Sarah Binder & Mark Spindel on The Myth of Independence

Born out of crisis a century ago, the Federal Reserve has become the most powerful macroeconomic policymaker and financial regulator in the world. The Myth of Independence traces the Fed’s transformation from a weak, secretive, and decentralized institution in 1913 to a remarkably transparent central bank a century later. Offering a unique account of Congress’s role in steering this evolution, Sarah Binder and Mark Spindel explore the Fed’s past, present, and future and challenge the myth of its independence.

Why did you write this book?

We were intrigued by the relationship of two powerful institutions that are typically studied in isolation: Congress, overtly political and increasingly polarized, and the Federal Reserve, allegedly independent, born of an earlier financial panic and the world’s most powerful economic policy maker. The economic conditions that created and sustain America’s century old central bank have been well studied. Scholars and market participants have spent considerably less time analyzing the complex political forces that drove the Fed’s genesis and its rise to prominence. Our research challenges widely accepted notions of Fed independence, instead arguing that the Fed sets policy subject to political constraints. Its autonomy is conditioned on economic outcomes and robust political support. In the long shadow of the global financial crisis, our research pinpoints the interdependence of two powerful policy-making institutions and their impact on contemporary monetary politics.

What does history teach us about contemporary monetary politics?

Probing the Fed’s history affords us a window onto the political and economic constraints under which the Fed makes monetary policy today. We draw two key conclusions about contemporary monetary policy from our study of the Fed’s development.

First, the history of the relationship between Congress and the Fed reveals a recurring cycle of economic crisis, political blame, and institutional reform. When the economy is performing well, Congress tends to look the other way, leaving the Fed to pursue its statutory mandate to boost jobs and limit inflation. When the economy sours, lawmakers react by blaming the Fed and then counter-intuitively often giving the Fed more power. Legislative and central bank reactions in the wake of the most recent financial crisis fit this recurring theme. Even after blaming them, Congress further concentrated financial regulation in the Fed’s Board of Governors. Understanding the electoral dynamics that shape Congressional reactions helps to explain the puzzling decision to empower the Fed in the wake of crisis.

Second, economists and central bankers often argue that the Fed has instrument, but not goal, independence: Congress stipulates the Fed’s mandate but leaves the central bank to choose the tools necessary to achieve it. Our historical analysis suggests instead that Congress shapes both the monetary goals and tools. Creating and clipping emergency lending power, imposing greater transparency, influencing adoption of an inflation target—these and other legislative efforts directly shape the Fed’s conduct. Even today, monetary policy remains under siege, as lawmakers on the left and right remain dissatisfied with the Fed’s performance in driving the nation’s economic recovery from the Great Recession.

What new light do you shed on the notion of central bank independence?

Placing the Fed within the broader political system changes our understanding of the nature and primacy of central bank independence.

First, economists prize central bank independence on grounds that it keeps inflation low and stable. However, we show that ever since the Great Depression, Congressional majorities have typically demanded the Fed place equal weight on generating growth and controlling inflation—diminishing the importance of central bank autonomy to lawmakers. Moreover, we demonstrate that the seminal Treasury-Fed Accord of 1951—a deal that most argue cemented the Fed’s independence—tethered the Fed more closely to Congress even as it broke the Fed’s subordination to the Treasury.

Second, prescriptions for central bank independence notwithstanding, fully separating fiscal and monetary policy is complicated. During the Fed’s first half-century, fiscal policy was monetary policy. The Fed underwrote U.S. government borrowing, either willingly or unwillingly enabling the spending objectives of the executive and legislative branches. Even after the 1951 Fed-Treasury Accord, macro-economic outcomes have played a determinative role in shaping U.S. fiscal policy. And most recently, the Fed’s adoption of unconventional monetary policy in the wake of the financial crisis pushed interest rates to zero and ballooned the Fed’s balance sheet—leading many Fed critics to argue that the Fed had crossed the line into Congress’s fiscal domain. Importantly, even strict proponents of monetary independence recognize that exigent conditions often demand collaboration between the central bank and government, complicating monetary politics.

Third, the myth of Fed independence is convenient for elected officials eager to blame the Fed for poor economic outcomes. In fact, Congress and the Fed are interdependent: the Fed operates very much within the political structure in Washington. The Federal Reserve Act—the governing law—has been consistently reopened and revised, particularly after extraordinary economic challenges. Each time, Congress centralizes more control in the Fed’s Washington-based Board of Governors, in exchange for more central bank transparency and congressional accountability. Because Fed “independence” rests with Congress’s tolerance of the Fed’s policy performance, we argue that the Fed earns partial and contingent independence from Congress, and thus hardly any independence at all.

How does intense partisan polarization in Washington today affect the Fed?

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, like most national institutions, the Federal Reserve has been caught in the cross hairs of contemporary partisan polarization. Politicians of both stripes call for changes to the governance and powers of the Fed. Most prominently, we see bipartisan efforts to audit Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) decisions. On the right, a vocal GOP cohort demands an unwinding of the Fed’s big balance sheet and a more formulaic approach to monetary policy. On the left, Democrats want greater diversity on the rosters of the Fed’s regional reserve banks. With the 2016 elections delivering government control to Republicans, prospects for reopening the Federal Reserve Act are heightened.

Several vacancies on the Board of Governors give President Trump and Republican senators another opportunity to air grievances and exert control. Trump inherits a rare opportunity to nominate a majority of members to the FOMC, including the power to appoint a new chair in early 2018 should he wish to replace Janet Yellen. Will he turn to more traditional monetary “hawks,” who seek to rollback crisis-era policies, thus tightening monetary policy? Or will Trump bend towards a more ideologically dovish chair, trading some inflation for a pro-growth agenda?

Washington leaves a large—and politicized—mark on the Federal Reserve. The Myth of Independence seeks to place these overtly political decisions into broader, historical perspective, exploring how the interdependence of Congress and the Federal Reserve shapes politics, the economy and financial markets. As Ben Bernanke expressed, “absent the support of some future White House, although it might be difficult to get passed and signed legislation that poses a serious challenge to the basic powers of the Fed, it unfortunately would not be impossible.”

BinderSarah Binder is professor of political science at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her books include Advice and Dissent and Stalemate. Mark Spindel has spent his entire career in investment management at such organizations as Salomon Brothers, the World Bank, and Potomac River Capital, a Washington D.C.–based hedge fund he started in 2007.

Michael Strauss: America’s Eclipse

Welcome to the UniverseOn Monday, August 21, people all across the United States will witness one of the rarest and most spectacular of all astronomical phenomena: a total solar eclipse. This occurs when the position of the Moon and the Sun in the sky align perfectly, such that the Moon’s shadow falls onto a specific point on the Earth’s surface. If you are lucky enough to be standing in the shadow, you will see the Sun’s light completely blocked by the Moon: the sky will become dark, and the stars and planets will become visible. But because the apparent sizes of the Moon and the Sun are almost the same, and because everything is in motion—the Moon orbits Earth, and Earth rotates around its axis and orbits the Sun—the Moon’s shadow moves quickly.  During the eclipse, the Moon’s shadow will cross the United States at a speed of 1800 miles per hour, taking about 90 minutes to travel from the Pacific Coast in Oregon to touch the Atlantic in South Carolina.  This means that totality, the time when the Sun’s disk is completely covered as seen from any given spot along the eclipse path, is very brief: 2 minutes and 40 seconds at best.

If you are standing along the eclipse path, it takes about 2.5 hours for the Moon to pass across the Sun.  That is, you will see the disk of the Sun eaten away, becoming an ever-narrowing crescent. During this time, you can only look at the Sun with eclipse glasses (make sure they are from a reputable company!), which block the vast majority of the light from the Sun.  It is also fun to look at the dappled shadows underneath a leafy tree; if you look closely, you’ll see that the individual spots of light are all crescent-shaped. A bit more than an hour after the Moon begins to cover the Sun, you reach the point of totality, and the sky becomes dark. It is now safe to remove your eclipse glasses.

