Thursday, June 29, 2006

Bad History, Bad Writing, Bad Thinking: Same Thing

Tom Bissell on Robert Kaplan
The bus ride from Tashkent to Samarkand provides some spectacularly rocky and mountainous scenery, but somehow Kaplan notices only “high weeds” and an “achingly flat, monochrome landscape.” Once he reaches Samarkand he remarks on the “battered automobiles, and people in unsightly polyester clothing.” Battered automobiles? Most of Uzbekistan’s people are poor, and this seemed needlessly petty. As for people’s clothing, I have never found Uzbekistan’s city-dwellers to be anything but maniacally fastidious about their appearance. (Shoeshining is practically the Uzbek national pastime.) He gets wrong the 1994 exchange rate of the Uzbek currency by a factor of 100. He visits Guri Amir, the tomb of the fourteenth-century despot Tamerlane, which he spells “Gul Emir.” He says the word uzbek means “independent” or “free.” That is wrong. His translator, Ulug Beg, a young Uzbek, claims to be “ashamed” in Samarkand because it has so many Tajiks. “How can I like them?” Ulug Beg asks Kaplan of the Tajiks. “We must settle Uzbeks here. We must settle many, many Uzbeks in Samarkand.” Problem: Samarkand, though a Tajik-majority city, has many, many Uzbeks. He writes that Samarkand is a “would-be Bangkok,” with its “army of whores.” I asked a friend who lived in Samarkand for years if that description at all rang true to him. My friend was still laughing when I hung up the phone. When Ulug Beg slurps as he eats Kaplan calls him “crude” and wonders if Ulug Beg’s manners might be explained this way: “Could these be pre-Byzantine Turks? Could this be what Turks might have been somewhat like before the great Seljuk and Osmanli migrations to Anatolia”? The Seljuks migrated to Anatolia around 900 years ago. That Kaplan does not understand how offensive such eugenic explanations are for one young man’s eating habits is appalling. That he does not recognize the basic implausibility of such an explanation is beyond reason.
I found this Via Scott McLemee. Neither Bissell nor McLemee ask what seems to me to be the obvious question: has anyone checked Kaplan's passport and travel receipts? Bissell is a fine writer, full of piss and vinegar in this piece:
  • "Bush has gone from an isolationist to an interventionist minus the crucial intermediary stage wherein he actually became interested in other places."
  • "Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that war is the extension of politics by other means. Bush and Kaplan, on the other hand, appear to advocate war as cultural politics by other means. This has resulted in a collision of second-rate minds with third-rate policies. While one man attempts to make the world as simple as he is able to comprehend it, the other whispers in his various adjutants’ ears that they are on the side of History itself."
  • "In all of his books, but especially in Mediterranean Winter, Kaplan is incapable of making a point about the past without pointing a finger at the present. To wit: “Carthage’s defeat in the First Punic War—like Germany’s in World War I—led to anarchy at home.” But how is the 2,200-year-old First Punic War at all otherwise comparable to Weimar Germany? (In another book he again rolls out this hot rod, slightly modulated, and writes how the Second Punic War has “many resemblances to World War II that seems to warn against the hubris of our own era.” Well, they both have a two.) He also connects, preposterously, a fourth-century B.C.E. Athenian invasion of Sicily with “President Lyndon Johnson dispatching half a million American troops to South Vietnam.” Of course he acknowledges the differences, but they “seemed less interesting than the similarities.” That is because Kaplan is addicted to similarities and blind to differences. “One can write endlessly about the differences between the first and twenty-first centuries A.D.,” he writes in another book. Yes. One can."
  • It's not all bad: "Even if the Ethiopian famine did not turn out to have the global ramifications Kaplan projected—wherever Kaplan travels, we are assured that whatever is happening there is going to have vast consequences—his attempt from within one of hell’s inner circles to make others take note of the suffering he has witnessed is salutary, and even moving."
  • This is also good: "His take on Afghan’s guerrillas, while somewhat naive (as he himself admits), is, all the same, winningly honest: “Sympathizing with guerrilla movements is an occupational hazard of foreign correspondents everywhere, but the Afghans were the first guerrillas whom journalists not only sympathized with but actually looked up to.'"
  • But then it goes off a cliff again: " Kaplan can complain about the unwarranted aftereffects of Balkan Ghosts all he wants, but he is the man who salted his book with statements such as, “while the Greeks and the Macedonian Slavs despise each other, as Orthodox Christians they equally despise the Muslim Kosovars.” The metaphysics of what makes people suddenly garrote and rape their neighbors can be debated from now until the end of time, but to generalize so complacently gives hatred a mask that too many can hide behind."
  • "It takes a special kind of man to waltz into a foreign city, tar the entire populace as recessive Nazis, and then refer to them as animals."
I'm not even finished reading it yet....

No comments: