The Time for Historical Ignorance is Past

Patrick Koske-McBride
5 min readNov 29, 2022

So, today, everyone’s favorite rag, “The Guardian” (my British friends refer to it as, “The Graudian,” in reference to the frequent typos), published a story titled, “Why are Americans ignoring the protests in Iran?” (no, really; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/nov/29/iran-protests-us-media-coverage-mahsa-amini). Ignoring for a brief second how utterly egocentric the Anglophonic world must be for a British writer’s hot take on what the American public thinks of a political movement in Western Asia, rather than actually, I don’t know, calling any Iranian expert or even actual Iranians, this is a catastrophic display of ignorance. For the record; I’m not here to challenge the notion of Americans’ ignorance or apathy toward foreign affairs, it’s to attack F. Prose’s deeply ignorant and ahistorical view as symptomatic of a deeper issue: ignorance of the past.

Prose hints that America and Britain’s hesitancy to intervene in Iran is because it’s an internal affair in a foreign country, and because we’re shrinking violets in the face of a nuclear show-down. No, not the one with Vlad Putin and the Kremlin. No, not the one about Chinese expansion in the South China Sea as a means to intimidate Taiwan and US/European regional allies. No, not the ongoing kerfuffle between Pakistan and India. No, not the ongoing cold war-esque issue between North Korea and… well, everyone within their timezone. Look, as someone who’s not a fan of nuclear armageddon, I’d just take a quick tally of the number of ongoing international crises involving nuclear powers, and do a quick estimate on whether an alleged news source encouraging more tension is or isn’t needed. This is a critical concept for any writer attempting to appeal to Millennials or Zoomers; we aren’t here to debate people in a naked attempt to increase the room temperature, and some asinine writer postulating on American government’s stance without consulting any outside agency probably qualifes.

Speaking as an American, there’s an excellent reason why we’re deliberately avoiding a tense situation in the Middle East: history. For those of you currently employed by British newspapers, check out 1969, 1979, 2001, 2003, 2021, and pretty much any point in the last century when a European power unilaterally decided to meddle in another country’s affairs without first consulting with the citizenry. Not only did it always end in blood and tears for all parties (especially for the populace of the places we meddled in), it created the seeds of future conflict. Mahsa Amini might still be alive if British and American intelligence didn’t decide to fuck around and find out with Mohammed Mosaddegh when he nationalized Iran’s oil fields in the 1950s. But, certainly, now that Iran’s ̶r̶i̶p̶e̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶c̶o̶n̶q̶u̶e̶s̶t̶ undergoing enormous internal political issues (I’m guilty of understatement, but I’m a major believer that the only moral thing for Western powers to do in this situation is aid Iranians in establishing communications networks, which is something they’ve asked for help with), we should pick a side and blunder in, right?

As I mentioned, this moron’s willingness to play “Karl Rove Visits Persia” is just a headline version of a truly disturbing trend I just witnessed in an editing session: historic ignorance. In my session, a friend wrote a story about British Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War. Great, except this story was pretty much a subplot in Mel Gibson’s documentary, “The Patriot.” My friend bristled when I pointed this out, and continued bristling when I discussed the unfortunate fact that the majority of colonists were actually in support of British rule. Similarly, Bill Maher went on a tangent about “presentism” — the act of judging historic figures based on modern morality — without acknowledging that a fair number of America’s Constitutional Framers were very much aware that American slavery was not a sustainable practice, Bertolome De Las Casas deplored Spanish anti-indigenous practices (his idea of using African slave labor to replace indigenous slave labor is problematic, and, yes, that judgment is a presentist sentiment). The broad general rule is, if you speak English, you probably have a poor sense of history. My writing friend got very upset when I suggested that it wasn’t terribly believable, in an historic context, that women might not be equal partners in a relationship in an era when women were, legally speaking, property. Again, it might not seem like a major historic issue for a generation weaned on A. Adam’s famous “Remember the ladies” letter; except my own mother did her graduate thesis on the social role of women in the Antebellum South, and will happily point out that double standards, rampant misogyny, and sexual abuse were not just the rules of the era, but they still persist. If you want objective proof that past is just prologue and directly impacts the present, see Alito’s bizarre rebuttal to Roe v Wade in which he quotes a man who literally believed in witches and magic. I’m not saying that you couldn’t come up with a solid legal reason to reject abortion rights, but I will say that there is absolutely no reason to cite M. Hale in the precedent, any more than there’s reason to quote the infamous “Massachussetts v Witches” in a case involving womens’ right to vote. It’s a bad look that could be avoided by actually paying attention in History 101; that’s all I’m saying.

A large group without a proper historic education might not seem like a major issue — after all, most of us who scraped through Calculus 2 aren’t hung up on that on a regular basis — but history is the only way to frame contemporary problems in any way that makes sense, and it provides a better guideline to understand how to solve modern problems. The West intervening in Ukraine is a fundamentally different situation than bombing Iran, because we have 30-odd years of history in which Ukraine was a peaceful, thriving, functional, multiparty democracy that only menaced the neighbors with the occasional bad turnip harvest, and Ukrainians specifically requested military aid and very specific forms of military intervention with, presumably, the goal of returning to grain harvests, parliamentary procedure, and the banality of being a multicultural, functioning country. As an American, I would love to do the same with Iran, except, perhaps crucially, we have a disgraceful track record in the region, and I don’t think the average Iranian wants more guns on the table. I could be absolutely wrong; I will admit that my education and adult experience with Asian cultures is that we historically tend to blunder in like a wounded water buffalo and upend everything. But that’s the point; part of reversing Dunning Kruger is knowing when you’re eminently unqualified to advocate for or against a particular policy, and, if you’re unsure, err on the side that isn’t inching us toward a nuclear holocaust.

--

--

Patrick Koske-McBride

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”