Recent Entries

From The Scholar's Stage at 2023-11-23 17:08:08

Wang Huning and the Eternal Return to 1975

A few years back Ross Douthat published an interesting book titled The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success. The thesis of Douthat's book is simple: American society is stagnant. Our blockbusters and our books are remakes from the '80s; our political coalitions and political programs all date back to the 1970s; even the technological progress we have seen over the last three decades pales in comparison to the revolutions that occurred in the decades before. We may celebrate "change agents" but we no longer have any. America is stuck in what Douthat cleverly labels an "eternal recursion to 1975." My essay "On Life in the Shadow of the Boomers" was written in response to The Decadent Society. It was mostly focused on the cultural angle of Douthat's thesis. Douthat's claims of technology are downstream the arguments of the Thielites. I assessed their arguments in the essay "Has Technological Progress Stalled?" Between these two pieces you see my general take on Douthat's thesis: his assessment of American cultural and political stasis is broadly correct, but he overstates how unusual stasis is in American history. Political and cultural transformation occurs via a sort of punctuated equilibrium (see also my essay "Culture Wars are Long Wars") and we just happen to be living at the tail end of an equilibrium phase. On the other hand, Douthat understates the true scope of technological stagnation. Nothing the internet has delivered remotely compares with the transformation of human civilization that occurred during the second industrial revolution. In 1975 technological change was the most important facet of American life. It is no longer. Were Wang Huning to read Douthat's book, I suspect he might agree with me.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2023-10-31 03:51:42

Gaza and the Extremist’s Gambit

Can strategic sense be found in "senseless" violence? This is the question I attempt to answer in a column I have out this week for Mosaic, tilted "The Extremist's Gambit Helps Explain Why Hamas Attacked Now." The piece was prompted by the many expressions of shock and puzzlement I read on social media when news of Hamas' desert massacres spread across the internet. "There is a temptation to explain away heinous violence as a product of irrational emotions or beliefs," I write. "Hamas terrorists, under this schema, murder Israeli children and partygoers under the influence of unquenchable ethnic hatreds, fanatical religious doctrines, or simply a perverse taste for cruelty itself."θ All such explanations have an element of truth to them. Violence cannot be divorced from the primordial passions. But the more one studies violent action—both at the level of the state and at the level of the individual—the more instrumental it will appear.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2023-07-01 03:29:43

Soviets, Cybernetics, and China: A Reading Program

Two years ago I ran a small reading group that met over zoom. Our reading topic: Leninism. Curious about the claims that modern Chinese politics are an outgrowth of Marxist ideas and practice yet feeling insufficiently familiar with the Leninist political tradition to properly judge its influence on contemporary Chinese politics, I organized a group […]

From The Scholar's Stage at 2023-04-03 19:47:03

Lessons of the 19th Century

Readers of the Scholar's Stage will be familiar with a thesis I have pursued in multiple essays and posts over the last half decade: America was once a place where institutional capacity was very high. Americans were a people with an extraordinary sense of agency. This is one of the central reasons they transformed the material, cultural, institutional, and political framework of not only the North American continent, but the entire world. That people is gone. The social conditions that gave the Americans their competence and confidence have passed away. Where Americans once asked "how do we solve this?" they now query "how do we get management on my side?" Different pieces have investigated different aspects of this thesis.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2023-03-11 22:11:57

The Slow Death of China’s Economic Paradigm

Xi Jinping’s decision to openly label the United States the source of China’s ills rolled through the newsletters, wire services, and commentators on China this week. Much has been written about this already; I have nothing to add. Here I call attention to something else that occurred at the National People’s Congress, an incident whose significance is perhaps not properly appreciated. Here is Nikkei’s description of the incident in question:

From The Scholar's Stage at 2023-02-28 22:09:49

Maoist Echoes

In an essay published in 2018, Geramie Barme recommends observers of US-China relations read through five pieces that Hu Qiaomu and Mao Zedong published in 1949 under the latter's name. The five pieces were Mao's response to Dean Acheson's China White Paper, a compendium of State Department documents intended to clear the Truman administration from the charge of "losing China." Neither Mao nor Hu slogged through the hundreds of documents there compiled, but they did pay close attention to the prefatory "Letter of Transmittal" that Acheson released along with the White Paper. In this statement Acheson famously argued that "the ominous result of the civil war in China was beyond the control of the government of the United States" and expressed his hope that "ultimately the profound civilization and the democratic individualism of China will reassert themselves and she will throw off the foreign [i.e. communist] yoke." Over the weekend I took Barme's advice.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2023-02-02 20:44:27

The Lights Wink Out in Asia

Japan's 2022 National Security Strategy concludes with a dramatic pronouncement:

At this time of an inflection point in history, Japan is finding itself in the midst of the most severe and complex security environment since the end of WWII. In no way can we be optimistic about what the future of the international community will hold
I find myself strangely affected by this document.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2023-02-01 03:56:31

Every Book I Read in 2022

My annual list of books arrives a bit later than usual. However, this delay is in some ways fortunate. Now my list will not be seen as an extended comment on the Lex Friedman reading list discourse. Those not on Twitter will have heard little about this. I envy you: we would all be better off if none of us had seen Friedman tweet out a proposed list of books to read in 2023—some as simple as The Little Prince, others as long and complex as Brothers Karazamov—and the avalanche of snobbery that followed. The entire brouhaha strikes me as a strange upper middle class status game. It seems that an attachment to books normally assigned in 10th grade English is the literary equivalent of glitter mascara or an overcooked steak. All three belong on that select list of items the commentariat can gleefully make fun without fear of “being the asshole.”

