Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Sterling, Bruce. Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years. Random House, 2002, index, 320 p.

Meyer, Karl E. The Dust of Empires: The Race for Mastery in the Asian Heartland. The Century Foundation, 2003, index, bibliography, endnotes, 252 p.

Reading these two books in succession lent provided an unexpected synchronicity. In many ways they complement each other and offer a the strengths and weaknesses of the American perspective in the early 21st century.

Late one Sunday night while channel-surfing I happened across Bruce Sterling speaking at the New Jersey Library Association annual conference. He was the keynote speaker at the conference and was reading from his new book Tomorrow Now. He began his talk by offering the usual peaen to librarians that most speakers do when they address librarians. Then he began his reading, which turned out to be from Chapter 4. I must confess that I’m not a big fan of Sterling’s fiction. I read Islands in the Net a few years after it was published and found it to be quite dated by that time, overtaken by the rise of the Web. Still, he is an accomplished writer and knows how to cleverly turn a phrase. So I grabbed a piece of paper near the bed and made a note of the title. The next time I went to the library I happened to see it sitting on the shelf and decided to give it a try. It was worth the gamble.

In the book, Sterling uses a bit from Shakespeare’s As You Like It to provide a structure for his rambling disquisition on the future. He divides the future into seven threads each corresponding to “melancholy Jacques” soliliquoy in the play. From this base Sterling has a ball pulling together threads and strands to weave a more or less consistent whole. More than likely not, a re-read in 50 or 75 years would make for good fun since the future is usually made up of current trends punctuated and evened by unexpected and disruptive events.

Sterling’s work would have been much better and more convincing if he had bothered to include footnotes or at least a bibliography. In places, ideas from others authors were readily discernible. For example, his discussion about technology lock-in is extensively discussed in Information Rules by Hal Varian and Carl Shapiro. Likewise Sterling cites extensive statistics about the rate of worldwide glacial melting. Some idea about the source for the statistics would have been nice.

But I have a more substantive complaint. I don’t think anyone can make predictions about the future without observing the past. In his introduction, Sterling cites a number of authors who have mined history to make telling observations about the present. Thinkers such as Peter Drucker and Lewis Mumford are in his list. But in the text of his book only Kevin Kelly and Stewart Brand are mentioned, hardly first-rate scholars, although both of them provocative and excellent authors in their own rites.

Still Sterling’s lack of understanding of the past is no where more evident than in his 4th chapter, the one he read from at the New Jersey Library Association, titled “The Soldier.” And it is here that the synergy with Meyer’s The Dust of Empire is so evident.

In chapter 4, Sterling describes something he calls the “New World Disorder” and skillfully limns the lives of three modern outlaws, some might call them Robin Hoods. In any case, each of the three takes on law and order to sow disorder and chaos. In Sterling’s view they are archetypes of a new kind of warrior and bring forth a new kind of war. His is a war without meaning and without ideology, except the ideology of oil and money, which are synonymous. In Sterling’s view the New World Disorder is without an anchor in the past and just happens because of the psychotic behavior of outlaws and anarchists. Meyer demonstrates that the New World Disorder isn’t so new and that it has its antecedents in interference of western nations in the affairs of central Asia that stretches back for centuries. It’s no accident that all three of Sterling’s examples come from Slavic or central Asian regions.

In a short, pithy work, Meyer shows that the current US invasion and occupation of Iraq is part of a pattern of western imperialism that has spanned several hundred years. The two other major interlopers in the region have included Britain and Russia. Both have sown seeds of anger and mistrust that are likely to play out for decades yet to come.

Meyer has chapters on Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, and central Asia. He concludes with a chapter that asks “What Is To Be Done?” Written after 9/11/2001 but prior to the current Iraqi imbroglio, Meyer is spookily prescient. He dissects the case that western imperialism can “make the world safe for democracy” by carving up and creating client states in the Middle East. It didn’t work for Britain in the 19th century. It’s unlikely to work for the US in the 21st. In fact, British hegemony at the end of the 19th century offers uncanny parallels to America’s role in the 21st. At a time when it could be
an huge influence for good and for advancement of humanitarian rule, the US time after time is throwing its largess away on authoritarian rules who care less about the welfare of their people than feathering their own Swiss bank nests. And he neatly slices through current neo-conservative thinking (although he never uses the term) that the US can go it alone, not needing to participate in multilateral treaties. One can picture Paul Wolfowitz leering into the camera, saying, “Treaties? We don’t need no steenking treaties” as he pushes back his cowboy hat.

Meyer lauds the first President Bush for using international bodies and international pressure to force the newly independent states of the former USSR to give up their nuclear weapons. One shudders to think how that delicate and touchy situation would have ended up with the current administration.

Americans have a hard time with history. They don’t like history. They want, like Sterling, to think about the future. They want to create the future. Now. But without an understanding of the past and knowing that Pakistan was carved out of India by the British in six weeks or that the Taliban in Afghanistan were largely created by US aid, we will surely demonstrate that ignorance is far from bliss. Indeed it will inexorably lead to fear, uncertainty and probably death and destruction.

