Ronald Suny on the anniversary of the Armenian genocide

Suny jacketToday marks the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Armenian Genocide. Beginning on April 24, 1915, up to 1.5 million Armenians would die in massacres at the hands of the Ottoman government. The executions took place during and after WWI, targeting able-bodied males, and sending women, children, and the infirm on death marches into the Syrian desert. And yet, as Armenians around the world commemorate the anniversary, and numerous nations offer condolences to the descendents of the victims, the use of the term “genocide” to describe these atrocities has been politically fraught. Turkey, as the successor state of the Ottoman empire, has taken a stance of denial; Obama stopped short of using the term, with Israel seeming to follow his lead. Ronald Suny, author of the new book “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”, argues that the fact of the Armenian Genocide is indisputable. In his op ed in yesterday’s New York Times, Suny writes about the “cost of Turkey’s genocide denial”:

…governments that fail to accept and confront the harsh consequences of historical truth are giving comfort to ultranationalist and anti-democratic forces that threaten liberty and democracy in Turkey.

Read his full New York Times op ed here, and his piece in The Daily Beast, in which he discusses the term “genocide” and its application. Suny recently took time to answer questions about the genocide, his book, and the inherent difficulty in explaining events that remain for many—at least emotionally—inexplicable.

What was the status of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire before the Genocide began in 1915? Did the government openly discriminate against them?

RS: The roughly two million Armenians in the Empire were distinct — religiously distinct, as Christians in a majority Muslim society, as well as culturally and linguistically distinct in many cases. Most of them were peasants and townspeople in the six provinces of eastern Anatolia, often living in homogeneous villages and sections of towns, and occasionally dominated larger rural and urban areas. The most influential and prosperous Armenians lived in the imperial capital, Istanbul (Constantinople), where their visibility made them the target of both official and popular resentment. But they of course were Ottomans, so they were part of this society. Many Armenians even spoke Turkish and not Armenian and so forth, but at least you could identify who they were – they went to different churches and clubs, etc., and they lived in concentrated areas. At a certain point, resentment developed against Armenians who were better off, more closely tied to Europe, and better educated. Then as the propaganda about Armenians and Greeks, another Christian minority, developed suggesting they were linked to foreigners, that they were threat to the Empire, etc., more and more people begin to turn against them. So eventually fear, anger, and resentment became hatred.

The Assyrians are also part of your book – were they seen as a distinct group from the Armenians at that time?

RS: They saw themselves as distinct groups, but the Assyrians, who as another Monophysite Christian group, were often identified with Armenians. Some of them were part of ermeni millet, the official Armenian community, and they were also perceived to have links with foreigners. So the Assyrians were somewhat outcasts, both in Persia and in the Ottoman Empire, and they also suffered tremendously.

Why did the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire perceive the Armenians and Assyrians as a threat, and why they chose such an extreme approach to handle them?

RS: That is the central question of this book. There is a tendency on the part of some scholars – particularly Armenians – not to try to explain the genocide because – “why do you need to explain it? These are Turks, this is what they do, and this is the kind of regime it was.” Or, slightly more sophisticated – “oh, it’s Christians and Muslims – they are inevitably in conflict.” Or — “it’s clashes of nationalism.” Now for me, religion, nationalism, the nature of Turkish culture, Ottoman society, the state – all of these are the questions to be asked, not the answers. That is, they need to be investigated. The way I would explain this genocide, and I think it has relevance for other kinds of ethnic cleansings and mass killings, is that the regime developed what I call an “affective disposition” – that is, an emotional understanding of who the enemy was. They constructed the Armenians as an existential threat to the Ottoman Empire and to the Turkish nation, what they conceived as the Turkish nation at that time. I try to explain the origins of this affective disposition – this mental universe – in which emotion, fear, anger, and resentment combined to create an image of Armenians. Armenians originally had been thought of as a loyal part of the empire, but by 1878 they became an instrument of certain foreign powers to intervene in the Ottoman regime and internal policy — the Ottomans began to see them as a threat.

Remind us what happened in 1878.

RS: This was the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The Russians beat the Turks, and they were going to enforce reforms on the Ottoman Empire, and that was the beginning of the new “Armenian question” that continued right up to the war. Now, some people would say “well, you don’t need to go into emotions – it was a perfectly strategic, rational choice. The Armenians were actually a threat in World War I, and the Turks decided to get rid of them for national security reasons.” My view is that’s an insufficient explanation. Why did they see them as a threat? A threat is always a perception. It’s about emotion, it’s about understanding, feeling, sentiment, and construction – both cognitive and emotional construction. I’m taking a step backwards to see how they got into the position that they could imagine people this way and then carry out the worst possible kinds of things. I’m bringing emotion into it.

