Monday, November 20, 2017

Transgender History. The Roots of Today’s Revolution. Author: Susan Stryker.

Professor Susan Stryker has written a heavily revised version of her Transgender History. It is practically a new book. Just released in November 2017, this volume is an up-to-date examination of transgender/genderqueer history from its beginnings through the Trump election and the “explicitly transgender inclusive and affirming” Women’s Marches that occurred throughout the US on January 21, 2017 (Stryker, p. 235).

But this updated book is not just a history. It is also an exploration of gender-nonconforming community and an invitation to those (who are interested or isolated) to join. History is used as a way to both inform about the past and inform about the culture. A group’s history is part of its culture and this one has struggled against a great deal of prejudice. As a result, Stryker presents, through successes and setbacks, a people, a heritage and a set of individual activists, of whom a community member can be proud.

For all that is positive about this book, it does not begin well. After a stirring introduction, the first chapter is designed to dampen enthusiasm. It is entitled “Contexts, Concepts, and Terms,” and is a confusing bombardment of definitions. Considering that her community has not yet settled upon a definitive term of self-definition, this leaves the reader tangled in a morass of words. Further confounding the issue is Stryker’s continuing use of “Transgender” as an all-encompassing word. Stryker admits that, “in recent years, some people have begun to use the term transgender to refer only to those who identify with a binary gender other than the one they were assigned at birth” and that transgender is a 1990s term “similar to what genderqueer, gender-nonconforming and nonbinary mean now” (Stryker, p. 37). This chapter functions as a wet washcloth on the first embers of anticipation. It would have been better if the author had included some limited terminology in her introduction; and reworked this chapter as a glossary appended to the end.

The book truly begins in Chapter Two: “A Hundred Plus Years of Transgender History.” It portrays genderqueer history in the United States from the 1800s to the 1960s. Chapter Three, on “Trans Liberation,” overlaps slightly with the previous chapter, illustrating the rise of a human rights ethos within the community and activism from the 1950s through the 1970s. The last three chapters cover more contemporary developments in nonbinary history and community from the 1970s through today.

Professor Stryker is not afraid of confrontation. She is resolutely critical of prejudice from both the right and the left. While she defines herself as “transfeminist,” Stryker is critical of feminists who exclude transgender women from events that are for “women-born-women” only. She also takes aim at lesbian and gay organizations that were late in their support of gender-nonconforming people. But, as one might imagine, she is most expository regarding oppression directed at her community from the larger society, a topic faced throughout the narrative.

The last section in the book is particularly current. It is called “Backlash, Survival, and Resistance.” Stryker begins this section by reasoning that “it would be remarkable if all the historic changes in how society understands and accepts trans and gender-nonconforming people failed to produce a backlash among people hostile to changes” (Stryker, p. 226). She depicts the trajectory of reaction against the Obama years and progressive political gains for nonbinary and other minorities, which culminated in the Trump presidency. But her analysis is hopeful. After describing the Women’s March and the “trans inclusive” mass human rights work that produced it, she ends her narrative by citing Martin Luther King’s revision of a Theodore Parker quote: “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” As an activist, Stryker is not one to depend on historical determinism to secure that justice. She adds “we can do more than cross our fingers and hope for the best if we ourselves work together to bend our little corner of the universe in that direction” (Stryker, p. 236).

Stryker, Susan. Transgender History. The Roots of Today’s Revolution. New York: Seal Press, 2017.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Feminine and Opposition Journalism in Old Regime France. Le Journal des Dames. Author: Nina Rattner Gelbart.

In France, before the revolution of 1789, there existed three classifications of periodical publications: There were the official publications, which were licensed by the Royal Court, staffed by aristocratic royalists, and propounded sentiments acceptable to the monarchy. There were the underground publications which were illegal and included writings that ranged from pornography to political dissent. The third kind of publications were tolerated publications. These were periodicals with alternative or marginal views, attempting to convince the public to accept new propositions, who wished to reach a wider audience than the underground press.

