This book illustrates how decisions can be analyzed retrospectively, including a taste of how different theories of decision making will change what o...moreThis book illustrates how decisions can be analyzed retrospectively, including a taste of how different theories of decision making will change what one concludes about what the actors involved must have believed and wanted.
When I went back to college after leaving my first career, my fascination with this book was one of the principle reasons I choose International Relations as my subject matter. In retrospect, I should have tracked down a program in Decision Theory instead, but hindsight is 20-20.(less)
(The review in the Economist which recommended this book to me is here, and their obituary of Kapuściński is also available, here.)
I’ve recently been...more(The review in the Economist which recommended this book to me is here, and their obituary of Kapuściński is also available, here.)
I’ve recently been categorizing my reading material into “fast” and “slow”, but after reading Kapuściński’s Travels with Herodotus I think I need to rethink the “slow” category.
Fast books are those that pull you along without any effort — page-turners. Slow books are those that take more time. Sometimes when I glance at the stack of books waiting their turn on the bedside table that seems to be a bad thing, but it really isn’t. I like it when my book forces me to pause, stare into the middle distance, and ponder. If I’m reading fiction, that’s one of the ways I define the difference between “literature” and just-plain-fiction.
But Travels with Herodotus revealed a problem with this. It’s slowness is hidden. It would be fairly easy to read the book as one might read an article in some airline’s in-flight magazine. On the face of it, this is a memoir of a famous reporter who witnessed some very dramatic events in what we often think of as “troubled” areas of the world. His previous books have taken us behind the scenes that we might see in the evening news, and he is justly famous for showing the human side of this history.
Of course, there is the curious inclusion of Herodotus, but it would be easy to see this just as a gimmick, an unusual device. He tells us that Herodotus was the first witness to globalization. And that he was not really what we consider a historian today, but more of a chronicler, or even a reporter.
But Kapuściński is writing a book that also works at a deeper level. He doesn’t require this. It is conceivable that he isn’t even aware of it, but he coyly makes the point on page 219:
... one must read Herodotus’s book — and every great book — repeatedly; with each reading it will reveal another layer, previously overlooked themes, images, and meanings. For within every great book there are several others.
Kapuściński undoubtedly suspected this would be his last book, and it seems certain he wanted this to be a “great” book. In this context, Herodotus has a further role to play: to show how little has changed for the individual when great events crash in like a breaking wave — or seep in like a rising flood.
However, when looking for the subtext here is that one can never be certain it is there at all. It isn’t as though there’s a great white whale that is symbolic of something or other. When Kapuściński is telling us a story about Herodotus, sometimes if you pause and consider what Kapuściński was living through at the time, parallels creep in. Or the link might be to the place, not the time.
Just one example: near the end of the book Kapuściński is in Algiers discussing the clash between east and west, between Islam and Christianity, between the tolerant Islam of the merchants and traders and the xenophobic faith of the shepherds and nomads of the desert. Then in the next chapter, on page 232, he tells us he is now in the Eastern Mediterranean and conveys Herodotus’s record of the despair of a warrior, about to die in a superfluous battle between east and west, and knowing how useless his death will be: There’s no more terrible pain a man can endure than to see clearly and be able to do nothing. As I’m reading this, the region is yet again in the headlines, with blood being shed in the chronic conflict. Perhaps it is just a coincidence that this anecdote is told while the author is in this area, but I’m fairly sure the author deserves a lot more credit than that.
But there isn’t always a connection — sometimes the bigger picture is the point. Herodotus was exploring a world that no one had yet documented. And Kapuściński’s first explorations are equally naive — his first visits to India and China have an almost Kafka-esque surrealness in his lack of any knowledge of his surroundings.
What Travels with Herodotus reminded me of, oddly, was Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Both books can be read at a superficial level, as mere stories of what happened as recorded on the page. But to a modern reader, these books read in this way will be slow, dull things. Pedestrian, quotidian, and disappointing.
Which gets back to the distinction among slow books. Some are slow but still do the work for you, still draw you back into a plot that is inexorably moving forward. War and Peace, for example, or Jude the Obscure.
