Saturday, February 22, 2014

Three Hurrahs for Inspector Morse

Oh, geez. I've discovered yet another great British show called Inspector Morse. It's a detective crime drama with a setting in the community of Oxford. Originally the show ran from 1987-95 with a few specials thereafter until 2000. Now there was a spinoff of this show called Inspector Lewis which I had actually discovered prior sometime last year after the amazing quality of BBC's Sherlock sent me scurrying to find similar British shows (Foyle's War is another good one I found). The one episode that I watched from Inspector Lewis impressed me enough to compel me to look further into that show. And when I discovered that Inspector Lewis was actually a spinoff/continuation of an earlier, highly acclaimed series of which this blog post is about I decided to table Inspector Lewis and watch its predecessor first. But I forgot it about this as I took up the ambitious task of watching ALL of the classic Doctor Who episodes ( a subject for a future post as this is still an ongoing project). Thankfully, last month Netflix reminded me that it had the first four series of Inspector Morse available for streaming and so I duly began partaking.

And what a great decision. This is a remarkably good show. One of the best that I have had the pleasure (so far at any rate) of experiencing. There are a great many things which set this show apart from other detective based dramas. But the key difference is the title character himself, Morse, played by John Thaw. Morse has some interesting character traits: he drinks on the job, suffers from bouts of melancholy, is a crossword fanatic, enjoys high brow culture (classical music, opera, poetry, etc), has terrible luck with women (a bachelor in his late 40's having never married), and, most importantly I would say, often gets things quite wrong, an attribute one would not normally expect let alone praise in a detective.

But this crucial fact is what makes the show quite unique in the bewildering world of countless TV shows based in one way or another on detecting/solving criminal cases. Now of course even the great Sherlock Holmes in the original 56 stories turned out to be wrong a few times, but those were exceptions that proved the rule that Holmes was a genius. But for Morse frequently coming to the wrong conclusions is absolutely central to his character and it is quite a refreshing take on the genre. (and it predates the majority that have since come out!) Moreover, when Morse does solve a case it's often the result of inadvertently stumbling his way to the solution. The bottom line is that though Morse is quite clever he's clearly no genius something he himself implies when responding to a question of why he chose to become a policeman instead of a scholar: "I have a good memory, but a prosaic mind," he mournfully admits.

My favorite episode to date (a bit of a spoiler alert here) is called the "Wolvercote Tongue" because it emphasizes an important aspect of the world that I've only recently begun to appreciate by accepting the fact that we probably live in a sovereignless universe, namely, sometimes there is no connection between events that seem, compellingly so, to be related. Without going into specifics concerning the plot suffice it say that it revolves around two deaths and a theft and throughout the episode Morse is dogmatically certain that there is a connection among these events. But in the end it turns out not to be so...simply coincidence. Though Morse does ultimately solve the case this can't erase the disappointment he feels at having been wrong yet again: "I was so sure, Lewis. So sure there was a connection," he dejectedly states. And though he uttered the following earlier in the episode it expresses how he must have felt at that moment: "If you need me, Lewis. I'll be looking at fish...through the bottom of a beer glass."

But it's not just the character of Morse that makes this a great show. Most of the stories are quite good only rarely being too contrived and are structured in such a way as to allow the viewer to piece together the clues and form their own conclusions along with Morse and Lewis, something few modern, especially US, detective shows are able to do because of their constrictive 45 minute format (Most of the Morse episodes are at least 90 minutes). Furthermore, the relationship between Morse and Lewis is just as stimulating as that between, say, Holmes and Watson. And on top of this the show is full of sharp and witty dialogue such as the following:

Morse: "They say sex can be very good for the over sixty-fives."
Lewis: "Oh, do they?
Morse: "Especially if you didn't get much before sixty-five."
 
And so I would highly recommend this show to anyone who likes British TV and detective crime drama. However, a bit of a warning. The pace of these episodes is deliberately slow. Some won't be able to handle such. But if you have the patience I guarantee you will be handsomely rewarded.

