Turning inner space into outer space

August 18, 2013

An antidote to death-toll journalism: history

With recent events in Egypt, death-toll journalism has gone into hyperdrive. There was a time when we would be content with mounting death tolls — now they’re apparently soaring. The thinking must be that the faster the bodies pile up, the more engaging the story becomes. At this rate, we should keep our fingers crossed for the death toll to reach that all-important 1,000 threshold.

Yes, I’m disillusioned. And I also know I’m a voice in the wilderness. The never-ending quest for pageviews will win every time.

Fortunately, I’ve found an antidote to death-toll journalism: it’s called history. My epiphany occurred while reading a science fiction novel that takes place in the future. Interspersed among the chapters were snippets of the history of this future, which got me thinking . . . real-life history could be just as interesting and have the added benefit of helping to explain the current messes we find in various parts of the world.

I just finished reading Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson, an overview of the past 500 years during which the West came to dominate much of the rest of the world — plus a look at how this dominance may be coming to an end. Ferguson has some interesting theories, with a focus on competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumerism and work ethic. More than a few times, he gets sidetracked but still manages to be enlightening. Most relevant to current events in the Middle East is the history of conflict between Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Ferguson argues that the West triumphed in this case because of advances in science that allowed its military to become more powerful. The Ottoman Empire (basically, a much enlarged version of Turkey) was held back by powerful religious leaders who mistrusted science. Sound familiar?

I’m now reading Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson. This book seeks to explain how the current map of the Middle East was drawn by exploring the lives of four men who were particularly influential during the First World War. Among them, of course, was Thomas Edward Lawrence — better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Once again, the Ottoman Empire plays a large role. Did you know that this empire once laid siege to Vienna? Imagine how different things would be today if it had succeeded. We might be living in a world where Islam dominates. The West helped the Arabs free themselves of the Ottomans, but now certain Arab forms of Islam have become a threat to the West.

Next on my list is Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. This book won a Pulitzer Prize for its look at the geographical and environmental factors that created the world we live in today.

Perhaps history is a logical progression from journalism. We’ll see.