Book Review–Madeleine Albright: Fascism: A Warning

July 9, 2018

Madeleine Albright: Fascism: A Warning

The former US Secretary of State decries the global rise of authoritarianism in her new book, Fascism: A Warning, and talks about Trump, Putin and the ‘tragedy’ of Brexit

“The book is a cry of anguish about the global resurgence of authoritarianism and a lament over the decay of the liberal internationalist politics to which Albright has devoted her career. The work is also an act of homage to her father who wrote books about the perils of tyranny and worried that Americans were so accustomed to liberty – so “very, very free,” he wrote – that they might take democracy for granted. She quotes Primo Levi – “Every age has its own fascism” – and makes her case with observations about the autocrats she has dealt with and brisk histories of past dictators and the horrors that they unleashed. A devil’s portrait gallery includes Benito Mussolini, the original fascist, and Adolf Hitler, the most destructive. Then there’s Donald Trump.”–Andrew Rawnsley

Madeleine Albright has both made and lived a lot of history. When she talks about a resurgence of fascism, she says it as someone who was born into the age of dictators. She was a small girl when her family fled Czechoslovakia after the Nazis consumed the country in 1939. After 10 days in hiding, her parents escaped Prague for Britain and found refuge in Notting Hill Gate, “before it was fancy”, in an apartment which backed on to Portobello Road. Her first memories of life in London are of disorientation. “I didn’t have a clue. My parents were very continental European and I didn’t have siblings early on. I felt isolated.” As Hitler unleashed the blitz, “every night we went down to the cellar where everybody was sleeping.”

She has since been back to the redbrick block in Notting Hill. “I rang the doorbell of the person who lived in the apartment – it was a lot smaller than I remember it. I asked a stupid question: whether the cellar still existed. They said: ‘Of course the cellar exists.’ So they took me down and I had this moment – the green paint was exactly the same. I remember the green paint.”

It was decades later that she discovered that, though she was raised a Catholic, her parentage was Jewish and many of her family had been murdered in the Holocaust, including three grandparents.

From Notting Hill, the family moved out of central London to Walton-on-Thames, where they shared a house “with some other Czechs”. The bombs fell there too, but she enjoyed “every minute” of this part of her childhood. “I went to school and we spent a lot of time in air raid shelters singing A Hundred Green Bottles Hanging on the Wall.” It was less terrifying than it might have been because “my parents had a capacity of making the abnormal seem normal”.

She became “a movie star”. The Red Cross wanted to do a film about a refugee child. “So I was the refugee child, and they gave me a pink rabbit as my pay.”

The wartime British were “very hospitable” – up to a point. “The British would say: ‘We’re so sorry your country has been taken over by a terrible dictator. You’re welcome here. What can we do to help you and when are you going home?”

Her father, the diplomat Josef Korbel, was with the Czech government-in-exile. She recalls him refusing to take shelter from the bombers because he had to finish writing a broadcast for the BBC. After Hitler’s defeat, Korbel took the family back to their homeland in the belief that Czechoslovakia would re-establish itself as a democracy but the country was soon gripped by another form of totalitarianism. After a Soviet-backed coup installed a communist satellite regime in 1948, the family fled again, this time seeking asylum in America and settling in Colorado. “Maddy”, as her classmates called her, was now 11. In America, people welcomed immigrants by saying: “We’re so sorry your country has been taken over by a terrible system. You’re welcome here. What can we do to help you and when will you become a citizen?” She pauses for a beat, then adds: “And that was different about America at that time.”

Albright’s early work as a journalist and a foreign policy scholar drew her into politics. In 1978, she sat on the National Security Council when Jimmy Carter was President and later represented the US as the country’s Ambassador at the United Nations. In 1997, Bill Clinton made her Secretary of State, the highest government office achievable under the US constitution by someone not born in America. She was the first woman to lead US foreign policy.

The future US secretary of state Madeleine Korbel with her father, the diplomat Josef Korbel, mid 1940s.
The future US Secretary of State Madeleine Korbel with her father, Josef Korbel, photographed in America, 1945. Photograph: The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images


Over four years as America’s chief diplomat, her life and views were again shaped by encounters with tyranny. She engaged with Kim Jong-il, father of North Korea’s current jailer-in-chief, and found him, she recalls in her new book, cordial, courteous and “pretty normal for someone whose father’s birthday is celebrated every year as the ‘Day of the Sun’.” Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian autocrat, “did not fit the stereotype of a fascist villain” and liked to “act the innocent” even as his security forces attempted the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. Hugo Chávez, the late ruler of Venezuela, was “very charismatic” and initially seemed to hold promise for his country when he supplanted “a bunch of tired old men that were very elitist”. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan first came to power in Turkey, he was a refreshing change from rule by people “who live in big houses, or occasionally the military”. “These people initially did have some feel for the working class and then power went to their heads – all of them.”

One chapter of her new book is about Vladimir Putin, whom she found to be “so cold as to be almost reptilian” but also a man of considerable, if dark, talents. “He’s very smart. He’s played a weak hand really well. He has a larger agenda which is to separate us from our allies and it begins by separating central and eastern Europe from western Europe.”

With the benefit of hindsight, she accepts that the west was slow to understand that Russians felt utterly humiliated after the cold war and ready to succumb to a nationalist strongman promising to make them great again. She recalls a Russian man complaining: “We used to be a superpower and now we’re Bangladesh with missiles.” Putin, she tells me, “has seen himself as the redeemer of that man”.

I wonder whether her first-hand encounters with despots had led her to identify any common personality traits. She laughs: “I’ll tell you – you’ll be surprised when you hear this – they seemed different when I met them.” She cites the example of Viktor Orbán, the self-styled “illiberal democrat” who rules Hungary. She first came to know him in the 1980s during Hungary’s struggle for liberation from communist dictatorship. “He was everybody’s favourite dissident. He was funded by George Soros to go to Oxford. He’s the one who started Fidesz, the youth party. The age limit for the youth party changed as he got older,” she adds with her hallmark waspishness. Orbán’s transformation in office has taken her by surprise. “I didn’t, I don’t think any of us saw this coming.”

