Daniel Kennefick on No Shadow of a Doubt

In 1919, British scientists led extraordinary expeditions to Brazil and Africa to test Albert Einstein’s revolutionary new theory of general relativity in what became the century’s most celebrated scientific experiment. The result ushered in a new era and made Einstein a global celebrity by confirming his dramatic prediction that the path of light rays would be bent by gravity. Today, Einstein’s theory is scientific fact. Yet the effort to “weigh light” by measuring the gravitational deflection of starlight during the May 29, 1919, solar eclipse has become clouded by myth and skepticism. In No Shadow of a Doubt, Daniel Kennefick provides definitive answers by offering the most comprehensive and authoritative account of how expedition scientists overcame war, bad weather, and equipment problems to make the experiment a triumphant success.

What compelled you to write this book?

The story of the 1919 eclipse is one of the most dramatic and significant in the history of science, and one that I’ve always found fascinating. What compelled me to research it closely was my puzzlement about the criticisms of Eddington which I heard repeated more and more, especially while working on volume 9 the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, which covered Einstein’s life during the year 1919. I found the complaints about Eddington’s supposed bias in favor of Einstein unconvincing, especially the claim that Eddington’s pacifism was responsible for his desire to prove Einstein right. I thought that it was time someone looked closely at the actual data analysis decisions, using original documents preserved in the archives. I decided to write the book because I found the complete story of the eclipse which I put together to be fascinating and the centenary seemed like a perfect occasion to tell that story. I also felt that there was a danger that important work on the 1919 eclipse was being overlooked. As part of my research I learned that a re-analysis of the photographic plates taken in 1919 was conducted in 1978 by English astronomers at the Royal Greenwich Observatory using modern plate-measuring equipment and computers. They completely vindicated the work of the original team, and yet their re-analysis had gone totally unrecognized and unread. It was even misrepresented in the one book which did allude to it, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. So I felt it was important to restore some balance to the story of what happened in 1919.

You say that the 1919 solar eclipse is perhaps one of the most important eclipses in history, but there are critics who contend that Arthur Eddington placed too much emphasis on the eclipse proving Einstein’s theory of relativity. Why do you think that’s a weak counter-argument?

The problem here is that the modern critics distort the story by their focus on just one participant, the famous astrophysicist Eddington. Incidentally, he was known to his family by his middle name Stanley; he never went by Arthur. Since Eddington was only involved in this one test of general relativity, it is easy to make it seem that there has been too much emphasis on the 1919 eclipse test. But Eddington himself never regarded confirmation of the theory as depending upon this one test. It’s just that modern commentary rarely talks about anything beyond Eddington’s role, which doesn’t even tell the complete story of this one test. There were two expeditions in 1919, and Eddington was only involved in one of them. The other one, organized by the Royal Observatory, Greenwich to Sobral in Brazil, obtained the most important data.

Having said all that, there is a sense in which the 1919 test was of very special importance. There were only three tests of Einstein’s new theory of gravity that were possible to do a century ago. One of these—the explanation of the perihelion shift of Mercury—was impressive, but since Einstein knew the result his theory had to “predict” it didn’t count as a prediction in the usual sense. The other test was the solar redshift measurements, but this confirms only the principle of equivalence and is not strictly speaking a test of general relativity as such. The prediction that light is deflected when it passes through the gravitational field of the Sun was a test of the complete theory that Einstein could not know the answer to beforehand. The 1919 expeditions were the first time that this observation had ever been successfully made. The agreement achieved was very dramatic and the fact that the experiment could not be repeated until the next suitable eclipse, in 1922, added even more drama to the occasion. So the truth is that the 1919 expedition was a special occasion in the history of science.

Can you talk a bit about the circumstances surrounding the Principe and Brazil expeditions that made this experiment so significant?

There were three circumstances that made this eclipse extraordinary. The first is that the eclipse took place on a day, May 29th, when the Sun is in the star field of the Hyades cluster. This is the closest star cluster to the Earth and there is no other place on the ecliptic (the Sun’s path through the sky) with so many bright stars so close together. Thus, an eclipse taking place on that day is perfectly suited to performing this experiment. Such an eclipse will next occur in 2310, so the expedition planners realized that it was especially important to try the experiment in 1919. Unfortunately, as late as November 1918, it looked unlikely that ships could be found to carry the teams to their preferred stations on the island of Principe and in northeastern Brazil. The reason for the suspension of shipping was World War I which fortunately ended abruptly later that same month. Had the war lasted any longer, it is unlikely that the expeditions could have departed. Even as it was a civil war broke out in Portugal, a key stop on their route, before their departure, and Eddington had no idea which ship would take him to Principe when he left England in March 1919.

This second circumstance, that of a war torn world, very nearly scuppered the planning for the expeditions, but undoubtedly helped make the team so famous when they returned successfully. The triumph of science over the tribulations of history really caught the public imagination. Certainly an aspect of this public response was that the expedition was mounted from England in order to test, and confirm, the theory of a German scientist, Albert Einstein, so it had an additional aura of reconciliation about it, at a time when postwar feelings were very bitter.

A third favorable circumstance was the relevant expertise of the expeditions’ personnel, especially the director of the Greenwich Observatory, Frank Watson Dyson. Einstein’s prediction was that the presence of the Sun near stars would cause tiny shifts in their positions, because the Sun’s gravity would deflect the starlight on its way to the Earth. Dyson and Eddington, but especially Dyson, were experts in this kind of differential astrometry, the measurement of small shifts in star positions. They had spent years (decades, in Dyson’s case) measuring the proper motion and the parallax of stars, which depends on the measurement of similar small star shifts. Thus by good fortune this special opportunity to test Einstein’s opportunity was undertaken by the ideal team who were able to overcome all obstacles, including bad weather and difficulties with instrumentation.

Will we ever see a solar eclipse quite like this in our lifetime?

No, we won’t. Obviously an eclipse with this special star field won’t occur again for nearly two centuries. But in addition, the advance of technology means that there are few important scientific tasks which require an eclipse. Radio telescopes do not require a solar eclipse to test Einstein’s light deflection prediction. These instruments can do the test far more accurately than can be done with optical telescopes at an eclipse. But in another sense, replicating the drama of 1919 is open to anyone. Experiments at the recent 2017 eclipse have shown that a modern amateur astronomer can do the experiment alone to an accuracy better than what was achievable in 1919. Another total solar eclipse will cross America in 2024 and we can hope that other enthusiasts will study the eclipse then. If enough people do the experiment and are able to pool their data, they could achieve a result far more accurate than any ever achieved by professional astronomers at an eclipse. We are living at a moment in history in which the means to do this experiment are within the reach of many people.

What do you hope that readers will take away from this book?

