Sunday, December 4, 2016

Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe. By Hayden White.

Hayden White’s Metahistory presents a unique historical-literary method of analysis. His technique is reductive. White draws together the ideas of various historians, philosophers and literary critics, using their work as a surgical kit for dissecting the narratives of 19th Century historians. From Roman Jakobson and Claude Levi-Strauss, he obtains the “Theory of Tropes” (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony). From Northrop Frye comes archetypes in plot structure (comedy, romance, tragedy and satire/irony). Stephen C. Pepper supplies four paradigms of discursive argument (formism, organicism, mechanism and contextualism). Karl Mannheim provides ideological implications which White simplifies to four basics (anarchism, conservatism, radicalism and liberalism).

While one may look at Professor White’s categories, and discover areas where addition or subtraction of one or another element could be useful, the idea of examining historical writing by using literary methods is sound. Historians do not merely provide chronologies of events. They explain events. As soon as one takes the purported facts of a chronology and orders them into a coherent plot, the endeavor becomes literary. It is understandable that historians would resist a characterization of their work as literary. Although it is obvious that investigators of history cannot claim to be doing hard science, they like to think that their writing is based upon evidence; therefore closer to science than literature. In spite of historians’ efforts, personal prejudices and influences (social or historical) will affect their work. White’s surgical kit can be used by students of history as some of the tools to examine a composition. This provides a necessary challenge to the closed world that a historian creates in her book; a challenge that keeps the profession honest.

After a highly theoretical introduction, revealing the tools with which he will reduce a work, White launches into a first chapter that sets the stage. He presents the ironic scholarship of the 18th Century Enlightenment. After this, he gets down to the business of parsing the works of the following century’s “realist” historians and historical philosophers. These are some of the most fascinating minds of the 19th Century. The body of the book is illuminating for both the unique methods employed by White and for the brilliant individuals whose interpretations of history influenced Western Civilization from their century onward. Chapter Two focuses on Hegel as a transitional and foundational philosopher of history, ending Part One. Part Two examines the historians Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville and Bruckhart. Part Three examines the philosophers of history Marx, Nietzsche and Croce.

White does an excellent job of avoiding pitfalls that would distract from exemplifying his theory. There certainly are temptations. It would have been satisfying to skewer the clownish Jules Michelet whose breathy patriotism characterizes France, in the first year of the Revolution, as advancing “through that dark winter [of 1789-90] towards the wished-for spring which promises a new light to the world,” then calls this development “a miracle.” (White, p. 151). His one digression from describing Michelet in literary and theoretical terms is when he comments on “another of those lyrical effusions in which he [Michelet] offended both reason and science.” (White, p. 157). But occasional petulance is understandable when examining Michelet. With Karl Marx, it is always tempting to interject one’s political opinions. But White keeps his head down and remains committed to his task. “My own approach to the study of Marx’s thought moves [political and economic] questions to the periphery of discussion. My aim is to specify the dominant style of Marx’s thought about the structures and processes of history-in-general…even though one may be inclined to do different kinds of things on the basis of a belief in one philosophy’s truth.” (White p. 183).

The work of the speculative philosophers in Part Three necessarily takes one a step away from physical reality to meditate on the abstract. White’s addition of literary criticism draws one further away from applying ideas to the mundane world. For example, when Nietzsche begins discussing the threefold divisions of the forms of historical consciousness (antiquarian, critical and monumental), the reader is placed in an abstract realm where one is no longer looking at the work of individual historians as applied to a subject in the physical world. Once White adds his analysis of Nietzsche’s analysis, examining how the three forms relate to metonymy, synecdoche and irony respectively, we have achieved lift-off and cannot even see the ground due to the philosophical clouds between our skyward analytical vehicle and earth. (White p. 351). The same phenomenon occurs when White explains Croce’s view that “the utterance of any sentence is such that it always changes the entire linguistic endowment of the speech community” and “each successive word transforms retroactively the function of all the words coming before it.” (White p. 390). One must be thinking too abstractly about the importance words, and not concretely enough about their location in real books, to make such a statement. But speculative philosophy always runs the risk of losing its connection to the concrete world.

White’s blueprint for examining the literary aspects of historical writing is a useful instrument. It permits the reader to see what cultural devices influence a historian’s prose and ideas. If a narrator has grown-up within an educational system that offers certain limits on written expression, those limits will be evident in that person’s writing style. In addition, the choice of emplotment reveals a historian’s prejudices: If Michelet writes about the French Revolution as a romance, and Burke writes about it as a tragedy, much is revealed about their political perspective and how they are attempting to influence the reader. There are, of course, numerous metahistorical strategies to decipher the influences upon historians of any period; just look at the dominant movements, political systems and critical modes of their times. But White’s focus is of equal value. By the end of his book, the reader is not only presented with a picture of 19th Century historiography, but also has acquired a set of useful and innovative tools with which to microscopically evaluate some methods and intentions of any historian she chooses to read.

White, Hayden. Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Wicked Company. The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment. By Philipp Blom.

A Wicked Company is a dream book for historically-minded atheists, agnostics, secularists and freethinkers, of various persuasions. It centers around the brilliant salon of luminaries who gathered bi-weekly at Baron Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach’s home in Paris between 1750 and the late 1780s. These were the crowning years of the Enlightenment, when innovative freethinkers crowded into Paris, inspiring and arguing with each other. Paris radiated their ideas to the rest of Europe. There were numerous regulars and guests of note at d’Holbach’s salon: David Hume, Claude Adrien Helvetius, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Edward Gibbon, Denis Diderot and many others whose ideas shaped this era. Women were notably absent, which is anomalous among salons of the time, when women were hostesses and participants in the most popular gatherings. Despite his many connections with intelligent women, the Baron was unable to see that they could participate in a serious gathering where feelings could be hurt in the cut and thrust of intense exchange. There were limits to d’Holbach’s enlightenment.

The two protagonists of this book whose lives we follow, are Denis Diderot and Baron d’Holbach. They were among the most important and influential atheists of the Eighteenth Century, and their friendship sustained them through a political environment dominated by Catholic clergy, absolutist monarchy and censorship, against which they struggled. Given that one could be arrested for impious views (Diderot was), or even executed (like Jean-Francois de la Barre in 1766), opposition could be risky. The reader is treated to satisfying clandestine schemes by d’Holbach which enraged and undermined religious and political authorities. He regularly wrote anti-theist manuscripts under pseudonyms, smuggled them out of Paris to be published abroad, then had the books smuggled back into Paris to be read by a vast swath of literate society. Diderot, for his part, encoded his project, the Encyclopedie, with countless irreligious definitions, descriptions and diatribes, which evaded the authorities and made it into the most respectable homes, where their meanings were understood by the astute.

Philipp Blom is a fluid narrator; but his citation skills are a bit sloppy. For example, he discusses how d’Holbach’s “first qualms about religion had appeared during his study of geology,” but offers no note to verify this claim. (Blom, p. 96). Endnotes are necessary evidence in any history, but even more important when the subjects are controversial people whose views are still challenged.

Another area where Blom’s enterprise becomes bumpy concerns his thesis. The introduction begins “You can lose for all sorts of reasons,” and describes that “there is something like a stock market for reputations…If Plato’s stock is riding above that of Aristotle…then we are more likely to translate Plato’s thinking into our language.” (Blom, p. ix). He reasons that, since Diderot and d’Holbach’s atheism has been forgotten, this means that their ideas have no currency. Yes, few people know of Diderot beyond his Encyclopedie, and d’Holbach is almost universally neglected. But the notion that “their ideas fell from grace…and were all but written out of history” (Blom, p. ix) shows little understanding of historical processes. To say, in effect, “the good guys lost,” indicates an unsophisticated way of examining history. Among its’ more important functions, history exists to 1) teach about what happened in the past, 2) illustrate human events or people, and 3) show development in the direction of the present. One may certainly delve deeper to find additional uses for the field, but keeping score is not one of the more intricate, useful paths of exploration. If one is seeking immediate gratification where winning and losing are central, I suggest basketball. Rarely, in history, do ideas precipitate immediate cataclysm within a civilization. Discussions regarding religious authority vs science; atheism vs religion; reason vs superstition; are ongoing processes.

Fortunately, one can ignore the simplistic thesis and enjoy an immensely well-told true story of glittering discussions, by important cultural figures, in Europe’s then central city; as well as appreciate the intrigue of secretly disseminating banned works under the nose of intolerant authorities. A Wicked Company is an intellectual and cultural treasure that offers inspiration to freethinking people in the present. Diderot and d’Holbach show us that there have been predecessors dedicated to rational thought and scientific method; who created enclaves of reason amidst superstition and ignorance, and struggled to enlighten the world.

