Monday, November 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, November 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, October 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

Another problem comes much later in the book with the migration of Abstract Art across the Atlantic. It resulted in Abstract Expressionism; the first original art movement on US soil. The difficulties involved with a trend, where communication with an audience is not the goal of the artists, is treated in another article at this link  http://greatnonfictionbooks.blogspot.com/2017/09/the-problem-of-abstract-expressionism.html   It is too extensive a conversation to be done justice here.

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


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

Monday, October 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, October 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


**https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/19/us/politics/trump-russia-comey.html. “Trump Told Russians That Firing ‘Nut Job’ Comey Eased Pressure From Investigation.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 May 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/05/19/us/politics/trump-russia-comey.html.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, September 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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


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

Savage Beauty. The Life of Edna St Vincent Millay. By Nancy Milford.

Most poets do not make a living from their writing. This was especially so for female poets in the 1920s. Undoubtedly, the road was even harder for one from an impoverished family in Maine. But Edna St Vincent Millay was recognized by the literary world for a salient talent by the time she was nineteen. She entered a national contest for poets and, although she did not win, she caught the attention of a New York socialite named Caroline Dow. A Vassar College alum, Dow convinced her alma mater to accept this gifted young woman and prodded her New York alumnae circle to pay the tuition.

Millay’s poetry is not flowery or sentimental. It more reflects the cynicism in her life regarding relationships:

I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favorite vow.
(Milford, p. 175)

Millay knew whereof she spoke. She had so many simultaneous lovers, both men and women, that it is surprising she was able to keep her personal life from the public spotlight. But even when her poetry alluded to what would have been scandalous indiscretions for that era, her fans seem far more interested in her ability, her presence and the passion with which she writes.

As with any personality, one must contend with some unlikeable traits. Millay is vain, self-absorbed and emotionally impervious to the harm that her recklessness causes others. This is particularly so late in life before she learns to control her addiction to opiates and alcohol. But even in college, her letters home are crassly insensitive: She lists all the clothes that Ms Dow is buying for her just when her impoverished mother and sisters are being evicted from their rental property (Milford, p. 120). Also, the narrative records complaints of friends and acquaintances used by Millay for personal or professional gain, then ignored after they have outlived their usefulness. But there are appealing qualities to balance these negative traits. Millay had a sparkle that made people want to know her whether she was at Vassar, in Greenwich Village bohemia, or in the Midwest on reading tours. One roots for her to succeed and lift her family out of poverty. Her verse, honest, self-revealing, well-written, allows a reader access to appreciate her. This biography presents so much of her poetry chronologically, in context with events of her life, that it exposes her struggles, her triumphs and her development as a poet.

Nancy Milford’s book is an absorbing, pleasurable meditation on personality and inner life by an author who has researched her subject in a deep, personal way. It was helpful that she had unique access to Edna’s private papers and letters which had been jealously guarded by Millay’s sister, Norma. This younger sibling had hoped to write her own biography of Edna, but never got around to it. Milford formed a friendship with Norma and cajoled both the papers and much intimate family information out of her. Because of its sensitivity, its revelation of the internal and its many intersecting personalities, Savage Beauty reads like a Jane Austen novel come to life. Milford’s offering is a master writing course for biographers. This is how it is done.


Milford, Nancy. Savage Beauty. The Life of Edna St Vincent Millay. New York: Random House, Inc., 2002.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Problem of Abstract Expressionism. Inspired by reading Robert Hughes.

In Europe of the early 1900s, abstraction of a visual image permitted painters to express additional emotion or features that a simple representative painting might not. It was part of the constant experiment of thesis-antithesis that permits artists to innovate, rejecting what came before and creating something new. Witness how German Expressionism in the hands of Oskar Kokoschka produces a scrumble of paint in the flesh of his figures to show conflicting emotion. Some movements, like Cubism, were an attempt to come to terms with a fast paced society where, in a newly invented car, for example, a rider will see the front, right and back, of a walking pedestrian, all in the matter of two seconds. Cubism was an experiment to communicate this experience visually on a two-dimensional surface in a fixed time. But in the hands of US artists in the 1940s and 50s, these attempts at new means of communication and expression to an audience evolved to exclude the audience. The first original art movement created on US soil, Abstract Expressionism, eliminates any image onto which a viewer could latch. It encompassed a collection of motives, some useful for the development of painting. Pollack’s drip paintings are a freeform play with technique that liberates the painter from the fist and brush. It results in often aesthetically pleasing patterns, but for a viewer who has not read that Pollack is only playing with technique and not attempting to communicate, it can be confusing. Robert Motherwell produced conceptual works. He wrote volumes on his ugly shapes of black washes on white canvas that look as if they could have been applied with a dish sponge. There is not one person who could look at his famous “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” and see anything that vaguely resembles its title. But his concepts have inspired generations of artists, even representational artists, to create and invent.

It would be authoritarian, and potentially censorious, to say that these works are not art. Such pronouncements are too often used to squelch creativity that is either not understood or not approved by an establishment. If we wish artistic expression to remain an unrestricted process, an open-ended definition such as “Art is an expression using a medium” is required. It prevents art Nazis from defining and controlling what is, or is not, art.

