One of the cardinal values of a proper method of history is the pursuit of “insight” into the world around us. Only history can answer the fundamental queries we naturally pursue from our childhood, and only become discouraged of asking through the failure of modern pedagogy. “Where did the world around us come from? How did things come to be the way they are now? Who made it so? Where are we headed? Down what path? What forces shape the world, and by what means? Do we control the world we live in, and, if so, in what sense?
When Herodotus, that other great ancient Greek historian, proposed to record the results of his inquiries into the shaping of the Greek world, he explained that his purpose was “to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements of both the Greek and the non-Greek peoples; and more particularly, to show how the two races came into conflict.”
Herodotus’s goal was to help the Greeks see their land within a geographic and cultural continuum of peoples, and the events unfolding around then as part of a chain of cause and effect that had brought them where they were. To the student of the world informed by history, the moment is always to be integrated into an arc connecting past, present, and future. It is thus both the culmination of a knowable process and a link in a progression leading to yet further predictable milestones in a causal series.
One may not be able to predict, for instance, the precise moment of a revolution in post-Nasserist Egypt, but one may very well have predicted that Egypt would be the next US-supported Middle East regime to be toppled (see: The Islamist Entanglement, lecture 4) and that it would necessarily gravitate towards an Islamist government. While Western commentators were tripping over each other in the past year to find hopeful signs of a “liberal” regime emerging from the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the outcome could never have been in doubt for those who benefit from the insight that history provides.
One particularly sharp example of the difference between a purely journalistic outlook and a historical one was demonstrated in the exchange between MSNBC anchors and Harvard historian Niall Fergusson — available on Youtube:
One of the general themes I discuss in The Islamist Entanglement is that more democracy will always mean more Islamism in the foreseeable future of every major regime in the Middle East – including Turkey, the most “Western” regime, where growing Islamism is and always has been a popular movement in the post-Kemalist era there.
To demonstrate the importance of a proper causal perspective on history, one of the regular features of the new PHR newsletter will be a “Vectors” feature. In this feature we will look at current events that reflect historically significant trends in order to predict the shape of the world to come. (Coming in April, for instance, we’ll examine what I call the “debt aggregation” vector, which portends a false stability and far greater financial disruptions than the 2008 financial crisis to come. Stay tuned!)