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.

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.

Summer Vacation: Archaeologist-style

by Eric Cline

Each summer in June, the annual migration of archaeologists begins. Summertime is when most university excavations take place, because the academics that run them are on summer vacation, as are the post-grads and graduate students who make up the staff. The undergraduate students and the volunteers from all walks of life, most of them checking off an item on their bucket list, are similarly free, or are at least able to take their vacation days to participate for a few days or even a week or two.

In a few days, I’ll be heading for our dig at Tel Kabri, located in northern Israel, where we are excavating a Canaanite palace dating back almost four thousand years, with the oldest and largest wine cellar yet found in the ancient Near East. We’ll have about a dozen staff members and almost seventy volunteers (or team members, as we call them) working over the course of six weeks, and we’re on the small side—some digs have closer to two hundred team members who participate over the course of a single season.

Each team member covers the costs of their room and board, as well as their round trip airfare, for the opportunity to participate in what will be, for most of them, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Some will enjoy it so much that they return the next season; others will be glad to return home after realizing that it involves much more dirt, sweat, and labor that is both much more intensive (think picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows) and painstaking (think dental tools and small brushes) than they ever expected.

The day will begin at 4:45 am, when the team members board the bus that will take them from the field school where we live to the site, which is located about ten minutes away. Retrieving our tools from the storage unit—which is essentially an old railway car minus the wheels—we are digging by 5:00 am, while it is still chilly enough to wish for a sweatshirt or fleece jacket, but those are soon shed as the temperature climbs and perspiration creates damp patches on t-shirts and tank tops.

The first potsherds appear almost as soon as the first pickaxes dig into the soil and are tossed into a plastic bucket; much later, in the afternoon, they will be washed and laid out to dry, so that the experts in the staff can examine and date them, based on a variety of characteristics including color, tempering, decoration, and so on. Our sherds indicate that we are digging in levels from the Middle Bronze Age, dating to the 18th through 16th centuries BC.

Soon a patch of plaster appears in one trench and trowels and patishes—small hand picks—replace the larger pickaxes, as more delicate work is now necessary. The potsherds continue to appear—for each ancient vessel shatters into dozens of pieces when it breaks, all of which remain to be found, for they are non-biodegradable once fired in a kiln. The pottery buckets fill up at an astonishing pace, to the eventual chagrin of the team members, who know they will have to wash each piece separately and by hand that afternoon.

Eventually, after what seems an eternity, a half-hour break is called at 8:00 am, so that staff and team members alike can fill their growling stomachs with eggs, cheese, tuna, tomatoes, and/or chocolate spread on large rolls. The largest line is for coffee, with team members working in different areas of the site good-naturedly exchanging details of their morning’s activities and discoveries with each other.

Soon enough the breakfast break is over and the team members will return to their areas, working until 1:00 pm before climbing back on board the bus and returning to the field school for a hot lunch and a few hours of free time. Most will nap in their air conditioned rooms, though some will venture to the swimming pool and sunbathe, as if they hadn’t already gotten enough sun during the morning.

Late afternoon sees the pottery washing, as well as data entry on the laptop computers, and various other assorted tasks. Dinner is at 7:00 pm, followed by a lecture, for many of the students are doing this for college credit, and the older team members are simply interested in learning about the history and archaeology of the area, or the nuances of how the various specialists do their work and analyses. Lights are out by 10:30 pm, for a much-needed six hours of sleep before the whole routine begins again for another day.

To some this will seem abject misery; for me it is heaven. I’ve been doing this almost every summer for more than thirty years and it never gets old, even though I have. There is nothing else like the thrill of excavation and discovery—not knowing what you will find in the next minute, hour, day, or week. At Kabri we’ve found fragments of wall paintings, large jars that once held wine, bits and pieces of ivory, gold, and other materials, and are slowly beginning to reconstruct the life of people who once lived in this palace nearly four thousand years ago.

What will this summer bring? I have no idea, and that’s the best part about it. I’ll let you know in August what we found. What I do know is that what we are doing is fun, exciting, AND important. We, and the other teams of archaeologists who will be in the field this summer, are excavating and rescuing the remains of past civilizations—the details of our story, the human story.

