Craig Clunas on Chinese Painting and its Audiences

ClunasWhat is Chinese painting? When did it begin? And what are the different associations of this term in China and the West? In Chinese Painting and Its Audiences, which is based on the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts given at the National Gallery of Art, leading art historian Craig Clunas draws from a wealth of artistic masterpieces and lesser-known pictures to show how Chinese painting has been understood by a range of audiences over five centuries, from the Ming Dynasty to today. Recently, Clunas took the time to answer some questions about the book.

There are lots of books about Chinese art, what’s the particular scope of this one?

CC: This book isn’t about the whole of Chinese art, but it looks at the important art of painting in China over the last five hundred years or so, from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to the very recent past. It does it not from the point of view of the creation of Chinese painting but through a history of looking at it, and a history of the types of viewers who have formed the very diverse audiences for it over those centuries.

If I don’t know much about Chinese culture, will I be able to understand this book?

CC: I hope anybody interested in art can get something from this book. It has its origins in a lecture series, the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, held regularly at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, since 1953. In 2012 I gave these lectures (with the same title as the book); that’s only the second time in over sixty years that art from China has been the focus of a Mellon Lecture series. So I was very conscious of addressing a non-specialist audience, of people with an interest in the visual arts generally but without any specific expertise, and I’ve tried to keep the technicalities to a minimum in the main text, while still providing the evidence for other scholars to judge the strength of my arguments. When people say, ‘I don’t know anything about Chinese art,’ they often in fact already have a strong set of preconceptions, and I want to dispel some of these by showing the actual variety of painting being produced over a long time span, including work made in China in the past which tends to get left out of the category called ‘Chinese painting’ today.

How would you break down the main argument? 

CC: Obviously, back in the sixteenth century people in China who viewed a work by a famous painter of the day, or an old master from the past, didn’t think of what they were looking at as ‘Chinese painting.’ To them, it was just ‘painting.’ Today, whether in the Chinese-speaking world or outside it, the category ‘Chinese painting’ is the meaningful one we use to describe both historic painting and contemporary work of certain kinds. The book looks at how this came about, and shows how it was through the actions of viewers that this cultural category was formed, concentrating on certain kinds of pictures and marginalizing others. I’m claiming that the understanding of Chinese painting in some ways ran before it could walk, making big generalizations about the subject before much of the detailed work was done. These generalizations then fed into art history as a whole, where ‘Chinese painting’ stands as probably the major counter-example to the western tradition of art. I’m arguing here that the category ‘Chinese painting’ isn’t a timeless essence of Chinese culture, or an imposition on China from outside, but the result of a complex set of historical processes involving different types of audiences.

How does the book do this? 

CC: Firstly, by showing a fresh and broad set of images, you can’t write about pictures without showing them! The book is very heavily illustrated; it includes some familiar paintings which everybody already interested in the topic might recognize (though I hope they are talked about in a new way), but it also has lots of unfamiliar images, pictures which haven’t been widely reproduced before. I hope every reader will see something surprising and something beautiful. At the book’s heart are a sequence of what to me are really interesting paintings of different types of people – men and women, emperors and merchants, scholars and gallery-goers – looking at paintings. These pictures which take viewing as their subject can tell us a lot. They are at the core of a sequence of chapters which roughly speaking takes the topic from the fifteenth century to our own time, looking at a number of ideal audiences for Chinese painting; I’ve called these: the gentleman, the emperor, the merchant, the nation, the people. I’ve tried to balance analysis of the images themselves with the context in which they were produced, and to look at audiences both inside and outside China, which go back a lot longer than people might imagine. I’m obviously dependent on the specialist scholarship of other writers, and I’ve tried to pull together some of this work to give readers who might be interested in knowing more about a particular topic a sense of some of the great work being done now on Chinese painting. You can now read extensively in English about Chinese painting theory and criticism, and the lives of individual artists, over a broad time span. I’d be pleased if this book made people just a bit more aware of that great body of knowledge, and of the sheer scale of China’s artistic production.

How do you think this book might be received in China? 

CC: I’ve written other books on Chinese art, mostly of the Ming period, which have been translated into Chinese, and what I find interesting (and a bit surprising) is how some Chinese readers find contemporary resonances in books which I thought of when I wrote them as being ‘just’ about history. So I’ve come to accept that the history we write is never ‘just’ about the past. I’ve also learned (and this would be one of the main arguments of the book) that it’s wrong to imagine some homogeneous ‘Chinese view’ of painting or anything else, as if everybody in that huge country thought the same way. I hope some readers there might find it intriguing, and that even if they don’t like its way of arguing they would recognise the respect I feel for one of the world’s great bodies of art and human creativity.

