The Author’s Corner with Strother Roberts

StrotherStrother Roberts is Assistant Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. This interview is based on his book Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy: Transforming Nature in Early New England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019)

JF: What led you to write Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: As an undergrad I double-majored in economics along with history. The melding of these two disciplines has influenced my research over the years and, in particular, helped spark my interest in environmental history as a sub-field. Economics, at its heart, considers how societies allocate scarce resources. Environmental history similarly studies how past human societies have grappled with the challenges of scarce natural resources, but within the social, cultural, and historical context that is all too often absent from purely economic models. Economics also has a very explicit focus on the power of trade. A number of excellent scholars before me have written about the environmental history of New England, but I often found their work too insular. In the United States today we are used to thinking of ourselves as living in a globalized world. We are less likely to appreciate the fact that the indigenous and European inhabitants of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America were also experiencing the influences of relatively rapid globalization. I wrote Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy to tie the ecological changes that settler societies introduced into New England to the transatlantic commercial and political forces that drove them.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: Colonial New England was an integral part of England/Britain’s imperial commercial empire and everyone from imperial planners to its earliest settlers fully expected colonization to contribute exports to the imperial economy and the larger Atlantic World of which it was a part. Colonists and indigenous communities responded to the incentives offered by transatlantic markets to selectively extract resources from the region’s environment and in the process transformed New England’s physical and political landscape to the point that, by 1790, both would have been unrecognizable to an observer living two centuries earlier.

JF: Why do we need to read Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: The book takes a number of disparate threads from the contemporary historiography of early America and weaves them together into a coherent pattern – while also introducing significant new insights along the way. As I mentioned in my response to your first question, other scholars have done excellent research on the environmental history of New England, but the most influential studies are from the 1980s (and are becoming a bit dated) while even more recent works have tended to be rather insular in their focus. By contrast, most of the rest of the field of early American history stresses the interconnectedness of “the Atlantic World” or self-consciously situates the individual colonies or regions within a #VastEarlyAmerica. One manifestation of this trend has been the proliferation of so-called commodity histories, histories that trace the life of individual commodities from their site of production – usually in the colonies of America – through their processing and marketing, and eventually into the hands of their final owners – usually in Europe or colonial urban centers. Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy combines this new interest in commodity exchange networks and weds it to older discussions of environmental change, to show how the colonial ecology of New England was inextricably tied to the broader transatlantic economy beyond its shores.

The book also cuts through the decades-old argument over whether New England’s economic development was driven by domestic production and demand or by trade with Europe and other colonial regions. A similar argument over whether the consumer revolution and industrial revolution were the result of domestic economic forces or whether they were driven by overseas colonialism has long plagued British history. The best histories, in my opinion, recognize that these are false dichotomies. For instance, the New England farmer who felled an oak to make barrel staves and then sold them to a local merchant likely did not know or care whether those staves were ultimately fated to hold locally-milled flour that would never leave his township, or whether they would be traded to the West Indies to hold slave-grown sugar on a sea-voyage to London. Settlers, from the very first colonists up to the citizens of the early Republic, fully expected to participate in an interconnected system of local, regional, and transatlantic markets. The indigenous inhabitants of New England, too, contributed commodities to these markets, either as the eager consumers of novel European goods and weapons or, increasingly in later decades, as a result of the violent and/or legal coercion exercised by the region’s increasingly hegemonic Anglo-American society. Much of this participation in colonial and Atlantic markets, at whatever level, necessarily rested on the extraction of resources from the regional environment, and each act of extraction had a physical impact on that environment.

