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Checkmating history

Books | There's at least one reason to believe history isn't over yet

Issue: "The '96 Election," Nov. 16, 1996

Although history was supposed to have ended with the triumph of Western liberal democracy, it hasn't. War and civil disorder continue to bedevil nations around the globe. Today it is culture, as much as ideology, that drives conflict.

It is this issue that Samuel Huntington explores in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. His analysis is both informative and provocative, and he demonstrates the importance of moving beyond Washington's foreign policy of promiscuous intervention in conflicts with no relevance to U.S. security.

Mr. Huntington argues that eight different civilizations currently exist: African, Chinese, Hindu, Islamic, Japanese, Latin American, Orthodox, and Western. Although the latter is likely to dominate into the next century, Mr. Huntington contends that "gradual, inexorable, and fundamental changes" are occurring "in the balances of power among civilizations and the power of the West relative to that of other civilizations will continue to decline."

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Reading Tom Hayden's book almost makes one feel sorry for Jane Fonda, who was married to Mr. Hayden for a number of years. The Lost Gospel of the Earth is yet another manifestation of enviro-paganism, a call for "a kind of reverse second coming, in which we experience a redemptive return of the sacred to inhabit the earth before it is further abused." What does he mean by sacred? "The ancient awe of our sacred environment amounts to a lost gospel of the earth, which existed among indigenous people long before the rise of monotheism." With this Mr. Hayden would replace Christianity.

Another entry in the contest for silliest pseudo-prophet is Reason to Believe. In it former Gov. Mario Cuomo frets about American's cynicism toward government and calls for an activist program regarding education, health care, job training, pensions, and more. Mr. Cuomo just doesn't understand why it is wrong in principle for government to loot taxpayers to enrich special interests and how doing so makes almost everyone worse off.

One of the giants of American jurisprudence was Hugo Black, whose life is detailed by Howard Ball of the University of Vermont. Mr. Black's background--a former member of the Ku Klux Klan elected to the U.S. Senate as a fervent supporter of the New Deal--would not suggest greatness. But he simultaneously sought to end state-sanctioned racism while interpreting the Constitution as it actually was written, rather than as some wished it had been written. Mr. Ball's is a worthy account of a worthy jurist.

Readers wishing to learn about anyone associated with World War II should pick up The Biographical Dictionary of World War II. In it Mark Boatner, a former West Point historian, has provided information on more than 1,000 figures associated with the war. It is a fabulous reference for the student or the historical buff.

Most unusual is Cultures, Chess & Art. Caltech professor emeritus Ned Munger has spent nearly five decades traveling the globe in search of chess sets reflecting local cultures. This first in a planned series of four volumes covers Africa, about which Mr. Munger taught for 39 years. His book is centered on chess but involves far more--anthropology, culture, history, politics, travel, and pure fun. That all eight of Mr. Huntington's civilizations love chess is both a refutation of cultural relativism and a reason for hope.


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