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Reflections on Ian Morris' Book About the West and China

By       Message Thomas Farrell       (Page 1 of 8 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   3 comments

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) December 13, 2010: With the ominous-sounding caption "The Final Conflict," the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW dated December 12, 2010, belatedly ran a review of Ian Morris' book WHY THE WEST RULES -" FOR NOW: THE PATTERNS OF HISTORY, AND WHAT THEY REVEAL ABOUT THE FUTURE, which was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on October 12th. But a speech writer for John F. Kennedy might have supplied the more vigorous caption "The New Frontier" to draw attention to this important book regarding the West and China.

Ian Morris (born 1960) is a Cambridge-University-educated historian, classicist, and archeologist who now teaches at Stanford University. His ambitious 750-page book is chock full of fascinating details. As is well known, it used to be said that the sun never set on the British empire of old. However, even though the sun has more recently set on the old British empire, educated English chaps have continued to take a big-picture view of the world, as Morris does in his book.

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In any event, what a remarkably candid title Morris has given his book, WHY THE WEST RULES -" FOR NOW. When Diane Sawyer of ABC News recently visited China, she learned that there are more people in China today who speak English than there are in the United States. Hey, if millions of Chinese have learned English, isn't that a kind of cultural flattery of the West? As a result, Ian Morris' book could become a best-seller in China. Not that the Chinese today need any encouragement from Ian Morris.

However, many Americans today may need his encouragement to shift their attention away from murderous Islamist terrorists and away from Iran and away from North Korea and away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to pay attention to China today.

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In her reports from China, Diane Sawyer gamely said, "Game on!"

However, from the title of Ian Morris' book, it doesn't sound like he would bet on the West in the game against China. So perhaps that caption in the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW is best understood to mean "The Final Conflict [for the West]," not the end of all conflict in history. But as the understandably handicapped West fights the good fight against the underdog challenger China, when and how will the final conflict for the West occur that will then allow China to emerge as dominant and rule the world as the West rules today? We'll see.

Because of the West's enormous economic wealth today, we can liken the West today to Troy in the Homeric epic the ILIAD, but Troy writ large as it were. China today is like Achilles, Ian Morris is in effect suggesting. When I taught the ILIAD, I used to tell the students that the point of the story of Achilles is that if you are as rich as Troy, you had better have a big defense budget, so that you can defend your Troy against Achilles. Despite the obvious warning about an Achilles-like warrior, ancient Athens did indeed fall to a warrior who deeply admired Achilles as a role model, Alexander the Great. Will China one day defeat the United States as Alexander defeated Athens?

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On those occasions when I taught both the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY in one course, I used to tell the students that the two Homeric epics offer us two metaphorical ways to approach life: We can understand the ILIAD as suggesting that life is like a never-ending war (Greek, "polemos" means war, struggle), and we can understand the ODYSSEY as suggesting that life is like a never-ending contest (Greek, "agon" means contest, struggle). The ancient Greeks who grew up listening to the Homeric epics were a remarkably contest-oriented people. They held annual athletic contests, including the Olympics once every four years. In Athens, they even held contests among tragedians and gave a prize for the best tragedy in each round of contests.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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