"I don't think, Lewis. I deduce. I only ever deduce." Chief Inspector Morse

Friday, May 10, 2013

World War II, Ideology, International Relations, and Iran

*Well, the other day was V-E Day which usually prompts me to write about something pertaining to WWII on that day in my journal and lacking anything else to write about at the moment I'll just share those thoughts here:

There is a tendency, usually on the left but not always, to minimize or eliminate altogether the part ideology can play in the origins of international conflicts. A typical move is to reduce the set of grievances down to purely socio-eonomic factors. For example, there are many who argue that the state of poverty that many Muslims are born into is what leads some of them to become suicide bombers rather than any prior adherence to a radical belief system. So the thought here is that if you raise the economic status of these groups of people, they will then eventually become satisfied to such a degree that they will no longer seek destructive means of airing their problems. Realists will also often downplay ideological factors but for other reasons. Their emphasis is that most state actors are rational practitioners of power politics so that the problems that arise between states are not usually the result of a clash in the respective ideologies of these states but rather owing to each state pursuing its own national self-interests which of course often conflict with one another.

The importance of WWII concerning this matter lies in the unequivocally ideological nature of Hitler and the Nazi regime.  Hitler's own worldview as put forward in Mein Kamp is what powered German foreign policy before and during WWII. Hitler believed in Aryan racial supremacy and a twisted form of Darwinism (Social Darwinism) and sought to implement these twin beliefs by ridding Europe of what he considered undesirables and almost succeeded at this. Hitler desired Lebensraum (living room) for Germany and believed in a Grossdeutche (a greater Germany) both of which he accomplished by the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland and the Anschluss with Austria. Hitler considered Russia to be Germany's true, eternal enemy and so invaded that country in 1941. In other words every movement of Nazi German foreign policy corresponded with the ideological beliefs and goals of Adolf Hitler. Now of course Germany before and during Hitler's rule had harbored certain concrete geopolitical objectives that weren't necessarily ideological, but these become incorporated into the behemoth that was Nazi ideology so that one can still confidently say that it was the totality of Nazi ideology that formed the basis for German foreign policy in the 1930's and 40's. So then WWII offers the clearest example of ideological factors playing an important role in the outbreak of an international conflict.

Source: dailybanter.com
The "ideology" question is not a moot one. For example, it has relevance to something going on today, namely, the negotiations with Iran concerning its nuclear ambitions. The question about how much ideology may be influencing the Iranian regime's actions is a pertinent one given its vitriolic rhetoric towards states like Israel. Now the realists could be right that Iran is just a normal, rational thinking state and if this is the case then allowing them to have nuclear weapons capability wouldn't pose a major risk to the region. (See for example Kenneth Waltz's article for a recent articulation of this view.) But the problem here is that we know so little about the true nature of the Iranian regime. For example, how much actual influence does the President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have over foreign policy? How much does the Supreme Ayotollah have? Or the Revolutionary Council? The danger is that if it's
essentially one person (like Hitler in Nazi Germany) running foreign policy then the likelihood of Iran pursuing a rational foreign policy is significantly reduced. And the fear is that it is actually Khamenei, the Supreme Ayotollah, who wields all the power in Iran. This is a major concern because of the apocalyptic nature of some of Shia Muslim belief that Khamenei seems to hold. And so if this is indeed the case, then allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons capability would be extremely risky. But on the other hand if power is spread amongst several players then the possibility that Iran is acting quite rationally, by IR theory standards anyway, is high. To clarify, if it's ideology that's driving Iranian foreign policy then letting them have "the bomb" would be a huge risk for the region; but if it's traditional, "rational" power politics determining their foreign policy then there is little to worry about. At this point we simply don't know.

Now, I usually count myself among the Realists in that I tend to assume that states typically act out of a "rational" calculation of national self-interests when conducting foreign policy. But there are clear cases in history when ideology has driven a country's foreign policy and so one shouldn't be too quick to dismiss ideological factors in explaining state behavior. To do so could be to invite disaster as the European countries did on the eve of WWII by assuming that Hitler was a rational state actor, merely  pursuing traditional German foreign policy objectives. Thus, current efforts at diplomacy with Iran should heed this lesson.


Friday, April 12, 2013

The Origins of the Iraq War



Source: georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov

We recently passed the ten year mark since the start of the Iraq War. And so it seems appropriate for me to finally comment on the origins of that controversial event. The general consensus among political scientists and the rest of the foreign policy elite is that the war was a major US blunder, misguided both in origin and execution. Basically, I agree with this fundamental assessment but differ in how I understand the origins of this war from many of these thinkers, many of whom seem content merely to explain US actions as stemming from an arrogant imperialistic mindset or as due to an ideological crusade on the part of a Republican administration. In other words, much of the analysis has been, well, not really analysis but instead has struck me as a sort of "competition of condemnation."

