of his people’s rights, I think that such choices would have been nearly impossible to make for even the best journalist at the time–though in the long run, one could eventually revise one’s choice. While Napoleon held sway over Europe, his actions and their apparent impact on the course of civilization swamped those of any other candidate, and even if these exceptions are allowed, they still serve to highlight the rule.

So preeminence trumps any other consideration, but what do you do when there isn’t a clear choice of the Napoleonic variety? What do you do when you live in a world without leaders–at least, a world without political leaders, as we do today?

(continued in Part 3)

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Time has crowned Vladimir Putin as its Person of the Year, with Al Gore, J.K. Rowling, Hu Jin Tao of China, and General Petraeus as runners-up.

In making its selection, Time has offered an interesting justification. 

TIME’s Person of the Year is not and never has been an honor. It is not an endorsement. It is not a popularity contest. At its best, it is a clear-eyed recognition of the world as it is and of the most powerful individuals and forces shaping that world—for better or for worse. [Full text here.]

I agree with this basic selection criteria.  As I often tell my younger history students, “Important is the most important word in history.”  Similarly, as I am wont to explain, when someone is known as “the Great”–as in Peter the Great, or Frederick the Great–it doesn’t necessarily mean “the Good” or “the Bad,” but it definitely means “the Important,” and that means that they deserve our attention.

I do not, however, agree with the choice of Putin as Person of the Year.  I certainly do not think he is good, and I do not think he is great in a historical sense either. 

Time proposes that he has brought “stability” to Russia, and this means that he is thereby shaping the world.  The truth is, however, that Russia remains fundamentally unstable, as is plainly evidenced by the fact that the Putin regime requires constant upkeep by a corrupt and oppressive apparatus.  The press is censored and dissidents are intimidated and jailed.  However inconclusive, the Litvinenko case, is also indicative of the nature of the Putin system of dealing with dissent. As Time’s Richard Stengel admits, it is an “imposed” stability–which means it is no stability at all. 

Russia remains in transition from full Communism to what, unfortunately, it remains uncertain.  Nationalism is now the main driving ideology in the culture.  Putin’s rhetoric is always colored with it.  It is the basic reason for his various international frictions with the United States and concurrently high popularity ratings among Russians.  Most disturbingly, it is the essence of the pro-Putin Nashi youth movement. 

But nationalism–a collectivist ideology which upholds the reality and value of the “nation” above that of its individual citizens–always acts as a host for socialism or fascism, i.e. government control of citizens through the “national” machinery of the state. Consequently, unless there is a significant ideological shift in Russia (and I don’t see how), it will continue to be a fundamentally statist country for the foreseeable future.

I suppose that is a kind of “stability,” if by stability one means constancy. But it’s not impressive by any historical yardstick I can think of.

(continued in Part 2)

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Powell History is offering its most amazing set of specials ever this holiday season. There’s never been a better time to enjoy learning history!

The first installment of the acclaimed A First History for AdultsTM curriculum, the 30-lecture “Story of America,” is available for $70 OFF the regular price of $449, from now until Christmas! (You pay only $379!!)

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Finally, Powell History’s latest adult history course, “The Islamist Entanglement”, a 10-lecture course starting February 8th, is now available for $50 OFF the regular price of $249, from now until Christmas! (You pay only $199!!) [Learn more about The Islamist Entanglement at the new course webpage.]

Buy one, two, or three great history courses, for yourself, or a loved one! These savings are available only until Christmas!

To learn more about the Powell History philosophy, and curriculum, visit the main site.

To take advantage of these holiday specials now, go the holiday registration page now!

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Previously in this series, I discussed how Western advances in science and technology championed by Prince Henry “the Navigator” led to the Age of Discovery.  

This period starting in 1415 with the conquest of Ceuta in northern Africa is one of the most accessible expressions of the broader secular advance of the West as part of the Renaissance, marking the beginning of the eclipse of Islamic civilization by its millenial rival.  In 1498, the decades-long Portuguese effort led to one of the most important milestones in the history of East-West relations: the Circumnavigation of Africa by Vasco da Gama.

From that point onward the Muslim world would lose the advantage of accidentally being at the crossroads of the Old World.  Trade would follow the path of least resistance not through its extortionate channels, but around.

