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Review: “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, Yuval Noah Harari

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In “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, Yuval Noah Harari sets out to tell the story of Sapiens’ early beginnings, the revolutions that shaped us (cognitive, 70000 years ago; agricultural, 11000 years ago; scientific, 500 years ago; industrial, 250 years ago; and finally information 50 years ago), and our possible future from the coming “biotechnological revolution”. The potential for an interesting and insightful book was there, however, Harari squanders it on poorly researched, poorly referenced, or usually no referenced at all, and opinionated misleading sensationalism.

Harari is a professor, yet, this book has very little to do with academy, or history for that matter. Instead, it’s an iteration over anecdotes which he uses to create fridge-magnet poetry. The more one knows about the topic he covers, the more painful and frustrating it becomes to read. The section on genetic programming and computer virus (chapter 20; “Another life”) is case in point, where it seems the talking points are taken from a Dan Brown or Michael Crichton novel.

There is little else to say about the facts or history covered in the book. None of it can be trusted, and untangling Harari’s poetic babbling from actual facts will take hours of research for each chapter. As a list of discussion topics, it can work, as long as the problem with the facts and references are clear.

Unfortunate and potentially harmful

If Harari and his work had stayed fringe and unknown, it would have been a case of “nothing to see here, move along”. However, through TED talks and clever marketing, he has gained a world-wide following; the book is translated to some thirty languages and is popular everywhere. That is very unfortunate, and potentially harmful.

In today’s political climate, dealing with facts have become a fluid process, where anybody can declare something they disagree with as “fake news”, and then present “alternative facts”. US president Trump has made this type of political rhetoric mainstream, and it’s already leaking across to Europe: When boots crushed skulls in the Catalonian attempt at an election, PM Mariano Rajoy simply declared the pictures of blood as fake news. When an election does not produce the desired result, we can simply blame it on Russian meddling (see Brexit), and so on.

In politics, lies have always been part of the game, while in science the standard have been facts and evidence. Although, there are exceptions, like Ron Hubbard’s book “Dianetics” which is the basis for Scientology. Its rhetorical style is similar to Harari’s, where the former tends to conclude “this can be scientifically proven”, while the latter usually prefers “scholars agree”. Neither support their claims with facts, evidence or references.

Popularizing this kind of pseudoscience is dangerous, and should not be taken lightly. Scientology has caused a lot of harm to many people, even if their organization is by now known to be predatory. By creating a following of more pseudoscience, Harari risks legitimizing both political and scientific opinion based “evidence”. Throughout the “Sapiens” book, he declares his skepticisms towards almost any invention, discovery or change after the scientific revolution. In fact, in discussing happiness, Harari suggests that the hunter-gatherer or medieval farmer was happier than today’s city dweller. We risk regressing back to a pre-Renaissance pre-science forum, where anybody can claim anything and get a following, no matter how ludicrous.

To some extent, that has already been going on for a while. Discussing the science and politics of global warming is already problematic, starting with agreeing on observable scientific facts. Fascists have used pseudoscience in an attempt to prove the Aryan race superior. Creationists, whom Harari unwittingly lends a bone, promote Intelligent Design to be taught alongside evolution and science. Yet all of the nonsense from these groups have not been a great problem because their voices have stayed fringe, and have easily been sidelined by hard facts and science.

Harari might not have intended to support these kind of fringe groups, but by legitimizing and popularizing pseudoscience and biased opinionated facts, he unintentionally gives credibility to those whom should not be given any. That is potentially harmful.

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Review: “Against the Fascist Creep”, Alexander Reid Ross

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In Against the Fascist Creep (2017), Alexander Reid Ross summarizes the history of the fascist political and cultural movement from its beginnings in Italy in the early 20th century, and up to recent political developments and elections in Europe and US. He iterates the leading figures and key organizations which have influenced and developed the fascists ideology and thinking over the last hundred years in Europe and US.

A key argument in Ross’ narrative is the idea that fascists and extreme right politics and members have co-opted the left, either by borrowing its tactics or infiltrating its ranks. He provides several examples of where there have been cross-over between extreme left and right groups, and several key members who have “switched sides” either way. The problem with that argument, is that it intermingles ideology, political goals and tactical means. Fringe groups of any kind usually share at least one enemy: the establishment; as Ross also mentions. As under-powered forces, they tend to use similar tactics of asymmetrical resistance and independent loosely coupled and distributed cells as opposed to a central organization. However, the similar tactics and politics does not equate similar ideology.

Throughout the book, Ross seems to lump all and any group or opinion which might have any relation, however tangent, to fascism under the same banner. This creates a polarized view, which is unfortunate, and sometimes leaves questions-marks with some of the facts.

For especially interested only

Ross offers a well researched, thoroughly referenced summary of the fascist history. However, the narrative gets somewhat uninteresting as organization after organization, country after country, and people and relations are iterated through. What is probably lacking is the analysis into the bigger picture and political context. And where there is analysis, it comes with a hint of bias, to support the “fascist creep” argument.

