Dragging History Into the Present Moment vs. Dragging the Present Moment Into History
If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:
One of the earliest podcasts to gain widespread attention, and still one of the best podcasts even now is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. I’ve always been interested in history, but I think listening to Carlin really changed something for me, and made me connect to it in a way that had been rare previously.
At the time I started listening Carlin was in the middle of his series on the Mongols, Wrath of the Khans. If you haven’t listened to that series, and especially if you haven’t listened to any Hardcore History I would definitely recommend that podcast and that series in particular. Wrath of the Khans was easily the equal of the best history books I’ve read.
As everyone presumably knows, the Mongol conquests were kicked off by Genghis Khan, who became Great Khan of the Mongol Empire in 1206 when he united the tribes. Having accomplished that, he wasted no time in proceeding to ravage Eurasia. I imagine nearly everyone has at least heard the name Genghis Khan, but that beyond that most people don’t know very much. Though, if the average person was pressed for some fact about the Khan, I imagine the most common one they would come up with is his staggering number of descendants. And it is truly staggering, it has been estimated that out of all the males currently living, half a percent are direct patrilineal descendents of the Khan. (They have his y-chromosome.) Using current figures for world population that translates into just shy of 20 million men, which is about the same as the number of males in California.
Another bit of trivia, one which is significantly less well known, is that the conquests carried out by Genghis and his immediate successors killed an estimated 11% of the world’s total population. At the time that amounted to somewhere between 37 and 60 million people, but today that figure would be 844 million people. If even the low estimate is accurate the Mongol Conquests would represent the largest act of mass killing ever perpetrated. So how is it that, at least as far as I can tell, (and google auto-complete bears this out) there is far more interest in his staggering number of descendents than there is in the staggering scale of his destruction?
I assume that most people would answer that it’s because those killings happened a long time ago. This is a perfectly reasonable answer, and it’s the answer that first occurs to me as well, but just because it’s the first answer that comes up doesn’t mean it’s the whole answer. I think the history that gets emphasized and the history that gets ignored is a complicated and interesting topic, one that’s worth digging into deeper. For example, while historical distance may be a great answer for people’s ignorance of the Mongol destruction, it’s less applicable to something that’s happening as we speak. To illustrate I’d like to pull a quote from my review of Age of Entitlement by Christopher Caldwell:
[I’ll] start by mentioning an interesting statistic the book includes on the opioid crisis. In order to put the crisis into perspective Caldwell mentions that during the post Vietnam heroin crisis deaths spiked to 1.5 per 100,000, and that during the crack epidemic deaths spiked to 2 per 100,000, but that the opioid crisis has caused deaths to spike to 20 per 100,000, and in West Virginia the rate is actually 50 per 100,000. And yet, it’s only been recently that [the opioid crisis has] gotten anywhere near the same amount of coverage as the first two crises.
I am not arguing that opioids have been ignored, but as Caldwell points out it took a long time before they were getting emphasis equal to their fatality level. And while Caldwell was reduced to comparing the attention given to opioids to the attention given to crack and post-Vietnam heroin abuse, we’re now able to compare it to the emphasis placed on COVID, to compare overdose deaths to COVID deaths. West Virginia’s opioid death rate of 50 per 100,000 is greater than the COVID death rates in Hawaii, Alaska and Vermont, and it’s within shouting distance of the 68 per 100,000 rate of my home state of Utah. Since 1999 841,000 people have died from a drug overdose, while only 571,000 have died from COVID. And while there’s reason to believe that COVID deaths will soon bottom out, opioid deaths just keep increasing. The most recent CDC press release on the subject:
Over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, according to recent provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic.
I’m not trying to argue that the opioid crisis is worse than COVID, but it appears that the magnitude of the deaths is very similar. On the other hand the magnitude of the response has been miles apart. People are already talking about how to prevent the next disease pandemic, but very little on preventing the ongoing epidemic of opioids. It seems clear that the pandemic has made it onto the list of “Humanity’s Big Mistakes” that we expect every citizen to be aware of. Has the opioid crisis? I joke about such a list, but it seems like a very useful list to have around. What sort of things would we put on it? What standards would we apply before we include things? And is there a standard that includes COVID, but not opioids? And the overarching question of the post, why has the one been emphasized while the other has been comparatively ignored?
Another short historical example. In the course of this blog I’ve been a big proponent of making sure we pay attention to big risks. For example: 75,000 years ago the Toba Supervolcano erupted. It was the largest volcanic eruption ever, with an eruptive volume of 2800 cubic kilometers. (Measured using dense-rock equivalent standard.) Of which 800 cubic kilometers was deposited as ash fall. The enormous amount of material which was ejected into the air led to a dramatic climatic shift. The Toba Catastrophe theory holds that following the eruption the number of humans on the Earth dropped as low as 1,000 breeding pairs. Obviously it’s hard to confirm something that happened so long ago, but if it is true this is probably the closest we’ve ever come to extinction. So my question is, how much emphasis should this event get? Does it deserve a place on “the list”?
