What’s Our Context?

Posted by on 06/17/10 in Global Politics, Governance, History, Literature

In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (1776), British historian Edward Gibbon began his tale with Trajan, emperor from 98 to 117 BCE, when Rome was at its geographic zenith. He traced Rome’s descent over 71 chapters of rich and provocative language, astute character sketches, and insightful observations.

Gibbon could have told the same story with less depth and color, emphasizing only those points that best supported his thesis. Instead, he gives readers a context for understanding how dramatic events evolved organically from the events that preceded them. For those hoping to understand Rome’s decline, Gibbon provides a framework for understanding a complex array of issues and events. He provides “context.”

So how about us today, those striving to understand and make decisions in a similarly multifaceted geopolitical environment? Do we possess the context necessary to fully appreciate the implications of the events, issues, and policies with which we are bombarded 24/7? Generally speaking, we think not.

Few people have sufficient time or resources to place today’s news in a relevant historical framework. There is no shared narrative through which we can appreciate or question the significance of the latest hot topic. The frenetic pace of information exchange, media bias, the infotainment approach to news distribution, and a lack of time and attention make it difficult to develop the context necessary for a meaningful interpretation of events and issues.

Consider the European debt crisis, particularly as it relates to Greece. Debate rages over what should be done, who should do it, and what precedents are being set. The popular narrative seems to be that the efficient, hard-working, and budget-conscious Germans are being forced to bail out the lazy, corrupt, and irresponsible Greeks.

But if one steps back 70 years, the story evolves differently. During WWII, Germany sacked Greece with particular brutality. The Germans dismantled Greece’s entire infrastructure, razed nearly every major town, city, and port, and wiped out almost all fields, orchards, and herds for years if not generations. After WWII, the US invested heavily in rebuilding post-war Germany via the Marshall Plan and other channels, but was reluctant to rebuild Greece while a communist government was in power. Thus, while Germany emerged from WWII with a viable economy woven into that of the Western world, Greece did not.

Does this information change the need for Greek austerity measures? Absolutely not. Does it mean that Germany is forever on the hook for Greece’s financial mismanagement? No. But to ignore this history undermines the ability of policy makers to derive a politically viable solution. A lack of context renders the media interpretation of events incomplete, and compels the general public to form a simplistic understanding of complex characters and issues.

One could flesh out similar examples in the apparent demise of the “special relationship” between the US and Great Britain, in the seemingly “sudden” animosity in Turkey toward Israel, in the deep seated emotion around a US military presence on Okinawa, in the current chess game between the US and Russia in Kyrgyzstan, or in countless other issues.

One could argue that the effort, skill and time required to create context doesn’t fit the format or intention of most cable news, talk radio, or print media outlets. However, we are concerned that the lack of context stems from too many people believing that the historical framework does not matter, that a quick spot on CNN or Fox, NPR or Rush is sufficient to form a strong opinion on health care, Islam, Wall Street, foreign policy, or the economy. Clearly, those quick sound bites are not enough to form informed opinions; yet, with so much information to track, sound bites are often the best most can do.

This piece opened with Rome, and then shifted to modern Greece. Taken together, Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece still form the context through which many in the US and Western Europe understand ourselves and the world, even if subconsciously. Given the great debates about our shared identity, about our political philosophies and the nature of our social contracts, steeping ourselves in America’s historical context is essential, yet no less so than immersing ourselves in a rigorous, nuanced, and wide ranging appreciation for the larger global context.

Much ink has been spilled discussing the causes of the global economic crisis. These diagnostic attempts often assume the story started with the repeal of Glass Steagall in 1999, the relatively uncontrolled growth of Fannie Mae, or other recent policy and leadership mistakes. But almost all of these discussions still start in the last decade.

It is common to see the immediate effects of a crisis and think that the cause(s) must be nearby; however, upon further reflection, we all recognize that with almost any crisis, the causes are vaster, more intertwined, and far older than we might think. That reality is not always convenient.

Though he regards emperor Diocletian highly, Gibbon emphasizes his contribution to Rome’s downfall. He notes that Diocletian “deserves the reproach of establishing pernicious precedents, rather than of exercising actual oppression.” Rome did not fall until nearly 170 years after Diocletian’s rule; yet, as Gibbon points out, context matters. There was no surprise in Rome’s fall, just a culmination. That lesson is essential today. We must look back as we move forward.