Marcin Wodziński on Historical Atlas of Hasidism

WodzinskiHistorical Atlas of Hasidism is the very first cartographic reference book on one of the modern era’s most vibrant and important mystical movements. Featuring sixty-one large-format maps and a wealth of illustrations, charts, and tables, this one-of-a-kind atlas charts Hasidism’s emergence and expansion; its dynasties, courts, and prayer houses; its spread to the New World; the crisis of the two world wars and the Holocaust; and Hasidism’s remarkable postwar rebirth. Historical Atlas of Hasidism is visually stunning and easy to use, a magnificent resource for anyone seeking to understand Hasidism’s spatial and spiritual dimensions, or indeed anybody interested in geographies of religious movements past and present.

What exactly is the Historical Atlas of Hasidism?

This is the first cartographic interpretation of the mystical movement of Hasidism. 280 pages of large-format, full-color maps, images, and text about Hasidism, from its origins in the mid-eighteenth century until today.

What is the appeal of the Atlas?

Whoever gets it into his or her hands will notice that the atlas is simply beautiful. With more than one hundred charts, tables, and unique images, and with 74 beautifully designed full-color maps, this is simply a pleasure to flip through. But I believe there is much more to it. The atlas presents in a visually attractive, easy-to-understand cartographic form the spatial, physical, and visual dimension of a mystical movement. More than that, it demonstrates the meaningful interrelations between the movement’s spatiality and spirituality: Hasidism has been conditioned by its geographic characteristics not only in its social organization, but also in its spiritual life, type of religious leadership, and cultural articulation. On the more general level, this atlas offers an innovative way of looking at a religious movement that might be inspiring for anybody interested in the history, sociology, or geography of religions. This is why I believe the atlas will have a wide readership.

Why does Hasidism require a special Atlas?

Hasidism is one of the most important religious movements of modern Eastern Europe, contemporary Israel, and North America, and this for a number of reasons. For example, this is one of very few successful attempts at creating a religious movement that is both egalitarian and mystical, a real exception in the history of world religions. In addition, many people today are captivated by the extraordinary social and political success of the Hasidim, far beyond their rather moderate numbers. But maybe most importantly, even for those who have never heard the name of Hasidism, the image of traditional Jewry, of the “authentic Jewishness,” is informed mostly by Hasidism. Even though I disagree with this over-simplifying narrative, I believe it vividly represents the importance of the phenomenon.

But why maps, why an atlas as opposed to a standard monograph?

How otherwise could we capture the spatial dimension of the movement? If you believe, as I do, that the Hasidim were not only otherworldly mystics, but also down-to-earth residents of specific locations in very specific historical context of Eastern Europe, then you need to ask what is relation between these two. The maps are not only the easiest way to show it, but they allow for much more than textual exposition. And, besides, today in the digital age, visualization might be the only way to get through with a complex message.

To put this same question another way: you’ve written on Hasidism before; what is unique about this book?

I published my first book in Hasidism twenty years ago and I am still proud of this juvenile publication, as I am of other books I published later. But this book is indeed special. My previous books on Hasidism were more specialist, addressed mostly to the academic readers. This one is addressed to a wide group of readers, academic and lay. Each of the nine chapters introduces in a short, accessible way some central features of Hasidism, such as emergence, development of leadership, relation between religious centers and peripheries, demography, crisis of war and the Holocaust, etc. This very accessible introduction leads to the analysis of how these phenomena were affected by and found representation in space. In other ways, each chapter attempts to be accessible, but at the same time to offer some innovative understanding of the movement (and of a spatial dimension of any religion by implication). The same way, the maps have been conceptualized so that they communicate both the big message, something that you might grasp in the blink of your eye, and a far more developed, complex message, something that you need to read the map carefully for in order to see and understand. In this sense, the atlas both makes the history of Hasidism accessible to a freshman and introduces an expert knowledge on aspects that will be hopefully novel to both the students of Hasidism and a larger group of historians, sociologists, and geographers of religions.

Is it really a book for everybody?

I wouldn’t put it that way. The book is academic. But we, the cartographer and I, made a lot of effort to make it accessible, attractive, and engaging for a wide group of non-academic readers, too, e.g. those interested in Jewish history, Judaism, and history of religion more generally. Also, as the maps contain much geographical detail, e.g. thousands of places of residence of Hasidic leaders, thousands of Hasidic prayer halls, this will be of interest also to lay readers interested in local history, family histories, etc.

The scope of the Atlas sets it apart from other publications. Can you explain how?

This atlas broadens our understanding of Hasidism in three important ways. First, it looks at the movement beyond the Hasidic leaders at thousands of their followers living far from Hasidic centers. This is new, innovative, and I think very needed corrective to the dominant trends in research on Hasidism. Second, it examines Hasidism in its historical entirety from its beginnings in the eighteenth century till today. Very few publications are similarly comprehensive. Most importantly, responding to the challenge of digital humanities, it uses the diverse collection of qualitative, but above all quantitative data of diversified origin, including extensive GIS-processed databases of historical and contemporary records. The largest database is nearly 130 thousand records! Several others have thousands of records. I don’t know any similar publication on Hasidism, or, indeed, on any other religious movement.

Does the Atlas have real world applications?

I believe every knowledge has real world applications, at least by making us wiser. Well, of course, some sections might have direct application. For example my mapping of the settlement patterns among Israeli Hasidim might be successfully used by the Israel city planners or government administration in allocation of resources. For some others, the atlas might become an inspiring guidebook for cultural, or, indeed, spiritual tourism in Eastern Europe. Hasidism pilgrimages are today enormous enterprise with tens of thousands of Hasidim and non-Hasidim visiting graves of the tsadikim and other Hasidic sites. Finally, many maps are simply beautiful, so my wife says they will make perfect print for tablecloths, T-shirts, and postcards. We can’t wait to open a souvenir shop!

Marcin Wodziński is professor of Jewish studies at the University of Wrocław in Poland. His many books include Hasidism: A New History (Princeton) and Hasidism and Politics: The Kingdom of Poland, 1815–1864. Waldemar Spallek is assistant professor of geographic information systems and cartography at the University of Wrocław in Poland.

Keith Whittington: Campus protests should stop at the door of the classroom

by Keith Whittington

Campus free speechProtests are a time-honoured tradition on college campuses – memorably exemplified by the protests of 1968 by the grandparents of the current generation of students. They reflect the passionate energies of students discovering their own priorities and commitments, and finding their voice in national conversations. Protests spring from the stimulating intellectual environment and vigorous debate found on college campuses, where students are willing to think about more than just the upcoming party or how to grab the rungs on the career ladder. 

Not that universities should encourage student protests, but neither should they try to quash them. What universities must insist on, however, is that student protests be compatible with the larger functioning of the university; they should not hinder the ability of anyone on campus to pursue their own activities or the central mission of the university in advancing and disseminating knowledge. There are a lot of people on a college campus, and university administrators need to coordinate their activities without getting in each other’s way. Protests are legitimate among those activities, but they do not take priority.

Students are not always inclined to respect those boundaries. Of late, student activists have found themselves provoked by disagreements with guest speakers whom faculty members have invited to speak to classes; by the subjects and readings that professors have assigned in their classes; even by the behaviour of professors themselves. Activists have found such controversies sufficient to justify disrupting classes in order to voice their objections. In doing so, they undermine the ability of other students to learn and to take full advantage of their own collegiate opportunities, as well as the ability of professors to exercise their academic freedom to teach unmolested.

