Bismark: A Life Book Review


BismarckPferd
Otto von Bismark  July 1890

 

In Bismark: A Life, Jonathan Steinberg suggests that the modern German state had its origins in the imagination of Prince Otto von Bismark. However, Steinberg builds his case with such apparent animus toward the subject that the value of this book is somewhat undermined.  Steinberg implicitly lays at Bismark’s door responsibility for WWI (by creating the German Empire and buttressing autocracy), WWII (by reinforcing the Junker class and doubling down on militarism), and genocide of the Jewish people (by fueling antisemitism).

Steinberg’s approach is comprehensive. He traces Bismark’s rise to power and attempts to lay bare the state-builder’s multiple motivations. In support of his analysis, Steinberg provides extended excerpts from Bismark’s correspondence and from other first-person accounts. The portrait of Bismark that emerges is more demonic than Machiavellian.

Bismark, by Steinberg’s account, was a hypochondriacal, reactionary, anti-Semite, an ingrate with an unbridled thirst for power. Despite Steinberg’s compilation of evidence, the reader is left with doubts about the integrity of this author’s presentation. His loathing for Bismark is so manifest that we feel bias must inevitably influence judgment.

However, because Steinberg’s book is well resourced, it has much to offer. I was interested, for example, to learn how Germany reacted to the revolutions of 1848. Also interesting was the tension between the papacy and secular heads of Europe. Most fascinating was Bismark’s effort to weaken a rival, France, by aligning himself with Russia. I wondered, as I read, if there was a corollary with present times–with Donald Trump’s expressed criticism of NATO and his avowed admiration for Russia.

I recommend this book, but with reservations.  For a complete view of Bismark, it would be a good idea to read a second biography.  Many questions, in my mind, remained at the book’s end.  Chief among these was, what was Bismark really like?

A. G. Moore     June 2017

 

 

 

 

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Culture vs. Copyright: A Diary of a Naive Philosopher, Book Review

By Anatoly Volynets

 The_Stationers'_Company_Mark
This was the mark of the Stationer’s Company,
which had a monopoly on printing rights in England from
1557 to 1710.  The image is in the public domain.
……………………………………………………

Innovators often have a hard time convincing people to change the way things “have always been done”. History offers startling examples of how tightly people hold onto entrenched views. In the 1950’s, for example, early models of the kidney dialysis machine were considered “abominations” by some doctors at Mt. Sinai Hospital. And in the nineteenth century, Ignaz Semmelweiss was derided by medical colleagues for suggesting doctors should wash their hands before assisting at childbirth. So prepare yourself to resist the notions of Anatoly Volynets when you read his book, Culture vs. Copyright. In the book, Mr. Volynets suggests that artists, and the public, would benefit if copyright laws were eliminated.

Many readers may feel this discussion has little to do with them. They’re probably wrong. Just about anyone who engages in commerce or communication is affected by copyright laws. Posting a picture on Facebook may easily violate those laws, if the picture is lifted from a copyright-protected source on the Internet. Quoting extensively from a book or article also may be a violation. Of course, professional artists–authors, musicians, photographers, for example–are acutely aware of the protection and limitation that copyright law places on their actions. Most of these professionals cannot imagine operating in a system where copyright does not exist. They imagine that absent copyright protection, they will lose income from the product of their unique talents. Mr. Volynets labors to convince them–and us–that the reverse is true.

In service of his argument, Mr. Volynets traces the history of modern copyright laws. He points to a time in France (Jacobin era) and England (before 1710) when these laws did not exist and explains that their application was designed to benefit businesses and governments, not individuals. It is Mr. Volynets contention that this is still the case. He explains in detail how eliminating copyright laws would give artists greater freedom (in his opinion) to market their wares in a competitive environment. He also explains his belief that without copyright laws, competition between business would increase and this would potentially increase profits.

Mr. Volynets puts forth an interesting argument. Whether or not the reader is persuaded is almost beside the point. The aspect of this book that is most important is that it requires readers to examine an accepted custom. It asks readers to throw out established notions about the necessity of copyright laws.

