Saturday, June 2, 2007

The 1-to-1 Comparison vs. Contextualization

2 things caught my eye recently.
  1. The first was a review of Denys Arcand's latest film, which premiered @ Cannes. Entitled "Days of Ignorance" (a better, more literal translation of the French title would be "Days of Darkness"), it is the final part of a trilogy that began with Arcand's "Decline of the American Empire" and continued with "The Barbarian Invasions." It doesn't take a medievalist (or classicist) to recognize the arc of these stories -- Rome --> barbarians --> Dark Ages. Comparing the US to Rome has, of course, become quite fashionable nowadays, especially in the realm of politics. Jonathan Freedland has a summary in a recent piece in The New York Review of Books.
  2. The second was an op-ed in The Daily Telegraph. Here, the author, who is a conservative columnist for the Telegraph and The Scotsman as well as a children's book author (who's written 1 book on the crusades), uses "creative" history to pour some cold water on all those climate "alarmists" who complain about global warming. Obviously, if the 13th century worried about the climate, we shouldn't be that worried about it.
See? We live in the modern Middle Ages. Well, except that we don't.

To point out the obvious, historical context matters. Yes, people worried about climate change in the past and we worry about it (rightly) now. Yes, the USA can be considered to be an empire, even perhaps complete with overseas colonies. But no matter how many parallels there may be between the 21st century USA and Rome (either in the 1st century BCE at the end of the Republic or the 5th century CE at the end of the empire in the West), they're still both not apples. They're just not. As I tried to show in a previous post, although you can't make 1-to-1 comparisons, you can show similarities and influences.

Empires overreach. Ok, good. But overreach how? Differing political, social, economic, and cultural factors at home will impact what that empire can do and how overreaching should be defined. Just because Rome fell because it did X, doesn't -- in any world -- mean that the USA will fall for the same reason. Just because the burghers of medieval Cambridge were worried about the putrid air they breathed doesn't mean that we shouldn't. Yes, the world will probably endure. But that doesn't mean we'll endure right along with it. Rotting meat in the streets of Cambridge probably isn't nearly as significant a problem as less arable land and rising sea levels.

It's a great fallacy that "history repeats itself." Better to think that the past echos forward, sounding similar but slightly distorted with each iteration.


Another Damned Medievalist said...

Ooh! I like that. Of course, what gets me is that all these people who blithely compare the Fall of Rome to anything are so sure of why Rome fell. I wish someone would tell us historians, because I could swear we're still arguing over whether Rome fell, let alone the causes!

Matthew Gabriele said...

Don't repeat that last bit to Ward-Perkins. He's darn sure that Rome fell. You can probably still hear the crash...

Wegie said...

That was just the last piece of commercial fine-ware pottery breaking as somebody's cat pushed it off the shelf!