[eDebate] Reply to Tom Meagher

Calum Matheson u.hrair
Fri Apr 25 23:48:28 CDT 2008


This has very little to do with the topic.  If Tom is completely correct
about all of this, and the Cold War was a product of a papal bull in 1455,
it's not a reason to vote against the Russia topic.  It is just an argument
that attempts to explain US-Russian relations, an argument which one could
make on this topic.  Notably, I haven't claimed that "global coloniality"
didn't cause the Cold War.  I said that understanding US-Russian relations
is important to understand many different things, because the dynamics of
superpower competition influenced them.  An example having to do with race
is urban planning in the United States, a discipline that overlapped with
nuclear strategy and conspired to ensure that racial minorities and poor
whites would be the first victims of a Soviet nuclear attack on the United
States.  US-Russian relations aren't The One Grand Theory That Explains
Everything Ever, they are simply an extremely important factor in the
history of last seventy years.  Were some ultimate cause to explain them,
that wouldn't diminish their importance.  There is a difference between
"core of everything" and "important to everything," meaning that to ignore
the US-Soviet conflict is to willfully ignore a vital component of the
story, not that unlocking the mystery of the Cold War will impart some
divine wisdom that will cut the Gordian knot of history.  This is the
difference between necessary research and sufficient research.

So I don't think this post makes a strong argument against a Russia topic.  I'm
not going to write another 3,000-word essay about why we should debate about
Russia (today, anyway).  I'm also not going to respond to a number of the
comments in this post that don't seem to be directed at me.  It sucks that
your coaches discouraged you from Ethnic Studies.  It's great that you went
to a school that offered this as a major, and it's great that you stuck with
it.  It's an important field, and it seems to have had a great impact on
your thinking about the world.  It also sucks that you had to research CO2
agriculture.  Nothing is less exciting than looking for cards that answer
"FACE studies prove CO2 decreases rubisco production."   Hear that, Kansas?

I am going to respond to the direct challenges to me, however.  Tom said
they aren't meant as personal attacks, so I'm not going to treat them this
way.  If you read this much of post and are only really interested in nerdy
debate topic stuff, you should stop now, for the love of God.  What I'm
going to say probably won't interest you, and it's really, really long.  I
suggest you read "Trains, Planes, and Plantains," which is more eloquent and
interesting than I can ever be.  Here it is:
http://www.albinoblacksheep.com/image/essay/1.  Not for the faint of heart.

Tom asks "can you even produce a decent argument that the history of
European colonialism since 1455 is not?the engine of the entire Cold War?"
He later writes that "the US's racial politics and the period of global
coloniality going back to 1455 are the only historical phenomenon that could
possibly have caused the Cold War."  A couple of initial notes:  the word
"entire" is a bold choice.  The claim seems to be that nothing else had any
effect on the Cold War?this is the whole thing.  No other theory necessary;
no other theory relevant; no other theory even credible.  Also note the
date: 1455, the year that Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull Romanus
Pontifex, sanctioning Portuguese exploitation of the New World, frustrating
the political machinations of Castille to some extent.

I have two chief objections.  First, we cannot determine a single cause of
an historical event as enormous as the Cold War.  Second, that reducing the
Cold War to European colonialism is itself ethnocentric.  It ignores the
Soviet Union's motivations, for it too participated in the conflict.  Tom
notes that he will not explain why colonialism is responsible for the Cold
War; he doesn't want to set up a bunch of "strawperson" arguments.  Fair
enough, I guess, but that's a radical claim to make while refusing to
provide evidence.  The entire Cold War?  Really?  How about the Russian
side?  If anything, literally any thing, could possibly have caused the Cold
War, in any way, no matter how tiny or indirect, then colonialism is not
responsible for the entire Cold War.

