Thursday, February 26, 2015

Terry Gross, Eric Foner... and Justice Scalia?

So midway through the Fresh Air interview, Terry Gross starts asking Eric Foner about the dangers faced by blacks living in antebellum New York City. Of course runaway slaves could be captured and forced back into slavery, but legally free blacks also had to fear being seized and sold into slavery by kidnapping rings. Last year, the film 12 Years a Slave drew international attention to the plight of Solomon Northup and others like him who faced such a fate.

Terry Gross then brings up the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which is--by my lights anyway--one of the most compelling and disturbing things in all of American history. Foner notes that the Act built on the so-called "runaway slave clause" in the Constitution. But he also points out that the runaway slave clause--and all the laws passed in the six decades following the Constitution's ratification--proved rather ambiguous and difficult to enforce. The difficulties became even greater as northern states passed "personal liberty laws" that all but nullified the runaway slave clause.

The Fugitive Slave Act ended all that ambiguity in shocking fashion. It overruled state laws, made local law enforcement officers party to slave-hunting, and even required--with the threat of fines or imprisonment--private citizens to assist federal officials in hunting runaway slaves. More on the F.S.A. shortly.

Gross and Foner move to a new topic for a few minutes--Gross asks Foner if there are certain myths about the Underground Railroad he wants to debunk, which he gladly does. Then Gross suddenly shifts back to the Constitution and asks a very bad question. A dumb question. Perhaps even disingenuous. Or maybe I'm exaggerating things (me?never!), and it was merely a silly question. Well, anyway, here it is:

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

My essay "Leibowitz and the Limits of Human Knowledge" was posted today at The Imaginative Conservative. In it I explore the complex relationship between ignorance and arrogance throughout Walter M. Miller Jr.'s post-apolyptic bestseller:
A Canticle for Leibowitz suggests that the amount which man does not know is infinite, and that his efforts to increase his knowledge merely reveal the extent of his ignorance. Perverted by pride, knowledge puffs up, and the learned become ignorant of their own ignorance. Greater information, greater technology, greater comfort, greater luxury, even greater civilization—these transform the conditions of human lives, but leave the human condition unchanged. Rather than perfecting man, such relative improvements tempt humans to suppose in their pride that they have cast aside the limitations of ignorance. Those who believe in progress and human perfectibility strive ever on to increase man’s knowledge—and his power—in order to make the world better. Mr. Miller, however, clearly stands with one of his abbots, who asserts that the world “never was any better, it never will be any better. It will only be richer or poorer, sadder but not wiser, until the very last day.”
Read the whole thing at The Imaginative Conservative.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Losing Our Digital Selves

Everything I wrote in high school, college, and graduate school lies hidden somewhere in this room.

The hiddenness is two-fold: physical and digital. I'm not sure of the actual location of the external hard drive on which my papers and essays are stored. But with a little effort I would undoubtedly find it. More significant—more confounding—than the tangible and physical hiding place of the hard drive is the inaccessibility of its data.

A year or so ago I bought a new less-old used laptop from my Dad. It wasn't until after I gave away my old laptop to one of his friends that I realized my new laptop lacks the outdated firewire hookup required to plug in my old hard drive.

Trapezoid-on-rectangle peg, meet rectangular hole.

So now this once-very-expensive hard drive now has all the functionality of a paperweight for me. Of course, I should still be able to extract my data from the hard drive by borrowing someone's older laptop. But I'm pretty good at procrastinating—how long before my hard drive becomes the floppy disk of bling?

I mostly don't think about the hard drive at all—how often do you think about things you wrote in a previous life? But recently I've had occasion to remember that hard drive, to feel the rise of subtle stomach-stirring panic at the thought of losing it all.