But Kapuściński’s memoir, like Proust’s, isn’t so yielding of its secrets. There are two old men here, neither of which was interested in the ephemeral, and whose stories told in conjunction have a depth, like layers of shellac, that goes beyond the shiny surface of the written text. You’ll have to decide on your own when to pause and reflect, when to recall what you know of history, of geography, of the cultures that might illuminate or be illuminated by the story. If you simply turn the page without asking, you’ll only get the passive story.
This is not a book for the impatient reader. (less)
This book was much more serious than I expected. To my surprise, it turned out to be a thoughtful and carefully documented examination of the biases t...moreThis book was much more serious than I expected. To my surprise, it turned out to be a thoughtful and carefully documented examination of the biases that have crept into the popular understanding of the founding years of the United States. The book is not without some critical flaws, but is nevertheless worthwhile and, perhaps, even important.
The cover is a bizarre image of George Washington holding a baby with an eagle’s head. Or maybe an eagle with a baby’s body. Anyway, the painting’s title is “The Wings will Grow (Father of the Nation)”, and I suppose it is appropriate for the book.
I thought this would be an accumulation of amusing anecdotes. Instead I discovered a quite readable but serious exposition on how two hundred-plus years of myth-making has distorted pretty much everything.
The author’s bio states that “Ray Raphael has been a ‘people’s historian’ for the past thirty years”. If that sounds vaguely socialist to you, you’ll understand where the author’s overriding thesis comes in. There’s nothing socialist about the book, but it is aggressively populist. Most historians, and especially most myth-makers, have a tendency to illuminate history by telling stories about a small number of protagonists, and this is clearly in evidence in our early American history. These can be heroic (think George Washington) or iconic (as Molly Pitcher stands for “women on the battlefield”). Raphael argues that this is a disservice to the tens and hundreds of thousands of people that actually made the revolution happen. His book’s subtitle, “Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past”, points to the way a focus on a few individuals is unpatriotic. This was a people’s revolution, with the pressure to declare independence coming from the masses. The elites often slowed down the process, both for good reasons and bad. The leaders often had a better comprehension of the international politics and preparation necessary to make the rebellion successful, but they also had more property and prestige to risk. What steams Raphael is that today many of our myths give credit to those leaders for actually leading, when they were actually trailing and quite often dragging.
The primary culprits here are the storyteller and historians that treated events as the raw material in the creation of tales with a “purpose”. One purpose was simple money-making, in which tales of the lives of the revolutionary generation were packaged for what we might now call “edutainment”. In the early years of the republic, even as the founders were slowly dying off, simple readers and pamphlets were written that white-washed their flaws and exaggerated their heroics. This is when, for example, George Washington suddenly acquired a childhood tale involving a cherry tree.
Another common motive was to set a good example for the young: a strong example can be seen in the treatment of the Massachusetts Revolution of 1774. We usually date the beginning of the revolution to April, 1775 when the fighting at Lexington and Concord took place, supposedly in response to British aggression. In fact, during the previous summer there were massive uprisings throughout the Massachusetts hinterland (not in Boston) that effectively removed the British from local power. Raphael shows clear reasons why this revolt occurred spontaneously throughout the region; each hamlet and town had adequate reasons to act on their own and communicate their actions with their neighbors. As he points out, “The Massachusetts Revolution of 1774, like all true revolutions, was a bullying affair. Crowds numbering in the thousands forced a few unarmed officials to cower and submit. This made for a powerful revolution but a scary story.” One problem for future myth-makers was that there was no hero to idolize. Undoubtedly there were local leaders and followers, but none on a grand scale. Once the story had to be molded into something that would benefit the young, the storytellers reached into Boston and picked some likely suspects to be agitators and organizers.
An even more subtle bias came from the changing requirements for national unity. Once the revolts in France and elsewhere had turned ugly and given “revolution” a bad name, similarities in the colonies were downplayed. So instead of documenting the popular and “bullying” uprisings, the focus shift towards philosophic abstractions, for example. Later, when the Civil War loomed ahead, it was considered wise to downplay any idea of revolution against proper authorities, and “rebellion” was magically transformed into “loyalty”.
