Sunday, December 21, 2014

Prague in Black and Gold by Peter Demetz

“I wish to sketch a few selected chapters of a paradoxical history in which the golden hues of proud power and creative glory, of emperors, artists and scholars, and restive people, are not untouched with the black of suffering and the victims’ silence” (Demetz, p. xii).

Above is the key sentence in Peter Demetz’s preface to Prague in Black and Gold, which explains both the title and his approach to the city’s history. Prague was a distinctly multi-ethnic mix. Though it was divided largely between Czech and German populations, Jews comprised a significant minority (peaking at 25% of the citizenry in 1705), followed by a small but prominent population of Italians.

As a professor of  Literature at Yale and former resident of Prague, Demetz is true to his word, offering “sketches” rather than extensive, methodical chronology. After a tedious but foundation-setting first chapter on the origins of the city, the author presents some colorful depictions. King Otakar, Emperor Charles IV, Jan Hus, Rudolph II, Mozart and T.G. Masaryk, are all presented in individual chapters where they overlay, influence and are influenced by a changing cultural variety residents. Prague in Black and Gold is a series of moments set in historical order. Demetz will rush through 150 years within two pages, then will lovingly describe an episode or individual for most of a chapter. The author focuses on what he thinks is significant or what interests him personally. The Polish Kings, who ruled Prague from 1471 to 1526, get a few scattered sentences over two pages, while Mozart (who only visited Prague four times) rates a chapter.

Demetz writes what he likes, adding a great number of personal impressions to his history. But what he writes is insightful and not infrequently lyrical. There is little place for the personal among our modern, clinical, more scientific schools of history. Undeniably, an impersonal, empirical approach is most often going to yield a less prejudiced, factual representation of events. But Demetz’s highly individualistic account presents an astute angle that teaches much and is rarely boring.

One area where it would be helpful for Demetz to learn from more evidenced-based historians concerns documentation. There is a fine, chapter by chapter bibliography, but no footnotes or endnotes. With such undisciplined scholarship, a good writer can carelessly and convincingly fabricate. Notes are both evidence and markers. They permit information to be verified and keep a writer from straying too far from fact. Historians who do not supply evidence and make their books a collection of impressions or free-hand writing, are merely storytellers. For example, the execution of Jan Hus is presented as a calm, poetic and dignified end to a man of great integrity. After the wood around his stake was lit, the author writes that Hus simply “began to sing aloud.” Then, “when the flames blew in his face, he only prayed silently and after a while died” (Demetz, p. 145). It is hard to imagine that any human being could maintain such serene piety, without crying-out in anguish, while the flesh was being melted from his bones. Maybe Hus was capable of displaying a behavior different from the rest of humanity; but there is no way for us to know since the event is presented without citation.

Prague in Black and Gold is a pensive, melancholy rumination by a capable writer. Demetz feels deeply and struggles concerning his subject. Much of his conflicted perspective is rooted in his own history there: his Jewish mother deported to her death by the Nazis; his life interrupted by totalitarian Communist take-over and personal exile. The “paradoxical history” of creative “golden hues” and “black suffering” in Prague is also that of the author. While the personal invades and skews the historical picture, it presents a unique and often perspicacious view that only someone who has lived the black and gold can write.

Demetz, Peter. Prague in Black and Gold. New York: Hill and Wang, 1997.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Gay New York. Gender, Urban Culture and the making of the Gay Male World 1890 - 1940 by George Chauncey

George Chauncey presents a vivid portrait of New York gay male culture in the years between 1890 and 1940. It is a rich, highly documented study that relies on evidence ranging from interviews and biographical accounts by gay men, to the less friendly testimony of police spies and citizen vigilantes attempting to contain this milieu. The result is a panorama of gay neighborhoods and meeting places that thrived during this period.

The book begins with scenes of an active 1890s “subculture of the flamboyantly effeminate ‘fairies’…who gathered at Paresis Hall and other Bowery resorts.” Many of these men are described as prostitutes directly employed by the owners, or passively encouraged because they enticed customers. While Chauncey is quick to point-out that this “was not the only gay subculture in the city,” it does begin the book on a sensationalist note (Chauncey, p. 34). It might have been more useful to progress from interviews and biographies showing private gay home life, relationships and friendships, which would have illustrated the solid foundation of gay community, but the beginning would have been less exciting.

From this unfortunate start, Chauncey progresses improvingly by depicting the attitudes of men who defined themselves positively as “queers” and “fairies.” This counters the myth that all gay men at the time had internalized the dominant culture’s negative image of them. Self-esteem existed prior to the activism of our current period. The book progresses from the Gay Nineties through the 1930s, when a number of proudly gay entertainers headlined Greenwich Village and Harlem night spots widely attended by the straight community. Chauncey does not pretend that the 1890s through the 1930s were free of harassment and prejudice. He spends a great deal of time highlighting assaults upon the gay male community during this period. But one cannot deny the evidence of a thriving public and private gay culture before World War Two.

While the elaboration of life from home to street is fascinating and opens the reader to a world presumed invisible if non-existent, Chauncey is a historian with a wider purpose. A common assumption is that US gay culture progressed, in a linear trajectory, from concealment to free expression; from oppression to acceptance. “The Whiggish notion that change is always ‘progressive’ and that gay history in particular consists of a steady movement toward freedom continues to have appeal” to the LGBT community and its optimistic allies (Chauncey, p. 9). Chauncey offers evidence that gay male culture was more visible, tolerated and permeable to outsiders between 1890 and 1930 than it was between 1945 and 1960. He claims that a “post-war reaction has tended to blind us to the relative tolerance of the pre-war years” (Chauncey, p. 9). Our lack of knowledge about this early 20th Century flourishing oasis is largely due to the success of post-war repression.

Despite the eye-opening, socially progressive purpose of the author’s work, his relative exclusion of lesbians will rankle with some readers. Chauncey self-consciously explains that “the book focuses on men because the differences between gay male and lesbian history and the complexity of each made it seem virtually impossible to write a book about both that did justice to each” (Chauncey, p. 27). This justification rings a bit hollow, since lesbians and gay men lived in the same neighborhoods and frequented many of the same social spaces.

Chauncey should be congratulated on his extensive coverage of African American life. Unlike his justification for excluding lesbians, Chauncey does not argue that the differences between Caucasian and African American history “made it seem virtually impossible to write a book about both.” While many white gay clubs excluded African American men, Harlem of the early 20th Century has a bountiful history of gay neighborhood cohesion, clubs and drag balls, which the author portrays in enthusiastic detail.

Gay New York may have its flaws and blind spots, but it is a significant adjunct to LGBT history. The myths of invisibility, isolation and self-abnegation are aptly countered by its testimony. It depicts a strong, vibrant and cohesive community that thrived for a period before being driven underground by prejudice. While the author’s coverage of post-war suppression is difficult to read, it is an important episode to face. The chronology from a more open and tolerated gay culture to one that was repressed, warns us that the forces of intolerance are persistent. We must be vigilant in order to retain recent LGBT gains.

Chauncey, George. Gay New York. Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

For review of a LGBT book on anarchist support for LGBT rights during this time in US history, see:

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Pissarro. His Life and Work by Ralph Shikes and Paula Harper

Most biographies of Impressionists shower the reader with scenes of innovative artists standing in French fields, peacefully painting light and color with a wide palette. Certainly, there are enough such scenes in any book about Camille Pissarro. But because of who he was, the additional dimensions of his politics and ideas would have to be examined. Pissarro was an anarchist and an atheist of Jewish extraction, as well as a leading member of his generations’ most revolutionary artistic movement.

The authors who wrote this biography are politically suited to sympathetically cover Pissarro’s radicalism. Ralph Shikes was Public Relations Director for both The National Citizen’s Political Action Committee and Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party, as well as having written for “The Nation.” He established the Shikes Fellowship for Civil Liberties & Civil Rights, at Harvard Law School.* Paula Harper was described as "one of the first art historians to bring a feminist perspective to the study of painting and sculpture"**.

For politically-minded readers, the authors do not disappoint. They suffuse their entire portrait of the artist with discussion of his anarchist and radical views. Not only do they show Pissarro actively involved with fellow anarchists (primarily through his illustrations for periodicals, political contacts and quotes of topical views), but additionally they discuss his painting in radical political terms. “Artists who painted in a non-academic, unconventional style…were attracted to anarchism’s stress on the rejection of authority and the exaltation of the individual” (Shikes & Harper, p. 226). The authors analyze Pissarro’s figures, pointing out that the people he chose to represent were “people in humble circumstances, the class to which he was consistently attracted most of his life” (Shikes & Harper, p. 30). Even when he is painting scenes of natural beauty without humans, the artist is aware of his revolutionary motives: “Pissarro…noted, ‘Proudhon says in La Justice that love of earth is linked with revolution, and consequently with the artistic ideal’” (Shikes & Harper, p. 67).

