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Modern History

This category contains 15 posts

The Making of Isaiah Berlin

“In Search of Isaiah Berlin” by Henry Hardy (Tauris, 2018) is the testimony of an editor that devoted the better part of his life to a search for Isaiah Berlin. Often, this was a literal search — for unpublished texts buried in various corners of Headington House — yet also metaphorically Hardy’s task often was to find the appropriate meaning in vague or even contradictory passages of Berlin’s writing. Often delightful and always interesting, the book, writes BRB contributor Mario Clemens, constitutes an essential contribution to the study of Berlin’s ideas, providing not only helpful commentary but also making available new materials and offering context and contour to Isaiah Berlin’s intellectual development.

A Sociology of Texas

Texas looms large in the story that America tells about itself, and this has given rise to a subgenre where male writers from Texas (usually of European ancestry) seek to understand better, apologize for, and thoroughly explain to their readers the conditions of the author’s home state. Though Lawrence Wright’s ‘God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State’ (Knopf, 2018) nominally falls into this subgenre, it manages to overcome the constraints that some with it, or so BRB reviewer Christopher Landrum argues. While much of the book examines how Texas’s economy, population, and political influence over the rest of the nation have expanded since about 1978, Wright is ambivalent, and more than a little impatient, with the continued “immature political culture” of Texas — a culture that, as the current occupants of the White House demonstrates, has long rubbed off on the rest of the country. All in all, the book, in spite of some glaring omissions, provides a readable and informative for Texas and non-Texas alike to gain a new perspective on the ‘lone star state’.

Life, ‘Technics’, and the Decline of the West

With the unexpected resurgence of ‘völkisch’ thinking in German politics in recent months, and a concomitant revival of the old antagonism between ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’, it may be high time to re-examine the philosophical sources of such thinking. The recent reissue of Oswald Spengler’s ‘Man and Technics’ (first published in 1932 as ‘Der Mensch und die Technik’) is a good occasion to reflect not only on Spengler’s dark vision of history and life, but also on the celebration of martial heroism, which — in the age of weaponized populism and American-style ‘Trumpism’ — seems once again so eerily familiar. ‘Man and Technics’, argues BRB reviewer Ian James Kidd, has many things in common with Spengler’s more well-known ‘The Decline of the West’ –- its brooding character, grand ambition, and agonistic vision of life. But there is also, underneath that, something different. For, only when the depth of ‘technics’ is properly grasped can the ‘soul of man’ be set free — or so Spengler suggests in his plea for a genuine ‘philosophy of life’, fuelled by the release of vast energies and power. ‘Man and Technics’ describes a restlessly stirring ‘will-to-power’ that ‘embraces the world’ in the ‘gigantic power of its technical processes’. Sleepless factories, roaring furnaces, tireless production lines –- all of these show the on-going manifestation of ‘technics’, the dynamic, agonistic force that Spengler conceived as a metaphysical force. There is, then, in ‘Man and Technics’, a rich (if deeply problematic) resonance with deeper currents in German intellectual history, including those that aligned themselves with the most reactionary and destructive political forces. Engaging with these tendencies, without thereby endorsing them, may be unavoidable, lest ignorance of the technological mediation of political hubris breed intellectual complacency.

A Modern Social History Classic

While a number of major surveys of European social history have been presented in recent decades, many of these are indebted to Western European perspectives and narratives. In his ‘A Social History of Twentieth-Century Europe’ (London: Routledge 2013), Béla Tomka, professor of history at the University of Szeged (Hungary), offers a modern synthesis, based on painstaking empirical data. As reviewer, Ferencz Laczó argues, the volume may be considered as a corrective to more established perspectives, as well as a contribution to post-communist attempts at revising inherited historical understandings especially regarding the supposedly notable successes of communist-era modernization. All in all, Laczó argues, Tomka’s book represents a towering achievement in the historiography of European social reality.

Chronicles of Brazil

Perhaps coincidentally, diplomats feature prominently among writers from ’emerging’ countries such as Brazil and India. Yet unlike, say, Vikas Swarup’s ‘Q & A’ (better known through its movie adaptation ‘Slumdog Millionaire’), Edgard Telles Ribeiro’s recent novel ‘His Own Man’ (first published in Portuguese in 2010, and translated into English in 2014) does not let the — often messy — politics fade into the background of a human-interest story. ‘His Own Man’, writes BRB reviewer Julian Murphy, sometimes reads like a personal effort at coming to grips with how a country and a people can rapidly change its leaders and its values, yet calling the book a ‘personal’ account would do the book a disservice: It is also undoubtedly a contribution to a public record of a dark era — between 1960 and ca. 1985 — of South America’s history.

