Against Historical Cherry Picking

By Daniel Tippens

Early in his presidency, Donald Trump passed his first executive order pertaining to immigration, preventing travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from entering the United State for 90 days. At the same time, Trump has been laying on some heavy rhetoric about deporting illegal aliens from the United States.

Many were quick to draw a historical analogy between these policies and those of Nazi Germany. Hitler ordered both the prevention of non-Germans from coming into the Reich and the deportation of all non-Germans who had arrived on or after August 2, 1914. Those who pointed this out wanted, in some form or another, to suggest that we are moving in the direction of Nazi Germany, in some relevant and important sense.

Jason Stanley authored an article in The Stone in The New York Times, in which he observes that Donald Trump is intent on deporting all “criminal aliens,” and the way he has pushed this policy is by speaking of many illegals as rapists or “poisonous snakes.” Following these observations, he says:

It is worth noting that this tactic of dehumanization — referring to humans as animals — has historically been used to foment hatred and violence against chosen groups. In the lead up to the Rwandan genocide, for instance, Tutsis were regularly described as snakes.

Of course, an even more recent example of the same kind of argument came when Trump fired James Comey, the director of the FBI. Given that Comey was investigating possible ties between Trump and Russia, political pundits quickly jumped on the opportunity to draw an analogy with Richard Nixon’s decision to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor leading the investigation into Nixon’s involvement in the cover up of the Watergate break-ins. Given that Nixon did this to obstruct justice, we can infer that Trump had the same intentions.

The kind of argument being made in all of these cases — historical analogy — is roughly the same. One draws an analogy between an action or policy made by the president (or politician) and a policy or action made by an historical figure, and then makes some inference about what is going to happen, a heinous motive that the president harbors, or a claim about how the country is being run today.

While I only chose three examples, due to their prominence in the media, arguments of this kind have been appearing in the public sphere since Trump was elected. Academics, politicians, and commentators alike employ them to push their positions.  They are easy to make, but in my view, they also are typically specious.

Take the first case: Trump’s immigration ban and deportation rhetoric. Of course it is true that Hitler had somewhat similar policies, at least in the sense of expelling large amounts of non-Germans and preventing outsiders from entering the country. However, there are significant differences between the two. First, determining who was German and non-German was tied to a highly promoted eugenics program, involving an explicit attempt to “purify” the fatherland of all people who weren’t a part of the genetically superior Aryan race. In addition to their immigration and deportation policies, Germany was beginning to enact forced sterilization techniques as a way to promote this goal. Second, these policies and attitudes arose as a result, in part, of the bitter resentment that the Germans felt toward the Allies, who had forced them to sign the Treaty of Versailles.

Differences also abound with regard to the Saturday Night Massacre and the Comey firing. NYU Law professor Richard Epstein, troubled by the narrative being pushed that relieving Comey of his duty is similar to the Nixon scandal, wrote an article in Vox pointing out the large differences between the cases. For example, unlike special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Comey deserved to be fired, given his handling of the Clinton email investigation, treating the investigation with “kid gloves,” and deciding to announce a second investigation into Clinton during the presidential race. Additionally, just prior to being fired, Cox had issued a subpoena for some recordings of conversations that had occurred in the Oval Office, and Nixon was refusing to comply. In other words, the evidence was compellingly mounting up against Nixon leading up to Cox’s firing. No similar amount of evidence has come to light against Trump.

In light of all of these factors, it seems that simply pointing out that Nixon also fired the person charged with investigating him says very little about whether Trump is similarly guilty and attempting to obstruct justice. The fact that Trump’s immigration and deportation policies are somewhat similar to Nazi Germany’s loses its predictive capacity, since an analogy is only as useful as the overall similarity between the two relata.

After pointing out all of the contextual differences between current policies and their historical “analogues,” it begins to look like those who use these kinds of arguments are typically engaging in a kind of historical cherry-picking. They are looking through history to find a loose similarity between something a bad person did (Hitler, Nixon) and something our current president is doing, which ends up also having the rhetorical force of an ad hominem argument — Hitler enacted these kinds of policies and so has Trump. Therefore, Trump must be like one of the most heinous people in history.

I am not taking Trump’s side here. I think his immigration ban was deeply concerning, his rhetoric against undocumented immigrants is alarming, and his firing of Comey at least questionable, even if it was deserved (why did he wait until now to fire him?). But I also think that these kind of ad hominems disguised in historicity, if used frequently enough, can actually cause some problems.

First, there is a concern about a boy crying “wolf!” too many times. I certainly think that, when done with care and attention, historical arguments like the ones above can be extremely informative and helpful. But if we throw around historical analogy arguments in large quantities, with a clear ad hominem rhetorical undertone and in a cherry-picking manner, which results in predictions or inferences that rarely pan out, we will cause the arguments to lose their force in general. This is a phenomenon that happens frequently with words. Just take a look at how liberals use the word ‘racist’ and ‘bigot’ so flippantly that these labels, which were once powerful accusations, have lost much of their significance. If you take a look at conservative media outlets, they now openly laugh at liberals who call all manner of seemingly trivial things “racist” and all sorts of innocuous-seeming people “bigots.” When people who disagree with liberals on many social policies now have this accusation launched at them, it causes them merely to flinch and not recoil and reconsider. Using morally charged accusations far too frequently,and in an expansive manner can drain the force from the words, and the same can be true of historical arguments, when not used responsibly. Funny enough, John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty that one reason why free speech is so important is so that ideas remain alive to individuals. The thought was that when people continue to discuss issues throughout history without restraint, the ideas, with all their nuance, remain entrenched, which seems like a good thing. Unfortunately, irresponsible discussion and use of arguments can have the opposite effect — an erosion of rhetorical and argumentative efficacy.

