No more handshakes

 The history of a pandemic, and its possible futures

3D print of a SARS-CoV-2 virus particle|© National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)
 

In 2002 the Cambridge astrophysicist and Astronomer Royal Lord Rees predicted that, by the end of 2020, “bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event”. In 2017 the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker took the other side in a formal bet. As the terms of the wager defined casualties to include “victims requiring hospitalization”, Rees had already won long before the global death toll of Covid-19 passed the one million mark in September. Sadly for him, the stake was a meagre $400.

Nicholas Christakis has given his rapidly written yet magisterial book about the pandemic the title Apollo’s Arrow. The allusion is to the plague the god unleashes against the Achaeans for kidnapping the daughter of his priest Chryses in Book One of Homer’s Iliad. An alternative title might have been Rees’s Bet. In a report from 1998 the US Department of Defense observed that “historians in the next millennium may find that the 20th century’s greatest fallacy was the belief that infectious diseases were nearing elimination”. Pinker was only one of many scholars who subscribed to this belief in the twenty-first century. “Disease outbreaks don’t become pandemics” any more, he argued in Enlightenment Now, because “advances in biology … make it easier for the good guys (and there are many more of them) to identify pathogens, invent antibiotics that overcome antibiotic resistance, and rapidly develop vaccines”.

Pinker was not alone in his complacency. But complacency alone cannot explain the remarkably ineffective response of the US, UK and numerous other developed countries to the virus’s spread. The most Christakis can say in defence of the US response is that “vastly more Americans would have died – perhaps a million – had we failed to deploy the resources we marshaled, belatedly, in the spring of 2020 to cope with the first wave of the pandemic”. He himself was never one lightly to dismiss the potential lethality of Covid-19. And via his Twitter feed (@NAChristakis) he provided an exceptionally illuminating and learned commentary on the pandemic from its earliest stages. He was well placed to do so. Though Christakis’s first degree was in biology, he also holds an MD, a master’s degree in public health and a PhD in sociology. His recent books – Connected: The surprising power of our social networks (2009) and Blueprint: The evolutionary origins of a good society (2019) – established him as a leading authority on social networks and contagion of all kinds. If one graphed the social network of pandemic expertise, the node marked “Christakis” would have very high centrality.

But he is more than just a rare polymath in an academic world of narrowly specialized Fachidioten. Christakis is also a publicly engaged scientist with a notable aptitude for sharing his knowledge with lay audiences. He also possesses the quality – rare in academia – of courage. When, in October 2015, a crowd of Yale students surrounded and harangued him, demanding an apology for a perfectly innocuous public email his wife had sent on the subject of Halloween costumes and the transgressive origins of the festival, Christakis stood his ground, cordially listened – and somehow kept his temper.

In some respects, Apollo’s Arrow is an instant history of an event that is by no means over. This is a hard thing to pull off, but Christakis does it with aplomb. His account of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, which began on December 1, 2019, describes the uncertainty about the new virus’s origin, the local cover up, the lost weeks as the seriousness of the crisis slowly became clear to the Politburo, and the uniquely restrictive “lockdown” imposed not only on Hubei province but also right across China, beginning on January 23. He is a little too kind to the Chinese central government, in my view, and inexplicably says nothing about the shameful role played by the World Health Organization in swallowing Beijing’s early lies. But he is right that Chinese doctors acted with courage as well as competence. And much that we know about what happened in China is due to high-quality research by Chinese scientists.

Christakis’s account of Covid-19 is paradoxical. That the new virus would reach the US was inevitable. “Patient zero” returned to Washington state from Wuhan on January 15, but it was another carrier who first spread it. Numerous infected people were flying into the United States in January and February, not only from Wuhan but from other Chinese cities, from Europe and from Iran. No one knew exactly how many because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) failed utterly to expand testing in the way that its counterparts in South Korea and Taiwan did. This was the first of a woeful succession of failures of public health policy (which had their counterparts in the UK and Europe). Though much media commentary has placed nearly all the blame for the relatively high excess mortality in the US on President Trump, Christakis’s list of culprits is much longer: in addition to Trump, he singles out the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, who “explicitly banned cities and counties from enacting rules requiring masks”, and Vice President Pence, who “visit[ed] the Mayo Clinic … without wearing a mask while everyone else around him was wearing one”. Democrats also failed to act quickly, particularly in New York City and New York State. And, as Christakis makes clear, the public health bureaucracy was as much to blame as the elected politicians. “Our nation spends 17.7 percent of its GDP on health care,” he notes, “and this was our level of preparedness?”