Copyright laws are not written in stone. They are constantly amended. If the public does not understand who is served by the law and by the amendments, then the public cannot meaningfully participate in the discussion about these very important regulations. And if the public doesn’t participate, then the regulations will be written by powerful, vested interests. That, in my opinion, is never a good thing.
Although this book serves a worthy goal and may elicit a response from readers, it is not perfect. A device Mr. Volynets employs, for much of the book, is an imagined dialogue between first graders and a teacher. My patience was tested by these exercises. At one point I simply stopped reading the dialogues and only considered sections that had straight exposition. It is possible I lost some of the book’s significance by taking this route, but I was willing to give that up.

One of my standards for recommending a book of nonfiction is whether or not I came away with insight or information I did not have prior to reading. That is the case here. In addition to discussing the development of intellectual rights legislation in France and England, the book also addresses the origin of this class of regulation in the United States. Volynets explains that the framers of the United States Constitution looked to Europe for a model when they provided (in Article I, Section 8) for protection of intellectual property rights.

Mr. Volynets’ writing style is clear and not overly pedantic, considering the subject under consideration. I do recommend Anatoly Volynets’ Culture vs. Copyright.

 
A. G. Moore  3/2017

The Duality Code: Book Review

By
W. K. Choy

yin-and-yang
This image was captured from Google Translate.  The concept is represented in traditional Chinese characters.

 

The title of this book, The Duality Code, will lead some readers to expect a spy mystery. In a way, that expectation is correct. There is a mystery, one that involves an obscure code. And there is intrigue, even murder. The startling aspect of the murders is that these are occasioned by disagreements over language.

W. K. Choy guides us through the sometimes gruesome history of China’s language wars. As he does so, he deciphers the mystery of China’s ancient language. Choy provides detailed analyses of relationships between Chinese written characters and he explains the difference between traditional and simplified Chinese characters.

According to Choy, the Duality Code has its roots in pre-modern China, in a warrior class called the shi. The “code” is secret in the sense that mastery of it, even today, is reserved for the highly educated. It is partly because Chinese characters were historically complex, according to Choy, that the literacy rate in China remained low, until recent times. Attempts toward simplification in the twentieth century included the suggestion that Chinese characters be eliminated altogether in favor of an alphabet-based system. Such a reform, it was believed, would make the language more accessible to ordinary people. However, the reform was never instituted.

Choy writes about how language has been a cultural football in China, and how the rules of this game have been brutal at times. For example, the Emperor Qin Shihuang ordered (in 212 BCE) that four hundred and sixty Confucian scholars be buried alive. He wanted to control scholarship and the use of language in his empire. Mao Tse-tung, centuries later, also wanted to control scholarship and the use of language. In furtherance of that end, Mao boasted, “We are a hundred times worse (than Qin Shihuang)…We have buried forty-six thousand Confucian scholars”.

I learned a great deal about the Chinese language from reading The Duality Code. I know now, for example, that Chinese characters are logographic. Each character represents a concept. This is distinct from alphabet-based languages, in which letters are combined to represent speech sounds. Sounds, in Chinese, are not associated with the characters. Therefore, Chinese characters may also be used by people who speak other languages.

Chinese characters can be combined (described and diagrammed in detail by Choy). Some characters are pictographic–their shape approximately resembles the idea they are intended to convey.

This book has much to offer besides an analysis of Chinese language. There’s history, political theory and philosophy. There’s commentary on the role of language in culture. W. K. Choy has a broad command of a variety of subjects. Readers of this book may not understand everything that is offered, because there is so much here. Choy’s analysis of language morphology is very clear and logical. For those with the ambition and time, it can serve as a veritable course on the Chinese language.

I found a wealth of information in The Duality Code, and not all of it specific to China. The book is unlike any I’ve read. It is challenging and entertaining. It is a cultural history and technical analysis. For Western readers, this will likely be an eye-opener. It was for me.

I highly recommend W. K. Choy’s Duality Code.

A. G. Moore  2/3/2017