Historians critique the 1619 project

The New York Times‘s “1619” project, which attempts to “reframe” (in its words) American history as being always and everywhere about racism has received a great deal of discussion.

The World Socialist Website — of all places — has produced some of the most interesting responses, interviewing a number of prominent historians about their views on the matter. The verdict is highly critical, ultimately judging the 1619-approach as reductive, simplistic and parochial.

Of the interviews that have appeared so far, I found the one by Gordon Wood most compelling, probably in part because back in the mists of time when I was a grad student in the mid-1990s I had Colonial America as a minor field and read rather a lot of stuff from him.

But beyond inducing some warm nostalgia, Wood’s interview is full of some of the things that history at its best does: pointing out the complexity and contradiction of actual social and cultural developments while also drawing some clear conclusions about what was, overall, going on.

For example:

We should understand that slavery in the colonial period seemed to be simply the most base status in a whole hierarchy of dependencies and degrees of unfreedom. Indentured servitude was prevalent everywhere. Half the population that came to the colonies in the 18th century came as bonded servants. Servitude, of course, was not slavery, but it was a form of dependency and unfreedom that tended to obscure the uniqueness of racial slavery. Servants were bound over to masters for five or seven years. They couldn’t marry. They couldn’t own property. They belonged to their masters, who could sell them. Servitude was not life-time and was not racially-based, but it was a form of dependency and unfreedom. The Revolution attacked bonded servitude and by 1800 it scarcely existed anywhere in the US.

The elimination of servitude suddenly made slavery more conspicuous than it had been in a world of degrees of unfreedom. The antislavery movements arose out of these circumstances. As far as most northerners were concerned, this most base and despicable form of unfreedom must be eliminated along with all the other forms of unfreedom. These dependencies were simply incompatible with the meaning of the Revolution.

This section on work and attitudes toward it is also insightful:

Q. How it is that the American Revolution raises the dignity of labor? Because it seems to me that this concept certainly becomes a burning issue by the time of the Civil War.

A. It’s a good question. Central to the middle class revolution was an unprecedented celebration of work, especially manual labor, including the working for money. For centuries going back to the ancient Greeks, work with one’s hands had been held in contempt. Aristotle had said that those who worked with their hands and especially those who worked for money lacked the capacity for virtue. This remained the common view until the American Revolution changed everything.
The northern celebration of work made the slaveholding South seem even more anomalous than it was. Assuming that work was despicable and mean was what justified slavery. Scorn for work and slavery were two sides of the same coin. Now the middle-class northerners—clerks, petty merchants, farmers, etc.—began attacking the leisured gentry as parasites living off the work of others. That was the gist of the writings of William Manning, the obscure Massachusetts farmer, writing in the 1790s. This celebration of work, of course, forced the slaveholding planters to be even more defensive and they began celebrating leisure as the source of high culture in contrast with the money-grubbing North.
Slavery required a culture that held labor in contempt. The North, with its celebration of labor, especially working for money, became even more different from the lazy, slaveholding South. By the 1850s, the two sections, though both American, possessed two different cultures.

The doubtful political messages encoded in the 1619 project are addressed by another historian, James Oakes, who finds “there’s nothing remotely radical about it”.

Responding to various questions, he outlines why this is so:

Q. And a point we made in our response to the 1619 Project, is that it dovetails also with the major political thrust of the Democratic Party, identity politics. And the claim that is made, and I think it’s almost become a commonplace, is that slavery is the uniquely American “original sin.”

A. Yes. “Original sin,” that’s one of them. The other is that slavery or racism is built into the DNA of America. These are really dangerous tropes. They’re not only ahistorical, they’re actually anti-historical. The function of those tropes is to deny change over time. It goes back to those analogies. They say, “look at how terribly black people were treated under slavery. And look at the incarceration rate for black people today. It’s the same thing.” Nothing changes. There has been no industrialization. There has been no Great Migration. We’re all in the same boat we were back then. And that’s what original sin is. It’s passed down. Every single generation is born with the same original sin. And the worst thing about it is that it leads to political paralysis. It’s always been here. There’s nothing we can do to get out of it. If it’s the DNA, there’s nothing you can do. What do you do? Alter your DNA?

And this:

Q. The formulation that behind debates over race are struggles over power struck me in relationship to the present as well, and in particular the promotion by the 1619 Project of racialist politics, which is certainly once again a cornerstone of the Democratic Party.