From The Scholar's Stage at 2023-01-27 14:54:18

The Hostile Forces of Beijing

On January 16th the friends of Cao Zhixin, a 27 year old book editor residing in Beijing, posted a video of Cao onto Youtube.θ The video spread quickly spread across Chinese language Twitter, and from there into newspaper reports in Great Britain, the United States, and Taiwan.θ In the video Cao speaks calmly and firmly, telling viewers about a chain of events that had begun two months before the video’s Youtube debut. In late November Cao and a group of friends—presumably not the same group that uploaded this video to Youtube—had organized a vigil in Beijing. The vigil was for the victims of a high-rise fire whose deaths were widely blamed on restrictive Zero-COVID policies; a set of videos then racing across WeChat showed local firefighters struggling to get past quarantine barriers in order to put out the growing blaze. These were scenes with revolutionary potential. Here was evidence, heart-breaking and rage inducing, that Zero-COVID took lives even as it claimed to save them. Chinese people were already taking to the streets to vent their frustration with Zero-COVID. The high-rise fire turned this trickle into a torrent. Cao’s vigil was one little ripple in that larger tide. The tide won. For the first time since the 1976 pro-Deng protests on Tiananmen Square (not to be confused with the more famous convulsion a decade later), a wave of popular street protest forced a reversal of national policy. Had Cao’s video ended on that note of triumph little attention would have been paid to it. But Cao concluded on a very different note: she was about to disappear. One by one her fellow vigil-organizers had gone dark. Where they were taken, and on what charges, she did not know. She knew only this: she was next.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2022-12-29 17:12:57

We Can Only Kick Taiwan Down the Road So Far

Over at Foreign Affairs, Ryan Haas and Jude Blanchette have published an interesting argument. Hass and Blanchette are worried that the United States and China are needlessly inching towards armed conflict over Taiwan because of the two powers’ shared belief that “the hard questions at the root of the confrontation” can only be solved by a military settlement. In contrast, Hass and Blanchette argue that “sometimes the best policy is to avoid bringing intractable challenges to a head and kick the can down the road instead.” Implicit in Hass and Blanchette’s framing is the belief the United States controls the pace of the can-kicking. Decision makers in Washington, not Beijing or Taipei, will determine the character of their triangular tango. The reasons for this conclusion are laid out plainly: the United States has the power to constrain Taiwanese behavior, while the Chinese, who understand that the costs of a conflict will prove ruinous even in victory, will stage no campaign unless backed into a corner. It is America that will choose whether the can is kicked into that corner or whether it is kicked further down the road. Haas and Blanchette’s case is cogent and clearly argued. Some of its particulars—such as their warning to avoid symbolics “that would aggravate Beijing without improving security in the Taiwan Strait” (e.g. Pelosi’s recent stunt)—are especially persuasive. But Haas and Blanchette’s larger argument only is compelling if we think crisis can be kicked down the road—and kicked down it ad infinitum. It is not clear to me that this is possible.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2022-11-18 14:00:16

Introducing the Center for Strategic Translation

Many readers have wondered at my low writing output this year. This week I am happy to announce the answer to the riddle: the Center for Strategic Translation. The Center for Strategic Translation locates, translates, and annotates documents of historic or strategic value that are only available in Chinese. As director of the new center I have had the chance to work with a host of talented translators to make this project a reality.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2022-08-02 19:50:30

Has Technological Progress Stalled?

Or Comments on the Thiel Thesis, Part I

Last week Mary Harrington published a long interview with Peter Thiel in the online magazine Unherd. Much of her article centers on Thiel’s conviction that meaningful technological progress stopped a good half century ago. This view is not unique to Thiel. In many ways it is the starting point for the entire “Progress Studies” movement. The Thielites and the Progress Studies folk take this shared premise to different end points, but both deem scientific inertia as the defining feature of the 21st century. Both also see technological and material stagnation as the root source of myriad ills tearing at America’s social fabric.

Here is Thiel’s description of the problem, as written up by Harrington:

From The Scholar's Stage at 2022-07-15 21:00:01

The World That Twitter Never Made

A few months ago Jonathan Haidt made waves with a big think-piece in the Atlantic arguing that most of the ills of the 2010s can be traced back to the invention of the retweet button.θ I read the essay and disagreed with it voraciously. Today City Journal published my critique.θ You can read my counter essay here. Below I would like to add some additional thoughts on social media and American politics that could not fit into that piece.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2022-07-12 21:19:32

The Fall of History as a Major–and as a Part of the Humanities

Over on the Scholar's Stage forum, one forum member asks why the number of American university students selecting history as their chosen four year degree has been on the decline since the 1970s. He offers three hypotheses:

From The Scholar's Stage at 2022-07-01 03:05:39

A Guide Map for Reading the East Asian Canon

Readers may remember my stab at a global Great Books list. Recently a reader contacted me asking for guidance: they wanted to read through the books on the "East Asian" section of that list, but did not believe he had the proper historical knowledge to understand or contextualize what they were reading. What do I recommend they read to make sense of the list?