Churchill’s Bomb

Graham Farmelo, known as a biographer of physicist Paul Dirac, in his new book, ‘Churchill’s Bomb’, argues for a reassessment of Churchill’s role in British science policy. While not a scientist himself, Churchill drew inspiration from the work of writers such as H.G. Wells, speculating as early as 1924 that a bomb could be made, “no bigger than an orange….with the explosive power of tons of cordite”. When the possibility of actually building an atomic bomb came within reach, however, Churchill made various moves that ensured Britain’s exclusion from the American-led project to build the bomb. While, on one interpretation, Churchill allowed himself to be “fobbed off” by an evasive U.S. President Roosevelt, a fuller picture, as Farmelo makes clear, needs to take into account the various parties — individual and institutional, political and scientific — involved. In what reviewer Martin Underwood considers “a clear, lucid manner”, Farmelo reconstructs “Churchill’s often confused views on The Bomb and possible deployment”.

How West Point and Annapolis are like East Berlin

At a commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, last month, U.S. President Obama hit all the right notes: he complimented the military on remaining “the most trusted institution in America”, he vowed to eradicate sexual assault, which is rife in the armed forces, and he encouraged the graduates to “live with integrity and speak with honesty and take responsibility and demand accountability”. Of the military academies themselves, and their system of values — perhaps best expressed in the class motto “Surrender to Nothing” — Obama said “our nation needs them now more than ever”. Recent books, such as Lance Betros’s ‘Carved from Granite: West Point Since 1902’, tend to provide the historical background narrative to such rhetoric. But do the military academies deliver? Do they deserve their unique status as federally funded institutions of higher learning, for the purposes of training military officers? Bruce Fleming, Professor of English at Annapolis, begs to differ. The academies encourage a misguided sense of entitlement, drain public funds, and do not deliver intellectually. Worst of all, they are about as historically outdated and oblivious to their anachronistic existence as East Berlin in the year 1989.

American Foundations and the Politics of Philanthropy

In his book ‘Foundations of the American Century’ (Columbia University Press 2012), Inderjeet Parmar provides a wide-ranging study of the influence American philanthropic foundations have exerted on world politics and the ‘soft power’ that comes with cultural hegemony. The mutual penetration of state and society, notest Parmar, is ‘so deep and comprehensive – physically, politically, ideologically, psychologically, and organizationally – that it is almost impossible to say where one ends and the other begins’. Parmar’s book succeeds, writes reviewer Houman Barekat, because he studiously avoids the trap of implying an unmediated vertical relationship between the philanthropies and the political and economic elites whose goals they ultimately served. Nuanced and well-researched, Parmar’s study provides a healthy antidote to simplistic critiques of US ‘elites’, while bringing out – through case studies of Indonesia and Chile – how the initiatives of ‘philanthropic’ organizations dovetailed with and complemented those of the American state.

A Plea for Multireligious Self-Confidence

Nilüfer Göle’s book “Interpénétrations: L’Islam et l’Europe”, recently translated as “Islam in Europe: The Lure of Fundamentalism and the Allure of Cosmopolitanism”, makes a strong case that Islam must be acknowledged as having become part of the fabric of European modernity. As reviewer Mohammed Khallouk points out, the experience and lifestyle of a generation of young Muslim women in Europe occupies a central place in Göle’s argument. While the values they adopt in their personal lives may differ from those of their (non-Muslim) peers, their non-confrontational fusion of Western modernity and Muslim spirituality showcases what a self-confident multireligious Europe might look like.

Tales From a Dystopic Camelot

In his book ‘Mumbai Fables’ (Princeton 2010), Gyan Prakash unfolds the rich tapestry of the city’s cultural history. From the grand colonial architecture to more recent land reclamation projects, he traces the spatial dimensions of the city and their cultural meanings. Like all great cities, Mumbai has more than one fable in its story. But for all of Mumbai’s historical glamour, the situation of shanty-town dwellers is not overlooked — even though reviewer Katrina Gulliver has some doubts about whether the plotline of a comic book (to which Prakash devotes considerable space) is the right literary device.