Posts Tagged ‘Ian Morris’

Why does everyone hate this man?

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Tribalist monkey?

Why does everyone hate poor Ian Morris, all of a sudden? They did nothing but crow and give awards to the Stanford archaeologist and historian’s last book, Why The West Rules – for Now. His newest book, War! What is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robotsseems to be making all sorts of unpleasant hoopla.

He wrote a short explanation of his thesis in the Washington Post over the weekend, in an article titled “In the Long Run, Wars Make Us Safer and Richer.” An excerpt:

“Take the long view. The world of the Stone Age, for instance, was a rough place; 10,000 years ago, if someone used force to settle an argument, he or she faced few constraints. Killing was normally on a small scale, in homicides, vendettas and raids, but because populations were tiny, the steady drip of low-level killing took an appalling toll. By many estimates, 10 to 20 percent of all Stone Age humans died at the hands of other people.

“This puts the past 100 years in perspective. Since 1914, we have endured world wars, genocides and government-sponsored famines, not to mention civil strife, riots and murders. Altogether, we have killed a staggering 100 million to 200 million of our own kind. But over the century, about 10 billion lives were lived — which means that just 1 to 2 percent of the world’s population died violently. Those lucky enough to be born in the 20th century were on average 10 times less likely to come to a grisly end than those born in the Stone Age. And since 2000, the United Nations tells us, the risk of violent death has fallen even further, to 0.7 percent.

“As this process unfolded, humanity prospered. Ten thousand years ago, when the planet’s population was 6 million or so, people lived about 30 years on average and supported themselves on the equivalent income of about $2 per day. Now, more than 7 billion people are on Earth, living more than twice as long (an average of 67 years), and with an average income of $25 per day.


His new book.

“This happened because about 10,000 years ago, the winners of wars began incorporating the losers into larger societies. The victors found that the only way to make these larger societies work was by developing stronger governments; and one of the first things these governments had to do, if they wanted to stay in power, was suppress violence among their subjects.

“The men who ran these governments were no saints. They cracked down on killing not out of the goodness of their hearts but because well-behaved subjects were easier to govern and tax than angry, murderous ones. The unintended consequence, though, was that they kick-started the process through which rates of violent death plummeted between the Stone Age and the 20th century.

“This process was brutal. Whether it was the Romans in Britain or the British in India, pacification could be just as bloody as the savagery it stamped out. Yet despite the Hitlers, Stalins and Maos, over 10,000 years, war made states, and states made peace.”

Now, on Tuesday, the article is still the Number #1 Heavy-Hitter at the Washington Post. Typical of the comments:  Jose Benitez writes:  “No doubt, you are Republican and love to watch Patriot Games with Harrison Ford. You also probably supported George W. Bush when cheating the Americans about the weapons of mass destruction supposedly had Iraq and sent thousand young fellows to die. You are an Iceman.”  I very much doubt Ian knows Harrison Ford at all, let alone watches DVDs with him.  Cheryl Ann writes: “what is that? joke of the day for societal disconnects? Ian Morris, you are an unevolved, tribalist monkey.”  Joel R. Stegner wrote: “This is undoubtedly the most insane idea I have ever seen in any newspaper, ever. Only a person who doesn’t value life can advocate this perspective. What next? A column from a serial killer on how to achieve notoriety? Let us hope that no aspiring Hitler buys into this quality of thinking.”

Reussere obviously thought a moment, and wrote:


The old book.

I am one of those that hate war in every possible way. War in my mind is the epitome of evil.

To say I was put off by the title is putting it mildly. In fact, the first time I saw it, I refused to even read it.

Having read it however, and having the overall facts presented in the proper historical light, it is clear that the author has a very valid point. No matter how evil wars and their brutal aftermath is, the truth is that what emerges afterword are often larger, more cohesive and peaceful societies with lower homicide rates. This is certainly not always true, but it is the growth of large societies and the protections that afford their citizens has grown inexorably since the stone ages and the result has been a reasonably steady decline in one on one or few on few homicides.

Please read the article and analyze what the author is actually saying instead of reacting childishly and walk away with an entirely false distortion of what is being said.

Read the whole thing here. And don’t forget the comments section.

Join us for the 11th annual “Company of Authors” on Saturday!