A couple weeks ago our President's comments on ISIS gave me occasion to think about the Spanish Inquisition, and I remembered that I have no access to relevant grad work. Then yesterday The Hedgehog Review posted a short essay by B.D. McClay on the odd, contradictory effects of digitization. McClay notes that much contemporary handwringing about our social-media selves focuses on the permanence of our digital words and deeds—"the idea that, for instance, an unkind or embarrassing action could linger on and haunt us long beyond any reasonable amount of time."

As I teacher, I do worry for my students. Every so often—usually when I'm trying to find out the score of a basketball or soccer game—I stumble across the world of high school Twitter. It is a dark place, friends—inane at its best, horrifying at its worst. This is not to suggest that "back in my day" kids were wiser or purer, but there is a difference between spoken stupidity and posting your foolishness on public social media.

But as a history teacher, I worry more about the transience of our information. McClay points out that, while the Internet and the digital world may indeed retain things we would rather see disappear, it also has great potential to swallow wholesale things we expect to last. I once used Google Reader as a digital filing cabinet of sorts. When Google regrettably shut down Reader a few years ago, I dutifully downloaded my archive, which lies untouched and unreadable on this laptop... or is it in the hard drive?

The jumping off point for McClay's essay is a speech from a Google vice president warning that our obsessive digitization might actually destroy rather than prolong all our records. This is not a new thought. As McClay notes, novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker has been protesting against the digitization and destruction of archived newspapers for nearly two decades. But to hear it from Internet nobility, from a prince of the digital empire, is a bit jarring.

A few years ago, when I was still in graduate school, I started writing for The Sad Bear ("Correspondence between nerds. Everything from journalism and philosophy to rock n' roll and maps. Especially maps."). In my inaugural essay, I reflected on the differences between the work of early modern and late modern historians, and I ventured some thoughts about what future historians might wrestle with as they try to read our age:
Early modern historians wrestle with a paucity of evidence and generally end up trying to say quite a bit with very little to go on. Historians of the 20th-century have the opposite problem. By many measures—not necessarily all—the amount of potential historical evidence created today outpaces that of entire centuries only a few hundred years ago. I think constantly about what kind of evidence we're leaving behind of ourselves, and how it will be interpreted by later cultures. 
How much, I wonder, will survive and in what form? Though I'm no sign-waving apocalypticist, I don't find the total collapse of our civilization an impossibility. It's conceivable that the digital world we've constructed could be permanently and irrevocably lost. When I entertain such thoughts, I find suddenly terrifying our digitizing of everything. In this potential future, some historian will no doubt pen eloquent lines about our Eternal-Sunshine-esque erasure of worlds, our deliberate and orderly destruction of the evidence of our existence.
The Sad Bear fell into disuse and decrepitude not long after I started writing there—I'm not sure what conclusions should be drawn from this, uh, correlation. It's all but dead now. There are still nine of us listed as contributors, but nothing was posted there in the entirety of 2014. Perhaps it will be revived at some future date, though that seems doubtful. But it, like this blog, will live on until Google decides to shut down Blogger like it eliminated Reader—or until Google itself folds.

But if I want permanent access to my writing from The Sad Bear or to this blog—and if I want to be able to read my old academic work—I'm going to have to make intentional and indeed perpetual efforts. McClay suggests that we should be far less confident in the permanence of our digital records—and more intentional in preserving what matters:
...for those of us archiving things of our own that are merely important to us, Cerf’s comments come as a reminder that preservation can’t simply be left to chance or to a technological infrastructure that we trust too much... What we really desire to bring with us into the future, we will have to bring on purpose; the things we wish to remember, we are going to have to choose.

Some of my essays and papers are actually veiled in a third layer of hiddenness. In high school, I wrote using whatever word processing program Apple had going back in the early 2000s—"Apple Works" or "Apple Word" or something. Even before I lost access to my hard drive, I lost the ability to open or read those essays.