A. Here I agree with my friend Adolph Reed [political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania — JCW]. Identity is very much the ideology of the professional-managerial class. They prefer to talk about identity over capitalism and the inequities of capitalism. We have an atrocious wealth gap in this country. It’s not a black-white wealth gap. It’s a wealth gap. But if you keep rephrasing it as black-white, and shift it off to a racial argument, you undermine the possibility of building a working-class coalition, which by definition would be disproportionately black, disproportionately female, disproportionately Latino, and still probably majority white. That’s the kind of working-class coalition that identity politics tends to erase.

This latter point has been made recently and cogently by Adam Gopnik in A Thousand Small Sanities or Mark Lilla in The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. But it is good to see some expert historical commentary addressing related topics.

Sort of takes me back to university and graduate school, when I remember that it was left-wing and labour historians (focused on class) who were engaged in intellectual wars with the various “post-” theories.

Seems like ages ago now.

Kudos to the World Socialist Website for an enlightening series of interviews, I hope more are on the way.

Getting back on track

We’ve been on something of a hiatus here, but that’s been partly in keeping with the spirit of the last post: we’ve been spending a lot more time with cultivating interests and activities that don’t have a lot to do with what’s going on in the world.

But for a variety of reasons, both personal and professional, I hope to get back into the swing of the blogging thing.

If you want to see one of the things I’ve been working on, you could check out my new band, The Calm Rads, and the music we’ve been making.

I guess I should actually say new/old band, since we used to play in a different band way back in the misty ages past (i.e. at university in the late 80s/early 90s).

The new part also involves our working over the transatlantic distance, as I live in Germany and the other two in the American Midwest. Which has been interesting. And Challenging. (This is something that I might be writing more about.)

Our main SoundCloud is here. There are also some YouTube videos of selected songs.

Because the songwriting has been far more prolific than our production capacities, me and the other main songsmith in the group have also started our own side-clouds for ideas, demos and works-in-progress. You can find mine here and the other one here.

Well, that’s enough for now, I think. It’s nice to be back.

As to straws upon the sea

Thanks to The Wife, I have found an ideal description of the modern condition, which appeared in Jane Gardam’s novel Bilgewater, originally published in 1977.

“There are times when my environment appears to me as very much less than educative and the rational element in man to be so miniscule that you wonder what creation is all about and turn to chess or cats or mathematics as to straws upon the sea.” — Jane Gardam, Bilgewater, 70.

And she didn’t even have to cope with social media.

It strikes me that there is something of a shared thread connecting between Gardam’s quote and Orwell’s “Some thoughts on the common toad” (1946), which I commented upon not all that long ago.

For myself: I find, increasingly, that cultivating interests that have little — or, preferably, nothing — to do with the ebb and flow of present-day politics is becoming ever more important to me.

Glad to find that I’m not alone in that.

Whatever the era.

On keeping hope and worry balanced

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading Paul Graham’s book Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age,  a published collection of his online essays, which I recommend very highly.

Now, I’m a poor programmer, but one of the (many) compelling aspects of the book is the way it connects programming to other creative endeavours such as writing or (as in the title) painting.

On the train to work today, I read the following passage (from a slightly altered essay originally posted here) and it seemed like some very fine advice, for coding, for writing and for creating generally:

“The best writing is rewriting,” wrote E. B. White. Every good writer knows this, and it’s true for software too. The most important part of design is redesign. Programming languages, especially, don’t get redesigned enough.

To write good software you must simultaneously keep two opposing ideas in your head. You need the young hacker’s naive faith in his abilities, and at the same time the veteran’s skepticism. You have to be able to think how hard can it be? with one half of your brain while thinking it will never work with the other.

The trick is to realize that there’s no real contradiction here. You want to be optimistic and skeptical about two different things. You have to be optimistic about the possibility of solving the problem, but skeptical about the value of whatever solution you’ve got so far.

People who do good work often think that whatever they’re working on is no good. Others see what they’ve done and are full of wonder, but the creator is full of worry. This pattern is no coincidence: it is the worry that made the work good.

