The Power of Place

The Power of Place is not an abstract concept. It’s all around us. It’s the reason why my German cousins have a life expectancy 7 years longer than my Sri Lankan cousins. It’s why I breeze through customs in most countries with my British passport, while my highly esteemed Grandpa has to jump through hoops with his Sri Lankan one. And it has resulted in thousands of Asylum Seekers languishing in detention on Nauru and Manus Island, caught in limbo while trying to reach the freedom and affluence that many Australians take for granted. As the political world pivots towards inequality as a legitimate issue for debate and action, more focus needs to be placed on the role birthplace plays in opportunity. The Power of Place, through its influence on mother tongue, movement, religion, education, health, natural environment, natural resources, cultural norms, and many other factors that de Blij explores; “remains the most potent factor shaping the destinies of billions”.


“The power of place manifests itself in continua of opportunity and risk, advantage and privation.”


From the outset, de Blij sets his work in contrast to the likes of Thomas Friedman, those who claim the world is ‘flattening’ – that forces like globalisation are creating a world of equal opportunity. As de Blij points out, this is true for only a small minority of the world’s population – less than three percent of the world’s population reside in a country other than that of their birth. Only 15% of the world’s population live in the “global core”, while controlling more than 75% of income. The other 75%, those who live in the ‘periphery’ and control just 25% of income, can we really say they have equal opportunity? The 97% of those who still live in the same place as their fathers and grandfathers were born, can we say they have the same opportunity as the 3% lucky enough to follow the action? Only someone living under a rock would think that there is equal opportunity throughout the world. And only if there is freedom of movement, freedom to reach what little places do offer greater opportunity, could there possibly be any flattening. More so, migration even within some countries – China and North Korea for example – is tightly controlled. This means that for the vast majority of the world their destiny is inextricably intwined with the destiny of their place of birth. And even those fortunate enough to be born into developed countries – countries where there is ostensibly more opportunity, – they may not have had the fortune of being born in the right place within them. For example, children who are born in San Francisco have access to better public schools than those born in Minnesota, while literacy rates and healthcare access in rural (especially Aboriginal) communities in Australia are appalling compared to those in the major cities.


“The power of place defines an aggregate of circumstances and conditions ranging from cultural traditions to natural phenomena, into which we are born, with which we cope, and from which we derive our own multiple identities.”


In contrast to the proponents of a flat world, de Blij defines three types of people; mobals, locals and globals. The overwhelming majority of the world are ‘Locals’ – the “poorest” and “least mobile”, the 97% of the world who are restricted by various factors to live out their lives in their place of birth. The second type are ‘Mobals’ – migrants, both legal and not, who are both able and willing to cross borders to facilitate better lives. And the third type are ‘Globals’ – those for whom the world really is flat. Globals are the businessmen and women, government workers and others for whom borders are all but insignificant. But really we must add to this, because even a successful businessman that was born in the wrong country will have trouble with movement and opportunity. It is the juxtaposition of the core and the periphery, the local and the global, the rich and the poor, the obstructed world and the flat, with which much of the book is concerned.


“With less than 3 percent of the world’s people residing in a country other than that of their birth, it is clear that, for all of migration’s push and pull factors, the overwhelming majority confront the realities of the locale of their parents and grandparents.”


