The Beginning of History

We all are currently in the middle of key historical events that will be analysed for generations to come. It is unlikely that this analysis will accurately reflect our experience of these events.

At times of key importance, I often find that the world can take the form of literature. Should someone (famous or otherwise) die, my mind highlights all the conversations I have had about that person recently, and find that these all alluded heavily to that persons passing. Perhaps I had taken an interest in a new hobby, and this hobby again would almost certainly be a metaphor for death. If I were reading a summary of these events, without any knowledge of what was to come, it would be obvious to me that this person was not long for this world. The author had signposted it without any subtlety whatsoever.

On the night of 23 June 2016, I went to bed, and just before I had drifted off to deep sleep, I was awoken suddenly by the crash of thunder. What followed was the most violent thunderstorm I have ever experienced. The rain and wind raged against my windows like it was the end of days. The boom of thunder sent vibrations right through to the objects on my shelves. The lightening lit up my apartment like it was the middle of a summer’s day. After a while, I got used to it, and finally did drift off to sleep. When I woke up, the world had changed completely.

On Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th of November 2016, temperatures here in Hamburg had plummeted to unseasonably cold levels, and on both of these days the city was covered in a layer of snow that would be more suitable in late January. Winter came early, just as autumn had gained momentum. During this time of the early winter, events unfolded that have stunned the world into a collective depression that has not been seen in my lifetime.

If I was making a movie, or writing a book, about what I was doing during the time of the Brexit decision and the US election, I probably wouldn’t include those weather elements in there, as they are quite heavy-handed. They are a bit obvious, and their lack of subtlety does not respect the audience enough to make up their own minds about what they should be feeling about the unfolding of these events. The fact remains however, that of these two world-changing events that we have all experienced this year, both of them were foreshadowed (in really amateurish fashion) to me through the metaphor of extreme weather.

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Constructing A Narrative

I am the very definition of the elitist, ivory tower-dwelling, liberal idealist that was completely taken by surprise by both the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and the electing of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America. I understood the issues at hand, and I respected that there were legitimate concerns by the supporters of these two decisions that drove them to desperate measures, but my highly condescending and elitist view was that the angry, poor masses would come to their senses, see that they had given us a big fright, and finally do the right thing and listen to us smart, educated people on election day.

I went to bed on June 23rd and November 8th fully in the belief that my worldview would be upheld. It wasn’t, and I was stunned into disbelief when I awoke from both of these smug, elitist sleeps. Everyone was stunned, and immediately began searching for explanations. From my experience on the days of June 24th and November 9th 2016, I saw that what was unbelievable in the morning, can become obvious by the afternoon. Brexit and UKIP had empowered the forgotten parts of the UK outside London (and Scotland and Northern Ireland), while Donald Trump had (in association with Wikileaks) led a grassroots movement to end the capture of US democracy by the Clinton and Bush dynasties. The world was shocked by the Brexit result, but almost six months later we now see it as an inevitable conclusion to years and years of the British government neglecting their working class. We are still normalising ourselves to the idea of President Trump, but it will not be long until we see it absolutely ludicrous to think that Hillary could have beaten him in the election.

Except, when I went to bed on the nights that the votes in both of those polls were being counted, no one thought it was obvious at all. On June 23rd, I actually went to bed after Nigel Farage had conceded defeat in the referendum. I went to bed after seeing the most vocal Brexiteer admit that they had lost. The next time I saw him, he was smiling like the Chesire Cat and proclaiming that he always knew that Brexit would succeed. Over in the US, Donald Trump in the weeks (and hours) before the election was seen to have a 20% chance of winning. His campaign rhetoric had switched to issuing pre-emptive excuses for his defeat: conspiracies, lying women, voter fraud. It is widely known in US media that he planned to devote his time to his new TV network after the election. Even when he took to the stage on the morning of November 9th to deliver the body blow of news that he had officially won the US presidency, his victory speech was followed by the immediate musical cue of You Can’t Always Get What You Want, by the Rolling Stones. This is not a victory song, by any event of the imagination, and felt very out of place given the circumstances. I truly believe that this song was cued by the organisers of this election night party to follow his concession speech to his supporters. They were so shocked by the result that they forgot to change the playlist.

Making History

Hindsight is a marvelous thing. While the world is a dynamic, constantly changing flow of information, major events act as a pause button and allow the static, isolated analysis of a single event in time, concentrating solely on the event and what went before. That not even the central figures in both of these historical events we experienced this year had any idea until very late in the ballot counting process that they would spark major world events must surely make us ask questions about how history is constructed. Your children and grandchildren will read about both of these events, and will be able to explain to you in one sentence what the whole contemporary world did not realise until the event had already happened. They will tell you about the inevitable backlash of downtrodden working class Americans raging against globalisation. You will have forgotten by then that Donald Trump didn’t even believe that until he won Florida.