The passionate and partisan nature of this debate about the origins of the Iraq War is a major reason why I’ve been reticent about giving my opinion on the matter. Again, I agree with most in declaring this a huge misstep in US foreign policy that has had many adverse consequences. But I’m not merely satisfied running around self-righteously berating the policy makers involved. Instead I’m much more interested in a level headed analysis of the origins of the war. It is certainly a much more fruitful exercise to determine why and how this ill-advised war began than to simply prattle on about how bad and wrong it was.

At any rate, there are, in addition to the imperialist and ideological motivations mentioned above, many theories about the origins of the Iraq War. One of the more popular is that the war was started by a group of well-placed neoconservative advisers (who are supposedly by disposition quite hawkish) who deftly and sinisterly steered the various policy makers in the administration to war. Sometimes linked with this view is that the neo-cons teamed up with AIPAC (the Israeli Lobby) and some members of the Israeli policy making body to create a war as  a means of diverting the world from the rapidly deteriorating situation then occurring in the West Bank (the second Intifada was by this point in full swing). Closer to the conspiracy theory sphere are those that assert that Bush ’43 personally engineered the war as a means of vengeance against Saddam Hussein for his actions against his father, Bush ’41 (or something inane like that) or that the war was started by a military cabal or that it was begun to secure Middle Eastern oil (Desert Shield/Storm was actually more about oil than the Iraq War) or whatever.

Besides being rubbish what all of these theories have in common is the attribution of a pernicious and malevolent element to US geopolitical actions that I don't think existed. However, I’m not going to spend this blog post addressing this matter or any of these other theories. Rather, I want to put forth my own theory. Well, not my own per se since there are a few academics who share a similar viewpoint to mine such as Melvin P. Leffler of the University of Virginia.

The first thing that I need to point out is something that often gets downplayed or outright ignored in much of the discussion surrounding the origin of the Iraq War, namely the place of Iraq and Saddam Hussein in the national security policy of the United States before 9/11. This is crucial because many act as if after the 1991 Gulf War Saddam was of little to no concern in the making of American national security policy, that after the US “whipped” Saddam he basically minded his own business thereafter until the son of his adversary decided out of nowhere to peremptorily finish the job. But the reality is that Hussein remained a major problem, still continuing to top the list of threats that are given in the President’s daily national security brief. What to do about Saddam, who repeatedly was in violation of the no-fly zones, blocked UN weapon inspectors, circumvented the Oil for Food Program, continued to viciously crackdown on the minorities of his country (the Shia and Kurds especially), and more, was of principal concern to the Clinton administration which actually fired ballistic missiles at Iraq in 1998 and continually considered regime change as a proper course of action worth pursuing. The point here is that right up until 9/11 Iraq featured prominently in the discussions and concerns of United States national security policy.

Then 9/11 happened. Now I’ve suggested before that at least in the long term calculus I don’t think 9/11 was all that transformative. But for a brief moment it certainly had a profound effect on American foreign policy in that the paranoia created by the 9/11 attacks caused the US to magnify and exaggerate all other threats, especially those that had been brewing for quite some time. Moreover, 9/11 sent policy makers into such a panic that these major threats which were previously considered contained to one degree or another were instantly transformed into threats that urgently needed to be extinguished. And topping this list was Iraq.

So my thesis is as follows:

1.)   Iraq continued to be a major national security concern of the United States after the Gulf War and up to the 9/11 attacks.
2.)   The sudden 9/11 attacks created a state of paranoia that caused the US to egregiously augment prior threats from containment to necessary extinction.
3.)  Saddam Hussein was considered chief among these threats
4.)   Therefore, the United States invaded Iraq to eliminate what it perceived as an immediate threat to its national security.

