On the Holocaust, Genocide, and Evil

December 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

I’m reading Terry Eagleton’s brilliant pamphlet, On Evil. (This came out in 2010, the ever-prolific Eagleton has churned out 4 books since then).  It is, as you’d expect, a meditation on evil, what evil is, what it looks like, how it functions.  And as you’d expect from a literary theorist, Eagleton looks at various examples from literature and the real world.  This includes 20th century fascism.

I’ve always been disappointed with explanations of the Holocaust (or any other genocide) that reduces the motivation of the génocidaires down to “evil,” as in Hitler (or Pol Pot, the Young Turks, the Serb military leadership, etc.) were simply evil and that’s all there is to it.  This is a cop out explanation.  It’s reductionist and absurd.  Genocides, and other horrible acts, are perpetrated by human beings.  Indeed, this was Hannah Arendt’s point about Adolf Eichmann in her monumental Eichmann in Jerusalem: that Eichmann wasn’t a raving anti-Semite, evil excuse for a man. Rather, he was “just doing his job.”  She went on to argue against this idea that evil is responsible for the horrid acts humanity has visited upon itself, that, rather, these horrid acts arise out of rationality.

And certainly, the Holocaust is one of those events.  Eagleton notes that the Holocaust was exceptional, though not due to the body count.  As he notes, both Stalin and Mao killed more people than did Hitler.  Rather,

[t]he Holocaust was unusual because the rationality of modern political states is in general an instrumental one, geared to the achievement of specific ends.  It is astonishing, then, to find a kind of monstrous acte gratuite, a genocide for the sake of genocide, an orgy of extermination apparently for the hell of it, in the midst of the modern era. Such evil is almost always confined to the private sphere.

Eagleton is both right and wrong here.  What makes the Holocaust perhaps more horrifying than other genocides is the sheer rational organisation of it.  What happened in Rwanda in 1994 was arguably more vile and disgusting, as 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were hacked to death in a 100-day spree.  But Rwanda was largely wanton violence and indiscriminate killing.  In many ways, it was the more evil event.  But the Holocaust was organised by the state, it was rational, and it was far-reaching.  In short, it was the Enlightenment taken to a horrifying extreme. By the state; the modern state, of course, is based upon these same Enlightenment ideals.

But the Holocaust was not an acte gratuite, as Eagleton argues, it wasn’t a genocide for the hell of it.

But he is right that such organised, rational terror is usually smaller scale, and in the private sphere, simply because it is easier for a serial killer to organise himself than it is to organise an entire state machine dedicated to the eradication of a group of people from the face of the earth.

The Value of Death and the Value of Passion

December 14, 2013 § 4 Comments

I am reading what is turning out to be one of the best books I’ve read in years, Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination.  Schulman is a survivor of the AIDS Plague in New York City in the 80s and early 90s.  She is deeply implicated in queer culture in New York, in the fight for the rights of those inflicted with AIDS during that era and the fight to commemorate and remember those who died.  81,542 people died of AIDS in New York City from 1981 to 2008.  2008 is 12 years after the Plague ended, according to Schulman.

The Gentrification of the Mind is a blistering indictment of gentrification in the East Village of Manhattan, an area of the city I knew as Alphabet City, and the area around St. Mark’s Place.  It’s the same terrain of Manhattan that Eleanor Henderson’s fantastic novel, Ten Thousand Saints, takes place in (I wrote about that here).  This is one of the things I love about cities: the simultaneous and layered existences of people in neighbourhoods, their lives spatially entwined, but culturally separate.

Schulman’s fury drips off the page of The Gentrification of the Mind, which is largely her own memoir of living through that era, in that neighbourhood where she still lives.  In the same flat she lived in in 1982.  She makes an interesting juxtaposition of the value of death, arguing that the 81,542 were of no value to our society, that their deaths were marginalised and, ultimately, forgotten.  Whereas the 2,752 people who died in New York on 9/11 have experienced the exact opposite in death: their lives have been valued, re-assessed and immortalised.  Her point is not to take away from those who died in 9/11, but to interestingly juxtapose those who died due to the neglect of their government and culture and those who died due to external forces.