Where we might be going is the chilling theme of Fascism: A Warning. The book is a cry of anguish about the global resurgence of authoritarianism and a lament over the decay of the liberal internationalist politics to which Albright has devoted her career. The work is also an act of homage to her father who wrote books about the perils of tyranny and worried that Americans were so accustomed to liberty – so “very, very free,” he wrote – that they might take democracy for granted. She quotes Primo Levi – “Every age has its own fascism” – and makes her case with observations about the autocrats she has dealt with and brisk histories of past dictators and the horrors that they unleashed. A devil’s portrait gallery includes Benito Mussolini, the original fascist, and Adolf Hitler, the most destructive. Then there’s Donald Trump.

She agrees that we ought to be careful not to casually throw around the F-word lest we drain the potency from what should be a powerful term. “I’m not calling Trump a fascist,” she says. Yet she seems to be doing all but that when she puts him in the same company as historical fascists in a book that seeks to sound “an alarm bell” about a fascist revival.

She frequently nudges the reader to make connections between the President of the United States and past dictatorships. She reminds us who first coined the Trumpian phrase “drain the swamp”. It was drenare la palude in the original, Mussolini Italian. She quotes Hitler talking about the secret of his success: “I will tell you what has carried me to the position I have reached. Our political problems appeared complicated. The German people could make nothing of them… I…reduced them to the simplest terms. The masses realised this and followed me.” Sound familiar?

Madeleine Albright with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Pyongyang,2000
Madeleine Albright with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Pyongyang,2000, his first ever meeting with a US administration official. Photograph: Chien-Min Chung/AFP/Getty Images


I suggest to her that the book struggles to offer a satisfactory definition of fascism. “Defining fascism is difficult,” she responds. “First of all, I don’t think fascism is an ideology. I think it is a method, it’s a system.”

It is in his methods that Trump can be compared with, if not precisely likened to, the dictators of the 1930s. Fascists are typically masters of political theatre. They feed on and inflame grievances by setting “the people” against their “enemies”. Fascists tell their supporters that there are simple fixes for complex problems. They present as national saviours and conflate themselves with the state. They seek to subvert, discredit and eliminate liberal institutions. She reminds us that they have often ascended to power through the ballot box and then undermined democracy from within. She is especially fond of a Mussolini quote about “plucking a chicken feather by feather” so that people will not notice the loss of their freedoms until it is too late.

In her book, Trump is one nasty plucker. She labels him “the first anti-democratic president in modern US history”. Those Trumpians who know their history might retort that previous American presidents have been accused of being enemies of democracy, including some who have become the most revered holders of the office. Abraham Lincoln was charged with tyranny by his opponents during the civil war. So was Franklin D Roosevelt when he was implementing the New Deal.

Trump is different, she insists. Look at his attacks on the institutions of liberal society as he Twitter-lashes the judiciary and the media. “Outrageous,” says Albright. “It was Stalin who talked about the press being the enemy of the people.

“I also think Trump does act as though he’s above the law.” He lies without shame, she says. He threatens to jail political competitors. He foments bigotry. He lavishes admiration on autocrats like Putin and by doing so encourages the worldwide drift to authoritarianism. Observe also, she adds, how Trump exploits a crowd.

“He uses rallies in a strange way. We all, most of us that are public people, have somebody interrupting our speeches. There’s always somebody yelling something. And the question is: what do you do about it? Sometimes people are just escorted out or you don’t pay any attention to it. What is fascinating in watching Trump is he loves the people yelling and he uses them so that it looks as though he is having conversations with the people on TV. Trump is, I think he’s actually really smart – evil smart, is what I think.”

The founding fathers endowed the US with a constitution that was forged to protect the country from leaders with tyrannical impulses. America has survived some dreadful presidents. When Trump is gone, does she not think it possible that we will eventually look back on him not as a crypto-dictator, but as an embarrassing spasm?

“In the book I write that there are people who say this is alarmist. It is. That’s the purpose. I’m concerned about complacency about it. This is a very deliberate warning.”

The fear that Trump induces in American liberals is matched by the alarm he arouses among the United States’ traditional allies in the democracies. From Nato to the World Trade Organisation, he threatens to rip up institutions that have ordered the planet over many decades. Albright argues that the doctrine of “America First”, which “conceives of the world as a battlefield in which every country is intent on dominating every other”, encourages a Darwinian competition of tribal nationalisms. During her time as Washington’s chief diplomat, Albright was an unabashed exponent of America as the global beacon of liberty: “the indispensable nation”, as she once called her country. Should Europeans conclude that Trumpian America has become an unreliable ally? Regretfully, she agrees.

“At the moment, it is hard to say to any European that the US is a reliable ally, which makes me furious because I do believe in the importance of American engagement. I always thought we were reliable.”

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Budapest, 2000.
With the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Budapest, 2000. Photograph: Attila Kovács/AP



True, the international architecture established in the late 1940s does require “refurbishing”. Institutions founded seven decades ago “need fixing”. Trump “does have a point” when he complains that Americans pay a lot more to sustain Nato than do the European countries, which rely on the defence pact for their security. The trouble with Trump, though, is “he sees it all as transactional, as if it were a hotel where you keep raising the price and if you want to stay there, you’re going to have to pay. That is not what it’s about.

“There’s no sin about updating these things, but I don’t understand, I truly don’t, what the purpose is to destroy the system. What is the purpose of having destruction as an ideology?”

The Trumpian rampage through the international order has been particularly challenging for Britain, which clings to a conceit that it has a special bond with the United States. Trying to navigate any sort of relationship, never mind a special one, has been a nightmare for Theresa May. This week Trump will land on these shores, where he will be greeted by hot protests on the streets and British officials in a cold sweat. “It’ll be interesting to see how he deals with the Queen since he really doesn’t like women,” remarks Albright. “He’s unbelievable to Angela Merkel.”

The Queen, who has a lifetime of experience dealing with strange and unsavoury characters, will probably handle Trump with her customary glacial implacability. May is the one facing the biggest challenge of Trump management. Can Albright, who teaches international statecraft at Georgetown University, offer the prime minister some guidance?

“I have no idea,” Albright confesses. “I don’t have advice. The device, theoretically, is to tell him how wonderful he is. And to agree with whatever he says – and that’s distasteful. He is unpredictable except when people flatter him and allow him to dominate. I know what it’s like to be in diplomatic discussions with people that you don’t respect. You do begin in some kind of civilised way, but ultimately you have to say what you think.”

Memo to Mrs May: say what you think. It may not get you anywhere with Trump, but at least you will preserve your self-respect.

Albright is a friend to the country which took in her family when she was a young girl, but believes that true friends owe you their candour. She’s clear that Brexit – “an exercise in economic masochism that Britons will long regret” – is a terrible mistake.

