A. James McAdams on Vanguard of the Revolution

Vanguard of the Revolution is a sweeping history of one of the most significant political institutions of the modern world. The communist party was a revolutionary idea long before its supporters came to power. A. James McAdams argues that the rise and fall of communism can be understood only by taking into account the origins and evolution of this compelling idea. He shows how the leaders of parties in countries as diverse as the Soviet Union, China, Germany, Yugoslavia, Cuba, and North Korea adapted the original ideas of revolutionaries like Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin to profoundly different social and cultural settings. The first comprehensive political history of the communist party, Vanguard of the Revolution is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand world communism and the captivating idea that gave it life. Read on to learn more about the origins and evolution of the communist party in Russia.

What led you to write a book about the communist party?

My initial motivation was that I couldn’t find any systematic political histories of the party. I felt that scholars and other interested readers would benefit from a broad comparative study that accounted for both this institution’s tremendous staying-power over the past century and then its swift collapse by the early 1990s. The communist party was more than a fleeting political organization. It was the principal rival to the other, prevailing form of party rule in modern times—liberal democracy. During the past century, over a billion and a half people were ruled by communist parties, roughly 38 percent of the world’s population.

I was also motivated by a factor that was missing in my discipline. Political scientists have written an impressive number of books on party behavior in both developing and advanced democracies. But they have generally neglected the communist party. This may be due to the assumption that that all communist parties have adhered to a stereotyped definition of “Leninism,” i.e., an organization characterized by dictatorial practices, rigid hierarchies, and rampant brutality. Yet, as I show in my book, the communist party took multiple forms over its long history, just like liberal-democratic parties did in the West. Although all communist parties had certain features in common—especially the conviction that the progressive march of history was on their side—they also differed in significant ways. Just look at the variation in the former Soviet Union, China, and Cuba. This was not only true of dictatorships. There were notable differences among the communist parties that competed in national and local elections in the West, such as the French and Italian communist parties.

Communist parties also assumed different identities over time. Lenin’s Bolsheviks were vastly different from what the communist party became under Joseph Stalin. Likewise, Nikita Khrushchev’s and Leonid Brezhnev’s conceptions of party leadership were different as well. One of the most important things Mikhail Gorbachev did when he came to power was to attempt to transform the party according to a highly idealized vision of Leninist rule. Yet, his efforts to reform the idea of the party inadvertently resulted in the institution’s total loss of legitimacy.

What do you mean by referring to “the global idea” of the party in the subtitle of Vanguard of the Revolution?

I am a big believer in the role of ideas in driving human behavior. You can’t understand the communist party’s lasting appeal unless you recognize that the party was an idea before it took the form of a fully fleshed-out organization. When Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848, he did not trouble himself with the issue of party organization. He was so convinced about the immediacy of the proletarian revolution that he assumed that the party would simply materialize as the prophetic voice of the working class. Over the following century, his ideas about the struggle between the oppressed and the oppressed and the inevitable victory of good over evil galvanized the emotions of revolutionaries in as disparate locations as Hungary, the United States, Poland, Yugoslavia, and China. Although the conditions these radicals faced were very different from those that Marx encountered in England and Germany, his and his successors’ ideas gave them the confidence that they, too, would be victorious.

Of course, I don’t mean to attribute the longevity of communist parties to ideas alone. As I emphasize in Vanguard of the Revolution, a political order based solely on the idea of constantly revolutionizing society would explode. At one point or another, all communist leaders recognized that their movements would not survive without effective organizations. Yet these parties would not have lasted if they had lacked the ideas to motivate their followers. It’s when you put ideas and organizations together that you get a viable institution, one that lasts a long time.

What is so exciting about the communist party is that it was a truly global institution. Long before the advent of the internet and social media, a combination of factors—advances in communications media, repeated military conflicts, and social upheaval—made it possible for communists and other sympathetic radicals to bring the idea of an international revolution to life. These revolutionaries were not only focused on their own countries, they drew upon a vast network of personal ties to spread the good word about communism around the world.

Why were so many party members willing to sacrifice their lives—or the lives of others, including comrades and family members—in defense of their cause?

This question haunts everyone who seeks to make sense of the history of world communism.  Certainly one motivating factor was fear. During Stalin’s Terror or Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, if you failed to denounce someone who was accused of being a “counterrevolutionary,” you would be accused of the same crime. Another factor was opportunism. For many party cadres, these times presented opportunities for moving up the social and political ladder.

But the factor I consider the most important—and disturbing—was the rigid psychology of many of the true-believers. As writers like Arthur Koestler, Wolfgang Leonhard, and George Orwell, have beautifully captured in their accounts, there was an intoxicating element of messianism in these movements. Party cadres were prepared to do normally unthinkable things to others because they truly believed that they were on the right side of history. As we know about all messianic movements, the more deeply such believers are immersed in their cause, the more they are inclined to engage in cognitive denial. In the face of all contradictory evidence, they can be convinced that people they have known their entire lives are spies, saboteurs, and “wreckers.”

Your book covers an extraordinary number of communist parties over long periods. How did you become interested in the study of communism?

Well, I began with East Germany. I was studying German at the Free University in West Berlin in 1973, and went to East Berlin on a regular basis. Crossing through the Berlin Wall was always an adventure. When I stepped into the Eastern side of the city, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like to live under communism. As I passed people on the street, they would invariably look at my shoes and my jeans—both signs of capitalist affluence. Clearly, they were wondering what it was like to live in the West.

Once I had become familiar with one communist country, I couldn’t resist the temptation to visit all of them! Everywhere I went, whether to Cuba, Poland, or China, I found intriguing similarities and differences among their regimes. One of my goals in writing Vanguard of the Revolution was to account for some of these differences.

What is the most unusual communist country you’ve visited?

It would have to be North Korea, although strictly speaking, its government no longer has the formal attributes of a communist regime. When one sees pictures of North Korea, it looks like a very strange place. But when you get there, the country seems even more unfathomable. There are statues of the “eternal leader” Kim Il-sung everywhere, colorful mosaics of the “dear son,” Kim Jong-il, and endless monuments to heroic military battles. When I was there in 2006, I witnessed tens of thousands of parading students, jubilantly preparing for mass games to celebrate their leaders’ achievements. The word “bizarre” does not begin to capture the fervor you experience.

In building this anti-Disneyland, the North Korean government has been remarkably successful in blocking the flow of information into and out of the country. The first thing the police take from you when you arrive at Pyongyang International Airport is your cell phone. As a result of this enforced isolation, the country’s citizens have an almost childlike understanding of the outside world. They also know next to nothing about conditions in their own country. Our tour guide practically fell over from disbelief when I told her that Kim Jong-il had three sons. Now that one of those sons, Kim Jong-un, holds the reins of power, she undoubtedly reveres him as a divine presence who will safeguard her needs.

If you could go back in time, what aspect of the communist party’s history would you like to experience?

I would like to have been a “fly on the wall” during the early battles among Leftist radicals that led to the formation of communist parties, such as the founding congress of the International Workingmen’s Association (the so-called First International) in 1864 or the French socialists’ Congress of Tours in 1920. These were fantastically dramatic events. Both the passions and the animosities that they generated contributed substantially to the character of communist parties in subsequent decades. They also played a huge role in the terrible tragedies that were to come to the movement in later years.

Did writing Vanguard of the Revolution present any special challenges?

The biggest challenge was to get inside the heads of the people I was describing. Why were so many party members willing to sacrifice their lives—or the lives of others, their comrades-in-battle, and family members—in defense of their cause?

During my travels to Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and Asia, this was the first question I posed to long-time communists, people who had become disaffected with liberal democracy and capitalism at an early age and had experienced the tumult of war and other upheavals. Invariably, they convinced me that they were not opportunists; they sincerely believed that they were building a better world.

My challenge was to imagine what these and other communists were thinking and feeling as they lived their lives forward. To satisfy my curiosity, I not only familiarized with the relevant secondary literature.  I also read a lot of biographies, interviews, and even popular literature. These revolutionaries’ ideas directly reflected the cultures of which they were a part.

You call your study of the communist party a post-mortem. Why should we care today about the life and death of this particular institution?

If we interpret the party’s history in the right way, we can gain insight into the vitality of our own political system. The communist parties that ruled countries like the Soviet Union and East Germany didn’t come out of the blue. They were the product of the distinct political and social conditions of the twentieth century—war, economic collapse, and revolution. Strictly speaking, we will never again see this specific type of party. Even the few parties that are still labelled as communist, such as those in China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba, long ago shed the features that identified them with the Leninist tradition. However, this does not mean that we won’t encounter other militant parties that are equally opposed to liberal democracy. It all depends on having sufficiently turbulent conditions that allow incipient rabble-rousers and demagogues to convince their followers that the prevailing order should be replaced. We see signs of the potential for such extremist movements in the rise of right-wing populism in Europe today. Vladimir Putin’s perversion of Russian democracy is a good example of this trend.  Alas, even parties in the US are not immune to this authoritarian temptation.

McAdamsA. James McAdams is the William M. Scholl Professor of International Affairs and director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His many books include Judging the Past in Unified Germany and Germany Divided: From the Wall to Reunification (Princeton). He lives in South Bend, Indiana.

Alexandra Logue: Pathways to Reform

Change is notoriously difficult in any large organization, and institutions of higher education are no exception. From 2010 to 2013, Alexandra Logue, then chief academic officer of The City University of New York, led a controversial reform initiative known as Pathways. The program aimed to facilitate the transfer of credits among the university’s nineteen constituent colleges in order to improve graduation rates—a long-recognized problem for public universities such as CUNY. In Pathways to Reform, Logue blends vivid personal narrative with an objective perspective to tell how this hard-fought plan was successfully implemented at the third-largest university in the United States. Shedding light on the inner workings of one of the most important public institutions in the nation, Pathways to Reform provides the first full account of how, despite opposition, a complex higher education initiative was realized. Read on to learn more about Pathways, the motivation behind it, and the challenges that had to be overcome.

What is Pathways and what motivated you to develop it?

For 40 years the worst academic problem facing CUNY students was difficulty in transferring their credits from one of the 19 CUNY undergraduate colleges to another.  CUNY students, similar to other current college students in the United States, transfer a great deal, and when students lose credits upon transfer, or credits taken to satisfy general education or major requirements are changed into elective credits, it can make it more difficult for students to graduate and their financial aid may run out.  These problems were hitting CUNY students particularly hard because their median family income is quite low, almost half are the first in their families to attend college, and almost half have a first language other than English.  Therefore, even without credit transfer difficulties, many CUNY students have an inordinate number of challenges to overcome in obtaining a college degree, in a society in which a college degree is increasingly necessary for employment and advancement.  In addition, New York State Education Law treats CUNY as a single university, and instructs CUNY to function as “an integrated system and to facilitate articulation between units,” too often the opposite of what was happening with undergraduate curriculum pre-Pathways.

What were the big goals for Pathways?

The immediate specific goal was, after students transferred, to have them lose fewer credits and to have fewer of their general education and major credits changed into elective credits.  We expected that result to lead to other important outcomes, particularly increased retention and graduation rates, fewer excess credits (students taking credits in excess of the number needed for their degrees), and a lower percentage of students having used up all of their financial aid prior to graduation.  However, we knew that it would take many years before we would be able to determine whether these other results had been obtained. To fully assess Pathways, we would need to assess students who started at one college and then transferred to another, with the total amount of time at the two colleges sufficient to obtain a bachelor’s degree (a total period of up to 6 years). Therefore, our immediate, most important, goal was simply to have credits transfer more effectively.  In the effecting of this goal, we also aimed to increase the quality of CUNY students’ education by clarifying and expanding the faculty-specified learning goals that courses were to accomplish, and by adding an additional layer of faculty review to all Pathways general education courses.

Was there a template for the program? Were there other institutions to which you looked for a model?

In the book I discuss how we examined the policies of other systems that had tried to solve credit transfer problems.  In particular, we examined what our sibling system, SUNY (the State University of New York), as well as the University System of Georgia had done.  However, we examined what these other institutions had done not simply to model them, but to learn from their not-so-perfect aspects.  Our goal was to construct transfer policies that were the best in the country.

What did you expect the challenges to be going into the process?

First, the CUNY system is huge (approximately 240,000 undergraduate students in 19 colleges) and complex, which makes any policy change difficult; communicating and effecting changes can be quite challenging.  Second, changes to curriculum, as occurred in Pathways, can take years (due to the time needed for multiple levels of approval as well as the time needed for the work on the curriculum itself), so we knew we would have to sustain our efforts over a long period of time. Third, we knew that everyone would not agree that the new policies were an improvement, or even needed, that some faculty would be particularly opposed, and that those faculty would try to stop Pathways.  As it turned out, the opposition was even larger than we expected.

Why was the program opposed by faculty?

I spend many pages in the book trying to explain the many different reasons that faculty opposed Pathways.  Much of it boils down to the fact that many faculty feel that they should have 100% control over the curriculum—that they are the experts and should make all curricular decisions.  However, the difficulty with this view is that faculty’s work lives are significantly affected by curricular decisions, so there is a built-in conflict of interest, and sometimes what faculty want can conflict with what is best for, or helps, students.  Therefore, in some cases, someone, in this case the CUNY Board of Trustees, may need to intervene and put some constraints on faculty choice in order to ensure that students’ rights to a high-quality, efficient, education are not violated.  We constructed Pathways under the overall principle that faculty and colleges could do whatever they wanted as long as it did not impede students’ progress towards a high-quality degree—the principle that all CUNY students are students of one university, and transferring from one college to another should not cause any harm to a student. In contrast, many faculty wanted no constraints whatsoever on their control over the curriculum.

How can we see, a few years in, that Pathways is making school easier to complete?

Each semester, many thousands more CUNY students are now transferring without losing any  credits.  In addition, transfer rates from community (associate’s-degree) to senior (bachelor’s-degree) colleges have significantly increased, and the percentage of these students transferring with an associate’s degree has increased 31% (very helpful to students in case a student for any reason doesn’t finish the bachelor’s degree).  Under Pathways, community college students know that their credits will transfer to the senior colleges, and therefore they do not have to transfer before finishing their associate’s degrees.  Thus even though it is only a few years since Pathways was first established, students are showing better degree progress than prior to Pathways.  CUNY Admissions offices are also now using the existence of Pathways in their marketing of CUNY, pointing out to potential applicants that if they come to CUNY, they will be able to switch to different colleges as their needs change, without losing credits.

This is not just a NYC story, how is the issue of credit transfers being handled nationwide? Are these other schools doing it really well?

Credit transfer is a national issue.  Over half of the nation’s bachelor’s-degree recipients now graduate with credits obtained from a college other than the one from which they are graduating.  Many states, national organizations, and researchers are now working on how to improve credit transfer.  Over half of the states already have statewide transfer policies for all of the public institutions of higher education in that state, and some states are even working together to facilitate credit transfer across state lines.  However, there is a paucity of data indicating how well any of these policies are working.  Many of the policies have large loopholes.  I am hopeful that CUNY will lead the way in obtaining excellent evidence as to whether or not its transfer policies are working, and in using that evidence to help future transfer students.

What do you hope administrators, students, and faculty can learn from your book about improving credit transfer systems here and nationwide?

There is much to be learned from my book.  First, the book has a great deal of information about why credit transfer can be difficult and about policies that can help.  However, more generally, the book contains a great deal of information about how higher education functions and why change in higher education can be so slow, tortured, and sometimes nonexistent.  The book also discusses lessons learned as a result of establishing Pathways, many of which can be generalized so as to help facilitate other aspects of change in higher education.

Why did you decide to write a book about what happened in establishing Pathways?

W.E.B. Du Bois said in 1949 that “Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.” I believe in that right deeply, and I particularly believe in making excellent higher education available to everyone who can benefit from it. Unfortunately, there were many points during the establishment of Pathways at which I felt that the rights of CUNY students to an excellent higher education, the students’ voices, and the facts about what the students needed and how we were trying to address those needs, were all being lost in an overwhelming tide of college and faculty actions, misinformation, and rhetoric.  As a result, making the changes that we felt would ensure the rights of CUNY students to an excellent higher education was extremely difficult.  I wrote this book to show why the changes needed to effect Pathways were necessary and why they were hard–why change in general is hard in higher education.  My hope is that the book will facilitate future change that will help to preserve and enhance higher education for everyone.

What was it like writing about the events that you had lived through while establishing Pathways?

On the one hand, it was wonderful to have the space and the time to explain, in what I believe is a comprehensible, comprehensive, and accurate way, what Pathways is, why it is important, and why it is formulated the way that it is.  This is information that should be helpful for establishing good transfer policies everywhere.  On the other hand, some of what happened during establishing Pathways was quite painful, and living through those events again was difficult.  However, there were moments of pure joy that I also got to relive, moments that are described in the book.  For those of us working on establishing Pathways, we could be totally up one day and totally down the next, and this happened over and over for three years.  We truly despaired that the process would ever end and that we would accomplish our goal, to the point that we hardly noticed when Pathways was finally effected.  I felt all of that again while writing the book.  Now that the book is done, I can finally reflect on the benefits that Pathways is bringing to many thousands of CUNY students.

 

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

All net royalties received by the author from sales of Pathways to Reform will be donated to The City University of New York to support undergraduate student financial aid.

On Weaving by Anni Albers: Revised and Expanded Edition

Written by one of the twentieth century’s leading textile artists, this splendidly illustrated book is a luminous meditation on the art of weaving, its history, its tools and techniques, and its implications for modern design. With her focus on materials and handlooms, Anni Albers discusses how technology and mass production place limits on creativity and problem solving, and makes the case for a renewed embrace of human ingenuity that is particularly important today. Now available for a new generation of readers, this expanded edition of On Weaving updates the book’s original black-and-white illustrations with full-color photos, and features an afterword by Nicholas Fox Weber and essays by Manuel Cirauqui and T’ai Smith that shed critical light on Albers and her career. Read on for our Q&A with Brenda Danilowitz, Chief Curator at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, to learn more about the legacy of Anni Albers.

Why is Anni Albers considered a great textile artist?
Anni Albers began her studies at the Bauhaus in Weimar at the age of 22. Here in the weaving workshop she first began working on the loom and learning her way with threads. Over the course of her 60-plus year career she became one of the most innovative and influential textile artists of the twentieth century, creating subtle abstract works of art, bold wall hangings, and sophisticated architectural fabrics, in addition to experimental jewelry and prints. Albers was a perfect combination of designer, maker, and artist. She spoke passionately about materials and how the parameters inherent within them are a key to creativity and problem solving. The attentive maker must listen to her materials and be guided by their specific properties, for example: cellophane and metallic threads for light reflection; the soft thickness of chenille to absorb sound; natural fibers such as jute and horsehair for durability; and cotton and linen for strength. As machine-made fabrics and surface designs became the industrial norm in the twentieth century, Albers insisted that true progress and innovation must come from understanding materials and construction. Beauty is achieved through the architectural properties of textiles as much as the surface effects of color and rhythm. Albers’s works are as forward thinking and beautiful today as they were fifty years ago, and the lessons they offer continue to inspire designers.

Why does Anni Albers continue to be an important influence on contemporary artists and designers?
In recent years there has been an energetic resurgence of interest in skilled craft, material awareness, and efficient design. Anni Albers’s work and philosophy are a guiding force. Artists working in textiles look to the inventiveness of her craft, while artists in other disciplines find inspiration in its proportions and aesthetic brilliance. Her laser-like intelligence and acute perception of the magic to be discovered in the mundane make her writing a must for amateur and professionals alike. Designers are attuned to her problem-solving skills and the courage she showed in using new materials and making art a part of life. Her focus on experimentation and independent thinking is a boon to contemporary educators. Albers considered material a means of communication and the weaving studio a laboratory for experimental work in construction and design. For her, handlooms allowed for the slow operation necessary for experimentation. To create something lasting was to pay close attention to the material at hand, and she let the thread lead the way.

Is On Weaving intended for weavers only?
Absolutely not—Albers addresses the book’s wide appeal in her introduction: “Perhaps I should start out by saying that this book is not a guide for weavers or would-be weavers, nor is it a summary of textile achievement, past or present. … My concern here was to comment on some textile principles underlying some evident facts. By taking up textile fundamentals and methods, I hoped to include in my audience not only weavers but also those whose work in other fields encompasses textile problems. This book, then, is an effort in that direction.”

On Weaving relates to all makers, artists, designers, students, teachers, philosophers, historians, and readers. Albers writes in a clear and engaging manner that works on many levels. She tells a compelling history of weaving that parallels cultural evolution and how textiles have influenced human progress over the past 8,000 years. She gives notes and diagrams that work on multiple levels: they are instructive for the experienced weaver and also reveal more advanced construction techniques to the non-weaver. Albers walks us through a design problem—creating a wall fabric for a museum—so that we might see her process and the kinds of questions she asks. The final chapter has broader implications for design and its relationship to both nature and technology and offers a philosophy that resonates today.

How was Anni Albers involved in the original book’s design? How does her process translate to the new and expanded edition?
In designing On Weaving, Albers focused on collecting the highest quality images, highlighting a symbiotic relationship between text and image. In her introduction, Albers explains: “I approached the subject as one concerned with the visual, structural side of weaving.” Over the course of twenty years, Albers researched and collected images from institutions, museums, acquaintances, and fellow artists within the United States and abroad, handpicking objects during personal visits to New York City. She often used textile-focused publications as a first point of reference, bringing together the best images for her own book. As a result, reviewers and readers continuously praised On Weaving for its illustrations.

Albers desired to publish in color and even requested grants to do so: 52 years later, the new edition features more than 100 full-color images of objects originally produced in black and white. The stunning new color plates give readers a privileged understanding of Albers’s eye for structure, texture, and color.

The new edition of On Weaving pays homage to the original book’s design, in which the image plates are gathered together at the back, separate from the text, almost like a field guide. The book is generally half text and half image and a reader may choose to read the text straight through, or dip into sections, or browse the images, thereby opening up possibilities to make new connections.

What else is new in the “new and expanded” edition?
Along with new full-color, full-page images, all objects in the original book have been retained, with new photography of Albers’s own textile and graphic work. For example, the diagrams Albers created for the original On Weaving are presented in the new edition as art objects, leaving the artist’s hand visible. In addition, new essays by contributing scholars provide context for understanding the importance of Albers’s achievements. Manuel Cirauqui’s essay “Two Faces of Weaving” considers the opposite poles of Albers’s work and how she was able to weave contradictions into a unified philosophy. T’ai Smith’s subtle essay, “On Reading ‘On Weaving,’” considers the implications of the original book’s design and provides a framework for understanding how the book relates to the rest of Albers’s oeuvre. The new edition also features a personal afterword by Albers Foundation director Nicholas Fox Weber, who knew Anni during her life. Weber creates a lovely portrait of a friend and mentor and provides a window into the artist’s more personal motivations.

Why now?
The original On Weaving was in print for twenty years through the 1980s. Since then, the hardcover and subsequent paperback editions have become rare and expensive, though they continue to be in high demand. Using the latest print technology, we were able to make the new edition available at an affordable price and in full color with striking resolution to a much larger audience. Albers’s intention to create something meaningful and timeless, her efforts to connect the past to the present, and her understanding of the process and progress of technology hold important lessons today.

AlbersAnni Albers (1899–1994) was one of the foremost textile artists of the twentieth century; her works are in major museum collections around the world. Nicholas Fox Weber is executive director of The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and the author of The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism. Manuel Cirauqui is curator at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain. T’ai Smith is associate professor of art history at the University of British Columbia and the author of Bauhaus Weaving Theory.

Emmet Gowin: Mariposas Nocturnas

American photographer Emmet Gowin is best known for his portraits of his wife, Edith, and their family, as well as for his images documenting the impact of human activity upon landscapes around the world. For the past fifteen years, he has been engaged in an equally profound project on a different scale, capturing the exquisite beauty of more than one thousand species of nocturnal moths in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, French Guiana, and Panama. The result is Mariposas Nocturnas. These stunning color portraits present the insects—many of which may never have been photographed as living specimens before, and some of which may not be seen again—arrayed in typologies of twenty-five per sheet. The moths are photographed alive, in natural positions and postures, and set against a variety of backgrounds taken from the natural world and images from art history. Essential reading for audiences both in photography and natural history, this lavishly illustrated volume reminds readers that, as Terry Tempest Williams writes in her foreword, “The world is saturated with loveliness, inhabited by others far more adept at living with uncertainty than we are.” Read on to learn more about Gowin’s evolution as a photographer, the underlying philosophy that he brought to this project, and his biggest influences.

As a photographer you’ve long been known for intimate photos of your family, and later, aerial landscapes of the American West. Can you explain your evolution from these projects to work on these stunning portraits of more than one thousand species of nocturnal moths?

There are two main factors in my evolution from images of family and landscape to this long term study of moths. Even as a child I seemed to have an interest in small things, and if the small thing was alive all the better. If I drew, the drawing was usually small. Later I came to a deep reverence for insects even if I didn’t photograph them yet. In the 1970s I used a child’s small collection of insects, found dead in the windowsill, to enliven a nineteenth century book on rhetoricThat became an important image for me, though it was a singular event at the time. Later, I worked with some neighborhood boy scouts on their insect merit badgethus learning the basics of how a collection was built. So a respect for insects has been a part of my makeup, my curiosity, for as long as I can remember.

More particularly, my experience photographing the Nevada Test Site in 1996-97 left me at a turning point. Later I came to realize that one cannot study industrial scale agriculture, excessive water usage, and the building and testing of the atomic bomb without being changed. Three visits to the Nevada Test Site were all I could endure.

Its an important story but the next step will need to be taken by others. And all this exactly as my wife Edith and I made our first trip to Ecuador. Initially, I could not have told you what I was doing there, only that it was where I wanted to spend more time.

Can you talk a bit about the philosophy that underlies your work on this project? Was it your intention at the outset to raise awareness of the need for biodiversity?

Not so much a philosophy, although one must have one, I suppose, but the desire to turn a corner and begin to educate myself to the concerns of a working tropical biologist.  Even as a beginner this seemed a critical subject and also a key time in Earth’s history. And I was about to publish Changing the Earth, in 2002. For me, a respect for and admiration for insects was already in place, but I was also interested in learning something about field biology and in getting into the field myself. Alfred Wallace’s Malay Archipelago and Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle were already important books for me.

Also, in our time even children understand the importance of loss of habitat and that the destruction of the Amazonian forest, any forest, concerns us all. At the Nevada Test Site I was stunned by just how many tests had been conducted, mostly to little real gain. I understood the history but I still felt a great shock in witnessing this destruction, mostly hidden from our view, and with such grave consequences to Americans downwind. That America had in fact bombed itself breaks one’s heart. I’ll just say that at this point I felt I had learned enough about the human willingness to destroy ourselves. Then, an almost chance visit to Ecuador opened my eyes to how I felt about the tropical forest. At first I imagined that the forest itself would be my subject, but the introduction to a research cabin in Panama in 1999 changed all that. There I recognized that the symbiotic relationship between the insects and the forest would be my way of discovery.

A nice story: After a few years in Panama I had made my first moth portrait grid. We took it to a store for framing. When our poster was collected there was an interest in selling them. “Where did you find these?” “Panama”, we said.  To which the shop owner said, “No, you can’t fool me, I’m from Panama, and none of these live here. I would know.” We didn’t argue, but leaving we conferred, “I guess we are on to something here.”

What photographers have been your biggest influencers in terms of style and aesthetics?

Let me just say that it was a very small photograph that first brought me to a feeling of transcendence. I later learned it was by Ansel Adams. That photograph and that feeling I never forgot. However, the artists I really loved were a mixed lot. Of course, Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank were among the practical examples, and of course they were spiritual examples too.  Walker Evans and Harry Callahan were especially dear to me, and Callahan was my graduate advisor in Rhode Island. At the same time I was introduced to the history of art and film. Both felt very important to me, but perhaps painting and drawing felt the most accessible to me then, at least until photography arrived with its particular capacity for transcendence, which was closely followed by the introduction to the miracle of the silver image and its process. I still love the process of photography.

After Callahan, Frederick Sommer was perhaps the clearest example of the possibility of combining all these interests. Sommer would say, “you have to make it to find it or you have to find it to make it,” indicating that photography in a sly way combined everything that was of interest to me. That in our search for discovery and revelation, chance and purpose were intertwined, and both could and should serve the imagination.

How (if at all) has your early interest in drawing impacted your work as a photographer?

Drawing was the first art which opened for me. I drew often as a child and loved projects in which I could add a drawing. Like all dreamy and inattentive children I drew in school when I should have been paying attention. It was an impulse which seemed to come out of nowhere, which felt so real; I knew I could trust it. I saw very little art until art school, but when I was shown the great works I knew this is what I wanted, where I belonged. When photography came along I could see that I would need to serve all the same problems and concerns of painting an drawing; the distribution of weights, configuration of space, tonality and edge, the bounding line.  Within drawing and painting, it felt to me, that everything matters. By the end of my first year in art school I realized and I could serve these concerns with photography too, and it seemed to fit my nature and quickly became my constant joy.

Let me end this thought by calling attention to the kind of materials I began to carry into the tropics; most of them were copies of drawings and paintings—and the long history of graphic arts: Degas, Matisse, Picasso, Redon among the moderns and the old masters like Gruenwald, Bellini, Blake and Segurs. A small pantheon of great love and wisdom.

I’ve read you grew up in Chincoteague Island, surrounded by marshes and nature. Has that experience had a lasting impact on your work and your choice of subject matter?

Actuallyour family moved to Chincoteague when I was 13 and we only lived there two years.  I think I have given the mistaken impression of growing up there as that experience, beguiled as I was by the riches of the natural world, has always felt to me that it was there that I found my self, my identity, and the desire to be either a naturalist or an artist in those two short years.

How do you capture such photographs of moths, which are all, it should be noted, photographed alive? How do you keep them still?

The question of keeping them still is a bit misleading. Rarely do they stay still except for small periods when they settle themselves under a light onto the white collecting sheet. and then only until disturbed by another insect, which is quite often. Any moth I am seeing for the first time I attempt to photograph there on the white sheet to at least have a record of the species. But as my feelings were being educated by the moths I learned which I could touch, which could be nudged, which would fly with the first flash of the strobe. Some were, of course, photographed where I found them. but as I learned my way, I found I could transfer a moth to another surface with some success. Then I might have a minute to get a decent photograph. I was always aware that my chance to make a photograph could end in an instant. In Ecuador we sometimes collected moths in small plastic bags at night for photography the next day. Its a bit risky but on its leaf and with plenty of air inside, most remain calm. Sometimes these could be photographed in our motel room the next day. They could, of course, take flight, but at least we were in the same room.

Terry Tempest Williams writes in her foreword to this book, “The world is saturated with loveliness, inhabited by others far more adept at living with uncertainty than we are.” How does this idea of uncertainty play out in your work?

That “the world is saturated with loveliness” I have never doubted, but I rejoice in her finding just these words. In the late 60s and early 70s, our corner of Virginia felt something like the passage from St. Matthew—let me say it as I remember it—”unless you become as a little child, you can never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That is how I felt. At the same time we were visited each evening by images from the Vietnam war, and yet in our daily lives there were just the opposite. There was an intuitive sense that both the war and the “Kingdom or Heaven” saturated the same world, and in many ways it was chance which had placed us there, in Virginia. “Its what you do every day in the most simple way that counts,” my friend Frederick Sommer reminds us. This may sound too simple but if we could only live like this; treat everyone we meet as, just perhaps, the most important person in the world. And if you live that way, some of this feeling will embrace the butterfly, the ant, the moth.

 

GowinEmmet Gowin is emeritus professor of photography at Princeton University. His many books include Emmet Gowin and Changing the Earth. His photographs are in collections around the world, including at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Tokyo Museum of Art. Terry Tempest Williams is an author, conservationist, and activist. Her books include The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.

Dennis Rasmussen: The Infidel and the Professor

David Hume is widely regarded as the most important philosopher ever to write in English, but during his lifetime he was attacked as “the Great Infidel” for his skeptical religious views and deemed unfit to teach the young. In contrast, Adam Smith was a revered professor of moral philosophy, and is now often hailed as the founding father of capitalism. Remarkably, the two were best friends for most of their adult lives, sharing what Dennis Rasmussen calls the greatest of all philosophical friendships. The Infidel and the Professor is the first book to tell the fascinating story of their friendship—and how it influenced their world-changing ideas. Read on to learn more about the relationship between these two towering figures in Western philosophical thought.

Who were David Hume and Adam Smith, and why are they important?
Hume and Smith were eighteenth-century Scots who ended up becoming two of the most significant figures of the Enlightenment, and indeed the entire Western tradition. Hume is widely regarded as the greatest philosopher ever to write in the English language. He’s also among the most provocative of philosophers: a powerful critic of both religion and the capacities of human reason, as well as a forceful champion of commerce and the all-around benefits of civilization. Smith is almost certainly history’s most famous theorist of commercial society, or what we’d now call capitalism—in fact, he’s often hailed as the founding father of capitalism. As his modern interpreters never tire of pointing out, though, Smith was far more than an economist who theorized the invisible hand and championed free trade. Instead, he was a professor of moral philosophy who included political economy as just one of his many intellectual interests, and he recognized—to a greater degree than Hume, as a matter of fact—a number of potential dangers and drawbacks associated with commercial society. It’s truly remarkable that two thinkers of this stature were best friends for most of their adult lives; that’s a big part of what inspired me to write the book.

It’s certainly remarkable that they were best friends, but you go so far as to claim that theirs was the greatest of all philosophical friendships. That’s a big claim.
Yes, it is, but I think it’s a warranted one. In fact, it takes some effort to think of who the closest rivals would be. During the course of writing the book this became something of a parlor game that I played with fellow political theorists, philosophers, and intellectual historians: What was the greatest friendship in the history of philosophy? Most people’s first instinct is to say Socrates and Plato, but given the four-decade age disparity between them, their relationship was probably more one of teacher and student, or perhaps mentor and protégé, than one of equals, and in any case the record of their personal interactions is scant. Ditto for Plato and Aristotle. Locke and Newton admired one another, but could hardly be said to be close friends. Heidegger and Arendt had more of a (stormy) romantic relationship than a friendship, as did Sartre and de Beauvoir (with somewhat less drama). As for Montaigne and La Boétie, Lessing and Mendelssohn, Bentham and James Mill, Hegel and Schelling, Marx and Engels, and Whitehead and Russell, in each of these cases at least one member of the pair falls considerably below Hume and Smith in terms of impact and originality. Emerson and Thoreau approach closer to their level, if we choose to count them as philosophers rather than literary figures. The leading contenders among philosophers are probably Erasmus and Thomas More, but in terms of influence and depth of thought most would give the clear nod to Hume and Smith.

You suggest that the context in which Hume and Smith’s friendship took place was almost as remarkable as the friendship itself; can you say a bit more about that?
Hume and Smith were the leading figures of what’s now known as the Scottish Enlightenment, which was really one of history’s intellectual golden ages. Scotland began the eighteenth century as a poor, backward outpost on the fringe of Europe, but Hume’s and Smith’s lifetimes saw the arrival of a vibrant new age of economic prosperity and cultural achievement. Some of the important men of letters of the period, in addition to Hume and Smith, included Hugh Blair, Adam Ferguson, Henry Home (Lord Kames), Francis Hutcheson, John Millar, Thomas Reid, William Robertson, and Dugald Stewart. This Scottish renaissance also comprised natural scientists like the founder of modern geology, James Hutton, the chemist Joseph Black, and James Watt of steam engine fame, as well as artists like the painter Allan Ramsay, the playwright John Home, and the architect Robert Adam. Hume and Smith knew all of these figures personally, and they each play a role in the book. I also describe their encounters with some of the luminaries of the age beyond Scotland, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke, and Voltaire.

Did Hume and Smith influence one another’s ideas and writings, in addition to being close friends on a personal level?
Hume was almost certainly the single greatest influence on Smith’s thought. There are numerous references to him, both explicit and implicit, throughout Smith’s writings. The reverse is less true, as Hume—the older of the two by a dozen years—had composed almost all of his works before Smith even began to publish his, though Hume did write an anonymous review of Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, soon after its release. That’s not to say, however, that Smith simply adopted Hume’s views wholesale. On the contrary, he modified almost everything he touched. The book explores where and how Smith drew on his friend’s thought and where and how he challenged it on a host of topics, including morality, economics, politics, religion, and the workings of the human mind more broadly.

What’s the significance of the title—why The Infidel and the Professor?
One of the running themes of the book is that Hume and Smith adopted broadly similar views, but very different public postures, toward religion and the religious. Hume was a religious skeptic; he never denied outright the existence of a higher power, but he deemed the principal arguments on behalf of one highly implausible, and he considered the effects of religion to be mostly pernicious. This will be somewhat controversial, but I argue that Smith’s views on this score were substantially closer to Hume’s—that is, substantially more skeptical—than is usually assumed. In making this case I place a special emphasis on a controversial public letter that Smith wrote soon after Hume’s death in which he chronicled—some would say flaunted—the cheerfulness and equanimity of Hume’s final days and described his unbelieving friend as a paragon of wisdom and virtue. Whereas Hume was fairly forthright about his lack of faith, however, Smith generally went to great lengths, in both his writings and his personal life, to avoid revealing his religious beliefs (or lack thereof). These contrary postures led to equally contrary reputations: Hume was christened “the Great Infidel” and was deemed unfit to teach the young—he twice sought professorships, but in both cases the clergy opposed his candidacy decisively—while Smith became a respected professor of moral philosophy.

Does the book break any other new ground?
The literatures on Hume and Smith taken individually are vast, but this is—nearly unbelievably—the first book on the two of them considered together, so it’s easily the fullest account of their personal and intellectual relationship. On a related note, the book also provides the first systematic treatment of Smith’s responses to Hume’s thought over the course of his entire career, from his early essay on the history of astronomy (which was written by 1746) through the final edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (which was published in 1790). Still further, the book aims to shift the usual assumptions regarding what’s original and important in Hume’s and Smith’s writings. For much of the twentieth century Smith’s philosophical writings were deemed to be little more than a series of footnotes to Hume’s, and as an economist Hume has long been regarded as a minor predecessor of Smith, insofar as he is taken notice of at all. Ironically, putting the two side by side serves to highlight the importance of Smith’s contributions to moral philosophy and Hume’s to political economy. Smith followed Hume in developing a moral theory based on human sentiments, but his version of moral sentimentalism incorporated several significant improvements on Hume’s. Conversely, Hume argued for free trade and stressed the moral, social, and political benefits of commerce several decades before The Wealth of Nations appeared, and it’s striking how much of that work builds on Hume’s insights.

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

Jean Tirole on Economics for the Common Good

When Jean Tirole won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics, he suddenly found himself being stopped in the street by complete strangers and asked to comment on issues of the day, no matter how distant from his own areas of research. His transformation from academic economist to public intellectual prompted him to reflect further on the role economists and their discipline play in society. The result is Economics for the Common Good, a passionate manifesto for a world in which economics, far from being a “dismal science,” is a positive force for the common good.

What inspired you to write this book, and what did you learn in the process?

I wanted to show how economics can open a window to the world. I have long taken part in policymaking, conversing with private and public decision-makers, but as yet I had never engaged with the wider public.  After receiving the Nobel Prize I was regularly asked by people I met in the street or as I gave talks to explain to a broader audience the nature of economic research and what it contributes to our well-being. Not as a commentator on each and every topic, but simply to share with the public how scientific knowledge can guide economic policies and help us understand the world we (will) live in. I tried to write a book that is intelligible for any intellectually curious reader even with no or slight knowledge of economics. The book is divided into 17 stand-alone chapters so the reader can pick and choose.

Can you talk a bit about the value of making economic ideas comprehensible to a general audience?

Repeatedly blaming politicians for flawed policies won’t get us very far. Like us all, they respond to the incentives they face, in their case the hope of being (re)elected. Very rarely do they go against majoritarian public opinion. So we, citizens, get the policies we deserve. And as I explain in the book, our understanding of economic phenomena is obfuscated by various cognitive biases; we are dependent on rules of thumb and narratives, and we often believe what we want to believe, see what we want to see. Economics acts as a deciphering key, although it of course has its own shortcomings.

In the book you talk about economics for the common good. What exactly is “the common good?”

Economics for the Common Good is an ambition: to help our institutions serve general interest by studying those situations in which individual motives conflict with the interests of society, in order to suggest policies that align social and private interests. The invisible and the visible hands—the market and the State—are mutually complementary; to function well a market economy needs an efficient State to correct its failures. But sometimes the State does not work for the Common Good; for example, many countries are leaving their children substantial levels of unfunded public debt, unemployment, a degraded educational system, inequality, and a lack of preparation for the digital upheaval that our societies are on the brink of encountering. And the world does little to contain climate change. The book therefore pays particular attention to what is going wrong with governments and how this can be remedied to promote the Common Good.

Why do economists have a reputation as “scaremongers?”

I have already mentioned our cognitive biases. Economics is accessible, but can be counterintuitive if one stops at first impressions. Accordingly, and as I illustrate in the book though housing, labor market, climate and other public policies, the road to economic hell is often paved with good intentions. Public policies—the reflection of the electorate’s beliefs—too often ignore side effects. Contrary to general opinion, these side effects are usually borne by third parties rather than the beneficiaries of the policies. Economists, when pointing to the indirect harm on mostly invisible victims (e.g. those who don’t find a job or decent housing, or the taxpayers), are often accused of lacking empathy for the intended and very visible beneficiaries.

Economists may also be the bearers of bad news; while the classical economics representation of a society of purely self-interested individuals is a mediocre description of reality (the book details how morality is privately and socially constructed), when economists mention the need for incentives they trigger anxiety and resistance; we would all rather live in a world of honest, hardworking and empathic citizens. To my mind, the whole point of economics is to design policies and institutions that work towards reaching this different world, where individuals spontaneously operate for the Common Good.

Economics has come under sharp attack, especially since the 2008 financial crisis. Is it a science?

Economists’ judgment may be impaired by financial conflicts of interest, political friendships, or ambitions to be a publicly recognized intellectual. But we must also be humble and accept that as a science, economics is an inexact one. Like any science, it is built on to-and-fro between theory, which provides a lens to the world and allows us to understand observations and describe their implications, and empirical work, which measures the importance of effects and helps question the theory: lab experiments need fieldwork, econometrics, big data. But our knowledge is imperfect; good data may be unavailable, theories may oversimplify, and behavioral patterns and self-fulfilling phenomena (such as bank runs or bubbles) may complicate the analysis. Overall, an economist will generally feel more comfortable analyzing past events and proposing future policies rather than forecasting. A characteristic that is incidentally shared by doctors and seismologists, who detect environments that are conducive to a heart attack or an earthquake and provide useful recommendations, and at the same time may be hard-pressed to predict the exact timing of the event or even whether the latter will occur at all.

TiroleJean Tirole, the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics, has been described as one of the most influential economists of our time. He is chairman of the Toulouse School of Economics and of the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse and a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His many books include The Theory of Corporate Finance and Financial Crises, Liquidity, and the International Monetary System.

Yuri Slezkine on The House of Government

Slezkine The House of Government is unlike any other book about the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experiment. Yuri 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. 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. Read on to learn more about the House, the book, and why the Bolsheviks can be considered a millenarian sect.

What gave you the idea to write this book?

YS: I grew up in Moscow, in a communal apartment (an apartment that contained several unrelated families, each occupying one room and sharing a kitchen, bathroom, and hallway). About twenty years ago, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to write a history of the Soviet Union through the history of one such apartment. Tracking down different families and their archives proved difficult, however, and I kept moving from one building to the next until I ended up in the largest and most famous of them all, the House of Government.

What was the House of Government?

YS: It was the apartment building where most top members of the Soviet Government lived in the 1930s. It was located in a low-lying area called “the Swamp,” across the Moskva River from the Kremlin. The largest residential building in Europe and a model of socialist domesticity, it combined 550 fully furnished family apartments with public spaces including a cafeteria, grocery store, walk-in clinic, child-care center, hairdresser’s salon, post office, telegraph, bank, gym, laundry, library, theater, movie theater, tennis court, and several dozen rooms for various activities (from billiards and target shooting to painting and orchestra rehearsals). It is still there today, next to Swamp Square and across the river from the Kremlin—still a house, but no longer “of government.” Most Muscovites know it as a huge, sinister gray building—the last address of the founders of the Soviet state and the subject of Yuri Trifonov’s wonderful novella, The House on the Embankment.

Is The House of Government a history of that building?

YS: It is a history of the building and of the men, women, and children who lived there. It begins with the Old Bolsheviks’ conversion to communism, culminates in their execution for treason, and ends with their children’s loss of faith and the fall of the Soviet Union. It is a history of the Russian Revolution through the story of the original revolutionaries and their families.

 In what sense is it a “saga?”

YS: It is an epic prose narrative with multiple heroic characters and, at the same time, a history of particular families over several generations. The reason an apartment building is a perfect subject for a book about the revolution is that all radical attempts to transform human life are ultimately assaults on the family (the oldest and most conservative of human institutions). Family apartments were places where Bolsheviks came home and the revolution came to die. Revolutions do not devour their children; revolutions, like all millenarian experiments, are devoured by the children of the revolutionaries. My book is about how and why that happened.

Why millenarian?

YS: Because, in my view, the Bolsheviks were a millenarian sect. They believed in Providence (which they called History), the fatal corruption of the world (which they called “the last stage of capitalism”), the approaching apocalypse (which they called Revolution) and the more or less immediate—”in this generation”—collective salvation leading to the Millennium (which they called Communism).

Their prophecy was analogous to those of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Mormonism, Nazism, Rastafarianism, and the Branch Davidians, among many others, but the Bolsheviks were more successful than most because they took over Babylon while still expecting the disappearance of the old world in their lifetimes (Christianity did not become the empire’s official faith until the wait for the Last Days had become routinized). It is as if the Fifth Monarchists, the most radical of the nonconformist dissenters, had won the English Civil War and formed a Puritan International. Or as if Jim Jones had installed himself in the White House, renamed the United States the People’s Temple, and won the civil war he had done so much to bring about.

The Bolsheviks succeeded in casting out the moneychangers and collectivizing most worldly possessions, but they failed the test of disappointment. All end-of-the-world prophecies have so far proven false. Some millenarian sects have managed to cross the succession threshold, institutionalize themselves as churches with hereditary membership, and turn the revelation into an allegory and the promise of “till Kingdom come” into a synonym of “till the cows come home.” Others—the overwhelming majority—have disappeared, more or less violently, along with the first generation of believers.

The Bolsheviks’ failure was almost as spectacular as their success. They built a great empire but never figured out how to penetrate the home and reform the family. Their faith remained silent on the mysteries of birth, marriage, and death, and the Babylon they conquered proved more durable than they did. A hundred years after the fall of the Winter Palace, Russia is back, and the Bolsheviks are all gone.

Yuri Slezkine is the Jane K. Sather Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books includeThe Jewish Century (Princeton), which won the National Jewish Book Award. He is the author of The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution.

Sarah Binder & Mark Spindel on The Myth of Independence

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

Why did you write this book?

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

What does history teach us about contemporary monetary politics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what was that opportunity? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitchell Cohen: The Politics of Opera

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

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

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

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

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

For whom are you writing?

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

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

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

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

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

Was Mozart political?

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

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

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

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

 

Bryan Wagner on a controversial folktale: The Tar Baby

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

What is the tar baby story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.