Pissarro’s anarchism and sense of social justice are closely related to his atheism. “Pissarro, a convinced atheist, felt that religious beliefs were a dangerous hindrance to social reform” (Shikes & Harper, p. 157). While the biographers mention several times that Pissarro was an atheist, they fail to explore his thoughts on the subject beyond its political implications.

Not just his politics, but also his life and times are seen through a radical lens. Shikes and Harper portray the artist’s ancestors as Marrano Jews who escaped the Spanish Inquisition, immigrated to Portugal and from there to St Thomas in the Virgin Islands. In spite of this experience of persecution, Pissarro’s family owned two slaves until slavery was abolished in 1848 (Shikes & Harper, p. 20). Later in Paris, the authors present the artist and his views against a backdrop of changing political regimes, French imperialism in Indochina, the Paris Commune and the socio-political scene of Pissarro’s subculture. Towards the end of the book, and the end of Pissarro’s life, Shikes and Harper discuss the Dreyfus Affair and resulting anti-Semitism endured by their subject from both society at large and his artistic circle. Renoir and Degas were both anti-Dreyfusards and anti-Semites, whereas Sisley and Monet sided with progressives and Pissarro on the issue (Shikes & Harper, pp. 304-309).

For an artistically sensitive, apolitical reader, this book would not be the best of choices unless that person were seeking to expand her horizons. By the same token, Pissarro's life itself would not be an enjoyable topic for any apolitical reader. But those who are art-focused, and political from any perspective, will find a great deal to activate their thinking in this book.

Shikes, Ralph E. & Harper, Paula. Pissarro. His Life and Work. New York: Horizon Press, 1980.

*"Ralph E. Shikes Is Dead at 79; Publisher, Editor and Art Writer." The New York Times. The New York Times, 31 Mar. 1992. (Web. 10 Oct. 2014).

**Grady, Denise. "Paula Hays Harper, Art Historian, Is Dead at 81." The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 June 2012. (Web. 10 Oct. 2014).

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Great Influenza by John M Barry.

John M. Barry is an impressive individual. His ability to self-educate while writing books has led to appointments on various policy boards as an expert advisor. The publication of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, resulted in Barry’s appointment to The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East and The Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. The work that this review focuses upon, The Great Influenza, led to his work on the federal government’s Infectious Disease Board of Experts. Without any background in medicine, public policy or geoscience, this is quite a set of achievements.

The Great Influenza demonstrates that Barry’s gifts are not limited to learning alone, but include an ability to impart that learning in an engaging manner. It is a highly informative, exploration of the struggle to defeat a pandemic by the best minds in US medical science. The book begins by examining the progress in medical science up until the point of the pandemic’s beginnings, then introduces “the warriors” who fought it.  Barry’s insightful portraits of the scientists involved serve to acquaint the reader with brilliant and high-achieving individuals in whose quest one becomes involved. This is followed by a useful explanation of influenza’s pathophysiology. Subsequent chapters comprise an interspersion of scientific investigation and experiences of communities during the epidemic’s progress.

Unfortunately, there is an overriding ethnocentrism to the book. Despite the worldwide effects of the 1918 pandemic, Barry only sparsely covers research efforts in Europe. While it is undoubtedly true that many in European medical science were consumed by the war effort, there were still independent researchers exploring a cure for influenza. Also, Barry’s portraits of communities devastated by and responding to the epidemic are almost entirely US examples. The rest of the world suffered as well. This ethnocentrism even taints the author’s representation of theory. Barry states “epidemiological evidence suggests that a new influenza virus originated in Haskell County Kansas” (Barry, p. 92), without mentioning that this is only one of many possible scenarios. In fact, the most recent theories indicate that the disease originated in China (Vergano, p. 1). If the book were entitled Influenza in the United States, it could be considered comprehensive. But that is not the case.

In service to engaging his reader, the author sometimes goes over the top to elicit emotion. “An infection is an act of violence; it is an invasion, a rape” (Barry, p. 107). This is not responsible history or science reporting. But this emotionalism is occasional. Barry generally captures the drama without losing the thread of history. He writes absorbingly and presents the information capably. Writing ability cannot be underestimated. If a historian cannot keep the attention of their reader, the information she wishes to convey will be lost to all but the most intrepid student.

The Great Influenza concludes with a discussion of contemporary influenza scares and epidemics. Ever the policy board expert, Barry emphasizes the importance of governments and media being honest with the public. He talks about how efforts to prevent panic, by hiding the seriousness of the 1918 occurrence, caused people to mistrust government and media when the true extent of the crisis was revealed to them. Government and media could no longer communicate with a suspicious public, hampering collective efforts to contain the spread. Through his extensive study and subsequent national positions, Barry is uniquely positioned to offer useful approaches to combat future epidemics.

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza. New York: Penguin Group Inc., 2009.

Vergano, Dan. "1918 Flu Pandemic That Killed 50 Million Originated in China, Historians Say." National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 23 Jan. 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Alexander von Humboldt. A Metabiography by Nicholaas A. Rupke.

Metabiography studies the relationship between the individual portrayed in a biography and the socio-political context of the writer. It is an offshoot of metahistory, as first elucidated by Hayden White in his 1973 Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe, which views the relationship of a period or event to the socio-political context of the historian. The focus of such examinations is more upon what they reveal about the writer, her time and her influences, than what they say about the subject.

Nicholaas A. Rupke admirably performs an immense task by both instructing his readership about what metabiography is, as well as tackling the subject of Alexander von Humboldt and his representation in the continually changing landscape of Germany. He begins by discussing the conflicting perceptions of Humboldt during his lifetime, when both the revolutionaries of 1848 and their opposition, the monarchists, laid claim to Humboldt. Both have a point; Humboldt was a courtier of King Frederick William IV, while simultaneously writing letters that were critical of the king and democratic in their ideals. Rupke follows Humboldt scholarship through Germany’s many periods of change.

Perhaps the most profound example of differing socio-political perceptions of Humboldt is exemplified by the whiplash speed with which images of the scientist were altered between World War II and the Post-War period. During the war, the Nazi Party laid claim to Humboldt as an example of German superior genius. After the war, as Germany was divided between East and West, two differing national perceptions of the subject developed. East Germans emphasized features like his abolitionist values (as a criticism of the US), his work as a mining inspector (to develop his proto-communist worker credentials) and his anti-colonial remarks (a criticism of Western European powers). In West Germany, scholars emphasized Humboldt’s familiarity with the West (i.e. his living in France and writing major works in French), and his relationships with cosmopolitan Jews in order to de-Nazify him.

During the course of this book, my primary question was “Who is monitoring the socio-political influences of the metabiographer? This is not an attempt to play “gotcha” with a superior writer. Rupke is a brilliant, careful historian. But even the best writer will let biases slip-out if given a long enough project. The following is in the spirit of Rupke’s own self-reflection, where he states “this book itself now becomes part of the raw material for further metastudy” (Rupke, p. 217).

As a Dutch historian of science, who has worked in Britain and the US, Rupke’s Western European and Cold War views are visible in his work. In his discussion of post-war Germany, he refers to East German studies of Humboldt as “shrill political rhetoric” (Rupke, p. 141). While he does credit East German efforts in establishing “the most extensive basis of primary sources” (Rupke, p. 175), Rupke also claims that “West Germans were not under pressure to argue the legitimacy of their state” (Rupke, p. 144). I doubt this latter claim is so. Let us use the author’s own example of Werner Heisenberg, who was the first post-war president of the Humboldt Foundation. Prior to the war, Heisenberg expressed his admiration for Jewish scientist Albert Einstein. During the war, Heisenberg did not join the Nazi Party; but he did work for the Nazis on Hitler’s project to build an atomic bomb.  This was an individual in a conflicted relationship with the Nazi Party, employed to direct Humboldt scholarship by a nation equally conflicted in its relationship with the Nazi Party. The resulting scholarship was designed to “serve the cause of rapprochement between…West Germany and its occupying powers” (Rupke, p. 141). How is this not a “pressure to argue the legitimacy of their state”?

Another element of Rupke’s study that expresses a Western European/US bias is his characterization of “Spanish-American interest in Humboldt, taking at times the form of hero worship” (Rupke, p. 134). While this may be true in some quarters, there is also a strong anti-colonial tendency in Latin American historiography where some native authors would be unlikely to regard a white western explorer as a hero. However, a Germanophile westerner from a colonizing culture may not hear these voices and create a balanced view.

Thirdly, there is an interesting passage where Rupke refers to German citizen Carl Troll as a “collaborator” with the Nazis. This is an unusual choice of words, designed to separate “passive fellow travelers” from “active collaborators” (Rupke, p. 156). But a collaborator is someone who aids a foreign, invading power in its domination of a country. The Nazi Party was not a foreign power victimizing Germany, it was an elected political body supported by the majority of German citizens. It would be hard to imagine a Jewish historian defining wartime German citizens as collaborators. Conversely, it is probably difficult for a historian working among Germans to avoid insulating himself from the notion that this was once a nation which caused such widespread harm.