“I happen to think it’s a tragedy. I’m not sure how or why it happened. I think some of it was miscalculation. From an American perspective – and this is somewhat selfish and self-centred – the UK has always been our bridge to the continent and very important in all kinds of aspects.” Burning down that bridge is not sensible. “I think it’s unfortunate, I really do.” Much of politics and diplomacy is a story of “unintended consequences of decisions and this is one of the big ones”.

Had Albright had her way, the world would not be riding the wild rollercoaster that is Trump. He would have been sent back to reality TV and Hillary Clinton would be in the White House. She was a vigorous campaigner for her old friend and Albright’s passion got the better of her when she coined the phrase: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” That landed her in some trouble during the 2016 campaign. Like many of Hillary’s chums, she is defensive about the campaign’s failure and still struggling to make sense of it. “Hillary did win the popular vote,” she points out.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright introduces Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at a campaign event at Rundlett Middle School, in Concord, N.H., Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016
Campaigning for Hillary Clinton in 2016. ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” Albright said. Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AP


That she did, but it is scant consolation really.

Germany has had a female leader for more than a decade. Britain is on its second female Prime Minister. A woman has never been President of the United States. Does America have a problem with women in politics?

“Must have,” she replies. “I don’t understand it, frankly. We are very good at being No 1 in many things and yet we are not in this and I don’t know the answer. Because there are certainly very qualified women.

“When my name came up to be Secretary of State,” she recalls, “you would think that I was an alien, you know. People actually said: ‘The Arabs won’t deal with a woman.’”

Her friend Hillary was, in CV terms, one of the most qualified people to run for the White House.

“Ever. No question about it. Right.”

More qualified than Trump or indeed Obama.

“I think she would have been a remarkable president. And I think that it’s very disappointing. It’s something that we all talk about. I don’t know the answer.”

At least part of the explanation for Clinton’s defeat was not to do with gender. It was failing to understand the forces powering her opponent. Clinton notoriously called his supporters “the deplorables”. Albright sounds similarly guilty of seeing the world through an elitist’s prism when she writes in her book: “Globalisation… is not an ideological choice, but a fact of life.”

Opponents retort that globalisation is an ideological choice. It was a very good choice for transnational corporations, for prosperous members of western societies, and for many developing countries which have seen their growth accelerated by free trade and the exchange of technology. Globalisation turned out to be – or has certainly come to be seen as being – a very bad choice for less affluent sections of western societies. Many folk felt dislocated and disadvantaged. Lecturing them that globalisation is just “a fact of life” – so suck it up – was surely one of the incitements for those people who voted for Trump, who chose Brexit and who support the rightwing populists surging across Europe.

“It isn’t just favouring the rich,” she insists. “Most of us are beneficiaries of globalisation, but a lot of people were not prepared for it in terms of their skill-set and we didn’t consider that enough.”

She also concedes that globalisation is “faceless” and “everybody wants to have an identity”.

“But it’s one thing to be patriotic, it’s another if my identity hates your identity and then it’s nationalism and hyper-nationalism. That’s the very dangerous part.”

Albright is a sage woman, but also one taken by mortified surprise by the turn the world has taken. In common with most liberal internationalists, she hadn’t expected the arc of history to bend in this dark direction. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, liberal capitalist democracy was thought to be irreversibly triumphant. Francis Fukuyama even wrote a book entitled The End of History.

History had other ideas. I suggest that it is not good enough for liberal internationalists to simply bewail Trump and his fellow travellers. They need to examine what they got wrong. Maybe there were too many complacent assumptions that the world had become permanently safe for democracy.

“I don’t know whether complacent [is the right word],” she says. “We were all initially enthusiastic, but then we became euphoric.” One conclusion she draws is that “democracy is obviously harder than we think.

“Democracy is not the easiest form of government. It does require attention and participation and carrying out the social contract. And it doesn’t deliver immediately. What we have to learn is how to get democracy to deliver because people want to vote and eat. But it just took me 10 minutes to explain it and that’s the problem.

“The things that are happening are genuinely, seriously bad. Some of them are really bad. They’re not to do with Trump; it is the evolution of a number of different trends. All the various problems that we have, they can’t be solved by simple slogans. But it’s easier to listen to some simple slogan.”

Albright is far from alone in worrying about the future of liberal democracy. This anxiety is felt more acutely by a woman who was born in the time of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin, who reached the peaks of international diplomacy when freedom seemed ascendant and has since observed the unraveling of so much hope. At the end of our conversation, I am left unsure whether she thinks democracy has the resilience to survive this testing time.

“You ask if I’m an optimist or a pessimist,” she responds. “I am an optimist who worries a lot.”

That is probably as sensible a position as any in today’s troubled and troubling world.

Fascism: A Warning is published by William Collins (£16.99).

The End of Ideology by Daniel Bell

July 8, 2018

The End of Ideology, by Daniel Bell

FOR nearly two decades now articles and reviews by Daniel Bell have been appearing in our better journals of ideas…

An American “Centrist”
The End of Ideology.
by Daniel Bell.
The Free Press. 416 pp. $7.50.

Image result for The End of Ideology, by Daniel Bell

For nearly two decades now articles and reviews by Daniel Bell have been appearing in our better journals of ideas and opinion. He has been so ubiquitous a figure, expressing himself on so many subjects, that readers must have occasionally wondered if there were more than one person writing under the name. Bell has in fact had several different careers: youthful radical journalist in the early 40’s, teacher of social science, labor editor of Fortune, globe-trotter for international committees of intellectuals. Now that he has returned to academic life as associate professor of sociology at Columbia, the publication of this collection of his more ambitious essays suggests an effort to indicate his intellectual resting places.

Image result for The End of Ideology, by Daniel Bell

Range, variety, and versatility are the talents with which Daniel Bell is commonly credited. Yet the grouping together of his essays in The End of Ideology reveals his intellectual concerns to be rather more consistent and narrowly focused than regular readers of his magazine pieces might have anticipated. Two main themes predominate. One is what used to be called “American exceptionalism”: the view that political and sociological concepts derived from the study of European societies seriously distort our vision if applied to the American scene. The other is the “end of ideology” of the title: the abating in our prosperous post-bourgeois era of the ideological conflicts between left and right which have for so long dominated Western politics. Marx and Dewey, especially as interpreted by Sidney Hook, to whom the book is dedicated, are Bell’s chief intellectual mentors in developing, exploring, and illustrating these themes in their bearing on a range of topics including the bureaucratization of American capitalism, the decline in the militancy of the labor movement, the inadequacies of Mills’s theory of an American “power elite,” the rapid swings of the intellectual Zeitgeist since the 30’s, and the continuing boredom and emptiness of industrial work and what might be done to alleviate it.

