In which John Green talks about the methods of writing history by looking at some of the ways that history has been written about the rise of the West. But first he has to tell you what the West is. And then he has to explain the Rise of the West. And then he gets down to talking about the different ways that historians and other academics have explained how the West became dominant in the world. He’ll look at explanations from Acemoglu and Robinson’s “Why Nations Fail,” Francis Fukuyama’s “The Origins of Political Order,” and Ian Morris’s “Why the West Rules, for Now.”
Transcript Provided by YouTube:
Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course World History, and today we’re going to talk
how history gets written.
“Mr. Green! Mr. Green! I want to write books about history when I grow up.”
Well, we’re not about the process of writing history today, Me From the Past. Also, you
are a liar. So you’re never going to be a history writer because, try as you might,
you can’t stop making things up. Maybe someday, if you’re lucky, you’ll write a historical
novel. Although, probably not because, you know, it involves research, which you also suck at.
So today we’re going to talk about how historians answer questions and the choices they make
in turning their ideas into books. We like to think of history as being the story of
what happens, so there’s no ambiguity or whatever. It’s just, you know,
in 1776, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
This is part of our thinking that, like, math is fact-based and literature is opinion. So
we imagine history as being, like, over toward the fact-y stuff. But in truth, literature
has a lot of facts in it. There are poems that are objectively good and others that
are objectively bad. And if you’ve ever been to a mathematician party and heard mathematician
arguments, you’ll know that math has a lot of opinions in it.
What? I go to a lot of math parties. That’s cool.
My point is, that that whole fact to opinion continuum we imagine in academics doesn’t
really make sense. We just need to learn to ignore that and think instead about how to
examine the world critically.
So today we’re going to examine the ways that different historians have tackled a really
problematic issue: The Rise of the West. So what do “rise” and “west” even mean in that
phrase? Well, let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
So “The West” is a geographical designation, kind of. It means, like, Western Europe, North
America, and Australia, which as you can see here are west of Asia? And also east of Asia.
In fact, everything is both east and west of everything else because it’s a globe.
But the West is also kind of a culture. It’s a set of ideas influenced by Judeo-Christian
thought and Greek philosophy, with a little Enlightenment rationalism and Adam Smith’s
economics thrown in. Anyway, it’s complicated, like all civilizations that span multiple
continents, but most of you at least have an idea in your head when I talk about “The West.”
And then there’s the question of what we mean by “rise” when we talk about the Rise of the
West, which leads us back to the philosophical question of the nature of history itself.
I mean, is history a series of rises and falls, like the story of the Roman Empire, or is
it cyclical, like the Mandate of Heaven narrative that we saw when we looked at early Chinese
history? So you could say, in fact, that the phrase itself “The Rise of the West” is a
little bit Western. The whole thing’s a bit nebulous.
And that makes it a popular subject for historians to tackle because you can hang a lot of ideas
on it. Like, Ian Morris, who teaches at Stanford, wrote a book called, “Why the West Rules — For
Now,” which casts the question in terms of political, military, and economic dominance.
And Victor Davis Hanson made this idea of dominance more explicit in his book on military
history, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power, which also offers
a pretty straightforward reason why the West became so powerful: It won a lot of wars.
Thanks, Thought Bubble.
Another way to think about this question is in terms of, like, success and failure. That’s
how Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson approached it in their 2012 book, Why Nations Fail: The
Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. These guys had two big ideas. First, that
success can be defined by wealth, as well as political power. And secondly, that when
we look at successes, we shouldn’t look at individuals, or communities, or continents,
we should look at nation-states.
Now, this book isn’t explicitly about the West, but if you look at the countries that
they’re talking about as successes and failures, it seems like they’re talking about kind of
the same thing we are. Their successful nations are all in what we think of as “The West,”
with a couple of important exceptions in Japan and Southern Africa.
So Acemoğlu teaches economics at MIT and Robinson teaches government at Harvard, which
is important because they’re not, like, academically trained historians. Some would say that’s
an advantage, but you know who wouldn’t say that? Historians. But anyway, if you’re training
is in economics and government, then you’re going to see history through the lens of economics
and politics, in the same that if you’re trained as accountant you might see history as an
indeterminable series of ledgers to be balanced, which it kind of is. And if you’re say a novelist
you’ll probably see history as a series of narratives and you’ll insert narrative. Even
when it doesn’t necessarily exist.
How we frame historical questions is extremely important as is the way we’re trained and
the tools we use to try to seek answers.
So Acemoğlu and Robinson focus on institutions and claim that a nation is successful when
it’s economic and political institutions are inclusive.
This focus on institutions explains a lot and it’s very convincing, and it corrects
previous theories. For example, Montesquieu’s idea that tropical nations tend to be poorer
either because the people “tended to be lazy and to lack inquisitiveness” or because diseases
and poor soil inhibit economic growth. But according to Acemoğlu and Robinson the data
just doesn’t support Montesquieu’s conclusions.
Yeah that’s a little prob… Oooh it’s time for the open letter! But first let’s see what’s
in the globe today. Oh! It’s Montesquieu. Do you have a first name by the way? Oh, he
does, his full name is Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, which
explains why we only call him Montesquieu. Anyway, an open letter to Montesquieu.
You had so many good ideas, separation of powers, that’s a definite winner. You basically
coined the word despotism. That’s a great word, I mean before the word despotism, our
only word for that thing was like, government. But this idea that you had that poor people
were doomed to stay poor has proven astonishingly powerful, and it’s also entirely wrong. Fortunately,
Montesquieu, most of us have moved on from your theories about poverty, although, just recently.
Best wishes, John Green.
Okay, so let’s talk about these inclusive institutions that are supposed to be so good
for nations. In economics it’s institutions quote “That enforce property rights, create
a level playing field, and encourage investments in new technologies and skills.”
In other words, the kind we associate with modern market capitalism, you know, with some
regulations. You know, like in the U.S. we have very open markets, but still Walmart
isn’t allowed to sell black tar heroin. They are allowed to sell guns though.
Inclusive political institutions are those that are characterized by pluralism which
means that they include a number of interests with different political perspectives that
can act as checks on executive authority.
So success isn’t just about democracy or “majority rule” as we have lately learned in Iraq;
it’s about inclusive pluralism.
So the nations that Acemoğlu and Robinson see as successful are the ones with the most
inclusive economies and the most pluralistic governments.
Now they are able to draw a clear correlation, but it’s a bit harder to say that these particular
institutions caused those nations to become successful. This is the nature of correlation;
it’s possible that they could be right that institutions were necessary for a nation to
become rich and powerful, but there may be other institutions that matter as much or
more than the economic and political ones they identify.
Another guy who’s written a lot about this stuff is Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama also believes
that institutions are the key to a nation state’s success, but in his book The Origins
of Political Order he identifies the rule of law as the institution that underlies all
success. To Fukuyama, the critical thing is that there be a rule of law that is superior
to rulers who temporarily happen to command the state’s armed forces and bureaucracy.
If no one is more powerful than the law and no one can change the law, then inclusive
economic institutions and pluralistic political ones sort of naturally come forth.
Now, that’s not all that different from what Acemoğlu and Robinson described but there
is a twist in how Fukuyama gets there. He argues that the root of the rule of law in
Europe as the basis for its institutions is in religion, specifically the Catholic Church.
For him it was the Catholic Church that established the idea that there was a law that was binding,
even to kings, providing the limits that are the heart of Acemoğlu and Robinson’s pluralistic
institutions. And this would push the origins of the West’s institutional advantages back
further than the advent of the nation state, right, because until recently, religion was
far more important to most people than, you know, nation states or capitalistic economic institutions.
Fukuyama, you’ll be surprised to learn, is a political scientist and classicist by training,
so it’s not that much of a surprise that he finds the roots of the West’s preeminence
in governance and classic religious thought.
Okay, let’s look at one last example of a different approach to this historical question.
Uh, that guy Ian Morris, who we talked about earlier, he wrote the book “Why the West Rules
— For Now.” He broke down his arguments into a mathematical formula based on four dimensions:
energy capture, how much humans have been able to use energy beyond their own muscles;
social organization, which he derives by measuring the largest city in a region;
information technology, not just the Internet, also like writing and books;
and war making capacity, which we can learn about through archaeology and also traditional history.
And then he combines these numbers to develop a social development index that describes
the West and the East at various points in history from 14,000 BCE to 2000 CE. Now, Morris
is not an economist or a mathematician; he’s a classically trained historian, but here
he is using numbers, not very sophisticatedly and, uh, lots of criticism of them, but using
numbers nonetheless. And I think that speaks to how data-driven contemporary academics
is. We like things that can be quantified.
I mean, many of you are teenagers taking AP World History, and at the end of that, you
will take a test that gives you a number between one and five that tells you how much you know
about world history. My number was two, but hopefully yours will be higher, because I
am smarter now than I was then.
Now I do wanna note one other thing, which is that you’ve probably noticed that none
of these books question the assumption that the West has been dominant in the world stage
over the last couple centuries. That is also a question of perspective. Like, from the
perspective of non-human residents of Earth, the West has been a total failure. But there’s
a certain set of data we look at when it comes to humans, like uh, GDP, the total size of
a country’s economy; or number of tanks; or innovation indexes; or life expectancy. Through
all of those lenses, the West has come out on top in the last 200 years. But that leads
us to larger questions about why we measure civilizations and determine winners and losers
in the first place and what that does to our thinking.
As Morris points out, one of the problematic things about reducing human social development
to a number is that it can dehumanize individuals. Now numbers are a great shorthand and they
can be very useful for comparisons, like, I would like to know if my life expectancy
would be longer in the United States or in Canada. Stan informs me that life expectancy
is longer in Canada, which doesn’t make any sense. I always thought that Canada was America’s
hat. Turns out that we are Canada’s pants. Anyway, Stan, we got to move to Canada.
But numbers are always incomplete, and too often we mistake what is easily quantifiable
with what is important. Also, when we ask the question about why the West rules or why
Western nations have succeeded, what are we gonna to do with the answer? Is it for Westerners
to congratulate ourselves on a job well done, or to explain away the astonishing inequality
in the world as being so deeply rooted in the past as to make any efforts to fix it futile?
I’d like to think that by understanding what has made the West more successful in certain
ways, we can formulate policies that will lead to a general improvement, at least in
those ways, around the world. But what we’ve tried to provide here a series of perspectives
on a historical question to emphasize the fact that all history has its perspective.
It’s common to use mathematical measures to analyze contemporary world problems and attempt
to find solutions, and that’s a good thing in many ways. But when it comes to history
and politics, mathematical formulas also have their perspective, and we need to remember
that each of those perspectives is necessarily biased to look at some things and not others.
Whether it’s Crash Course or your world history textbook, it’s important to remember that
bias is inherent to the experience of writing and telling the story of history.
So when you see a number or a claim of success or failure, stop and ask yourself what sorts
of information went into that number or into that conclusion, and just as important, what
might have been ignored or missed? Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week.
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don’t forget to be awesome.
This post was previously published on YouTube.
Photo credit: Screenshot from video.