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Upheaval by Jared Diamond

Upheaval by Jared Diamond
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The conceit behind Jared Diamond’s new book is that personal crises such as relationship breakdowns and bereavements are not so very different from the political crises faced by nations. At first, I thought this sounded a “little glib”, said Andrew Marr in The Sunday Times, but in the event it worked “surprisingly well”. Patients visiting a therapist, Diamond points out, are likely to be told to face up to a problem and accept help from others, while being encouraged to build a secure sense of self. Much the same advice, he says, applies to nations in crisis, which must accept responsibility for their failures, look to rivals for help and establish a “strong national identity”. Diamond advances his thesis by analysing six countries – Finland, Chile, Indonesia, Japan, Germany and Australia – all of which he has either lived in or regularly visited. The resulting book provides “much food for thought”; certainly, Brexit-torn Britain could profit from its lessons.

In past works, such as Guns, Germs & Steel (1997) and Collapse (2005), Diamond displayed an impressive “willingness to stick his head above the parapet”, said Gerard DeGroot in The Times. But here, he lets himself down with “facile analysis” and “simplistic assumptions”. His discussions of individual countries can be “shockingly naive”: with Chile, for example, he fundamentally misunderstands the role the US played in bolstering the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. A work such as this is easy to criticise, said Vernon Bogdanor in The Daily Telegraph, and the “shop stewards of the historical profession” haven’t lost time in doing so. But it raises important questions, and even its errors force one to think about history in a new way. Diamond is an “invigorating” stylist. His book deserves to be “widely read”.