Blogs > Cliopatria > Historical Lessons, Hyperbole, and the Crying-Wolf Phenomenon

Feb 28, 2005 4:01 pm

Historical Lessons, Hyperbole, and the Crying-Wolf Phenomenon

Every time I see some analogy between the present and an extreme historical moment, I think, "Now how can that person expect anyone to take them seriously when the present really does get extreme?"

(This is an intentional use of the third-person plural pronoun as the third-person indefinite singular. Sooner or later, our grammarians will concede this common usage as potentially correct. I'll declare myself a part-time amateur grammarian, and take my stand.)

Most often I notice this in politics, when someone or the other gets accused of communism or fascism.

But every year, even every few months -- and this has been going on for years -- it seems like I'm reading some warning that the next flu pandemic, like the Spanish flu, is just around the corner. All that's missing, reads the story, is that the current bird flu mutate into one capable of spreading person-to-person, not just bird-to-bird and bird-to-person.

O.K., I acknowledge that's a scary thought. But after several years of this, I'm starting to let my guard down. (O.K., I'm actually getting flu shots for the first years in my life, but that's because I've got little kids.) Better put, I more expect to read this story for another 5-50 years than to witness such a flu pandemic in my lifetime. I'm glad someone's watching for it, and I'll even line-item endorse some spending on that. But the warnings are wearing thin.

Just one example of how imbalanced historical analogies can debase the currency of historical analogies in general. CDC, WHO, I hope you're listening....

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Oscar Chamberlain - 3/1/2005

That's why I like the coverage. Without it, we would have a harder time knowing if it does work.

Jeff Vanke - 3/1/2005

True if it happens!

Jeff Vanke - 3/1/2005

On your last point first, I'd be willing to settle for more nuanced readings of the lessons of the well known events. For example, World War I taught us to avoid war that no one wants, but 1939 taught us that the lesson of 1914 can be over-applied.

On scenarios, there can be a point so much worst-case-ness becomes debilitating of seizing other opportunities. For some (I was just reading about Howard Hughes through the main page), the game theory choice of best-worst is actually pretty sad.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/1/2005

I'm actually rather happy with the press coverage.

Think of how unique this is in human history. Predicting an epidemic and taking measures to counter it even before that epidemic begins is an extraordinary accomplishment.

This is the sort of milestone that we should talk about more in our classes.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/1/2005

A few years back economist Robin Hahnel had a fantastic piece in Z Magazine in which he argued that the fundamental rule of success in financial markets is "Panic First." If you are the first person on the bandwagon, and the first one to abandon ship, you will almost always come out ahead. Hesitation -- failure to panic -- is almost always a sucker's bet.

I have relatives who are fantastic "worst case-ers", capable of sucking the joy out of any potential success by examining in detail the pitfalls and long-term consequences of what "seems like a good idea at the time."

But there's some value in this exercise: taking an extreme analogy allows us room to panic and then to calm ourselves by examining the differences; it forces us to consider the worst possible result of our actions (or inactions), where we so often consider only the best, and weigh the cost-benefit equation from another vantage point.

More importantly, we need historical analogies to which we can refer in public discourse. Since most Americans don't have a real firm grasp on the Whiskey Rebellion, all internal disturbances are analogized to the Civil War (or the American Revolution, depending on whose side we're on); since most Americans don't remember the Teapot Dome, it's Watergate all the time; since most Americans don't "Remember the Maine" (though they do "Remember the Alamo" they're not sure why) we keep going back to the Tonkin Gulf v. Pearl Harbor. It's not a failure of historical imagination that we return to these crisis points for our touchstones, but a failure of historical education. When we start doing a better job of broadly educating our citizenry, then we can start to broaden the use of history in political discourse.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/1/2005

It's a variation on Godwin's Law (as any online discussion progresses the likelihood of a mention of Hitler and/or the Nazis approaches one) which has been invoked in many a digital discussion to squelch analogic excesses.... like many A/D interfaces, some translation is required.

Rob MacDougall - 2/28/2005

I seem to remember our campus paper when I was in college trying to impose a rule that "whoever mentions the Nazis first in a political argument automatically loses the argument." This being the heyday of the early 1990s culture wars, the embargo was not easily enforced.

Greg James Robinson - 2/28/2005

It is something like the NEW YORKER cartoon some years ago of the news broadcaster reporting, "Meaningless statistics are up 6.7% last month..."

Ed Schmitt - 2/28/2005

I agree with your sage observation. Aside from being the scourge of Western civilization, among the lesser evils spawned by the Nazis is a seemingly endless stream of terrible analogies.

Manan Ahmed - 2/28/2005

I have it right now. And yes, it is the worst one since I survived [barely] the Great Chicago Influenza of 1918. I feel that the comparison is apt.