Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The Demon of Nonanalogy

I’ve been reading Henry Kamen’s sweeping history Empire: How Spain Became a World Power with the reverb on, even though I’m aware that the echoes of the present I detects in the adventures of the Prudent King are largely a literary effect. Agreeing with Hegel that no nation ever learned a thing from the past, I don’t buy the idea that history is philosophy teaching by example. Mostly we discover similarities between one situation and other because the historian has hidden them there like Easter eggs. The Spaniards had an empire once, and we’ve got one now; but the meaning, indeed, the reality of empire is totally different 400 years later. On the other hand, if positive metaphors such as “America is like Hapsburg Spain” are literally false, negative metaphors such as “America is not like Hapsburg Spain” are literally true; and the reasons America is not like Hapsburg Spain can be highly illuminating and perhaps even useful in thinking about current policy issues. One example:

Although the Hapsburg’s pioneered many of the techniques of modern administration—whatever else he was, Philip II was a tireless bureaucrat—the Spanish empire of the 16th and 17th Centuries was an astonishingly ramshackle structure that exerted only the most tenuous control over its immense domain. After absorbing Portugal and its dominions, the empire comprised all of the Iberian peninsula; the southern Netherlands; various principalities in what is now eastern France; many parts of Italy, including Milan, Naples, Sardinia, and Sicily; various enclaves on the North African shore; forts and trading stations in West Africa, the Azores and Canary Islands, all of the New World south of Florida, the Philippines; the Spice Islands; Malacca; Ceylon; and bits and pieces of India—a list comparable in scope and heterogeneity to the foreign deployment of American military personnel charted in Chalmers Johnson’s Sorrows of Empire. But we’ve got spy satellites, computers, cell phones, and drone surveillance aircraft armed with rockets to keep our imperium under the thumb. They had memos written in long hand, warships propelled by oars, and Jesuits. Moral issues aside—and I’m far more inclined to buy into the Black Legend version of Spanish history than Kamen—Philip’s empire just didn’t have the technical means to dominate its subjects on a modern scale. An empire with Xerox machines and security cameras is potentially a far worse threat to human freedom.

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