Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Niall Ferguson's War of the World and our times

Niall Ferguson wrote a truly exceptional history of the twentieth century called War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. What made his book so interesting was his focus on the causes of the extreme violence that occurred, not only during the World Wars, but throughout the century. He attributed this level of violence to three factors: ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and empires in decline. The reference to decline of empires refers to political volatility. Over and over again multiethnic configurations were destabilized leading to conflict and violence when there was a breakdown of political control. In fact, Ferguson points out that most of the violence of the century can be framed as a form of ethnic conflict. Interestingly, Ferguson’s focus is on economic volatility rather than bad economic conditions. Everyone suffers in bad times. In volatile times the winners and losers can change roles and uncertainty and change seem to be fearsome triggers for violent behavior. This role of ethnic conflict in recent history deserves a much more detailed discussion. The purpose of this note is to ponder the relevance of Ferguson’s conclusions to our current political situation.

If one looks at the behavior of the most visible and vocal of the politically restless groups, the Tea Partiers, it would not be much of a stretch to describe their behavior as a form of ethnic conflict. They appear to be predominately white in an ever more multiracial country. Their attacks on our non-white president are heavily laden with racial references. Their cries of "Give me my country back!" seem to be born out of fear that economic and political changes are occurring that will do them some personal harm. While there has not been overt violence, the shrillness of the discourse is certainly troubling, and there have been numerous incidents of politically motivated vandalism and threats of violence. There has been plenty of fuel for this unrest. Our economy has certainly been in a volatile state for the past few years. Clearly people who once considered themselves winners have now become—or fear becoming—losers. The state of our political discourse has taken a turn for the worse over the same time period, providing a situation in which many question whether the federal government can function effectively in its current state.

I believe it is reasonable to apply Ferguson’s analysis to our current state. Therefore, it is not too surprising to see popular unrest emerge. One can hope that a broad-based economic recovery and a little more cooperation between partisan politicians will diminish the volatility that may be driving the unrest and the sense of conflict will dissipate. One can hope.

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