History Heuristics

Recap of a fantastic-sounding Long Now talk, reprinted in full from my inbox and the Long Now blog.

The concepts Frank Gavin introduces in his talk “Five Ways to Use History Well” are not just useful in analyzing the past, but are critical for interpreting the present.

Why do policy makers and historians shun each other? Gavin observed
that policy people want actionable information, certainty, and simple
explanations. Meanwhile historians revel in nuance, distrust simple
explanations and also distrust power and those who seek it. Thus
historians keep themselves irrelevant, and policy makers keep their
process ignorant.

Gavin proposed five key concepts from history that can inform
understanding and improve policy dramatically…

–Vertical History. What are the deep causative patterns behind a
current situation? For example, America’s deep involvement in the
Mideast appears to be caused by concern about oil and terrorism and
by support of Israel. But none of those elements applied in the
mid-60s when we dove into the Mideast. Britain was Israel’s keeper
in those days and in financial trouble, the US was overextended in
Vietnam and in financial trouble, and Soviet influence was the main
threat in the Mideast. After the profound shock of the Six-Day War
in 1967, Britain withdrew and America took over on the cheap with its
“Pillar Strategy”—we would support Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
That arrangement drives everything today, and policy people have
almost zero memory of its origins.

–Horizontal History. The interconnecting events of a particular
moment—all the things simultaneously on the plate of a decision
maker—profoundly affect decisions. For example, Presidents Kennedy
and Johnson in the 60s were obsessed with America’s balance of
payments deficit and had to draw down our troop commitment in
Germany, but Europe was obsessed with keeping Germany from building
nuclear weapons, and so the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was
invented as a workaround. That situational artifact leads US policy
40 years later.

–Chronological Proportionality. “The New York Times always gets it
wrong, and they’re the best of the media,” Gavin noted. Dramatic
events take our attention away from what’s really going on. For
example, the Vietnam War dominated American attention in the 1960s
and still looms large in every policy discussion. But the war was of
no real geopolitical consequence, particularly when compared with the
huge consequences from other little-noted 60s events—the Six-Day
War, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, growing stability in
Central Europe, and the thaw in relations between China and America.
That raises the question: what is Afghanistan distracting us from
these days?

–Unintended Consequences. Suppose America had won in Vietnam? We
would have had to commit huge resources to Southeast Asia
indefinitely, and China and the USSR would have had to ally in the
face of our military presence there. With our humiliating defeat,
China and the Soviets split permanently, China and the US became
friendly, and America profoundly reassessed and improved its own
policies and institutions. So it goes in real life: things turn out
differently than we expect.

–Policy Insignificance. What policy people do is often not the main
event at all. For example, in the mid-70s policy makers in
Washington were trying to fix an America they saw in a steep decline
and locked in an endless Cold War. They paid no attention to three
events going on in California. Apple’s computer in 1976 signaled a
coming American dominance in computer and information technology.
Also in 1976 a California wine (Stag’s Leap) defeated the best French
wines in a blind-taste contest, signalling our competitiveness in
high culture internationally. And in 1977 “Star Wars” became the
highest-grossing film ever, signalling American dominance of world
pop culture. America’s greatest economic and cultural boom took off,
totally without Washington’s involvement or even awareness.

During the Q&A Galvin noted that Kennedy got the Cuban Missile Crisis
right by locking all the dangerous heavy-hitters in a small room for
thirteen days while he applied his own “historic sensibility” to
finding a back-channel way to defuse the crisis rather than
exacerbate it. These days, Gavin observed, policy people are
worrying excessively about terrorism and nuclear weapons
proliferation when in fact nuclear weapons are on the wane everywhere
and have been for decades.

Historians, he said, can bring a well supported, authoritative,
helpful message to the public discourse and to policy makers at such
times: “Don’t freak out.”

–Stewart Brand

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