A Sea Change

When I was a kid I remember that teaching “history” went out of fashion. For instance, we didn’t talk about stuff like wars, such as WW1, WW2, or even the civil war or Vietnam. The teachers themselves did not seem to have much direct knowledge on the topics, either – often they’d let me teach the WW2 sections (when they came up) rather than have me continually interrupt (since they didn’t know anything more than what they were reading of the 2-3pp that summarized WW2). It was only a day here or there out of years of classes, after all.

What did they teach instead of history? From what I remember it was mainly “sociology“, which according to Wikipedia is “the study of society, including patterns of social relationships, social interaction, and culture”. I don’t remember learning too much, except that every page of the book featured multi-cultural interactions and photos; really that was all I remembered at all.

It is ironic that the study of history fell off the map (except for alternate histories where everything that the USA has ever done was crap, i.e. Chomsky / Michael Moore) and this sort of social “imagineering” picked up the pace, because, in reality, history of course moved on in completely opposite direction.

This months’ issue (March / April) of Foreign Affairs punches that issue right in the head with an article titled “The Clash of Peoples – Why ethnic nationalism will drive global politics for generations”.

There wasn’t a lot in the article that shouldn’t be familiar already with those that are students’ of history and especially European history; but unfortunately there aren’t that many of us so I will give a brief summary:

– Europe used to have mixed states and polyglot nations that were large in scale and size and mixed religions, races, and homelands. Classic examples including Austria – Hungary, which included a mix of German and other nationalities, along with allowing for high level intellectuals to flourish including Freud and Kafka, as well as the Ottoman Empire under Turkey, which actually had a reasonably high level of functionality and intellectual achievement before ossifying near the end
– these nations could have been a poster-child for those sociology books I perused as a child, since they had all kinds of different groups packed together with some overarching institutions (the army, the bureaucracy, the church)
– at the fringes of empire, particularly in the Balkans, embryonic nation states were often the spark that led to war, in particularly with Serbia in WW1 and even Danzig in WW2. True, these wars were often inevitable in any case, but these sorts of displaced and minority populations definitely contributed to the ensuing fire
– over the last 150 or so years, all of these nations have either broken down into their smallest, national parts or are in the process of doing so. In the rich West it often wasn’t that violent (Czechoslovakia splitting into Czech and Slovak republics) or it was explosively violent (Serbia / Croatia) on the fringes
– some of these splits happened earlier on; such as the war between the Greeks and the Turks immediately following WW1, and some happened since the fall of Communism in the 80’s and 90’s
– Even in those states that are classically thought of as solid like the UK there is continuous talk of splitting off Scotland; and Spain has a long-simmering low grade war with some of their ethnic minorities
– Belgium is barely holding together; they practically had to put out a press release saying that they were remaining as a state (the main sticking point is what to do with Brussels)
– The Netherlands isn’t much better; when you are there you can see the major dividing lines by ethnic groups, as well

Thus if you were keeping score, the “nation state”, the crucible of nationalism, has completely swept the board in Europe. Whenever people have been given a choice of living with people from another nationality, they said “no” (or Nyet or in myriad other languages). There are a few holdouts, like Belgium, but even they seem to be swimming against the tide.

A lot of this is likely due to the lack of an outside military threat; for other than economics and scale, it is the threat of an outside military power (like the old Warsaw Pact, which today seems strange to say since Poland is a bulwark against communism) that brought people together; while they might not like their neighbors, they liked the Russians even less.

Although the article doesn’t go further, the nation state is of course rising elsewhere. Many Asian states are facing this issue; look at the China / Tibet issue as a case in point. India is an amazing country in that it holds together at all; you could view India as a giant map of Europe as far as the mini-nations in its midst and the number of people in each. Within Pakistan and Afghanistan there are also mini-nations fighting it out; if left to its own devices (and the prospect of war wasn’t ever present in that area of the world) likely you’d have many more states in that region, as well.

The purpose of this post isn’t to say that the rise of the nation state is a good thing; it is just to state, baldly, that it has mostly swept the table in the developed world and that this fact doesn’t seem to have been reflected in the popular understanding of the way the world works. While the US is vilified in our own textbooks not to mention others, we are in fact one of the few polyglot nations left, and in a distinct minority in this regard. We may ultimately be one of the few nations like this, perhaps with Australia and the UK (should they hold together) as brethren.