Experiencing a few minutes of darkness in the middle of the day is pretty cool. But what makes the eclipse really special is that with the light of the Sun’s disk blocked out, the faint outer atmosphere of the Sun, its corona, becomes visible to the naked eye. The corona consists of tenuous gas extending over millions of miles, with a temperature of a few million degrees. It is shaped by the complex magnetic field of the Sun, and may exhibit a complex arrangement of loops and filaments: indeed, observations of the solar corona during eclipses have been one of the principal ways in which astronomers have learned about its magnetic field. The sight is awe-inspiring; those who have experienced it say that it is as a life-changing experience.

As the Moon starts to move off the disk, the full brightness of the Sun becomes visible again, and you must put your eclipse glasses back on to protect your eyes. The Sun now appears as a narrow and ever-widening crescent. A bit more than an hour later, the Sun’s disk is completely uncovered.

The shadow of the Moon will be about 70 miles in diameter at any given time. That means that if you are not standing in that 70-mile-wide path as the shadow crosses the country, you will only see a partial solar eclipse, in which you will see the Sun appearing as a crescent.  Again, be sure to wear eclipse glasses to look at the Sun!

Solar eclipses happen roughly once or twice a year somewhere on Earth’s surface, but because  of the narrowness of the eclipse path, the number of people standing in the path is usually relatively small. This one, crossing the entire continental US, is special in this regard: tens of millions of people live within a few hours of the eclipse path. This promises to be the most widely seen and recorded eclipse in history! I have never seen a total eclipse of the Sun before, and am very excited to be traveling with my family to Oregon, where we have our fingers crossed for good weather. So, to all those who have the opportunity to stand in the Moon’s shadow, get yourself a pair of eclipse glasses, and prepare yourself to be awed.

Michael A. Strauss is professor of astrophysics at Princeton University. He is the coauthor (with Neil deGrasse Tyson and J. Richard Gott) of Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour.

Anna Frebel: Solar Eclipse 2017

Next Monday, the U.S. will witness an absolutely breathtaking natural spectacle. One worthy of many tweets as it is of the astronomical kind—quite literally. I’m talking about the upcoming total solar eclipse where, for a short couple of minutes, the Moon will move directly into our line of sight to perfectly eclipse the Sun.

During the so-called “totality,” when the Sun is fully covered, everything around you will take on twilight colors. It will get cooler, the birds will become quieter, and you’ll get this eerie feeling that something is funny is going on. No wonder that in ancient times, people thought the world would end during such an event.

I have witnessed this twice before. 1999 in Munich, Germany, and 2002 in Ceduna, Australia. Like so many others, I traveled there with great anticipation to see the Sun disappear on us. In both cases, however, it was cloudy for hours before totality which caused frustration and even anxiety in the crowd. But nature happened to be kind. A few minutes before totality, the clouds parted to let us catch a glimpse. We experienced how the disk of the Sun finally fully vanished just after seeing the last little rays of light peeking through that produced a famous “diamond ring” image. We could also see the glowing corona surrounding the black Sun. All the while, nature around us transformed into what felt like a cool and breezy late summer evening. A few minutes later, everything was back to normal and the clouds covered it all once again like nothing had ever happened. The exact same cloud scenario happened both times—how lucky was that?

As for next Monday, I sincerely hope the clouds will stay home. I know so many folks who will travel from far and wide into the totality zone to experience this “Great American Eclipse.” It is actually fairly narrow, only about 100 miles wide, but stretches diagonally across the entire U.S.. For many, this will be a once in a lifetime opportunity to see such a rare event and I’m sure this experience will stay with them for years to come. It sure did for me.

I will actually not travel into the totality zone. Instead, I’ll be watching and talking about the partial eclipse that we can see up here in Massachusetts with my three year old son and his preschool class. A partial eclipse lasts for a couple of hours and occurs when the alignment between Earth, Moon, and Sun is just a bit “off.” Generally, this can happen when these three bodies are indeed not going to perfectly align. Or, when a person on Earth is close but not right in the totality zone, it causes a misalignment between the observer, the Moon, and the Sun. In both cases, the Sun is not going to get fully covered. Nevertheless, it is still a marvelous event and great for children and anyone interested to learn about solar eclipses and astronomy. And luckily enough, everyone in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico can watch a partial eclipse, no matter where you are located.

Solar eclipses don’t happen randomly. There are part of long lasting cycles that stem from the motion of the Moon around the Earth and the alignment of its orbit with respect to the Sun. This eclipse is part of the famous Saros cycle 145, and so was the 1999 eclipse I saw in Munich. It produces eclipses every 18 years, 11 days and 8h. Subsequent Saros eclipses are visible from different parts of the globe.The extra 8 hours in the cycle mean that from one eclipse to the next, the Earth must rotate an additional ~8 hours or ~120º. Hence, this eclipse is ~120º westward from continental Europe which is the continental U.S.. The next one will be visible from China in 2035. Each of the many Saros series typically lasts 12 to 13 centuries. Series 145 began in 1639 and will end in 3009 after 77 eclipses.

There are 4 to 6 total eclipses every year but not all are visible on land. Actually, from about any given point on Earth, once every 150 years an eclipse is visible. Now, it’s our turn. So if you’re not already traveling into the totality zone, make sure you still watch the partial eclipse—never without eclipse glasses, though, partial or total eclipse alike! Looking into the Sun causes serious longterm damage to your eyes but also your camera. So equip your camera with glasses, too! Alternatively, you can just watch the Sun’s shadow on a wall to observe how the Sun gets eaten away piece by piece by the incoming Moon. Ask your work if you can take a few minutes off. It’s a worthy cause. Actually, a well-timed bathroom break is almost long enough to catch totality or a glimpse of partial coverage. Eclipses are simply too rare and too beautiful to miss!

Get your eclipse glasses, rearrange your schedule (just a little bit), and make sure your kids or grandkids, friends and neighbors are seeing it too. Because, actually, the tides of the oceans on Earth are slowing down Earth’s rotation which make the Moon spiral outward and away from us by 1 inch per year. This means that the Moon will appear smaller and smaller with time, and in the far future, there won’t be any total eclipses possible anymore.

FrebelAnna Frebel is the Silverman (1968) Family Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has received numerous international honors and awards for her discoveries and analyses of the oldest stars. She is the author of Searching for the Oldest Stars: Ancient Relics from the Early Universe.

Omnia El Shakry: Psychoanalysis and Islam

Omnia El Shakry‘s new book, The Arabic Freud, is the first in-depth look at how postwar thinkers in Egypt mapped the intersections between Islamic discourses and psychoanalytic thought.

What are the very first things that pop into your mind when you hear the words “psychoanalysis” and “Islam” paired together?  For some of us the connections might seem improbable or even impossible. And if we were to be brutally honest the two terms might even evoke the specter of a so-called “clash of civilizations” between an enlightened, self-reflective West and a fanatical and irrational East.

It might surprise many of us to know, then, that Sigmund Freud, the founding figure of psychoanalysis, was ever-present in postwar Egypt, engaging the interest of academics, novelists, lawyers, teachers, and students alike. In 1946 Muhammad Fathi, a Professor of Criminal Psychology in Cairo, ardently defended the relevance of Freud’s theories of the unconscious for the courtroom, particularly for understanding the motives behind homicide. Readers of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s 1948 The Mirage were introduced to the Oedipus complex, graphically portrayed in the novel, by immersing themselves in the world of its protagonist—pathologically erotically attached and fixated on his possessive mother. And by 1951 Freudian theories were so well known in Egypt that a secondary school philosophy teacher proposed prenuptial psychological exams in order to prevent unhappy marriages due to unresolved Oedipus complexes!

Scholars who have tackled the question of psychoanalysis and Islam have tended to focus on it as problem, by assuming that psychoanalysis and Islam have been “mutually ignorant” of each other, and they have placed Islam on the couch, as it were, alleging that it is resistant to the “secular” science of psychoanalysis. In my book, The Arabic Freud, I undo the terms of this debate and ask, instead, what it might mean to think of psychoanalysis and Islam together, not as a “problem,” but as a creative encounter of ethical engagement.

