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.
Americans have always liked fighting stories: autobiographical and third person, fictional and non-fictional. From dime novels about outlaws and Indians to, more recently, war movies, Americans have vicariously enjoyed American combat, and American successes in combat. There are even meta fighting stories: an organizing frame of Clint Eastwood’s movie Unforgiven is a biographer trailing Eastwood’s character to write a dime novel. As far as the recent Afghanistan and Iraq wars, early movies (i.e., under Bush) were mostly high-profile flops attacking America (Rendition; Lions for Lambs). Later movies (i.e., under Obama, where it was no longer regarded as necessary by those controlling the film industry to attack Bush rather than make profits) included some such, but moved toward depicting American heroism (Lone Survivor; American Sniper). Not incidentally, those two latter movies were based on autobiographical books, rather than the fever dreams of Hollywood leftists, and this book, Clinton Romesha’s Red Platoon, falls squarely into that genre.
The Earth Is Weeping offers an almost painfully even-handed look at the conflicts between the United States and American Indian tribes after the Civil War. Of course, given the historiography of the past fifty years, an even-handed look necessarily inverts the traditional narrative. Here, Team Indian does good and bad, and Team White does good and bad, each according to its own internal dictates of morality and external dictates of practicality and need. The Sioux are expelled from their land—which they conquered only ten years before by slaughtering the previous inhabitants with extreme brutality. The white man (and the Mexican, and the white man’s numerous Indian allies) usually breaks treaties and sometimes kills women and children. Here is no morality tale, but the old and inevitable tale of nomad vs. nomad vs. state—new, perhaps, in Sumer, but not new in 1870.
This outstanding book, by the anarchist-tending academic James C. Scott, might be (but isn’t) subtitled “Barbarians Are Happier, Fatter and Better Looking.” The author does not believe the myth of the noble savage—but he thinks the savage is, on average, a lot better off than the peasant. Scott’s project is to remold our view of the early days of civilization, erasing the sharp lines usually drawn to separate the first states from the social groups which preceded them, and dismissing the judgment that more organized is always better.
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.