Discussing what it is that restricts 97% of the world moving up the chain from local to global makes up the meat of the book. I touched on many of them in the opening paragraph. It’s things like language — where access to a global language can turn a local into a mobal, while monolingualism (whether forced or not) will undoubtedly curb opportunities for work and movement. Another barrier is being born a woman in the wrong place (de Blij calls Women “the most local of locals”), which immediately brings restrictions on education, movement, healthcare and self determination (etc.) even within countries with resources to burn. And even in what we would consider more enlightened areas, Women still face incredible barriers — domestic violence, unequal wages and glass ceilings etc. Education makes up another barrier, and there isn’t just a dichotomy between those who do and do not receive an education. Even for those who are fortunate enough to be educated not all is rosy — are they receiving the right education? Are they ready for the world of computers, or are they still stuck on the education conveyor-belt established by the Prussians? Religion is the next factor. As de Blij points out, religious differences often drive conflict and nationalism, especially when it comes to the apportioning of divine real estate. It is the Muslim extremists in parts of Pakistan that are throwing up the borders, as are the Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka (etc.), and it is the realms of Christendom and Islam to which a majority of the locals are born, and from which a majority of the mobals originate. I can’t go into all the factors, so I will highlight just one more — the natural world. An abundance of natural resources can be the bane of entrepreneurism through dutch disease, the life support of illiberalism through handouts, the sustenance of civil war, and the cause of policy inertia. A lack of natural resources can mean the difference between studying and fetching water, and the diversion of much needed infrastructure spending to import fossil fuels. Finally, a country that is isolated, landlocked, situated near fault lines, or that is under threat from climate change — like many islands in the pacific for instance — is all but a trap for those born there. Nothing highlights the power of place better than the world’s slipshod distribution of valuable resources, access and natural catastrophes.


“Malaria, perhaps more than any other malady, symbolises the contrasts between global core and periphery when it comes to health.”


That last paragraph is just a taste of what I have picked up from de Blij’s book. Much of it is obvious, much of it is already covered in daily news reports, but the book’s framing really drives home how important luck is. However, a diagnosis of the situation is really all that de Blij offers. He has equipped me with a multitude of reasons for why the world looks like it does. Why it is so dominated by ‘the Core,’ but the conclusion — entitled “lowering the barriers” — offers very little in guidance on how to fix the problem. It seems to boil down to meeting and altering the local circumstances that trap those that are stuck in the periphery — sexual discrimination, religious indoctrination, monolingualism, poor education, environmental disasters (etc.) — and spreading English and American culture. He even acknowledges that there are already ‘countless programs, projects, schemes, and plans’ already focused on doing just this, but doesn’t take it any further. As such, the book ends on a rather flat note. While I did enjoy reading de Blij’s diagnosis, I am waiting for the prescription.


“It is the globals who build security and migration barriers, not the locals. It is the globals who mobilise armies to intervene in other states, not the locals. It is the globals who move factories from low-wage to even lower-wage environs, wreaking havoc among workers. It is the globals who control the fates of locals as well as mobals, often ruthlessly.”


The Bottom Billion

The Bottom Billion is a couple of years old now, and some of the numbers and names are starting to look a little tired. But the debate over the necessity, role, effectiveness, and method of assistance to less developed countries has trudged on in the meantime. What’s more, the popular  media and debate have all but ignored Collier’s jumping off point – that the incredible rise of the BRICS (among others) has not only masked the lack of development of a billion people that live in other countries, it may even prove a hinderance to their development in the near future. In recent weeks we have seen the annual Gates Foundation Letter – which focused on “debunking” the idea that aid doesn’t work, as well as op-eds by Jeffrey Sachs, William Easterly and other prominent academics in the field. But while none of these authors push simplistic for-or-against aid arguments in their books and academic publications, their forays into popular media was quite the opposite. Which brings us to the crowning achievement of Collier’s book – a comprehensive breakdown (more than we normally see) of the for the lack of development of the bottom billion, and a corresponding argument that our ‘solutions’ need to be just as nuanced.

Collier never explicitly states who the ‘bottom billion’ are, but he begins by defining four ‘traps’ that have caused them to be left behind while other countries race ahead. These are (not in any particular order) conflict –  which he has found can largely be attributed to poverty and is not simply the cause of it, being landlocked – countries like Switzerland are exceptional in that they are creative and have access to their neighbours stellar infrastructure and big markets, resource abundance – an over reliance on primary goods can crowd out other economic activity (also known as dutch disease), and bad governance – pretty self explanatory. According to Collier all of the countries of the Bottom Billion have fallen into one or more of these traps, and this claim comes with a healthy dose of name dropping from when Collier was at the World Bank, and the minatue of research projects he has done with various assistances.

