Saturday, February 22, 2014

Genocide. A Comprehensive Introduction by Adam Jones.

Adam Jones has written a condensed, informative study of Genocide. In the space of 400 pages, he has presented the major mass killings since 1900, and elucidated the primary issues facing genocide politics, scholarship and activism. His study begins by discussing the first known genocides, moves on to philosophical and legal definitions of the term, and ends with a chapter on the effects of imperialism, war and revolution. Jones does not shy away from controversial topics that might make religious people uncomfortable. As a scholar of intellectual honesty, dedicated to preventing genocide, he discusses Old Testament scripture where God repeatedly commands his followers to murder all of the residents in a particular locale. Borrowing from sociologist Helen Fein, he refers to God’s motivational speaking as the “religious tradition of contempt and collective defamation” (Jones, p. 4).

The next part starts with pre-20th Century genocides of indigenous peoples around the world. This is followed by a series of chapters on the more recent genocides of the 20th and 21st Century with which we are all so sadly familiar. These chapters necessarily lack the comprehensive qualities of a book that focuses on a specific incident. But they will provide the reader with a helpful overview, which is the purpose of an introductory work. Each instance of genocide is followed by a useful bibliography of the major texts on each topic, so that a reader may delve more deeply based on her or his preference.

There is some superfluous political correctness, deflecting from the main point of the book, in the form of oversensitivity. Yes, “The Redskins” is a racist name for a football team (Jones, p. 82). There would be loud objections if the team were called “The Dirty Jews.” But in the context of a discussion of Native American genocide, such language corrections are trivial by comparison and detract from the subject. There are some claims along these lines that are unexamined and exaggerated.  The suggestion, that US auto companies name their gas-guzzling products “Winnebago” and “Cherokee” to negatively associate Native Americans with technologies that damage the environment, is an over-think. Car companies also name their autos “Gremlin” and “Impala;” which does not imply an attempt to blame African wildlife or tiny mythical beings for Co2 emissions.

A third and important section of the book focuses on understanding the social, psychological and political factors, which result in genocide. There is some excellent information here condensing the ideas of various thoughtful professionals. While these experts seek to find and understand the commonalities among mass killings, they are quick to point out that each occurrence has its individual character. This is a good time to caution the reader that, no matter how much you have delved into the study of genocide, or how well-armored your sensibilities, you still run into information that will flatten you. The unique nature of each genocide is what allows even the most experienced individuals to be struck by new images and characteristics.

The last section of the book covers post-genocidal incident issues of remembering and justice. These are full of useful information. This section ends with the weakest chapter in the book, “Strategies of Intervention and Prevention.” Not only does it contain all of the tried and un-true past solutions to prevention, but also it fails to address the evolutionary causes of genocide: we are biological creatures. We clawed our way to the top of the Food Chain through aggression and competition. Our first genocides were on a smaller scale, when our hominid ancestors massacred other groups, or chased them away from hunting grounds and watering holes to perish. Killing “The Other” is in our DNA. Until we include this sober fact in our equations, it will be difficult to innovate effective prevention strategies.

Genocide. A Comprehensive Introduction is a brave early attempt in a poorly understood field. It is, as explained by the author, the first “comprehensive introductory text” (Jones, p. xxii). Therefore it is an historic innovation. Though, like all firsts, it contains flaws and gaps, it is admirably informative. This work permits the reader to establish a fine overview and strong foundation for further study.

Jones, Adam. Genocide. A Comprehensive Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2006.

For review of another book on Genocide, see:

Monday, February 10, 2014

At the Extremes of Popular History: The Rise of Rome by Anthony Everitt.

The Rise of Rome is Anthony Everitt’s chronicle of the Empire’s beginnings. It falls firmly within the genre of Popular History. As such, it permits one to examine the difference between Popular History and Academic History. Popular History exists to present the general public with an aspect of the past, in a manner that is both informative and entertaining. It serves a positive purpose in that it introduces people to a topic that they might not otherwise consider if presented with a more ponderous approach. Academic History exists to expand the knowledge of history among students and enthusiasts. Ideally focusing on accuracy and empiricism, it also exists to enlarge the information base of the field. Frequently, this genre provides a forum for a history writer to introduce a new perspective on a topic.