If you can keep hope and worry balanced, they will drive a project forward the same way your two legs drive a bicycle forward. In the first phase of the two-cycle innovation engine, you work furiously on some problem, inspired by your confidence that you’ll be able to solve it. In the second phase, you look at what you’ve done in the cold light of morning, and see all its flaws very clearly. But as long as your critical spirit doesn’t outweigh your hope, you’ll be able to look at your admittedly incomplete system, and think, how hard can it be to get the rest of the way?, thereby continuing the cycle.

I have had several conversations with younger colleagues recently who are at various stages of their dissertations or post-docs. And, really, apart from my own patented advice (which has gotten me through three books), this seems like something worth imparting.

Now, I’m off to get back to my worrying…

Uncommon thoughts on the toad

I was pleased to stumble upon an essay from George Orwell today that, for whatever reason, I’d not really noticed before: “Some thoughts on the common toad”, originally published in Tribune in April 1946.

It is, more or less, a meditation on the simple pleasures of nature in springtime, focusing on the titular toad and Orwell’s observations of how it  awakens from its wintry slumber to emerge from a hole in the ground.

Orwell is in fine — and rather imaginative — form throughout the essay.

For example:

At this period, after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent. His movements are languid but purposeful, his body is shrunken, and by contrast his eyes look abnormally large. This allows one to notice, what one might not at another time, that a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl.

And to what does a young toad’s fancy turn in spring?

For a few days after getting into the water the toad concentrates on building up his strength by eating small insects. Presently he has swollen to his normal size again, and then he goes through a phase of intense sexiness. All he knows, at least if he is a male toad, is that he wants to get his arms round something, and if you offer him a stick, or even your finger, he will cling to it with surprising strength and take a long time to discover that it is not a female toad.

Orwell’s ruminations on nature (unsurprisingly) take a political departure, as he  notes the relentless need for some observers in his age to perceive everything from a partisan angle (and to condemn those who do not share this perspective).

Is it wicked to take a pleasure in Spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle? There is no doubt that many people think so. I know by experience that a favourable reference to “Nature” in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters,…

Orwell’s was a particularly grim and politicised age (as has been brought home to me in my research on my forthcoming book), but there is nonetheless something  familiar here; no doubt a modern iteration of this essay would attract its own angry comments bristling with terms such as “privilege” and “problematic”.

Though there is, of course, a political point here, one reflecting Orwell’s ambivalent feelings about what he — and many of his contemporaries — called the “machine age”:

I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and – to return to my first instance – toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.

I suppose part of my  immediate admiration for this essay is that it reflects my own (increasing) desire to seek refuge from the screeching hyper-partisan frenzy  that seems to attach to nearly every aspect of public life  in  the kinds of pleasures that, as Orwell observes, are “available to everybody, and cost nothing”.

How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, Spring is still Spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

I recommend reading the whole thing, if you have the time.

That I discovered this piece while sitting in our back garden, admiring the birds, bees, squirrels and butterflies that congregate there is a happy coincidence.

Though it occurs to me that we could do with some more toads.


Past (and present) imperfect

In an intriguing article in The Baffler, Jessa Crispin looks at the concept of ‘original sin’, on the occasion of a new book by Stephen Greenblatt (The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve) and a recent one by James Boyce (Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World).

I haven’t yet read either book, but I found that the article made some good points.

I should say that it goes rather off the tracks toward the end where it luxuriates a bit in the John-Gray-school of cultural pessimism (abandon all hope, ye who enter here…):  after all, in raising questions about notions of progress (which is something it seems that Crispin wants to do) it’s not, of course, necessary to discard them.

Nonetheless, the piece makes  a cogent point about the uses to which the concept of ‘original sin’ and the biblical Adam-and-Eve story in which it emerges can be put. There are many such uses, and it seems that Greenblatt and Boyce trace one of them, namely, that of original sin as a form of oppressive  irrationality.

However: there are many other versions of ‘original sin’, and any properly historical argument should take them into account, even (or, indeed, especially) the ones that go directly counter to it.

I ran across versions of this concept over the last six years or so in the course of my current research on Christian social thought in the mid-20th century.

For instance, the image of the inherently ‘sinful’ nature of humankind was a frequently employed element in influential Christian reactions to totalitarianism and what seemed the terminal crisis of western-liberal-capitalist-democracy in the 1930s and 1940s.

