Ryn comes to the real problem of both rejecting missionary assimilationism and absolute universalism as well as postmodern/clashing relativism by creating a synthesis point where universal self-betterment is assisted rather than sabotaged by cultural and intellectual diversity. Different groups of people can not only learn about their own blind spots by studying and interacting with others, but in so doing learn to interact with each other more proficiently. Though he does not use this analogy, its a bit like viewing politics and culture like the Olympics at their collaborative best. These themes also dovetail well into previous topics I have talked about such as ‘Cosmopolitan Chauvanism.’
Ryn is writing as a universalist (albeit a rare non-messianic one) and I am reading it as a relativist (albeit very much NOT a postmodern/idealist one but rather as a materialist-anthropology influenced one a la The Human Swarm) and its remarkable how much we come together despite our different origin points. Perhaps proving the thesis of the book, we couldn’t be more different in how we approach the issues of societal cultivation, but come to many of the same conclusions based on the utility of the deep historical perspective and our mutual scorn for Leo Strauss and his ahistorical and idealist acolytes.
Which is not to say that I endorse all of his views. In fact, since I reject abstract concepts of ‘the good’ or the desirability of ethical convergence on many things, I would say we still have some fairly significant differences. One instance would be my objection to conservative historiography’s rejection of accepting big dramatic political breaks as part of the holistic story of how societies evolve-I happen to think they are almost as important as the continuities in creating the whole.
However, while Ryn talks about a true cosmopolitanism being the acceptance of difference and the ability to learn from it, our purposes are the same. I see this book being vital for diplomats in particular in underlining how their profession relies on both the acceptance of divergence but for mutually constructive benefit. After all, even if I think societies learn from others not just for self-betterment but also to heighten difference and compete, all societies have a certain set of shared interests. Keeping local wars from becoming global, management of climate change, and maintaining a diplomatic standard everyone can negotiate from.
While there was more than one section I wanted to quote, there was one section in particular that stood out to me I will directly cite here:
It hardly needs saying that all traditional societies have notable weaknesses and that some are much less admirable or humane than others. Much time has already been spent in this book explaining that a properly traditional society is always trying to select and extend the best in its own traditions and to discard whatever blocks the development of its higher potentialities…
As we have seen, today many want to replace the diversity of historically evolved peoples and civilizations with a ‘universal’ global culture. They do not grieve any lost historical opportunities of the kind just mentioned, for their view of humanity is flat and prosaic. To these globalists, a good society or world is one in which all live in the same way, the way that the globalists themselves deem to be superior. They do not recognize the conceit of the presumption that the world should be transformed according to their own ideas, for they have little awareness of the depth, complexity, and richness of humanity, formed as it is by histories extending in complex ways back to the beginning of time. These globalists cannot see any need for human beings to cultivate their distinctive origins. After all, the model of society that they advocate is recognized by all enlightened persons as the one for which mankind has always been seeking. What is cultural distinctiveness but an obstacle to achieving the desirable social arrangements and ideological homogeneity? The efforts of the globalists to substitute a new world order of their own for historically rooted societies will efface not only what they may think of as the quaint and superficial ‘charm’ of various traditions, but will gut mankind’s deeper, shared, though highly diverse, humanity. These efforts will rob mankind of a rich source of value and self-understanding. They could benefit only people who have something to gain from each others losing their creativity, strength, and self-confidence.
It was because of this that I overlooked the author’s old man comments on contemporary vs classical genres of music when listing aspects of civilizational self-improvement.
Professor Pekka Hamalainen wrote the book I was going to write. The book I had started research on in 2019 and planned to write since 2015. However, taking on lots of research and writing projects outside of this field slowed my normal breakneck speed for such things to a crawl. With the release of Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, however, it looks like I lost the race. You might think I am going to whine about this, but I am not. Hamalainen is possibly my favorite currently active historian and I cannot think of a person I would have rather lost this race to. I constantly recommend his work to people, especially The Comanche Empire, which I still regard as his best book. Additionally, and this I realized the day after I learned this book was going to come out, having the general meta-historical narrative out there and completed actually frees me to focus in the future on the real core of my specialty: the geopolitical theory of large Native American confederacies. My opening still exists, and may even be better by being more focused. No longer having to include as large a historical section means it might even end up being a very large article or book chapter rather than a whole book. So my options for publication increase.
I believe this background means I am one of the most qualified people to review this book. I would first like to start with the positive aspects, which are the largest number of reactions I have.
Hamalainen gives us a very 5,000 feet above and looking down view on Native American history from precontact until the late 19th Century and the final round of ‘Indian Wars.’ Works like this are inevitably going to avoid too much hyper-specific detail and focus instead on broader strokes, but despite this the book manages to be almost as complete a narrative as it is possible for such a work to be. This big picture focus is on the political power, autonomy, and dynamism of Native American actors even deep into the period when colonists began seizing land and becoming powers in their own right. As a theme, this focus is kept consistently throughout the text. In providing this service, Hamalainen gives us a macro-history that restores Native Americans to their rightful place as part of the continents balance of power rather than simply being either ‘savages’ or ‘helpless victims’, which is what the two dominant strands of hyper-ideologues in North American history tend to reduce them to. This recognizes the importance of understanding these polities in ways separate both from progressive and reactionary Eurocentric scholarship.
The geographic space covered is from the desert border separating Mesoamerica from North America (a major cultural divide that predates colonization in many ways) up to the Canadian arctic. The focus naturally tends towards the bigger and more geopolitically significant nations and alliance networks, such as the Haudenosaunee, Cherokee, Anishinaabe, Comanche, Lakota, etc.
While it is apparent to anyone widely read in Native American history, particularly in niche specialist books about specific areas and time periods, that some of these confederations (especially the Haudenosaunee and Comanche) were most often the strongest powers in the region, general macro-historical narratives often ignore or downplay this despite their ability to outlast and defeat multiple European colonial projects. Hamalainen’s book’s primary contribution is showing how for the first century after colonization native powers were the strongest all over, and how even in the century after that both the Lakota and the Comanche still maintained dominance in particular regions. This is important and necessary work for the field. And long overdue in a generally accessible format like this work is.
I do, however, have some critiques.
The first and more minor one is that two major actors in this narrative still get a fairly short shrift. I do understand from personal experience one must always highlight some things and de-emphasize others. I did it quite a bit of this selection in my own book. But a person reading Indigenous Continent with little preexisting knowledge of the subject would definitely not quite get the power of the Blackfoot Confederacy at its height nor the uniqueness of the Tlingit experience. The second in particular would serve as a great example because of it mostly fighting the Russian attempt to colonize America to a stalemate, but more importantly because of its maritime and naval character. The Tlingit and Haida had canoes that were so large they were more like longships or small galleys and small cannon were often mounted on them. They wore body armor made of washed ashore Chinese and Japanese coins that was often bulletproof to musket fire. They lived what might have been the highest standard of living in the pre-Victorian world due to their ability to exploit the Pacific Northwest’s natural riches in such a way as to develop an extremely sophisticated material culture without having to engage in farming or urbanization.
A more substantial critique I have is that the (correct) fixation on Native power and autonomy in the book can sideline the very real existential dangers faced by native people from the start, and so once the tables turn against the native powers it can come across to the reader as extremely jarring and almost unexpected. A few paragraphs near the start really explaining why Natives were so disproportionately effected by Eurasian disease (it was because of there being far more domesticatable animals in Eurasia giving people who grew up around them for generations far greater disease resistance but also greater ability to spread them) would have helped the general reader. This would show clearly that these persistent and proportionally deadly outbreaks turned North America into a place of pure chaos and destruction from the 16th Century onwards. This was the single most post-apocalyptic setting human beings have ever found themselves on a hemispheric scale in recorded human history. Rather than diminish the narrative of Native power and autonomy it actually increases it by making the achievements of these countries that survived and for a time even thrived all the more impressive.
These events are of course talked about in Hamalainen’s book but not in a central way. This means that the constant background of irreplaceable losses among natives is sidelined along with the concurrent growth of the settler populations not only due to immigration but also a truly staggering and long lasting baby boom. This was something the more destabilized native powers could not replicate, and thus by the early 18th Century the tide really had turned against them and they were clearly headed towards perpetual underdog status through demographics. Yet in Hamalainen’s narrative settler advantage seems to only really appear about 50-100 years after this, which could throw a reader for a bit of a loop.
None of these critiques of mine sabotage the point of the book or its importance, however. I believe this is the correct book to introduce general audiences to the importance and awesomeness of Native American history and finally rewrite the focus of the narrative around North American history. The history of the peoples before the rise of what we now call modern North Atlantic society is every bit as important in understanding this continent and how to live on it as that which has come since.