My position then is that the origins of the Iraq War can be found in legitimate national security concerns that were unfortunately blown out of proportion because of the 9/11 attacks. The sense of urgency that this paranoia created caused policy makers to see connections that did not exist such as the dubious linking of Hussein with Al Qaeda. (The same could be said of the case made for Saddam having WMDs though what often gets overlooked here is the fact that just about EVERYONE, including most of the UN member nations, even France, as well as UN weapon inspectors, believed Saddam did possess WMDs before the war so I find much of the discussion surrounding the WMDs to be quite disingenuous.)

Now I don’t normally dabble in counterfactual history, but a further view of mine is that had Gore been elected I believe it is highly likely that the Iraq War would still have occurred. There are two key assumptions that I’m making here: 

1.)    Though the rhetoric may be different between Democrats and Republicans on foreign policy issues, when it comes to actually making foreign policy both parties act similarly. Therefore, I think a Gore administration would have fell victim to the same paranoia that the 9/11 attacks caused.

2.)   The personality of decision makers may matter a lot less than I used to previously believe. The more and more I have studied the history of foreign policy the closer I’ve come to a sort of fatalistic viewpoint. And so in this sense the Iraq War, because of 9/11, might have ultimately been inevitable. 

Topics worth pursuing more fully at a later time perhaps.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Grab Bag Thoughts: Evolutionary Psychology, Human Nature, and Predestination/Determinism

Source: therawness.com
Every so often I seem to make my way round back to the question of human nature. This time it has been prompted by my recent interest in evolutionary psychology. Essentially, this paradigm asserts that current human behavior can best be understood by inference from our ( mostly primate) evolutionary past or ancestral environment. To give just one example, which happens to be one of the more controversial ones, the basic differences between males and females when it comes to sex is made sense of by evolutionary psychologists through positing that in the ancestral environment parental investment was a much greater affair for a woman since she incurred the many risks associated with pregnancy (such as death), but also because she had the lion's share of the burden of caring for a child over a lengthy period time. By contrast, male parental investment probably rarely went beyond providing the sperm for conception and bringing back food for the tribe. Consequently, males could be quite free in their choice of mates because of the low reproductive and rearing costs to themselves. This is then extrapolated into modern times to explain why it seems that (most) women are much choosier than (most) men when it comes to sexual partners, i.e., because the risks associated with the consequences of sexual intercourse were far greater for the female than the male in the ancestral environment and which is still ingrained in human sexual behavior today.

The implications of many of the conclusions of evolutionary psychology for human nature are what got me thinking about this subject again. Of course the most basic question to ask about this long standing problem in philosophy is does such a thing as human nature even exist? (Modern day Lockeans and Behaviorists are among those who deny that it does). And if there is such an entity how contingent is it? Or to point a finer point on it, is human nature simply the result of millions of years of evolution in which our ancestral environment "produced" it (this is of course where evolutionary psychology lands)? Or is it rather something that's inviolate and so independent of factors such as evolution and/or culture?

Of course how one answers these questions will depend a great deal on whether or not one's worldview includes the metaphysical or supernatural. Those who believe in a deity or deities of some kind will generally affirm a human nature that is divinely created and immutable while naturalists, quite naturally, will tend to deny that such a thing exists or to assert that human nature is a product of various historical processes (e.g., evolution plus culture). Additionally, one's political leanings can also influence how one thinks about human nature. Conservatives will usually favor a view of human nature that is static whereas liberals will be more likely to see human nature as something more malleable. To use sex differences as an example again, conservatives will tend to stress that differences between the sexes are considerable and an inherent part of humankind; liberals on the other hand, in the interest of egalitarianism, will normally assert either a total lack of distinctiveness between the sexes or will only acknowledge a few basic, inconsequential ones.

For my part the first time I engaged to any degree of seriousness with the problem of human nature was indirectly during my former pious Christian days and my anxiety over Calvinism/Reformed belief, specifically over the pernicious doctrine of predestination. In fact, this theological problem was probably the first real rigorous intellectual topic that I had ever undertaken up to that point in my life (I believe I was around 16 or 17 then). The role that human nature takes in that debate has to do with the slippery Christian concept of "original sin." For Reformed Christians Adam and Eve's transgression in the garden of Eden implicated the entire human race to such a degree that man's nature became utterly corrupt and always predisposed toward evil. Because of this man is unable to save himself and so depends entirely on the grace of God for his salvation. Furthermore not only is man unable to achieve his own salvation, he is unable to freely choose to receive it. Therefore, God must enable a person to accept salvation by changing his sinful and corrupt nature. But of course in these Reformed systems of thought God only elects a certain number for salvation, i.e., he predestines those he has chosen to salvation aside from anything they have done or that is in them. The rest are consigned to damnation.

