Eric Foner on the “Buried Promise of the Reconstruction Amendments”

Foner new bookOver at The New Yorker, Isaac Chotiner interviews historian Eric Foner on the promise of Reconstruction.  Foner, of course, remains the foremost historian of  Reconstruction.  I have taught his book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 several times over the years.  Foner’s current book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, focuses on the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.

Here is a taste of his interview with Chotiner:

You say early in the book that, in one sense, “Reconstruction never ended.” What exactly do you mean?

I defined Reconstruction in two ways. One, it’s a particular time period of American history. You can debate the dates. It starts in 1865, when the Civil War ends, or maybe it starts in 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation is issued, and it ends sometime in the eighteen-seventies, although there’s debate about that also.

But, I think, more importantly, Reconstruction is a historical process. And the process is, How does the United States come to terms with the results of the Civil War? The unity of the nation we seem to have come to terms with. But the other matter is the destruction of slavery. How does the United States deal with the fact that four million people who were slaves became free? What role would they have? What rights would they have? How would they be treated? And those debates are still going on. Pick up today’s newspaper, and you’ll find things which relate back to the legacy of slavery. So in that sense, the reckoning has never happened, or we’re still grappling with the consequences of two hundred and fifty years of slavery.

Did you write this book because there was an area of Reconstruction you wanted to learn more about or teach people more about, or had things changed in your understanding of your previous scholarship?

Why does one choose to write a book in the first place? It may be some archival discovery, which was not really the case here. It may be the way debates are going on in the present. That did influence me. The issues central to the Fourteenth Amendment, the Fifteenth Amendment, the right to vote, are still part of our politics today. Who should vote? Who should be a citizen? What does equality before the law really mean? But, most important, and without trying to denigrate any other scholar, I lecture a lot about Reconstruction—I lecture in law schools, I lecture in history departments, I lecture to public audiences outside the academy—and I have found that there’s very little knowledge of why the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments are important, or what they were trying to accomplish, even in law schools.

One of the things that I think needed to be corrected is that so much discussion of these amendments is based on just law-making places, like Congress and the Supreme Court. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m a historian. You’ve got to look at the whole society. Everybody was debating these questions during Reconstruction. So if you want to find out the meaning of these amendments, you’ve got to look way beyond Congress and the courts to see the general debate. And I felt that hadn’t been really illuminated enough.

Read the entire interview here.

Women Leaders of the Christian Right

Johnso nOver at Nursing Clio, Lauren Macivor Thompson interviews Emily Suzanne Johnson, author of This is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right.  Here is a taste:

Lauren: How did you become interested in the conservative women’s movement? Who were your historiographical influences?

Emily: Michael Lienesch’s Redeeming America (about the politics and rhetoric of the New Christian Right) and Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors (about conservative women’s grassroots activism in the 1960s) piqued my interest. Both fascinated me — I loved their deep dives into the logic and language of these movements, which were not well understood at the time, at least in the academic world.

My personal history was also part of what drew me to this subject. I grew up in a left-leaning Canadian family, but I also have very conservative, evangelical relatives in the United States. I felt like I had an interesting perspective on the American religious right, since I had a deep personal understanding of the movement while also understanding why it can seem so illegible to people outside of it.

As I kept reading histories of this movement, one thing that was missing was the history of women’s leadership within it. We have great studies on male leadership and on the importance of women’s grassroots support, but relatively little acknowledgment of the movement’s reliance on female leaders at the national level. There are women whose names would come up frequently, but they were generally treated as anomalies or paradoxes in a movement otherwise led by men.

My book argues that although this movement focused on a particular idea of “traditional gender roles,” it was fundamentally shaped by women leaders, who helped to formulate its rhetoric and mobilize supporters.

Lauren: The book examines Marabel Morgan, Anita Bryant, Beverly LaHaye, and Tammy Faye Bakker as historical figures — what strikes you as the major differences or threads of similarity that bind these conservative activists together?

