As an individual with solid Mormon ancestry on both sides, I believe that this is first book that seamlessly combines a starkly realistic and accurate account of Mormon history and militant Mormon fundamentalism. In the process, it demonstrates the relationship between the two and exposes the inevitable consequences of strongly held religious beliefs, consequences that are strewn through out history, but are here etched into dramatic relief by a religion conjured up only 170 years ago.
The previous version of this review was overtly negative, but no one likes negative reviews, so here is the new version.
First, Professor Taylor writes what is called "micro history" gathering extremely detailed data from journals, newspaper reports, official papers, etc. The presumption is that such a collection of dubious sources will somehow bounce around the truth, and, even more important, that they are statistically representative. Neither assumption is generally true. While such an approach can sometimes help to provide an rich picture of the times, it cannot be taken to provide an accurate global picture of what happened. There is value in the minutia and a richness of detail (as seen in William Couper's Town), but all too often when the global issues must be understood, one is left uncertain whether to take the minutia as representative.
In addition, the author often mixes in sweeping unreferenced statements of generality with his mix of possibly (or even probably) unrepresentative minutia. The net is that the reader is not sure what to believe. It is not that he cannot see the forest for the trees (although that is certainly the case), he cannot determine whether he is seeing a tree or the forest.
Second, Taylor ignores many of the critical historical events in pursuit of an indefensible, by any other means, thesis that the War of 1812 was "Civil". It was not. Major, if not decisive, aspects of the war did not occur on the US/Canada border, in which locations the "civil" label cannot be remotely stretched to apply. It was a war between a massive empire and the fledgling US republic. The fact that some of the participants and one part of the war were ethnically, linguistically, and racially similar does not make it a civil war. There were clear boundaries and distinct not predominantly intermixed populations and political systems. Civil wars are between peoples of the same country. That was simply not the case in the War of 1812. Taylor repeatedly asserts, without convincing evidence, that most people on the US/Canada border were not interested in the war at all, which is hardly a sign of civil discord. In short, the "civil" adjective is at best a stretch that adds novelty, but does not constitute a useful encapsulation of the historical events.
Third, in contrast to the person-by-person minutia presented about the border war whole segments of the war are largely ignored, e.g., the sea war with warships and privateer, the war in the American south, the Battle of Bladensburg, etc. One suspects that this is more due to Taylor's familiarity with the sources relating to that region than with a conscious decision of its relative importance. Basically, Taylor has written in the style of a PhD dissertation.
Forth, contrary to the claims of other reviewers, the writing is average and not economical as one would expect from well presented popular history such as written by Tuchman and Churchill.
In short, if your expectation is a history or the War of 1812, then you will be disappointed. If you are interested in a quixotic, selective and irregular presentation of the Great Lakes theater of the War of 1812 (and accept that it was in essence "civil"), then you might find this a useful, but for me the book lacked too much to be recommended.
Most of the things other reviewers have said about the book are true. It is poorly written, redundant, egoist, wandering, unfocused, and twice too long. It is also imprecise, especially statistically. It entirely ignores the Central limit theorem that tends to turn wildly non-Gaussian data into 'bell curves', and he repeatedly implies that there is something wrong with the mathematics when the error is the application of mathematical results to situations in which their assumptions are not met. There are a lot of unsupported generalizations that may not be true. He uses the words knowledge, data and information without the slightest understanding of what they actually are. Nonetheless, …
He is right about a bunch of stuff, in particular the completely irrational and erroneous way that most people process information, and he is correct that this fact dominates our world and our view of it. It is the central fact for modern human kind. The world really is as stupid as Taleb implies, which accounts for why so many people have reacted as they have to his 'narcissism' and 'arrogance'. Indeed, the reviews of the book prove Taleb’s point.
Ok, so what to say … this book is not for many of you, you won’t get it, in no small part because of the author’s bad writing, but for a few it will be an eye opener.
I have read a fair amount of modern history, and was only vaguely aware (like most Americans) of the many of Chomsky's facts and assertions. Some were so startling that I felt I needed to verify. After researching four and finding them unassailable, I stopped trying to fault the facts. The indictment of US foreign policy that Chomsky devolves from these facts is at such variance with our view of ourselves that one is inclined to look for an explanation. If the facts are not false, then perhaps the interpretation is the problem, so I examined the logic by re-reading the book with careful attention to the relationship between facts and conclusion. There are weaknesses in some place where an argument depends on ?respected commentator? or some other unsupported assertion. However, even if one throws out all of the marginal cases, he is still left with a great deal to be dealt with--a paradigm changer for the honest and open minded, and something to be reviled and suppressed for those determined to believe that Americans are the good guys who go around the world altruistically stamping out evil.
Chomsky stops short of a monolithic conspiracy theory, but the pattern of behavior of the US over the last 60 years that is painted by this book is remarkably consistent and disturbing.
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