At that time this theological problem vexed me considerably. I eventually settled into a comfortable skepticism over the issue. But oddly it has come to rear its ugly head again but this time with a distinct naturalist coating: causal determinism.  One of the more uncomfortable potential implications of evolutionary psychology (with a bit of neuroscience thrown in) is that all of human behavior is causally determined such that the feeling of free will we have is merely an illusion fostered by evolution. (I should note that behaviorists usually also adopt some kind of causal determinism.) Of course there are all sorts of philosophical distinctions that have been made here to try and make this view more palatable (e.g., distinguishing between hard and soft determinism), but they all effectively say the same thing, namely, that man is “free” only in the sense that he can “freely” choose to act in accordance with his desires (or intentions) even if these desires themselves have been causally determined.

This implication causes me great discomfort for many of the same reasons predestination did so long ago principally because it seems to leave no room for any genuine notion of justice or responsibility except as merely social constructs intended to maintain order. And it’s not just this paradigm’s implications in regards to determinism that has made me feel considerable angst but much of its conclusions regarding other issues such as morality to name just one. Though I haven’t completely bought into this system of explaining human behavior (e.g., I doubt that the differences between males and females are as significant as does this view) it has immense explanatory power. Furthermore, my considerable discomfort over some of these implications may be a clue that much of this stuff is true. Often the discovery of truth is presented as refreshingly liberating and it certainly can be at times. However, at other times the process of uncovering the truth can be an extraordinarily painful one. Perhaps, at least for me, that is the case here. Further exploration of these issues is in order.



Friday, December 14, 2012

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Long View

Source: commentary.com
Norman Finkelstein, the provocative "scholar" of Israeli-Palestinian studies, recently published a book entitled Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End. I haven't read it and likely won't but was able to watch Finkelstein's presentation of his book on C-SPAN's Booktv program (here) that also included a discussion, which Finkelstein not surprisingly steered more into a debate since he's quite an abrasive person, with the Jewish Pro-Palestinian activist Anna Baltzer. Now, I've never cared much for Finkelstein or his work; he's much too bitter for my tastes and his rabid anti-Israeli stance clearly affects his scholarship. Nevertheless, this talk of his made much sense. Basically, he argues in this book that the younger American Jewish population is not nearly as enamored with the State of Israel as its elder component. Therefore, it's only a matter of time demographically speaking before the majority of American Jews will no longer feel much of a compulsion to offer continued support of Israel.

I think this is essentially correct and if so it spells trouble for the Jewish state since, if we are to be honest about US-Israeli relations, it has been staunch American-Jewish support for the State of Israel that has been the principal factor that links American foreign policy so closely with that country. And once this support collapses United States foreign policy will undergo a substantial shift in policy, coming closer into alignment with what is, and has been, the dominant stance of the International Community towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one generally more sympathetic to the Palestinians than the Israelis, as partly indicated with the recent granting by the UN of "non-member state observer status" to the Palestinians, represented by the Palestinian Authority (and to some extent Hamas).

But why is it the case that younger American Jews are gradually becoming less supportive of Israel? I suspect that there are at least two reasons. First, as a general rule the young tend to be more quixotic or idealistic than older groups. And a favorite cause of idealists tends to be the issue of human rights; in this case Palestinian human rights. The concern over human rights is of course by no means something exclusive to the youth of the world, but it's precisely the youth who tend to be the torch bearers of these kinds of causes probably due to a certain naivete that pushes them to believe they can change the world. Now the championing of issues like "human rights" is I think a noble cause, but an exclusive focus on such can lead to a myopia of sorts, often preventing clear-headed and rational thinking about complex topics like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the case of this conflict such a narrow view means a failure to seriously take into account the national security concerns, no matter how exaggerated we may think they are, of Israel. As uncaring as it may sound a State's first priority is to the security of its people and not to ensuring human rights. Is Israel pursuing many wrong-headed policies, including infringement of some Palestinian rights, in the name of national security? Certainly. However, we must keep in mind that it's all too easy to judge a country's difficulty in balancing legitimate security needs, which Israel does have, and human rights when unlike Israel the United States and most other countries are not surrounded by hostile forces bent on its destruction, or having to endure periodic rockets aimlessly fired into its territory, or suicide bombing attacks among its citizens.