Blom, Philipp. A Wicked Company. The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

American Bloomsbury. Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work..

The fields and homes of 1850s Concord, Massachusetts proved to be some of the most fertile ground for US writers and thinkers. A literary group which included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott, developed there. Transcendentalism was the romantic, nature-oriented philosophy, that moved all of them (Hawthorne negatively). They lived and wrote in close proximity and communication with each other. Their relationships ranged from romance, to infatuation, to deep friendship to intense repugnance. It always affected their writing.

Some fascinating, but perhaps mythical, theory cited by the author, suggests that “genius clusters” of special individuals form when “circumstances, political conditions, landscape, and community forces sometimes come together to create an unusual concentration of talent.” (Cheever, p.5). While this is an entrancing notion, the circumstances that created this collection of talent are far more mundane, as the author later illustrates: Emerson paid for it. He had a fortune obtained from his first wife and an eye for talent. All of the above mentioned writers were, at one time or another broke. Emerson sought interesting, inspiring company, in his distant home and paid for housing. Regardless of how this community arose, what is important is that it did. The happy result was that a number of talented people had the opportunity to live near and influence each other.

The book is divided into four parts; though what distinguishes the breaks between parts is hard to tell. However, within these parts are short, 4 to 7 page “chapters” that are primarily episodes in the lives of the people discussed, presented from their perspective. This allows Cheever to weave a narrative that includes all the points of view of the different players; a method that she crafts masterfully. She will even present the same scene from a different individual’s viewpoint, without it feeling redundant given that she is presenting different emotions and thoughts through different eyes. This is especially helpful in a book that focuses upon relationships, both romantic and platonic, since the emotions and interpretations of relationships and their effects are always personal.

Susan Cheever is particularly well-suited to this internal, relationship-based form of history writing. As the daughter of author John Cheever, she is well acquainted with memoirs of famous writers, and is not shy about depicting personal details. Her best-selling Home Before Dark talks about her father’s bisexuality; her personal memoir Note Found in a Bottle recounts the influence of alcoholism in her life. She has exhibited bold honesty and self-revelation in these memoirs. One could expect no less in her discussion of iconic writers who are not family. Cheever capably describes the jealousy between Emerson and Hawthorn over Margaret Fuller (as well as the reactions of their respective wives); Hawthorne’s anti-social leanings; A. Bronson Alcott’s unwillingness come down from the philosophical clouds and provide for his impoverished family, the non-violent Transcendentalists being “seduced by the false authority of John Brown” (Cheever, p.6); and numerous other scandalous or questionable occurrences in the Concord community. While she is enchanted by this group of writers, she is realistic about them as people and is used to tossing-up dirt.
There are few flaws in Cheever’s otherwise personable and artful style. She inserts some unnecessary, distracting personal paragraphs concerning her own trips to Concord. She has a tendency towards hyperbole. Her chapter introducing Margaret Fuller is entitled “The Sexy Muse;” which is fun, but demeans and sensationalizes that writer. She calls Walden “the first American memoir” (Cheever, p.125). But there are numerous precursors (importantly Joseph Plumb Martin’s memoir of his time as a Revolutionary soldier, which preceded Thoreau by 30 years and is cited by historians today ). She claims “in April of 1847, Fanny Longfellow had been the first woman to deliver a child with the aid of ether” (Cheever, p. 148). But “on January 19, 1847…James Young Simpson, a Scottish obstetrician, administered diethyl ether to facilitate delivery of a child to a woman” ( ). But these are minor hiccups in an otherwise well-written history.

It is not hyperbole to say that the Transcendentalists were one of the most important literary and philosophical movements in US history. They challenged the puritanical morality and rigidity of their time with innovative, liberating styles and ideas. This book on their personal lives and connections provides a reader with insight on the creative processes and unique interactions which permitted that innovation. Susan Cheever is not an academically-trained historian. But her slim book permits a picture of this ground-breaking community that surpasses the efforts of many academics in its’ ability to vividly portray the Concord community. Sometimes the personal iconoclasm of an author allows her to show aspects of historical, iconoclastic personalities that are missed by more traditional historians.

Cheever, Susan. American Bloomsbury. Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2006.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Thirty Years War. Europe's Tragedy. By Peter H. Wilson

The Thirty Years War was a tragic, devastating series of conflicts between 1618 and 1648. Its death toll was between 5,000,000 and 8,000,000 lives in an area of central Europe (the Holy Roman Empire), which contained a population of 26,000,000. Many of the casualties were not among natives to the Empire. All major European countries became involved for their own gain, and contributed soldiers to the war. The outpouring of violence and greed was only compounded by hypocrisy among the combative parties: Protestants and Catholics both claimed to have been advancing their interpretation of a myth about a non-violent Jesus. The effects of human suffering, opportunistic religious hypocrisy and material destruction, created catastrophic harm which stunted progress in Western Civilization on several fronts.

This period and subject present the problem of an unwieldy mass of information. One must consider the motivations and actions of political, cultural, religious and military entities across Europe. In addition, the personalities and goals of key monarchs, aristocrats and generals, must be taken into account. Finally, all of these factors are not just contained within a daunting 30 year period, involving three generations of continent-wide players. They also involve influences that began with the Reformation of the 14th Century, and contain ramifications for centuries following the conflict. As a result of this scope, it is possible to have as many interpretations as there are historians, each selecting a focus that contributes to, (or confuses), a vast puzzle.

Peter H. Wilson is a diligent, intelligent historian who has funneled a vast swath of information into a 900 page book. He divided his book into three parts. The first part explains the war’s origins, and conditions affecting the Holy Roman Empire, from the 15th Century up until 1618. Part Two is a chronological study of the war period (1618 – 1648). The third part “examines the war’s political, economic, social and cultural impact and longer-term significance.” (Wilson, p. xxii).

This historian presents a traditional focus, in that he studies the political leaders: monarchs, generals, political ministers and territorial princes. Given the breadth and depth of this conflict, it is important to narrow one’s view, unless one is planning to make a life’s work of this topic, producing a couple dozen volumes. In contrast with Wilson’s perspective on leadership, a historian of Howard Zinn’s persuasion would examine the history of the Empire’s common citizens. A historian of Barbara Tuchman’s persuasion would include more cultural elements, some iconoclastic individuals and sub-cultures of obscure variety. The difference between Wilson, versus Tuchman or Zinn, is that the latter two were always careful to point-out that their view did not encompass the entirety of the subject. Wilson is not so careful.

For example, a major contention of this author’s is that the Thirty Years War “was not primarily a religious war.” (Wilson, p. 9).  Repeatedly, Wilson illustrates that leaders, used the conflict to gain power, land, wealth, titles and advantage over others. Often a Catholic or Protestant leader would use a religious rationalization as propaganda for their aggression. But the historian presents cogent reasons concerning why these declarations of faith were a smokescreen for the leader’s greed. It is a fine catalog of individuals’ motivations that have nothing to do with their branch of Christianity. And so Wilson comes to the universal conclusion that the war was not primarily religious. Of course, a mature reader understands that the power players of any period care mainly about power. Even today, we see that Saddam Hussein’s former Ba’athist generals who are now leading ISIS care little about Jihad, but will use fundamentalist justifications for their actions. However, while the desires of political leaders were a major factor in the conflict, they were not the only factor. A historian whose project centered on the influences of clergy and sects of each branch of Christianity might reach a different conclusion about the role religion played. A researcher studying local populations of one or another faith, who observed civilians massacring communities of an opposing confession, prosecuting “witches,” talking about the war as a divine punishment, might also conclude that religion was more important. A scholar whose examination began with the Reformation might see the Thirty Years War as a logical conclusion to that event, thereby making religion central. A conflict this prolonged, this complex and this multi-cultural, defies universal statements created from the examination of one element.

The last chapter, “Experiencing War,” is a complete departure from the rest of the book. Up until that point, the focus was on the leaders. The last section is a grab bag of issues not covered in the narrative of the first two sections. It includes personal testimonies of commoners, the impact of print media, military-civil relations, and a number of other matters having less to do with leadership. Its presence is incongruous. It appears as if the author was conscious of omissions made necessary to maintain focus upon the chronology of leaders’ motives and actions. A more appropriate final chapter would have articulated patterns, or narrower conclusions, about the individuals in power.