I just finished reading Amy Waldman’s The Submission, a fictionalised account of the process leading to the creation of the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero.  Waldman reminds us that the lives of those killed on 9/11 were not valued equally, something that should be intrinsic to us all.  The lives of the people who worked in the food courts, the restaurants, cafés and those who manned the parking lots, the custodial staff did not mater, in the end, as much as the first responders, the office workers, the people on the planes.

And this is an interesting argument.  Schulman’s response is much more visceral than mine, but she was there in the 80s and 90s.  I wasn’t.  She was also there on 9/11, I wasn’t.  But I am an historian, she is not.  Death is never equal, just as life isn’t.  It has been this way since forever.  In The Iliad and The Odyssey, set in Ancient Greece, the lives of the foot soldiers and the sailors under Odysseus’ command are worth nothing, whereas the lives of Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus are valued.  The deaths of the first two cause mourning and grief for Odysseus, both at Marathon and on his epic journey home.

All throughout history, people’s lives have been valued differently.  What Schulman sees relative to the victims of the AIDS Plague and 9/11 shouldn’t be surprising.  It doesn’t make it right, it doesn’t make it okay.  But, fact of the matter, it’s the same as it ever was.  And, after researching, writing, and teaching history for much of the past two decades, I can’t even get all that upset about the devaluation of the marginalised in society anymore.  I don’t think it’s any more right in 2013 than I did as an angry young man 20 years ago, but I have become so jaded as to not even register surprise or anger anymore.

So in reading Schulman’s book, I am surprised by her anger and her passion, and I am also intrigued by it, and I’m a little sad that being an historian is making me increasingly resigned to bad things happening in the world.  It might be time to get my Howard Zinn, E.P. Thompson, and Eric Hobsbawm out, and remember that those men, even after a lifetime of studying, writing, and teaching history, maintained a righteous anger at injustice.

Irish Slums

December 5, 2013 § 4 Comments

Last month, I met Michael Patrick MacDonald at an Irish Studies conference in Rhode Island.  He was the keynote speaker.  I didn’t know much about him beforehand, other than he wrote All Souls about growing up in South Boston in the 70s and 80s.  I knew All Souls was a story about heartbreak, drugs, and the devastation suffered by his family.  But MacDonald’s talk was one of the best I’d ever heard, he spoke of Whitey Bulger, drugs, Southie, his work in non-violence and intervention, and he talked about gentrification.  He was eloquent and fierce at the same time.  He is, of course, an ageing punk.  He was also pretty cool to talk to over beers in the hotel bar later that night.

I finally got around to reading All Souls last week.  I’m glad I did.  I was stunned that MacDonald and his siblings could survive what they’ve survived: three of their brothers dead due to gangs, drugs, and violence.  One of their sisters permanently damaged by a traumatic brain injury brought about due to drugs.  And another brother falsely accused of murder.  It was a heartbreaking read, at least to a point.  I know how the story ends, obviously.

It was also interesting to read another version of Southie than the one in the mainstream here in Boston.  The mainstream is that Southie was an Irish white trash ghetto, run by Whitey Bulger, terrorised by Whitey Bulger, but all those Irish were racists, as evidenced by the busing crisis in 1974.  And while MacDonald tried to revise that narrative, both in his talk and in All Souls, pertaining to the busing crisis, it is hard to argue that racism wasn’t the underlying cause of the explosion of protesting and violence.  But, MacDonald also offers both a personal and a sociological view of how Southie was terrorised and victimised by Bulger (and his protectors in the FBI and the Massachusetts State Senate).  And, today, he talks about gentrification in a way that most mainstream commentators do not (something I’ve railed about in my extended series on Pointe-Saint-Charles, Montréal, his blog, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, and Pt. 5).

But something else also struck me in reading MacDonald’s take on Southie.  I found that he echoed many of the oldtimers I’ve talked to in Griffintown and the Pointe in Montréal about their experiences growing up.  Griff and the Pointe were the Montréal variant of Southie, downtrodden, desperately poor Irish neighbourhoods.  And yet, there is humour to be found in the chaos and poverty, and there is something to be nostalgic for in looking back.

