Turning Points for Nations in Crisis
By Jared Diamond
If you’ve ever been at a wedding or conference or on board a United connection from O’Hare, and been cornered by a man with Theories About It All, and you came away thinking, “That was a great experience,” have I got the book for you.
Jared Diamond’s “Upheaval” belongs to the genre of 30,000-foot books, which sell an explanation of everything. I travel often and see them a lot: at airport bookstores, where Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari (both of whom blurbed “Upheaval”) and Diamond, of course, deserve permanent shelves; and in the air, where I’ve noticed that a pretty disproportionate fraction of readers who read in the quiet of 30,000 feet have a preference for writers who write from the viewpoint of 30,000 feet.
So I dug into Diamond’s latest, intrigued by his thesis that the way individual humans cope with crisis might teach something to countries. Then, before long, the first mistake caught my eye; soon, the 10th. Then graver ones. Errors, along with generalizations, blind spots and oversights, that called into question the choice to publish. I began to wonder why we give some people, and only some, the platform, and burden, to theorize about everything.
The theory proposed by Diamond — a professor of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles and the author of several books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Guns, Germs and Steel” — is interesting. Human beings go through personal crises all the time. We know a lot about how people change in order to cope — or fail to. What if we applied those lessons to countries in quagmires?
[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of May. See the full list. ]
Drawing on the work of therapists, Diamond reports that the key for individuals coping with a crisis is “selective change.” People who successfully overcome a problem tend to identify and isolate it, figuring out “which parts of their identities are already functioning well and don’t need changing, and which parts are no longer working and do need changing.” Diamond asks, Could the same be true for countries? He believes so, and he seeks to test his theory by adapting a dozen factors known to affect the resolution of personal crises to national crises. Some factors translate easily — just as people must first accept being in crisis, nations must first come to a consensus about their woes. Other analogies feel more strained — help from your close friends translates into material and financial aid from allies. Armed with this framework, Diamond sets out to see how well it fits countries’ actual histories.
Diamond’s method is the case study. Looking at Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany, Australia and the United States at pivotal moments in their histories, he evaluates their courses of action with reference to his 12 bullet points. Meiji-era Japan, needing to open up to the world while preserving its cultural core, found a way “to adopt many Western features, but to modify them to suit Japanese circumstances.” After World War II, Germany worked its way to taking full responsibility for its actions and thereby successfully transformed itself. America, in part because it shrugs off the lessons of other places, struggles to resolve its issues.
At the end of each chapter, each mini-history, Diamond pauses to ask some variant of: “How does Indonesia’s crisis fit into our framework?” And this is a tell. The Framework is driving the inquiry here, and everything stands at its service. The people we encounter are seldom richly portrayed, because only The Framework matters. The stories we learn about each country are often partial and slanted, because only The Framework matters. Countries where racism and tolerance, sexism and equality have long been in tension are portrayed as being entirely one thing before magically becoming the opposite thing, because The Framework can only process monoliths.
With a focus on The Framework, facts recede in importance. The book is riddled with errors. Diamond gets wrong the year of the Brexit vote. He claims that, under President Ronald Reagan, “government shutdowns were nonexistent.” But they occurred a number of times. He describes Australian-rules football as a sport “invented in Australia and played nowhere else.” But it is played elsewhere — in Nauru, where it is the national sport, as well as in China, Canada, France, Japan, Ireland and the United States, according to the Australian Football League.
Diamond says a 1976 terrorist attack in Washington, D.C., targeting a former Chilean official, was “the only known case of a foreign terrorist killing an American citizen on American soil — until the World Trade Towers attack of 2001.” This claim wholly overlooks the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, in which six people died. He refers to Lee Kuan Yew as “Singapore’s prime minister,” even though he no longer occupies that role, not least because he’s dead.
Then the generalizations: hoo boy. At one point during World War II, Diamond says, the people of Finland, facing Soviet bellicosity, “were unanimous in refusing to compromise further.” A whole nation, unanimous! We learn of another instance of 100 percent society-wide agreement down under, where “Australians debating the federal constitution argued about many matters but were unanimous about excluding all nonwhite races from Australia.” But in fact they argued about this issue, too, and one framer, Andrew Inglis Clark, the Tasmanian attorney general, sought, unsuccessfully, to introduce an adapted version of the American 14th Amendment, which would have prohibited discrimination by race.
In claiming that Germany has become more socially liberal, Diamond claims, “There is no spanking of children; in fact, it’s now forbidden by law!” But how can a serious thinker confuse the passage of a law with fidelity to it? An organization that tracks the efficacy of the law has found its enactment to have reduced, but hardly ended hitting. To read Diamond is also to learn, apparently, how all Chileans identify (with Europe and the United States, not Latin America); and how all “Indonesians take their national identity for granted.” (Except, perhaps, the separatist groups?)