There is an important distinction between ultimate causes and proximate
causes.  Colonialism is an ultimate cause, not a proximate cause, of the
Cold War.  The United States did indeed wish to establish influence all
around the world and spread an ideology of capitalism and free markets,
which is arguably exploitative and colonial.  The US is not the whole story,
however.  The USSR also participated, and in spreading Stalinism around the
world, it directly challenged the United States and its allies.  The point
is not that the US is not responsible for the Cold War?the point is that Tom
ignores the Soviet role.  Even if colonialism explains the entire thing,
there are proximate causes for the conflict that it does not explain, or
temporally closer ultimate ones, as well as necessary conditions?the
personality of Stalin; Kruschev's decision to antagonize Kennedy; the death
of FDR; Truman and Churchill's personal antipathy towards Stalin; the
political and economic ideologies of the super powers; the geography of
Eurasia and the North America; organizational interests in the military
establishments of the two states; Hitler's decision to launch Operation
Barbarossa; Zhukov's ability to stop him; the design of the T-34; and so on,
and so forth.

Blaming the Cold War on a papal bull promulgated in 1455 just returns
Western Europe to the same position at the center of history.  Colonialism,
and ONLY colonialism, by these European states determined the ENTIRE COURSE
of history.  This is just a more subtle way to focus on the West.  What
about Amharic imperialism in East Africa?  What about Han, Manchu, and
Mongol imperialism in East Asia?  What about the Aztecs?  Their empire
fought bloody wars of subjugation and wiped whole nations from the face of
the earth.  What about Eastern Europe?  But the West must be the center of
history.  Now that the myth of its superiority has been torn down, it must
quickly be built up as the villain instead of the hero.  Everyone like the
villain better anyways.  No one loves the parts of Paradise Lost involving
the angels as much as they like the tragic evil figure of Lucifer, cast down
from glory to perdition, but still on center stage.  Colonialism was a
powerful, awful force of world history, but to make it the ONLY force just
makes the West unique again.  Would "Sympathy for the Devil" be a great song
if it was about Jesus?  No.  It would in fact be lame.

The Rus' began to expand as early as the eleventh century, where they both
fought and traded with nomadic peoples occupying the steppe, what is now
southwestern Russia and Ukraine.  Over time, the Russians came to dominate
the peoples of the steppe and consolidated their territory under Russian
control.  Colonization was undertaken in later centuries as an "enlightened"
project of civilization, similar to some arguments made hundreds of years
later in the service of American imperialism.  The Tsars came over time to
rule over a vast stretch of Eurasia, from the Baltic to the Pacific,
dominating the indigenous, mostly nomadic peoples who occupied this huge
territory.

The sheer expanse of Russian territory also created fear for the Tsars, both
of depopulation of the western Russian heartlands, and fear of invasion as
well.  From the time of Kievan Rus's vassalage to the Mongols, Russian
leaders have always felt vulnerable.  A series of invasions from the
West?Teutonic Knights, Napoleon's France, Sweden, Germans, Germans, more
Germans, and so forth?combined with the fear of invasion from the East and
the weak situation in Russia's south, where at various times Russia fought
the Crimean Khanate, the Byzantines, Persians, Turks, and others.  Arguably
for its entire history, Russia has sought security by creating buffers
between itself and its most dangerous enemies.  At the same time, Russia
gradually became habituated to imperial domination and subjugation of
smaller neutral states.  Russia justified these imperial adventures by
manipulating Orthodox Christian teachings, by relying on (arguably
legitimate) security concerns, and by promoting patriotism and sacrifice.

Russian colonialism is distinct from Western European colonialism.  To begin
with, it was clearly not a product of Romanus Pontifex.  Russian expansion
began long before the bull was written.  Obviously more importantly, Russia
is Orthodox, not Catholic.  They've got no love for the Pope.  When
questioned about the displeasure that his policies could cause in the
Vatican, Stalin famously asked "The Pope?  How many divisions has he
got?"  Catholicism
has little sway in Russia, and to pretend that Russian history can be
explained by events thousands of miles from Moscow and Leningrad is just
ignorance.  Russian identity is symbolized by the double-headed eagle,
looking both east and west.  Alexandr Blok's poem "The Scythians" is an
excellent example of this conflicted national self-image.  Western ideas do
not explain Russian behavior, because Russian identity is not exclusively
Western?and these conflicts carry on over the centuries, from Peter the
Great's order that the boyars shave their beards to the conflict between
Primakov and Kozyrev in the mid-1990s Kremlin.  Russia deserves better than
relegation to the margin of European history.  Russia is an agent; it
influences the world; and it has its own ideas.  It shares some
responsibility for the Cold War, as the Red Army carried embryonic
governments with it as it pushed towards Berlin, setting up Communist states
loyal to it along the way.