Securing academic freedom in universities so that professors can publish and teach the fruits of their expertise ‘without fear or favour’ as the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) Declaration of Principles put it in 1915, has been an ongoing struggle, largely against the corrupting influence of forces outside the university proper, be they wealthy benefactors, politicians or the general public. But the ability of a university teacher to communicate, in the words of the AAUP, to his students ‘the genuine and uncoloured product of his own study or that of fellow-specialists’ can as easily be threatened from within, by pressure from students or campus administrators. Students in the classroom deserve from the professor ‘the best of what he has and what he is’ – professional judgment, ‘intellectual integrity’, and an ‘independence of thought and utterance’. Universities are valuable, in part, because they serve as an ‘inviolable refuge’ from the tyranny of democracy that demands that everyone think alike, feel alike and speak alike. The university is ‘an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen’.

Student protestors who interfere with classroom teaching because a professor has departed from their preferred orthodoxy are as guilty of intruding on academic freedom and subverting the mission of the university as the corporate baron who seeks the dismissal of a disfavoured professor who has offended that baron’s economic or ideological interests.

In 2017, activists at Northwestern University in Illinois forced the cancellation of a sociology class because they objected to its students hearing from and interacting with an agent of the United States’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This January, activists at the University of Chicago launched a sit-in in the classes of a business school professor in an attempt to force him to disinvite the former White House aide Steve Bannon from speaking on campus. And in 2017, activists at Reed College in Portland, Oregon engaged in an extended in-class protest of a core humanities course until the faculty agreed to shift its focus away from the origins of Western civilisation. By disrupting professors from teaching their courses as they think best, and preventing other students from participating in such courses as they wish, activists assert their own superior authority to dictate the limits of academic freedom and to demarcate the boundaries of acceptable intellectual enquiry on campus.

To be sure, there are reasonable arguments to be had over the value of hosting in-class conversations with government agents, or re-structuring humanities courses to better reflect the history of the students taking them: some might say there were even better arguments to be made against inviting Bannon to campus. However, by protesting, instead of arguing, student activists risk having those arguments drowned in the wash of media publicity that invariably comes their way. They will be seen, to be sure, but they very likely will not be heard.

In practical terms, universities should insist on boundaries to how those debates are conducted, boundaries that draw the line at disruptions that impede both teaching and learning. Students concerned about the fossil-fuel industry should not be allowed to prevent other students from hearing their professors lecturing on petroleum engineering. Students who regard Marxism as a dangerous philosophy should not be allowed to disrupt sociology classes on Marxist theory. Campus protests are valuable as a means for calling attention to a cause and generating interest in a set of ideas. They are sometimes a necessary prelude to action. But they hamper rather than advance the mission of the university when they go beyond publicising issues to become instruments for denying others on campus the ability to pursue their own educational projects.

Academic freedom in universities has been hard-won, and so universities have an obligation to prevent protests from intruding into the classroom. University codes of conduct routinely try to strike just such a balance, by facilitating freeranging discussion of any set of ideas or concerns that teachers or students might want to raise and explore, while prohibiting actions that infringe on the rights of others to use and enjoy university facilities and programmes. Teaching students is at the heart of what universities do. But teaching requires that students and their professors be able to gather together on campus unmolested by those who might object to what is being taught, how it is being taught, and by whom. Campus regulations should be designed and administered to protect that most basic educational function of the university.Aeon counter – do not remove

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

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a leading authority on American constitutional theory and law. He is the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech.

Hans-Lukas Kieser on Talaat Pasha: Father of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide

PashaTalaat Pasha (1874–1921) led the triumvirate that ruled the late Ottoman Empire during World War I and is arguably the father of modern Turkey. He was also the architect of the Armenian Genocide, which would result in the systematic extermination of more than a million people, and which set the stage for a century that would witness atrocities on a scale never imagined. Here is the first biography in English of the revolutionary figure who not only prepared the way for Atatürk and the founding of the republic in 1923, but who shaped the modern world as well. In this major work of scholarship, Hans-Lukas Kieser tells the story of the brilliant and merciless politician who stood at the twilight of empire and the dawn of the age of genocide.

Though you have written a number of books in history, this appears to be your first biography. What led you in this direction?

I have written a variety of biographical articles, all related to the modern Levant. Yet, this is indeed my first book-length biography. There were two main motivations for writing me this biography of Talaat Pasha.

First, Talaat was the main political actor in the 1910s, the last years of the Ottoman Empire, when he led a single-party regime. All those interested in that area in modern history must therefore be able to know him well. Yet, oddly, there doesn’t exist any non-Turkish biography of this paradigmatic politician.

Second, the last Ottoman decade and its wars, including the Balkan Wars, the Great War, the Armenian genocide, and the war for Asia Minor, have remained a Pandora’s box in need of historical clarification. I navigate with my readers through turbulent and complex, dramatic and impactful times, always focusing on the mastermind Talaat as well as late Ottoman Istanbul and its provinces. The Ottoman capital was the center of a still-huge Empire, a hub of European diplomacy, and a hotspot of international dynamics.

What is an example of Talaat Pasha’s influence still being felt in Turkey today?

A blatant legacy is ongoing genocide denial based on arguments already made by Talaat in 1915. Another legacy is favoritism instead of meritocracy, because leader-centered partisan regimes need systemic corruption to maintain their power. Talaat’s leadership had blended imperial pride, Turkish nationalism, and Islamism. Turkey’s current re-embrace of charismatic leadership and its post-Kemalist return to political Islam is not surprising if we understand that Talaat had been a first father—before Kemal Atatürk—of post-Ottoman Turkey. The “Kemalist revolution” did not undo pre-republican fundamentals. In his effort to concentrate power, the current president Erdogan largely draws on patterns and ideologies used by these historic leaders, both marked “sons of an Empire.” Whereas both Talaat and Atatürk had claimed a progressive departure from religious conservatism, Erdogan identifies also with the conservative legacy of Sultan Abdulhamid II and other sultans before him.

How do modern Turks reconcile the positive things that resulted from Talaat Pasha’s actions with the atrocities that he perpetuated?

Talaat’s corpse came pompously back from Berlin to Turkey in 1943, in a joint venture of Adolf Hitler’s and İsmet İnönü’s governments. Lauding books and articles by former party friends were published in the years afterwards. Talaat, the former grand-vizier, won thus again public credit as a patriot and great statesman. Streets, schools, and mosques were named after him. Nevertheless, he remained associated with the Great War: a lost war little-remembered in Kemalist Turkey, except for the victory at Gallipoli. The atrocities against non-Turkish Ottoman citizens in and after the Great War were almost totally repressed from public memory. For such a spirit, almost no negative things must be reconciled with the progressive revolution achieved by the unique Atatürk, prepared by Talaat. Compared to previous governments, the current AKP regime publicly remembers much more the Great War, that great jihad and its battles. Yet, it does this without soul-searching or an acknowledged need and effort of reconciliation—because, in Erdogan’s words, there was “never genocide or ethnic cleansing in our history.”

What are some of the things you’d like readers to take away from this book?

I’d like my readers to take away from this book interest in, respect for, and better knowledge of topical challenges of the late Ottoman world, today’s Middle East. These are challenges that subsist to this day because their peaceful solution surpassed the political resources and the will of the contemporary rulers. More than a hundred years later, consensual polities for people from different religions, but with equal rights, are still utopian. The Levant, the cradle of monotheism, is under the spell of competing apocalyptical expectations.

Also, I’d like my readers to revolt in spirit and intellect against attempts at doing away with, instead of meeting, universal challenges, and against disfiguring historical truths for state and personal interests. Talaat pioneered patterns of miscarried modernity, in particular demographic and economic engineering including genocide. Inspired by his party friend Ziya Gökalp, a modern prophet of Turkish-Muslim greatness, Talaat had given up in the early 1910s on seeking a democratic social contract, starting instead comprehensive press control and prosecution of rivals. Talaat’s rule made Asia Minor a “national home” for Muslim Turks, excluding other peoples rooted in the same geography. Talaat thus shaped politics in the post-Ottoman Levant for a hundred years to come.