The thing about history is that it must be a narrative. It must be a linear story of how we got from Situation A to Situation B. You are living through a major period in history right now, and do you really think that it is a simple, linear story? Studying history in high school (I don’t call it high school, but I have a lot of foreign readers, so let it go, Irish people!), what intrigued me most was how underplayed the First World War was, compared to the Second. I am well aware of the reason for this, as the answer to what caused the First World War is a ten page essay, while the causes of the Second can be described in one surname. The origins of the First World War are complex, while its sequel was about good versus evil.

Future generations will have to study a chapter of a history book that gets from the end of the Cold War (also an absolute shock to everyone in 1989, but obvious to us now), through the War on Terror, via the Financial Crisis and make it all lead up to a swing to the political right in the world’s richest countries. It will take up maybe five pages of a history book, and it will make sense. It will make as much sense to them as Germany’s mistreatment at the Treaty of Versailles and subsequent currency inflation during the Great Depression leading to the Third Reich completely explained the rise of Nazism to us history students over the years. I doubt those people in 1930’s Germany saw it that way, but it is too late now, and their story has been explained.

In the modern world, history isn’t written by the winners, it’s written by those who can explain complex and unpredictable events in a simple way. A story has to be created to explain how and why something happened. There are no surprises when reading a history book, there are no twists. Everything is foreshadowed, and the conclusion is obvious, pages before the major events. Everything is connected, and leading inevitably to its conclusion. In doing this, a lot of information has to be jettisoned, and the information that is used to explain major events must be carefully selected. Analysis through hindsight clears away everything that does not directly rationalise an event, and leaves you with a clear, straight path from “Yes We Can!” to “Make America Great Again!”

In this way, the construction of history is not unlike the construction of a conspiracy theory. Both are vastly subjective and oversimplified explanations of complex forces, and both use extreme prejudice in selecting only evidence that support its claim. The writing of history is in itself an art form, making sense from isolated key events and attempting to explain them as if the world was just one big linear narrative. In the decades to come that I will be talking about these events in 2016, I will try to remember how shocked I was, how shocked everyone was, when they occured. I will also include the hackneyed scene-setting device of the thunder and snow. It just makes for a better story.

 

Death and Taxes

Coming as I do from Ireland, and being born at a critical time that means I remember a time before the economic boom and church paedophilia scandals, I was part of a generation of schoolchildren that were probably the last to enjoy a primary education that was dictated by the Catholic Church. Religion was a large part of my education from the ages of 4-12, which involved at least an hour per school day saying prayers and learning about Jesus and how great he was. This is a level of indoctrination that would be mocked if we heard about something similar happening in North Korea, but back then it was part of life and it didn’t seem like anything strange at all. In the separation of Church and State during the process of Irish Independence, somehow the Church had been given control of the nation’s children, which is intuitive, as the Church works for Jesus, and there was no better man.

These daily religious lessons focussed mostly on Jesus and his travels, with a lesson to be learned from each story about how to live in society and function as a reasonable person. One of the stories I remember most from my tenure as an Irish primary school pupil was the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who learns from Jesus that there is more to life than collecting taxes. Basically, people in a town get pissed off with Zacchaeus taking all their money and chase him up a tree. Jesus comes and saves the day before the taxman presumably gets lynched by the angry crowd. It’s unclear to me to this day precisely why Zacchaeus was the bad guy in this situation, and apart from some very obvious anti-Semitic undertones there is little substance to the parable. It did make me think at the time that a tax collector was obviously a bad person, since Jesus had to help him out and set him on his path. This conflicted with everyday life of course, as tax men were a part of normal life, and it didn’t seem like there was anything wrong with their choice of profession. Continue reading

“¡Tierra! ¡Tierra!” (Or: Why Christopher Columbus Was One of History’s Biggest Dickheads)

I was watching a documentary about Columbus recently that contained the following story, which I thought was pretty fascinating and that more people should know about it. Google searching for more information on the subject, it appeared that history itself does not care enough about it, not even enough to have a single article online telling the complete version of this story. In the modern age of Twitter and Wikipedia, we are all historians and journalists, so I decided to do it myself.

When Christopher Columbus set sail for India aboard the Santa Maria, flanked by the Nina and the Pinta, he did so under tremendous pressure. With neither valid maps charting the way nor even a record of any ship ever navigating his westward journey, the risks involved for the 90 men on the journey were great. Failure to reach land before supplies ran out would mean agonising death by starvation. Since Columbus did not know how long the journey would take, and the three ships could face weeks in the open water without any sight of land and without any certainty forthcoming about when they would reach their destination, it was obvious that the issue of motivating his men would become a factor at some point in the voyage. While Columbus would more than likely pay a heavy price if mutiny was to occur, the financiers of the voyage (Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain) would also lose their entire investment.

