Home/Daniel Larison/Maybe It’s Time to Give Up on Forced Historical Analogies

Maybe It’s Time to Give Up on Forced Historical Analogies

I know I should leave it alone, but Thomas Friedman’s latest is particularly annoying:

When the Arab Spring first emerged, the easy analogy was the fall of the Berlin Wall. It appears that the right analogy is a different central European event — the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century — an awful of mix of religious and political conflict, which eventually produced a new state order.

If there’s one thing that all of us should have learned over the last two years, it is that making forced analogies between Arab uprisings and very different historical events from other parts of the world is almost certain to create more confusion and misunderstanding than it eliminates. Many optimistic Westerners were tempted to make comparisons with eastern Europe in 1989, and slightly more skeptical observers saw similarities with the revolutions of 1848, but like Friedman’s comparison these have been attempts to liken contemporary events to some point in a standard Western historical narrative. A lot of this seems to depend on the mood of the particular Westerner making the comparison.

The more enthusiastic the observer is about these uprisings, the “closer” in time to the contemporary West the events seem. The enthusiastic Westerner thinks that it’s Europe in 1989. The skeptic sees signs of possible political progress but also sees great entrenched opposition to political change, and therefore prefers the 1848 model. The despairing observer concludes that the region must be about to enter decades of catastrophic death and destruction. If Friedman’s comparison with the Thirty Years’ War were a serious one, he would be saying that the uprisings and conflicts of the last two years are going to usher in region-wide chaos and the deaths of many millions. For the record, I don’t think anything remotely as devastating or transformative as the Thirty Years’ War will take place in these countries. To call Friedman’s comparison excessive and alarmist would be an understatement. It’s not surprising that Friedman has veered from offering one of the more optimistic assessments of these uprisings to now offering one of the gloomiest, and all because events have unfortunately unfolded in a more or less predictable way. No one loses hope faster than a disappointed optimist.

Friedman continues:

The second surprise? How weak the democratic opposition has been.

Friedman is referring specifically to Egypt. To be blunt, this is the absolutely least surprising thing about the last two years in Egypt or in any of these other countries. Of course the democratic opposition has been weak. Considering how long Egypt has been under authoritarian rule, how could it be otherwise? If Friedman is surprised by this, there is no end to the things that will surprise him.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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