They're still sitting inscrutably encoded on an inaccessible hard drive gathering dust somewhere in this room.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Rod Dreher, on facing the past:
We are not guilty, but we are implicated; how can we not be? We are of this place and these people. Their story is our history.
Read the whole thing. It's the best thing I've read from him in a little while.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Jim Crow, the Crusades, and the Inquisition

Some are taking umbrage at President Obama's recent Prayer Breakfast statements, in which he condemned the violence of ISIS but then drew something of a line of equivalence between the Islamic terrorism of ISIS and past evidence's of Christian violence:
“And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
Predictably, lots of conservatives--and lots of Christians--did not take kindly to the president's words.

Two quick thoughts: First, the comparison to the violence of Jim Crow is apt, to a certain degree. Some time ago I excerpted from and linked to Daniel Silliman's horrifying, brutal, and powerful post on "Sam Hose's Christian America." Daniel wrote:
All that talk, however, of that imagined idyllic past when Biblical morality was given due deference and Christians had a respected place in the public square is haunted by the Sunday when churchgoers came back from a place called Old Troutman Field with bits of Sam Hose's chopped-up body. 
Because this was America, a Christian country, the Sunday crowd that killed Sam Hose was coming from church. More than 500 came from nearby Newnan. Hundreds came from Palmetto, a city slightly to the north. Word of the in-progress lynching reached Atlanta right as people were leaving their morning worship services. According to historian Philip Dray, the news sparked "a mad rush of worshippers to the train station seeking the swiftest possible passage" to the lynching.
Does this make it religious violence? Not on its own, perhaps, but the name "Christian Knights" didn't come from nowhere, nor, as Ta-Nehisi Coats pointed out on Twitter, is it entirely irrelevant that they burned, you know, crosses. Americans--perhaps especially Christian Americans--should do a better job of coming to terms with the horrific injustice and violence of Jim Crow America. An encouraging point on that front is the Gospel Coalition's recently announced forum on the place of Southern evangelicals in the Jim Crow South. Whether or not Jim Crow violence is attributable to Christianity somehow, it should at least give Christians pause before condemning Islam per se for the violence of ISIS.

My second response, following quickly, was that the Crusades and especially the Inquisition actually provide a less apt comparison for the violence of ISIS. I responded to TNC on Twitter suggesting that the latter comparisons represented bad and "outdated" history, which in turn drew a reply from him:
To be clear, I am not suggesting that the comparison is "outdated" because the Crusades or the Inquisition happened a really long time ago. What I do mean is that such comparisons usually involve oversimplification and Whiggish distortions of history designed, mainly, to make Catholics look really bad in comparison with WASPish uprightness.

I don't want to get into the Crusades. Frankly, I have only a passing familiarity with the period. Here I'll just point to Bernard Lewis' quote comparing jihad to the Crusades in my recent--and very long--post on Lewis' The Crisis of Islam. Put briefly: there's a comparison to be made between the Muslim concept of jihad and the Crusades, but certainly no equivalence. But President Obama was comparing the specific actions of ISIS rather than the concept of jihad to the Crusades. And as Lewis points out, there are stark and even irreconcilable differences between the concept of jihad as understood and practiced through Islamic history and jurisprudence and the violent Islamic terrorism of the half-century. So President Obama's comparison lacks subtlety, to say the least.

As I did some graduate work on Iberian Catholicism and the Spanish Inquisition, I feel more confident to speak on the dramatic dissimilarity between the Spanish Inquisition and ISIS.* In popular imagination we still think of the Inquisition as a court awash in the blood of countless thousands. We think of it as an instrument that struck terror in the hearts of all Spanish people, and as a holdover from benighted Dark Ages religiosity.