Hans-Lukas Kieser is associate professor in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle in Australia and adjunct professor of history at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. His many books include Nearest East: American Millennialism and Mission to the Middle East, World War I and the End of the Ottomans: From the Balkan Wars to the Armenian Genocide, and Turkey beyond Nationalism.

William B. Helmreich on The Manhattan Nobody Knows

HelmreichBill Helmreich walked every block of New York City—six-thousand miles in all—to write the award-winning The New York Nobody Knows. Now he has re-walked most of Manhattan—721 miles—to write this new, one-of-a-kind walking guide to the heart of one of the world’s greatest cities. Drawing on hundreds of conversations he had with residents during his block-by-block journey, The Manhattan Nobody Knows captures the unique magic and excitement of the island and highlights hundreds of facts, places, and points of interest that you won’t find in any other guide.
 
 
What is this book about?

It’s a detailed guide book to exploring Manhattan, block-by-block.

There are many guide books on Manhattan. How is this one different?

This book is unique two ways. First it focuses on the unknown places in Manhattan. NYC attracts over 65 million tourists a year, many of who have been there several times. But if you’re looking for something really new, then this is the book for you. Second, this book is based on hundreds of conversation I had with people who actually live in these neighborhoods. Their stories are fascinating. Of course, the book has lots of intriguing photos and a map for each of Manhattan’s 27 neighborhoods, each of which I’ve walked through.

Four years ago, you came out with The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles In the City. That book covered every borough, including Manhattan. Is this all new material?

I’d say about 98% of it is brand new. If I had simply taken material from the first book, then why should people read it? And reviewers would have written it off as just a rehash of that book. I re-walked Manhattan, covering 775 miles.

And how were you able to find new material?

Because the city is always changing and because I now had the chance to cover it in much greater detail. This is the second in a five book series on each borough and all of them are based on fresh material. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows came out last year and the Manhattan book well be followed by volumes on Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.

What are some of the most interesting things you discovered?

In Inwood Hill Park I met an 84 year old man who has lived in a cave for about twenty years. Very articulate and committed to being at one with nature, he’s a modern-day Thoreau. In Washington Heights, I came across a block of old wooden frame house hidden away, east of St. Nicholas Avenue. On the Upper East Side, I spoke with a woman who had made a secret visit to her church in 2003. On the Lower East Side, I discovered the city’s smallest shoe repair shop, 5 feet high and 5 feet wide, run by a Chinese immigrant. In Midtown Manhattan I stumbled across the only bookstore in the world devoted to the life and works of Winston Churchill; some of these books go for more than $100,000.

William B. Helmreich is the author of many books, including The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide and The New York Nobody Knows, which won the Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center.

Brian Stanley on Christianity in the Twentieth Century

StanleyChristianity in the Twentieth Century charts the transformation of one of the world’s great religions during an age marked by world wars, genocide, nationalism, decolonization, and powerful ideological currents, many of them hostile to Christianity. Written by a leading scholar of world Christianity, the book traces how Christianity evolved from a religion defined by the culture and politics of Europe to the expanding polycentric and multicultural faith it is today—one whose growing popular support is strongest in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, China, and other parts of Asia. Transnational in scope and drawing on the latest scholarship, Christianity in the Twentieth Century demonstrates how Christianity has had less to fear from the onslaughts of secularism than from the readiness of Christians themselves to accommodate their faith to ideologies that privilege racial identity or radical individualism.

Have there been any previous world histories of Christianity in the twentieth century before?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is only one or two, and they tend to be shorter text-book surveys that concentrate on Christianity in the Western world. There are several good one-volume histories of Christianity, and a few introductions to the contemporary reality of Christianity as a world religion, but historians of religion have generally avoided the twentieth century. They have been much more interested in the nineteenth century, when the churches were wrestling with the problems of industrial society and the questions raised by modern science and biblical criticism. The implicit, and false, assumption seemed to be that by about 1914 the crucial issues had all been decided, and that it was all downhill for Christian belief from then on.

What has been the biggest challenge in writing it?

Having written the book, I can readily appreciate why nobody has attempted quite this sort of project before: the need to try to do justice to all continents and all strands of the Christian tradition has made this the most difficult book I have ever undertaken.

Possibly the stiffest challenge has been deciding what to leave out, since no book of this nature can be totally comprehensive. I had to make my own decisions about which case studies to include and which to omit, and inevitably these decisions become quite personal. Another historian coming from a different sector of the Church and possessing different expertise would make a different selection.

Do you think Christianity was weaker or stronger in the year 2000 than it was in 1900?

Undoubtedly stronger, at least in terms of its global reach and its absolute numerical strength. Christianity by the end of the century was truly a global religion in a way it was not in 1900, despite all the efforts of Victorian missionary expansion.  Many parts of the Christian community had also discovered new sources of vibrant spirituality and confidence in their sense of mission, though it is hard for hard-pressed Christians in Europe or the eastern seaboard of the United States to appreciate that. But this is not a triumphalistic narrative of Christian progress: the churches in every continent in the twentieth century had to negotiate obstacles that were, if anything, even greater than those they had faced in the nineteenth century. Moreover, the percentage of the world population in 2000 that professed Christian allegiance was marginally lower than it was in 1900.

What challenges does your book pose to Christians?

It will force them to ask hard questions about the frequent failure of their predecessors to preserve the integrity of Christian faith in the face of enormous pressures—and I am not thinking of the pressures of overt state persecution so much as the insidious attractions of alluring ideologies that gnawed away at the fabric of historic Christian belief from the inside. The Church in every age, including our own, faces such pressures, and it is not very good at spotting them when they come along.

And what challenges does it pose to those who are not Christians?

My book suggests that the once-popular grand narrative of the twentieth century as the age of irreversible secularization on a global scale is demonstrably false, even though, as I have just acknowledged, the churches too often laid themselves open to racist or materialist perspectives that subverted the foundations of Christian belief. The history of Christianity is a constantly fluctuating narrative in which multiple challenges, such as those of injustice and oppression, provoke remarkable resurgences of Christian faith. These in turn invite their own contrary reactions whenever growing churches become too powerful or comfortable for their own spiritual good. Both believers and unbelievers should be challenged by this book.

What predictions would you make about the shape of Christianity in the year 2100?

My stock answer to this question is to say that the future is not my period. Most predictions made in 1900 about the spiritual course of the century to come—whether from Christian or atheistic sources—proved spectacularly wrong. Hence caution is the order of the day. But it seems likely that Christianity will continue to diversify in its multiple centers of gravity, and that its historic European lines of division inherited from the Reformation era will continue to fade in importance, being replaced by other fault lines of a more cultural nature. The current arguments over sexuality are one obvious example of that. Whatever the world Church will look like in 2100, it is probable that it will need another historian ambitious (or foolish!) enough to attempt a century from now to explain exactly what has changed, and why.

Brian Stanley is professor of world Christianity at the University of Edinburgh. His books include The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Billy Graham and John Stott and The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910.

Sara Blair on How the Other Half Looks

BlairNew York City’s Lower East Side, long viewed as the space of what Jacob Riis notoriously called the “other half,” was also a crucible for experimentation in photography, film, literature, and visual technologies. Sara Blair takes an unprecedented look at the practices of observation that emerged from this critical site of encounter, showing how they have informed literary and everyday narratives of America, its citizens, and its possible futures. How the Other Half Looks reveals how the Lower East Side has inspired new ways of looking—and looking back—that have shaped literary and popular expression as well as American modernity.

How have representations of the Lower East Side changed since the mid-nineteenth century?

In surprising and powerful ways, they haven’t. A set of complex associations—with vice, poverty, raw energy, the threat of the alien and the unassimilated—have continued to swirl around New York’s historical ghetto through its many lives and afterlives, well into our own moment. Over time, these associations have drawn image-makers and writers there to experiment with new visual technologies, new perspectives, and new media. In a real way, the Lower East Side and its received image have helped shape modern practices of seeing and imaging—not just the other way around.