How do you see the story of Chinese painting and its audiences developing in the future? 

CC: Painting, whether in brush and ink or oil on canvas, is only one of the practices of the visual arts in China today, but it remains an extremely important one. This is not least because the boom in the art market in China makes works of both past and present hugely valuable commodities. It seems pretty unlikely to me that the significant collections of Chinese painting outside China (whether in museums or in private hands) will grow very much in the future, the gravitational pull of the Chinese market is now just too strong. But the digital reproduction of artworks, which is proceeding now at a terrific pace, may mean that the physical location of paintings will matter less and less, their audiences will become more global and the composition of these audiences will get more and more diverse. That’s perhaps going to make it harder and harder for a restrictive definition of ‘Chinese painting’ to sustain itself, and maybe in time it will just be part of something called ‘painting’ again, or – who knows – even the dominant strand within it.

Craig Clunas is the Professor of History of Art of Oxford University in England. His books include Screen of Kings: Royal Art and Power in Ming China, Empire of Great Brightness: Visual and Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, and Art in China.

Cass Sunstein on the echo chamber and his new book, #Republic

SunsteinSocial media gives us ways to nurture ever more elaborate online communities, but is it friendly to the kind of democracy diverse societies need? In #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Cass Sunstein, the New York Times bestselling author of Nudge and The World According to Star Wars, shows exactly how today’s Internet is driving political fragmentation, polarization, and even extremism—and what can be done about it. Recently, Sunstein answered a few questions about his timely new book.

Why did you write this book, and how does it relate to your previous work?

Well, we are obviously in a time of national division. The splits between Americans across political lines are striking and disturbing, and there’s a lot of division and mutual misunderstanding out there. There is distrust and anger as well. Social media contributes to those splits. So I wanted to get hold of what is a really serious problem in a nation that aspires to E Pluribus Unum. The book grows out of my previous books on the general subject—but the media environment has changed so rapidly that some of the central arguments, e.g. about Twitter and Facebook, are entirely new.

What new threats to democracy does the internet pose now that it didn’t pose, say, five years ago? Haven’t people always sorted themselves into like-minded groups?

We used to have a much larger role for general interest intermediaries, such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. That’s diminished, and with it, trust in them has diminished too. The use of niches—especially for people who are politically engaged—is pretty dramatic. Hashtag Nation (#Nation) isn’t really something we’ve seen before. I wouldn’t want to say that things are getting worse, but they’re getting differently bad.

We’ve all heard the term “echo chamber,” perhaps particularly in the recent election cycle. Can you talk a bit about this idea and the implicit dangers?

Echo chambers breed extremism. If you hang out with like-minded people, you’ll get more confident and more extreme—and the group will get more unified. Pretty soon, people in different echo chambers live in different political universes. That makes problem-solving really hard, and it makes enmity really easy. My own work in the White House showed me the importance of focusing on objective truths and of not insulating oneself—echo chambers are destructive to those endeavors.

How can the internet be made friendlier to democratic deliberation?

A big question. Let’s start with Facebook: It should redo its News Feed so as to ensure that there’s less in the way of informational cocoons. Let’s end with each of us: We should make choices so that we hear lots of points of view, including from people we think we disagree with. If you can’t learn something from someone with a very different political orientation, you’re missing a lot. You’re not an ideal citizen, or close to it.

What kind of democracy is needed in diverse societies, and how can your book help us to get there?

We need deliberative democracy—one in which people deliberate with people who are unlike themselves, and learn from them. We need to put a premium on science and facts. We need serendipitous encounters with people and ideas that we would not choose to engage. We need a lot more technocracy, not less. The book might have a few ideas on those subjects.

Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School. His many books include the New York Times bestsellers Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler), The World According to Star Wars, and #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.

