Hoisted from the Archives; Yet Another Gregg Easterbrook Train Wreck (Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?)
This morning's observation from Zachary Roth that the mainline press corps has no way--in fact, regards it as a breach of ethics--to tell its readers that important political figures are likely to be lying reminded me of the other major grave deficiency of the press corps: its inability to exercise any quality control over its own members. And that reminded me of thus just-ain't-so story from four years ago:
Brad DeLong's Website: Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (New York Times Book Review Edition): Everyone who has read Jared Diamond's excellent Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies knows that its principal theme is that Eurasian civilizations have dominated world history because Eurasia (including the southern shore of the Mediterranean) was the best environment to nurture the growth of preindustrial human cultures, technologies, and civilizations. The large size of and easy east-west communications across Eurasia meant that Eurasia had more people in communication thinking about solving cultural, technological, and civilizational problems--and two heads are always better than one. The east-west axis of Eurasia meant similar climates across ten thousand miles--so whatever good ideas your neighbors had were probably relevant to you as well. The rich biological resources of Eurasia gave its civilizations an advantage in terms of the crops and animals they could selectively breed and domesticate. And, at a slightly finer scale, Europe's mountain ranges and narrow seas provided barriers to control that were not impediments to communication: thus the Ming Dynasty could suppress shipbuilding, but the Pope could not suppress astronomy.
Thus I was astonished to open the New York Times Book Review and find:
Gregg Easterbrook: "Guns" asked why the West is atop the food chain of nations. Its conclusion, that Western success was a coincidence driven by good luck, has proven extremely influential in academia, as the view is quintessentially postmodern.... [E]nvironmental coincidences are the principal factor in human history. Diamond contends it was chance, not culture or brainpower, that brought industrial power first to Europe; Western civilization has nothing to boast about.
But this is completely false. Diamond does say it was culture, it was brainpower--brainpower that could be successfully amplified, harnessed, and applied to building cultures because of the tremendous long-run advantages provided by the Eurasian incubator. It's not either/or. Diamond's view is not postmodern: it is materialist--the antithesis of postmodernism. Diamond's story gives "Western civilization" a great deal to boast about (and also gives it, as any attempt to tell history straight does, a great deal to be bitterly ashamed of).
Some quality control, people. Somebody's job should be to catch book reviewers who don't understand or don't accurately present the books they are reviewing, and pull their reviews before they hit the press.