So Rupke’s book presents examples of how metabiographies or metahistories themselves are influenced by socio-political environment. Further, even how one views the purpose of metabiography is altered by environmental influences. Rupke chose to study Humboldt. He did so in the context of a Germany, whose politics have changed so dramatically and rapidly in the course of his lifetime, that he concluded “the task of metabiography is primarily to explore the fact and the extent of the ideological embeddedness of biographical portraits, not to settle the issue of authenticity” (Rupke, p. 214). Ideology is a system of ideas, not necessarily a system of beliefs, which are based more upon religious feeling than intellectual conclusions. If Rupke were performing a metabiography of Charles Darwin in the context of Kansas, would he change his characterization of the task of metabiography to exploring “the fact and extent of the ideological and belief-based embeddedness of biographical portraits”? Since Rupke himself states that “the issues we raise come from contemporaneous anxieties and interests” (Rupke, p. 215), it is clear that even the defined purpose of metabiography is susceptible to such influences.

History is a tangle of individual points of view on periods, events and people. The methods of metahistory and metabiography seek to untangle this fascinating mess of perspectives. But in the end, they simply represent the views of more individuals who have their own biases and personal colorings when observing historical evidence. It is only an ideal that historians employ the methods of science; using empirical evidence and primary sources to draw conclusions. Aside from the most basic conclusions (i.e. “We have evidence that Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin), the ideas engendered by the evidence are products of individuals with their own socio-political backgrounds. For this reason, history is as much Art as Science, (but not in a good way). Art is all about the individual perspective of the artist in a creation. History is a combination of evidence with personal creation. All of this means that a reader of history is required to have a more active role than simply reading and taking-in what one is being told. The reader is required to parse the Art from the Science; the personal coloring from the empirical evidence. This is the only way for one to determine wherein lays historical accuracy. The reader is actually required to be a historian of the piece that they are reading. One must ask whether a statement is backed-up with reference to a primary source that directly states or proves what the author claims, or whether the statement is a product of the author’s imagination. The answer will not always be clear. To cloud matters further, one must also take into account one’s own socio-political background and explore how one’s own ideas are colored. But this is the challenge of history and where active learning occurs. When one reads a history book, one learns not only some facts about the past; one learns how to investigate. The ability to investigate, to ask questions and go about answering them, is a valuable tool for an active mind; a tool that will serve a reader in most other aspects of life.

The study of history has been in the midst of a transitional period for a few decades; at least since Hayden White first began exploring the socio-political perspectives of the historians themselves. It is a somewhat confusing period where historians can no longer just tell stories and readers can no longer just read them. Since the examination of bias, based upon the historian’s and the reader’s socio-political views entered the equation, the study of history has been in a crisis (but not in a bad way). A crisis is a turning point; a decisive or critical moment. We are in the midst of more questions than answers about historiography. I’m not sure where this period of questioning will lead. But eventually someone smarter than me will develop a few useful answers and strategies. These will result in intellectual growth and new ideas about how to approach history for more accurate portrayals. For all we know, the kernel of truth may be somewhere in our biology; at least we all have that in common. Then again, maybe this is all just something I’d say because I’m merely a product of my socio-political environment.

Rupke, Nicholaas A. Alexander von Humboldt. A Metabiography. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang GmbH, 2005.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The House of Rothschild by Niall Ferguson.

The House of Rothschild is a two volume banking history. While the enthusiast of social history or biography will still find useful information, the main focus is on the rise of the first international bank. Those seeking a “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” show should look elsewhere. While this offering lacks sensationalism, there is a good deal of drama: Political and economic relationships, strategies for overcoming the competition and the rise from a poor Frankfurt underclass to eminent positions of influence in Europe, provide genuine plot without superficial glitz.

The research that went into the writing of this tome is impressive. Ferguson scoured the archives of London, Paris and Moscow. The richest trove of information he uses as evidence, is correspondence between the partners and relatives. There are 5830 source notes and 53 pages of bibliography between the two volumes. There had to be days for the author where a mallet to the head appeared preferable to reading another letter.

Given the importance of economics to the subject, one will need to have either an understanding of monetary investment instruments, or a desire to Google frequently. To offer a personal example, as a representative of the business impaired, (even with the assistance of the internet), I found myself periodically confused. Sometimes I could not even understand how one or another strategy could yield profit. Ferguson does not dumb-down the math for his audience. But those who have far to go in their understanding of economics will learn a great deal in the course of these two volumes if they are willing to apply themselves. Since finance is an often neglected area by history enthusiasts, a true education that expands one’s repertoire of ideas can take place. Those who already have the tools of commerce will find this topic easier and more entertaining.

Because this story is about money, and because the Rothschild Bank placed its acquisition above every other concern, there are readers who will find the company’s amorality repellent.  There are plenty of political histories and people’s histories that will discuss the victims of such policies. While there is a satisfaction to venting moral outrage, that is neither the purpose of this book nor the job of a historian. Ferguson does a heroic job of maintaining a neutral tone while quoting callous letters between the Rothschild brothers. These include their warm relationship with Klemens Von Metternich (who made the Hapsburg Empire a police state), their secret deal to sell guns to Russia so that the Czar could more easily suppress Polish independence and other profitable activities. Like a cheetah, engineered by evolution to run down and kill antelope, the Rothschild international bank was a perfect, ruthless animal. One can admire or abhor this bank’s heartless indifference to any consideration other than money, as one wishes. That said, it is important for a balanced individual to read books on both the cheetahs and the antelopes of history.

Ferguson does spend time discussing anti-Semitism. But again, this has nothing to do with moral outrage. Anti-Semitism is a topic of the book because it affected the banking business and the Rothschild’s ability to secure contracts. Ferguson makes it an issue because most gentiles who regarded or participated in the transactions of the Rothschilds made it an issue. The author keeps his eye on the business ball.

While Ferguson’s abilities are laudable, no one should ever expect perfection. The author occasionally stands in awe of his subject’s power and gives them too much credit for influence. When French Foreign Minister Jacques Lafitte supports war with Austria, a concerned James Rothschild approaches King Louis Philippe. A week later, Lafitte resigns. The author interprets “It would appear that James’s ‘talking to the king had the desired effect,’” (Ferguson, v.1, p. 240), as if James’s intervention was the only determining factor in the resignation. Additionally, there are maddeningly frequent quotations of novels by Benjamin Disraeli. Yes, Disraeli knew the family intimately and fictionalized them in his novels. But “fictionalized” is the operative word. These many quotations are not facts of history. One cannot determine facts from them.  However, my not infrequent nitpicking testifies to how enthusiastically I read his long history. Ferguson’s flair for writing and ability to keep the story engaging causes one to become absorbed in his narrative. A historian who can make a banking history come alive for a business impaired reader cannot be ignored.

Ferguson, Niall. The House of Rothschild. New York: Viking Penguin, 1998.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey

Eminent Victorians is Lytton Strachey’s 1918 British best seller. It contains the biographies of four people considered to have exemplified the era’s morality and standards (Henry Edward Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold and Charles Gordon). In its time, this book was a quiet innovation. It challenged the iconic worship of the 19th Century’s upright British saints. It provided an alternative to the “standard biography,” which “commemorate[s] the dead” with “ill-digested masses of material” (Strachey, p. viii).  As a result, it reads like a grouping of literary profiles with more art than history.

Strachey wrote with an arch humor that will leave a wicked smile on your face. He stealthily assassinates Lord Acton as “a historian to whom learning and judgment had not been granted in equal proportions” (Strachey, p. 100). He slowly roasts Lord Hartington as a man beloved by his listeners for being dull: “It was the greatest comfort…they could always be absolutely certain that he would never…be either brilliant or subtle, or surprising or impassioned or profound…as they sat listening to his speeches, in which considerations of stolid plainness succeeded one another with complete flatness…they felt…supported by the colossal tedium” (Strachey, p. 315). It’s funny, but it’s not history.

An historian might find herself a bit frustrated with the presentation and quality of information. In service to creating a tasteful work, Strachey sometimes skimps on the facts or passes-over issues that would cause his readers to blush. Florence Nightingale and Sidney Herbert had a close working relationship and a deep friendship. The author describes this relationship as “an intimacy so utterly untinctured not only by passion itself but by the suspicion of it” (Strachey, p. 167). With all due respect to the chastity of Ms. Nightingale and the marital fidelity of Mr. Herbert, there is no way Strachey could have known this.

Though his style is largely restrained, amusing, and dilettantish, Strachey can be relentless when he has an opinion. One central theme throughout the biographies is that the idols of Victorian England are somewhat cracked. Cardinal Manning is not just the genial saint of British Catholicism; he is also a cruel, politically manipulative autocrat (Strachey, p. 86). Florence Nightingale is not at all the passive “Lady with the Lamp;” she is a driven professional whom, the author claims, pushed Sidney Herbert into an early grave (Strachey, pp. 181-2). Thomas Arnold, historically portrayed as a reformer of boys’ education, is shown to be responsible for a litany of educational missteps, not the least of which was to forestall science instruction (Strachey, p. 213). General Gordon was both a military hero and a disobedient soldier whose rashness caused his own death (Strachey, p. 283). All of this is said more softly and with a greater mass of verbiage than I have space to allow. Strachey does not pointedly hammer at the idols. He cautiously taps, relentlessly taps, until the statue has a crack and the imperfection is annoyingly obvious to those who prefer their icons flawless.

