The Return of History


One of the best things about an extended stay vacation is that it offers time for things it is harder to do at home–such as reading.  Reading is one of my greatest pleasures.  I will comment on a few of the books I have read on this vacation. Here is the first

Today I am recommending not just a book, but a series of books. I am talking about the Massey Lectures a series of outstanding books by great thinkers co-sponsored by CBC, House of Anansi Press, and Massey College at the University of Toronto. Oddly, I have actually brought the two most recent books in this series on this trip.

The book I just finished is The Return of History by Jennifer Welsh. Welsh’s book is a rethink of an earlier very famous article by American political commentator Frances Fukuyama entitled “The End of History,” in which he argued that the demise of confrontation of East and West epitomized by the apparent end of the Cold War in 1989, was actually much more than that. Fukuyama argued this was the end of humanity’s ideological evolution as it entailed the “universalization of Western liberal democracy.” In other words it was the final form of government and this would lead to a waning of traditional power politics and large-scale conflict and the emergence of a much more peaceful world. Optimistic wasn’t he? Welsh definitively puts an end to this thesis, based on historical events that occurred since then.

What I really liked about the book (and there were many things) was the way she knitted together a broad collection of international historical events into a rational narrative without over-simplifying them. She makes sense of history in other words.

Too many of us (me clearly included) catch only a glimpse of current events, particularly on the international stage, by reading newspapers and magazines, or watching news stories on television, or, horrors, listening to our opinionated buddies at the coffee shop. Naturally we miss parts of each story. Often we miss large parts of the story without realizing it. It is difficult to understand what is going on in the world that way.

It is really nice for someone like Welsh to put them together in a comprehensive and rational way and look at them that way. It makes us feel briefly smarter. Sadly, that feeling soon passes with each new overtaking event.

When we look at places like Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Afghanistan, and closer to home like the United States Germany and Great Britain, among many others, complacency is hardly justified by the facts. Dread is a much more rational response. It is not the triumph of the west that we can reasonably look forward to, the decline of the west seems much more likely.

Welsh points out that liberal democracy has overcome many crises in its short history during which it has flourished, but this has lulled both its leaders and its citizens into a false sense of complacency that is rapidly crumbling. As she says, “Our relative success in the past has created blind spots that now threaten to take us into a decade or more of great political, as well as economic turmoil. History is back with a vengeance.”[1]

This is a very good book.

[1] Jennifer Welsh, The Return of History, (2016) p. 46

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