Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Individuals, Society and History

Gerard Henderson provides another lead.

In today's SMH Gerard Henderson relays a Lateline inteview between Tony Jones and Robert Fisk. I haven't seen the interview, and am relying only on Henderson's report.

In the article it is claimed that Fisk's essential thesis is that the individuals at the head of the various terrorist organisations are now irrelevant. What is important is recognising that these movements are the creation of "the West". In counter, Henderson uses the line that;
One of the lessons of history is that revolutionaries should be taken seriously, since they usually do, or attempt to do, what they say they intend to do. This is true of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and more besides.

This is one of the delightful, but largely irrelevant, battles being debated in the studying both contemporary and past societies.

There are a number of social network mapping tools that can be used to determine the importance of an individual to a "society", including one called NetMap that was developed in Australia. These tools are applied by organised crime investigators to deterine how significant each individual is to the survival of the organisation. That is, the question of whether the individual is important or not is an empirical question, not an a priori one.

Similarly, as a counterpoint to Henderson, can he imagine a world order in which any or all attributes of "the West" were varied in such a way as the terrorist organisations would not have arisen. I can think of at least one, it goes something like this - the Archduke didn't get shot so the escalating armaments didn't trigger World War I, so there was no treaty of Versailles, there was therefore no World War II and thus no holocaust, and so the West wasn't wearing collective guilt over the treatment of the Jews. Or, in more recent times, the West did not practise a policy of "appeasement" of oil rich states and the propping up of various regimes merely to secure oil resources, but had instead pursued human values before economic values.

In each of these cases terrorism as we know it is far less likely to exist. That doesn't mean, however, that there is something that the West can now simply magically change and terrorism would simply cease to exist. It's one of those unfortunate features of causation, that once the cause has triggered the effect removing the cause doesn't remove the effect. Once the match has lit the fire, extinguishing the match does not extinguish the fire.

History is made up of individuals working within a social construct, each is created by the other. Historical explanation requires the interpretation of both, though it is far easier to relay as a narrative of the lives of influentialmen and women.

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