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Jared Diamond: 'It would be imprudent for Ireland to give itself over to self-pity and hatred from the past'

Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Jared Diamond talks about how countries recover – or don’t – from massive crises.

Image: Nir Alon vi PA Images

IF YOU ASKED someone in Ireland whether the world is on the brink of significant change, you would expect to hear either ‘Brexit’ or ‘Donald Trump’ as part of the reply.

But Jared Diamond, an award-winning historian, trained psychologist and once rated among the top 100 intellectuals in the world, has avoided both Trump and Brexit in his latest book ‘Upheaval: How Nations Cope With Crisis and Change’. 

Although Diamond had intended to write about the UK’s “slow-moving post-war crisis”, and has a chapter on the US, he said that he left them out of the book because Brexit was a new crisis that overtook post-war Britain.

His views on Brexit would be more suited to a news article, he says, but not a book. So of course we asked: how does Britain deal with its current crisis? 

“That remains to be seen,” Diamond tells TheJournal.ie during a visit to Dublin. 

Britain had a referendum on Brexit, and it was a badly designed referendum for two reasons… Referenda are sometimes useful and sometimes they are the wrong way to decide things. If an issue is complicated, that’s why you elect representatives, you elect representatives to crawl into a corner and study the issue in private.

“Complicated issues are not issues that should be put to the public. The issues that should be put to the public are: Should you or should you not permit divorce, should you or should you not permit abortion. Brexit was not suited to a referendum because it’s just too complicated.”

The second reason it was a bad idea, Diamond says, is because the bar for passing the UK’s exit from the EU shouldn’t have been 51%. 

“If the referendum is on something that will have heavy consequences, such as tax policy, that is something that requires a 60% or two-thirds majority.”

So there shouldn’t be a second referendum, surely.

“One might say that Britain is stuck with the first referendum, how do you get out of that mess – one way would be to say ‘Yes it was a mistake, let’s have another referendum’.”

Britain was the first modern democracy and a history of a successful democratic government, Diamond says, and a lot of things that it has to be proud of: “Shakespeare is still a good poet, that hasn’t changed”.

“The basis for national pride in Britain today is not the empire which Britain has lost and will never be regained again. If Britain tries to build a national identity based on the empire and Commonwealth… Britain was already through that in the 1950s and 1960s. Britain lost the empire and the Commonwealth is much less important now.

Britain’s trade is mainly with the EU, not with Nigeria and Borneo – so the idea of going back is… I can use the word stupid.

How Finland and Chile moved on from their violent pasts

Diamond, who has been called the “master storyteller of the human race,” has won a Pulitzer Prize for being a diligent historian of human evolution for decades, but this time, he’s used his own personal experience in his storytelling.

With relatives in Japan, a home in the US, and the ability to speak Finnish (as well as 11 other languages), Diamond uses these links to explore how countries deal with disasters, and how they compare to how individuals deal with personal crises. 

These include how Finland dealt with the Soviet Union invasion in the aftermath of its civil war and used its national language to pull the country together; how after a brutal era of torture in Chile, that all was forgiven in order for the country to move on; and how Australia reinvented its national identity in response to a surge in immigration.

In the case of Finland, Diamond says there are quite a few parallels to Ireland, as well as lessons that can be learned from their past. Finland was embroiled in a brief but brutal civil war after gaining independence from Russia at the beginning of the 1900s – not too dissimilar from Ireland.

The civil war broke out over what direction the country should take and whether it should remained a Communist country. After the Communists were defeated, they were killed in camps. 

They killed maybe 20,000 communists in prisoner-of-war camps. The world’s highest rate of killing, as a percentage of the population killed per day, was the Finnish Civil War until the Rwanda killings in 1993.

In Upheaval, Diamond discusses how national identity actually united Finland.

The Finnish language is uniquely distinct from other languages in structure, difficulty, and sound; by comparison, the Irish language is somewhat closely related to the Scottish language and more distantly to Breton and Welsh.

“For practical purposes, no one else speaks Finnish… the Finnish language is what holds Finns together,” Diamond says, adding that Finns can also recite their national epic, the Kalevala, a collection of folk stories gathered in the 19th century. 

“It’s not something you would expect a country to dig out of fast, but the killers and the communists all spoke Finnish, and all could recite the Kalevala, and they all knew the music of Jean Sibelius, and they all proud of Finland’s long-distance runners.

And so within a short time of just six years, they pulled together over that and elected a Prime Minister who was on the losing side of the civil war.

He cites Chile as another example of a country moving on from its deeply divided, violent past during the regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet during the 1970s and ’80s.

“It’s not just that lots of Chileans got killed, and hundreds of thousands of Chileans got driven into exile, but the way in which they were killed was unbelievable.”

When a democratic government came back into Chile in 1990, there were plenty of Chileans who said “This is the time for settling accounts, and we’ll punish and execute the torturers”.

“The first socialist democratic president of Chile, who assumed power after the military dictatorship, said in his inaugural speech: ‘My policy is to build a Chile for all Chileans.’

That’s a euphemism for ‘The torturers will live together with the tortured because there’s no alternative’. 45% of Chileans voted for Pinochet, despite the horrible things that he did, so there’s no other option other than to get along.

He says that there were trials, and people did go to prison – one general for 589 years – for their crimes. 

“Here’s one of those parallels between Ireland and some of these other countries. Chile adopted a repugnant policy in its own self-interest because there wasn’t an alternative.

So what is Ireland going to do about Irish history? Keep on hating Britain for the next 500 years when you have very good reasons to loathe Britain, but you’re next to Britain and your economy is heavily involved in the economy of Britain. So it would be imprudent for Ireland to give itself over to self-pity and hatred from the past.

Writing the book

When asked if the book was triggered by the 2016 election, or Brexit, Diamond replies definitely: “no it was not”. He wrote ‘Collapse’, because he had an interest in that topic, and ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ (his Pulitzer-Prized piece of work), because that interested him too. Upheaval is just the latest on a list of topics he’s had an interest in for a long time.

“They are the countries that I could speak about with the most knowledge,” he said, adding that he’d leave it to historians to select a more random, complete sample.

Another interesting point in the book are the parallels between personal and national crises. Diamond, who trained as a psychologist, argues that people do or don’t get help, people do or do not admit that they are in a crisis, do or do not accept responsibility that there’s something they have to do about it, people choose to use other people as models, or don’t.

He says “ego-strength” – which is a supreme belief in oneself, broader than self-confidence – can be used as a metaphor for the national identity of a country. 

“Just as a person has things that they are proud of being distinctly you, nations have or don’t have things that they’re proud of and say ‘That’s Ireland’ or ‘That’s Finland’.”

Jared Diamond’s book Upheaval: How Nations Cope With Crisis and Change, is available on sale now. As part of the book tour, Diamond gave a talk in Dublin at the Dalkey Book Festival, which is runs between 13 and 16 June.

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