What I found was that postwar thinkers in Egypt saw no irreconcilable differences between psychoanalysis and Islam. And in fact, they frequently blended psychoanalytic theories with classical Islamic concepts. For example, when they translated Freud’s concept of the unconscious, the Arabic term used, “al-la-shuʿur,” was taken from the medieval mystical philosopher Ibn ʿArabi, renowned for his emphasis on the creative imagination within Islamic spirituality.

Islamic thinkers further emphasized similarities between Freud’s interpretation of dreams and Islamic dream interpretation, and they noted that the analyst-analysand (therapist-patient) relationship and the spiritual master-disciple relationship of Sufism (the phenomenon of mysticism in Islam) were nearly identical. In both instances, there was an intimate relationship in which the “patient” was meant to forage their unconscious with the help of their shaykh (spiritual guide) or analyst, as the case might be. Both Sufism and psychoanalysis, then, were characterized by a relationship between the self and the other that was mediated by the unconscious. Both traditions exhibited a concern for the relationship between what was hidden and what was shown in psychic and religious life, both demonstrated a preoccupation with eros and love, and both mobilized a highly specialized vocabulary of the self.

What, precisely, are we to make of this close connection between Islamic mysticism and psychoanalysis? On the one hand, it helps us identify something of a paradox within psychoanalysis, namely that for some psychoanalysis represents a non-religious and even atheistic world view. And there is ample evidence for this view within Freud’s own writings, which at times pathologized religion in texts such as The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents. At the same time, in Freud and Man’s Soul, Bruno Bettelheim argued that in the original German Freud’s language was full of references to the soul, going so far as to refer to psychoanalysts as “a profession of secular ministers of souls.” Similarly, psychoanalysis was translated into Arabic as “tahlil al-nafs”—the analysis of the nafs, which means soul, psyche, or self and has deeply religious connotations. In fact, throughout the twentieth century there have been psychoanalysts who have maintained a receptive attitude towards religion and mysticism, such as Marion Milner or Sudhir Kakar. What I take all of this to mean is that psychoanalysis as a tradition is open to multiple, oftentimes conflicting, interpretations and we can take Freud’s own ambivalence towards religion, and towards mysticism in particular, as an invitation to rethink the relationship between psychoanalysis and religion.

What, then, if religious forms of knowledge, and the encounter between psychoanalysis and Islam more specifically, might lead us to new insights into the psyche, the self, and the soul? What would this mean for how we think about the role of religion and ethics in the making of the modern self? And what might it mean for how we think about the relationship between the West and the Islamic world?

FreudOmnia El Shakry is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt and the editor of Gender and Sexuality in Islam. Her new book, The Arabic Freud, is out this September.

John Kricher on The New Neotropical Companion (revised & expanded)

The New Neotropical Companion by John Kricher is the completely revised and expanded edition of a book that has helped thousands of people to understand the complex ecology and natural history of the most species-rich area on Earth, the American tropics. Featuring stunning color photos throughout, it is a sweeping and cutting-edge account of tropical ecology that includes not only tropical rain forests but also other ecosystems such as cloud forests, rivers, savannas, and mountains. This is the only guide to the American tropics that is all-inclusive, encompassing the entire region’s ecology and the amazing relationships among species rather than focusing just on species identification.

What originally focused your interest in the Neotropics and why did you want to write about the region? 

JK: When I was early in my career in ecology and ornithology, way back in the 1970s, I longed to experience the tropics, to be in hot, steamy equatorial jungles, the ecosystems of the world that harbor the most species.  There was so much I wanted to see, especially bird species. It was really birds that got me there.  I wanted to see firsthand the various tropical birds, the antbirds, parrots, cotingas, trogons, toucans, etc.  To me, these were pure glamor birds, and so many of them.  Reading about them only intensified my need to go and see them firsthand.  So, I jumped on the first opportunity that came along to get myself passage into “the Torrid Zone.”

And what was that opportunity? 

JK: I met a man who was to become a long-time close friend, Fred Dodd.  Fred had just started a company called International Zoological Expeditions (IZE) and he was organizing trips to Belize for college classes.  I saw such a trip as my ideal way to get a foothold in the tropics.  And it worked!  My first tropical experience was to take a class of about 30 students from Wheaton College to Belize and Guatemala over semester break in January of 1979.  The unexpected and challenging experiences we had as we faced numerous logistical hurdles in this admittedly pioneering effort would, in themselves, make a pretty cool book.  But we did it, I loved it, and wanted more, much more.  When I meet my first Tropical Ecology students at alumnae gatherings they all want to relive memories of “the Belize trip.”  We tell the same stories over and over and never seem to tire of it.  Going to Belize, getting to the American tropics, was a watershed experience for me, transforming my career.

Why did you feel the need to write A Neotropical Companion and how did you choose that title? 

JK: It was hard to systematically organize information to present to students about the American tropics.  In the late 1970s information about the tropics was widely scattered and incomplete.  For example, there was no single book I could recommend to my students to prepare them for what would await them in the field.  At the same time, I read multiple journal articles on everything from tree diversity to army ant behavior and it was such cool stuff.  I loved telling the students my various “stories” gleaned from the ecological literature.  As I made more and more visits to Central and South American countries my own perspective was greatly enhanced so I could bring something to the table, so to speak, directly from personal experience.  My knowledge base grew in leaps and bounds and I kept expecting that any day a book would be published that would bring together what I was experiencing and enjoying.  It never was.  So, I thought I could adapt my course information into an introductory book. That was what spawned A Neotropical Companion.  The illustrations in the first edition, published in 1989, were by one of my tropical ecology students who adapted them from her field notebook kept when she took my tropical course in Belize.  As for the title, when Judith May, editor at Princeton University Press, read my manuscript she liked it and said, with enthusiasm, that she had “the perfect title” for the book.  It was Judith who gave it its name.

Your first edition was nicknamed “The Little Green Book.”  Did its popularity surprise you? 

JK: It did.  It was flattering that many folks told me they carried my little green book on various tropical trips and found it very informative and easy to read.  And it was indeed a little green book that conveniently fit in a pocket or backpack.  I knew I had barely scratched the surface with regard both to breadth and depth of information but I was very pleased and a bit surprised by the warm reception the book received.  And as I began making frequent trips to lowland Amazonia as well as Andean ecosystems I knew it was time to expand and revise the book.  The little green book needed to grow.  It did that with the publication of the second edition in 1997 and obtained what I consider its “full maturity,” a coming of age, in the present edition.  It is no longer green and no longer little but much more comprehensive and far better illustrated than its predecessors. This is the book I had always wanted to write.

What is the biggest thing that has changed with regard to visiting the American tropics since you first wrote your Little Green Book? 

JK: In the nearly 30 years since I published the first edition the American tropics has become much easier and more comfortable to visit.  Good tourist lodges were relatively few when I first visited the tropics and now they abound. Talented local guides skilled in finding wildlife take groups to see all manner of fantastic species such as Harpy Eagle, for example. There are now tours in which you are virtually assured of getting fine views of fully wild jaguars.  I wrote in the first edition about being very careful as to what you eat, where you go, and various health concerns.  I scaled that way back in my new edition because it is no longer necessary to include it.  A determined traveler may make trips virtually anywhere in the Neotropics and do so safely and in relative comfort, though some areas do remain rugged and challenging.  There are now even tours to Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “River of Doubt,” once considered a huge challenge to explorers.  This was unheard of when I began my travel to the tropics.

Are you still always being asked about encountering snakes and biting insects in the tropics?