What could the US have done differently? Clearly, it would have been better if the White House had not interfered with CDC recommendations on social distancing. Clearly, the president had no business endorsing what proved to be an ineffectual prophylactic (hydroxychloroquine). But, as Christakis gently hints, the administration of Barack Obama had not distinguished itself in 2009 when confronted by “swine flu” – which fortunately proved far less deadly than Covid-19 – and it failed utterly to contain the opioid pandemic, the death toll from which remains higher than the death toll from the new pandemic, and with many younger victims. Christakis clearly thinks that an earlier ramping up of testing and of social distancing would have saved American lives in 2020, though he is surprisingly ambivalent about digital contact tracing (contact-tracing apps, he writes, “do not offer enough epidemiological benefit to justify the privacy trade-off”). He ultimately concludes that the belated imposition of lockdowns “was commensurate to the threat posed by the virus”, even if viewed “strictly from an economic perspective”. I have my doubts about that conclusion. Research by economists as different in their approaches as Austen Goelsbee and John Cochrane suggests that Americans adapted spontaneously to the outbreak, with much social distancing preceding the official shelter-in-place orders. The debate on the costs and benefits of the lockdowns will not be over until we have a full accounting of their economic, social and health costs. The fact remains that there were alternative policy options that achieved better public health results at much lower economic costs, in countries such as Taiwan, South Korea and Sweden. Researchers at the Oxford Blavatnik School have shown the lack of correlation between the stringency of government measures and outcomes in terms of infections. The correlation between stringency and the magnitude of economic contraction is, by contrast, high.

Apollo’s Arrow has three great strengths. Firstly, Christakis clearly explains the nature of the virus and the disease it causes, and shows that social network structures and public policy largely explain the great variance in the pandemic’s impact from country to country. Because of the distinctive role of super- spreaders (the roughly 20 per cent of carriers who for various reasons conduct around 80 per cent of the spreading), controlling the proliferation of Covid-19 depends on testing, tracing and isolating the infected. As he shows, a laissez-faire approach that aimed to achieve herd immunity through uncontrolled spread almost certainly would have led to an intolerable number of premature deaths. (Though Sweden did not impose a blanket lockdown, it banned public gatherings and encouraged social distancing.) Given the high costs of containment, a vaccine will therefore be crucial, just as it was in controlling earlier infectious diseases such as polio and measles.

Secondly, Christakis does an exceptional job of comparing Covid-19 to other major pandemics in history. He chooses to go backwards through time, beginning with the two coronavirus epidemics (of SARS and MERS) that should have served as warnings to everyone and not just to the countries directly affected. Covid-19, he shows, is less deadly than these recent coronaviruses but it has “the ease of transmission of a common cold”. Our pandemic is nowhere near as deadly as the Spanish flu of 1918–19, as some (notably the Imperial College epidemiologists) feared back in March. It is much closer to the 1957–8 “Asian flu”, an episode now largely forgotten and which Christakis describes vividly, noting the crucial difference: the Asian flu killed the very young as well as the very old, along with a significant number of teenagers.

The third strength of Apollo’s Arrow is what it has to say about the future. On the social and psychological consequences of the pandemic, including the silver linings of markedly increased voluntarism and “catastrophe compassion”, Christakis fizzes with insights. Until 2022, he argues, “Americans will live in an acutely changed world – they will be wearing masks, for example, and avoiding crowded places”. This will be “the immediate pandemic period”, to be followed by an “intermediate pandemic period”, when “we either reach herd immunity or have a widely distributed vaccine”, by which point people will “still be recovering from the overall clinical, psychological, social, and economic shock” of what has happened. Not until 2024 will we reach the “post-pandemic period”, but even this will seem only a partial return to “normal”.