By some accounts, Armenians sided with Russia at the beginning of World War I —was that something the Ottomans could point to that the Armenians were a threat?

RS: This is the problem. You can’t say the Armenians sided with Russia. That is what the Ottomans would say, and they perceived that. So there are people who try to justify what the Ottomans did to the Armenians by saying they were with the enemy. What I try to show in the book is that the overwhelming majority of Ottoman Armenians wanted to stay in the Empire and attempted to prove to the Turks that they were loyal, but they also wanted reforms to protect them and allow them to prosper. They wanted Kurdish predations against Armenians to be contained, for example. The Ottoman government was opposed to these reforms, but ultimately had to agree to them in February 1914. When the war came, though, they used the first opportunity to get rid of them. I’ll give you an example. As the Ottomans are going to war, they mobilize the population. Hundreds and thousands of young Armenian men are drafted and join the Ottoman army. A few desert and go over to the Russian side. Some prominent leaders go over to the Russian side. The Russians form Armenian voluntary units on the Caucasian side against the Ottomans, but the Turks see this as treachery and demobilize hundreds of thousands of Armenian soldiers, take their weapons and uniforms away, turn them into labor battalions, and eventually murder them. So it’s a very different thing. It’s not that there wasn’t sympathy among some for Russia, but there was also no particular love for Russia. Russians didn’t like the Armenian nationalist revolutionaries any more than the Turks did so they were persecuting them as well. The Armenians were in an unfortunate position – in Persia, in Russia, and in Turkey. They were like the Kurds today.

How did they try to prove their loyalty?

RS: They mobilized their young men to fight in the army, they raised money for hospitals and aid to the government, they spoke in favor of the war effort, and many other things. They told them – we’re loyal, don’t push us into opposition. But there was an imbalance of agency. You see this today in the Armenian and Azerbaijani conflict over Karabakh, or the Israel-Palestine conflict. One side has more power and has more cards to play: the Israelis in the case of Palestine, the Armenians in the case of the Armenian- Azerbaijani conflict, and the Ottomans in 1915. The Armenians had what I’d call a dilemma of the damned. As they were being constructed as the enemy, there was very little they could do. And then they were disarmed, their leaders were arrested, they were systematically deported, and many hundreds of thousands were murdered.

The Ottoman Turks mobilized the population, in a completely chaotic and disorganized way, and there was dislocation, food shortages, soldiers marching hundreds of miles to get to the front. They were inadequately equipped, and huge numbers of desertions took place. There were half a million deserters, Muslims as well as Christians and others. Many of those deserters would either pillage villages for food, rape women, or clash with the army, and the Ottoman government claimed these were Armenian revolts. A lot of soldiers deserted, and it was general chaos.

To what extent did ordinary people participate or was it mostly carried out by special military forces?

RS: Genocides are ordered from the top: secret orders go out that say “take care of these people” (start the deportations), but we don’t have very good records on that. The orders bring about massacres, and in a systematic way. In the Armenian genocide, the deportations and massacres were often carried out by nomadic Kurds, Circassians (or, Cherkess, as they’re also called), Chechens — many of them refugees from the Caucasus or the Balkans, so called mujahedeen, other refugees who were to be settled in the Armenian villages, and ordinary people, even women. We have reports of women cutting down people so there is some popular participation.

One problem I have is – how much did the Ottomans understand what they were doing, and how much did they believe in it? There were some Ottoman governors who refused to carry out the killings and the deportations. And there were Turks and Kurds who took Armenian refugees into their homes, sometimes forcibly making women part of their harem or family, converting them to Islam. But others believed in the necessity of the massacre. You can now access intelligence reports, and certain commanders were sending reports of Armenian insurrections. Some scholars have read these reports — a kind of new, sophisticated denialism — and taken the Ottomans at their word that there really was a revolt. While there were individual moments of resistance, as at Van or Musa Dagh, because they were being attacked. there was no coordinated, general insurrection of Armenians during the war.

Were the Chechens and Circassians specially sought out for the killings or were they already living in the Empire?

