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On the Impotence of Historical Comparisons

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As the demonstrations in Cairo progressed and it started to look like Mubarak might actually step down, various media outlets and pundits started asking questions like “is Cairo Tehran 1979 or Berlin 1989?” (see here and here).

Timothy Garton Ash, writing for the Guardian, remarked that Cairo 2011 was neither Tehran 1979 nor Berlin 1989. It was Cairo 2011.  I think Ash was right, but I think his argument glossed over a point that often seems to be lost on commentators, journalists, and probably a great many politicians as they try to make sense of world events. The point is this: historical comparisons are never appropriate tools for making sense of protests, wars, rapid social change, legislation, or pretty much anything else that regularly makes the news.

All historical comparisons, when they are used to try to explain something, make two implicit assumptions:

1. There exists a very limited number of conditions that determine the outcomes the comparison is supposed to explain.

2. We know what the grand majority of those conditions look like for both the historical scenario that is supposed to explain, and for the current scenario that is supposed to be explained.

I have never seen a situation where these two assumptions are valid in attempts to explain events of the scale we saw in Cairo. That doesn’t mean these assumptions may not be valid in some situations. It just means our belief in those assumptions ought to be explicitly justified before we make them. To assume that years of oppressive rule an great numbers of protestors are the only relevant conditions is obviously wrong. But to what additional considerations do we turn our attention to adequately explain the events? Status and loyalty of the military? Foreign involvement? Local economic conditions? Communication’s technologies? There are all plausible influences upon the outcome.

That’s the problem.

The list of plausibilities doesn’t really end. I think we feel pretty safe assuming that “oppressive regime” belongs in the “relevant” category and that “last year’s TV ratings for the Grammy awards” doesn’t belong in that category. But everything between those two extremes is one big gray area.

If we can’t define beforehand what the majority of relevant conditions are, then there is no way to pick an apt historical comparison. I’ve seen no reason to believe that anyone following or analyzing world events has the slightest clue as to what the majority of relevant conditions are. Historical comparisons are by their very nature worthless, at least so long as we know so little about what causes large-scale behavioral changes.

An opinion piece in the New York Times recently quipped that “Egypt’s path does not have to follow Iran’s.”

The thing is, Egypt’s path cannot follow Iran’s. It’s impossible. That path doesn’t exist anymore, and it probably won’t ever exist again. There may be similar paths, but I haven’t seen any evidence that any of us who analyze world events know how to recognize those paths when we see them.

This isn’t just about protests and regime change. It’s just as inappropriate to ask if Obama is Clinton or Carter as it is to ask if Egypt is Germany or Iran. It’s also inappropriate to ask if Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, or any other country experiencing protests is Egypt. Historical comparisons are impotent.

Written by Schaun Wheeler

February 28, 2011 at 8:45 am