Le Journal des Dames (1759 – 1778) falls into the tolerated category. Its 19-year history reflects the fluctuations in French politics during the Ancien Regime. In the author’s words, “these papers kept alive a dissenting journalistic spirit and fought to achieve the maximum press freedom possible under a system of censorship…Periods of leniency, such as the mid-1760s under [book trade minister] Choiseul and the mid-1770s under [ministers] Malsherbes and Turgot, encouraged the frondeur [opposition] journalists to believe that the reform and redefinition of social values would be possible within the  established order, but such periods of repression as Maupeou’s ministry and Le Camus de Neville’s directorship of the booktrade forced the frondeurs into  more subversive modes of discourse” (Gelbart, p. 291).

Though Le Journal des Dames would become a feminist publication, that was not its original purpose. The two first male owners and editors presented it as a confection to amuse bored aristocratic and middle class women by printing their writings. It failed miserably. But three successive female editors gave the paper its more serious purpose of encouraging women’s creativity and independence. The final set of editors were men who, although they valued women’s independence, were more interested in using Le Journal as a mouthpiece for anti-autocratic ideas, resulting in the paper’s final suppression.

Gelbart is a diligent academic historian. Unearthing the record of this forgotten periodical involved deep submersion in the stacks of eleven different French archives. The author’s dedication to historical accuracy is reflected in her narrative: Though she expresses a great deal of enthusiasm for the three female editors, when one of them writes that Le Journal was distributed by 81 booksellers throughout Europe, Gelbart is quick to point out that this claim was “a sham, a publicity stunt” (Gelbart, p. 112). Professor Gelbart would not sully years of intense research by allowing inaccurate statements to stand.

Throughout her work, this historian builds a case that “the Journal des Dames was the first French paper to encourage women to think, take a stance, and speak up…it worked with many opposition papers transmitting explosive combinations of subversive principles and values that would later find their fullest expression in Revolutionary discourse” (Gelbart, pp. 302-3). In presenting this view, Gelbart is patient, thorough and effective.

Gelbart, Nina Rattner. Feminine and Opposition Journalism in Old Regime France. Le Journal des Dames. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

American Visions. The Epic History of Art in America. Author: Robert Hughes.

American Visions is as much art criticism as it is Art History. But what penetrating, colorful art criticism! There are few recent critics whose power, daring and insight, match that of Robert Hughes. There are few writers whose careers are so eclectic that they include general history, art criticism and travel. Many art critics remain within a narrow cultural environment and a self-created cocoon of opinion, devoid of external influences. But Hughes’ broad self-education and world travel have provided a balance of experience that permits wider influence upon his perspective.

This offering covers painting, sculpture and architecture, in the United States from untrained Colonial painters through 1990s photographers. The author examines socio-political influences as well, showing how colonial artists faced a Puritan ethic that considered images blasphemous, and extending into the 1990s when conservatives forced censorship of art whose content they disapproved. This wide-ranging examination is supported by a format where large color photos depict the individual works and movements discussed. Unfortunately, there are no footnotes or bibliography; an artifact of devising a project that is less formally a history. If a writer is going to present controversial views or even just educate, she should support her assertions with documentation.

At the outset, Hughes is faced with a dilemma: The chief American painters were just not very good. Both Copley and Peale, the most well-known of the new republic’s painters, created some of the most appallingly stiff, expressionless and anatomically misshapen portraits of the 1700s. Both artists were admirably honest and humble about their skills. Copley avoided traveling to London, where he was encouraged to train, because he would have been “a sprat in an ocean of talent” (Hughes, p. 83). Peale candidly wrote to a friend “how far short I am…of the excellence of some painters, infinitely below that perfection…I have not the execution, have not the ability” (Hughes, p. 95). But Hughes is a polite Australian guest in the US, writing for an American audience. He rationalizes that the comically outsized head in Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere by writing “the assonance between its big smooth mass and that of the teapot…is surely meant to remind us of the identity between the craftsman and his work” (Hughes, p. 86). Surely not. Copley simply had no sense of proportion. It would have been more instructive about the development of skill in US artists if Hughes had been as blunt as Copley and Peale about their lack of talent. It isn’t until the career of Gilbert Stuart that we begin to see some semblance of proportion and expression among the portraitists who remained in the US.