The Thirty Years War. Europe’s Tragedy is a useful, highly informative illustration of motives and actions by those in power during the conflict. If it is a reader’s goal to examine this puzzle piece of the war, Wilson’s book is a fine choice. Of course this leaves a lot of research on the shoulders of a bookworm who aspires to a more whole or general understanding of this period. But we are, after all, non-fiction readers. It is one of our pleasures, compulsions and goals, to accumulate knowledge. This is just another opportunity.

Wilson, Peter H. The Thirty Years War. Europe’s Tragedy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Havelock Ellis. A Biography. By Phyllis Grosskurth

Havelock Ellis was a late Nineteenth Century physician whose writings had a humanizing, freeing influence on the sexually-repressed societies of Europe and North America. Regarding a couple’s private sexuality, he encouraged play and sexual fulfillment for women. Publicly, Ellis counseled reform of divorce laws, acceptance of masturbation and dissemination of birth control information. Also, Ellis saw lesbians and gays as a natural part of humanity, during a time when they were condemned by society as (at best) mentally ill, or (at worst) evil. These open, permissive values not only reduced suffering for people willing to read his works, but also pointed the way towards our contemporary acceptance of human sexuality.

Phyllis Grosskurth writes a typical birth-to-earth biography. There is nothing innovative about the organization of her book. However, it is prodigiously researched, employing the most important primary sources concerning Ellis’s life. Grosskurth estimates that she has examined “well over twenty thousand” unpublished letters while preparing this volume (Grosskurth, p. xi). The list of libraries, private collections and personal papers she perused is equally impressive.

Despite the author’s dedication to her project, she has few illusions about her subject. Ellis was a peculiar man. He became famous during his lifetime, with numerous friends, admirers and lovers; but this British scholar was shy, passive and required a great deal of time alone. Sexually, he preferred urolagnia (Grosskurth, pp. 227-8), and was frequently incapable of sustaining an erection (Grosskurth, p. 94). Mercifully, the descriptions of his carnal life are opaque. While his books on human sexuality were instructively explicit, his letters (wherein information regarding his proclivities resides) are more typical of the age than his books, and merely allude to erotic activity. But there are advantages to Ellis’s peculiarity: If the norm, in late Victorian England, was suffocating repression concerning physical relations, then it may be that an atypical individual outside of that norm was better suited to present alternatives that were liberated and liberating. Also, a person whose own sexual practices were condemned by society would be less likely to condemn the practices of others. Ellis rarely expressed urolagnia as anything but an abnormality. Conversely, he put his less than stellar potency to good use. He proposed couples have open communication about likes and dislikes, offering suggestions, beyond coitus, that contribute to close erotic relationships.

By the early Twentieth Century, Freud had eclipsed Ellis as the chief authority on human sexuality. The Viennese doctor had many critics who disagreed with his conclusions. But most people were willing to recognize Freud’s genius and the superiority of the psychoanalytic method over anything that had come before. Though Ellis receives little recognition for the freedoms we have, his contribution was not insignificant. Throughout the bio, Grosskurth vividly depicts Havelock Ellis’s flaws. But she also shows him as a loving person, who saw how self-abnegating conventions around sex were inflicting harm on individuals and societies. He also saw a way out: In Ellis’s own words to his wife, “I am not a God, but only a very human creature, full of defects & always failing, & with limitations & peculiarities & shyness & reserves—a creature that has always been liable to be wounded at a touch. I cannot alter my nature & I do not think anything is gained by hiding things & pretending, but that it is best in love to be open” (Grosskurth, p. 338). This is what Ellis brought to the exploration of sexuality: openness, self-reflection, vulnerability and honest communication. By emphasizing these humble qualities in his life and writing, he helped to break-down the walls of fear, repugnance and silence that those of his generation had built around the human body.

Grosskurth, Phyllis. Havelock Ellis. A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1980.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Religion, State and Paths to Power. The Confidence Game Persists.

Four thousand years ago, the Babylonians believed that their kings were appointed by their gods to lead them. “Many of the texts composed for royal rituals lay great emphasis on the state-like organization of the pantheon which had a clearly defined hierarchy and areas of responsibility like those of ministers.” Ellil (and later Marduk) “presided over the divine assembly and conferred kingship.” (Leick, p. 102). Beliefs such as this come as no surprise to evidence-based thinkers. In the context of the western culture from which the majority of readers descend, we are familiar with a history where Cardinals of the Church were “Princes of Rome” who possessed great tracts of land and fought wars to maintain their wealth. Where the Church sold indulgences to increase its’ profits. Where kings, backed by clergy, claimed their authority came from God. The point of commonality, between an earlier agricultural society of the Fertile Crescent and this later one of Medieval Europe, is the treatment of religion as a path to power. These agreements between king and clergy have always been a con game. Kings understood that having a religion propagandize their divine right to rule, made the job of exploitation easier. Religious leaders understood that if they attached themselves to a powerful leader and became the state religion, wealth and influence would follow.

Conditions have changed markedly since those times. The beliefs of the Babylonian state religion exists only in clay cuneiform tablets. Europe long ago exchanged its kings and state religions for secular republics. But Christianity is still the dominant religion in the west, and dominant religions are still a path to power. Among the Catholic branch of Christianity, the sexual domination of children and the breadth of cultural influence are examples of the currency of power. Not to forget that actual currency remains immeasurably important: the Catholic Church is still one of the wealthiest organizations in the world. Among the Protestant branch of Christianity, there is also the clamor to expand influence in the public sphere. The United States in particular is infested with holy policy wonks attempting to replace Evolution with Creation, push prayer into the schools and interfere in a woman’s private decision concerning whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Despite numerous media exposés of greed and sex scandals among the Protestant clergy, their flock is still just that: a group of sheep being fleeced of all their cash and all of their independence of thought. Of course the sophistication among some of the worshippers has changed. Who among evidence-based Atheists and free-thinkers has not conversed with a Christian of some stripe who understands scientific method? How many internet conversations have you had where a believer felt that their Christianity was a private affair that made them a more compassionate person, but they didn’t hate you for thinking differently? Unfortunately the existence of reasonable, dare I say humanistic, Christians does not mean that the institution to which they give money is anything more than a mercenary flim-flam. The anecdote of one rational individual, or one church that is not seeking to force itself on the public sphere, does not vindicate the systemic intentions of a vast institutional convention.

From Babylon, to Medieval Europe, to the present, the con endures. The institution continues to seek power and influence. It is unlikely to fail anytime soon. Their propaganda is more appealing: Eternal life with your cosmic daddy after you die. In heaven you can eat all the candy you want and not get diabetes. Whatever you fantasize is yours; and you get to share it with all of the people and pets you now mourn. So what do we offer: when you die, your brain ceases to function. All you ever thought you were just switches-off forever and you rot in the dirt. In a tough world where most people are willing to accept pretty silly, unverifiable myths, that help them deny some hard facts, who do you think is going to attract the larger numbers? The best we can do is offer an alternative based on evidence. Those who are intrepid and educated enough to accept reality over superstition, will affect and expand our community. As long as we don’t become attached to evangelizing our views, as long as we do not require others to think as we do, we will not become frustrated or disheartened. We’ll leave that discouragement to the opposition. The very existence of a vocal, informed community, devoted to evidence-based ideas, stands as a bulwark against the domination of power-hungry swindlers peddling myths. We’ve gained a lot of ground in the past couple of millennia, evolving from governments based upon divine kingships and clerical power to secular republics. Let’s defend it.

Leick, Gwendolyn. The Babylonians. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Monday, September 5, 2016

From Absolutism to Revolution: 1648 - 1848. By Herbert H. Rowen.

In Europe, between 1648 and 1848, crucial progress was made via a difficult path of learning and action. From Absolutism to Revolution eponymously defines that progress. But there is a lot that the book contains which the title cannot. This is not simply a political story about our fitful western transition from monarchy to democracy. It is also a retelling of how our thinking changed.

Rowen does not begin his account with a political treatise; he begins with Sir Isaac Newton. Therein is an important distinction between this and other histories on the topic of socio-political development towards greater freedom. What Newton represents is the Scientific Revolution of the Sixteenth Century. This seemingly non-political revolution challenged established notions and static thinking. The “absolute truths” of Judeo-Christian Europe were beginning to be challenged by a non-belief-based, empirical, experimental way of looking at the world. Once the answers to how the world worked were no longer satisfied by the phrase “God made it this way and any questioning is blasphemy,” then any number of ideas could be called into question. All kinds of traditional plans for humanity, based on argument from authority alone, were open to reinterpretation. Even the Divine Right of Kings, with their alleged authority from God, was up for debate. Well…at least according to some people these notions were up for debate. It is not as if the floodgates of free thought were now open and flowing unhindered. The entrenched interests of Church, King and Aristocrat, who benefitted greatly from maintaining argument from authority over argument from experience and experiment, initially resisted even the suggestion that a debate was allowable. Therein lay a tension that unfolds throughout the book in terms of both concept and action.

Since this book is as much about changing ideas as it is about changing society, Rowen offers a structure that addresses this premise. The book is divided into four sections: 1) “The Age of Louis XIV,”(1648-1715), when absolutism was at its height and the foundational challenging ideas were being formulated and  expressed. 2) The “Age of Enlightenment” (1715-1789), when a public sphere in opposition to the royal sphere had been firmly established and was gaining traction. 3) “The Age of Revolution” (1789-1815), covering the French Revolution, through Napoleon’s era of conquest to his final defeat and examining the response in the rest of Europe. 4) “The Age of Restoration” (1815-1848), examining the reactionary period of monarchical power, along with the democratic or forward-thinking ideas which survived in that period and developed into guiding principles that resulted in the revolutions of 1848.

Most of the writing is not Rowen’s. He allows the proponents of conservativism and progress to speak for themselves. At the beginning of each section, the author presents a short synopsis of activities, and debated ideas, in the time period discussed. He then presents short chapters, each introducing a key individual, whose ideas and influence were central to the period and issues of the chapter. A one or two paragraph biography is followed by a selection of that writer’s best work. In this way, the reader is able to acquaint herself with both the important individuals and the opposing ideas of a given time period. There are 78 prominent figures, each with an associated writing, or collaborative document (like French Revolution’s “The Declaration of Rights).

Significantly, none of the writers are of non-white descent and only one (Catherine the Great) is a woman. While it is true that women and minorities did not fill the halls of power in a predominantly white Europe, there were considerable contributions made by those groups which are overlooked. It is surprising that Rowen fails to include African European voices in his section on ending slavery. Notable women, like Mary Wollestonecraft and Mme de Stael, who contributed importantly to the ideas of their times, are similarly ignored. From Absolutism to Revolution was written in 1963, in the United States. Even though there was an active movement for African American equality, and discussion of “the woman question” among universities, these notions apparently did not filter into Professor Rowen’s mind in a way that affected his work.

It is impressive that the historian permits important personages to speak for themselves, rather than coloring the picture with his own narrative. Rowen thusly offers his audience an opportunity to read, at length, pivotal primary sources by crucial, historic people. In this way, the words and people come alive in their contexts, revealing the impact of resolute individuals and the transformational importance of ideas.

Rowen, Herbert H. (ed.). From Absolutism to Revolution: 1648 – 1848. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Quest for Evolutionary Socialism. Eduard Bernstein and Social Democracy. By Manfred B. Steger

Eduard Bernstein was a friend and protégé of both Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, who came to oppose orthodox communism. Bernstein saw that the predictions of his close friends (that capitalism would crumble by virtue of inherent economic tendencies and that workers would flock to communism) had not come to pass. Quite to the contrary, capitalism in the 1890s First World was healthier than ever, and both European and US workers were more interested in obtaining their piece of the capitalist pie than in risking their lives during a violent overthrow of the system. Because of this evidence, Bernstein concluded that a gradual approach to social change through participation in democratic systems would be more effective than revolution. As such, he became one of the revisionists of Democratic Socialism. However one may feel about socialism, communism or capitalism, one can admire Bernstein’s ability to change his mind based on empirical evidence, rather than remaining committed to a disproven orthodoxy. That change created a great deal of discomfort for Bernstein. Internally, he had to deal with the dislocation anyone who challenges their own long-held beliefs must face. Externally, his apostasy turned some friends into enemies and alienated him from his political cadre.

The book is arranged chronologically regarding the elements of both biography and developments in political theory during Bernstein’s life. It is composed of three parts. Part One: “Preparation,” takes us through the subject’s early life, focusing mainly upon the period of his political awakening, and extending to the time of his questioning of Marxist theory. Part Two: “Vision,” is necessarily the most theoretical of the sections as we pause to consider the political landscape and meaning of socialism in fin de siècle Europe, along with Bernstein’s defection and the alternatives he proposes. Part Three: “Disappointment,” removes the reader from her holding pattern in theoretical purgatory and drops her back into the whirling political fray of 1890s Germany. There, Bernstein is elected to Parliament and must battle both the orthodox Marxists and the opportunistic, instrumentalist politicians of his own party, the Marxist-Socialist SPD.

Manfred Steger is well-suited to the challenge of presenting both the biographical and theoretical components of his project. He brings-out the areas of conflict; those within the socialist movement and between the socialists and the autocratic Prussian Emperor, whose executive branch truly controls the political process. If parliamentary process, political maneuvering, wars of words and dissent, are exciting to the reader, she will not be disappointed. At the same time, the nuances of socialist theory are fully, (sometimes painfully), elucidated in an organized manner which even uninitiated non-fiction readers can follow. A brief epilogue permits Steger to flex his own ample theoretical muscles, as he addresses the role that Evolutionary Socialism can still play in a post-Soviet, information age of global economic challenges.

By the end, a reader will have attained three objectives:  First, a clear portrait of a remarkable, intellectually flexible, evidence-based figure. Second, an understanding of the political environment in fin de siècle Germany and its relation to socialism. Third, a grasp of the prevailing currents that existed among European socialists of the late 19th and early 20th Century. All told, the attainment of these objectives is no mean accomplishment.

Steger, Manfred B. The Quest for Evolutionary Socialism. Eduard Bernstein and Social Democracy. Cambridge: The University Press, 1997.

Friday, August 12, 2016

By The Books. A Bi-Partisan Chronology Rejecting Trump’s Claim That Obama Founded ISIS.

In the media, Donald Trump has consistently referred to President Barack Obama as “the founder of ISIS.”** It is just another in a long line of false claims that does not square with recorded history; but serves to inflame his supporters. There are numerous, reputable books and periodicals on the subject that present a clear-eyed view on which US president is responsible for the rise of ISIS, employing chronological evidence, rather than demagogic self-serving motives.

Richard Engel, author of And Then All Hell Broke Loose and Chief Foreign Correspondent for NBC News, wrote that “President Bush had been aggressive and reckless in the Middle East, attacking Iraq for no reason and then claiming to be fighting terrorism while actually creating more terrorists.” (Engel, p. 156). These terrorists became ISIS. But I expect Richard Engel to hold liberal views denigrating the Bush White House. Engel lived in the Middle East prior to becoming a reporter. He has a strong affinity for the people and empathy for their suffering. What I did not expect was to hear Richard Engel’s arguments coming from Doug Bandow.

Doug Bandow is a former special assistant to Ronald Reagan. His writings include Beyond Good Intentions. A Biblical View of Politics. In spite of his conservative credentials, Bandow writes in terms that strongly condemn the son of Ronald Reagan’s Vice President. He does so in The National Interest, a bi-monthly publication of the Center for the National Interest created by Richard Nixon. In his article “The Collapse of Iraq and the Rise of ISIS: Made in America?” Bandow lays out his case:

“First, President Bush used a terrorist attack conducted by Saudi citizens trained in Afghanistan as an excuse to invade Iraq…Second, after ousting the Sunni dictator whose authoritarian rule held the nation together, the administration…disbanded the military, creating a large pool of angry and unemployed young men…[and Third] continued to support the Maliki government even as it ruthlessly targeted Sunnis.” (Bandow, p. 1).

The pool of angry, unemployed men became the soldiers of Al-Quaeda in Iraq (which did not exist before the Bush invasion). The unemployed Ba’athist generals of Saddam Hussein became their generals. The Sunni community, under attack by the Shiite Maliki government, looked to Al-Quaeda to save them. “Al-Quaeda in Iraq survived, mutating into the Islamic State.” (Bandow, p. 1). Bandow closes his article with “Although President Barack Obama shares the blame, George W. Bush made the most important decisions leading to the destruction of Iraq and rise of ISIL. No candidate unable or unwilling to learn from their disastrous mistakes is qualified to sit in the Oval Office.” (Bandow, p. 3). See the link below for the full article.##

Both Engel and Bandow lay the fault for the destruction of Iraq and the rise of ISIS directly at the feet of George W. Bush. They also agree that Obama shares the blame, but that his role was secondary. When individuals from opposite ends of the political spectrum agree on an interpretation, it has a greater likelihood of being true.