This might sound at first  like a typically ‘reactionary’ stance; however, the idea was typically employed by those anti-totalitarian churchmen and Christian thinkers (many of them clearly ‘on the left’ at the time) who saw in the concept of ‘original sin’ not a literal depiction of the creation of humankind but rather a way of asserting its fundamental and inescapable imperfection.

Adam and Eve may not have been seen (literally) as the first man and woman in such views, but their story was considered to contain  a useful warning for the actually existing men and women  who were, in those years, trying to work out a way to defeat totalitarianism and maintain freedom and social decency.

Many of those  who deployed the notion of ‘sin’ in this context did so, in fact, on the assumption that it granted Christians a more ‘realistic‘ vision of the world than many of the competing worldviews of the day: whether, on the one hand, Fascism, Communism or National Socialism — with their common idealisation of a ‘new man’ and a perfected earthly society — or, on the other, secular liberal democrats guided by a more gradualist (but no less, in their view, progressivist) vision of utopia.

What original sin thus taught, so went the lesson, was that a sustainable democratic politics had to be built upon a realistic view of human nature and an awareness that it was not, ultimately, fully malleable. It was primarily an argument against ‘utopianism’ of all kinds.

It was employed as a way to avoid either a dangerous social perfectionism or a hopeless pessimism.

In my research, I was struck by how strongly (and how often) the assertion of ‘human nature’ — a concept we today generally associate with evolutionary psychologists than preachers — featured in overtly Christian arguments about the social order. And it was often employed with the aim of resisting totalitarianism and enabling a social politics that one can argue was (at least moderately) ‘progressive’.

An important example of this thinking comes from Archbishop William Temple’s The Church and Social Order, which was something of a runaway hit in war-time Britain when it was published by Penguin in 1942.

As Temple (who was regarded as left-wing and who was — before his untimely death in 1944 — in favour of moves toward what would become known as ‘the welfare state’) put it:

‘Political issues are often concerned with people as they are, not with people as they ought to be. Part of the task of the Church is to help people to order their lives in order to lead them to what they ought to be. Assuming they are already as they ought to be always leads to disaster. It is not my belief that people are utterly bad, or even that they are more bad than good. What I am contending here is that we are not wholly good, and that even our goodness is infected with self-centeredness. For this reason, we are exposed to temptation as far as we are able to obtain power. The Church’s belief in Original Sin should make us intensely realistic and should free us from trying to create a Utopia. For there is no such thing as a Christian social ideal to which we should try to conform the society we are in as closely as possible. After all, no one wants to live in the “ideal society” as depicted by anyone.’

(I’ve left my copy in the office, so I can’t give page numbers, but there are excerpts available here [pdf].)

One of the other most influential formulations of this view — though far from the only one — comes from Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic text, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, published in 1944. (For a good introduction to Niebuhr, see this discussion.)

Niebuhr wrote:

‘The thesis of this volume grew out of my conviction that democracy has a more compelling justification and requires a more realistic vindication than is given it by the liberal culture with which it has been associated in modern history. The excessively optimistic estimates of human nature and of human history with which the democratic credo has been historically associated are a source of peril to democratic society; for contemporary experience is refuting this optimism and there is danger that it will seem to refute the democratic ideal as well. A free society requires some confidence in the ability of men to reach tentative and tolerable adjustments between their competing interests and to arrive at some common notions of justice which transcend all partial interests. A consistent pessimism in regard to man’s rational capacity for justice invariably leads to absolutistic political theories; for they prompt the conviction that only preponderant power can coerce the various vitalities of a community into a working harmony. But a too consistent optimism in regard to man’s ability and inclination to grant justice to his fellows obscures the perils of chaos which perennially confront every society, including a free society. […]

But modern democracy requires a more realistic philosophical and religious basis, not only in order to anticipate and understand the perils to which it is exposed; but also to give it a more persuasive justification. Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. In all nondemocratic political theories the state or the ruler is invested with uncontrolled power for the sake of achieving order and unity in the community. But the pessimism which prompts and justifies this policy is not consistent; for it is not applied, as it should be, to the ruler. […]

The consistent optimism of our liberal culture has prevented modern democratic societies both from gauging the perils of freedom accurately and from appreciating democracy fully as the only alternative to justice and oppression. When this optimism is not qualified to accord with the real and complex facts of human nature and history, there is always a danger that sentimentality will give way to despair and that a too consistent optimism will alternate with a too consistent pessimism.