However, there is nothing wrong with saying that a kind of art has difficulty communicating with a viewer, especially when it is not the intention of that work to communicate. Let’s take, for a moment, the black-and-white lines applied to paper by Franz Kline. Some conceptualize his works as “A Unique Existential Act.” Others claim that his inspiration came from Zen Calligraphy. And still others state categorically that his “work had nothing to do with … Zen Calligraphy” (Hughes, p. 481). It is possible that, given the many contradicting opinions on Kline’s work, that no one can grasp what he is doing. Maybe he is describing the taste of cauliflower. He doesn’t say. It is an internal monologue not meant to communicate.

Then, of course, there are those artists who are simply attempting to deceive the viewer. About his abstract “zip” paintings (visually, a canvas painted all one color with one contrasting color stripe down the middle), Barnett Newman once said that a friend “challenged me to explain what one of my paintings could possibly mean to the world. My answer was that if he and others could read it properly it would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism.” The critic Robert Hughes responded “Such utterances are the very definition of bullshit: empty depth” (Hughes, p. 494). But these utterances are so common that they have become a written prelude to most art shows. The art world is now open to a greater number of posers and con men than ever before.

So how does an art lover approach work that is entirely abstract? Should we follow the advice of knowledgeable, well-read critics and art historians? The same generation of critics who could not agree on the line paintings of Franz Kline also panned the drip paintings of Jackson Pollack in 1948; then in 1949, when Clement Greenberg wrote that Pollack was a genius, they all started to praise the artist. The critics don’t know any more than the casual observer. The only solutions appear to be either 1) to keep one’s self up to date by reading the volumes of sincere and insincere writings that artists and critics have produced on individual painters, democratically making one’s own judgments, 2) Look at the specific works in galleries and museums with an emotional/gut approach concerning how you feel about the work, or 3) Forget about abstract art and look at representational forms. This is art; not survival. How you approach the topic is entirely up to you.


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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Brief History of the Vikings. By Jonathan Clements

Jonathan Clements’ A Brief History of the Vikings chronicles the rise and fall of this seafaring culture. He begins in the 5th Century as the Romans are abandoning Brittania and Gaul. At that time, many Northern European tribes, including the forebears of the Vikings, were asserting themselves by raiding the edges of the beset Empire. He ends with the Viking defeat by Godwinson at Stamford Bridge in Northumbria, in 1066; followed three weeks later by Godwinson’s loss to the Norman descendents of Vikings at Hastings.

It is understandable that the author should begin and end his Viking narrative with their maritime roving and predation; particularly beginning and ending in Britain: Clements was born in the United Kingdom. Despite family genealogy connecting him with Scandinavia, he has views of one raised outside of that region. The traits that he and non-Scandinavian Europe associate with the Vikings involve pillage of their territories. But what of the culture itself? What of the unique internal qualities and creativity that distinguish a culture? Clements does describe their ship-building and their sagas. He does credit their navigation and exploration; their establishment of far-flung trading posts and colonies from the rivers of Russia to the shores of North America. However, most of the book is a chronology of pillage, wars and conquest.

Like most civilized scholars, Clements struggles with his perspective on Viking violence. He resists the efforts of “Latter-day apologists” and “some museum curators” to “soften the image” (Clements p. 11). But then, one is left only with the violence and a lot of explaining. Why does a set of tribes from one area become the pillagers of Europe? Clements’ explanation, that those who sailed from their homes “were the rejects of Scandinavian society—forced to travel further afield to make their fortune” is not entirely satisfying (Clements p. 12). The label “rejects” and the description of them separating from the rest of society, makes a pretense that the pillagers were different from the decent folk of Scandinavian settlements. However, the fact that slaves and goods, captured in Ireland and Brittania, were traded through Scandinavia, down Russian rivers, to the Muslims, indicates that the pillagers were part of the Scandinavian economy. Also, many of the marauders had families at home whom they were supporting. Finally, many voyagers returned to their homelands to settle, and some even became rulers. Clearly, these plunderers had little or no stigma attached to their actions which might prevent them from leaving, communicating or re-settling. It was a job, and one that profited their people. They were integral to their societies.

Perhaps one would not take such a dangerous job under circumstances where one was prosperous in situ. Clements points to population growth as a pressure that made jobs, land and inheritance scarce. The author’s later comment, is uncomfortable to accept but closer to a reasonable conclusion: “Almost everyone was atrocious back then…The Angles, Saxons, Irish and Scots were just as bloodthirsty with each other, and with their Scandinavian foes” (Clements p. 12). The only differences between the Vikings and these other tribes were that ability, geography and technology, offered them better opportunities to exploit their enemies. Scandinavians had better ships and navigation skills with which to invade distant lands. Angles and Saxons lived next to each other and raided mutually. If population pressures had forced the Angles to develop long distance navigation skills and raiding ships, perhaps they would have taken the risks associated with marauding far from home.

Clements deserves credit not only for facing the brutality of early medieval life, but also for his straight-forward approach to the historical record. He cuts through the hyperbole of the sagas where a lesser historian would simply quote from them for narrative color and leave their claims untouched. So when the saga of Floki Vilgerdason states that he cast ravens from his ship and observed their flight to find land, Clements points-out the suspicious similarity to the biblical Noah myth (Clements p. 140). The author also employs modern science to de-bunk claims. For example, he exposes the legend that skin from murdered Danes covered the doors of Westminster Abbey, citing that modern forensic evaluation of the “Daneskin” found it to be “perfectly normal leather” (Clements p. 167).

Clements’ book provides some important perspective on the Vikings. His anglocentric approach does go too far in portraying the Vikings as invaders and outcasts among their own people. This prevents him from seeing their contribution to their society and prevents him from examining the culture of their settlements. His information on Viking art, innovation or other contributions is limited. But there are no romantic elegies to a vanished fraternity of seafaring adventurers singing heroic sagas. His skepticism, and his unvarnished approach to the darker elements of human nature, are useful traits in this context.


Clements, Jonathan. A Brief History of the Vikings. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2005.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Assassination of Fred Hampton. How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther. By Jeffrey Haas.

On Thursday, December 4, 1969, the Chicago Police broke into the apartment of Black Panther Chairman, Fred Hampton, and murdered him. Attorney Jeffrey Haas was part of a legal team that won damages for the families of Hampton and other Panthers killed and wounded in the raid. Damages were paid by the Chicago Police, by the FBI (whose informant supplied a floor plan of the apartment showing where Hampton slept and was killed) and by Cook County (whose State’s Attorney [Edward V. Hanrahan] ordered the raid). This book is Haas’s version of the chronology which exposed the criminal collusion of those three government bodies.

Haas is aware throughout, that this book will be read by people who have little sympathy for the revolutionary rhetoric of the Panthers. He honestly presents Fred Hampton’s support of violent tactics: When Hampton is asked “Do you feel that a legitimate means of obtaining what you are after is armed violence or armed revolution,” Hampton responds “I believe if we tried anything else we would end up like Dr. Martin Luther King” (Haas, p. 51).

In order to make his case to a readership where some are likely to be skeptical of his clients and conclusions, Haas relies on evidence from the FBI and government sources. When he wants to present FBI collusion with police in the murder, he employs the transcript testimony of FBI agent Roy Mitchell, who admitted under oath that he obtained the floor plan of Hampton’s apartment from his planted informant inside the Panther organization, then passed it on to the Chicago Police (Haas, pp. 195-7). When Haas wishes to show that the police murdered Fred Hampton while he lay face-down and helpless in his bed, he uses the evidence from FBI ballistics specialist Robert Zimmers, and pathology reports of the Federal Grand Jury, which reveal the downward trajectory of the bullets into Hampton’s prone body (Haas, p. 124). When Haas wants to demonstrate that the FBI wanted Hampton dead, he uses the FBI’s anonymously written letter from its own files, to a Chicago street gang leader, attempting to convince him to kill Hampton (Haas, p. 224). All these pieces of evidence were obtained from the FBI via legal discovery, documented in the public record and presented in the trials against the FBI, the Chicago Police & Edward V. Hanrahan.

Haas was a young lawyer in 1969. His demeanor was frequently self-righteous and unprofessional. Haas put in writing to the appellate court that “FBI racial counterintelligence was a star-spangled blueprint for genocide” (Haas, p. 361). Such strident language, used often by Haas, is common in street protest, but does not constitute evidentiary language in a legal argument. Experienced NAACP civil rights lawyer James Montgomery, (Haas’s one-time co-counsel), told Hampton’s parents that “he no longer wanted to work with [Haas] and that [his] tactics only led to infuriating the judge” (Haas, p. 312). When Haas and his co-counsel defend in court their labeling of opposing attorneys ideas as “’fascist’ mentality,” Judge Fairchild admonishes them to “focus on the facts…not the abstract labels (Haas, p. 322). All of this is described in the book without any self-criticism or self-awareness on the part of the author.

Despite Haas’s prior lack of polish and current inability to self-reflect, his book accomplishes what it set-out to do: Using legal facts supplied by FBI and government records, it exposes FBI , Chicago Police and State's Attorney General, collusion in the murder of a political figure.


Haas, Jeffrey. The Assassination of Fred Hampton. How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

George Jacob Holyoake. By Joseph McCabe.

George Jacob Holyoake (April 13, 1817 – January 22, 1906) was a significant activist in the British Secular and Cooperative Movements. He created the term “secularism,” and stopped using the description “atheist,” not out of any rancor towards atheists, but because “he wanted to describe what he was, not what he declined to be…he wanted men to give all their devotion to the problems of this world (saeculum)…Secularist was the best name to adopt” (McCabe, p. 31). He worked all his life alongside people who described themselves as atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secularists, etc., to reform the UK to be more secular in government and education. His activism with the Cooperative Movement involved support for business ventures that were owned and democratically managed by their members. Most of his work was as a newspaper editor and a lecturer. The latter activity resulted in his prosecution for “Blasphemy,” a religiously-motivated form of legal censorship that was not eliminated in British law until 2008.*

