Friday, December 14, 2012

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Long View

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.
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

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


Clinton 1992


H.W. Bush 1988

Reagan 1980

Carter 1976

Ford 1974

Tricky Dick 1968


Johnson 1963

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Afghanistan Recollections: First Mission

Breakfast just before the mission.
*At one time I had toyed around with writing a memoir of my time in Afghanistan and what follows was meant to be the prologue. I later abandoned the idea when I realized that I simply did not have an extensive enough account recorded in my journal to aid in this task. 

 Somewhat apprehensively I eased out of the back of the truck as gently as possible until I felt my boot firmly touch the road. Well, it wasn't really a road per se, more like a dirt path. This far outside of Kandahar City there wasn't anything one could accurately call a road, at least not in any conventional sense. In fact, the whole of Afghanistan has just four main paved highways that crisscross the country. With few exceptions most other routes were like this one, namely, somewhat compact dirt pathways that unfortunately posed little problem for insurgents in terms of IED placement (except during the winter months when the ground becomes significantly hardened).

And it was precisely this threat of IEDs that explained why I now found myself in the middle of this dangerous road. I was part of a Combat Engineering Unit tasked with “route clearance” which sounds more benign than it really is. Our job was to clear routes of IEDs so as to enable infantry or SF or whomever access to their objective areas. This is why historically the Combat Engineer motto has been “clearing the way.” At any rate, for this, my very first mission, it was business as usual as my platoon had been assigned to escort an infantry unit while clearing the route of IEDs.

But part way through the mission the Infantry unit we were embedded with asked us to halt the convoy. Standard procedure was to set up a security perimeter around the convoy upon the order of a stop. Through my headset I could hear our TC (truck commander) grumble in response to this “request” by the Infantry commander. The TC hesitated a bit before finally ordering me outside. For this mission I was the dismount and so as expected was ordered to hop out and take part in the security perimeter then being formed. So as I had been trained to do I walked out about 5 meters from the road and took a kneeling position and began to scan the area ahead of me which included several mud structures, omnipresent in the rural areas of Afghanistan.

I should have been concentrating on my sector but instead all I could think about was how I was finally in the country that I had been reading about voraciously for the past year. This was the place where supposedly Empires came to die or at the least to be severely humiliated. Alexander, the Arabs, Genghis Khan, the British, the Soviets, and now the United States. And now the “graveyard of empires”, a place most Westerners, especially Americans, would not be able to identify on an Atlas. As the old saying goes “war is how geography is taught to Americans” or something near to that. I would later come to doubt this popular view of the supposed unconquerable nature of Afghanistan (for example see the following post) but at the time I accepted this standard interpretation and it was certainly on my mind as I knelt there in the dirt.

“Hey!”, bellowed a voice behind me, disrupting my reverie. I turned to see one of the Infantry Sergeants hurrying toward my position. “Get back on the road, Specialist,” he stated while beckoning me towards him. I readily obeyed situating myself inside the tire tracks, theoretically the safest place to be on the road.Then somewhat exasperatedly he exclaimed, “You realize there are anti-personnel mines all over the place here?”

Shit. He was right of course. In fact, I had read that Afghanistan was estimated to still have 7-9 million mines scattered about the country, most of them left over from the 1979-89 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Only Cambodia and the Congo were calculated to have more mines. Here was my first instance in which it was made clear that rigidly following handbook SOPs (standard operating procedure) could possibly get one killed. For as I stated earlier the SOP in this case dictated a 5 meter depth when setting up a security perimeter around a convoy, but the surfeit of mines in Afghanistan rendered this normal procedure foolhardy. (I would repeatedly discover throughout my deployment that our Army handbooks were rarely an astute guide when it came to executing tactics on the ground.)

So I continued for a few moments pulling security from the tire tracks while dwelling on the stupidity of what I had just done. But my self-chastisement didn't last long as we were then given the order to mount back up. Back inside the truck my TC started to complain again about the command decision to have the convoy stop and dismount. (Later, it was explained to me that our unit's own policy was, except when absolutely necessary, never to dismount in the south because mines and IEDs were so ubiquitous there compared to the east where my unit had originally been stationed. This was why the TC had hesitated before ordering me to dismount.)

Clearing the way.
Nevertheless, we resumed our extremely slow pace down the route, patiently attempting to find IEDs and then neutralize them, preferably by NOT blowing up any of our vehicles in the process. This entire procedure could be very monotonous as it involved moving down the route at very slow speeds and then periodically stopping for long lengths of time to investigate suspected IEDs quite often discovering the item to be just an abnormally shaped rock or something. For a dismount such as myself at the time the monotony could be quite unbearable. The paradox for combat engineers is that route clearance is one of the most dangerous jobs a soldier can do and one of the most boring.

