A Scholar’s Stage forum member reports that he and a friend recently finished reading John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Enraptured by Darwin’s account of flourish and fall, they ask what else they might read to understand the rise and decline of peoples and powers over the course of human history.
In my mind there are four central parts to this tale:
In the most recent issue of American Affairs, Walter Hudson argues against “the pull of the Cold War analogy.”θ Cold War analogies for 21st century Sino-American relations are natural yet insufficient. A friend of mine recently complained to me about the thoughtlessness of these analogies. “It is not difficult to rail against lazy Cold War thinking,” I responded. “What is difficult is fleshing out a more illuminating analogy to fill the gap.” Hudson faces this challenge squarely. He argues that the mirror we seek will be found in the eclipse of the British Empire by the United States.
One hopes for statesmen chastened by defeat. In this world of our hopes, the authors of catastrophe would discuss their mistakes with the humility, introspection, and sense of disgrace these mistakes deserve. Decisions that led to death—death in its thousands and hundreds of thousands—would be examined with probing honesty. The decision makers behind them would be seized with a fierce guilt and urgency. They would quest to understand the nature of their errors. They would incessantly press upon us the lessons of experience, gripped with fear that the next generation might repeat their calamities.
One can imagine such a statesman, chastened by defeat. Douglas Feith is not he.
Vladislav M. Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev is a surprising counterpart to my essay, “Culture Wars are Long Wars.” That essay proposed a general theory of cultural change. Key to its thesis was the observation that most cultural change does not occur because people change their ideas, but because people with new ideas replace people with old ones. As most people form their essential political worldview by the time they are 30 and only adapt it on the edges to new circumstances, only the most earth shaking events have the power to fundamentally shift the frameworks and values that the majority filter their politics through. Large scale cultural shift is largely a story of generational churn.
While the focus of that piece was on American domestic politics, this is a general phenomena that applies across cultures and time periods. Vladislav Zubok understands this. The generational nature of political change is a recurring theme of Failed Empire, which chronicles the ups and downs of Soviet diplomacy from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While we often describe Soviet history in terms of the leader reigning at the top of the system, Zubok argues that shifts in Soviet strategic behavior reflected not only the differing leadership styles of the various CPSU General Secretaries, but broader transitions from one generation of leaders to another.
Daniel Gullotta’s Age of Jackson podcast is one of the few I listen to regularly. In 2021 I don’t have a lot of spare bandwidth to keep track of developments in my favorite field of American history, but I do listen to his interviews with new authors in the field to stay somewhat up to date. Listening to a book talk is not the same thing as reading a book, of course, but it is better than slowly having years of labor slip away from memory with disuse.
Last month’s essay “The Problem of the New Right” caused a small stir. Formal writeups have been authored by Ross Douthat, Eric Levitz, Jordan Bloom, Lars Schonander, Peter Spilakos, and Aaron Ren. On Twitter there was even more chatter about the essay, much of it critical. I have found the critiques of my piece […]
In the world of conservative thought, the intellectual energy lies with the New Right. The New Right can be found in the society of Washington wonks, Silicon Valley dissidents, New York writers, and all manner of GOP politicos. Many served in the Trump administration at one level or another; all are interested in taking the […]
William Osler, teaching at the bedside. Understanding changing perceptions of “great works”— what books are included in a canon at a given moment in history, why certain works make the cut while others fall to the wayside, and tracking down the individuals responsible for these decisions—is a hobby of mine. I have written about it […]
Last summer the New Yorker published an essay by James Marcus that asks the following question: why was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow so loved in his own lifetime when today he is so little read or respected? There is one very compelling answer to this that the article that does not discuss—indeed, that the article itself […]