Has the constant barrage of political news got you down? Yale University historian Timothy Snyder reminds us that looking at things from a historical perspective—and comparing your own perspective to this—can help you from becoming overwhelmed… and keep your emotions in check when you browse your newsfeed.
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History is actually the one thing I think which allows you to get out ahead. It’s very ironic, because when people think about history they think, “Well, history means that things are going on in the world and a historian is off reading dusty books,” which, fair enough, I would love to be reading lots of dusty books right now. I will concede the point.
But when you’ve read all those dusty books, what happens is that you have the ability to see certain patterns, you have a sense of what fits together and what doesn’t fit together.
Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay on the possibility of the scientific history, in which he said that “history is not about knowing what happens, it’s about knowing what can’t happen.” That is extremely useful.
So a historian will never look at a problem and say, “This is entirely new,” a historian will look at a problem and try to find the familiar aspects of it.
And that’s a very big advantage over other forms of analysis, because if you look at something and say that it’s totally new, that disables the mind right away, it also tends to disable, I think, political action.
Because if something is totally new it’s very easy to take the next step and say, “Well if it’s totally new then what can I do about it?” Or you can say, “Since it’s totally new all things are permitted,” which can also lead you in some really unproductive direction.
So the first thing the historian will do is we’ll say, “Whatever this problem is, it’s not entirely new.”
When a historian is confronted by something very surprising like the 2016 campaign in the United States, the historian is likely to say, “Well, the things that this candidate is saying aren’t true, but the possibility this kind of campaign could work is a real possibility.”
So the historian is freed from, or should be freed from the conviction of the day, and the historian automatically looks back to other moments where similar things like this coalesced.
So for example, we’re in a second globalization. There was a first globalization in the late 19th and early 20th century. The second globalization began, our globalization began, with all kinds of promises that technology and export-lead growth would lead to enlightenment and liberalism—the first globalization did too. The first globalization crashed. It crashed into the first World War, the Great Depression, the second World War, Stalinism, the Holocaust.
A historian looking at today won’t think “Well that whole pattern is going to repeat itself,” but the historian looking at it today can say, “Yeah, a politician who says that globalization is a problem not a solution, a politician who says that globalization is a matter of particular people plotting against us as opposed to objective threats to the country or objective problems, that kind of politician has a chance. That can work. Things like that have worked before.”
And once you see that it can come together that way, it’s not that you’re sure, it’s not that you predict it (although I have made some predictions that were right), but it’s more that you can see it coming together, and then that allows you to get out ahead, and you can think, “Okay, well, if this is going to come together this way then I can also steal from the past people’s correct reactions to it or people’s wise reactions to it. I can use those things from the failure of the first of globalization, I can just borrow them, I can now extract them and put them in the 21st century,” which is what I did in On Tyranny. So rather than saying, “Okay I’m going to wait” – because by the time the pattern actually coalesces it’s too late! You have to see that the pattern might be coalescing and then start messing with the pattern, that the way that you see in coalescing comes from history, and the tools that you use to start messing with it also come from history.
So in that way, ironically, history can allow you to get out ahead of something, whereas the journalists naturally have to describe that—that’s their job. The social scientists they’re going to wait to categorize it, and they’re kind of trapped.
I mean another irony is that historians are comfortable with novelty, because we know things change all the time. When your perspective is a thousand years or even a hundred years, you know stuff changes. You know there are turning points.