Such painstaking research and explanation has a couple of benefits. It brings new nuance to the debate about why some countries have been left behind. It’s not, as some would contend, that those that have developed are (necessarily) more willing to work or more productive, or that colonial exploitation is (necessarily) the big bogeyman it is sometimes made out to be. Rather, there are a congruence of individual factors in each situation. As a result, the one-size fits all, easy to sell, ideologically driven fixes are not adequate. In some cases it may only make matters worse –  for example giving aid money directly to countries with “bad governance” may further entrench corruption. Likewise, free trade alone is unlikely to help a landlocked country. In this situation we may need to spend money ensuring that infrastructure in neighbouring countries is adequate and accessible, we may even need to provide military intervention. This is the most contentious argument that Collier puts forward – that it is favourable or even necessary for outside powers to provide military intervention. Looking at the problem strictly actuarially, this may make sense. But this is a suggestion that requires a book all of its own, weighing up the positive benefits of military intervention with the world’s recent experience of war – war weariness, huge expense, and all the complexities of power vacuums (I don’t really see any Germany-esque, decades long occupations in the future).

I am not quite sure how to summarise my thoughts on the book itself. As I have already noted, it adds vital context and detail to a debate often controlled by those eager to ‘save’ the Bottom Billion – either by coddling them or forcing them to take their medicine. But it is also a tough book to read. It’s only about 200 pages, but it still took me a good week and a half to finish. So easy was it to put down. It often reads like a summary of the authors research, or the famous people he has met or worked with (I count notable academics as famous people). At times he is a little overbearing, up on his high horse looking down at those of us not as academically rigorous as himself. And there is a little too much data and accounts of the minutae of his studies. But the overarching messages are too important. As Collier frequently points out throughout the book, this isn’t an abstract problem. Those of us fortunate enough to live in prosperous societies are not isolated from the Bottom Billion. Their challenges are also our challenges. And we simply need more nuance in this vital debate.


If there was any book better designed to initiate vapid controversy than Zealot by Reza Aslan, I would greatly like to see it. The title – sure to boil the blood of any Christian unfamiliar with the wider connotations of the word Zealot, is only driven home by the less than subtle placement of a passage from the Gospel of Matthew on page four  – “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword” (Matthew 1-:34). And of course, to cap it all off, the author is a Muslim. This was the pretence of one of the most awkward and ridiculous interviews I have ever witnessed. An interview without which many would never have even heard of Zealot or Reza Aslan. But I have been an Aslan fan ever since reading No God but God. And anyone who does make it past the rather ridiculous facade of Zealot will find a book that is clearly written in the same measured tone. It isn’t a hit piece. It is a continuation of much the same ideas that can be found in Aslan’s previous work – that historical analysis and facts (as best they are) can and should be used in theological contexts.


 “This book is an attempt to reclaim, as much as possible, the Jesus of history, the Jesus before Christianity: the politically conscious Jewish revolutionary…”


Zealot is marketed as a biography. However, it is like no biography I have ever read. Granted, we must give Aslan some wiggle room due to the nature of his subject; an ancient figure, largely ignored and unknown during his time, and who has been mythologised for close to two thousand years. There are no primary sources of his life, or even his existence (one of the few historians to reference Jesus only mentions him as a clarifying appendage when marking the death of James). Echoing his father’s style, Jesus wasn’t helpful enough to write anything down or otherwise leave anything behind. Aslan, therefore, is forced to source his information mainly from the Christian and Hebrew scriptures. This has many drawbacks – some aspects of Jesus’s life are skipped over entirely in the scriptures – or found in some sources and not others, none of the authors knew Jesus personally (they were the scribes in a decades long game of Chinese Whispers) and they have agendas that need to be questioned, and the narratives often contradict each other or independent facts. As a result Aslan has to spend considerable space qualifying almost everything. What follows is a story of Jesus’s life with considerable gaps, is often non-linear, and serves more to educate the reader about the inconsistencies of the source material than the life of Jesus of Nazareth (or Aslan’s particular reading of his life at least). I really wonder why Aslan chose to write in this format rather than directly taking on our sanitised conceptions of Jesus and the Scriptures – he obviously has all the research to do exactly that.


