Comparatively Speaking

Graduate students get a bad rap, I think, for being overly focused on obscure topics with little apparent relevance to anything that “really” matters. I don’t think that’s fair since many of us are at least aware of how out-of-touch we seem to be. If nothing else, the solitude of archival research allows plenty of time for reflection about how what we spend hours doing each day does or does not relate to the issues people are currently talking about.
This past week I wrote a post for the Los Angeles Review of Books China blog comparing President-elect Trump to Chiang Kai-shek. This essay was informed not by my dissertation research but by a project from earlier in graduate school that has been published in an edited volume about wartime China. In this post, I’m stepping back a bit to consider the value of historical comparisons for historians generally and graduate students in particular as well as my own thoughts toward comparative history. To do that, I want to talk through three “steps” that explain how I came to write the post for LARB.
Past and Present
There is a pithy saying that suggests that we should study history because otherwise we “are bound to repeat it.” By this logic, we should compare the past to the present to learn the “lessons” that history has to teach us so that we avoid making the same mistakes. In general, I don’t find this line of thinking particularly compelling and am suspicious of attaching normative weight to history (i.e. any sentence in the form “Because history, we should…”). In the vast majority of cases, history, the present, and the people who inhabit them (not to mention ethical thinking itself) are too complex to allow for these kinds of formulations.
But thinking about the past is still useful for understanding the present. For one thing, we can’t help ourselves from drawing on our reservoir of available knowledge when confronting new problems. I believe drawing these thought processes out of our subconscious and into the realm of conscious deliberation and discussion is productive not only for grappling with the relationship between past and present but also for critically examining the ways in which we already think about this relationship.
Moreover, I find thinking in terms of different kinds of analogies to be intellectually stimulating and even fun. (This may remind you of my feelings toward counterfactuals, which I wrote about here and here.) Comparing the past to the present is one way to generate questions, which are like the fuel of historical research. If we see things that look similar, we have to ask why they look similar, whether these similarities are superficial or more meaningful and why, whether substantive differences render those similarities moot, etc. These in turn generate a whole range of more specific questions about both the present and the past.
China and the U.S.
There is a long and ugly history of comparing “China” to “the West” that continues to today. The result has often been the depiction of China as an “other” – and not in a good way. It thus behooves people like myself who study China seriously to critique these comparisons and study China on its own terms.
The problem is that by abandoning comparative thinking entirely we risk the same (undesired) result – depicting China as utterly different and incomparable. We also run the risk of allowing subconscious cross-cultural comparisons to go unexamined. In light of this, I think it is especially useful to draw the U.S. and China together into a comparative lens that brings into focus similarities that existing ways of thinking keep us from noticing. To do this, scholars of China and the U.S. have to keep their ears tuned to each other to notice where unexpected similarities may arise. (This happens to be an important part of my dissertation research.)
Chiang and Trump
Obviously, I wouldn’t have written this piece if I didn’t think there were compelling similarities between these two individuals. I’ll stand by those, even as I acknowledge, as I do in my essay, that there are important differences. Both the similarities and differences raise questions that must be asked moving forward.
Another reason for writing, though, is that people have been comparing Trump to other authoritarian leaders, both past and present. Comparisons to the past have mostly focused on the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930’s. Like my analogy to Chiang, these comparisons necessarily possess finite empirical merit. Moreover, they carry a heavy weight of pre-existing associations that make them difficult to assess. Reading about a high school teacher who was suspended in the wake of comparing Trump to Hitler underscored this problem for me.
Americans have a very different perspective on Chiang. He was an ally during both World War II and the Cold War. I suspect that many would see him as one of the “good guys” of twentieth century history even if they would readily acknowledge knowing little about him. This is very different from Hitler: the vast majority of people would identify him as a villain and would rightly question if learning more about him would fundamentally change this opinion. Bringing Chiang into the discussion thus puts us, I hope, in a place where were are more receptive to new information and probing questions – about both the President-elect and the Generalissimo.
To come full-circle, that is not only an important stance for U.S. citizens to adopt, but also one that characterizes the best of graduate student life. It’s inevitable and useful for each of us to have own specific niches of expertise and concern. But it’s also important to use the tools at our disposal to understand these narrow interests in a broader framework that drives us to ask critical questions of the world, both past and present.

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