All posts filed under: Ethnography

Breakfast with the Dirt Cult (Samuel Finlay)

In 1952, Ralph Ellison published, to great acclaim, his first and only novel, Invisible Man. The book narrated how Ellison’s protagonist, a black man, suffered social oppression. But that was long ago, and one thing black people definitely don’t suffer anymore is oppression. Rather, many dish it out, aided by their allies of other races, as seen most dramatically in the terroristic Floyd Riots, but it happens every day in every organization in America. The targets are, most of all, those at the bottom of today’s social hierarchy—heterosexual (that is, normal) white men outside the professional-managerial elite. And Samuel Finlay’s Breakfast with the Dirt Cult is, one might say, the new Invisible Man.

The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann (Ananyo Bhattacharya)

This is a disappointing book. Not awful, but not good. The Man from the Future manages to take the life of the polymath John von Neumann and to make it dull, never giving us any real sense of the man, although we do get some sense of his accomplishments. Beyond that, it’s filled with bad history about ancillary matters, making the reader wonder about the veracity of core biographical matters. And worst of all, the author, Ananyo Bhattacharya, wastes our time by endlessly trying to shoehorn into von Neumann’s story fantasy contributions by supposedly marginalized people, who are unknown because they did nothing worth noting. All this turns what might have been an excellent book into a chore.

The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam (Bat Ye’or)

For twenty years, our rulers have propagandized us with two contradictory claims. First, that the West is locked in an existential conflict with Islam, justifying any spending, any killing, and any erasure of our ancient liberties. And second, that no Muslim, as a Muslim, is any threat to anybody whatsoever. Resolving the contradiction is not hard, but why bother, because what American cares about global Islam now? As the American empire collapses inward and America’s divisions are elucidated ever more clearly, our internal conflicts have superseded any conflict with Islam. Still, maybe conflict will return when the West is reborn, or replaced, and as always we can learn a lot from studying the past that may yet be useful in the future.

Dark Emu (Bruce Pascoe)

Americans do not understand Australia. At all. If Australia is brought up, they think of a few movie and television stars. They think of a vast red desert, perhaps, with a big rock, what’s-its-name (Ayers Rock), sticking up against a bright blue sky. They think Australians eat kangaroos (they don’t; they’re vermin). Most of all, they have a vague idea that Australians are a lot like Americans, only more informal, and more rugged and self-reliant. They once were, true, and a few still are. But the Australians are in many ways more ruined than Americans today (though we are accelerating to see if we can pass them). The 2014 book Dark Emu, or rather the insane racial-religious grift of which it is a small part, is one example.

Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation (Peter Cozzens)

I have always been aware of the great Shawnee Indian war chief Tecumseh. I grew up within walking distance of the site of his confederacy’s defeat, by William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe, and often visited the battlefield as a child. Tecumseh himself wasn’t at the battle; he was far away, trying to raise Indian allies. The battle was instead lost by his inconstant brother, Tenskwatawa, known as the Prophet, with whom Tecumseh had a fraught, but close, relationship. In this book, Peter Cozzens expertly and evocatively traces the lives of these once-famous brothers, the last of the eastern woodlands Indians of North America to mount an effective challenge to the expanding United States.

A Concise History of Finland (David Kirby)

Who thinks much about Finland? During the Cold War, because of its buffer position, it was occasionally in the news. More recently, Nokia was prominent for a while. But I doubt if most Americans could name one famous Finn. Even expatriate Finns aren’t prominent—Eero Saarinen designed some famous structures, such as the Gateway Arch, and Matt Damon’s great-grandmother was Finnish, but really, what happens in Finland, stays in Finland. However, I read this book as background to my main focus, to come in another piece—the three-month Finnish civil war of early 1918, in which the country saved itself from Communism. To write that, I needed to first learn basic Finnish history, which it turns out, in the manner of most histories, is quite interesting.

The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (Edward C. Banfield)

Most cultures throughout history have been terrible. The natural state of so-called civilized man is somewhere between today’s Venezuela and today’s Somalia. Large-scale success, exceptions to the general rule, offering long-term stability combined with some degree of flourishing, has been limited to a handful of cultures. If you add actual accomplishment that advances the whole human race, you are left with only three, the Greeks, the Romans, and Christendom—which three, no surprise, are closely linked in history and in attributes. None of this is news, although it is denied by the malicious clowns now temporarily in charge of public discourse.

Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (Graham Allison)

For Americans who think that so-called liberal democracy is neither, and in any case is a dead end, successful modern societies with a different political model always intrigue. In the West, notable such are Hungary and Poland, who have effectively executed a mild and tentative turn away from the most extreme vices of liberal democracy, though there is a long way to go. Singapore, which has apparently successfully blended economic success, certain virtues, and limited democracy, offers another possible model, one with a longer track record. Unfortunately, Singapore’s example is of very limited use to a future well-run America, and this book of the thoughts of Lee Kuan Yew, who built modern Singapore, helps show why.

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia (Christina Thompson)

Interest in Polynesia is not much in fashion nowadays, except for using the islands as an exemplar of the claimed, always imminent yet never arriving, effects of global warming. Still, ever since the Spanish accidentally ran into the Marquesas, on the east side of the giant triangle that forms Polynesia, anchored on the southwest by New Zealand, the north by Hawaii, and the southeast by Easter Island, the islands have had an intermittent fascination for Europeans. In part this is the usual fascination with lands far away; in part a specific fascination with Polynesian culture, accomplishments, and, often, origins. It is this last Christina Thompson covers in this narrowly focused, but excellent, book.

The Samurai (Shūsaku Endō)

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.