Read the rest here.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Power of Fiction

Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the most influential public intellectual in America.  Jesmyn Ward, a pretty impressive writer in her own right, recently spent some time with him at the New York City coffee shop where Coates likes to write.  Coates has just completed his first novel: The Water Dancer.  Ward’s piece at Vanity Fair is an excellent read for what it reveals about Coates and what it reveals about the anxiety that another writer feels when interviewing a public intellectual of Coates’s stature.

Here is a taste:

It’s hard to do that work. Coates articulates this anxiety perfectly when he talks about the difference between the purpose of nonfiction and the purpose of fiction. Creative nonfiction, he thinks, “is not up to the task of humanizing. That’s not what it’s for.” He continues, “Also, I’ve got to tell you, you go to a very different place when you have to imagine a single person, versus write about mass. It’s not the same. I wonder, like, how you deal with the central tragedy and violence and darkness and horribleness that is happening, and the dehumanization without writing a work that itself dehumanizes.” He shakes his head. “My mom, actually, she can’t finish it”—The Water Dancer—“and… I actually feel like I intentionally held back. I feel like Hiram was very privileged in terms of being a slave.” He takes another bite of food. “How do I write about something, as horrible as it is, and not repeat the thing? You know what I’m saying?” And, he repeats, he has to resist the American legacy of myths. He has to resist the lure of the adventure story. He has to resist the lure of the cowboy. He has to resist the lure of the savior. It’s a hard thing to resist the great stories of your youth in an effort to discover new myths, new heroes, new legends that reveal a wider reality.

One of the things Coates must now do is figure out how to balance the two: how to write nonfiction and fiction, how to juggle his renown with his calling. “So many writers and so-called public intellectuals are driven by their desire for fame, celebrity, and money that this is practically all they see when they see someone like Ta-Nehisi. But he does what he does out of a deep sense of responsibility that has never changed,” says Jackson. “It’s a responsibility to his family—to his parents, his wife, his son. But also a sense of responsibility to black people. This is not to say that he fetishizes race or that he’s a nationalist. But that he knows that black people are keepers of a sacred tradition, not just of resistance, but artful, creative, generative, and generous resistance in the name of truth.”

Read the entire piece here.

Do Evangelicals Have a Porn Problem?

AddictedYes and no.  Or at least this is the argument of Oklahoma University sociologist Samuel Perry in his new book Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants.

Perry argues that evangelical men who take their faith seriously and try to practice it in everyday life view porn less than non-evangelicals.  The real porn problem is the church’s perception that is has a serious problem.

Here is a taste of Jana Riess’s interview with Perry at Religion News Service:

There are several. Drawing on numerous studies, Perry finds that:

Despite the statistical finding that conservative Christians are less likely to use porn, the perception within evangelical churches is that this has become an enormous problem for the faithful. To them, the fact that only 40% of conservative Protestant men under age 40 have seen porn in the last year is not cause for rejoicing but for alarm—and the alarm itself may be creating, or at least exacerbating, psychological and marital problems for those Christian users.

Whereas many other Americans seem to be able to view porn without it causing significant mental health problems, for conservative Christians it’s different. The church’s zero-tolerance policy for porn means those who consume it only occasionally might see themselves as addicts from the first viewing. Even though conservative Christians use porn less than other Americans, they are statistically twice as likely to consider themselves “addicted” to it. Their shame can be soul-crushing.

Read the entire interview here.

Why Did Christians in the “Red States” Vote for Trump?

Red StateA new book by Lutheran minister Angela Denker seeks to answer this question in her new book Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump.

Here is a taste of her recent interview with Joseph Preville at World Religion News:

JRP: How diverse are Red-State Christians in their religious beliefs and political values?

AD: Quite diverse, though I will say that they were unified by a distinct dislike of Hillary Clinton that often surpassed their admiration for Trump. They were also diverse in the extent to which their Christianity influenced their vote. Many voters, especially in the rural Midwest and Appalachia – still theoretically sought to keep what they heard and believed and church separate from their decisions in the voting booth and what they heard on the news.  However, I distinctly found in Southern Baptist congregations, especially across the South, an unqualified embrace of Christian nationalism that led to a unique embrace of Trump and the Republican Party.