What do recent representations of the Lower East Side tell us about our cultural moment?

They remind us how much cultural work we do to continue imagining the project of America, what it means to be or become an American and to have a collective future. In the 2016 Harry Potter franchise film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, for example, the unfolding of Magic as a contest between nativism and progressive aspirations (one that’s all too familiar to us IRL) depends on the Lower East Side as a space defined both by its threat to a “pure” citizenry and its promise of a more robust and dynamic nation. In a very different mode, the award-winning 2014 documentary Chasing Ice draws on images of the Lower East Side both to make real the unprecedented effects of climate change—and to hold out hope for its reversal. However unexpectedly, images of the Lower East Side continue to be a resource for apprehending the way we live now, bringing America’s histories and possible futures into view.

How did you approach the research for this book?  What surprised you?

I began this project by trying to answer a broader question: how did the Lower East Side become both a key subject of representation and a powerful force in shaping practices of representation? The problem of seeing that space—of making sense of its staggering density, heterogeneity, and energies—challenged image-makers, writers, journalists, guardians of public order, and everyday citizens alike to test new visual technologies, whose cultural uses came to reflect on-the-ground encounters with the world of the tenements and the streets. As I worked my way through a host of archives—of everyday photographs, print media, literary projects and more—what surprised me most was the range of practices that turn out to have been shaped by encounter with the Lower East Side, from the emergence of photography as an art form and the rise of the U.S. film industry to efforts to revive print culture in digital contexts. On all these and more, the Lower East Side has left its own indelible mark.

Are there instances of images that represent the Lower East Side shaping the site itself?

By all means. Early photographs of New York’s ghetto and tenements, made by Jacob Riis in the 1880s, not only codified uses of the camera as an agency of social seeing. They drove projects of slum clearance and social reform that shaped the built environment of New York’s downtown as well as hugely influential ideas about the city, its modernity, and its citizens. By the mid-1930s, in the grip of the Depression, photographers who had themselves been children of the ghetto were experimenting with new ways to represent its complex histories, using them as a vantage point to look critically at the American success narrative. Their work helped photography reinvent itself as a postwar art form—alongside the attention of urban planners who would undertake to redesign the tenement landscape in service of twentieth-century urbanism as a master plan. From lurid accounts of Bowery poverty and as-if “documentary” images of nuclear strike on the U.S., the iconography of the Lower East Side has remained vitally available, and it has continued to enter into the material life and lived experience of that generative place.

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

I hope they’ll think differently about the Lower East Side, as a place of entry not just for historical newcomers to the United States but for understanding how we’ve come to view and imagine this rich, ongoing, incomplete experiment we call America. As my mother said (to my delight) when she browsed the book, this isn’t just about Jews. It’s about the way history lives and continues to shape our lives in images, and how we might learn to look back more acutely at that history, at a time when we urgently need to learn from it.

Sara Blair is the Patricia S. Yaeger Collegiate Professor of English and a faculty associate in the Department of American Culture and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. Her books include Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century and Trauma and Documentary Photography of the FSA.

How the big pieces fit together: Europe’s place in the multipolar world

by Dr. John C. Hulsman

Introduction: The Lesson of the G7 train wreck

It’s official. After the calamitous G7 summit meeting in Canada, it is clear that an unbound Donald Trump is Europe’s worst nightmare. Although with typical unnecessary narcissism, he came late and left early, what Donald Trump did in his few short hours on Canadian soil will be commented on for years, as he emerged as a virtual caricature of everything Europeans hate about Americans.

Preternaturally over-confident and under-prepared, arrogant, and self-regarding, the president urged Russia be readmitted to the G7 club (despite its iron-clad control of Crimea and ruination of eastern Ukraine), doubled down on enraging European and Canadian allies alike over the brewing trade war (‘America is not a piggy bank’), and generally confirmed everyone’s worst fears that the White House actually prefers dealing with America’s authoritarian foes, such as China’s Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, rather than the vexing, well-meaning, but weak democratic pygmies who populate the standard multilateral meeting. Surely, after such an odious display the rest of the democratic world must rise up in righteous indignation and…

Well, the best I can come up with is snub Trump administration appointments at formal cocktail parties. For the bleak truth lying behind Donald Trump’s appalling, wrong-headed policies and behaviour in Canada is that the rest of the democratic world is pathetically weak and bereft of agency. As such, while they seethe with disgust at having to put up with the odious president, there is nothing practically they are prepared to do to stop him. This most transactional of presidents has inadvertently but graphically illustrated how practically irrelevant America’s western allies, particularly in Europe, truly are.

Be careful what you wish for

This is all so different from the dreams of a new multipolar world that so animated European thinkers during the long days of the bipolar Cold War. Then, European policy intellectuals—particularly in France—dreamed of living in a multipolar age that would follow victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, a time when Europe would finally achieve the strategic flexibility to have its own independent foreign and security policy, no longer shackled to (but still vaguely allied with) the US. But this long-term strategic goal amounted to little more than emotional wish-fulfilment, predicated as it was on two unremarked upon suppositions.

The first was that the relative diminution in American global power would be meekly accepted by a US long used to running things. In other words, a series of President Obamas would shepherd the US to accept its new central, but relatively more limited, structural position in the multipolar world. To put it mildly, a President Trump—whose very campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ is an overly emotional refutation of America’s relative decline—was not reckoned on.

Second, it was blithely assumed by European thinkers that their continent would undoubtedly and effortlessly emerge as the principal new force in this new world of many powers. As China rose during the latter days of the Cold War, following Deng Xiaoping’s historic opening in December 1978, European thinkers did foresee a world where a rising Asia would join America, Europe, Japan, and a diminished Russia as the main players on the global strategic scene (India was little thought of). But the notion that Europe would be by a long way the weakest of these great powers—politically divided, economically sclerotic, and militarily puny—never entered their thoughts.

As a result, while European thinkers seemed to pine for a multipolar world, in reality it was a new era where their continent was rising—as America was falling and the Soviets were non-existent—that was their real dream. Donald Trump’s petulant performance (and Europe’s anaemic non-response) at the just concluded G7 meeting glaringly illustrates that today’s world is simply not the sort of multipolarity European thinkers ever had in mind.

What Europe Should Do

Most foreign policy articles (and I have written over 500 of them) are cries in the wilderness, futile exercises where the analyst proposes outcomes that they know will never come to pass. Nevertheless, it remains the duty of every political risk analyst to try, to posit what can be practically done to retrieve strategic situations, for irretrievable decline is a choice and not a preordained destiny.

In this spirit, what can Europe do to make itself relevant as a Great Power in the real multipolar era we actually now live in? First, psychologically accept that while Trump is an extreme case, American leaders in general are transactional in nature; they will only take European concerns on board if it is viewed as a serious power capable of going its own way in terms of genuine practical policy consequences. Global politics is not a debating society; what matters are the views of the great strategic players, and the power they bring to bear—political, economic, strategic, diplomatic, and social—to further their interests. Europe must stop passively watching the world, and either master history, or history will surely master it.

Second, the Europeans have to act in a far more unitary manner in terms of foreign and security policy. Russia, an economic basket case in comparison (its economy is smaller than that of Italy), is the relevant comparison. For all that it is a corrupt, demographically decaying one-trick economic pony, a decrepit gas station utterly dependent on the spot price of oil and natural gas, Moscow punches far above its actual weight on the global scene.

The reason? President Putin can make decisive, unitary, foreign policy decisions for his country that are quickly acted on. Russia—as the Crimea episode illustrated—is still prepared to spend blood and treasure, to make real sacrifices to further the country’s foreign policy goals and interests. At present, I am not sure many in Brussels would be prepared to sacrifice a week’s holiday to do much of anything. For once and for all, Europe and its leaders have to decide if their foreign policy amounts to merely virtue signalling, or whether they are prepared to make the sacrifices to actually matter in the world.  

