An Age of Nationalism & An Age of Ideology

An Age of Nationalism & An Age of Ideology

In The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker presents an idea from Historian Evan Luard which frames the conflicts of the early 20th century against the conflicts which followed. Luard argues that the world transitioned from an Age of Nationalism to an Age of Ideology following the United States engagement in WWI.

Pinker writes, “Luard ends his Age of Nationalism in 1917. That was the year the United States entered the war and rebranded it as a struggle of democracy against autocracy, and in which the Russian Revolution created the first communist state. The world then entered the Age of Ideology, in which democracy and communism fought Nazism in World War II and each other during the Cold War.”

This is a helpful, broad overview of recent human history and the two major wars that still play major roles in our collective memories. However, it isn’t a perfect explanation and framework for understanding our history. While it is possible that humanity moved in a direction of ideology relative to a framework dominated by nationalism, it leaves us with an incomplete picture that is too final in its treatment of nationalism and too strong in its treatment of ideology.

Nazism was centered around the idea of an ethno-nationalist state. It is hard to argue that it was not a continuation of nationalism and was more focused on ideology. Democracy was (and still is) highly tied to specific nations, as was (and is) communism. The ideologies may have been the leading banners, but the nation states were still the leading actors. Ideology is a broad concept, and when you dig below the surface, few people truly have a consistent or well pieced together ideology. Even for large ideologies like democracy or communism – relative to fascism which I would argue acts more as a catchall term for bad governance – people have trouble truly defining what ideologies mean and represent. People tend to have strong identities and weak ideologies.

Nevertheless, we can see that there was a change between the first and second world wars, a change that took place in the later half of the 20th century as Pinker notes based on Luard’s writing. In the case of the 20th century, I would argue it was not a change from nationalism to ideology, but a change in what were the most salient aspects of nationalism. Humans shifted from conceptualizing a nation based on loyalty leadership and familial bloodlines to conceptualizing a nation based on collective efforts of governance.

Characterizing the world in terms of broad ages will necessarily miss nuances like the ones I tried to tease apart here, but they help us see that what applied in the past may need to be adjusted before being reapplied to the present or future. That is the case with viewing history as an Age of Nationalism transitioning to an Age of Ideology.

Great Powers Wars

Great Powers Wars

“Countries that slip in or out of the great power league fight far more wars when they are in than when they are out,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.
 
 
When we try to study the history of armed conflict we have to look at more modern examples of war and project backwards. We don’t have to go too far into the human past to start running into problems with records. Writing systems have been around for a while, but that doesn’t mean that everything that was written down was preserved and saved to today. It also doesn’t mean that since the time that humans developed writing systems humans have been recording wars and violent conflicts. Warring political factions and state based (however loosely you define a state) coalitions have likely been engaged in violent conflicts as far back as humans have organized themselves into political units, but can we tell if violent conflicts have gotten more or less common over history?
 
 
Pinker argues that conflicts have gotten less common throughout human history, especially in more recent history. Studying great powers helps us see that. Historically, humans are better record keepers when part of a major political unit. Great powers are better at documenting what they do, so their wars and conflicts are more likely to have been recorded and more of those records are likely to have survived to today. The evidence, as shown by Pinker’s quote, is that great powers fight more than minor powers. This means that studying the great powers gives us a good sense of the frequency of violent conflicts between political entities throughout history.
 
 
When we study great powers we see that violence has declined over time. The two wars of the 1900s were outliers. They were immense great power conflicts, and while great powers fight more than lesser powers, they generally have fought less and less over time. While it often doesn’t feel like it, war is becoming less common in human history. We are better at recording and documenting war, and evidence shows that we turn to war with less frequency than we did in the past.
The Poisson Nature of War

The Poisson Nature of War

When we look back at history and explain why the world is the way it is, we rarely attribute specific causes and results to chance. We don’t say that a group of terrorists happened to choose to fly planes into the World Trade Center on 9/11. We don’t say that a new technology happened to come along to advance the economy. And we don’t say that a war between two countries happened to break out. But in some ways it would make more sense for us to look back at history and view events as chance contingencies. Steven Pinker argues that we should do this when we look back at history’s wars.
 
