I gave up on Robert Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography, having read perhaps half of it. There were a few little highlights (the Valley of Mexico as the Nile Valley of the Americas comes to mind) but overall I found the book confusing and I don’t think it was all my fault. Kaplan says he is trying to inform a kind of liberal idealism with the learned tradition of geopolitics often condemned as inhumane. I think he says he once supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but has come around. That’s good, but he often seems to recall the assumptions of that earlier stage with very little awareness.
In general, it’s obvious there’s a debate between those who say that statecraft ought to be carried out on the basis of principle and those who would answer that nations exist in a state of nature and the only safety is in dominating others. It’s possible Kaplan is asking us to remain agnostic in this matter. Can we afford such agnosticism? What would it even look like? For one thing, it would probably be far more circumspect about ascribing the most nefarious motives to foreign states’ military adventures and in referring blithely to American interests on the other side of the globe.
I should say something about Kaplan’s section on the U.S. and Mexico. This section was well worth a commute. He wonders about money and attention spent in Central Asia and advocates much closer cooperation with the country right next to us. Engagement there could be for good or ill, but surely something is badly wrong now. However, even if Kaplan does not share them, he shows a certain understanding for bigoted fears of demographic conquest and clashing ethoi. If I sound like I’m condemning him harshly, or failing to do so harshly enough, it’s due precisely to the confusion I refer to at the beginning and I think it shows the slipperiness of the subject as a whole.
Finally there is one terrible, inexplicable problem with this book: there are very few maps.
I don’t mean to keep writing these little essays. It can’t be kept up, for one thing. I started reading Livy this past week. I’m sure I don’t know what I’m getting into. Reading it straight through will take long enough, but then there are the connections to everything else. Soon I can pick up Machiavelli’s Discourses. I’m looking forward to a conversation with The Prince’s steadier brother. Three or four of the biggest players so far in Livy have biographies in Plutarch, so I’ll need to get on that.
Livy’s account of Coriolanus, the Roman general who turned against his city, is interesting, and really gains from being given its setting in the ongoing struggle between the patricians and plebeians. Of course I couldn’t let this pass without rewatching Ralph Fiennes’ underappreciated 2011 version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. I say underappreciated because it’s a very good movie and didn’t get a wide release, but when I went online to see if anyone else had noticed that the Volscians seemed to be Christians, I didn’t have any trouble finding weird reviews. This adaptation uses the look of modern protests, soldiers, and ubiquitous news cameras to great emotional effect, and so it’s not surprising that various takes on it would be politically charged. I find Coriolanus somewhat sympathetic, if far less so in Fiennes’ version, but still clearly a monster.
I’m still theoretically working on Sonya Kovalevsky’s autobiography, which I got on Google Books, but I may not get back to it until I get on the train next week. For some reason I find myself most likely to read books on my computer on long train trips. So far, not much math, but interesting anyhow. I also just picked up The Revenge of Geography, by Robert Kaplan. The article in the New York Review piqued me with its evasiveness on contemporary politics and strange emphasis on the provenance of certain ideas, or cliches, in geography. Anyone who’s read Dune already knows that desert nomad types are the ne plus ultra of badassery. I’m skeptical, but I like maps and think a lot about how we come to understand history, so I’ll give it a try.