Sunday, May 2, 2010

History and People

I was chatting on the phone with a former student, one of my "conservative" former students [he really is bright despite his continuing confusion about politics...;-)] and he said something like "The definition of insanity is: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result." I said that I make only one change in that aphorism: "Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of 'normal'"! Having learned from my brother, Mike, the psychologist, that most of us repeat behaviors we learned in childhood, until we see the light [or not], I think that repetition in behavior is normal, what most people do most of the time, including of course our politicians. "Deadly Paradigms," a book I mentioned here earlier, is about this kind of behavior, specifically our repeating what is called "counter insurgency politics and war" despite the fact that it is not at all clear that it has ever worked. Of course, Vietnam is the clearest example of this failure and, yet, despite that failure, we are pursuing pretty much the same strategies in Afghanistan - "Fight, Clear, Construct". Does this mean we won't prevail in Afghanistan? No, it doesn't, but it does mean we have to wonder even if we do prevail whether it was because or in spite of our "counter insurgency" strategies. Which brings me to my second point.

Then my friend said, "History repeats itself, as in the saying that those who don't know history are bound to repeat it." And I said, after a light bulb moment, "No, history does not repeat itself. People repeat themselves." That is, we think that history repeats itself because that is what we want to think, even what we need to think. That makes sense of our all-too-human tendency to repeat behaviors we learned once and which we cannot shake. You know, Saddam Hussein is Hitler...Now that makes it all simple, we think. Just avoid "appeasement" and all will be fine, just as if we had avoided appeasement in Europe pre-WWII all would have been fine in Europe! Problem: We did avoid appeasement in the Far East, with regard to Japan, and all was not fine there!

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