If you taught history today (which they don’t) and started with the facts as they are, not the way someone would imagine them in an ideal state, you’d have to say that the axis of history over the last 150+ years says that the world will break into smaller and smaller states of ethnically and religiously homogeneous peoples, and those few countries that don’t do this (the US, China, India) are exceptions either economically or doing so for military or specifically historical reasons, and in fact the tide bets against those countries in the long run as staying together indefinitely.

Sociology as practiced in the 70’s textbooks I remember is an alternate universe, one not fettered by reality.

Cross posted at LITGM 

15 thoughts on “A Sea Change”

  1. There is a lot of excellent social history which focuses on social structures and on the daily lives of people…I’m thinking of the work of people Fernand Braudel, Marc Bloch, and E P Thompson, and it’s important to cover this perspective as well as the wars & politics perspective. I don’t think this is what is happening, however, in most K-12 schools or most colleges.

  2. I agree that there is some good sociology out there. However, there isn’t much good history out there in schools because the teachers were never required to take it, unless you count some strange non-western history or history of feminism or something like that. I guarantee that they all took psychology and sociology, however, so that is here to stay.

  3. Santayana warned us that those who forget their history will have to repeat the course–or something like that. I can not speak for your schooling, but my offsprng know a heck of a lot of history. One problem is that at a young age, history is oh so far in the past and it only begins with the student’s birth, so they imagine.
    as for Sociology, you can get a lot of good stuff on the Net, here

    A Sociological Tour Through Cyberspace

  4. I’ll bet your offspring know a lot about history because you know a lot about history. I was completely self-taught, and read history books obsessively. But as far as what is taught directly in school, it is usually pretty lame, at least in the public schools.

  5. Fred…thanks for the interesting link.

    From the lead-in paragraph:

    “But in the United States in 1979 what novelist can expect his work to be read by a biochemist, a Presidential candidate, or a director of corporations”…I think Lapham was making a lot of incorrect assumptions about his fellow citizens. There are plenty of highly-literate biochemists and executives.

  6. I think the rise of the nation state comes from the need to manage a complex technology and the associated economy.

    Managing technology requires communication and maintaining an economy requires trust. Both are easier if everyone speaks the same language and shares the same general values and expectations. The multicultural empires of the past worked because most production was agricultural and most trade local. Only the ruling classes had to communicate with and trust one another.

    As regions of the world transition from agricultural region to more industrial or post-industrial ones, nationalism raises it head. Most of the borders in the 3rd world were established just like the borders of eastern Europe, by empires unconcerned with the wishes of most of the inhabitants. The ethnic conflict we see results from people trying to create a cohesive polity out of a single culture group.

  7. And what is the likely answer to “the ethnic conflict we see results from people trying to create a cohesive polity out of a single culture group”…

    If Western Europe and the last 150 years are any guide, the answers are that these other areas will eventually split into tiny, homogeneous states, some peacefully, most violently, and eventually whether by force or being made into refugees, the people will align with these borders.

    This is the singular conflict between sociology and history… sociology talks about the issues, and history shows us the final results.

    I am not saying that this will be a better world. Especially in less developed areas, these tiny statelets might not be economically viable. Even today Ethiopia suffers from a lack of direct access to the sea, and others will lack fresh water or enough land to be remotely self sufficient. Along with this, shared infrastructure won’t happen unless it leads from a big mine or oil rich area to the port coasts where it is transported away to export markets.

  8. A profound shift in Europe is the rise of bi-culturalism.

    In almost every Western European country you have the predominate yet declining native ethnic culture (English, French, Spanish, etc) and a substantial and growing Muslim rejectionist culture.

    While the designers of the Europe Union hope for a Pan-European culture/identity to emerge from the EU nations, what is more likely to happen is a Pan-European Islamic Ummah.

  9. The native culture may be declining in numbers but they aren’t getting any less fierce in their desire to have their own government, even if it means splintering nations like the UK, Spain, and the Netherlands. I agree that there is a big rejectionist block but this, too, will likely get fixed the same way that it is fixed in the Middle East, through partitioning. Maybe you will have a mini-Gaza right outside Paris… there kind of already is one, today.

  10. What a chillingly pessimistic view! I’m not saying that you are wrong, but if nationalistic and tribalistic forces continue to dominate in the future as they have for the past thousand years years in Europe then we can look forward to a new Thirty Years’ War, a new World War I, and a new Auschwitz all with high tech ” improvements.”
    History is a nightmare from which we are trying to awaken.

  11. Actually a lot of the wars were over minority or displaced populations in Europe. Once they “fixed” the borders or moved the people, they were much less likely to have further conflict.

    The wars are going to happen in Africa, South America, and Asia, where the borders don’t match where the people live. If the course of these continents matches Europe’s course, you will see a ton more wars and civil wars and other conflicts. I would imagine that these wars mainly won’t be a high tech occurrence… after all the Tutsi / Hutu issues were “resolved” with weapons at hand.

    This is just history, sorry. It isn’t what people think is “supposed” to happen, and not what they see in their textbooks, but it is reality.

  12. Slugger: If you think that’s pessimistic, wait ’til you see my take. Lately I’ve been commenting on any blog that will have me that I think the nation-state (not just in Europe, but everywhere) is on its last legs. If you asked me to explain why I think so, and where I think it will lead, I would have to start my own blog just to do that, but I will give my best succinct explanation here:

    1) The state is a meaningless concept without well-defined and vigorously enforced physical borders to delimit its sovereignty. The pervasive nature and global reach of the Internet and other 21st century media are making it easier by the day for someone from country A to interact with and influence people in country B, without ever setting foot in country B oneself. This makes a mockery of physical borders.

    2) The nation is a meaningless concept without a cohesive culture shared by its members. The aforementioned global media have also exposed every nation they touch to an avalanche of foreign cultural influences, which people are free to embrace or reject, but which nonetheless inevitably compete with domestic cultures. Since no two people, much less entire nations, are likely to incorporate the same set of cultural influences into their own lives, the likely end result is what might be called a global “cultural cafeteria” producing what amounts to six billion “nations of one”. This would represent the final triumph of human cultural freedom, but at an enormous price: the death of traditional, shared cohesive cultures, and with them the traditional concept of the nation (and therefore the nation-state).

    3) Furthermore, the nation-state was designed to function independently of other nation-states. Economic globalization, on the other hand, places a premium on specialization and interdependence.

    To relate my thoughts to the context of Carl’s post, it occurs to me that breaking nation-states down into smaller and smaller components may be just another path toward the same end result. The trouble with both my scenario and Carl’s, of course, is that as nations become smaller and smaller, they are increasingly likely to be seen less as nations than as just little pieces of One World(TM). This is especially true if my “six billion nations-of-one” scenario comes to pass. I trust I need not elaborate further on the implications of that.

  13. This is my grand-scale view of how I see things trending in the future

    1 – Globalization of Trade and National Defense and the abolition of Nationalism/Patriotism and the sacrilization of Multiculturalism

    The One-Worlders.. the Wall Streeters.. the EU statists.. etc.. all working towards a future of interdependence and multilateralism. National borders are just impedidents to the progress of mankind… the erection of barriers is just provacation for war. All of humankind can work together (or equally be in submission ) and culture is just a costume that a person wears.

    The End of History

    They steadidy worked to decouple the public from their nations.. they kept the public happy with entertainments and comfortable life.

    Their scheme could have worked except

    They never what was coming

    2 – Islamization

    The Globalists, having thrown religion away (or never even having it to throw away) did not anticipate the Jihad.

    The Jihadis reject all the premises of material Globalization. Jihadis reject all things not from Allah. Jihadis reject the notion of the State and they reject a lifestyle or economic system that isn’t based on the tenants of Islam.

    So as the Globalists continue with their project to alienate peoples from their history and their future, the Globalists have inculcated a culture of ambivilence.

    The Gloablists have laid the ground work of conquest that the Jihadis will take advantage of. The Globalists are HIV and the Jihadis are the rare cancers.

    The Globalists will weaken our socities to the point where the Jihadis will just steamroll through our countries, destroying everything.

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