Source:pbs.org
The second reason is related to the first in that an exclusive concern for Palestinian rights among many of the American Jewish youth is partly the result of not just an unguided idealism but to a lack of understanding of the historical narrative that underpins the wider Israeli-Arab conflict. In short, many young American Jews are ignorant of the history of this conflict unlike a lot of the elder American Jewish population who in various ways actually experienced much of this narrative. For many young Jews, as Anna Baltzer's talk clearly exhibited to me, effectively believe that Israeli history doesn't start with the birth of the state in 1948 or the virulent anti-semitism of the late 19th century which prompted much of the Jewish migration to the "Holy Land", but rather begins with the Six Day War of 1967 between Israel and most of its Arab neighbors that ended with Israel in control of the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Gaza strip, and the Sinai Peninsula. (The Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt in accord with the terms of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979 and the Gaza strip was unilaterally evacuated under the premiership of Ariel Sharon; the Israeli's to date remain in control of the West Bank and the Golan heights.)

Thus, with this war Israel ceased being the underdog, a status it had held since its inception in 1948. This is important because it's a natural instinct for people to be more sympathetic to the underdogs and oppressed of the world which is what the Palestinians became after this war. In effect, the Israeli's and Palestinians shifted places as result of the '67 War. And so for a lot of the young American Jewish population the only real Israel they can conceive of is a post-1967 one in which the Israeli's have been in control of another people's destiny.

As I've already indicated this bodes ill for Israel. And because, as I also already mentioned, the majority of the IC is more sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians than to the security concerns of the Israeli's,  such a future demographic shift of American Jews towards a much more critical attitude of Israel entails that it is only a matter of time before the United States foreign policy shifts into closer alignment with the rest of the IC since the past and present staunch support among American Jews will cease to influence this country's foreign policy in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many will no doubt embrace such a development since they believe that isolating Israel on the international stage is the only effective means of changing its policies towards the occupied territories. 

Here Israel is clearly between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand it could unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank, but this is problematic for two reasons: (1) it could worsen the security situation of Israel, basically erasing the strategic depth it now has, and (2) Israel would be roundly condemned for such a unilateral gesture by the IC just as it was when it pulled out of the Gaza strip on its own accord. And yet on the other hand Israel still doesn't have a viable peace partner or a domestic political situation that would encourage a successful peace process. Furthermore, as long as the UN continues to give victory after victory, no matter how symbolic they currently are and have been, to Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians will feel no incentive in going ahead with any kind of peace negotiations and will continue to trot out continued Israeli settlements as a pretext for future inaction. So what should Israel do? I don't know. All I do know is that the continuance of the status quo no longer favors the Israelis but the Palestinians. Taking the long view it appears that with this crucial demographic change of attitude among American Jews towards Israel means the Jewish state will "lose" out in the end. A result many hope for of course. I am not of this persuasion.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

World History and Jared Diamond: Ramblings and Frustrations

Source: occidentalobserver.net
One of the areas of history that I'm keenly interested in studying is a burgeoning sub-field known as World or Global History. Now of course the study of world history is not exactly a recent phenomenon. Scholars of old such as H.G. Wells, Oswald Spengler, and Arnold Toynbee took up this task, Toynbee's own work amounting to 12 volumes. But their concerns were chiefly with discerning cycles or patterns in history and usually placed an emphasis on the West's central role in World History, often relegating other civilizations to a peripheral and subordinate position. In contrast, the kind of World History that is studied today is somewhat different and owes its origins to the minority movements of the late 60's and 70's and to the K-12 (kindergarten through 12 grade) establishment.

For the longest time most school curricula provided "Western Civilization" classes which as the name indicates were focused primarily on teaching the origins and rise of the West. And because of this many other groups in history were marginalized or altogether ignored in such classes. For example, the standard background to North American history typically emphasized English history to the near exclusion of Indian or Native American history.

