learning from history

Ever since I started work on the Dialogue on Democracy that I wrote for a while, and may pursue again, someday, I’ve been reading stuff by and about neoreactionaries, which has led me more than once to Scott Alexander’s Anti-Reactionary FAQ. I was looking at it again today, and had, quite strongly, a thought I have had before: Alexander is a first-rate mind and a consistently interesting writer, but his understanding of history is shockingly weak. But then, the same is true of every single prominent neoreactionary, though none of them, as far as I know, has cited The Oatmeal as a source for historical analysis. So we have this extended argument that has been going on for years now, much of which is based on the interpretation of historical events, not one participant in which has engaged with serious professional historians.

And I think that’s because serious professional history simply doesn’t lend itself to support of particular contemporary political proposals. There are just too many variables. Ask whether crime rates have gone up or down in the past hundred years and you’re immediately landed in a morass of questions: How good is the data for any given place, any given time? Do we have a consistent definition of “crime”? (Hint: No.) How many different cultural environments, political systems, economic conditions are we comparing, and how much do those variables affect the comparisons?

A mess like this is enough to make a smart person quote The Oatmeal and be done with it.