 

ClineEric H. Cline is professor of classics and anthropology and director of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at George Washington University. An active archaeologist, he has excavated and surveyed in Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the United States. His many books include 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed and Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archaeology.

 

Eric Cline departed on his travels on June 14. Check this space for updates from the field.

Francisco Bethencourt: Exhibition ‘Racism and Citizenship’

Exhibition ‘Racism and Citizenship’, Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Lisbon
6th May to 3rd September 2017
Curator: Francisco Bethencourt, Charles Boxer Professor, King’s College London,
and author of Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century

When Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century was translated into Portuguese I was invited by the director of Padrão dos Descobrimentos to organize an exhibition on that subject there. The monument had been created in 1960 by the Salazar regime to commemorate Portuguese overseas exploration and colonialism, obviously ignoring the suffering inflicted on other people. I immediately accepted the challenge to transform a comprehensive book into an exhibition naturally based on images and focusing on the Portuguese case. I needed an argument, a narrative, and a structure.

I decided to focus this exhibition on two interlinked realities: racism, understood as prejudice against those of different ethnic origins, combined with discriminatory actions; and citizenship, seen as the right to live, work, and participate in the political life of a country, equally involving duties and responsibilities. The tension between exclusion and integration lies at the heart of this exhibition. I invite viewers to reflect on various historical realities and recent developments, with the help of objects—paintings, sculptures, engravings, shackles, manillas, ceramics, posters, photographs, and videos. Images are presented in a crude way, but they also reveal subtle contradictions, hinting at what lies beyond outward appearances.

The exhibition is arranged into two parts, early modern and modern, and six sections: a) the hostility towards Jews and Moors living in medieval Portugal, which was renewed after forced conversions; b) a focus on people of African origin who were enslaved and transported to Portugal, Brazil, and Asia; c) the representations of native peoples of the New World and Asia, which led to the first European conception of a hierarchy of the world’s people; d) the Portuguese colonies, where slave labor was replaced by forced labor; e) the contradictory realities of the 20th century, in the colonies and Portugal alike; f) the dynamics involved in the attempt to repair the fractures in the contemporary and post-colonial period.

Racism was always confronted with informal forms of integration, which became predominant in the postcolonial period. The assertion of citizenship followed the Revolution of April 1974 and the independence of the colonies in 1975. It is a new period, still under the shadow of informal racism, but in which new values of legal equality have been supported by the state. The anti-racist norm became a reality, still to be systematically implemented. The last section of the exhibition shows the recent work of Portuguese and African artists, who use colonial memory to reflect on new issues of collective identity.

During the period under consideration, Muslim expulsion took place, as did the forced conversion of Jewish people, the slave trade, the colonization of territories in Africa, America and Asia, the abolition of slavery, decolonization, and immigration.

The exhibition aims to encourage the public to question past and present relations between peoples, combining emigration with immigration, exclusion and integration, lack of rights and access to citizenship.

BethencourtFrancisco Bethencourt is the Charles Boxer Professor of History at King’s College London, and the author of The Inquisition: A Global History, 1478–1834.

Amazons in all Shapes, Sizes, and Colors: What the Wonder Woman Movie Got Right

by Adrienne Mayor

Were Amazons—and their real-life counterparts in antiquity—really as diverse as they appear in Wonder Woman?

Wonder Woman opens with a breathtaking  panorama of Themiscyra, the fantasy island populated by powerful women, a paradise magically isolated in time and space from the modern world of men and their ruthless wars. This is where the little wonder girl Diana raised by a triumvirate of formidable females: Queen Hippolyta, General Antiope, and her aunt Melanippe.

In the film, Themiscyra is a self-contained, women-only society of indomitable warriors, devoted to using their deadly expertise to fight on the side of all that is fair and good. We see how idealistic young Diana is rigorously trained for hand-to-hand combat, learning rugged martial arts alongside the toughest, most courageous warrior women the world has ever known: Amazons of ancient Greek myth.