Joseph McCabe’s biography of Holyoake is itself a piece of history. It is part of the “Life Stories of Famous Men” series, created by secularist publisher Charles Albert Watts, and issued for the Rationalist Press Association. Like the Little Blue Book Series in the United States (for whom McCabe also wrote), this book was intended as brief, low-cost propaganda aimed at working class readers. The writing is ghastly. McCabe’s bio has all the sobriety and rationalism of an eager choir boy’s school report on his favorite nun. He characterizes secularism as “the noblest struggle on which the sun has ever shone” and Holyoake’s advocacy as setting out “to slay dragons” (McCabe, p. 31). But a modern reader does not approach this book for its content. It is to be examined as a historical, propagandistic document. Given the elements that its author emphasizes, this book is more valuable for what it reveals about the UK of 1922, than what it tells us about Holyoake. So what does it reveal? What are the points that McCabe leans upon to press his case?

First, it is significant that this book and series are aimed at the working class, given that this is a group whose political influence is on the rise in 1922. Before World War I, aristocracy was highly regarded in Britain. Herbert Henry Asquith, Earl of Oxford, was the Prime Minister who led the United Kingdom into that war. While the Great War was patriotically regarded by the populace at large, there was a great deal of criticism for the way that aristocratic generals conducted campaigns. Aristocratic officers with no experience but great titles, sent thousands of working class soldiers over the tops of trenches to die for a few feet of soil, only to see those conquests re-captured the next day. It was this perception of aristocratic responsibility for the slaughter which prompted Parliament to finally give the sacrificing working class universal suffrage. By the time that McCabe had written this biography, the Labor Party had surpassed the Liberal Party as the primary opposition to the Conservatives in Parliament. Of course it did help that George Jacob Holyoake had working class roots and that he was a leader in the Cooperative Movement, both good reasons to select him for the series. But the constant emphasis on his roots does show the growing political importance of the working class at the time of the writing.

Second, this book, a piece of secularist propaganda, ironically displays the importance of religion in UK society. Language is used in reference to Holyoake that evokes religious feeling. Phrases like “Holyoake was touched by the sacred fire” (McCabe, p. 14) and “then his real martyrdom began” (McCabe, p. 19) show that religious feeling still exist and can be evoked to support even the cause of secularism. Throughout the book, this reformer is shown inviting theists to join his society (McCabe, p. 32) or being praised by clerics (i.e. “even Bishops avowed the same esteem as Ingersoll” [McCabe, p. 95]). These examples are meant to express to readers who have grown-up in Christian households, that it’s okay to see the good in a secularist and even join-in with them. Such encouragement would be unnecessary were religion unimportant to the target audience.

Third, there is a marked attempt to secure the interest of women in the Secular Movement. Women who were householders obtained the right to vote in 1918. There was significant feminist agitation for the franchise to be extended to all women, which succeeded in 1928. As the women’s movement is increasingly important in the public sphere, Holyoake’s support is emphasized: “the woman movement (sic)…round him gathered the little band of early pioneers in the struggle. Harriet Martineau admired him enthusiastically” (McCabe, p. 35).

Fourth, in spite of a growing egalitarianism in Great Britain, big names still impress circa 1922. Litanies of socially prominent admirers are a frequent occurrence in this biography. For example: “Sir Wilfrid Lawson writes: ‘I have long thought that you are one of our few original thinkers and writers.’ Jacob Bright says: ‘I value highly your judgment.’ The Marquis of Ripon says: ‘I am glad to see your handwriting again.’” It goes on for a page and a half (McCabe, p. 111-2). Regardless of how progressive and educated society has become, the rich and famous remain a source of public fascination.

The purpose of this evaluation is not to single-out secularists for criticism. Whether secular or religious, left-wing or right-wing, all movements use propaganda. Examining propaganda allows a reader to step back from a document and see both how it is attempting to influence, and what it shows about the values of the society it is directed towards. This kind of analysis helps one understand the historical uses of this technique, and makes one more mindful of its use in our own time. The biography George Jacob Holyoake is useful for some factual information on the activist’s life, for what it shows about 1920s Britain and for its exemplification of propaganda.

McCabe, Joseph. George Jacob Holyoake. London: Forgotten Books, 2015.

*Ruth Geller. "Goodbye to Blasphemy in Britain". Institute for Humanist Studies. Archived from the original on 2008-06-07

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Jewish Feminist Movement in Germany. The Campaigns of the Judischer Frauenbund, 1904-1938. By Marion A. Kaplan.

Marion Kaplan offers a rare history. It is a portrayal of the Jewish Feminist Movement in Germany prior to World War II. Her narrative centers around an organization called the Judischer Frauenbund (JFB), which existed from 1904 to 1938. At its height, in the late 1920s, the Frauenbund had a membership of 50,000 women (Kaplan, pp. 10-11). It networked with Germany’s largest feminist organization, the Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine, of which many JFB organizers were members. Chief among the issues addressed by the Frauenbund were sexual slavery, equality in Jewish communal affairs and career training for women. It is the unique position of this feminist organization which permits the author to focus upon “the convergent spheres of German, Jewish and women’s history” (Kaplan, p.3).