I initially titled the list “Humanity’s Big Mistakes” but of course the Toba Supervolcano wasn’t a mistake, it was just something that happened. Should the list instead be called “Humanity’s Close Calls”? From a certain perspective the supervolcano is the scariest thing that has ever happened to humanity, but from another perspective, i.e. the distance of 75,000 years, it’s just a curiosity, something to whip out at a dinner party to make some point about x-risks or nuclear war or something like that. Regardless of what list it belongs on, the more general question is how should we relate to events like this? It seems obvious we shouldn’t ignore them, but how much emphasis should they receive? It would seem equally misguided to obsess over them. What is the happy medium?
To take something closer to our modern day, something more firmly in the category of history than the opioid crisis, let’s talk about Napoleon. I find Napoleon particularly interesting because for the longest time I couldn’t really get a handle on him. He seemed clearly to be the bad guy (based on what I was reading at the time). But if so why didn’t the British just outright execute him? Particularly after he had already escaped from exile the first time? Why did the French continue to revere him? These days I understand things a lot better, particularly when I imagine that the French were operating under the ideology of national greatness. Further, while Napoleon was best known for his military conquests, he also instituted a lot of worthwhile reforms. Accordingly when I heard back in 2016 that the French had voted him the second most important Frenchman in history after Charles de Gualle, this felt like an example of that happy medium I was talking about. He wasn’t being ignored, but he wasn’t being obsessed over. No one is currently worried about the Bonapartists seizing control, nor are people worried about the French trying to conquer the European continent.
Unfortunately I recently discovered from reading an article in The Economist that this happy medium, if it ever existed, exists no longer. Just a few days from now is the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death and apparently his role and the history that surrounds it is, like so much else, being reexamined. Things that were once ignored are now being emphasized and things that were once emphasized are now being ignored. And interestingly enough this change is coming from all sides. We read in the article that:
Alexis Corbière, a deputy from Unsubmissive France, a left-wing party, declared: “It is not for the republic to celebrate its gravedigger.” On the right Jean-Louis Debré, formerly head of the constitutional council, said that “overdoing it” would be “a provocation”. The Black Lives Matter movement has emboldened those who reject any celebration of a leader who reintroduced slavery to the French West Indies in 1802. Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol, the Socialist mayor of Rouen, says he wants to replace the imposing bronze statue of the emperor on horseback that stands outside his Normandy town hall.
Now, as I pointed out, Napoleon did do a lot of bad things, though all of the bad things he did happened 200 years ago. More recently than that, we had the Civil War, during which the Confederacy did a lot of bad things. More recently still, Hitler and the Germans did unimaginably bad things. But all of these bad things are over and done with, so why have we suddenly decided to go from ignoring them to emphasizing them?
On the other hand the opioid crisis is ongoing and worsening, and yet it arguably gets less attention than either the crimes of pre-Civil War America or the ongoing danger from Nazis. (Hopefully in the US at least this crisis edges out Napoleon, but even here it’s closer than it should be.) Why is that? Why are we spending more time and attention on what happened in the past than what’s happening right now? You may argue that the opioid crisis is not “history” in the same way that the Civil War and World War II are, but what about the COVID pandemic? On most measures it seems very similar to the opioid epidemic, and yet it garners a far greater share of our attention. Nor does anyone doubt it will end up making it into the history books. Why does it receive so much more attention than the opioid crisis? Is it the same reason that World War II is more noteworthy than the Mongol Conquests? Is it strictly an issue of how recent they are?
Perhaps it is. As the Caldwell quote points out, we’ve been dealing with drug problems and overdosing since at least the Vietnam war. So perhaps in some sense the pandemic and the Nazis are recent in a way that drug overdosing and the Mongols aren’t. And I agree that recency should play some role in what we choose to emphasize, but should it always factor in? Should we treat an event that happened 25,000 years ago differently than an identical event that happened 75,000 years ago? Probably not. At that remove I don’t think anyone cares that one event is closer even if it’s three times more recent. If this is the case then at what point does recency cease to play a role? At what point does the degree to which we emphasize something not depend on how long ago it happened? Are the Mongol conquests past that point? If so it might explain why we still care how many people the Khan fathered, but not how many he killed.
