Erica Benner, W.W. Norton & Company, 384 pp., $27.95, May 2017
Imagine you wish to confront a prince — a man who calls himself a citizen but acts as first among equals, who would undermine the state to enrich himself, who would promote his friends at the expense of the most qualified, and who would weaken civic institutions. What would you do?
If you’re Niccolò Machiavelli, weaned on republicanism and the radical notion that sovereignty resides with the people, you might take up your pen and seek to expose him. The prince will meet The Prince.
Benner’s eminently readable book serves as an introduction to Machiavelli and offers plenty of fresh insight even for those sure they know him and his work. Like Machiavelli’s own writings, Benner’s is a meditation on the virtues and flaws of various forms of government and ambitious men who will rule at will unless checked by institutions or other equally ambitious men.
And it holds a lesson worth remembering for princes and those that would dethrone them: The Princeworks not only because the author understood his subject, but because he understood his cause. — Emily Tamkin
Ian Johnson, Pantheon, 480 pp., $30.00, April 2017
When communism fails, what is left to believe in?
For 300 million Chinese (and counting), the answer they’ve found is religion. In his new book, Ian Johnson explores how millions of Chinese are turning back to Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity as a balm to the moral vacuum left by the death of a totalitarian ideology, and by the resulting triumph of an unbridled capitalism that has turned Chinese metropolises into a brutal wild-west brawl over profit at any cost.
The Marxist-inspired atheism or religious indifference of the 1960s and 1970s is no more. In cities and villages across the country, everyday people are reviving traditional pilgrimages and holidays, or making up new ones. Temples and churches are popping up. Worshippers are donating their newfound wealth.
Perhaps most astonishing, however, is that state-sponsored atheism is giving way to state-sponsored religion. Chinese President Xi Jinping has sought to revive the pride – and the moral boundaries – afforded by Confucian and Buddhist traditions, which themselves provided the underpinning for centuries of social cohesion in imperial China. This is a China we can recognize: Authorities are hoping to curtail the independent-minded social forces unleashed by religion. In addition to capitalism with Chinese characteristics, they hope to create a Christianity with Chinese characteristics — meaning a Christianity that serves the purposes of the Chinese Communist Party.
But for all his talk of religious revival and the government’s hand in co-opting it, Johnson largely overlooks the most extreme example — China’s Muslims.
In recent years, Chinese authorities have increasingly viewed this small but visible minority in starkly black and white terms –good Muslims versus bad ones. To promote a state-friendly version of Islam, authorities have enacted draconian restrictions in the country’s heavily Muslim northwest, dictating who can pray, who can fast, what they wear, and even what they name their children.
This otherwise peerless book would have benefitted from Johnson lending his storytelling prowess to examining this complex group — and the massive government efforts spent to shape it to its own purposes. — Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian
Déjà vu All Over Again
It’s not just new releases that speak to what is going on today: Older titles often shed as much light on what’s happening now as what happened then. This section will reach back to the dusty shelves to highlight easily-available older books that have suddenly become new again.
Barbara Tuchman, Ballantine Books, 1958, 1994
Throughout ’15, ’16, and into ’17, a foreign power went to jaw-dropping lengths to meddle in U.S. policy, stir up trouble at home, and especially to shape the country’s attitude toward Europe.
And most telling of all, when the U.S government finally secured proof positive of foreign interference — provided, helpfully, by self-interested spies in Britain — plenty of lawmakers were happy to carry water for a hostile foreign power rather than support for a second the international, Atlanticist outlook of the Eastern establishment.
Written like a thriller, The Zimmerman Telegram tells the story of Germany’s efforts to keep America out of the First World War by embroiling it in a war with revolutionary Mexico — and if possible, with Japan, too. The smoking gun, which eventually pushed Woodrow “He Kept Us Out of War” Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war, was a coded telegram sent in early 1917 by Germany’s foreign minister prodding Mexico to declare war on the United States to regain its lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. British spies read the telegram in disbelief — and just needed a way to get it to Washington without any British fingerprints, lest the codebreaking operations in top-secret Room 40 become known in Berlin.
Coming just as Germany renewed unrestricted submarine warfare, a red line for the Wilson administration, Germany’s clumsy attempts to keep America out of the war eventually ensured it would come in. It serves as a timely reminder that foreign interference in Washington is hardly new, and that such antics paralyzed governments then as now — as well as of the perennial divides between America’s isolationist leanings and the lure of involvement in the wider world. — Keith Johnson