JRP: What is the “shared language” between Donald Trump and Red-State Christians?

AD: A man who worked in a steel mill in Appalachia told me how frustrating his career was because the company had been outsourced. Instead of a local family running things, the owner’s son had moved operations. Now they got their checks from New Jersey instead of the local bank. It was clear that he preferred the local owner to the distant one. I compare that to many Red-State Christians’ embrace of Trump. Yes, he is often wealthier than them – but he’s “their rich guy.” He eats Taco Bell on Cinco de Mayo, he’s slightly overweight and his suits don’t fit right, he spells words wrong, he curses, he’s “politically incorrect.” Trump has an instinctual knack for speaking in ways that make people who are very different than him feel as if they’re close to him, such as the times he served fast food to championship athletes: food many Red-State Christians would connect with their day-to-day lives as well.

Read the entire interview here.

Does Religious Liberty Have Christian Roots?

WilkenRobert Wilken‘s new book Liberty in Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom makes the case that religious liberty has Christian roots that date back to the second century.  Tal Howard reviews Wilken’s new book at The Anxious Bench blog.

Here is a taste:

Wilken seeks to reorient our understanding of the history of religious freedom. Today, many educated people believe that once upon a time history teemed with inquisitions, witch trials, and religious wars until, lo, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment arrived, paving the way for the American and French Revolutions and with them the constitutional protection of religious liberty. In this narrative, religious freedom is a relatively recent and secular achievement.

But the actual origins of religious freedom are far more complex and specifically indebted to Christian theology, according to Wilken. His argument proceeds in four stages.

First, the spread of Christianity in the classical world redefined religious belief. In the Roman Empire, religious devotion was tethered to the state and manifested itself in outward acts of piety. It was not an inward matter of conviction and conscience. Christians were thus sometimes charged with “atheism” and persecuted for failing to perform the customary rituals. Roman harassment inspired Tertullian and other early Christians writers, notably Lactantius and Origen of Alexandria, to insist that true religion resided in “conscience” apart from Caesar’s domain. Tertullian in fact first coined the term “religious freedom” (libertas religionis) and saw it as a “human right” (humanum ius). “Religion cannot be imposed by force,” echoed Lactantius against his Roman critics.

Read the entire review here.

Thinking Critically About the Museum of the Bible

RNS-BIBLE-MUSEUM i

Over at Religion News Service, Yonat Shimron talks with Jill Hicks-Keeton, co-editor (with Cavan Concannon) of The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction.  Full disclosure:  I have an essay in this book titled “Letting the Bible Do Its Work on Behalf of Christian America: The Founding Era at the Museum of the Bible.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

Why does this museum demand so much attention?

Part of the reason is the money invested in it. It’s in a very public place, near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. One might even think, mistakenly, that it’s a Smithsonian. This museum is poised to have some influence on the way that the public understands the Bible. Our job as educators in the field of biblical studies is to use the museum as an opportunity to teach a wider public about the academic study of the Bible and its history.

What are some of the major criticisms of the scholars?Museum of Bible Intro

If one were to read all essays, they make a case that the museum is deeply intertwined with the evangelicalism of the founding Green family. Many people say it’s not a problem for people to use private money to invest in something they think is important, (but) we bristle at the public representation of their project. They say they have no perspective and no agenda. We don’t think that’s possible or true.

Are scholars saying the museum should come out and say what its perspective is?

That’s one way to rectify what they think is wrong. But the volume is not written for the museum. Our job as scholars is to analyze and catalog and chronicle what’s happening with how the Bible is represented. If the museum leadership doesn’t make changes as a result of the book, we won’t feel like the book has failed. It’s written for a wider audience and not in order to change the museum.

Read the entire interview here.