 To do so, an inner core of the key western European states—Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and The Netherlands—must move ahead, and actually begin to craft such a common foreign policy. Failure to do so will inevitably lead the other great powers to cherry pick Europe, to keep dividing the place precisely because it is inherently divided. It is not the fault of the outside powers, as states since time immemorial have taken advantage of their rival’s weaknesses. Rather it is the fault of a Europe that simply can’t get its act together.

Finally, as the mediocre age of Merkel subsides, endemic problems must be solved, rather than merely managed. Across the continent, Europe must free up its animal spirits and find a way to increase average growth rates to around two percent, if horrendous rates of youth unemployment and endemic economic torpor are to be righted. President Macron’s courageous and largely successful labour market reforms are a start, by more needs to be done.

With France as a nucleus, and after decades of torturous (and maddening) inaction, the major European countries must commit themselves to some level of serious defence spending, as without an army their moralistic lectures are just that, and nothing more. Finally, and again Macron is onto something here, ‘A Certain Idea of Europe,’ the idea of a strong, distinct, unique and blessed Europe, a sacred place whose interests and values are worth fighting for on the global stage, must be advanced as a unifying clarion call to action.

It is not too late for Europe to emerge as its thinkers once dreamed it would, and Trump’s odious behaviour in Canada surely serves as a call to arms. But it is one minute to the midnight of Europe’s strategic irrelevance.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. He is the author of To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk. He lives in Milan, Italy.

Kay Lehman Schlozman, Henry E. Brady & Sidney Verba on Unequal and Unrepresented

UnequalThe Declaration of Independence proclaims equality as a foundational American value. However, Unequal and Unrepresented finds that political voice in America is not only unequal but also unrepresentative. Those who are well educated and affluent carry megaphones. The less privileged speak in a whisper. Relying on three decades of research and an enormous wealth of information about politically individuals and organizations, Kay Schlozman, Henry Brady, and Sidney Verba offer a concise synthesis and update of their groundbreaking work on political participation. Citing real-life examples and examining inequalities from multiple perspectives, Unequal and Unrepresented shows how disparities in political voice endanger American democracy today.  

Unpack the title for me. What do you mean that “political voice” is “unequal and unrepresentative?”

People and organizations express political voice to influence government action. They do this by voting, the most common participatory act; by engaging in activities that require an investment of their time, for example, getting in touch with a public official or volunteering in an electoral campaign; and by providing money to affect politics such as making contributions to electoral campaigns or political organizations.

Most people’s participation is limited to voting, but some people amplify their voices by devoting a great deal of time, energy, and money to politics. Unequal political voice is not, on the face of it, a problem for American democracy. But unequal voice that is also unrepresentative poses a threat to democracy. Those with louder voices—who are likely to be well-educated and well-heeled—get heard while those who can only speak in a whisper are ignored. Describing his calls to potential donors, Representative Chris Murphy of Connecticut put it this way: “I know that when I’ve been raising money, I’m not hearing from a representative sample…. I talked a lot more about carried interest [a tax provision giving favorable treatment to the earnings of partners at private equity firms and hedge funds] in that call room than I did at the supermarket.” This social class tilt, which characterizes every form of political voice except perhaps protest, is especially pronounced for any activity that involves making financial contributions.

What does the skewing of political voice in the direction those with high levels of income and education mean for what public officials hear? 

What decision-makers hear from political activists is not representative of the opinions, concerns, and needs of the population as a whole. Political activists are more conservative on economic issues and sometimes more liberal on social issues. Activists with high levels of education and income are much less likely than the disadvantaged to report that their activity is animated by a matter of basic human need such as hunger, housing, or health care.

Those who are politically active also have different life circumstances. They are, on average, less likely to be in need of health care, to have to cut-back in spending in order to make ends meet, or to use government benefit programs. In addition, those who benefit from such non-means-tested programs as Social Security or Medicare are much more likely to undertake political action—for example to make a voting decision or to contact a public official—in association with that program than are beneficiaries of such means-tested programs as food stamps (SNAP) or Medicaid, who are by definition economically needy. In short, political activists communicate a skewed set of messages about what citizens care about, want, and need.

Don’t all those organizations that get involved in politics overcome the class stratification in political voice? Doesn’t every possible interest have an organization to advocate on its behalf in Washington?

If only. On the contrary, many interests with a stake in public policy are not represented by organizations. For example, thousands of membership associations active in Washington politics represent people in terms of their occupations. Yet, unless they are union members, those who make their living as office receptionists, Wal-Mart associates, parking lot attendants, bellhops, telemarketers, laundry workers, van drivers, and bartenders have no occupational associations at all to represent their interests in Washington. In fact, other than unions, not a single occupational organization represents the shared concerns of those whose work is unskilled. Moreover, there are no organizations that bring together recipients of means-tested government benefits such as Medicaid or SNAP acting on their own behalf. Similarly, those caring for aging relatives at home, workers required to sign non-compete clauses, holders of sub-prime mortgages, and parents seeking high-quality child care have no organization dedicated to their concerns.

In contrast, affluent interests, especially business, are very well represented. In fact, a majority, 52 percent, of the organizations active in Washington represent business in one way or another. These business organizations account for more than three-quarters, 77 percent, of the spending on lobbying, and unions representing workers spend only about 1 percent.

Has it always been this way or has the New Gilded Age ushered in a new era of plutocracy with greatly enhanced inequalities of political voice?

Both. On one hand, for at least a half century, nearly all forms of political voice have tilted in the direction of the well-educated and affluent. On the other, modes of political advocacy that depend upon money—both for lobbying and for campaign contributions—have taken on increased importance in the past generation, which means that the voices of the affluent have become relatively louder during the New Gilded Age. This development is fortified by economic trends. Economic growth during this period has benefited an extremely narrow slice of households at the very top of the economic ladder, producing a small group that is in a position to invest vast resources in politics. In this way, economic and political inequality reinforce one another. More economic inequality means more political inequality which, in turn, means more economic inequality.

Don’t social movements help to overcome inequalities by mobilizing into politics those who are less affluent and well educated?

Social movements grab attention because they are not simply politics as usual but instead bring into politics new issues and newly activated activists. Some movements—for example, the labor movement at the end of the nineteenth century and Black Lives Matter much more recently—do bring less advantaged publics into politics. But the United States also has a long tradition of mobilizations of middle-class adherents, including the abolition, temperance, environmental, and Tea Party movements.

What is not ordinarily recognized is an ordinary, and much more common, process by which friends and relatives, fellow church members, and co-workers ask one another to get involved in politics. Because those who make requests for political activity seek out prospects who are likely to accede to the request to participate and to participate effectively—by, for example, making a large campaign donation or writing a compelling e-mail—when they take part, activity undertaken in response to a request is actually more unequal than is activity undertaken spontaneously.

What about the possibilities for political participation on the Internet or through social media?  Don’t these new technologies ameliorate inequalities of political voice?

When the Internet was in its infancy, optimistic assessments predicted that Internet-based political activity would be free of the educational and income stratification so typical of traditional offline participation. Contrary to those expectations, the bias in the direction of the affluent and well-educated of participatory acts performed online—for example, signing a petition, contacting a senator, or making a campaign contribution to a candidate for governor—reproduces the pattern for their offline counterparts. Social class stratification is also typical of political involvement through social media. These new technologies do, however, make political voice more representative in one way: young adults in their late teens and twenties, traditionally a relatively politically quiescent group, are not underrepresented when to comes to political participation on the Internet or political involvement through social media.

In the past, periods of democratic discontent—the Progressive Era, for example—have spawned democratizing reforms like party primaries and the direct election of Senators. Are there reforms that hold promise for overcoming inequalities of political voice?

