This short book is one of Kaplan’s most personal. Kaplan has been a foreign correspondent and has written many books about the struggles of politics under the tyranny of geography in faraway places. Unlike most of his other works, “The Tragic Mind” is about himself. It is not an autobiography; instead mostly an essay about what Kaplan learned about human nature and world politics during his decades with a front row seat to humanity’s struggle.
Kaplan’s conclusion, the world is (and has always been) in a seismic struggle between two forces: order and chaos. Drawing deeply from the ancients, he identifies the Dionysiac and the Apolline. As soon as we recognize this, we must immediately begin to understand that the world really is one large Greek Tragedy. Not a catastrophe (we mis-diagnose what a tragedy is). A tragedy is the realization that the world is imperfect, that there are no heroes and villains, just people trying to do the best they can for the interests they are trying to preserve, and that Dionysus is waiting around every turn. Or to put it simply, to walk humbly because the “unknown unknowns” are many and every decision we make can unleash the chaos which might consume us.
“While civilization is the culmination of our struggle to realize our humanity and to rid ourselves of our propensity for violence and the iron grip of fate, we can only achieve this by never losing sight of our origins. But that is only possible by deliberately cultivating insecurity, whose broad basis is a respect for chaos: something impossible unless one thinks tragically.”
This book is about danger, the danger for the United States and the world as the wealthiest, most protected, most isolated generation that ever existed – who know no wars or no depressions or any real danger product of battle – saunter onto the world stage with only opinions and prejudices and without any sense of the tragic that their actions might evoke. I know exactly what Kaplan is talking about here; while he huddled in trenches as a correspondent, I spent more than 20 years in dangerous places running programs against Hugo Chavez and ISIS and Putin. I went out, early on, copy of Natan Sharansky’s “Case for Democracy” under my arm, convinced my struggle was “Freedom against Tyranny” AND I WAS THE GOOD GUY!! That didn’t last, as I came to understand that the danger was not a mismanaged election but the “Arriving Ordeal” as I saw it in West Africa, Kaplan’s Dionysus present everywhere and rapidly advancing.
The preservation of order – we in the US Government called it “Stabilization”.
Kaplan wrote about the coming anarchy in his books, and they touched a chord with me. Because, having been around the world and had my teams attacked by terrorists, people I knew killed or died, hunkered in place with my 3 year old while bullets flew – I know the fear Kaplan honestly talks about; I know what disorder looks like. I also wrote about it, mostly in novels where the main characters were somehow always the bad guys. Not anti-heroes, nor villains, but victims of the chaos and responding in the only way they were able. Because that is something that is also true, that Kaplan doesn’t talk too much about, but the chaos comes because options are so very limited for the poor in the world. We in the US see democracy as about choices – choices for everything: what I should wear or watch or play with, even now to the bizarre ‘hmm what gender am I today?’ (which itself is Dionysian in the most profound, Nietzschean sense).
At the end of Val Kilmer’s rendition of “Island of Dr. Moreau”, David Thewlis channels H.G. Wells, “…and those times I look around me at my fellow man and I am reminded of some likeness of the beast people, and I feel as though the animal is surging up in them, and they are neither wholly animal or wholly man but an unstable combination of both, as unstable as anything Moreau created, and I go in fear.”
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