The topic Ross cover is very relevant, especially given most recent events in the US. However, beyond iterating names and groups, the book does not analyze the problem let alone any solution.

If you are particularly interested in the history, organizations and key figures in fascism, this book offers a good summary. Otherwise, it’s a rather boring read, and can better be skipped.

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Review: “The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin”, Steven Lee Myers

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Lee Myers’ book is a fascinating and detailed biography of Putin’s life; from early childhood in a poor family in St. Petersburg; as a low level KGB officer; a loyal adviser of the St. Petersburg major Sobchak in the early 90s; and then suddenly and unexpectedly as first prime minister and then president of Russia at the turn of the century. The story includes detailed political and personal events up until the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Lee Myers balances the personal anecdotes, which give glimpses of Putin’s character, with overall political history and background. Throughout, all is very well researched and referenced, with the list of references taking up some fifty pages of a five hundred pages book.

Although some of the sources are clearly biased, as they come from stories told by Putin himself, his wife, or other loyal to Putin, Lee Myers paints a picture of Putin as extremely hard working, determined and goal oriented. Clearly, his unquestioning loyalty was something which got him forward in his early political career in the 1990s. Later on, and especially as president, he has expected the same unquestioning loyalty and servitude from his subordinates and even business interests. Where there has been opposition and resistance, it has been crushed decisively and sometimes brutally, including assassinations and other KGB style methods.

Putin’s upbringing and early life in Soviet Russia and background in the KGB, and also briefly as director of its reincarnation FSB, is a central part of his character, and still shapes his presidency and politics today. The US and the West is still seen as the enemy or at least opposition of Russia, and the politics and wars in Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia; Chechnya; Ukraine; Crimea, as well as the Middle East; Iraq; Afghanistan; Syria must be seen in this light. Thus it becomes clear why Russia is against the Americans in Syria: It is not to support Bashar al-Assad, but rather to avoid American forces on the footsteps of Russia, and furthermore to keep their naval base in the Mediterranean sea at Tartus at the east coast of Syria.

Lee Myers’ book ends in 2014, but hints at the next milestone in Russian politics: The upcoming presidential election in 2018, where Putin legally can sit a second term (which overall would be his fourth term). If he does, it means he will rule until 2024, since he extended the presidential term from four to six years while prime minister under Medvedev in 2011.

Most interesting

As mentioned, Lee Myers’ book is fascinating and a page turner, which is a good achievement when writing about politics. The blend between political and historical events, and personal anecdotes make it entertaining, and also something to quote. Personal favorites include the story from the business meeting between Putin and US business leaders, among them Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots football team. He showed Putin his Super Bowl ring, who understood it as a gift, and put it in his pocket. Mr. Kraft was forced to announce it as a gift to avoid at diplomatic embarrassment.

Understanding Putin’s Russia goes a long way to explain many key world events and decisions over the last decades. Given that it looks like he will be at the head for another seven years, for almost quarter of a century in total, his reign will shape world affairs for decades to come.

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Review: “Flashpoints – The Emerging Crisis in Europe”, George Friedman

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In his latest book, “Flashpoints – The Emerging Crisis in Europe”, George Friedman gives a summary of various events through European history, focusing on the 20th century wars, inter-war years, and cold war eras. Although the book tries to sell itself as being about future predictions, he spends more than half of it looking at the past. In the second half, he tries to foresee various possibilities and outcomes for the regions of Russia / Eastern Europe; Germany; France; the Mediterranean region; Turkey and Britain. However, most of the attempt at analysis remains limited, shallow, and biased.

The problem with Friedman’s book, is that it seems he didn’t quite decide what it was supposed to be about: his own and his family’s escape from war in Europe; his travels across Europe in later years; a history of Europe; or as the title suggests, about future emerging crisis. It turns in to a bit of everything, and becomes colloquial and incoherent. Between the endless anecdotes, it seems what Friedman is missing is an editor who can cut away the cruft. Totally irrelevant stories covering taking a leak behind a border office in Ukraine or that some hotelier in Sarajevo reminds him of his aunt, are just some of what could have been left out.

Skip it

Frankly, this book is a waste of time. Although the history of Europe is important in order to understand the present and the future, this book is not a good summary. If any section of it had been part of Wikipedia, it would have been littered with “citation needed”. In fact, Friedman hasn’t included any references at all, and sometimes it seems he has not done his homework very well, with plenty of inaccurate facts.

This makes the future predictions in the book rather worthless. They are not based on any hard facts or research, but rather what Friedman could imagine. Furthermore, the book shows some age, despite being republished this year: In the chapter on Britain, he completely missed the risk of Britain voting to exit the EU, while it’s mentioned briefly in the after-word.

Overall, this is not a book worth spending time on.

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