Tuesday, June 10, 2008

History and Humiliation

Historians used to search through piles of dry facts looking for a grand underlying law of history, one that could shape years, even centuries of human action and make the future as predictable as the sum of two numbers. They failed.

Not only did they fail, but they ended up contributing to some of humanity's darkest chapters. Fascism and Communism were both products of the attempt to create a "science of history."

Perhaps historians have finally learned that history is simply the record of the way people react to their surroundings. Any apparent cycles in history have less to do with predictable laws and more to do with universal human nature. Consider how three once proud and mighty civilizations responded after suffering a humiliating military defeat.

From the 8th century AD to the middle of the 13th, the Arab world enjoyed the world's most successful civilization. It was the center of learning, art, commerce and religious tolerance. Over the next eight hundred years, it suffered one stunning defeat after another, first at the hands of the Mongols, then at the hands of European colonial powers, and finally at the hands of the tiny state of Israel, carved out of Arab land and created by the Western powers.

How did Arab civilization respond? It institutionalized violence, xenophobia, and racism.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, many Western intellectuals pointed to the new German state as an example of a progressive, scientific government. Then came its crushing defeat in WWI and the humiliating Treaty of Versailles.

How did Germany respond? It elected Adolph Hitler.

In 1820, China was the largest economy in the world. Trade with Britain left the British with a huge trade deficit, and the British decided to solve that problem by selling Indian opium in China.

The Chinese responded with their own version of the Boston Tea Party: they sank some of the British ships. Britain retaliated with the First Opium War, which ended in a humiliating Chinese defeat. The Chinese army was simply no match for modern weapons.

China tried to rebel again, and it lost the Second Opium War. Over the next forty years, two more Chinese rebellions were unsuccessful, leaving China at Britain's mercy.

Then came the Japanese, a nation China had long considered inferior, but one that had made the decision to modernize its industry and military after its own string of European colonial humiliations. After the end of WWII and the end of its own civil war, China finally regained control of its destiny under the Communist leader Mao Tse Tung, "the Great Helmsman," who promised to restore China to its greatness with a planned economy. It didn't work.

After the death of Mao, Deng Xiao Peng abandoned a planned economy in favor of old-fashioned capitalism with a Chinese twist. He said, "I don't care if the cat is black or white, only that it catches mice."

Deng was a pragmatist, not an ideologue like Hitler or Mao, nor a zealot bent on revenge like Osama Bin Laden. Deng correctly reasoned that the best way to recover from China's humiliation at the hands of the West was to unleash the talent, energy, and self-interest of the Chinese people. Make money, not war.

In two of the three cases, the desire for revenge led to war and more suffering. In one, the desire for respect led to a dramatic increase in wealth and peaceful world trade.

Both desires reside in all human hearts. The question for all of us is, which one shall we satisfy?

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