Hawking Up Hairballs

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Damning With Faint Praise?

The other day while at the library, I saw Amy Chua's Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance - And Why They Fail. Her thesis is that these hyperpowers, which range from the ancient Persian empire to the present-day United States, succeeded because of their ethnic and religious tolerance, and that they declined because of the erosion of that quality. Though I looked through the book, I wasn't tempted to check it out. I've read a lot of history in my time and, though I'm hardly a scholar, I'm well-versed enough in certain topics, like the Roman empire, to know that her thesis is bullshit. The reason I'm writing this entry though is because of the chuckle I got when I read one of the blurbs on the back. It's by the prominent British historian, now at Harvard, Niall Ferguson. Here's what he says.

"From ancient Achaemenid Persia to the modern United States, by way of Rome, Tang China, and the Spanish, Dutch, and British empires, Amy Chua tells the story of the world's hyperpowers - that elite of empires which, in their heyday, were truly without equal. Not everyone will be persuaded by her ingenious thesis that religious and racial tolerance was a prerequisite for global dominance, but also the slow solvent of that cultural 'glue' which holds a great nation together. But few readers will fail to be impressed by the height of this book's ambition and the breadth of scholarship on which it is based."

Did Chua or anyone at the publisher read that carefully? Or did they just figure that any sort of "recommendation" from such a prominent historian was of value? The way I read it, Ferguson is not at all impressed by the book and its thesis. When he says, "Not everyone will be persuaded by her ingenious thesis", he might as well say, "No one with any real understanding of history will be persuaded by this nonsense." Okay, maybe I'm finding something that's not really there, but that last sentence says otherwise. Ferguson praises her for the height of her ambition. Could that be "overweening" that you were thinking of, Niall? Hmm, and then he praises the breadth of her scholarship. Take note there. The breadth, not the depth. From a serious scholar, that's almost an insult.

As I paged through the book, reading a passage here and there, it came off as more like a college term paper than a serious work of scholarship. Perhaps that's what Ferguson was getting at. Chua is the typical little, over-achieving tool. She tells on herself in that regard in the preface, when discussing her elementary school years. "In the eighth grade, I won second place in a history contest and took my family to the awards ceremony. Somebody else had won the Kiwanis prize for best all-around student. Afterward, my father said to me, 'Never, never disgrace me like that again.'" Ah, yes, Daddy dearest.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

For a book that handled end-of-empire historical comparisons with restraint and efficacy, I would suggest Arrogant Capital by Kevin Phillips.

2:32 PM  

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