The beginning scenes show us daily life in Themiscyra, with the entire citizenry of warlike women engaged in military exercises. As far as the eye can see, vast fields are filled with female soldiers displaying their prowess in an amazing array of skills. Frame after frame, there are women wrestling, boxing, sword fighting; women performing gymnastic feats on galloping horses; women thrusting daggers and twirling battle-axes; keen-eyed archers on foot and on horseback; acrobatic ninjas and javelin throwers with deadly aim. And in the following scenes of the battle on the beach—pitting the Amazons against boatloads of nasty German soldiers—the dizzying kaleidoscope intensifies, drawing us into a maelstrom of whirling, grappling, leaping, kicking, punching, stabbing, spearing, soaring, kickass female fighters. A crucial element in the  scene’s powerful impact is the perfectly natural diversity of super-fit body types and skin colors.

The magnificence of the Amazons of Themiscyra would have been impossible to pull off with typical Hollywood actresses pretending to be fierce warrior women. It was the brilliant decision of director Patty Jenkins to cast real-life athletes and sports champions as Wonder Woman’s companions.

And that choice ensured that women of Themiscyra display a variety of skills, body sizes, shapes, ages, and skin colors. The diversity is stunning: the Amazons are tall and short, robust and lithe, young and mature, lean and muscle-bound, stolid and mercurial; pale and dark—and everything in between.

In ancient Greek myth, Amazons were warrior women who gloried in battle who dwelled in exotic lands around the Black Sea. Now, thanks to evidence from history, art, and archaeology, we now know that the Amazons were modeled on real nomadic peoples of ancient Scythia, a vast territory that stretched from the real Themiscyran plain on the Black Sea to Mongolia. These myriad tribes had their own languages and were ethnically diverse, but they shared a lifestyle centered on fast horses, bows and arrows, and constant warfare. Their egalitarian lifestyle meant that girls and boys learned to ride, shoot arrows, and fight and the women rode to war with the men.

The Scythians left no writings, but modern archaeology, ancient art, and historical descriptions by their neighbors, the Greeks and Chinese, tell us what they were like. Human remains from Scythian graves show both European and Asian traits, characteristics evident in steppe nomads’ descendants today. Females buried with weapons ranged in age from 10 to 45. Some 2,000 years ago, Greek and Roman historians reported that some Scythians had dark eyes and hair, while others were blond or red-headed with blue eyes. Notably, ancient Chinese chronicles confirm this ethnic diversity, describing some Scythians of Inner Asia as red-haired with green eyes.

Beginning in the sixth century BC, Greek artists painted thousands of images of Amazons on vases. The pictures took on more and more realistic details of actual Scythian nomads as they became more familiar with steppe peoples. Vase paintings show tall and petite Amazons, husky and slender Amazons, often together in the same scene. Most have dark hair but there are some blonde and red-haired Amazons. There were ancient Greek tales of Amazons of Africa and Ethiopians were allies of the Amazons in the legendary Trojan War. Vase paintings show African archers dressed like Amazons.

Wonder Woman‘s vision of all kinds of Amazon warriors making themselves physically strong—and then proving their valor in violent combat and emerging victorious—is unprecedented in cinematic history. The grandeur of the fighting scenes—the sheer physicality and diversity of the Amazons—arouses surging emotions of exhilaration in viewers, empowering for women and girls, a revelation for men and boys.

The fact that the multidimensional aspect of Wonder Woman‘s Amazon paradise is grounded in historical reality adds to the glorious authenticity of the film.

So breathtaking is the tribute to strong, real women in the first third of Wonder Woman that I’m joining the chorus of viewers requesting a prequel—we want more Amazons!

MayorAdrienne Mayor is a research scholar in classics and history of science at Stanford University, and the author of The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, a finalist for the National Book Award, and The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World.

 

 

 

 

Image: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

A peek inside The House of Government

The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine is unlike any other book about the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experiment. Written in the tradition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Grossman’s Life and Fate, and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Slezkine’s gripping narrative tells the true story of the residents of an enormous Moscow apartment building where top Communist officials and their families lived before they were destroyed in Stalin’s purges. A vivid account of the personal and public lives of Bolshevik true believers, the book begins with their conversion to Communism and ends with their children’s loss of faith and the fall of the Soviet Union. Drawing on letters, diaries, and interviews, and featuring hundreds of rare photographs, The House of Government weaves together biography, literary criticism, architectural history, and fascinating new theories of revolutions, millennial prophecies, and reigns of terror. The result is an unforgettable human saga of a building that, like the Soviet Union itself, became a haunted house, forever disturbed by the ghosts of the disappeared. Take a peek at what’s in store.