Tony Smith on how Woodrow Wilson shaped America’s foreign policy

Why Wilson Matters by Tony SmithThe liberal internationalist tradition is credited with America’s greatest triumphs as a world power—and also its biggest failures. Beginning in the 1940s, imbued with the spirit of Woodrow Wilson’s efforts at the League of Nations to “make the world safe for democracy,” the United States steered a course in world affairs that would eventually win the Cold War. Yet in the 1990s, Wilsonianism turned imperialist, contributing directly to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the continued failures of American foreign policy. In Why Wilson Matters: The Origin of American Liberal Internationalism and Its Crisis Today, Tony Smith traces how Wilson’s thinking about America’s role in the world evolved in the years leading up to and during his presidency, and how the Wilsonian tradition went on to influence American foreign policy in the decades that followed. Smith recently took the time to answer questions about his book.

How does Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy (1913-1921) relate to today’s world?

TS: Wilson never articulated a grand strategy for the United States. Still, his two terms in office, and especially his design for the League of Nations, laid out concepts for how to “make the world safe for democracy” that came to life with the challenges Washington faced to win the peace after victory in World War II. The package of Wilson’s proposals for a system of world peace called for an alliance of democratic governments, working to promote an integrated international economic system, through multilateral agreements that included first and foremost collective security, all maintained under American leadership. What at first would be a Pax Americana would in time become a Pax Democratica. The result is what we call “Wilsonianism,” the American variant of liberal internationalism. We can distinguish a “preclassical” stage of liberal thinking that goes back to our Revolution, a “classic” period with Wilson, a “hegemonic” stage during the cold war, and an “imperialist” phase that began in the 1990s. This last stage is best called “neo-Wilsonianism.”

Was President George W. Bush the heir of the Wilsonian mantle in world affairs?

TS: Certainly the Bush Doctrine (defined as the National Security Strategy of the United States in September 2002) seemed to show continuity between Wilson’s thinking and that of the Bush administrations of 2001-2009. The key difference lay in the defensive character of classical and hegemonic American liberal internationalism and the offensive posture of neo-Wilsonian imperialism. The neo-Wilsonian belief that democracy was a “universal value” that had “universal appeal” such that the United States could embrace a “just war” doctrine that overthrew the Westphalian system of state sovereignty in terms of a “responsibility to protect” peoples everywhere from autocratic government would never for a moment have been entertained by Wilson. Wilson did not march on Mexico City in 1914, nor on Moscow or on Berlin in 1918. By the same coin, he would surely not have approved the attack on Baghdad in 2003, nor is there reason to think he would have celebrated the April Spring eight years later.

Why, then, is Wilson’s name so often associated with American imperialism?

TS: At the root of the problem is the failure to study Wilson’s political thinking about the origins and character of democratic government developed during the decades when he was one of this country’s leading social scientists, ideas he later followed as president. The result is that American liberal internationalism has lacked a clear identity to give it a compass in foreign relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. To call Wilson, as so many have, “a crusader,” “messianic,” and “utopian” is simply to misunderstand the prudent restraint he repeatedly showed in thinking that democratic government would quickly, easily, or indeed ever at all expand worldwide. Yes, he was “idealistic” and “moralistic” in thinking democracy was the best form of government for peoples capable of enjoying its blessings of liberty. But a utopian, and so an imperialist, he never was. Let’s call him a “realistic liberal.”

Why does all this matter?

TS: The American tradition of human rights and democracy promotion, like that which sponsors open economic relations, all in the name of making the world safe for democracy, has badly overplayed its hand. Its belief that our way was the only way led to a clash of civilizations the fruits of which we can see on every side, from the Muslim world, to China and Russia to economic inequality at home. The tragedy is that a way of thinking that did so much to establish the strength of the free market democracies between the early 1940s and the early 1990s should have been the source of its own undoing is an irony whose logic needs to be grasped. Here lies the explanation for how the greatest successes in the Republic’s history in foreign affairs—going from the creation of the Bretton Woods System to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, passing by occupation policies for Germany and Japan—should give way to a change in its course that would lead to the invasion of Iraq under Bush and the surge in Afghanistan and enthusiasm about the Arab Spring under Obama –policies which now constitute the greatest defeats in our country’s history in world affairs.

Is liberal imperialism related to the economic crisis that has best the world since 2007?

TS: Most certainly it is. To read the criticisms of Economics Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz is to see the logic of Wilson’s thinking applied to our day with the same concern from American power and American democracy being steadily eroded by what Wilson called “predatory” capitalism. He feared its machinations globally, and not only domestically. Wilson was right.

What can be done?