 
Specifically, when we take a statistical view of the history of war, we see that wars follow a Poisson distribution. When we record all the wars in human history we see lots of short intervals between wars and fewer long gaps between wars. When we look back at history and try to explain wars from a causal standpoint, we don’t look at the pauses and gaps between wars. We look instead at the triggering factors and buildup to war. But what the statistics argue is that we are often seeing causal patterns and narratives where none truly exist. Pinker writes, “the Poisson nature of war undermines historical narratives that see constellations in illusory clusters.”
 
 
We see one war as leading to another war. We see a large war as making people weary of fighting and death, ultimately leading to a large period of peace. We create narratives which explain the patterns we perceive, even if the patterns are not really there. Pinker continues,
 
 
“Statistical thinking, particularly an awareness of the cluster illusion, suggests that we are apt to exaggerate the narrative coherence of this history – to think that what did happen must have happened because of historical forces like cycles, crescendos, and collision courses.”
 
 
We don’t like to attribute history to chance events. We don’t like to attribute historical decisions to randomness. We like cohesive narratives that weave together multiple threads of history, even when examples of random individual choices or chance events shape the historical threads and narratives. Statistics shows us that the patterns we see are not always real, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to pull patterns out of the randomness or the Poisson distribution of history anyway.
Learning from Patterns in History

Learning from Patterns in History

It is not enough to simply know history. Knowing history simply fills your brain with a bunch of facts. If you want to do something useful with the history that you know, such as learn from it to inform your decision-making, then you have to understand that history. Learning from history and understanding history means making connections, discerning patterns, and generalizing to new situations.
 
 
Steven Pinker writes about this in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature:
 
 
“Traditional history is a narrative of the past. But if we are to heed George Santayana’s advisory to remember the past so as not to repeat it, we need to discern patterns in the past, so we can know what to generalize to the predicaments of the present.”
 
 
If we want to make decisions about how to govern ourselves, about what we can expect if global warming intensifies, and about our economy, then it is helpful to look at patterns, trends, and outlier events of the past and understand them. We have to use statistics, test hypothesis against the data, analyze causal structures, and attempt to fit current situations into context using historical precedent. None of this is easy, and the science isn’t always exact, but it does help us better understand both what came before us and where we are currently. Patterns are what we learn from, and identifying real patterns rather than fluctuating noise is a complex but useful process.
 
 
Without taking the time to look at the past through a lens of data and science we leave ourselves open to misunderstandings of history. We will identify patterns that don’t actually exist, we will fail to put our current moment in the appropriate context, and we will be guessing as to what we should do next. By examining history and teasing out the patterns through statistical analysis, we hope to be able to make better decisions based on true historical precedence. We may still get things wrong, we may not use a large enough data set (or may not have a large enough dataset), we may not be able to generalize from the historical data to our present moment, but at least we are thinking carefully about what to do based on what the data of the past tells us. History is a story on its own, but with science it is a series of patterns that we can examine to better understand what has happened in the past and what may be to come in the future.

Evaluating Our Post Truth Moment

During the Trump Presidency I frequently heard people saying that we now live in a “post truth” society. People simply believe what they want to believe, the former President included, and reality or veracity of information no longer matter. All sources of knowledge were valid, as long as the source provided the information we wanted to believe.
 
 
But do we really live in a post truth society? I am not so sure that truth no longer matter. I am also not sure that what we are seeing with people choosing to believe things that cannot possibly be true is actually new. What seems to have happened during the Trump Presidency is that numerous people became dramatically attached to Trump, the identity he represented, and the cultural values he reflected. They agreed that they would not validate or recognize any information that ran against what Trump said or that was politically damaging for him. People chose to exercise political power over the veracity of information. That is disconcerting, but it isn’t really anything new in humanity. We hadn’t seen it in the United States at such a high level (at least not in my 30 year life-time) but humanity has seen such behavior in the past.
 
 
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “faith, revelation, tradition, dogma, authority, and the ecstatic glow of subjective certainty – all are recipes for error, and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.” The post truth moment we lived through included knowledge grounded in many of the fields that Pinker suggests we discard and also mirrors past human experiences of deriving knowledge from such fields. Trump was not the only authoritarian to claim that something was right (and to believe it himself) simply because it came from him or was something he said. Trump was elected on the dogma that a good business person was needed to run the government like a good business and the ecstatic glow of subjective certainty played a role in many people feeling that Trump’s electoral victory (or demise) was inevitable.
 
