The Force of History

The Force of History:

So cites Carlin Romano, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He wants those outraged over the recent Swiss minaret ban to think deeper:

Forgive me if I, too, do not weep that 57.5 percent of the Swiss, now hosts to a largely moderate Muslim population of Turks and former Yugoslavs, want to keep their country a quiet car among nations. I am still busy weeping for the Armenians, the first people in their corner of the world to officially adopt Christianity, almost eliminated from history due to regular massacres by the Muslim Turks among whom they lived for centuries.

Is bringing in the Armenian genocide too big a stretch when contemplating an electoral act about urban design rather than a state policy to implement ethnic cleansing?... What about the Crusades? The Inquisition? America's genocide of Native Americans? Church bells and belfries? Jordanian denial of citizenship to Jews? Nineteenth-century European colonialism in the Mideast? Islamic discrimination against gays, Jews, women, Christians? Serb persecution of Muslims in Bosnia? The Battles of Tours (732) and Lepanto (1571)? Wahhabi fundamentalism? Swiss collaboration with the Nazis? Swiss protection of Jews from the Nazis? It's enough to make one's head swim.

Perhaps we'll all need "Advanced Context" as a required liberal-arts course once the anarchy of cybercommentary takes over all intellectual debate. Allow me, then, in this amorphous, pluralistic environment, to return to the Armenians. Because it may well be that persuading people about appropriate context in large moral matters can't be done a priori, but only, so to speak, pragmatically—you juxtapose the context you think relevant with the issue at hand, and see whether it makes a difference to what anyone thinks.
If that's the standard, you may as well not bother. Analogies to history never persuade anyone of anything they don't already believe. For one thing, it's too easy to grab a different analogy that 'proves' something different, and argue its relevance instead.

For another, there are often radically different interpretations of the same event. The phrase "O. K. Corral" has been invoked on the floor of Congress numerous times as an argument in favor of gun control measures that would limit firearms to policemen and officers of the law. If such measures are meant to avoid the O.K. Corral, how to interpret the fact that it was precisely such a law that precipitated it? It was the attempt to enforce Tombstone's gun control law that was the proximate cause of the gunfight. A even worse problem is that the survivors of the losing side got themselves deputized by the Sheriff and went after the town and Federal marshals. A police-officer-only model of gun control would have done nothing to avoid the shootout, or reduce the violence that followed it.

The one thing that did reduce the violence is the very thing that Congress most hates to consider: citizen vigilantes, who informed the participants that any future shootouts had better be conducted outside of town or there would be some hangings. This maneuver was so effective that historians still have trouble deciding exactly what happened in the rest of the war between those factions, as very little of it occurred close enough for nonpartisan witnesses to view.

So we might respond: 'If I were to accept your proposed context of the O. K. Corral, then, Senator Such-and-So, logic would suggest that we could reduce dangerous violence by avoiding gun control laws, but endorsing lynch mobs.'

Will that convince him, even after you've accepted his context? Of course it will not. This is because his historical argument has nothing to do with why he was pushing the policy; it was merely a tool for him. Destroy that argument, and you have still not touched his reasons for wanting the policy.

These are likely to be emotional, not logical: as with our discussions on Aristotle, it is normally the non-rational part of the soul that determines ends. The rational part determines means. All he will learn from your argument is that he needs a different means to his ends.

If you want to change his desired ends, you need a non-rational argument. Beauty is such an argument: love is. History is not, but myth can be.

That is one very good reason why we need to make myths as well as histories. We need them both.

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