But my boredom on this mission subsided somewhat as I developed the sudden urge to relieve myself. Of course there was no stopping the convoy for such which meant I had to take care of the problem right there in the truck while we were on the move. Now it suddenly dawned on me why I had seen several empty Gatorade bottles scattered in the living quarters that I shared with the driver, PFC Graley, and gunner, SPC Kelly. The necks of Gatorade bottles are much wider than standard water bottles hence much easier to piss in. The trouble was that this realization arrived much too late since all I had were empty water bottles.

As I struggled to work around my armor and piss in the water bottle I could hear over the headset one our Huskies (a slender bodied IED detection vehicle with GPR panels) indicating that it had registered something on its GPR screen. Mercifully for me, the LT called a halt to the convoy and ordered the Husky to double check its finding. This provided me with just enough time to finish up with, I should note, little success. So I quickly strapped myself back in and along with the rest of the convoy awaited the Husky's analysis.

A few moments later there was something that sounded like a muffled crack of thunder. Immediately our headsets lit up as it became clear that as the Husky had been going over its area for a third and final time it struck an IED. The driver of the Husky, SPC Collins, quickly came over the radio to indicate that he was fine but that the Husky wasn't. As our vehicle was the closest with a mine roller ( a large protruding extension of rollers attached to the front of some of the trucks) the LT ordered us to sweep and clear the area so that a wrecker could approach and recover the downed vehicle. So Graley took the truck and mine rolled a significant area around the downed Husky to ensure that the wrecker would have enough of a “safe” area to work with.

We finished rolling the area and since we didn't set anything off our TC radioed to the LT to let him know that we were finished clearing the area. The wrecker was then ordered to proceed toward the Husky but as it did so another explosion rocked the area. It was so close that we thought our truck had been hit but turned out to be the wrecker that was hit. The blast was such that it basically destroyed the wrecker but thankfully the two soldiers that were in the vehicle somehow ended up without any serious injuries. After it had been determined that the soldiers were fine, Kelly, our gunner, looked at me and stated succinctly “Welcome to Afghanistan, Petersen.”

So then for my very first mission I learned at least three very important things:
  1. Never walk off the road in a mine infested area. (And its corollary that the SOP cannot be inflexibly followed.)
  2. IEDs almost always come in pairs (or more).
  3. And, lastly, always bring plenty of empty Gatorade bottles.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Sherlock Holmes and Gregory House: A Terse Comparative Analysis

As the old saying goes "all good things come to an end."

One of my favorite TV shows has been House, M.D which finally concluded this past year after eight seasons. It was surely past its peak point (I would place the show's apogee just before House's stay in the sanatorium) and so probably needed to end. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed every bit of Hugh Laurie's performance as the titular character even in those weaker seasons and so would have gladly watched on if it had continued.  (By the way for those of you who loved Hugh Laurie as House you should definitely watch his early British comedic work, especially his stuff with Stephen Fry.)

But for me the death of one thing usually means the birth of something else. And my newest and to date most pleasurable form of media entertainment is the BBC's excellent TV series called simply enough, Sherlock.  As the title indicates it is based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian detective, Sherlock Holmes, but with a contemporary spin on the classic stories and stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson. (To give just one example of the show's modern setting instead of smoking pipes Holmes uses nicotine patches to help him think.) This is rather appropriate since the character of House, according to his creator, was in fact based on Sherlock Holmes. And so because of this amusing serendipity I would like to briefly engage in a comparison between the two characters in this post.

The two are of course obviously similar in many respects. Both use the science of deduction to solve their respective cases, for House it's figuring out the mysterious disease/ailment/other that is afflicting his patient(s), for Holmes it usually means uncovering the mysteries behind a murder or series of murders. Both affirm reason as the highest, perhaps only, principle. Both are driven by the compulsive desire to solve puzzles. Both are probably atheists. (House affirms this a few times in the show; it's somewhat less clear with Holmes but since God cannot be deduced, Holmes would likely not even entertain the notion of a deity.) Both are unconventional socially, e.g., often stating bluntly what's on their minds no matter the situation or behaving in such a way as to make others most uncomfortable. And both get bored easily which is why they need puzzles of one sort or another to keep them preoccupied.