Whatever that line is between deciding whether something should be ignored or emphasized, lately it seems to be moving backward in time. In 2016 Napoleon was on the other side of the line. Safely ensconced as a historical figure and the 2nd greatest Frenchman. In 2021 he’s the man who reintroduced slavery in the West Indies. In those last five years certain acts of Napoleon went from being ignored to being important. This is not to say he didn’t have baggage in 2016, but he appears to have accumulated more baggage in the last five years. Closer to home there were many decades when people didn’t think much about the Confederacy. Now there’s an ongoing project to remove statues, change displays and close down monuments. Finally, anti-nazi fervor is as intense as it’s been in quite some time. Many things that happened before most people were born are suddenly very important.
So how should we determine importance? How should we decide what gets emphasized and what gets ignored. I’ve talked a fair amount about the difference between recent events (Nazis and the Civil War) and more ancient events (Mongols and Toba). It’s clear that nearness in time impacts importance, but after considering these events from several different angles I think recency is not important by itself, but only as a proxy for our ability to mitigate the negative effects of these events. We don’t pay much attention to the Mongol Conquests because there’s nothing we can do about them. We have a sense that there are many things we can do about the pandemic, but as far as overdose deaths we have the opposite sense, that despite significant effort at reducing those deaths they haven’t budged very much. Whether we have in fact expended significant effort is a different question, but there’s a sense that it’s somewhat hopeless.
So far so reasonable, but if it’s actually our “mitigation line” that’s been moving back in time, then our question turns into a discussion of why we suddenly feel that our powers of mitigation have increased? Why do we suddenly feel that going from ignoring certain past events and people to emphasizing them will yield a positive outcome? How are we sure that this new focus is the ideal way to treat history instead of the view of Napoleon which prevailed in 2016, or the view of the Confederacy which prevailed during the six year run of the Dukes of Hazzard? (Back when I was 12 I was a pretty big fan). Have our powers of mitigation actually increased? Will not celebrating the Bicentenary of Napoleon’s death actually mitigate the harm he did in 1802, will tearing down Confederate statues help heal the damage caused by slavery? If they will, why didn’t we do these sorts of things sooner? If they won’t why are we doing them now?
I think many people would argue that it’s not mitigation we’re after, but accuracy. That remembering Napoleon's reintroduction of the slavery results in a more complete picture than just remembering his victory at Austerlitz, or appreciating the modern administrative state he ushered in. But as I look at how this is playing out I don’t see a mania for accuracy. I don’t see an emotionless search for the facts. I see people protesting in the streets over one thing while largely ignoring things that seem objectively just as bad. This new focus doesn’t fit very well into either a quest for mitigation or for accuracy, but it fits perfectly into support for a particular narrative of history. This is not to say that people don’t hope for mitigation or accuracy as by-products, but the main objective is the narrative.
Understanding this illuminates one of the major reasons why the opioid crisis remains largely overlooked despite the huge number of people who have died. It’s a situation that would benefit both from mitigation and accuracy, but narratively it’s not very interesting at all. We can’t blame it on racism, or Democrats, or Trump. It’s not flashy, it doesn’t easily fit into the narrative of Social Justice. It’s ongoing and worsening, but it’s been ongoing for awhile, and there’s no sound bite solution.
On the opposite side of things we have the most visible recent example of historical changes in emphasis: the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s the perfect fit for the narrative of Social Justice, and it has the perfect sound bite solution, “Defund the Police”. From a historical perspective it has given us the 1619 Project, which put forward a huge change in interpreting the founding of the country, but which was also widely criticized for its ahistorical claims. It has also given us the “Hands up, don’t shoot.” slogan, which emphasizes a very specific modern event, which didn’t actually happen. These two examples should be blows to people pushing the accuracy argument. But beyond these examples there’s the larger shuffling of history which involves tearing down statues, renaming schools, and scattered instances of reparations, along with calls for universal reparations.
This is not to say that there haven’t been horrible abuses by police and killings that literally make you sick. But it’s important to compare the numbers. Which takes us into the subject of mitigation. According to the Washington Post’s database on police shootings, 985 people were shot and killed by police over the past year. This is a tragedy but as I mentioned previously 81,000 people in the most recent year from drug overdoses. That’s nearly 100x as many. Now not all of those 985 people were unarmed. NPR reports that “Since 2015, police officers have fatally shot at least 135 unarmed Black men and women nationwide”. This is obviously still unacceptable, but in that time 400,000 people died from drug overdose. So about 3000x as many.
Now at this point there are various disclaimers which could be offered. The NPR quote said, “at least 135” it could be more. Of the 400,000 people who overdosed only around 2/3rds overdosed on opioids. Police shootings are in a different category than opioids, they should be more preventable, and state violence is particularly reprehensible. One imagines that police violence can be reduced to fewer causes than opioid overdosing. Furthermore there is evidence of racial bias in police violence whereas overdose deaths are more diverse.