The media today, which includes our worldwide internet, has the capability of sharing vast quantities of information for the benefit of humankind. It is one of the instruments that can supply us with hope against the socio-political challenges we face. Unfortunately, those same media tools also have the capability of transmitting falsehood around the globe. When opportunists like Trump lie about history and current events to serve their own quests for power, it is up to world citizens to employ their incisive and reflective abilities. We must sift through that vast quantity of information and come to responsible conclusions which set the record straight.


Engel, Richard. And Then All Hell Broke Loose. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Village. By John Strausbaugh.

John Strausbaugh’s portrait of Greenwich Village is sometimes romantic, often squalid, and most frequently magnetic in its ability to sustain a reader’s attention. It is a story told by a writer who has a deep bag of tricks to dazzle his audience, and who transparently employs them all in the service of creating a popular history. In the process, he advances the thesis that the Village was a “culture engine—a zone that attracts and nurtures creative people…creating work and developing ideas that change the culture of the world…Classical Athens was a culture engine, and Elizabethan London, and Paris and Berlin in the 1920s.” (Strausbaugh, p. ix).

But Strausbaugh will wander distantly from that point, presenting short biographies of colorful, forgotten eccentrics (like the emotionally disturbed poet Else Plotz or the poet/barfly/alcoholic Maxwell Bodenheim). Even exciting, unconnected events (like John Stanley Wojtowicz’s robbery of a downtown bank; subject of the film “Dog Day Afternoon”), pop-up. If it allows him to mesmerize his readers further, he’ll try it. To be fair, unsuccessful poets and mentally ill people are always part of a creative scene. They are attracted by the cheap living arrangements and expressive freedoms that also draw innovative artists or thinkers. Sometimes the only difference between the two is luck or critical recognition. Both groups are part of an unconventional landscape and presenting that scene fully can be defended, even if it leads to writing excesses and complete non-sequiturs. Sometimes the lost and mentally ill faction whom Strausbaugh exposes can inspire their more successful counterparts with expressions of individuality or abandon. Creativity can be overlooked by conventional society if one is not an effective self-promoter. While this is so, Strausbaugh will occasionally go beyond the bounds of what is suitable or relevant. His choice to begin the chapter “Off-Off-Broadway” with the graphic suicide of a little-known dancer is a questionable. Though he does make one pay attention.

The arrangement of The Village follows a traditional chronology. Beginning with the Dutch settlement of Manhattan, it moves quickly to the first Bohemians of the 19th Century. This is where the book begins to flourish. Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman make early appearances as Village residents. The first LGBT and freed African American communities are established. Political radicals like Emma Goldman, John Reed and Max Eastman begin populating its streets. Artists find their studios in former industrial buildings. Now famous dives, as well as more organized salons like those of Mabel Dodge Luhan and Marie Jenny Howe, allow creative cross-pollination. Institutions like the New School are devised by educators dissatisfied with stultifying orthodox ways of learning. At this point, the number of artists and innovators begins to astound. One Village acting class of then unknowns includes Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Walter Matthau, Elaine Stritch, Wally Cox, Bea Arthur and Tony Curtis. (Strausbaugh, p. 279). The late 1940s – early 1950s music scene includes innumerable Jazz and Folk figures who collaborate with Post-Modern Dancers and Beat poets. The Village’s creativity explodes into the Sixties as the careers of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendricks, Andy Warhol and a hoard too vast to recount here, share their inventiveness. Then Stonewall happens, and the LGBT movement changes the culture in ways that continue to reverberate fifty years later. The seemingly perpetual culture engine continues to generate talent and ideas even through the recession of the 1970s, when abandoned buildings allowed Off-Off Broadway plays to triple in number. It only begins to run down into the 1980s as rents become more and more untenable.

The Village ends by describing the current, vapid, yuppie shadow of what it once was. But Strasbaugh has some of his protagonists make the point that, while the zeitgeist may be over in the Village, it exists elsewhere. Rock photographer, Bob Gruen, states “Who cares…if people are not making art in downtown Manhattan anymore…the Village isn’t what it used to be…Nothing will ever be the way it used to be. Things always change… [innovation] didn’t disappear. There are still young people and young bands.” (Strausbaugh, p. 549). This is the positive note on which the story ends: There will always be culture engines in the world. Unknown artists and intellectuals will find other refuges of low rents and open permissive attitudes that are invisible to the conventional aspects of a civilization. There, they will create, innovate and change the culture without most people noticing where that transformation is happening.

Strausbaugh, John. The Village. 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The German Genius. By Peter Watson.

Peter Watson’s The German Genius is a comprehensive study of German intellectual history. The author does a superb job of marshalling secondary historical resources to present an informative chronology. However, a reader is required to overcome some retrograde editorializing by the author.

The first area of difficulty appears in his introduction. Watson states “Hitler and the Holocaust are preoccupying the world to such an extent, I suggest, that we are denying ourselves important aspects elsewhere in German history. We must not forget the Holocaust…but at the same time we must learn to look past it.” (Watson, p. 28). To explore German history beyond the period of 1933 to 1945 is a perfectly reasonable suggestion. If one is to understand a culture, focusing only upon the period of its greatest atrocities does not offer a complete picture. If Watson had stopped there, few would have opposed his plea for balance. Unfortunately, he begins to employ a not so subtle technique used by conservative US political organizations. Often, when conservatives wish to argue against voting laws that benefit minorities, they use a minority spokesperson; when they wish to oppose abortion legislation, they use a female spokesperson. Similarly, Watson employs Jews where he wishes to make some  of his more unjust points: When he wants to say that he wishes the  Holocaust would just go away, he uses Charles Maier saying “[keeping the Holocaust alive] has disadvantages” (Watson’s brackets) and “It is possible to make a fetish of Auschwitz.” (Watson, p. 28). When he wishes to smear Holocaust victims to reduce sympathy and interest, he uses Peter Novick saying “those who have survived are not the  fittest…but are largely the lowest Jewish elements, who by cunning and animal instincts have been able to escape the terrible fate of the more refined and better elements who succumbed.” (Watson, p. 8).  Watson does not recognize that Germany and the rest of the world have chosen to carefully examine the Holocaust because there is value in that study; value that is specifically related to an important concept that runs throughout his book: “bildung.” Bildung “refers to the inner development of the individual, a process of fulfillment through education and knowledge, in effect a secular search for perfection, representing progress and refinement both in knowledge and in moral terms, an amalgam of wisdom and self-realization.” (Watson, pp. 53-4). Examination of the Holocaust has greatly contributed to international and German bildung. Internationally, knowledge of this period has expanded Holocaust studies into genocide studies and contributed to efforts to prevent genocides. In Germany, required study of the Holocaust in the schools has given that nation one of the most humane outlooks in the world. Compare Austria, who killed Jews but did not take responsibility through education, with Germany, who did, and one sees a tremendous difference: When Austria elected ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim as its leader; Germany elected Nobel laureate Willy Brandt. Austria’s minority party is the racist “Freedom Party;” Germany’s is the “Green Party.” Perhaps it is more useful and healthy for the world to have Holocaust education than to have knowledge of the great German poets and composers. But there is no reason why we cannot have both. Who among us couldn’t benefit from learning a little more? In Watson’s defense, he does spend more than 100 pages upon the Nazi period and its destruction of German intellectual life. In addition, he includes numerous Jews in his tome, representing them, as they would have wished, as German citizens.

Another area of difficulty is misleading chauvinism. Among the more easily debunked claims of Watson’s are: 1) “The Italian Renaissance was a German idea.” (Watson, p. 91). Jules Michelet would disagree as he is the individual who coined the term. 2) “Only in 1885 did Karl Benz, in Mannheim, construct a machine that would lead to the automobile age.” (Watson, p. 375). This statement ignores the 25 years of automobile construction prior to Benz. 3) Germany created “the first coherent school of sociology.” (Watson, p. 441). One would have to overlook August Comte, who is widely regarded as the founder of this field. These are just a few examples of chauvinism. A writer’s identification with his subject is one thing; but exaggeration to the point where history is misrepresented is quite another.

Practically every culture has had a period of cultural and educational efflorescence; of genius. Italy’s 200-year Renaissance, France’s 75-year Enlightenment, Greece’s 200-year Golden Age, India’s 300-year sultanate, China’s 300-year Tang dynasty, these are just a few of the notable long-term periods of cultural contribution to the world by  a people at their best. During each of those ages, a short-sighted chronicler could have made an argument for that culture’s superiority; and many did. Germany’s chief period of cultural achievement, as elucidated by Watson, was a 185-year stretch from about 1750 to 1935. He does make a markedly weaker argument that this period continued after Hitler’s demise. Nonetheless, this is a tiny period of time in human history. Additionally, it is a mistake to pronounce a definitive value judgment on Germany, or any culture, based upon either a golden age or upon a period of atrocities. Peter Watson’s attempt to define German culture by the book’s time frame is flawed to its core exactly because of this myopia. This period, even if one were to include the post-war era, is a bubble on an ocean-long continuum.