Another problem comes much later in the book with the migration of Abstract Art across the Atlantic. It resulted in Abstract Expressionism; the first original art movement on US soil. The difficulties involved with a trend, where communication with an audience is not the goal of the artists, is treated in another article at this link   It is too extensive a conversation to be done justice here.

There are times when the colorful, enthusiastic writing of Robert Hughes, carries him away: “In the 1950s and 1960s Americans came to believe in the supremacy of their art” (Hughes, p. 465). The author may love aesthetic works that much, but the majority of US citizens ascribe little importance to art. For the most part however, Hughes has an excellent sense of history and artistic mood. His ability to pair an unrelated poem with a sculpture, or his interpretations of a work, are preternaturally spot-on. He can write movingly as he does of the Vietnam War Memorial: “the names of the dead on the black walls, in whose polished surfaces the living see themselves visually united with the dead. They take rubbings; they leave flowers; they kiss the names of those they have lost” (Hughes, p. 570). He can write bitingly: “Mabel Dodge Luhan was a mystagogue, an egoist, a sexual imperialist and much of the time an intolerable bitch” (Hughes, p. 389). His brashness, emblematic of his style, will force a reader to react emotionally, to take sides, to think. His colorful, opinionated demeanor, highly articulate and broad, drives the narrative and engages his audience. One will not be sleepwalking through this book.

Hughes, Robert. American Visions. The Epic History of Art in America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Antifa. The Anti-Fascist Handbook. Author: Mark Bray.

Since the ascent of Trump to the White House, more attention has been paid to the hateful rhetoric and terrifying violent attacks of the alt-right, white supremacists and fascists, against minorities. More attention has also been paid to Antifa, a loose confederation of groups that organize against those forces. Though the acts and photos of Antifa members have been ubiquitous in the media, who they are and what they stand for is not generally understood. Antifa. The Anti-Fascist Handbook will supply a reader with an insider’s perspective on their history, their members’ differing views and their activities.

Mark Bray, an Antifa activist, begins his elucidation by saying “I wish there were no need for this book. But someone burned down the Victoria Islamic Center in Victoria, Texas, hours after the announcement of the  Trump administration’s Muslim ban” (Bray, p. xi). He continues with a now familiar, record of the hundreds of attacks against minorities that have occurred since the inauguration of Trump. This is followed by a fascinating, and rarely taught, series of three chapters on the history of anti-fascist organizing. After a chapter summarizing historical lessons about the rise of fascism in different nations, the author spends the rest of his book on strategy and tactics for anti-fascist activists.

Before discussing the more controversial aspects of Antifa activism, namely their opposition to freedom of speech for fascists and their violent tactics of preventing speaking engagements and rallies from occurring, it is important to briefly examine their non-violent methods that are more in alignment with constitutional republican values. Antifa expends a great deal of effort on doxxing (photographing and otherwise identifying fascists at rallies and meetings, then presenting their activities to their employers, parents and communities, which results in pressure, and firings, for their fascist activities). They also teach self-defense, form neighborhood committees to protect targeted populations, create propaganda, recruit people to outnumber fascists at events, research far-right organizations, infiltrate fascist groups with spies, and carry-out creative non-violent actions like singing outside right-wing offices (Bray, pp. 168 & 188). The handbook can be a useful tool for groups who wish to organize against fascism, but are opposed to violent tactics and censorship. Since these are the majority of anti-fascists, Bray provides a useful service.

However, one cannot ignore the violent acts that Bray proudly depicts. In addition to organized campus actions that prevented right wing speakers (Bray, p. 176), he portrays individual acts of violence “in the Atlanta punk scene…someone walk[ed] into a show wearing a No Remorse [fascist music group] shirt…a black skinhead punched him four times, knocked him out, and dragged him outside by his feet completely unconscious…we completely made it so that these people are not accepted” (Bray, p. 70). He even presents overseas anti-fascist riots proudly, which occurred on a scale the US has not seen. In Greece, 2008, the police murdered an anarchist, triggering “a month of unparalleled insurrection…when the smoke cleared, approximately 200 million euros of property destruction had been committed” (Bray, p. 100). These are presented as anti-fascist successes; so presumably, we will see similar occurrences in the US if Antifa is successful here.