 
And all of these things have been seen in the past. Pinker writes, “the history of human folly, and our own susceptibility to illusions and fallacies, tell us that men and women are fallible.” We were afraid of the post truth moment that Trump fueled, but it was nothing new and on the other end we seem to be doing a better job of tying our knowledge and beliefs to empirical facts and data. Despite the upheaval of Trump’s four years in office, for almost all of us, our success in society is dependent on accurate interpretations of reality, not on illusions and beliefs born out of faith, tradition, or pure desires of how we want reality to be. In some large and concerning ways truth may take a back seat to our own desires, but for almost all of us, our daily lives still depend on accurate information.
Violence and Statelessness Within a State

Violence and Statelessness Within a State

Recently I have been making efforts to take longer views of history, to understand how things that happened and developed a long time ago still impact the world today. Sometimes this is easy to do. In a city, infrastructure decisions are evaluated and planned with 30 or more years of useful life intended for the investment. A building, bridge, or park is expected to stick around for a while, shaping its immediately area for a long time (or possibly forever if we chose to maintain the infrastructure indefinitely).
 
 
What is harder to see is how cultural products, as opposed to physical infrastructure products, stick around and continue to shape the culture and development of human social worlds. We are used to thinking of humans as individual actors who have the power to change and adapt to any given situation. We don’t think about how specific cultural arrangements could influence people for the long term. But the reality is that cultural interactions, products, and institutions can have a dramatic long term impact on people, just as a park or bridge can have a long term impact on a city.
 
 
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker discusses how lower-income African Americans ended up with higher rates of violence due to poor policing. These higher rates of violence translated into discriminatory practices that have lasted for a long time, and are still with us today. It is easy to think that any black person in the US today can simply chose to be different, to ignore the long influence of history, but that is to ignore the real social institutions that shaped how African Americans understood themselves in our nation. Just as it would be foolish to ignore the impact that a park had in making a city an enjoyable place to live, ignoring the discrimination that African Americans faced and the subsequent violence that grew within African American communities would be foolish.
 
 
Pinker writes, “communities of lower-income African Americans were effectively stateless, relying on a culture of honor (sometimes called the code of the streets) to defend their interests rather than calling in the law.” When government discriminated against black people, when the police were not a reliable and trustworthy source of justice, when black people had to defend their own honor or risk being taken advantage of, violence became a solution. By segregating black people, denying them access to quality services, and by racially profiling communities of color in policing, a stateless people were created within our country. The law did not afford equal protections and the state did not provide the same opportunities and engagement for black people relative to white people. This created situations in which violence flourished, furthering the very systems of inequality and injustice that created the situations for violence in the first place.
 
 
This history is long. It is not something that can be understood simply by looking at the violence that exists in African American communities today. To understand how we ended up with Black Lives Matter, to understand why rates of violence in communities of color are what they are, and to understand racial tensions, we have to take a long view of history. We have to acknowledge that cultural factors can have long-term impacts and consequences, just as infrastructure decisions can. Discrimination created a stateless people within the United States, and that statelessness incentivized violence. None of this is a matter of individual moral failings, but a consequence of decades of institutional and governance failings.
Does the Arc of Humanity Bend Toward Justice? - Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - The Better Angles of our Nature Steven Pinker - Joseph Henrich the WEIRDest People in the world - Joe Abittan

Does the Arc of Humanity Bend Toward Justice?

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “there is absolutely no proof that human well-being inevitably improves as history rolls along. There is no proof that cultures that are beneficial to humans must inexorably succeed and spread, while less beneficial cultures must disappear.” Harari effectively argues that there is not a grand arc of humanity bending toward justice, that our cultures and civilizations around the globe are not necessarily moving toward being more cooperative and peaceful, that cultural evolution is not driving us toward better lives. If that is happening, then it is chance, Harari may argue, or we may be moving in a better direction, but that our path is not necessarily the most optimal for humans. Harari continues, “There is no proof that history is working for the benefit of humans because we lack an objective scale on which to measure such benefit.”
 