It is possible to discern a certain formal inconsistency between the two themes. If the end of ideology applies to the Western world as a whole and reflects the stability of mature, increasingly egalitarian industrial societies, then the American immunity from divisive ideological passions which Bell consistently emphasizes as the unique virtue of our political system is no longer exceptional. There is, in fact, a dialectic between European and American experience that Bell misses—the much advertised postwar “Americanization” of Europe and the belated American adoption of reforms long advocated and in some cases long instituted by European socialist parties both helped dampen the fervors of the 30’s, the decade whose epitaph Bell is writing once more in so many of these essays. In an often penetrating discussion of the “New Left” here and abroad—Dissent, the British “angries,” the post-Hungary defectors from Communism on the continent—Bell fails to note the paradox that American radicals denounce mass culture in accents echoing European elitist or “Establishment” values, while young British leftists manifest immense sympathy and curiosity about American culture and are envious of the fluidity of status and the absence of stuffy, gilded institutions like the monarchy on this side of the Atlantic. Each group seems to wish that its own country resembled more closely its image of the other.

Except for this discussion of contemporary radicalism abroad, a review of theories of Soviet society, and some reflections on the thought of the early Marx, the essays in The End of Ideology deal with American life. Bell is perhaps our most conscientious and reliable historian of the return from the 30’s, of the assimilation of once-radical intellectuals and trade unionists into a society which they succeeded in modifying without transforming. But by now we know this story so well in so many of its ramifications that several of these essays have inevitably lost the flavor of originality they had when they first appeared. One is struck, nevertheless, with how good the best of them are, a category in which I would place those dealing with the U.S. economy. Probing the point at which economic problems of wage determination, national mobilization policy, technological rationalization, and shifts in business leadership and the sources of investment funds become or touch on political conflicts, Bell refuses to be frightened by the formidable abstractions or the arrogant professionalism of the economists and determinedly locates what they have to say in its larger social and historical context.

I have more reservations about his treatment of political and cultural issues. Dwight Macdonald recently described Bell as a congenital centrist. If so, and Bell good-naturedly accepted the designation, we are here confronted with the spectacle of a centrist engaged in finding his own image reflected in the society around him, a society founded, he argues, on the politics of moderation and the culture of the middle class, yet strong and vital enough to blunt the critical assaults of both the cultural aristocrat and the Utopian radical. Bell is aware of the intensity with which many intellectuals “ache for the lost Arcadia” of the 30’s; he recognizes the widespread hunger for heroism, passion, a transfiguring cause. Nor is he lacking in sympathy for such an outlook, observing that the young intellectual unavoidably feels that “the middle way is for the middle-aged, not for him.” And he is careful to note that “a repudiation of ideology, to be meaningful, must mean not only a criticism of the Utopian order but of existing society as well.”

Yet there is an irritating cageyness about all this. For Bell will not finally concede the reality of anything out there in the world to justify rebellion and rejection. His tone becomes avuncular: ah yes, young intellectuals naturally want to be fired with romantic passions—that is a rite de passage of their vocation. But unhappily history is unable to accommodate them, for the Age of Ideology has ended and anyway we have learned that “the tendency to convert concrete issues into ideological problems, to invest them with moral color and high emotional charge, is to invite conflicts which can only damage a society.”

Now if one equates “ideology” with secular messianism few will want to deny the essential rightness of this judgment after all that has happened in this century. The trouble is that it is almost impossible to believe Bell’s claim that, for himself at least, it represents a bitter, hard-won wisdom, that in giving up the delights of ideology he is really surrendering something for which he has a strong appetite. His references to the pessimism, disenchantment, et al. of his “generation” (he is a great player of the generations game) therefore ring hollow, and he simply sounds smug when urging the young to renounce this evil fruit. It is all very well to affirm with Machiavelli that “men commit the error of not knowing when to limit their hopes” (this quotation heads the final and title chapter of The End of Ideology), but the reality and indestructibility of their hopes need to be insisted on with equal force. Especially if one sees history as tragic.

But these are essentially matters of sensibility and are perhaps of secondary importance in what is not, after all, a personal testament but a series of uncommonly knowledgeable political and sociological interpretations. I find, however, that on at least two occasions Bell’s centrism and “moderationism” lead him rather seriously astray on substantive questions.

In an essay which has already acquired justified celebrity as one of the very few available critiques of the fashionable notion of “mass society,” Bell ably traces the origin of the idea to European reactionary and aristocratic-elitist thought. He catches Jaspers, Ortega, and other mass theorists in a number of extreme and romantic overstatements before turning to a defense of American society against the charges of social atomization, cultural mediocrity, and compulsive conformism leveled by these thinkers and their epigoni. So the American habit of establishing and joining a multitude of voluntary associations serving all conceivable purposes is invoked to refute the view that we are a rootless, alienated mass, although the very disposition to create such “artificial” social groups might as readily be considered evidence for as against our rootlessness. And then we are told for the umpteenth time how many good books are sold and how many symphony orchestras flourish in the United States, as if these conceivable indications of the average cultural level were in any way relevant to the arguments of Ortega and T. S. Eliot which bear solely on the opportunities for high culture. While Bell, finally, is right to chide leftist critics of mass culture for ignoring the possible conflict between the claims of cultural excellence and social justice, he himself then suppresses the issue by descending to the sorriest level of apologetics in defense of American culture.

Bell argues that socialism failed as a movement in the United States because American socialists of all breeds never resolved the contradiction between ethical idealism and the requirements of effective political action. Perhaps by stressing this somewhat esoteric consideration he is simply trying to avoid another rundown of the usual causes cited to explain the failure of American socialism: the lack of a feudal past, the influx of immigrants, the high standard of living, and so on. But he manages seriously to distort and oversimplify the thought of Max Weber, from whom he borrows the notion of an inevitable tension between ethics and politics. In his famous essay “Politics as a Vocation,” Weber contrasted an “ethic of responsibility” with an “ethic of absolute ends.” By the former he meant the recognition that to make changes in the world one must take into account its imperfection and be prepared to use ethically questionable means, i.e. force, for all politics involves the use of force at some level. The proponent of absolute ends, on the other hand, refuses to separate means and ends: he may simply recommend exemplary conduct or he may argue that “from good comes only good, but from evil only evil follows.” Arthur Koestler’s dichotomy of the Yogi and the Commissar refers to the extreme versions of each ethic.

