Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dangerous Games: Comments

My history book club met tonight to discuss Margaret MacMillan's book, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History. It was well received, perhaps because of its plethora of examples of uses and abuses of historical information and/or its conversational style.

MacMillan adds evidence to that which should be obvious -- poor historical analogies or badly used historical analogies have led governments into very bad decisions. I also assume that analysis drawing on good analogies with proper caution can be very helpful in avoiding bad policy decisions. Unfortunately, MacMillan does not provide much guidance on how to choose good historical analogies or how to use them effectively and avoid their misuse.

MacMillan seems to be trying to make the case that one should study history because knowledge of history can be useful (if substantial and well used rather than abused). I feel, and I think most of my friends in the book club feel that there is no need to justify the study of history for its instrumental value. History is interesting. We are curious creatures and history tells us about people and what they have done and presumably may do again.

One of the points made in the discussion is that different peoples understand history in different ways. If you want to understand a foreign culture, it is important not only to understand the history of the people who share that culture, but also to understand the way in which they view their own history.

The idea of history was invented. If you go back far enough in time there seem to be no histories. Herodotus is often described as the first to write a true history. However, his innovation was built on other previous innovations. There were epochs that mixed accounts of events with mythological materials, records of the family trees of rulers, land ownership records, etc. Over time other forms of history have been invented, such as military history, economic history, social history, etc.

I was thinking of my own experience as a development planner. Only once in my career did I contract with a local historian to produce a history of the sector in the country in which I was developing a program. He produced a very interesting paper, providing historical precedents for innovations we were considering, as well as explanations of why related innovations had failed and short summaries of politically motivated development policies that had serious sectoral consequences. My counterparts, citizens of that country, were very enthusiastic about the utility of the study, saying that it provided them with a lot of ammunition that they could use in defending the program as well as a road map as to how to proceed politically to get the support the project would need. They also refused to publish the study as too sensitive -- the only time I recall having such a pre-project study censored. The project was eventually funded,  my counterparts in the planning were put in charge, and the project was extremely successful. A part of the success was attributed to the historical groundwork that had been done. Yet the example was never, to my knowledge, replicated.

Indeed, I wonder how much of the history of the country in which they are working that most professionals involved in foreign aid actually know and understand!

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