TS: Neo-Wilsonianism is now deeply embedded in American elite institutions. The neoconservative takeover of the Republican Party in the 1990s bears much of the blame for popularizing and militarizing the Wilsonian tradition. However, the neoliberal movement within the Democratic Party did most of the intellectual heavy-lifting in the development of this thinking, as can be seen from a review of the Obama years and the policies advanced by Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. The international regulation of the capitalist world and the growth of a national security state simply have too much momentum behind them for us to have much confidence in a progressive future. That said, the faith of an earlier day returned under FDR with astonishing success and may yet be able to light the future before it is too late. Nation- and state-building that Washington likes to discuss so much with respect to our efforts to reform peoples abroad might better begin at home. From income inequality, to campaign finance reform, to prison conditions there should be quite enough here and with our democratic partners to keep us busy. “Physician, heal thyself.”

Tony Smith is Cornelia M. Jackson Professor emeritus of political science at Tufts University. The best know of his earliest work on American liberal internationalism is America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy (published by Princeton University Press in 1994 and again, in an expanded version, in 2012).

Walter Scheidel on what really reduces inequality: Violent shocks

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

What is the great leveler?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Scott Parrish on the current significance of the Great Mississippi Flood

Parrish“Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment.”

In 1927, the south experienced one of the most extensive environmental disasters in U.S. history: heavy rains led to the flooding of the Mississippi river, spanning nearly thirty thousand square miles across seven states. More than a half million people were displaced, and due to the speed of new media and the slow progress of the flood, it became the first environmental disaster to be experienced on a mass scale. Drawing upon newspapers , radio broadcasts, political cartoons, vaudeville, blues songs, poetry, and fiction, The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History by Susan Scott Parrish shows how this disastrous event took on public meaning.

There were other major disasters in the early 20th century U.S. What was unique about the flood you focus on?

SP: Unlike other devastating floods of the era—in Johnstown, Pennsylvania (1889), Galveston, Texas (1900), and the Lake Okeechobee area of Florida (1928)—which all occurred in a matter of hours, this Mississippi River flood moved so slowly and lasted so long that national audiences could be pulled in, through newly established media circuits, to the events as they unfolded. One of William Faulkner’s narrators called it “the flood year 1927” because the disaster truly lasted an entire year. Moreover, unlike the Johnstown and Okeechobee floods, both also man-made disasters, in which the powerful industrialists involved in the first case and the Florida boosters in the second sought to avoid publicity, in 1927 white southerners, as well as African American pundits and environmentalists throughout the nation, were determined to bring attention to the flood. I would argue, in fact, that not only was this the “worst” flood of the entire 20th century in terms of displaced persons and property damage, but it was also the most publicly engrossing U.S. environmental disaster. As such, it allows us a signal opportunity to ask the following questions: How do—and how should—humans communicate with themselves about politically charged eco-catastrophes? What are the stages through which mass-mediated societies encounter disaster? Do certain media entail better, or more productive, or more democratic epistemologies of crisis? What can we learn from 1927 about how to make transformative expression, and knowledge, out of disaster today and in the future?

Why was this flood so meaningful to people?

SP: Because the course of the flood moved from north to south, retracing the 1863 river-borne assault on the Confederate strongholds of Mississippi and Louisiana, this flood had the peculiar power to make sixty-four-year-old history feel unfinished—to make it feel even biologically reenacted. Advocates for southern black farm laborers likewise found old politics written all over the flood. As conditions in the evacuee camps spelled for their black populations both forced labor and violently guarded movement, it seemed to many that slavery had returned to Dixie and that Federal institutions like the Red Cross and the National Guard were abetting its reestablishment. Though the death toll from the flood was less extensive than that of other contemporaneous disasters, it was the way that this flood—for northern, southern, white, and black publics—uncannily rematerialized the defining American nightmares of slavery and civil war that made it so culturally engulfing. Moreover, the flood gave the lie to many of the early 20th-century promises of a modernizing, technocratic society: here was, in the words of environmentalist Gifford Pinchot, “the most colossal blunder in civilized history.”

The subtitle of your book is “A Cultural History;” can you explain what you mean by that phrase?