What follows will not make sense if you have not looked at that original post. Here is what I told him:

From The Scholar's Stage at 2022-05-31 12:42:34

Of Sanctions and Strategic Bombers

In the aftermath of the First World War, military theorists across the West were desperate to fashion a path around the next war’s trenches. Engineers and tacticians spent that war tinkering away on machines that promised an escape from attrition: the gas shell, the U-boat, and the armored tank were all deployed with these hopes. All were found wanting. The aeroplane was not expected to have quite the same impact. The flying contraptions of the First World War were feather-like: they were both too light for heavy ordinance and too slim for bulky fuel storage.  These biplanes and triplanes could not penetrate deep behind enemy lines. None carried a payload capable of making a serious dent in the nearer trench works. Thus the incipient air forces of the First World War were chiefly used to reconnoiter the static defense works of the enemy—or to shoot down the enemy’s reconnoiterers. But the airmen flying and dying in Europe’s gray skies dreamed of something more.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2022-05-01 00:36:44

Generational Churn and the CPC

You may remember a piece I wrote last summer. It was a review of Vladislav Zubok's book, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev. Zubok contends that the collapse of the Soviet Union should be understood as a consequence of generational turnover. I was attracted to the idea; generational turnover is the very mechanism I had identify as the key to American history in my essay "Culture Wars are Long Wars." A few weeks ago I came across an infographic that illustrates why the policies of the modern Chinese Communist Party are even more generationally bound than either the old CPSU or the current U.S. federal government:

From The Scholar's Stage at 2022-04-27 00:36:18

Why Chinese Culture Has Not Conquered Us All

Xi Jinping regularly exhorts China’s diplomats, propagandists, journalists, writers, filmmakers, and cultural figures to “tell China’s story well.”The slogan flows naturally from the operating assumptions of Party state strategists: in their telling, a central pillar of any nation’s “comprehensive national power” (综合国力) is what these Chinese have labeled “discourse power” (话语权). Discourse power is the ability to mold the assumptions, conceptions, and values of foreign princes and peoples. The concept sits midway between Beltway talk of “soft power” and the sort of influence leftists describe with the phrase “cultural hegemony.” Discourse mirrors the instrumentalism of the first term—discourse power is not just a set of static social relationships or societal norms, but a tool to be wielded—but is far less associated with happy-go-lucky rhetoric about admiration, emulation, and attraction so closely bound up in American conceptions of soft power. Triumphant victors of the Cold War would conceptualize the issue in such terms:  the victors of any given cultural conflict always believe they have won through the wide appeal of their vision and the free choice of those attracted to it.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2022-04-20 17:16:03

Learning From Our Defeat: the Madrassas and the Modern

In all of my reading on Afghanistan, two books stand out. Both were highlighted in my list of the best 10 books I read in 2021: Carter Malkasian’s The American War in Afghanistan: A History and David Edwards’ Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan. Both authors are fluent in Pashto. Both draw plentifully from Taliban primary sources. Both have had hundreds of conversations with Afghans of all classes. Together they provide a powerful picture of the way the war has changed Afghan—especially Pashtun—society. The war in Afghanistan was first and foremost a war within that society. America chose to back one side of this civil war. These books lay out exactly what each side of this war was fighting for. Or so I write in an essay published this weekend in Palladium. To understand the Taliban’s victory, I argue, you must understand what made the Taliban different from the wider Pashtun society from which they sprang.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2022-03-19 03:57:54

What is the end-game in Ukraine?

I have an op-ed out in the New York Times today arguing that we must intentionally ground our response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in careful, cost-benefit calculation instead of emotional reaction or moral fervor. The piece is given the unfortunate title "Ukraine's Cause is Righteous. That Shouldn't Shape Policy." My argument is not that the rightness of the Ukrainian cause does not matter, but that in moments of crisis it is easy to do things that feel right even if they do not help us achieve the right outcomes. The righteous demand to do the right thing—now!—unnaturally speeds the tempo of decision making and warps the policy review process. The end result are statesmen rushing into policies whose consequences they have not fully gamed out.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2022-03-15 18:35:02

Ukraine, China, and the Shadow of the ’90s

Several days ago the U.S.-China Perception Monitor published an essay in both English and Chinese by Hu Wei, a prominent think tanker in Shanghai. It argues that the war in Ukraine is bound to go poorly for Russia and thus China must moderate its support for Putin’s failing regime lest the post-Putin world turn against the PRC.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2022-02-28 17:00:40

Pausing at the Precipice

The Western response to Russian invasion falls hard and fast. The actions of the E.U., the Anglosphere nations, and Japan are both extraordinary and consequential: multiple NATO states have brazenly declared their intent to arm Ukrainian forces with conventional ammunition, precision munitions, and even military aircraft. European airspace is closed to all Russian planes. Western capitals have not only announced sanctions on Kremlin oligarchs, but also restrictions on Russia’s central bank. Russian institutions are being removed from the SWIFT system. The Norwegians— in a maneuver sure to be copied—have dumped all Russian assets in their sovereign wealth fund. Olaf Scholz repudiated the last decade of German defense and energy policy with one speech. And now there is talk of bringing Sweden and Finland into NATO. None of these actions are as audacious as the Russian invasion which precipitated them. They are a natural, proportional, and even predictable response to Putin’s decision to settle the question of Ukrainian nationhood through the force of arms. Yet it is precisely the naturalness of our policy that we should be wary of. A righteous reaction may be a dangerous one. The imperatives of action disguise an ugly truth: in the field of power politics it is outcomes, not intentions, that matter most. Failure to slow down and examine the assumptions and motivations behind our choices may lead to decisions that feel right in the moment, but fail to safeguard our interests, secure our values, or reduce the human toll of war in the long run.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2022-02-22 19:13:30

