Saturday, January 19, 2008

Not Actually Reviews

Comments on 3 ½ books recently received.

I though the “little” in EH Gombrich’s A Little History Of The World meant “brief.” It is brief, but I need to read the fine print before putting books on my wish list. It is a children’s history, fortunately and excellent one. Much of was standard 9th-grade World History, but phrased clearly and vividly. Get it for your kids, ya sure, down to about 9 years old I’d say, but you’ll find it useful for yourself as well. Gombrich gets a lot into a little space.

He wrote the volume in Vienna in 1935, updating it in the 1990’s after spending his adult life in England. There is thus more central European history than American textbooks usually have, and a slightly different perspective, which in itself provokes thought. His Eurocentric world leads from Sumer, Athens, Jerusalem, and Constantinople to Europe, never dropping back to see what happened with those lands after. This older style history reminded me what the multiculturalists were rebelling against. Germany, France, England, Spain, Italy, and Austria-Hungary are the center of the world, with bit parts occasionally played by Russians, Turks, or Mongols. He gets America, India, and China wrong by terribly oversimplifying (Did you know that China was mostly ruled in peace for a thousand years? Its neighbors might be interested in hearing that, as would the residents of China itself who lived under one of the many warlords.)

But for those who prefer their history to be the Western Civ, battles, monarchs, and birth-of-ideas sort, the book is simply excellent. The final chapter in particular is wise and moving. His explanation of WWI had been disquieting to me, so much did it repeat the myths that Germans and Austrians believed about St.-Germaine, Trianon, and Versailles. While that prejudice was perhaps understandable in an Austrian, I had felt it seriously marred the book and almost did not continue. I am glad I pushed on. The author revisits that chapter from the perspective of the 1990’s, confesses that he believed what was written in the newspapers and what “everyone knew” who lived then in Vienna. He wonders how he – no Nazi sympathizer -could have gone so horribly wrong, and gives remarkable explanation and cautions to the reader. The last section is quite powerful for those of us who hope to understand what goes on around us.

As an audio book I got a bonus: I learned how to correctly pronounce Scipio, duchy, pince nez, and half-a-dozen other words I can’t recall this moment.

The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson

I had just read Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You, which I gave Ben for Christmas, and found it fascinating. Of course, any book that looks at a conventional wisdom and shows how its oversimplification conceals a neglected truth is always going to appeal to me. The latter book demonstrates how modern TV, video games, and crap entertainment are making us smarter. The Ghost Map tells of the cholera outbreaks in 19th C London, and how the epidemic spikes forced people to accept scientific ideas they found uncongenial. The learned doctors of the day believed that disease was spread by bad air – that bad smells were not warnings, but bad for you in themselves. This theory of miasma fit prevailing social views about poverty and the poor constitutions of the lower classes.

A single cholera epidemic in the middle of the century takes up most of the chapters. Johnson traces the work of a physician and a parish vicar in solving the puzzle of waterborne contaminants at a pump believed to deliver the clearest and best-tasting water for many blocks around. But the solving was less interesting to me than the proving. Despite solid evidence, the best scientists of the time refused to believe what went against their theories, and Dr. Snow’s theories were sneered at in The Lancet (which is also in the news again for a similar problem). Pondering how such smart people could go so wrong, as frustrating as it is to read about, is rather sobering. Yet a mere dozen years later most had come around to Snow’s POV, so completely as to sneer now at the older theory, writing as if they had never fully believed it – it was all those others who were the obstacles, don’t you know.

Oh by the way, I almost vomited several times in the introduction and first chapters. The descriptions of sewage, scavenging, and cholera symptoms are pretty vivid. C’mon, I dare ya.

Johnson makes a good case that improvements in sewage removal were more necessary to the growth of cities than electricity. When you tell a good story and open up new ideas, you earn the right to pontificate about what now should be done in your final chapters, and Johnson does. He thinks because cities use less heat and transportation energy per person than rural or suburban environments, we will increasingly move there, and he’s all for it. “We are deeply committed to raising our children in an urban environment.” He doesn’t say why, exactly, but the whole stimulation/multi-culti/openmindedness seems at the root of it. Odd, though. People are usually “deeply committed” to raising their children in some set of values, which they hope a particular environment will provide. Being committed to the city qua city eludes me.

French intellectual Jean-Francois Revel wrote Without Marx or Jesus around 1970, and his more recent Anti-Americanism is supposed to be both a sequel and an update to it. It has much the same appeal as the Steven Johnson books, but on political topics. A French intellectual challenges the European misconceptions about America, standing most of them on their head. The US fanaticizes cultural hegemony. No, that would be Europe, especially France. The US media is controlled by the state. No, that would be Europe, especially France. His repeated point is that America became the sole superpower by default, by doing what works. Europe could have been equal in influence but preferred to squander its money, knowledge, and resources in keeping socialist fantasies afloat. Globalization, the information economy, and the free market are not American ideas imposed on the world. They are the ideas which work, and America is using.

As I read, I kept noting passages to quote on my site. When I reached two dozen, I realized it had become impossible. Two quotes, to give you a flavor of the book:

(Regarding WTO and G-8 Meetings)
What the developing countries are asking for is freer access to the world’s best markets for their products, especially agricultural products. In other words, they want more globalization, not less. So here is another aspect of the rioters’ inconsistency: well-heeled themselves, they are subverting summits whose goal is, by expanding free trade, to strengthen poor countries’ ability to export to the most solvent zones.

The legions of Muslims living in countries that have never known democracy or the slightest whiff of press freedom are apparently well-qualified to defend those goods against the only country on the planet where they have never been suppressed. As for the French (to confine ourselves to one European country and the relatively recent past), they have evidently already forgotten how, when the Algerian Wars were being fought, radio and television were subject to vigilant censorship…

Highly recommended for those interested in discussions of world opinion.


Anonymous said...

I recommend Bruce Bawer's "While Europe Slept" for a gay liberal's take on Europe. No great fan of Christian fundamentalists, he came to see where the real dangers to freedom arise. It's an honest description of anti-Americanism and blindness to the problems of jihad from someone who didn't expect to find what he did in "tolerant" Europe.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I have not read the book, but have read articles by Bawer which have impressed me for their clarity.

Unknown said...

Pondering how such smart people could go so wrong

This is an interesting topic in and of itself. I often find that many who actually are smart are all too aware of that fact themselves, and thus become harder to influence - even if you have quality arguments/evidence.

I used to browse all the time (I'm nowhere near qualifying, btw, but liked to poke the beehive on religion & evolution topics) and I also notice that the posting in many highbrow political & economic blogs by those who purport to be smarter-than-the-rest often quickly devolves off topic into petty, small minded (but clever) arguments.

Smart humans are still humans, I guess.