MacDonald writes:

I didn’t know if I loved or hated this place.  All those beautiful dreams and nightmares of my life were competing in the narrow littered streets of Old Colony Project.  Over there, on my old front stoop at 8 Patterson Way, were the eccentric mothers, throwing their arms around and telling wild stories.  Standing on the corners were the natural born comedians making everyone laugh.  Then there were the teenagers wearing their flashy clothes, their ‘pimp’ gear, as we called it.  And little kids running in packs, having the time of their lives in a world that was all theirs.

This echoes something journalist Sharon Doyle Driedger wrote of Griffintown, where she grew up:

Griffintown had the atmosphere of an old black-and-white movie.  Think The Bells of St. Mary’s,with nuns and priests and Irish brogue and choirs singing Latin hymns.  Then throw in the Bowery Boys, the soft-hearted tough guys wisecracking on the corner.

The difference, of course, is that MacDonald’s ambivalence runs deep, he also sees the drug addicts and dealers, and the grinding poverty.  Doyle Driedger didn’t.  But, MacDonald is standing in Southie as an adult when he sees this scene, Doyle Dreidger is writing from memory.

Nostalgia is a funny thing, and it’s not something to be dismissed, as many academics and laypeople do.  It is, in my books, an intellectually lazy and dishonest thing to do.  Nostalgia is very real and is something that tinges all of our views of our personal histories.

But what I find more interesting here are the congruencies between what MacDonald and Doyle Driedger writes, between what MacDonald says in All Souls and what he said in his talk last month in Rhode Island, and what the old-timers from Griff and the Pointe told me whenever I talked to them.  There was always this nostalgia, there was always this black humour in looking back.  I also just read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, about a kid growing up in Dublin’s Barrytown, a fictional inner-city neighbourhood.  Through Paddy Clarke, Doyle constructs an idyllic world for a boy to grow up in, as he and his mates owned the neighbourhood, running around in packs, just like the kids in Southie MacDonald describes, and just as MacDonald and his friends did when they were kids.

I don’t know if this is something particular to Irish inner-city slums or not.  But I do see this tendency as occurring any time I talk to someone who grew up in such a neighbourhood, or read stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, to say nothing of the music of the Dropkick Murphys (I’m thinking, in particular, of almost the entirety of their first album, Do Or Die, or the track “Famous for Nothing,” on their 2007 album, The Meanest of Times),  I’m not one for stereotyping the Irish, or any other group for that matter, I don’t think there’s anything “inherent” to the Irish, whether comedy, fighting, or alcoholism.  But there is something about this view of Irish slums.

The Truth and How to Deal With it When Studying History

November 19, 2013 § 6 Comments

In two of the books I’ve read recently I found myself incredibly frustrated by the authors’ insistence on “The Truth” and the “True Story.”  It is worth noting that neither book was written by a professional historian, despite the fact that both dealt with historical subjects.  So I began to think about how we historians are trained to think about “truth” in graduate school, how we deal with various truths in the documents, and by obvious attempts at obfuscation by historical actors.  And how we deal with gaps in the sources.

Each author deal with these problems differently.  In Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, I was troubled by Weatherford’s inability to deal with at least one of his sources critically.  Weatherford makes great use of a source called “The Secret History”, which covers the early history of the Mongols in Temujin’s (Chinggis Khan) rise.  I found myself continuously wondering if The Secret History was actually verifiably true, or if it was something to be taken with a grain of salt, which is what my sense was in reading Weatherford’s book.

But the bigger problem came in C.J. Chivers’ The Gun.  Chivers was understandably frustrated throughout his research and writing process by the varying story of the development and proliferation of the AK-47 in the Soviet Union.  Mikhail Kalashnikov himself has published multiple autobiographies, both during the Soviet era and after, and has given countless interviews to the media, both before and after the fall of the USSR.  And in almost everyone of them, he gave different versions of his own biography, of his development of the AK-47 and so on.  I would’ve been frustrated in Chivers’ shoes.

For example, Kalasknikov’s brother, Nikolai, was sent to a Stalin-era prison camp when they were young.  Chivers is frustrated in figuring out what Nikolai’s sentence was.  At the end of the day, I found myself wondering “who cares”?  I am less interested in what sentence Nikolai Kalashnikov received than the fact that he was sentenced to a labour camp in the first place.  And I felt that Chivers spent too much time and space in the book expressing his frustration and inability to get to the fact of the matter there to the detriment of a discussion of the Kalashnikov family’s status as kulaks during Collectivisation during the Stalin era.