What first made me skeptical of Eddington’s modern critics was their claim that the expedition’s work was influenced by Eddington’s bias in favor of General Relativity as well as his militant pacifism. I found these arguments unpersuasive because I knew that Eddington’s views were highly unusual. Other astronomers of the period were highly skeptical of, or even hostile towards, general relativity. War resisters like Eddington (and Einstein) were a despised minority during World War I. It didn’t make sense that this man could have single-handedly persuaded everyone involved to share his peculiar biases. Sure enough, careful reading of the documents in the archives, including letters and data analysis notes, made it clear that the decisions which were being criticized today weren’t even taken by Eddington but by others in the expedition, especially Dyson. Both Eddington and Dyson made it clear in their letters that Dyson was skeptical of Einstein’s theory to begin with. As I puzzled through Dyson’s notes, I began to unravel the reasoning behind his decision, and I found that it made a lot more sense than did the arguments of some of the modern critics. Furthermore, his reasoning is completely vindicated by the results of the 1978 re-analysis. But I also came to realize that Dyson’s decision depended heavily on input from his assistant, Charles Davidson, and that the success of the expedition was made possible by the multinational Astrographic project, which Dyson worked on and which two of the telescope lenses they used were constructed for. I realized I needed to learn about the man who made those lenses, a fellow Irishman called Howard Grubb, and about the institutional framework which was used to organize the expeditions at a very difficult time. The minutes of the meetings of that Joint Permanent Eclipse Committee and the letters written home to his mother and sister by Eddington made the expeditions come alive for me, and I wanted to share that with other readers. I hope they come away, as I did, with a conviction that the history of science cannot be told fully without understanding the role of all the scientists involved, rather than just one or two famous names. Part of the charm of the story is the different characters who contributed to doing something extraordinarily challenging under impossibly difficult circumstances.

Daniel Kennefick is associate professor of physics at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. He is the author of Traveling at the Speed of Thought: Einstein and the Quest for Gravitational Waves and a coauthor of An Einstein Encyclopedia (both Princeton).

James J. O’Donnell on The War for Gaul

Imagine a book about an unnecessary war written by the ruthless general of an occupying army—a vivid and dramatic propaganda piece that forces the reader to identify with the conquerors and that is designed, like the war itself, to fuel the limitless political ambitions of the author. Could such a campaign autobiography ever be a great work of literature—perhaps even one of the greatest? It would be easy to think not, but such a book exists—and it helped transform Julius Caesar from a politician on the make into the Caesar of legend. This remarkable new translation of Caesar’s famous but underappreciated War for Gaul captures, like never before in English, the gripping and powerfully concise style of the future emperor’s dispatches from the front lines in what are today France, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland.

Why did you want to translate Caesar? 

Caesar’s War on Gaul is the very best book ever written by a truly bad man who sets out to tell us with absolutely no remorse just how bad he’s been.  So first we get the cognitive dissonance of this utterly self-assured voice telling us horrible things.  (Best estimate is that about a million people died in that war, a war that didn’t need to happen.)  But it’s also just a great book— a gripping yarn with thrills, chills, and adventure, written in a taut, vivid style.  Hemingway only wished he could write this way.  So I wanted to see how I could capture both the atrocity and the elegance at the same time.  

Is there anything else like Caesar in our “canons” of literature?  

I can’t think of anything—perhaps the steamy epistolary fiction of Dangerous Liaisons, that needed Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer to cast the film.  No room for women in Caesar’s cast, but there’s got to be a part for John Malkovich in here somewhere—and maybe Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel and John Goodman.  When Hollywood calls, I’m ready to pitch a great movie!

Your translation comes with year-by-year introductions for each part of the story.  How do those work?

If you just read Caesar’s words, you get a story of soldiers marching around clobbering people.  Really good soldiers, clobbering a lot of people with plenty of panache, no question.  But what was really going on?  Caesar spent those nine years up in Gaul because he was a politician on the make.  He needed to be a great conqueror, he needed people to know he was a great conqueror—so he wrote the book.  But he also needed money, lots and lots of money, so plundering and enslaving masses of people were big on his mind—but he plays that side of things down.  And he also needed to stay in touch with politics back in Rome and needed the reports of what he was doing to land in Rome just when he needed them to spin his narrative and to keep his name and fame alive.  My introductions and notes tell you all the things Caesar didn’t tell you but that everybody around him and everybody back at Rome knew.  What was he really up to?  I spill the beans.

So what’s in it for you?  Most people don’t think of translating Latin as a job they’d want!

Different strokes for different folks.  From some time in college, I’ve just known that reading Latin makes my head feel good in ways I can’t describe.  If you see me in the window seat of a plane muttering to myself, I’m probably subvocalizing whatever Latin book I have with me, just because it feels so good to do that.  And Caesar has been one of the half dozen or so Latin books that have always done that for me the best.

Ah, so what other Latin writers do you find yourself returning to over and over again?

It’s a very mixed bag.  Nobody in the ancient world hated Caesar so much as the poet Lucan a hundred years later, who wrote an astonishingly gory epic about Caesar’s civil war, then committed suicide when he got caught in a plot against Nero.  It’s a real leap from there to Augustine’s Confessions or Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, but in ways I can’t really explain those books always work for me as well, over and over again for decades.  They work the way the last page of Joyce’s “The Dead” can work—still brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.  Some books are just magical for some readers and we should cherish that.  If I can make Caesar a little big magical for readers of this book, I’m happy.

So, which book would you most like to have written yourself?  Caesar’s?

No!  I’m actually a nice guy.  And I wouldn’t last a week in Caesar’s army.  A book I go back to over and over is called Beyond a Boundary by the Trinidad-born cricket journalist, professional rabble-rouser, and historian C.L.R. James, who died at great age in 1989.  He was an Afro-Trinidadian brought up to be a citizen of the British empire, acutely aware of both his British-ness by virtue of his culture and education and of his exclusion from British-ness by virtue of his race and colonial subjection.  So he wrote a book about the ultimate imperialist game, cricket — and it was a combination of memoir, social history, love song (for his love of cricket in spite of everything), and literary triumph.  Think of a skinny little black kid growing up in Trinidad before the first world war, dividing his time passionately between the English game and the Englishman’s literature.  Vanity Fair was the book he read over and over and over again, the way I remember reading Life on the Mississippi in the middle of the New Mexico desert.  Anyway, it’s a book that brings together things intensely personal for him, but in a way that opens up the whole set of cultures he grew up and lived in and leaves the reader thinking about the paradoxes of inclusion and exclusion, of loyalty and exclusion.  He’s somebody able to love the past and cherish an inheritance and at the same time give himself fiercely to the struggle to transcend that past for a more just and inclusive way of seeing and living.  That one makes my head feel pretty good too.

James J. O’Donnell is professor of history, philosophy, and religious studies and University Librarian at Arizona State University. His books include PagansThe Ruin of the Roman Empire, and Augustine: A New Biogr

Yan Xuetong on Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers

XuetongWhile work in international relations has closely examined the decline of great powers, not much attention has been paid to the question of their rise. The upward trajectory of China is a particularly puzzling case. How has it grown increasingly important in the world arena while lagging behind the United States and its allies across certain sectors? Borrowing ideas of political determinism from ancient Chinese philosophers, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers explains China’s expanding influence by presenting a moral-realist theory that attributes the rise and fall of nations to political leadership. Yan Xuetong shows that the stronger a rising state’s political leadership, the more likely it is to displace a prevailing state in the international system. Using the lens of classical Chinese political theory, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers offers a provocative, alternative perspective on the changing dominance of nations on the global stage.

How did you come to make the connection between political leadership and the rise of great powers?

Reading Chinese political writings pre-Qin, I found that all ancient Chinese political thinkers attributed the prosperity or decline of a hegemon to its rulers. Since all of the ancient Chinese hegemons experienced the process of rise, boom, decline, and perish with no substantial change in the institution of those states, the only variable ancient Chinese thinkers could identify was the change in leadership quality. As such, it raised, for me, two questions: how does an effectively similar political institution bring about different results and why does the rise and fall of hegemons correspond to different leaderships when the institution remains unchanged?

What is your book bringing to the conversation on the rise of great powers that hasn’t been addressed before?