Reforms in two areas, voting and campaign finance, could ameliorate inequalities of political voice. A number of states have implemented procedural changes that make it easier to vote in the hopes of raising turnout and, in turn, making the electorate more representative of the adult population. Unfortunately, democratizing the electorate is not easy. Many reforms designed to raise turnout fail to do so. Even reforms that boost turnout do not necessarily make the electorate more representative. Instead, the additional voters drawn to the polls replicate the characteristics of the core electorate. Besides, many states are moving in the opposite direction—passing voter ID legislation that erects barriers to the vote. Although the impact of voter ID laws is not yet clear, it is quite possible that their effect will be to produce electorates that are less representative with respect to both class and race.

As for campaign finance, beginning about a decade ago, a series of federal court decisions struck down several campaign finance provisions and afforded greater First Amendment protection to political contributions as a form of speech. In the aftermath, the electoral system has been swamped with cash from extremely wealthy individuals. As a consequence, the campaign finance environment seems to be changing dramatically in ways that, if anything, further tilt the playing field. In short, when it comes to procedural reform, it seems that anything that would make much difference in reducing inequalities of political voice is currently either politically infeasible or constitutionally proscribed; and anything that is currently both politically possible and constitutionally acceptable would not make much difference.

One final question, is there anything in the recent news that illustrates the patterns you found?

The 2017 tax reform bill confirms our analysis of unequal political voice. The details of the bill reveal both an overall bias in the direction of the affluent and the impact of lobbying by well-organized, but often narrow, interests. While reduction in the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent is permanent, many of the provisions that benefit middle-income taxpayers are temporary. Among those receiving favorable tax treatment are heirs to large estates, craft brewers, real estate developers, owners of golf courses, and parents planning to send children to private elementary and high school. The tax bill had surprisingly little public support. Why were Republicans in Congress so impatient to pass a bill that  was not especially popular with the taxpaying public?  Representative Chris Collins (R-NY) had an answer that resonates with the conclusions of our inquiry. He told reporters, “My donors are basically saying ‘get it done or don’t ever call me again.’”

Kay Lehman Schlozman is the J. Joseph Moakley Endowed Professor of Political Science at Boston College. Henry E. Brady is dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy and the Class of 1941 Monroe Deutsch Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Sidney Verba is the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor Emeritus and research professor of government at Harvard University.

Dr. John C. Hulsman: The North Korean Summit Hiccup Belies the Greater Problem of the White House’s Failure to ‘Game Out Lunatics’

HulsmanLegend has it that at the height of the Third Crusade (1189-1192), Count Henry of Champagne spoke at length with the mysterious, charismatic “Old Man of the Mountain,” Rashid ad-Din Sinan. The story goes that the haughty Crusader claimed that he had the most powerful army in the Middle East, one that could at any moment defeat the Hashashin, the Old Man’s threadbare cohort of followers. Count Henry went on, pointing out that his force was at least ten times larger than that of Sinan’s.

Unimpressed, the Old Man calmly replied that the Count was mistaken, and that it was his unremarkable-looking rabble which constituted the greatest army in the field. To prove his point, he beckoned one of his men over to him and casually told him to jump off the top of the Masyaf mountaintop fortress in which they were holed up. Without hesitating, the man did so.

Through the many centuries that separate us from Count Henry, the myriad twists and turns on Western politics, culture, and life that come between us, there is absolutely no doubt at all that Westerners today would share his horrified reaction to what the Old Man of the Mountain had demonstrated to him.

“This guy is totally nuts.”

***

This telling historical vignette was eerily reenacted last week, in Donald Trump’s ‘break-up’ letter to Kim Jong-un, the far-out leader of seemingly indecipherable North Korea. Playing the part of Count Henry, the President not so subtlety hinted that America, as the greatest military force in the world, could wipe North Korea off the map at any moment it chose. Like Count Henry, Trump was making it clear to his rival that in essence their contest was so strategically lopsided that meek surrender—in this case with the policy end game of unilateral North Korean nuclear disarmament as the only possible outcome—really was the only possible option.

But as was true for Count Henry, that assumes your enemy is playing by the same rules that you are, and makes the same calculations. If, to our horror, we found that they do not, it is far too easy to simply say our enemies are ‘crazy,’ meaning their motives simply cannot be fathomed, letting us off the hook far too easily.

Throughout history, both decision-makers as well as geopolitical analysts have always had a very hard time getting past the wholly understandable first reaction that those with very different belief systems from ours are simply unknowable. In the Old Man in the Mountain’s case, given his effective strategy for engaging in strategic assassinations, Westerners took to calling his followers Hashashin, or “users of hashish,” as drugs became the only possible (and incorrect) rationale the Crusaders could come up with to explain their intensity, morale, and absolute personal commitment to Sinan, rather than to the Western value of the sanctity of human life. It has always been all too easy for decision-makers to write off ‘lunatics,’ lazily saying to themselves that the different and the strange simply cannot be understood.

There has been a lot of this misdiagnosis going on regarding Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian hermit kingdom; former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster forthrightly said Kim Jong-un was ‘crazy,’ and is therefore unable to be deterred by the threat of a nuclear counter-strike, meaning that the nuclear deterrence which has kept the global peace for these past seventy-plus years does not apply to North Korea’s nuclear programme. But have Kim’s actions really proved so unknowable, just because North Korea’s politics and culture are so admittedly different from our own?

Far from it. While there is no doubt Kim Jong-un would serve as an excellent Bond villain—between very publicly poisoning his half-brother Kim Jong-nam with sarin and executing his pro-Chinese uncle and former mentor Jang Song-thaek by blowing him to pieces with artillery—there is surely method to his madness. 

While the North Korean dictator is certainly odious, he seems to have a very well-defined and rational sense of self-preservation; in fact, he killed his uncle and his brother precisely because he feared they might emerge as threats to his continued rule and also to his life. In not allowing any alternate sources of leadership to emerge within the famously closed-off North Korean regime, Kim is clearly enhancing his chances of survival in the political shark tank he calls home.

Nor is Kim’s single-minded pursuit of an advanced nuclear weapons program capable of striking the US lunacy; rather the dictator has read some recent history, as the recent spat over the Libya model—a point which led to the temporary postponement of the summit—makes eminently clear. A North Korea in possession of such weapons has a ‘get out of jail free’ card, being able to ward off the oft-stated US desire for regime change in Pyongyang. Kim would be able to definitively avoid the recent fate of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who relinquished their nuclear programs, only to be overthrown and brutally killed.

For National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence to bring this up, illustrates that it is they and not the ruthless North Korean dictator who are living in an illogical fantasy world. For the Libya model, given the horrendous outcome for Libyan dictator Gaddafi, would obviously seem to be the last framework of choice for Kim Jong-un to embrace, given his rational desire for survival. As ever, American hawks overrate the objective global power position of the United States, as we live in a world where America, for all that it remains the most powerful nation on earth, is simply no longer the only game in town.

By understanding neither the basic structure of the world we live in—that it is comprised of many powers—nor that Kim Jong-un might be put out by the Gaddafi comparison, senior figures in the Trump White House seem to have forgotten that any negotiation short of unconditional surrender usually involves give and take by both sides, in this case over the terms, time frame, and pace of North Korea disarmament, as well as over the security guarantees that are necessary for a surprisingly rational Kim to be given, in securing both his position and his life.

The Old Man of the Mountain must never be forgotten by modern-day decision-makers, as in the end his seemingly unfathomable against-the-odds strategy was crowned with an improbable victory in the Third Crusade. His successful career underlines the vital need to game out ‘lunatics’ such as Kim Jong-un. For not only is there almost always method to their madness. Sometimes they actually win.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. His new book, To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk, was published by Princeton University Press in April and is available on Amazon. He lives in Milan, Italy.