Bell quite illegitimately identifies the Communist, the fanatic, the totalitarian extremist with the ethic of absolute ends. In fact the Communist does not, like the saint, “live his end,” but is at the very opposite pole, completely dissociating means from ends, and ultimately, in his worship of the “organizational weapon” of the party, collapsing the latter into the former. Bell wants to reserve rational, expedient, “responsible” conduct for the politics of compromise and moderation which he favors, so he stands Weber’s distinction on its head and obscures the fundamental dilemma of means and ends in politics which Weber grasped more profoundly than anyone else, the dilemma, in Weber’s words, that “if one makes any concessions at all to the principle that the end justifies the means, it is not possible to bring an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility under one roof or to decree ethically which end should justify which means.” Koestler’s pseudo-tragic polarity is also a false one because though a man acts by following an ethic of responsibility somewhere, unless he is a totalitarian, “he reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ ”

Perhaps it is a measure of the ultimate limitations of centrism as a political philosophy that it so obscures the central, utterly irresolvable dilemma of politics. But this is not to deny the illumination it casts on particular issues and these essays amply attest to that.


The Justice Facade: Trials of Transition in Cambodia

July 3, 2018

Book Review:

The Justice Facade: Trials of Transition in Cambodia

Alexander Laban Hinton (Oxford University Press, 2018)

Image result for The Facade of Justice book

Since 2006, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) have prosecuted international crimes committed between 17 April 1975 and 7 January 1979. In those years of Democratic Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge regime caused perhaps a quarter of Cambodia’s population to die through starvation, forced labour, torture and killings. An innovative “hybrid” tribunal with both Cambodian and international staff and procedures, the ECCC represents the key transformational mechanism to secure justice for these atrocities, leading Cambodia from its violent past toward a prosperous, rule-of-law-abiding democratic future.

Or so the story goes.

“The Justice Facade extends well beyond a simplistic condemnation of the ECCC as a neo-colonial artifice, by identifying the multiple unexpected and creative initiatives that transitional justice processes may stimulate (“combust”)”…Emma Palmer

Alexander Laban Hinton holds up a mirror to this aspiration for “justice” and invites the reader to jump through, and find not one, but innumerable reflections of what transitional justice means—for different people, and in different times and spaces. He counters the idea that international crimes tribunals deliver a “better future” through prosecuting crimes, leading from a time and place of violence and authoritarianism toward reconciliation and stability, delivered by a liberal democratic state. Instead, he calls this idea of transitional justice “imaginary”, a “facade” that leaves out crucial matters—including the impact of power, geopolitics, and individual experiences.

Image result for khieu samphan

Drawing on critical transitional justice scholarship and anthropological expertise derived from extensive research in Cambodia over many years, Hinton reveals what legal justice masks: a complex, turbulent, “dark world” of multiple possibilities. Here, there is not just one point to transitional justice, but the potential for numerous, shifting perceptions and translations. Rather than a single “justice cascade” from point A to point B, there are—to use the analogy developed throughout the book—dynamic ‘”ecosystems” filled with eddies, whirlpools, turbulence, counter-current, still spots, and vortices’ (p24).

“The Justice Facade is also compelling reading, with Hinton’s attention toward lived experience offering a richly emotive and personalised account of the dynamic impact of the Democratic Kampuchea period.”

If all of this complexity seems, well, complex, the structure of the book helps to navigate these waters. (Even if the idea is not to get to one particular place, but to appreciate the ever-changing nature and effects of transitional justice initiatives.) A preface describes the plot of a booklet used by a Cambodian NGO to explain the ECCC to Cambodians. Using a comic strip format, the booklet describes how “Uncle Yan”, who seems traumatised by his experiences during Democratic Kampuchea, comes to learn about the ECCC and participate in its proceedings, thereby finding peace. This, he imagines, involves a prosperous Cambodia—as depicted by electricity and smoking factory stacks in the distance. This story is returned to throughout the book to illustrate the typical A-to-B depiction of the aims and outcomes of transitional justice, as well as how that message has been translated in the Cambodian context.

The book’s introduction then helpfully explains the numerous complicated terms adopted throughout the book. These include the temporal and spatial aspects of the “imaginary”, the “point” and “justice facade”, and ideas such as “universalism”, “globalism” and “localization”. There is also a proposal for what might still be productive about this “assemblage” of ideas concerning transitional justice: the potential that new possibilities might emerge when actors engage with transitional justice concepts and institutions. Hinton’s suggestion that encounters between different perspectives can create unexpected consequences is inspired by Anna Tsing’s concept of friction, but Hinton terms it “combustion”. This sounds like a more enthusiastic term, but is supposed to indicate that contacts with transitional justice can also “smolder, fizzle, or fail to ignite” (p28). In the introduction Hinton also explains his “discursively-informed” phenomenological approach, which (loosely) involves being aware of how discourse and power mediate lived experiences and contexts. Subsequent chapters then elaborate upon aspects of the transitional justice imaginary by analysing past NGO activities and documents, individual experiences before, during and following Democratic Kampuchea, and outreach processes associated with the ECCC’s operations.

For instance, Chapter 1 considers the effects of the ECCC’s narrow jurisdiction over a small window of time (the several years of Democratic Kampuchea). This both diminishes events prior to and subsequent to the regime—and international responsibility for those events—but also produces a narrative in which a backward, authoritarian, violent past will be transformed in a progressive manner toward a liberal future. That narrative is not only factually highly questionable in Cambodia, but also leaves out important parts of many other stories, which the book then reveals.

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The remaining chapters detail the individual experiences of ECCC and NGO outreach workers and “civil parties” (victims who participate in the ECCC trials). These not only make fascinating reading, but demonstrate that many aspects of life before and after Democratic Kampuchea do not fit standard understandings of transitional justice. These include the significance of religion (particularly Buddhist teachings and traditional spiritual beliefs and practices), family and social relationships, living and studying outside Cambodia, and the various ways that language can be translated. Rather than simply providing material to secure prosecutions and a “transition”, these aspects can be central to individual understandings of justice, even if they appear removed from the judicial process. Hinton demonstrates how hints of these undercurrents emerged during the ECCC trials. Often these may have gone unnoticed—perhaps evident only in an awkwardly translated Cambodian phrase or Buddhist notion—while at other times the ruptures were more obvious, as when civil parties publicly lambasted the ECCC in the media.