Previous environmental histories of New England have failed to appreciate just how profound these physical changes were, or how early they began. In fact, I even surprised myself with some of what I discovered. Take the fur trade, for instance. Gripped by the “Little Ice Age” and facing the depletion of furbearer populations in Europe and eastern Asia, European consumers purchased a tremendous number of furs – most notably beaver pelts – from North America over the course of the early modern period. Native American hunters in New England gladly embraced the trade as a source of European tools, weapons, and cloth, sacrificing tens-of-thousands of beaver for use in European cold-weather fashion. The result was the extirpation of beaver from much of New England by the 1670s and the drainage of hundreds-of-thousands of ponds and wetlands – formerly maintained by beaver dams – by the turn of the seventeenth century. While other scholars have argued that significant ecological change did not come to New England until the supposed advent of commercial farming at the turn of the nineteenth century, my work shows that New Englanders were always commercially-oriented and that profound change began much earlier. In fact, my work on the fur trade suggests large swathes of the New England landscape had been profoundly altered by transatlantic trade before any European ever laid eyes on  its “natural” (or, at least, pre-European encounter) state.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SR: That depends on what you mean by “American” historian – my Master’s thesis and my early work in my PhD program focused on First Nations history in Canada. But as I began to consider possible dissertation topics, my PhD advisor pragmatically suggested that a more southerly focus would serve me better with publishers and on the U.S. job market. Since I was most interested in the processes of North American history – the meeting and clashing of indigenous and settler societies and the subsequent formation of new systems and economies that came out of those transatlantic encounters – I shifted my attention to the source-rich and historiographically-storied archives of New England. Both Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Ecology and my next project are defined, at least partially, by the geography of New England (and specifically by the Connecticut River Valley in the case of Colonial Ecology). At the same time, though, I have never wanted to be limited by this geography, which is why the book focuses so much attention on how connections to different parts of North America (and Europe) influenced New England’s environmental history.

JF: What is your next project?

SR: My next book project is an environmental and social history of dogs in the indigenous and Euro-American societies of early New England and New France – which means I get a chance to return to Canadian history. The Cliff’s Notes version so far  is that dogs were essential to indigenous economies as hunting partners and sources of meat, that English settlers intentionally persecuted indigenous dogs as a way to weaken Native American societies to the degree that they were extirpated and replaced by dogs of European descent, that European settlers also relied on dogs for economic purposes and as weapons of war, and that the ecological success of introduced dogs eventually led Euro-American societies to implement policies to control their populations. Today, dogs are the most populous large, non-human, omnivorous predator in the world. Now, that last sentence contains a lot of qualifiers, but it essentially means that once you start looking at things bigger that bugs, rats, and chickens – it’s just dogs and us as the most numerous meat-eaters out there. This was certainly true of the indigenous dogs that inhabited the northeast prior to 1600.  A conservative estimate would suggest that the region was home to at least twice as many dogs as it was wild wolves, while some sources suggest that this ratio would have been far higher. Early English records suggest that introduced colonial dogs were just as numerous as their indigenous cousins were. And yet, I can’t think of a single environmental history that seriously considers the effect that dogs had on the natural environment prior to the nineteenth century. And even those tend to focus on urban environments. Dogs were humanity’s first domesticated partners and the only form of livestock kept by New England’s Indians. They played important roles in the economies and societies on both sides of the European conquest of New England, and, in an important cultural sense, helped define how all of the cultures involved understood what it meant to be human. It is, in my opinion, high time that someone wrote a dogs’ history of early America.

JF: Thanks Strother!

Why So Few Baptists in the Global South?

Mozambique_baptism1

Christianity is booming in the so-called Global South.  Over at The Christian Century, Baylor University historian Philip Jenkins wonders why Baptists do not seem part of this great revival.

Here is a taste:

The relative global numbers are counterintuitive for Americans, who naturally re­gard Baptists as a very significant part of the Christian spectrum. Outside the United States, though, Baptists are quite a marginal presence. Africa’s 10 million Baptists are a tiny proportion of a continental Christian total ap­proaching half a billion. Out of Brazil’s 45 million Protes­tants, just 2 million are Baptists.

That continuing distribution of believers between Global North and South is ironic given Baptists’ fervent commitment to foreign missions and the achievement of so many legendary evangelists and teachers. In some areas, especially in India and South Asia, Baptist missionary advances have been very marked. And mere numbers say nothing about the nature of faith or the quality of practice. Global South Baptists have played key roles in political life, and especially in education. Even so, the fact remains: Baptists differ from virtually all other Christian traditions in that newer churches are nowhere near matching or overtaking their northern world counterparts.

Part of the explanation lies in the fact that the United States has not had colonial or imperial ties to Africa, which meant that Baptists could not share the successes of British-based churches like Angli­cans, Meth­­odists, or Pres­by­terians or of French or Bel­gian Cath­olics. Baptists had some Afri­can presence, and pastor John Chilembwe be­came a hero of nationalist resistance in his native Mala­wi, but numbers were never large. Because Baptists never developed a serious foothold in Africa, they were in no position to benefit from the huge demographic expansion that has been a principal driver of church growth over the past half century. Nor could they compete with the enormously successful Pentecostal churches. Baptists were left without a potential niche in the market for souls.

