'Atlantic' not entirely convincing in prediction of coming anarchy

MAGAZINES

February 13, 1994|By Mark Feeney | Mark Feeney,Boston Globe

In 1938, Wallace Stevens wrote a poem called "Connoisseur of Chaos." With his cover story in the current Atlantic Monthly (February) on "The Coming Anarchy," Robert D. Kaplan could claim Stevens' title as a job description. He envisions a 21st century in which "environmental scarcity, cultural and racial clash, geographic destiny and the transformation of war" combine to make the planet awful in the extreme. He bases this on years of reporting the world over and the work of thinkers in each of the fields touched upon in the above-quoted list. His article makes for rewarding, provocative, but not altogether persuasive reading.

Mr. Kaplan notes of the 17th century, "People were suddenly flush with an enthusiasm to categorize, to define." Well, not just then, either. That same enthusiasm would seem to underlie his own efforts: Mr. Kaplan proffers a unified-field theory of disunity. His view of global-disorder-here-we-come is as frightening as the free-marketeer view of global-economy-here-we-come is reassuring. The important point is that they mirror each other.

The glue holding the positive one together is statistical. Mr. Kaplan's glue is empirical. That would seem to be in his favor -- except that when you're writing about a whole planet, there is something to be said for studying forest management rather than scrutinizing (however skillfully) a series of trees. Reporters like to think that their operative principle is "Because it matters, I see it"; too often, a more accurate statement would be "I see it, therefore it matters." At one point, Mr. Kaplan writes of the massive new Ataturk Dam in Turkey, "The emerging power of the Turks was palpable."

As he describes the dam, one does not doubt that palpability -- for someone there. To someone looking at a statistical abstract of Istanbul, that emerging power might not -- nor should it? -- seem so palpable. This may be the foremost limitation of on-the-ground knowledge. Marry that limitation to Mr. Kaplan's otherwise commendable system-making ambitions, and things begin to look a little too neat. As Stevens wrote in his poem, "A great disorder is an order," too. Mr. Kaplan has written what is likely to be one of this year's more-talked-about stories, but his pillars of salt might best be taken with a grain or two of same.*

Writing about the novelist Ignazio Silone, Irving Howe once suggested that "heroism is a condition of readiness, a talent for waiting, a gift for stubbornness." Howe died last year, but what may be his most significant legacy, the quarterly Dissent, lives on. This year it celebrates its 40th anniversary. As the foremost organ of democratic socialism in a doggedly capitalist society, it has had to demonstrate all those qualities of Silonean heroism Howe enumerated. The winter issue demonstrates both the consistent virtues of Dissent (high seriousness, unfailing decency, topical variousness) and the consistent failings (grayness, marginality, a sense of unreality). Either way, it has been and remains a necessary and valuable part of serious discourse in the country.

*

What Dissent is to democratic socialism, the Washington Monthly (January/February) is to Democratic neo-liberalism. This year it celebrates its 25th anniversary. Observing the occasion in typical Monthly fashion, it has a section on "My Favorite Reform." An ability to spice policy wonkery with a certain antic disposition has propelled the magazine for a quarter century -- that, and a steady commitment to stating obvious truths that would otherwise go unsaid. Take Nick Lemann's observation elsewhere this issue that "Reporters and editors ought to be ashamed of themselves for knowing so little about the consequences of the [political] campaigns whose consequentiality they're always reminding us of." Unlike politics, public institutions do not make for good copy -- but it's public institutions that affect people's lives. So guess which get slavered over by newspapers -- like, ahem, this one -- and which get ignored?

*

Bringing David Remnick over from the Washington Post may be the single best thing Tina Brown's done at the New Yorker. His profile of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Feb. 14) is at once deeply moving and revelatory. . . . Elizabeth Hardwick isn't at the top of her game in the New York Review of Books (Feb. 17) writing about the Menendez trial -- but seeing as how she is among our very finest writers, the middle of her game has much to recommend it.

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