Thursday, December 16, 2010

Playing into the historical narrative

History is seldom as romantic as history books make us believe. In truth, it is a messy, unpredictable, and unbalanced narrative. Last night, I was surprised to read that Michaelango actively disliked leonardo da vinci and hated Raphael even more. So the trinity of the artistic Renascence moment were entrenched in contention? Even more significant was how bitter the relationships between some of America's Founding Father's were. Reading Founding Brothers has been a very enlightening exercise for me in this regard; it wasn't just a matter of Federalist versus Republican, John Adams despised Alexander Hamilton more than any the other members of the opposing party.

John Adams, in his embittered years as ex-president, 1800-1805, describes how the historical accounts of America's quest for independence and the events that occurred within the Continental congress were highly romanticized into one flowing and seemingly inevitable narrative, when this wasn't actually the case. Adam's insight, that there is an enormous discrepancy between witnessing history and viewing it through post-facto documentation, is key to understanding the significance of the American Revolution. According to Adam's account, Jefferson was a second rate player in the continental congress who could hardly find it within himself to utter 3 sentences. His ascendancy to fame was the result his fortuitous role in drafting the Declaration of Independence; Jefferson seemed to have perfect pitch when it came to playing what the historical accounts wanted to hear. While Adam's played a larger role, Jefferson got the credit. This is not to detract from Jefferson's voluminous accomplishments as a statesmen, which are justifiably well regarded, especially later in his career . Adam's was a great admirer of this Jeffersonian trait, realizing that that it was this ability that made Jefferson more memorable. And in truth, the volatility of the situation was such that the premises were built upon a plethora of contingencies that anything could happen. The seemingly momentous can turn out trivial and the seemingly trivial and turn out momentous. So contrary to what many of us think, the American revolution was not inevitable. The salient point was that history painted a true but misleadingly smooth picture.

This ties in quite nicely with Nassim Taleb's exellent book, The Black Swan, which unfortunately I have been remiss in reviewing. Talebs dubs this history-book way of perceiving "the narrative fallacy." And one in which we would do well not to engage in. Citing World War 1 as an example, he demonstrates that with the benefit of hindsight we retroactively attach an obviousness about the outcome which was wholly unknown to the actual players in the historical arena. Because the reality of it is, the real world is messy and wayward to our predictions; it is after the events that that it starts making sense, making us fall into a false sense of epistemic arrogance regarding the future, just because we can rationally explain the past into a smooth, sensible narrative.

This is not an attack on the profession of historians; it is important to make history fun, which it is, of course.

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