Friday, January 30, 2015

Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve is not a new book, but it's still plastered all over the history section at Barnes & Noble--with National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize prominently displayed--so it's still worth pointing out that it is a distinctly bad book.

Jim Hinch's old and somewhat infamous takedown of The Swerve, then, still merits attention:
Simply put, The Swerve did not deserve the awards it received because it is filled with factual inaccuracies and founded upon a view of history not shared by serious scholars of the periods Greenblatt studies. That such a book could win two of America’s highest literary honors suggests something doesn’t work in the awards system itself.
Read his whole review here. It's worth your time if (a) you've read the book (b) you're intrigued by it (c) you still talk about the medieval period as some benighted "Dark Ages" where learning died or (d) you tend to assume that the big non-fiction book awards reward quality.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Seeing Selma

Mark Harris in Grantland, writing on the critical response to Selma's history:
On Salon, Zelizer, the author of a just-published book about Johnson, claimed that the movie makes the president seem “hostile to civil rights” (it does not). Updegrove wrote on Politico that it “humanizes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” (an odd phrase to use about someone already widely seen as human) while turning Johnson into “an obstructionist” (it does not). And in the Times, Dowd charged that the movie turns Johnson into a “faux … vile white villain,” a charge that is, at best, so uncomprehending of or inattentive to Selma, and at worst, so dishonest that in either case it ought to disqualify anyone who makes it from writing authoritatively about issues of truth or accuracy in the pages of a national newspaper. As the film critic Sam Adams noted on Twitter, “the only way to come out of Selma seeing LBJ as the movie’s villain is if you expected him to be its hero.”
The other day I talked with a friend who'd seen Selma. She's intelligent and attentive but not especially historically minded. She had no idea there was a controversy and came out of the movie assuming that Johnson was indeed an "obstructionist"--a false friend to the civil rights movement, essentially.

Now, I'm not saying that is what the movie actually portrays. Good films, whether "historical" or not, usually approach their subjects with a certian degree of complexity and even ambiguity that allows for multiple conflicting interpretations. Consider the current debate over whether American Sniper is a piece of hawkish nationalist tripe or an anti-war screed--and the remarkably similar squall a couple years ago about Zero Dark Thirty (pro- or anti-torture?).

But, contrary to what Harris writes, it is possible for an intelligent viewer without a predisposed bias towards or against Johnson to end up seeing him as essentially a villain. Following in the vaunted footsteps of Howard Dean and the NEW New Republic, I am indeed talking about a film I haven't seen. In this case, though, I actually think my friend's impression is more telling than whatever mine will be--given that I've already read about the controversy, and given that I'm perhaps more engaged with the historical setting than most viewers.

Again, I wish merely to point out that it is possible for an intelligent viewer to come away with a very bad impression of Johnson--regardless of whether this reflects manipulative filmmaking or not, or even if it really matters that a piece of art doesn't happen to correspond perfectly with its historical referent.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Lukacs and the "Law of Accelerating Returns"

Alan Jacobs has a nice little post on what he calls "Kurzweilian Whiggery"--Ray Kurzweil being the prominent "futurist" who is all kinds of optimistic about how technology will solve the world's problems and help us live eternally (as disembodied minds, anyway*). Jacobs pushes back against the assumption that change and progress are always speeding up--in particular, Tim Urban's assumption that "so much more change happened in the most recent 30 years than in the prior 30" due to the so-called "Law of Accelerating Returns."

In response, Jacobs proposes "a thought experiment, in the form of a few questions."
Did automobiles change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015? 
Did television change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015? 
Did household appliances change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015? (Think for instance about the prevalence of air conditioning.) 
Did space exploration change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015? 
Did military weaponry change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015? 
Did cancer treatment change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015?
Jacobs' thinking aligns with that of historian John Lukacs throughout much of his work. Lukacs pushes the point even further than Jacobs. In his history of America in the twentieth century, A New Republic, Lukacs points out that most of the transformative conveniences of modern life were actually invented before the Great War started in 1914. Since then what we've mostly seen are not completely new inventions, but simply improvements on previous inventions.

In a little while, I'll be doing a thought experiment with my students. I split the class into three groups. Each group brainstorms particular kinds of inventions: one group thinks about various means of transportation, another thinks about household luxuries/appliances, and a third thinks about means of communication.

Then I ask them to guess when each thing was first invented: before 1865, after 1914, or in between? It's an illuminating activity because it helps them realize how little was invented after 1914.

Consider these pre-1914 inventions: the telephone, the phonogram, motion-picture technology, the radio, the automobile, internal plumbing, refrigeration, washing machines, the lightbulb, the airplane, the elevator... the list goes on. If I recall correctly, Lukacs--originally writing in 1984**--suggests that the only comparably significant things invented after 1914 are air-conditioning and the personal computer. Now you could add the Internet, and maybe you could make an argument for the microwave and nuclear power.

But, in any case, the point still stands: practically everything we use just improves on inventions made before 1914. That's remarkable.

There is an important distinction to note between the arguments of Tim Urban and Lukacs: Urban, using Back to the Future as a reference, is dealing specifically with how the average American's life changed, whereas Lukacs is referring to the original invention of a transformative technology. Obviously there's a lag between the latter and the former--decades passed, for instance, between the invention of the telephone and the existence of telephones in middle-class households.

