The Renaissance of Geographic History

Historians in the News

...As a form of poetry, space history is very old. Milton sang of “the Mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty,” implying there was a reason that the Swiss were freer than the French, and the idea that geography shapes character is essential to Montesquieu: southern peoples are sweaty and stolid; mountain dwellers are springy and defiant, and so on. France, in his view, is ideal, because it is, like Mama Bear’s porridge, neither too cold nor too hot. (Actually, it is too cold, but the myth that the French live in a beautifully temperate climate is impossible for them to surrender, even in January.) In recent years, space history has been armed with data and detail and an urge to explain everything. Like the “naked ape” anthropology of the nineteen-seventies, sure in its belief that the missionary position in sex explains all of human bonding, the new space history has imperial ambitions. Russians always want a warm-weather port and will always have a huddled, suspicious culture, whether Tsarist, Soviet, or Putinish. Ideology is mere summer clouds above an unchanging terrain.

Two new books meant for a popular audience lay out this geographic turn in eloquent and encyclopedic form, though with two different purposes: Robert D. Kaplan’s “The Revenge of Geography” (Random House) is mostly predictive, while “Why Geography Matters: More Than Ever” (Oxford), by Harm de Blij, a professor at Michigan State, is essentially retrospective. De Blij wants students to study more geography; Kaplan wants journalists to think first of all about terrain. Kaplan’s book can be summed up in a single phrase from Ambrose Bierce: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” In particular, Kaplan insists, the Iraq war was a way of teaching neoconservatives to pay attention to terrain. That war, of which he was an enthusiast, was a catastrophe, he now admits, and he lays the blame for that on a failure to pay attention to the lay of the land. The view, prevalent among “humanitarian interventionists,” was that you could build liberal institutions more or less wherever you wanted: tiny island Trinidad and cold, vast, latitudinal Canada; rainy Scotland and sunny northern Italy; the tropics of Taiwan and the deserts of Israel. Let smart people make money with new ideas in a society where the cops can’t easily be bribed and the judges aren’t entirely bought, and liberal democracy will prosper. This thesis, simple and majestic, has banged its shins against reality; Kaplan’s book is the howl....

Read entire article at Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker

comments powered by Disqus