So what can one say for Peter Watson after describing him as a short-sighted chauvinist who wants to avoid the nasty bits of history so that he can gush about Schiller? In spite of his failed perspective, his book is still worth reading. Watson will introduce one to a glittering time of brilliant minds from Herder to Nietzsche; of brilliant composers from Bach to Schubert; of brilliant scientists from Humboldt to Einstein. The contributions are magnificent and the story of this period is uplifting. Golden ages give us hope for the future of humanity and show us what a culture can accomplish with enough persistence. Watson does a thorough job of researching and elaborating this history. There is a great deal to learn and avenues for further exploration.

Watson, Peter.  The German Genius. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Undaunted Courage. Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. By Stephen E. Ambrose.

There are many who are captivated by the adventure of Lewis and Clark. But what these two military men accomplished, both positive and negative, was far more important than just an exciting story. Their exploration helped to expand a nation from Atlantic to Pacific under one flag. It also facilitated the genocide of western Native American nations. During their travels, Meriwether Lewis described 122 species of fauna and 178 species of flora that were formerly unknown to US and European science. Conversely, this journey also sped the widespread extinction of flora and fauna across this continent. However one chooses to assess the value of their effort, the mission, (established by Thomas Jefferson to map a water route to the Pacific and describe the land, flora, fauna and tribes along the way), had an immense impact on the history of North America.

Undaunted Courage is both a biography of Meriwether Lewis and a chronicle of his famous journey. By taking Lewis separately from his co-commander, we are able to delve more deeply into the mind, demons, character, motivations and personal history of this complex Enlightenment man. Ambrose writes a popular history, rather than a strictly factual academic history. As a result, there are several speculative pictures he paints, such as the rendezvous of Lewis and Clark off of the Ohio River at Clarksville where the expedition began. Characteristically, the author indicates that his description is how it might have gone, given that “we don’t have a single word of description of the meeting of Lewis and Clark.” (Ambrose, p. 117). While Ambrose knows the audience wants an adventure tale, he is usually careful to point out when his description of a buffalo hunt or a confrontation with Native Americans is colored, for public consumption. Even where he does not, discerning non-fiction readers will be able to extract the facts from the legend, by assessing where the author is attempting to get one’s blood pressure to rise.

It is a difficult task, for any author, to write a biography of a Virginia planter turned western explorer. One must provide a fair enough account of the era’s injustices, while presenting the individual as a product of his time. The skill, to give slavery, sexism, and Native American genocide the place they deserve, while not judging an Eighteenth Century man by Twenty-first Century values, will remain a perplexing challenge for historians. Lewis owned slaves. We don’t know if he personally whipped them, but he had an overseer and they were, no doubt beaten. We do not know if he raped slave women, but he would have been unusual among his peers if he had not. While Ambrose will speculate, offering imaginative description regarding travel events throughout his story, he does not offer speculation on these subjects. He comments that “the glittering social, intellectual, economic and political life of Virginia rested on the backs of slaves. Those backs were crisscrossed with scars.” (Ambrose, p. 34). Slavery is covered sporadically throughout the book. Ambrose sensitively portrays the plight of York, Captain Clark’s slave on the journey, who “crossed the continent and returned with his childhood companion, only to be beaten because he was insolent and sulky” when he was “denied not only his freedom but his wife.” (Ambrose, p. 458). This historian covers the constricted lives of white women in less detail. Also, his descriptions of Sacajawea’s role in the party are not as prominent as those in feminist accounts. There is slightly more attention given to the destruction of Native American cultures, and the white attitude of “get out of the way or get killed” (Ambrose, p. 348).  This author intersperses his narrative with brief discussions concerning all of these issues, but they are not principal themes no matter how much they shaped the lives of both oppressor and oppressed. We cannot separate the planters from the slaves, the Native Americans from the pioneers or the men from the women, and hope to have an accurate account of Lewis’s environment. Though the theme of Undaunted Courage was not about these issues, they are an integral part of the history surrounding both the journey and the life of Lewis. While Ambrose did not ignore these concerns, neither did he permit a generous focus upon them.

Though Ambrose only touches upon injustice, he is not uncritical of Lewis. Certainly, he portrays this figure as a superb explorer for his leadership, woodcraft and scientific skills. But the author is quick to point-out failures in judgment or problems of temperament. Ambrose critically examines Lewis’s decisions, (like his determination to divide the party on the return trip), his depressions and his suicide, with as thorough a view as possible given the available information.

The entire project of Undaunted Courage is accomplished without the use of primary sources. Even the letters of Lewis and Clark to their contemporaries are quoted from other historian’s compilations. No new data is contributed by the author. On a positive note, there are also no hare-brained theories or misleading views. There is nothing wrong with marshalling existing resources into an exciting tale; especially when that tale permits a wider audience to access a wealth of history they would not otherwise read. Ambrose created a bestseller that informed hundreds of thousands of readers on a subject they would never have approached. For a non-fiction reader who is looking for an entertaining account of Lewis and the expedition that covers its most important facts, this book is a fine choice.

Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage. Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Atheism and the Holocaust. With Consideration of Wiesel and Faust.

The Holocaust has always provided an excellent argument for atheism. Its utter inhumanity leads one to the classic three options to the question “How could an all-powerful, all-knowing deity have allowed this to happen”: 1) God is not all-knowing and all powerful, so is therefore not the god of the Bible. 2) God is all-knowing and all-powerful, so therefore must be malevolent. 3) There is no God. While this progression of ideas makes sense to evidence-based thinkers, religion is based on beliefs. Beliefs are, by definition, ideas that do not have evidence to support them.

Victims of the Holocaust are anything but mute on the existence of God. At Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria, one victim wrote on the wall next to his bunk “If there is a God, he will have to fall on his knees and beg my forgiveness.” Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel is eloquent on this point in his memoir Night. There, Wiesel recalls attending a religious service, while he was an inmate at Auschwitz, where those present are blessing God. He writes “Why should I bless Him? In every fiber I rebelled. Because He had had thousands of children burned in His pits? Because He kept six crematories working night and day, on Sundays and feast days? Because in His great might He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many factories of death? … My eyes were open and I was alone –terribly alone in a world without God. (Wiesel, pp. 64-5).

After his liberation from Auschwitz, Wiesel’s religiosity does rebound. His relationship to the God of his childhood is permanently changed. But he identifies himself as a believer. This is not an uncommon reaction to trauma or inhumanity. The book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War chronicles the continuing faith in God. Northern citizens saw their victory as evidence of God’s championing of their righteous cause. Southerners saw their loss and devastation as a test of their faith provided by God. Only a minority contemplated the fields of slaughter and thought “there is no God.” Of course tragedies like the Civil War and the Holocaust do produce their share of atheists. But the majority of people fall back on their faith as a support through times of crisis and loss. For many, the idea that there is some all-powerful creature watching over them, even though they do not understand their suffering, is more attractive than the idea that there is no one in charge and events are open to chaos or chance. Rare is the cancer patient who throws-off her religion the day of her diagnosis; or the civilian during wartime who decides there is no God when the bombs are falling. These examples exist, but they are the minority. People like order and protection in their world. But that’s the way people are: afraid of the void.

Even as atheists, we have to admit that the Judeo-Christian happy ending is more attractive than our version of the finale. The picture of one’s self moving on to an afterlife when she dies; purportedly one where a friendly cosmic father welcomes her and she gets to party with dead loved ones for eternity, is more appealing than the scientific facts accepted by most atheists. Accepting rational, scientific conclusions, means facing a stark reality where you end when your brain ceases to function.

So, if the world is capable of having repeated genocides like the Holocaust, and the human population persists in the belief in an invisible super-dad, then we have a long road ahead towards a total acceptance of science and reason. We may as well make the journey with equanimity. There’s no point in frustration over the failure of most people to see what is evident to any rational, scientific mind. We do not need others to validate our perspective. Let’s leave that insecurity to the religious, whose worldview is based upon a more ethereal foundation than ours. Sure, we are going to need to respond to political abuses by believers with competence and intelligence. The fundamentalist shooters (be they Christians at women’s health clinics or Muslims at airports), the “God Hates Fags” protesters at funerals of LGBTQ soldiers, the attempts at censorship and the attempts to impose religion on government, these all require response. But let’s not lose sight of the rationality that brought us to atheism. Let’s leave the emotionalism, which burns those who bear it, to people of faith. There is no point in struggling to make others accept our ideas. No one’s going to hell if they do not swallow our catechism; that’s someone else’s story. If we have not learned to take that cleansing breath in the face of religion, perpetual anger and bitterness will be our reward.

