Saturday, June 20, 2009

Common Logical Fallacy

National Geographic has a pretty interesting article on the history of Ankor Wat.  The basic idea is that they now believe the city rose to power because they engineered a clever system of irrigation that trapped and then dispensed the monsoon rainfalls.  This control of the water supply provided a reliable surplus of rice, which, together with really impressive looking rituals, is the essential currency you use to pay slaves.  Subsequently the city and then the empire fell apart because the engineering fell into disrepair, perhaps as a result of some climactic shifts that led to droughts and floods.  Interesting stuff.

One line in the article caught my eye though, because I feel like it reflects a whole warped way of thinking about history that we have difficulty getting away from.

Although Angkor won that clash, the city was riven by rivalry, which heightened its vulnerability to attacks from Champa to the east and the formidable kingdom of Ayutthaya to the west. Khmer kings had several wives, which blurred the line of succession and resulted in constant intrigue as princes vied for power. "For centuries, it was like the Wars of the Roses. The Khmer state was often unstable," says Roland Fletcher, an archaeologist at the University of Sydney and co-director of a research effort called the Greater Angkor Project.

Some scholars believe that Angkor died the way it lived: by the sword. The annals of Ayutthaya state that warriors from that kingdom "took" Angkor in 1431. No doubt the prosperous Khmer city would have been a rich prize: Inscriptions boast that its temple towers were clad in gold, as Zhou's breathless account confirms. To reconcile tales of Angkor's wealth with the dilapidated ruins encountered by Western travelers, French historians a century ago concluded from the tantalizing allusion that Ayutthaya sacked Angkor.

Fletcher, who says his obsession is to "figure out what makes settlements grow and die," is dubious. Some early scholars, he says, viewed Angkor through the lens of the sieges and conquests of European history. "The ruler of Ayutthaya, indeed, says he took Angkor, and he may have taken some formal regalia back to Ayutthaya with him," says Fletcher. But after Angkor was captured, Ayutthaya's ruler installed his son on the throne. "He's not likely to have smashed the place up before giving it to his son."

I don't think being conquered can actually ever be considered a legitimate explanation for the demise of an empire.  Without denying the importance of simple chance in human affairs, I think we can safely say that loss in battle will never explain the end of an empire -- they always rot from within long before the military weakness is apparent.  The real explanation may be political, or technological or economic or whatever, but saying with a shrug that Ankor, "died by the sword", isn't even an explanation at all.  So you don't have to be "dubious" about it -- nothing substantive has been offered which requires doubting; someone is trying to pass off a story about what happened as an explanation for why it happened.

A trivial point I know, but one I think you can find over and over again in people's thinking about power and history.  Power is always built systematically and from within, even if it comes in the form of the imposition of the most totalitarian conquering state.  This is really just a tautology, though that at least has the benefit of making it true, and, in my opinion, a useful place to start.  When you strip the dictum, "we always have the government we deserve," of its moral connotations, it is perfectly valid. 

And just in case you think this is all theoretical, a contemporary analogy would be that we always have the financial system we deserve.  The corresponding error is the widely disseminated idea that the financial crisis was caused by the collapse of Lehman Brothers.  That event, like all of the ones we put in the history books, is merely a trigger, not a cause.

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