And so it was announced before the voyage that to the man who first sighted land, there would be a Royal Reward of 10,000 silver coins, per year, for the rest of that man’s life. For many of the sailors on board, this was not so much like winning the lottery, but winning the lottery with the knowledge that even if they were to lose it all, they would be given the same amount to do it all again next year. The Royal Reward was ingenious: eventually the ships would sight land, and the reward meant that every man on board the ship would think that he should wait patiently and be the one to spot it. For the Spanish Monarchs, if the voyage was successful they were set to become the world’s richest family anyway, while if no land was spotted then all the sailors would be dead and there would be no one left for to owe 10,000 silver coins.

The ships left westward, and anyone with elementary knowledge of game theory or even childrens games can imagine what transpired at first. A decent opening strategy to win the Reward would of course be to wait for your turn ‘on watch’ in the crow’s nest high up in the mast of the ship, and then yell “Land! Land!” as often as possible. When you are ‘on watch’, you can see farther than anyone else below, so you would see this as your opportunity to win the Reward, and thus inform the rest of the crew of anything that even reminds you of land. So over the weeks, this became the norm on board the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Whenever a change of watch came, this would bring with it a new man eager to shout “Land! Land!” as often as possible. Eventually the contest settled down, as it is more than likely that overenthusiastic land-spotters were chastised by the sailors themselves, and sightings were only reported if the spotter genuinely believed he had seen land. The reason for this is because the ships had now gone nearly two months without reaching land, a time period longer than Columbus’s original calculation for the maximum length of time it would take them to reach India. Supplies were running low, and the faith of the crew in the voyage were being tested. An erroneous sighting of land would get hopes up too high, and morale was fragile enough to be at breaking point. The Royal Reward was not high on anyone’s priorities anymore, merely survival.

At approximately 2am on October 12th 1492, Rodrigo de Triana, a lowly sailor assigned to the watch on the Pinta, after several hesitations, shouted “¡Tierra! ¡Tierra!” and woke up the crew of the ship. The furore also woke up the crew of the nearby Nina and Santa Maria. Land had been spotted, and within hours Europe would enjoy her first awkward moments with the Americans, whom she believed to be India. Rodrigo de Triana had just ended the long, tortuous quest for land, and it appeared he had also won himself the Royal Reward of 10,000 silver coins per annum for the rest of his life, which for a man like de Triana in his early twenties meant that the world had just opened up to him, with no limits in sight. All of the risks had been worth it.

Within a few hours, news trickled over from ship to ship that de Triana had a challenger for the reward, a man who claimed to have spotted land before, the previous evening. This confused everyone, as surely if someone had seen land hours earlier, it would have been reported and preparations would have begun to visit this new land. Eventually it was revealed that de Trianas challenger was none other than the leader of the voyage himself, Christopher Columbus. Columbus claimed that the previous evening, he was looking across the water and saw what appeared to him to be  “a small wax candle that rose and lifted up”. He added that the event was so inconsequential that he did not feel the need to tell anyone about it. He noted all of that in his diary however, and used this as a basis to challenge Rodrigo de Triana’s claim to the Royal Reward once they returned to Spain. Columbus won, and along with the rewards of succeeding in his mission, he was awarded 10,000 silver coins for the rest of his life. De Triana never recovered from this event, forever cursing Columbus, and committing suicide in obscurity several years later, a broken man.

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Ok so obviously Christopher Columbus was not the worst person in history. He was not directly responsible for the deaths of millions of people, he never enlisted child soldiers and he never rode his Mongol hoards across the Eurasian landmass pillaging every village he could find. The reason I think this story is so fascinating is that even though Columbus could probably see how much the possibility of the Royal Reward meant to his men, and how it motivated them to pursue in their joint goal, he still saw it necessary to claim it for himself. Let us not forget that the Royal Reward was initially set up partially to offset the risk of mutiny, which was massively to Columbus’s vital benefit. What is worse is that he could easily have not drawn attention to his diary entry (if the story was true at all), and let de Triana win the reward, and thus be seen as an example to all sailors of how hard work and belief ultimately pays. Columbus came away from these voyages as a superstar, world famous, and obviously going down in history, yet the pettiness within him urged him to take even more. Maybe he was not a particularly bad man, but from this incident, I think it is difficult to come to any other conclusion but that Christopher Columbus, the man who discovered the New World, was a dickhead.

