Let’s do a relatively academic item today, to avoid the day to day political issues. Though of course it’s not irrelevant to those.
Jared Diamond is, of course, the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), a big picture view of human history that identifies the victors of history not to racial superiority, but to circumstances of geography and other factors. (It’s an early example of the “big history” books like Harari’s Sapiens, that view history as about broad intellectual and circumstantial trends, not about names and dates and battles.) And most recently, Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis (2019).
Nathan Gardels: In assessing how nations manage crises and successfully negotiate turning points — or don’t — you pass their experience through several filters. Some key filters you use are realistic self-appraisal, selective adoption of best practices from elsewhere, a capacity to learn from others while still preserving core values and flexibility that allows for social and political compromise.
How do you see the way various nations addressed the coronavirus pandemic through this lens?
Jared Diamond: Nations and entities doing well by the criteria of those outcome predictors include Singapore and Taiwan. Doing poorly initially were the government of Italy and now, worst of all, the federal government of the U.S.
Because Americans think themselves exceptional, and ignore the experience and lessons learned by other countries. (Here’s a current example: NYT, When Covid Subsided, Israel Reopened Its Schools. It Didn’t Go Well. Will any Americans pay attention to this? No. Our current politicians, driven by their base, even ignore the lesson of pandemic response from 1918: The Mask Slackers of 1918 (subtitled “As the influenza pandemic swept across the United States in 1918 and 1919, masks took a role in political and cultural wars.”)
Long interview, with discussion of Germany and Japan, climate change, and much else.
Gardels: But the lesson for the U.S. these days, and for other divided democracies, is that peril beckons when the spirit of compromise evaporates. Compromise and the ability to arrive at a governing consensus fails when the civic discourse is degraded and there’s no trust in impartial institutions. The whole thing can collapse.
Diamond: I see the possibility of that in the U.S. today. It is a process of erosion that at some moment reaches a point of no return. If democracy ends in the U.S., it’s not going to be the way it ended in Chile with a military coup. It will end through a slow erosion, a continuation of trends we see now: restrictions on the ability of people to register to vote, decreasing voter turnout, executive interference with the judiciary, struggles between the executive and the Congress. I don’t take it for granted that democracy in the U.S. is going to overcome all obstacles. I see a serious risk.
So we must ask, why the breakdown? My best analysis all these years later is that we had then already entered a period of sharp decline in face-to-face communication in the U.S. — more than in any other country and before any other country. This was a result both of the culture of mobility — people moving far from their original communities, often to the other end of this large country — as well as growing inequality resulting from de-industrialization in the Rust Belt and the rise of the global economy that had the impact of segregating communities along class and educational lines.
The rise of the Internet? I have a book by Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized, that I will read soon.
The site Noema, that I’d not encountered before, is a magazine exploring the transformations sweeping our world, and is published by the Berggruen Institute, which happens to be headquartered in the Bradbury Building in downtown LA (the building made famous by the 1982 film Blade Runner).