 
Around the same time that Harari published Sapiens, Steven Pinker published The Better Angles of Our Nature, and in that book he argues that the grand arc of humanity does bend toward justice, and that humans are becoming better and building better cultures over time. Pinker presents many objective scales on which humans are less violent, less impulsive, and are living better lives compared to humans of the past. Across multiple measures and various perspectives, humanity is improving and the history of humans does seem to be working toward our benefit. It may not feel that way, but cultures are becoming less violent and impulsive, and we can measure it in many ways.
 
 
In 2021, about 6 years after Sapiens was published, Joseph Henrich published The WEIRDest People in the World, in which he examines what cultural values contributed to western, educated, industrialized, rich, democracies, and how Europe and the Untied States became so WEIRD. He suggests that history could have taken different paths and that chance events could have moved history in different directions, but shows how certain cultural arrangements seem to have had different outcomes for humans, and how some cultural arrangements were more favorable and spread in an evolution-like manner. There may not have been a specific WEIRD end goal of this cultural evolution and one could argue that human culture lost some valuable aspects along the way, but Henrich’s argument seems to suggest that Harari is incorrect in stating that beneficial cultures for humans do not outcompete less beneficial cultures.
 
 
Harari may be correct if the evolution of humanity moves in a similar direction to the evolution of chickens. Chickens are some of the most abundant living things on the planet. There are more chickens alive than humans. What  they did to become so evolutionarily prosperous was become incredibly valuable to humans as a food source. However, this evolutionary success in terms of overall numbers is not good for individual chickens. Their lives are short and brutal. Their species population has exploded at the cost of the individual chicken’s life quality deteriorating. If this is the ultimate fate of humans, then Harari may be correct, human evolution does not move in a direction that makes the most out of life and existence.
 
 
However, that doesn’t seem to be where our species is headed. Birth rates globally are declining. While humans face great challenges with climate change and technological development we certainly don’t seem to be heading toward a world of more and more humans with ever less enjoyable lives. And Harari is incorrect in saying that we cannot find a universal measurement with which we can evaluate human progress. We fight fewer wars, kill each other less, and are less violent toward others, as Pinker demonstrates. By all measures (possibly with the exception of happiness measures from physically dominant 25 year-old males who want to fight everyone) this is an objectively good thing. Additionally, Henrich demonstrates that cultural factors which favored increasing trust with strangers, as opposed to only being able to trust family clans, favored a more civilized and peaceful society, thus outcompeting less beneficial cultural arrangements.
 
 
In short, both Pinker and Henrich provide examples which refute this post’s opening quotes from Harari. The arc of humanity does seem to bend toward justice and human cultures do seem to evolve in a direction that is better for humans over time, even if that evolution is slow, more complex than we fully understand, and not necessarily the most optimal pathway of all possible pathways. 
Why Study History? Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - Joe Abittan Blog

Why Study History?

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari asks why we should study history if history is not deterministic. If history was deterministic, then we would be able to look back in time at what has happened and determine where things will go next. We would  be able to see clear causal links between events of the past and easily adjust our behaviors and decisions moving forward. If history was truly deterministic, then the trite saying, “those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it,” would actually mean something.
 
 
But history is not deterministic. There are random changes, chance events, and other unpredictable factors that influence everything from technological development, to GDP, and even marriage and family structures. We can look back and create a compelling narrative, but the causal power of our explanations is extremely low. We can see the how of history, that is how things unfolded, but not the why, not the causal structures underlying everything.
 
 
And that makes it reasonable to ask why we should bother studying history at all. Harari responds to this inquiry by writing, “history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”
 
 
History helps us see that racial hierarchies, monarchies, and other aspects of life and culture are based on little more than chance. It helps us understand that humans can live in more ways than we imagine and can have more experiences than we imagine. History doesn’t help us predict what is going to happen in the future and doesn’t tell us how we should live now, but it does help us see that the world is not as rigid as we may imagine. History should expand our knowledge of the possible and humble us in the choices and decisions we make.
Level Two Chaos & History

Level Two Chaos and History

“It is an iron law of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. History seems pretty clear when we look backwards. It is certainly complex, but whether it is our own lives, a sports season, or the rise and fall of an empire, we generally do a pretty good job of creating a compelling narrative to explain how history unfolded and why certain events took place. But these narratives create what we call the hindsight bias, where past events (in this case the course of human history) appear nearly deterministic. The reality is that small changes could shape the course of history in dramatic ways, and that the future is never clear at any point – as our current uncertainty about social media, climate change, and political polarization demonstrate. Harari continues, “in a few decades, people will look back and think that the answers to all of these questions were obvious,” but for us, the right answers are certainly far from obvious.
 