Read the entire piece here.

 

A Form of Populism I Can Believe In

Springsteen Obama

Damon Linker nails it in his regular column at The Week.

Here is a taste:

The global elite think they’re sitting pretty. How wrong they are.

Democrats keep telling themselves that Hillary Clinton “really” won the 2016 election (or would have, had it not been for interference by Vladimir Putin and James Comey). Republicans keep patting themselves on the back about how much power they now wield at all levels of government. And centrists throughout the West are breathing a sigh of relief about Emmanuel Macron’s likely victory over the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential election on May 7.

You can almost hear the sentiments echoing down the corridors of (political and economic) power on both sides of the Atlantic: “There’s nothing to worry about. Everything’s fine. No need for serious soul searching or changes of direction. Sure, populism’s a nuisance. But we’re keeping it at bay. We just need to stay the course, fiddle around the edges a little bit, and certainly not give an inch to the racists and xenophobes who keep making trouble. We know how the world works, and we can handle the necessary fine tuning of the meritocracy. We got this.”

And why wouldn’t they think this way? They are themselves the greatest beneficiaries of the global meritocracy — and that very fact serves to validate its worth. They live in or near urban centers that are booming with jobs in tech, finance, media, and other fields that draw on the expertise they acquired in their educations at the greatest universities in the world. They work hard and are rewarded with high salaries, frequent travel, nice cars, and cutting-edge gadgets. It’s fun, anxious, thrilling — an intoxicating mix of brutal asceticism and ecstatic hedonism.

The problem is that growing numbers of people — here in America, in the U.K., in France, and beyond — don’t see it like this at all. Or rather, they only see it from the outside, a position from which it looks very different. What they see is a system that is fundamentally unjust, rigged, and shot through with corruption and self-dealing.

They see Marissa Meyer, the CEO of Yahoo, taking home a cool $186 million in stock (on top of many millions in additional salary and bonuses) for five years of “largely unsuccessful” work.

They see Henrique De Castro, who worked briefly for Meyer at Yahoo, pulling $109 million in compensation for a disastrous 15 months on the job.

They see Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly getting fired from Fox News for sexually harassing a parade of women over the years — and taking home tens of millions of dollars each in severance.

They see former Democratic President Barack Obama sharing a $65 million book advance with his wife, earning $400,000 for a single speech scheduled to be delivered in the fall at investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald, and gallivanting around the globe with David Geffen, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, and Bono.

In Washington, they see a president who promised to act as the people’s voice appointing a long list of millionaires and billionaires to top positions. They see the White House and Congress struggling to pass a health-care bill that will leave millions more without insurance coverage at a time when a majority of Americans and a plurality of Republicans favor a single-payer system that would cover all. They see a president proposing to drastically cut corporate and individual taxes (including the elimination of inheritance taxes, which will benefit only the richest of the rich) when polls show that the top frustration with the tax system is that corporations and the wealthy don’t pay their fair share. They see a unified push to cut government programs at a moment when polls show a growing share of the public prefers bigger government.

And yes, I am willing to criticize Springsteen and Obama here.

At the same time, the populist critique of the global elite must be an educated critique. Such a critique is no excuse for ignorance or a fundamental misunderstanding of the kinds of questions raised by the humanities about how to live together in a democratic society.  Give Archie Bunker a book–preferably a history book! 🙂

The Grief of Staying Home

Boonton

Andrew Sullivan reflects on place and rootedness in an age of globalization:

I’ve always been unusually attached to places. It’s one reason I still call myself a conservative. Travel doesn’t attract me. I’ve now lived in the same loft in D.C. since I bought it, in 1991 (apart from an ill-fated year and a half in New York City); I’ve spent 20 consecutive summers in the same little town at the end of Cape Cod, and have no desire to go anyplace else. Even when I go home to England, I tend to spend around half my time near where I grew up.

I wouldn’t go so far as Malcolm Muggeridge, who famously said: “Travel, of course, narrows the mind.” (Don’t you love that “of course”?) But I would say that the reverse can also be true. Staying put allows you to really get to know a place deeply at different times and in different seasons, to capture, often serendipitously, a small detail you’d never seen before, or arrive at a street corner and suddenly remember that this was where you first met an old friend.

