The Limits of History

You may think of this post as a departure from the blog’s theme – a  look inside my writerly life – but a long time ago I was advised to put everything I had into what I write. I’m a trained historian, with four years of post-graduate study at New York University. I chose to write fiction instead of a dissertation. But I’m an artist, and I try to be sincere in my work. That makes it impossible to ignore the life going on around me and just give people entertaining fantasies to transport them to Lethe. Take what follows as a case in point.

Ask any historian, the construction of a chain of events never implies inevitability at any point in the chain. Rosa Parks’ bus ride can be connected, in hindsight, with the passage of civil rights legislation, but we cannot assert that the events post-bus ride were inevitable. We’re free to connect the dots of our past in our effort to construct an intelligible history, but it’s just megalomaniac fantasy to derive notions of fate and inevitability from the stories we tell ourselves.

It is tempting to think that we can use historical statistics to forecast the future but that’s a bit of folly that has been the undoing of many a hapless would-be stock market maven.

Profiling is likewise, a fascinating exercise in futility. It’s an attempt to predict what an individual will do based on the statistics of the group in which we place that individual. It’s true that psychologists can fairly easily identify individuals who are troubled and emotionally unstable but it’s equally true that while the diagnosis is a necessary and useful part of treatment and cure, it is useless as a tool for making predictions about what an individual so identified will or will not do. In hindsight, we can look back on an event and observe the progression, or perhaps the deterioration, of an individual. But this does not mean that we ever had the power to predict that they would have done what they did eventually do. Do we then imprison anyone who is troubled and psychologically unstable?

That would be a large percentage of the population and would probably include some very prominent and powerful people. The last time we did something like that, we were profoundly regretful. At least, that what we’ve been telling ourselves about the racial profiling and race-based internment of American citizens during the Second World War. Yet police departments all over the country have been using this pseudo-science to justify the identification of skin color with probable cause and now there’s a lot of loose talk about using racial profiling to identify terrorists.

Needless to say that Timothy McVeigh and Dylan Roof would have gone undetected anyway.

All things are possible so we must choose carefully; the future is in our collective hands.

About neiladaniel

Self published writer of sci-fi, fantasy, poetry, so far.
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1 Response to The Limits of History

  1. ndspencer says:

    It’s all very true.


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