Chivers also spends the most time and effort complaining about Kalashnikov’s biography.  He also is downright naïve in expressing his frustration with Soviet-era sources and the multiple truths of the era, as if nothing like that ever happened in the US or any other Western nation.  At any rate, Chivers goes on a long rant about Kalashnikov co-operating with Soviet authorities in the re-crafting of his biography (Chivers prefers the term “white-washing”, which, while being accurate is ahistorical).  Kalashnikov’s family were kulaks, enemies of the state.  They were exiled to Siberia.  No kidding Kalashnikov needed a new biography when he became the inventor of the AK-47, which Chivers makes a strong and compelling argument as the greatest invention of the USSR.  His background as the son of kulaks had to be deleted from the story and a new version be created for public consumption.  To criticise Kalashnikov for participating in this process is almost laughable.  Obviously he had to participate.  He didn’t have a choice in a totalitarian dictatorship.  At least not if he wanted to keep living.

At any rate, it just so happens that, as a public historian, this is the kind of thing I study.  Public historians spend a lot of time looking at how stories get created, whether they are wider cultural stories or individual ones.  If Chivers thinks that what Kalashnikov participated in only happened in totalitarian communist states, he’s deeply, deeply mistaken.  Manufactured histories are part and parcel of almost daily life in Canada and the USA.

But the question of truth is what I’m interested in here.  Fact.  Statistics don’t speak for themselves.  Numbers don’t speak for themselves.  A picture is not worth a thousand words.  Facts are simple things.  Fact: Canadian Confederation happened on 1 July 1867.  But why? And what did it mean?  The why can be answered in many ways, both narrowly and widely.  It can be answered looking at what was happening in the United States, it can be answered looking at British colonial politics.  Or by what was happening in Canada.  Or a combination thereof.  The standard interpretation of what it means is that it was the birth of Canada.  But Canada in 1867 was four provinces, comprised of three colonies.  That’s about it.  It didn’t mean that Canada now had control of its own internal affairs.  That happened in 1848.  It didn’t mean that Canada gained control of foreign affairs.  That happened in 1931.  There was no such thing as Canadian citizenship until 1948.  Nor was the Supreme Court of Canada the highest court of appeal until then.  Canada did not control its own constitution until 1982.  So, in short, facts only cover a very simple corner of the story.  Interpretation is necessary.

To use an example from The Gun: The Ak-47 was developed in 1947.  Or was it?  Chivers does a wonderful job teasing out the details of the weapon’s creation in the late 1940s, to say nothing of the massive re-tooling of the gun that continued into the 1950s.  Even nailing down 1947 as the date of the gun’s creation isn’t as straight-forward as one would think, at least according to Chivers.

So, the truth.  Or the true story.  In my experience, rarely is something billed as the “true story” actually that.  Truth is a messy concept.  And this is what we historians are trained in.  We recognise that the honest truth isn’t necessarily a possibility (or even desirable) in telling a story.  Other things are more important, such as in the case of Nikolai Kalashnikov’s trip to the gulag.  Again, the actual sentence doesn’t interest me as much as why he was sent to the gulag.  In other words, there are varying shades of grey in sorting out the historical story.  And sometimes the actual straight truth isn’t that important to the story.  In the end, Chivers’ story is made all the more interesting for all the work he does in developing and elucidating the various stories of the development of the AK-47 and the various biographies and stories to be told about its inventor (or maybe he wasn’t the inventor, another version of the story could just as easily been that the gun was the result of a collective team), Mikhail Kalashnikov.

The Dehumanising Process of Imperialism

November 7, 2013 § 2 Comments

I’m reading CJ Shivers’ book, The Gun, which is essentially a history and biography of the machine gun, though he focuses primarily on the AK-47.  Shivers, though, goes into great depth about the development of machine guns, back to the attempts of Richard Gatling’s attempts back in the 1860s to develop an automated firing system.  So far, I have to admit, this book is worth the hype it received when it came out in 2010.