It should not come as a surprise that my favorite (post-ancient) state in the history of North Africa and the Middle East is the Mamluk Sultanate. As a collector both of unique governing systems and ‘barbarian’ run states from the Liao Dynasty to the Haudenosaunee, it should not be surprising that this entity that ruled Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the late medieval period is the state from that place and time that most stands out to me. Perhaps more pertinently, it was the favorite state of the most influential intellectual on my own life, Ibn Khaldun. He would eventually relocate to this empire and serve as an educator and informal ambassador under its employ. Most famously in this capacity he would meet the conqueror Timur during the siege of Damascus.
Ibn Khaldun’s fascination with the Mamluk state is easy to discern. His own philosophy was about noticing the trends of barbarians to conquer the civilized, set up new vigorous states, and then gradually succumb to complacency and corruption as they became as overly civilized along the lines of the people they once replaced-opening them up to displacement by the next phase of barbarians as the cycle repeated itself. The Mamluks wanted to keep their Turkic and Circassian military character and so recruited new members of the elite by purchasing slaves from what is now the southern steppe regions of Russia. These slaves would then become the personal property of the Sultan (himself a former slave or descendent thereof) and be educated and trained to become the military and ruling class. Distinct from the general population, their internal culture was quite egalitarian and merit based (though frequently unstable when it came to determining succession). Though this model is incredibly distinct both to its time and place (what isn’t?), Ibn Khaldun thought it worth learning from as it addressed many of the problems in premodern governance he had diagnosed.
The question certainly could be asked of us today. What outsider-yet-amenable class can we draw an elite from to keep things going without sliding to poorly into entrenched decline. It is a question that is worth answering, even if it may never be solved.
‘The Mamluk Sultanate: A History’ by Carl F. Petry seeks to give us a thorough examination of this original form of statehood. Extremely comprehensive, Petry’s narrative begins with a summary of the reigns and events of Sultans in the new government, its shaping in the crisis of the Mongol invasions (the only successfully defended country from those assaults in the region), the seizure of power by the nomadic slave-class and their erection of a new form of oligarchy on the ruins of the Ayyubid order, and their initial expansion. This was a ruling class more based on lifestyle than on ethnicity, as even the great defeater of the Mongols, Baibars, aped Mongol court customs and actively tried to recruit defected Mongols into his army. We then see how restrained the Mamluks were once they had direct control over Egypt, Syria, and the Hejaz. For the remainder of their over 250 years, the large and powerful state would act mostly defensively in upholding this order. (The invasion and vassalization of Cyprus being a big exception to this, but that itself was provoked by constant pirate attacks). Considering the quality of its elite troops in its early years and the weakness of many of its rivals, this is impressive and most likely aided the longevity of its regime. Additionally, being a hub of trade, more of its money could go into works of public infrastructure and building than one might expect from a military government largely made up of foreigners who kept themselves apart from most of their subjects.
The coming of the Ottomans, however, would change the situation. Another rising power that gained traction in the post-Mongol world, the Ottoman commitment to technological innovation would be the one thing the Mamluk edifice was not prepared to handle. The fatal flaw of their system was not the occasional coup and counter coups (this never actually divided the realm when it happened), but the requirement of a military based off specialist cavalry warfare. The Ottomans had no such restrictions as their system was hereditary monarchy and they were forged in far more apocalyptic circumstances after the Timurid incursions lay waste to their core regions. Therefore, the Ottomans had become innovators in both technology and tactics in the use of firearms. Something the Mamluks had only just started experimenting with just a few years before in the attempt to recruit a Nubian infantry gunner corps. This experiment, however, was extremely controversial towards guardians of the social order and it was hard to move forward with it before Selim the Grim descended onto Egypt and Syria in what would be the Ottoman Empire’s largest scale and most efficient conquest in its history. As an independent state the Mamluks would be no more, but as a class they would retain their regional rule in Egypt until their decisive defeat by Napoleon and the subsequent modernization programs of 19th Century Egypt as it moved out of the Ottoman orbit.
The remainder of the book breaks down various internal and structural topics of the Mamluk state. Petry is extremely thorough and his work, especially in regards to the political economy, jurisprudence, and promotion of the arts is to be commended. What we are left with is a work that, while lacking general audience narrative flow, has a well organized structure and lends itself well to referencing and citation. This was, no doubt, the intent. And for those of us whose primary fascination is that of the stranger states in history, this book is well worth the time.
‘Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind’ by Miguel Leon-Portilla is a circa 1990 attempt to extrapolate the metaphysics of Nahuatl-dominated Mesoamerica based off of what surviving sources are available. Much was lost, destroyed, and hidden in the Spanish conquest, not so much due to the war itself as much as the subsequent invasions of priests and missionaries who insisted on demolishing, ISIS-style, as much of previously existing culture as they could. This has left us with imperfect records to work with, yet the Mesoamericans were an incredibly literate people and some had the foresight to safeguard many things until later and less fanatical eras.
Leon-Portilla has an interesting way of approaching this anthropology-meets-philosophy overview. He likes to let primary sources speak for themselves. Only after listing the excerpt he wishes to reference does he then move on to repeating it but while deconstructing each line or paragraph in turn with modern interpretation. This is an atypical way of conducting this kind of analysis, and it takes some getting used to. However, it works extremely well and made me wonder why this method is not used more often.
The author is interested in figuring out the rise of philosophy independent of mythology and religion as much as he can (in many cultures there is not a clear line of division between the two and such is the case here as well). Nevertheless, we must begin with the cultural context of Mexica myth. We get a breakdown of religious beliefs and cosmology but also see that many scholars doubted these accounts going back to the start of what in today is known as the Aztec Empire (actually a triple alliance of three city-states in the Nahuatl culture complex dominated by the Mexica people). Most importantly, there is a summary of how the Mexica people saw their right to rule in the origin of the present Fifth Sun Era. All previous suns had been specific to past eras that had all ended in cataclysm. This current era would be no different, however, its ending could be delayed by honoring the covenant of sacrifice that had made it possible in the first place. For, after the initial creator duality-god/god couple created the other gods, those gods had in turn brought about this new era through the self-sacrifice of two of their own members, Tecuciztecatl and Nanahuatzin. The first showed hesitation thus could only become the moon. The second who jumped right into ‘the God Oven’ became the sun. In order to keep this new and most beneficent sun going, Nanahuatzin/the sun must be periodically recharged with human blood, which holds power when shed due to it having a link with the gods as well. As gods sacrificed themselves to make the world livable for men, so too should men return the favor if they wish these conditions to continue.
Naturally, this also gave the expansionistic Aztecs a great ideological foil to pursue an empire. As the prestige of taking captives for sacrifice fueled war, so too could war fuel growth. Growth, in turn, was tied to a special pact of their empire with the maintenance of divine order. It upheld the cosmos for the Aztecs to expand. If they stopped expanding their world would end.
It becomes apparent that skepticism of religious literalism was quite common in that society for a long time. This put many ‘wise men’ on a different path than that of the religious establishment. Fittingly, since the Mexica saw the most important creator god as one of duality, a core dualism emerges in Aztec thought. There was the priests and the warriors going out and growing the empire through war and sacrifice, but there were also highly respected wise men who taught of empathy in a world of constant entropy, and the utility to practical Epicurean-like pleasures through harm reduction at home. This led to a philosophical emphasis on what we might now call universal primary schooling, with an enormous percentage of children literate and learned for a pre-modern society.
This example also, along with that of, say, the British, pretty firmly puts to bed the idea that educated societies become more peaceful.
The purpose of this new Mesoamerican society was to cultivate a ‘face and heart’, a personality in our terms, that understood the temporary nature of things and the necessary fatalism to cope with it while also building themselves up as distinctly useful for society as a whole. The author emphasizes that while Aztec political culture was collective (hence both public education and public sacrifice spectacle) its concept of personal life was in fact more individualist. Only in a well running collective could things work to allow the arts and philosophy, and only through the arts and philosophy could individuals differentiate themselves from each other in order to better contribute to society by meeting their true potential. While societies with similar civic bargains to this have existed elsewhere, few I know of were so specific in making this their intention. There quite literally is no self/society divide because the self is in service to society and vice-versa.
Mexica intellectual pursuits were dominated by an understanding that all things pass in time. They were also enormous weebs for the previous Toltec culture, using the term ‘Toltec’ to describe things that were well made in a material sense. Much like the Japanese concept of mono no aware, it was the fact that the Toltecs has passed into history but still left moving monuments that inspired the Aztecs to make art. The temporary nature of things was inevitable but beautiful. It was part of nature and life. And it was a reason to build a society with a highly cultivated aesthetic sense. What these thinkers thought when it came to the necessity of blood sacrifice to prolong the apotheosis of the now, it is unknown. I suspect many were skeptical.
Yet, strip the symbolism aside and you really see a society far more honest with itself than that of the moderns. Expansionist orders are founded and maintained by blood. The Aztecs tied a frank openness about this to their very being and even promised a higher destination in the afterlife for those sacrificed than those who died naturally. Compared to our high culture, which lives in total disavowal and denial that our empires are much the same in effect towards other people, and which rigorously seeks to hide our bloodletting far away from view, the honesty of the Aztec tableau is a bracing comparison. For many in the contemporary world, our ritualistic bloodletting goes towards no less a mythical edifice than theirs, as the constant laments from our priestly class for ‘upholding the values of the liberal world order’ imply. At least the Aztecs got a great show for their efforts. We just get to be on ‘the right side of history.’