(Again: I don’t have my copy to hand, but  I grabbed this passage from an online copy available here.)

There are strengths and weaknesses, of course, to this kind of ‘middle-way’ thinking, which was something of a trademark within the group I looked at in my research. But whether this argument is true or not is a separate issue from the one, which is more at the heart of Crispin’s article, of fairly accounting for the varied uses to which such religious allegories has been put in different eras of history.

And I think — much more so than I would have, say, a decade ago, before I spent years wrestling with the worldviews of people with whom I certainly don’t entirely agree — that there is something to her conclusion:

‘Religious concepts like original sin help us understand this about ourselves, and offer suggestions on what to do about it. If, then, we place original sin outside of its Christian context, we can still use it to understand this brokenness, this illness that exists in us. There is no amount of external maneuvering that can wash us clean of this inborn stain. We can only acknowledge it, try to reckon with it, and then struggle to choose to behave differently. Religion is simply one context in which to accomplish this.’

It’s important not to forget, of course, that there are also better angels to that human nature.

But otherwise, I think this is a pretty wise statement to which I can only add: amen


Collections in crisis?

I was intrigued to see the announcement last week by the historian Peter Webster that he has a new book under contract that will address the recent history of the edited collection as an academic publishing format.

While this might seem at first glance like a somewhat esoteric or very narrow topic, it goes potentially to the heart of a more general issue: in what ways and in which formats do scientists and scholars present their research findings to their colleagues and (potentially) to a broader public.

As Webster puts it, in what looks like a brief précis of his forthcoming volume:

In recent years, the edited collection of essays has undergone a crisis as a form of scholarly publishing. Without fanfare or particular crisis event, the perception spread that publishing in such collections was less prestigious than in journals; that such chapters were less visible to readers, and less acceptable to those assessing a scholar’s work; and that publishers were in retreat from such volumes.

As I’ve worked in three academic systems (the US, the UK and Germany), I have developed a sensitivity to certain issues that seem to be unique to each of them.

And, indeed, the edited collection seems to have suffered in the last couple of decades in the UK. It’s certainly not that they’ve disappeared, but it does seem (as I’ve at least anecdotally heard via colleagues), that British publishers take far more convincing to publish a collection than they once did.

And I know more directly that when I was involved in the 2000s with my then-institution’s submission to the 2008 “Research Assessment Exercise” (RAE, now known as the more buzzwordy “Research Excellence Framework” or REF) that collections and contributions to them were clearly considered  to be less valuable (today, I suppose, “less excellent”) than journal articles.

(There might be an exception here with those various series of mammoth — and mammothly priced — “handbooks” put out by prominent publishers at an increasing rate in recent decades. But that seems like a story for another day.)

I can’t speak for other countries, but I don’t have the sense that there’s been any comparable decline in Germany, where, in fact, the essay collection — or “Sammelband” — seems to be alive and well. (Maybe somebody has statistics on this, but I’m speaking merely subjectively.)

To make a long story short, I think the factors leading to this difference are obvious.

1) German academics are still largely free from systematic research assessments and rankings. (This is one of German academia’s great virtues, whatever other problems it might have.) There are recurrent moves toward a more thorough and comprehensive assessment system, but nothing has emerged that is remotely like the highly centralised and enormously powerful directives and bureaucracies that dominate the British scene. German education systems are highly federalised, which may play a significant role here.

The amount and quality of your work, of course, is taken into account. But this is done more variously and individually by different committees at different times and in different contexts (external grant applications, hiring committees, etc.) rather than in one recurrent assessment that has a significant impact on your career (and the future state funding of your institution).

Moreover, there is a strong — if less tangible — commitment to an ideal of scholarly independence, which most academics can largely take advantage of (except, of course, those who are employed to work on specific projects).

Academics the world over are as susceptible to an incentive system as any other occupation (as one sees maybe most clearly in the UK), but, so far, there’s been no clear message that I can see in Germany that one needs to prioritise articles over chapters in collections.

While the distinction between peer-review and non-peer-review has become more observed in Germany, the obsession with it and with “impact factors” and the like has yet to take hold, at least in comparison, again, with Britain.

