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.

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