It also shows us the limits of absolute duality. For it is not that high culture exists despite its gruesome elements, but often in total tandem with them. The lake city of Tenochtitlan was larger than any in Europe at the time of its height. It was remarked upon by the very people who conquered it and enslaved its inhabitants that it was a place of remarkable cleanliness, order, and urbanity. Another water-based city, Venice, exists as an admired tourist attraction to this day not in spite but because it experienced its first golden age as a result of rampant piracy and the looting of Constantinople.
The Aztecs were very fatalistic towards the forces of nature, and the caprice of their gods reflected this. While you would be judged in life by how you lived, you were still going to the afterlife designated for you based off of the method of your death regardless of conscious action. Yet their obsession with self improvement shows that fatalism is not mere passivity. Fatalism can be the call to self-improvement. Being unable to remold the world, one can remold one’s reactions to it. And if enough people do this together- albeit in their own particular ways-this changed response creates its own impetus to not just live life for what its worth, but to contribute to it through the arts. To quote directly from the book’s conclusion:
‘Nahuatl philosophic thought thus resolved about an aesthetic conception of the universe and life, for art, ‘made things divine’ and only the divine was true. To know the truth was to understand the hidden meanings of things through ‘flower and song’, a power emanating from the deified heart.’
Anyway, on the subject of art, have some OC content:
“I’m so hungry I could eat the balls off a low-flying goose.” –Joe Biden, according to Andrew Shaffer
Lord Dismiss Us is a 377 page novel by written in 1967 by openly-gay British Peer Michael Campbell. It is a tense, sexually-driven novel about young men coming to terms with their sexuality amidst an administration’s religiously-motivated witch hunt to purge deviants from the boarding school in which the story is set. It is fraught with desire, unrequited love, and the problem that every man wrestles with in Western society—is a quick pump and dump the closest thing gay men can have to experiencing love and fulfillment? If I were to write a review of it I would give it four stars out of five. It’s really good, I highly recommend it, and you should read it instead of Hope Never Dies, a 301 page novel written in 2018 by Andrew Shaffer.
If my choice of opening quote (pg. 112) is anything to go on, I promise you that my comparison to Lord Dismiss Us is not snarky or random. It is intentional, and I am sure by the end of this review you will fully appreciate why. Because for 301 pages, Andrew Shaffer desperately wants to write a slash-fiction of former President Barack Obama and former Vice President, current President, Joe Biden. He wants it very, very badly. The problem is that an explicitly pornographic fan fiction would probably have been better than what he actually turned in to his publisher. I have a lot of criticism of Shaffer’s ability to tell a story, as well—it’s not just the wannabe slash-fiction that makes this bad—but I really need to hammer home just how much Shaffer wants Obama and Biden to Pete and Chasten Buttigieg. To do this I will present to you a brief passage from Chapter 43:
When I woke up, I found myself in the middle of the cemetery. I was lying on my back, with the sun beating down on my face. A gentle breeze was rustling the unmowed grass. Far away, I heard a thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Like racing heartbeat. The louder it grew, the more distinct it became. It wasn’t a heartbeat at all. It was the trotting of hooves. Big, heavy horse hooves. I sat up just as a white horse emerged from over a hill. A faceless rider snapped the reins and flew down the slope of the hill, dodging broken tombstones and barren trees. The hooves pounded louder and louder, as if the sound was coming from inside my own head. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump… The closer the horse came, the more indistinct its shape. It was so white that it was glowing. Looking at it was like staring into the sun during an eclipse; I was forced to look away. Just when it sounded like the horse was about to run me down, the animal came to an abrupt stop. It was so close now, I could feel its warm breath on me. I was vaguely aware that I was dreaming, but every sensation was so vibrant. I desperately wanted it all to be real. “Need a hand?” I peeked at the figure on the horse’s back through cracks in my fingers. My eyes slowly adjusted to the light emanating from the horse, and the figure came into focus. It was Barack Obama, clad in a white toga.
Take all the time you need to revel in that afterglow. It’s honestly a surprise to me that this bodice-ripper wasn’t given some kind of GLAAD award or picked up as a multi-season crime drama on Logo or VH1, wherever RuPaul’s Drag Race is currently being hosted.
To be fair to Shaffer, this steamy Obama-as-Greek-god scene (turns out it’s a unicorn, not a horse—seriously) is meant to evoke a symbolic foreshadowing of the once bosom-buddies to their pre-2016 status quo. The overriding emotional theme of the story is that, since Trump’s inauguration in January, 2017, Obama has been out gallivanting around with celebrities while Biden eats ice cream at home, neither one has kept in contact with the other, and now Biden is insanely jealous that Obama is holding auditions for a new best friend. This tension defines their interactions throughout the book. Told in the first-person from Biden’s perspective, this tension is necessary because Biden just isn’t a tough cop act. He can’t just go swaggering in and solve a murder—oh yeah, sorry, I forgot to tell you this wanna-be porn show is actually a murder mystery. Let’s back this up a little bit. Face down ass up, right into daddy’s lap.
Biden is at home one night, feeling jealous, when his dog gets all feisty to go outside. Biden sees the orange glow of a cigarette in the dark trees outside and goes to investigate. Turns out Obama is hiding in the woods waiting for Biden to make an appearance, and he’s back on Marlboro Man’s good graces. Shaffer tips his hand very, very early in the text and gives us a sprawling four page description of Obama being the coolest dude in the locker room. The jock everyone looks up to, desperately wanting to be like him, the familiar feelings of latent homosexual longing that most young men experience at one point or another but only a select few will ever go on to actually experience. I’m not even kidding about this. The actual text of the story begins on page eleven, and every single thing that happens over the entire first chapter is either Biden scowling at how cool Obama is or Obama channeling serious James Dean energy:
“He rose to his feet, a slim figure in his black hand-tailored suit. His white dress shirt was unbuttoned at the neck. He took a long drag off his cigarette and exhaled smoke with leisure. Barack Obama was never in a hurry.”
You smoke after sex, Shaffer, not during foreplay. Jeez. Anyway, Obama lets Biden know that he heard about Biden’s friend’s Anna Karenina moment (read another book, Potterheads) and hand delivers a printed map to Biden’s house that was found in said dead friend’s apartment, setting off the mystery for Biden to investigate. In a normal murder mystery, we’d have Sherlock or Poirot or even fucking Bond running off to begin the investigation. Instead, because Obama and Biden aren’t your normal crime-fighting duo, we need to set the stage a little more elaborately to really dig into the how’s and why’s of a former POTUS and his VP actively investigating a death without any public or legal sanction to do so. This gives us more time to elaborate on just how salty Biden is that Obama has friends other than him. This goes on for several chapters.
After deciding that Finn (Biden’s stiff) didn’t Anna Karenina himself into that train and was actually put there Spaghetti Western style, he gets squirrely and decides he should Uber home with some flowers for Jill. When suddenly:
A black Cadillac Escalade pulled up to the curb in front of me. The truck-sized SUV sat there, idling. Was my ride early? If there was an Uber sign on the dash, I had no way of knowing—I couldn’t see anything through the heavily tinted windows. Suppose this wasn’t my ride. Suppose it was some enemy of the state, some deranged lunatic fixated on a former vice president. Suppose Finn wasn’t the one who’d left the printout of my address behind on the train… My heart rate began to ratchet up. I had no Secret Service protection anymore. No private security. I didn’t even have my pistol, because who brings a gun to a funeral? The vehicle just sat there, towering over me. There was nothing stopping a passenger from rolling down one of the windows and poking me full of holes. I was a sitting duck, with no wings to carry me away. I inhaled sharply and squeezed the bouquet tight. Water dripped out the bottom and onto the cement. The tinted back window lowered. “Need a lift?” Barack Obama asked.
Again. Afterglow. Also, Shaffer’s version of Biden has one single romantic fantasy, and that’s to be plucked away and carried off by the in-shape, bronze Adonis of his dreams. Now, I’ve read a LOT of Russian literature. It formed the backbone of the college degree that I, like most millennials, am not actively using to pay my bills. (Shaffer’s acknowledgements page literally just says “Thanks, Obama,” a sentiment that I, for no reason related to the 2008 bailout and its aftermath, would like to echo now.)
I understand the intended symbolism of Biden’s tension feeling like he’s about to get capped by Cornpop being relieved by Obama just rolling up all cool-like being mirrored later in the story when Biden is finally getting back to where he feels the most fulfilled. I get it. But, this is not a dense symbolist tome from 1880’s Russia. We do not have a Myshkin and Rogozhin from Dostoevsky’s The Prince debating the ethics of murder on a train as the set up for the payoff later of actually killing someone who is otherwise suicidal at the end of the novel. The only actual investment anybody involved has with the dead Finn is just that Biden happened to ride the train that Finn happened to be the conductor of. And Obama doesn’t know how to express his feelings because men apparently don’t have friends. The set up and pay off for these highly symbolic parallels at the beginning and end of the book does absolutely fuck all for anybody. And this, more than the porn, is what makes this a terrible fucking book.
