Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Category: Book Reviews

Culture of Complaint

Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America by Robert HughesHughes_Complaint

The 1990s are back. In music, fashion, and it would seem intellectually as well. Our politics once again involves anti-globalisation anger and demands for recognition and respect for culture. The daily contest is once more dominated by the ‘sterile confrontation between the two PCs – the politically and the patriotically correct’.

While Robert Hughes’ Culture of Complaint was published in 1994, much of it feels very current and relevant. Some of the names (Jesse Helms) and controversies (Piss Christ) may have drifted from the collective memory, but the central absurdities of both the left and right remain. Twenty-four years on, Hughes efforts to skewer them is still compelling.

The book is effectively three long (55ish page) essays. Originally given as lectures, and then magazine articles, they were later fleshed out for formal publication. At times this enlargement process has left more fat than muscle, with meandering personal anecdotes and tangents laid out before the business of the day is directly addressed. This is a common flaw of the modern essay form, and while Hughes is among the finest writers Australia has ever produced, even he can not escape its indulgent structure.
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Destiny of the Republic

Millard_destiny

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

James A. Garfield is the type of US President known only to people who want to win Trivial Pursuit. But Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic makes a very good case for why the man and his times are not something we should ignore so easily.

As good as many US presidents have been, the era around the Civil War – with one standout exception – produced a lot of dullards and duffers as presidents. Either too willing to indulge the slave holders in the South, or too captured by the corruptions of the North, the second half of the 19th century is a somewhat sorry period in US governance.

While an assassins bullet denied Garfield the time to make a mark on history (he served just 4 months in health, and lived only 3 more as an invalid), he had all the qualities to launch an industry of biographers. Born in deep poverty in rural America, he ran a school, worked on the canal boats, fought in the Civil War, served in the House of Representatives for nine terms, and won the Presidency without actually seeking to be the candidate or campaigning.
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The Elements of Eloquence

Forsyth_elements
The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth
Generally, it’s not the done thing to be laughing while on a plane trip. And doing so with a book on the English language in your hand is especially frowned upon. But such were the circumstances I found myself in last week when devouring this brilliant little tome.

Each of the 40 or so chapters is only a few pages, but that is all that is needed for the author to outline dozens of rhetorical techniques and show how they are integral to many of your favourite lines, from Shakespeare to Katy Perry.

Forsyth explains why ‘Bond, James Bond’ works (it’s a diacope), why the repetition of words at the start of each sentence captures attention (the power of epistrophe), and why epizeuxis is the real estate agents’ best friend (location. location. location).

As a particular emphasis, Forsyth shows how Shakespeare practices and improved on these techniques across his plays, and what makes some of his best lines tick (‘to be or not to be’ gets its power from the symmetry and repetition of ‘to be’ rather than simply as a rhetorical question). He also adds in little asides, such as noting that for absolutely no good reason at all, all adjectives in English have to be in the order of ‘Opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun’. Hence why you’ve never read about a ‘great green dragon’ (as seven year old Tolkien once tried to describe).

While this is a bleary and badly written review, I found myself adopting a handful of techniques from Forsyth’s book in a speech I gave a few days after reading the book. Not in a forced “can I be clever” way (though I’m always open to such illusions), but in a “oh if I move this to here, or repeat that there, the paragraph will work much better). Small edits that aid eloquence.

Strongly recommended. If only to dispel the idea that learning how language works should be boring.

 

Game Plan: The Case for a New Australian Grand Strategy

Game Plan: The Case for a New Australian Grand Strategy by Ross BabbageBabbage_game_plan

You may not know the author of Game Plan, Ross Babbage, but you know his work. The ‘Defence of Australia’ policy was built by many hands, but in the words of Des Ball, Babbage was the ‘conceptual leader’. In ‘Game Plan: The case for a new Australian grand strategy’, Dr Babbage signals his view that defending Australia now requires a new set of overseas hands, primarily from the United States.

Babbage’s strategic evolution has been a long time coming. His PhD thesis, dozens of papers, chapters and books such as the widely acclaimed ‘Rethinking Australia’s Defence’ and ‘A Coast Too Long: Defending Australia Beyond the 1990s’ were key contributions to the development of Australian defence policy from the 1970s to the early 2000s.

To be sure, the US alliance was always a vital part of this policy. It was ‘self-reliance’ not ‘independence’. But the weight was on Australia to show that it was up to the task of its protecting its front yard. While Paul Dibb, Richard Brabin-Smith and others fleshed out the force structure details, Babbage, Ball and others drove the conceptual debates, along with bouncing around the Northern Territory identifying how the terrain could be protected and the best technology for doing so.
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Dereliction of Duty

Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam by H.R. McMasterMcMaster_duty

In Dereliction of Duty H.R. McMaster provides a devastating portrait of an administration which stumbled evermore into a war it had no interest in and no understanding of.

McMaster’s central concern is to show the decision making processes that pre-determined a US loss in Vietnam. He begins with John F. Kennedy’s administration showing how its personnel (such as Secretary for Defence Robert McNamara), its structures (ad hoc, personal and without formal committees) and its key ideas (via the experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis) were dysfunctional and yet adopted by Lyndon B. Johnson.