Thoughts On Shitpost Diplomacy

Approximately three hours ago, the official twitter account of the United States Embassy in Kiev posted this meme. The meme is idiotic at even the surface level: in face of Russian claims that Ukraine is a 20th century political fiction artificially dividing the Russian people into national categories that would not have made sense to any European who lived before Lenin, and that this cradle of Russian culture should not be allowed to fall within the geopolitical ambit of a hostile anti-Russian alliance, the American embassy tweets a meme that highlights Kiev’s role as the origin point of Russian civilization. This is not hard. A Russian sixth-grader could explain why celebrating the glories of Kievan Rus does not subvert Putin’s claims about the history of the Russian nation so much as reinforce them. The American diplomat who posted this meme should have known this.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2022-01-27 03:51:03

Thoughts on “Post Liberalism” (I) (episode_040_hellenism_and_the_birth_of_the_self.mp3?c_id=15024631&amp)

The political project of the “post liberals” is not my own. Many of their critiques of contemporary American life and politics mirror what I have written; many of their suggestions for the future of the American right I easily endorse. θBut the grander their essays, the broader their harangues, the less convincing they become. I suspect our most important divide concerns our understanding of history.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2022-01-13 19:42:02

The Rise and Fall of Civilizations: A Reader Course

A Scholar’s Stage forum member reports that he and a friend recently finished reading John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Enraptured by Darwin’s account of flourish and fall, they ask what else they might read to understand the rise and decline of peoples and powers over the course of human history.

              In my mind there are four central parts to this tale:

From The Scholar's Stage at 2022-01-06 02:52:15

Every Book I Read in 2021

Every year I post a list of every book I read the year previous, with my ten favorites bolded.. As in those posts, I list the books in the approximate order in which I finished them. Some of these books I read bit by bit over several months. Others I finished the day I started them. All include a url, but the ten best (according to nothing but my own subjective judgement) are bolded and given a link. I only count books that I finished for the first time this year as eligible for “ten best books of the year.” A more condensed list of books that I started but read only in excerpt (or did not finish) can be found at the bottom of the post.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-12-02 05:54:33

Needed: Deep State Traffic Cops

The American national security complex has a long list of 21st century defeats to its name. I've spent a lot of time over the last few months trying to understand some of these failures. But if any meaningful reform is to occur and competence is to be restored too high office, it is just as important to identify and understand successes. Otherwise, there are no targets to reform the system towards.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-11-30 01:35:02

On the Party and the Princelings

Desmund Shum is a red billionaire. Red Roulette is his memoir, a tell all expose of his family’s climb to the summits of wealth and the foothills of power. The book describes how he and his ex-wife maneuvered to the top—and why they subsequently crashed back to earth. Their fall was as dramatic as their rise: Shum now lives in exile; his unfortunate ex now lives in prison. With nothing to lose, Shum lets loose: his memoir promises to hang Beijing’s dirty laundry for all to see. What a sight this laundry turns out to be! Read this book. Though Shum is unreliable narrator, his memoir is the best single introduction to elite Chinese life yet written.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-11-19 22:12:54

Sino-American Competition and the Search For Historical Analogies

In the most recent issue of American Affairs, Walter Hudson argues against “the pull of the Cold War analogy.”θ Cold War analogies for 21st century Sino-American relations are natural yet insufficient. A friend of mine recently complained to me about the thoughtlessness of these analogies. “It is not difficult to rail against lazy Cold War thinking,” I responded. “What is difficult is fleshing out a more illuminating analogy to fill the gap.” Hudson faces this challenge squarely. He argues that the mirror we seek will be found in the eclipse of the British Empire by the United States.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-10-27 00:18:06

Learning From Our Defeat: The Skill of the Vulcans

The national security teams of Bush 41 and Bush 43, America’s most accomplished and most reviled set of statesmen officials… were the exact same set of people. The authors of America’s Cold War victory were the architects of America’s 21st century defeats. There lies the mystery! With more collective experience under their belts than any foreign policy team since the Founding Era, with a greater list of accomplishments than any group of national security elites since the creation of the modern national security state, the statesmen-officials of the second Bush administration should have accomplished glorious deeds. They should have lived up to their track records. Instead, they delivered failure and catastrophe. How could this have happened?