Indeed: having a long list of chapters in essay collections (or several of one’s own collections) won’t generally count against you here. On the contrary: it might well be to your advantage, and it seems to be expected that someone will produce at least a few collections in the course of their career. The demonstrated ability to bring fellow scholars together and to synthesise their thoughts into a coherent collection is something that is, overall, valued.

2) Equally important — possibly more so — is the fact that there is a well-established system for funding the publication of Sammelbände. Like in much of academic publishing in Germany (unlike, in my experience in the US and UK), it is pretty standard to pay the publisher in advance to publish your work, once it has been reviewed and accepted. This includes essay collections. So German academic publishers face little pressure to avoid publishing them out of a fear (which seems to be a factor in the UK) that they’ll be “hard to sell”.

The Sammelband or series of them (Reihe) of them can actually be something of a status symbol in Germany. There are many long-extant collection series put out by particular institutions (or particular scholars). Some of them are prominent and respected. And this is all accompanied by an extensive set of grants and funding opportunities to support such publication.

So some combination of economic infrastructure, status incentives and scholarly ideals has led to a situation where, in Germany, the Sammelband seems alive and well or, at least, not “in crisis” as it seems to be in the UK. (Some related issues were addressed, it occurs to me, by Susan Pedersen some years back on British variants of the Festschrift.)

Is the continuing liveliness of the collection format in Germany a good thing? It’s hard to say conclusively, but I would say, on balance, that it is.

One sometimes hears the complaint that there are too many essay collections being created. This might be true, and it is clearly the case that the quality is variable.

However, I doubt that the range of quality is necessarily any worse than that of the articles flooding out of an increasing number of (sometimes questionable) academic journals. Academic overproduction — in many senses of the term — is a genuine issue, but I think it has little to do with publication formats as such.

Another complaint is that essays in collections are harder to access than articles. And there is something to this: yes, it’s far more convenient — if you have institutional access to a journal that is — to sit at your desk and click “download article” than to actually try to get your hands on a printed essay collection. However, with the advent of e-books, there is not, in theory, any reason why this distinction should matter all that much. (And, in any case, since when did going to the library once in a while become seen as such an onerous task?)

Moreover, the tendency to zero in only on individual articles — even when they’re part of a thematic “special issue” — means that something is potentially lost when readers fail to engage with the broader context in which a journal article was meant to be read.

When they’re done well, I think, essay collections can be enormously valuable, even exciting scholarly works. Being “done well” means that they should have a clear purpose, express a coherent set of ideas (or at least a common set of concerns) and manage to become, as a whole, more valuable than the sum of their parts.

My feelings on this might be affected by having put out my own first Sammelband a couple of years ago, Christianity and National Identity in Twentieth-Century Europe: Conflict, Community and the Social Order.

It was a good experience, not least since it was part of a very good series and I had the benefit of some helpful in-house editorial advice and assistance. The collection had its start in a panel I had organised, but I then approached individual scholars with particular interests to supplement this core group. In this way, the result was something that (at least I like to think) has an internal coherence that makes for the best collections. And the reactions have been positive so far, which is encouraging.

When I  look back on my career (or even just sideways at my bookshelves), I can identify several collections that had a great impact on myself and the fields in which I have worked (mainly the histories of crime, media and religion).

Done well, it’s a format that is as good (an in some cases better) than a journal special issue.

It would be a shame for it to disappear.

However, it seems to me that the “crisis of the collection” is a distinctly British (or maybe transatlantic) phenomenon, one that is clearly rooted in the imperatives both of a centralised assessment system and a more market-oriented publishing model.

Though maybe I’m one of those old fashioned types who likes the way that research turns into tangible forms. With stable covers, an image on the front and an ISBN number.

Benefit of (the) doubt

Alice Dreger’s recounting of her experiences giving a lecture last week at Wellesley is intriguing for a number of reasons relevant to understanding  the state of the American college campus.

Long accustomed to controversy (as readers of her marvellous book Galileo’s Middle Finger will know), she was nevertheless taken aback by the scale and vigour of protest that greeted her at one of America’s most prestigious liberal arts colleges.

It turns out that prior to her arrival an email had circulated with viciously anti-transsexual quotes that were — falsely — attributed to her.

The whole thing is worth reading, and Dreger does the enormous service of providing a short list of constructive suggestions to young college activists  that, one hopes, will be pinned up in college dorm rooms from coast to coast.