“Indeed, the Jesus that emerges from this historical exercise – a zealous revolutionary swept up, as all Jews of the era were, in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine – bears little resemblance to the image of the gentle shepherd cultivated by the early Christian community.”


Aslan’s reluctance to tell a narrative story of Jesus’s life, as well as his emphasis on source and perception inconsistencies show through in the notes that I took while reading. Rather than getting a fuller picture of the life of Jesus (I was hoping to glean something more than the tired tales I had absorbed in the years of indoctrination at Sunday school), my notes are dominated with other details from Jesus’s world – e.g. crucifixion was a punishment reserved for sedition, and there is a seemingly endless list of preachers and revolutionaries who also proclaimed themselves “King of the Jews” (or were proclaimed that by others – the Life of Brian is looking increasingly prescient). Insightful yes, but not what I bought the book for. Not what it is sold as. What little I did pick up about Jesus from Aslan was less objective fact, and more theorising. And there are some inconsistencies in this theorising.


 “If we expose the claims of the gospels to the heat of historical analysis, we can purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the jesus of history.”


One of the main thrusts of Aslan’s portrayal of Jesus is as an illiterate peasant. But at the same time, Aslan ascribes to him incredibly nuanced motivations and deeds, often based on what would have at the time been a fantastical knowledge of scripture, history, and the sentiment of the people. Aslan’s wonderful theory about Jesus choosing ‘Son of Man’ as his non de guerre is a brilliant example of this inconsistency. Either Jesus chose this title because he knew of it’s complicated connection with David and the power of God (and wanted to use it for propaganda purposes), or he was a simple, illiterate, uneducated peasant. Aslan can’t have it both ways. But Jesus is not the only one whom Aslan grants outlandish prescience. Much of Aslan’s commentary comes from comparing sources written at different times, for different audiences, and under different circumstances. But more than just analysing texts through this prism, Aslan grants the authors the kind of propaganda skills and audience awareness that would shame even modern advertising agencies (Mark hasn’t just doctored the story, he has done so with clear knowledge of what his cosmopolitan audience already knows and will accept – let alone what modern audiences will accept). Even more, Aslan has the unfortunate habit of simultaneously using and abusing sources, as and when the need arises (he notably dismisses Celsus on one occasion because he is being “clearly Polemical”, while accepting his input on others). Sure, these are the only sources he can use, but there has to be a better method than poisoning and drinking from the same well.


“During Jesus’s lifetime, zealotry did not signify a firm sectarian designation or political party. It was an idea, an aspiration, a model of piety inextricably linked to the widespread sense of apocalyptic expectation that had seized the Jews in the wake of the Roman occupation.” 


To paraphrase Aslan, who is in turn paraphrasing Rudolf Bultmann, Aslan’s Jesus is a reflection of Aslan himself. He is the Jesus that Aslan wanted to find; a mortal man and a complete contradiction. Aslan has not succeeded in his quest to illuminate the life of Jesus. He hasn’t given us an objective account of the life of Jesus, merely another interpretation. Where he has succeeded, however, is in inserting a fair amount of context into the life of Jesus. His portrait of the workings of the Temple of Jerusalem, and the intrigue in and around Jerusalem itself, are peerless. His highlighting of the succession of "messiahs" that preceded and followed Jesus of Nazareth, the myriad of nationalist rebellions that took place and the reprisals that followed, and the general milieu of Biblical Palestine are important additions to the popular debate over Jesus and Christianity. And this is where the saving grace of this book lies. It is a book intended for popular consumption. Yes, many of the ideas found in the book are not new, and some of the theorising is questionable. But the historicity of the modern conception of Jesus of Nazareth is something that desperately needs to be challenged, as does the inerrancy of the Christian scriptures. This book is incredibly readable and it’s description of Biblical palestine and Jesus’s context brilliant. Let’s hope that this, along with it’s high profile, is enough to reignite the debate.