SP: Well, I began the book as a literary history, something along the lines of an environmentally-oriented version of Paul Fussell’s The Great War in Modern Memory, which considered the literary reckoning with World War One. I eventually came to see, though, that this flood became a public event across multiple media platforms. Fiction was important for our long-term memory of the flood, but other media were crucial to how the flood became significant while it occurred. I first discovered that William Faulkner, living a few counties away from the river in 1927, took up the flood beginning with the book he wrote in 1928—The Sound and the Fury (1929)—and kept writing about it through As I Lay Dying (1930) and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939). I found a number of stories and pieces of life writing that Richard Wright, living in Memphis in 1927, wrote about the flood in the 1930s. And I came upon many other literary chroniclers as well: Sterling Brown, Will Percy, Lyle Saxon and Ruth Bass, to mention just a few. As I dug deeper into the archive, though, I realized that this flood represented an important moment in the histories of radio and print journalism, theater, and music as well. How northern and western media sought to package the South to raise money for evacuees; how an environmentalist critique went national; and how black journalistic protest remained largely enclaved are all important topics for the history of how media manufacture events which in turn create “publics.” Among the major pundits who weighed in on the flood were W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Walter White, H.L. Mencken, and even, on the radio in Berlin, Walter Benjamin. After I noticed advertisements in newspapers for “monster” flood benefits—the biggest ones produced in the “Vaudeville” variety mode—I gradually realized that the way most citizens around the country came in live contact with the flood was in a theater. In particular, international comedians of color who hailed from the South, Will Rogers and the duo “Miller & Lyles,” offered a trenchant but popular kind of critique of white disaster consumption. Their messages crossed the color line in the way that newspaper editorials did not. Finally, Bessie Smith’s song, “Back-Water Blues,” also popular on both sides of the color line, and on both sides of the Mason Dixon line, offers a remarkable example of the way that black experience of displacement moved across space through sound. All in all, my book tests some classic ideas—expressed by the likes of Walter Lippmann and Jurgen Habermas—that the optimal form of democratic public reckoning with reality occurs through deliberative print media. “Entertainment,” for these theorists, is anathema to truth seeking. By contrast, the archive convinced me that, during the flood itself, Vaudeville comedy and blues entertainment communicated evacuee experience more wholly and more broadly than any other media.

One of your sections is titled “Modernism within a Second Nature,” can you explain how your book contributes to our understanding of modernism?

SP: And what does “Second Nature” mean? For many, the flood was an example of modernization adrift, of a kind of temporary drowning of that Progressive-era sense amongst Americans that theirs was a time of “the perfection of method and of mechanism” that could “spread well-being among the masses.” We have understood that artistic movement known as modernism as expressing at times enthusiasm, but at other times, profound doubts about various kinds of modernization, on the battlefield, in communications, in politics. We have not tended to think enough though about how modernist artists responded to the eclipsing of “nature” with a “second nature.” Second nature is a phrase Henri Lefebvre used to describe how, increasingly with modernity, “nature’s space has been replaced by a space-qua-product” of human design. I think this sense that industrialism’s second nature was not necessarily a “perfection” that would spread “well-being,” but was rather an imperious blunder that could bring intense misery especially to “the masses”—this sense was felt acutely amongst both whites and blacks in the South in 1927. Richard Wright and William Faulkner were the southern modernist authors who, in their stories about the flood, communicated that a rural environment could be thoroughly fabricated by humans, and fabricated in such a way as to intensify its inherent risks, so that these environments could become—indeed, had become—as political and modern and violent a product as a machine gun or a tank.

Given that the flood inundated the lower Mississippi Valley, do you see the book as primarily about the South?

SP: Yes and no. The environmental history leading up to the flood involved the entire Mississippi watershed, and how it was altered (through logging, wetlands drainage, grasslands removal and a levees-only engineering policy). And the media history, in so far as communication about the event was produced and consumed nationally, and internationally, also involves a much wider geography. It was a disaster most keenly and physically experienced in the Deep South, but the event took on meaning across a much broader mediascape. Though the South is often associated with “disaster” (of slavery, of defeat in war, of underdevelopment), it may surprise readers to find southern editorials in 1927 explaining this flood not in terms of God, but in terms of human miscalculation. Scholars who work on southern cultural topics today tend to be interested in how “the South” was created within global systems like mercantilism, empire and slavery, and also how it was partially invented by chroniclers outside its regional boundaries. My book is likewise concerned with that intersection of regional experience and broader environmental and representational patterns.

Why is yours an important book to read in 2017?

SP: Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment. We live in an age in which human impact on the earth is indelibly intense. We live this material reality—in our bones and cells—but we often come to perceive it in a way that is so technologically mediated as to be vertiginously virtual. For the sake of history, it is important to appreciate that the Flood of 1927 represented perhaps the first major coincidence of the “Anthropocene” and what Guy Debord has termed the “Society of the Spectacle.”