But staying home brings grief with it as well. Everything changes, and when your beloved tree at the end of the street is cut down, or a new Safeway replaces the corner baker, or, more fatally, the factory that used to be the linchpin of the place lies empty and crumbling, it stings and wounds and demoralizes. When I’ve visited my own hometown in England, so much is the same. And yet, on closer inspection, many of the once-vibrant shops are selling secondhand clothes, or given over to real estate offices. My old church has a broken window where the rain comes in. The services have dwindled to near nothing. Maybe it’s being away for so long, but it seems familiar and yet a little empty, as if something in it has somehow died, a continuity somehow lost….

In America, as Charles Murray has shown in his extraordinary book, Coming Apart, the young and the smart and the talented — the people who would once have formed the core of these small towns — have long since fled to distant colleges and cities. They don’t come back. They would once have been the police chief or the town librarian or the school principal. They once helped make the town a well-run place with a clear identity, where the same families and networks lived together, died together, belonged together. These connections have attenuated … as economics supplants culture, as efficiency erases the individuality of inefficient places, as Amazon rips the heart out of shopping districts, as the smartphone removes us from physical space, and as many more immigrants and their culture alter the feel of a place in ways that disorient those with memories and loyalties.

Read the entire piece here.

It is easy to disparage the working white people who think Donald Trump is their savior. We want to write them off for being overly nostalgic about the local world that globalization has taken from them. Murray captures this sense of loss better than any other writer. (Too bad Middlebury College students did not see it this way).  This sense of loss is real.  Too often we are oblivious to the pain that comes in the midst of social change.  Sometimes such pain manifests itself in anger.  Sometimes such pain manifests itself in sadness. And sometimes it manifests itself at the ballot box.

I tried to write about all of this in the context of the eighteenth century in my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  For Fithian, modernity and its trappings–ambition, education, self-improvement–often existed in tension with a love of home, sense of place, and local “relations.”  This tension was not only a fixture of early American culture on the cusp of modernity, but it exists for many Americans in the 21st century as well.

Why Historians Should Not Abandon a National Narrative

three-immigrantsIn my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, I wrote:

Philip’s “way of improvement” was by no means a smooth one.  His passion for “home,” which I use broadly in the title of this book to encompass not only his longings for his Cohansey homeland but also his desire for friendship with his future wife (who lived in Cohansey) and his deep sense of evangelical Calvinist piety (which informed the culture of Cohansey and his Christian calling to the ministry), frequently got in the way of his attempts at Enlightenment self-improvement.  In the messiness of everyday life the Enlightenment ideal was often impractical.  It demanded a style of living that only a handful of elite intellectuals could attain.  Max Hilbert Boehm, writing in 1932, reminded us that cosmopolitanism has always existed in “compromise with nationalism, race consciousness, professional interests, caste feeling, family pride, and even egotism.”  However, it is precisely these tensions that make Philip’s story so interesting.  His attempt at easing them is the focus of this book, the very essence of what I have described as Fithian’s “rural Enlightenment.”  My study of this ordinary farmer argues that an Enlightenment life was complex and complicated.  It could be lived locally–even in rural and remote places where the dominant social institutions were churches, where modern and naturalistic explanations of the world often merged with theological convictions held by people of faith, where the lines between ambitious self-improvement and Christian vocation might sometimes be blurred, and where circles of friends improved themselves through conversation amid the regular demands of the agricultural calendar.

As some of the readers of this blog are aware, The Way of Improvement Leads Home argued that people living in the eighteenth century could not easily separate their cosmopolitan ambitions from their local attachments.  In an earlier piece I published in The Journal of American History (2003) I wrote:

Fithian’s story reminds us that the abstract, urban, and elite-centered republic of letters that has so captivated early American historians over the past two decades had a real impact on individual human experience. While the Thomas Paines and Benjamin Franklins of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world could move freely within that republic, there were others who struggled with the implications that citizenship in this imagined community might have for their commitments to family, friends, faith, tradition, and place. Throughout his short life, Fithian asked not only how he might improve himself but also what might be permanently lost in the process. He rarely acted without considering carefully the answers to both of those queries.