A Story of Academic and Clerical Fraud

Professor and ParsonI just added another book to my summer reading list.  It is Adam Sisman‘s The Professor & the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit, and Defrocking.  It tells the story of historian Hugh Trevor-Roper‘s encounter with a plagiarist, bigamist, and fraudulent priest.

Here is a taste of William Whyte’s review at Literary Review:

…in a world in which everyone fears they might be an impostor, how do you tell who is faking it and who is not? This was a question that transfixed the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper throughout his career. It sustained his furious attacks on such colleagues as Lawrence Stone, whom he believed to have stolen and fabricated historical research. It also led him to write compellingly about real frauds, including the fantasist Edmund Backhouse, whose almost entirely fictional and luridly pornographic memoir formed the basis of one of Trevor-Roper’s books.

In 1958, another impostor entered Trevor-Roper’s life. At that point, he was claiming to be the Reverend Robert Peters, a highly qualified and recently married postgraduate student at Magdalen College, Oxford. Further investigation revealed, however, that his name was not Peters, that he had been stripped of holy orders, that his qualifications were false and that his marriage was bigamous. Only his status as a postgraduate student was true – and the discovery of these malfeasances soon ended that.

There the story might have ended too, but Trevor-Roper was intrigued, opening a file on Peters and gathering further information about him. Peters, for his part, was unabashed, continuing to embellish his nonexistent credentials, claim ever more exalted ecclesiastical titles and acquire a number of wives. Still more intriguingly, he continued, like a mobile Walter Mitty or an academic Zelig, to reappear in Trevor-Roper’s professional life for the next half-century.

Adam Sisman has used the collection of notes Trevor-Roper put together on Peters over this period and supplemented it with his own research to produce a wonderfully entertaining account of this academic and clerical fraud. He follows him from lie to lie, job to job, marriage to marriage, continent to continent. Again and again, Peters came close to success and even stability, securing posts at schools on both sides of the Atlantic, the parochial cure of people in Scotland and South Africa, and positions in universities from Cambridge to Canada and from New Zealand to Nigeria. Always, he was found out and then run out of town, only to start again elsewhere.

Read the entire review here.

There Were Good People on Both Sides Saturday at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington D.C.

No–there were not.

A white supremacy group interrupted a book talk by Vanderbilt psychiatrist  Jonathan Metzl, author of Dying  of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.

Watch:

And here is Metzl’s tweet:

This was kind of eerie to watch since I stood on the exact spot Metzl stood on July 7, 2018.

How Bruce Springsteen Created “Thunder Road”

Springsteen HiattI am really excited about reading music writer Brian Hiatt’s new book Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind the Songs.  (I would love to get a review copy so I can cover it here).

Here is a summary of the book:

The legend of Bruce Springsteen may well outlast rock ’n’ roll itself. And for all the muscle and magic of his life-shaking concerts with the E Street Band, his legendary status comes down to the songs. He is an acknowledged master of music and lyrics, with decades of hits, from “Blinded by the Light” and “Born to Run” to “Hungry Heart,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and “The Rising.”
 
In Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind the Songs, longtime Rolling Stone writer Brian Hiatt digs into the writing and recording of these songs and all the others on Springsteen’s studio albums, from 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. to 2014’s High Hopes (plus all the released outtakes), and offers a unique look at the legendary rocker’s methods, along with historical context, scores of colorful anecdotes, and more than 180 photographs. Hiatt has interviewed Springsteen five times in the past and has conducted numerous new interviews with his collaborators, from longtime producers to the E Street Band, to create an authoritative and lushly illustrated journey through Springsteen’s entire songbook and career.

