Dancing is a story about writing a story, much as Vonnegut's Timequake is a novel about writing another novel. Stearns uses a lucid, fluid prose to capture both of these tales.

The inner story is composed of the most retching tragedies, pseudoimages of the forgotten sections of nightmares that mercifully flee between unconsciousness and morning. This inner story has been told in many forms — live on international television, in glossy magazine photos, and one-on-one interviews with phantoms and victims and superimpositions therein. The inner story recounts the Rwandan genocide, the failure of international intervention to stop more suffering, and the ceaseless violence that followed for a decade afterward in the Congo.

Rarely does a book present the outer story, the systems and structures that allowed for the narrative to be written. In Dancing, Stearns doggedly pursues these greater, less-human actors to understand the deeply complex causes underlying a decade of suffering. Beginning with the genocide in Rwanda, Stearns traces the causes of ethnic tension in the region to the Belgian colonization that elevated the Tutsi ethic group into administrative and management positions, subjugating the Hutu majority population even more severely. Through several wars and poorly bounded conflicts, Stearns follows this tension through nineteenth century Tutsi migrations into the Congo, ensuing territorial struggles, and eventually to the Hutu genocide of Tutsi Rwandans that triggered a mass migration of Tutsi into the Congo.

The refugee crisis alone might explain the initiation of the first Congolese war, in which the Mobutu regime in Zaire fell to an invasion by nearly all the regional powers. Nonetheless, it is insufficient to explain why the Congo collapsed so completely despite its size and material wealth to smaller, often materially poorer powers. Likewise, the refugee crisis cannot reasonably be described as the causal agent that lead to the failure of multiple successive Congolese regimes

Stearns spends the majority of Dancing attempting to fill the gaps in the common argument that pins the troubles of the Congo on the troubles of the Rwandan genocide. Much of his diagnosis focuses on the failure of Congolese institutions, rather than personal actors, beginning with the Belgian occupation. It is difficult to imagine a territory and a people more deprived of institutional agency than the Congolese during the initial colonial period in which the territory was the personal property (!) of the Belgian king Leopold.

After independence, the Mobutu regime is enabled to persist while the physical infrastructure of the nation decays based on support from Western powers fearful of socialist uprisings in the region. Mobutu took advantage of these resources to construct weak, competing institutions in the military and civil service such that none would gain the power to overthrow him. Mobutu is then a case study in how authoritarianism can involve rapid phase transitions — only a small amount of activation energy, in the form of resources dedicated to the executive, is necessary to promote a broad collapse in state capacity.

This legacy of a weak state is inherited by the Kabila regime installed by the Rwandan, Ugandan, and Angolan coalition during the first Congolese war. Once the state had fallen into a pathological condition, the pathology proved to be self-reinforcing, helping incentivize a former socialist revolutionary to pursue a path of graft and collusion with amateur resource extractors to squander a wealth of natural resources in exchange for relatively modest, short-term liquidity.

The lack of state institutions leaves a power vacuum in Congolese society, such that ethnic demography is the only strong organizing principle for a nation of millions. Society then polarizes around these ethnic divides — however weak the distinctions may be between categories — promoting the rapid outbreak of violence and counter-violence among groups when resources become scarce. Even as the first Kabila regime is replaced by the second, these ethic polarities remain the strongest source of group cohesion and identity.

Stearns' greatest triumph in Dancing is to allow a Western audience to empathize with the Congolese as equals, rather than subjects of pity. By tracing the ultimate source of conflict to a failure of nation building, rather than a failure of individual or democratic political choices, the reader is able to recognize that the Congolese were faced with impossible choices, time and again, and doing more than anyone could be asked to build their lives despite the circumstances.

Stearns makes obvious the fact that any Western reader in the same position would have no inherent ability to overcome the situation that the Congolese lack — they instead would suffer from the same institutional failures, and be forced to select from the same set of poor options. In this way, Dancing was ironically one of the most humanist histories I have encountered, despite it's minimal focus on the individual.

Pair with: Why We're Polarized by Ezra Klein for a focus on the how the modern failure of US institutions can lead to similar pathologies in a nation that has otherwise enjoyed long-term stability.

Why We're Polarized