RS: There had always been clashes between Kurds and Circassians and Armenians about land so there was a base of hostilities and tensions. The Ottoman government would often recruit them into special organizations, which hired them as well as criminals and others into gangs, and these people carried out a lot of massacres. The Kurds today, in the Republic of Turkey, are one major group who recognize the genocide, who have apologized for what they did, who believe they were used by the Turks, and they are trying to make up for that now. For example, in the city of Diyarbakır where my grandmother is from, the local Kurds have opened churches and talk about living in the land together with Armenians.

So the Kurds have tried reconciliation?

RS: Yes, because they also feel persecuted by the Turks. Kurdish discourse is something like “they had you for breakfast, and they’re going to have us for dinner.” I really think Turkey is the country to watch. Something’s happening there, and we don’t know where it will go. We don’t know where Russia or Armenia will go either.

Armenians began to view themselves as a nation during this period – how did the genocide contribute to that process? What caused the growing sense of a nation?

RS: I’m a constructivist — I believe that nations are creations of human beings. At a certain point people begin to think of themselves as a nation rather than a religious group or other identity, and this happened for the Armenians in the 19th century. Turks began to think this way a bit later, more in the 20th century, and Kurds even later than that. The genocide happened at a time when some people were thinking in this nationalist idiom, but simultaneously, many others were thinking of themselves as Ottomans, with special Armenian characteristics. Armenian nationalism in a sense won the day in World War I, and the post-war period, until, of course, the Soviets took over the Armenian republic, and nationalism became an alien ideology that couldn’t be expressed openly. It then became the ideology of the diaspora.

Q&A with Linda Fowler, author of Watchdogs on the Hill

Fowler jacket

Linda Fowler is the author of the new release, Watchdogs on the Hill: The Decline of Congressional Oversight of U.S. Foreign Relations. Recently she answered some questions about the book’s contribution, her writing process, and why domestic influences in international affairs is such an important and overlooked topic.

What inspired you to get into your field?

LF: I worked on Capitol Hill right after graduating from college at a time when Congress was in disarray.  The country was tearing itself apart over the Vietnam War, and lawmakers appeared helpless to deal with the upheaval.  Octogenarians dominated the leadership in both chambers, creating opportunities for President Nixon to push the bounds of the Constitution with seeming impunity.  Once I started graduate school I wanted to better understand how the world’s most powerful legislature had ended up in such a sorry state.  I was unimaginably fortunate that one of the nation’s most distinguished congressional scholars became my teacher and mentor.  Richard Fenno taught me to see the democratic possibilities in Congress, to take a longer view about its imperfections, and to focus on close observation of the people who shape it through their daily actions.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book? 

LF: I learned that Congress had done a better job overseeing U.S. foreign policy since the start of the Cold War than most political observers acknowledged, but that since the mid-1990s, the institution has performed poorly in light of historical norms.  At first glance, this pattern seemed paradoxical:  why would lawmakers have been more effective monitoring the executive during a time when fears of nuclear war generated enormous pressures to defer to the White House regarding national security?  The answer eluded me until I began to focus on changes inside the Senate that devalued committee work.  When legislative craft and expertise mattered less to individual member’s success, they spent less time on committee hearings and thus diminished their capacity for oversight of the president.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

LF: The book demonstrates that the seemingly arcane business conducted by legislative committees matters a great deal in how well Congress fulfills its constitutional responsibilities in foreign affairs.  In an era in which commentators focus on the personality of the president and his conflicts with critics, the findings of the remind us why the framers put their faith in institutions, not individuals.  The unique research design of the study combines in-depth analysis of the content of committee hearings; lengthy time series from 1947-2008; investigation of both public and secret sessions; and detailed case studies.  Together, the different facets of the project enabled me to clearly identify trends and the reasons behind them, while grounding the analysis in real-world events.

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

LF: Early in my career, when I was struggling with my first book, someone told me to stop fussing over the introduction and go back to it once I had the individual pieces of the story.   It is advice I have followed ever since.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life? 

LF: I found it most challenging to create a coherent narrative that did justice to the complexity of the topic, the wide variety of historical data, and the use of both statistical and qualitative tools of analysis.

Why did you write this book? 