And so as mentioned ever increasing calls for a focus on the study of minority history likewise led to a cry for a replacement of Western Civ classes with World History classes for the purpose of curing Westerns, chiefly Americans, of their provincialism and to give due attention to those various groups of peoples that had been historically ignored in the discipline. But in the beginning no one had any idea how to accomplish such in the academic community. Thus, the testing ground became the K-12 system which over time progressed its courses to incorporate other civilizations and usually renamed or sublimated history into "social studies" classes. Eventually, World History took root on the college level as well and has since become quite successful with many more universities adding MA's and Phds in World History every year.

The method used in the field today tends towards a thematic approach as opposed to a diachronic one which is typically narrative based. Popular modes of inquiry here include examining early cross-cultural contacts, trans-atlantic or trans-pacific studies, human-animal relations...analytical topics of that sort. But also a lot of pre-history (usually somewhat arbitrarily defined as the period of human history before "written" language) has begun to be incorporated into the study of World History such that many of the sciences have become a huge part of the discussion (e.g., the magisterial Big History by David Christian). Now, I absolutely applaud this development for I have an amateur love for the natural sciences, regularly reading works in astronomy, paleontology, evolution, et al as often as I can. But this of course means historians, because most aren't trained in the scientific disciplines, inevitably make mistakes when entering into these fields of scientific inquiry.

And yet curiously enough opening the door of these traditional areas of science to historians has meant that scientists can make their way through the other side of the door and study those areas normally the sole purview of historians. I myself welcome their inclusion since I'm an avid supporter of interdisciplinary studies. Yet, just as historians often err when attempting to enter into the domain of science, likewise do some scientists when they try to engage in history. Case in point: Jared Diamond.

I have tried to give this man a chance, twice now. First, I read his highly praised, Pulitzer prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel which tries to dazzle its readers with lots of data to support a thesis of geographical determinism. Essentially, Diamond's argument in the book is that geographical placement of peoples-nations is what accounts for the modern day success of Western civilization and the "failures" of other civilizations. Now there's nothing new with such a position which is partly why I'm flummoxed that Diamond has garnished such attention over this book. I mean, the damn thing has a National Geographic program devoted to it!

 Except for a few chapters such as the one on the development of animal husbandry I found the book mostly a bore, partly I suppose because I was already familiar with Diamond's thesis, one which is ridiculously reductionist. The reasons for the success and/or failures of some civilizations vis a vis others are the result of a myriad of complex elements and cannot be reduced to one single, overarching factor. (See further my review of Kenneth Pomeranz's The Great Divergence for a bit fuller critique of the geographical determinism view.)

Nevertheless, I wanted to give Diamond another go by reading one of his early works that actually touches on his area of expertise, namely, human evolution and physiology. It's entitled The Third Chimpanzee and for the most part I found its first two-thirds or so a much more entertaining read than Guns, Germs, and Steel. I especially liked his chapter on the development of human language. And then I read his section on agriculture and became so infuriated I almost heaved the book across the room.

Basically, in this chapter Diamond reduces all of human woes to the development and prominence of agriculture in human history. According to Diamond, it was the discovery and success of agriculture which produced the great inequities and ills of our present times from class struggle, to the oppression and subjection of women, to climate change, to genocide, to George W. Bush, to the Star Wars prequels, etc. Once again I found Diamond being ludicrously reductionist in his conclusions. But worse than that, Diamond implies in this chapter that modern society would actually be better off by returning to some kind of hunter-gatherer state because he thinks that will create more equality than we currently have!

Ok, so to partly what is going on here with Diamond has to do with his New Guinea experience. For you see Diamond is also an ornithologist of sorts and sometime in the 70's (I believe) Diamond went to New Guinea to study bird species native to that island and in doing so fell in love with the tribes peoples of New Guinea, most of whom who have managed to maintain a mostly hunter-gatherer society for thousands of years. And in both of the books I read New Guinea features prominently,  ad naseum really. Diamond's New Guinea experience functions as a kind of cypher through which he thinks he can interpret the world. Time and again in these two books Diamond refers back to something that happened to him on New Guinea that he believes helps him to understand whatever it is he happens to be talking about. Quite honestly he does this so often that it's part of the reason why I found it a chore, with some exceptions, to get through his two books. My point is that he interprets just about everything under the sun in terms of New Guinea which only exacerbates his problem of reducing the complex to the simple. He seems to see the world only through the prism of the people of New Guinea.