 

 

Yuri Slezkine is the Jane K. Sather Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include The Jewish Century, which won the National Jewish Book Award.

Walter Scheidel on what really reduces inequality: Violent shocks

ScheidelWhat really reduces economic inequality? According to Walter Scheidel, the surprising answer is something nobody would wish for: mass violence and catastrophe. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully—it consistently declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world. Recently, Scheidel took the time to answer some questions about his startling conclusions:

What is the great leveler?

Violence is the great leveler, expended in massive shocks that upend the established order and flatten the distribution of income and wealth. There are four major types of shocks, which I call the Four Horsemen. That’s a fitting image because they were just as terrible as the bringers of doom in the Revelation of John. The first of them is mass mobilization warfare, which reached its heyday during the two World Wars when enormous physical destruction, confiscatory taxation, aggressive government intervention in the economy, inflation, and the disruption of global flows of trade and capital wiped out elite wealth and redistributed resources on a massive scale. These struggles also served as a uniquely powerful catalyst for equalizing political reform, promoting extensions of the franchise, union membership, and the welfare state. The second is transformative revolution, which was also primarily a phenomenon of the twentieth century, when communists expropriated, redistributed and then collectivized, in the process matching the World Wars in terms of body count and human misery. The collapse of states is the third one, not uncommon in the more distant past: everyone suffered when law and order unraveled but the rich simply had more to lose. Plague rounds off this ghastly quartet. On a number of occasions, most famously during the Black Death of the Late Middle Ages, epidemics carried off so many people that labor became scare and real incomes of workers rose while the land and capital holdings of the upper class lost value.

Your book covers thousands of years. Surely things must have changed over time?

Of course they have, but less than you might think. It was the sources of inequality that experienced the biggest changes. The shift to farming and herding after the last Ice Age let our ancestors create material assets that could be passed on to future generations, allowing some families to pull away from the rest. Later, as states and empires appeared and grew in size and power, elites filled their pockets with profits from public office, corruption, coercion and plunder. While this continues to be common practice in some parts of the world, in the West gains from commerce and enterprise have gradually replaced those more archaic form of enrichment. But even as these changes unfolded over the long run of history, violent shocks remained the most potent mechanisms of leveling.

But what about the postwar decades? Didn’t the economy grow and the middle class prosper at the same time as inequality declined?

That’s true, and that’s why many people in America and Europe look back to this period as a time of great progress and welfare. Current ideas of “making America great again” owe a lot to this happy convergence of affluence and equality, and reflect the understandable desire to somehow bring it back. But we must not forget that it was the carnage and the perils of the Second World War that undergirded the entire process. After the New Deal had ushered in progressive policies, it was the war effort that gave rise to the many invasive regulations and taxes that ensured that future gains would be more equitably distributed. This benign fallout from the war faded over time until a new round of liberalization, competitive globalization and technological change allowed inequality to soar once again. Since the 1980s, the economy has continued to expand but a growing share of the pie has been captured by the much-quoted “one percent.”

That’s a sobering perspective. Aren’t there any other factors that can combat inequality and don’t involve bloodshed and misery?

Absolutely. But they often fall short one way or another. Economic crises may hurt the rich for a few years but don’t normally have serious long-term consequences. By reducing inequality and prompting progressive policies, the Great Depression in the U.S. was a bit of outlier compared to the rest of the world. Perhaps surprisingly, political democracy by itself does not ensure a more equal distribution of income and wealth. Nor does economic growth as such. Education undeniably plays an important role by matching skills with demand for labor: most recently, it helped lower the massive disparities that have long weighed down many Latin American countries. Even so, the historical record shows that all of these factors were at their most effective in the context or aftermath of major violent shocks, such as the World Wars. Successful land reform, which is of critical importance in agrarian societies, has likewise often been the product of war and revolution or the fear of violent conflict.

