The illusion of inevitability

(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.