Most of the IR literature on the rise of great powers focuses on a specific strategy for obtaining international leadership and then dissects why that strategy works. Meanwhile, IR writings often explain the rise and fall of great powers with different factors. For instance, imperial over-expansion is often applied as one of the main factors to a hegemon’s decline while technology invention to its rise. In contrast, this book takes a leadership-focused approach and brings to attention the human element in political decision making and demonstrates how the mentality of the leadership contributes to the effective rise and fall of hegemons. The leadership focused approach integrates three levels of analysis: individual, state and system. This approach not only offers an explanation for the rise and fall of great powers, but it can also explain the changes in international configurations, norms, orders, and systems.

Can you say a bit about the connection between ancient Chinese philosophy and modern political theory?

Ancient Chinese philosophical writings offer many analyses about the relations between ancient Chinese states that are applicable to modern international relations. This is because pre-Qin China was composed of many independent states that were vying for power in a manner that resembles current international jockeying. For the ancient Chinese philosophers, China constituted the entirety of the known world, whereas for modern scholars, the geographical range for the known world has expanded to encompass the entire planet. However, although the geographical size has expanded, there remains a structural parallel between current international entities and those of the interstate relations of the pre-Qin era. As such, generalized observations by ancient philosophers about the patterns of interaction amongst sovereign entities of power remain relevant in the modern era. This is much like how Art of War by Sunzi has been scaled down to derive insight towards modern military affairs. For instance, ancient Chinese philosophers described the differences between wangdao (humane authority) and badao (hegemony) in establishing and maintaining interstate order. This distinction is also applicable to how international norms work in current global system.

What do the ancients have to tell us on a topic that is generally thought to be firmly grounded in the present?

Ancient Chinese philosophers tell us that the order of a social system, no matter domestic or interstate, is based on a hierarchical relationship among its actors. Absolutely equal relations results in chaos. Any form of organization requires the existence of leaders and subordinates. Absolute equality leads to mob justice, as seen in the social bullying that occurs on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms where there are no accepted community leaders. Therefore, political leadership is the prerequisite of all types of structured relations and social orders. It follows that different types of leadership produce different social orders. The uncertainty of the present international politics since 2017 is mainly the result of a lackadaisical and confrontational international leadership. People may have different explanations for the lack of a reputable international leadership, but they generally agree that its absence is the major reason for the current disorder.

What accounts for China lagging behind other developed nations, even as it becomes increasingly important on the world stage?

China’s material capability is second only to that of the US. Nevertheless, China is not viewed as an international leader by the developed countries mainly because its political system is based on a cult of personality rather than the rule of law. A cult of personality is more efficient for governance than the rule of law, but it is far more susceptible to catastrophic disasters because of its restriction on freedom of expression. For the sake of preventing disasters and compelling state leaders to correct their wrong decisions, it is worthwhile for major powers to consider establishing a remonstrant system, which was a popular institution of central government in ancient China.

Do nations always rise at the expense of other nations?

Yes. There is a zero-sum structural conflict between rising powers and the status hegemon. “The rise of great powers” is defined as a process of a rising power reducing the capability gap with the status hegemon until it surpasses the latter. Since all hegemons regard maintaining international domination as their strategic interest, being surpassed by a rising power represents a huge loss. Meanwhile, due to the zero-sum nature of power distribution, the rise of a new great power must bring about a relative decline of other major powers’ international status, even as their absolute capabilities continue to grow.

What are some examples of the political leaders who have contributed to China’s rise, and how exactly did they have this positive impact?

The Chinese government headed by Deng Xiaoping represents a proactive political leadership contributing to China’s rise. The core of Deng’s political principles were opening-up and reform. “Opening-up” guarantees the right direction of reform and “reform” replaces the outdated methods with current advancements. That is why all the three leaderships after Deng flag that principle as their political guideline. Although the reforms after Deng have not been as dramatic, Chinese leaders have implemented more reforms than their concurrent counterparts in other major powers. While it is true that since 1978 Chinese leaders have all adopted some regressive policies that undermined the growth of national capability, these harmful policies were less detrimental to national growth than the policies of their counterparts in other major powers.

Within the framework of your argument, what accounts for the diminishing international stature of the United States?

The relative decline of the US is the result of having less positive political reform than China since the end of the Clinton administration. The Bush administration adopted an aggressive leadership, which prioritized military expansion abroad over political reform at home. Obama’s administration was unsuccessful at implementing political reform despite its best intentions to do so. Trump’s administration is an economically aggressive leadership, adopting regressive policies rather than reform. Trump’s policy of abandoning international leadership provides a strategic opportunity for China to improve its international influence. However, Trump’s leadership is not unique to his time. At present, the leaderships of many major powers are similar to Trump’s authoritarian rule. The result of current strategic competition between major powers is likely to be determined by leadership which undermines national growth rather than implementing reforms.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

First, I hope this book helps policy makers realize that the growth of national capability is determined by the reforms implemented by the nation’s leadership and that capability of a leader can be determined by how much reform they can implement. Second, I hope IR scholars will pay attention to the role of political leadership, especially international leadership, in their analysis of international changes after reading this book. Third, I hope readers are inspired to vote for their national leaders based on the reforms their candidates have accomplished in their political careers rather than their rhetoric.

Yan Xuetong is professor of political science and dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His many books include Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power.

Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence

The Nineteenth Amendment, which allowed women to vote in the United States, was ratified 99 years ago. Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence, a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, features some of the countless American women who fought for nearly a hundred years to win the right to vote for themselves and their communities.

While some of the leading figures of the suffrage movement have received deserved appreciation, the crusade for women’s enfranchisement involved many individuals, each with a unique story to be told. Bringing attention to underrecognized individuals and groups, the exhibit looks at how suffragists used portraiture to promote gender equality and other feminist ideals, and how photographic portraits in particular proved to be a crucial element of women’s activism and recruitment. It also explores the reasons why certain events and leaders of the suffrage movement have been remembered over others, the obstacles that black women faced when organizing with white suffragists and the subsequent founding of black women’s suffrage groups, and the foundations of the violent antisuffrage movement.

These five activists are all featured in the exhibit and in the accompanying catalogue by curator Kate Clarke Lemay, which presents fresh perspectives on the history of the movement and sheds new light on the movement’s relevance for our own time.

The exhibit runs at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, from March 29, 2019January 5, 2020.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Studio Portrait of Alice Dunbar Nelson. Sitter: Alice Dunbar Nelson, Artist: R.P. Bellsmith. Gelatin silver print. ca. 1895. Alice Dunbar-Nelson papers, University of Delaware Library, Newark, Delaware.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson was a teacher, writer, and activist who mobilized black women’s clubs to support the war effort during World War I. The work of these clubs and the patriotism it represented helped prove that women deserved the right to vote.

 

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Artist: Sallie E. Garrity. Albumen silver print. c. 1893. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Ida B. Wells began advocating for black civil rights after being forcibly removed from a ladies’ train car because she was black. She took her case all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Wells also published a pamphlet of her lectures on lynching, which she delivered across the United States, England, and Scotland.

 

Zitkala-sa

Zitkala-sa. Artist: Joseph T. Keiley. Photogravure. 1898 (printed 1901). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Zitkála-Šá led the first national all-Indian organization that advocated for Indian rights, The Society of American Indians, and founded the National Council of American Indians. She fought for citizenship rights and was compared to Joan of Arc. Even after Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, thanks in part to Zitkála-Šá’s work, Native Americans in many states still were not allowed to vote.