After a standard introduction, describing the organization and its cultural environs, a chapter is then devoted to its founder and primary organizer for most of the group’s history: Bertha Pappenheim. A fascinating and dynamic personality, Pappenheim was friends with the philosopher Martin Buber. The most shocking revelation of this chapter is that Bertha Pappenheim is also “Anna O,” one of Sigmund Freud’s most famous case studies and a patient of his protégé Josef Breuer (Kaplan, pp.31-2). As a result of Freud’s and Breuer’s notes, we know a great deal about this activist’s inner life. Kaplan does an admirable job of countering Breuer’s and Freud’s patriarchal interpretations of women, as well as picking-up the chronology of Bertha’s life after she leaves therapy. The author presents the external elements of this woman’s life so that she is not simply a psychological case study, but a vibrant, curious, adventurous catalyst in politics and life.

Kaplan’s depiction of the Frauenbund is not that of an idealized, modern organization. Throughout her book, the author reveals issues that her 1979 feminist readership, might regard as backward. German Jewish prejudice against Ostjuden (Jews from Eastern Europe) was common. JFB members tended to be middle class Germans and Ostjuden were primarily working class immigrants escaping Eastern pogroms. “Ostjuden remained recipients of, rather than collaborators in, the JFB’s social work” (Kaplan, pp 7-8). In addition, the social work to which Kaplan refers involved training immigrant women to become domestic servants; an aim at a low horizon, and not a little self-serving given that affluent Frauenbund members employed such help. Kaplan describes the JFB as “a case study of a group whose ‘feminism’ displayed a strange amalgam of internalized patriarchal values and woman-oriented concerns. A typical JFB member would be a housewife and mother who accepted her status in the private sphere and performed traditional voluntary social work” (Kaplan, p.6). Such members were not strong proponents of “suffrage or legal equality.” Here, both internal pressures of a traditional religious community and external pressures of anti-Semitic threat conspired to subdue member radicalism.

The author is also not afraid to present the Jewish Community with all of its blemishes. One particularly staggering chapter discusses the number of Jews involved in trafficking women. Jewish activists against sexual slavery were acutely aware of their people’s involvement: “The First Jewish International Conference on White Slavery released its own survey. In Germany, 182 traffickers were listed, among whom were 19 Jews. Austria counted 101, including 65 Jews. Of 93 known South American traffickers, 80 were Russian or Polish Jews. In Galicia, 38 of the 39 known traffickers were Jews, while 104 of the 124 Russian traffickers were Jews and 68 of the 105 known Hungarian traffickers were also Jews” (Kaplan, p.111). Perennial history readers understand that dislocated populations escaping violence are prone to develop criminal elements; but this does not excuse the behavior. Marion Kaplan deserves grateful acknowledgement for placing honest historical reportage above concerns about how her own ethnic group or political foremothers might appear. To learn from history, information must prevail over image.

The Jewish Feminist Movement in Germany is an original, prolifically footnoted, representation of history. Its significance lies in what it preserves: the memory of a German Jewish culture and aspiring movement that were annihilated in the Holocaust. But it also preserves its own 1979 feminist perspectives, permitting a reader to examine traits of that era as well. In addition, it benefits those in the future, when memories of 1904 and 1979 will be more faded. Kaplan supplies unique and diverse information that maintains our western legacy.


Kaplan, Marion A. The Jewish Feminist Movement in Germany. The Campaigns of the Judischer Frauenbund, 1904-1938. Westport: Greenwood Press, Inc., 1979.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Future of Our Past. From Ancient Greece to Global Village. By H.J. Blackham.

In The Future of Our Past, H.J. Blackham examines what he calls “‘universals’ of history.” Universals are cultures, religions or empires that can “claim to be a model for the human race.” In Western Civilization, these so-called “universals” have their origins in Classical Greece, Judea and the Roman Empire (Blackham, p. 8). After acquainting the reader with this view, Blackham presents a chronology divided into four parts.

Part One is sub-divided into three sections, “Hellas,” “Zion” and “Romanitas,” which describe the history of each culture and its contribution to Western Civilization. Part Two discusses the Middle Ages in Europe after the fall of Rome, with an emphasis on what information from the three universals was lost, what was preserved, and what was rediscovered at the end of that period. Part Three begins with the Renaissance, a re-awakening for which Blackham credits the rediscovery of Greek philosophy and culture. It ends with the secularization of Europe at the completion of the 19th Century. Part Four is devoted to the 20th Century, its various difficulties, and what the author calls “the final universal model…the One World which the West has brought about and organized as a consequence of technological innovation, and has inescapably laid on all humanity…a shared human self-awareness that is a new version and vision of what humanity is” (Blackham, p. 9).

A little ethnocentric? Discussing the development of Europe is a fine topic of history. But offering Europe’s so-called universal forebears as “a model for the human race,” and claiming in the end that the final universal is a model created by the West and “laid on all humanity” is a bit blinkered. He presents his theory as if the other continents on the planet are just passive receptacles of western gifts, rather than participants in the evolution of culture. This is nowhere more apparent than in his ignoring of Medieval Islam. When the West was experiencing a dearth of education, Islam was preserving a great deal of the Greek legacy, which it passed-on to the Christian West. In addition, Blackham inaccurately states that “The Greeks originated the scientific approach” (Blackham, p. 8). The Greeks employed empirical observation of the physical world; but observation alone is not scientific method. Most historians of science recognize Ibn al-Haytham (965 AD – 1040 AD), a Persian Muslim, as the first individual recorded to have performed experiments according to the scientific method. These too were passed-on to the West.