In the preface to his book, Anthony Everitt states “The city’s foundation myths and the events of its early centuries are almost entirely unhistorical, but they were what Romans believed of themselves. They are a rich poetic feast…If this book serves any purpose, it is as a reminder of what we are losing” (Everitt, p. xi). These explanations serve as a rationalization for presenting a story so filled with legend and mythology that accuracy becomes obfuscated. Popular historians frequently use the devices of myths and legends in concise form to add color to a narrative. But the best intention in that case is to draw-in a less serious public in order to teach them something. (Okay, some popular historians just want to sell books, just like some academic historians just want to prove how smart they are, but let us presume noble goals unless proven otherwise.) “What Romans believed of themselves” is a small piece of the story that contributes to the whole of what happened. 

Inauspiciously, Everitt opens with a section entitled “Legend,” and the sentence “The origin of Rome can be traced back to a giant wooden horse” (Everitt, p. 3). The origin of Rome most certainly cannot be traced back to Troy. It takes him several chapters to begin discussing the actual origins of Rome. This is a tactic that the author employs throughout the book: During Tarquin’s challenge to the Republic, Everitt states “Three stories are told about this desperate period…they are (surely) fictions” (Everitt, p. 83). But since Everitt cannot resist coloring-in the black and white, he spends the rest of the chapter retelling these fictions. The author frequently presents alleged historic scenes he personally disbelieves, like the post-Punic War meeting between Scipio and Hannibal, which he demonstrates Scipio could not have attended (Everitt, p. 279). In homage to the “rich poetic feast” of myths, the actual incidents are lost in a fog of words.

Another poetic device used frequently, is to make mythical figures a living part of the portions where the author is relating facts. Everitt will begin a sentence with “Since the days of Romulus,” a figure who probably did not exist (Everitt, p. 118). Or, he will end a description of a ritual to the goddess Juno with “it was obvious to all, including the Queen of Heaven” (Everitt, p. 270). Yes, I am being literal-minded here, but this colorized version is an attempt to bind excessive myths to events in order to make the history more jazzy. Mixing fact with fiction creates confusion.

In addition to the believed fiction of the Romans, Everitt will quote actual fiction from novels. To describe Carthage, he quotes extensively from Gustave Flaubert’s tale Salammbo…twice (Everitt, pp. 213 & 238). At this point, The Rise of Rome could not be more comically unhistorical if Everitt had written it as a series of limericks. Compare this to other popular histories like Richard Miles’s Carthage Must Be Destroyed. Despite the admittedly sensationalist title, (which is a quote from Cato), this book relies on modern archeological evidence to flesh-out the city. Popular History does not have to sacrifice candor to be interesting.

Everitt’s flair for drama and addiction to legend make one suspect the veracity of episodes presented as fact. Throughout the pre-war negotiations between Flamininus of Rome and Phillip of Macedon, I found myself asking “how much of this version is theatrical?” Other stories are obviously false, like the story of Archimedes being murdered during the sack of Syracuse because he “was absorbed by a diagram he had drawn in the sand and was oblivious to the rape and pillage going on around him” (Everitt, p. 263). Are we honestly expected to believe that Archimedes didn’t notice the explosive destruction of his city and the screams of its residents? Once an historian’s audience begins to doubt their truthfulness, there is little he or she can teach.

This is unfortunate, because Everitt is knowledgeable. He draws on a variety of resources and has a writing style that keeps one engaged. There is much in The Rise of Rome that is factually accurate. But it is shrouded among the myths and legends with which the author insists on dazzling his audience.

Everitt, Anthony. The Rise of Rome. New York: Random House, 2012.