They all, Hinton argues, demonstrate several features of the transitional justice facade. First, the idea that transitional justice proceeds in one linear direction over time. Second, that there are clear spatial boundaries between “global” and “local”, whereas there are “multiple points of contact that ‘combust’ in different and often unpredictable ways” (p27). Third, the technical (legal) disciplines associated with transitional justice, which represent particular forms of power and knowledge. Fourth, the normative truth claims and assumptions the “facade” presents, which may diverge from alternative understandings. Fifth, its performative, subjective and aesthetic aspects, which assert a particular script, roles, and a “look” for the delivery of transitional justice, whereas there may be other possibilities. Finally, the idea that there are different “dispositions” toward justice linked to certain categories of people and ideas. The title of each chapter indicates which of these critiques it is meant to address, although they all contribute toward Hinton’s general argument against a progressive linear understanding of transitional justice.

In adopting this structure, which draws out individual stories, Hinton not only advocates for a new approach to examining experiences of transitional justice beyond judicial processes—he implements it. To be sure, there has already been significant critique of the “justice cascade” and the transitional justice “imaginary” Hinton describes, including by some of the “local turn” and critical scholars he references such as Kamari Clarke. Some have identified some of the temporal and spatial dimensions Hinton refers to (and the book could have elaborated upon the theoretical relationship between these two aspects). The ECCC has itself attracted significant criticism. As Hinton notes, this is usually directed toward allegations of corruption, political interference, use of time and resources, or fair trial concerns, than for the more fundamental type of concerns raised by Hinton, although examples exist.

Where Hinton’s work really stands apart, though, is in its phenomenological approach that “reorients attention to what is masked by the justice facade” (p23). The result is a book filled with the fascinating stories one might hear in conversations with Cambodians, or with court and NGO staff in Cambodia, or derive from some exhibitions—but does not frequently find in transitional justice (especially international criminal law) scholarship. The book also offers another space to respectfully share diverse individual experiences that may have been minimised by the trial process.

This alone makes the book worth reading. However, Hinton’s ability to not only critique the standard narrative of transitional justice, but to offer and implement an alternative approach is also impressive—and useful. The Justice Facade extends well beyond a simplistic condemnation of the ECCC as a neo-colonial artifice, by identifying the multiple unexpected and creative initiatives that transitional justice processes may stimulate (“combust”).

This method and argument contributes to transitional justice—and particularly international criminal justice—scholarship and has implications for human rights, peacebuilding, and development studies in Cambodia. The Justice Facade is also compelling reading, with Hinton’s attention toward lived experience offering a richly emotive and personalised account of the dynamic impact of the Democratic Kampuchea period.

Dr Emma Palmer is a Lecturer at Griffith Law School. Her thesis, International Criminal Law in Southeast Asia: Beyond the International Criminal Court, was completed at UNSW, Australia, in 2017. You can follow her on Twitter at @Em7P.


NY Times Book Review: Gerald Ford, President Nice Guy

June 28, 2018

NY Times Book Review: Gerald Ford, President Nice Guy

Image result for Ford and Rumsfeld

Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency

By Donald Rumsfeld
Illustrated. 331 pp. Free Press. $28.

In September 1974, a month after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace, President Gerald Ford pardoned him. “Jesus, don’t you think it’s kind of early?” asked Ford’s friend Tip O’Neill, the Democratic House majority leader.  “You’re not gonna believe it,” Carl Bernstein exclaimed to his fellow Nixon chaser at The Washington Post, Bob Woodward. “The son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch!” The public was also taken aback. A majority of the nation — 55 percent — believed the pardon was the “wrong thing” to do, versus only 35 percent who felt it was the “right thing.” Ford’s approval ratings, a robust 71 percent when he took office, spiraled down to 40 percent by December. The decision to pardon Nixon may have ensured that Ford would not be elected to his own full term as President in 1976.

“When Ford made his final decision to pardon Nixon, he did it without making any political calculations,” Donald Rumsfeld writes in “When the Center Held,” his sympathetic insider’s memoir of the Ford presidency. Rumsfeld had befriended Ford as a fellow Midwestern congressman in the 1960s and helped him make the transition from vice president when Nixon resigned. “He did not, for example, share his intention with any Republican members of Congress, where he certainly would have been able to find some support. Nor did he take any steps to prepare a media strategy. To the contrary, on learning of Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon the newly appointed White House press secretary, Jerry Horst, promptly submitted his resignation 30 minutes before Ford was scheduled to address the nation.”

Image result for Al Haig

The rumors that Nixon’s Chief of Staff, Al Haig, had brokered a deal with Ford were “wildly inaccurate,” Rumsfeld writes. Ford was acting out of the goodness of his heart, from his basic sense of decency, Rumsfeld argues. “We are not a vengeful people,” the new president told himself, perhaps a little wishfully. One poll showed that a significant majority — 56 percent — believed that Nixon should be prosecuted.


Rumsfeld has written a kind of modern-day “Pilgrim’s Progress” about a good and godly man who enters the Slough of Despond (Washington, D.C.), is tried and tempted, but ascends to Celestial City with his virtue intact. That the narrator is a figure who has been likened in some quarters to Beelzebub makes the story more interesting, or at least curious.

Rumsfeld himself was “not sure” what he would have counseled about pardoning Nixon. Ford did not ask his advice. But the new president did ask Rumsfeld to be his chief of staff. Rumsfeld initially balked, saying that Ford’s open-door “spokes of a wheel” management style was a prescription for disorder. “Come on, Rummy,” Ford pleaded. “Say yes.” Rumsfeld did, but he was soon frustrated by his lack of control over the large egos wandering in and out of the Oval Office.

The members of Ford’s cabinet did not get along. The prideful and condescending defense secretary, James Schlesinger, squabbled with the prima donna secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. “Jim’s problem isn’t with you; it’s with me. He thinks I’m a dummy,” Ford told Kissinger with characteristic self-effacement. Kissinger would try to get his way by threatening to quit, as he had under Nixon. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller was a bull in a china shop. The bulls at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue were no easier to herd. Congress refused to spend any more money to aid South Vietnam, despite Ford’s appeal to “fundamental decency.”

