by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright May 2015
The benefit of seeing history from the Big Picture perspective is being able to look at current events and make a good prediction of what is going to happen next. Note: The prediction will be far from perfect, but it will be much better than a random guess, or no guess at all.
What happens is seeing a pattern in current events that is similar to a pattern or patterns that have happened before in history. Being similar in how events evolve is how history repeats itself.
In my experience, the following are trends that shape the patterns. As you learn history, watch for these kinds of trends in historical events, then watch for similar patterns in current events.
The most important lesson here is to learn the context in which historical events happen. By context I mean:
o the kinds of human thinking being engaged in by the decision makers involved in the historic event
o the current events surrounding the historical event
o the technologies available (and not available) to the people involved
o what has been happening in the economic/financial world in the years just ahead of the historic event
Here are more details on these.
Humans think, then make decisions. The thinking they use to make those decisions falls into two general categories: instinctive thinking and analytic thinking.
Instinctive thinking is fast, easy and comfortable thinking -- think of falling in love. Analytic thinking is learned thinking -- think of learning arithmetic. Which is being used to cope with the historical event is important. If too much instinctive thinking is being used to cope with modern-day problems, big mistakes are the result. But it gets used anyway because it is fast, easy and comfortable. What happens is what I call a Panic and Blunder event.
An example of lots of instinctive thinking being used is America's response to the 9-11 Disaster. It was a first-of-its kind and very scary event for millions of people. Because of this the people and leaders of America used a lot of "gut feeing" -- instinctive thinking -- to design America's response to it.
The converse to the gut feeling response is the drill response -- "We have experienced this or anticipated this, so we have thought about how to respond and we are prepared." Think of school fire drills.
Note that what the people of the community feel is even more important than what the leaders feel. This is because the leaders truly are leading their communities, if they go off in a direction the community considers too weird, they will be replaced in some fashion. Leaders, whether tyrants or populist, lead where the important members of their community want to go.
Which gets used -- instinct or analysis -- depends a lot on both the leader and how unusual and scary the event is. The more novel and scary the event is, the more instinctive thinking will be used. This is why who is the leader is important, and why experience helps in leadership -- the more experience the leader and the community have, the more drill-like and cool-headed the response becomes.
Historic events don't happen in isolation. There are lots of other exciting current events happening at the same time, and these affect how the people of the community are feeling, and the context within which the leadership is making its decisions. Knowing what else is happening at the same time adds a lot to understanding the pattern. An example of this is President Carter's dealing with the unrest in Iran that lead to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 -- he had a whole lot on his plate domestically dealing with Post-Watergate feelings, and curing the high inflation/low growth "stagflation" he inherited from the Johnson/Nixon-era presidencies. He was both a busy man, and he was a deeply devoted human rights advocate. It is not surprising that his actions relating to Iran and its growing chaos did not seem to get a lot of personal attention.
Technology affects what people can and can't do. As an example: If you don't have the technology to make lots of sailing ships that can routinely cross the Atlantic, discovering America is a, "Ho-hum... what else is new."-event. Think of the difference between Eric the Red and Christopher Columbus discovering America. With this Eric/Christopher pattern in mind, observe what is happening to Neil Armstrong's stature in history stories.
Knowing what technology is available, and isn't available, is vital to fleshing out the pattern of a historical event.
What is happening in the economy prior to a historic event gets almost no mention in conventional histories, but it is important. It is important because these are "pocket book issues" -- these affect how much money people have to spend, what kinds of jobs they have, or have just lost, and how confident they are feeling about their future. Most dramatic social revolutions -- such as the Civil War, French Revolution and Arab Spring -- follow a "bank panic" (the old term) or a deep recession. The financial condition of governments and people in communities is very much a part of a historical event pattern. And if you want to predict the timing of a dramatic social revolution, watch the economic cycle looking for a severe crash. The pattern is the revolution will follow in a few years.
These are the major elements that make up the pattern of a historical event. One other important concept to keep in mind: The concept of "It's inconceivable!"
Current events are surprising. The people experiencing a historical event haven't experienced it before -- this is not some sort of TV rerun. This means that what has recently happened and what will happen are both uncertain to the people experiencing them. There is a lot of guessing going on.
I call this the "It's inconceivable!" element of a historical event. The 9-11 Disaster is a text book example of this: Who had experienced many big jet planes being deliberately flown into skyscrapers before this?
Now let's look at some things that are often talked about in history lessons and videos, but are not part of what makes up the pattern of a historical event.
The dark side issues are those that are often talked about in history lessons and videos, but are not part of the pattern. They are, in fact, distractions from it, and they can conceal the true pattern. Some common ones are: Monday Morning Quarterbacking, urban legend, and supporting an opinion. Watch out for these.
Monday Morning Quarterbacking is when a spectator commenting on a previous weekend's sports game says the team should have done better, and then explains in detail how the game should have been played. This happens a lot in all kinds of history recounting. As an example: A commentator may say something like, "These people should have seen this coming." and usually follows it with, "If they had, they would have done [X] and the world would be a better place." An example of this would be a commentator saying something like, "The US should have seen the Japanese fleet coming to attack Pearl Harbor. If they had, they would have crushed the Japanese fleet, saved the American fleet, and the war would have ended in six months."
It didn't happen this way. It was a terrible surprising event for the Americans and a triumphant surprising event for the Japanese. If you are telling this as a history, not some kind of alternate history fiction, tell it with the Japanese doing a great job of keeping a secret, and with the Americans being surprised.
Urban legends are stories that sound good to people's instincts. They are not closely related to what really happened, but the stories are robustly passed on because they sound good to the soul. An example of this is stories which say that White Star Lines, builders and owners of the Titanic, advertised the ship as unsinkable. They did not. They advertised it as equipped with the latest safety features, which it was.
Few people wake up in the morning, stretch, and then think, "What a great day to do evil!"
But much of history is portrayed as having a good player and an evil player in a contest. The harsh reality is that players on both sides think they are doing good. To get a good Big Picture of a historical contest, what is important to do is understand what "good" means to the people on both sides of the contest. Take the Korean War as an example: The US/UN side got involved to prevent those evil Communists who had just taken over China from also taking over South Korea. When the Chinese intervened six months after the fighting started it was to prevent those evil American capitalists from moving north of the Korean border into Manchuria and reigniting the Chinese Civil War.
So keep in mind that in most conflicts the players on both sides think they are fighting on the good side. Your goal is to find out what "good" means on both sides. That will deepen your understanding.
Many documentaries produced these days are telling/selling an opinion. The producer has a point of view on the topic, and is supporting that point of view. The result is something that is not giving a balanced viewpoint. Watch these, but keep this selling element in mind. Be skeptical, and if possible, watch other points of view on the same topic. And if you can't watch, read, there will be many articles written which support different viewpoints.
These elements -- human thinking, other current events, technologies available, and the financial circumstances -- will be the core of what gets discussed in these Big Picture History essays.
The goal is to help you, the reader, learn how to build these kinds of patterns in your view of history from what you continue to learn about history. And with those patterns, be able to better predict what is going to happen next in this surprising world we live in.