The MacArthur fellow and Pulitzer Prize winner looks at how societies respond to crises.
A crisis is a turning point, a time when decision and action are necessary. As Diamond (Geography/UCLA; The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, 2012, etc.) puts it, it is a “moment of truth” that calls on us to cope. We do so as individuals following such adaptations as we are able to draw on, including recognizing that there’s a problem, being honest in appraising where the fault lies and what can be done, and then drawing on flexibility and intelligence to work things out. So it is with societies. Diamond astutely examines seven turning points in the history of the world, some of them little known—e.g., the Winter War between Russian and Finland, which briefly pushed Finland into the Nazi camp and involved a humiliating defeat first for the Soviets and then for the Finns. Nations “do or don’t undertake honest self-appraisal,” writes the author: The Russians scarcely acknowledge a war that remains strong in Finnish history, just as Germany, the epicenter of Nazism, at first tried to brush aside that history and then became the first among nations in acknowledging guilt and making sure such crimes would not be repeated. For its part, Japan has not adequately owned up to the historical chain that made it into a modern nation and then a brutal imperial power, while the United States has yet to reckon with the crisis of slavery, racial enmity, and civil war. Diamond seeks commonalities and distinctions. In his case studies, only Indonesia lacks a strong sense of national identity, which is explainable given its rather recent emergence as a nation and which helps explain its reluctance to work through a traumatic civil war in which millions may have died. Just so, honest self-appraisal is sometimes hard to come by, as when modern Americans shun scientific reasoning, “a very bad portent, because science is basically just the accurate description and understanding of the real world.”
Vintage Diamond; of a piece with Collapse (2004) and likely to appeal to the same broad audience.