Ultimate causes are of limited theoretical utility.  The Cold War grew out
of World War II, which in turn grew out of World War I, which grew out of
even earlier wars, arguably stretching back in an millennial chain to the
expansion of the Roman Empire in Germania.  This expansion was made possible
by Rome's victory over Carthage in the Punic Wars.  Roman generals defeated
Hannibal because he could not translate his decisive tactical victory at
Cannae into strategic victory over the Republic.  That is a great historical
mystery, but it's quite possibly because Hannibal didn't judge his forces
strong enough to besiege a city with a powerful deliberate defense.  Hannibal's
army was weakened prior to this by the loss of many of its elephants
crossing the alps.  The elephants had trouble because they evolved in a
different climate, and didn't deal well with the cold.  Hannibal's elephant
handlers could have put heavy quilts on the animals and had the troops carry
some of the extra supplies.  Hannibal Barca's chief elephant handler
therefore caused the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What caused colonialism?  Didn't those things cause the Cold War then?  Western
colonialism was made possible in part by technological developments in the
fifteenth century, which were facilitated by higher labor costs in Europe,
which were the result of depopulation caused by the Great Mortality
(plague), which got to Europe via Genovese losses at Caffa, and the disease
was quite possibly transmitted to humans from marmots.  Damned
marmots.  Individual
human decisions intervene at all levels of history, and not every one of
them was motivated by colonialism, even if many of them were.  The details
of the conflict cannot be explained by colonialism?the intensification of
the Cold War in the 1980's might have happened without Yuri Andropov and
Ronald Reagan, for example, but it would not have been exactly the same?it
would have been in some ways different, and that means we have to pay
attention to detail.  Proximate causes are worth studying because they
complete the picture and make history comprehensible.  Step One:
colonialism.  Step Three: Cold War.  We should analyze Step Two.

So can I produce a decent argument for the "engine of the Cold War?"  I
don't know.  I am not blessed with the intellectual certainty that lets me
say This One Thing is the One and Only Cause.  I think I can provide a
number of plausible explanations, and some combination of them probably
"caused" the Cold War.  Colonialism is definitely one of them.  Many others
are presented above, at least in passing.  Religion, the Military-Industrial
Complex, Soviet threat perceptions, the political ideas of the
Enlightenment, the individual qualities of American, European, and Soviet
leaders, the genetic qualities of the human species which predispose it to
violence, Russian imperialism, the development of nuclear weapons, the
geography of Europe, militarism, enemy construction, totalitarianism,
capitalism.  The question is not "can I prove conclusively that one of these
is responsible for everything," the question is, can you prove conclusively
that not one of them had ANYTHING to do with the Cold War?  Personally, I
think that there is no explanation that adequately sums up all of
history?some might be better than others, but we should not claim that we
know for sure.  We don't.

So should the study of "coloniality" "come first?"  No.  The study of
individual issues should come first, and then we should draw conclusions
about the likely causes of them, rather than do the process backwards.  The
study of colonialism should certainly happen, and it should come
simultaneously with many others.  And in writing a topic, we should choose
proximate policies to focus on, because they allow us to discuss many
possible ultimate causes.  Choosing one factor to the exclusion of all
others would be arrogant and dangerously limiting.  But yeah, I've read some
about colonialism, and have indeed given some thought to its relationship
with the Cold War.  Maybe not as much as you'd like, but we have different
interests and priorities, and we're talking about things that we could study
all our lives and never come close to resolving.
I'm done.  I bet you wish you just read "Trains, Planes, and Plantains"
instead of my opinions about history.

calum
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