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

carnochanWe’ve written annually about Stanford’s “A Company of Authors” – here and here and here and here. The unusual event offers a chance to meet top Stanford authors, all published in the last year – plus a chance to buy their books without waiting for an Amazon delivery to your doorstep. But the April 19th event next week is special for another reason: Humble Moi will be one of the moderators, on the session featuring “The Power of Poetry.” Well, not entirely special, actually. I chaired a panel with the same title last year. The charming George Orwell biographer, Peter Stansky, who chairs the event, recycled the title for the panel this year. But what better title could we have picked? What would match the power of poetry?

Casper at the conference, Robert Harrison in the background (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Casper on Arendt, with Robert Harrison. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I met with one of my panelists last week for lunch over at the Stanford Humanities Center. Benjamin Paloff is a Slavic scholar deeply immersed in the work of Russian and Polish poets, including Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz, among others, so we had lots to talk about. He’s also  the excellent translator of Krzysztof Michalski‘s The Flame of Eternity, which we’ve discussed on these pages here. But he’s on my panel for the book I haven’t seen – his latest collection of poems, Politics. Benjamin is currently a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, visiting from my own alma mater, the University of Michigan – Tung-Hui Hu, also on my panel, is an assistant professor of English in Ann Arbor. So three of us are used to cold weather. Tung-Hui wrote me this morning from the foggy cliffs of Djerassi Ranch. Well, we’ve written about Carl Djerassi‘s philanthropic venture here, and the terrors of driving to the place here. As for Rodney Koeneke, the final member of my panel, the Stanford alum and poet is visiting us from Portland. He appears to have no Michigan connection, nor anything that’s not on the Pacific. Quite wise of him.

michalski2At least one of the other books has been on these pages: Bliss Carnochan‘s Scotland the Brave.  We’ve also written about Ian Morris, Gavin Jones, Peter Carroll, and others. We haven’t written about former Stanford president Gerhard Casper (except to discuss his friendship with Hannah Arendt  here and here), but we should. His new book, The Winds of Freedom: Addressing Challenges to the University, has been getting some buzz.

Peter Stansky, as always, is the master of ceremonies. We can’t do much better than give you the elegant playbill below, and urge you to come to the Stanford Humanities Center next Saturday at 1 p.m. Oh, and it’s free. How many things can you say that about nowadays?


In good company: Gabriella Safran, Abbas Milani, Ian Morris discuss their books

Friday, February 10th, 2012

I know, I know – I keep promising Paris.  But here’s a down-payment, while I figure out how to download my photos.  A colleague recently sent me this youtube video from last April’s “A Company of Authors.”

Included in this excerpt from the day-long event are authors Gabriella Safran, Humble Moi (a.k.a. Cynthia Haven), Abbas Milani, and Ian Morris presenting our recently published books.  That’s Gabriella’s Wandering Soul, my An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz, Abbas’s Myth of the Great Satan/The Shah, and Ian’s Why the West Rules – For Now.

Writing quickly from Desk #39 at the BNF … more later

Kudos to Ian Morris, Father Gregory Boyle, from P.E.N.

Friday, September 30th, 2011

We’ve written about Ian Morris‘s Why the West Rules – for Now (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) here and here and here.

Now he has a new honor:  he’s just bagged P.E.N. USA’s award for “research nonfiction.”  The Economist said  Why the West Rules – for Now is a “remarkable book” that “uses history and an overarching theory to address the anxieties of the present.” The New York Times called Morris “a lucid thinker and a fine writer,” covering disease, famine, migration, agriculture, industry, and climate change “with the humor and detail of a sportscaster.”

The “creative nonfiction” award went to Father Gregory Boyle for Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (Free Press) his recollection of his work, for over two decades, reforming gang youth in Los Angeles county. The Jesuit priest’s Homeboy Industries is the largest gang intervention program in the country, offering job training, tattoo removal, and employment to members of enemy gangs. The Los Angeles Times predicted the book is “destined to become a classic of both urban reportage and contemporary spirituality.”

Meanwhile, a video of Ian talking about his book below.


The day after Shakespeare’s birthday, and “the first of arts”

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

Wordsworth: Yesterday's child

Yesterday was my first time attending “A Company of Authors” – a warm and friendly gathering of about 100 or so booklovers at the Stanford Humanities Center.  (Video will be added when available.)  Particularly memorable: Elena Danielson‘s breathy presentation of the ethical issues of archiving.  Don’t think that sounds exciting?  You have to hear Elena tell about it.  The author of The Ethical Archivist has been privy to billets-doux of the long-dead and recently dead, and all the burning secrets held in donated letters and memorabilia. Ian Morris, author of Why the West Rules—For Now, as always, stole the show with his story about how everything came to be in the last 15,000 or so years.