On one level, Fithian’s attempt to live Enlightenment values in a given place define24172-fithian2bbookd by a given tradition resonates with recent theoretical work on contemporary cosmopolitanism. Today, scholars have largely rejected the notion that a true “citizen of the world” exists without some connection to a specific locale that might be called home or a specific set of beliefs that might be informed by tradition. Theorists now realize that even amid advances in air travel, the rise of international markets, and the technological creation of a “global village,” a pure cosmopolitanism, or a truly “placeless” individual, does not and cannot exist. Yet those who write about such issues of self-identity today always make the cosmopolitan ideal their point of scholarly departure. They begin with world citizenship–the highest of all moral values–and then make the necessary concessions to the particularities of region, nation, and family. The result is what has recently been described as “rooted cosmopolitanism,” a cosmopolitanism that “is there,” or an “actually existing cosmopolitanism.”

Many middling, relatively unprivileged, and educated early Americans living in places teetering between the medieval and the modern, however, understood local attachments–not world citizenship–as the necessary starting point in the construction of a modern self. Rather than rejecting commitments to the particularities of place and tradition, as Wood has suggested, good patriots and republicans such as Fithian strove to participate in the eighteenth-century equivalent of intellectual and cultural globalization in the context of their locales. Fithian’s Christianity, networks of friends, letter-writing circles, admonishing societies, and reading groups were all means of being cosmopolitan in a given place. He thus pursued a “cosmopolitan rootedness” over a “rooted cosmopolitanism.” In the end, Fithian’s life challenges us to be ever more mindful that the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment could have a profound influence on the remote precincts of British America and the social worlds of the people who inhabited them. For him, “rural Enlightenment” was not an oxymoron.

I have been thinking a lot about this in light of some minor push-back I have been receiving on my recent post “Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics?” Some of that push-back has come in response to my suggestion that American historians should not abandon a national narrative.  Here is what I wrote in that post:

I also still believe–old fashioned as it might sound–in a national narrative. As an American historian I think it is more important than ever that my students understand the story of the United States and the ways in which the values put forth by the founders have and have not been applied in our attempts to create “a more perfect union.” If political jealousy is indeed a laudable passion, then citizens need to know what to be jealous about. Yes, I understand the way that the liberal identity politics of race, class, and gender, and the internationalization of American history, has shaped my field.  I have learned much from this approach.  But I am coming around more and more everyday to the civic role that U.S. history plays in the strengthening of our democracy.

This, of course, raises a lot of questions about how the field of American history is moving. Don’t get me wrong, I think that some of the resistance to a neo-Whig view of American history is useful, especially when we are teaching students that a civic-minded approach to history can often result in a form of presentism.  For example, I spend an entire week every summer at Princeton trying to get K-8 teachers to think about British-America on its own terms rather than as a forerunner to a “revolution” that no one in the eighteenth century really saw coming until the 1760s and 177os.

But the American Revolution did happen and I think it goes without saying that it triggered a conversation about American national identity that we are still having today.  It seems like those of us who teach broader surveys of American history cannot ignore a national narrative.  (I say more about this in my exchange with California history teacher Leslie Smith).

I have also been thinking about the relationship between national history and globalization/cosmopolitanism in light of historian Johann Neem’s 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education essay “Why We Should Teach National History in a Global Age.”  Here is a taste:

neem

Johann Neem

Is it a good thing for our identities to be globalized? I would argue no. Progressive politics, including the redistribution of wealth between the well-off and the less so, is predicated on a coherent and vibrant nationalism. Paradoxically, in an age of globalization, our schools must make Americans more aware of their connections to the world while reinvigorating the teaching of our national history.

History’s power is its ability to shape our collective identity. By teaching national history, we help create nationals. All identities are premised on shared stories. To be a member of a community is to identify with its past and to seek to sustain that community in the present to better it in the future. That is as true for nations as for religious, ethnic, and professional communities. As the political scientist Rogers Smith argues in Stories of Peoplehood (Cambridge University Press, 2003), national identities are based on the vitality of shared narratives that place us in the stream of history. Stories make us who we are.

Teaching national history is vital to ensuring a public that is capable of sustaining our democracy. National history promotes patriotism. Readers inclined to dismiss patriotism as a regressive and aggressive ideology may be inclined to dismiss national history for that very reason. We all know the violence that has been committed in the name of nationalism over the past two centuries.