This doesn’t raise much hope for the future. What are the chances that we will be able to return to a fairer distribution of income and wealth?

That’s a good question, although few people will like my answer. The traditional mechanisms of major leveling, the Four Horsemen, currently lie dormant: technological progress has made future mass warfare less likely, there are currently no revolutions on the horizon, states are much more stable than they used to be, and genetics will help us ward off novel epidemics. That’s a good thing – nobody in their right mind should yearn for death and destruction just to create greater equality. But similarly powerful peaceful means of leveling have yet to be found. And to make matters worse, a number of ongoing developments may drive up inequality even further: the aging of Western societies, immigration’s pressure on social solidarity and redistributive policies, and the prospect of ever more sophisticated automation and genetic and cybernetic enhancement of the human body. Barring major disruptions or an entirely new politics of equality, we may well be poised to enter a long period of polarization, another Gilded Age that separates the haves from the have-nots.

ScheidelWalter Scheidel is the Dickason Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Classics and History, and a Kennedy-Grossman Fellow in Human Biology at Stanford University. The author or editor of sixteen previous books, he has published widely on premodern social and economic history, demography, and comparative history. He is the author of The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century.

Carolin Emcke awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade Association

EmckePrinceton University Press congratulates German journalist and author Carolin Emcke on being chosen by the Board of Trustees of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to be this year’s recipient. The prestigious prize was established in 1950 and reflects the German book trade’s commitment to peace and understanding. This year, the prize is awarded in recognition of Carolin Emcke’s significant contribution to social dialogue and peace through her books, articles, and speeches. The Board of Trustees noted,

The work of Carolin Emcke pays particular attention to those moments, situations and issues in which discussions threaten to break down and communication seems no longer possible. In her highly personal and vulnerable manner, she regularly places herself in perilous living situations in order to illustrate – especially in her essays and reports from war zones – how violence, hatred and speechlessness can change people. She then uses analytical empathy to call on everyone involved to find their way back to understanding and exchange. Carolin Emcke’s work has thus become a role model for social conduct and action in an era in which political, religious and cultural conflicts often leave no room for dialogue. She proves that communication is indeed possible, and her work reminds us that we must all strive to achieve this goal as well.

We are proud to have published her 2007 book, Echoes of Violence: Letters from a War Reporter, an award-winning collection of personal letters to friends from a foreign correspondent who is trying to understand what she witnessed during the iconic human disasters of our time—in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and New York City on September 11th, among many other places.

Previous recipients of the £25,000 prize include Amos Oz, Susan Sontag, and Albert Schweitzer.

Utopian Town Planning: Photos and Illustrations from City of Refuge

lewisVisions of Utopia obsessed the nineteenth-century mind, shaping art, literature, and especially town planning. In City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning, Michael Lewis takes readers across centuries and continents to show how Utopian town planning produced a distinctive type of settlement characterized by its square plan, collective ownership of properties, and communal dormitories. In honor of #Archtober, NYC’s month-long celebration of architecture and design, here is a sneak peek at select photographs and illustrations.

 

Donald Lopez on the Lotus Sutra

Lopez, Jr. In The Lotus Sutra: A Biography, Donald Lopez traces the many roles of what is perhaps the most famous of Buddhist historical texts, the Lotus Sutra.  Examining the history of the famous scripture that was composed in India in the first centuries of the Common Era, Lopez’s biography provides an engaging background to the enduring classic. Lopez recently took the time to answer some questions about his own early encounters with the text, and why its proclamations remain so important today.

What is the Lotus Sutra?

DL: The Lotus Sutra is arguably the most famous of all Buddhist texts.  It is one of only three Buddhist works, among a vast canon, that is well known in the West by its English title (the other two being the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra). The Lotus Sutra was composed in India, and in the Sanskrit language, where its title is Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra. This might be translated as the Discourse on the White Lotus of the True Doctrine. As I explain in the book, this title is rather “loaded” from a Buddhist perspective. It is not just a lotus (the traditional flower of Buddhism), but the white lotus, the best of lotuses. It does not just teach the dharma, the doctrine, but the true doctrine. As a sutra, or “discourse,” it is traditionally attributed to the Buddha himself.

Why is it so famous?

DL: Although composed in India, the Lotus Sutra became particularly important in China and Japan.  In terms of Buddhist doctrine, it is renowned for two powerful proclamations by the Buddha.  The first is that there are not three vehicles to enlightenment but one, that all beings in the universe will one day become buddhas. The second is that the Buddha did not die and pass into nirvana; in fact, his lifespan is immeasurable. The sutra is also famous for its parables, like the Parable of the Burning House and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It was because of these parables that the Lotus Sutra became the first Buddhist text to be translated from Sanskrit into a European language (French). The Lotus Sutra has several dramatic scenes; perhaps the most famous is when a giant bejeweled stupa (a tomb of a buddha) emerges from the earth and a living buddha is found inside. Such scenes inspired hundreds of works of art across East Asia.  At the Dunhuang cave complex in China, scenes from the Lotus Sutra are found in some seventy-five caves.

What was your first encounter with the Lotus Sutra?

DL: When I was in college in the 1970s, a friend invited me over for a meeting with a Buddhist teacher. I was surprised to find not a monk in saffron robes but a white guy in a business suit. After a brief talk, he knelt down in front of a small altar that he had brought with him and started chanting something that I couldn’t understand. In retrospect, I realize that he was chanting in Japanese, saying Namu myoho renge kyo, “Homage to the Lotus Sutra.” He was likely a member of Nichiren Shoshu of America, the “Orthodox Nichiren School of America.” The Buddhist monk Nichiren (1222-1282) was the most famous of the many devotees of the Lotus Sutra in Japan. He is a central figure in the book.

This is the second book you have contributed to PUP’s Lives of Great Religious Books series.  How did you choose the Lotus Sutra and what is it about the text that lends itself to a reception history?

DL: My first book for the series was about The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The famous version, first published in 1927, is an odd work. For example, it is not called the “book of the dead” in Tibetan; it is called Liberation in the Intermediate State through Hearing. It is not a translation of the entire work, and it includes all manner of rather eccentric prefaces, appendices, addenda, and notes by the editor, the American Theosophist Walter Evans-Wentz. Because of its strange history, it was a perfect candidate for Lives of Great Religious Books, but it would have been unfortunate had it been the only Buddhist work in the series. The series editor, Fred Appel, thus agreed to include a second Buddhist text, and I chose the Lotus Sutra.

I chose it in part because of its great fame in the Buddhist world. I also chose it because it is obsessed with the question of how its teachings are received, making it an ideal candidate for a reception history. That obsession derives from the fact that although the Lotus Sutra purports to be the words of the historical Buddha, it is not. It was composed some four centuries after the Buddha’s death. It is thus the most famous of the Mahayana sutras, or “Great Vehicle” sutras, works that set forth a different vision of the Buddhist path. In order to have authority, however, they must claim to have been taught by the Buddha himself.

In researching the book, what did you find that was unexpected?

DL: The anonymous authors of the Lotus Sutra presented a radical re-vision of both the Buddhist path and of the person of the Buddha. They did this with remarkable skill; they were clearly monks who were deeply versed in traditional Buddhist doctrine but were also deeply dissatisfied with the state of the Buddhist tradition as it existed around the beginning of the Common Era. One of the things that I saw again and again in the text was a concern with legitimation. The authors were determined to portray their work as the words of the Buddha and thus have the Buddha constantly praise the Lotus Sutra, promising rewards to those who embrace it and punishments to those who reject it.

If you could write a second book about the Lotus Sutra, what would it be?

DL: Funny you should ask. One of the attractive features of the titles in the Lives of Great Religious Books series is their beautiful production and their compact size, only about 60,000 words. In researching the book, I found that there was much more that I wanted to say about the content of the sutra. Each of the twenty-eight chapters is fascinating in its own right; the Lotus Sutra is a masterpiece of Buddhist literature, but the mastery of its authors is not fully evident without knowing something of the historical and doctrinal background. Professor Jacqueline Stone of Princeton (a leading expert on the Lotus Sutra in Japan) and I will be writing a guide to the Lotus Sutra (also to be published by Princeton University Press). The goal of both books is to bring this remarkable text, already so famous in the Buddhist world, to a wider readership.