Now, on to Bray’s ideological support for violently suppressing freedom of speech. This is the section in which most people, regardless of political affiliation, are interested. This is where the line exists between Antifa and everyone who thinks that the Bill of Rights is a good idea. For Bray to get readers past reservations about violent censorship and recruit more activists, it was the place where he really needed to shine; to make his most cogent, thoughtful arguments. His explanation amounts to a disappointing failure of rationalizations for depriving those with whom one disagrees of their constitutional rights. Bray begins reasonably enough, arguing that “the American government already seriously limits what can be expressed…It restricts false advertisement, libel and television commercials for tobacco.” So there is a false assumption that “anti-fascism is the only threat to an otherwise pristine state of free speech” (Bray, p. 144). He warms to his discussion, following the history of censorship from our two Red Scares, through the brutal suppression of Occupy and Black Lives Matter protesters today (Bray, p. 145). The bedrock of his argument is that freedom of speech is imperfectly applied in the US. Incarcerated prisoners do not have the same level of freedom of speech as the rest of us. Corporations are considered by the Supreme Court to be people and have more than the rest of us. It is a poor argument for violent vigilante censorship. Most readers who are not driven by their fear of fascism, or caught-up in the crass emotionalism that replaces rational thought in such times, will conclude that permitting increased freedom of speech to those who need it, and curtailing corporate domination, are more reasoned courses of action. Freedom of Speech is an ideal, therefore imperfect by definition. The Constitution will always require deliberation and the US will always require vigilance around the protection of rights. There are more convolutions and rationalizations in the author’s argument, but a point-by-point refutation is beyond the scope of this review. Readers will undoubtedly make-up their own minds. Unlike Antifa’s goal, the purpose of this review is to inspire thought & discussion, not shut them down.

The next chapter is a continuing explication of tactics, both violent and non-violent. Where the previous chapter addressed freedom of speech, this one is designed for those who have misgivings about violence. “There are three main arguments that anti-fascists use to justify their occasional use of violence…First…‘rational debate’ and the institutions of government have failed to consistently halt the rise of fascism…Second, they point to the many successful examples of [using violence in]…shutting down…far-right organizing…Third, fascist violence often necessitates self-defense” (Bray, p. 169). Aside from self-defense, the other two arguments undermine our Constitution. They also undermine the anti-fascist movement. Though most anti-fascist activists are non-violent, everyone gets tarred with the Antifa brush. Since the media focuses upon the most violent scenes, even peaceful protesters who have shown-up to outnumber the fascists are thought to be violent and/or anti-Freedom of Speech. Antifa thereby provides a service for the fascists, who can deflect from their own brutality by arguing that they’re just good Americans defending themselves and their rights. US citizens watching the news will conclude that Antifa are also fascists because, they use the tactics traditionally associated with fascism. Fascism is actually a form of state rule by an elite group. That elite has a specific ethnic identity which, they assume, makes them superior to other ethnic groups. So Antifa is not literally fascist. But if they act like fascists, pedantic subtleties of definition will be lost on the average citizen watching TV or reading news accounts.

Bray does effectively counter that public sympathy is not the measure of a movement’s success and that “shifting spectrum of sympathy must be weighed against specific movement goals” (Bray, p. 185). It is important for the public, individuals working alongside Antifa and those considering joining Antifa, to know that their goal is not simply turning-back racism in a democracy. Their goal is a successful revolution to create a post-capitalist society. This is not a hidden agenda. Bray clearly states that “most American Antifa have been anarchists or antiauthoritarian communists” (Bray, p. 148), and that “anti-fascism is but one facet of a larger revolutionary project” (Bray, p. 159). He sees anti-fascism as “a stepping stone toward promoting revolutionary socialist consciousness more broadly” (Bray, p. 162). Liberal anti-fascists must recognize that the reason that our Constitution, methods and values, are not important to Antifa is because they are not dedicated to liberal democratic principles. When they employ violent and censorious behavior, they are not sacrificing something they value. Those of us who are not revolutionary communists, anarchists and socialists, will need to be judicious about where we work with them and what our vision is without them.