LF: In 2004, I had just finished a long stint in an administrative position at Dartmouth and was looking to reinvent myself as a scholar by undertaking a new project.  Several articles in the news that spring caught my attention because they quoted members of the House of Representatives publicly scolding two of the Senate’s most distinguished members, Foreign Relation’s chairman Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Armed Services chairman John Warner (R-VA), for scheduling oversight hearings of President Bush’s conduct of the war in Iraq. In the past, such pointed challenges would have been unthinkable, given the Senate’s prestige in foreign affairs.  I wanted to discover whether the Senate’s prime national security watchdogs had lost influence and, if so, what reasons lay behind the change.

Who do you see as the audience for this book? 

LF: Scholars have paid comparatively little attention to the subject of Congress and foreign policy: congressional experts focus primarily on lawmaking, while foreign policy specialists tend to overlook domestic influences in international affairs.  My objective was to redirect the attention of both camps by showing that oversight was an integral part of the legislative process and key to the rule of law and democratic accountability in war and peace.  Despite the scholarly focus, I wanted to make the book interesting to students, journalists, and people generally interested in American politics. So, I worked hard to make it accessible by using case studies to illustrate the main arguments, avoiding jargon, and burying the technical material in appendices.

How did you come up with the title or jacket? 

LF: A major theme of the book is that Congress needs to do better in overseeing U.S. foreign affairs, so I wanted a cover that conveyed both gravity and urgency.  The bold lettering of the title, the yellow color of the subtitle and the photograph of the famous hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by chairman William Fulbright (D-AR), during the Vietnam War convey those messages.

Happy Birthday Thomas Jefferson

Today marks the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third U.S. president. Princeton University Press has been publishing The Papers of Thomas Jefferson since 1950.  To celebrate the birthday of this talented writer and politician who once said, “I cannot live without books”, we have compiled a political science book list.

The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It
Jason Weeden & Robert Kurzban

The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind digs into how self-interest divides the public on hot-button issues.Weeden and Robert Kurzban explain to readers how people form political positions.”The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind is provocative and often persuasive…Weeden and Kurzban remind us that self-interest is a complicated concept.” –Glenn C. Altschuler, Huffington Post

Read Chapter 1

American Insecurity American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction
Adam Seth Levine

Adam Levine analyzes the reasoning behind how increasing threat to financial well-being leads to political inaction. He explains when people need money, those who care about the issues but are not personally affected get involved.”Levine provides evidence that financially anxious people respond to their stress not by grouping together for action but by becoming less generous with their checkbooks and personal time.” — Pacific Standard

Read Chapter 1

The Loneliness of the Black Republican The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power
Leah Wright Rigueur

The Loneliness of the Black Republican looks at the ideas of black Republicans from the era of the New Deal to Ronald Reagan’s presidential ascent in 1980. The book serves to provide an understanding of the interaction between African Americans and the Republican Party.”The Loneliness of the Black Republican is meticulous, well-crafted, and consistently astute about the fractious recent history of the Grand Old Party.” — Artur Davis, Weekly Standard

Read the Introduction

The Birth of Politics The Birth of Politics: Eight Greek and Roman Political Ideas and Why They Matter
Melissa Lane

Melissa Lane introduces the reader to the foundations of Western political thought, from the Greeks, who invented democracy, to the Romans, who created a republic and then transformed it into an empire. The book brings to light that the birth of politics was a story as much of individuals as ideas.”The political ideas of the ancients still endure-and still propel us into debate and even more vigorous conflict…[T]he author successfully illuminates the political ideas that still perplex and divide us.” —Kirkus Reviews

Read the Introduction

k10373[1] The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 41: 11 July to 15 November 1803
Thomas Jefferson
Edited by Barbara B. Oberg

This volume of Thomas Jefferson’s papers is about the Louisiana Purchase.

Browse Princeton’s series of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson

Read Chapter 1

The Shape of the New The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World
Scott L. Montgomery & Daniel Chirot

The Shape of the New looks at Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx as heirs of the Enlightenment. Montgomery & Chirot note that it is impossible to understand the political conflicts of our own time without digging into the history of our country.”The Shape of the New is an ambitious book and a joy to read. The scholarship is brilliant. In contextualizing the great ideas of modern history, Montgomery and Chrot provide a holistic framework with which to understand the process of social change and ideological conflict.” — Paul Froese, coauthor of America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God-and What That Says about Us

Read the Introduction

 Thinking about the Presidency Thinking About the Presidency: The Primacy of Power
William G. Howell
With David Milton Brent
With a new preface by the author