Andrew Shaffer does not know how to actually tell a story. This book only exists to be pornography for blue-tick twitter nerds who think the term “policy wonk” is a compliment instead of a warning. Spoiler alert: Finn was not put in front of the train. He did, actually, Anna Karenina himself. Like Anna Karenina, he got himself too deep in something that he couldn’t handle and didn’t see a way out. Biden, always the plucky boy from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who lived most of his life in Wilmington, Delaware, just can’t wrap his head around the evidence that his friend—who, again, was not his friend, but just the conductor of a train he happened to ride—could have been somebody that he didn’t know very well, gosh darnit! Biden inserts himself into an active criminal investigation, is told off by law enforcement and Obama’s Secret Service agent, almost dies in the process, and gets a DEA agent murdered. All so that he and Obama can be friends again. Awwwww!
I actually stopped taking notes after a while because, once Shaffer gives the whole “Will they, won’t they” shtick a rest and gets into the groove of actually telling a murder mystery, there isn’t much to report on. His mystery proceeds as one would expect. Obama and Biden go poking around and find out that Finn was living in a motel. They go to check it out and gasp! A lady is there who gives them the slip! A clue that leads them to a Waffle House—sorry, Waffle Depot; also Shaffer calls a pawn shop a “pawn store”? Who the hell calls them that?—where they learn that Finn had a duffel bag sometimes. Finn’s family doesn’t know anything about a duffel bag. So who is the mystery lady and where is the duffel bag? The head of the investigation steps in and tells them it’s a suicide and they need to go home and stop playing cops and robbers. There’s tension between Obama and Biden! What are they going to do? Biden’s cop friend feeds them leads here and there. Turns out the mystery lady was a private investigator for the insurance company. She fills in Biden that she’s going to say it was a suicide. Biden and Obama finally have it out and Biden tells Obama they aren’t friends anymore! Oh no! Maybe Finn was a dirty drug pusher after all! But wait! A letter from Finn admitting that he’s a drug mule! Biden is off to tie up loose ends. The duffel bag! What’s this? Cop friend? Oh noes! Cop friend stole the dope! He was Dirty Harry the whole time! Oh no! A big bad biker dude is helping Dirty Harry! Biden literally has fisticuffs on a moving train, gets thrown from it, hangs on for dear life, and gets pulled back in by the biker dude! Lucky break! Biker dude was actually an undercover DEA agent! What a time to blow your cover right before you’re thrown off the train at-speed and die. Dirty Harry isn’t unconscious at all! The train has come to a stop! Quick! What do? Let Dirty Harry off the train, apparently! And then…whack! Dirty Harry is hit by a train going in the opposite direction. But wait! Shit! Somehow being hit by a 120 mph Amtrak Acela at-speed does not kill him. Because he gets back up, shoots Biden, gets shot by the Secret Service agent (oh yeah, Obama came back and showed up right at the nick of time—such belabored imagery, Shaffer), and Biden’s life is spared by his Presidential Medal of Freedom that he just so happens to carry in his pocket because reasons.
So. To summarize. Biden’s friend Finn dies by train. Biden refuses to believe it wasn’t murder. Biden inserts himself into an active investigation and it turns out that everything the police were saying about Finn was absolutely true. The only thing Biden did was uncover a dirty cop. The experience brings Obama and Biden closer together and now they’re besties again and can emote to one another like mature adults.
This isn’t a murder mystery. It’s not even a buddy cop story. It’s literally a romantic fictionalization of the twee DC liberal ideal of the Obama-Biden white house that is framed as a murder mystery, not the other way around. If you subbed in any other mystery solving duo for these two and expunged the obvious slash-fiction tropes, this would be a halfway decent first draft in need of some serious workshopping. It reads like fanfiction because that is precisely what it is.
A December, 2021 article by Vox points out the serious problem with Obama-era pop culture and how almost all of it is a projection of the world according to Hillary Clinton. As cringey as Vox itself is, they get the cringe of Harry Potter, Hamilton, Parks and Rec, et al to a T. After reading Hope Never Dies it is astonishing to me that this did not make it into their analysis. Because, at the end of the day, their analysis applies to this book, as well (and not just because of the many belabored references to Hillary in Biden’s narration of his worldview). The Obama years were never about Obama in the ontological worldview of these people. The Obama years were always about setting up Hillary to win in 2016. The people that hitched their wagons earnestly to Obama so that they could serve as the vanguard for Hillary eight years later see the world as being solely there to service Hillary. And Andrew Shaffer is no exception. “An Obama Biden Mystery” this ain’t. It’s pure Freudian, psycho-sexual projection. The twenty-four hour news cycle may have murdered the part of the American brain that is still capable of healthy sexual relationships, but it hasn’t murdered the part of the brain that still wants to fuck. And it’s the policy-wonk mentality that is used as a substitute for smashing genitals into various orifices for fun. So while my understanding of the English language leads me to define pornography in a particular way, I also know that society takes all kinds, and for a specifically loud and influential segment of our nation’s elite, Hope Never Dies should be sold at gas stations with a black bag hiding the cover art.
In my entire life I have only ever thrown two books across the room once I was done reading them. Hope Never Dies is one of them. Twilight was the first.
I have a long term and ongoing research project that continuously, if in slow-motion, has been unfolding in the background of my life since 2019. It means that the proportion of books that I read about Native American history is at its highest point since the topic was the subject of my undergraduate thesis back in my final year at Rutgers University. I just completed ‘The Worlds the Shawnees Made: Migration and Violence in Early America’ by Stephen Warren today and felt it was one of the stronger and more unique entries in the topic I have read for some time.
Warren is the author of multiple books about the Shawnee nation, but this is the one that goes back the furthest in time. Tracking the likely beginnings of the tribe as we know it in the Ohio River Valley as Fort Ancient people who saw rampant Eurasian diseases devastate their populations and settled lifestyle, the author takes us through the story of the dislocation of 17th and 18th Century Eastern Woodlands America. While the Shawnee are no doubt the primary focus of this work, they are taken to be an especially strong example of this time of chaos rather than the sole subject.
Warren shows how mass death and economic re-orientation around ‘Mourning Wars’ (the quest for population replacement captives) as well as access to European trade goods necessitated huge lifestyle and locational changes for many tribes. The Shawnee come in as the best example of this considering the sheer level of adaptability and willingness to travel that they encapsulated. From starting as one of the most sedentary cultures north of the Rio Grande to famously itinerant travelers across Eastern North America, they would be dubbed by their sometime rivals and sometime senior partners the Haudenosaunee as ‘the most traveled people’.
The Shawnee (and others) first traveled east in order to acquire guns to give them more of a defense against marauding bands of better armed nations such as the Haudenosaunee. They would then serve as mercenaries on the frontier for the colonies before retiring when settler pressure became too intense. Bands of Shawnee would go south to the Carolinas, east into Pennsylvania and Maryland, and west into Illinois. Divergent bands, likely descended from different Ohio River villages, would scout and acquire knowledge and goods. Then, after 50 years of wandering, begin the process of returning to the original Ohio Valley homeland in alliance with other displaced tribes to set up home again from a stronger position than it had been once they left. This was the core that first the French, then the British once the French left, tried to set up a Great Lakes Indian state around.
Warren does an excellent job showing how many tribes broken by European and Haudenosaunee power politics adapted and often coalesced into new formations. It is truly an underdog story of Darwin’s maxim that ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives but the one most responsive to change.’ Considering the sheer scale of epidemic die off in the region, not to mention the extinction of so many tribes, this is no small feat. It is for this reason, as well as the intrinsic historical value of the text, that the book is so useful.
I do have one complaint, however. The text feels like its building up to explaining the Northwest Indian experience when pan-Indian identity really started to take off with the attempt to have a sovereign Ohio valley native nation. The text, however, ends in the French and Indian War and stops there. Warren’s other book appears to pick up in 1796. That leaves out this most formative period of Shawnee history from Pontiac’s War up through the Northwest Indian War. I would hope the author would consider another book to cover this time period considering it is in some ways the culmination of many of the experiences talked about in this text. While the Shawnee became more sedentary again in this time (before being displaced by the U.S. government later and moving to Oklahoma), its a period I would have loved to have seen the author cover considering its importance in showing situational adaptation for an outnumbered and outgunned people. It was the Shawnee after all, along with their allies the Miami, Lenape, and others, who would score the biggest battlefield victory, proportionally speaking to forces engaged, over the U.S. army in all of history.
Warren’s book can be recommended to anyone interested in North American history as well as those interested in the history of migration and anthropological adaptation.