Bray presents “the liberal formula for opposing fascism…reasoned debate…police to counteract fascist violence…parliamentary government to counteract fascist attempts to seize power.” He honestly admits “there is no doubt that sometimes this formula has worked” (Bray, pp. 129-130). There is also no doubt that violent opposition, as in the case of Germany, Italy and Spain, has sometimes not worked. These facts are important to those of us who value democratic process and critical thought over violent solutions. If one thinks that the Constitution, equitable precepts and rational thought, are important to preserve, one employs constitutional methods against fascism to the very end. If the fascists do win, and the Constitution is then invalidated by authoritarian leaders and their mobs, then it’s time to physically defend one’s self against their excesses. But we should give our values every chance of success before tossing them aside and reaching for the nail-studded baseball bat.

Bray would no doubt argue that, by the time the fascists gain power, it will be too late to defend one’s self; and he may be right. As one whose Eastern European Jewish relatives, on both sides of my family, died in gas chambers, and one who is likely to be among the first dumped into a concentration camp, I am willing to risk a late violent response. I would only pick-up a gun when all hope of the Constitution working is lost. Our Constitution, and its freedom of speech, is that important to civilization. Everyone else can read and decide for themselves where they will draw their line. Readers still have the freedom to use their own minds; that is one of the best things about our Constitution.

Bray, Mark. Antifa. The Anti-Fascist Handbook. Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2017.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Orders to Kill. The Putin Regime and Political Murder. Author: Amy Knight.

Amy Knight’s expose book on the Putin Regime begins with an eye-opening depiction of how the current political system evolved and how it works. After the fall of the Soviet Union, President Boris Yeltsin disbanded the KGB spy service. This released a flood of spies who used their connections and skills to obtain positions in various areas of government and economy. Some began using their covert skills in support of the rising rich, some switched to other government branches, some became employees of the growing organized crime organizations. Relationships between former KGB agents knit these three groups together in a form of mutual support. There would always be competition between various factions and individuals, even killings, but they understood that maintaining their position depended on each other.

Then “Yeltsin, an impulsive, erratic leader, whose commitment to democracy was half-hearted, faced popular opposition and thus needed the police and security organs to keep him in power. So he systematically rebuilt these agencies…By the time Vladimir Putin became Russian president in 2000, the security services had become every bit as powerful as the former KGB” (Knight, p. 32). With Putin, a former KGB administrator, the cooperation between new security agencies, organized crime, new wealthy oligarchs and government became even more cohesive. The new president appointed many former KGB colleagues to the highest posts in government, called “power ministries.” These individuals are called “Siloviki.” They are “former members of the Communist Party. But they believe in economic nationalism, a centralized, authoritarian government, and the restoration of the supposed greatness of the Soviet Union” (Knight, p. 33). They also believe in amassing personal wealth and are willing to use corrupt practices to do so. With such cohesive power, economic ambition and their web of connections, they tolerate no internal dissent, political opposition or media scrutiny of their dealings. Hundreds of reporters and opposition politicians have been assassinated.

Because police and security agencies are part of the system that orders assassinations, subsequent trials convict trigger men, but not the functionaries ordering these murders. Even if a persistent, unconnected investigator or attorney were able to make a case, “telephone justice” determines the outcome: “a call from someone higher in rank than the judge or prosecutor giving instructions as to how the case should be resolved…telephone justice, accompanied often by monetary bribes, and even threats of violence, prevails…because Russia has no tradition of a democratic legal process” (Knight, p. 58).

After this depiction, Knight focuses specifically on the most high profile murders of pro-democracy politicians and journalists. This is where the author’s narrative moves from solid historical evidence to facts mixed with fuzzy speculation. Her examples exhibit a spectrum of reliability. On one end of this spectrum are murders that were likely carried-out by Putin’s government, such as the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London. There, the “British High Court in January 2016” concluded “that Litvinenko was killed most probably on Kremlin orders” (Knight, p. 8). On the other end of the spectrum are doubtful claims and a few frankly crack-pot theories, like the assertion that the Boston Marathon bombers of November 2011 were “pawns in the hands of Russian security services” (Knight, p. 254). In between these extremes are a multitude of cases tried in Russia where culpability cannot be properly ascertained due to government interference and absence of evidence. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the author’s investigative prowess or the strength of her cases. But even if one assassination of a pro-democracy victim were carried out by the Putin regime, it is an indictment of that regime’s integrity. Would the citizens of any legitimate democracy tolerate a murder committed by their president?

The question that should concern most US citizens, given Russia’s combined government-espionage-crime-business system, is: What kind of business relationship does Donald Trump have with Russia? The CIA, FBI and NSA, agree that Russian espionage efforts attempted to disrupt US elections to favor Trump. Business relations do exist between Trump and this nefarious Russian system. Donald Trump, for his part, has expressed a perplexing, admiration for Putin that has persisted in spite of hacking and international aggression by Russia. Trump has even gone so far as to defend the murders discussed in Knight’s book. When Fox News Host, Bill O’Reilly, reminded Trump that “Putin was a killer,” Trump responded “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?” (Knight, p. 280). The current President of the United States even fired the FBI director investigating Russian election interference, and bragged to Russian diplomats that he did it to ease pressure from the investigation.**  The connection between Trump’s businesses and Putin’s criminal system should be fully disclosed.

Amy Knight writes with aplomb that Putin is directly responsible for the ever growing piles of journalist and opposition politician corpses in Russia. She catalogs the evidence and conclusions of others with the dedicated hand of a court stenographer. But, for all of her confidence, she is not a convincing prosecutor. She lacks both the necessary evidence and the sleuthing ability to place a smoking gun in the hands of a Putin functionary. The most she can do, from the safety of North America, is to introduce the statistical likelihood that, out of the crushing hundreds of assassinations, Putin is responsible for at least a few. The victims deserve a more probing book. Unfortunately, most of those who attempted first-hand investigation have already been killed. So perhaps being an ally to opposition journalists and compiling the cases is all we can ask a writer to risk.

However, this does not detract from what the book provides for US and international audiences. First, it creates a clear picture of the collaborators with, and agencies of, Putin’s regime. Second, it presents a record of assassinations, revealing a consistent pattern of violence against regime critics. Though a reader will not observe a direct connection between Putin and any individual crime, she will find her view of Russian politics expanded.

Knight, Amy. Orders to Kill. The Putin Regime and Political Murder. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

** “Trump Told Russians That Firing ‘Nut Job’ Comey Eased Pressure From Investigation.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 May 2017,

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture. By TCW Blanning.

As the author concisely states: “This book is a comparative study of the development of political culture in Europe from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth century…the focus is chiefly on Great Britain, France and the Holy Roman Empire. Its central thesis is that during this period a new cultural space developed, which posed new challenges to regimes and their ruling orders. Alongside the old culture, centered on the courts and the representation of monarchical authority, there emerged a ‘public sphere’, in which private individuals come together to form a whole greater than the sum of the parts … ‘public opinion’ came to be recognized as the ultimate arbiter in matters of taste and politics. These changes presented regimes with both a challenge and an opportunity” (p. 2).

Tim Blanning’s introductory framework is a restatement of Jurgen Habermas’s ideas, from The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. But, there are important disagreements between the two. Blanning attempts to depart from Habermas by “clear[ing] away” his predecessor’s “insistence on the ‘bourgeois’ nature of the public sphere” and “its allegedly oppositional orientation” to 18th Century regimes (Blanning, p. 14). That he fails to clear away either will be explained in the course of this review. But he does provide a significant history. His examination is richly informative and applies public sphere theory to an expanded range of political environments. Habermas focused his initial examination on France. Blanning surveys France, Britain and the Holy Roman Empire. By doing so, he is able to exhibit how other early modern authorities dealt differently with this newly formed cultural space.

An important revelation is that the challenge of the public sphere did not have to result in violent revolution, as it did in France. Great Britain was able to adapt to public opinion. It had a monarch who projected a moral character admired by middle and working class subjects, and a Parliament that prided itself on liberty to an extent not mirrored in France. There were factors ignored by Blanning: Part of the island’s advantage over 18th Century France was in having an economy where, thanks to imperialism and industrialism, fewer commoners went hungry. While these conditions were immediately harmful to subjects, slaves and colonies, they gave the government time to acclimatize to democracy.