William Howell examines the key aspects of executive power-political and constitutional origins, philosophical underpinnings, manifestations in contemporary political life, implications for political reform, and looming influences over the standards to which we hold those individuals elected to America’s highest office. In a new preface, Howell reflects on presidential power during the presidency of Barack Obama.”As one who served in the White House, I know something about the demands and dimensions of the modern presidency. In Thinking about the Presidency, William Howell contributes new and valuable insights into how the role has evolved, and what it means for our country.” –David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama

Read Chapter 1

Christopher Bail on anti-Muslim sentiment

In this clip from the documentary aftertheshooting.com, sociologist and author Christopher Bail discusses whether the sea change in American public opinion about Islam over the past few years may have contributed to the recent murder of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His recent book, Terrified, employs computer analytics techniques to show how anti-Muslim organizations have gained visibility in the public sphere. In this clip, Bail speaks with a close friend of one of the victims. You can watch the entire documentary here.

Last month, Bail spoke with Paul Rosenberg at Salon about his innovative new methodology for studying how fear is fostered in the broader cultural landscape. He was interviewed about the aftermath of the Chapel Hill shootings in the Guardian earlier this year.

Michael Chwe explains common knowledge, and why it matters to Mark Zuckerberg

Michael Chwe for UCOMM - 130321Michael Chwe, whose book, Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge has, in his words, “made its way out of the backwaters of course syllabi” to catch the attention of Mark Zuckerberg, had a terrific piece on the Monkey Cage blog of the Washington Post explaining exactly what common knowledge is, and why it’s so important. According to Chwe, common knowledge is generated by large scale social media platforms like Facebook, and this matters because of the many ways it can be leveraged, among them, stopping violence against women, and helping to foster collective political action.

From his piece on the Washington Post:

When Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg chose my book “Rational Ritual” last week for his “A Year of Books” book club, I was surprised. “Rational Ritual” came out in 2001, and has somehow slowly made its way out of the backwaters of course syllabi into the elevated spheres of technology companies. This is gratifying to me, because even though it is a scholarly book published by a university press, “Rational Ritual” is essentially a popularization.

“Rational Ritual” tries to popularize the concept of “common knowledge” as defined by the philosopher David Lewis and the sociologist Morris Friedell in 1969. A fact or event is common knowledge among a group of people if everyone knows it, everyone knows that everyone knows it, everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows it, and so on.

When I was a graduate student in economics in the late 1980s, most people considered common knowledge as an idea of only theoretical interest. People who thought about collective action (and its flip side, political repression) were mostly interested in the problem of free riding, rather than how people communicate. But social change isn’t just about tackling incentives to free ride – it’s also a problem of coordination.

Read the rest here.

Recently, Michael Chwe, a master of interdisciplinary applications for otherwise “rarified mathematical theories” has been particularly active in exploring how game theory can help curb sexual violence. Check out his piece on the topic on the PBS Newshour blog here. His recent Q&A with Facebook Books is up here.

Mark Zuckerberg chooses Michael Chwe’s RATIONAL RITUAL for Facebook Books!

Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge by Michael Chwe has been selected by none other than Mark Zuckerberg as the latest pick in his “Year of Books.” Analyzing rituals across histories and cultures, Rational Ritual shows how a single and simple concept, common knowledge, holds the key to the coordination of any number of actions, from those used in advertising to those used to fuel revolutions.

From Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook post:

The book is about the concept of “common knowledge” and how people process the world not only based on what we personally know, but what we know other people know and our shared knowledge as well.

This is an important idea for designing social media, as we often face tradeoffs between creating personalized experiences for each individual and crafting universal experiences for everyone. I’m looking forward to exploring this further.

Zuckerberg isn’t the first to take note of Michael Chwe’s talent for making unusual and intriguing connections. As Virginia Postrel wrote in the New York Times, “[His] work, like his own academic career, bridges several social sciences.” Not long ago his book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist created a stir on social media, triggering debates and garnering a hugely popular feature by Jennifer Schuessler.

A Q&A with Chwe will be coming out on Facebook Books in the coming weeks. In the meantime, head over to Facebook to comment on Rational Ritual, or follow the discussion.  Congratulations, Michael Chwe!