 

Victoria Woodhull

Victoria Claflin Woodhull. Sitter: Victoria Claflin Woodhull, Artist: Mathew B. Brady. Albumen silver print on card. c. 1870. Fine Arts Library, Harvard University.

Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, promoted judicial strategies for winning the right to vote. She also fought back against the sexual double standard that allowed her to be criticized for her “free love” philosophy while male leaders such as Henry Ward Beecher suffered no public criticism for committing adultery.

 

Mary E. Church Terrell

Mary E. Church Terrell. Sitter: Mary Church Terrell, Artist: H.M. Platt. Albumen silver print. 1884. Courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives.

Mary Church Terrell devoted her life to activism after her friend Thomas Moss was lynched. She served as president of the National Association of Colored Women and spoke on racial equality before the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Her signature phrase was “Lifting as We Climb.”

Adom Getachew: The Anti-imperial Vision of the Postwar International Order

On a petition with almost 500 signatures that first appeared as a paid advertisement in the New York Times, leading scholars of international relations defended postwar international institutions like the United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organization, and the European Union against the “reckless attacks” of Donald J. Trump. According to the signatories, the postwar international order led by the United States “help[ed] to provide economic stability and international security, contributing to unprecedented levels of prosperity and the longest period in modern history without war between major powers.”

If the contemporary challenges to the postwar international order appear unprecedented, we should remember that the institutions that emerged after 1945 were subject to critique and political contestation from the very beginning. For the anticolonial nationalists who championed decolonization after World War II, institutions like the United Nations were continuous with the imperialism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Immediately after reading the UN Charter agreed to during the April 1945 San Francisco conference, the Nigerian nationalist Nnamdi Azikiwe proclaimed, “there is no new deal for the black man at San Francisco … Colonialism and economic enslavement of the Negro are to be maintained.”

Azikiwe’s critique of the United Nations, echoed by W.E.B Du Bois, Kwame Nkrumah, and George Padmore, drew on an account of empire as an institution of international racial hierarchy. According to these anticolonial critics, the imperial international order had unequally integrated the colonized world to facilitate European domination. The UN Charter institutionalized the hierarchical world of empire: Members of the Security Council issued binding resolutions and had the power of the veto, the League of Nations mandates persisted under the new trusteeship system, and colonies were euphemistically described as “non-self-governing territories.” Self-determination, the anticolonial demand for independence and popular sovereignty, was only mentioned in Article 1 and Article 55. In both instances, the “principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples” was subordinated to the larger aim of securing “peaceful and friendly relations among nations.”  

Having lost faith in the UN, Nkrumah and Padmore organized the Fifth Pan-African Congress as a rejoinder to the hierarchical vision of the international order outlined in San Francisco. At Manchester, a city which emerged from the profits of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery, African, African-American, and Caribbean anti-colonial critics declared an alternative vision for the postwar international order predicated on the right to self-determination and racial equality. Extending beyond the nation, the gathered Pan-Africanists called for “autonomy and independence, so far and no further than it is possible in this ‘One World’ for groups and people to rule themselves subject to inevitable world unity and federation.” In their vision, national independence and internationalist federation were to go hand in hand. The achievement of national self-determination and decolonization required the remaking of the international order.

Over the next 30 years, anticolonial nationalists pioneered ambitious worldmaking projects to transcend empire’s world of dependence and domination and inaugurate in its place an egalitarian and domination-free international order. By 1960, they had institutionalized a universal right to self-determination, which secured equal legal standing to all states for the first time in modern international society. At the same time, nationalists in the British West Indies and in West Africa sought to constitute regional federations through which postcolonial states might escape their economic dependence and create egalitarian regional economies. Finally, through the New International Economic Order (NIEO), the most ambitious project of anticolonial worldmaking, nationalists directly challenged the economic hierarchies of the international realm and laid foundations of an egalitarian global economy. The NIEO was the culmination of anticolonial worldmaking. Its vision of democratizing international economic law and equitably distributing the world’s wealth rejected the world of hierarchy that persisted in the postwar international institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. It look forward instead to an egalitarian post-imperial world order where national self-determination was situated within redistributive and democratic international institutions.    

The contemporary nostalgia for the postwar international order depends on forgetting that its guarantees of peace and prosperity were limited to the North Atlantic world. While pitched as “a new deal for the world,” to use Elizabeth Borgwardt’s term, the new international institutions promised nothing of the sort to the colonial subjects fighting for independence and equality around the world. There was, as Azikiwe put it, “no new deal for the black man.” If we are to draw lessons for our present political predicaments from the postwar international order, we should turn to the anticolonial nationalists who fought for three decades to build a word after empire. Their anti-imperial vision of international order was never realized and it might appear from our vantage point that it was a utopian and unrealistic project. But if we are to navigate the impasses of our contemporary moment, if we are to build a viable alternative to the authoritarian populism resurgent in the United State and Europe, we cannot settle for a minimalist internationalism born in 1945 to preserve a hierarchical world order. Instead, we should draw on the tradition of anti-imperial internationalism to imagine our own ambitious projects of worldmaking.       

Adom Getachew is the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sharon Marcus: Sarah Bernhardt, the Godmother of Modern Celebrity Culture

Celebrity is probably as old as language itself. It’s easy to imagine prehistoric humans using speech to gossip about people they had never met in person but could talk about as if they had. Recent history, however, tends to contrast celebrity to fame. Fame is supposedly worthy and lasting, celebrity is allegedly baseless and ephemeral. Fame derives from worthy public achievements, celebrity focuses on trivial private scandals. In cultures that value men over women—which is most of them – fame comes to seem masculine, celebrity feminine.

Eighteenth and nineteenth-century England, France, and the United States were no strangers to strict gender oppositions. Yet those eras also made celebrity and fame inseparable. Newspapers treated daily events as the stuff of history. Engravings, lithographs, and photographs encouraged millions to identify public men as well as women with their looks. Lord Byron became as famous for his long, flowing hair as for his poetic genius. Abraham Lincoln as known for his distinctive height, beard, and profile as well as for his eloquence and leadership.  

One woman, Sarah Bernhardt, cannily took the measure of this new media environment and used her insights to become a global star. No mere product of modern celebrity culture, Bernhardt also helped to produce it. With a genius for acting matched by a flair for self-promotion, Bernhardt became as well known in her lifetime as Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, or Michael Jackson in theirs.

Born in Paris in 1844 to a Dutch Jewish courtesan, Bernhardt won admission at age sixteen to the prestigious Paris dramatic conservatory, and soon after secured a place in France’s revered national theater troupe, the Théâtre Français. In the late 1860s and 1870s, Bernhardt became a celebrity throughout France, thanks to electrifying stage performances as a young male troubadour, a blind grandmother in ancient Rome, a biracial woman avenging her enslaved mother, and a classic turn as Racine’s Phèdre.

Bernhardt’s fame became global when, in June 1879, she traveled to London and thousands of fans – male and female, young and old, aristocratic and middle class – contracted a serious case of Bernhardt mania. An agent convinced her to spend the next year and a half touring North America. There, her acclaimed performances made her reputation and fortune and enabled her have a long career as an independent performer, director, and manager. In 1923, a million mourners witnessed Bernhardt’s Parisian funeral procession. For weeks after her death, her name and image dominated international newspaper headlines and magazine covers.

One part Meryl Streep, one part Miley Cyrus, Bernhardt owed her enormous success both to her formidable acting talent and to the offstage publicity tactics that she devised to capture and hold the attention of the Parisian public. On the one hand, her flair for marketing made her a talented impresario. She arranged to be photographed in her own bedroom, sleeping in a coffin. She sat for dozens of photographs and paintings and invited journalists to her home for interviews. Most importantly, she never hesitated to send letters to editors protesting her press coverage. In 1878, she responded to one newspaper’s speculations about her true hair color by dryly observing, “I regret that I cannot prove that I am a natural blonde.”