The most significant failure in the book is that Blackham drops his thesis less than half way through. After discussing the debt that the Renaissance owes to Greece, the author loses his thread connecting the three model universals to the following history. From that point on, the originality of the document, however flawed with traditionalism and ethnocentrism, reverts to a standard recap of events between the Renaissance and the present.

This recap has value. It optimistically depicts an evolution of culture from religious ignorance to science and rational secularism, with all the technological and medical benefits that accompany that change. Blackham understands that the prior “uniformity of Christendom…implied a rigid orthodoxy…enforceable if necessary by totalitarian power.” The freeing of thought, along with related scientific, political and cultural developments, “opened the door of obedience to the intrusion of questions” (Blackham, pp. 110-111).

As the narrative reaches the 20th Century, a chaos of wars, injustices, religious extremisms, ecological crises and other problems, threaten to drown the theme of civilized development. It is here that the author attempts to establish his “final universal”: “Responsibility for consequences, good and ill, is at last recognized as being global and shared…Everyone has the moral obligation to work out and undertake his or her appropriate part in the collective tasks…In fulfilling this obligation, one enacts one’s personal human identity. This is the bond of human union and the final historical universal that supersedes the claims of Hellas, Zion, and Romanitas to universality” (Blackham, p. 381). An inspiring goal for humanity. If only there was some confirmation that this so-called universal was anything more than a personal wish of the author’s. He offers no evidence of a worldwide trend or force moving in that direction. If anything, most of the final section makes the point that the activities of the 20th Century are driven by greed, violence and selfishness, rather than a sense of global cooperation. Blackham reached the end of his book, after having dropped his universals in the Renaissance, and attempted to cobble together a final universal that had no foundation in the modern portrait he had just presented.

Readers who undertake The Future of Our Past, will be rewarded with an effective presentation involving the currents of Hellas, Zion and Romanitas, which aided Western Civilization through Medieval times and affected the Renaissance. In addition, an encouraging synopsis of secular development in Europe between Renaissance and 19th Century, is exhibited. If one is mindful of the pitfalls of ethnocentrism and unsubstantiated theory, one will benefit from the information.


Blackham, H.J. The Future of Our Past. From Ancient Greece to Global Village. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The History of Spain. By Peter Pierson.

Peter Pierson’s The History of Spain is a no-nonsense guide covering Spain’s evolution from the re-conquest of Muslim al-Andalus, to the end of the 20th Century. It begins with an orienting chapter of basic geography and current regional social studies. Next is a highly condensed chapter of 11 pages that rockets a reader from Neanderthal excavations through the end of Muslim control. Pierson presents the Muslim Empire as a comparatively positive cultural and intellectual influence, given its’ relative tolerance towards non-Muslim perspectives as compared to Christian Europe. Unfortunately, this rich influence is presented in less than four pages. The true subject of the book is Western development.

The next four chapters are an uninspired chronicle of kings, wars and dates. For almost half of the book, a reader is bombarded with a dizzying pantheon of never-to-be-remembered royal names. There are tiny bits of Spanish pride in cultural advance and the arts. A couple of artists’ names slip into the text. But the Colonial period apex of Spanish culture, often called the Golden Age, is reduced to four sentences. The victims of Spain during this time (native Western Hemisphere populations, Jews and impoverished peasants) are handled progressively, though briefly. Their oppression is presented in a factual manner, and seen as sad occurrence in Spain’s history. However, these groups remain a faceless, voiceless mass. Their presentation contrasts sharply with that of the kings. Frequently, monarchs are accorded personality and details that individuate them. A personal letter from King Frances I to King Charles V (Pierson, p. 60) is one example of this frequent, imbalanced practice. It is not uncommon for a prominent monarch to receive a miniature biography. Presentation of rulers with personality, but non-elites as masses is inaccurate history. Reading this section on Imperial and Colonial Spain, one would think that the people had no thoughts, no ambition, and simply toiled for Spain’s rulers. One may argue that Pierson’s book relies upon secondary reading material to present his overview, and much of that is biased against populations. However, there are a multitude studies by historians of niche groups, subcultures, non-aristocratic individuals and movements. This is what historians do: they excavate primary material from archaeology and research to depict past life. Pierson could have employed a few of these. A chronicle of kings may easier to come by, but it fails to present a whole picture of a period.

