If one is a student of history, very quickly one recognizes that the behavior of peoples often falls into patterns. In times of crisis people long for familiarity, for a return to an imagined past, and that means that certain “solutions” in terms of behavior and governing styles are to be expected in such times as these. Knowing those patterns and perennial “solutions” to problems allows us to see the terrain of history and allow us to plan for the most likely possible outcomes of social turmoil. By recognizing that the solutions of different peoples flow organically from their own remembered past, we can be equipped to be sensitive to those possibilities and better able to act in response problems by knowing the biases in the systems we are dealing with.
There are many patterns that repeat themselves over and over again in history. The attempt of nations to attack Russia and Russia’s default defense of depth and their strategic use of the Russian winter as an ally is one of these familiar patterns. The Russian tendency to seek a strong executive (a Czar) in times of crisis is also a familiar pattern. Not surprisingly, this is a problem in just about any given society, whether it is a nation or a company. In a crisis it is resolute leadership that is most valued, strong leaders who are able to effectively overcome the enemies and obstacles and longstanding problems that plague an organization or institution. There is a time for moderation and mildness and there is a time for grim resolution and a pursuit of any and all means to victory. We are rapidly approaching the point of a world looking for grim resolution, and in some parts of the world we are already there.
The misnamed “Arab Spring” is one example where our willful ignorance of historical patterns is particularly serious. In the minds of our more foolish citizens, we vainly imagine that we are freeing the world from horrible dictators like Gaddafi and Assad to make the world safe for Arab democracies, only to realize that a Western-style democracy is the last thing the people of those nations have in mind. They know secular dictators, and they have a historical memory of monarchies and caliphates. They have no historical memory of a democracy or a constitutional republic, a particularly difficult style of government to get right.
In fact, very few nations have a substantial culture of a constitutional republic. The nation of Switzerland managed to cultivate an excessively complicated and rule-bound direct democracy out of a rough and rugged history which included long wars against the Holy Roman Empire, finally having their independence recognized in 1648 (along with the Dutch). The United States had colonial assemblies for more than a hundred years in most of its colonies before attempting independence, and even then it took two constitutions to get it mostly right (the Articles of Confederation didn’t last, being too weak). The French have now been on at least five republics, none having lasted longer than a few decades. And these are the successful examples of republics in recent history. (The UK hasn’t even bothered with a written constitution, preferring to muddle along organically.)
The point is that change for the better generally tends to be gradual and consensual and organic. Unfortunately, natural decay happens the same way. When there are dramatic shifts and crises, the result is not a rational and sensible analysis of preferences but a batten down the hatches bunker mentality where one goes to the most comfortable and familiar option because of a desire to escape the unacceptably high levels of stress. This invariably means that we go back to what we know best, and that usually is not a good option (since the vast majority of the experience of the world is bad). If we were wise we would seek to avoid crisis by providing for gradual responses to problems without either digging in our heels and refusing to accept change or seeking far-reaching and revolutionary changes. But it is hard to move at the right pace, and often times the pace of change catches us flat-footed (some of us, like myself, being flat-footed naturally).
One of the reasons why we should all study history (including personal and family history) and take it very seriously is to understand what our own personal defaults, and family defaults, and organizational defaults, and societal defaults, which are nearly uniformly bad, so that we can consciously work on them and correct our own faulty patterns through diligent practice, correcting our terrain to reflect our hopes and dreams instead of our pasts and our fears. It’s not easy work–it takes time and a lot of work, but the alternative is to continually be stuck in the ruts of the past without comprehension of why we are there in the first place.
We do not have to be slaves to our pasts, but to free ourselves from the terrain of history requires that we mold and shape it by better models and take the hard work of turning our visions of a better future into concrete actions that we take to make our worlds real, little by little, turning the past into a bad but useful case study and making better patterns for ourselves and our posterity to follow in time. Let us hope that we have the time and the will and the resources to create a better future than we and our world have ever known, so that we may escape the doom of ignorantly falling into the same old bad patterns that so easily appear in times of crisis such as we know see.