National stories should be both celebratory and critical. Teaching national history does not mean promoting a glorious narrative of America, nor does it mean focusing exclusively on its worst moments. Like the history of any nation-state, American history is full of glory and high ideals as well as their all-too-frequent betrayal. Celebratory stories foster love for one’s nation, while critical stories ensure that love does not become blind devotion. It is the combination of love of one’s nation and awareness of its failures that makes acts of citizenship possible. Without love, who cares? Without critical awareness, how will citizens ascertain the truth about their nation’s actions and seek to make things better?

Read Neem’s entire piece here.  I think his final paragraph is on the mark:

The nation is not the only source of one’s personal identity. We each belong to religious, ethnic, professional, and other communities that shape us and to which we feel responsible. These communities make us complex beings, capable of balancing our obligations to our nation with those to others locally and around the world. But even as we Americans become more aware of our responsibilities to the larger world, democratic politics relies on our shared responsibility to each other.

The President of the American Enterprise Institute: Pope Francis Wants Your Soul!

One might expect the president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to critique the message that Pope Francis delivered last month during his visit to the United States.  The AEI, after all, is in the business of promoting free enterprise and the Pope did not have too many positive things to say about globalization from the steps of Independence Hall.  Though Francis did not mention the word “capitalism” during his visit to the United States, he has been critical of it in the past.  


This morning I was reading some of Francis’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) and came across this section:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.

And this:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

Arthur Brooks

But today at The New York Times Arthur Brooks, the president of the AEI, wrote an excellent op-ed piece celebrating Francis’s “subversive message,” supporting his defense of the poor, and embracing his criticism of materialism.  For Brooks, Francis’s message of unity is ultimately a spiritual message. As he puts it at the end of the piece, “he is in a hunt for the whole human soul.”

Here is a taste:

Look back a generation (or two or three) in our families, and we are almost all just riffraff with one direction to go: up. Americans tell with pride the stories of their parents and grandparents who — thanks to democracy and free enterprise — were able to work their way up out of poverty. The secret to American unity thus is not just giving alms to the poor. It is to remember that we are the poor.

As the pope surely understands, these facts are what make the Catholic Church in the United States unique. In Europe, the church was historically an institution of the powerful. In America, by contrast, the Catholic Church was established as the church of the outsiders. Throughout our history it has been the poorest of the immigrant groups — the Irish, Italians and Latin Americans — who represented the face of American Catholicism. Excluded from power in their countries, the poor opted to build their lives and churches here.

As our nation expanded and prospered, the Catholic Church became a source of social unity. Indeed, Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement and was cited by Pope Francis before Congress, was attracted by the fact that the church in America was full “of all nationalities, of all classes, but most of all they were the poor.”

For Francis, unity also extends into the transcendental. He asserts that faith and human reason are inseparable, declaring that “unless you believe, you will not understand.” In the 11th century, St. Anselm of Canterbury defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” Francis significantly ups the ante, asserting that faith is nothing less than reason seeking cosmic meaning. He tells us that belief does not suffocate or diminish human reason, but rather reinforces it and imbues it with life.

Even more radically, the pope’s theology obliterates materialism by uniting natural and supernatural. As Francis directly challenged the congregation in one of his homilies in Cuba, “Do you believe it is possible that the son of a carpenter can be the Son of God?” He emphatically does not mean this metaphorically. As a Catholic, he says that he believes that Jesus is factually present in the form of the Eucharist, and that how we treat the poor and vulnerable here on earth will have eternal consequences.

Francis’ secular admirers often stumble at his apparent preoccupation with evil. In an impromptu speech to schoolchildren in Harlem, he disconcertingly asked: “But who is it that sows sadness, that sows mistrust, envy, evil desires? What is his name? The devil.”

Some dismiss this as a clerical tic or South American eccentricity. It is nothing of the sort. The word “devil” comes from the Greek verb diabolos, meaning “slander” or “attack.” And “demon” comes directly from the Greek root meaning “to divide.” For Francis, happiness comes from unity, both with God and with one another. Unhappiness comes from division from either — which comes from the Dark One.

Many people around the world have found themselves attracted to the pope’s warm message of unity. And well they should be — unity is in short supply in our unhappy world today. But Francis is asking for more than a mass chorus of “Kumbaya.” He is in the hunt for the whole human soul.