Sometimes the book feels written from a drying well of lifelong research rather than from the latest facts. For example, Diamond tells us Americans have always been a highly mobile people and are “unlikely” to “move less often.” He must be unfamiliar with the rather well-publicized new data declaring the opposite: “Fewer Americans Are Moving to Pursue Better Jobs Across the Nation,” NPR says, citing the Census Bureau’s research that the number of Americans who move in a given year has dropped by half since the 1940s.
There are far more of these errors than I have space to list, too many to dismiss this calling-out as nit-picking. And they matter because of the book’s nature. If we can’t trust you on the little and medium things, how can we trust you where authors of 30,000-foot books really need our trust — on the big, hard-to-check claims? On how the end of the White Australia policy “resulted from five considerations.” (Not four, not six, and the ones you happen to name.) On how Finns’ love of their language is what made them willing to fight and die for Finland. On how Tokyo is clean “because Japanese children learn to be clean and to clean up” (and not, for example, because the city spends 3.9 percent of its budget on public health and sanitation, according to a quick search, compared with the 1.9 percent of New York City’s 2018 budget that went to the Department of Sanitation).
While “Upheaval” does list sources in the back, Diamond seldom quotes books. He is far fonder of quoting his many friends. “Why does Japan pursue these stances? My Japanese friends suggest three explanations.” That’s what we’re going with? Or he describes “the 1973 coup that many of my Chilean friends characterize as inevitable.” First of all, why are we paying you to hear your friends’ random theories? Second of all, how can a coup ever be inevitable? You mean to say that a plot as delicate as that could under no scenario have gone wrong?
Since we’re talking about our friends, I know so many younger writers, especially women and people of color, who are smart, thoughtful, buttoned up and pretty damn accurate who would kill for an opening to publish a book with a serious publisher — and who know in their bones that, if they were ever this sloppy, their career would be over before it had even begun.
There is also a systemic issue here. The time has come for those of us who work in book-length nonfiction to insist that professional fact-checking become as inalienable from publishing as publicity, marketing and jacket design — and at the publisher’s expense rather than as a cost passed on to the author, who, understandably, will often choose to spend her money on health care. In the age of tweets, it cannot be the fate of the book to become ever more tweetlike — maybe factual, maybe whatever. The book must stand apart, must stand above.
A remaining problem with “Upheaval” is one that cannot be fact-checked away, but, happily, is already being fixed across the world of letters. Until recently, in much of American life, and American writing, the default setting of human being was white and/or male. Today so much writing shatters this default, complicates the point of view. And “Upheaval” reminds us why that matters.
When Diamond describes “highly egalitarian social values” as an ethos that has “remained unchanged” in Australia, despite having written a chapter about the country’s history of legalized racism, he is using a definition of egalitarian that applies only to white people. When he says, “Social status in Japan depends more on education than on heredity and family connection,” he is ignoring what it means to be born a woman. “Of course, my list of U.S. problems isn’t exhaustive,” he admits. “Problems that I don’t discuss include race relations and the role of women.” You know, the problems affecting the vast majority of Americans.
I almost felt bad for Diamond when, toward the end, he described “an evening with two women friends, one of them a psychologically naïve optimist in her 20s, the other a perceptive person in her 70s.” What made the young woman “psychologically naïve” to him was that she dated someone who it took her time to see was terrible. (If that’s a crime, jail us all.) I felt a strange sympathy for Diamond, who is in his early 80s, because clearly he didn’t realize how tone-deaf it is, in 2019, for an established male author to go around labeling a young woman making pretty normal life mistakes as “psychologically naïve.” But Diamond is proud to be from another time. He tells us his manuscripts are typed by someone else, he relies on his wife and secretary to use a computer, and he clings to the belief that video games are “solitary,” even if massively multiplayer online games are where a growing number of Americans go to be social. He also thinks phones are ruining America because people check them every four minutes. But I have to say, I was doing just that while reading his book, and I was doing it because so many things I read didn’t sound accurate, and I, for one, think it’s an improvement when 30,000-foot authority can be challenged by Googling from bed.
On a beach some time ago, I read Jill Lepore’s new history of the United States, “These Truths.” It is no less ambitious than “Upheaval.” But it is a new kind of big book for a new age. We know so much more now. We know the stories that haven’t been told, the points of view that have been neglected. Lepore manages to tell many stories, ever shifting her own perspective. She has no pat Framework, no bullet-point theory to test. She tells earthy stories about people famous and obscure, and she is confident enough to let the ideas emerge. She writes from the soil up, not the sky down.
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