English language books having to do with the Golden Horde, the Mongol successor state that ruled most of Russia as well as parts of Siberia, the Balkans, and northern Central Asia and some of the Caucasus, are not uncommon. These do, however, tend to be divided between extreme specialist niche works on specific elements of the horde and general histories that focus more on the Russian experience as subject peoples rather than the Horde itself. A general audience yet still scholarly caliber work on Batu Khan’s empire with the focus on the Turco-Mongolian ruling elite rather than the Slavs under it was needed. And thankfully, Marie Favereau delivers.
In the past decade and a half, starting with Jack Weatherford’s book retelling the history of the Mongol Empire from a more positive direction, there has been a welcome re-engagement with the historical states of nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples. (Fun Fact, I actually briefly met Weatherford when I was in Mongolia and before he wrote said book). The history field was moving in this direction, but with the release of the excellent ‘The Comanche Empire’ in 2008 there has been a larger and larger push to re-examine so-called barbarians as strategic actors capable to every bit as much planning, foresight, and civic sense of political projection as agrarian or industrial people. I myself got into the action with my own book, though this was from an overtly geopolitical and international relations perspective rather than a purely historical one. It is my plan to make at least one more such book along similar lines for indigenous North America when time permits and have already begun the archival and personal research to start the process.
But the book I speak of here is ‘The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World.’ Despite the title, which implies another general history of the Mongol Empire, Marie Favereau’s focus is overwhelmingly on the what is commonly known today as the Golden Horde, though it is also called The Kipchak Khanate, the Ulus of Jochi, and in this book simply ‘The Horde.’ She begins with a summary of the founding of the Mongol Empire, its unique quasi-constitutional form of government, and the expansion that brought Mongols and their allied nomadic subjects as far away from their homeland as the Danube and Anatolia. We see the rise of a unified empire that would not be surpassed in terms of scope until the 19th Century British and never surpassed anywhere in terms of speed of conquest on such a scale. For two generations after the death of Chinggis Khan, it would stay together despite the small population base of the Mongols and their nomadic allies compared to the people they conquered. But it is in the division of the empire into at first autonomous sub-khanates and then into fully independent and sometimes mutually hostile states that we really see the focus of Favereau’s narrative.
The Golden Horde was always the outlier. The given inheritance of Chinggis Khan’s eldest son Jochi (who may have actually been fathered by another man from the hostile Merkid tribe), it was mostly unconquered land that would be taken by Jochi’s son Batu in his lightening conquest of Russia and parts of Europe in the 1240s. Located the furthest from much of the rest of the empire in terms of space, and made up of the highest percentage of non-Mongols in the army (politically assimilated Turkic peoples), Batu Khan pulled off a wintertime invasion of Russia as the Mongols actually preferred that as their campaigning season in order to avoid mud and knowing many of their enemies were not prepared to fight in such a season. Russia’s lack of good roads actually made frozen rivers the most effective highway to those who had the capacity to use them, and a Mongol army all on horseback with a contingent of Chinese siege weapons and early gunpowder capabilities could roll from one river-side city to another, destroying those who resisted and getting new vassals from those surrendered.
It has long been my contention that Batu Khan is one of the greatest political leaders in history. His conquests are striking, but partially if not primarily belong to his top general Subedei Bahadur (who I consider the greatest general in history), but his political acumen was on par with his grandfather the Great Khan. Batu was not interested in direct rule of non-nomadic people, and having created Europe’s most powerful empire since the collapse of unified Rome, he constructed an imperial edifice where settled people were taxed and occasionally conscripted, but otherwise left alone. The vast spaces of his domain even led to autonomy between eastern and western nomads. The Mongols stayed on the steppe and controlled the trade routes, which was their source of income. The settled subject people lived in small principalities and had their disputes managed by The Horde. The Yasa, or Mongol law, set the tone for how the Khan governed. His subjects had a guaranteed postal service and freedom of religion. In terms of his vision of state, Batu really was the most faithful to Chinggis Khan’s vision of an empire where the nomads stayed nomads and unified the steppe and kept protection rackets of comparatively light touch over their other subjects. Even so, The Golden Horde built Sarai on the Volga, a city made by nomads where all could come and trade, even if the Khans usually didn’t live there. At the height of the state, it would be the biggest boomtown in Europe. Merchants flocked there from all across Eurasia and scholars would set up shop there as well.
The irony was of course that as much of the rest of the empire was centralizing and even partially assimilating to its conquered peoples. This would mean that Batu’s Horde, the most faithful branch of the empire structurally, would be the most renegade successor state. Batu himself clearly sensed this, and began increasing his autonomy while the empire was still united. Though he had a claim on the throne after the death of the second Khan, Ogedei, he did not push it, preferring to stay in Russia, use diplomacy to slowly increase his regional power, and play kingmaker from afar. His influence would be felt in Mongolia, but indirectly. To modify a modern day IR term, he was an off-steppe balancer focused on defensive survival and autonomy maximalization. A true neoclassical realist, one could say.
Shortly after Batu died, his brother Berke came to the throne and here is were Favereau’s narrative really picks up. She tells the story of how The Horde became hostile to Hulegu’s Ilkhanate based in Iran and Iraq over unequal splitting of territories between them in Azerbaijan, and how the two western branches of the empire became enemies. The Ilkhanate won the first round, but the Horde would generally have the advantage after this, its subtle and flexible diplomacy winning it foreign allies across Europe and North Africa. It used its diplomacy (and military supremacy north of the Caucasus) to gradually siphon off trade from the south, enriching itself with surprisingly little military effort. While the post-Hulagu Ilkhanate, great patrons of art and astronomy that they were, found their more blunt force diplomacy counterproductive as the Golden Horde in the north and the Mamluk Sultanate to their west hemmed them in and prevented further expansion. Whether in the near abroad of eastern Europe or the far abroad of the Middle East and East Asia, Batu’s state would always show a flexible and dynamic diplomatic agility that enabled it to outlast the other successor states and many of its rivals.
After informing her audience of the various political and cultural events of the Golden Horde, Favereau takes us through the eventual decline and splitting of the horde due to several overlapping factors. Ozbek Khan’s over-centralization of a regime that worked best when decentralized (to say nothing of him making it an officially Islamic state which kind of sabotaged its multicultural nature-though thankfully only partially), coupled with a brief revival under Toqtamysh Khan* which was then immediately self sabotaged due to his falling out with the extremely successful Central Asian conqueror Timur Leng. The subsequent wars that the Golden Horde lost to him led to a fracturing of the state into smaller khanates. But even so, many of these successor states would remain governed by the same principles and would survive for centuries more. The Crimean Khanate (which Favereau does not cover but could be a sequel book to this work on its own) would last until the 1780s and even merge nomadic steppe land power with naval power in the Black Sea. Eventually of course, Russia, based off of leadership from Moscow-the once most loyal and Mongol-patronized city of the Rus, would take over all of these successor kingdoms. Of course, modern Russians often like to downplay how the old Muscovy state played up its legitimacy by touting connections with the old Khans. Then there is the….unique…way they depict Batu in media.
Volga, Crimean, and Lipka Tatars still exist today. Descendants of various peoples who were part of the Hordes nomadic core. And the Kazakhs are also one of the Golden Horde’s successor peoples, fully sovereign on territory that once was an integral part of that old empire. One could say Kazakhstan is the still remaining successor state to Batu’s empire. And I just have to add, when you compare where that country is today vs where it was in 1991, it is the most successful post-Soviet state by far.
My only bone to pick with Favereau, and this in minor and only comes up in her conclusion, is that she digs at my boy Ibn Khaldun for assuming nomadic people always assimilate into settled people and how The Horde disproves this. Contextually speaking this is a fair criticism, but Ibn Khaldun largely knew most about North African experiences with Turks, Arabs, and Berbers and not how the Mongols, Khitans and others of the northern steppe never gave up nomadism. If anything, The Horde shows how group solidarity takes much longer to break down when the conditions that gave rise to it are kept and the ruling elite are interconnected through a vigorous lifestyle, which I would say does in fact validate his theories indirectly. And considering that Khaldun approved of tightly knit groups who could rule with a light touch and were patrons of prosperity, The Horde would likely have met with his approval if he could have seen its internal dynamics. As it was, Khaldun praised the Mamluk Sultanate, the long time allies of the Horde, as an example of a state whose internal organization was trying to grapple with the issues he raised.
It seems likely to me that due to ecological concerns we will have to one day reinvent how we see things like progress, state structure, and commerce. Keeping this in mind, alternate state models from history are worth learning about. Not because they should be replicated in our present times where the context is too different to work, but because it expands our minds about what a state is, can be, and how to be flexible and adaptable and fit with the geographic context one finds themselves in. As someone who myself has always championed the value of learning about non-agrarian and unconventional political entities as an extremely interesting and useful aspect of human history, I can only commend Favereau for doing such an excellent job contributing to this cause. Her book is a great addition to the cause of studying political history that lies outside of that which is often talked about in conventional circles.