Dr. John C. Hulsman: Delphic priestesses were the world’s first political risk consultants

by Dr. John C. Hulsman

In 480 BCE, the citizens of Athens were in more trouble than it is possible for our modern minds to fathom. Xerxes, the seemingly omnipotent son of Darius the Great, had some unfinished business left to him by his father. A decade earlier, at the Battle of Marathon in August 490 BCE, the miraculous had happened: the underrated Athenian army had seen off Darius and his mighty Persian horde, saving the threatened city-state from certain destruction. Now Xerxes had invaded Greece again, to finish the work his father had started, and he’d assembled a vast army that the Greek historian Herodotus (typically exaggerating) put at 5 million, but – though modern scholars disagree on precise numbers – was likely to have been a still-overwhelming force of 360,000, on top of a gigantic armada of 750 ships. Confronted with an insurmountable foe and almost certain destruction, the hard-pressed Athenian leadership requested the services of the world’s first political risk consultant.

Already, by 480 BCE, the Pythia of Delphi was an ancient institution. Now commonly known as the Oracle of Delphi – when, in ancient Greek, the oracles were the pronouncements that the Pythia dispensed – the Pythia were the senior priestesses of the Temple of Apollo, the Greek God of Prophecy. For more than 1,100 years (until 390 CE, when radical Christians chased the last Pythia out of Parnassus), they were viewed as the most authoritative soothsayers in Greece. Pilgrims descended from all over the ancient world to the temple on the slope of Mount Parnassus to have their questions about the future answered. From the small, enclosed chamber at the base of the shrine, the Pythia (there were three priestesses on call at any time) delivered her oracles in a frenzied state – the likely result of imbibing the hallucinogenic vapours rising from the clefts in the rock of Mount Parnassus, which we now know sits atop the intersection of two tectonic plates.

The Pythia would be sitting in a perforated cauldron astride a tripod. Pilgrims reported (and Plutarch, who for a time served as high priest at Delphi, assisting the Pythia in her mission, confirmed) that as she inhaled the strange vapours her hair would stand on end, her complexion altered, and she would often begin panting, her voice assuming an otherworldly tone. In classical days it was said that the Pythia spoke in rhyme, in pentameter or hexameter. To put it in modern terms, the Pythia was clearly as high as a kite. But let’s look at the Pythia afresh, for I would argue that the Temple at Delphi was effectively the world’s first political risk-consulting firm.

Since the height of the Persian Wars, political and business leaders have looked to outsiders blessed with seemingly magical knowledge to divine both the present and the future. While the tools of divination have obviously changed, the pressing need for establishing the rules of the road for managing risk in geopolitics have not. The question for political risk analysis remains the same as it was during the heyday of the Pythia: with superior knowledge (spiritual or intellectual), can we reliably do this?

The Pythia’s prognosticating advantages, not least her outsider status, curiously track the qualities that political risk firms look for in their best analysts today. In their isolation at Mount Parnassus, the Pythia were not in danger of elite capture, and the curse of analytical groupthink that so often follows, in terms of what they predicated. This is the curse that doomed so many modern-day analysts to be so very wrong about the Brexit vote because they didn’t bother to look outside the hermetically sealed elite shell of London; or the startling advent of Donald Trump (they never left the East Coast corridor). Physical, intellectual and emotional distance have great analytical value.

Yet despite being isolated, the Pythia had limited but regular contact with the elites of the day who made the arduous trek to visit them. Over time, the priestesses at the Temple of Apollo came to understand what it was their clients wished to know, and how to provide exactly what they lacked; independent, outside, authoritative advice. It should be noted that the Pythia were chosen from a group of highly educated women, well-acquainted with the world. It is this strange and unique mix of special knowledge, education, distance from (and yet connection to) the centres of corruption and power, that describes the ideal CV for political risk analysts today.

The Pythia offered practical counsel that could shape future actions, just as political risk analysts do today – though we’d use modern jargon and call it ‘policy’ in the public sphere, and ‘corporate strategy’ in the business world. It is amazing how good a political risk record the priestesses actually had. Between 535 and 615 of the oracles have survived to the present day, and well over half of these are said to be historically correct. (I can name a goodly number of modern firms that would kill for that record.)

There has always been a market to answer basic political risk questions: can the Persians be stopped, and if so how? Will the UK vote for Brexit? Will Trump become president? Then as now, those with a reputation for getting basic political risk questions right were venerated, just as those who failed were over time discredited. Crucially, on the biggest political risk question Delphi was ever presented with – Xerxes’ invasion – the Pythia came through with flying colours. In her peculiar poetic and riddling fashion she suggested a ploy to get the Athenians off the hook. She recounted that when Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and the patron of her namesake city, implored her father Zeus to save Athens, he told her that he would grant them ‘a wall of wood that alone should be uncaptured, a boon to you and your children’.

Naturally, the Pythia’s mysterious oracular pronouncements required interpretation by the city leaders of Athens. One of them, Themistocles, argued that a wall of wood specifically referred to the Athenian navy, and persuaded the city’s leaders to adopt a maritime-first strategy against the Persians. This policy – concocted by the Pythia – led directly to the decisive naval Battle of Salamis, the turning point that brought to an end the Persian risk to Athens’s very survival. To put it mildly, the Pythia had proven to be well worth her political-risk fee – both the direct monetary payment customarily made to her by pilgrims, and the larger donations to the gods, which secured petitioners an advanced place in the line.

To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk by John C Hulsman is out now via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

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

Against metrics: how measuring performance by numbers backfires

by Jerry Muller

More and more companies, government agencies, educational institutions and philanthropic organisations are today in the grip of a new phenomenon. I’ve termed it ‘metric fixation’. The key components of metric fixation are the belief that it is possible – and desirable – to replace professional judgment (acquired through personal experience and talent) with numerical indicators of comparative performance based upon standardised data (metrics); and that the best way to motivate people within these organisations is by attaching rewards and penalties to their measured performance. 

The rewards can be monetary, in the form of pay for performance, say, or reputational, in the form of college rankings, hospital ratings, surgical report cards and so on. But the most dramatic negative effect of metric fixation is its propensity to incentivise gaming: that is, encouraging professionals to maximise the metrics in ways that are at odds with the larger purpose of the organisation. If the rate of major crimes in a district becomes the metric according to which police officers are promoted, then some officers will respond by simply not recording crimes or downgrading them from major offences to misdemeanours. Or take the case of surgeons. When the metrics of success and failure are made public – affecting their reputation and income – some surgeons will improve their metric scores by refusing to operate on patients with more complex problems, whose surgical outcomes are more likely to be negative. Who suffers? The patients who don’t get operated upon.

When reward is tied to measured performance, metric fixation invites just this sort of gaming. But metric fixation also leads to a variety of more subtle unintended negative consequences. These include goal displacement, which comes in many varieties: when performance is judged by a few measures, and the stakes are high (keeping one’s job, getting a pay rise or raising the stock price at the time that stock options are vested), people focus on satisfying those measures – often at the expense of other, more important organisational goals that are not measured. The best-known example is ‘teaching to the test’, a widespread phenomenon that has distorted primary and secondary education in the United States since the adoption of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Short-termism is another negative. Measured performance encourages what the US sociologist Robert K Merton in 1936 called ‘the imperious immediacy of interests … where the actor’s paramount concern with the foreseen immediate consequences excludes consideration of further or other consequences’. In short, advancing short-term goals at the expense of long-range considerations. This problem is endemic to publicly traded corporations that sacrifice long-term research and development, and the development of their staff, to the perceived imperatives of the quarterly report.

To the debit side of the ledger must also be added the transactional costs of metrics: the expenditure of employee time by those tasked with compiling and processing the metrics in the first place – not to mention the time required to actually read them. As the heterodox management consultants Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman note in Six Simple Rules (2014), employees end up working longer and harder at activities that add little to the real productiveness of their organisation, while sapping their enthusiasm. In an attempt to staunch the flow of faulty metrics through gaming, cheating and goal diversion, organisations often institute a cascade of rules, even as complying with them further slows down the institution’s functioning and diminishes its efficiency.