As the book moves into the mid-18th Century, the balance improves. The improvement has little to do with Pierson’s efforts. Both historians and reporters of that time were becoming aware that classes below the aristocracy were vital to societies. The middle class was developing a sense of itself and creating a liberal agenda to promote its political and economic concerns. Working class people were becoming more aware of themselves as a class and agitating for recognition. As a result, the general historical material that is Pierson’s main source of information becomes more holistic. Names and quotes from individuals who are not elite begin to emerge in this historian’s text and his work begins to breathe with the vivid life of a whole culture involved in defining itself and determining its course. This changed, balanced view, proceeds through an immensely tumultuous 18th & 19th Century where Spain’s prominence as an international power falls, colonies are lost, and domestic divisions between national groups or classes become prominent. It is a difficult, frequently violent trajectory from these conflicts, through the 20th Century’s Civil War, Franco’s Fascist dictatorship, and Spain’s eventual transformation to democratic republic. Pierson handles the material with an unembellished, factual account of development. The second half of the book is an improvement over the first half. For readers seeking a brief overview of 18th through 20th Century Spain, this book provides a satisfactory narrative.


Pierson, Peter. The History of Spain. London, Greenwood Press, 1999.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Medieval Underworld. By Andrew McCall.

Author Andrew McCall defines the Medieval Underworld as “those people who were unwilling or unable to comply with the laws of medieval society” (McCall, p.12). The laws to which he refers are biblical. They are based upon “The idea of a Chain of Being” where each element of God’s creation (from angels to kings, to aristocrats, to peasants, to animals, to plants to rocks), has “an appointed place and function in the Christian hierarchy…Let anyone try to step outside his appointed place…then here was the seed of disaster” as well as defiance of the Lord’s will (McCall, pp.14-15). The groups presented as members of this underworld include criminals, prostitutes, lesbians, gays, heretics, sorcerers, witches, and Jews.

While the topic is fascinating, McCall’s book provides only a small amount of information about this underworld. The first chapter is devoted to defining the Middle Ages. The second chapter examines the roles of Royal and Ecclesiastical courts in prosecuting behaviors considered criminal. The last chapter provides a medieval depiction of hell based on Dante’s Inferno. In addition, there are many pictures that cover half a page or a full page. Therefore, the sub-cultures which comprise the underground are covered in 175 pages. Of those few pages, half discuss thieves and armed robbers of various stripes. The rest of the groups, actual cultures of non-conformists with interesting worldviews, divide the remaining pages.

McCall claims that his book “looks at the period from the point of view of the outsider,” through the eyes of underground members (McCall, p.18). This assertion is most assuredly false. Almost all of the information employed by the author is from the perspective of the persecutors of these sub-cultures: the Royal and Ecclesiastical Courts that tried these groups. Little is written by members of the underground about themselves. Even with groups like Jews and heretics, both of whom left numerous written documents, the majority of the book’s evidence concerns legal decisions and recorded mob violence against non-conformists.  It is surprising that the voices of the people within these sub-cultures are so poorly represented, given that entire books have been written on each of the non-conformist groups to whom McCall dedicates only a few pages.

In spite of its meager quantity of information, almost all of which is presented by those prejudiced against underground sub-cultures, the book does have value: It provides an overview of Church legal repression and violence against groups who failed to conform. Although that overview is remarkably superficial, it constitutes a starting point, or outline, for non-fiction readers who wish to explore further. In addition, it is informative to have a confession from the Church, in its own documentation, describing its persecution of people who were different.


McCall, Andrew. The Medieval Underworld. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rosa Luxemburg. Abridged Edition. By J.P. Nettl.

If we only read about individuals whose worldview confirms our own, we learn little. By this logic, the assemblage of contradictions which produce a portrait of Rosa Luxemburg will be vastly instructive. She was an independent woman, whose sheer personal drive led her to create national organizations, edit leading periodicals and influence Marxist party politics in several nations. All of this was accomplished during a time when women were considered by men to be intellectually inferior and hardly worth hearing. In spite of this independence, she “was not interested in any high-principled campaign for women’s rights.” In her mind, “the inferior status of women was a social feature which would be eliminated only by the advent of Socialism” (Nettl, p. 415). At times, Luxemburg expresses the purest motives of a life dedicated to serving what she sees as a noble purpose; a purpose for which she sacrificed her life. At times, she reveals stark personal ambition and strategy with comments like “in a year or two…I shall occupy one of the foremost positions in the party” (Nettl, p. 90). There are passages in Rosa’s writings where she counter-intuitively justifies her acceptance of worker suffering for her revolutionary goals as evidence of her compassion: Her chilly prediction, that advocacy of a 1905 general strike will mean that “the masses will die of hunger” and “some blood will be spilt,” is explained away with the rationalization that people who worry about such consequences “haven’t got the least contact or feeling for the masses” (Nettl, p. 212). However it is not only her contradictions that will invite a reader to expose themselves to a differing worldview. Few Western readers are Marxists; especially during a period where the Soviet Union has fallen and most existing, self-described “Communist” nations (Vietnam, China, Laos) are simply dictatorships fostering Capitalist economies. Examining an idealistic individual, who saw economic injustice and believed that Marxism was the answer, permits access to a mindset quite different from our own. It is our willingness to understand (whether or not we agree) that permits intellectual and personal growth.