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-10-24 05:27:18

New York City Meet Up and Other October Community Announcements

Two announcements for the Scholar’s Stage community members. First of all, I will be visiting New York City shortly. On the afternoon of Sunday, November 7th I will be holding a meet up for readers of the Scholar’s Stage who would like to meet me and other readers in person! This meet up is for […]

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-10-07 22:15:13

Yale and the Education of Governing Elites

The resignation of Beverly Gage, professor of history at Yale and director of the Brady-Johnson Grand Strategy Program, is the great brouhaha of the last weekend. I am not a graduate of the grand strategy course, but have followed its development over the last decade and a half.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-09-28 19:37:35

Xi Jinping’s War on Spontaneous Order

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published a letter I wrote to their editor in response to Kevin Rudd's exposition on Xi Jinping's "Common Prosperity" campaign:

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-09-07 13:52:42

Learning From Our Defeat (1): The Assumptions of Donald Rumsfeld

One hopes for statesmen chastened by defeat. In this world of our hopes, the authors of catastrophe would discuss their mistakes with the humility, introspection, and sense of disgrace these mistakes deserve. Decisions that led to death—death in its thousands and hundreds of thousands—would be examined with probing honesty. The decision makers behind them would be seized with a fierce guilt and urgency. They would quest to understand the nature of their errors. They would incessantly press upon us the lessons of experience, gripped with fear that the next generation might repeat their calamities. One can imagine such a statesman, chastened by defeat. Douglas Feith is not he.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-08-27 17:16:24

Community Announcements: August 2021

Two announcements for the Scholar’s Stage community members.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-08-26 19:31:57

As the Generations Churn: The Strategic Consequences of Cultural Change in Communist Russia… and China?

Vladislav M. Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev is a surprising counterpart to my essay, “Culture Wars are Long Wars.” 1That essay proposed a general theory of cultural change. Key to its thesis was the observation that most cultural change does not occur because people change […]

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-08-21 18:31:50

We Must Learn From Our Defeat

Twenty years ago a nation comfortable but aimless was thrust by violence into a new reality. “Does anybody but me feel upbeat, and guilty about it?,” asked one conservative columnist a few weeks later. “I feel upbeat because the country seems to be a better place than it was a month ago. I feel guilty about it because I should be feeling pain and horror and anger about the recent events.” But he was not the only one to feel this way.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-08-08 13:11:22

“How Xi Jinping’s New Era Should Have Ended U.S. Debate” With Peter Mattis (Mattis_Tobin1.mp3)

What kind of world does the Communist Party of China want? How can we know what they are thinking? These questions are the subject of "How Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ Should Have Ended U.S. Debate on Beijing’s Ambitions," a report by National Intelligence College professor Dan Tobin that was originally published as testimony to Congress. This episode uses Tobin's research as a starting point to discuss a web of issues at the core of Western attempts to understand the Chinese system. We talk about why Western analysts often struggle to understand the Communist Party, which parts of the "China watching" world are most successful doing this, and why any of this should matter to the "average" American citizen with no particular stake in China. Joining me (Tanner Greer) to discuss this report is Peter Mattis. Mattis is a Senior Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and most recently was the Senate-appointed staff director at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, where he was part of the legislative team that passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, and the Tibetan Policy and Support Act. He is the coauthor of Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer and the author of Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Resource Guide on the People's Liberation Army (2015).

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-08-01 04:50:22

Fighting Like Taliban

Over the last month or so we have seen several reports out of Afghanistan registering the shock of the Americans, the Afghani government, and even the Taliban itself with the speed at which the Taliban forces have captured the Afghani countryside. I am surprised with this surprise.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-07-23 00:54:22

Announcements: Washington DC Meet Up, First Zoom “Ask Me Anything”

Two fun announcements for the Scholar's Stage readership.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-07-21 16:01:36

Myths of the Over-Managed

The most popular thing I published last year was the essay "On Cultures That Build." In that essay I argued that "in the 21st century, the main question in American social life is not 'how do we make that happen?' but 'how do we get management to take our side?' This is a learned response, and a culture which has internalized it will not be a culture that 'builds.'”θ In this week's edition of City Journal I have a follow up of a sort to that essay. I begin this new essay with what might seem like an entirely unrelated question: why is speculative "Young Adult" fiction the most popular genre of 21st century America?

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-07-15 21:22:32

Scrap the Myth of Panic

If there is one lesson the world should learn from the great pandemic of 2020, it is this: we must discard the myth of panic.

Or at least this is the case I make in an essay I have just published in Palladium. Fear of mass panic was key to delayed action against the epidemic in the PRC:

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-07-14 19:11:39

F.A. Hayek’s “Intellectuals and Socialism” with Trevor Burrus (Hyaek_Intellectuals_Burrus.mp3)

How does a movement win a war of ideas? What are the mechanisms by which politics and culture change over time? These were the questions behind Frederich Hayek's 1949 essay "The Intellectuals and Socialism." Hayek was a believer in free markets and libertarian politics. When he wrote this essay just after the Great Depression and World War II, free marketers like Hayek were an extreme minority. Forty years later the situation had flipped: the ideas of Hayek and his fellow free marketers were setting policy across the Western world. "The Intellectuals and Socialism" presents the strategy they followed to bring about this terrific change in the climate of ideas. Joining me (Tanner Greer) to discuss Hayek's seminal essay is Trevor Burrus. Burrus is a research fellow at the Cato Institute whose research focuses on constitutional law. He is the senior editor of the Cato Supreme Court Review and the co-host of the popular libertarian podcast Free Thoughts. The full show notes for this episode are available at

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-07-13 21:12:50

In Favor of Bad Takes

Over at the Duck of Minerva Daniel Nexon has posted a reflective essay on the way the political science blogosphere has changed over the last two decades. Nexon’s IR-themed group blog was one of the first “political science blogs" of the aughts; at the old blogosphere’s height it was the largest academic-IR themed blog on the internet. I first encountered it around that time, when debates from the “strategy sphere” were spilling into the larger online conversation. America was debating the wisdom of the surge and our path forward in the Middle East, and blogs like Duck of Minerva dove into the controversy. Though he couches his disappointment in diplomatic language, Nexon is bummed about the state of online poli-sci...

