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Wednesday, March 02, 2005
Books of 2004 (IV)

Yes, I know I cried out for hits and then didn't post for two days this week, but essays had to take precedence. If anyone is interested in a 3,000+ word essay on the varying powers of the President of France, I may post that in a couple of weeks after it's marked. Anyway, onwards with last year's books.

Introducing Evolutionary Psychology - Evans & Zarate
Another of those books filled with cartoons on each page and explaining the very basics and hopefully a little more. This was good particularly on the history of the science, but also covered its findings well. It had a broad enough sweep that I certainly learned from it, even though I had read a great deal into the science already. As I think I said regarding the Keynesian Economics version, these 'Introducing ...' books tend to be pretty pricey, so I personally wouldn't buy this unless it was reduced - which it was in my case. If you can get it for a few pounds, though, it is worth having.

Stars and Strife - John Redwood
Redwood argues that Britain should reduce her links with the European Union and strengthen those with the United States. The practical proposals in particular are often very good: for example, demanding that the EU allow different states to impose (or not impose) their own tariffs when it comes to trade with non-EU countries, which would allow Britain to become a member of NAFTA. Although I admire the author more than almost anyone in British politics today, I do often find his writing a little wooden - and unfortunately it was here, in what I would not call his best book.

Why Men Don't Listen and Why Women Can't Read Maps - Allan & Barbara Pease
One can only imagine the reaction of the McCarthyite innumerates now persecuting Larry Summers to this title. I am fully briefed on the deep-rooted biological differences between men and women, and I perfectly well understand that a few individual examples do not refute a statistical trend, but even I found myself at times crying out something like: "But I'm a man and I've never felt ashamed about asking for directions!".

Obviously intended for the lay reader, the work still has a good amount of science, and the sheer volume of sex differences covered makes the book a useful resource - indeed, despite the title, it probably more on this than why these differences actually exist. The work is probably best for those who are already well briefed on the science and the reasoning behind sex differences, for what the Peases show most of all is how wide-ranging the implications are of this science.

A good read, especially for those who find these differences of real consequence when it comes to almost every social issue. I can easily imagine going through it again very soon from cover to cover, as there is so much to take in that the book certainly merits repeat readings.

Right Turn: Eight Men Who Changed Their Minds - Patrick Cormack (Editor)
A selection of essays from the late seventies by left-wingers - including Paul Johnson - who had moved towards conservatism, often in revulsion at what the left had then become. Some are very good indeed, highlighting how lefties who still believed deeply in personal freedom and individual conscience felt they could no longer belong to a labour movement so clearly aimed at the ugliest, drabbest collectivism. If I remember correctly, one of the authors knew he could no longer remain on the left when he saw a leading trades unionist explain on television his definition of freedom: the individual acting in accordance with the wishes of the majority. Others cover foreign policy, and the feeling that the left is simply unwilling to stand up against communism.

A bit of an anachronism now, but it all adds up to a very good case for just why it was so important that Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 General Election and - as the BBC obviously needs reminding - defeated the communist miners' strike. For that reason, it is also pleasing in reminding conservatives just how bad things once were, and how far things have moved in the right direction on certain issues.

Survival of the Prettiest - Nancy Etcoff
Another book on evolutionary psychology, and a bit of a disappointment. Focusing on beauty, Etcoff explores its appeal, and is satisfactory in refuting those subjectivists who attribute recognition of beauty wholly to fashion and culture and not at all to the desire for a visibly healthy mate with whom to pass on one's genetic material. The truth is much closer to the other way around - although Etcoff does cover the effects of fashion also.

But if the Peases had example after example of how biology influences our thinking and our actions today, Etcoff seems to have a lot less to explain. This may have been a better book had it been shorter.

Dead Right - David Frum
David Frum is an excellent writer, and this is one of his better books, largely exploring just why it is that even when the Republicans seize power in America, they seem to be unwilling or unable to reduce the size of government - and highlighting the problems caused. Very good in connecting actual conservatives' actions with conservative philosophy and thinking in all areas, this is perhaps the most serious indictment I have read of the Reagan Administration, although I think on that score you can paint a more optimistic picture depending on the figures you select.

Frum concludes that conservatives should be willing to accept the unpopularity that may come with forcefully sticking to their small-government goal, and implementing it when in power. A must-read for anyone on the Right.

Dude, Where's My Country? - Michael Moore
I believe it was David Aaronovitch who compared books like Michael Moore's to political pornography: a very cheap, onanistic sort of pleasure that really adds nothing to one's understanding. Obviously if you don't share Moore's far-left politics there's not even that. I found the beginning of this book in particular very dull. A long explanation of a conspiracy theory connecting Bush to Bin Laden, it's a very slow start, and never really takes off. A chapter attacking the Christian right? Check. A chapter saying the US needs to stop terrorism ... its own? Check. And so on. Yawn.

Inevitably with Moore, there is what can most charitably be called poor research, and often even that explanation cannot really work. He goes on and on about a phrase the Bush Administration used in relation to Saddam's apparent attempts to buy nuclear materials, and uses a shortened version of the quote repeatedly to suggest dishonesty on Bush's part. Of course, anyone who reads the news will know that the quote begins by describing it as a British finding, so if there was deliberate deception rather than inaccurate intelligence it's certainly not Bush's. Of course Moore knew this, but if he couldn't include half-truths like this throughout the book, he'd have no argument.

My favourite moment was when he quotes extracts from 1984 about how dreadful capitalist tyranny is, to show that America is heading in an Orwellian direction. Again, anyone who has read 1984 will immediately recognise the quotations as being not Orwell's description of Airstrip One under Big Brother, but the words Big Brother's dishonest propagandists used to describe England when she was still free and before they got to impose themselves. I think it very fitting for a man like Michael Moore to be quoting approvingly totalitarian propaganda against free societies, but I fear the irony would unfortunately be lost on most of his fans.

Not recommended. If you really like this kind of thing, read Moore's Stupid White Men instead.

Paradise and Power - Robert Kagan
One of the best books I read last year, and one of the best foreign policy works I have ever read. Kagan acknowledges a debt to the perhaps rather leftist Robert Cooper for his explanations of modern societies - like the US, China etc. - which deal in the normal world of power politics, and postmodern societies like those within the European Union which have been able to give up violence amongst themselves. What Kagan does is take this hypothesis and ask what it means for international relations today.

Kagan argues that Europe and America are inevitably being split from one another by the great differences in psychology that their different conditions induce. America is steadily realistic and sensible about the realities of power and the necessity of force, while Europe has become so used to relying on American arms to keep the peace that it has scarcely any defence of its own any more. These different capacities in themselves produce different responses to international challenges. In Kagan's wonderful metaphor, a man armed only with a knife will be a lot more reticent about doing something about a bear that threatens at some point to harm him than a man armed with a shotgun.

But more than this, Europe has developed an attitude that attributes peace not to the American defences on which it has long depended, but to multilateral negotiations of the sort the EU and UN always indulge. America sees peace as coming through strength and sometimes necessary military action, while Europe sees peace as coming through concession, compromise and negotiation. From this emerges the differences between the US and the continent that we see today, and for Kagan it can only continue.

One real strength of Robert Kagan's case is that he manages to explain sympathetically and argue carefully the psychology and outlook of both parties. No one can doubt that he ultimately believes America is actually correct, but he is extremely objective in how he describes the two positions. His point, after all, is not that the US is right and Europe wrong, but that circumstances have produced in them radically different outlooks on the world, and consequently they are splitting further and further apart and will continue to do so.

An excellent theoretical work with much supporting evidence, Kagan makes a formidable case.

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