Rolling Stone magazine is running an excerpt from Hiatt’s book.  Here is a taste of “How Bruce Springsteen Created ‘Thunder Road‘”:

There were many revisions, including an amusing array of women’s names (In addition to Angelina, Anne, Chrissie and Christina all got a ride before Mary won out). The harmonica part in the intro was, at one point, played on sax instead. A handwritten worksheet from the sessions shows Springsteen’s focus on details like the fill Weinberg plays at the song’s “pulling here to win” climax – he wanted to try something a la the Dave Clark Five. Appel, whose relationship with Springsteen began to fray during the making of Born to Run, recalls a moment when the artist and Landau wanted to build “Thunder Road” more gradually, and replace the electric guitars that come in close to the two-minute-mark with acoustics – in Appel’s telling, he talked them out of it. As it was, Springsteen spent thirteen hours straight overdubbing electric guitar, Iovine recalls. And at some point in ‘75, Springsteen also recorded an eerie alternate version, a solo acoustic take that feels like a ghostly reflection of the released song, as if it’s being sung by a heartbroken narrator decades after its events.

As Springsteen wrote in his book Songs, “Thunder Road” offered a proposition : “Do you want to take a chance? On us? On life?” There was, however, an undercurrent of dread, as there almost always would be going forward. Springsteen was only 24 when he recorded “Thunder Road,” which makes the line “maybe we ain’t that young anymore” all the more striking. “The songs were written immediately after the Vietnam War,” Springsteen told me in 2005. “And you forget, everybody felt like that then. It didn’t matter how old you were, everybody experienced a radical change in the image they had of their country and of themselves. The reason was, ‘you were changed.’ You were going to be a radically different type of American than the generation that immediately preceded you, so that line was just recognizing that fact. The influences of a lot of my heroes from the Sixties and Fifties ended up on that record, but I realized that I was not them. I was someone else. So it wasn’t just a mish-mash of previous styles. There was a lot of stuff we loved in it from the music we loved, but there was something else, too – quite a sense of dread and uncertainty about the future and who you were, where you were going, where the whole country was going, so that found its way into the record.”

Read the entire piece here.  Or learn more about how Springsteen created “Badlands.”

Christian Universalism

mcCLymondChristianity Today is running an informative interview with Saint Louis University theologian and religious historian Michael McClymond on Christian universalism.  The interview, conducted by Paul Copan of Palm Beach Atlantic University, is based on his new book The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism.  Here is a taste of the interview:

What prompted you to write on the topic of universalism?

There were several stages in the process. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I had a religious studies professor—the late Dr. Edmund Perry—who insisted that Paul taught universal salvation in Romans and 1 Corinthians. I was taking Greek at the time, and the professor’s claim did not seem credible to me. When I attended Yale Divinity School, I wrote a comparative essay on the eschatologies of Origen and Karl Barth—a short piece that I now recognize as the tiny seed from which The Devil’s Redemption later sprang.

Another factor is a dream that I had about a dozen years ago. Without going into too much detail, this was an unnerving encounter in which I saw God’s coming judgment arriving in the form of an overpowering storm; people in the path of the storm were pleasantly chit-chatting when they ought to have been seeking cover. The dream left a lasting impression. It suggested to me that we’re unprepared—both inside and outside of the church—for the return of Christ.

When Rob Bell came out with Love Wins in 2011, what struck me was not so much the book itself, with its well-worn arguments, but rather the widespread approval the book elicited, together with the collective yawn of indifference on the part of most who didn’t approve. I came to the conclusion that Karl Barth’s affirmation of universal election in the 1940s (in the second volume of his massive Church Dogmatics) had inaugurated a widespread turn toward universalism in mainstream theological circles, that this trend had gained momentum over the last half-century, and that the time was overdue for a wide-ranging appraisal of this teaching.

Read the entire interview here.   You can buy the book, in two volumes, from Baker Academic at the whopping price of $90.00.

New Springsteen Book is Coming

bruce-springsteen-on-broadway-photo-by-rob-demartin

It is entitled Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen.  Historian Jonathan Cohen and  Springsteen scholar June Skinner Sawyers are the editors and Rutgers University Press will publish it in September, 2019.  Contributors include Eric Alterman, Gina Barreca, Peter Carlin, Jim Cullen, and Louis Masur,  Here is a description:

Bruce Springsteen might be the quintessential American rock musician but his songs have resonated with fans from all walks of life and from all over the world. This unique collection features reflections from a diverse array of writers who explain what Springsteen means to them and describe how they have been moved, shaped, and challenged by his music.
 