However. Shivers spends some time discussing the deployment of the Gatling Gun, as well as the Maxim, amongst others in colonial endeavours in Africa in the late 19th century during the Scramble for Africa.  For the most part, Shivers follows British troops on their attempts to pacify the natives.  The descriptions of the efficacy of the guns are chilling.  Shivers quotes one British soldier who casually mentions the piling up of African bodies as the British advanced with their Maxim guns.  Numbers get thrown around, here 3,000 dead, there 1,500, and so on and so forth.  These are from single battles, large African forces against small British ones.  And yet the British win, because of the guns.

The book summary on the back cover says that this is “a richly human account of the evolution of the very experience of war.”  It is, at least so far, if we are talking about white Europeans and Americans.  When it comes to the black Africans, however, they’re no more than body counts.  This, however, is NOT really Shivers’ fault.  This is the nature of imperialism, this is the very core of imperialism.  The colonised “other” is a faceless, shapeless mass.  The imperialist dehumanises the victims of the imperial process.  The colonised are reduced to something not quite human.  The fault here doesn’t lie with Shivers (let me state that again), it lies with colonial sources.  By design, the Africans were dehumanised by the British (or the French, the Italians, the Germans, or whomever) during the Scramble.  They were reduced to an irritant in the forward march of progress.

None of this is news to anyone who knows anything about imperialism.  It’s not news to me, but sometimes I feel like I’ve just been smacked in the face with this knowledge.  It is almost like reading it again for the first time.  And reading The Gun, I feel that way.

Arrival Cities: The Book

December 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have touched on Doug Saunders’ Arrival City previously on this blog here and here. This review was also in the works with Current Intelligence before I left back in 2011.  So, I am sticking it here for my own purposes.

Doug Saunders.  Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World. London: William Heinemann, 2010.  ISBN: 9780307396891. 356pp.

Doug Saunders’ Arrival City was published to almost universal acclaim last fall.  The Guardian nearly fell over itself hailing it as “the perfect antidote to the doom-laden determinism of the last popular book on urbanisation, Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums” and declaring it “the best popular book on cities since Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities half a century ago.” Saunders’ own newspaper, The Globe & Mail hails his calming certitude on the wonderful nature of progress that the city provides us.  And the Wall Street Journal praises Arrival Cities for its optimistic view of globalisation.

Certainly, Arrival Cities is an important book, its well-written and is clearly and cogently argued. It is also somewhat of a disappointment, at least in the first half of the book.  Saunders is the European Bureau Chief for  The Globe & Mail and his reportage and columns generally provide a balanced view of the world; his is one of the few columns in that newspaper I actively seek out. Thus, I expected more from Arrival Cities.  I did not get it.  While Saunders does give us a counter-narrative to Davis’ doom and gloom, it occasionally reads Pollyana-ish.  And at times, Saunders’ journalistic eye overwhelms his argument. Indeed, Dwight Garner in The New York Times notes this problem: his lengthy quotes from the people he talked to in arrival cities around the world sound formulaic and too easy.

Certainly, Planet of Slums was an overly statistical analysis, and statistics are on the aggregate level, they do not always us to view the micro- and quotidian levels. But Arrival City is plagued by the opposite problem: in focusing on a success story or two from each of the arrival cities he visits around the world (and Saunders has certainly been travelling the world), he over-personalises his arguments, which gives the impression that he’s choosing to extrapolate the success stories he saw, not the marginalised.  Certainly, all of the people in arrival cities are marginalised in the larger sense of the word, but within the poor, there are class/caste divisions.

More fundamental, though, is Saunders’ reliance on Hernando de Soto’s arguments that all people need in the slums and favellas of the world is security of tenure, if they owned their own homes, all would be good. As Davis notes, the problem with titling in the slums is that it perpetuates the problem of class, in that the wealthier squatters win and the poorer lose, or continue to lose. And de Soto has also been criticised for over-estimating the amount of wealth land titling would create.  The other problem of de Soto’s claims is the very notion of property: generally speaking, slums and favellas work due to the co-operation between residents.  The creation of private property is at diametrical odds to this economic system. Saunders parrots de Soto throughout large part of Arrival City, arguing that private ownership of homes and security of tenure would encourage slum-dwellers to, essentially, take pride in their homes and communities and would give them a base of capital to invest in the economy.  This is not to suggest that de Soto and Saunders are all wrong and their critics all right, but it is to suggest that life does not work quite as neatly and systematically as de Soto and Saunders would hope.

