number 12 with long metal staircase

Masterpieces: Plural

Wow, wow, wow. I cannot praise Jared Diamond’s most recent book enough.

It is astonishing that, more than two decades after publishing his groundbreaking bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel, and after publishing numerous other cutting-edge, hard-hitting books, and while in his 80s, he has published yet another masterpiece.

I do not use these words lightly. Trust me—I would not call a book a masterpiece if it was not one IMHO. The admiration I have for Jared Diamond’s work is beyond all bounds.

A Shining Diamond on the Earth

I have read all of Diamond’s major books, except for Why Is Sex Fun? (Indeed, why is it? And why on earth did I skip this book, in particular? And why am I not leaping to remedy this problem immediately? And why does the universe continually present us with so many questions?) Each of Diamond’s books has dramatically changed my mindset about the science and history of the world . . . and what that means for us today. I truly believe that I would not be the person I am today, had I not had the good fortune of encountering the collected works of Jared Diamond.

The man himself is a polymath. He has expertise in multiple scientific fields (including physiology, biophysics, ornithology, ecology, environmental history, and geography), extensive experience as a world traveler (including to some of the most remote locations on earth) and a deep knowledge of history. This combination of scholarship and worldliness, highly unusual to find in one person, make him uniquely qualified to study and report on the science of human history, both specifically and broadly. That is, he is especially good at synthesizing huge amounts of specific data points to reach broad conclusions that are interesting and surprising, even spectacular.

Crises and Upheavals: Personal and National

But enough fawning. Let me tell you about Jared Diamond’s 2019 book Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis and why it is essential reading, containing information to be found virtually nowhere else today.

In the prologue of Upheaval, Diamond explains the philosophy behind the book, as well as its basic structure:

“Now, here is a road-map to my book itself. In my first chapter I shall discuss personal crises, before devoting the rest of this book to national crises. We’ve all seen, by living through our own crises and witnessing the crises of our relatives and friends, that there is much variation among crisis outcomes. In the best cases, people succeed in figuring out new and better coping methods, and they emerge stronger. In the saddest cases, they become overwhelmed and revert to their old ways, or else they adopt new but worse coping methods. Some people in crisis even commit suicide. Therapists have identified many factors, of which I’ll discuss a dozen in Chapter 1, influencing the likelihood that a personal crisis will be successfully resolved. Those are the factors for which I’ll explore parallel factors influencing the outcomes of national crises.”

What a unique and interesting premise for a book! To recap his strategy, he first isolates 12 factors that relate to personal crises—those faced by an individual person. These 12 factors, he explains, have been identified by experts in psychology and crisis therapy.

Next, he applies these 12 factors to nations. Since nations are naturally different than individuals (being made up of many individuals and their leaders, and having features such as landscapes and borders with other nations instead of personalities and life circumstances), not all of the 12 factors translate directly, though some do. So Diamond creates a list of 12 factors for nations in crisis that is based on the 12 factors for individuals in personal crisis, but altered to make sense in the new context.

This schema is already groundbreaking. I don’t think most of us are accustomed to thinking about nations being “in crisis” or needing “therapeutic treatment”; but we are familiar with the application of these terms toward individuals. To think about nations, instead of individuals, as being in crisis requires not just a leap of intellectual thought, but also a deep knowledge of the world-historical circumstances of multiple nations, to have a context for what one is thinking about. Diamond possesses such knowledge, and he dishes it out to the reader, nation by nation, in the ensuing chapters.

Wait, What?!

And this is not even the most groundbreaking aspect of the book. Listen to the impossible feat he pulls off next. I had no idea where this book was going. I was completely unprepared for what was to come, as I kept reading.

Diamond proceeds (as usual) methodically through each of the nations and crises he has chosen to write about, explaining each particular national crisis in great detail, and then explaining how well the nation coped with its crisis, using the 12 factors as a rubric. Readers unfamiliar with Jared Diamond may find their attention flagging at points, due to his extreme fastidiousness in documenting the facts and analyzing them against the rubric. Readers familiar with Jared Diamond know that each of these data points and conclusions are important, as he moves toward whatever grand argument he is making, and that they had better not skip ahead, lest they miss out on the accumulation of small details that will eventually, miraculously, form themselves into a very large, very important picture.

Listen. Here in the United States, we like to think of ourselves as exceptional. “American exceptionalism” is not just a catchphrase. It’s baked into our education system, our news sources, and even our entertainment. The problem arises, in part, because our nation is so large that you can travel forever without leaving it. But the problem also arises because—well, I guess the problem goes way back. So, here in the USA, lots of us don’t have a great grasp on the history of other nations (not to mention our own). When you don’t know a lot about other nations, it’s not so easy to know whether your own nation is in trouble, and if so, in what specific ways.

Furthermore, in modern times, we are all being bombarded by spin. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, or whether you consider yourself political at all, you’re receiving all kinds of messages about the nation. And it’s very hard to tease apart which messages are true, which are false, which are sort of true but sort of false, and why.

Enter Jared Diamond. The innocent American reader is reading. The innocent American reader learns all about Finland in WWII, Meiji Japan, Chile, Indonesia, and so on, until . . . lo and behold, the reader comes across an analysis of the United States.

It’s like, you are living in social isolation, but then the restrictions are lifted, upon which you reenter society, only to discover that everyone is (or was) a wreck on the brink of a psychological breakdown—and that you are just like everyone else.

Except, all of this is happening on a national scale.

Jared Diamond’s 12 steps.

Are you, as a nation, feeling anonymous?

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