JK: Indeed, I am.  And to be truthful, snakes, including many venomous species, are relatively common if not abundant in some tropical venues, though they are not necessarily easy to find unless one is skilled at searching for them.  It is important to be vigilant when on trails and walking around lodges and field stations, especially at night or after a rainfall.  Snakes may be out and about.  But very few encounters result in venomous snake bites.  I encourage people to experience snakes as interesting and beautiful animals and, as one would a lion on the Serengeti, make sure to maintain a respectful distance.  In Trinidad, my group encountered a huge bushmaster, the largest of the Neotropical venomous snakes.  It was crossing a road late at night and was caught in the headlights of our van.  We all saw it well and from a safe distance, a thrilling sight.  As for insects, I have rarely been very bothered by them, especially mosquitos, but if you travel in rainy season mosquitos may be locally abundant and highly annoying.  Visitors to the tropics must really beware of bees and wasps and even ants, some of which act aggressively if disturbed and may pack a powerful sting.  One ant is called the “bullet ant” because it bites you, holds on, and then stings you. The sting allegedly feels like you were hit with a bullet.

Now that The New Neotropical Companion is complete do you have any plans for further exploration of the Neotropics or are you satisfied that you have done all you set out to do?

JK: I continue to be strongly drawn to the American tropics.  I have very recently visited Honduras and Cuba.  I have plans for trips to numerous other Neotropical venues, from Guyana to Peru and Amazonia.  The wonder of the regional biodiversity has always compelled me to want to see more, go to new areas as well as revisit places I have come to know well, and just keep on learning.  No two visits to the tropics, even to a place where one has been repeatedly, are the same.  The more you go, the more you see.  So, I keep going.

John Kricher is professor of biology at Wheaton College. His many books include Tropical Ecology, The Balance of Nature: Ecology’s Enduring Myth, and Galápagos: A Natural History.

Mitchell Cohen: The Politics of Opera

CohenThe Politics of Opera takes readers on a fascinating journey into the entwined development of opera and politics, from the Renaissance through the turn of the nineteenth century. What political backdrops have shaped opera? How has opera conveyed the political ideas of its times? Delving into European history and thought and an array of music by such greats as Lully, Rameau, and Mozart, Mitchell Cohen reveals how politics—through story lines, symbols, harmonies, and musical motifs—has played an operatic role both robust and sotto voce.

Politics is not usually the first thing most people think about when it comes to opera. Why did you write a book on politics and opera?

MC: It was natural. I have a passion for opera and I am a professor of political theory and co-edited Dissent, a political magazine. I began writing the book in order to explore the intersection of two apparently disparate domains. Moreover, if the relation between aesthetic ideas and political ideas interests you, opera provides a great terrain for exploration. Of course, not all operas are political, but more are—or have political implications—than many people realize. I should add: politics does not consume all there is to say about those operas that are political. The Politics of Opera is about how and when two domains come together, and I define politics broadly. In any event, there was also a selfish dimension to my project: I had to go to the opera for work. There are worse things to have to do.

Your book is unusual because of the time span you cover, roughly from the birth of opera through Mozart, some two hundred years. Why choose this period?

MC: Well, let’s start at the beginning. Modern politics—the modern state in Europe—was, broadly speaking, born at the time of the Renaissance. Opera emerged in the late Renaissance. In the last decades of the 16th century, humanist intellectuals in Florence debated about “ancient” and “modern” music—they meant Greek antiquity and their own day. Galileo’s father was one of them. Their conversations led to experiments that, in turn, became opera at the turn of the 17th century. In roughly this era, in Italy and France, important debates occurred and books were published about politics and the nature of politics because it was transforming. One might say that Machiavelli, decades earlier, began the discussion. Of course he didn’t write operas (he did write plays). The parallel between the development of a new form of politics and a new form of musical stage art intrigued me. But in Mozart’s day there was a massive political crack-up, the French revolution—there was, then, great upheaval and great genius at the same time. That’s why I took the late 18th century as a natural historical border. The Politics of Opera seeks to sink operas into the political times in which they were first imagined and not to imagine them as somehow standing outside their times. Another way of saying that is that if you want truly to grasp the politics of an opera you must look deeply both into history and into the ideas that were current when it was written and composed. You have to know what was being argued about then and not just impose your own contemporary preoccupations, although your own preoccupations may be enlightening too—so long as you keep an eye on the differences between your ideas and those found, say, in an opera by Monteverdi or Rameau or Mozart.

For whom are you writing?

MC: I try to write for a broad intelligent public and for scholars. I sought to make a contribution to our understanding of interesting, not-always-evident matters but in accessible ways. I hope that opera fans along with scholars and students of history, culture, music and politics will all be engaged by it. I hope they’ll learn something of what I learned in writing and researching it.

Your book’s prologue speaks of the itinerary of your explorations. What was the route?

MC: Italy, France, Vienna. Florence under the Medicis was the obvious place to begin because those humanists I mentioned were talking about relations between music, feelings, and ideas. The earliest opera for which we still have both the libretto and the music retold the story of Eurydice and Orpheus for a political event, the marriage in 1600 of Maria de’ Medici to France King Henri IV in Florence (He didn’t show up but sent a stand-in!). But then there was a leap of musical imagination when, in Mantua just a few years later, Claudio Monteverdi began composing operas, first of all his remarkable Orfeo. I am always tempted to call him “the great Monteverdi” and indeed he was the first great composer of opera, although he wrote many other wonderful compositions too. He would eventually be fired from Mantua’s ducal court but then he received a much more prestigious position in Venice, a republic. Towards the end of his life he composed some amazing operas in collaboration with librettists who were close to power in Venice. This included the first directly political and historical opera, The Coronation of Poppea. In it the philosopher Seneca and Roman emperor Nero quarrel over ‘reason’ versus ’emotion’ in ruling. From Italy I went to France, more precisely to the birth of French opera thanks to Jean-Baptiste Lully during the reign of Louis XIV. Then I turned to the quarrel in the 18th century between a great composer and theorist of harmony, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and a popular but not-so-great composer of opera, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Yes, the Rousseau, the famous political philosopher who advocated sovereignty of the people but who also aspired to be a composer. Poor Rameau! Poor Rousseau! Rameau was the great artist and my book devotes considerable space to his opera Les Indes galantes, a remarkable opera that in part reflects the Age of Exploration—what others would call the Age of Imperialism. But Rameau was not a spectacular writer and Rousseau’s music, well, let’s just say you wouldn’t want to go too often to his best-known opera, Le Devin du Village (the Village Soothsayer). However, you really wouldn’t want to get into polemics with him since he was a master of them. 

From France I went on to Vienna, to Metastasio, the Imperial Poet of the Holy Roman Empire whose librettos were set by many composers, including Vivaldi. For my purposes the most interesting of them was Cato in Utica, which is about the last Roman republican resistance to the rise of the Roman Empire—Cato versus Julius Casesar. Of course, the book must finally come to Mozart’s operas.

As I looked at all these operas I tried to contextualize them and also to show parallels with key political ideas and problems of the times—ideas and problems that are embedded in them. So readers will come across a number of important thinkers and writers—some well-known, some less-known today—weaving throughout the book. These range from Machiavelli and Tacitus to Jean Bodin, Diderot, Edmund Burke, Rousseau and others.

Was Mozart political?

MC: Mozart was, of course, a man of music before anything else. We should be forever grateful for that. The more you study him, the more amazing he becomes. He didn’t write on politics but he certainly had problems with authority. His operas are filled with political themes and political issues of his time. He didn’t write his librettos but he helped to shape them. I try in The Politics of Opera to give a close reading (and hearing) to the results. The book actually stretches a little beyond Mozart and rounds off by discussing a little known work. The German poet Goethe wrote a sequel to The Magic Flute a few years after Mozart’s death. Goethe never finished it and nobody was brave enough to write music for it. In it there is a regrouping of the forces of darkness. Led by the infamous Queen of the Night they launch an assault against Sarastro’s enlightened realm—he is on a sabbatical—and Tamino and Pamina. Goethe wrote it in the mid 1790s. It is easy to think of it in light of wars and politics in Europe just then. There is, of course, much more to be found in it too.