Life of a Colossus

So, it has been a while since I read a biography, and they are really starting to pile up on my shelf and Amazon wishlist. I decided to begin with the biography of Julius Caesar because he is such a looming figure throughout history and even in our modern culture. I grew up with references to Caesar; he was the chief foil in the Asterix books I loved, my Grandma’s dog was/is named Caesar, and his name lives on in the titles Tsar (Tzar, Czar, Csar) and Kaiser that are littered throughout our history textbooks. He has also inspired a great many of the other people whose biographies are on my list; Napoleon being the obvious example. In particular this book is a brilliant telling of a truly scary and inspiring human being. But it isn’t just Caesar who is inspiring. Goldsworthy has managed to construct one of the best biographies I have ever read. He has walked the fine line between too much and too little detail, an especially hard task when both the man and his world are so far removed from our own.

Goldsworthy begins the story of Caesar by describing the world he came into: one where the kingdoms that had risen up in the wake of Alexander the Great were fading, where the four century-old Roman Republic was unopposed in the Mediterranean but which was starting to reach the limits of what the Republican system would allow. Goldsworthy maps out both Rome and its territories. He explains the functioning of the Republican system, with its infighting Senate picked from the Equestrian class, the order of magistrates that serve “limited” terms with “defined” powers and responsibilities, and a mob of plebeians who were both powerful and powerless. We are introduced to the principal actors of the day, which includes such names as Cicero, Pompey, Crassus, Cato and Claudius. But this is just the groundwork.

At first the story of Caesar focuses on the goings-on in Rome while Caesar grew up, became a man, and embarked on his career (many of these side events have little to do with Caesar at first, but come back to affect him later). Goldsworthy readily and repeatedly admits that we don’t know much of the details about Caesar, one of the central points being when exactly he was born. Caesar’s journey to become Consul and his time as Consul is touched on briefly, but it is when Caesar is a Proconsul and goes off on his Governorship of Gaul that Goldsworthy really seems into his element. We learn in great detail about Caesar’s time in Gaul as he attempts to  “pacify” the Gauls and the Germans, fails to make headway in England, builds a never-ending stream of fortifications, roads and bridges, takes hostages, and caters for his army (apparently that last point is very important), all the while minding the political ramifications back home. Campaigns and battles are broken down to the slightest military maneuver (or our best guess at what happened during these battles based on the writings of Caesar, some of his men, and the scant archaeological evidence we have). I am sure by the end of the Gaul chapters most of us lay readers are eligible for some sort of degree in ancient warfare. For many the torrent of information about one battle or another may seem too much, but when you consider how Caesar’s mixture of skill, luck and daring contributed to his success, and how many others have drawn inspiration and knowledge from his campaigning, I believe the emphasis is more than justified. After all, Caesar become what he was largely through his military campaigns. The book is rounded out with the civil war with Pompey, and Caesar’s (relatively) short time as Dictator. I feel this section could have been longer, especially considering that many of us know of Caesar as a Dictator, and we have just gone through several hundred pages of build-up to this point, but this is just nitpicking really.

If you take a look at Goldsworthy’s page on Amazon, it is immediately clear that his expertise and interest lies with the Roman military. This is reflected in the book, as more than half the book deals with the period from Caesar becoming Governor of Gaul until the end of the civil war with Pompey. But if you don’t enjoy tales of military campaigns, or if you are willing to put up with the authors fascination with them, then there is a great detail of story and information for you regardless. Goldsworthy faces the horrific task of not only having to introduce us to Caesar, but inform us about an ancient world that many of us do not know about. This he does well. How did the Roman society and republic work? Who were Rome’s contemporaries and what challenges was Rome facing? Goldsworthy answers these questions and more, and he does it well enough that it is entertaining, interesting and sufficient to understand the man himself. Furthermore, something that I thoroughly enjoyed in this book was the constant stream of political commentary, both that of Goldsworthy as well as that of Caesar’s contemporaries. Alongside the account of Caesar’s actions, Goldsworthy offers glimpses of the political fallout for Caesar, his allies and his enemies. It gives you a real idea of the intention behind much of Caesars actions, and adds colour to a very political life that some biographies miss entirely. I really enjoyed learning about such a prominent historical figure, and this book was an amazing vehicle for doing so. Four out of five.


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