I, and many others, have been exhausted in recent months by the nonstop political noise machine. So I pulled this book off the shelf, figuring that a biography of the 14th Century warlord Tamerlane would be pretty much non-political. Maybe not as non-political as a coffee table book about, say, flowers, but close, and to me more interesting. I was not disappointed. This book proved an informative escape—depressing at times, certainly, like any tale of violence, but at least I didn’t have to think or talk about 21st Century politics at any time, and won’t in this review. For like all of us, I am weary unto death of all that (though not weary enough to not return to it).
Every American generation has its young adult fiction, and we can all agree it tends to reflect the society of its time. We associate the young adult fiction of the 1950s with books like Tom Swift and Nancy Drew. Such fiction, including this book, On The Trail of Inca Gold, was highly optimistic, techno-utopian in some cases, and grounded in an ethic of individual achievement, human possibility and self-reliance, along with belief in America and a positive attitude toward its government and ruling class. We are always told today how awful the 1950s were, where everyone was crushed by endemic sexism, racism and species-ism, all minutely managed by Joseph McCarthy, who bestrode the country with a lead-loaded bullwhip and unleashed hell on cowering America. The reality was that the 1950s were a period of completely justified, unparalleled optimism and growth in prosperity—and young adult fiction fit the actual national mood.
Last month, in December 2016, maybe as a Christmas gift to himself, Thomas Sowell announced that he was retiring. Technically, he announced that he was retiring from writing a syndicated column, but at age 86, it seems likely that he does not intend to write any new books, either. This is unfortunate, but his work is done. There can be little doubt that Sowell’s many works, taken together, by themselves would be adequate to educate someone raised by wolves on everything any person needs to know about economics, political economy, and much of history.
Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe” is in some ways an original book, and in some ways not. It’s original in that it applies the truism that modern Western life is alienating specifically to the mental issues afflicting veterans. It’s not original in that, although he seems not to know it, his book is an entry in a long line of books identifying and analyzing the alienation of individuals common in modern American society. Those books long since identified and discuss what Junger ignores—that intermediary institutions, now largely defunct, alleviated this alienation in times past. Instead, Junger posits a false dichotomy—between the tribal life of community and modern American life, ignoring that society long since developed structures, now fallen into abeyance, to provide that small-scale community in the midst of a large society.
“1177 B.C.” is a worthwhile book, but it fails to deliver on its promises. It is an uncomfortable blend of academic treatise and popular history, and it suffers from this split personality. And it suffers from aiming high, promising to explain how Mediterranean Bronze Age societies collapsed together in short order and how that relates to today, and striking low, concluding that we don’t know why, admitting that they may not have collapsed in short order or together (and definitely not in 1177 B.C. altogether) and failing to convince the reader that there is any relevancy for today, though straining to do so. On the other hand, for those interested in the period, there are many fascinating facts—so long as you aren’t really looking for a coherent overarching narrative, this book will be very welcome.
Like Daniel Burnham, Francis Fukuyama makes no small plans. “The Origins of Political Order” aspires to be nothing less than an all-encompassing explanation of how human beings created political order. This book carries Fukuyama’s analysis up to the French Revolution; a second volume carries the story to the modern day. This volume is mostly taken up with creating and discussing a coherent framework that explains political order before the modern era. Much of what Fukuyama discusses here is non-Western societies, which makes it particularly interesting.
“Rivers Of Gold” is not for the faint of heart. If you are looking for a compact treatment of the early Spanish empire in the New World, this isn’t it. If you are looking for a book that bewails the fate of the indigenous inhabitants of the New World at the hands of the evil Spanish monsters, this isn’t it either. But if you are looking for a voluminous and detailed study of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, that treats the Spanish as they were, a combination of varying proportions within each man of hero and ruthless killer, this is the book for you.
“The White Man’s Burden,” despite its inflammatory title, is a measured analysis of the ability of the West to help alleviate poverty in the rest of the world. The title is actually ironic, for the book concludes, in essence, that most of the burden the West has taken on has led to no improvement and much waste. This book is a companion, in many ways, to Easterly’s later book “The Tyranny of Experts.” It also has much in common with other books focusing on both the Great Divergence and the lifting of the poor out of poverty, in particular Angus Deaton’s recent book, “The Great Escape,” and James C. Scott’s seminal “Seeing Like A State.”
William Easterly is a leading critic of traditional approaches to development—that is, of traditional approaches to bridging the Great Divergence. He, and everyone else studying development, want to know why and how the West and a few Western-influenced countries have become wealthy, and everyone else in the world has stayed poor, despite trillions of dollars spent fruitlessly over seven decades by the West to bring the poor out of poverty.
Anthropology and ethnography are definitely not areas about which I know much, so it is hard for me to tell where this book fits into the professional literature. It is a hybrid—a book by a professional anthropologist, meant largely for a popular audience, but not written in a popular style. It is, however, a book that appears to have had a very significant, if not generally acknowledged, impact on popular culture, in that it destroyed the idea that primitive peoples were peaceful, and established the opposite. That is, it established that every group of pre-civilized human people for tens of thousands of years, from small bands of hunter-gatherers through organized chiefdoms, engaged in continuous horrendous violence.