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book review

Diamond looks at Finland, Germany, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Australia and the United States to see how they have fared.Handout

  • Title: Upheaval
  • Author: Jared Diamond
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Pages: 512

In the fall of 1939, few people would have bet a nickel on the survival of Finland, a tiny nation about to be overrun by the massive Soviet army. Fast-forward a few years and Germany’s future looked just as bleak. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the defeated fatherland was a divided, devastated wasteland reviled by the rest of the world.

Yet both countries somehow managed to survive and thrive. So have other countries, from Japan to Chile, that have faced threats to their existence from internal or external calamities. How did they manage to regain their stability and restore prosperity? And what lessons do they offer other countries in crisis?

Jared Diamond, the venerable social geographer, sets out to answer this question in his new book. Upheaval offers an intriguing drive-by tour of how seven countries have dealt with major challenges over the past century and a half. But full warning: It’s also a distinctly odd work – part history lesson, part memoir and part self-help manual. At its heart is the notion that national crises are, in many ways, like personal crises.

You may not agree with this idea – I don’t – but Diamond deserves to be heard. His brilliant 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel provided a sweeping explanation for why Europeans were, at one time, able to dominate so much of the world.

That earlier book won a Pulitzer Prize and became an intellectual sensation because Diamond, a physiologist by training, roamed freely across subject boundaries, from geography and zoology to history. He argued that Europeans didn’t succeed because of any innate cultural superiority. Rather, they lucked out. Their biggest break was the east-west orientation of the enormous Eurasian landmass, which meant that animals, crops and technologies developed for use in one region could spread across a vast expanse of similar land at similar latitudes.

In his new book, Diamond attempts a similar feat of cross-disciplinary magic. He begins by telling the story of the horrific fire at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston in 1942. The tragedy killed nearly 500 people. It left thousands of grieving survivors and loved ones.

The flood of depressed people overwhelmed Boston hospitals, which scrambled to find ways to deal with a mass of personal crises. In time, therapists concocted a 12-point checklist for identifying people likely to recover from emotional trauma. Key features of successful patients included the willingness to acknowledge they were in crisis, the ability to engage in realistic self-appraisal, and the strength to construct a fence around the problem – to recognize that their issues were limited to a certain area of their life and not a curse that afflicted everything they did.

Much the same framework applies to national crises, Diamond asserts. He looks at Finland, Germany, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Australia and the United States to see how they have fared, or are faring, on the therapeutic checklist.

Sometimes this approach works. I found Diamond’s discussion of Finland’s plight to be riveting, perhaps because I knew so little about the country. It also fits his therapist’s framework. Diamond argues it was Finland’s strong sense of national identity – similar to what psychologists call “ego strength” for individuals – that enabled it to remain united under the Soviet onslaught. And it was Finland’s willingness to engage in realistic self-appraisal that allowed it to maintain its independence by walking a narrow path between the Soviets and the West during the subsequent Cold War decades.

So far, so good. But Diamond’s therapy-speak seems less convincing when he turns his attention to how Australia managed to leave behind its white British roots and become a multiethnic society with close ties to nearby Asian countries. That transition seems less like a crisis and more like a natural evolution of a prosperous, educated society.

The therapy approach is even less convincing when it comes to Chile’s restoration of democracy after the Pinochet years. Forget psychobabble: Chile’s move away from right-wing dictatorship in the late 1980s owed a lot to straightforward geopolitics. Let’s be blunt here: With the Soviet Union crumbling, the CIA no longer had a reason to interfere in Latin American politics.

Diamond’s attempt to explain national crises as enlarged versions of personal crises winds up working about as well as an attempt to go in the opposite direction and explain individual psychology in terms of national politics and economics. Many of his points seem only intermittently true.

Take, for instance, that notion about the necessity for engaging in honest self-appraisal. Germany did so, confronting the horrors it inflicted in the Second World War and seeking to make amends. In contrast, Japan has expressed only pro forma regrets and has insisted on seeing itself as a victim. Yet both countries have constructed prosperous, peaceful societies. So what’s the lesson here?

Maybe the real takeaway is that history offers few simple, universal lessons. Diamond’s self-help manual for nations is an entertaining read. But, like most self-help books, it seems more glib than profound.

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