What will have changed? Handshaking will be a thing of the past, he conjectures, like spitting in the street. Telemedicine will be here to stay, as will a lot of working from home. Cities will likely be “duller, as many small retail firms go out of business”, and many smaller universities will close. Yet perhaps we shall eventually make it to our own Roaring Twenties, as those who survived 1918–19 did. “The increased religiosity and reflection of the immediate and intermediate pandemic periods”, Christakis suggests, “could give way to increased expressions of risk-taking, intemperance, or joie de vivre in the post-pandemic period.” Here’s hoping.

There certainly seems some chance that, after Covid-19 has been contained, the huge monetary and fiscal measures deployed to offset the shock of lockdowns could have inflationary consequences. Christakis foresees higher wages as a result of a political backlash against inequality. He also joins the many commentators who have argued that “the loss of American economic power and the lack of US leadership could create an opening for China to exert more influence”. My own view is that Western commentators are making the usual mistake of over-estimating the authoritarian competition and underestimating the American system’s capacity for self-repair. Let’s not forget where this pandemic began and why China’s one-party state took so long to admit the truth about it and take effective measures to protect the rest of the world, as opposed to the rest of China. Beijing is paying a price for this, as Pew’s recent report on China’s international reputation made clear. And let’s not exaggerate the scale of the American failure. The excess mortality rate in the first half of this year (23 per cent in the US) was roughly twice as high in Spain (56 per cent), the UK (45 per cent), Italy (44 per cent), and Belgium (40 per cent). Only in one of these four European countries was an incompetent populist in charge, suggesting that incompetent populist leadership may not be the crucial variable.

Of course, this pandemic isn’t over. As Christakis notes, the experience of past pandemics should have led us to expect more than one wave, as opposed to a single curve that had to be flattened. “We are likely to reach an attack rate of roughly 40 to 50 percent by 2022 no matter what we do”, the author concludes. If the infection fatality rate is 0.5 per cent (by no means the maximum estimate in the current literature), that implies at least 660,000 Covid-19 deaths in the US, three times the total to date. Lord Rees has won his bet, and Apollo is still shooting his arrows.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior faculty fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. His next book, Doom: The politics of catastrophe, will be published in May 2021

Are nations really like people?

 Niall Ferguson asks: are countries really like people?

One of the oldest ideas in Western political thought is the analogy between the individual human and the body politic – think only of Abraham Bosse’s justly celebrated frontispiece for Hobbes’s Leviathan. A giant crowned figure towers over the landscape, his torso and arms made up of over 300 men.

Few historians think about states in this way today. But few historians have had even a tenth of the impact on the popular understanding of history that has been achieved by the polymath Jared Diamond, whose Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) has outsold most, if not all, history books published since. If Diamond now ventures to revive the idea that nations are individuals writ large, we should all pay attention.

“Nations undergo national crises, which … may or may not get resolved successfully through national changes”, he writes. “There is a large body of research and anecdotal information, built up by therapists, about the resolution of personal crises. Could the resulting conclusions help us understand the resolution of national crises?” Diamond believes that they can. Here is the final twist to an extraordinarily eclectic academic career, which began with physiology and seems to be concluding with pop psychology: Diamond has reinvented himself once again, this time as shrink to the nations.

“Successful coping with [crises caused by] either external or internal pressures requires selective change”, he explains. “That’s as true of nations as of individuals.” On close inspection, Upheaval turns out to be the self-help answer to Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail (2012). Unlike Acemoglu and Robinson’s book, which rested on a broad foundation of social scientific data (of varying degrees of reliability), Diamond’s book is free of datasets and models. In the great American tradition of self-help books, however, it is rich in anecdotes.

