Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis III

As I said, I'm not finding this to be the most exciting reading. After Indonesia there is a chapter on Germany, which focuses on the World Wars and the successful recovery after Germany's devastating defeat in World War II. Not much so far in the book has seemed quotable, but I liked this passage:

Differing geographical constraints have meant that bad leadership results in much more painful consequences for Germany than for geographically less constrained countries. For instance, while Germany's Emperor Wilhelm II and his chancellors and ministers were notorious for their blunders and unrealism, Germany has had no monopoly on poor leadership: the U.S. and Britain and other countries have had their share. But the seas protecting the U.S. and Britain meant that inept leaders doing stupid things didn't bring disasters to their countries, whereas the ineptness of Wilhelm and his chancellors did bring disaster on Germany in World War One.

A memorable aspect of Diamond's writings is his pointing to basic geographical facts to explain complex human outcomes, and this is a good example. However, as a geographer, he is probably overusing that methodology at the expense of other analytical tools. I am tiring of his persistent perspective in which humans are rational agents who can collectively solve their problems. Then, at the heart of his writing style is storytelling, which is effective for reaching mass audiences but less so for more critical readers.

Diamond also comments on the rigidity of thinking among Germans and points out that the elimination of Jews called for by Hitler was hardly questioned at all by the public. There is no rhyme or reason to German standards on child-rearing: until the end of World War II, corporal punishment of children was considered almost mandatory, and then, following the war, it suddenly became unthinkable. Groupthink seems to affect Germans more than it does other cultures.

After Germany there is a chapter on Australia that is reminiscent of a chapter on Australia in Collapse. While Collapse emphasizes environmental factors, which makes it seem more scientific, Upheaval emphasizes cultural and historical factors, which results in a more conventional narrative. Diamond describes how Australia's stubborn clinging to a British identity has hampered its evolution into a stable country. Australians suffered enormous losses in World War I in Europe in a conflict that didn't threaten them in the least, and when they needed help against the Japanese in World War II they were abandoned. Only now are Australians starting to recognize that it is in their best interest to become integrated with Asian countries, which are much closer than Europe. Implicit in Australia's past attitudes is racism towards aboriginal cultures and Asians, and, according to Diamond, this is beginning to change.

The last section of the book discusses the current world outlook. There is a chapter on Japan, which examines its strengths and weaknesses. The main strength is that it is a homogeneous culture that has developed a robust economy since World War II. The weaknesses include rigid traditions, opposition to immigration and a low fertility rate. These three are related. Because there is no inexpensive daycare, women take all of the responsibility for childcare and don't work as much as in other countries. Raising children is so difficult that many women choose not to have them. At the same time, traditional consultation to arrange a marriage is being replaced with Western models favoring romantic attraction, and the Japanese are ill-prepared for that. In a restaurant, a dating couple was observed sitting at a table looking down solemnly; on close inspection, they were texting each other – presumably because they were not psychologically equipped for face-to-face conversations. Although Diamond doesn't say so, this is probably also a problem occurring in other countries due to the spread of digital communication.

The next chapter is on the current situation in the U.S., which I'll probably have more to say about than the others. I should be able to finish up the book on my next post.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis II

This book is not as exotic as Collapse, which isn't necessarily a weakness, though reading it feels more like dutifully informing oneself on relatively recent world history. As a cautious academic, Diamond seems to be avoiding explicit political commentary in the manner of Robert Reich, the Berkeley professor, and is merely laying the groundwork for readers in order to draw parallels and highlight differences between events that have occurred in various modern countries. I am finding the book informative, and, though I would prefer a more conceptual approach, Diamond is providing ample information for readers to gain a sense of how national issues have developed and played out in the last century or so. The predictive value of what Diamond has to say, I think, is rather dubious, given that each national situation is unique in most respects, and that Diamond is not providing a template regarding human nature. It is a little exhausting to learn what has occurred in so many countries, but my sense is that Diamond's descriptions are reasonably accurate and therefore have value for understanding current geopolitical trends, if that is the sort of thing that interests you. I wouldn't place that at the top of the list of my interests, and I am plugging along mainly for general information.