So, when facing issues like the Holocaust, where one faith tries to wipe another off the planet, where those of faith persist in belief, we atheists can conduct ourselves sensibly. We have our communities (like this one online). We can be thoughtful and responsive, rather than reactive. We can make our points, share our ideas and live our lives the way we see fit.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Vintage Books, 2009.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Crisis in Freedom. The Alien and Sedition Acts. By John C. Miller

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were the first successful laws passed in the United States to repress freedom of speech and eject foreign-born citizens from the country. Sponsored by the Federalist Party, and signed into law by President John Adams, these measures were designed to silence the Republican Party and critics of the federal government during a period of hostility with France.

It was conflict in Europe between the young French Republic and monarchist Great Britain which set the stage for passage of these US laws. The pro-British Federalist Party had signed Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain, inciting the ire of the French Republic and that of the pro-French Republican Party. Crisis in Freedom follows the events, beginning with the signing of Jay’s Treaty. John C. Miller proceeds to elucidate the use of the Alien and Sedition acts as an instrument of repression. Newspaper editors and writers were jailed; Americans born in Europe were deported; and several papers ceased to publish. He also examines resistance to these measures that led to the downfall of Adams and the Federalists in the following elections. Subsequently, one witnesses the decline and extinction of this once dominant party in the young USA.

It is a story with a happy ending, which the author presents in story form. Professor Miller’s dedication of his book reveals a decided preference for storytelling: “To Samuel Eliot Morison, in whose hands history becomes enduring literature.” This is not to say that Miller plays loosely with the facts. His narrative is comprehensively researched. The political nuances of the time, and intentions of the players, are fully discussed. Both the structure of the events, and the presentation of the historical figures, reveal the author’s desire to produce a work of history that also has artistic merit. The chapters are numbered in the manner of some novels, rather than titled with subjects. Miller presents the opportunistic villainy of the Federalists, and the heroism of their opposition, in a dramatic genre. In spite of this depiction, one will come away from Crisis in Freedom with an understanding that all is not black-and-white. There were honorable intentions among some Federalists, as well as disreputable behavior by some of their victims. But it’s hard not to cheer for those forces fighting for our First Amendment rights.

Not just the structure of the tale, but also the style of the writing is worth examining. Sometimes Miller is a bit self-conscious that he is creating historical “literature,” and not just plainly representing the past. As a result, he can get carried away with the drama of his narrative. For example, regarding the potential war between France and the US, he says of the Federalists “they resolved to fight gamely to the end…they proposed to show that at least the gentlemen of the United States knew how to die.” (Miller, p. 23). Blinded by the fluidity and passion of his own creation, Miller fails to recognize that the Federalist leaders knew they had no fear of personal bodily injury in combat. Then, as now, politicians sent working-class people into the rain of bullets to defend the brave words of national leaders. Information can become a casualty in historical writing where artistry is prized above empiricism. Fortunately, extravagant flights of words are made infrequent by the author’s conflicting dedication to relate history accurately.

Despite the occasional friction between art and fact, this is a well-told history of events. Miller achieves enough balance between his intentions regarding historical literature and presenting what actually happened. Despite some human error, he generally shows that these factors need not be in conflict. His study of the Alien and Sedition Acts is predominantly told accurately and well.

Miller, John C. Crisis in Freedom. The Alien and Sedition Acts. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Babylonians. An Introduction. By Gwendolyn Leick.

The Babylonians is a bland informative book. It’s the kind of book one would find in a college survey course on ancient Mesopotamian history. But it does fit the requirement if one is seeking a basic introduction to Babylonian civilization. Those who will read this book are primarily undergrads forced to choose an introductory history course, and non-fiction bibliophiles who desire unvarnished knowledge.

The straightforward content is arranged in five chapters. Chapter One presents the natural environment of lower Mesopotamia at the time that it was settled, locating the Babylonians in time and place. There is an important section describing the many thousands of clay tablets discovered by archaeologists. Though this section is out of step with the previous content in Chapter One, it is necessary that the author introduce this element early, given its immense importance to our understanding of this culture. Chapter Two is an overview of Babylonian history in the area from pre-Babylonian times to the end of that civilization (roughly 6000 BC to 323 BC when Alexander the Great dies). Chapter Three delves into the society and economy. Chapter Four is on religion. Chapter Five presents the material culture excavated by archaeologists.

All of the information herein is based upon artifacts and reading the numerous cuneiform tablets discovered at the dig sites. We are immensely fortunate to have such a rich collection of writing to draw upon for our understanding. Content of these tablets range from simple invoices of trade goods, to Hammurabi’s laws, to poetry. Granted, these tablets limit our understanding to the priorities of the wealthy in this culture, and those few who were literate. But having an insight into the thoughts of people who existed 4,000 years ago is invaluable.

Still, as with any ancient civilization, some modern interpretation, theory and guesswork, are necessary. In spite of the record presented by the tablets, there are holes in our picture. Gwendolyn Leick must fill those holes with some conjecture, but she is careful in her efforts. There is very little that one who is not a professional scholar of this period would find controversial in her conclusions. This does not mean that certain individuals will not find reasons to be outraged at various turns. One cannot read about an ancient culture without encountering war, slavery, economic inequality, sexism, divine hierarchy, religious superstition, ethnocentrism and the occasional massacre. It’s all part of our rocky development. There is even a section on a class of transgender priests that will inflame those to the right of the political spectrum (Leick, p. 113). Not to mention the fact that Babylon is presented in the Bible as the epitome of sin; and by current Fundamentalist Christians as an example of neo-pagan excess. But, if one is so thin-skinned as to become upset about a 4,000 year-old transgression of one’s personal values, then one richly deserves the outrage she feels. The original residents of Mesopotamia are long past caring.

The Babylonians is a dry, factual, evidenced-based read. But it provides both a window through which to view an ancient civilization and a foundation for further reading. The investment of time is only 160 pages, after which one may be satisfied that she has gained an understanding that provides enough information to round-out her knowledge, or that she wishes to delve deeper. Given that the subject is a culture with an extensive and varied written record, the opportunities for discovery are legion.

The Babylonians. An Introduction. Leick, Gwendolyn. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War. By James Bradley.

The story around which The Imperial Cruise orbits, is a 1905 diplomatic mission arranged by President Theodore Roosevelt and led by his Secretary of War William Howard Taft. Its purpose was to visit both recently conquered nations and potential allies in the Pacific. Among its stops were Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, and Korea. Along for the ride were seven senators, twenty-three congressmen, various military officials, some civilian officials, aides and a number of wives. Included among the party was the President’s fashionable and rambunctious daughter, Alice Roosevelt. She was “a novelty,” [arguably] “the twentieth century’s first female celebrity…when Alice went somewhere, the crowds and press followed.” (Bradley, p. 13). Throughout the book, the President’s daughter provides plenty of histotainment to give the reader temporary relief from painful topics that are more central to the book’s thesis.

The thesis itself is distressing. Bradley asserts that Teddy Roosevelt was a racist believer in the “Aryan Myth”: “Once upon a time, the fable goes, an ‘Aryan race’ sprang up in the Caucasus Mountains…a superior man…All the world’s great civilizations were the product of his genius…A group of Aryans had followed the sun westward from the Caucasus to…Germany…Rather than mate with lesser-blooded peoples, these Aryans killed them [and] maintained the purity of their blood…The pure Aryan evolved into a higher being: the Teuton [who] consulted democratically among his own kind and slowly birthed embryonic institutions of liberty…The Teuton…spread out from the German forests…continued to follow the sun to the west…ventured to Europe’s western coast…sailed across…the English Channel…by methodical slaughter…kept themselves pure…became known as Anglo-Saxons…sailed across the  Atlantic…to North America…eliminated the native population…so democracy could take root and civilization…could sparkle from sea to  shining sea.” (Bradley, pp. 23-7).

Bradley offers evidence, from Roosevelt’s compositions, to support his view of the 26th President’s racism. Concerning non-white ethnic groups, he is quoted as writing in 1894 that “blacks” were “a perfectly stupid race,” (Bradley, p. 83) and in 1896 that Hawaii experienced “damage that is perhaps irreparable” from an “influx of population consist[ing], not of white Americans, but of low caste laborers from the yellow races.” (Bradley, p. 162). To support his understanding of how Roosevelt’s racism contributed to an expansionist US policy of “following the sun westward” like his Aryan forebears, Bradley quotes Teddy writing that “The world would have halted had it not been for the Teutonic conquests in alien lands.” (Bradley, p. 25). Regarding the conquest of North America, Roosevelt wrote that “Teutonic [and] English blood is the source of American greatness” (Bradley, p. 332), that to American Indians “life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid and ferocious than that of the wild beasts” (Bradley, p. 58), and that “with the discovery of America, a new period of even vaster race expansion began.” (Bradley, p. 58). The President announced his further support for westering Aryan conquest of the by writing “I wish to see the United States the dominant power on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.” (Bradley, p. 1).

The devastation to non-white cultures caused by the westering imperialism is well recorded: Genocide against Native Americans. Two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand Philippine natives killed in battle after their freedom of self-government had been denied by the US. The overthrow of Hawaii’s sovereign government. Bradley honestly portrays the United States’ brutal use of torture, concentration camps and massacre to obtain its’ goals.

It is perhaps a little unfair to make Theodore Roosevelt the scapegoat for US Imperialism due to his acceptance of the Aryan Myth and his subsequent behavior. Bradley attempts to balance the President’s racism with that of the rest of the nation by saying “A single person does not make history, and in this case, Roosevelt did not act alone. At the same time…Teddy’s impact was staggering and disastrous…If someone pushes another off a cliff, we can point to the distance between the edge of the overhang and the ground as the cause of injury. But if we do not also acknowledge who pushed and who fell, how can we discover which decisions led to which results and which mistakes were made?” (Bradley, p. 9). A clever analogy, but it doesn’t cover-up the fact that the United States both conquered the Philippines and annexed Hawaii before Roosevelt came to office. In addition, Teddy was always completely frank and on the record concerning his acceptance of the westering Aryan conquest. US citizens voted for him because of it, not in spite of it. However, it would be difficult for Bradley to have a bestseller by slinging mud at the ancestors of his readership, so he uses Roosevelt to soften the blow.

Bradley spends a great deal of time discussing Taft’s visit to Japan. At this point, the author creates a myth of his own: Once upon a time, Japan was a peaceful island. On July 8, 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry “sailed unannounced into Tokyo Bay with a fleet of US Navy warships” and forced communication and trade upon the unfortunate Japanese. (Bradley, p. 178). “Then in the fall of 1872, an American arrived to teach the Japanese how to invade other countries. His name was Charles LeGendre.” (Bradley, p. 186). In 1905, during the eponymous cruise, “Taft was carrying secret oral instructions” from Roosevelt that “would green-light what later generations would call World War II in the Pacific.” (Bradley, p. 168). In brief, this secret message was that Roosevelt would support the Japanese claim to Korea and respect that Asia was “Japan’s sphere of influence.” In exchange, “Japan would keep its hands off the Philippines.” (Bradley, pp. 248-9). While it is true that the US encouraged Japanese aggression, Japan was not the lamb of East Asia. Japan had intentions of conquest since at least the Yamato Period in 663. That year’s Battle of Baekgang was an attempt to extend its power onto the Korean Peninsula.  ( Japanese attempts to invade Korea occurred right up until 1598 when Imperial Regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi died and Japanese forces withdrew from the peninsula. ( Bradley’s premise, that Roosevelt’s interference “would catalyze World War II in the Pacific,” is highly speculative. (Bradley, p. 5). The Japanese certainly had their own imperial intentions that existed prior to, and independent of, any US encouragement.

In spite of some questionable conclusions, Bradley’s book provides an important service to history. Few of us learned in school of the westering Aryan Myth or that Teddy Roosevelt subscribed to this myth. Few of us learned that many US citizens supported a destructive conquest in the Pacific that would cause unimaginable suffering in the Philippines and injustice in Hawaii. Every bit of preserved history, whether it is complimentary or not, is important to the expansion of human knowledge and self-understanding. Because The Imperial Cruise is in many ways unique and accurate, it aligns well with this goal and stands as a contribution to what we know of the past.

Bradley, James. The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of  Empire and War. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Society of the Enlightenment. The Rise of the Middle Class and Enlightenment Culture in Germany. By Richard van Dulman.

The Society of the Enlightenment is a useful elucidation of the various social gathering organizations established in Germany during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Histories of the Enlightenment reflect a range of approaches from theoretical depictions of cultural patterns and development, to narratives that tell an exciting chronological story with characters from history struggling to introduce reason in a superstitious and conservative society. Richard van Dulman’s offering is more on the theoretical end of the spectrum. He presents an evolutionary model where organizations develop through three phases over time. It is not so theoretical that the reader will find herself in a web of ungrounded, abstract thought. In each chapter, after the phase is described, Dulman presents detailed examples of organizations. He employs primary source records from individual group archives. In this way, the reader sees a vivid picture of what these gatherings were like socially and functionally. Despite the usual problems of records becoming scattered after the demise of an organization, Dulman is able to provide an impressive 18 pages of footnotes at the end of a study that is only 143 pages, indicating a fulsome picture of the institutions he examines.

Phase One begins in the 17th Century, with Learned and Literary Societies that are important antecedents to Enlightenment clubs. Their chief goal was to expand personal and elite knowledge. While outside of the organization, there existed an unequal divide between middle class and aristocratic individuals, within the organization, members “were answerable only to truth and reason.”  (Dulman, p. 31). This attitude created an environment where the two classes could meet and discuss ideas as peers, where “force of argument alone was decisive.” (Dulman, p. 49). Some organizations, even included women in their membership despite a general prejudice in society and academia that women were intellectually inferior. (Dulman, p. 47). One should not think of these organizations as entirely liberal or politically egalitarian. During this phase, the researcher found that Learned and Literary Societies “excluded the common people” of the worker/peasant class. (Dulman, p. 49). Their main contributions are in a structure that encouraged evaluation of individuals based on performance rather than class, and a learning process based on reason over tradition or superstition.

Phase Two organizations began appearing “around the middle of the 18th Century. While maintaining a commitment to expanding personal knowledge, these organizations also “contained some elements of middle class reformism.” Two types of societies developed along these lines: secret societies like the Freemasons and “the so-called patriotic and public-spirited societies.” Freemasonry “aimed to create a private moral world independent of the state and the Church in which to further the development of men…in accordance with the laws of enlightened reason. Public-spirited societies functioned “openly…in the interests of the common good…by means of practical proposals and reformist endeavors.” Neither form of organization represented a challenge to absolutism. Most members could not conceive of a system without a ruling prince. They saw themselves as acting “on behalf of the state.” (Dulman, p. 52). The kinds of reforms they promoted ranged from establishing schools based on reason and science, to proposing improved forms of agriculture. Modifications to the state itself were not a concern.

It was only in Phase Three, late in the 18th Century, under the conditions of “absolutism in crisis,” when organizations developed which “no longer blindly accepted that their socio-political aspirations could be fulfilled by a benevolent prince. They were progressive reformers in their own right” who “founded associations which were independent of, or co-existed alongside, established state institutions. Indeed, they even displayed a tendency to oppose the state’s claim to be the sole legitimate source of authority.” (Dulman, p. 82). These forms persisted through the end of the century and gained influence once Napoleon expanded his sphere into the German territories.

It is of marginal importance that this version of the book is a translation from the original German. Translations are most important to creative writing where artistry is necessarily altered in the process. In non-fiction, as long as a translation does not change the author’s original meanings, its’ impact is of little consequence.

Dulman’s scholarly gifts are not only in regard to his stamina for research. In addition, he is able to analyze the successes or failures of the organizations he examines with care and balance. It is not uncommon for a secular historian to become overly-enthusiastic, about the early attempts of secular/scientific intellectual movements, to the point of overlooking imperfections. The author does not fall prey to this tendency. For example, in his depiction of the Bavarian Academy of Science, Dulman is able to discern that “in general, the academy conducted its scientific activity in an unspectacular manner,” (Dulman, p. 37), while later showing its positive aspect as “a forum for public debate which pursued a policy of Enlightenment” and, particularly with regard to public education, “contributed to the successes achieved by the advocates of the policy of enlightened reform.” (Dulman, pp. 38-9). This ability of discernment makes The Society of the Enlightenment an exceptional addition our knowledge of this period in Germany, providing realistic portraits of the era’s organizations.

Dulman, Richard van. The Society of the Enlightenment. The Rise of the Middle Class and Enlightenment Culture in Germany. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992.