Meyer’s call for multilateral action to battle the spread of militant Islam is right. His book deserves a wide reading.

Judis, John B. and Ruy Teixeira. The Emerging Democratic Majority. Scribner, 2002, index, 213 p.

In 1969, Kevin Phillips wrote "The Emerging Republican Majority." His thesis was that the elecorate was changing and would soon be electing a Republican majority in the Congress and that the presidency would be ruled by Republicans. His thesis was borne out throughout the 70s and 80s. If Watergate hadn't intervened, it is highly likely that the U.S. would have had an unbroken string of Republican presidents from Richard Nixon through George Bush Sr. As it was, even with Watergate, Gerald Ford came within a whisker of beating Jimmy Carter. The Senate went Republican in 1980 and again in 1994. The House has been in Republican hands since 1994. In this new book, Judis and Teixeira argue that the Democrats are in much the same position that Republicans found themselves in 1969. By 2010, at the latest, they expect Democrats to be in control of the political agenda.

The authors make their case through a series of arguments based on demographic changes that include the increased number of non-white voters, women, professionals, and labor who identify more with policies and views of the Democratic Party than with the Republican. These policies include attention to the deficit, attention to the environment, women's rights including freedom of choice, and using government as a force for constructive societal change.

It's a persuasive argument. They caution that demographics are not destiny and that these trends do not guarantee a Democratic majority. The party will require effective and capable politicians who can craft an appealing message for the emerging coalition that will carry the Democrats to power.

Das, Gurcharan. India Unbound, Anchor Books, 2002, index, 412 p. (pb)

Das is an Indian who was born into a post-independence India. The story he tells is a personal retelling of India as it shook off its British colonial rulers and began to look at independence and what it means. As Das sees it, the story is "soft drama. It is taking place quietly and profoundly in the heart of Indian society." It is a story of vibrant entrepreneurs fighting entrenched bureaucracy and it is a story of the world's second most populous country struggling to come to grips with what it means to be a player in the global economy. He compares India, where the vast majority of people live in poverty and where the economy was stagnant for the first 50 years of independence, with the Asian Tigers, where governments encouraged economic growth. It's not always a favorable comparison. Although the Tigers showed astounding economic growth for a couple decades, they have suffered for the last several years. India, on the other hand, has grown very slowly but has not suffered many of the calamaties the Tigers did. Das calls India an elephant rather than a tiger. He hopes that the path India is on with slowly but surely make India a strong player in the global economy but not at the cost of the loss of its historic culture of diversity, tolerance, and spirituality. Such costs are often incurred when countries are overwhelmed by the western consumer culture most associate with the global economy.

India is a very old civilization, pre-dating the western world by centuries. At one time it was fabulously wealthy. Later that wealth evaporated and in the 20th century India almost stopped economic development as the socialist Nehru turned the country into a giant bureacracy. Recent reforms have begun to change the country. Das expects to see poverty begin to recede and a middle class to become ascendent within the next 20 years or so. It's an optimistic view and not one that's yet been determined. One can only cheer India and its citizens on.

Burdett, John. Bangkok 8. Knopf, 2003, 318 p.

Ostensibly a mystery novel, Burdett uses the mystery as a mechanism for ruminations on the nature of life in southeast Asia versus life in the West. He treats us to a hard-edged, fascinating view of Bangkok in the early 21st century and seems to say, "Hey, you hyper-rational guys in the West, take a look at us and learn."

Burdett's detective is policeman Sonchai Jitpleecheep, an inconsistent Buddhist, and a rarity among Bangkok police officers, an honest public servant. Sonchai navigates the muddy ethical and moral thickets posed by the murder of a black Army sergent. Carried out in an imaginative way involving pythons and cobras, Sonchai's job is not only to figure out who and why but how the snakes were made to act as if on cue. It's a fascinating journey and an odyssey into a culture and philosophy only slightly known to Westerners. Take a ride with Burdett. It's worth the time and effort.

Swami Bhaskarananda. The Essentials of Hinduism: A Comprehensive Overview of the World's Oldest Religion. Viveka Press, 2nd edition, 2002, index, glossary, 234 p. (pb)

In this short book, Bhaskarananda reviews the highpoints of Hinduism. No 234 page paperback can do more than scratch the very surface of the complexities of this fascinating religion. But Bhaskarananda does a good job. He uses everyday, modern examples to illustrate many Hindu concepts. Along the way he covers karma, reincarnation, predestination, and Hindu social customs. There are many facets to Hinduism and Bhaskarananda covers yoga philosophy as well as Sankhya and Vedanta. He attempts to answer many of the criticisms often leveled at Hindu and other eastern philosophies. For those looking for a beginning book about Hinduism this is a great place to start. An appendix offers suggested reading.