Donald Lopez is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. He has contributed other books to the PUP Lives of Religious Book series with titles such as The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography (Princeton). He is also the author of the book The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (with Robert E. Buswell, Jr.). Lopez currently resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

 

 

 

Five PUP authors included in the Politico 50 2016 list

We are thrilled that five PUP authors have been included in the Politico 50 2016 list!

 Robert Gordon, author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth

Gordon

George Borjas, author of Heaven’s Door

Borjas

David Card and Alan Krueger, authors of Myth and Measurement

Myth

Angus Deaton, author of The Great Escape

Deaton

Tonio Andrade: Animals as Weaponry

By Tonio Andrade

01 Firebird

(Source: Zeng Gongliang 曾公亮, Wu jing zong yao 武经总要, in Zhong guo bing shu ji cheng 中国兵书集成, Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Press, 1988, juan 11, huo gong [p. 512].)

Firebird

Before guided missiles, humans had few ways to attack their enemies remotely, so they tried using animals. The Chinese were enthusiastic practitioners of this art. The firebird was a simple, if imprecise example. This image is from a Chinese military manual from the 1000s, and its accompanying text includes instructions: “Take a peach pit and cut it in half. Hollow out the middle and fill it with mugwort tinder. Then cut two holes and put it back together. Before this, capture from within the enemy’s territory some wild pheasants. Tie the peach pits to their necks, and then prick their tails with a needle and set them free. They will flee back into the grass, at which point the peach pits will let loose their fire.”

Fire Sparrows

(Source: Zeng Gongliang 曾公亮, Wu jing zong yao 武经总要, in Zhong guo bing shu ji cheng 中国兵书集成, Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Press, 1988, juan 11, huo gong [p. 512].)

Fire Sparrows

Pheasants might have been suitable to attack a foe in the field, but what if the enemy held a city? In this case one could use urban birds, deploying hundreds of them at a time to lay waste to enemy buildings. This image, from the same eleventh-century military manual, depicts fire sparrows, and the accompanying text explains how to prepare them: “Hollow out apricot pits and fill them with mugwort tinder. Then capture from the enemy’s town and warehouses several hundred sparrows. Tie the apricot pits to their legs and then add a bit of fire [to the tinder]. At dusk, when the flocks fly into the city to rest for the night, they will settle in large groups in the houses and buildings, and at this moment the fire will flame up.”

03 Fire Ox Image

(Source: Wu jing zong yao, juan 11, “huo gong”.)

Fire Ox

If birds proved too subtle, one could also use fire-oxen, such as the one depicted here. In this case, the fire is used less as an incendiary than as a motivator. One fit one’s ox with spears and then affixed straw soaked in oil to his or her tail. After it’s set alight, the ox would charge madly toward the enemy.

Thundering bomb fire-ox

(Source: Jiao Yu 焦玉 [attributed], Wu bei huo long jing 武備火龍經, 4 juans, Xianfeng ding yi year [1857], juan 2 [copy held in Nanyang Technological University Library, Singapore].)

Exploding Fire Ox

As the Chinese perfected gunpowder mixtures, they added bombs to these living weapons, as in this image, where we see a classical fire-ox, motivated to run by the burning reeds, with a bomb on its back. The bomb was timed to explode when the poor beast reached the enemy.

05 Rocket Cat Image

(Source: Franz Helm, Feuer Buech, durch Eurem gelertten Kriegs verstenndigen mit grossem Vleis…, Germany, c. 1584, copy held at University of Pennsylvania Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Ms. Codex 109, viewable online at http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/medren/detail.html?id=MEDREN_1580451.)

Firecat and Firebird

Europeans also used animals to deliver incendiaries. Here is an image of a cat and a bird, each with a sack of burning material attached to them. The idea was to kidnap a domestic cat from the enemy’s city, attach a sack of incendiary material to it, and then shoo it home. The idea was that it would then run and hide in a hay loft or barn, which would then, if things went as planned, catch on fire.

Gunpowder Age andradeTonio Andrade is professor of history at Emory University and the author of The Gunpowder Age, as well as Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West (Princeton) and How Taiwan Became Chinese.