Cause, Effect and Captain Hindsight

For the past few weeks I have been reading Thinking: Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize Winning Economist/psychologist. While every few pages contain a revelation that will blow your mind (sorry), what has interested me most is the research he has done on cause and effect, and the human minds understanding of this process. We see a broken window; we see a group of children dressed for a sporting activity on a field of glass nearby staring at it, mouths open, frozen to the spot. The brain subconsciously puts all this together in a story in the mind: the kids were playing some game; the ball (or whatever) spun wildly into the window, and broke it. More than likely this is the case, but of course many other things could have broken that window. This is a simple example, and the brain is very good at instantaneously locating the cause of a simple event like this that has just occurred, as it was necessary at an evolutionary level. You hear a tree branch crack in the forest: something caused this, it more than likely is not something good. At the very least, stop moving until you know more.

These non-complex examples are usually very explainable by simple cause-and-effect, but human society has evolved a lot faster than the human brain, and our minds on a daily basis must comprehend events that have multiple interweaving causes. These could be major societal events such as the Arab Spring or the Summer of Love. Kahneman argues that above all else, when explaining the past the human mind seeks confidence in coherence. Coherence means how well the explanation fits in to the event it describes, while confidence refers to whether this explanation tells the best story of what it describes. There is nothing new here, but what Kahneman showed through years of experiments is that the human mind is completely untrustworthy at determining which of these causal explanations is the best. In fact, all of his research points to the conclusion that confidence in coherence (the way we explain major events) works best when we have hardly any information about the event. We want the simple story, like the kids breaking the window. We know nothing about what was happening on the other side of the window, or indeed in front of it, but the automatic hypothesis fits very well. With more complex events like the fall of the Soviet Union, experts see the event and look back, then pick and choose the most coherent explanation of what caused this. To skip to the end, the logical conclusion of Kahneman’s argument is that social events cannot be explained by cause-and-effect at all. They are explained by hindsight.

Everything makes sense in hindsight. Watching news coverage of the BP Oil spill in May 2010, one would think that everyone working at BP was completely incompetent, that from what they did, an oil spill of magnitude was absolutely inevitable. Reports claim that they didn’t have enough people working, their safety checks should have been more frequent, a backup valve to the backup valve should have been installed (thank you, Captain Hindsight). So the BP Oil Spill was down to human error, which was easily avoidable, but due to these errors the spill was absolutely inevitable. This is a coherent story given to us by the media, in order for us to make sense of a very complex and somewhat random event that occurred, and could have occurred on any oil rig anywhere in the world. It makes sense to us in hindsight: we can study exactly what went wrong, and who was to blame, but beforehand if a statistician were to work out the probability of such a sequence of events occurring, the odds would be astronomical. We were all told a story of cause-and-effect, and it is reassuring to think that disasters are preventable and predictable, but really all that was learned from this event was how to somewhat minimise the effects of an oil spill at the BP Oil Rig Deepwater Horizon that must occur no later than 10pm on April 20, 2010. This story is much more comforting than the realisation that most things in this world are completely out of our control.

Another famous piece of hindsight was the revelation that in summer 2001, George W. Bush was given a briefing report, warning of a terrorist attack on US soil in the near future.  This brings out the Captain Hindsight in everyone, I think. “What if he had just acted on this intelligence?”. In the academic study of history, this is known as contingency, and it is very closely related to hindsight. Contingency is all about the “what ifs?” of history. What if you could kill Hitler when he was a child? What if Franz Ferdinand was not shot in Sarajevo? What if Columbus never crossed the Atlantic Ocean? It is fascinating for us to think that major world events could be prevented simply by altering the actions of one individual actor. Historians call this the “Great Man Theory”, the idea that one person can change the course of history. We were all taught this version of history in school because it is the simplest way to explain complex social movements and events. A great man did something, it had an effect, and that was what happened. This is certainly a lot easier than explaining dynastic politics in various regions of an empire, combined with rising social pressure as a result of food scarcity due to a bad winter, one year. What is interesting about historians is that unlike the social sciences, they make no attempt to use what they have learned from one event in order to explain another, or to predict what may happen. They alone accept that they are but documenters of hindsight.

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I was reading about Kahneman’s research on cause-and-effect last Friday, and then I got thinking. In the case of an event of which there is limited evidence, then every coherent causal explanation of this event is as valid as another. I had a gap in my memory from the previous weekend, and all to show for it was a lost phone, a receipt, and a bottle of Fanta. Based on this evidence, I constructed a coherent (to myself, anyway) story which I have more confidence in than any other I have been presented with. Therefore, in essence, my previous post was a tribute to the possibilities of an active consciousness in interpreting the causes of past events. That, and a fitting eulogy to my fallen friend; the black HTC with the cracked screen. There is nothing sinister behind the simplification of disasters, both natural and man-made, as well as the linearisation of historical events. Perhaps none of us would watch a news report that had no underlying story, with no villain, hero or outcome. It would be too unnerving to watch such a thing, as how could we get back to our day afterwards? Seeing disaster after disaster with no answers anywhere how to prevent any of them from happening. Coherence helps, but it’s our devout confidence in them that needs to be balanced.