The illusion of inevitability

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(You can find the original Spanish version of this post at Alejandro Tarre’s Blog.)

Two items:

1) Hugo Chávez in a recent interview published in Uruguay’s La República:

I could’ve not existed. When I was young I almost drowned in a river. It was winter, lots of water and I went into the river with some friends. And the river pulls me over, pulls me over, and a cadet saves me. I was already a cadet. And another young cadet, a much better swimmer, reached me, grabbed my foot and saved me. Without him, I would’ve drowned when I was 18.

2) A Newsweek article by Niall Ferguson about how to make the learning of history more fun:

[We should] ask more exciting questions.

What if Washington had shared Napoleon’s appetite for imperial power? What if the British had supported the Confederacy with cash and cannons? What if Franklin Roosevelt had not been president in World War II?

In his masterly answer to that last “counterfactual” question, The Plot Against America, Philip Roth rightly suggests that it’s the sense of inevitability—whatever happened had to happen—that makes school history so dull: “What we schoolchildren studied as ‘History’ [was] harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable.” But when historic events are actually happening—as now in Japan and the Arab world—“the unfolding of the unforeseen [is] everything … The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides.”

Hugo Chávez is always embellishing the truth, and the story of him almost drowning might be another exaggeration. But the fact is that, since his first dramatic entrance in Venezuela’s history in 1992, we can pinpoint several moments that are ideal for asking those exciting questions Ferguson refers to.

What would have happened in April 2002, for example, if Pedro Carmona had not dissolved Congress, the Supreme Court and other powers, and, instead of sidelining Vásquez Velasco, had named him Minister of Defense of the transition government? How different would history be had Carmona not taken those decisions that many people advised him not to take and that he could have easily not taken? How would we commemorate the anniversary of April 11th then?

Roth and Ferguson are right. The history we learn in school is a more or less rational and coherent concoction that boils down to a predictable and logical sequence what, in fact, was a chaotic and arbitrary mix of plans, intrigues, accidents, coincidences and multiple interests that clash with each other provoking changes, misfortunes, advances and setbacks that are far more captivating than the illusion of inevitability that seeps out from schoolbooks.

#5. Momentum.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Most of the time, history is inevitable. However, within the grand matrix, there exist moments when the momentum is low and the potential high. In these pregnant moments when the world stands still, a few well chosen words or actions by a single individual can change the course of history.

  2. I tend to view history as being dictated by conditions that individuals have very little ability to change. If Chavez had drowned at 18, some other caudillo would have come to power and attempted to unite Latin America under a neo-socialist banner. If it hadn’t happened in Venezuela it would have probably happened somewhere else. The point is that, while it’s exciting to consider that a whole set of consequences can spring from one bad or good decision, the reality is more mundane. Battles are often won or lost before the war even begins because you can’t really argue with basic realities. Although socialism had lost a lot of credibility after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were still ideologues wandering around the continent and a mass of impoverished people just waiting to be radicalized. Fujimorismo had already demonstrated that it was possible to rule in a neo-authoritarian style while portraying oneself as a democratic leader, and if radical populism didn’t come to the fore in Venezuela it would’ve probably emerged somewhere else.

  3. I beg to differ, history is not inevitable, we just have to understand it that way so that we can make any sense of it. If we had to learn history in all of its unpredictability it would be impossible. Without forcing OUR internal logic upon it, history would be just a bunch of data, little stories that unfold into other little stories, and so on. It´s our need to understand what is going and why things happen the way they do that forces us to cut up history into lumps of inevitable consequences to capricious causes, into paradigms, or into any other sort of classification to appease our whims.
    That is why history depends a great deal on who tells the story, be it the victors or the vanquished, be it marxist, or liberal, or whatever. More often than not the facts will be there just the same, but the internal logic that explains it all differs greatly fron one point of view to the next.

    • I didn’t mean to say that history was “inevitable” in the Marxist sense, that we’re all somehow moving towards some observable, pre-defined point. What I meant was that certain forces pressure actors in each country and around the world to the point that they can only behave within a certain set of parameters. For example, Hugo Chavez would love to be as notorious to the U.S. as Muammar Gaddafi is now. However, he is in South America and not the Middle East, so the boundaries which economic and political realities place on him are much different than those of a caudillo in the Middle East. This isn’t to say that chance doesn’t play a part in historical outcomes.

      Likewise the Arab Spring we’re seeing really was quite predictable in hindsight. With a new regime toppling or becoming severely weakened every day things may seem chaotic and able to spring forth in any direction but the reality is that Arab regimes, particularly North African ones, were always weak and prone to internal strife while giving an external solid appearance.

      I guess what I’m tired of are questions such as, “What if the Germans had invented a long-range bomber and bombed New York?” or “What if the Germans had won the Battle of the Bulge?” Although both are interesting to ponder the truth is Germany lost the war before it started because it had no resources, shitty leadership…so on. What I’m trying to say is that chance can alter outcomes in the short run but in the long term our decisions can only take place along a set of parameters which prior actions have created and placed around us.

      • “predictable in hindsight”
        It’s precisely the point of the article, after it happens it seems obvious that it needed to happen. But that’s not necesarily the case. The argument that if someone hadn’t done it then it would be someone else it’s an unprovable one. There are extraordinary people and circumstances that make all the difference in the world. Think of people like Hannibal, Cesar, Alexander the Great, Hitler, Fidel, Stalin, Sadam Hussein, even Chavez. Now replace them with other people, pick anyone and you’ll see that what they acomplished, good or bad, was very much tied to their own persona and circumstances.

  4. It’s humans that write history,and tell tales,and create legends and myths.
    The Bible, WWI and WWII, USSR, Cold War,CIA, Castro and Mao, they all wrote it down.What we chose to believe,probably never existed,or happened.

    That Chavez’s story about drowning could’ve been some simple accident,like when you slip”aparatosamente” without falling. But because he is NOW the GREAT CHAVEZ,GREAT LEADER, he says ” I could have died,i could’ve never been here, the revolution wouldn’t even exist and you’d all be slaves to the empire”.
    That is his ego,his grandeur,and his fucking spark that makes people look up to him.
    Did you see Mario Silva’s eyes when he was interviewing Fidel?
    I’ve seen that look many times,it’s like talking to a father you never had,they need this shit,they need this dad,its a drug. When the drug goes away,withdrawal syndrome comes and welll….thats communism and trasnochados.

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