We celebrated the parade of April 23d birthdays:  William Shakespeare, Alexander Pushkin, Vladimir Nabokov, William Wordsworth, J.M.W. Turner, Shirley Temple Black, St. George, and George Steiner, too.

As promised, Peter Stansky, read George Steiner’s poem:

To choose one’s birthday is the first of arts.
Renowned birthdays mark the man of parts.
The kalends are replete with faceless days,
So why not make one’s entry in a blaze?
Alas, I failed on the first day I was born!  Steiner noted:
And honest Wordsworth  tells us in his Ode
How the Platonic soul in its abode
Must before birth make choice of room and board –
No one is born on my day, although it is St. James‘s Day.  That means I should wear a cockle shell.  Or move to Spain.  Or both.   I shall have to be my own parade.
But all such glories are but dusty ends
When set against this laurel-crown of friends. …
How could the heart do otherwise than say
How wise it was to choose St. George’s day!

Hitting the road

The Times Online wrote this for Steiner’s birthday two years ago: “The polymath Professor George Steiner  said it is rather embarrassing that birthday celebrations are taking place in Florence, Rome and Germany. There is also an event at Churchill College, Cambridge, where he has been a Fellow since 1961. He is researching a book about how great philosophy gets itself written, called The Poetry of Thought. He enjoys walks with his Old English sheepdog, known as Monsieur Ben. Professor George Steiner is 80 today.”

Meanwhile, birthdays march on:  Today Anthony Trollope was born in 1815. And Robert Penn Warren, the first U.S. poet laureate in 1905.  The Swiss poet Carl Spitteler, a 1915 Nobel winner, in 1845.

From Trollope: “As to that leisure evening of life, I must say that I do not want it. I can conceive of no contentment of which toil is not to be the immediate parent.”

Happy Easter, everyone!

Tomorrow: Meet the authors, and celebrate birthdays with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Nabokov, and St. George

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

“Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”

Tomorrow, April 23, is William Shakespeare‘s birthday.  It’s also William Wordsworth‘s birthday, and Vladimir Nabokov‘s birthday – and St. George’s Day, to boot.

It’s also the 8th annual “A Company of Authors” celebration at the Stanford Humanities Center, an all-afternoon gig celebrating the variety, richness and importance of the books produced by the Stanford community.  (More on the event here.)

This year’s auspicious date is not entirely a coincidence.  George Orwell biographer Peter Stansky, who founded the event along with the late, lamented Associates of the Stanford University Libraries, was particularly pleased by the possibilities offered by the juxtaposition.

Peter will open the event by reading a poem by George Steiner about the wisdom of choosing one’s birthday – you see, it’s Steiner’s birthday, too.

The event was inspired by the Los Angeles Times Book Fair and the annual Humanities Center Book party.  There’s a difference, however: the books will be available for sale at a 10 percent discount.  The fête kicks off at 1 p.m., and it’s free at the Humanities Center on Santa Teresa, and the company will be excellent, if I do say so myself.

“It is open to all who wish to come and learn more about the authors’ thinking behind their work, would like to chat with the authors in the periods between sessions and have the opportunity to purchase their books,” he said.  It has another purpose – “and that we can all feel that somehow we are in the tradition of Shakespeare!”

Authors include:  Charlotte Jacobs, Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease;

Birthday boy

Susan Krieger, Traveling Blind; William Kays, Letters from a Soldier; Gabriella Safran, Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk’s Creator: S. An-sky; Abbas Milani, Myth of the Great Satan and The Shah; Ian Morris, Why the West Rules—For Now; Karen Wigen, A Malleable Map; Elena Danielson, The Ethical Archivist; Jack Rakove, Revolutionaries; Karen Offen, Globalizing Feminisms; Myra Strober,  Interdisciplinary Conversations; Stina Katchadourian, The Lapp King’s Daughter; Dan Edelstein, The Enlightenment: A Genealogy; Herbert Lindenberger, Situating Opera: Period, Genre, Reception; Debra Satz, Why Some Things Shouldn’t Be for Sale.  And you guessed it, Humble Moi – Cynthia Haven for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz.