Christopher Bail talks to Salon about “Terrified”

Christopher Bail, author of Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream, recently spoke with Paul Rosenberg for a feature in Salon on how anti-Muslim sentiment is fostered by the broader cultural landscape, and the innovative new methodology he has used to study that process. Paul Rosenberg at Salon writes:

It may be hard to fathom or remember, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the American public responded with an increased level of acceptance and support for Muslims. President Bush—who had successfully courted the Muslim vote in 2000—went out of his way to praise American Muslims on numerous occasions in 2001 and 2002. However, the seeds were already being planted that would change that drastically over time.  Within a few short years, a small handful of fringe anti-Muslim organizations—almost entirely devoid of any real knowledge or expertise, some drawing on age-old ethno-religious conflicts—managed to hijack the public discourse about Islam, first by stoking fears, grabbing attention with their emotional messaging, then by consolidating their newfound social capital, forging ties with established elite organizations, and ultimately building their own organizational and media infrastructure.

How this all happened is the subject of a fascinating new book, “Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream,” by sociologist Christopher Bail, of the University of North Carolina.  The book not only lays bare the behind-the-scenes story of a momentous shift in public opinion, it employs cutting-edge computer analysis techniques applied to large archives of data to develop a new theoretical outlook, capable of making sense of the whole field of competing organizations struggling to shape public opinion, not just studying one or two the most successful ones. The result is not only a detailed account of a specific, significant, and also very pernicious example of cultural evolution, but also a case study in how to more rigorously study cultural evolution more generally in the future. In the process, it sheds considerable light on the struggles involved, and the difficulties faced by those trying to fight back against this rising tide of misdirected fear, anger and hatred.


Read the full interview with Christopher Bail that follows here.

Terrified, by Christopher Bail

Leah Wright Rigueur on the state of the Republican Party

Last Wednesday, the Republican National Committee Black Republican Trailblazers awards took place in Washington D.C.. The event honored black Republicans both past and present, and this year the awards celebrated the largest class of black Republicans in Congress since Reconstruction. Leah Wright Rigueur, author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican:Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power commented on the state of the Republican Party to All Things Considered. Read what Rigueur said and learn more about the awards, here.

Be sure to read the introduction to The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power, here.

 

bookjacket

The Loneliness of the Black Republican:
Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power

Leah Wright Rigueur

Q&A with Lily Geismer, author of Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party

Recently Princeton University Press had the opportunity to interview Lily Geismer about her book, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party. Read the introduction for free, here.

Why did you write this book?

LG: The answer to that question changed the longer I worked on the project. I set out to add to and complicate the literature of political and urban history. However, the longer I worked on it I realized that my other goal has been to make readers, especially people who engage in knowledge-based work and who live in suburbs, develop a more comprehensive understanding of the role of policies in shaping their lives and choices. Hopefully, it will help all readers think more critically about their political outlook and decisions.

What inspired you to get into your field?

LG: I was always really interested in contemporary politics and policy and questions of inequality in the United States. I realized as an undergraduate that the best way to explore these contemporary questions came from studying recent American history. When I entered graduate school, I did not intend to study these issues in one particular place or at the local level. However, it became clear that my questions about national political realignment, racial inequality, economic restructuring and the contradictions and transformation of American liberalism were best suited to a study of one particular place and picked to focus on Boston where I am from. The more I worked on the project, I came to understand that many of my questions were unconsciously informed by my experience growing up in Boston and were issues that had interested me since I was a kid and thus were what had pushed me toward the study of history in the first place.

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

LG: The best piece of advice I received while I was writing the book came from Thomas Sugrue who told me to write the book as if the audience was my undergraduate students at the Claremont Colleges and I had to explain the concepts to them. This advice really helped me figure out to make the writing clearer and more accessible. The other advice that proved very influential came from the Author’s note at the beginning of by J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground about the three families he followed through the Boston busing crisis. Lukas explained, “At first, I thought I read clear moral geographies of their intersecting lives, but the more time I spent with them, the harder it became to assign easy labels of guilt or virtue. The realities of urban America when seen through the lives of actual city dwellers, proved far more complicated than I had imagined.” I found myself returning to this statement repeatedly as I sought to make sense of the politics and point of view of the suburban residents I study.

How did you come up with the title or jacket?

LG: The title for the book is a variation on the famous bumper sticker declaring “Don’t Blame Me, I’m from Massachusetts,” which circulated after George McGovern won only the state of Massachusetts in the 1972 election against Richard Nixon and again around Watergate. I thought it provided a way to capture and explore the dimensions of individualist and exceptionalist attitudes of many people who live in Massachusetts. It also provided a point of departure for me to provide a new examination of the McGovern campaign and show how it was not the failure it is often depicted to be, but a precursor to types of campaigns Democratic candidates would increasingly come to run on in an effort to appeal to suburban knowledge workers.