But there the similarities end. House is different from Holmes in several ways. For one, House is clearly a misanthrope, having little to no faith in people, a sentiment nicely summed up in one of his oft used phrases "everybody lies." In contrast, Holmes doesn't care either way about the human race; he is apathetic really. As noted above both are motivated by the desire to solve puzzles but for Holmes the puzzle is all that matters, nothing else. Contrarily, House really does prize other things in his life even if it's hard for him to admit such, like his friendship with Wilson (The Watson character of course is a friend of sorts for Holmes but more often serves as the latter's sounding board for bouncing ideas off of.) Also, House engages in a few romantic relationships as well as regularly keeps employed various call girls. Holmes, on the other hand, is likely asexual. Romance, sex, companionship of any kind doesn't factor in for Holmes noting succinctly in one episode that "Love is disadvantageous." This is particularly borne out in one my favorite episodes "A Scandal in Belgravia." This episode involves a woman who is in love with Holmes but whom he has to "play" in the end in order to solve the case. Upon this realization the woman asks Holmes if he ever felt anything for her to which he replies "Sorry. I was merely playing the game."* Again, it's only the puzzle that's of relevance to Holmes, the Great Game that moves him.

 But House's attempts to cultivate relationships of some kind, albeit badly, is largely what makes him a miserable person (House's constant leg pain is of course the other part that accounts for his misery.). And it's this misery that forms I think the most crucial difference between House and Holmes. This is because House's misery is what keeps him from being truly or purely rational. His reasoning faculties in other words are compromised by his perpetual misery. So far as we can tell no such thing exists for Holmes. The only time Holmes is probably miserable is when he doesn't have a puzzle worthy of his time to pursue. Therefore, it is Holmes who is the truer rationalist of the two since he's not hindered by those things, especially misery, that have compromised House's ability to reason.

Of course this means that House is the more human, the more realistic of the two and thus the more appealing for most. Yet for my part while I loved House if I had to make a preference between them or if I had to decide which I wanted to emulate more it would definitely be Holmes since he is the one who is truly and fully dominated by reason. Now, obviously Holmes is an ideal, and a fictional one at that. Thus I recognize that it is impossible not to be influenced by those pesky chemical reactions that produce emotions such as "love." Still, it's a laudable goal to aim for, namely, a life dictated by reason and not the passions. The passions, after all, are what ultimately create misery. And so if I can minimize their sway by trying as best I can to make reason my guide then all the better.

Ah, I've slipped into rambling now. Let's end with a couple of clips. The first is a clip from the brilliant BBC Sherlock in which Holmes and Watson meet for the first time. The second is one of my favorite sketches from the show that Hugh Laurie did with Stephen Fry called appropriately enough A Bit of Fry and Laurie. Enjoy. Bonus clip: Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hugh Laurie's son in a show called Fortysomething: *To be fair it is hinted at in the episode that Holmes does in fact feel something for this woman.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Brief, Random Thoughts on the French Revolution

A few days ago was Bastille Day, the anniversary of the French Revolution. Typically, I scoff at attempts to reduce history to simplistic explanations, but if I am forced to cite one event as in some sense the "cause" of the modern world then it would be the French Revolution.

The French Revolution ushered in a great transformation of the then exiting European international system, marked of course by a "balance of power" network. The revolution itself gave rise to Napoleon Bonaparte who single handedly decimated this traditional "balance of power" system that had held in Europe since 1648. And though the Congress of Vienna (1815) did briefly re-establish a "balance of power" system back to Europe after Napoleon's final defeat, it was sufficiently weak enough to allow for a resurgent and militaristic Prussia to begin its rise to great power status. Led by Otto von Bismark, who via three brief wars (1864, 1866, 1870/1) reunited the German confederations into one state, modern Germany came into being and almost immediately began to upset the existing wobbly "balance of power" dynamic in Europe. And driven by Great Power psychology, Germany would go on to antagonize the other powers eventually creating the conditions which led to WWI and the final collapse of the old "balance of power" system. And as I've already hinted elsewhere, I believe WWI was probably the most crucial pivot point for the modern world, something I plan to elaborate on in a future post.

In the end this analysis is of course overly simplistic and too broad in its generalizations. Nevertheless, I think it accurately captures the world changing character of the French Revolution. Moreover, I think the French Revolution was more monumental (and revolutionary!) than the American Revolution, even if the American revolution (perhaps more accurately, American "gradual evolution") did partly influence the French Revolution. Why? Well, simply put I think you could still have the American revolution without it ever leading to WWI and the birth of the modern world as we think of it and live in today. However, WWI was simply, in my opinion, unlikely to occur without that initial upheaval that the French Revolution brought to the European world order. In other words, no WWI without the French Revolution. So, anyways, happy (?) belatedvBastille Day!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Do Men Cheat More Than Women?