This reflects Lukacs' greater emphasis throughout his works on how thinking itself has slowed down in the twentieth century, even as the material conditions in which we live seem to be changing so drastically and dramatically. In a number of his books, he notes that the most revered and revolutionary thinkers at the beginning of the twentieth century--Freud, Marx, Darwin, and Einstein--retained positions of unparalleled renown at the end of the century. Of course, each figure's reputation has waxed or waned over the years, but it remains the case that the thinking of these four figures--and contentious debates about that thinking--continue to dominate our intellectual landscape well over a hundred years later. Lukacs points out that in no previous century of the Modern Age could this be considered the case.

In other words, despite the obsessive optimism of Kurzweil and the futurists, we live in a remarkably stagnant age. This is so, Lukacs says, because we are not really living within an age, properly speaking. Rather, we are living in what he calls a "dark interregnum" between ages. The widespread usage of "postmodern" is one sign of our interregnal state--a self-conscious recognition that we are living past the end of the Modern Age.

No one in the the ancient or medieval world knew they were living in Antiquity or the Middle Ages. These designations came about later, as labels applied in hindsight by the self-consciously modern inhabitants of the Modern Age. The division of the world into ancient, medieval, and modern is a construction of the modern imagination. But this does not necessarily make these designations arbitrary or artificial--because consciousness is a part of reality, rather than a superimposition onto it, and it is only through constructions of models or stories that human persons can grasp reality.

So, despite the varied, sometimes ambiguous, and often contradictory uses to which it is put, the term "postmodern" matters. It reflects and is itself a part of the era in which we live--here in the residue and remnants of modernity. Our ideas, our philosophies, and our arguments still revolve around those four figures from a century ago. This may not be so within Academia proper--Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, and others having far more traction than Freud, Marx, Darwin, and Einstein. But the former figures never have, never will push much beyond the bounds of the academic world. There are no "Heideggerian slips," no "baby Derridas." Nor will you ever find Fox News fulminations against the hidden Foucaldian agendas of liberal politicians.

In the culture at large, those four from the last century remain the inescapable giants of our new century. We venerate them, or we denounce them. We worship them, or we criticize, castigate, and condemn them. The one thing we do not do--cannot do--is ignore them.  Because here amidst the ruins of the Modern Age, all we have left are the tired old thoughts of dead old men.

*A plug for the wife's workplace: On Volume 118 of Mars Hill Audio, Gilbert Meilander interacts with some of Kurzweil's thinking and does a good job of explaining the metaphysical implications of bodiless thinking.
**The original edition was published in 1984, while a second, lightly-revised and retitled edition came out in 2004.

Monday, January 19, 2015

W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and Jim Crow

It's MLK Day, and I am doing some work on a unit on the Jim Crow South, appropriately enough. In past years we've read a handful of chapters on the debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois and then discussed their differences.

This year I'm doing my best to include as much primary source reading as possible, so I'm reading through DuBois' 1903 essay "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others" for the first time. It's very compelling. One thing that strikes me is DuBois' criticism of Washington for advocating a too narrow, too utilitarian education--for choosing shop class over Shakespeare essentially.

Dubois' central critique, of course, is that Washington was too willing to overlook injustice, that he made his peace with oppression. But I hadn't ever seen his argument for the liberal arts over and against Washington's technical education: Mr. Washington knew the heart of the South from birth and training, so by singular insight he intuitively grasped the spirit of the age which was dominating the North. And so thoroughly did he learn the speech and thought of triumphant commercialism, and the ideals of material prosperity that the picture of a lone black boy poring over a French grammar amid the weeds and dirt of a neglected home soon seemed to him the acme of absurdities. One wonders what Socrates and St. Francis of Assisi would say to this. 
...This is an age of unusual economic development, and Mr. Washington’s programme naturally takes an economic cast, becoming a gospel of Work and Money to such an extent as apparently almost completely to overshadow the higher aims of life.
You can--and should--read the essay in its entirety here.
"For Social Justice" (BCP 1928)

Almighty God, who hast created man in thine own image; Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil, and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice among men and nations, the glory of thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, January 9, 2015

A Religion of Violence--but Not Terrorism

The original title of this post was "Wahhabi Islam and Snake Handling." Alas, I have not come across any snake-handling imams. I just happened to be reading two little books at the same time: The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror by Bernard Lewis and Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington. Despite vast differences of genre and topic, I noticed a thread connecting these two books. The short version: both Wahhabi extremism in Arabia and snake handling in Appalachia arose out of disenfranchised communities left in impoverished ruins thanks to the devastating effects of the modern industrial world. Both movements claim that they return to more ancient and purer versions of their respective faiths. Yet these reactions against and rejections of modernism are wholly new--as "reactionary" movements tend to be--and lack any precedent in the history of Islam or Christianity.

I put that post on the backburner while finishing Salvation on Sand Mountain (which, by the way, is fantastic) and never managed to come back to it. Wednesday's horrifying massacre at Charlie Hebdo in Paris brought Islamic terrorism back to the fore of my mind. The regrettable editorial response by National Review made me think more specifically of Bernard Lewis' The Crisis of Islam. What follows, then, is an adaptation and revision of my original, never completed piece--but with the snake handling dropped altogether. Before I get to the heart of Lewis' book, I want to focus for a moment on the National Review editorial that provided the impetus for coming back to the topic.