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‘National identity needn’t be destructive’

21 June 2019

Jared Diamond tells Nick Spencer why he believes countries are in need of crisis therapy


Members of the Finnish armed forces parade in Helsinki, in 2017

Members of the Finnish armed forces parade in Helsinki, in 2017

DONALD TRUMP is in the air when I meet Jared Diamond, literally and metaphorically. Airforce One has just touched down in Essex, and the President is speeding over countryside in a military helicopter on his way to meet the Queen. The roads around Westminster and Whitehall which I traverse on my way to Diamond’s publisher’s offices are in lock-down. The streets are closed to traffic, pedestrian barriers line every pavement, and police officers are omnipresent. The President is on everyone’s mind.

This, it seems to me, is an eminently appropriate backdrop against which to talk to a man who has just written a book about “how nations cope with crisis and change”. The most divisive US President in living memory is making the most divisive state visit in living memory, speaking to a Prime Minister who is preparing to leave office on account of a failed compromise deal, while a dozen MPs seek to step into her colourful shoes, and the Brexit cliff draws ever closer.

At a public protest the next day, some activists scream “Nazi” at a Trump supporter, throw a milk shake at another, and knock a third to the ground. Does this qualify as a crisis? And, if so, how do we cope with it?

JARED DIAMOND is something of a polymath. He trained as a physiologist, and became a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, before adding ecology, geography, and then environmental history to his professional bow. He speaks six languages, has a fine grasp of political history, and writes eloquently: he won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1997.

He also has a sense of humour. His new book, Upheaval, charts the way in which seven countries, all of which he has lived in, have faced and coped with crises. “It’s not that correlation proves causation, and that a visit by Jared Diamond provokes a crisis,” he reassures me. Rather, countries, like people, often go through crises, and Diamond wants to ask what we can learn from them. The book, he is at pains to emphasise early on, has “nothing whatsoever” to say “about the specific policies of the Trump administration . . . [or] about the current Brexit negotiations”. Yet you cannot help but read it in that context.

JOCHEN BRAUN_Jared Diamond

Diamond’s international fame was made in the 1990s, when he turned his hand to popular science: first, in his book The Third Chimpanzee: The evolution and future of the human animal, and then, most successfully, in Guns, Germs and Steel, in which he looks at the big history of human civilisation through the lenses of geography and ecology.

Since then, he has written a series of popular but serious books, which embed history in wider geographical and environmental contexts. In the light of that, the primarily political, social, and cultural stories in Upheaval might seem incongruous; ecological concerns are conspicuous largely by their absence.

IN REALITY, it is another experiment in cross-breeding history with a seemingly extraneous discipline. “My wife, Marie, is a clinical psychologist,” he explains. “In the first year of our marriage, she focused on ‘crisis therapy’, which helps people deal with the personal crises that all of us go through: break-up of marriage or relationships, death of a loved one, setback to your career, health, or your finances.” Marie would try to figure out “what are the outcome predictors: who is dealing with their crisis, and who is not?”. Diamond decided to apply the template to countries.

Thus, for example, a nation, like an individual, can acknowledge the reality of a crisis (or not), and accept the personal responsibility of doing something about it (or fail to). A nation can rely on national identity to help it through a crisis, in the way in which an individual relies on “ego strength”. A nation can get material and financial help from other nations, or use them as a model of how to solve problems, in the same way that a person can learn from others. And so on.

I am not convinced by this framework. It’s not that there aren’t possible parallels there: it is more that I don’t find them necessarily or particularly illuminating. Diamond clearly believes otherwise, although he recognises that there are certainly cases “where the parallel between personal crises and national crises is more of a metaphor than exact”.

More generally, I am not convinced that “crisis” is as clear and homogeneous a term as all that. The kind of crisis that Finland, the first of his case studies, encountered — sandwiched between aggressive Soviets and aggressive Nazis — is radically different from the kind of crisis (if that is even the right word) that post-war Australia faced as it pivoted from its historic British identity towards the Pacific.

Aren’t national crises very different according to whether they are external — i.e. a threat — or internal — e.g. division or civil discord?

“There are some differences,” Diamond acknowledges, “but the dozen outcome predictors apply whether the provocation is an external cause or threat of attack, or whether the provocation is an internal explosion”.

WHETHER or not they merit the term “crisis”, the situation facing the United States and the UK at the moment is definitely an internal one: deep divisions tearing nations apart from within rather than heavy pressures threatening to crush them from without.

Diamond is no stranger to the internal forces that generate this kind of “crisis”.

“I’ve been in academia for 64 years now,” he tells me. Once upon a time, academics disagreed in a seminar room — Diamond recalls a debate over the mechanism of water transport across the gall bladder — and then went off on holiday together.

“Nowadays, the idea that I could take a vacation with someone who disagrees with my views about tribal warfare or my views about environmental damage . . . [is] utterly impossible. My wife and I erected around our house in Los Angeles, we raised the fence, we have steel spikes on top of the fence, because I was seriously concerned that an angry anthropologist would come after us. At a talk I gave in east Los Angeles, my host had to hire two bodyguards, men in black suits with broad shoulders, to deal with angry anthropologists.”

CHURCH TIMESJared Diamond and Nick Spencer

This is astonishing and depressing. But it also goes to the heart of the matter, drawing in not only Diamond’s work, but also the hovering presence of a President who, just a few hours earlier, had dismissed the Mayor of London as a “stone cold loser” (on Twitter, of course).

Why is this happening? “In a broad sense,” Diamond explains, “I connect this again to the decline in face-to-face communication. . . Nowadays, the anthropologists who disagree with me about tribal warfare and environmental damage — I haven’t met most of them in person, ever. I experience them as angry words on my email. They’ve never met me, and never shown any desire to meet me, except scaling the steel spikes in front of our house.”

Our common life is, actually, a lot less common than we imagine, which is perhaps why we bandy the word “community” around with such careless abandon these days. We communicate endlessly, but the idea that communication has something to do with holding something in common (as it theoretically should) is looking increasingly thin.

THIS is not the only reason that contemporary nations are hovering on the edge of crises. Diamond believes that there has been a fundamental dishonesty in many recent political claims, as well as a loss of what unites us as a nation.

“National identity can be excessive and destructive,” he suggests, but it need not be so. “Just as ego strength is a sense of what makes you distinctive and what you are proud of, national identity is also a shared sense in a nation of what makes the nation unique, and what the nation is proud of.”

Put another way, we must not allow our justifiable concern with the populist rhetoric of the people, or the tribal rhetoric of our people, to obscure the necessary discussion of what it means to be a people.

Diamond, as far as I can tell, has no religious faith whatsoever; he is not hostile, just uninterested. But I feel on familiar territory throughout our discussion. The solution to crises — if solutions exist — lies in recognising people as embodied (more than words on page or views on Twitter); communicative (holding and sharing goods in common); and narrative (flourishing only when we are secure about the part we play in a wider story). If so, are we in crisis?

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos. Upheaval: How nations cope with crisis and change is published by Penguin at £14.99.


Listen to an extended interview at www.churchtimes.co.uk/podcast. The podcast is also available on SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and most other podcast platforms.

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