It's not often that the BBCworldnews runs an article that disappoints me. Unfortunately the other day it did, one which was entitled "More or Less: The Maths of Infidelity." The thrust of the article was that even though it takes two to tango an American study found that more men than women admitted to having affairs ergo: men cheat more than women. Most won't see this as a profound or new conclusion since many seem to intuitively believe this anyways.

 Rubbish. My major problem with this view is that it suggests that cheating is innately gender specific, i.e., that males are simply hardwired to cheat more than females. Usually, evolution is then brought into play to account for why males supposedly have more of a propensity to cheat, namely, that since they have a more compelling desire to spread their genes they will have more of an inclination to seek out a multitude of mates. But this ignores the fact that female promiscuity is also prominent in the animal kingdom, especially among our closest living ancestors the great apes. (See for example the Bonobo.)

Curiously though the article didn't try to use evolutionary psychology to explain why men supposedly cheat more than women. Instead, it just threw out some abstract reasons: because men get lonely, because men get bored, because men aren't being sexually fulfilled, etc. The absurdity of these reasons should be clear: they apply equally as well to why some women might cheat also. Additionally, this article only cites one study that depends on the questionee answering truthfully. Perhaps then one could just as easily draw the conclusion from this study that women are simply better liars than men. In short, this article is in no way scientifically sound.

But why do so many people take it as a given that men cheat more than women? Well, because at one time this was certainly probably true, at least up until about 50 years ago. Now, however, there has been a major shift in women's roles in the last several decades that among other things has seen them take up a large portion of the workforce. In short women are not in the home all of the time anymore and so have more opportunities to, well, cheat if they so choose. In other words what I'm trying to get at is that cheating is something more contextual or situational and historically most women have had very confined roles, usually to the household. To put this in terms of the nature vs nurture debate I think cheating is not something innate within males to do (the nature position) but rather is something more environmentally produced (the nurture position) and thus can affect equally both males and females.

At any rate this is a fruitless question to ask since there's no way it can ever be answered with any kind of scientific probability. Still, I'm throwing the bullshit flag on this misguided but widely held belief that men are more prone to cheat than women. Hogswallow.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

CSI Cretaceous Part 2

There is a major problem with the asteroid extinction hypothesis of the dinosaurs that fails to convince Bakker of its soundness. He notes that the fossil record when looked at more closely actually indicates something other than a sudden disappearance of dinosaurs. In fact, the fossil record shows a period of gradual decline in the evenness of dinosaur species beginning early in the Late Cretaceous. By "evenness" Bakker is referring to the ratio of one species to another. In most types of healthy ecosystems the varying species should be approximately equal to one another. It's once you have a disproportionate amount of one or two species over others that the ecosystem begins to degrade. Bakker found in the dinosaurs of the Lance faunas examples of a loss of evenness in the variety of dinosaur species some two million years before the end of the Cretaceous. For example, "the genus Triceratops made up 70 to 80 percent of the finds of large dinosaurs." (437)  In other words, several millions of years prior to the end of the Cretaceous there were many dinosaur species already in major decline, some extinct even. Thus, Bakker says, an asteroid impact occurring at the end of the Cretaceous can not fully explain the extinction of most dinosaurs. At best it might have served as "the coup de grace to a dying ecosystem already suffering from massive problems." ( 439)

Bakker's own solution has two interrelated components. For the first part of his explanation Bakker adopts what is known as the "drain-mix-and-cool theory of extinction for the ocean" or for short the "shallow seas theory." (439). This theory states that abnormally warm periods on earth cause shallow seas on land to drain off the continents into the ocean causing, paradoxically, an overall cooling trend for the planet. Bakker on the consequences of these changes for the ecosystem:

"The best answer for the extinction of the great sea animals is that their favorite haunts disappeared when the warm, shallow seas drained off the continents. And the best answer for the extinction of the open-water, deep sea creatures is that surface water becomes colder and more thoroughly mixed with deep water when the shallow seas drain off." (439)

 According to Bakker these changes are well documented. He asserts that climatologists have in fact determined that during the middle Cretaceous there were many shallow seas on the present day continents. (For example, present day North America during this period had a huge in land sea extending from the arctic down through central America. See picture to the right.) Moreover, they have also noted that towards the latter portion of the Cretaceous these shallow seas were in fact rapidly disappearing. So then we have a reasonable explanation for the extinction of some dinosaur species via documented climate changes. However, as Bakker notes this explanation is incomplete since the resulting overall cooling trend of the planet would likely not have killed off the big land dinosaurs that were not already in some fashion dependent on the inland seas.

