Thursday, May 08, 2014

History Lesson

So, I studied history in college. I really liked names and dates and learning new stories that other people didn't know in high school. History was fun. Then I got to college, and like every other subject, realized that what we'd been doing for 13 years in school didn't really resemble history much. Now we were analyzing what happened to draw conclusions about various influencing forces, discussing repercussions, and making connections to present day realities. This was little more difficult, but it was more engaging. I learned a lot about how to look at the world in proper historical perspective. I also learned how to use all those names and dates and stories for some real purpose in life.

So, it sort of bugs me when our culture in general, and our news media in particular, seem to be blind to even relatively recent history in covering major narratives around the world.

I can't tell you how many "rise of China" stories I've seen where casual lip service is given to the potential of the Chinese economy, military, society, etc, but ultimately conclude that it is so inefficient and developmentally lagging to pose any real or immediate threat to the rest of the world. Yeah, there are some aggressive skirmishes over land rights and economic interests, and they seem to be taking a more active role in influencing nearby governments, but on the whole, they're just not set up to be a superpower, at least not any time soon.

The history student in me hears all of this and there are immediate warning sirens and flashing emergency lights in my mind. No, I'm not scared of China and I don't think anyone else should be either, but I do think we're fooling ourselves if we don't recognize that all of those same descriptions were used for the US in the early part of the 20th century.

At that point, we were still viewed as Britain's backward cousin, with our frontier lifestyle, endless open lands, and continued struggles to deal with racial and regional internal strife. Our economy had great potential, but little of it was realized. We fought over some small pieces of land and influence in the oft forgotten "wars" with Spain and Mexico, and we meddled quite heavily in the equally unimportant governments of Latin America - but no one of any importance gave much thought to the US being a world power. And this was just 100 years ago!

Things change quickly. Whatever indication the world had of our potential after a very late entry into WWI was forgotten by the depth of the depression - just another nation who can't handle it's own business. But we figured out a way to beat economic doldrums - ramping up for war.

The US economy took off at a rapid pace, shooting us to the top of the pile, internationally (leaving the only legitimate competitors, Europe, in literal heaps of rubble didn't hurt either), and has been there ever since.

I'm not saying the past is predictive. China may never decide to ramp up for war, but it's foolish (and probably arrogant) for us to continue to beat the drum of their irrelevance.

Again, this is not about fear-mongering. I think the world is probably better off without one dominant superpower; I don't think things would get worse if China were stronger or even if they overtook the US as primary influencer in the world. Life would go on. Differently, sure, but assuming the future will be like the present is always a fantasy.

In the meantime, if you're into that stuff, you might want to check out the boring section of your US history textbook between the end of the Civil War and the start of WWI. There may actually be relevant information there you'll find interesting - or at least pertinent.

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