On the other side we could add that while overdosing kills vastly more people, police shootings garner vastly more attention. Even if the opioid epidemic and police shootings got equal amounts of attention, each police shooting of an unarmed Black individual would garner 3000x as much attention per fatality. But given that the problem of police shootings gets at least 10x or maybe 100x as much attention, in this particular case, the shift in emphasis I’ve been talking about, results in an attention rate per fatality ten to a hundred thousand times as great.
You may think, so what? Yes, police violence has been dramatically emphasized recently, but this follows a long period during which it was almost entirely ignored. We’re just balancing the scales. We used to lionize the Confederacy and minimize the issue of slavery. We used to think of Napoleon as a military genius, not a historical arsonist (A fantastic term from Dan Carlin.) We used to give police the benefit of the doubt now we understand the numerous abuses they’re capable of. The problem is that by engaging in such extreme changes in emphasis you end up weaponizing history. And when you turn something into a weapon people are bound to get hurt.
As just one example, recently Vox, of all places, drew attention to a study which basically showed that for every police killing that was prevented by BLM protests that city ended up with 10 additional murders. Perhaps that’s a price people are willing to pay, perhaps the math on that works out in the long run somehow. But it’s also important to note that these numbers are probably low. They do not include the surge in murders that happened after George Floyd was killed, so the trade-off could be a lot worse than 10 to 1 which already seems too much.
Emphasis doesn’t appear to bring greater accuracy, nor does it appear to do much in terms of mitigation, and may in fact have made it worse (depending on how you view the trade off just mentioned). Additionally emphasis is almost always subject to diminishing returns. At some point everyone knows everything there is to know about police violence, and we’ve done everything practical to prevent it. (And I understand definitions of practicality vary.) Whereas those things which have been ignored can often be dramatically improved with just a little bit of attention. To give a more concrete example, if we could reduce the number of opioid overdoses by just 2% then we would have saved more lives than reducing the number of police shootings to zero.
When I started this post I had not intended to get so far into the weeds of the opioid epidemic and Black Lives Matter. Mostly I wanted to talk about how the trend of emphasizing, and at its most extreme weaponizing, history is a bad trend with bad effects. That it has a negative impact on nearly all of our current discourse and policy making. But how do we deweaponize history? If viewing history through a lens of ideological bias is clearly the wrong way to do things, what is the correct way? How should we view Toba, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, the Confederacy, the pandemic, the opioid crisis and Black Lives Matter? Well to begin with two of the items on that list have not been weaponized. No one is using Toba to decide what should happen on a specific day in May. No one is using the Mongol Hordes to support privileging one group over another.
I would suggest that instead of bringing history into the arguments of the present that we take the arguments of the present and look at them as if they were history. That we in fact look at them with as much distance as possible. That we try to imagine that we’re historians studying the early 21st century from the vantage of the early 31st century. What would be salient then? And is it salient now? Is their view of what was important more likely to be correct than your view? If that’s the case then that’s the view we should adopt.
I think this paradigm has several advantages. First off, the past is harder to change than we think. Yes we should attempt to mitigate the murder of George Floyd by trying Derek Chauvin. But when people talk about police evolving from slave patrols, not only is that inaccurate but even if it weren’t what does it contribute to the current debate over policing? I understand that the Nazi’s were scary and did bad things, but does labeling the people who stormed the capitol on January 6th as Nazis really clarify anything about the present moment? Does it lead us to come up with better solutions or worse? It’s unquestionably beneficial for a certain narrative, but that’s precisely the problem I’m talking about.
If somehow there was widespread defunding of the police would a historian 1,000 years from now view it as the dawn of a truly just society, never before achieved? Or would they view it as another experiment in a long line of historical experiments which all ultimately failed? In other words what we emphasize they might ignore. But in addition, what we ignore, they might emphasize. If the opioid epidemic continues for much longer or gets much worse I could imagine it eclipsing both BLM and the pandemic. What about stuff like falling birth rates? Most people yawn when something like that comes up, but you could easily see how that’s a trend that could define our era for hundreds of years.
In this post I have asked a lot of questions, and I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I think it’s important to have a longer term view. To understand that dredging up the sins of the past for the arguments of today is neither healthy nor productive. That someday we’re all going to be food for the worms, and everything we’re so concerned about right now will matter not at all. And some of the things we’re not concerned about will matter more than we can imagine.
I often imagine how this blog will age. Will I be one of those writers who was ignored while they were alive but famous after death? Or will I be one of those writers that has his 15 minutes but then is quickly forgotten. Given the choice I’d prefer a third option, just having a few people think my stuff is worth a few bucks once in a while. If that sounds good to you consider donating.