Thus, the second component to Bakker's explanation:

"Let us observe the historical sequence that unfolds on the land during the mass extinctions. Shallow seas drain off, so that land areas once underwater become dry and regions that had been separated from each other become connected by land bridges or island chains. At the same time, mountain-building forces weaken so that there are fewer barriers dividing the terrestrial regions...But the net result is a more homogenized ecosystem where species can pass more easily from one end of a continent to another, and from one continent to another. Such easy intercontinental exchange can be found precisely at the end of the Cretaceous. Until late in the Cretaceous, Mongolia had supported quite a different fauna from that of North America. There were many advanced mammals and protoceratopsid dinosaurs in the Central Asiatic Highlands not found in Alberta, Montana, and Wyoming. But very late in the last epoch of the Cretaceous Period, the Asiatic mammals and dinosaurs began appearing in North America...Could such interchanges over the continents cause extinction?" (441-42)

Bakker answers in the affirmative noting that "one of the unshakable tenets of animal geography is that the most extreme consequences are possible when foreign species move into a new region." (442) Every species carries its own set of parasites and disease organisms that it has over time adapted to. But when these species are introduced into an area with other species that have never had any contact with such diseases and parasites the result is often the decimation of the latter. History offers many examples of this from the Black Plague (introduced from Asia to Europe), to the destruction wrought by Rinderpest (an Asian cattle disease introduced into Africa by Lord Kitchner), to the settling of Old World peoples with Old World diseases (such as smallpox) into the New World causing the devastation of the vast majority of New World populations, and many more. But the dangers of interspecies mixing doesn't just come from unfamiliar germs and bacteria. The introduction of larger animals into a new ecosystem can also wreak havoc as the Australians learned when rabbits, a relatively minor nuisance in Europe, were first brought to the land down under where they now have become a major pest doing much ecological harm to the Outback.

Likewise then with the dinosaurs concludes Bakker:

"The Late Cretaceous world contained all the prerequisites for this kind of disaster. The shallow oceans drained off and a series of extinctions ran through the saltwater world. A monumental immigration of Asian dinosaurs streamed into North America, while an equally grand migration of North American fauna moved into Asia. In ever region touched by this global intermixture, disasters large and small would occur. A foreign predator might suddenly thrive unchecked, slaughtering virtually defenseless prey as its populations multiplied beyond anything possible in its home habitat. But then the predator might suddenly disappear, victim of a disease for which it had no immunity. As species intermixed from all corners of the globe, the result could only have been global biogeographical chaos." (443)

(Note: this intermixing depends on the majority of dinosaurs being warm blooded; cold blooded animals would be unable to travel long distances.)

So to recap, Bakker's position on the extinction of most of the dinosaurs runs as follows:

1.) The fossil record indicates that millions of years before the end of the Cretaceous many dinosaurs species were declining, a few actually becoming extinct. An asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous cannot fully account for this data.

2.) In the latter part of the Cretaceous the shallow seas began to drain off the continents causing the extinction of major sea animals as well as opening up massive new areas of land travel.

3.) The resulted intermixing of new species of dinosaurs introduced various agents of extinction such as new germs, parasites, bacteria, etc, and other ecological changes that eventually killed off many of the dinosaurs.

4.) The remaining few species of dinosaurs (excepting a few) may have finally been killed by the impact of a heavenly body of some kind at the end of the Cretaceous.

I for one find Bakker's thesis very persuasive. However, while most of what Bakker put forward in this book has since become part of mainstream paleontology, his views on dinosaur extinction has, to my knowledge at least, yet to be wholly accepted. I suspect this is because Bakker's explanation is so mundane. Most dinosaurs died out because they mixed with other, previously, isolated species of dinosaurs?!  In other words, Bakker's explanation fails to dazzle us like the traditional view that most of the dinosaurs were killed off in one fell swoop by a gigantic asteroid. We prefer big, amazing explanations for things, especially mysteries. And for this reason I doubt many people will be convinced that most of the dinosaurs actually died off in a rather unexciting manner. Yet sometimes the truth, whether we like it or not, can be rather, well, banal.    

Saturday, May 19, 2012

CSI Cretaceous Part 1

Many posts ago I blogged about the present day genetic evidence which conclusively indicates that modern day birds are in fact descended from some of the very few dinosaurs that managed to survive the mass(?) extinction event(s?) that occurred at the end of the Cretaceous. Wanting to know more I picked up Robert T. Bakker's The Dinosaur Heresies which has turned out to be one of the better reads I have had so far this year.

Prior to writing this book Bakker along with a few other paleontologists had been challenging what had by mid-20th century become the orthodox position on dinosaurs. A view that represented dinosaurs as cold blooded, scaly, slow moving, and dim witted, i.e., reptiles par excellence. The thrust of Bakker's work was to show how this consensus was mostly wrong-headed, principally by arguing for the warm blooded nature of most dinosaurs. The Dinosaur Heresies then was meant to serve both as platform for getting these ideas out to the general public and as a place where Bakker could cumulatively present the evidence he had accrued through years of research. I'm no paleontologist of course but in my opinion Bakker succeeded on both counts.