Contributors to Long Walk Home include novelists like Richard Russo, rock critics like Greil Marcus and Gillian Gaar, and other noted Springsteen scholars and fans such as A. O. Scott, Peter Ames Carlin, and Paul Muldoon. They reveal how Springsteen’s albums served as the soundtrack to their lives while also exploring the meaning of his music and the lessons it offers its listeners. The stories in this collection range from the tale of how “Growin’ Up” helped a lonely Indian girl adjust to life in the American South to the saga of a group of young Australians who turned to Born to Run to cope with their country’s 1975 constitutional crisis. These essays examine the big questions at the heart of Springsteen’s music, demonstrating the ways his songs have resonated for millions of listeners for nearly five decades.

Commemorating the Boss’s seventieth birthday, Long Walk Home explores Springsteen’s legacy and provides a stirring set of testimonials that illustrate why his music matters.

Jill Lepore’s “New Americanism”

These TruthsHarvard’s Jill Lepore is calling for a new national history in a piece at Foreign Affairs.  I am assuming much of this piece draws from her most recent book These Truths: A History of the United States.

Here is a taste of “A New Americanism: Why a Nation Needs a National Story:

In 1986, the Pulitzer Prize–winning, bowtie-wearing Stanford historian Carl Degler delivered something other than the usual pipe-smoking, scotch-on-the-rocks, after-dinner disquisition that had plagued the evening program of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association for nearly all of its centurylong history. Instead, Degler, a gentle and quietly heroic man, accused his colleagues of nothing short of dereliction of duty: appalled by nationalism, they had abandoned the study of the nation…. 

“We can write history that implicitly denies or ignores the nation-state, but it would be a history that flew in the face of what people who live in a nation-state require and demand,” Degler said that night in Chicago. He issued a warning: “If we historians fail to provide a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job for us.”

But in the 1970s, studying the nation fell out of favor in the American historical profession. Most historians started looking at either smaller or bigger things, investigating the experiences and cultures of social groups or taking the broad vantage promised by global history. This turn produced excellent scholarship. But meanwhile, who was doing the work of providing a legible past and a plausible future—a nation—to the people who lived in the United States? Charlatans, stooges, and tyrants. The endurance of nationalism proves that there’s never any shortage of blackguards willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to empty out old rubbish bags full of festering resentments and calls to violence. When historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism. 

Maybe it’s too late to restore a common history, too late for historians to make a difference. But is there any option other than to try to craft a new American history—one that could foster a new Americanism?…

“The history of the United States at the present time does not seek to answer any significant questions,” Degler told his audience some three decades ago. If American historians don’t start asking and answering those sorts of questions, other people will, he warned. They’ll echo Calhoun and Douglas and Father Coughlin. They’ll lament “American carnage.” They’ll call immigrants “animals” and other states “shithole countries.” They’ll adopt the slogan “America first.” They’ll say they can “make America great again.” They’ll call themselves “nationalists.” Their history will be a fiction. They will say that they alone love this country. They will be wrong.

Read the entire piece here.  I find myself largely in agreement with Lepore, although I still need to read her book.  (It’s sitting on my nightstand as I type!)

George Scialabba’s Latest Collection of Essays

slouchingSome of you may recall our 2105 post on the writer and cultural critic George Scialabba.  Here is a taste of that post:

I haven’t read much of George Scialabba‘s writing. Back in 2012 I did a post on a Scialabba piece on intellectuals, academia, and Christopher Lasch.  But after I read Craig Lambert’s article on Scialabba’s retirement at The Chronicle of Higher Education I realized that I need to read more of him.