But even if these arguments don’t lose their potency, and we come to give them a good deal of weight, they can all too easily become tools for opponents to use against us as well. Given that history is so expansive, if one digs deeply enough they can always manage to cherry-pick a “historical analogy” with almost any policy you can imagine. It shouldn’t take much effort for white supremacists or alt-right writers to find historical cases where immigrants with radicalized ideologies did some damage when allowed to immigrate into a country. When they realize this, they will certainly jump on the “appeal to history” bandwagon and begin rooting their heinous propositions in flimsy historical “analogues.”

What I propose, then, is that we essentially leave the historical arguments to historians, who have the expertise to actually make informed predictions and arguments with all of the relevant historical context in mind. Otherwise, we risk crying “wolf!”, or worse, supplying wolves with tooth sharpeners.

(This article was originally published on The Electric Agora)

4 thoughts on “Against Historical Cherry Picking

  1. Hi Dan,
    I am in substantial agreement with you. The major problem with historical analogies usually is that we are comparing a current situation with earlier situations.

    Now it happens that we are usually(though not always) well informed about the current situation, with an intimate knowldge of the context and all the nuances.

    But that is usually not true of the past situation. The context and nuances are usually lost and even trained historians can and do disagree on the details.

    This is made even worse by the evil of presentism whereby by we judge the past in terms of present norms.

    The problem introduced by the disparity between our knowledge of past and present context/nuances is magnified by present day biases, prejudices and presentism.

    The answer is not to use historical analogies as tools in debate. They lend themselves to dishonest or biased usage and they are not easily answered without a good deal of knowledge about the past situation.

    The present situation should always be analysed on its own merits because it is only the present situation that can be debated with a sufficient degree of knowledge.

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  2. A lovely example of blatantly disengenuous historical cherry picking is the claim that religion is a major cause of wars. This works when you carefully choose a suitable segment of history to demonstrate this claim. But it fails horribly when you examine the complete history of war.

    The magisterial work by Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod, The Encyclopedia of Wars, shows this. They have compiled and analysed a list of all known wars, giving among other things, the causes.

    Even a quick perusal will show that less than ten percent of all known wars have religion listed as the primary cause, which gives the lie to the atheist claim that religion is a major cause of wars. The opponents of religion seem unaware of the true facts and this is probably because historical cherry picking is a seductively easy way to weaponise history.

    But weaponising history is dishonest debate.

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  3. Hi Peter,

    I agree about the micharacterization of religion in many contexts. In addition to wars, I think I remember learning about how Christianity, for example, was actually liberating for women in many ways in the past, as opposed to oppressive. Do you happen to know anything about this? I worry that religions have become fixed points for ridicule by atheists and philosophers these days, often times cherry picking their low-points.

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  4. Hi Dan,
    I think I remember learning about how Christianity, for example, was actually liberating for women in many ways in the past, as opposed to oppressive

    Yes, I believe it was liberating. Traditional societies have always been strongly male dominated where women were regarded as chattels and sexual objects. One still sees this today in Africa and the Middle East. Christianity emerged in the strongly male dominated environment of the Middle East but from the beginning it venerated women, elevating their status. This Wikipedia article gives more detail:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_the_Catholic_Church
    the Blessed Virgin Mary remains the most important human figure in the Catholic church after Jesus Christ who is regarded also as true man.

    In the daily life of our church Mary is accorded extraordinary veneration and this was true from the beginning of the church. But societal attitudes were very slow to change in response because patriarchy was so strongly entrenched in society. But they did change in Western Europe, even if very slowly. Concubinage and polygamy were eliminated. Divorce was forbidden. Remember that women were the principal victims of divorce.

    Perhaps the most notable early change was that new norms developed in Europe for the treatment of women. They were given greater respect and they were accorded special value. And from this evolved the idea that it was our duty to protect women. These early changes in respect for women and giving them special value laid the groundwork for the later political and domestic emancipation of women. And this is why the emancipation of women took place first in Europe.

    Today feminists reject this idea of special respect and protectiveness as being oppressive. But that is because they lack the long historical view where for very long periods society was a dangerous place for women. Inculculating a gentlemany code of behaviour, making a woman untouchable, was the only protection woman had against rapacious male behaviour.

    From the Wikipedia article:
    According to historian Geoffrey Blainey, women were probably the majority of Christians in the 1st century after Christ. The 1st century Apostle Paul emphasised a faith open to all in his Letter to the Galatians:[8] “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.”

    Other writings ascribed to Paul appear to both recognise women leadership in the early Church (Romans 16) and to put limits upon it (1 Timothy 2:12). According to the Book of Acts, the early church attracted significant numbers of women; many of these were prominent in cultures that afforded women more substantial roles than Judaism did and they shaped the church. According to Alister McGrath, Christianity had the effect of undermining traditional roles of both women and slaves in two ways:

    By asserting that all were “one in Christ”, regardless of whether they were Jew or Gentile, male or female, master or slave.
    By asserting that all could share in Christian fellowship and worship together, again regardless of status.
    McGrath describes Paul’s egalitarian approach as “profoundly liberating” in that it implied new freedoms for women.[9] McGrath comments that, although Christianity did not effect an immediate change in cultural attitudes towards women, the influence of Paul’s egalitarianism was to “place a theoretical time bomb under them.” He asserts that, ultimately, “the foundations of these traditional distinctions would be eroded to the point where they could no longer be maintained.”[10] Similarly, Suzanne Wemple notes that, although Christianity did not eliminate sexual discrimination in the late Roman Empire, it did offer women “the opportunity to regard themselves as independent personalities rather than as someone else’s daughter, wife, or mother.”[11]

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