*Toqtamysh will likely be a future entry in my long-running historical trickster post series. He is just too much of a troll not to cover at some point. It was originally my plan to do an entry on him years ago but it never happened.
‘I have seen the dark universe yawning. Where the black planets roll without aim, Where they roll in their horror unheeded, Without knowledge, or lustre, or name.’ ~H.P Lovecraft, Nemesis.
Over 99 % of all species that have ever existed on Earth are now extinct. A tiny few died off while leaving radically different descendants much like the birds which came out of the dinosaurs, but most leave no trace but their fossils. Humans may be the first species that we know of to be aware of the concept of extinction itself, but we have only begun to entertain the idea that it could happen to us in relatively recent history.
‘X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered It’s Own Extinction‘ by Thomas Moynihan, is a history of human mortality as it was experienced on an unfolding basis by thinkers and authors. A work of immense scope and a truly impressive level of research, ‘X-Risk’ shows us that contemplating human extinction is a surprisingly modern idea. Old myths and fables that postulated an end to humanity were not the same as they postulated the greater world would also be ending in supernatural cataclysm. Everything was either going into the twilight all together or being subjected to a hard reboot. Human extinction is a different concept, one that says that the universe will continue on without us, unheeding of our departure. Perhaps, on this planet anyway, even with other species relieved by the passing. Much as we are unbothered by all the lost former species on this world, so too will the greater ecology of Earth not miss our presence as birds and bats colonize the rafters of our empty and fossilizing cities.
This realization began with the Copernican Revolution and the knowledge that neither Earth nor the sun was the center of the universe but rather one star among many in the heavens, dethroning us from our previous assumptions of protagonist syndrome. But an even more important often overlooked revelation came not from the stars, but from the ground beneath us as more details about geology and the fossil record came to be understood in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The planet was undeniably a graveyard. A tectonically active and weather beaten charnel house that was hiding who knows how many bones from a still unknown amount of species that had once called it home.
Moynihan gives us the history of this revelation and the cultural and philosophical reactions to it from thinkers, scientists, and creatives alike. This is the majority of the text of his book, and it is truly a unique a necessary addition to contemporary philosophy. Though he comes out early on the side of the more hopeful revisionists who said we can or should at least try to fight back against our extinction, he gives summaries of the thought of all types of reactions including those who actively embraced the prospect of an end to humanity. In the end, Moynihan pleads with us to embrace expansion into space. Not, thankfully, as part of a unified euphoric destiny like so many mindlessly do, but in order to further diverge our species in different environments. This would make us harder to wipe out by fate as our genetics and what we adapt to carry on the human legacy beyond one world, one lifestyle, and one model which could become obsolete at any moment. His version of space exploration is less like Star Trek or even Foundation and more like Alastair Reynolds (especially the excellent novel House of Suns) or Jack Vance. Diversity and divergence is the key to Darwinian survival. All your eggs in one basket is a recipe for disaster when it comes to adapting to existential danger. A point that seems uncontroversial today until you realize most contemporaries in academia, media, and government in many societies never include the ideological aspect of diversity when they nod along.
Since the book is both good and informative and I obviously recommend it, I figure it would be more interesting to bring up the points I diverge from it rather than just spend the rest of this review stating the now obvious fact that I enjoyed reading it and outlining the examples that you could read for yourself in the text if you are so inclined. This is what now follows:
The Fermi Paradox Is Not Actually Interesting.
Like many thinkers interested in astronomy or the ethics of the future, Moynihan opens with The Fermi Paradox, the famous thought experiment trying to figure out why with our modern telescopes and hyper sensitive detection tools we have so far failed to find any signs of intelligent life out there in the cosmos. But all discussions of this inevitably (if you are speaking with a sane person anyway) break down to the likelihood of the most mundane explanations. Intelligent life is rare enough that the spaces between them is too great to see the signs. The Lightspeed barrier might be truly unbreakable, and so even the most advanced civilizations are at best confined to a handful of stars in one cluster, and of course, there is not just distance in space but distance in time. We are probably more likely to find planets one day which *could* have advanced life but haven’t evolved to that level yet, or planets that once did and left behind ruins. The threat of extinction is not just for us, after all. As far as I am concerned, The Fermi Paradox is just an interesting college dorm tier discussion framework and nothing more. Hardly a game changer one way or the other.
Extinction, Like Death, Is Hardly To Be Feared.
While I love reading pessimistic authors because they offer such a welcome break from our relentlessly euphoric public culture, I am in the end an indifferentist rather than a pessimist. And while there are things I fear like becoming paralyzed or imprisonment or declining living standards, I have never been afraid to die. Maybe this makes me an outlier for my species, but I find the concept of every story coming to an end not only inevitably true but also good. What value could something eternal possibly have? Lingering past ones time has always struck me as not only boring, but malignant on the future for others. Sure, no one loves old stuff more than me, but that old stuff would lack value if it was omnipresent and everywhere. It would just be more of the mundane rather than the special places and objects that allow us to remember there were once different peoples and eras. This has the effect of making me remarkably indifferent to the fate of humanity long past my own demise. In a time when I won’t be there and neither will anyone I will ever know around today, what care I? It is fun to speculate about, of course. But that is about it. I guess it is for this reason that I never saw the appeal of the concept of an afterlife or life extension biotechnology either. Even your favorite movie would get boring if it never ended. The temporary nature of things, mono no aware, if you will, is what makes the burden of human consciousness bearable.
Moynihan gets very concerned with these questions of inevitable endings to the point that I find quite hard to fathom. Though his instinct is obviously correct that the species as a whole has a survival drive, and he is right to point out constructive ways for us to harness this as a policy recommendation, he is also far to quick to jump on planning for the far future when it would be much more efficient to plan for the short term future. Here we are, on Earth, suffering from climate change. If you want to get to point C you must first cross point B. And that includes listening to what the pessimists have to say about humanity. It is better to be prepared for worst-case scenarios than to not be.
We know now that the universe will most likely either die or face a hard re-set. Not unlike ragnarok after all. Be it the cyclic model of a big crunch or rebirth through the extremely mind-bending conformal cyclic cosmology, or the path of heat death or tearing apart that dark energy unchecked might well be leading us to, our perpetuation does not transcend the end of the stage our play is acted out on. All things around now will one day be unrecognizable, whether we survive long term or not. And this brings me to my final point of divergence.
Moynihan is very into the idea that people are happy to accept the concept of extinction so long as they can believe that somewhere out there in space or time other beings are conscious too. This means that he implies that as long as we can only prove ourselves to be such beings, we must tend this fire as it could very well be unique in the universe.
Since we have no data of other life elsewhere in one way or the other, but know for a fact it arose here, I find this a strange conclusion to jump to. Other forms of consciousness might be utterly alien and unrecognizable to us, even horrifying. Or they might be comically similar to the point where we have to confront that consciousness itself is just a biochemical adaptation mechanism like any other behavior (my personal suspicion).
But this isn’t my main criticism. Perhaps its the international relations scholar in me, but my main critique of this point is actually that humanity would find aliens threatening whether they were mundane and caused us to question our specialness or if they were radically different. We wouldn’t be happy to share the universe with such beings so much as on become guard, threatened, and whatnot. Sure, there would be an initial euphoria, but we tend to react negatively when our position at the center of existence gets dethroned. While thinkers may feel some reassurance others elsewhere are thinking about them, for most people I would say that they are not reassured by this. Our species comes first, its in our genes. Our willingness to accept extinction or not will come down to our own survival drive no matter what else is out there. Therefore, this will not be a factor in either making us complacent or fueling a death drive.
Additionally, in order to make this point of our apparent specialness, the author disavows the possibility that conscious life has arisen before and could do so after us on Earth as unhelpful. As a person who recently finished a graphic novel script on humans finding dinosaur civilizations out in space on one side and being threatened by the rise of sadistic sentient dolphins back on Earth, I tend to find the opposite is true…not because I fear being a lone conscious entity, but because the questions of how to use consciousness are far more interesting if we demystify it and remove anthropocentrism for the equation of our hypothetical thought experiments.
My Own Conclusion
All species have survival drives. I do not worry, like Moynihan, that we will end ourselves intentionally (accidentally is a very different proposition). The author is correct to advocate for his position and in turn give us a wonderful history of humanity’s surprisingly modern engagement with thoughts of its own demise. But there is a reason some ancient cultures divided up people based on their engagement with greater society into renunciates and householders. Householders have something at stake in all of this, renunciates are less interested in merging with the mass and more interested in detached observation. I am, myself, certainly part of this other group.