New Exhibit: Globalization in Early American History

By Megan Piette, TWOILH intern.

A new exhibition opened last weekend at The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery at the College of the Holy Cross. Curator professor Patricia Johnston explains that the goal of the exhibition is to educate the community on the effects that globalization had on early America 1760 to 1820. Johnston co-curates with several of her seminar students. The exhibit includes items such as coats, porcelain, maps, engravings, and other artifacts that string together the story of global culture in central Massachusetts. Here is a taste of an article on the exhibit:

This time period is particularly interesting both because the culture of these early Americans was far more influenced by global culture than is commonly considered, and because the Revolutionary War marked a drastic change in consumer culture. “Colonial Americans really loved Asian luxury goods, all of the Asian imports were very expensive because you had to buy them through England. But after the revolution, ships went directly to China and India so the imports became much cheaper,” Johnston says.

Why I Like "Evangelii Gaudium": Part Four

Here is part three of my continuing series on Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium.

In sections 61-67 of Evangelii Gaudium, Francis addresses some major “cultural challenges” that Catholics, and I would add all people of Christian faith, must face.  First, he goes after globalization. Francis writes: “In many countries globalization has meant a hastened deterioration of their own cultural roots and the invasion of ways of thinking and acting proper to other cultures which are economically advanced but ethically debilitated.”  He uses the complaint of African bishops as an example.  Many of these bishops have complained that globalization is making them feel like “parts of a machine, cogs on a gigantic wheel.”  As a result, the “field of social communications,” which is run by “centres mostly in the northern hemisphere,” do not understand or consider the problems that such countries face as a result of their “cultural make-up.”  To put this differently, the media and entertainment industries are “threatening traditional values,” particularly as they relate to marriage and family.

And speaking of marriage and family, Francis believes that these institutions are “experiencing a profound crisis.”  He calls the family “the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences.”  It is also the place “where parents pass on the faith to their children. 

He then turns to marriage:

Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form or mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will.  But the indispensable contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple.  As the French bishops have taught, it is not born “of loving sentiment, ephemeral by definition, but from the depth of obligation assumed by the spouses who accept to enter a total communion of life.

Here Francis sounds a lot like Christopher Lasch in Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged. I also thought about the modern, middle-class understanding of marriage in which the purpose of this sacrament is to fulfill the therapeutic needs of one’s spouse.  Many evangelical marriage ministries operate the same way.

Finally, Francis makes the case for something akin to a Christian liberal-arts education (although he doesn’t use that term):

While we are living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data–all treated as being of equal importance–and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment.  In response, we need to provide an education which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values.

More later.

Why Won’t the American Catholic Laity Embrace Benedict XVI’s View of Capitalism?

Heath Carter, a historian at Valparaiso University, asks this question today in an insightful post at Religion in American History.  Here is a taste:

What do the pope and the Occupy movement have in common?  No, this is not the beginning of a stale 2011 joke; and yes, I am referring to the same Benedict XVI whose reproach of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and whose traditionalism on issues such as birth control and homosexuality, has alienated many progressives.  The fact is that Benedict has hewed to the traditional Catholic line on economic concerns as well, which is to say that, while he won’t likely be mistaken for one of the “occupiers” any time soon, he has been persistently critical of global capitalism.  

Consider what he had to say just last week in a message commemorating the World Day of Peace: “It is alarming to see hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.” Straightforward critiques such as this one have been a staple of Benedict’s papacy.  In his 2009 encyclical “Caritas in Vertitate” he lamented, “The world’s wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities are on the increase.”

In that same document he rued the structural difficulties confronting organized labor around the world and went on to declare, “The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past.”  When, two years later, the Vatican issued an appeal for economic reform that, among other things, denounced the “idolatry of the market,” one leading Catholic intellectual mused that it would be “cheered by the folks occupying Wall Street.”  

The very suggestion raises a broader question about how the pope’s wayward – by the Chicago School’s standards, that is – economic teachings have been received on this side of the Atlantic.  We know that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops harbors similar beliefs, but when it comes to the laity things get a good bit more complicated.  In the aggregate, American Catholics still lean ever-so-slightly to the left, though if you look more closely at the data from the last four election cycles you’ll note that a majority of white Catholics voted each time for the Republican.  Only thanks to a very significant boost from Latinos did Obama maintain the upper hand amongst Catholic voters in 2008 and 2012. 

