Saturday, May 05, 2007

Mid and late-mid 20th century

The mid-20th century is dominated by events of World War II, although I keep getting reminded that I'm also describing events of the early Cold War, and not to overdo World War II. I've been looking at such things as the the beginning of the Cold war as it played out in Germany, liberation of Vietnam from France following the war, the effective independence and autonomy of Egypt, and modernization attempts in Ethiopia.
The late-mid 20th century is surprisingly obscure, although the nations I'm working on were not the most prominent. But I would expect to find more on Post-war French history, more on Turkey and pre-Revolutionary Iran, and Thailand. This may have something to do with the fact that these events are still in living memory and have not yet been thoroughly assimilated by historians, and the political struggles launched during this period are still going on to some extent. Also, these regions are not well covered by Western media.

While I was looking at Ethiopia, I was distracted by a reference to Prester John, a mythical personage who in medieval times was supposed to rule a Christian kingdom somewhere in central or east Asia. That led to a discussion of a personage in early Christian history called John the presbyter, who may or may not have been the same as the apostle John, and thence into questions of New Testament authorship. After reviewing some of this commentary, I was forcibly reminded me again of one of the pitfalls of scholarship, which is that some scholars tend to bring their own preconceptions and and preferences to a study, and reach conclusions which are then taken by others to be absolute fact, while others bring different preconceptions and prejudices and present their own conclusions as fact. The result is, of course, confusion and dispute.
Since Vietnam came up, in the period just preceding the Vietnam war, I took the chance to check some of my facts. I saw something about the Tonkin incident which prompted the US to authorize sending large number of troops to Vietnam, and noted the comment that one interpretation was that the government analysts who studied this incident did essentially the same thing: choose from a mass of conflicting details, those things that supported the picture they wish to present. And isn't this essentially what happened before the invasion of Iraq, with regard to the evidence of weapons of mass destruction? The tendency to see what we want or expect to see, while ignoring contrary evidence is all too common.
However, I also note that there is a difference in these cases. Ometimes, one has too little evidence to work with, in the other, one has too much.

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