On top of this, McMaster adds one more biting critique: That LBJ never wanted to go ‘all the way’, but rather saw Vietnam as a distraction and impediment to his re-election and domestic policy agenda. In McMaster’s view, Johnson was weak and insecure and only concerned with his popularity. This led him to sideline the key office supposed to advise him on military affairs: The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
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Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum
Nussbaum - Notforprofit

One of the main arguments of our era on behalf of public funding of education is the economic benefit it will produce. In the current 2016 Australian election, the Labor Party has argued its education spending policy will add up to 2.8% to growth. US President Barack Obama made a similar case a few years ago that ‘For every dollar we invest in these [education] programs, we get nearly ten dollars back’.

In ‘Not for Profit: Why democracy needs the humanities’, Martha Nussbaum argues this is a fundamentally impoverished view of the role education plays in the functioning of a democratic society. Instead she provides a compelling ‘manifesto’ for a larger role for humanities (arts, literature, world history, religious studies and economic history) in the education of democratic citizens.

Nussbaum worries that in many countries around the world, and increasingly in the West, a ‘teach to the test’ model of rote and repetition seems to be gaining control. Professional skills are the demand, and opportunities for play, curiosity and questioning authority are reduced. While a digital world does require specific skills in science, maths, and technology, I would agree with Nussbaum that such skills will not solve or even salve our contemporary problems unless accompanied by an education in philosophy, politics and history.
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China’s Future

China’s Future by David ShambaughShambaugh - China

Why does the public taxpayer fund academics? The answer is so that scholars can write books like this.

While increasing numbers of social scientists believe that we need to study the human world as we do the physical – dispassionately, microscopically, and numerically -Shambaugh’s book is an important demonstration of the public value of scholars.

In this short and easily readable book, Shambaugh argues that unless the political system of China is reformed, the economic and social systems will stagnate and ultimately collapse. He is forthright in his view that only by moving to a more open political system, will China be able to achieve the economic reform it needs, and in turn avert the social and regional crises that seem to loom.

Shambaugh identifies four possible pathways for China. These are Hard Authoritarianism (the current path since 2009), Neo-Totalitarianism (the direction many fear Xi is taking the country), Soft-Authoritarianism (the 1998-2008 path) and Semi-Democracy (think Singapore but with Chinese characteristics).
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Talking To My Country

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Talking To My Country by Stan Grant

The ideal book review is written by someone who knows more than the author. They set the story in context, they point out missed connections, and tie it to a broader story. This is not one of those reviews. I know precious little of what Stan Grant speaks, and understand even less. Not only in the history spoken of, but in some ways how the author connects to that history is also foreign to me.

Talking to My Country is part memoir of his family, part plea to understand what his people have been through. Early on I found myself somewhat arguing back, treating this as a politics book and looking for him to provide policy answers. But the quality of Grant’s writing soon calmed that impulse and by the end, I was grateful for having had a chance to simply listen to the experiences of his family and how he and his people have felt about Australia.

What fascinated me most in this powerful book was the relationship between the author and history. Grant escaped Australia for many years, yet felt compelled to return and re-immerse himself in the culture and history of his people. He knows this history is painful and enraging, and yet feels it vital his son truly understands. He feels Australia has moved on, and yet incidents like the booing of Adam Goodes make him fear nothing has changed. And despite being a highly successful man of the world, he finds himself in the land and practices of his family long before.
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The Evolution of Everything

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge by Matt RidleyRidley_evolution

Evolution has always been a subversive idea. Order from chaos, progress without direction, design without a designer. But are humans the last word in natural evolution, or do their societies represent the evolution of evolution; from the biological to the ideational, cultural, and technological?

This is the argument at the heart of The Evolution of Everything by the science writer Matt Ridley. Not only has life and the universe evolved, so do humans over time. These same basic laws of bottom up, spontaneous order are to be found — and celebrated — everywhere. The book argues that what both explains the human world, as well as creates the best of it, is evolutionary. What is bad or harmful, is attributed to command and control attempts, from creationism to communism.

The book works through 16 chapters, each ostensibly focused on a topic such as Morality, Technology, Education, Population, Religion, Genes and so on. Each chapter is packed with different ideas and arguments, bounding around the topic in an always entertaining fashion. The first part of the book which tends to focus more on science or broad social dynamics (morality, culture etc) is especially engaging.

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The Future of Strategy

The Future of Strategy by Colin GrayGray - future of strategy

At the end of a distinguished career, professors sometimes write ‘a history of my field and its future’. This can be a fascinating and vital genre. At its best it engages the public, distils decades of learning and directly engages the most important issues of the day. At worst, these books do little more than summarise an author’s past thoughts (see Henry Kissinger’s World Order). Colin S. Gray’s The Future of Strategy walks both sides of this divide, but the effort, for author and reader alike is worth the toil.

Clarity of focus is one of Gray’s enduring strengths as an analyst. He is one of most relentless brushclearers in the field. He consistently tries to strip empirical reality back to its most base generalizable theory. In just 117 pages he has boiled down his life’s work to a few key themes: the need for a general theory of strategy, the universality of strategic practice and the ahistoric challenge of nuclear weapons.