 
History, for human beings, is shaped by the innumerable decisions that we make every day. The course of history is not deterministic, but is instead chaotic. Harari argues that history is a level two chaotic system and writes, “chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it … level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately.”
 
 
The weather is a level one chaotic system because it doesn’t respond (on a day to day basis) to our predictions. Whether our computer models suggest a 1%, 45%, or 88% chance of rain on a given day doesn’t change what is going to happen in the atmosphere and whether it will or will not rain. Despite our sometimes magical thinking, scheduling a wedding or stating our hopes for or against certain weather patterns does not influence the actual weather.
 
 
History, is not a level one chaotic system. History is shaped by elections, the general beliefs within the public, the actions that people take, and how key actors understand risk and probability. Our predictions can greatly influence all of these areas. Predicting a landslide victory in an election can demotivate the losing side of a political divide, possibly turning what could have been a marginal victory into the predicted landslide as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Reporting that general beliefs are becoming more or less prevalent among a population can influence the rate and direction of changing beliefs as people hear the predictions about belief trends (this seems like it may have happened as marijuana and gay marriage gained acceptance across the US). Our reactions to predictions can influence the final outcomes, contributing more uncertainty and chaos to the system.
 
 
We cannot predict exactly how people will react to predictions about the systems they participate in. It makes the predictions and forecasts more challenging since they have to incorporate different levels of response to various inputs. History cannot be thought of deterministically because so many small factors could have changed the outcomes, and those small changes in turn would have influenced exactly what predictions were made, in turn influencing the reactions of the people involved in the various actions of history. Our confidence in understanding history and why history played out as it did is not warranted, and is simply a fallacy.
Complexity and Cultural Decisions

Complexity and Cultural Decisions

In the United States, and in much of the world, people are reexamining the histories and cultures that built the lives that people live. There is a push to disavow ancestors who were brutal to other people, to disavow groups that committed genocides and atrocities against others, and to disavow the cultural practices of people’s who dominated other groups. Whether it is the Black Lives Matter movement and the 1619 Project in the United States, countries formerly dominated by the British Empire working to redefine themselves beyond their colonial past, or native peoples trying to reestablish a culture that was oppressed by explorers hundreds of years ago, people across the globe are attempting to make difficult decisions about how to understand their culture of oppression and celebrate that culture moving forward without becoming as bad as their former oppressors.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the dilemma such people face. He writes, “whatever path we take, the first step is to acknowledge the complexity of the dilemma and to accept that simplistically diving the past into good guys and bad guys leads nowhere.” History is challenging. For example, while we generally dislike the history of British colonization, arguments can be made that countries colonized by the British had better outcomes than countries that were not colonized. Additionally, it is hard to separate what is truly derivative from one culture relative to another, especially after decades or centuries of cultural dominance and back and forth cultural influence. Simply arguing that history would have been better one way or another, or arguing that a culture should get rid of everything associated with “bad guys” is an insufficient way to think about how a culture should relate to its past.
 
 
In the United States this seems to be part of the problem with the sharp divide over the Black Lives Matter movement or Critical Race Theory. White people see these movements and fear that their cultural history is immediately tainted as bad and evil. Rather than feeling as though their cultural heritage has anything worth celebrating, they feel as though people are turning on their cultural heritage and disavowing anything that came from it, ultimately threatening the lives of white people today. If we want to address the cultural problems of white slave holders, it is important to recognize how difficult and thorny our cultural histories in the United States are, and to recognize that we cannot simply say that white people are evil (or have been evil). We cannot paint with a broad brush and must instead consider the nuances and complexities as we think about how American culture can move forward. In the United States this means that black people must be considerate of how their culture was influenced by white dominance, but also how their culture persisted and influenced the United States in positive ways. White people must also look back and not see their ancestors as purely evil. We can eliminate statutes and monuments to people who do not deserve to be praised, but we can also still celebrate aspects of our historical culture that propelled us to where we are. It is a difficult path to navigate, and probably doesn’t lend itself to a solid sense of balance, because cultures are too complex for dichotomies and balance.