Monday, July 21, 2008

Ridin' the Tractor

Kim's Uncle Scott graciously took Jackson on a ride on the big tractor when we were up in Indiana a few days ago. Here's some video...

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Book Review - Worlds at War (first draft)

The following is the first draft of a book review that I am submitting for publication in a historical journal. This book also served as the summer reading for my AP World History students this summer. Your comments, criticisms and corrections are welcome and appreciated. For some reason my blog platform would not allow me to indent paragraphs which is why they are spaced for this blog.

Worlds at War: The 2,500 - Year Struggle Between East and West. By Anthony Pagden.
(New York City, NY. Random House, 2008. Pp. xxv, 625 $35.00)

Following the horrific events of September 11, 2001 many Americans flocked to bookstores purchasing books on Islam to gain insight into the animosity toward American and western culture that pervades the Islamic world. Acts of Islamic terrorism were not new in 2001 but the fact that terrorism had now reached American shores awakened many American citizens to the harsh reality that they were players in a “clash of civilizations” that had been going on for a very long time and to which no end seemed near in the foreseeable future.

Anthony Pagden’s thesis is quite simple. The conflict between East and West has indeed been going on for a very long time, over 2,500 years in fact. Pagden argues that this struggle goes back long before the advent of Islam and its conflicts with Christianity and Judaism. The ideological battle between the Occident and the Orient has been continuous since at least the time of the Greek invasion of the Hellespont and the subsequent ten-year Trojan War made famous by Homer’s The Illiad.

Pagden doesn’t necessarily attempt to explain the reasons behind the two millennia old battle between East and West. Rather Pagden traces a series of clashes throughout antiquity that help place today’s conflicts in context. The recurrent theme in the East-West relationship, according to Pagden, is one of consistent misunderstanding of each side’s cultural values. The West is always bewildered by the East’s collective mentality and willingness to remain under the leadership of autocratic despots. The East never does understand the West’s desire for individual freedom and sees democracy as tyrannical in its inherent chaos.

Many of the historical incidents, related by Pagden in masterful prose, bear striking similarities to the misunderstandings in the East-West relationship today. Napoleon’s failed attempt at introducing western political and philosophical institutions to Egypt in the late eighteenth century seems very much like the current difficulties the United States has faced in introducing moderate democracy to Iraq in the early 21st Century.

Worlds at War discusses the many battlegrounds both military and philosophical including the Trojan Wars, The Persian Wars, Alexander’s Hellenism, Rome’s relationship with the East, the rise of Christianity, The creation of Islam, the Crusades, the Ottoman Empire, the impact of the Enlightenment, the Middle Eastern mandates following World War II, the Balfour Declaration and much much more. Each era and historical event provide examples of the vast gulf of understanding between the West and East.

Pagden’s narrative is extremely compelling and provides an impartial view from both eastern and western perspectives. He provides another side to many of the historical events with which western audiences may be familiar thus coloring these events with more nuance and contextual depth. One weakness of Pagden’s work is his overt skepticism toward religion. Rather than keeping an objective eye of an historian intact, Pagden occasionally allows his antipathy toward organized religion, both Islamic and Christian, taint his work with editorializing that seems oddly off-putting and out of place in this work of history. But these insights are few and far between and do not take away from Pagden’s impressive achievement.

This book is so enormously comprehensive it could easily be used as the definitive text on the history of the East-West relationship. The comprehensive nature of Pagden’s subject, of course, does not allow for him to go into the great historical depth one might expect for each individual chapter. Volumes could be written on the subject of each chapter. However, Pagden does not skimp on historical detail. He wonderfully walks the fine line of providing enough facts to give weight to the narrative without dragging his book to the depths of factual overload.