This may seem surprising since I work in the field of policy advocacy and strategic re-alignment. And I am not about to claim that I am fully detached or even want to be. But I have found that it helps ones ability to critically appraise or offer more usefully unique analysis if one is at least somewhat removed from investment in the ‘normie’ world. Even going back to childhood I never wanted to have children because it seemed like too much of an anchor in the rest of humanity (not to mention an invasion into my treasured solitude). Once I got over the hormone rush of puberty I also realized I never wanted a spouse either for similar reasons. It is for reasons like this I think I make a better analyst than many of my contemporaries, as I have little attachments to things than ruin observing the present as fully integrated into the past and the future as one moment full of fads like any other. I can advocate positions to make life better for lots of people, indeed, I view having a sense of civic duty quite highly, but I still do so with the knowledge that these moments in crisis will fade in time. We are managing problems in the relative short term only.
I love ruins. I love to wander amongst them. Possibly the coolest place I have ever been are the ruins of Pagan, in Myanmar. Once it was a thriving temple-riddled city and capitol of an empire whose ground water was inadequate for continual occupation and who never survived its sacking by the Mongols. What it left us is an entirely unpopulated city of stone and brick buildings. Wandering amongst such a place, which, at that time, was almost totally undiscovered by foreign tourists (it is different now, I hear) gives one a true sense of cosmic wonder and connection with Graveyard Earth. Moving this same sublime sensation forward into the future, imagine even our most terrifying ruins and the effect on legend and travel experience for future entropic Epicures.
I feel connection with cultures and peoples lost not because it was a tragedy they are gone but because they remind us that all our current struggles too will one day be lost too. This is what makes life not terrifying, but bearable. Perhaps Moynihan would admonish me in the words of a Clark Ashton Smith poem for becoming a ‘phantom among phantoms‘ who is lost in the space between ruins, but not all of us have to be on the same boat here. It is our cultural and psychological divergences that serve as a check on the whole species following just one rigid path after all. In the ideal space-expansion future both he and I seem to want, that of endless divergence in the stars, there will be planets of renunciates as well as euphoric strivers and many different balances in between too. The strives will no doubt have more numbers, but the renunciates won’t care.
And one of those planets, perhaps, will be Earth herself. Where eccentric curators wander the halls of an emptied out planet turned over to be part museum and part nature reserve, archiving data and giving tours to visitors.
Over a decade ago I read Geoffrey Wawro’s books on the Austro-Prussian War and Franco-Prussian War nearly back to back. I was struck by his detailed research, ability to find interesting quotes from multiple people of all ranks and nationalities that were relevant to his topic, and general ability to sum up military operations from as much of a political and logistical sense as well as one based on what happened on the battlefield. Now that I have gotten to his First World War book, ‘A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Hapsburg Empire,’ I can say that this is probably his best book overall.
Wawro, like the best historians, has a great ability to neither pretend he is entirely dispassionate nor advocate for blatant partisanship. In ‘Catastrophe’, however, he comes the closest he ever has to taking a firm stand. But it is less one based around being for or against this country or that, but rather his scorn for institutional inertia and incompetence. Something that plagued all the major powers of World War I, especially in 1914, but seemed to plague Austria-Hungary more than any other.
Yes, even more than Italy. Italy at least had the forethought to play wait-and-see when the war broke out, and defected from the Central Powers for the Entente once it could. Their miserable military showing against Austria-Hungary (the only front Vienna would pull any impactful victories from on its own) did not undo that this diplomatic calculation was more on point than Austria’s mad attempt to re-start its great power game by trying to be the deciding power of the post-Balkan War world emerging after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire’s European possessions.
Wawro sketches out in broad terms the extreme decay affecting the Hapsburg Empire from its defeat by Prussia in 1866 until the outbreak of the First World War. The failure to militarily innovate is shown side-by-side with the increasing belligerency from an out of touch ruling class and military officer corps who knew their glory days were gone yet still stuck to a great last roll of the dice to pull them out of inertia. In all of this, of course, lay a thoroughly neglected industrial and logistical center. And the glue supposedly holding the rotting state together was a military so riddled with mutually unintelligible languages and ethnic groups that it could only be trained in the simplest of ways (mass for attack, run at them with the bayonet, use these three stock phrases you know in your troops’ languages to tell them how to request artillery support, etc). But this is just elaborately setting the stage as a prelude to the disaster. Like slow burn tragic movie that builds up an immense story line constructively so that you can really appreciate just the utter disaster when the story enters its third act, we see Austria-Hungary recover from a series of disasters only to lay the seeds of its long term decline. The royal family, the intelligence services, internal politics. All were rocked by unsustainable signs of decline and the necessity of major structural changes at home.
And when the car crash comes with the outbreak of war, it is impossible to look away. Sure, one of the defining features of 1914 was how everyone’s grand plans went so spectacularly wrong. No one thought the Russians could mobilize quickly. The Germans thought France would cave rapidly and Russia would be the real long term fight (funny how they operated on the opposite assumption in the 1940s based off of being wrong about this in 1914, with even more calamitous results for themselves), the Austrians thought they would steamroll Serbia, the French thought a commitment to the tactical offensive would carry the day. And everyone thought the Ottomans would be the weakest link in the Central Powers if and when they came into the fray.
It turned out France would stand strong, Russia would blunder against Germany (but not the Ottomans or Austrians), the Ottomans would over-perform against the British, and the Austrians would perform so badly that they failed three times in a row to take out vastly inferior Serbia, with whom they had mobilized to punish in the first place. This was compacted by Russia’s speedy mobilization and decisive crushing of Austrian offensives in Poland. The opening moves of WWI often are described as a big unexpected Entente win at the Marne and a big unexpected German win at Tannenberg removing any hope for either alliance network to get a quick victory over the other, but it was actually a 2-1 spread in favor of team Entente when one factors in the enormous and calamitous (for Vienna) campaign in Galicia which was only exacerbated by their simultaneous failures in Serbia. Soon, Berlin’s junior partner would become its vassal outright as it requested German officers, training, supplies, and reinforcements to merely keep itself going…something to tax and already beleaguered Germany who faced the allies with major overall demerits in comparative manpower and industrial output. Russia’s logistically unprepared army, shorter in rifles and basic supplies than even the Austrians were, still consistently cleaned Austria-Hungary’s clock on the battlefield, inflicting disproportionate losses on them and driving them back in utter chaos.
It is here where some of the criticism of this book I have seen can be engaged with, for, having read Wawro’s other books, I know he is not castigating poor strategic planning in Vienna and Berlin *because* they come from those locations, but merely because they were strategically inept. Anyone who has read his Franco-Prussian War book would know he had the same acerbic criticism for the French leadership in that war that he now heaps primarily on Austria-Hungary. Where I do have some criticisms of his work is how he criticizes the Hungarian portion of the empire for withholding funds for pre-war military modernization from the overall state. While he is absolutely correct that this played a role in the Hapsburg forces starting the war even more comically out of step with the times than France was (Russians and Serbs often just gunned down entire units of theirs in minutes given all they could often do was banzai-charge in dense Napoleonic style columns with minimal support as the Austrian artillery never had the ability to hold its own like that of France), his own accounting of the dismal state of affairs between Budapest and Vienna clearly show it would have unwise for the Hungarians to ever give too much to their co-partners in the empire. Since Wawro is so good at showing all the reasons Hapsburg troops had low morale, it stands to show that would apply even to the co-governing ethnic group as much as to the Croats and Poles. It was Budapest, after all, that wanted to take a far more cautious and diplomatic route with Serbia and Russia. Maybe they should have made their weight felt in the diplomatic field as well as the budgeting one.
And while we watch in both horror and enticed thrill at this ‘Mad Catastrophe’ unfolding on the page, safely relegated to people who have all long since died, is it not so hard to see these events happening again in a new era where people are once again uncertain about how technological changes could upend expectations of how war would work in practice?
No figure came up more in the narrative of this tragicomedy than Conrad von Hotzendorf, Chief of Staff of the Austro-Hungarian army. While the empire’s failures were no doubt a collaborative effort, Conrad most perfectly encapsulates everything happening in Vienna in the form of one man. A military theorist by trade who rose through the ranks in peacetime, Conrad constantly advocated military action against any and all Balkan countries it was viable to attack. He did this while being in charge of a military he knew was logistically weak and poorly motivated. His solution was to always advocate for war, and then, when war happened, he encouraged mindless frontal offensives that would have made even Joffre blush. Then, when these failed, he retreated to his far away headquarters where he would often sit and sulk for hours, writing novella-length letters to his mistress and bemoaning his critics. Always happy to shift blame for his problems onto subordinates, he was somehow able to resurrect his career multiple teams even after everything he ever touched turned to shit. In the Cold War, the Austrian military would try to rehabilitate his reputation and even name streets and buildings after him. A colossal failure with an undeserved reputation who constantly advocated war and refused to take responsibility for the results of such actions? Where have I heard that before? Conrad von Hotzendorf was Hillary Clinton before there was a Hillary Clinton.
Much in the same way that I have used certain totemic neoliberal bipartisan consensus political figures as symbols to show the decline and fall my own birth nation and many of its allies, its easy to see why Wawro is so fascinated by Conrad and his increasingly erratic actions in 1914. A man who is a state in microcosm is not something to be overlooked when breaking down the beginning of the end of a declining country in crisis. Alexander is famous for destroying one empire…Hell, Conrad destroyed four!