One may argue, as some did, that his characterizations are unfair and his citations sparse. But in the present, one does not read Eminent Victorians for its historical accuracy. Some of the information may be interesting, and some of it may even be true. But more important to the modern reader are an illustration of what early 20th Century English readers appreciated and an admiration of some fine, subtle, sardonic writing.

Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians. New York: Random House, 1962.

For review of a book on the British Empire during this time period, see:

For a politically progressive history of London, see:

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Devil’s Broker by Frances Stonor Saunders

Frances Stonor Saunders has written a book that reads as smoothly and excitingly as fiction, but informs as skillfully as the best histories. This is a rare and difficult feat. It helps that her subject is John Hawkwood, an adventurous, villain, mercenary knight, in violent 14th Century Italy. Still, she deserves credit: She wouldn’t have been the first historian to take a dramatic topic and wring all the moisture out of it, producing desiccated rags of paper.

Saunders presents an Italy riven by religious power, political corruption, superstition, mercenary violence, plague, famine and war. Brutal stuff. Between pages 10 and 20 is a frail, easily forgotten wave in the direction of the notion that this century wasn’t entirely savage. Repeatedly using Barbara Tuchman’s famous phrase “the calamitous century,” juxtaposed with cheery images of Chaucer and joyful peasants, Saunders takes an opportunity to distance herself from the more famous scholar of the 14th Century against whom she will undoubtedly be compared.

But after this obligatory nod to balanced presentation, our historian dives back into her subject. Enter John Hawkwood, a minor noble’s son from Essex, recruited for adventure and profit in France, who rises to the leadership of the immense and famous White Company. While this mercenary provides the compass point around which the story revolves, he is merely a point in a wider circle of the environment described. Hawkwood’s progress from France to Italy, then up and down that peninsula, allows Saunders a context in which to depict historical development.

The primary theme that gets re-echoed throughout the book is that Hawkwood was a cold, greedy mobster; but he was no different from those of higher rank. Hawkwood’s services, largely composed of protection and pillage, were hired by two popes, one king, a couple of republics and countless respectable wealthy landowners. There are no heroes in this story. Our cast ranges from the morally questionable to the pathologically destructive.

Even those individuals depicted who do not have military or political power, are contaminated. Saint Catherine of Siena is anything but a saint. “Catherine’s joy at being splashed in the blood of a decapitated man—an experience she sought to prolong by not washing—suggests that she was now suffering from a full-blown neurosis” (Stonor, p. 197). Petrarch, though talented, is criticized as “an ornament of the Visconti court” which was known for its rapaciousness (Stonor, p. 136). The only player to escape the tainted brush is Chaucer, who is truly Saunders' touchstone in the book. He represents an incorruptible optimism that will not be beaten by the catastrophes which surround him.

Within such a story, it is difficult for an author to avoid the sensational. Stonor occasionally indulges in melodrama: “Thickset men who relished a noisy brawl in a tavern, a tussle over a whore, stole through the frozen nightscape with the lightness of ghosts” (Stonor, p. 21). But most of the time, the author is able to remain on point and continually informative. Given the subject, one should be surprised that she does not indulge more often.

The Devil’s Broker is a gift to historical writing. It is a template for scholars concerning how to compose engagingly and informatively. The readers who choose to embark upon this gallop through 14th Century Italy will find themselves richly rewarded. The only regret will be the brevity of the journey as the read is a fast one.

Saunders, Frances Stonor. The Devil’s Broker. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2004.

For review of another book on this time period, see:

Monday, August 11, 2014

The European Revolutions, 1848 – 1851 by Jonathan Sperber.

The European Revolutions, 1848 – 1851, was designed as a textbook for early undergraduate and (optimistically) advanced high school students. As such, it does not contain intensely complex theory regarding the events. It is a basic depiction of the occurrences and major players of the period.  Some will find this approach refreshingly straightforward; a delineation of what happened without the haze of a historian’s pet theories and self-congratulatory mental gymnastics. Others will find the work unchallenging.

This is not to say that the portrayal is all action and no thought, like so many books on military battles. Sperber spends the first half of his book discussing the pre-revolutionary environment and the causes leading to the struggles of 1848. Those already familiar with living and working conditions in Early- to Mid-19th Century Europe, who are reading primarily to inform themselves about the revolutionary years, will find this section tedious with no new information; they can skip directly to Chapter Three, “The Outbreak of Revolution.” These following chapters illustrate the rise of mass movements with particular attention to the varieties and structures of rebellious organizations.

Just about every reader of this review has grown-up within a representative form of democracy. Even those inured to the vicissitudes of history can find themselves discouraged by a story of flowering republics crushed under the military boot of autocratic kings. It was a dramatic burst of freedom and equally quick reversal. But Sperber does an excellent job of coddling the reader by discussing at length the groundwork laid by this continent-wide revolt. Post-1848 monarchs, while not required to draft a constitution, were seen as backward and faced importunate nagging from below if they did not. Press censorship was no longer a given strategy of conservative regimes. The process of organizing an opposition had been inculcated. Most importantly, people became acquainted with and accustomed to democratic notions. If seen as the first steps in a learning process that culminated, through persistent dedication, in our current period of widespread republican government, the bitter pill of this period will be swallowed in a spirit of more philosophical and sanguine remove.

I cannot say that The European Revolutions, 1848 – 1851 will be the most exhilarating read you’ve ever had (unless the period and events alone excite you), but it will be appropriately informative and clear.

Sperber, Jonathan. The European Revolutions, 1848 – 1851. Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 2003.

For review of a book on prior causes & events resulting in the European Revolutions, see:

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Rothschilds, Banking and Amorality. Reflections Inspired by Niall Ferguson’s "The House of Rothschild".

Reading Ferguson’s book, depicting the seemingly callous actions of the Rothschild banking establishment, has caused me to dally upon questions of morality. There are a couple of ways to approach moral questions. One is from the observer’s own narrow, personal traditions or perspective: The Rothschilds were (“evil,” “wrong,” “immoral,” whatever one’s favorite designation) because they violated the dictates of the observer’s moral code.  Another is from the perspective of the person performing the action in question: An immoral person knows the difference between helpful or harmful acts and chooses the harmful one. An amoral person simply has no moral compass in a situation and performs the actions that serve his or her ends. The first approach is designed to confirm one’s own moral stance. The second approach can lead to insight concerning the actions of another. So it is the second approach I will be employing. I realize that the question of whether the Rothschild business practices were immoral or amoral is a tiny bit of philosophical hair-splitting. The distinction is only useful as a way of understanding that banking house.
To the House of Rothschild, whatever made money for the company was acceptable. Whether they were providing a loan to the British government that helped abolish slavery in the empire (Ferguson, p. 230), or providing a loan requested by the Russian Empire to suppress Polish independence (Ferguson, p.246), the sole purpose was to make money. That the actions were helpful or harmful to humane ends (or “good” or “evil” for the more Judeo-Christian reader) did not enter into the equation. By this definition, Rothschild business practices were amoral.

But using this definition, almost all banks and large corporations are amoral. There’s no reason to single-out the House of Rothschild specifically, unless one has a personal motivation to vilify their bank. The Boeing Corporation doesn’t care if it sells jets to fly passengers or jets to bomb villages; it’s the selling that counts. Banks will loan money to newly liberated countries and to armies which kill the civilians of those countries. The only question is can the borrower repay the loan. The purpose of a capitalist endeavor is to make money. The companies who add moral considerations to their actions are so few as to be enigmatic, and most of them fail in the international capitalist marketplace.

Most of us, who are not involved in these business decisions, profit from them.  If you have a 401K, or any retirement plan invested in stocks, bonds and mutual funds, the success or failure of your retirement plan is based upon the actions of these amoral agents. It is unlikely that one would be willing to invest in a company where the primary motivation was not the desire to make money. Of course, there are so-called “socially responsible” investments. They comprise a tiny piece of the international market and are largely focused on ineffectual, relatively innocuous moral concerns, like recycling and “Green Building.” In that way, I suppose most modern companies and most modern people are as amoral as the House of Rothschild.

Ferguson, Niall. The House of Rothschild. Volume One. New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1998.

For a book review of Ferguson's The House of Rothschild, see:

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Age of Revolution 1789 to 1848 by Eric Hobsbawm.

Eric Hobsbawm is that rare combination of innovative thinker and immensely well-informed historian, whose writing enriches one’s understanding beyond the mundane communication of facts. He is the individual who coined the term “dual revolution” to describe that period in Europe between 1789 and 1848, when the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution combined to create dramatic social change.