“Those bastards,” Ford exclaimed when the Senate rejected his appeal in the winter of 1975, as Saigon was collapsing. But that was as angry as he got. “Ford tended to assume most people were like him: essentially open, up front and without guile or cunning,” Rumsfeld writes. The president’s chief of staff was a little puzzled by his boss’s persistent amiability: “I did wonder whether there might be a bit of disadvantage to his characteristic down-home relaxed demeanor.” Rumsfeld noted privately at the time: “He never protects himself from having other people see him in a relaxed situation. Can a great leader let down and still inspire?” Looking back, Rumsfeld concluded, “I may well have underestimated the positive impact of the president’s natural approach.” Indeed, he concludes that Ford’s genial Midwestern decency was just what the country needed in the wake of Nixon’s excesses and the Watergate scandal.

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Still, Rumsfeld himself quit when he was unable to persuade the president to consolidate power in his chief of staff. (Ford was leery of Nixon’s “Berlin Wall” of the White House advisers H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman.) Rumsfeld became secretary of defense instead. More in sorrow than in anger, Ford held Rumsfeld (along with the Kremlin leader Leonid Brezhnev) responsible for thwarting a final arms control deal with the Soviet Union that Ford badly hoped for as his legacy.

Ford was so trusting that before the 1976 campaign, he wanted all the potential presidential candidates to meet at Camp David to forge a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy. Instead, Ronald Reagan attacked him for being soft on the Russians with his policy of — that French word — détente. Narrowly surviving at the Republican convention after a bruising campaign, Ford spontaneously invited Reagan to join him at the podium as a show of Republican unity. Reagan promptly upstaged him with a fiery speech that laid the groundwork for his 1980 Reagan Revolution.

It would have been easy enough to cast the earnest, well-meaning Ford as a bit of a chump, but Rumsfeld portrays him as an honorable and brave man. Escaping an assassination attempt by Lynette Alice (Squeaky) Fromme, the president acted as if nothing had happened and, later in the day, had to be persuaded by the Secret Service not to shake hands with all the people waiting for him at the airport.

With the help of his two longtime speechwriters, Matt Latimer and Keith Urbahn, Rumsfeld has produced a warm bath of a book. Readers may find it a little odd that Rumsfeld, that terror of bureaucrats in the George W. Bush administration, extols the virtues of Christian turn-the-other-cheek leadership. In his career, Rumsfeld’s true ideology seems to have been power — America’s and his own. Rumsfeld was initially talent-spotted by Nixon, who brought him into his administration to dismantle the war on poverty, but then decided he could not trust Rumsfeld’s political ambition and dispatched him with an ambassadorship to Brussels. As Secretary of Defense during the 2003 Iraq war, Rumsfeld steamrollered Bush’s National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and the Secretary of state, Colin Powell.

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What, besides a desire to warm up his image, moved Rumsfeld to tell the story of Gerald Ford’s beneficent 895 days? Perhaps, as he says in his author’s note, he wanted to show that “the Washington, D.C., of today is not entirely different from that of 1974.” Or, possibly, he has become nostalgic because Washington really was different a half century ago, when the Republican Party still had moderates and you could solve problems over a round of golf. In any case, he offers us a reassuring morality tale of virtue if not immediately rewarded, then ultimately redeemed.

Evan Thomas is the author of “Being Nixon” and a forthcoming biography of Sandra Day O’Connor.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 12 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: The Nice Guy as President.Reprints | Today’s Paper |

NY Times BOOK REVIEW: Reporter by Seymour M. Hersh

June 1, 2018

NY Times BOOK REVIEW: Reporter by Seymour M. Hersh

The qualities that make Seymour Hersh a first-rate reporter — his hustle, his wonkiness, his nighthawk drive to unearth a radioactive fact and then top that fact — make him a second-rate memoirist. Like a greyhound or a kamikaze pilot or an insurance man peddling a policy (he sometimes reminds the reader of each), he’s not built for reflection.

It’s all here in his new memoir, “Reporter,” if by “all” we mean the filing-cabinet details behind his greatest scoops, the settling dust of old deadline clashes. Hersh won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970, at 33, for his freelance expose on the massacre by American troops at My Lai village during the Vietnam War.

He was soon hired by The New York Times and, during the 1970s and early ’80s, did supersnoop work on stories including Watergate, the secret bombing of Cambodia, and C.I.A. spying on domestic antiwar protesters.

Writing for The New Yorker later in his career, he was largely responsible for alerting the world to the torture of prisoners by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

For Hersh’s subjects, becoming an object of his interest is like having the Red Baron on your tail. He made Henry Kissinger paranoid. (“Sy Hersh is out to get me.”) The C.I.A. director William Colby was caught on tape saying, “He knows more about this place than I do.”

Hersh was so single-minded that, in the early 1970s, he met John Lennon and Yoko Ono at a party and had no idea who they were. “How was I to know?” he writes in his new book. “Neither had anything to do with Watergate.”

If Hersh rarely seems quite human, neither does “Reporter.” He piles on the policy and deadline details while leaving people and their beating hearts mostly behind.

His wife and children, for example, appear in this book mostly as afterthoughts. We do get a sense of his wife’s suffering when she’s introduced to a senior editor at The Times who says: “Oh my, Mrs. Hersh. You have my heartfelt condolences.”

Omitting family matters is not a mortal sin. This book is titled “Reporter,” not “Husband,” “Father,” “Lover” or “Coach.” Christopher Hitchens, in his memoir “Hitch-22,” left his romantic and family life to the side as well.

But his book was stacked high with memories of friendships and avenues of human joy and pain. Hitchens could size up a person, often hilariously, in a paragraph or two. Here’s where “Reporter” falls short.

Hersh knew nearly everyone who mattered in American journalism. He took long walks with his iconoclastic mentor, I. F. Stone. He played tennis regularly with Ben Bradlee, as well as with Bob Woodward and the district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau.

He saw movies with Daniel Ellsberg; drank martinis with his neighbor, the columnist Mary McGrory; played poker with others; and calls Gloria Emerson and Anthony Lewis, for example, dear friends.

Seymour M. HershCreditDon J. Usner

Yet he barely evokes any of these people. There’s no crosshatching and little context. It’s as if they were all John and Yoko. He sees other humans but they do not compute.

Hersh grew up on the South Side of Chicago, the son of immigrants who had arrived at Ellis Island. His father owned a dry cleaners in a poor and mostly black neighborhood. Working there as a young man, Hersh writes, helped give him the gift of gab.

