Spring 2008 - Volume 11 Number 2
|Reviews||Savage Century: Back to Barbarism
Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
At a time when terrorism (and the “war on terror”), global capitalism’s financial woes, environmental degradation and all sorts of calamities real and imagined take space in newspapers and time on television, it is not unusual to encounter uncompromising attacks on the things we humans do to ourselves and to others. Long on criticism and short on constructive suggestions about how we might realistically mend our ways, these jeremiads from the political left and the social right have made us weary and almost desperately in need of some good news. Such relief will not easily be found in Thérèse Delpech’s book, Savage Century.
What the reader will discover, however, is a passionate, well-crafted and thoughtful analysis of what went wrong in the twentieth century, and some hints about how we might change at least some of our ways.
Savage Century is also a very old-fashioned book. At a time when expansive narratives are in disrepute as postmodernists continue to “deconstruct” grand thematic presentations and “logocentric” accounts of large historical themes, Delpech tramps resolutely onto the battlefield of human folly and renders bold judgments about who and what is to blame. At a time when authors are compelled to take second place to “texts,” Delpech offers a strong personal essay about what ails us.
She has much to discuss. The death toll of the previous century’s formal and informal warfare was higher than humanity had managed to rack up in any previous hundred-year period. Genocides were frequent. Perfectly curable diseases were allowed to decimate whole populations despite easily available remedies and inexpensive methods for sanitation. Despite the enormous wealth appropriated by the few, poverty took a hideous toll on the many. Insane ideologies gripped hundreds of millions of minds, and ignorance was widely evident, even in societies that congratulated themselves on their educational excellence. Science, which achieved some apparent miracles in human understanding, begat technologies that will also be remembered (if there is anyone left to write and to read the history) for providing the means to exterminate our species, and we, whom our largest religious tradition claims to have been divinely ordained to exercise “dominion” over the Earth, have presided over the greatest mass extinction since a large chunk of extraterrestrial rubbish blasted into the Yucatan Peninsula and wiped out the dinosaurs about sixty million years ago.
Thérèse Delpech surveys the inventory of horrors not from the vantage point of a well-intentioned but inexpert moralist, but with a view that reflects her experience in politics as well as political science. Her résumé bristles with an impressive series of appointments to some of the most hard-headed organizations on the planet. She is a former chair of the UN Advisory Board for Disarmament Matters, the Director of Strategic Studies at the Atomic Energy Commission of France, Senior Research Fellow at CERI (Foundation Nationale des Sciences Politique), French Commissioner at the UN for the disarmament of Iraq (UNMOVIC), a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and of the RAND Corporation’s European Advisory Board. With these credentials, she is in no danger of posing as a shrinking violet. Equally at ease confronting former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over his overly sanguine assessment of nuclear weapons proliferation and condemning Mahmoud Amadinejad over his apparent quest for a bomb of his own, Delpech displays fierce determination in her calculated appraisal of the dangers of totalitarianism and total war.
Delpec’s reading of past crises (she is especially harsh in her evaluation of Fidel Castro’s role in the melodrama of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis) is nothing if not opinionated, and her condemnation of authoritarian regimes is certainly unyielding (China, Iran and North Korea are the objects of severe criticism). Moreover, her occasional tangents into philosophical, literary and psychological theories may strike some as unnecessarily imaginative (Freud and Balzac, Jung and Valéry are introduced to explain and interpret historical experience and essential qualities of the human journey). At times, her observations seem wholly consistent with some of the more prickly ideas of the “culture wars” contingent of the American Republican party. “We Westerners,” she says, “do not believe strongly enough in our own values to teach them, much less to defend them; this is the root of the problem, and the terrorists are well aware of it.” She also worries that Muslim immigrants to Europe have been given too much autonomy and that France has erred in permitting “Algeria and Morocco [to] keep a degree of control over their communities on French soil … [allowing] terrorist networks [to impose] radical doctrines on the young,” unlike the US which she sees as successfully assimilating minorities, a case she oddly illustrates by referring to the successful Broadway and film, “West Side Story.”
Nonetheless, whatever may be said of her tendency to espouse strategies of “realpolitick,” it cannot be denied that she is driven by a commitment to avoid the murderous consequences of toxic ideologies. Her cautious pessimism with respect to prospects for peace and her affection for historical allusions and literary allegories are often apposite. The result is an uncommonly cultured case for a political stance that is too often advanced with self-righteousness and bombast. Even those who are sceptical of its assumptions and arguments cannot fail to appreciate its artistry.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at email@example.com
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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