Susan Scott Parrish is a Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. She is the author of American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. Her latest book is The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History.

Joshua Holden: The secrets behind secret messages

“Cryptography is all about secrets, and throughout most of its history the whole field has been shrouded in secrecy.  The result has been that just knowing about cryptography seems dangerous and even mystical.”

In The Mathematics of Secrets: Cryptography from Caesar Ciphers to Digital EncryptionJoshua Holden provides the mathematical principles behind ancient and modern cryptic codes and ciphers. Using famous ciphers such as the Caesar Cipher, Holden reveals the key mathematical idea behind each, revealing how such ciphers are made, and how they are broken.  Holden recently took the time to answer questions about his book and cryptography.


There are lots of interesting things related to secret messages to talk abouthistory, sociology, politics, military studies, technology. Why should people be interested in the mathematics of cryptography? 
 
JH: Modern cryptography is a science, and like all modern science it relies on mathematics.  If you want to really understand what modern cryptography can and can’t do you need to know something about that mathematical foundation. Otherwise you’re just taking someone’s word for whether messages are secure, and because of all those sociological and political factors that might not be a wise thing to do. Besides that, I think the particular kinds of mathematics used in cryptography are really pretty. 
 
What kinds of mathematics are used in modern cryptography? Do you have to have a Ph.D. in mathematics to understand it? 
 
JH: I once taught a class on cryptography in which I said that the prerequisite was high school algebra.  Probably I should have said that the prerequisite was high school algebra and a willingness to think hard about it.  Most (but not all) of the mathematics is of the sort often called “discrete.”  That means it deals with things you can count, like whole numbers and squares in a grid, and not with things like irrational numbers and curves in a plane.  There’s also a fair amount of statistics, especially in the codebreaking aspects of cryptography.  All of the mathematics in this book is accessible to college undergraduates and most of it is understandable by moderately advanced high school students who are willing to put in some time with it. 
 
What is one myth about cryptography that you would like to address? 
 
JH: Cryptography is all about secrets, and throughout most of its history the whole field has been shrouded in secrecy.  The result has been that just knowing about cryptography seems dangerous and even mystical. In the Renaissance it was associated with black magic and a famous book on cryptography was banned by the Catholic Church. At the same time, the Church was using cryptography to keep its own messages secret while revealing as little about its techniques as possible. Through most of history, in fact, cryptography was used largely by militaries and governments who felt that their methods should be hidden from the world at large. That began to be challenged in the 19th century when Auguste Kerckhoffs declared that a good cryptographic system should be secure with only the bare minimum of information kept secret. 
 
Nowadays we can relate this idea to the open-source software movement. When more people are allowed to hunt for “bugs” (that is, security failures) the quality of the overall system is likely to go up. Even governments are beginning to get on board with some of the systems they use, although most still keep their highest-level systems tightly classified. Some professional cryptographers still claim that the public can’t possibly understand enough modern cryptography to be useful. Instead of keeping their writings secret they deliberately make it hard for anyone outside the field to understand them. It’s true that a deep understanding of the field takes years of study, but I don’t believe that people should be discouraged from trying to understand the basics. 
 
I invented a secret code once that none of my friends could break. Is it worth any money? 
 
JH: Like many sorts of inventing, coming up with a cryptographic system looks easy at first.  Unlike most inventions, however, it’s not always obvious if a secret code doesn’t “work.” It’s easy to get into the mindset that there’s only one way to break a system so all you have to do is test that way.  Professional codebreakers know that on the contrary, there are no rules for what’s allowed in breaking codes. Often the methods for codebreaking with are totally unsuspected by the codemakers. My favorite involves putting a chip card, such as a credit card with a microchip, into a microwave oven and turning it on. Looking at the output of the card when bombarded 
by radiation could reveal information about the encrypted information on the card! 
 
That being said, many cryptographic systems throughout history have indeed been invented by amateurs, and many systems invented by professionals turned out to be insecure, sometimes laughably so. The moral is, don’t rely on your own judgment, anymore than you should in medical or legal matters. Get a second opinion from a professional you trustyour local university is a good place to start.   
 
A lot of news reports lately are saying that new kinds of computers are about to break all of the cryptography used on the Internet. Other reports say that criminals and terrorists using unbreakable cryptography are about to take over the Internet. Are we in big trouble? 
 