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-07-09 17:37:12

Engagement’s Second-Order Catastrophes

Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell’s book Invisible China is an interesting if somewhat dry look at the development challenges China faces over the next 20 years. Chinese officials are perhaps the book’s main target audience. Rozelle and Hell worry that unless Communist officialdom takes drastic action soon, China will be stuck in what has been called the “middle income trap.” But this post is not about China. Rather, it is about what China did to Mexico. Mexico is the cautionary tale Rozelle and Hell want to scare Chinese officials with. “If you don’t reform now,” they seem to argue, “what you did to Mexico will be done to you!” That is a boogeyman worth fearing.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-07-03 20:25:03

Culture Wars are Long Wars

We are told that we “lost the culture war.” I dissent from this view: we never waged a culture war. Conservatives certainly fought, there is no denying that. We fought with every bit of obstruction and scandal our operatives could muster. But this was not a culture war. Rather, America’s conservatives fought a political war over culture.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-06-18 19:50:35

Fear the Logic of the First Strike

The closing days of the First World War gave birth to modern combat. Previous to these developments, advances in firepower made titans of the trenchworks. For four years the trenches were assaulted: for four years storms of steel mowed all offensives down. But as the war reached its end tactics were developed to storm through the gauntlet. Stephen Biddle has called these tactics, and what evolved out of them, “the modern system of battle.” The closing developments of the 1918 made offensives possible again—but the playing field remained tilted towards the defender.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-06-16 18:53:00

Historians, Slaves of Fashion

Daniel Gullotta's Age of Jackson podcast is one of the few I listen to regularly. In 2021 I don't have a lot of spare bandwidth to keep track of developments in my favorite field of American history, but I do listen to his interviews with new authors in the field to stay somewhat up to date. Listening to a book talk is not the same thing as reading a book, of course, but it is better than slowly having years of labor slip away from memory with disuse.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-06-09 14:30:00

Welcome to the New Scholar’s Stage

You are looking at the new-and-improved Scholar’s Stage. It has many features the old blogspot lacked. Some of these are available only to my Patreon supporters; others are available to everybody. [...]

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-05-31 03:54:00

How I Taught The Iliad to Chinese Teenagers

INTRODUCTION Several years ago I had the chance to lead two seminars with a group of high-performing Chinese high school seniors. Each seminar had between 20-35 kids; each of these students was a graduating senior enrolled in the international department of a prestigious high school in Beijing. The purpose of these seminars was twofold. First, they were designed to provide these students with

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-05-26 15:23:00

The Magic in Modernity

It is something of a commonplace that the mix of capitalist exchange and technological advance we call ‘modernity’ has stripped the world of its luster. Once we dwelt in fairy glens and dwarven vales, greeting Helios as he made his way across the sky, wishing well the naiads as they bubbled on their way. We do so no longer. Science has stripped nature of its wonder; all sorts of “isms” and “

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-05-25 04:43:00

Further Notes on the New Right

Last month’s essay “The Problem of the New Right” caused a small stir. Formal writeups have been authored by Ross Douthat, Eric Levitz, Jordan Bloom, Lars Schonander, Peter Spilakos, and Aaron Ren. On Twitter there was even more chatter about the essay, much of it critical. I have found the critiques of my piece, especially on Twitter, to be somewhat contradictory. Some fault me for being of the

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-05-12 19:47:00

The Navy's Knives Must Come Out

Graphic from Reuters (2019)A few weeks ago Blake Herzinger kicked up a bit of a storm when he published an essay titled “Give the U.S. Navy the Army’s Money” in Foreign Policy.[1] Herzinger's argument is not complicated: as military budgets are likely to remain flat over the next decade while the threat posed by the People's Liberation Army only grows, the time has come to divert money now being

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-05-12 19:47:00

The Navy's Knives Must Come Out

Graphic from Reuters (2019)A few weeks ago Blake Herzinger kicked up a bit of a storm when he published an essay titled “Give the U.S. Navy the Army’s Money” in Foreign Policy.[1] Herzinger's argument is not complicated: as military budgets are likely to remain flat over the next decade while the threat posed by the People's Liberation Army only grows, the time has come to divert money now being

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-05-12 00:18:00

Notes From All Over - April/May 2021

My newest "Notes From All Over"—a collection of the best essays, news items, blog posts, podcast episodes, and scientific articles that I read this month, and recommend you read as well—is now posted to Patreon. This is a recurring monthly feature in the future, though as its publication a week into May suggests, I was a bit late in compiling this month. Subscribers are welcome to go read it!

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-05-12 00:18:00

Notes From All Over - April/May 2021

My newest "Notes From All Over"—a collection of the best essays, news items, blog posts, podcast episodes, and scientific articles that I read this month, and recommend you read as well—is now posted to Patreon. This is a recurring monthly feature in the future, though as its publication a week into May suggests, I was a bit late in compiling this month. Subscribers are welcome to go read it!

