This book appears, to the casual reader, to be propaganda designed to persuade a Great Power, the United States, to aid the Kurdish fight for independence. Like all good wartime propaganda, it grabs the reader’s attention and tugs at his heartstrings. But it’s double propaganda, cleverly done, because beneath the top layer of propaganda is another, artfully concealed. The goal of that second layer is to sell to Americans the Kurdish People’s Party (PKK), a crypto-Maoist combination of political party and war machine. And it’s the PKK, and more broadly the politics surrounding so-called Kurdistan, that I want to explore today.
Without specific intention, I seem to have turned into a Roger Crowley fanboy, as shown by that I have now read every one of his books. Crowley is a British maritime historian, all of whose books are tied to the Mediterranean in the pre-modern portion of the second millennium, many centering around the interaction of Christianity and Islam. Conquerors is somewhat of a departure—still a maritime history, even more so than most of his books, but focused not on the Mediterranean, instead on the nearly unbelievable accomplishments of the Portuguese in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans between 1490 and 1520. Crowley makes the colorful, dramatic, and heroic deeds of the Portuguese leap off the page.
The Japanese author Shūsaku Endō is known primarily for his 1966 masterwork, Silence, about the persecution of Christians in mid-seventeenth-century Japan. The backdrop of Silence is the aftermath of the Shimabara Rebellion, a peasant rebellion crushed in 1638, which erupted in reaction to the vicious suppression of Christianity under the Tokugawa Shogunate, part of the turn of Japan inward. The Samurai focuses on events two decades prior, when Christianity was only partially suppressed, and the Shogunate still somewhat open to contacts with Europe. As with many of Endō’s works, The Samurai focuses on the internal struggles of its protagonists to live a Christian life in circumstances of extreme external and internal pressure and conflict.
This is a book born of a particular time and place. The time was 1962; the place was postwar Europe. The West was frozen in the glare of spreading Communism, paralyzed by the catastrophic end of the old European system and wholly uncertain of the path forward. Since that time, the ice has broken and the West has lurched back onto the track—the wrong track, as it happens, but that’s not what we’re talking about today. Instead, we’re talking about what Theory of the Partisan says to us in this time and in this place.
Singapore is, in some ways, the modern Venice, a maritime city made wealthy by being in the right place, with the right assets, at the right time. Also like Venice, it doesn’t loom large in the modern American imagination. Mostly, if we think of Singapore, it’s as the setting for Crazy Rich Asians. It should get more attention—Singapore is interesting for its history, its economics, and for combining democracy with limitations on the popular will, a particular interest of mine. So, wanting to learn more, and given that this book is the only recent overview of Singapore, by a noted Asia expert, I thought it would be a good choice. Not really. This book is dull, plodding, and a bit of a fraud.
Given that zombie survival manuals and similar how-to books are today all the rage, on sale at every Costco, Edward Luttwak’s Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook seems like a selection from the same genre. Namely, of somewhat jokey books that purport to tell you what to do in a strange, disastrous situation, while effectively acknowledging that if you do end up being chased by zombies, hurriedly turning to the index, finding the entry “When Being Pursued,” then scrambling to locate page 102, isn’t probably the best tactic for survival. But instead, this book is the real thing, I think—an actual practical handbook on how to overthrow the state. More precisely, how to overthrow a weak state, a banana republic, though I will give some thought to relevance in the modern American context.
Koh-i-Noor is not about the diamond, to my disappointment. Oh, sure, it makes an appearance here and there in this book. But very little is actually said here about the diamond itself, probably because the Queen of England hasn’t made it available for analysis and study, and prior generations didn’t record much about its specifics. Rather, this is a book of cultural history revolving around people who have owned the diamond. That’s interesting, in its own way, but not what I was promised.
Everyone knows about the French Foreign Legion. Mostly, though, our knowledge ranges from impressionistic to false, derived largely from movies and with an overlay of the kneejerk odium that attends colonialism. At The Edge of the World: The Heroic Century of the French Foreign Legion corrects that lack of knowledge—it gives an excellent overview, both factually and, as it were, spiritually, of the Legion in its heyday, along with some oblique perspectives on the positive and negative aspects of colonialism.
This book mostly claims to be a book about “globalization,” today’s trendy word, but really, it is a book about industrial revolutions through time and space. The author, Richard Baldwin, offers a new framework for understanding how the world has developed since the Great Divergence, led by England, that created centuries-long worldwide economic dominance by European cultures. In particular, he offers an explanation why, since 1990, the relative share of the global economic pie held by the West has decreased, when it had never decreased before. All this is interesting and valuable, in particular Baldwin’s conclusion that American critics of globalization are at least partially correct. But it’s incomplete in the end, since Baldwin’s analysis completely omits the critical role of culture and institutions as related to a country’s capacity to develop. Instead, he treats all humans as interchangeable members of homo economicus: a fatal error, but one common to academic economists.
This is a famous book. Together with Marshall Hodgson’s three-volume The Venture of Islam, it is the touchstone of modern long-form histories of the Islamic world. A History of Islamic Societies, as its title implies, covers both history and theology. Given that I like history, and that I have a particular interest in comparative theology (primarily as between Christianity and Islam, with forays into other religions, living and dead), you would think reading this book would be, for me, an ideal way to spend my time. But it nearly defeated me.