What fascinates me the most about Scialabba is the fact that he has spent the last thirty-five years working a clerical job at Harvard University.  Since it is difficult for one to make a living as an essayist and book reviewer, Scialabba worked arranging rooms for meetings at Harvard, operating out of a basement office with no windows. Over the years he has written over 400 reviews and essays in the Washington PostVillage Voice, The NationThe American ConservativeCommonwealDissent, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Boston Review, Foreign Affairs, Los Angeles Times, and the Los Angeles Review of Booksto name a few.  He has published four books.

Over at The American Conservative, Gerald Russello reviews a recent collection of Scialabba essays: Slouching Toward Utopia: Essays & Reviews.

Here is a taste:

This collection covers what may broadly be called questions of political culture. Like the best philosophical critics, Scialabba wants to know how we can live our common life with dignity and justice. He considers writers like Ronald Dworkin, Christopher Lasch, Yuval Levin, Michael Sandel, and others to probe how best to achieve public goods. The goods Scialabba advocates, it should be obvious, are not aligned with mainstream conservative goals. And one can argue with Scialabba’s romance with a non-market economy in which redistributive justice has pride of place. The “utopia” toward which we are slouching is remote indeed.

But perhaps not that remote. In an interview republished here, “America Pro and Con,” Scialabba praises the “vigorous self-assertion of working classes and small proprietors, which I think as close to mass democracy as the world has come, was transformed, largely by the advent of mass production, into a mass society of passive, apathetic, ignorant, deskilled consumers.” That vision would attract not a few Benedict Optioners, and not only them.

Read the rest here.

The Best Black History Books of 2018

Jones BlackAs picked by the editors of Black Perspectives.

Authors include Martha Jones, Julius Scott, David Blight, Lillian Barger, Daina Ramey Berry, Keisha Berry, Gerald Horne, and Imani Perry.

Subjects include: slavery in antebellum America, the Haitian Revolution, Frederick Douglass, liberation theology, the slave trade, black nationalism, African Americans in the military, Black Lives Matter, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

See the list here.

Lepore: “Anyone who makes an identity-based claim for a political position has to reckon with the unfortunate fact that Stephen Douglas is their forebear, not Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass”

These TruthsEvan Goldstein of The Chronicle of Higher Education recently interviewed Jill Lepore about her new book, the academy, identity politics, and writing.

Here is a taste:

Q. How is the academy implicated in or imperiled by this moment of epistemological crisis?

A. The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.

Universities have also been complicit in letting sources of federal government funding set the intellectual agenda. The size and growth of majors follows the size of budgets, and unsurprisingly so. After World War II, the demands of the national security state greatly influenced the exciting fields of study. Federal-government funding is still crucial, but now there’s a lot of corporate money. Whole realms of knowing are being brought to the university through commerce.

I don’t expect the university to be a pure place, but there are questions that need to be asked. If we have a public culture that suffers for lack of ability to comprehend other human beings, we shouldn’t be surprised. The resources of institutions of higher learning have gone to teaching students how to engineer problems rather than speak to people.

Q. The university has been convulsed by debates around identity politics. You point out that identity politics, by other names, has always played a role in American life.

A. It’s impossible to talk about without pissing off a whole bunch of people no matter what you say, which is a flag that something is terribly wrong about the framing of the conversation.

Making political claims that are based on identity is what white supremacy is. To the degree that we can find that in the early decades of the country, it’s the position taken by, say, John C. Calhoun or Stephen Douglas arguing against Abraham Lincoln. The whole Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 comes down to Douglas saying, Our forefathers founded this country for white men and their posterity forever. And Lincoln, following on the writings of black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and David Walker and Maria Stewart, says, No, that’s just not true! Lincoln read in the founding documents a universal claim of political equality and natural rights, the universality of the sovereignty of the people, not the particularity. Anyone who makes an identity-based claim for a political position has to reckon with the unfortunate fact that Stephen Douglas is their forebear, not Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass.

Q. You get asked about your productivity a lot. I gather it’s a question you don’t like.

A. I sometimes say to people — this is like a 1930s thing to say, you can picture Barbara Stanwyck saying it in a noir film — it’s like complimenting a girl on her personality. It’s not about “You do good work,” it’s about “You do a lot of work.”

