Things that might happen in world politics

things that might happen

In Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Gravity’s Rainbow,” there is a character who is writing a book called “Things That Might Happen In European Politics.” He writes very comprehensively about a particular thing that might happen, but – invariably – before he’s done – the thing happens. And he has to discard what he’s written, and start writing his book all over again.

It’s Zeno’s Paradox, in a sense: you can never reach the end of your journey, because it keeps moving farther away, faster and faster, before you can get there.

It is for this peculiar reason that I like reading outdated history and political-science books.

I prowl the second floor of the Providence Public Library looking for them. I can tell them by their old leathery bindings and their stamped printing and their quaint titles. I have read WILL CHINA SURVIVE? (1936). And STALIN MUST HAVE PEACE! (1946). And AN AMERICAN IN THE RIF (1921). And many others.

A few observations:

–         Yes, China will survive. The 1936 book was written at a time when China was riven between Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime (which later went to Taiwan), and the Communists, and the Japanese (who had taken a big chunk of the north). The author was prescient enough to see that, if China survived the Japanese occupation (which it did), it would almost certainly go Communist. Ten points for accuracy!

–         Stalin had peace, but not for the reasons the author (the famous journalist Edgar Snow) assumed. His premise (which he maintained for 200 pages) was that the Second World War left Stalin too weak to struggle against the USA and Europe, and that Stalin would be no threat to anyone for at least five to ten years. He underestimated Stalin’s paranoia and power. The USSR had the atomic bomb by 1949, almost exactly four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oh, well. Zero points.

–         An older book about Morocco, written in the 1920s, was fascinating. Abdelkrim, the Napoleon of North Africa, the founder of the Rif Republic, who led a rebellion against Spain, was described as “passionate, but not a genius.” And so he proved to be; his Rif Republic collapsed soon after. The author also met Raisuli, the pirate king of Asilah, who captured the American diplomat Perdicaris at the turn of the century. The author described Raisuli (I paraphrase) as a “swollen hulk” near the end of his life, being carried around in a litter, palsied, dropsical, unable to speak, looking sadly and angrily at everyone around him.

It’s difficult to predict the future accurately. And even if you succeed, you seldom live to see yourself vindicated.

But it doesn’t stop anyone from trying.

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