But it doesn't really matter whether I found his arguments persuasive because since the book was first published in 1986 Bakker (and others) have been repeatedly vindicated so much so that what was then a revolutionary position has now become the general consensus among today's paleontologists. These ideas would come to influence Steven Spielberg with Bakker coming to serve as one of Jurassic Park's scientific advisers. Thankfully so since we might have been left with a plodding Tyrannosaurus rex who procured most of his food from scavenging rather than through hunting. The result would have been a decidedly less exciting film. (Note: there are still a few paleontologists who maintain that the T-rex was a scavenger. However, this remains a marginal view. Go here for more.)

The book itself is simply too rich to attempt a proper review here. Plus, I'm not really qualified to do so. But in the next couple of posts I want to talk about one chapter in the book that I found particularly illuminating.

One of the more fascinating mysteries when it comes to the dinosaurs has to do with their extinction. (Well, this is a bit of a misnomer since dinosaurs technically still exist as modern day crocs and birds.) Species of course come and go all the time, but what makes the extinction of the dinosaurs special according to Bakker is that "no new wave of species appeared to replace those that had died out." (436) And as Bakker notes the solutions given to this mystery have been many. Perhaps it's best to quote him at length here:

" is suggested that dinosaurs died out 'because the weather got too hot'; 'because the weather got too cold'; 'because the weather got too dry'; 'because the weather got too wet'; 'because the weather became too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter'; 'because the land became too hilly'; 'because new kinds of plants evolved which spread deadly diseases'; 'because new kinds of mammals evolved which competed for food'; 'because new kinds of mammals ate the dinosaur eggs'; 'because a giant meteor smashed into the earth'; 'because a supernova exploded near the earth'; 'because cosmic rays bombarded the earth'; or, 'because massive volcanoes exploded all around the earth.'" (425)

The view that came to be accepted in Bakker’s time and that is generally still held today (with some modification) is that a heavenly body of some kind, most likely an asteroid, impacted the earth some 65 million years ago wiping out most of the dinosaurs in one fell swoop. The primary evidence for this position has to do with a thin layer of iridium that features prominently in the geological record around the time of the end of the Cretaceous. This is significant because iridium is a noble metal that is “extremely rare on the earth’s surface, but much more abundant in celestial bodies such as meteors, asteroids, and dead stars.” (432) The idea then is that this iridium layer found in the geological record can best be explained by theorizing the impact on earth of a large extraterrestrial body some 65 million years ago that heaved up massive amounts of rich iridium clouds into the atmosphere which then eventually settled back onto the ground to form the iridium layer that geologists today have identified.

When this hypothesis is then viewed in light of the fossil record which indicates that most dinosaur species died out around the same time it’s hard not to see a correlation between the two. Additionally, mass extinction by an asteroid would explain why a few dinosaurs did manage to survive. For example, the ancestors of modern day crocodiles because of their cold blooded composition would have been able to hibernate so as to wait out the environmental changes such a collision would have caused. Similarly, small theropod dinosaurs and tiny mammals could have burrowed and waited out the changes as well only to later emerge and evolve into birds in the one case and our mammalian ancestors in the other. So then it is easy to see why this theory of dinosaur extinction has persuaded most and continues to be promulgated in various dinosaur media today.  

But there is a problem with this hypothesis that keeps a few like Bakker from fully adopting it. This, along with Bakker's peculiar solution, we will look at next time. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Learning to Take Seriously Israeli Fears of a Nuclear Iran

 The pursuit by Iran for nuclear power has been a festering issue for the International Community since at least the 1990's because it is widely believed that Iran would use any acquired nuclear capability chiefly for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons. But because Iran was thought to be light years away from even the first steps towards this goal (e.g., successful uranium enrichment) the IC's attention towards this potential flashpoint waxed and waned over the years. However, important events occurred after the millennium which helped to renew the IC's concern over Iranian nuclear ambitions.

