History does not repeat itself… but it does give us interesting insights, especially when we engage in a study of comparative history. More specifically, it fascinates me studying similarly situated ethnic groups during a similar point in history, but separated by geography. One would suppose that if humans are a naturally progressing people, two ethnic groups with virtually identical cultural influences and geographic advantages would yield similar developmental results.
During one of my graduate classes, I was admonished that the study of “great men” as a driver for history is a fallacy. Sexist orientation towards male leaders notwithstanding, most history as a progression from tribal existence to infrastructure-based civilization has been oriented towards identifying specific individuals (typically men, but by no means an exclusive club) who thrusted their people forward toward rapid institutional development. This focus on the individual was falling out of favor among academia. It violated a basic principle of collectivism and, in my opinion, negated a basic Marxist principle that the driver of society is the masses, and not the leaders manipulating the masses.
As I get older and continue my studies, I am rapidly dismissing that 1970’s academic precept. I do, in fact, believe that history is made by great leaders, sometimes through sheer brilliance, other times through arrogant incompetence. These leaders, though, are kept in check by that underlying populace. Once leaders have lost them, they cease being leaders. They can terrorize their constituents… sometimes for an extraordinarily long time, even multiple generations of leaders… but once the people have dismissed them, there is no going back.
Marx famously called religion the “opiate of the masses”. There is truth to this to a limited extent, but it can also be the animator of the masses. Religion should never be attributed exclusively to a cosmological belief system. Sometimes “religion” can be fealty to the state itself.
When the January protesters entered the Capitol, the Left literally lost its mind. “They defiled the Temple of Democracy!” screamed the talking heads on CNN. The other day I heard one academic suggest the events at the Capitol were more egregious than 911. (I will refrain from commenting on this one, but suffice it to say there are still coffee stains on my keyboard from making the mistake of taking a sip while I read that missive.)
In North Korea there has been an established, full-on cult. Literally, I feel that the North Korean government is most akin to a theocracy. Unlike most traditional collectivist societies where religious adherence to the institutions of government have taken control, in North Korea there is an actual cosmological belief system established around the leader. Kim Il Sung was not just divinely inspired… he was, in fact, divine. His odd offspring also share this god-like status, making their role in North Korean society metaphysically foretold.
For Father’s Day, my lovely daughter Carolyn gifted me a fascinating book, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. She knows my interest in comparative history and I am deeply thankful for her gift. It is by happy accident that I read this book immediately after finishing Stephen Ambrose’s Custer and Crazy Horse.
One of the things that initially struck me during my read was looking at the development of the Mongol Empire in comparison to the development of Native Americans, specifically the Plains Native American Tribes.
(If you have arrived here from our newsletter, continue reading here…)
Both ethnic Mongolians and ethnic Native Americans existed simultaneously in history. The Sioux, Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Pawnee, etc. all shared virtually identical nomadic cultural structures as the Mongols. During the time of the Mongol Empire there were no Europeans on the plains of North America, just as there was no extensive representation of Europeans on the Mongolian Steppe. (There were, of course, some individuals who made their way to the East, and quite a few skilled administrators and engineers from Europe joined the Mongol Empire. Notwithstanding the forays into Eastern Europe and Russia after Genghis Khan’s death were there any serious interactions between the Mongols and the Europeans.)
So, during Genghis Khan’s rise to power there were similarly situated tribal chieftains amongst the various tribes in North America. They structured their societies virtually identically. They survived on protein from hunting as opposed to farming. They made constant war on their neighbors, and they even had a similar animistic religion.
Yet, in Mongolia Genghis Khan was able to coalesce all of the tribes to form a singular nation, while in what would become the Americas, nothing even remotely took place.
This was not, in my opinion, because of lack of resources, not because of lack of desire, or even lack of initiative. It was because on the Plains of America the various tribes lacked Genghis Khan.
There could never have been a Mongol Empire without there first being a unique individual who was prepared to do what was necessary to bring neighboring tribes to heel. This was not simply because of his administrative abilities (abilities that were absolutely brilliant in not only their structure, but their implementation), but also his flat-out genius at being a general.
We, as a country, have had great leaders to be sure. We have also had our share of misanthropes, misfits, and morons, just as our Asian, European, and African competitors have had. In this century we have technologically homogenized the planet. There are cultural differences between peoples, but there has become a great leveling of knowledge and cultural desires. (The Mongols during Genghis Khan’s time would take a city, but they had no desire to live in the city. They remained nomads being subsidized by tributes from their conquered vassal states.)
With the similarity of situation that now exists in the world it will be interesting to see what “great” (or perhaps “infamous”) individuals will appear on the world stage to move history forward again.