For a lot of people writing is an agony; it’s a part of what we do as scholars that they least enjoy. For me writing is a complete and total joy, and if I’m not writing I’m miserable. I have always written a lot. For years, before I wrote for The New Yorker, I wrote an op-ed every day as practice and shoved it in a drawer. It’s not about being published, it’s about the desire to constantly be writing. It’s such a strongly felt need that if it was something socially maladaptive it would be considered a vice.

Read the entire interview here.

The Problem of “Reconciling Irreconcilable Values”

FugitiveAndrew Delbanco‘s new book is titled The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul From the Revolution to the Civil War.  While I was on the road last week I listened to Delbanco’s interview with Terry Gross of National Public Radio.  I recommend it.

Over at The Atlantic, Delbanco explains what the 19th-century debate over slavery can teach us about our own contentious political moment.  Here is a taste:

With the united states starkly divided and with many Americans asking what kind of nation we are, it seems a good moment to look back to November 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, when Abraham Lincoln tried to answer the same question. Consecrating a Civil War battlefield where thousands of young men and boys had died four months before, he spoke of a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” For most Americans since, and for much of the world, those words have at­tained the status of scripture. We draw our sense of collective identity from them. They were, however, not strictly true, and Lincoln knew it.

Five years earlier, he had been more candid. Speaking in Chicago in the summer of 1858, Lincoln noted that when the republic was founded, “we had slavery among us,” and that “we could not get our Constitution unless we permitted” slavery to persist in those parts of the nation where it was already entrenched. “We could not secure the good we did secure,” he said, “if we grasped for more.” The United States, in other words, could not have been created if the eradication of human bondage had been a condition of its creation. Had Lincoln said at Gettysburg that the nation was con­ceived not in liberty but in compromise, the phrase would have been less memorable but more accurate.

The hard truth is that the United States was founded in an act of accommodation between two fundamentally different societies. As one Southern-born antislavery activist wrote, it was a “sad satire to call [the] States ‘United,’” because in one-half of the country slavery was basic to its way of life, while in the other it was fading or already gone. The Founding Fathers tried to stitch these two nations together with no idea how long the stitching would hold.

Read the rest here.

Fearing the Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty

Over at the blog of Harvard University Press, Francesca Lidia Viano has a fascinating post about why so many Americans have feared the Statue of Liberty.  The piece comes from her book Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty.

Here is a taste:

Americans started fearing the Statue even before she arrived in New York, in 1885, as a gift from the French. Many were puzzled or even upset that foreigners insisted on putting such a cumbersome gift in their harbor. But where did the fear of the Statue’s supposedly malign power come from?

One source certainly is the Statue’s appearance. Upon first arriving in New York harbor, Karl Rossmann, the immigrant protagonist of Franz Kafka’s Amerika, thinks he sees a sword rather than a torch in her upstretched hand. More recently, in the dystopian Man in the High Castle, the Statue, wearing a red sash with a swastika, raises her arm in a Nazi salute. Why is it so tempting to portray the Statue as aggressive? Though we seldom remember the circumstances, she was, in effect, born of hatred and vengeance. A year before sailing to New York, Bartholdi had fought in the Franco-Prussian war, in the Vosges, where Giuseppe Garibaldi had taken command of a troop of volunteers. They lost the war; Bartholdi’s hometown, Colmar, and all of Alsace fell into German hands. Bartholdi sailed to America to advertise his colossal statue of liberty (then of the Republic, as he called it), but not even this journey distracted him from his sorrows. While busy marketing the statue in New York and Philadelphia, Bartholdi drew sketches of a vindictive female embodiment of Alsace, bent over a wounded figure and raising her hand to curse the Germans (in a gesture reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty), her face green and contorted. At about the same time, Bartholdi added spikes to the simple diadem the Statue wore in all of his earlier models. Why?

Read the entire piece here.