Yet the Islamic world, confident of its superiority on religious grounds, would remain essentially immune to this external progress.  It lumbered on with myopic self-satisfaction. Nothing Western, it seemed, could penetrate its preconceptions of cultural primacy.  Nothing, that is, except a good-sized cannon ball.

Hence the importance of the Battle of Lepanto of 1571, in which a coalition of European navies dealt the Ottoman fleet a decisive defeat.  The Muslim Ottoman threat to Europe, ominously heralded by the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and shockingly reiterated by the Siege of Vienna–the capital of the Holy Roman Empire!–in 1529, was finally stemmed.

Indeed, the naval victory over the Ottomans signalled the beginning of a broader trend.  The Western powers began to achieve consistent military superiority over the East, in terms of navigation, engineering, weaponry and tactics.  Even when Europe was most vulnerable (during the Thirty Years’ War, 1618-48), Muslim vigor had already dissipated.  No new inroads were made, save the later (1683) attack on Vienna, which represents a fleeting martial revival, and no more.  The victories of the West over the Ottomans would come quickly and consistently from now on.  Even relatively backward Russia would make regular gains at the Muslims’ expense, and a new question would arise in European circles: the “Eastern Question”–the question of how to dispose of Ottoman spoils.

Another more fundamental question was also broached in some circles: why was the West exceeding its rival?  What was the source of this newfound military superiority and cultural dynamism? For the first time in centuries, the Islamic world began to look upon the West as a civilization it could learn from.  But what lessons would it learn? 

More on this as Middle East Milestones continues…

Of course, you can learn the full story in the upcoming Powell History lecture seriers, the Islamist Entanglement.

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The biggest problem with most history classes is that they are simply boring (as anyone who took history in high school can attest). Out of those that manage to be engaging or at least entertaining, the biggest problem is that you, the student, don’t retain the material you have learned: you may remember a few individual facts, but not the material as a sum. These classes are little better than storytime.

Powell History solves both problems, easily putting it in the top 1% of history lectures or writing I have ever encountered.

First, the lectures are engaging. Scott tells history for what it is: a grand, dramatic narrative, an epic tale literally about the fate of the entire world. He carefully chooses the characters and events to focus on, and explains the causal connections, the link from one event to another.

Scott shows you the connections between the people, places, and events of history–not only the causal connections in a sequence of events, but also, through his patented “periodizations”, the connections between events in a period, such as the Reformation, the American colonial wars, or the growth of the union in the period before the Civil War. The result is that each period becomes a meaningful mental unit and a means by which the student can remember history.

One of the great virtues of Scott’s periodizations is that they are hierarchical. There are only so many dates you can put in a period–say, the Age of Discovery–before you start forgetting them. Scott solves this problem the only way it can be solved: by organizing events in a logical hierarchy. Thus, the student learns to put a series of dates of individual voyages together under the heading “the circumnavigation of Africa”; another series of dates under “the discovery of America”, another set under “the circumnavigation of the globe”, etc. Then, only a handful of subheadings like this go to make up the higher-level integration of “The Age of Discovery”. Taking this a step further, the Age of Discovery can be combined with other periodizations at the same level–the Copernican Revolution in science, the Italian Renaissance in art, the Elizabethan Renaissance in literature, and others–to form the grand heading of the Renaissance, a historical “abstraction from abstractions.” In this way, Scott renders history intelligible and retainable.

This is why, when I took the first session of Powell History, I felt that I was learning history for the first time, despite all my previous study of it. I now know, for instance, the significance of 1066, the meaning of the Reformation, and the content of the Monroe Doctrine. (If you took history in an American school, you probably recognize all of those words–and know none of the content behind them.) I also know the challenges faced by the Founding Fathers to keep the nation together even after they had won the Revolutionary War, thanks to Scott’s explanation of the “Critical Period.” I understand the impossible compromises made in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and why they were futile. I know what made the Roaring Twenties roar.

In brief, I’m thrilled with Scott’s courses. They are what I have been seeking ever since high school: a way not just to hear about history from someone else who knows it, but to learn it for myself.

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The declassified version of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran is an interesting document.  It is put together by the National Intelligence Council, whose basic objectives–as stated in the NIE–include “to broaden and deepen the Intelligence Community’s perspective.”

In this Council’s document on the “intentions” of the leading sponsor of Islamic Terrorism in the world and an avowed enemy of the United States, how often do the words “Islam,” “Muslim,” or “Islamism” appear?

Not once.

Talk about “broad and deep”!

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