The design for the book jacket is inspired by a highway sign from Route 128, the high-tech corridor outside of Boston on which the book focuses. I am indebted to the wonderful and creative jacket designer Chris Ferrante at Princeton University Press for the cover design, which far exceeded my expectations. I know that you are not supposed to judge a book by the cover, but, in this case, I hope people will!

What is your next project?

LG: My next project grew out of Don’t Blame Us, especially the final chapter on Michael Dukakis and the Democratic Party’s pursuit of public-private partnerships and high-tech growth and I wanted to look at these questions more at the national level and into the 1990s. Although still at the very early stages, my new project examines the bi-partisan promotion of market-based solutions to problems of social inequality and privatization of public policy from the Great Society to the Clinton Foundation. I am focusing on the network that emerged as individuals and ideas have increasingly moved between government, academia, and business and how this movement connected and contributed to the economic, health care, education, environmental, housing and urban policies that emerged in the Clinton administration as well the development of public-private, non-profit programs like Teach for America; the popularity of microfinance, both in foreign and domestic contexts; and, the decision of college graduates across the political spectrum to seek employment in the private sector and non-government organizations. The project aims to complicate and challenge prevailing ideas about neoliberalism and show how the Democratic Party and its allies both embody and have influenced the pervasiveness of individualist and entrepreneurial-focused ideology in American policy, culture, and society.

What are you reading right now?

LG: One of the best parts of the book’s release has been that it coincided with the publication of books of members of my graduate school cohort and friends in the field, many of which were also published by Princeton University Press. I just finished Andrew Needham’s Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest (Princeton, 2014) and Nathan Connolly’s A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (Chicago, 2014). Next up are Leah Wright Rigueur’s The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (Princeton, 2015) and Kathryn Brownell’s Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life (North Carolina, 2014). I have been hearing about these projects for years and it has been so exciting to read them in their finished form.


 

bookjacket

Don’t Blame Us:
Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party

Lily Geismer

The Failure of Islamic Democracy, by John Owen, author of CONFRONTING POLITICAL ISLAM: Six Lessons from the West’s Past — Op-Ed Original

The Failure of Islamic Democracy
By John M. Owen IV

The recent jihadist horrors in France, Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq, and Syria have lured our attention away from political conditions in the Middle East that indirectly helped produce them. In Turkey and Egypt “Islamic democracy” failed in 2014, and that failure will likely have long and deep repercussions for the entire region.

From northwest Africa to South Asia, majorities of Muslims routinely tell pollsters that they believe their country should either adopt literal Sharia, law derived from Islam’s holy texts, or at least follow the principles of those texts. The secularism that authoritarian Muslims imposed on their peoples from the 1920s through the 1970s is simply not popular over this vast region.

At the same time, the late Arab Spring made clear that Middle Eastern Muslims want governments that are accountable to them. The only resolution for most countries in the region, then, is some kind of Islamic democracy.

The very phrase “Islamic democracy” seems incoherent the Western ear, and indeed any Islamic democracy could not be liberal, in the individualist and secularist sense that we mean by that term today.

What, then, is Islamic democracy? Since it took power in 2002, Turkey’s ruling AK (Justice and Development) Party has invited the world to watch it build just such a system (although its leaders insist on the term “conservative democracy”). The early years of AK Party government under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looked promising, as the economy grew, negotiations with Kurdish separatists progressed, and Turkey even moved toward membership in the European Union. The AK Party fairly won several elections.

The unraveling began in 2013 with a crackdown on protests, and in 2014 it continued with corruption charges against Erdoğan allies, media censorship, politicization of the judiciary, and arrests of political rivals. Elected President in August after twelve years as Prime Minister, Erdoğan has made clear his determination to expand the powers of that office.

Then there is Egypt. Its stirring 2011 revolution ousted the authoritarian secular regime of Hosni Mubarak, and free elections in 2012 produced an Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, and an Islamist majority in parliament. Openly admiring of the Turkish model, the new Egypt was poised to exemplify an Arab Islamic democracy.

