‘The end of American democracy will be slowly creeping’

Cautious optimist: Author Jared Diamond believes there is a 50/50 chance of fixing the world

Jared Diamond has written a new book, Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crises, about how different nations have weathered crises in recent centuries.

This is a small timescale for Diamond. His now twenty-two-year-old bestseller, Guns, Germs and Steel, took on many millennia of human history.

That fascinating book was a multidisciplinary attempt to answer the question of why European civilisation rose to dominate the world at the expense of other civilisations that were just as sophisticated and learned. Diamond, a historian, geographer, sociologist and biologist, was explicitly trying to tear up a racist narrative that claimed this ascendency had something to do with superior genes or culture and argued that it was really all about the random distribution of natural resources.

It won a Pulitzer Prize for the now 81-year-old Diamond, but it also attracted subsequent criticism. He accepts a few of the more factual critiques graciously as “constructive” but there are many others which he discounts out of hand.


Diamond traces the book's origins back to the early 1980s when his wife, Marie Cohen, a clinical psychologist, was specialising in crisis therapy

“Ironically, radical anthropologists consider Guns, Germs and Steel to be a racist book,” he tells me over the phone.

“The book argues that the grand pattern of history is not due to racist considerations of people but due to plant and animal domestication, which is not at all racist. The perverse reasoning by which radical anthropologists pronounce Guns Germs and Steel ‘racist’, is, I think, that I ask the question about why Europeans conquered the world and to ask that question is considered racist.”

They also call him a “geographical determinist”, a term which annoys him greatly. “There are people who are very upset about invoking geography for explanation and go to the opposite extreme and want to invoke culture as explaining everything. [But] if you want to say the reasons why Europeans conquered the world are not about geography but culture – European culture – that really is racist because there’s nothing superior about European culture.”

For the record, whatever technical flaws it might contain (and I’m not expert enough to judge those) I think it would take a highly jaundiced gaze to see Guns, Germs and Steel as anything other than avowedly anti-racist.

His new book is a similarly ambitious in its aims. Diamond traces its origins back to the early 1980s when his wife, Marie Cohen, a clinical psychologist, was specialising in crisis therapy.

Personal connections

Because of the risk that clients coming in a crisis would take their own lives, “Marie and her fellow therapists gathered together each week to review all of the clients, to see who was making progress and who was at risk,” he says. “Marie would tell me about the predictors that she and other psychotherapists recognised for predicting the outcomes of personal crises.”

And so, for this book, he more or less borrows a psychotherapeutic framework, a sort of 12-step programme, as a lens through with to look at national crises and how they deal with traumatic events. The steps include things like acknowledging that there’s a crisis, accepting responsibility and getting help from others.

Over the course of the book he examines the consequences of the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939, the forced opening of Japan to international trade in the 19th century (by US gunboats), the coup in Chile in 1973, Germany's self-examination in the aftermath of World War II, Australia's renewal of its identity as it detached itself from the British Empire, and Indonesia's path after the Suharto regime's massacres. He also has a couple of chapters about the crises brewing in his own country, the United States.

Trump and Brexit are so fast-moving that anything I said about them in the book would be out of date within a couple of days

He chose these countries based on his own strong personal connections to each one, and he acknowledges that that means he hasn’t necessarily featured a broad selection of countries across the continents. He notes, for example, that he includes only one developing nation.

This approach does, however, ground the book into something less abstract than it otherwise might seem. Indeed, despite the long-range historical perspective he employs, he seems regularly emotionally affected by the way history plays out in the lives of ordinary people.

Diamond tells me how moved he was visiting Helsinki’s city cemetery to see all the gravestones of those who were killed in the Soviet attack in 1939 and how disturbed he felt when visiting the presidential palace where Salvador Allende killed himself after the coup that ultimately saw Pinochet rise to power.

He quotes close friends who live in the countries he features almost as often as he quotes other sources, and he speaks all the relevant languages, except Japanese. He’s slightly sheepish about this exception. “My connection to Japan only goes back 20 years,” he says.

Healthy national identity

Despite the subject matter’s apparent timeliness, Upheaval steers clear of current news headlines.

“You probably noticed in my prologue,” he says, “that I said that the word ‘Trump’ is not going to appear after this sentence and the word ‘Brexit’ either. The reason being, I’m writing a book. I’m not writing a magazine article . . . and both Trump and Brexit are so fast-moving that anything I said about them in the book would be out of date within a couple of days.”

You could nonetheless imagine either subject getting a chapter. A functional state, Diamond argues, has a healthy sense of national identity. He’s keen to differentiate this from nationalism. “National identity is considered good and nationalism nowadays is considered bad,” he says.

“Just like with individuals you can draw a distinction between ‘ego strength’ which is considered good and being ‘egotistical’ which is considered bad.

“National identity is shared values. It’s a sharing of what a country is proud of. The national identity of Britain involves Shakespeare and Tennyson and the Battle of Britain and the Magna Carta . . . All of those things are admirable.”

Diamond may deal with large trends, but he genuinely seems very affected by the human details of history

Celebrating such things without “bashing other countries” is good for a nation, he thinks. Currently, for example, he tells me that he craves a president who unites the nation with visits to sites like the Erie Canal or the battlefields of Concord and Lexicon rather “appealing to subgroups” with polarising rhetoric.

The difference between a country with a healthy sense of national identity and one that’s overtaken by a more destructive nationalism is partly down to what he terms “honest self-appraisal” (another of his crisis-management steps).

Diamond gives me an example from another of the contemporary subjects he barred from the pages of his book. “So Brexit starts off with a good honest question ‘Who are we?’ but it seems to me that the Brexiters are approaching that question dishonestly,” he says.

“One gets the impression from Brexit that there’s much concern about foreigners in the United Kingdom but that’s doubly ironic because the strongest backing for Brexit is from the parts of the UK that have the fewest foreigners.”

That said, he says he’s not an expert on the UK, so he reserves a lot more of his criticism for his own country, the United States. “A major feature in our lack of success at the moment in dealing with our problems is a lack of honest self-appraisal,” he says.

"For example, our president at the moment emphasises the problems caused by China, Mexico and Canada whereas the reality is that there is nothing that China, Mexico and Canada can do to end democracy in the United States. The only people who can do anything to end democracy in the United States are we Americans."

Long-term inequality

He thinks that this threat is very real. Unlike Chile, where the transition into autocracy happened overnight, he thinks the end of American democracy, if it happens, will be gradual.

“It’s going to be slowly creeping,” he says. “It will be a continuation of what we see now . . . When we get to the end result, we will not think of it as a dictatorship. Instead it will be a nominal democracy where, just as now, the individual local elected officials and state elected officials will systematically prevent from voting those voters that are likely to vote for the other party.”

His fear of this arises from current Republican party attempts to gerrymander districts and deregister poor, black voters (Democrats, he says, are also guilty of such tactics but on a smaller scale) coupled with an increasingly unequal distribution of power and money. “These trends were here before Trump and whatever happens in the 2020 election they will be there after Trump,” he says. “It is fair to say Trump exacerbated them, but these are long-term trends.”

I tell him how electoral areas were gerrymandered in the Northern Ireland in the last century and we end up briefly discussing Ireland’s relationship with Britain. I suggest the UK’s “self-appraisal” is a little off when considering its colonial past.

Diamond, who is coming to speak at an event in the Mansion House in Dublin on Monday, tells me that he and his wife visited Ireland 25 years ago and that they went to Kilmainham Jail. He found it both illuminating and “a shattering experience”. He may deal with large trends, but he genuinely seems very affected by the human details of history.

Upheaval’s penultimate chapter deals with the wider transnational crises the world is facing. Here Diamond writes about global inequality, depleting resources and existential threats like nuclear weapons and climate change. The latter, he says, will necessitate a huge adjustment in lifestyle for westerners, particularly Americans, who “drive these big cars and have a throw-it-away economy and therefore on a per capita basis are the worst offenders in the world.”

And he worries, sometimes, that the necessary changes won’t happen. He thinks that people are often too consumed by short-term dramas to pay proper attention to the more potentially catastrophic issues coming down the road.

“I have friends who check their cell phones every four minutes,” he says. “If you check your cell phone every four minutes, it’s not going to be about the grand sweep of history, it’s going to be about what happened in the last four minutes.”

Good odds

I ask if large-scale societal change is possible without a huge crisis precipitating it. He thinks so. He talks about the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community in a period when European leaders “wanted to take action before World War III broke out”.

“Obviously it would be better not to have a crisis,” he says, “but the fact is that both people and nations react more strongly to crises than we do to slow change. There’s an expression I quoted in my book from the British lexicographer of the 1700s, Samuel Johnson, who said something like, in his wonderful 1700s prose, ‘Depend on it sir, it focuses a man’s attention if he knows he’s going to go be hanged in two weeks.’”

So, what are the chances of human civilisation surviving the next 30 years? “I rate the chances at 51 per cent that we’ll solve the world’s problems and 49 per cent we won’t. Obviously, those numbers are pulled out of the sky but what it means is that we have serious problems and the chance that we’ll have a bad ending [is] nearly half.”

Is he a pessimist?

“I’d describe myself as a cautious optimist. The chances are slightly better that we’ll have a good ending than a bad ending.”

Jared Diamond will be interviewed by David McWilliams at the Mansion House in Dublin on Monday, May 27th in an event run by the Dalkey Book Festival. The festival proper runs from June 13th-16th