First, of course, was 9/11 and the subsequent lumping of Iran by the Bush administration into the "axis of evil" category. (For some in the Bush administration this labeling of Iran as "evil" appeared to be justified as the post-Iraq war insurgency began to flare up and it was soon discovered that Iran, if not outright directing much of the sectarian violence by providing weapons and such, was at least encouraging much of it.) The second major development was the "election" of Ahmadenijad as the Iranian president who before long began to make many in the West, and especially in Israel, uneasy with his vitriolic speeches that among other things repeatedly denied the Holocaust and called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." And lastly recent intelligence estimates, particularly after 2007, seemed to indicate that Iran was closer to nuclear capability than previously thought. All of these factors combined to renew the IC's effort to bring pressure on Iran to forgo its nuclear ambitions. Surprisingly, a number of sanctions have been passed including a European oil embargo set to go into effect in June. (Unfortunately, it is likely that many European countries will find ever ingenious and elaborate ways to circumvent the embargo as they did with the Iraqi "Food for Oil" program in the 1990's.)

Obviously, the major concern by the IC is that the Israeli's are getting ever closer to preemptively striking Iranian nuclear sites. That this is highly probable is undeniable since the Israeli's have thus twice before acted (Iraq, 1981; Syria, 2007). Rightly, then, the world is concerned about the repercussions that would surely follow from an Israeli airstrike on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Now for my own part, from the viewpoint of US strategic interests, permitting Iran nuclear weapon capability is probably not as problematic for the region as some suggest and would not directly affect the national security of this country. Therefore, I'm inclined to view the Iranian government as a "rational" actor on the international stage that wouldn't recklessly use its nuclear weapons. Of course this is not what many fear would happen if Iran had nuclear weapons. The more likely scenario is that Iran might smuggle nuclear weapons to one of their proxies such as Hezbollah or Hamas to use against Israel so that the IC could never officially link any use of nuclear weapons against Israel to Iran. Still, I think it is unlikely Iran would act in such a fashion.

But having said that I want to stress that it is important not to be glib about the security threat a nuclear Iran poses from the viewpoint of Israel. Israeli security calculations have to take this situation seriously because it has been in a position since 1948 of actual and virtual war which combined with the history of Jewish persecution that tragically culminated in the Holocaust has, quite understandably, developed into a national security consciousness with a strong existential flavor. Thus, asking the Israeli's to explain exactly how and why a nuclear Iran would be dangerous for the region is an irrelevant and meaningless question to put to them.

Also while many in the West have no problem shrugging off Ahmadenijad's speeches (specifically the ones that have called for "Israel to be wiped off the map") as mere rhetorical flourishes the Israeli's cannot afford to do this. That this is simply political grandstanding cannot (and should not) even factor into Israeli security calculations.

Usually, I'm cautious about using historical analogies since they are often misused, but if you remember Hitler gave a speech in 1938 which called for the "destruction of international Jewry". At that time, like Ahmadenijad's diatribes today, the speech was waved off as typical antisemitic blustering, exaggerated political sophistry. Then seven years later the world learned that Hitler had "succeeded" in destroying 1/3 of world Jewry.

So then the greater challenge isn't getting Iran to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons but rather of getting the Israeli's to modulate their own security interests to coincide with those of the United States and the rest of the IC. But this will never happen. Rightly so Israel will act out of what it perceives is best for its own security, regardless of what the rest of the world believes it should do. As would the United States, as would any country for that matter. And therefore whether we disagree with the Israeli position or not concerning its fears of a nuclear Iran it is vitally important that we seek to understand that for Israel this is indeed an existential threat.

In short, no matter how vain or empty threats made towards the Israeli state by a country such as Iran might look to the IC, it is impossible for Israel NOT to take each and everyone of these seriously. Its own history demands such.

Thus, we need to be careful when discussing Israel's security concerns vis a vis Iran that we do not do so in a cavalier manner as, tragically, I've seen too many political commentators do. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Explaining the Success of Europe: A Review of Kenneth Pomeranz' "The Great Divergence"

A partial book review I wrote this year. Basically, more filler while I wrap up the semester:

The study of civilizations has been a favorite among “big history” historians. Examining the rise, decline, and fall of civilizations, teasing out their similarities and differences, and explaining why certain ones have evolved at a more rapid pace than others are all a part of the scrutiny historians have applied to this area of inquiry. Gibbon, Ranke, Spengler, and Toynbee are just a few of the classic names who have taken up this endeavor with gusto and with varying, indeed often conflicting, results. More recently, scholars such as William H. Mcneill have with equal enthusiasm continued this popular trend; the latter’s works, especially The Rise of the West, having influenced a number of historians such as Jared Diamond and Janet Abu-Lughod who’s much praised Before European Hegemony, at least judging by the author’s fulsome praise of Mcneill in the introduction and the abundant citations of his works in the book, owes much.                 