The first five chapters of the book are also plagued by an alarming ahistoricism as Saunders takes us on a tour of arrival cities across the globe from London to Dhaka, Nairobi, Los Angeles, and Shenzhen. In Chapter 5, he looks a the historical growth of cities in the west, focussing specifically on Paris, London, Toronto, and Chicago. Oddly enough, even in a historical chapter, one is left alarmed at Saunders’ ahistoricism.  In discussing the differences between urbanisation rates in the United Kingdom and France in the mid-19th century, Saunders somehow manages to overlook the major impetus behind urbanisation in that century: the Industrial Revolution.  The Industrial Revolution is the determinative factor behind the wildly different rates of urbanisation in France and Britain in the 19th century, plain and simple.

Also, a cardinal crime to an entire generation of historians, Saunders attempts to take on E.P. Thompson and The Making of the English Working Class. The problem is that he seems not to have read the book.  He says that Thompson sees his working class heroes as “passive victims.” This is just plain wrong, the key argument that emerges from The Making is that the working classes were not just passive victims, that they employed agency in agitating for their rights through corresponding societies, proto-unions, and through the church.

In addition, one is left rather flummoxed by Saunders’ apparent naïveté in looking at housing projects in Paris.  He criticises the project builders for not soliciting input from those who were to be the future residents of the projects. Seriously. Nonetheless, he does make the point that the lack of accountability on the part of both the authorities and residents in the projects, to say nothing of their discombobulating impact on community.

Following this, however, Arrival City improves exponentially, in the final five chapters.  In this sense, it is as if the book is split in two.  In the second half of the book, Saunders seems to adopt a more complicated approach to the arrival cities of the world.  This includes pointing out the ridiculousness of immigration policies in Canada and the United States.  Canada and the United States take in the largest number of immigrants in the world, at least on a per capita basis for Canada, a relatively tiny (population-wise) country.

But it is Saunders’ chapter on the geçekondus that surround Istanbul that really shines.  Here, we get a detailed, excellent study of the politics of the geçekondus from the 1970s to today and the struggle of the resident of the slums to attain regularisation and integration into Istanbul.  Istanbul, of course, is one of the fastest growing cities in the world.  In 1950, Istanbul’s population was 983,000; today, over 13,000,000 call the city home.  The slums on the Asian side of the Bosporus grew up in the 70s as impoverished rural Turks migrated to the great city.  They established their slum housing outside the boundaries of the city and then agitated for the right to have such luxuries as running water and sewers.  The organisers of the 70s and 80s were almost all radical lefties and, during the military dictatorship and its aftermath in Turkey, many spent time in jail and saw their homes routinely torn down.  By the turn of the millennium, their geçekondus had been integrated into Istanbul (a large part of what saw the city’s population triple in the past thirty years).  Today, these old geçekondus are now part of the inner ring of Istanbul suburbs, fully integrated into the city, and the children of these old radicals are Istanbullus.  However, the geçekondus aren’t simply a case of de Soto’s economic theories being put into practice, the regularisation of the geçekondus and their residents, the geçekondullus, required state assistance.

In the second half of the book, Saunders also goes beyond the role of banks and business in the regularisation of the arrival cities.  He also notes that the state needs to take an activist role, whether of its own accord or spurred on by the arrival city residents.  In order to do this, however, the state needs to have the resources to do so.  This is simply not possible in many impoverished and/or corrupt developing world nations, like Bangladesh.  Instead, it requires the intervention of richer nations like Turkey, which could afford for Istanbul to absorb and regularise its geçekondus.  But more than this, the integration and regularisation of these arrival cities is necessary for local schools, jobs, health care facilities, water and sewer services, and transportation.  And then, finally, Saunders strikes a balance between the de Soto right and the Davis left:

What comes from this work, and form the experiences of families like the Magalhãeses in Brazil and the Parabs in India, is a conclusion that is unlikely to please the ideologues on the socialist left or the free-market right: to achieve social mobility and a way into the middle class for the rural-migrant poor, you need to have both a free market in widely held private property and a strong assertive government willing to spend heavily on this transition.  When both are present, change will happen [p. 288].