But I was struck by this passage (emphasis added):

“All in all, I think the engagement at the Wellesley protest went well, even if it was an ironic lesson in the social construction of identity. A number of students came up to me to say they had really had their minds opened by realizing what they’re told about someone might not at all be true. A few told me they were planning to push back against the problem of what amounts to falsehood-based activism.”

Quite apart from everything else in the article — such as the all-too-predictable combination of overbearing self-righteousness and muddled inarticulacy on the part of the protestors — the fact that several adult students at an elite college were apparently unaware that sometimes people lie about other people  (something that I think I learned in, oh,  about second grade) is dispiriting.

But given the just-about-daily regularity in which I see overwrought social media commentary on people and works that make clear that the critic hasn’t actually bothered to read or watch the thing criticised, I suppose I am myself being naive for thinking that it’s anything but the new normal.

(Again: I definitely recommend Galileo’s Middle Finger, one of the best and most moving things I’ve read in the last couple of years.)

Functional Cultural Illiteracy

So this is the advertisement that I asked students of English, English Literature and Culture and American Studies at a large university in Germany to analyse in the final exam on a Cultural Studies lecture:

The task was to apply the categories used by Roland Barthes in his essay “Rhetoric of the Image”, which we had discussed at some length during the semester (I’m off the theory these days, but still partial to early Barthesian semiotics, which can provide a helpful framework for the systematic interpretation of all kinds of artefacts, especially advertisements).

While on the whole students handled the task quite well, many of their responses confirmed my long-standing disaffection with my discipline and the humanities at large (which I know I share with some of my colleagues and many more interested outsiders). Of the 50 students who took the exam only two noted the double Biblical reference (visual and verbal) in the advertisement (although a few more realised that there was something special about the phrase “your daily bread”, but couldn’t place it). In case you’re wondering: most of the students were white, Western (in fact, probably from our mainly Catholic area) and therefore likely to have grown up in a Christian context (Lord’s Prayer and all).

By contrast, seven students read the image as an illustration of toxic masculinity, with bread a symbol of “masculine superiority over women” and the charming old bloke in James Harriot get-up an incarnation of “raw” patriarchal power.

Roughly the same number of students came up with a crypto-Marxist commentary about the ad’s complicity with the exploitation of the industrial (sic) working class, whom it urges to consume bread of the brand to maintain constant availability to the forces of capitalism. Not a single student seemed to know that a person who works with wood is called a carpenter and that this particular carpenter is working in his own workshop (another unfamiliar term), not a factory.

All this spouted with knee-jerk automaticity, as if imbibed already in the nursery.

What saddens me most, however, is the deadly seriousness of it all. No real appreciation of this punchy piece of advertising genius, so little sense of humour – only a dire and dour moralising. Being twenty-something these days must be a god awful experience.

Listen carefully

Looking through an older London Review of Books today, I ran across a fascinating review by Charles Nicholl of The Merchant of Prato: Daily Life in a Medieval Italian City by Iris Origo.

Medieval Italy is most defintely, as we historians all too often have to say, “not my area”, but the book is now on my list.

I started my studies as a wannabe early-modernist with a focus on the seventeenth century, wrote my MA on the eigtheenth centry, and then my PhD dissertation (which became my first book) on the nineteenth. My second book considered the 1920s, and the forthcoming one concentrates on the 1930s and 1940s.

The relentless forward momentum is hard to overlook.

But more recently, I find myself more interested in returning to earlier periods, at least as a side interest. And Origo’s book sounds like it employs a kind of historical biographical approach that I’ve at least come close to in the last two books (my study of the Pace murder trial in 1928 and my forthcoming book on a British Christian intellectual group in the period around the Second World War).

Nicholl cites a passage from an essay on method from Origo (“Biography: True and False”, published in 1984 and originally written for a lecture in 1958).

Its main idea is one that I can very much second:

“The young biographer who has upon his desk his first intriguing pile of papers, will do well to arm himself with humility, and let them speak for themselves. Later on the time will come to sift, to compare, and to bring to life again; but first he should listen without interrupting. Then, as he deciphers the faded ink, a phrase may stand out which reveals the hand that wrote it. He may see – as suddenly as, at a turn of the passage, one comes upon one’s image in a mirror – a living face.”

The past cannot, of course, “speak for itself”.

But in writing about those who lived in it, one must, indeed, be a good listener above all.