Nearly a half-century ago Richard Kamen's landmark book The Spanish Inquisition upended that story. Practically every study since then--even critical ones--have upheld these basic points of Kamen's work:
  1. The Spanish Inquisition was, by contemporary standards, a restrained and relatively bloodless court following the rule of law. Granted, the laws of early modern Spain hardly measure up to liberal democratic ideals, but nevertheless the Inquisition was not bloodthirsty lawlessness run amok.
  2. The Spanish Inquisition was not feared but rather welcomed by the majority of the Spanish people. It generally came to towns not so much as a monarchical (much less ecclesial) imposition from above, but more often at the request of those very towns. 
  3. The Spanish Inquisition was an instrument of royal power exercised by the Spanish monarchs rather than the Roman Catholic Church per se. As such it functioned in many ways more as a tool of nationalist unification and control than of religion--though the two were, of course, deeply entwined under "the Catholic Monarchs" and those who followed. 
  4. As a tool of nationalist control, then, the Inquisition is better understood as an early incarnation of modernism rather than as some kind of residue of medieval religion.**
President Obama's rather pedestrian comparison with ISIS becomes much more interesting from this perspective:
  1. Whereas the Spanish Inquisition was fairly mild by the standards of its day, the violence of ISIS is extraordinary by contemporary standards--even if you aren't thinking of liberal democratic ideals but instead the comparably brutal laws of, say, our allies in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps more significantly, ISIS arose from and continues to operate within the lawlessness of terrorism. As I wrote before, Bernard Lewis makes it very clear that the murderous Islamic terrorism of the past half-century has absolutely no precedence in Islamic history nor support in Islamic jurisprudence. It's also worth pointing out the violence of the Spanish Inquisition was sporadic and occasional, whereas the violence of ISIS is systematic and sustained. 
  2. Is ISIS a movement that has gained power through wide public support or is it feared by the majority of the population? I have no idea, though I suspect it's as much the former as the latter. (Some thoughts about the tyranny of the majority might be relevant here--and of course with the Spanish Inquisition as well.)
  3. Is the violence of ISIS and other Islamic terrorists groups primarily religious in origin or does it come from other sources? ISIS claims that they are motivated by and acting on behalf of Islam. Claims don't always match reality though, and I don't know the movement nearly well enough to ascertain if there are other or greater motivations at work. David Sessions, among others, argues that religion, as such, doesn't really exist, so you can't attribute Islamic terrorism to Islam and should instead look at other structural factors--assimilation versus alienation, social and economic exclusion, etc.--to understand these violent actions. There's something to what he says, though I'm less than convinced by the neo-Marxist line of thought that reduces religion into a mere smokescreen for the real issues. 
  4. Sometimes pundits speak of ISIS or Al Qaeda as "throwbacks" to the Dark Ages. But it's worth repeating that Islamic terrorism is a patently new phenomenon with basically no historical precedent in the Muslim world. So in this sense, there's a rather interesting comparison between ISIS and the Spanish Inquisition to be made. Both are seen as archaic medieval institutions, but both actually serve new and perhaps surprising ends.
I heard Ayan Hirsi Ali speak at a Hillsdale event some time back. A member of the audience asked if Islam could or would undergo an "enlightenment" in the same way that Christianity moved from the Dark Ages of religious violence into a new age of tolerance and pluralism. There are a number of questionable premises built into that question. For one thing, the idea that the wars of religion represented the last gasp of Dark Ages zealotry followed by the wonderful benevolence of the modern nation-state is highly dubious, to say the least. And I rather wish Hirsi Ali would have pointed out that the European "Dark Ages" happened to coincide with the great flourishing of Islamic civilization, but of course that wasn't her response.

Assumptions about the progressive nature of history manipulate us into construing wholly new phenomena as old and reactionary forces. I suppose there's some comfort in thinking of ISIS as outdated, as doomed to the "ash heap" of history. But it's the kind of comfort you only get when you divorce a phenomena from its history.

[*President Obama just said "the Inquisition," which could refer to the Roman Inquisition, as distinct from the Spanish Inquisition. But given the former's comparably mild record and reputation, I'm assuming he meant the latter.]
[**Off the top of my head, I don't recall how or if Kamen unfolds the thread of the argument laid out in #3. So #4 may be more my own gloss on Kamen rather than his specific argument--but I do think #4 is logically embedded in point #3.]