To manage a discussion of two distinct and pervasive revolutions and their wide-ranging influences is a complicated task. Professor Hobsbawm accomplishes this labor by first narrowing the foci of each revolution to its starting point. After some initial words introducing the world of 1780, he discusses the inception of the Industrial in England, then the French Revolution in greater Paris. As the reverberations of these historical earthquakes emanate from their individual epicenters, Hobsbawm follows the cracking landscape to include the affected international areas.

It is a pleasure to read a history by a writer who has so thorough an understanding of his period. Hobsbawm examines his time frame from a wide variety of societal and cultural angles. Particularly rare are his book’s later chapters which look at the impact of the dual revolution upon fields as varied as art, religion and science. These digressions, from the pure politics and economics that mark most tomes about this period, are refreshing and insightful.

Few theories of history mesh in perfect comfort with the evidence. Our conceptions may be useful short-cuts to understanding an era, but life has a way of growing and acting beyond the boundaries we place for it. Hobsbawm’s theories are no exception. He has a difficult time inserting the USA into his equations. The historian’s claim that Andrew Jackson’s populist presidential victory was “part of” Europe’s “second wave of revolution [which] occurred in 1829-34” (Hobsbawm, p. 138) has only tenuous evidence to support it. His efforts to downplay the influence that the North American revolution had on Latin American liberation only serve to draw attention to the northern example (Hobsbawm, p. 76). Some South American leaders (e.g. Simon Bolivar) developed their revolutionary creed in Paris. Others were inspired by the thirteen colonies’ success; which provided a more accurate template for Latin colonial independence than did the French rebellion against monarchy. But these discrepancies do not detract from the upheaval caused by the dual revolution in Europe.

Some will refrain from reading this historian’s works because he has been called a “Marxist Historian.” What the reader needs to recognize is that a Marxist Historian is an entirely different organism from a Marxist Activist. A Marxist Activist seeks to overthrow the capitalist system and institute a collective ownership of property. A Marxist Historian is an individual who has a class-based analysis of history and discusses the evolution of relationships within and between classes over time. While there are occasional revolutionaries among them, Marxist Historians do not necessarily think that a communist system is the answer. Rarely do they support Soviet- or Chinese-style communism unless they have been employed by one of those states. The student of history may learn about different classes and their development without accepting collectivist propaganda.

One bewildering characteristic of this book is that Hobsbawm discusses developments leading to the outbreak of revolt in 1848, but he does not spend any time discussing the events of that continent-wide explosion. The Age of Revolution ends with “in 1848, the explosion burst” (Hobsbawm, p. 362). The historian’s next book in the series is entitled The Age of Capitalism. Throughout The Age of Revolution, there are references to 1848’s failure, but no details. I cannot begin to conjecture the reasons for this omission. It is as if one has created a play and left-out the final act.

Despite this missing piece, Hobsbawm presents a chronology of development from 1789 to 1848 that is unparalleled in depth and scope. It would be a shame to miss it. Two options that a reader has regarding the missing finale are 1) find another book and hope that it’s as insightful, or 2) supplement The Age of Revolution with an additional book. I have a time-saving suggestion for readers who really want to read Hobsbawm: I have now embarked upon Jonathan Sperber’s The European Revolutions, 1848-1851 (review to follow). It is a basic depiction of the events and players of those years without innovative analysis. If you have already read Hobsbawm, you can skip the first 104 pages (which will contain nothing new to you) and start with chapter three “The Outbreak of Revolution.” With just 155 pages to go, this will adequately illustrate the final act.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. The Age of Revolution 1789 to 1848. New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1962.

For that review of Sperber's The European Revolutions 1848-1851, see:

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White.

A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom is both a part of history and a book about history. In 1865, Andrew Dickson White was the founding president of Cornell University.  He conceived it as an institution that “should exclude no sex or color” and “should afford an asylum for science” (White, p. 13). Almost immediately, White and Cornell were attacked by administrators of sectarian colleges, who described the new university as irreligious and immoral. White responded with a series of lectures defending his university. These lectures grew into written thoughts which, over a period of thirty years, (interrupted by duties at Cornell and ambassadorships to Germany and Russia), became the work we have today. It was published in 1896.

White’s thesis was that “theology” was the villain in the struggle against science; not “religion.” In his chapter on astronomy, White states that misinformation and attempts to hamper science concerning heliocentric theory were “not the fault of religion; it was the fault of that short-sighted linking of theological dogmas to scriptural texts which, in utter defiance of the words and works of the Blessed Founder of Christianity, narrow-minded, loud-voiced men are ever prone to substitute for religion” (White, p. 153). While this attempt to divide theology and religion is the author’s tactic throughout the book, it is unclear if White truly believes what he is saying, or if he is strategically attempting to drive a wedge between religious leaders and the believing flock.

Regardless of his motivations, White’s reasoning is unsound even to an atheist like myself: Theology is the study of religion. Religion, in the Judeo-Christian sense, is a revelation by God to his followers. The chronicle of that revelation is the Bible. Any reader of the Bible can easily identify the verses that support the notion that the Sun travels around the Earth: 1 Chronicles 16:30, Psalms 93:1, Psalms 104:5 and Ecclesiastes 1:5, all clearly state this belief. It is not a matter of theological interpretation by church leaders, or the over-intellectualizing of medieval scholars; it is an aspect of revealed religious belief. But whether these wedge ideas were honest opinions of White’s, or just propaganda, is immaterial to the result. His generation of voices weakened the religious claim upon explanation of the physical world.

The structure of the book is simple. Each chapter is devoted to a scientific issue: Cosmology, Evolution, Geology and Archaeology, to name a few. Each example shows a consistent pattern by presenting Christian beliefs (identified by White as “theology”), presenting the scientific challenge, then showing the reaction of religious leaders. The response of religious leaders begins with threats, brutality and censorship, moves on to compromise and ends with the inevitable surrender of ground to science. This element of the book is methodical and well-documented, presenting a chronology of religious misunderstanding and the answers of science. With this evidence, White is most convincing.

The author concludes his tome with an attempt to drive the wedge deeper between leader and flock. He contends that “science in general has acted powerfully to dissolve away the theories and dogmas of the older theologic interpretation,” helping to purify the sacred texts of a confusing overlay (White, p. 500). This view places science on the side of religion and its followers, against interpreters of the Bible. What exceptionally bold misrepresentation: stating that science has done more for scripture than have Christian scholars and leaders. But it’s propaganda and one has to admire his temerity. More plausible are his chronologies, of science’s advance and religion’s retreat, concerning explanations of the physical world. In the end, it was writing like this which deftly slid between the grip of religion on the throat of science and dislodged it. We breathe more freely today, with unencumbered scientific study and fewer clerics administering universities, thanks to people like Andrew Dickson White.

White, Andrew Dickson. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. New York: The Free Press, 1965.

For review of a good general history of Western Science, see:

Friday, June 13, 2014

Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution by Joan Landes.

Professor Joan Landes has written a book that stands as a partial rebuttal to the notion of a public sphere as democratizing. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jurgen Habermas explained that, in 17th Century Europe, the Monarchical State was the center of public attention. As capitalism took hold, the bourgeoisie began to create an arena for their voice. Through books, newspapers, periodicals, coffee houses, libraries, clubs, salons and a variety of other instruments, the new middle-class produced a competing locus of communication with that of the monarchy and aristocracy. Habermas calls this arena “the public sphere.” He expounds further that “informed public opinion began to function as a weapon in the battle against the arbitrary dictates, privileged corporations and secret practices of the absolutist state (Landes, p. 41).  Those favoring wider public participation in political discourse see this as a positive occurrence. Joan Landes cautions against overly optimistic conclusions. She offers evidence that in France, as this new sphere became more prominent, women were systematically excluded from it between 1750 and 1850.

Prior to the French Revolution, “women exercised a considerable degree of power” hosting salons (Landes, p. 22). Women were writing at this time as well and, while their efforts were excluded from most public media, they did have some limited avenues such as the “Journal des Dames” (Landes, p. 57). Additionally, aristocratic women had a social rank that permitted them both greater respect and access influential men. This permitted them the ability to advance the causes of petitioners. While these powers are notably circumscribed, they represent a greater influence than women were soon to have.

The French Revolution began promisingly enough. In 1789, Women were in the streets and “at the new centers of political communication…By the summer of 1791, women were participating avidly in clubs and popular societies … attending as spectators in the galleries of section assemblies, the national legislature and radical clubs,” taking part in demonstrations and signing petitions (Landes, pp. 106-118). But the author elucidates a trajectory beginning with demands that women attend to domestic duties and ending in 1793 with women being “banned from active and passive participation in the political sphere” (Landes, p. 147).

Men’s efforts to domesticate women in this context are hardly surprising. While vestiges of that impulse exist today, it was a prominent, Europe-wide cultural feature, in the late 18th Century. Even an early feminist like Mary Wollstonecraft, who “insists that women can be educated rationally,” cannot envision a role for women beyond “good mothers and good household managers” (Landes, pp. 131-2). While 21st Century individuals may have difficulty envisioning a time of such limits on women, their fate was inevitable after the upheaval of the revolution had passed. Women were reattached to the private sphere of the home, minus the aforementioned powers they had during the Ancien Regime. Ironically, French women had less influence under a republic than under a monarchy.

Landes exposes this irony with organized deftness. Some examples could have been improved: It was unnecessary to spend a full chapter on Rousseau. While he discussed women’s role at length, he was just one man and an iconoclastic one who did not represent the multiplicity of educated male opinions during the 1750s. A survey of enlightenment males, and their verbal justifications for repressing women, would have been more useful. Also, there is a ten page critique of a 20th Century movie, “La Nuit de Varennes.”  Current cinema is not historical evidence, no matter how insightful the director. Discussion of a modern film, even one about the past, can be nothing more than movie talk. There are enough misogynist male historians who still harbor the outdated view that women are unfit for an evidence-based field, without a female historian supplying them with ammunition. Aside from these minor errors, Landes stays on point with ample evidence.

Women and the Public Sphere successfully challenges “the Revolution’s claim to universality” and the notion that the public sphere, immediately resulted in democracy for all. Landes concludes “for women today, the Revolutionary era has not yet ended” (Landes, p. 201). If we define revolution using its social meaning of changing society at its root, this is clearly true. Women have not yet achieved full equality; they are still less well-paid, less well-represented and less physically safe, than men. But what Landes does not discuss is that the innovations between 1750 and 1850 (an ethos favoring democratization, along with a public sphere to discuss it), place equality within reach. While these changes caused an initial setback for women, they also opened the floodgates for future advancement. Society began to accustom itself to liberty. Women experienced this change, and today employ the tool of the public sphere and the language of democracy in their struggle. In spite of earlier obstruction under a republic, women never stopped fighting for their share of freedom. I am quite certain that they won’t stop until it is attained.

Landes, Joan. Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

For review of a book on the aftermath of the French Revolution in Europe, see:

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Dictionary of American Political Bullshit by Stephen L. Goldstein.

Dr Stephen Goldstein is a politically progressive op-ed columnist, writing for the conservative audience of Florida’s “Sun Sentinel.” He does not shy away from a fight. Each week, his editorials are met with a flurry of reactionary anger and personal attack from the newspaper’s readership. Not all of the responses are articulate, but almost all are hostile. So when he decided to write The Dictionary of American Political Bullshit, no one should have expected him to be coy or evasive. Goldstein takes sides. While the format of the “dictionary” is sardonically arranged to mimic its more objective counterpart, complete with phonetic spelling, it rants polemically in favor of economic and social justice through a liberal-progressive bullhorn. For example:

(  noun  [phonetic spelling] ßmy program cannot do justice to phonetic spelling
The Democratic Republic of the United States of America is dead…what masquerades as the American system of government today is a cynical perversion of its Constitution: a plutocratic, aristocratic, oligarchic mongrel” (Goldstein, p. 61). This is a fragment of a two-page definition, but you get the idea.

Dr Goldstein does raise social issues. “States’ Rights…is bullshit for bigotry, misogyny, racism, homophobia, miscegenation, and every other imaginable form of neo-Neanderthal hate” (Goldstein, p. 191). However, his main targets are corporate spokespeople, politicians and apologists for the wealthy. It is, after all, a book about the use of subterfuge and misdirection through language. These three forces are seen by the author as designers of a lexis for their own gain and power. “Globalization is the economic equivalent of having unprotected sex, a worldwide economic orgy pimped by a coalition of mega-money interests and their government enablers at the expense of ‘you and me brothers and sisters’” (Goldstein, p. 105). The author’s purpose is to expose the techniques of lying to the public that are used by these three agencies. He hopes to educate the public. In service to this aim, he is not squeamish about holding the feet of US citizens to the fire. “The Fourth of July should become a national day of penance for modern Americans’ indifference and inertia…It’s a gift to have a Declaration of Independence, an ingratitude not to live by it” (Goldstein, p. 94).

Yes it’s a rant, and it’s frequently funny. But it’s a funny rant with a goal: to enlighten the public about how they are snowed and to activate them to participate. The reader will enjoy agreeing, disagreeing, laughing with and rolling her eyes at, Goldstein’s many heated pronouncements. In the end, she will be a little wiser, a little less trusting and armed to take on the liars.

Goldstein, Stephen L. The Dictionary of American Political Bullshit. Ashland: Grid Press, 2014.

For a political novel by Stephen Goldstein, satirizing Ayn Rand, see:

Monday, May 5, 2014

Why Can't We All Just Get Along? Political Cooperation vs Biology.

In the 1840s it was called Internationalism. In the 1970s it was called Collective Consciousness. Today we call it Global Community or World Peace. Over the last two centuries, an attractive notion that humans might be able to put aside cultural and national differences to work in concert towards unity and the betterment of all, has flitted across the political imagination and eluded us.

During the last 100 years, political actors across the spectrum from Right, to Center, to Left, conceptualized that communist nations would work together to overthrow capitalist ones. Fearful capitalists called it “The Domino Theory.” Hopeful communists called it the universal brotherhood of the proletariat. Yet, when communist nations were established in Russia, China and Vietnam, the results were far less fraternal. Russia and China continued their perpetual border disputes and opposed each other’s doctrinaire versions of communism. Vietnam fought both Russian influence and Chinese naval vessels seizing its fishing boats. Today, Vietnam has a closer diplomatic relationship with Washington than Beijing.

The difficulty of our coming together, even when it appears to be in our best interest and under noble umbrellas like “world peace” or “political solidarity” is puzzling. Perhaps there are elements of our nature that are beyond social interpretations. Activists and politicians resist the determinism of biology. A force that cannot be altered through education and progress is hard for them to accept. Nonetheless, we are a species that rose to the top of the food chain, continually putting the seed of its most selfish, opportunistic and ruthless specimens, into the next generation. Cooperation occurred only when it enhanced individual survival. From before the time that our primate ancestors drove other primates away from an isolated watering hole or productive hunting area, we have passed-on the genetic material of selfishness and tribalism. There is no way that such ingrained biological tendencies  could keep from influencing our relationships with modern groups and tribes.

Certainly, both politics and relationship are more complex than I can elucidate in a two page essay. There are learned social factors, as well as biological ones, that determine outcomes. But politically-motivated people are largely social beings. They are more likely to understand our social tendencies. Additionally, if their goals are along the lines of beautiful concepts like cooperation, peace and world society, they are likely to ignore the uglier aspects of humanity. Unfortunately, the biology is our stumbling block. A psychiatrist would tell you that if a tendency remains unconscious, it will have more control over you. Unless political individuals can begin to address our biological nature, that Woodstock Nation Mind Meld so many seek will remain unattained. The first step is to recognize the problem. Only then can we go on to the next step of finding a solution.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Huxley. From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest by Adrian Desmond.

Huxley: From Devil’s Disciple to Evolution’s High Priest focuses on the life of a tireless, effective advocate for evolution and science. This is an impressively well-researched, highly informative tome. Its 32 page bibliography and 1581 endnotes testify to the author’s assiduous research and command of the details. Adrian Desmond does an admirably thorough job of presenting the story of T.H. Huxley’s private life and public contributions.

This representation of a life in science demonstrates the contributions of Huxley, who is overshadowed by his friend Charles Darwin in the modern public mind. But without the pugnacious activism of T.H. Huxley, there would have been a greater delay in recognition for the brilliant but meek Darwin and his Natural Selection. We would not be as far along as we are now in our understanding of evolution. While this is the chief contribution for which Huxley is known, there is so much more for which he deserves recognition.

Desmond presents Huxley’s life as one of constant hard work and achievement. In addition to lecturing and teaching, this educator chaired the Royal Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Metaphysics Society and many committees too numerous to mention. His work on the London School Board resulted in the inclusion of science education in the public schools. In Higher Education, he was the driving force behind the creation of South Kensington College, a pioneering institution of science during a time when gentlemanly liberal arts were still the norm. Additionally, he published throughout his life, adding to our knowledge in significant ways. Huxley is widely credited as the discoverer of the bird-dinosaur evolutionary link.

This scientist also expanded our thinking philosophically.  Employing the root of the Greek “gnosis” (to know) he created the word “agnostic” (one who does not or cannot know) and was the catalyst for this secular philosophy. With his emphasis on “the scientific method and its sensual limitations,” Huxley determined that one could neither prove nor disprove God (Desmond, p. 374). While this approach lacks the satisfying certainty of both Theism and Atheism, it was an idea made for a historical moment, providing an exceptional foil against the intrusions of state sponsored Anglicanism on science.

While Desmond presents Huxley as an industrious achiever, this book is in no way a hagiography. Privately, the evolutionist innovator is characterized as prone to “volcanic moods” and “depressive” with periodic “breakdowns” from both overwork and his emotional demons (Desmond, pp. 84 & 537). Politically, the author is not afraid to show his subjects regressive attitudes. Huxley’s support of violent British imperialism is extreme enough to shock his family. He refers to Afghan tribes defending their land as “blood-thirsty thieves” and approves of England’s “civilizing influence” in South Africa even if it meant using a “heavy hand” (Desmond, p. 493).

Even regarding Huxley’s stellar professional life, the biographer can be rightfully critical. When Huxley fails in a speech, the Desmond explains why (Desmond, p. 478). When Huxley fails to understand Natural Selection even after Darwin works on him, Desmond elucidates how he is being dense (Desmond, p. 223). Though Huxley was an advocate for women’s education, he believed that their “natural limitations” would prevent them from competing with men for science positions (Desmond, p. 371). The career scientist’s record is not presented without blemishes.

Another consistent theme throughout the work is Great Britain’s transformation from a society of privileged gentlemen directing science, business and politics, to a meritocracy where industrious working-class and middle-class men could make a name for themselves. This new ethos is particularly evident in science which, up until this time, was the past time of wealthy aristocrats. “In came the academics and empire builders, secular sons with their B.Sc.s…out went the marginalized clergymen” and elites (Desmond, p. 424).

Despite the book’s many merits, there is no nice way to say this and still be accurate: the writing is awful. Desmond opens with excessive melodrama:

“The lanky 15 year-old sidled down fetid alleyways, past gin palaces and dance halls. Sailors hung out of windows, the gaiety of their boozy whores belying the squalor around them. The boy’s predatory looks and patched clothes seemed in keeping. But his black eyes betrayed a horror at the sights: ten crammed into a room, babies diseased from erupting cesspits, the uncoffined dead gnawed by rats” (Desmond, p. 3).

When the style is not being melodramatic, it is pompous and excessively ornamental: “Nature was no capricious dame to be appeased by the gods” (Desmond, p. 85). Rarely are statements made simply. Where Huxley is consulting with factory bosses and engineers, Desmond confuses the message that hard-working professionals were replacing privileged aristocrats: Using grandiloquent imagery, he writes “Huxley was in his muddy boots, moving the centre of the world, making the dead Oxbridge outer planets revolve round the solar furnace of the Black Country” (Desmond, p. 513). A more Hemingway-esque pen could have easily trimmed at least 100 pages from the biography by eliminating overblown decoration.

Though the writing is atrocious, no literary criticism can demean the quality of the information. Desmond has researched well. There are probably other books on Huxley that waste less time with bombast. However, one would be hard-pressed to find a study as thorough. Readers will have to decide for themselves how much pretentious writing they can tolerate.

Desmond, Adrian. Huxley. From Devil’s Disciple to Evolution’s High Priest. Reading, Mass : Addison-Wesley, 1997.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Empire by Niall Ferguson.

In our postcolonial age, there is a virtual consensus that imperialism and colonialism were harmful for those conquered. Niall Ferguson has attempted an ambitious undertaking. Empire endeavors to show that aggression towards less developed nations was harmful; but tempers the story with information discussing the benefits bestowed by an advanced industrialized nation. Admittedly, these benefits pale in comparison to the abuses. But they are part of the history nonetheless and a full examination of this period requires their inclusion.

The author’s intended audience is not just fellow citizens of the UK. His introduction underlines that current US power and influence is analogous to that of 19th Century Britain. Throughout the book, US citizens can hear echoes of the past in our current dilemmas. For example, after the massacres of British civilians during the first Indian Mutiny, Charles Spurgeon emphatically sermonizes “My friends, what crimes have they committed?” (Ferguson, p. 126). One cannot read this without remembering so many US Citizens exclaiming “Why do they hate us?” after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. Nineteenth Century British subjects were no more knowledgeable concerning the brutal imperialism of their nation than US citizens are today.

This historian exhibits a number of episodes where brutality was perpetrated upon the empire’s victims. However, he also shows bright glints of humanity within the dark clouds of imperialism rolling across conquered lands. This is mostly accomplished in two chief ways. First is the presentation of humane individuals: From Livingstone’s attempt to provide medical care among the Empire’s victims, to Macaulay’s crusade against the slave trade, to Durham’s fair parliamentary report which resulted in Canadian self-rule, Ferguson tells numerous stories of personal compassion and integrity. Unfortunately, this tact strikes one as a bit weak. These were, after all, individual acts of kindness occurring alongside the empire-wide business of exploitation. Setting these examples next to the Empires destructive legacy, says “Yes, the Empire pillaged many civilizations, but here’s a nice guy who felt bad about it.”

The second way Ferguson exhibits the Empire’s brighter side is by revealing the gifts showered upon underdeveloped nations by an advanced and enlightened civilization. The British introduced efficient bureaucracy, industrial technology, advanced medicine, scientific method and improved infrastructure. Unfortunately, these qualities are never put into perspective against the much larger story of slavery, racism, domination, exploitation and military slaughter. Additionally, a common person living within a domain of the Empire rarely benefited from these gifts.

It would be an unjust oversimplification to label Empire  a conservative glance at the glory days of Great Britain. Ferguson is much too complex and perceptive in his approach to his subject. Rather, he focuses more upon the evolution and management of Britain’s empire and less (without ignoring) on the negative impact of conquest. A postcolonial historian from Africa might not take such an approach to a book on the British Empire. Some current historians from conquering nations exhibit greater skill in examining their country’s imperialist destruction. Compare Ferguson’s approach to James Bradley’s in The Imperial Cruise: Bradley, who is also from an imperialist nation, begins by describing Theodore Roosevelt’s Aryan philosophy, then applies this racist perspective to the damaging actions taken during his presidency.

Empire’s “Conclusion” is a bewildering departure from the rest of the book. Here, Ferguson abandons the restrained historical analysis that had thus far served the reader. In its place is a breathtakingly obtuse, Western-centric set of political pronouncements: 1) The Empire served its unwilling subjects by giving them consistent government. 2) We need an empire to police rogue states and terrorists. 3) The attack of “9/11” might not have occurred if there had been an empire. 4) The US should accept the mantle of empire. In brief counterpoint: 1) The unwilling subjects chose to trade servitude under a consistent  government for self-determination. 2) Policing rogue states and terrorists is now more difficult since they employ fourth-generation warfare. They don’t meet armies head-on; they attack clandestinely. 3) The “9/11” attacks were a direct result of imperialism. The terrorists were middle-class Saudis who resented the imposition of western culture and economic influence. These Saudis attracted the poor and angry from former British and French protectorates who also resented the West. 4) Regarding Ferguson’s attempt to coronate the next World Emperor, US citizens of all political stripes, (for reasons ranging from morality to money) respectfully decline.

Empire is valuable for its examination of the workings and evolution of this 19th Century behemoth. It is a finely written, well-researched, exciting story. Ferguson has an excellent eye for illustrative vignettes and humor. Describing Lord Kitchener’s marksmanship, the author mentions that the aristocrat had named his three hunting dogs “Bang, Miss and Damn” (Ferguson, p. 224). More attention to the subjugated would have created a better balance. But this book has a great deal to recommend it.

Ferguson, Niall. Empire. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

For reviews on more books concerning British History, see:
which is a politically progressive history of London.
which is a classic set of biographies on British Victorians.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Houses of History by Anna Green and Kathleen Troupe.

The Houses of History is an epistemological examination of the 12 major theoretical perspectives that have informed historical study over the last century. The twelve schools are: Empiricism, Marxism, Psychohistory, Annales, Historical Sociology, Quantitative History, Anthropological/Ethnohistory, Narrative History, Oral History, Feminist/Gender History, Postcolonial and Poststructuralist.

Each of the twelve gets a two-part chapter. Part One is composed of a thorough explanation that is as immensely informative and desert dry as one would expect. Part Two presents a writing sample or chapter by an exemplary proponent of the school discussed.

The authors are both college professors in New Zealand. Indeed, this book is from an introductory History and Theory course they co-teach at the University of Waikato. As a result, Professors Green and Troup are used to explaining the intricacies of historical theory to undergraduates. Neither writer is forceful in putting-forth a favorite theory, or damning a foolish notion. However in the Part One descriptions of their chapters, the authors will present conflicting views between and within the schools. This presentation permits the reader to draw her own conclusions regarding the effectiveness of varying perspectives.

In their presentation, the professors sometimes fail to illustrate newly introduced terms and ideas with examples. For example, when they discuss how, in the 1940s “A.R. Radcliffe-Brown combined functionalism with a structural perspective,” a morsel of his writing, illustrating what this looked like would have been useful (Green & Troupe, p. 173). This is less a problem in a classroom using the text, where a student can raise her hand and ask for an example or a fuller explanation. But a little too much abstraction is perhaps a forgivable occupational hazard with theorists.

Another area of concern is some anti-intellectual, political correctness in the work. New Zealand, like the US, has a tragic history of genocide and oppression towards pre-colonial native populations. As a result, there is a tendency in academia to bend-over backward, showing how open-minded we are regarding native views, even at the expense of accuracy. In the “Postcolonial Perspectives” chapter, the Part Two writing sample chosen is mythical, racist and lacking citation or confirmation. Henrietta Whiteman, discussing her great-grandmother White Buffalo Woman, is comparable to promoting The Bible as history. Religious beliefs, for example “Cheyennes keep this earth alive through their ceremonies” are presented with reverence and without examination (Green & Troupe, p. 289). Hatred towards whites is expressed first, in the judgment that their tight clothes make them “narrowly exclusive, insular and illiberal.” The discussion degenerates from there to a description of the repugnant “strange odor” of whites described as a “murderer’s stench” (Green & Troupe, p. 290). I am reminded of Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia” where he talks about the “disagreeable odor” of his slaves. Whiteman is similarly bigoted. There is a great variety of Postcolonial history-writing that is analytical, scholarly and from the perspective of the invaded peoples. A better choice could have been made. But this is just one writing sample of a single “Part Two.”

On the whole, this is a valuable text for history lovers. It is useful to be able to look at an historian’s writing and determine her influences. Being able to critically examine the critical examiner will improve one’s insight. While dry and occasionally arcane, The Houses of History contributes to our understanding of our past. No greater compliment can be extended to a history book.

Green, Anna & Troup, Kathleen. The Houses of History. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Genocide. A Comprehensive Introduction by Adam Jones.

Adam Jones has written a condensed, informative study of Genocide. In the space of 400 pages, he has presented the major mass killings since 1900, and elucidated the primary issues facing genocide politics, scholarship and activism. His study begins by discussing the first known genocides, moves on to philosophical and legal definitions of the term, and ends with a chapter on the effects of imperialism, war and revolution. Jones does not shy away from controversial topics that might make religious people uncomfortable. As a scholar of intellectual honesty, dedicated to preventing genocide, he discusses Old Testament scripture where God repeatedly commands his followers to murder all of the residents in a particular locale. Borrowing from sociologist Helen Fein, he refers to God’s motivational speaking as the “religious tradition of contempt and collective defamation” (Jones, p. 4).

The next part starts with pre-20th Century genocides of indigenous peoples around the world. This is followed by a series of chapters on the more recent genocides of the 20th and 21st Century with which we are all so sadly familiar. These chapters necessarily lack the comprehensive qualities of a book that focuses on a specific incident. But they will provide the reader with a helpful overview, which is the purpose of an introductory work. Each instance of genocide is followed by a useful bibliography of the major texts on each topic, so that a reader may delve more deeply based on her or his preference.

There is some superfluous political correctness, deflecting from the main point of the book, in the form of oversensitivity. Yes, “The Redskins” is a racist name for a football team (Jones, p. 82). There would be loud objections if the team were called “The Dirty Jews.” But in the context of a discussion of Native American genocide, such language corrections are trivial by comparison and detract from the subject. There are some claims along these lines that are unexamined and exaggerated.  The suggestion, that US auto companies name their gas-guzzling products “Winnebago” and “Cherokee” to negatively associate Native Americans with technologies that damage the environment, is an over-think. Car companies also name their autos “Gremlin” and “Impala;” which does not imply an attempt to blame African wildlife or tiny mythical beings for Co2 emissions.

A third and important section of the book focuses on understanding the social, psychological and political factors, which result in genocide. There is some excellent information here condensing the ideas of various thoughtful professionals. While these experts seek to find and understand the commonalities among mass killings, they are quick to point out that each occurrence has its individual character. This is a good time to caution the reader that, no matter how much you have delved into the study of genocide, or how well-armored your sensibilities, you still run into information that will flatten you. The unique nature of each genocide is what allows even the most experienced individuals to be struck by new images and characteristics.

The last section of the book covers post-genocidal incident issues of remembering and justice. These are full of useful information. This section ends with the weakest chapter in the book, “Strategies of Intervention and Prevention.” Not only does it contain all of the tried and un-true past solutions to prevention, but also it fails to address the evolutionary causes of genocide: we are biological creatures. We clawed our way to the top of the Food Chain through aggression and competition. Our first genocides were on a smaller scale, when our hominid ancestors massacred other groups, or chased them away from hunting grounds and watering holes to perish. Killing “The Other” is in our DNA. Until we include this sober fact in our equations, it will be difficult to innovate effective prevention strategies.

Genocide. A Comprehensive Introduction is a brave early attempt in a poorly understood field. It is, as explained by the author, the first “comprehensive introductory text” (Jones, p. xxii). Therefore it is an historic innovation. Though, like all firsts, it contains flaws and gaps, it is admirably informative. This work permits the reader to establish a fine overview and strong foundation for further study.

Jones, Adam. Genocide. A Comprehensive Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2006.

For review of another book on Genocide, see:

Monday, February 10, 2014

At the Extremes of Popular History: The Rise of Rome by Anthony Everitt.

The Rise of Rome is Anthony Everitt’s chronicle of the Empire’s beginnings. It falls firmly within the genre of Popular History. As such, it permits one to examine the difference between Popular History and Academic History. Popular History exists to present the general public with an aspect of the past, in a manner that is both informative and entertaining. It serves a positive purpose in that it introduces people to a topic that they might not otherwise consider if presented with a more ponderous approach. Academic History exists to expand the knowledge of history among students and enthusiasts. Ideally focusing on accuracy and empiricism, it also exists to enlarge the information base of the field. Frequently, this genre provides a forum for a history writer to introduce a new perspective on a topic.

In the preface to his book, Anthony Everitt states “The city’s foundation myths and the events of its early centuries are almost entirely unhistorical, but they were what Romans believed of themselves. They are a rich poetic feast…If this book serves any purpose, it is as a reminder of what we are losing” (Everitt, p. xi). These explanations serve as a rationalization for presenting a story so filled with legend and mythology that accuracy becomes obfuscated. Popular historians frequently use the devices of myths and legends in concise form to add color to a narrative. But the best intention in that case is to draw-in a less serious public in order to teach them something. (Okay, some popular historians just want to sell books, just like some academic historians just want to prove how smart they are, but let us presume noble goals unless proven otherwise.) “What Romans believed of themselves” is a small piece of the story that contributes to the whole of what happened. 

Inauspiciously, Everitt opens with a section entitled “Legend,” and the sentence “The origin of Rome can be traced back to a giant wooden horse” (Everitt, p. 3). The origin of Rome most certainly cannot be traced back to Troy. It takes him several chapters to begin discussing the actual origins of Rome. This is a tactic that the author employs throughout the book: During Tarquin’s challenge to the Republic, Everitt states “Three stories are told about this desperate period…they are (surely) fictions” (Everitt, p. 83). But since Everitt cannot resist coloring-in the black and white, he spends the rest of the chapter retelling these fictions. The author frequently presents alleged historic scenes he personally disbelieves, like the post-Punic War meeting between Scipio and Hannibal, which he demonstrates Scipio could not have attended (Everitt, p. 279). In homage to the “rich poetic feast” of myths, the actual incidents are lost in a fog of words.

Another poetic device used frequently, is to make mythical figures a living part of the portions where the author is relating facts. Everitt will begin a sentence with “Since the days of Romulus,” a figure who probably did not exist (Everitt, p. 118). Or, he will end a description of a ritual to the goddess Juno with “it was obvious to all, including the Queen of Heaven” (Everitt, p. 270). Yes, I am being literal-minded here, but this colorized version is an attempt to bind excessive myths to events in order to make the history more jazzy. Mixing fact with fiction creates confusion.

In addition to the believed fiction of the Romans, Everitt will quote actual fiction from novels. To describe Carthage, he quotes extensively from Gustave Flaubert’s tale Salammbo…twice (Everitt, pp. 213 & 238). At this point, The Rise of Rome could not be more comically unhistorical if Everitt had written it as a series of limericks. Compare this to other popular histories like Richard Miles’s Carthage Must Be Destroyed. Despite the admittedly sensationalist title, (which is a quote from Cato), this book relies on modern archeological evidence to flesh-out the city. Popular History does not have to sacrifice candor to be interesting.

Everitt’s flair for drama and addiction to legend make one suspect the veracity of episodes presented as fact. Throughout the pre-war negotiations between Flamininus of Rome and Phillip of Macedon, I found myself asking “how much of this version is theatrical?” Other stories are obviously false, like the story of Archimedes being murdered during the sack of Syracuse because he “was absorbed by a diagram he had drawn in the sand and was oblivious to the rape and pillage going on around him” (Everitt, p. 263). Are we honestly expected to believe that Archimedes didn’t notice the explosive destruction of his city and the screams of its residents? Once an historian’s audience begins to doubt their truthfulness, there is little he or she can teach.

This is unfortunate, because Everitt is knowledgeable. He draws on a variety of resources and has a writing style that keeps one engaged. There is much in The Rise of Rome that is factually accurate. But it is shrouded among the myths and legends with which the author insists on dazzling his audience.

Everitt, Anthony. The Rise of Rome. New York: Random House, 2012.