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-04-24 23:18:00

The Problem of the New Right

In the world of conservative thought, intellectual energy lies with the New Right. The New Right can be found in the society of Washington wonks, Silicon Valley dissidents, New York writers, and all manner of GOP politicos.[1] Many served in the Trump administration at one level or another; all are interested in taking the popular energies unleashed by Trump and forming them into a coherent

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-04-12 16:10:00

For God and Progress: Notes On the ("Liberal") Education of Doctors in American History

William Osler, teaching at the bedside.Understanding changing perceptions of “great works”— what books are included in a canon at a given moment in history, why certain works make the cut while others fall to the wayside, and tracking down the individuals responsible for these decisions—is a hobby of mine. I have written about it many times on the Scholar's Stage. This week I came across an

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-04-01 10:16:00

Welcome to the Decade of Concern

We’re looking at that big bow wave and wondering how the heck we’re going to pay for it, and probably thanking our stars we won’t be here to have to answer the question. — Brian McKeon, Deputy Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy [2016]  The Most dangerous concern is [the use] of military force against Taiwan. My opinion is this problem is much closer to us than most think. —John Aquillo,

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-03-30 07:24:00

Notes From All Over - March 2021

My newest "Notes From All Over"—a collection of the best essays, news items, blog posts, podcast episodes, and scientific articles that I read this month, and recommend you read as well—is now posted to Patreon. This will be a recurring monthly feature in the future. Subscribers are welcome to go read it!

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-03-26 21:45:00

A Few More Notes on the Dearth of Great Works

Over the last two years I have written a few pieces on the flagging vitality of American intellectual life. This week Ross Douthat wrote up a response to these pieces. It has prompted a few thoughts. 1. In the comment thread for "Where Have All the Great Works Gone?" a common objection to the premise was raised several times: isn't the problem simply that there are now too many books? The logic

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-03-24 02:36:00

On Laws and Gods

Image Source It would take gods to give men laws. —Jean-Jacques Rousseau [1762] This is going to be one of those essays where I throw a lot of things on the wall and see what sticks. We are going to range today from the American Revolution to Cambodian spirits to hunter-gatherer conceptions of authority to the collapse of the Qin dynasty to Icelandic law disputes to Ibn Khaldun and back. Strap

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-03-06 20:18:00

Against the Kennan Sweepstakes

Image source Last month there was a minor hullabaloo about the latest entry in the "Kennan Sweepstakes," a long document published by the Atlantic Council titled "The Longer Telegram."[1]I read it three times.  I did not like it. This week Foreign Policy gave me some column space to explain why. I will note here that I did not choose the title they gave my column and am not especially pleased

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-03-04 00:40:00

All Measures Short of a Cross Straits Invasion

Much of what I have written about Taiwan defense issues assumes that the primary challenge facing Taiwanese forces and their allies is defeating (and thus deterring) a proper amphibious invasion. Two recent reports argue—convincingly, I think—that this assumption is wrong. In his testimony to Congress a few weeks ago, former DIA analyst Lonnie Henley asks Americans to ponder what happens after

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-02-27 20:57:00

Longfellow and the Decline of American Poetry

Last summer the New Yorker published an essay by James Marcus that asks the following question: why was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow so loved in his own lifetime when today he is so little read or respected? There is one very compelling answer to this that the article that does not discuss—indeed, that the article itself is an unconscious illustration of. It touches on not only Longfellow’s

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-02-26 01:19:00

The Framers and the Framed: Notes On the Slate Star Codex Controversy

Let's talk about the grand Slate Star Codex brouhaha. A lot of people have already written about this. Here is the original New York Times piece that started the controversy. [1] Against the Grey Lady we have Cathy Young, Robby Soave, Micah Meadowcroft, Matthew Yglesias, Freddie DeBoer, Scott Aaronson, Noah Smith, and Dan Drezner, as well as Scott Alexander himself. [2] The most compelling

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-02-16 22:27:00

Why Writers (and Think Tankers) Feud So Viciously

Some of the things that make "the discourse" terrible are new to social media—especially Twitter. But not all. Some other problems are very, very old. Perhaps the best guide to today's Twitter beefs was written near three centuries ago.  Listen here to one Adam Smith, theorist of moral sentiments. Our journey begins with an observation:The agreement or disagreement both of the sentiments and

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-02-03 20:44:00

Understanding Taiwanese Nationalism: A Historical Primer in Bullet Points

Noah Smith has a recent substack note discussing Taiwan. In the comments section there are a number of heated arguments over whether Taiwanese language, history, politics, and so forth are enough to justify thinking of Taiwan the way Smith does: as its own “civilization.” When reading through these debates I was struck by the need need for a succinct explanation for why the people of Taiwan

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-01-30 20:44:00

Where Have All the Great Works Gone?

A few months ago I wrote about Oswald Spengler’s attempt at comparative world history. I expressed severe reservations with Spengler’s methods and conclusions.[1] But for me the most fascinating parts of the book were the footnotes to Spengler’s main argument. Take, for example, Spengler's attempt to compare and contrast members of his chosen pantheon of “great” scientists, philosophers, and

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-01-29 22:01:00

The 2021 Scholar's Stage Readers Poll!

It is a new year and that means a new reader's poll. Every year I put one of these together to get a sense for who my readers are and what they most value here in The Scholar's Stage. This is a special poll because in a few weeks a redesigned Scholar's Stage will be launched, and this poll is your last chance to comment on what shape you would like it to take. You can access that survey here.