You certainly cover a lot of territory. How do you approach it all?

MC: By using insights drawn from many thinkers and varied methods—political, philosophical, musicalogical, historical—in different combinations. I don’t impose one model on everything. I prefer what I call a methodological medley. It seems to me a particularly fruitful way to be inter-disciplinary.

MitchellCohen Cohen is professor of political science at Baruch College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York and an editor emeritus of Dissent. His books include The Wager of Lucien Goldmann and The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart. He has been a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton and has written for many publications including the New York Times Sunday Book Review and the Times Literary Supplement (London).

 

Bryan Wagner on a controversial folktale: The Tar Baby

WagnerPerhaps the best-known version of the tar baby story was published in 1880 by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, and popularized in Song of the South, the 1946 Disney movie. Other versions of the story, however, have surfaced in many other places throughout the world, including Nigeria, Brazil, Corsica, Jamaica, India, and the Philippines. The Tar Baby: A Global History by Bryan Wagner offers a fresh analysis of this deceptively simple story about a fox, a rabbit, and a doll made of tar and turpentine, tracing its history and its connections to slavery, colonialism, and global trade. Wagner explores how the tar baby story, thought to have originated in Africa, came to exist in hundreds of forms on five continents.

What is the tar baby story?

BW: There are hundreds of versions of the story, involving many characters and situations. It’s not possible to summarize the story in a way that can encompass all of its variants. The story does, however, follow a broad outline. I provide the following example in the book: “A rabbit and a wolf are neighbors. In the summer, the rabbit wastes his time singing songs, smoking cigarettes, and drinking wine, while the wolf stays busy working in his fields. The rabbit then steals from the wolf all winter. The next year, the wolf decides he will catch the rabbit by placing a tar baby, a lifelike figurine made from tar softened with turpentine, on the way to his fields. When the rabbit meets the tar baby in the road, and the tar baby does not reply to his greetings, the rabbit becomes angry and punches, kicks, and head-butts the tar baby until he is stuck at five points and left to the mercy of the wolf. The rabbit, however, is not trapped for long as he tricks the wolf into tossing him into the briar patch where he makes his escape.” In addition to this summary, I also provide an appendix with versions of the story transcribed in Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, the Cape Verde Islands, the Bahamas, Corsica, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, and the United States. I also include a map of these stories representing when and where they were collected.

Why did you write a book about the tar baby story?

BW: The tar baby has some familiar associations. People think about the ways in which the term “tar baby” has been used as a racial slur. Or they think about it as a figure of speech referring to a situation that gets worse the harder you try to solve it. Or they think about the version of the story that was published by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1881). Or they think about the adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories in the Walt Disney movie Song of the South (1946). Most people don’t know that that the story of the tar baby was not invented by Harris. They don’t know that the story exists in hundreds of versions in the oral tradition that were collected on five continents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Scholars during these decades were fascinated by the story. They wanted to know how the story came to exist in all of these far-flung places. Some people, including Harris, thought the tar baby story was a key example of the cultural tradition that slaves brought with them from Africa to the Americas. Others believed that the tar baby originated not in Africa but in India or France. Still others believed it was invented by American Indians and borrowed by African Americans. The argument was fierce, and the stakes were high. Did culture belong to a race of people? Or did it cross over racial lines? Did culture construct or transcend racial identity? These questions have stayed with us even as they have been applied to a wide range of examples. It is important to recognize that the tar baby was one of the earliest and most important cases through which these questions were formulated.

The tar baby story is important to ideas about culture and race. Is it also important for politics?

BW: Yes that’s right. Increasingly over the twentieth century, scholars looked to trickster stories like the tar baby for evidence of how peasants and slaves reflected on the politics of everyday life.

Peasants and slaves told stories like the tar baby, it was argued, to share lessons about how to survive in a hostile world where the cards were stacked against you. These ideas were essential to intellectual movements like the new social history and certain strains of political anthropology. At the same time, other scholars have questioned this approach, arguing that it turns politics into the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest, failing to account for the importance of cooperation. I think that scholars have been right to bring these big questions about culture and politics to the story, but I also think that the answers they have discovered in the story have been insufficient. My book approaches the tar baby as a collective experiment in political philosophy. It argues that we need to understand the ways in which the story addresses universal problems—freedom and captivity, labor and value, crime and custom—if we are to gauge its powerful allure for the slaves, fugitives, emigrants, sailors, soldiers, and indentured workers who brought it all the way around the world.

What about the story’s longstanding association with racism? Is “tar baby” a racist term?

BW: That last one is a complex question, but the short answer is yes. Some people like William Safire and John McWhorter have argued that the racism associated with the term “tar baby” is a recent invention, and that the term’s original meaning is not about race. This is disproven by the fact that there are examples from the early nineteenth century where the term was already being used as a racial slur specifically directed at African American children. Harris published his first version of the tar baby story in the Atlanta Constitution at a time when the newspaper was using the term as a racial slur in its news articles. The term’s racism is not incidental to the story. This is also confirmed by the fact that illustrations from early versions of the story represent the tar baby as having phenotypically African facial features. In complex ways, the story is about the history of racism, and for this reason, I don’t think the term should be used in an offhand way as a figure of speech for an intractable situation. This usage is offensive not least for its willful ignorance of the long history of suffering and exploitation that the story attempts in its own way to comprehend.

Bryan Wagner is associate professor in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery and Tar Baby: A Global History.

Dennis Rasmussen: National Friendship Day

Today, August 6, is National Friendship Day. Rather than celebrate this Hallmark holiday by sending a slew of greeting cards, as its originators hoped, I propose to use it to raise and answer a fascinating but seldom-asked question: What was the greatest friendship in the history of philosophy?

I am convinced that the answer is clear, once the leading contenders have been considered: the greatest of all philosophical friendships was that of David Hume and Adam Smith. Hume is, after all, widely regarded as the most important philosopher ever to write in English, and Smith is almost certainly history’s most famous theorist of commercial society, or what we would now call capitalism. They are two of the most significant figures in the entire Western tradition, and they were best friends for most of their adult lives. My new book, The Infidel and the Professor, follows the course of Hume and Smith’s friendship from their first meeting in 1749 until Hume’s death more than a quarter of a century later, examining both their personal interactions and the impact that each had on the other’s outlook.

During the course of writing the book I frequently invited fellow political theorists, philosophers, and intellectual historians to nominate alternative friendships as the greatest in the history of philosophy. Most people’s first instinct was to say Socrates and Plato, but given the four-decade age disparity between them, their relationship was probably more one of teacher and student, or perhaps mentor and protégé, than one of equals, and in any case the record of their personal interactions is scant. Ditto for Plato and Aristotle. Locke and Newton admired one another, but could hardly be said to be close friends. Heidegger and Arendt had more of a (stormy) romantic relationship than a friendship, as did Sartre and de Beauvoir (with somewhat less drama). As for Montaigne and La Boétie, Lessing and Mendelssohn, Bentham and James Mill, Hegel and Schelling, Marx and Engels, and Whitehead and Russell, in each of these cases at least one member of the pair falls considerably below Hume and Smith in terms of impact and originality. Emerson and Thoreau approach closer to their level, if we choose to count them as philosophers rather than literary figures. The strongest contenders among philosophers are probably Erasmus and Thomas More, but in terms of influence and depth of thought most would give the clear nod to Hume and Smith.

Given their stature and influence it is remarkable that no book has heretofore been written on Hume and Smith’s personal or intellectual relationship. One likely reason for this is that friendships are more difficult to bring to life than feuds and quarrels: conflict makes for high drama, while camaraderie does not. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that there have been many books written on philosophical clashes—think of David Edmonds and John Eidinow’s Wittgenstein’s Poker and Rousseau’s Dog, Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, Steven Nadler’s The Best of All Possible Worlds, Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic, and Robert Zaretsky and John Scott’s The Philosophers’ Quarrel, to name only a few recent titles—but far fewer on philosophical friendships. Even biographies of Hume tend to devote less attention to his long friendship with Smith than to his brief quarrel with Rousseau, which, sensational as it may have been, was not nearly as central to Hume’s life and thought.