The events at Valley Forge, to take one example, were massively altered: the army that winter had been a starving and near-naked ragtag army of poorly-paid lower-class elements constantly on the verge of mutiny and desertion. The original patriotic militia (e.g., the Minutemen) had, by necessity, returned to their farms and shops. So the army largely consisted of young men, poor men, and recent immigrants—those with poor prospects otherwise—who were viewed with distrust by civilians. By the time the myth-makers were done, these had become faithful soldiers who only flirted with mutiny due to the harsh winter, and were dissuaded by a few words from their beloved General Washington. In fact, the notorious winter spent at Valley Forge was milder than average.
As I was reading, it occurred to me that this book is an interesting litmus test. Many Americans really would like to truly understand the early history of the nation, but having so many myths turned upside down would be deeply disturbing for some. I can imagine some teachers (or home-schooling parents) embracing this as strong but necessary medicine. On the other hand, the culture of suspicious anti-elitism has always been strong amongst Americans. Raphael provides a paradigmatic (and astonishing) quote (p. 204):
An officer of the Daughters of the Colonial Wars, for instance, complained about books that “give a child an unbiased viewpoint instead of teaching him real Americanism. All the old histories taught my country right or wrong. That’s the point of view we want our children to adopt. We can’t afford to teach them to be unbiased and let them make up their own minds.”
This book would be seen as an assault by those that believe “my myths, right or wrong”.
And, finally, Raphael really is pushing too hard. Even as he tallies evidence of historians distorting history in the service of shifting ideological goals, he comes to his task with a strong ideological bent of his own—one that both grows tiresome and casts a shadow over his efforts.
David McCullough, author of John Adams, is castigated for stating in a discussion of the Declaration of Independence that “It was John Adams, more than anyone, who made it happen”. Raphael attacks:
The last three words convey a clear implication of causality: if Adams “made it happen,” without him there might never have been a Declaration of Independence. This seems highly implausible. [...] By debating which one of these individuals, “more than anyone,” is more responsible for the nation’s independence, we participate in a parlor game, not meaningful historical inquiry. This game is not harmless, for it ignores the hundreds of thousands of people who actually did make it happen. Without John Adams, chances are the Continental Congress would still have broken ties with Britain; without a preponderance of popular support for the cause of independence, chances are Congress would have chosen a different path.
Note that Raphael has introduced two distortions: first, the “more than anyone” is shifted from a qualifier that places Adams first among equals, into an emphasis that places him first bar none. Second, McCullough’s discussion had been about the writing of the Declaration of Independence, and it is disingenuous to claim that the multitudes had anything other than a distant and indirect role. Raphael’s unwavering focus on the role of the—for lack of a better word—proletariat can be as distorting as well as illuminating. Certainly if John Adams had not been present someone else would have taken a roughly equivalent role. But this ignores the critical influence that he may have had: the Declaration and Constitution were both carefully crafted compromises balancing many interests. These documents have been so crucial to the subsequent development of the United States that, clearly, a different mixture of personalities and opinions at a critical moment might have had momentous impact. Similarly, Raphael expends an entire chapter pointing out that Thomas Jefferson didn’t so much as author the Declaration of Independence as merely write down what pretty much everyone was saying. But if John Adams of Massachusetts had penned the Declaration instead of Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson, global history would probably be subtly different. If New York’s Alexander Hamilton had written it, things would have been very different. Even though the collective activity of the masses is under-reported and underestimated in our histories, completely removing the focus from individual actions is also misleading.
This is a good and important book. It could have been a better book, if Raphael had tipped the scales less far and belabored his perspective less. But still, it provides a salutary corrective, and wise folk should be willing to examine their biases and assumptions, even if this is sometimes unpleasant. Founding Myths is entertaining and informative enough that it should be read, flaws and all. (less)
I had a dream, which was not all a dream. The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars Did wander darkling in the eternal space, Rayless, and pathless, and the icy Earth Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air...