As with Steven Pinker’s earlier The Better Angels of Our Nature, of which this is really an expansion and elucidation, I was frustrated by this book. On the one hand, Pinker is an able thinker and clear writer, free of much of the ideological cant and distortions of vision that today accompany most writing about society (for society is what this book is about), and he is mostly not afraid to follow his reasoning to its conclusions. His data on human progress is voluminous, persuasive, and extremely interesting. On the other hand, Pinker regularly makes gross errors about history, some of little import, but some that undermine the entire thesis of his book—which is that that the Enlightenment is the sole cause of the human progress he illustrates.
This is a short book with a sweeping thesis. In essence, the thesis of The Geography of Thought is that many important cognitive processes dominant in East Asian (i.e., Chinese, Japanese and Korean) cultures are substantially different from those processes in Western (i.e., American and European) cultures. This proposition explains a variety of dissimilarities in how people from each culture approach the world and each other, and it is also a partial explanation of the Great Divergence—why the modern world was created by the West, and by nobody else, to the lasting (so far) benefit of the West. While the author, Richard Nisbett, goes to great lengths to not ascribe superiority to one type of cognition over another, his cultural analyses show why the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution could not have happened in East Asia. As they say, though, past performance is no guarantee of future results, and perhaps the relative value of Western ways of thought has passed its use-by date.
This book, by the always fascinating Niall Ferguson (though his main product for sale is always himself), analyzes capsule summaries of episodes from history, in order to negatively contrast spontaneous, networked action (the “square”) with hierarchical control (the “tower”). Two theses flow from this, one stated early on, the other only explicitly presented at the end. The first is that our networked age is not unique; in fact, it is the second such age, and lessons are to be gained from this, including that, from a historical perspective, networks are too often ignored in favor of focus on hierarchies. The second is that networks with actual power are mostly anarchistic poison.
In the middle part of the twentieth century, before The Walking Dead, the historiography of civilizational collapse was dominated by Arnold Toynbee’s multi-volume A Study of History, with his “challenge and response” dynamic. Before that, stretching back into the nineteenth century, other analyses analogized the lives of civilizations to the lives of humans, most notably in Oswald Spengler’s enormously influential The Decline of the West, published in 1918. And many other writers over many centuries have, in different ways, examined why civilizations fail, the classic early modern example being Edward Gibbon’s analysis of Rome. Joseph Tainter arrived in 1988, with this book, to offer an alternative—namely, total economic determinism filtered through a framework of his own devising. Not a very successful framework, to be sure, but at least one that provides some food for thought.
Niccolò Machiavelli is known today for two things: the adjective “Machiavellian,” and the book from which that adjective is derived, The Prince, which provides advice for monarchs who accede to power. But Machiavelli wrote more than one book, and his second-most-famous book is this one, Discourses on Livy. In it, he provides advice for the founding, structuring, governing, and maintenance of republics, along with advice to individuals holding power, and a good bit of practical military advice. All this he extracts primarily from the extant writings of the historian Livy (64 B.C.– A.D. 12) on early Roman history, although he also brings in much other matter, including his own personal experiences and then-current events (Machiavelli wrote Discourses about 1517). Thus, this book is part history, part mirror of princes, and part advice to those holding power in a republic on how not to get killed.
In today’s world, discussion about morals is a lost art. In part, this is because stupidity is on display everywhere, and encouraged to be so, even though most people’s thoughts and opinions are less than worthless, as a glance at Facebook or The New York Times comment sections will tell you. More deeply, it’s because America is dominated today by the nearly universal (but wholly unexamined) belief that the only legitimate principle of moral judgment is John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle”—that no restriction on human action can be justified other than to prevent harm to another. The Righteous Mind is an extended attack on the usefulness of the harm principle as the sole way to understand and justify human morality, combined with detailed explanations of the much broader ways in which people can and do view morality. The author, Jonathan Haidt, uses this framework to understand political differences, and to plead for an increase in rationality and civility to arise from that understanding.
Leviathan Wakes is extremely well written, with a tight plot and carefully chosen prose. This alone separates it from the vast majority of today’s science fiction. Nor is it tendentious message fiction, further separating it from most modern science fiction, which is all about the navel-gazing identity of the characters, mostly as thinly veiled metaphor for present-day political conflicts. Thus, the taut, straightforward story here has broad appeal, which is doubtless is at least part of the reason it has been serialized into a TV series (on SyFy), called The Expanse. I haven’t seen the series, but if it is reasonably faithful to the book, it is probably very much worth watching. Most importantly, it shows how a modern version of Manifest Destiny could work, a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Five Children and It is a book that resonates on two levels. On one level, it is an outstanding and well-drawn children’s story. We read it to our own five children to general acclaim. On another level, it is a glimpse of upper-class child-rearing in Edwardian England, very interesting as social history to today’s adults, even with no children around.
Mark Lilla has been a bad, bad boy. He has dared to point out the feet of clay upon which stand King Liberal, and he, like Cassandra, will not be thanked. Still, this short book is an excellent political analysis, and it points the way, if only loosely, to a wholly new order of things, thus starting to answer my perennial question, “What is next?
Some years ago, I lived for a time in Oak Park, Illinois. Oak Park has for decades been filled with rich white liberals, who live just across the street from a City of Chicago neighborhood, Austin, that is filled with poor black people. Yet, for some reason the citizens of Oak Park simply can’t fathom, people from Austin almost never move to Oak Park. Who can say why? Well, Richard Rothstein can. His book, The Color of Law, shows all the ways in which the racist government of Oak Park, and innumerable other government functionaries across the nation, have aggressively worked for decades to keep black people in inferior, segregated housing. Rothstein’s service is to precisely set out why this happened, how it was done, and what exactly the effects today are.