Contrary to commonsense belief, attempts to measure productivity through performance metrics discourage initiative, innovation and risk-taking. The intelligence analysts who ultimately located Osama bin Laden worked on the problem for years. If measured at any point, the productivity of those analysts would have been zero. Month after month, their failure rate was 100 per cent, until they achieved success. From the perspective of the superiors, allowing the analysts to work on the project for years involved a high degree of risk: the investment in time might not pan out. Yet really great achievements often depend on such risks.

The source of the trouble is that when people are judged by performance metrics they are incentivised to do what the metrics measure, and what the metrics measure will be some established goal. But that impedes innovation, which means doing something not yet established, indeed that hasn’t even been tried out. Innovation involves experimentation. And experimentation includes the possibility, perhaps probability, of failure. At the same time, rewarding individuals for measured performance diminishes a sense of common purpose, as well as the social relationships that motivate co-operation and effectiveness. Instead, such rewards promote competition.

Compelling people in an organisation to focus their efforts on a narrow range of measurable features degrades the experience of work. Subject to performance metrics, people are forced to focus on limited goals, imposed by others who might not understand the work that they do. Mental stimulation is dulled when people don’t decide the problems to be solved or how to solve them, and there is no excitement of venturing into the unknown because the unknown is beyond the measureable. The entrepreneurial element of human nature is stifled by metric fixation.

Organisations in thrall to metrics end up motivating those members of staff with greater initiative to move out of the mainstream, where the culture of accountable performance prevails. Teachers move out of public schools to private and charter schools. Engineers move out of large corporations to boutique firms. Enterprising government employees become consultants. There is a healthy element to this, of course. But surely the large-scale organisations of our society are the poorer for driving out staff most likely to innovate and initiate. The more that work becomes a matter of filling in the boxes by which performance is to be measured and rewarded, the more it will repel those who think outside the box.

Economists such as Dale Jorgenson of Harvard University, who specialise in measuring economic productivity, report that in recent years the only increase in total-factor productivity in the US economy has been in the information technology-producing industries. The question that ought to be asked next, then, is to what extent the culture of metrics – with its costs in employee time, morale and initiative, and its promotion of short-termism – has itself contributed to economic stagnation?Aeon counter – do not remove

Jerry Z. Muller is the author of many books, including The Tyranny of Metrics. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, and Foreign Affairs, among other publications. He is professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

 

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

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer on The Talmud: A Biography

TalmudThe Babylonian Talmud, a postbiblical Jewish text that is part scripture and part commentary, is an unlikely bestseller. Written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic, it is often ambiguous to the point of incomprehension, and its subject matter reflects a narrow scholasticism that should hardly have broad appeal. Yet the Talmud has remained in print for centuries and is more popular today than ever. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer tells the remarkable story of this ancient Jewish book and explains why it has endured for almost two millennia. An incomparable introduction to a work of literature that has lived a full and varied life, this accessible book shows why the Talmud is at once a received source of traditional teachings, a touchstone of cultural authority, and a powerful symbol of Jewishness for both supporters and critics.

 

What is the Talmud?

The Talmud has been the central authoritative text for Judaism for the last millennium. An originally oral collectively authored work that was completed by the eighth century CE, the Talmud ranges across topics both sacred and mundane with a nonlinear style that replicates the feel of an intellectual conversation. People have routinely looked to the Talmud for guidance in their ritual, spiritual and legal lives even as many of the Talmud’s most studied passages are about torts like the effects of a goring ox on a neighbor’s property. This combination of sometimes profound content alongside seemingly banal material is one of the things that makes the Talmud so unique.

Is this an introduction to the Talmud? Will it teach me how to read the Talmud?

It is an introduction to the Talmud, but not one specifically designed to train someone to read this unique work. There are some pretty good print and digital resources that help new learners figure out how to make sense of a talmudic passage. This book provides an overview of how the Talmud was composed and subsequently received. More than explaining a passage or two of Talmud, The Talmud: A Biography examines the historical contexts in which the Talmud was initially produced and subsequently canonized. It attempts to highlight the unique literary and religious features that have made the Talmud so compelling to so many for so long.

The Talmud is a religious classic written by dead white men. Is it still relevant?

Despite the Talmud’s antique background, it is a surprisingly fresh text that seems to have a limitless potential for reinterpretation. One of the claims of the biography is that different factions of Judaism (Zionism, Reform Judaism, Hasidism) throughout history established themselves with a self-conscious opposition to the Talmud and its vision of Judaism, but eventually came back to reclaim the Talmud and its authority through reinterpretation. The Talmud is of a different time and place. Contemporary readers occasionally bristle at sections that are challenging by today’s ethical standards. If one can create distance as a reader from some of the text’s more challenging opinions or assumptions, one can find sections that seem to speak directly to our age. Because the Talmud is written in a conversational style with multiple opinions it invites readers to join the conversation and talk back to it. The Talmud: A Biography ends with a discussion of some artists who are talking back to the Talmud. One of the discussed artworks is featured on the book’s jacket cover.

Biographies are stories of people’s lives. You’ve written a biography of a book. What were the challenges of applying this genre to a book and what are the advantages?

We’re so used to the genre of biography that we don’t think much about the fact that it’s challenging to turn a life into a textual narrative. This book compounded the problem because I had to turn a text into a life to reduce that life to a textual narrative. The advantage of writing a biography of the Talmud rather than an introduction is that the living Talmud more naturally lends itself to a dynamic treatment that recognizes that the work changed over time. The Talmud’s cultural position and impact were not the same in the eleventh century as in the eighteenth; the Jewish diaspora is so vast that there were major cultural differences inherent to the different places in which Jews lived. 

The Talmud has a reputation for being difficult to comprehend. Is the reputation deserved? What makes the work so difficult?

People sometimes think that what makes the Talmud difficult is its language—the Talmud is written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic. The language is a barrier for English readers, but there are several translations available which bridge that gap. The real challenge of the Talmud lies in its logic. Much of the Talmud’s text is about fine- grained debates around the interpretation of the Bible and Mishnah (an early rabbinic legal code). The Talmud assumes a lot about its reader (that the reader knows the bible, knows the full gamut of Jewish ritual and can process logic very rapidly). There are also many places where an attentive reader will pick up on flaws in the textual logic and even contradictions within a local passage. What makes the Talmud so difficult (but in a satisfying way) is figuring out a way to make sense of these flaws and contradictions.

When did you first read the Talmud?

I had an intense traditional Jewish education. At 8 I started competing in intra-school and inter-school competitions for memorizing Mishnayot (individual passages of Mishnah, the early rabbinic law code); for five years I averaged a hundred memorized Mishnayot a year. By the time I started studying the Talmud (in summer camp after fourth grade), I was so eager to get started because I had been exposed to story after story about the Talmud’s greatness and the satisfaction it provided to its learners. I’ll admit that I didn’t understand the satisfaction piece until a decade later, when I had the intellectual maturity to read the Talmud and understand all its complexities.

Does the book offer something for those who read Talmud regularly?

Many Talmud scholars and students rarely get the opportunity to reflect on the work’s origins, its unique qualities as a work of literature or the way the Talmud was transmitted through handwritten manuscripts and various print editions to our current digital age. The book is as interested in the life the Talmud lived off the page—as a symbol of Jews and Judaism that has been perpetually implicated in fights between religions or between competing religious factions. The Talmud: A Biography interprets two talmudic passages and sustains these examples from chapter to chapter. While designed to be understood by beginners, these interpretations will engage even the most experienced Talmud scholars.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer is associate professor of religious studies and law at Northwestern University and the author of Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories.