Saturday, January 12, 2013

Restless Empire - a short review

Odd Westad's newest book, Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750, was one that just recently showed up in my library's online selection and the first one I had an opportunity to read on my new e-reader.  First, I have not been a huge fan of e-readers in general but I can see its usefulness at times. This book on the iPad was not a bad read at all. It's a little distracting sometimes with the spacing and fonts but those are editable and I may yet come around to something that works for me. But not nearly as bad as I had feared it might have been.

Regarding the book itself, I was actually very pleased. Most books on China come out with very definitive viewpoints on China, either pro or negative. For some reason, there are few who can hold nuanced views when it comes to the subject of China. But Mr. Westad has managed to straddle a fine line that examines the last several hundred years of Chinese history from different perspectives while neatly tying them back together in the end with his own thoughts on the future for China.

While it is not an in-depth review (though at 528 pages in the cover version), I found it to be refreshingly comprehensive in its scope, albeit covering only from the Qing dynasty onward (which most English books on China seem to focus on). Neatly organized by chapter into various topics, including its metamorphosis from the early to late-Qing dynamics, its relationship with foreigners (along with their influence both positive and negative) and particularly to Japan (which is far more complex than is typically acknowledged today), the years of the republic government that eventually fell to the Communists and the post-war years to the current day are very enlightening with rare historical insight. For example, instead of painting with the wide brush used to often dismiss Chiang Kai-shek as the corrupt and incompetent leader he is commonly portrayed as today, he is far more forgiving in recognition of the times in which he existed and the obstacles he had to overcome.

His discussion around the influence of foreigners in and as they relate to China is also deftly handled. While he does not minimize the imperialistic attitudes of those foreigners, nor does he parody them and offers up some examples of the benefits of that influence in China then and today. His treatment of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is also more even-handed than most others - critical where it should be but also recognizing it is more than a mere caricature. Indeed, it is his ability to provide rationalizations without judgement that I found to be the most refreshing thing about this book.

While I cannot say that I necessarily agree with all of his predictions on the future - but that's the joy of making predictions, no one will necessarily agree with everything you think - I found his thoughts to be well-reasoned based on his earlier observations in the book. All in all, I would highly recommend this book for those who want to learn more about China, how it got to where it is today and why it behaves the way it does.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


Since the massacre of 20 children and 6 adults in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, a few weeks ago, there has been a great deal of howling on both sides of the debate as it pertains to guns and gun control. Those who advocate for gun control are, in many cases, calling for an outright ban on weapons and most particularly assault weapons. Those who oppose gun control argue that it is a knee-jerk reaction to a terrible tragedy to impose such a ban and that it will be more harmful to the citizens in the long-term.

Unfortunately, both sides talk at each other and neither side is particularly inclined to listen to the other as they are both deeply entrenched in their views. The result is a failure to find any progress toward resolving the problem. Making things worse, of course, is when people go to extremes to make their views known. The Journal News, a newspaper in New York, is one such example of going to extremes. The paper set off a firestorm of criticism when it published an interactive map of all registered gun owners in several counties in New York. The paper then defended itself from criticism by stating that it felt it was important to share information about gun permits with its readers, indicating that it wanted to provide even more information. As if printing the names and addresses of people without their permission simply because they have gun permits (it did NOT address whether they even had guns!) was not enough?

No, what the paper did was cross a line. While the information was available via a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request, it did not need to be - and should not have been - published by the paper. In spite of their professed desire to make information about gun permits known to the general public, they instead set off a furor about the rights of individuals to keep their personal information, well, personal. Instead, they attempted to frame citizens with legal gun permits as criminals. How is it relevant to "out" people with gun permits because the very act of doing so then renders them as perceived future lunatics and criminals who will all want to go out and shoot up their local malls and schools - in spite of the overwhelming odds against such? What happened in Newtown was a tragedy and some serious introspection is due by the nation as a whole but when one side attempts to paint with a wide brush all they do is tarnish their own arguments and render it impossible to look at the issue rationally.

And, just to be fair, Wayne LaPierre is equally guilty of such when he makes arguments that we should arm the schools? Currently, there are many schools that do have armed security on site and, while the school in Newtown did not, that does not necessarily mean that the tragedy would have been averted if armed security had been there. But the idea of having armed guards at elementary schools is not one that is really reasonable, either. After all, it's one thing to see the number of television shows and movies with wanton violence (guns and otherwise) for children, it's another to see them at school which is intended to be more of a nurturing and protective (not protected) environment.

There is a great deal more that I can say here about the idea of gun control but I do not want to get into arguments with people who are unwilling to listen. Instead, the main point here is that demonizing those who have philosophical differences with you will not solve the problem. Subtly criminalizing them when they have done nothing wrong nor illegal (such as The Journal News did) is more reminiscent of making Jews wear the Star of David in Nazi Germany than the freedom purported to exist in the United States.