50 People who Stuffed Up the World, by Alexander Parker and Tim Richman, illustrated by Zapiro (Burnet Media)
I assumed, driven partly by the “stuffed up” in the title, that this was a bit of a comic book, an amusing take on famous baddies.
Well, apart from Zapiro’s illustrations, there’s not much that’s amusing about it. In fact it leaves you feeling downright depressed. I hadn’t intended to sit down and read it through, though – between books I decided to pick it up and read a chapter here and there. And I was hooked.
I have since read it from cover to cover, omitting only the chapter on Josef Mengele, because I really don’t want to know more about him than I already do, which is not much but is enough.
I parachuted in, starting gently with Justin Bieber, who really turns out to be a bit of a pillock. Next came the chapter on Tony Blair, which was very good, and then I went back to the beginning and read about Idi Amin, whose reign of terror in Uganda I remember. The subjects are in alphabetical order, so that bin Laden, Blair and Bush are conveniently close to each other, separated only by one Ritt Bjerregaard, the European bureaucrat behind what was apparently an environmentally disastrous push for diesel cars.
Obviously we are familiar with most of the subjects featured – they range from Idi Amin to Mark Zuckerberg – but there are people I’ve never heard of, like Bjerregaard, who it seems has a lot to answer for, and there is a great deal of interesting background material on the familiar ones.
Of George W Bush, for example, we learn his father, the first President George Bush, was a true blue war hero, becoming the US Navy’s youngest aviator at 19 and flying 58 combat missions against Japan during World War 2. In contrast Dubya avoided the draft to Vietnam by joining the Texas Air National Guard in 1968, in which, apparently, “his finest military achievement, many believe, was being honourably discharged”.
The authors say that out of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we have the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). “… this was brute evil in its most visceral form – and the Bush administration was directly responsible for its emergence”.
The long-lasting and often unintended consequences of actions is a recurring theme. Gavrilo Princip is the classic example, the 20-year-old Bosnian Serb activist whose shooting of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 led pretty directly to the outbreak of World War I three months later.
The war saw the deaths of around 15 million people. Four empires collapsed, Europe was left devastated, and “out of World War I came yet more destruction, not least its rematch in 1939”. Obviously Princip did not intend this, but as the authors say, history is a long tale of cause and effect.
The chapter on Cecil John Rhodes and another on former South African prime ministers DF Malan and Hendrik Verwoerd, make this point. Malan died in 1959, Verwoerd in 1966, but the authors point out: “Today (in South Africa) in 2017,… where you are born, where you go to school, what you learn, what employment you might enjoy, whom you marry, where you live and ultimately how long you live and what eventually kills you were, on average, decided by Malan and Verwoerd in the 1950s and 1960s.”
Knowing a bit about history is crucial if we are to survive in this world. History teaches us what works in practice as opposed to what sounds nice in theory, such as communism. “And so a new generation reaches voting age and encounters what seems like a fresh new concept, socialism – which is, of course, an old and thoroughly debunked one.”
If asked to come up with horrors of our time, give or take a century or two, most of us would suggest the Holocaust, believed to have seen the deaths of six million people, and perhaps the Irish famine, in which around one million people died. And of course there was Stalin, he killed a lot of people, didn’t he?
Well, he did. Between 1929 and 1933, from three to 10 million people died in the famine that followed the introduction of collectivised farming (while the Soviet Union was actually exporting grain). The authors say Stalin is generally held responsible for the deaths of somewhere around 20 million people, two thirds or so of those from murder, the rest “from criminal, often intentional neglect”.
Cambodia’s Pol Pot regime is thought to be responsible for about 1.7 million deaths – out of a population of seven million. The rule of King Leopold II of Belgium may have been seen the deaths of “anywhere between one and 15 million” in the Congo, and Idi Amin’s death toll was nothing in comparison, around 300 000.
They are all comprehensively outmurdered by Mao Zedong, who “killed more people than anyone else in history”, possibly as many as 70 million, around 30 million of them starving in a great famine between 1958 and 1962.(People of a certain age will remember being told to eat up their supper, think of the starving children in China).
This is, as you can tell, a sobering book. But there is a touch of light relief. Compared with the above, Clinton and his cigar, Maradona and his “hand of God”, Thomas Midgely (the engineer and chemist who gave us chlorfluorocarbons – CFCs – and introduced lead into petrol), and the “women’s glossy magazine editor” don’t seem so terrible at all.
Other subjects include Lance Armstrong, Maggie Thatcher, Robert Oppenheimer (the man who gave us the atomic bomb), Twitter’s inventor Jack Dorsey, Kim Kardashian and oh, of course, Donald Trump. Napoleon is an inexplicable omission.
“… Trump is a cartoon jackass, a Simpsons character made worse by the fact that he’s actually been a Simpsons character.” (In a 2000 episode, Bart to the Future, Lisa Simpson succeeds Trump as president after he has bankrupted America.) Trump has never appeared on Keeping up with the Kardashians, but Kim Kardashian has appeared on The Apprentice.
“Still, let us try to remain upbeat,” write Alexander Parker and Tim Richman of Trump. “If Trump can bring about some good as leader of the United States, we would like to think that it may be as the corrective needed for those on both sides (of the American divide) to right their respective ships – to realise that if they carry on in this way then next time there’s an election they may just find Kim Kardashian as president.”
You might not agree with all Parker and Richman’s conclusions, but this book provides a great deal to think about.
- This review appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on January 21, 2018.