There is a chapter on Japan, the contents of which I found vaguely familiar. Until 1853, Japan was still a medieval society, with shoguns and none of the modern technology that was then available in Europe. The Japanese were aware of what had occurred in China when British imperialism intruded there, so when Commodore Perry arrived in Edo representing the U.S. and made various demands, they began the radical process of national transformation which is now referred to as the Meiji period. They did an excellent job and copied various ideas that had been used in other countries, creating a startling change in little time. However, the Japanese leaders later became "hotheads" and engaged in a war with Russia and entered World War II. Nevertheless, Japan is currently in good shape economically and politically. Diamond rolls out his list of factors for each country undergoing an upheaval, and so far I'm not finding it very useful.

There is a chapter on Chile, a country with which I had little familiarity. It has a relatively homogeneous culture, since the natives interbred with Spaniards, and no other groups make up a significant segment of the population. However, the problems in Chile emerged primarily internally, with conflicting ideas about how to run the country. Salvador Allende, a communist sympathizer, socialist and Marxist, barely won the election in 1970, and was completely ineffectual as a leader. Following the nationalization playbook under Allende, the country soon fell into disarray, and the wealthy, along with international corporations and the U.S., soon sought his removal. In 1973 there was a brutal military coup, and Augusto Pinochet became the new leader. Law and order returned to Chile, and although Pinochet's regime engaged in the interrogation, torture and murder of thousands of Chileans, he was still somewhat popular. In this chapter, Diamond engages in psychological speculation about Allende and Pinochet and finds them both somewhat mysterious. My preferred way of approaching this subject is to identify the essential human weaknesses that cause undesirable consequences. Allende didn't understand that socialism can't easily replace capitalism, mainly because the active management of an economy is extremely difficult and no regime has been able to do it effectively for any length of time. As soon as there is an economic decline, people become worried and restless. The capitalist model works better not because it is intrinsically superior, but because markets have a tendency to self-correct, and even if some individuals become wealthier than others and there is corruption, the public on the whole are more likely to feel economically secure, and they will support capitalist leaders under the mistaken assumption that they are the ones who have a better understanding of economics. In the case of Chile, neither Allende nor Pinochet understood economics, and Pinochet masked his corruption by pretending to be pious; even if capitalism causes inequality, people are willing to overlook that when they come to associate it with order and prosperity as opposed to chaos.

I'm a little over halfway through the book and just finished the chapter on Indonesia, a country that was unfamiliar to me. Indonesia did not exist as a country until 1945; before then it was the Dutch East Indies. The area was too large to be managed as a Dutch colony, and the Japanese had used it as a source of oil during World War II. Much like Allende in Chile, Indonesia's first leader, Sukarno, had anti-colonial, pro-communist leanings that didn't work well for the economy. Suharto took over in a military coup that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. He was capitalism-friendly and corrupt, like Pinochet, and the economy eventually stabilized. Over the years, unification has been facilitated by an invented language, Bahasa Indonesia, which makes communication easier in a country of islands stretching 3400 miles and comprising over 700 indigenous languages. For me, it is hard to think of Indonesia as a country, given its geographic and cultural characteristics, and so far Diamond hasn't commented on what I often think about national unity: it seems like a fiction, especially in a heterogeneous country like Indonesia. Diamond's working hypothesis, that nations are real entities that can, through rational means, reliably be directed toward ends that satisfy the needs of all their citizens, remains suspect to me, and I'll comment on that throughout the remainder of the book.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis I

I'm reading this latest book from Jared Diamond. As in Collapse, he includes several case studies, but this time the main topic is modern national crises rather than an assortment of local population crises from various eras. He also includes a personal crisis in order to provide a concrete example of how they manifest themselves in individuals and how individuals deal with them. Diamond is an affecting writer and a good storyteller, which makes him pleasant to read, though I don't consider him particularly scientific in the terms that I prefer. I haven't read his best-known book, Guns, Germs and Steel, which describes the development of modern civilization as an accident of geography and the spread of ideas through cultural means. Diamond is a traditional humanist academic and does not appear to subscribe to the deterministic theories of human nature that dominate on this blog. For example, as far as I know, he completely ignores the works of Robert Plomin and David Reich, which I think are important. Nor is there any hint that Diamond is aware of works on the cognitive limitations of humans, such as those of Daniel Kahneman and Robert Sapolsky. Diamond's writing style seems like a cross between the Bible and the case study method used at Harvard Business School. In every instance, events involve a group of people with specific characteristics and the problems that they are forced to confront. The analysis includes looking at the decision-making processes of each group and how their decisions worked or didn't work. In Diamond's framework, the inherent competence of the group making a decision has nothing to do with its genetic background. To be fair, genetics are not always relevant in such cases, but, if you look at humans over periods of thousands of years, I think that there is evidence that they do have an impact. This constitutes my chief criticism of Diamond's methodology, because, indirectly, he is denying the existence of natural selection insofar as it pertains to humans.

The personal crisis recounted by Diamond is the difficulty that he encountered in graduate school. Although he had been a whiz student as an undergraduate at Harvard, when he moved on to Cambridge in England to pursue a Ph.D. in physiology, he soon discovered that he was dismal at setting up lab experiments and almost dropped out. He became so demoralized that he considered quitting and getting a job translating at the U.N. in Switzerland. However, he consulted his father, who recommended that he try physiology for one more semester, and he managed to overcome his deficiencies and went on to complete his Ph.D. Diamond produces lists of factors related to outcomes of personal and national crises, and this sets the stage for the remainder of the book.

As far as I've read, he discusses Finland's war with the U.S.S.R. from 1939 to 1944. It is an excellent piece of historical work and goes into some detail about Finnish culture and the strategies that the Finns adopted. Finland is unique in character in matters related to language, ethnic uniformity and its close proximity to Russia. As Diamond describes it, the Finns took completely pragmatic positions and aligned either with Nazi Germany or the U.S.S.R. when necessary. They have an extremely strong sense of national identity and will do whatever it takes to succeed as a country. Thus, even though they were ruined economically by World War II, they stuck together, and now they have a vibrant economy and are in better shape than most other European countries, with a high standard of living. Although, as in Collapse, Diamond richly describes the circumstances, I am doubtful that he will arrive at useful conclusions, since each situation is different, and it isn't necessarily possible to extrapolate from one to another. For this reason, reading Diamond is like reading history, and I find it hard to see what he does as having scientific relevance, other than in the generic sense that if a group sticks together and acts rationally for the benefit of all its members, they will have a better chance of surviving collectively than they would otherwise. This is E.O. Wilson 101. Nevertheless, there are chapters on several other countries, including the U.S., which should make for interesting reading, and I'll comment on the remainder of the book as I make my way through it.

Friday, May 3, 2019


The book I was reading, Mikhail Bulgakov: A Critical Biography, by Lesley Milne, was a disappointment. It consists mainly of summaries of his works and includes little biographical information. There is a brief description of his early life, but very few details are offered from letters, spouses, friends, acquaintances or other sources. For example, you learn that he was married three times, and that his third wife served as a model for Margarita in The Master and Margarita, the latter of which I already knew, but there is no explanation of the circumstances of his marriages and divorces. As far as I know, he was childless. Besides the fact that there isn't much information about his personal life, I didn't feel that his works were analyzed proficiently. For me, this was a typical medium-grade academic book in which it seems as if the author has accumulated notes on a stack of index cards, sorted them by subtopic and then copied them out as chapters. This type of writing usually seems incoherent to me and makes me grateful that I'm not an academic and therefore don't have to read it as a professional duty. At this point, I still think that Bulgakov would make a good biographical subject, but I am concluding that there is probably no good biography of him currently available in English. It is possible that one exists in Russia or Ukraine, because Bulgakov once had a following in Russia and grew up in Kiev. However, he was not the kind of writer whom Vladimir Putin would appreciate, and his works may be suppressed in Russia now. There is also a chance that at this stage there is insufficient material available to produce a good biography of Bulgakov, though I still think that more information must exist, and that it did not appear in Milne's book partly because her focus wasn't sufficiently biographical. For my purposes, I'm giving up on Bulgakov biographies unless something new and promising pops up. From the biographies I've read of George Eliot, I noticed that the early ones were terrible, and good ones didn't begin to appear until she had been dead for more than a century.

I have little going on at the moment and am awaiting a new book and the full-throated arrival of spring, which is still dark, gloomy and wet. Of course, I can't easily avoid the Trump controversy, which is like a festering wound. Or it's like a gigantic tumor growing on the top of your head: the first doctor tells you that it looks normal, and that you should just cover it with a hat if it makes you feel uncomfortable; the second doctor tells you that it does look serious, but that if you attempt to remove it surgically it will only grow back larger. Trump will be gone eventually, but it's still hard to reconcile his continued presence with the idea of an orderly government. But, then, if medical doctors are often quacks, charlatans or crooks, why would politicians be any different?

I'll make another post whenever I think I have something worthwhile to say.