He did poorly at school and attended a two-year junior college before a professor saw his promise as a writer and got him into the University of Chicago. He went briefly to law school before falling in love with the Ben Hecht-like romance of Chicago journalism.


He loved the wire service copy of the old pros, “just fact after fact, with no analysis, presented in clean, spare prose under rat-a-tat pressure.” He worked at small papers before being assigned to The Associated Press’s Washington bureau in 1965. He’d achieved liftoff.

Hersh felt keenly the injustice of the Vietnam War, and loathed dissembling of every variety. He was briefly Senator Eugene J. McCarthy’s press secretary during McCarthy’s quixotic bid for the presidency.

McCarthy, to Hersh’s dismay, skipped an important fund-raiser at the last minute to see a film version of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” with another staffer. The two had heard the movie contained a vulgar exclamation that was not often heard in films at the time.

To be fair, Hersh does get his share of stories told. Battles with his journalistic ally and nemesis Abe Rosenthal, a legendary editor of The Times, are delightfully recounted.

Hersh chafed under what he saw as The Times’s overly cautious journalistic mind-set. Rosenthal, on the other hand, liked to tousle Hersh’s hair and ask, “How’s my little commie?”

For legal reasons, editors at The Times so tamped down one of his stories — a 1976 series about the mobbed-up fixer Sidney Korshak — that Hersh threw his typewriter through an office window.

The best story told here may be about Lyndon B. Johnson defecating on a dirt road in front of The Times reporter Tom Wicker to indicate what he thought of his work.

In recent years, Hersh has often published his work, including an account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, in less mainstream outlets. Some of this reporting has been challenged, and he has been criticized for his tendency to make incendiary claims in public speeches that go beyond what the facts he has produced will support. Hersh’s comment: “I will happily permit history to be the judge of my recent work.”

So many of journalism’s old war dogs have left or are leaving us, and there’s a sense that we won’t get many more memoirs like this one. If this book’s pilot light isn’t fully lit, it still puts a big career across.

Hersh was never a hack or a safe man while he leapt tall deadlines in single bounds. Send him into any forest and he would come back with two handfuls of arrowheads, a buried deposit box and a cigar.

He’s at work on a book about Dick Cheney, who has hated him for decades. Judge a man by his enemies. I’ll place my advance.

He’s at work on a book about Dick Cheney, who has hated him for decades. Judge a man by his enemies. I’ll place my advance order right now.

Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner.

A Memoir
By Seymour M. Hersh
Illustrated. 355 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C5 of the New York edition with the headline: Beating Deadlines and Prying Open History. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper |

Factfulness : The Miracle of Human Progress

May 30, 2018


Factfulness : The Miracle of Human Progress: Hans Rosling’s Legacy

 by  Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta


Is a tendency towards negativity, fear and blame preventing us from seeing all the good in the world?

Factfulness review: The miracle of human progress

As district medical officer in Mozambique, Hans Rosling discovered a previously unknown paralytic disease. Later, he became a professor of international health, co-founded Médecins Sans Frontières in Sweden, and a renowned public educator. His TED talks have been viewed over 35 million times.

Rosling was also a sword swallower, having learned the skill from a patient. Often, he would do a small show at the end of a lecture: “to demonstrate in a practical way that the seemingly impossible is possible,” he notes in his book Factfulness.

It’s human tendency to be bored with stories of everyday incremental progress, and to focus on the negative — for which the state of the world in the 21st century provides much material. So much is in fact terrible and heartbreaking: the refugee crisis, melting glaciers, plastic in the ocean. From pandemic breakout to climate change, there are real dangers to be concerned about.

Why the bleak view?

But so much more seems to be wrong, and not getting better. This has made cynics of most of us. In Factfulness, Rosling suggests 10 instincts that prevent us from seeing real progress in the world. These include the tendency to negativity, fear, and blame. He also describes the ‘straight line’ instinct, by which he means the tendency to view trends as unchanging. But as he shows, not all changes in the world happen in this way.

The most dramatic chart in the book shows the average number of babies per woman from 1800 to today. It is not a straight line: more like a slide in a playground. Over the last 50 years this number has dropped from five children per woman to below 2.5. As child mortality reduced, as families came out of extreme poverty, as women and men got more years of education, as access to contraception increased, people were able to feed their children better and send them to school — and thus had fewer children.

When things get better, Rosling notes, such as the decrease in child mortality across the world, it is not just because of heroic individuals, but systems. Lots of people working together at the frontlines in a sustained way, every day, over the long term, to bring the incremental changes that, together, constitute progress.

The India connection

Rosling’s life has a special India connection: he studied public health at St. John’s Medical College, Bengaluru, and qualified as a doctor in 1976. He describes his first lesson there as a fourth-year medical student: “How could they know much more than me? Over the next few days I learned that they had a textbook three times as thick as mine, and they had read it three times as many times. I suddenly had to change my worldview: my assumption that I was superior because of where I came from, the idea that the West was the best and the rest would never catch up.”

Family stories are also a part of the book, contributing to its personal tone. As a child, he remembers his father taking him every Saturday, by bicycle, to hospital to visit his mother who had tuberculosis. “Daddy would explain that if we went in we could get sick too. I would wave to her and she would wave back…”

But the story didn’t end sadly. “A treatment against tuberculosis was invented and my mother got well. She read books to me that she borrowed from the public library. For free. I became the first in my family to get more than six years of education, and I went to university for free. I got a doctor’s degree, for free. Of course nothing is free: the taxpayers paid.”

Life-changing tales

Another story describes how a washing machine changed their lives. “My parents had been saving money for years to be able to buy that machine. Grandma, who had been invited to the inauguration ceremony, was even more excited. She had been heating water with firewood and hand-washing laundry her whole life.”

Family, education, advances in health care, tax-funded social security, labour-saving devices, functioning democracies: these are all things to be grateful for. And a way of showing appreciation would be to read the data, because otherwise we would be missing the entire picture.

The book is the product of enormous research, but the tone is light rather than ponderous. It makes a complicated world appear simple, without foolish optimism, stereotypes or cliché.

Factfulness is densely illustrated with charts and pictures, including the inside covers, but at the heart of the book is Rosling’s ability to listen, discuss and learn from other people everywhere.

Published after Rosling’s death, the book was written while he was under palliative care for pancreatic cancer. It is a book about his life and ideas, but it is also about how to pay attention to the world.