Overall, ‘Mad Catastrophe’ is a a book I would recommend to people into military history and political history alike. But I would especially recommend it to people interested in the history of terminal decline, state entropy, and times when people march at full speed to a heavily foreshadowed disaster.
‘The Human Swarm: How our Societies Rise, Thrive, and Fall’ by Mark Moffett is the kind of book I would have written had I been a zoologist rather than a historically inclined geopolitical analyst. Its almost a relief to see someone more qualified than myself in the field of looking at animals to be inspired by the observation that humanity is a primate that behaves like wolves on the small scale and like ants on the large scale. Once this observation is made the inevitable question is how this unique combination came about and why it makes us such a successful species.
Moffett spends about 40% of the book on evolutionary biology of multiple socially-oriented species to do the compare/contrast with humanity. He spends another 40% on hunter gatherer, pastoralist, and tribal peoples, reasoning correctly that this is the lifestyle humanity primarily evolved for and spent the overwhelming majority of its existence in. The final 20% or so is all sedentary civilization and the high cultures get. This kind of spread may strike many as odd, but considering how most of human history played out until (in terms of evolutionary time at least) it makes perfect sense. This is not a work of macro-history quite as much as it is a work of macro-anthropology.
Moffet’s main argument, which I will summarize to the point of oversimplification here, is that almost all pack animals have a type of fission-fusion dynamic that causes individuals to status seek against each other to maximize their own place or find their own niche while also retaining an overall group dynamic about loyalty to the greater whole. This likely developed as a survival tactic to both concentrate for maximalized social bonds among breeding couples while also enabling the social unit to cover more territory both for expansion and for warning of coming hostile attack. (Closer to home one can think of the ‘gay uncle hypothesis’ or the equally valid yet divergent lifestyles of householder vs renunciates to see the value outsiders can bring to social units). Wolves patrol far and wide around the territorial perimeter, but not those with children who sit in the center of a given pack’s territory. Humanity’s conception of the tribe, however, is much more numerous than that of other primates. This leads to a type of ‘anonymous’ society, where not everyone in a greater culture knows each other personally. Not being known personally is immediate sign of being an outsider in most other species, but not in humanity.
In other words, in addition to our technological prowess (which may have come later), we were the original zerg rush primate. No other primate can have so many numbers in one band. Only insects have the numbers per society we can pull off, and they do it by chemical smell markers…not something we can tell in an outgroup by save perhaps when the French are involved. Also, insect hives tend to be true collectives, and individuals have little brain power giving them a much smaller amount of dynamism in fission-fusion relations. So how did a species come to grow in numbers to the point where it had towering cities across the globe with population densities that would be considered insane to most of our ancestors? We do in fact have signifiers, but they are not chemical nor even genetic. They are cultural affect. Things not given off as pheromones but as behaviors and lifestyles. Language is the most important part of this, and from ‘Human Swarm’ one can easily slide into Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ to see how the interplay of geography and language gives rise to internal mass press cultures in the early modern period, which was his thesis on the rise of nationalism displacing religion and loyalty to monarchs. But language isn’t the only thing. Remember, Moffat, unlike Anderson, is looking back to prehistory most of the time. He reminds us that we are a uniquely un-furred species and that most surviving tribal societies who live traditionally can tell foreigners from body language and body painting. Smooth skin is a canvas and spoken language comes with accents and hand gestures that vary from region to region. These in turn create a divergence of aesthetic that elevates and demotes individuals based on the dominant or despises personalities within a tribe, giving rise to cultural divergence. Culture is the outcome of what kind of personalities maximize survivability in a given region.
Cultural divergence itself plays a similar role to a famous Arab proverb, ‘My country against the world, my region against my country, my town against my region, my family against my town, me against my family.’ Though Moffett does not quote this, I was reminded of it constantly while reading his book. It could also go ‘pastoralists against agrarians, agrarians against industrialists,’ or ‘little powers against big powers, big powers against the biggest power, North Sentinel Island against the world.’
The negative side effect (to many anyway, I’m ambivalent) of this kind of community building is that it is always de facto competitive. To have an in group there must be out-groups. Without out-groups the internal divisions become more important and the group will split, often in a hostile fashion. Here we see why on those rare occasions that universal creeds triumph, they almost inevitably split apart soon after their victory. The breakup of Yugoslavia was not an outlier, but just a modern version of a process as old as humanity. The inevitable fate of all societies which, like people, eventually die and are replaced by others. Though obviously each nation’s rate varies due to a variety of circumstances. The book does a good job in acknowledging that the average life span for a recognizably continuous state is not as long as many assume, and rarely passes past 200-500 years. Modern states have not yet shown to have made gains on average length of survival than Mesopotamian city states in the ancient era.
There is a positive side of this competitive-swarm model though beyond its utility for maximizing human numbers and coalition building. It is designed for a degree of flexibility at the individual level. People with a low role in one tribe can leave for another. They will be obviously foreign, but if young enough to be impressionable or tough enough to prove themselves, can fall in with another band in potentially a better position. A risk of course, but not an irrational one when one feels they have bottomed out at home. This reflects what I know to be true about tribal societies and chiefdoms in actual history, where racial essentialism didn’t exist but cultural allegiance does. Its easy to forget that modern notions of race are barely over a couple hundred years old and were specifically invented to justify the new order that arose in post-smallpox apocalypse New Worlds after European expansion. Compared to ancient concepts such as cuisine and sectarianism, it is a baby. Even older than all of those is adaptive lifestylism and art. Most people obviously stay with their birth community, hence why they retain longevity, but others by choice or through captivity, do not. Societies cross-pollinate and the definition of inside-outside changes. Often growing more inclusive as a society grows than fracturing when it stagnates or contracts. The ability to function both in groups, through signifiers, and as individuals, through differentiation, is the key to making the anonymous society work. Its the collective experience of living amongst certain people who frequent certain places that matters most. Hence why giant waves of immigration did not tear the United States apart, but rather simply grew its taxable citizen pool…a similar process as once occurred in pre-modern empires with diverse concepts of citizenship like the Achaemenid Persians and Romans.
This point reminds me of my current bugbear, trying to get moderns to re-engage with the concept of sovereignty after its attempted abolishment in the neoliberal era (see many pieces I’ve published elsewhere which are now collected in the ‘publications’ tab page of this blog). Being sympathetic to sovereignty does not mean one must be a nativist or anti-immigration. If anything, I would argue that in an extremely connected world where people can travel and resettle so easily, sovereignty matters even more now. The risk of an over-powerful monoculture or political order with which one might not be compatible should increase ones desire for both the ability to migrate to foreign lands as well as the rights of foreign lands to choose who fits the criteria for coming in as they preserve their distinctiveness. Unity is important at the tribal and society level, but at the species level it is stagnation. We need divergence. Rather than simply write off people as losers for not working in the society of their birth, they should at least have the opportunity to start again elsewhere in a place that could be more fitting. Kind of like a career reset mid-life. Though the onus then is on them to start a bit behind and at least partially integrate into their new society. And they will always be a little ‘off’ through accents and learned habits of course. The exiles life isn’t for everyone, but I can speak to this personally, it it for cool people. There are definite advantages to never being too at home when it comes to personal development.
Moffet, also like myself, has a strong interest in societies that straddle the lines between what we think of as settled vs nomadic or tribal vs national. He often cites examples of the unique material culture of the Pacific Northwest indigenous peoples and the political intricacies of the Iroquois League (who upheld tribal sovereignty inside but kept a largely unified front towards outsiders in the near abroad-at least until they didn’t anymore) and the generally widespread practice of adopting war captives in Native American history as a population replacement tactic. Like I said, a book after my own heart.
Sadly, I can’t say its perfect. What is? His lack of a truly thorough historical background leads Moffett to draw some erroneous conclusions in some of his examples. None of these ruin his overall point though, even when they are galling (The Maya claimed as the first Mesoamerican civilization, really?) But they usually aren’t that bad slip ups. Also, as previously mentioned, more of this work is anthropological than it is historical. Also, considering his background I cannot say I am surprised by this but the lack of reference to Ibn Khaldun ( I know I know, I am a total broken record about this) is a missed opportunity. If a late middle ages Tunisian guy could come to such similar conclusions of how societies form and then dissolve from such a different scholarly background it seems worth including him. Perhaps Moffet never heard of him? If so, he should definitely become acquainted with the Muqqadimmah.
If you like big picture stuff and anthropology rooted in robust materialism, ‘Human Swarm’ is a book worth checking out. For now, I am going to fission out of this fusion with one of my favorite John Gray quotes, one that works for this book as well as when I usually use it against anti-materialist theory-first people:
‘A zoo is a better window from which to look out of the human world than a monastery. If you believe that humans are animals, there can be no such thing as the history of humanity, only the lives of particular humans.’