Gray’s focus on developing theory is important in a field which often takes its claim to intellectual rigour as self-evident. Too often has the romantic allure of change (technology, ideas) and influence (providing analysis those in charge want to hear) caused theory to be left behind. That said, readers without the wider context of his work could question if a little too much brush has been cleared in this book, leaving a field slightly too barren for fertile development.

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The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven PinkerPinker-Sense of style

I went to a grammar school. Which naturally means I am quite bad at doing grammar. I can even mangle the very word grammar, replacing the last a with e. I have always loved playing with words, but the constraints that formal education demands have always felt too restrictive. Why can’t I spell crunnnch with three n’s? That’s how it sounds! And why can’t I start a sentence with and?

In The Sense of Style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century Steven Pinker tries to sort out what we truly know about good writing. While much of our common wisdom is wise, there is much that you and I heard from our teachers which should be discarded.

Across 300 easily read pages, and six distinct chapters, Pinker wanders through how we think in and through English and how to use it more effectively. Most importantly, he shows that while it makes sense to choose some options over others, it is convention and convenience that should guide us. The human mind shapes particular choices to be more effective, but it is human society which ultimately determines the merits of our language.
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The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present

The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present by Beatrice HeuserHeuser - Evolution of strategy

“War. War never changes”. So begins the latest hit video game Fallout 4. In reality however, war has changed immeasurably.

Examining 2000 years of warfare, with an emphasis from the age of Napoleon to the early War on Terror, Heuser shows the evolution, change, and variations of strategy and conflict. While bloodshed, suffering, fog and friction are common of every conflict, the how, where, when, and why of war has as many fashions as well…fashion.

Heuser’s concern is how people have written about and talked about the use and management of war and violence. Treating this entire field as focused on ‘strategy’ is a methodological risk. Most people in history haven’t used the term ‘strategy’ as we understand it today. While we should be careful not to put new words into old mouths, this is a risk worth taking.

Evidence of strategic behaviour is common across all human history and all human cultures. Even if our ancestors would not have used the term, they were undertaking the same essential task as we do today: Thinking about how to manage and use force to achieve political ends. And if we are to understand our challenges, we need to learn how those before us overcame theirs.
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The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective

The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective by Hew Strachan

IStrachan- Direction of War work at a ‘Strategic & Defence Studies Centre’ and like to use the word strategy. But I confess to not being really sure what the word means. In this confusion I am not alone.

In The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective Hew Strachan (pronounced ‘strawn’) examines the ‘lost meaning of strategy’. Today most government departments try to be ‘strategic’ as do businesses, health coaches, schools and caterers.

This is a far cry from what the term classically meant. Strachan compelling argues that for 18th and 19th century thinkers such as Clausewitz and Jomini, strategy meant ‘the use of the battle for the purposes of the war’. This was the notion which World War One generals carried with them into the conflict. The change in meaning occurred after World War Two and with the rise of the nuclear age.
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Restless Continent: Wealth, rivalry and Asia’s new Geopolitics

Restless Continent: Wealth, rivalry and Asia’s new geopolitics by Michael WesleyWesley_restless continent

If you go into a good bookstore these days, the international politics section is bound to be focused on ISIS/Terrorism, and the rise of Asia. Meanwhile, survey show 40% of US international relations professors consider Asia the most strategically important region for the US today, with that number jumping to 66% for those looking twenty years ahead. Both data points may seem surprising given Asia has been at peace for forty years.

Why the interest in Asia? Michael Wesley’s excellent new book Restless Continent: Wealth, Rivalry and Asia’s new Geopolitics, gives four big reasons for this focus: Scale, muscle memory, pride and location. In short, Asia is bigger, has stronger states, greater pride and more important location than any comparable region in the world. And Restless Continent is as good an explainer of the key trend and challenges as you will find on the bookshelves today.

This is a foxes’ book. There’s no big “one trick you didn’t know to explain the world” claims here. Rather dozens of trends, forces, and processes are highlighted to build an insightful, complex and even contradictory picture of Asia, as fits the actual diversity of the region.
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Australia’s Second Chance

Australia’s Second Chance by George MegalogenisMega_Aus_Second_chance

In the field of ‘big-picture’ books by journalists about Australian politics, Paul Kelly is the hall of famer who still rightly claims attention. But the rising star is George Megalogenis.

Megageorge as he is widely known has recently produced two important books. The Longest Decade told the counter-narrative story of the similarities between Paul Keating and John Howard. So good was it that I believe Paul Kelly paid it the ultimate compliment by trying to write the same tale in his own The March of Patriots. Megalogenis then returned the favour by retelling the story of Kelly’s The End of Certainty, examining and advocating for the liberalisation of the Australian economy in The Australia Moment.

In Australia’s Second Chance Megalogenis has again set out for new territory, arguing that Australia’s prosperity and success depends not just on being an open country economically but an open country for migrants. The book shows that Australia was and always has been a nation defined by migration. This, alongside the question of population is a central element of the nation’s success.
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