The Holy Roman Empire is a more problematic example. Blanning’s focal point is Frederick II’s Prussia. This historian sees Frederick as Frederick saw himself: as an enlightened despot. Certainly, Frederick II deserves credit for fostering the arts, censoring publications less than France did, surrounding himself with Philosophes and talking a good game. But he didn’t “create” the Prussian public sphere as Blanning claims (Blanning, p. 227). Neither did he make “contributions to the formation of a public sphere” (Blanning, p. 223). This arena was evolving in his nation in spite of monarchy; not because of it. One should be more judicious in evaluating this king: Frederick allowed “some freedoms of the press” (Blanning, p. 224). He joined the liberalizing Freemasons (Blanning, p. 226). He wrote articles that were widely read. Some credit is due. It may even be true, as the historian claims, that Frederick II “was a genius…as a political theorist, historian, poet, dramatist, composer and flautist, he would deserve his niche in any cultural history” (Blanning, p. 227). But a careful reader needs to look past Blanning’s colossal man crush to examine the workings of power. A monarch has privileges of action and expression that others do not. The public sphere is an arena of thought experiments and debate. But the only times that the author quotes someone criticizing Frederick’s ideas is when that person is outside of Prussia. Moser disagrees with the king over Shakespeare from the safety of Osnabruck (Blanning, p. 251). Writers for the Hamburgische Neue Zeitung dispute Frederick’s evaluation of German literature from their free city (Blanning, p. 262). No evidence is shown of Prussians debating their king over literature. Also, what is not publicly spoken is as important as what is spoken. Literary criticism is one thing, but the menace of authority would not permit one to excoriate governmental shortcomings in Prussia. Frederick did not contribute to the growing public sphere; he controlled it in some areas and usurped unrivaled privileges of expression in others.

Part of the author’s misperception of monarchical government lies in a basic misunderstanding of power. Blanning’s Introduction states “in 1679, Louis XIV obliged Frederick William…to return to Sweden all the territory conquered…not by force of arms…but by his aura of authority” (Blanning, p. 5). Earlier, he says it was “the success of the British and Prussian states in adapting their political cultures which enabled them to achieve success in war” (Blanning, p. 3). While factors like an aura of authority or a modern political culture may contribute to success, the ability to do violence and visceral fear are far more persuasive motivators. Frederick William knew that France had the largest modern army in Europe and immense wealth to support a protracted war. Power is not as intellectual a force as Blanning presents. So he depicts Frederick as an enlightened participant in the public sphere without seeing how his threat gave him control. He shows British government reasonably bending to public opinion, without understanding that behind this civility loomed their memory of Civil War, and numerous bloody revolts, which produced a taste for compromise and stability.

When examining history, one must look forward as well as backward from an event to understand it in context. The history of the public sphere is one of a public applying pressure to authoritarian governments to produce changes. The scope of Blanning’s book only shows the period of 1660 - 1789. So he neither sees back to the series of the aforementioned armed conflicts in England, nor ahead to the results of public sphere pressure. The history of British monarchical & aristocratic government is one of bending so far that it was eventually bent-over. The UK gradually achieved full suffrage, between petitions and revolts, because government eventually accommodated over three centuries of pressure. In the German principalities consistent pressure, memories of the French Revolution and occurrences like the Revolution of 1848, eventually led to government concessions. Public opinion favoring democracy, educated over years of legal and censored writing, along with the Kaiser’s loss in World War I, produced Germany’s first republic. In the long view, a persistent, inextinguishable public voice desiring equal participation (along with the threat or actuality of violence), won in Europe.

Blanning’s failure to see the dominance of the bourgeoisie in the public sphere is puzzling. Monarchs and aristocrats did write, and create institutions, outside of the court. But the institutions they produced were fairly exclusive. The author’s own statistics regarding European musical events, show that middle class individuals attended middle class venues and aristocrats attended aristocratic venues. When liberal aristocrats opened their events to the populace, few subjects could afford tickets (Blanning, pp. 172-3). If institutions are not available to the public, they cannot impact the public sphere. Concerning publicity and writing, aristocrats were a small minority of the participants. Many of them supported ideas that would improve conditions for the middle class. In general, public sphere publicity benefitted the middle class and diminished aristocratic power. Saying that the public sphere was not bourgeois is like saying that Black Lives Matter is not an African American cause, because a minority of white people are involved.

Though Blanning fails to disprove Habermas with his notions, that the public sphere was neither bourgeois nor antagonistic to the traditional power structure, his study has a great deal of merit. His central thesis, quoted at the outset, remains intact. This study is broader, though not deeper, than Habermas. He examines more nations, showing how they avoided revolution through accommodation and usurpation of public sphere vehicles. It is unfortunate that a writer, with “power” in his title, does not understand how power over people is different from power with people. But the author’s survey is thoughtful and coherent. He remains on-point throughout a lengthy project. More importantly, one can understand him. As Blanning observes, “even native German speakers have difficulty deciphering [Habermas’s] tortuous prose” (Blanning, p. 6). Readers of English who have found translations of Habermas to be a scrum of concepts, should pick-up The Culture of Power. Habermas may have had an original and brilliant theory, but Blanning explains and exemplifies it with superior clarity. Able writing, coupled with broader application, make this work a valuable contribution to history and public sphere theory.

Blanning, TCW. The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture. Old Regime Europe 1660-1789

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. By Patricia Buckley Ebrey.

For a historian writing a book that covers a great swath of time or region, there are pitfalls which are difficult to avoid. The mass of information can overwhelm an author to such a degree that marshalling facts like significant dates, names of rulers and wars, result in a text composed of desolate rote data.  But that data is important evidence which cannot be disregarded.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey has performed a masterful job of solving this problem. Her subject, China, is lengthy in history, wide in regional influence, vast in geographical proportions, incomparable in population and important in modern geopolitical power. Fortunately, she has structured her narrative with such balance that it breathes with humanity. All the necessary mechanical facts are present, interwoven with a plethora of information on culture, individuals and experiences of the Chinese people. Ebrey gives special attention to artistic and intellectual developments. She highlights movements and personages responsible for social, political and cultural change. She provides snapshots of daily peasant life and emphasizes conditions for women during each age; in a society with a notable history of suppressing both of these groups. Ebrey emphasizes that China is a collection of many conquered and amalgamated ethnic groups with distinctive attributes. Her presentation of softer realities (culture, humanity and transformation), within a framework of hard chronological facts, is a balancing act that will provide readers with a holistic picture of China’s history.

Ebray does fall down near the end of her study. The last two chapters, from China’s revolution to the present, compress too many sociopolitical changes and events into 66 pages. The author is unable to present a form or conclusion during this bombardment of information. The reader is presented with chronology, but superficial analysis. In this circumstance, the reader is as flattened as the author under the weight of an unmanageable rush of developments. Clearly, the author’s forte is the presentation of history. Her ability to present current events, or the connection between current events and history, is in question.

But the structural breakdown that befell the last two chapters does not detract from Ebrey’s stellar accomplishment. She has presented the history of an immense topic in an effective manner. For a non-fiction reader to benefit from an extensive text, there must be something human on which to adhere. When a historian presents humanizing information within a chronological framework, it gives the audience an experience of empathy with the topic. This empathy enhances one’s ability to remember facts. If one feels empathy towards women subjected to foot-binding, one is more likely to remember the time period in which it occurred or the class of Chinese who practiced it. If one develops an appreciation of Chinese painting, one is more likely to remember what was happening in the environment in which it was produced. These humane keys are scattered throughout Ebrey’s narrative, giving the reader a means to manage the volume of information and connect to China’s past. This technique also encourages lifelong learners to pursue further improvement and education by looking for materials that address subjects they found interesting in the text. In general, readers will retain substantial information and develop greater interest in China because of Ebrey’s technique. More historians should examine what she has done if they wish to inspire interest in their topic.

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.