Read the rest here.

Where are the American Catholics who embrace Benedict’s traditionalism on social issues and his radical critique of global capitalism?  It seems to me that a true follower of Benedict XVI would be marching at pro-life rallies, opposing gay marriage, and joining the Occupy Wall Street movement.  But yet again, I am not sure how many American Catholics actually listen to the Pope.

Reading and Christian Cosmopolitanism

Over at the Comment magazine blog, Susan VanZanten offers her thoughts on the relationship between Christianity and cosmopolitanism.  Christians, according to VanZanten, should be pursuing cosmopolitan values as part of their vocations as Christ-followers because all human beings are created in the image of God and all human beings have been created to dwell in relationship with other human beings. In this sense, we are all “citizens of the world.”  VanZanten makes a very compelling and inspiring case for the way that reading can help to cultivate this kind of Christian cosmopolitanism. 

I couldn’t agree more with VanZanten, but her piece only addresses one side of the story.

VanZanten writes (the bold-face is mine):

A crucial second aspect of human identity for Christians is the fact that we are created to dwell in relationship with other human beings. We are communal, like our triune maker. Human identity is premised on relationship both with God and with other human beings. While the Enlightenment emphasized individual identity and many non-Western traditions understand identity in communal terms, the Christian story includes both components. In Jesus and the Victory of God, N.T. Wright says that within the Christian worldview, corporate meaning enhances personal meaning. While individualism and collectivism cancel each other out, corporate and personal meaning reinforce one another.

This personal/corporate character leads to a particular plot: the way we are summoned to live. The respect for all humanity grounded in their common imago dei and the love for neighbour stipulated by the Scriptures are not limited to national, religious, or even geographic proximity. When Jesus relates the story of the Good Samaritan in response to the question, “Who is my neighbour?” he tells of how those of similar religious and cultural identity ignore a man who has been assaulted and robbed, while a Samaritan, a man from an ethnic and religious group loathed by the Jews of Jesus’ day, stops and assists the victim. The character who embodies neighbourliness is the ultimate outsider. All first-century Jews knew that they were to love their neighbour, but Jesus has the Samaritan doing the loving. The neighbour is not someone who lives next door, or goes to the same synagogue or church, or claims the same national identity; the neighbour is anyone in need who we encounter. This kind of neighbourliness has been made more apparent and less easy to ignore with globalization.

Again, I can’t argue with anything VanZanten has written here. But I would say this: Cosmopolitanism always has the potential of undermining a flesh and blood sense of community and neighborliness.  For most of us, our neighbor IS “someone who lives next door.”  While our neighbors are certainly not limited to the people who live on our street, neighborhood, or town, being a neighbor in these local contexts remains the most practical and effective way of carrying out Jesus’s command in the Sermon on the Mount.

I am a strong supporter of the kind of cosmopolitan imagination that reading and liberal learning in the humanities and arts can foster.  I have used this blog on many occasions to preach about the way that the study of the past can instill us with the virtue of empathy.  But I have also been a strong advocate for a cosmopolitanism, and even a Christian cosmopolitanism, that is grounded or “rooted” in a particular locale.

Herein lies the tension.  As Lavar Burton used to remind us on the PBS show Reading Rainbow, “I can go anywhere..take a look, it’s in a book….”  Liberal learning, as Barbara Nussbaum and others have noted, leads us outward.  It saves us from the darker elements of our provincialism.  But we also must remember that while we are off engaging in the global world, there are still people living in the midst of those provinces. 

Is it possible to engage the world–even if it is in an imagined sense–and still remain connected to the local attachments that for many of us give our lives meaning? On the one hand, we want to bring the best of our common humanity–in a truly global sense–to the places where we live, work, and have our being.  On the other hand, we do not want to be itinerant, placeless beings who live in an abstract academic or intellectual “community.”

As some of my readers know, I flesh these questions out in an eighteenth-century historical context in The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  You may also want to look at my forthcoming piece in The Cresset: “Does the Way of Improvement Lead Home? Rooted Cosmopolitanism and the Church-Related College.”

Thanks to Susan VanZanten for this thought-provoking piece.