Peter Nettl completed an academic, two-volume study of Luxemburg in 1966. But between his pre-1966 research and 1969, the political zeitgeist had changed. The United States was in the midst of upheaval concerning an imperialist Vietnam War, a more militant Civil Rights Movement and a general mistrust of authority. It was in this context that Nettl revised his book, cutting its length in half and providing commentary relevant to the late-Sixties protest movements. In the abridged edition, released in 1969, he is clear in his intention to foster and instruct dissent. “The purpose of this shortened version of my  work is to enable a wider audience to have access to her life and ideas…I unashamedly address this edition to anyone interested in using this rich fund of ideas, this rich life of action and experience, for their own purposes” (Nettl, p. xiii). In spite of his “for their own purposes” claim, Nettl speaks to protesters with an eye to converting them to Marxism. “Youth, mostly students; racial minorities, a few dissident intellectuals—these form the new ‘proletariat’ … there is no good reason why such groups should not form, and act like, a proletariat in a perfectly Marxist sense” (Nettl, p. x). His conclusion reiterates this goal: “Those…who hold that the revolutionary steps to progress must lead directly from highly developed capitalism to Socialism…will all find no better guide for inspiration than the life and work of Rosa Luxemburg” (Nettl, p. 499). In service to these ends, Nettl emphasizes elements in this earlier activist’s views that would resonate with his 1968 audience. He devotes long passages to her anti-imperialism (Nettl, p. 163), and her objections to authoritarianism (Nettl, p. 198). A reader’s ability to examine the period in which Nettl is writing and his objectives, adds a meta-biographical dimension to one’s understanding of this book. It can be read both for its’ late-19th/early-20th century biographical content, and for the understanding one may glean about the 1960s.

Because the purpose for this project was largely political and polemical, there is a dearth of illustration regarding the subject’s personal life. We learn the details of her childhood, her relationships, her friendships and the progress of her existence, but that is all. Nettl’s comprehension of Luxemburg’s life events and thought is extensive, but presented in a punctilious manner. In his narrative, Rosa moves but she does not breathe. This is not a book for the sentimental; it is a book for the intellectual who is concerned with theory, historical development and political process. Readers inclined towards the latter mode will find this work satisfying.


Nettl, J.P. Rosa Luxemburg. Abridged Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Birth of the Beat Generation. Visionaries, Rebels and Hipsters. By Steven Watson.

“The Beats conducted their lives in a state of counter-cultural experiment.” (Watson, p. 6). They expressed non-conformity within a society of the 1940s & 50s that was dedicated to conformity. They valued intense experience when most US citizens spent most of their waking hours at mundane work that was either corporate, industrial or domestic. They enacted iconoclastic creativity while most North Americans were fixated on copying their neighbors. Every period has its foil, its critics. Between the early 40s and the late 50s, that role belonged to the Beats.

Stephen Watson captures the excitement and ethos of that group. He follows their development from the first meetings among the central figures (the writers: Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac; as well as the inspirational icons: Neal Cassady, Herbert Huncke and Carl Solomon). Though these men generally ignored or exploited the women unfortunate enough to become attached to them, Watson does a superb job of presenting women’s voices, views and writings. After presenting relational development and first adventures (including collective epiphanies, sex, slumming, arrests, drug experiences and key events of communion), the author follows the evolution of chief writings. He chronicles the development of these works, with special attention to how the writers influenced each other. Watson understands of the importance of artists “circles” for support and inspiration. He continues with this theme throughout the book while the circle is struggling against a hostile mainstream, battling censorship and widening artistic community in New York and San Francisco. Finally, the author presents the disintegration of this group, resulting from a banal commercialization of the Beat image, combined with a natural disposition of the key writers to shy away from media-fueled straitjackets having little to do with individual expression.

Watson occasionally over-emphasizes the importance of the Beat Generation. He calls Allen Ginsberg the “most iconic figure” of “the Love Generation” during the 1960s, when there are too many contenders for that title. (Watson, p. 302). He credits Burroughs with the phrase “heavy metal” used to identify a rock genre, when Burroughs used the term to describe creatures in one of his books, not music, and the term had been in use for decades prior by physicists. (Watson, p. 307). Certainly, the Beats made valuable contributions. Their censorship trial victories are immeasurably important to the freedoms we have today. Their example of living and expression enriched our art, provided a precursor for later counter-cultural movements and made many yearn for greater personal freedom. Some on the periphery (and even in the center) of this circle were self-destructive, thieves, grifters, posers, hacks and parasites. But the constellation of individuals has, in general, made a lasting contribution.

Oddly, the book never discusses the relationship of the Beats to important events of their time. Monumental occurrences like World War II, McCarthyism, race relations and the Bomb, have little effect on the narrative. Some combination of the author lacking interest in the interplay between political events and the Beat world, or the Beats being too self-absorbed to care, seem to be at play. The exclusion of crucial historic occurrences is puzzling in a history.

Despite these flaws, The Birth of the Beat Generation does a fine job of presenting a group of artists and their circle. Watson is skillful at balancing the lively influential events of these people’s lives with the internal processes of creative individuals. He describes both elements with enthusiasm and vivid imagery. As a result, his work is both a portrait of the Beats in their age, as well as a representation of the outsider artistic dissent and creativity that innovates culture in every age.


Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation. Visionaries, Rebels and Hipsters. 1944-1960. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.