Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis by Jared Diamond

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis
By Jared Diamond
Little, Brown, 2019

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis by Jared Diamond Little Brown 2019

“A nation is a human thing,” says wily old King Henry II in James Goldman’s play The Lion in Winter. “It does what we do, for our reasons.”

In his latest book, Jared Diamond (he of Guns, Germs, and Steel) is counting on this being true, even though it immediately and self-evidently isn’t. Upheaval is sub-titled “Turning Points for Nations in Crisis,” and out of an infinite number of possibilities, Diamond has chosen seven such turning points: Finland’s Winter War against the Soviet Union and its long aftermath, Japan’s abrupt introduction the the West in the 19th century, Chile’s upheaval under General Pinochet, the 1965 coup in Indonesia, the political divisions of East and West Germany, the cultural and racial revamping of Australia, and a cluster of recent tensions in the United States.

The Big Picture method of the book is to analyze these crises on individual human terms, by using a simplified list of a dozen factors clinical psychiatrists have identified as featuring in a personal crisis: 1) acknowledgement that one is, in fact, in a crisis, 2) accepting one’s responsibility to do something about it, 3) isolating the problems that need solving, 4) getting material and help from other individuals and groups, 5) using others as role models of how to solve the problems, 6) something called “ego strength,” 7) Honestly self-appraising, 8) applying experience of previous crises, 9) exercising patience, 10) exercising personal flexibility, 11) identifying individual core values, and 12) something called “freedom from personal constraints.”

It will be observed immediately that this is a patently ridiculous way to do comparative history, even more ridiculous, in fact, than any of the organizing ideas in Diamond’s 2004 paean to bloated tautology, Collapse. The first question that naturally comes to mind is: why only 12 factors? Trauma indicators can run to lists of many dozens, depending on the paradigm chosen. Fortunately for his readers, Diamond has a position on this:

It would be absurd to think that outcomes of peoples’ lives, or of nations’ histories, could be usefully reduced to just a few catchwords. If you should have the misfortune to pick up a book claiming to achieve that, throw it away without reading any further. Conversely, if you have the misfortune to pick up a book proposing to discuss all 76 factors influencing crisis resolution, throw that book away also; it’s the job of a book’s author, not of a book’s readers, to digest and prioritize life’s infinite complexity into a useful framework.

Another natural question: why these particular crises? The answer is predictable but nevertheless amazing: it’s known in current culture as “humblebragging.” These particular crises all touch either on Diamond’s own life or the lives of his friends. And as a result, we’re told, “I can write sympathetically and knowledgeably about [these seven nations], on the basis of my own first-hand experiences and those of my long-term friends living there. My and my friends’ experiences encompass a sufficiently long period of time for us to have witnessed major changes.”

Diamond’s legion of fans will already be disposed to endorse this level of solipsism. Newcomers to his customary methods might ask some fairly simple questions. Can personal crisis indicators be in any useful way to study the upheavals of nations? Can 30 pages be enough to do more than skim the surface of any of these epic events? Does the random fact of living in a country - far removed from the deliberations of its government or military - impart any extra sympathy or knowledge? And if the answer to each of those questions is a weary, exasperated ‘no,’ the further question, “Can Upheaval have anything to offer?” will likewise suggest itself.

—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, The Washington Post, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.