The distinction between current affairs and history lies in narratives. History looks at the past, and what happened has already been defined. Some are winners and some are losers; some have different views of what happened, but what is done is done and it cannot be undone. The dry bones of battles lost, the musty tomes of long-forgotten appeals to long-destroyed societies, all lie neglected and obscure. Someday our own words of sound and fury, signifying nothing, will join those forgotten words of the past, and will inspire no one any longer, whatever stories we tell ourselves and others. Current affairs, in contrast, is based on data points of (supposed) facts with many competing narratives of what is and what will be. As a historian, one serves as one of those guests at a funeral of causes past delivering a solemn eulogy. As a commentator on current events, we put on our talking head and our prophet’s cap and try to speculate on the future. Sometimes we do well, and sometimes poorly, but we really do not know enough to determine which channels of present life will become hardened into the decisive trends or what the future will look like with any degree of confidence.
We deal with the uncertainty of the present state of the world by writing narratives. We compare the present to the past, seeking patterns of behavior that can fill in the missing gaps of our knowledge and understanding. The more case studies from the past that we have to look at, the greater the confidence we have in our own conceptual models. Let us give an example. Based on historical precedent, we would say that a European-based invasion of Russia is highly likely to end in disaster, given the past experience of Nazi Germany, Napoleonic France, Sweden, and the Teutonic Knights. Those times when the invasions succeeded the best (the Poles in the 1600’s and Germany in World War I) occurred during times when Russia was divided and had been weakened by conflict for years and was overextended. These circumstances are rare, and Russia’s response to both was to expand to the west to provide even more space between threatening European powers and its vulnerable core regions. From these patterns we can express with some confidence that an invasion of Russia from Europe will probably fail. Only the Mongol invasion achieved lasting success, and it was based out of Central Asia. This sort of narrative helps to explain patterns of past behavior that are likely to be repeated if the same actions are taken.
But sometimes these stories do more than attempt to explain consistent cultural and geopolitical trends and seek to actively influence events. Take for example the stories that are told of our present and nasty political campaign as Americans, stories that actively compare the harsh negativity of the incumbent with negative failed campaigns of past political history . In Ghana, for example, political history is often written in terms of shifting coalitions based around Kumasi and Accra. By recognizing the behavior of candidates and the bases of power and support that people have, we can come to a general conclusion with some degree of confidence in patterns. People who are insulting and harsh are generally not confident about success, as negativity outside tends to spring from negativity within. In this field historical analysis, current events, and a bit of psychology combine together to fill our narratives.
So what are we to make of these often competing stories? For one, we are to recognize that these are stories and not facts. They certainly may help us feel less overwhelmed by data by putting things in a context, but we have to recognize that this context is man-made and that it is theoretical and conceptual. It is tentative, not written in stone, and subject to revision with new facts as well as balancing and unskewing of our fundamental (and often flawed) assumptions. Our narratives can give us some confidence, but not complete and total confidence. Let us also remember that none of us are immune from these narratives. The narratives of a propagandist in a spin room are not so different from the narratives of a prophetic pietist who abhors politics but is fascinated by geopolitics. All rest on unproven and often unexamined assumptions, and we would do well to examine these, to recognize the conceptual framework that all of us depend on to make sense of our world, and to recognize the distinction between fact and concept and to act soberly as a result.