No RSVP needed

According to Peter, “Most importantly in my view, the books reflect the most important aspect of the University: the life of the mind which sometimes gets forgotten in the many day to day events that take place at Stanford. In my view, this event represents the essence of the University.”

It is also J.M.W. Turner‘s birthday as well as Shirley Temple‘s, which he doesn’t mention.  “Perhaps you can arrange for Shirl ey Temple to come,” he suggested to me.  Do you think?

Postscript:  I know, I know … Shakespeare’s birthday is conjecture, based on his April 26 christening.  Usually, in the 16th century, a birth was followed post haste by a christening in anticipation of instant death.  And, given that he died on April 23, and that April 23 was St. George’s day, and, after all, he did need a birthday – the world fixed on April 23rd.  Good enough for me.  Hope for you, too.  See you tomorrow.

Postscript on 4/23/2013  We mistakenly reported that Alexander Pushkin‘s birthday is on April 23.  Wrong!  It’s June 6, 1799 (what a pleasant way to usher in a new century!)  The error has been corrected.  Thank you, Tatiana Pahlen, for pointing it out to us.

“God Bless Us, Every One!” — NYT, Ian Morris, and a postscript to the Berkeley concert

Monday, December 13th, 2010

"Hey, mom!"

At Berkeley’s “Slavic Choral Concert Christmas in Kraków”, described yesterday, I had to scour the rows to find a vacant chair, even as a singleton.  It seemed that the entire Slavic population of the Bay Area was in the crowded Hillside Club.  Naturally, I went to the front, first: I never underestimate people’s unwillingness to be close to the action.  Two African-American matrons, dressed to the nines for the occasion, were holding down the front seats in the lefthand corner.

“Well, you don’t look Polish!” I said to them.  They laughed.

“We’re all part of Mother Africa!” said one.

It’s true.

Don’t believe me (or her)?  Listen to Ian Morris, who received a very good review in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review (Orville Schell calls him “a lucid thinker and a fine writer,” with the tone of “an erudite sportscaster”):

“Historians like giving long, complicated answers to simple questions, but this time things really do seem to be straightforward. Europeans do not descend from superior Neanderthals, and Asians do not descend from inferior Homo erectus.  Starting around 70,000 years ago, a new species of Homo — us — drifted out of Africa and completely replaced all other forms.  Our kind, Homo sapiens (“wise man”), wiped the slate clean: we are all Africans now.  Evolution of course continues, and local variations in skin color, face shape, height, lactose tolerance, and countless other things have appeared in the 2,000 generations since we began spreading across the globe.  But when we get right down to it, these are trivial.  Wherever you go, whatever you do, people (in large groups) are all much the same.”

So, as Tiny Tim said, “God bless us, every one!

Or, in the words of the cheerful African-American woman at the Slavic gig:  “We’re everyone!” she said, waving toward the crowd on the darkening Thursday evening among the Christmas lights, the mulled wine, and the decidedly un-African decor.

Postscript on 12/15:   was named one of the top ten books of 2010 by the New York Times.  Tk it out here.

More good news for Ian Morris … and a quick world tour through time

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Not only is Why the West Rules — for Now the bedside reading of Niall Ferguson, but The Economist has just named Ian Morris‘s weighty tome  as one of the top books of 2010:  “An entertaining and plausible book by a British historian at Stanford University that shows how debates about the rise of China or the fall of the West are ultimately a sideshow, as nature will bite back savagely at human society.”  (We wrote about it here and here.)

The Economist reviewed the book last October:  “Ian Morris, a polymathic Stanford University professor of classics and history, has written a remarkable book that may come to be as widely read as Paul Kennedy’s 1987 work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.”

Also receiving The Economist‘s best-of-the-year praise — in fact, right above the Why the West Rules, is Timothy Snyder‘s Bloodlands: “How Stalin and Hitler enabled each other’s crimes and killed 14m people between the Baltic and the Black Sea. A lifetime’s work by a Yale University historian who deserves to be read and reread.”  (Bloodlands was discussed on The Book Haven a few weeks ago, with Norman Naimark‘s Stalin’s Genocides, and again here.)

In the spirit of Morris’s book, if you’d like to watch ten centuries roll by in five minutes — click “play” below.  We think it’s kind of fun.

Top global thinkers read Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules — For Now … and an odd blunder

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Archaeologist Morris digs for the secrets of the ages

Foreign Policy has published its Second Annual Top 100 Global Thinkers List — “a unique portrait of 2010’s global marketplace of ideas and the thinkers who make them” — and there are inevitably some surprises.