The relative lack of attention paid to philosophical friendships, while understandable, is unfortunate. Friendship was understood to be a key component of philosophy and the philosophical life from the very beginning, as even a cursory reading of Plato or Aristotle should remind us. The latter famously claimed that friendship is the one good without which no one would choose to live even if he possessed all other goods, and Hume and Smith clearly concurred. Hume held that “friendship is the chief joy of human life,” and Smith proclaimed that the esteem and affection of one’s friends constitutes “the chief part of human happiness.” Indeed, Hume proposed a small thought experiment to prove Aristotle’s point. “Let all the powers and elements of nature conspire to serve and obey one man,” he suggests. “Let the sun rise and set at his command: The sea and rivers roll as he pleases, and the earth furnish spontaneously whatever may be useful or agreeable to him. He will still be miserable, till you give him some one person at least, with whom he may share his happiness, and whose esteem and friendship he may enjoy.”

Aristotle divides friendships into three types: those motivated by utility, those motivated by pleasure, and—the highest and rarest of the three—those motivated by virtue or excellence. Smith draws a similar distinction in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, though he insists that the latter alone “deserve the sacred and venerable name of friendship.” Smith’s relationship with Hume represents a nearly textbook model of this kind of friendship: a stable, enduring, reciprocal bond that arises not just from serving one another’s interests or from taking pleasure in one another’s company, but also from the shared pursuit of a noble end—in their case, philosophical understanding.

An examination of Hume and Smith’s personal and intellectual relationship thus allows for a different kind of reflection on friendship than is found in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon, and the like. Whereas these leading philosophers of friendship tend to analyze the concept in the abstract—the different forms that friendship takes, its roots in human nature, its relationship to self-interest, to romantic love, and to justice—a consideration of Hume and Smith allows us to see that rare thing, a philosophical friendship of the very highest level in action: a case study, as it were. As my book aims to show, it is a friendship very much worth celebrating.

RasmussenDennis C. Rasmussen is associate professor of political science at Tufts University. His books include The Pragmatic Enlightenment. He lives in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

Alexandra Logue: Are Faculty Missing in Action?

This post was originally published on the blog of Alexandra Logue

Last fall, an article in Inside Higher Ed authored by Judith Shapiro, President of the Teagle Foundation and former President of Barnard College, made the following statement:

“For the most part, however, faculty members have simply been missing in action when it comes to dealing with campus upheavals around race and racism.”

I agree with this statement, but I would expand it to say that faculty members have frequently been missing in action with regard to all kinds of controversial issues.  At many (most?) institutions, faculty are rewarded with promotions, raises, and tenure first for their research (largely based on their individual efforts), second for their teaching (again, largely based on their individual efforts), and only third for their service, which would include working together with others to make their colleges congenial and productive places for the colleges’ diverse inhabitants.  The faculty who produce the most work of direct benefit to themselves are largely those faculty who keep to themselves, focus on their own work, and stay out of the way of college conflagrations.  Consistent with this statement, research has shown that faculty do not feel safe expressing views with which others may disagree until they have had the final promotion to full professor (not, as some people think, until they have tenure).

An example of these tendencies concerns credit transfer among the 19 undergraduate colleges of The City University of New York, at which approximately 10,000 students transfer each fall alone.  Credit transfer is a controversial subject, just one reason being that whether the receiving college counts the credits or not can directly affect the college’s, as well as a department’s, funds, and whether faculty members have sufficient enrollment to teach certain courses.  Although ensuring that credits transfer can benefit students, it can also mean depriving faculty and/or a college of something desirable to them.  Thus it is no surprise that, although for over 40 years problems with credit transfer were seen as the worst problems for CUNY students, and although the faculty issued some statements about those problems, the faculty took no actions to solve the problems.  When the central administration finally instituted a system (known as Pathways) that guaranteed credit transfer for some courses, and thus directly affecting some faculty’s courses, only then did some faculty spend significant amounts of time on the credit transfer issue, with most of those faculty objecting to Pathways, including filing law suits against it.  This prompted one CUNY Distinguished Professor, in his testimony at a public hearing on Pathways, to say to the faculty in the audience: “Where have you been?  Where have you been for 40 years?”

Although there is nothing wrong with working hard to benefit oneself, we also need to provide clear incentives for faculty to work together for the benefit of students, as well as for the rest of the higher education community.

There is more about these issues in my forthcoming book Pathways to Reform:  Credits and Conflict at The City University of New York.

LogueAlexandra W. Logue is a research professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education at the Graduate Center, CUNY. From 2008 to 2014, she served as executive vice chancellor and university provost of the CUNY system. She is the author of The Psychology of Eating and Drinking and Self-Control: Waiting Until Tomorrow for What You Want Today. She lives in New York City.

Peter Ungar: It’s not that your teeth are too big: your jaw is too small

UngarWe hold in our mouths the legacy of our evolution. We rarely consider just how amazing our teeth are. They break food without themselves being broken, up to millions of times over the course of a lifetime; and they do it built from the very same raw materials as the foods they are breaking. Nature is truly an inspired engineer.

But our teeth are, at the same time, really messed up. Think about it. Do you have impacted wisdom teeth? Are your lower front teeth crooked or out of line? Do your uppers jut out over your lowers? Nearly all of us have to say ‘yes’ to at least one of these questions, unless we’ve had dental work. It’s as if our teeth are too big to fit properly in our jaws, and there isn’t enough room in the back or front for them all. It just doesn’t make sense that such an otherwise well-designed system would be so ill-fitting.

Other animals tend to have perfectly aligned teeth. Our distant hominin ancestors did too; and so do the few remaining peoples today who live a traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle. I am a dental anthropologist at the University of Arkansas, and I work with the Hadza foragers of Africa’s great rift valley in Tanzania. The first thing you notice when you look into a Hadza mouth is that they’ve got a lot of teeth. Most have 20 back teeth, whereas the rest of us tend to have 16 erupted and working. Hadza also typically have a tip-to-tip bite between the upper and lower front teeth; and the edges of their lowers align to form a perfect, flawless arch. In other words, the sizes of Hadza teeth and jaws match perfectly. The same goes for our fossil forebears and for our nearest living relatives, the monkeys and apes.

So why don’t our teeth fit properly in the jaw? The short answer is not that our teeth are too large, but that our jaws are too small to fit them in. Let me explain. Human teeth are covered with a hard cap of enamel that forms from the inside out. The cells that make the cap move outward toward the eventual surface as the tooth forms, leaving a trail of enamel behind. If you’ve ever wondered why your teeth can’t grow or repair themselves when they break or develop cavities, it’s because the cells that make enamel die and are shed when a tooth erupts. So the sizes and shapes of our teeth are genetically pre-programmed. They cannot change in response to conditions in the mouth.

But the jaw is a different story. Its size depends both on genetics and environment; and it grows longer with heavy use, particularly during childhood, because of the way bone responds to stress. The evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman at Harvard University conducted an elegant study in 2004 on hyraxes fed soft, cooked foods and tough, raw foods. Higher chewing strains resulted in more growth in the bone that anchors the teeth. He showed that the ultimate length of a jaw depends on the stress put on it during chewing.

Selection for jaw length is based on the growth expected, given a hard or tough diet. In this way, diet determines how well jaw length matches tooth size. It is a fine balancing act, and our species has had 200,000 years to get it right. The problem for us is that, for most of that time, our ancestors didn’t feed their children the kind of mush we feed ours today. Our teeth don’t fit because they evolved instead to match the longer jaw that would develop in a more challenging strain environment. Ours are too short because we don’t give them the workout nature expects us to.

There’s plenty of evidence for this. The dental anthropologist Robert Corruccini at Southern Illinois University has seen the effects by comparing urban dwellers and rural peoples in and around the city of Chandigarh in north India – soft breads and mashed lentils on the one hand, coarse millet and tough vegetables on the other. He has also seen it from one generation to the next in the Pima peoples of Arizona, following the opening of a commercial food-processing facility on the reservation. Diet makes a huge difference. I remember asking my wife not to cut our daughters’ meat into such small pieces when they were young. ‘Let them chew,’ I begged. She replied that she’d rather pay for braces than have them choke. I lost that argument.

Crowded, crooked, misaligned and impacted teeth are huge problems that have clear aesthetic consequences, but can also affect chewing and lead to decay. Half us could benefit from orthodontic treatment. Those treatments often involve pulling out or carving down teeth to match tooth row with jaw length. But does this approach really make sense from an evolutionary perspective? Some clinicians think not. And one of my colleagues at Arkansas, the bioarchaeologist Jerry Rose, has joined forces with the local orthodontist Richard Roblee with this very question in mind. Their recommendation? That clinicians should focus more on growing jaws, especially for children. For adults, surgical options for stimulating bone growth are gaining momentum, too, and can lead to shorter treatment times.

As a final thought, tooth crowding isn’t the only problem that comes from a shorter jaw. Sleep apnea is another. A smaller mouth means less space for the tongue, so it can fall back more easily into the throat during sleep, potentially blocking the airway. It should come as no surprise that appliances and even surgery to pull the jaw forward are gaining traction in treating obstructive sleep apnea.

For better and for worse, we hold in our mouths the legacy of our evolution. We might be stuck with an oral environment that our ancestors never had to contend with, but recognising this can help us deal with it in better ways. Think about that the next time you smile and look in a mirror.

Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins by Peter Ungar is out now through Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

Peter S. Ungar is Distinguished Professor and director of the Environmental Dynamics Program at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of Teeth: A Very Short Introduction and Mammal Teeth: Origin, Evolution, and Diversity and the editor of Evolution of the Human Diet: The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Landon R. Y. Storrs: What McCarthyism Can Teach Us about Trumpism

Since the election of President Donald Trump, public interest in “McCarthyism” has surged, and the focus has shifted from identifying individual casualties to understanding the structural factors that enable the rise of demagogues.

After The Second Red Scare was published in 2012, most responses I received from general readers were about the cases of individuals who had been investigated, or whom the inquirer guessed might have been investigated, under the federal employee loyalty program. That program, created by President Truman in 1947 in response to congressional conservatives’ charges that his administration harbored communist sympathizers, was the engine of the anticommunist crusade that became known as McCarthyism, and it was the central subject of my book. I was the first scholar to gain access to newly declassified records related to the loyalty program and thus the first to write a comprehensive history. The book argues that the program not only destroyed careers, it profoundly affected public policy in many fields.

Some queries came from relatives of civil servants whose lives had been damaged by charges of disloyalty. A typical example was the person who wanted to understand why, in the early 1950s, his parents abruptly moved the family away from Washington D.C. and until their deaths refused to explain why. Another interesting inquiry came from a New York Times reporter covering Bill de Blasio’s campaign for New York City mayor. My book referenced the loyalty case of Warren Wilhelm Sr., a World War II veteran and economist who left government service in 1953, became an alcoholic, was divorced by his wife, and eventually committed suicide. He never told his children about the excruciating loyalty investigation. His estranged son, born Warren Wilhelm Jr., legally adopted his childhood nickname, Bill, and his mother’s surname, de Blasio. I didn’t connect the case I’d found years earlier to the mayoral candidate until the journalist contacted me, at which point I shared my research. At that moment de Blasio’s opponents were attacking him for his own youthful leftism, so it was a powerful story, as I tried to convey in The Nation.

With Trump’s ascendance, media references to McCarthyism have proliferated, as commentators struggle to make sense of Trump’s tactics and supporters. Opinion writers note that Trump shares McCarthy’s predilections for bluffing and for fear-mongering—with terrorists, Muslims, and immigrants taking the place of communist spies. They also note that both men were deeply influenced by the disreputable lawyer Roy Cohn. Meanwhile, the president has tweeted that he himself is a victim of McCarthyism, and that the current investigations of him are “witch hunts”—leaving observers flummoxed, yet again, as to whether he is astonishingly ignorant or shamelessly misleading.

But the parallels between McCarthy’s era and our own run deeper than personalities. Although The Second Red Scare is about McCarthyism, it devotes little attention to McCarthy himself. The book is about how opponents of the New Deal exploited Americans’ fear of Soviet espionage in order to roll back public policies whose regulatory and redistributive effects conservatives abhorred. It shows that the federal employee loyalty program took shape long before the junior senator from Wisconsin seized the limelight in 1950 by charging that the State Department was riddled with communists.

By the late 1930s congressional conservatives of both parties were claiming that communists held influential jobs in key New Deal agencies—particularly those that most strongly challenged corporate prerogatives regarding labor and prices. The chair of the new Special House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, Martin Dies (a Texas Democrat who detested labor unions, immigrants, and black civil rights as much as communism), demanded that the U.S. Civil Service Commission (CSC) investigate employees at several agencies. When the CSC found little evidence to corroborate Dies’s allegations, he accused the CSC itself of harboring subversives. Similarly, when in 1950 the Tydings Committee found no evidence to support McCarthy’s claims about the State Department, McCarthy said the committee conducted a “whitewash.” President Trump too insists that anyone who disproves his claims is part of a conspiracy. One important difference is that Dies and McCarthy alleged a conspiracy against the United States, whereas Trump chiefly complains of conspiracies against himself—whether perpetrated by a “deep state” soft on terrorism and immigration or by a biased “liberal media.” The Roosevelt administration dismissed Dies as a crackpot, and during the Second World War, attacks on the loyalty of federal workers got little traction.

That changed in the face of postwar Soviet conduct, the nuclear threat, and revelations of Soviet espionage. In a futile effort to counter right-wing charges that he was “soft” on communism, President Truman expanded procedures for screening government employees, creating a loyalty program that greatly enhanced the power of the FBI and the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations. State, local, and private employers followed suit. As a result, the threat of long-term unemployment forced much of the American workforce not only to avoid political dissent, but to shun any association that an anonymous informant might find suspect. Careers and families were destroyed. With regard to the U.S. civil service, the damage to morale and to effective policymaking lasted much longer than the loyalty program itself.

Public employees long have been vulnerable to political attacks. Proponents of limited government by definition dislike them, casting them as an affront to the (loaded) American ideals of rugged individualism and free markets. But hostility to government employees has been more broad-based at moments when severe national security threats come on top of widespread economic and social insecurity. The post-WWII decade represented such a moment. In the shadow of the Soviet and nuclear threats, women and African-Americans struggled to maintain the toeholds they had gained during the war, and some Americans resented new federal initiatives against employment discrimination. Resentment of the government’s expanding role was fanned by right-wing portrayals of government experts as condescending, morally degenerate “eggheads” who avoided the competitive marketplace by living off taxpayers.

Today, widespread insecurity in the face of terrorism, globalization, multiculturalism, and gender fluidity have made many Americans susceptible to the same sorts of reactionary populist rhetoric heard in McCarthy’s day. And again that rhetoric serves the objectives of those who would gut government, or redirect it to serve private rather than public interests.

The Trump administration calls for shrinking the federal workforce, but the real goal is a more friendly and pliable bureaucracy. Trump advisers complain that Washington agencies are filled with leftists. Trump transition teams requested names of employees who worked on gender equality at State and climate change initiatives at the EPA. Trump media allies such as Breitbart demanded the dismissal of Obama “holdovers.” Trump selected appointees based on their personal loyalty rather than qualifications and, when challenged, suggested that policy expertise hinders fresh thinking. In firing Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for declining to enforce his first “travel ban,” Trump said she was “weak” and had “betrayed” her department. Such statements, like Trump’s earlier claims that President Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim, fit the textbook definition of McCarthyism: undermining political opponents by making unsubstantiated attacks on their loyalty to the United States. Even more alarming is Trump’s pattern of equating disloyalty to himself with disloyalty to the nation—the textbook definition of autocracy.

Might the demise of McCarthyism hold lessons about how Trumpism will end? The Second Red Scare wound down thanks to the courage of independent journalists, the decision after four long years of McCarthy’s fellow Republican senators to put country above party, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions in cases brought by brave defendants and lawyers. The power of each of those forces was contingent, of course, on the abilities of Americans to sort fact from fiction, to resist the politics of fear and resentment, and to vote.

StorrsLandon R. Y. Storrs is professor of history at the University of Iowa. She is the author of Civilizing Capitalism: The National Consumers’ League, Women’s Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era and The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left.

Steven Weitzman: The Origin of the Jews

WeitzmanThe Jews have one of the longest continuously recorded histories of any people in the world, but what do we actually know about their origins? While many think the answer to this question can be found in the Bible, others look to archaeology or genetics. Some skeptics have even sought to debunk the very idea that the Jews have a common origin. In The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age, Steven Weitzman takes a learned and lively look at what we know—or think we know—about where the Jews came from, when they arose, and how they came to be. Weitzman recently took the time to answer a few questions about his new book.

Isn’t the origin of the Jews well known? The story as I learned it begins with the Bible—with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and with the story of the Exodus from Egypt. What is it that we do not understand about the origin of the Jews?

SW: Arguably, modernity was born of a recognition that things did not originate in the way the Bible claims. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the intellectual elite in Europe began to realize that the Bible could not be relied upon as an origin account, they turned to science, to critical historiography, to archaeology and to other scholarly methods to try to answer the question of where things and people come from. The result of their efforts include Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Bing Bang theory and other enduring theories of origin, along with a lot of theories and ideas that have since been discredited. The same intellectual process unsettled how people accounted for the origin of the Jews. Scholars applied the tools that had been used to understand the origin of language, religion and culture to the Jews and in this way developed alternative accounts very different from or even opposed to the biblical account. This book tells the story of what scholars have learned in this way and wrestles with why, despite centuries of scholarship, the question of the origin of the Jews remains unsettled.

So what have scholars learned about the origin of the Jews?

SW: A lot and a little at the same time. There has been a tremendous amount of scholarship generated by the question. The Documentary Hypothesis, the famous theory that the Five Books of Moses reflects the work of different authors in different historical periods, was originally intended as an effort to explain how the people of the Old Testament became the Jews. Focusing on different textual sources, Assyriologists have uncovered evidence of a people in Canaan known as the Habiru that are believed to be the ancestors of the Hebrews, and others would trace the Jews’ origin to Egypt or see a role for Greek culture in their development. Every theory can cite facts to support its account; and some are quite pioneering in the methods they deploy, and yet even as someone conversant in this scholarship, I find that I myself cannot answer the question of what the origin of the Jews is. It is actually the difficulty of answering the question that fascinates me. From within my small field, I have always been drawn to questions that lie at the edge of or just beyond what scholars can know about the world, questions that appear to be just beyond reach, and the origin of the Jews represents one of those questions, lying inside and outside of history at the same time.

Can you explain more why the origin of the Jews is so hard to pin down?

SW: Partly the problem is a scarcity of evidence. If we are looking to prehistory to understand the origin of the Jews—prehistory in this context would refer to the period before we have written accounts of the Israelites—there just isn’t a lot of evidence to work with. We know that at some point a people called Israel emerged, but we have very little evidence that can help us understand that process—a lot of theories and educated guesses but not a lot of solid facts.
Origins are always elusive—they always seem to be buried, hidden or lost—and scholarship has really had to strain to find relevant evidence to base itself on.
But for me at least, the biggest challenge of all was the problem of pinning down what an origin is. The term covers a range of different ideas—continuity and novelty, ancestry and invention. An origin can refer to lineage, to whatever connects a thing to the past, but it can also refer to a rupture, the emergence of something fundamentally discontinuous with the past. I came to realize that one of the main reasons scholars explain the origin of the Jews so differently is that they begin from different conceptions of what an origin is. This project forced me to recognize that I didn’t understand what an origin is or sufficiently appreciate all the different assumptions, beliefs and questionable metaphors that lay hidden within that term.

Not only are there conceptual difficulties inherent in the search for Jewish origin, but there are political problems as well. The effort to answer the question of the origin of the Jews has had devastating consequences, as the Nazis demonstrated by using the scholarship of origin to rationalize violence against the Jews. Of course, more recently, the question has gotten caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well, and is entangled in various intra-communal and interfaith debates about the nature of Jewish and Christian identity. There were many reasons to avoid this topic, intellectual, political and arguably even ethical, but not pursuing it also has its costs. There are lots of ideas circulating out there about how the Jews originated, along with a lot of misstatements, unexamined assumptions and confusion, and I felt it would be helpful to describe the challenges of this question, why it is difficult to address, what we know and don’t know, and what is at stake.

The book surveys several different approaches—various historical approaches, archaeology, social scientific approaches, even psychoanalysis has been used to address the question—but the research most likely to interest many contemporary readers comes from the field of genetics. What does DNA reveal about the origin of the Jews?

SW: First of all, I should say up front that I am not a geneticist and much of what I present in the book is based on what I learned from geneticist colleagues when I was a faculty member at Stanford or read at their suggestion. But we happen to be in a period when geneticists are making great strides in using DNA as a historical source, a way to understand the origin, migration history, and sexual and health history of different populations, and Jews have been intensively studied from this perspective. Even though the science was new to me, I felt I could not write a book on this subject without trying to engage this new research. As for what such research reveals, it offers a new way of investigating the ancestry of the Jews, the population(s) from whom they descend, and potentially sheds light on where that population lived, its size and demographic practice, and its mating practices. It can even help us to distinguish distinct histories for the male and female lineages of contemporary Jewish populations. All fascinating stuff, but does genetics represent the future of the quest to understand the origin of the Jews? The research is developing very rapidly. The data sets are expanding rapidly; the analysis is getting more nuanced; studies conducted a decade or two ago have already been significantly revised or superseded; and it is hard for non-geneticists to judge what is quality research and what is questionable. What is clear is that there has been criticism of such research from anthropologists and historians of science who detect hidden continuities with earlier now discredited race science and question how scientists interpret the data. I tried to tell both sides of this story, distilling the research but also giving voice to the critiques, and the book includes bibliographic guidance for those who want to judge the research for themselves.

Has this project gotten you to think about your own origin differently?

SW: Yes, but not in the way one might expect. Of course, as a Jew myself, the questions were not just intellectual but also personal and relational, bearing on how I thought about my own ancestry, my own sense of connection to my forebears, to other Jews, and to the land of Israel and to other peoples, but what I learned about the history of scholarship just didn’t reveal the clear insight one might have hoped for. To give a minor and amusing example, I recall being impressed by a genetic study which uncovered evidence of a surprising ancestry for Ashkenazic Levites. A Levite is a descendant from the tribe of Levi, a tribe with a special religious role, and I inherited such a status from my father. I never put any real stake in this part of my inheritance, but it was a point of connection to my father and his father, and I admit that I was intrigued when I read this study, which found that Ashkenazic Levite males have a different ancestry than that of other Ashkenazic Jews, perhaps descending from a convert with a different backstory than that of the other males in the tiny population from which today’s Ashkenazic Jews descend. But then a few years later, the same scientist published another study which undid that conclusion. So it goes with the research in general: it tells too many stories, or changes too much, or is too equivocal or uncertain in its results to demystify the origin of who I am. But on the other hand, I did learn a lot from this project about how—and why—I think about origins at all, and the mystery of who I am as a Jew—and of who we all are as human beings—runs much deeper for me now.

Steven Weitzman is the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures and Ella Darivoff Director of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His books include Solomon: The Lure of WisdomSurviving Sacrilege: Cultural Persistence in Jewish Antiquity, and The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age.