And so I think I'm through giving Jared Diamond chances to persuade me. I won't be reading another one of his books.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Belated Thoughts on the Presidential Foreign Policy Debate and the Importance of China

Source: New York Daily News
 The last presidential debate was a few days ago and focused on one of my chief areas of interests, i.e. foreign policy, so naturally I watched the whole thing (I only watched part of the other two debates and none of the VP debate...*yawns). This debate was rather lackluster as I expected it to be. I would say that neither participant "won" though Obama did manage to liven things up a few times such as when he wittily countered Romney's archaic views on the Navy by responding that naval warfare is no longer a "game of battleship" in which we simply count how many vessels we have vis a vis our opponents. (Romney had been criticizing the fact that the US Navy now has less vessels than it did in 1916.) 

I think Romney's chief difficulty was in delineating precisely how his foreign policy differs (or will differ if elected) from Obama's. For the most part Romney and Obama seemed to be on the same page on the various, though severely limited, global issues that were discussed (the only clear exception being military spending). The most Romney ever did to distance himself from Obama was a few vague criticisms directed towards the Obama administration's lack of geopolitical leadership. Most surprising of all Romney did not attack Obama for the administration's clear mishandling of the Libya affair that left some Americans dead, US Ambassador Stevens among them, even though the moderator gave him ample opportunity to do so. (This is similar to Obama's surprising omission in the first debate concerning Romney's 47 percent gaffe.)

Ultimately though Romney's performance during the debate is irrelevant since foreign policy itself tends to be irrelevant to most voters. Rarely have elections been decided based on a candidate's foreign policy views and unless a major crisis erupts in the next couple of weeks foreign policy will remain a negligible factor for undecided voters. (For those who care my own prediction is that Obama will narrowly be re-elected.)

At any rate what was most disappointing to me about the debate was the pathetic amount of time given to discussing China (Brazil, another important rising power, was completely ignored as were several other countries and regions.) In fact in the small amount of time that was given to debating about Chinese policy both candidates managed to steer the topic to a discussion about the US economy! 

Source: Rolling Stone Magazine
Now here's the thing, I'm actually skeptical that China is destined to become the next exclusive super power in the sense that it will eclipse the US in influence and prestige or that the US is inevitably on a crash course, diplomatically and/or militarily, with Beijing. Nevertheless, I do support the view that China is immensely important when it comes to global affairs and that it will in all probability continue to rise which means that the power center of the globe will increasingly shift to East Asia. And as such prudence dictates that the US should begin to formulate a robust foreign policy that also strategically shifts, or to employ a ridiculously overused word in international relations lingo, pivots, East.


The future (and current) importance of China is nicely illustrated in a scene from the recent entertaining time travel film Looper where Jeff Daniels character, incredulous that the young Bruce Willis (played by Joseph Gordon Levit) wants to learn French, strongly insists instead that he learn Mandarin (Mainland Chinese). "Trust me", he says, "I'm from the future. Learn Mandarin."

Indeed, China's growing strategic importance, my love for Chinese/Hong Kong Kung Fu films, and Looper have caused me to rethink my future historical subjects of inquiry. Maybe it's time that I too begin to shift, or as much it pains me to say, pivot, Eastward.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Being President is Bad for One's Health


I watched about half of the presidential debate last night and there's no doubt that at least for the bit I watched Romney clearly out debated Obama. Obama was often hesitant in his replies and his answers were rarely stated with any confidence. This was shocking to me since Obama almost always debates well. But one thing that particularly struck me is how much Obama has seemingly aged after just four years of being in office. It was a reminder to me that being President of the United States is often detrimental to one's health. Aside from of course the possibility of being assassinated the demanding nature of the office clearly exacts an awful toll on both body and soul of the incumbent. The way Obama looked last night, namely, lacking the vigor he clearly possessed during the 2008 campaign prompted me to go back and look at before and after pictures of former US presidents down to Lyndon Johnson. Here's what I discovered:


Obama 2008
2012 (debate night)





















Bush 2001

 2008




















Clinton 1992
 2000




















 1992

H.W. Bush 1988



Reagan 1980
1988


















Carter 1976
 1980














Ford 1974
1976

















Tricky Dick 1968

1974















 1968
Johnson 1963








Moral of the story: if you desire longevity and good health don't become president.