The one that pleased us most is that nestled in Niall Ferguson‘s recommended reading list of three books (Ferguson comes in at #80) —  Ian Morris‘s Why the West Rules — For Now.  We’ve written about Morris, the man who knows everything, here and here.

Other names mentioned in these pages appear on the list — Christopher Hitchens, Liu Xiaobo, Mario Vargas Llosa, Clay Shirky, David GrossmanAyaan Hirsi Ali made the cut, and so, ironically, did the man who has derided her — Ian Buruma finishes the list at #100.  (Tariq Ramadan follows immediately after at #62).  But what’s curious about her blurb is this bizarre understatement:

“The first time you heard about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, it was likely the story of a brave Muslim woman fleeing her forced marriage in Somalia to become an outspoken critic of Islam. But her flight didn’t stop there; after more than a decade living in the Netherlands, she left Europe and its painful debates over assimilation for more comfortable ground: conservative America.”

Well, no.  Not quite.  They neglect to mention that she fled Holland because a fatwa called for her death, her colleague Theo van Gogh was murdered, and the Netherlands not only failed to protect her, but turned on her, questioning her immigration status. Big difference.

Why did no one at Foreign Policy flag this boo boo?  I guess all the copy editors have been laid off.

Ian Morris: The man who has an answer for everything

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Ian Morris has an answer for everything.  And you’ll be able to hear it all tonight at Kepler’s at 7 p.m.  Or, for the Cliffs Notes version, see my video interview above.

I wrote about Ian some time ago, well before the launch date of his new book, Why the West Rules — For Now — which is out this month.  In a world of cautious scholarship, Ian is going way, way out on a limb with his grand récit, a story about how everything came to be in the history of the world.  Remember crazy James Burke in The Day the Universe Changed, the man who could somehow connect the drift of continents with the invention of spaghetti?  Ian Morris grabs the other end of the telescope.

It’s an unusual publishing choice for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who usually publishing premiere literary works.  I understand the top publishing house wants to expand its repertoire.

Friedrich Keyl's painting of Looty. The collar with bells in the foreground is the only remant of his earlier royal life.

When I wrote my own article, I began it with a small dog that has a big story:  a yapping Pekingese named Looty.  (It guaranteed me a readership among Pekingese fanciers.)

I wrote:

After the sacking and destruction of Beijing’s summer palace in 1860, the Chinese empress’ Pekingese – the appropriately named Looty – was whisked to the royal family at Balmoral, bringing the previously unknown breed to the West.

But why Looty to Balmoral, instead of the other way around, with Queen Victoria’s beloved Skye terrier, Islay, going to the emperor in Beijing?  Why was it the British, and not the Chinese, who dominated?

Stanford Classics and History Professor Ian Morris puts forth some bold answers in his ambitious new 750-page book, Why the West Rules – For Now (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).  And that places Looty in a longer story going back to the last ice age.

Looty’s story is sadder than I made it sound.  Though he lived a long and contented life in Victoria’s lap, after an initial period when he was beat up by the British dogs, here’s his unexpurgated story, as told in Jolee magazine:

One British soldier who arrived too late to share in the plunder of the Palace, discovered in a corner of the Garden of Clear Ripples four little dogs and their attendant, a lady of the Court who had committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner by the barbarians. Gathering up the four little dogs, he put them in his gunnysack and later whilst rejoining his regiment at muster prior to embarkation on Her Majesty’s ship “Odin” for the return to England, the four dogs would not stay still. One of the officers noticed movement in the soldier’s gunnysack, and was ordered to disgorge the contents of his sack – and out poured the four dogs which were immediately confiscated from the aberrant soldier by his officers.

The dogs should have been returned to the Summer Palace but were not.  One dog and a bitch were taken by Lord John Hay and later given to his sister the Duchess of Wellington. The other dog and bitch were taken by Sir George Fitzroy and given to his cousin the Duchess of Richmond. And of course “Lootie” was given to Queen Victoria by Captain Dunne.

After reviewing my own paragraphs, copyeditor Barb Egbert came back and cheerfully corrected me, “Shouldn’t we say the last ice age?”  Silly me.  I was confusing the last ice age with all those other ice ages.

Now that’s an editor.

Barb Egbert took away the 800-page book (with index) — otherwise I would include an excerpt.  Soon she will know everything about everything.  Sometimes I think she already does.