What we are left with then, is half a great book. The first half of Arrival City is done in by its overly simplistic and journalistic approach, its lack of historicity and its over-reliance on de Soto.  In the second half, though, Saunders finds his feet, and finds his own original argument that more than splits the difference between de Soto and Davis.  I remain unconvinced that the urbanisation of humanity on such a level as we are seeing today is a good thing, but it is also a truism throughout history, at least in the West, that periods of urbanisation have spurred on trade, the economy, and general human progress. And during periods of de-urbanisation, such as in the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Europeans were only slightly more evolved than cavemen, at least in relation to the rest of the Mediterranean world and the Middle East, as David Levewing Lewis points out in God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 579-1215Either way, there is no simple answer to the question of the massive urbanisation of the globe today, despite what the Mike Davises and Doug Saunderses of the world would have us believe.

The Problem With Niall Ferguson

June 16, 2012 § 6 Comments

I’ve never been crazy about Niall Ferguson.  I don’t think he’s ever had an original thought, and he’s about the worst kind of academic bully, demeaning himself to attack his critics in a petty, small-minded manner.  Hell, we’re talking about a guy who in, his latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, who attacks Gandhi! Yes, Gandhi! Gandhi, in a 1931 interview in London, noted the use of disease in the European conquest of the rest of the world (indeed, Jared Diamond confirms the disease theory in his 1999 book, Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fate of Human Societies).  Ferguson heaps scorn on Gandhi and goes on to argue that Western medicine did a world of good in the conquered parts of the world.  Ferguson isn’t entirely wrong, especially in the case of malaria in Africa.  But he’s too smart by half here, by mocking Gandhi, he discounts the fact that disease was a corollary of Western conquest.  Want some figures?  Try these on for size:

Caribbean Islands, 1492-1542: nearly 6,000,000 dead

Peru, 1570-1620: 750,000 dead.

Mexico, 1519-1600: 24,000,000 dead.

Ferguson’s attack on Gandhi is symptomatic of Ferguson’s general crusade against those who have the temerity to suggest that Western imperialism was not an entirely good thing.  See, for example, his Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.  

At least in Civilization, when he’s done attacking the likes of Gandhi and others who experienced the negative effects of Western imperialism, he does go on to note the horrors of the German Empire in Africa, which does show some maturity in Ferguson in the decade since Empire.

Then there’s his attack on Marx & Engels.  Ferguson wrote his manuscript in 2010, twenty years after the end of the Cold War.  And yet, Ferguson, showing how petty-minded he can be, spends almost as much time attacking Marx and Engels personally than actually discussing their arguments.  Why bother? Seriously.  Ad hominen attacks in the works of an historian as eminent as Ferguson are just kind of sad and pathetic, especially when tacked onto commentary of Marxism/Communism.

Ferguson is also adept at the fine art of quoting out of context.  For example, he attributes the following quotation to Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author:

Will the West, which takes its great invention, democracy, more seriously than the Word of God, come out against this coup that has brought an end to democracy in Kars?…Or are we to conclude that democracy, freedom and human rights don’t matter, that all the West wants is for the rest of the world to imitate it like monkeys?  Can the West endure any democracy achieved by enemies who in no way resemble them?

Sure, Pamuk wrote these words. However, these words are those of the narrator of his fine novel, Snow. They are not the words of Pamuk himself.  But Ferguson kind of forgets to tell us that in his book.  These words are the epigraph to Chapter 5, “Consumption” (Consumption is one of the “killer apps” we in the West invented, but have now been “downloaded” by the East, seriously, that’s Ferguson’s language). And Pamuk’s words here are meant to be mocking.  But when you know the context of the quotation, well, then they mean something quite differently, don’t they?

And so once again, Ferguson, who actually makes a pretty good, if unoriginal argument in Civilization, shoots himself in his rhetorical foot and one is left wondering just how seriously he can actually be taken.

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