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-01-29 18:03:00

Bootstrapping Marx With the Peasant Masses

One of the great ironies of 20th century history: Marxist revolutionaries could only ever  seize power in the wrong countries. Marx imagined a revolution of industrial proletariat; he expected that this proletariat would at first achieve its aims in highly industrialized nations like England and Germany. His theory of socialism presupposed that a successful transition from autocratic “feudalism”

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-01-21 16:00:00

The First Failure of the Liberal Rules Based Order

“Twenty years ago it might have seemed as if Cambodia lay in a democratic slipstream. Now it seems like the dream of a half-forgotten age.” —Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia (2013) Two years ago I described Sebastian Strangio's 2013 book Hun Sen's Cambodia as one of the  best books I had read that year. A few months ago a newly revised version of the book, which brings the story up too

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-01-19 02:40:00

Assessing the Trump China Strategy: The Key Documents

Now is the proper time for the broader foreign policy community to step back and assess the successes and failures of Trump era diplomacy. There have already been a few attempts of this sort for Trump's China policy, but I find myself disappointed, if not entirely surprised, with how vapid and partisan these assessments tend to be. At some point in the near future I would like to do my own

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-01-06 19:25:00

Everything I Got Wrong in 2020

What did I get wrong in 2020? What did I change my mind about? As I have argued that the mark of a good mind is a willingness to admit mistakes and to come to terms with why one might have made them, I am now forced into the uncomfortable position of trying to live up to my own ideals. 2020 did not cause any seismic changes in my broader political philosophy. I have, however, made a few

From The Scholar's Stage at 2021-01-05 00:02:00

Every Book I Read in 2020

Every year I post a list of  every book I read the year previous, with my ten favorites bolded. You can find my past entries here (2019)  here (2018), here (2017), here (2016), here (2015), here (2014), and here (2013). As in those posts, I list the books in the approximate order in which I finished them. Some of these books I read bit by bit over several months. Others I finished the week I

From The Scholar's Stage at 2020-12-20 02:28:00

A Theory of Authoritarian Personality Cults

Mary McAuley's Soviet Politics: 1917-1991 is one of those rare works that marries concision with intellectual heft. Though only 123 pages in length, every page sparkles with insight. Though not a tour de force in the traditional sense, it manages to say something noteworthy about nearly every aspect of Soviet political history. Many of the passages have wider application than the Soviet

From The Scholar's Stage at 2020-12-15 00:25:00

Spengler and the Search for a Science of Human Culture

Several months ago I wrote a few reflections on Ross Douthat’s newest book, The Decadent Society.[1] As I noted, Douthat’s most interesting claim is that we live in an age of intellectual sterility. We cycle ever backwards to the intellectual, cultural, and political priorities of 1975. In response, I argued that complaints of cultural sterility and intellectual decline are themselves no new

From The Scholar's Stage at 2020-12-11 17:27:00

China's Attack on Australia is About America

Image sourceThe escalating crisis in Sino-Australian relations prompts a new piece.  Foreign Policy publishes my latest under the title "Biden's First Foreign Policy Crisis is Already Here." I approve of the title. Not everything is about America, and I often spend my time trying to show how the moving force behind any given international event has nothing to do with Washington. This case is

From The Scholar's Stage at 2020-12-01 04:41:00

Leninist Politics: A Reading Course

Image source This post is a reading list. It is not a list of books I recommend for I have not read them all—at least, not yet. But it might form the center kernel of a top-notch reading group. The topic: Leninist politics. The importance of understanding Leninist organization, ideology, tactics, symbolism and so forth is something many observers of Chinese politics in the Xi era have emphasized

From The Scholar's Stage at 2020-11-23 02:34:00

Why I am Bearish on Substack

The big trend in writing and journalism in the year 2020—other than the New York Times continued conquest of everything in print—is the flowering of the Substackerati.[1] Hardly a day goes by without some famous figure announcing their new hope you will become a new subscriber to a new newsletter they are writing on this new thing called Substack. This thing’s rise is a glory to behold—but a

From The Scholar's Stage at 2020-11-19 18:37:00

Do Not Choose Susan Rice

Image sourceThere is a grand tradition in American politics of bashing the other side's nominees. In the spirit of that tradition, I have a new piece out in the American Conservative that questions whether Susan Rice is fit to be the Biden administration’s nominee for Secretary of State. Rice is a controversial figure for all sorts of reasons. Most go back to her role in the Clinton

From The Scholar's Stage at 2020-11-02 15:26:00

Plagues of Hate

Samuel Cohn's Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS is true door-stop of a book, encyclopedic in ambition, coming in at a full 650 pages of prose and citations. In a new book review over at the Washington Examiner I describe the book's origins:In the summer of 2009, Samuel Cohn, historian of plague and malady, was contacted by the New York Times. A new strain of deadly

From The Scholar's Stage at 2020-10-29 04:13:00

On Life in the Shadow of the Boomers

Image source Ideology, which was once the road to action, has become a dead end. —Daniel Bell (1960)Yuval Levin's 2017 book Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism has several interesting passages inside it, but none so interesting as Levin's meditation on the generational frame that clouds the modern mind. Levin maintains that 21st century Americans