But in November 2012 Morsi assumed extraordinary powers. Mounting public protests against Morsi’s power grab were followed by his ouster by Egypt’s military in July 2013, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In 2014 al-Sisi ran nearly unopposed for President, and while in office he has suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and all other dissenters. Egypt appears where it was before 2011, only with a different former army general in charge.

Turkey’s Erdoğan has bested his opponents; Egypt’s Morsi was destroyed by his. But in both countries the experiment with Islamic democracy has failed. Each elected leader confronted powerful elites and large segments of the public who did not trust him to remain a democrat. Relations deteriorated, factions polarized, and both countries are settling into sultanism.

These depressing stories are not only about Turkey and Egypt. They are about the future of Islamic democracy itself. For nearly a century the entire Middle East has been passing through a legitimacy crisis, or a struggle over the best way to order society. The West and other regions have passed through legitimacy crises of their own in past centuries – most recently, the twentieth-century struggle between communism and liberal democracy. Prolonged spasms like these scramble political loyalties and generate unrest, revolution, and foreign interventions.

In the Muslims’ current crisis the original contenders in the struggle were secularism, pioneered by Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic; and Islamism, formulated by thinkers such as the Sunni Hassan al-Banna and the Shia Ruhollah Khomeini. Many Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, journalists, and politicians lately have touted Islamic democracy as a hybrid solution to this long struggle.

Western history shows that long international ideological contests are played out in the policies and performances of real countries. And they end only when a large, influential state that exemplifies one contending ideology manifestly outperforms large states exemplifying the alternative ideologies.

Consider the Cold War, a struggle between the liberal democracy and communism that played out in the competition between the United States and Soviet Union. By the 1980s America’s economic, technological, and military superiority was clear. Societal elites the world over concluded that communism did not work after all. Country after country abandoned state socialism, and liberal democracy enjoyed a period of predominance over much of the globe.

In 2011 and 2012 it appeared that the Middle East was heading for a similar resolution, with Turkey showing the superiority of Islamic democracy, Egypt following its example, and elites in neighboring societies adopting this new hybrid regime as the wave of the future. As 2015 begins, things look nearly the opposite. Tunisia, which recently held fair elections and a peaceful transfer of power, provides some hope. But if history is a good guide, Tunisia is too small and peripheral to be an exemplar or inspire imitation.

We can continue to argue over whether the retreat of Islamic democracy was inevitable or caused by other factors. We can argue over whether Islamic democracy’s time has passed, or not yet arrived. What is clear is that the Middle East’s legitimacy crisis continues, with an end no longer in sight.

John M. Owen IV is Professor of Politics, and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, at the University of Virginia and author of CONFRONTING POLITICAL ISLAM.

Interview with Adam Levine, author of American Insecurity on MSNBC.com

Adam Levine talked with MSNBC co-host Krystall Ball on her popular vodcast Krystal Clear about his new book, American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction. Check out the first chapter of American Insecurity for free, here.


 

bookjacket American Insecurity:
Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction

Adam Seth Levine

Drumroll, please…. Introducing Princeton University Press’s best-selling books for 2014

With 2014 in the history books and the media already predicting which books will be big in 2015, we are happy to look back at our best-selling titles for the year. It is a list noticeable for diversity of subject (fairy tales, math, ancient history, and birds all make an appearance) and for what it says about the longevity of some of our older titles, (say hello to stalwart books like On Bullshit, The I Ching, and The Box). We hope you find something wonderful to read on this list and if you’ve already read any of these books, let us know in the comments section below.

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm edited by Jack Zipes
Alan Turing: The Enigma, The Book That Inspired the Film The Imitation Game by Andrew Hodges
1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline
Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson
On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt
The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle
The I Ching or Book of Changes edited by Hellmut Wilhelm
The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century by Jürgen Osterhammel
The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup by Noam Wasserman
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson
The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward B. Burger & Michael Starbird
Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit by Charles W. Calomiris & Stephen H. Haber
The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City by William B. Helmreich
Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide by Paul H. Williams, Robbin W. Thorp, Leif L. Richardson & Sheila R. Colla
The Calculus Lifesaver: All the Tools You Need to Excel at Calculus by Adrian Banner
Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better by Peter H. Schuck
The Soul of the World Roger Scruton
The Age of the Vikings Anders Winroth
Mostly Harmless Econometrics: An Empiricist’s Companion by Joshua D. Angrist & Jörn-Steffen Pischke
Rare Birds of North America by Steve N. G. Howell, Ian Lewington & Will Russell