In the United Nations General Assembly today, 193 sovereign nations are represented. But Diamond considers the histories of just seven – Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany, Australia and the United States – all of which he knows well, having lived in six of them and learnt all the relevant languages, save Japanese. As he acknowledges, this sample is “too small for extracting statistically significant conclusions”. His approach is therefore narrative and comparative. The book is not archivally researched, but a work of synthesis based on secondary sources. There is nothing wrong with any of that. It is only when Diamond organizes his material by importing insights from the realm of personal experience – his own divorce, the death of a cousin, a friend’s anxieties about her love life – that the historian winces.

Upheaval has twelve organizing ideas drawn from modern psychotherapy and applied to modern history:

1. The first step to dealing with a crisis is acknowledging that you are in crisis, whether you are an individual or a nation.

2. The next step is acceptance of your personal/national responsibility to do something about the situation.

3. Step three is to “build a fence [not necessarily physical] to delineate one’s individual/national problems needing to be solved”.

4. It may then very well help to get material and emotional help from other individuals/nations.

5. You may benefit from using other individuals/nations as models of how to solve problems.

6. You are more likely to succeed if you have “ego strength”, which for states translates as a sense of national identity.

7. Diamond also recommends for both individuals and states “honest self-appraisal”.

8. It helps if you have experience of previous personal/national crises.

9. It also helps to have patience.

10. Flexibility is a good idea.

11. You will benefit from having “core values”.

12. It also helps to have freedom from personal/geopolitical constraints.

Now, there is much in Upheaval to enjoy, especially the more autobiographical passages which radiate Diamond’s own insatiably curious, enquiring, genial personality. But there is a fundamental, inescapable problem with this book, which is that it runs counter to the obvious reality that nation states are not that much like individual people. It would be much more accurate to say that they, like any large-scale polity, are complex systems. As such, they are not governed by the same broadly Gaussian rules as individual members of our species.

For example, we human beings at adulthood are all roughly the same height. A histogram of human stature is a classic bell curve, with most of us somewhere between 5 and 6 feet tall and nobody shorter than a foot or taller than 10. There are no ant-sized people and no human skyscrapers.

This is not true of nation states, a form of polity that became dominant only relatively recently in history. Two mega-states – China and India – account for 36 per cent of the world’s population. Then come eleven big states, from the US down to the Philippines, each of which have over 100 million people, accounting for just over a quarter of the world’s population. Seventy-five medium-sized states have between 10 and 100 million inhabitants: another third of the world’s population. But then there are seventy-one with between 1 million and 10 million (5 per cent of the humanity), forty-one states with between 100,000 and 999,000 (0.2 per cent) and a further thirty-three states with fewer than 100,000 residents.

Of Diamond’s seven case studies, three (the US, Indonesia and Japan) are in the 100 million category; Germany is just below that threshold (82 million); Australia (24 million) and Chile (18 million) are medium-sized; Finland is small but not tiny (5 million).

Just as the sizes of states are not normally distributed, so too are the crises. The major upheavals – wars, revolutions, financial crises, coups – that historians love to study are technically “tail” events, low-frequency, high-impact events located in the tails of the distributions. Again, these very big crises happen more frequently than if they were normally distributed. The incidence of war, for example, would seem to follow a power law. That said, one should not overstate the disastrousness of history. Most days in the history of most countries are quite dull. Even the cataclysmic wars that affected all of Diamond’s countries left most places unscathed. The great revolutions of history – the English, the American, French, the Russian and the Chinese – did not happen everywhere. Some countries (think Argentina) have had vastly more financial crises than others.

Individual human histories are not like this. We may not all have adolescent and midlife crises, but enough of us do for the terms scarcely to need definition. We nearly all have health crises of one sort or another. And we all die – mostly in a relatively narrow age range, again normally distributed.

Some nation states, by contrast, live a very long time. The United Kingdom is more than 400 years old (its constituent parts are much older), the US approaching 250. Others have been subject to tremendous institutional discontinuity. Chinese leaders love to claim that China is 2,000 years old, but this is a fairy tale: the People’s Republic of China is about to celebrate its seventieth birthday, making it twelve years younger than Jared Diamond. And the majority of the world’s nation states are not much older, as they were formed, like Indonesia, in the period of decolonization that followed the end of the Second World War. What is the life expectancy at birth of a nation state? No one can say.

In short, it is surely a giant category error to expect nation states to behave like humans – as if one tried to extrapolate the incidences of pile-ups and traffic jams on motorways from an understanding of the internal combustion engine. At best, Diamond’s book is a sustained metaphor. But precisely because complex polities are not subject to the same constraints as individual people, it is a misleading one. It is even more misleading when, in a final chapter, Diamond attempts to apply his framework to the entire human race and planet.

In each of his cases, the nation in question overcame the crisis or crises that afflicted it. Missing from the sample is one or more of the cases of polities that irrevocably fell apart – such as the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia – or the former protectorates that didn’t make it to independent statehood, or the ethnic groups who never achieved self-government. If nation states are scaled-up individuals, what are these? There are options open to polities, for which dismemberment need not be fatal, which we humans don’t have. The US might not have undone the secession of the Confederacy; the Australian colonies might never have formed a federation; the UK may not come out of its current agonies in one piece.

This brings us to Diamond’s reflections on the contemporary US. He identifies four “fundamental problems now threatening American democracy”, beginning with “our accelerating deterioration of political compromise”, due not just to the well-documented decline of bipartisanship in Washington, but also to the effects of eroding social capital and expanding social media. The other problems he identifies are low electoral participation, not all of it voluntary; rising inequality and declining social mobility; falling educational investment and standards.

How is the patient coping with this slow-burning crisis? “Factors that stand in the way of a good outcome”. observes Dr Diamond, “are our current lack of consensus about whether we are indeed entering a crisis, our frequent blaming of our problems on others rather than recognizing our own responsibilities, the efforts of too many powerful Americans to protect themselves rather than working to fix their country, and our unwillingness to learn from the models of other countries.”

Taking up the challenge of the last point, Diamond seeks to compare the US case with others. But the first rule of comparative history is not to liken apples to lemons, and this is what Diamond proceeds to do by repeatedly likening the US to Chile on the eve of the military dictatorship established in 1973. This analogy overlooks so many differences – not least in terms of the distribution of wealth, especially but not only land – that it is impossible to take seriously. Although Diamond knows that a military coup in the United States is far less likely today than it seemed to some observers in the 1960s, he nevertheless “foresee[s] one political party in power in the U.S. government or in state governments increasingly manipulating voter registration, stacking the courts with sympathetic judges, using those courts to challenge election outcomes, and then invoking ‘law enforcement’ and using the police, the National Guard, the army reserve, or the army itself to suppress political opposition”. This is the kind of febrile thinking that these days pervades American campuses, where professors seem collectively incapable of assessing the politics of their own country in a sober way and predictions of the imminent collapse of the republic are made on a weekly basis.

The reader’s confidence is further undermined by a number of errors. Germany’s last military offensives on the Western Front had failed long before October 1918. Britain voted in 2016 not 2017 to leave the European Union. And it is absurd to assert that Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile “smashed previous world records for government-perpetrated sadistic torture”. The crimes of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao dwarf those of Pinochet by three orders of magnitude. Even Suharto, as Diamond shows, killed vastly more people in Indonesia in 1965.

It is not only in political thought that the tradition of anthropomorphizing the state can be found. Politicians through the ages have spoken of their fatherlands and motherlands, endowing them with the personalities of usually heroic individuals. Uncle Sam and (to a lesser extent) Britannia are still staples of the cartoonist’s craft. (By contrast, Germany has had a severe personality disorder, worse even than Dr Jekyll’s. After the self-inflicted catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century, its self-image has reverted under Angela Merkel to the stolid but a little simple deutsche Michel of the pre-Unification era.) Yet if there is one thing the historical profession has achieved over the past fifty years, it has been to dismantle such national stereotypes and expose the extent to which they have been instrumentalized nefariously by demagogues and press barons.

In that sense, Upheaval seems as much of a step in the wrong direction as Guns, Germs and Steel was a step in the right one. The older book taught us historians to think more seriously about geography and climate, and not to be afraid of writing world history over long timescales. Those of us who sought to rise to those challenges cannot help being a little disappointed to find Jared Diamond – of all people – telling the kind of nation-as-person stories we thought we had discarded.

Review: The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

 The safety culture burgeoning in US universities is a danger both for ‘coddled’ students and the future of society, warns Niall Ferguson

Trigger warnings. Safe spaces. Preferred pronouns. Checked privileges. If you work at an American university these days, you have to tread as if on eggshells, if not land mines. One ill-judged microaggression is all it takes to be accused of racism or sexism, transphobia or Islamophobia, harassment or full-blown rape. Often, such accusations lead to investigations that are the antithesis of due process, with the transgressor deemed guilty until proved innocent.

I remember when it was not like this. Sixteen years ago, what lured me away from Oxford to New York University (NYU) and Harvard was the sense that the real intellectual action in my field (economic history) was on the western side of the Atlantic. The US economists, in particular, were impressively free in their speech. To present a paper at one of their seminars was to run a gauntlet of caustic criticism. “There are idiots,” Larry Summers famously began one of his papers. “Look around.” He was right. Unfortunately, idiotic ideas were in the process of taking over large swathes of academic life.

The speed with which campus life has changed for the worse is one of the most important points made by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in this important if disturbing book. Lukianoff is a lawyer and head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire), which works to protect academic freedom. Haidt is a professor of social psychology at NYU’s Stern School of Business and the founder of Heterodox Academy, which promotes intellectual diversity in academic life — the one type of diversity that universities appear not to care about.

Of course, the authors no more believe in a prelapsarian paradise than I do. When Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind more than 30 years ago, there were already reasons to worry about where the fad for “political correctness” was leading: after all, Bloom’s subtitle was How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. The crusade against the western civilisation and the “dead white men” who created it is not new.

But Lukianoff and Haidt are describing not the closing but the losing of the American mind. In their view, things changed as recently as 2013, when they first heard students demanding that “triggering” material be removed from courses and “offensive” speakers be disinvited from giving talks.


The media tend to cover only the sensational episodes: the violence at Middlebury College, Vermont, last year when the social scientist Charles Murray came to speak, or the Antifa riot at Berkeley that prevented an appearance by the provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. But the real story here is much more widespread and insidious. Rowdy protests are the least original things today’s student radicals do — and by the standards of the anti-Vietnam era they are amateurs.

What we see today is more like a religious cult than a political moment. Devotees insist on using the pronouns “they” or the made-up “zhe” for students who regard “he” or “she” as “cis-heteronormative”. They like to congregate in “safe spaces” where they can take refuge from ideas they find uncongenial. (The original safe space, at Brown University in 2015, “was equipped with cookies, colouring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets, and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members purportedly trained to deal with trauma”. Cult members glory in infantilising themselves.)

Rather than protest against speakers they consider heretics, the zealots prefer to have them disinvited or “no-platformed”. According to Lukianoff’s research, there have been 379 disinvitation campaigns since 2000. Nearly half were successful.

The campus cult also owes a debt to China’s Cultural Revolution. Like their predecessors, today’s American Red Guards like to humiliate academics who stand up to them — professors such as Nick Christakis, the master of Silliman College at Yale, whose wife dared to defend Halloween costumes from the charge of cultural appropriation, and Bret Weinstein, the biology professor at Evergreen who opposed a “day of absence” that required white students and faculty to vacate the college’s premises for a day.

I highly recommend watching the videos of these struggle sessions. The students scream hysterically at their incredulous victim, refusing to let him speak, or sinisterly snapping their fingers to indicate their disapproval.

Lukianoff and Haidt trace all this lunacy back to three bad ideas that have spread throughout American education, beginning in primary school. The first is that “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”. The “coddling” of the book’s title begins early with the measures devised in schools to protect children from such menaces as peanut allergies. Today’s students expect to be equally well protected from white supremacists.

Bad idea number two is what the authors call “the untruth of emotional reasoning: always trust your feelings”. Today’s students rarely say: “I think that…” The correct form is: “As a gay woman of colour, I feel that…”

The third bad idea is that “life is a battle between good people and evil people”, an idea lent intellectual respectability by the likes of Herbert Marcuse and Michel Foucault, but the basis for witch-hunts since time immemorial.

As Lukianoff argues, on the basis of his own positive experiences with cognitive behavioural therapy, these ideas are the opposite of what young people need if they are to develop mental resilience.

Yet bad ideas are always lying around. The libraries are full of them. The really interesting question is why these ones have gained ascendancy now. Here Lukianoff and Haidt tell a plausible story. The increasing polarisation and shrill tone of American politics has played a part. The mental-health epidemic, especially among girls, is another variable. (A 2016 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, based on data from 139 colleges, found that half of all students surveyed in 2015–16 had sought counselling for mental-health concerns.)

Children who grew up with smartphones and social media (“iGen”) seem more prone to depression than the millennials who preceded them. Also at fault, however, are the paranoid parents, who thought that wrapping their offspring in cotton wool was the way to raise them.

The final, fatal ingredient has been the tendency of academic administrators to appease snowflake students. Every university in America has an ever-growing contingent of “officers” whose role it is not just to coddle their fragile charges but to encourage them to vent grievances. To give just one example, Fire has found that two-fifths of American colleges have established some form of bias reporting system.

Despite all the evidence they present, the authors are optimists. All this can be fixed, they insist, concluding their book with a list of remedies, from free play for younger children to free speech for older ones. If only the problem were so fixable. Unfortunately, history suggests that such cultural revolutions are quite slow to subside unless, as in China, they are forcibly suppressed. Belief in witchcraft took at least a century to die out after the 17th-century witch craze.

When I look at today’s universities, where conservative academics have gone from being an endangered species to an oxymoron, I see little if any sign of impending improvement. As for Lukianoff and Haidt, it’s surely only a matter of time before they are both “called out” as white supremacists or otherwise defamed.

Once it was closing; now it is coddled. What’s next for the American mind? A return to sanity seems too much to hope for.

Allen Lane £20 pp338

Niall Ferguson is Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

Book review: Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell

 A political portrait looks back on the life of one of the most controversial presidents in modern American history. Review by Niall Ferguson

‘I am a square,” Richard Nixon told a journalist towards the end of his life, drawing a square in the air with his forefinger. “My values are traditional: God, country, family. I am absolutely opposed to the destruction of those values that came about during the Vietnam era. Free love, drugs, tearing down your country, denying God, selfishness and indulgence — everything I despise took root when I was president and there was so little I could do to stop it…I represented everything they were trying to overthrow.”

In the affections of the baby-boomer generation that runs America today — from the Oval Office to the casting couches of Hollywood — Nixon does indeed occupy a uniquely low place. Never in the history of American democracy have so many people loved to hate one man so much.

True, most baby-boomers long ago reached some kind of accommodation with God, country and family. But to this day, they still hate Nixon. They look back on his resignation as one of their generation’s greatest achievements. Although he was by no means the least popular of modern presidents while in office, he is certainly bottom of the league today.

It is, of course, easy to see why Nixon is hated. His presidency ended more ignominiously than any other, with resignation forced upon him following the exposure of his efforts to obstruct the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in. Nor was this an isolated lapse. Dicky was always tricky: witness his denials during the Alger Hiss case that he had spent time at key witness Whittaker Chambers’s farm, or the 1952 funding scandal that nearly cost him his place on the Republican presidential ticket.

Nixon’s youthful anti-communism, too, always irritated liberals. As a congressman, he came to national attention with his implacable pursuit of Hiss, the State Department official accused of spying for the Soviet Union. As Dwight D Eisenhower’s vice-president in the 1950s, he continued to play the Cold Warrior, famously confronting Nikita Khrushchev in a televised debate about the merits of Soviet and American kitchens. Above all, there was Nixon’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save South Vietnam from communism, unhappy memories of which are currently being stirred by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour documentary series.

In this new biography, John A Farrell (born in 1953, Nixon’s first year as vice-president) re-retells the tale in terms that few of his fellow boomers will find objectionable. We read here of Nixon’s culpability in helping the South Vietnamese “steal…a moment of genuine hope” for peace in Vietnam in 1968 — according to Farrell, the “most reprehensible” of all Nixon’s acts. We read, too, that an option existed the following year, Nixon’s first as president, for “an immediate withdrawal of US forces under terms that would lead to the unification of Vietnam under a communist government”. Instead, Farrell writes: “More than 20,000 US soldiers…died on Nixon’s watch.”

Never mind that these counterfactuals can easily be shown to be unrealistic and the statistic misleading. The conspiracy theory that Nixon scuttled a chance for peace in 1968 has two logical defects. First, the South Vietnamese knew very well, without any help from Nixon, that President Lyndon B Johnson was cynically timing a Vietnam “October surprise” to help Hubert Humphrey defeat Nixon. They had every incentive to drag their feet and hope for a Republican victory. Second, the North Vietnamese had no serious intention of making peace in 1968 or 1969. Despite the failure of their Tet Offensive, they had not given up on achieving outright military victory even as they went to Paris to negotiate in bad faith.

As for the death toll, the reality is that nearly two-thirds of all US fatalities in Vietnam happened under Democratic administrations. And of the 21,000 who died between 1969 and 1974, more than half lost their lives in 1969. By 1974, the toll was down to one. The Nixon administration ended American involvement in the Vietnam War. It was not Nixon, but the Democrat-dominated Congress that doomed South Vietnam by cutting off the aid on which its defence depended.

Farrell’s misrepresentation of Nixon’s Vietnam policy is unfortunate, as it detracts from his readable if superficial book’s recognition that, on a host of issues, Nixon was in truth the most liberal Republican president of the modern era. Admittedly, this was partly a matter of congressional arithmetic. As Farrell notes, Nixon was the first president since Zachary Taylor in 1849 to take office with both houses of Congress in the hands of the opposition party. Yet Nixon was drawn to the kind of big government solutions to social problems that the Democrats had favoured since Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal. “The problem with the right-wingers,” he told HR Haldeman, his chief of staff, was that “they have a totally hard-hearted attitude where human problems and any compassion is concerned.” As Alan Greenspan, the future Federal Reserve chairman, rightly noted: “The size of government under Nixon grew immensely. His reasoning was always, ‘Well, if we don’t do it, they [the Democrats] will do more.’”

As assistant to the president for domestic policy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan introduced the Family Assistance Plan, a welfare reform that guaranteed a basic annual income, day care, and training for the jobless. This was just one of many Nixon-era initiatives that modern-day conservatives blame for the subsequent hypertrophic growth of the “administrative state”.

Farrell dwells on Nixon’s “Southern strategy”, which was designed to woo disgruntled white voters away from the Democrats by implicitly criticising the previous administration’s civil-rights legislation. Race was without question the decisive factor in the 1968 election, but more because so many erstwhile Democrats defected to the segregationist George Wallace. Once in office, Nixon pushed harder than his predecessor for the desegregation of Southern schools. He increased by a factor of 35 the funds available for enforcing civil rights.

Abroad, too, Nixon confounded efforts to typecast him. Not only was he intent on ending the Vietnam War; it was Nixon who went to China and met Mao Tse-tung, Nixon who signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the interim Strategic Arms Limitation agreement with the Soviets in May 1972.

Many commentators today draw casual parallels between Donald Trump and Nixon. The only things the two men really have in common, thus far, is their irresistible impulse to wage war on the media and the media’s insatiable desire to do them in. Contrary to liberal folk memory, Nixon was a centrist who secured a second term by a landslide not through skulduggery but because his foreign and domestic policies were hugely popular. That he was a square was a large part of his appeal at a time of national and international upheaval. That he was a crooked square should not distract us, as it has distracted Farrell, from the undoubted achievements of his presidency.

Doubleday £30 pp737

Niall Ferguson is the author of Kissinger: 1923-68: The Idealist

reviews
Publication Name
4 Article Results