 Kenneth Pomeranz of UC-Irvine is another modern scholar who practices the study of civilizations. But Pomeranz’s goals are less “global” than the works of the previously mentioned historians. Specifically, Pomeranz aims to better understand why Europe vis a vis China (read: Asia) “became uniquely wealthy by the mid-nineteenth century” (31). And so it was without the slightest exaggeration that Pomeranz titled his book The Great Divergence since that phrase accurately captures the relative position of the two regions to one another by the middle of the nineteenth century. Pomeranz following another scholar (Eric Jones’ European Miracle) states that simply citing the Industrial Revolution is not an adequate explanation for the “great divergence” since it merely represents “the full flowering of differences that had been more subtly building for centuries” (Ibid).                                                                                                          

 Pomeranz first examines some of the other theories that have been put forward to explain such a state of events only to knock most of them down. For example, the abundance of livestock is often used to explain the gulf between Europe and China, but Pomeranz notes that in Asia the lack of a plethora of livestock, particularly large beasts of burden, made little difference since “rice farming simply does not require as much animal power” (33). Likewise, Pomeranz dismisses a possible European advantage in transportation noting that “the remarkable development of water transport in China and Japan surely offset this and represented at least an equally valuable form of capital in transport” (34). Pomeranz does the same with birthrates claiming that “it appears that various groups of Asians were at least as able and determined as any Europeans to keep birthrates down” (41).  Technological innovation is treated as well with Pomeranz showing that even here the differences were not initially so vast with Asia actually being ahead of Europe in many areas such as irrigation, textile weaving and dyeing, the manufacturing of porcelain, public health, etc. (45, 46).  Pomeranz also tackles other theories such as the place of higher wages (52-54) in the debate and at least here does give some value to the innovations made by Europe in spinning that certainly played a part in widening the gap between the two civilizations.                                                                                        

 Pomeranz’s own theory and explanation is partly ecological. He thinks the European achievement was due in large part to its ability to achieve “self-sustaining growth” (57) to which the adoption of certain New World crops such as the potato (because of its excellent calorie yield to acre usage ratio) was vital. Furthermore, Europeans began to apply scientific principles to land conversation and began to achieve a better understanding of how essential forests are to the ecosystem much of which was learned from tropical European colonies (58). Thus, “empire” in Pomeranz’s thinking assumes a crucial role here.                                                                               

The second part of Pomeranz’s theory is geographical: the location of rich coal deposits in Europe, specifically northern England played a crucial role in fostering the great divergence. On this score Pomeranz is blunt stating that “Europe’s advantage rested…on geographic accident” (62). (Related to this was the perfection of the steam engine which was of the utmost importance in the extraction of coal.) And while Northern China did have a major source of coal Pomeranz asserts that invasions by foreign groups such as the Mongols, civil wars, enormous floods, and other series of catastrophes all resulted in the Chinese never being able to fully exploit this major resource.                                                                                                                    
  So then Pomeranz believes that “the great divergence” between Europe and Asia was due to the former’s advantage being gained from its imperial adventures and its fortuitous geographical position in an area of rich resources, namely, coal.                                                                       

 Pomeranz’s emphasis on empire and geography is similar to that which can be found in Jared Diamond’s overly praised Guns, Germs, and Steel. I myself wasn’t particularly sold on the thrust of that book’s argument, and though Pomeranz makes a similar one here he does so in a more persuasive fashion than did Diamond. I have no doubt that empire and geography played an important role in creating a divergence between the West and other areas of civilizations. My problem with Pomeranz isn’t that his analysis his faulty since I think he was right about much of what he said only that it is incomplete. Missing from Pomeranz’s discussion is the place ideas might have had in helping to create such a divergence.  Examples of revolutionary ideas in the West that I think played a significant part in vaulting that region ahead of others include vital developments in political theory such as the Lockean notion of property and in economic theory such as that propounded by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations to give just two possible examples.                                                                                                                                   

 Now, I completely understand why some might not want to focus on the role of ideas or “intellectual capital” since in the past this tended to be the sole focus made by other scholars that often was abused to suggest that the West was superior to other cultures, an implication many today rightly dismiss. (Niall Ferguson might possibly be a modern voice of such a view.) Because of this fear it seems to me that the discussion has tipped completely to the other side in favor of examining other factors that would seem to, at least initially, give civilizations an ontological value equal to one another so that potentially uncomfortable implications might be avoided. While understandable I think such a position is egregious since it appears to me to rule out at the very beginning of the discussion any part that ideas might have had in helping to create this “divergence”.  Historical study demands a certain kind of exactitude that is being ignored when we focus on only some factors and completely rule out others.                                                                   

 Perhaps this is simply the nature of “big history”, i.e., because the study of civilizations is such a vast enterprise one is tempted to be less comprehensive than one ought to be. Nevertheless, comprehensiveness should be the goal. How ironic it is then that so many “big historians” tend to suffer from an acute case of myopia