What Were They Thinking?

By Rachel Hartigan Shea,
deputy editor of Book World
Tuesday, December 4, 2007


All the Movements, Ideologies, and Doctrines That Have Shaped Our World

By Arthur Goldwag

Vintage. 388 pp. Paperback, $14.95

Why are we in Iraq? Interventionism.

Why is Turkey so worried about an independent Kurdistan? Fear of irredentism.

Why does the United States stride across the world with its spurs a-janglin'? Rugged individualism.

Why is Western civilization on the verge of collapse? Spenglerism.

With the right 'isms, foreign policy is easy.

But as Arthur Goldwag points out in his dryly witty " 'Isms and 'Ologies," an abbreviated encyclopedia of the thoughts and theories that shape how we think, " 'isms too often substitute for ideas or analysis; they are as likely to obfuscate as illuminate." (Irredentism, by the way, is the movement to unite ethnic groups across national boundaries. Spenglerism is Oswald Spengler's theory that civilizations go through "cycles of growth, maturation, decay, and death"; he found Western civilizations to be "in their decadent phase" by the time he published the second volume of his "Decline of the West" in 1920.)

"Human character and culture are complex and often irrational and contradictory," Goldwag writes in the introduction. " 'Isms are just one of the many tools that we use when we try to get a handle on ourselves." Broken down into sections -- Politics & History, Philosophy & the Arts, Science, Economics, Religion, Sexual Perversions, and Eponyms, Laws, Foreign Words -- " 'Isms and 'Ologies" deftly defines each term, often by going to the source. For instance, Goldwag turns to Mussolini for a chilling explanation of totalitarianism, a word the dictator coined to describe Fascism in Italy: "All within the state, none outside the state, none against the state."

Like totalitarianism, many of the words here are familiar, but not ones most of us would care to explain to a room full of people. Take antidisestablishmentarianism. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it's not the longest non-technical word. That honor goes to floccinaucinihilipilification (which sails through spell-check). Nor, much to my surprise, does it have anything to do with hippies rejecting the establishment. (Go ahead. Laugh.) Antidisestablishmentarianism is the name for 19th-century opposition to British Prime Minister W.E. Gladstone's successful move to revoke, or "disestablish," the Church of Ireland's official status as the state religion, thereby exempting Irish Catholics from having to tithe to two churches. (Admit it: You didn't know that either.)

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