On the other hand, even as newspapers and magazines reported on Bernhardt’s exotic pets and outlandish dresses, they also hailed her as a genius, one of the world’s greatest artists. A French theater journal, summing up the star’s achievements after her death, described her as “a queen and priestess before whom frontiers did not exist…. her prestige was such, universally, that a sort of international religion arose around her.” Other French journalists vaunted her merits as a “powerful ambassador” who had extended their nation’s prestige by “incarnating French thought” abroad, naming her the best-known French person in the world since Napoleon.

Today, we might be tempted to choose between viewing Bernhardt either as a central figure in the history of great acting or as the forebear of everything that is wrong with celebrity culture. But forcing that choice misses the point of Bernhardt’s achievement, which was to make her excellence inseparable from her exploits. Her lesson to us today is that we do not have to decide whether celebrity is serious or silly, well-deserved or worthless, masculine or feminine: inevitably and interestingly, it is always and has always been both.

Sharon Marcus is the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She is a founding editor of Public Books and the author of the award-winning Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England(Princeton) and Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London. Twitter @MarcusSharon

 

 

Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof: Racial Migrations

“A Group of Cuban Leaders,” identified, from back left, as Commander Antonio Collazo; Brigadier Flor Crombet; Major General Antonio Maceo; Brigadier Cebreco; Colonel Salvador Rosado; Brigadier Morúa; Commander Borja; Colonel Aurelio Castillo; Commander Manuel Peña; Castillo, a Venezuelan; and Antonio Maceo’s dog, “Cuba Libre.” The photograph was taken between 1884 and 1886. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Nacional de España.

Near the end of July in 1885, General Antonio Maceo spoke to an enthusiastic audience at an assembly hall on East 13th Street in Manhattan.  The general, one of the most famous leaders of the unsuccessful war for independence in Cuba between 1868 and 1878, was in the city seeking donations to buy arms and munitions for a new war.  A group of volunteers, under his command, had already departed for Kingston Jamaica, where they were preparing for an invasion of Cuba.  The event was one of hundreds of gatherings held by exile revolutionaries in New York in the last third of the 19th century in support of such efforts.  But it sparked unusual controversy.  The Spanish Consul in the United States wrote to the district attorney asking him to prohibit  the gathering, arguing that it violated neutrality laws and because it was “to be attended by colored men, and presided over by the so-called Major Gen. Antonio Maceo.” The district attorney replied that there was no legal mechanism to prevent such an assembly, but the local precinct did send sixteen patrolmen to monitor the event, having received reports that it would be “disorderly.”

The accusation was familiar.  The general was a man of partial African ancestry and the most prominent of the revolutionary leaders who had made the abolition of slavery and the end of racial privileges central to the project of independence.  He was a target of suspicion and accusation, fomented by Spanish enemies and some Cuban participants in earlier war.  The Spanish had construed the rebellion as a rising up of blacks against whites.  Some white Cubans had sought to undermine or constrain his leadership.  Yet the accusation also points to an important point.  Cubans of African descent did, in fact, constitute a large proportion of the exiles who participated in and supported the expedition in 1885.  There is no record of exactly who was in audience that cheered for the General that evening, and raised nearly 12,000 dollars, under the watchful eye of the New York City patrolmen.  But many Spanish-speaking New Yorkers, of African descent,  were certainly in attendance.

These early Afro-Latinx migrants, and their impact on Cuban and Puerto Rican revolutionary politics, are the subject of my book, Racial Migrations: New York City and the Revolutionary Politics of the Spanish Caribbean.  I have been able to document the emergence, by the middle of the 1880s, of a well-organized community of black and brown cigar makers, seamstresses, waiters, cooks, laundresses, and midwives, who had begun to settle and build institutions within the segregated apartment buildings of Greenwich Village.  Indeed, at the time of Maceo’s appearance, in July of 1885, some prominent members of this community had already shipped out to Kingston as part of the expedition.  Several weeks after the general’s speech, the community gathered at the third annual Cuban-American Picnic.  Organized by the Logia San Manuel, the picnic drew together Cubans of color with African American friends and neighbors.  Dance music –likely some combination of Cuban danza and the local sounds that would later be known as ragtime—was provided by Pastor Peñalver, a young Cuban recently graduated from the “colored” high school on Manhattan’s West Side.

The man who came to serve as the spokesman for emigres of African descent was a cigar maker and writer, originally from Havana, named Rafael Serra.  Serra volunteered for the expedition in 1885, was commissioned as Lieutenant, and spent two years in Jamaica and Panama waiting to deploy before returning in disappointment to New York.  Once back in the city, he mobilized the Logia San Manuel and other independent networks and institutions established by migrants of color to support the struggle for black civil rights in Cuba. He recruited them to participate in Republican Party organizing in New York.  He mobilized them to create an immigrant educational society, designed to support the entry of men of color from Cuba and Puerto Rico into the professions.  He and his wife, a midwife named Gertrudis Heredia, allied with the white poet and journalist José Martí, to recruit white and black workers into the Cuban Revolutionary Party under the banner of “a nation for all.”  When Martí died in 1895 and Maceo died in 1896, they drew on the same New York community to support a struggle to preserve the democratic values of the party.  And, finally, in 1902, Serra returned to Cuba, where he became one of the most successful black politicians in the early republic, twice winning election to the House of Representatives. 

Racial Migrations traces the trajectories of Serra, Heredia, and other migrant revolutionaries as they traversed and confronted distinct local systems of racial domination.  It explores the politics they articulated, the coalitions they built, and the compromises they made as they participated in nationalist projects that, famously, promised to transcend racial division.  The book contends that this idea of a nation without race, and the political system that emerged under its banner, so often imagined as having sprung fully formed from the mind of José Martí,  can be better from the vantage point of the migrants who gathered to cheer Antonio Maceo in New York, who joined the 1885 expedition, who created the Cuban-American picnics, and who, only later, chose to throw their support behind Martí.

Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof is professor of history, American culture, and Latina/o studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Racial Migrations, A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York after 1950 (Princeton).

 

 

 

I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African American Princeton

I Hear My People Singing by Kathryn Watterson shines a light on a small but historic black neighborhood at the heart of one of the most elite and world-renowned Ivy-League towns—Princeton, New Jersey. The vivid first-person accounts of more than fifty black residents detail aspects of their lives throughout the twentieth century. Their stories show that the roots of Princeton’s African American community are as deeply intertwined with the town and university as they are with the history of the United States, the legacies of slavery, and the nation’s current conversations on race.

In the summer of 1999, Kathryn Watterson spoke with residents from the Witherspoon neighborhood in Princeton to talk about volunteer opportunities for students in one of her writing seminars. One of the men, Henry “Hank” Pannell, said, “Your poverty course sounds wonderful, but what we really want is an oral history of our community before it’s too late.” Below is an excerpt from one of Watterson’s interviews with Pannell in 2000.

(p. 67 – 70)

I guess everybody my age remembers Einstein from when we were kids. He used to give us nickels. And he used to talk to everybody in our community. I didn’t know as a kid that he was Einstein. Who, Einstein? But I realize now that he came in that community just to get away and to talk to people who would treat him as a regular guy. . . .

You know, there were such great people. We all grew up together. And it wasn’t just all black kids. There was the Servis family, the Cavanaugh family, the Toto family—we were all family. They were part of our crew, our little gang, our club. We used to all be together. They used to come to my house. We were at their houses. I remember my mother or grandmother got sick, their parents were right there. The same thing when Mrs. Cavanaugh got sick—my mother and grandmother were right there.

I wouldn’t trade one second of my childhood. I have so many fond memories of growing up here. . . . I really didn’t know anything about racism. I knew that we couldn’t go into like the Balt, the big cafeteria up on Nassau Street right where Hinkson’s and Burger King are, and Veidt’s, and places like that, you couldn’t go in. But we didn’t want to go no way. We had to go upstairs in the Garden Theatre, but we liked it upstairs. On Nassau Street, there was a little store called Cleve’s, and we used to go there, but we were treated like—you know. We knew we weren’t welcome in that store. I remember several incidents—one where he said, “You niggers, get out of here.”  So we bought our candy at a little store right around the corner—at Mr. Ball’s.

Mrs. Doris Burrell, who opened a hair salon in Princeton in 1944, spoke with Watterson’s student, Lauren Miller, in October 2000. Excerpts from that interview appear below.

(p. 266 – 267)

The fireworks started when it was time for our first child, Sondra, to start school in September of 1946. My husband went to segregated schools here [in Princeton], but I didn’t. So we talked it over, and I said, “No. This is ridiculous. . . . What right do they have that they can ask us to send our tax money up there? We live in Princeton, we’re paying taxes for our child’s education, and they’re supposed to educate her.” We decided she wasn’t going to school up on Quarry Street. I had nothing against the principal there or against blacks. It wasn’t that. It was just morally wrong. That’s all. So, we decided we were going to enroll our child at Valley Road School, where she was supposed to go. And that’s what we did. I went down, and . . . the principal was wonderful. It was almost like she was glad to see us. I thought that she was going to give us trouble, but she didn’t. She registered our daughter and made sure I had everything right. She had a little smile on her face like she was happy. And, so that was all done. . . .

There was a black woman who came to see me who worked as a maid at this very, very wealthy white woman’s house—one of the wealthiest white families in town. So she came and said, “Doris, I want to tell you . . . I think you’re making a mistake in sending your child down here to school. Because the woman I work for, she had a dinner party last night and they talked about this situation. [They said,] ‘Who does she think she is sending her child down to the Valley Road School? She thinks her daughter is going to go there, but she’s not.’  And she told her maid, because she knew she came to my hair salon, to tell me the same thing. So her maid said, ‘I don’t think you better let your child go to that school because you really don’t know what they’ll do to you.’”

I said, “You just go back and you tell them that I said, ‘Come hell or high water, our child is going to that school. I don’t care what it costs. We will take them to court for the rest of my life.’”  . . . Everybody was upset . . . I began to wonder about our human race. God makes birds of all kinds and animals and they all live their lives together.

Joseph Moore became Assistant Dean of Students at Princeton University in 1968, as part of President Robert Goheen’s attempts to diversify the campus. At the time Goheen reached out to him, Moore was leading an intensive program for black students in Trenton. His memories of that program appear below.

(p. 280)

Actually, when I graduated from Central State, I went to work for the Job Corps. I recognized it was a time that I had really seriously made my own decision—I couldn’t continue to live my mother’s dream. That was Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Program. And we were taking kids from all over the country. It was in Edison, New Jersey, in the old Camp Kilmer. It was a military base that was built for returning GIs coming home from the Second World War, which they turned into a Job Corps center, where they gave kids vocational training experiences, all kinds of stuff—carpentry, plumbing, electrical stuff, construction, engineering types of things—as a way to put them back in the workforce and make them, I guess, dues-paying members of society. I was a group leader. I had sixty kids from all over the country. So, anyway, I did that for about a year and a half. From there, I went to Central High in Trenton and was recruited to create a school within a school using Outward Bound techniques.

Essentially what I did was create a program that went seven days a week, twenty-four-seven. We were not only in class seven days a week, but we were out every weekend, whether it be mountain climbing, canoeing, hiking, spelunking—you name it—all the kinds of stuff that Outward Bound was created for. It was an attempt to urbanize the Outward Bound concept. And so, I brought that concept to Trenton High. I had a staff of teachers who taught, and it also required the teachers to go out on weekends with us. And basically it was designed as another alternative to traditional education that was being offered in the urban setting.

We got raving reviews for our work and the program. We had kids who went on to college. I was pretty adamant about the fact that it wasn’t going to become a generalist program. If you climb a mountain, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to be successful in urban life. But it does mean that it may give you enough character and enough strength to make some things not happen that would ordinarily happen.

Kathryn Watterson is a writer whose award-winning books include Women in Prison (Doubleday) and Not by the Sword (Simon & Schuster). She’s written for magazines, literary journals, and newspapers, including the New York Times and International Herald Tribune. She teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, where she lives and drums. 

Margaret C. Jacob on The Secular Enlightenment

JacobThe Secular Enlightenment is a panoramic account of the radical ways that life began to change for ordinary people in the age of Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau. In this landmark book, familiar Enlightenment figures share places with voices that have remained largely unheard until now, from freethinkers and freemasons to French materialists, anticlerical Catholics, pantheists, pornographers, readers, and travelers.A majestic work of intellectual and cultural history, this book demonstrates how secular values and pursuits took hold of eighteenth-century Europe, spilled into the American colonies, and left their lasting imprint on the Western world for generations to come.

What accounts for the fact that ordinary people began to see the world on its own terms, rather than through the prism of religion, during the 18th century? 

So many factors were present but I would highlight a few: the realization that there existed whole continents where the Christian God was unknown; the growing realization that Europeans had persecuted and enslaved non-Europeans often in the service of religion. The behavior of the clergy at home was one of the main themes in the new pornography; and of course religious divisions between Catholics and Protestants played into skepticism about all the claims of religion. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the ensuing persecution of French Protestants put the issue of religion, and how its representatives treated others, on the European wide agenda. This was compounded by the thousands of Protestant refugees to be found by 1700 in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Geneva, etc. They were articulate and took to the printing presses to alert the world of the injustices perpetrated by the French king and clergy.

What does your book bring to the conversation of secularization during the Enlightenment that hasn’t appeared before?

The book draws upon new sources, many of them found only in manuscript form. Such sources often reveal private thoughts and struggles about the veracity of religion or expressions of doubt and clerical hostility. It also crosses national boundaries, and focuses on the main urban centers in Germany, Italy and of course France, the Dutch Republic and Britain.

How common was it for ordinary people to read the works of Enlightenment thinkers during the 18thcentury?

It depends upon what we mean by ordinary. Anyone fully literate had access to the ideas found in the new journals or the writings of the philosophes. Note also that in France, for example, local clergy were advised in detail what heretical books contained so as better to refute them. From the pulpits of London (and the Boyle Lectures) to the French provinces any listener could hear about the details of the latest heresy.

Why have the voices of people you shed light on in the book been largely silent up to now?

So much attention has been given to the major thinkers from Locke and Newton to Adam Smith and Rousseau that lesser folk, often their followers, do not receive attention. Also digging in archives means a lot of travel to places often off the beaten track. How many books access archives in Leiden or Strasbourg or Birmingham? However, I do not neglect the major thinkers.

How did the religious establishment of the 18th century react to this shift?

Not as many people were burned at the stake or tortured as in previous centuries but there are big exceptions: the wife of a Dutch pastor and school teacher, a heretic, who went mad while locked away in prison; the book seller from Strasbourg who went to Paris in search of bad or forbidden books and spent over two years in the Bastille; the Italian heretic forced to flee to London where, impoverished, he continued to publish.

Do we see any attempts at justification on the part of groups or individuals for their decreasing attention to religious matters?

The literature of heresy consistently mocked the pretensions of the clergy and courts; their perceived hypocrisy was one good reason to avoid religion altogether. Others, like the busy industrialists in northern England, could plea the pressure of work or family obligations, so too could travelers and itinerants.

Was there anything that surprised you when you were researching for this book?

Yes, how many people had been left out of Enlightenment history; how incredibly thorough the French police were at spying and reporting on heretical behavior—or what they thought was heretical. Similarly, how coteries could remain relatively underground and then circulate some of the most virulent heresies of the age, for example, the group that brought out the Treatise on the Three Impostors. It argued that Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed had been the three. All involved managed to die in their beds.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

Antidotes to the claims made by biased contemporary clergy; the role of deism and freethinking for American philosophes like Jefferson and Franklin; and finally, how widespread enlightened ideas were by 1750.

Margaret C. Jacob is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her many books include The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons, and Republicans and The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750–1850. She lives in Los Angeles.

Amin Saikal on Iran Rising

Saikal Iran Rising coverWhen Iranians overthrew their monarchy, rejecting a pro-Western shah in favor of an Islamic regime, many observers predicted that revolutionary turmoil would paralyze the country for decades to come. Yet forty years after the 1978–79 revolution, Iran has emerged as a critical player in the Middle East and the wider world, as demonstrated in part by the 2015 international nuclear agreement. In Iran Rising, renowned Iran specialist Amin Saikal describes how the country has managed to survive despite ongoing domestic struggles, Western sanctions, and countless other serious challenges.

What did international observers predict would happen in Iran after the 1978-79 revolution? Why did things turn out differently?

The Iranian revolution marked a momentous development in world politics, challenging the regional order and America’s dominant position in the Middle East. A new Islamic Republic of Iran, under the theo-political leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, replaced the Shah’s pro-Western monarchy. It condemned the US for supporting the Shah’s autocratic rule and disparaged America’s regional allies, including Israel. It locked horns with Washington—something that has continued to date, though in different intensity from time to time.

Khomeini established a unique Shia-based system of Islamic governance. In a bloody power struggle following the overthrow of the Shah, Khomeini swiftly and forcefully eliminated or marginalised groups and individuals who had actively participated in the revolution, but did not agree with his brand of Islamism. The resultant post-revolutionary turmoil, and the Islamic regime’s unorthodox theocratic behaviour on both domestic and foreign policy fronts, led some analysts to conclude that the regime was an aberration and could not possibly endure.

However, the regime has now lasted for forty years, surviving numerous domestic and foreign policy challenges. Three key variables account for this. First, the internal elasticity and external flexibility of the regime’s system of governance enable it to both claim religious legitimacy and act pragmatically to survive. Over time, it has become less ideological and more pragmatic. Second, changing conditions within Iran and internationally have enabled the regime and its supporters to take advantage of American policy failures in the region—including, most importantly, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and on the Israeli-Palestinian front—to expand its regional influence. Third, it has built up hard and soft power capability in support of an asymmetrical defensive strategy.

How has Iran’s Islamic regime weathered the international sanctions against it?

The Islamic regime has been under American sanctions since the “hostage crisis.” On 4 November 1979, a group of militant student supporters of Khomeini overran the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 of the embassy’s diplomatic and non-diplomatic personnel hostage. The episode lasted until President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on 20 January 1981. The Islamic regime used the crisis to consolidate power, humiliate the United States, and pierce Pax Americana in the Middle East. Washington severed all ties and imposed sanctions on Iran.

The regime coped with this— along a bloody, and costly war with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein—by extracting more from the Iranian people and by pragmatically strengthening ties with the Soviet Union (and subsequently its successor, Russia) and China, despite the regime’s serious aversion to godless communism. It also entered closer cooperation with India. It engaged in processes of self-sufficiency and took steps to circumvent the sanctions.

When the UN later imposed sanctions, and the US and its European allies ratcheted up their sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, the regime pursued the same approach. It is now forced to act in a similar fashion once again, to counter President Donald Trump’s efforts to tame the regime in line with American interests.

Trump’s sanctions imposed following his withdrawal in May 2018 from the July 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are indeed very severe. Targeting the core elements of the Iranian economy, they are designed to strangle the regime economically and force it to change behaviour that Trump has branded as destructive and destabilising in the region—and therefore contrary to America’s interests. Trump’s actions will seriously hurt Iran’s already fragile economy, causing more hardship for ordinary Iranians. But they are unlikely to affect the regime to the point of submission, given its theocratic nature and the Iranian people’s tradition of fierce nationalism in the face of an outside threat or assault. After all, it was not the US-led international sanctions—imposed on Iraq following the February 1991 US-led liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation—that ended Saddam Hussein’s rule, but rather the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

How would domestic policy changes lead to foreign policy changes?

A majority of the Iranian people are crying out for improved living standards. Economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, international sanctions, and the residual effects of war with Iraq have led to high unemployment, inflation, and declining living conditions. As public pressure has built, the clerical leadership has responded by allowing occasional economic and social reforms. At the same time, it has been able to blame the US and its allies for Iran’s economic woes and keep most Iranians on their toes in a conflated Shia and nationalistic posture.

President Trump’s blatant support for public protests—primarily over the economic situation, and also the clerical domination of power—has conveniently enabled the regime to attribute Iran’s problems to America’s hegemonic and imperialist designs on the Iranian people. As the regime has defied the US, it has sought good relations with countries that have not shared Trump’s hostile attitude. These include, prominently, the other signatories to the JCPOA (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China), which have remained committed to the nuclear agreement, with a promise to override America’s ban on third party’s business dealings with Iran.

Can the history of the Islamic Republic help us understand Islamic governments in other countries?

Not necessarily. Iran’s system is heavily informed by Khomeini’s Shia version of Islam and is linked to Iran’s peculiar traditions. Neither the three other Shia-majority countries (Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain) nor any of the Sunni-majority states, whose citizens form the bulk of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims, have emulated Iran’s system of governance. For a combination of sectarian and geopolitical reasons, only Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime and some Shia sub-national groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen—not to mention certain Iraqi Shia militias—have sought close relationships with Tehran.

What about US-Iran relations?

The United States has tried everything short of direct military confrontation to contain the Iranian Islamic regime since its advent—and so far has failed. President Trump has promised that his latest round of sanctions will debase the regime economically and politically. But the likelihood of this happening seems remote. Realising this, President Obama pursued a policy of engagement rather than confrontation toward the regime. This led to the JCPOA, a landmark diplomatic achievement and a shot in the arm of the reformist and pragmatic factions in Iranian politics, led by President Hassan Rouhani, to strengthen their position in the power structure.

Trump’s actions have once again energised the hardline clerics and their supporters, associated with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to maintain their centrality in governing Iran and beef up their stance against any form of rapprochement with the United States or reformation of the Iranian system. The main question is: If his present measures fail and his own presidency survives, given the magnitude of his domestic problems, will Trump move toward military confrontation? War would be disastrous for all sides, as Iran has invested heavily in an asymmetrical fighting strategy to make an attack on it as costly as possible for its perpetrator.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Public Policy Fellow, and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of the Shah (Princeton) and Modern Afghanistan. He lives in Canberra.

J. C. Sharman on Empires of the Weak

SharmanWhat accounts for the rise of the state, the creation of the first global system, and the dominance of the West? The conventional answer asserts that superior technology, tactics, and institutions forged by Darwinian military competition gave Europeans a decisive advantage in war over other civilizations from 1500 onward. In contrast, Empires of the Weak argues that Europeans actually had no general military superiority in the early modern era. J. C. Sharman shows instead that European expansion from the late fifteenth to the late eighteenth centuries is better explained by deference to strong Asian and African polities, disease in the Americas, and maritime supremacy earned by default because local land-oriented polities were largely indifferent to war and trade at sea. Bringing a revisionist perspective to the idea that Europe ruled the world due to military dominance, this book demonstrates that the rise of the West was an exception in the prevailing world order.

Scholars have long argued that the dominance of the West can be attributed to superior technology, tactics, and institutions. Your book takes an opposing view. Can you describe it?

The standard view is to see Western expansion as synonymous with Western dominance, but my book separates the two. For around three centuries, Western expansion was more often the result of deference and subordination to non-Western rulers. Africans and Asians tolerated a weak European presence because Europeans were generally fixated on the control of the seas, which more powerful but terrestrially-oriented non-Western rulers generally didn’t care about. Even in the Americas, European victories were much more partial and incomplete than often portrayed, and were generally the result of disease and demography rather than superior technology, tactics and institutions.

What accounts for the narrative that the West came to power through general superiority?

The conventional ‘military revolution’ thesis argues that Western expansion reflected superior technology and institutions, basically guns and states. Supposedly, these advantages were first developed in the fiercely competitive environment of European warfare, and then applied to conquer the rest of the world. I argue this thesis is wrong, for several reasons, but particularly because of a reading of history which starts at ‘the end’ of the story, i.e. Western superiority, and then views the historical record from this supposed end-point. So European victories get a lot of coverage, because Europeans won in the end, whereas the Ottoman, Mughal and successive Chinese empires, which were much more powerful than their European counterparts for most of their existence, can be written off, because these empires lost in the end. But of course everyone loses in the end. The Europeans lost their empires, and someday the United States will lose too. Interestingly, even post-colonial scholars and those most critical of European imperialism tend to play into the narrative of powerful Westerners dominating everyone else. 

If the dominance of the West is an aberration to the prevailing global international system, what does a typical system look like?

Very roughly we can say that we’ve had some sort of global international system for five centuries. In most of Africa and Asia, Europeans weren’t really dominant until the nineteenth century (and this didn’t last long). In the three hundred years before, the typical arrangement was for Westerners to interact with Asian and African polities on a basis of inferiority. But because culture, ideas, and legitimacy are so important for shaping the international system, it’s hard to say what a typical form is.

For example, in the late nineteenth century the consensus was that any great power worthy of the name had to have an empire, and so we had an international system of empires, even though most empires lost money and didn’t confer security benefits. Then in a huge change that social scientists spend far too little time thinking about, empires went out of fashion. Now we have an international system of formally equal states, even though most states are pretty hopeless at performing the functions that are meant to justify their existence.

What led you to write this book?

The first reason was historical: that there was this hugely important undiscovered early modern international system out there, or at least a neglected and misunderstood international system, waiting to be explored. To me what makes international politics in the period 1500-1800 so exciting is that it upends our presumptions of superior, more powerful Westerners dominating everybody else. Sometimes this happened, but for two to three centuries Westerners were more likely to be dominated by non-Westerners, including in Europe.

The second reason was a basic rejection of the standard functionalist presumption that on average organizations work well, i.e. efficiently and effectively, because of learning and competition. On the contrary, I think getting the job done efficiently has very little to do with how organizations are structured and how they work.

For example, it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that most meetings in universities, corporations, and government bureaucracies are a waste of time (and hence money). But people can simultaneously know this, while continuing to go to and schedule endless meetings, without any plans to change this situation. Organizations, including militaries and states, do not learn to become more efficient, and are not penalized for their inefficiency. In environments of overwhelming complexity, they mainly stick to ritualized ways of doing things, like going to meetings.

What does the book have to say about international politics today and in the future?

Historians have done an excellent job of showing how the way we think about the past affects our views of the present and the future, and this point certainly applies to international politics. All sorts of things we currently tend to take for granted about international politics are in fact strange, while some important things we tend to think of as strange, and perhaps worrying, are actually the historical norm. The fact that all the world’s polities are today organized as one homogenous type of unit, the sovereign state, is very unusual by historical standards. Looking to the future, if China or other non-Western states were to become the most powerful in the twenty-first century (and social scientists are lousy at predictions so I have no idea if this will happen), rather than being unprecedented, this would in fact be a return to the historical norm in international politics.

J. C. Sharman is the Sir Patrick Sheehy Professor of International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of King’s College. His books include The Despot’s Guide to Wealth Management and International Order in Diversity. He lives in London.

Christie Henry on Shaping History–Through Books

The founder of the antecedent of Black History Month, Carter Woodson, astutely noted that “the mere imparting of information is not education.”  Adapting these profound words to the realm of publishing, publishers recognize that the mere imparting of information is not publishing.  In an era of an abundance of information, of words on the print and digital page, it is ever more vital for us to curate, with intention, a list of publications that educates and inspires.  As a University Press publisher, the education we commit to for our readers (and audio book listeners) is a publishing grounded in information that is transformed—through author intelligence and curiosity, the insights of peer review, and the art and science of book making, publicity and marketing, and sales—and, ideally, transformative in its impact and endurance. 

The books we are celebrating this month embody that transformative impact, and in doing so also contribute in meaningful and enduring ways to one of the key tenets of Black History month, to teach the history of Black America.  As books remain a vital component of teaching, and learning, this month is a critical time for publishers to reflect on our responsibility as partners in the pedagogical endeavor, and the narrative we shape with the books we publish.  We join our many peers in the university press, #ReadUP community, in a shared commitment to enrich knowledge about race, identity, society, history, politics and the arts—inspired by our authors and the university communities in which we thrive.

In December, NYU University Press author Safiya Umoja Noble visited Princeton University Press to talk about our role in offering a platform to as wide a population of scholarship as there are voices and minds, particularly in our responsibility as an interlocutor between the academy and the wider culture of reading and knowledge.  Peer review is the foundational element of this university press platform, and it shapes each of the books we publish, as does the editorial board that governs our peer review. 

We also commit to the tenets of peer review in assessing our own decisions as publishers.  Just as most authors take great pride (rightfully!) in the manuscripts they submit for peer review, so too are we incredibly proud of the list of nearly 10,000 titles Princeton University Press has published.  But we also know how critical it is to iterate, in the way every manuscript does, guided by a close and constructive scrutiny of that publications list.   When assessed against current cultural contexts and priorities, in the way that a manuscript’s references are held accountable to current scholarship, we recognize that we can grow from criticism, and benefit from revision, to bring more voices and perspectives to our list, and to broaden its intellectual impact and horizons.  I find myself incredibly inspired by another #ReadUP author, Hanif Abdurraqib, whose Go Ahead in the Rain is publishing this month at the University of Texas Press, “A big reason I write is rooted in the idea of building relationships”: the big reason we publish is rooted in the idea (and joy) of building relationships.

As we peer review our publications program, and celebrate in particular the ways in books about the African American experience have shaped that program, we are guided by Woodson’s enduring mantra that we need “a history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.”  Our press is committed to books that shape that history, and inspire and educate through scholarship, creativity and collaboration.

–Christie Henry, Director