JH: Probably not. As you might expect, both of these claims have an element of truth to them, and both of them are frequently blown way out of proportion. A lot of experts do expect that a new type of computer that uses quantum mechanics will “soon” become a reality, although there is some disagreement about what “soon” means. In August 2015 the U.S. National Security Agency announced that it was planning to introduce a new list of cryptography methods that would resist quantum computers but it has not announced a timetable for the introduction. Government agencies are concerned about protecting data that might have to remain secure for decades into the future, so the NSA is trying to prepare now for computers that could still be 10 or 20 years into the future. 
 
In the meantime, should we worry about bad guys with unbreakable cryptography? It’s true that pretty much anyone in the world can now get a hold of software that, when used properly, is secure against any publicly known attacks. The key here is “when used properly. In addition to the things I mentioned above, professional codebreakers know that hardly any system is always used properly. And when a system is used improperly even once, that can give an experienced codebreaker the information they need to read all the messages sent with that system.  Law enforcement and national security personnel can put that together with information gathered in other waysurveillance, confidential informants, analysis of metadata and transmission characteristics, etc.and still have a potent tool against wrongdoers. 
 
There are a lot of difficult political questions about whether we should try to restrict the availability of strong encryption. On the flip side, there are questions about how much information law enforcement and security agencies should be able to gather. My book doesn’t directly address those questions, but I hope that it gives readers the tools to understand the capabilities of codemakers and codebreakers. Without that you really do the best job of answering those political questions.

Joshua Holden is professor of mathematics at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, IN. His most recent book is The Mathematics of Secrets: Cryptography from Caesar Ciphers to Digital Encryption.

Exclusive interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott on their NYT bestseller, Welcome to the Universe

UniverseWe’re thrilled to announce that Welcome to the Universe, a guided tour of the cosmos by three of today’s leading astrophysicists, recently made the New York Times extended bestseller list in science. Inspired by the enormously popular introductory astronomy course that Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott taught together at Princeton, this book covers it all—from planets, stars, and galaxies to black holes, wormholes, and time travel. The authors introduce some of the hot topics in astrophysics in today’s Q&A:


What is the Cosmic Perspective?

NDT: A view bigger than your own that offers a humbling, yet enlightening, and occasionally empowering outlook on our place as humans in time, space, on Earth and in the Universe. We devote many pages of Welcome to the Universe to establishing our place in the cosmos – not only declarations of that place, but also the reasons and the foundations for how we have come to learn how we fit in that place. When armed with a cosmic perspective, many earthly problems seem small, yet you cultivate a new sense of belonging to the universe. You are, in fact, a participant in the great unfolding of cosmic events.

What are some of the takeaways from the book?

NDT: If you read the entire book, and if we have succeeded as authors, then you should walk away with a deep sense of the operations of nature, and an appreciation for the size and scale of the universe; how and why planets form; how and why we search for planets orbiting around other stars, and alien life that may thrive upon them; how and why stars are born, live out their lives and die; what galaxies are and why they are the largest organizations of stars in the universe; the large scale structure of galaxies and space-time; the origins and future of the universe, Einstein’s relativity, black holes, and gravitational waves; and time travel. If that’s not enough, you will also learn about some of the continued unsolved mysteries in our field, such as dark matter, dark energy, and multiverses.

This book has more equations than do most popular books about astrophysics.  Was that a deliberate decision?

MAS: Yes.  The book’s subtitle is “An Astrophysical Tour,” and one of our goals in writing it was to show how observations, the laws of physics, and some high school mathematics can combine to yield the amazing discoveries of modern astrophysics: A Big Bang that happened 13.8 billion years ago (we show you how that number is determined), the dominant role dark matter has in the properties of galaxies (we tell you how we came to that conclusion), even the fact that some planets orbiting other stars have conditions conducive for liquid water to exist on their surface, thought to be a necessary prerequisite for life. Our goal is not just to present the wonders of the universe to the reader, but to have the reader understand how we have determined what we know, and where the remaining uncertainties (and there are plenty of them!) lie.

So your emphasis is on astrophysics as a quantitative science, a branch of physics?

MAS:  Yes.  We introduce the necessary physics concepts as we go: we do not expect the reader to know this physics before they read the book.  But astrophysicists are famous (perhaps notorious!) for rough calculations, “to astrophysical accuracy.”  We also lead the reader through some examples of such rough calculations, where we aim to get an answer to “an order of magnitude.”  That is, we’re delighted if we get an estimate that’s correct to within a factor of 2, or so.  Such calculations are useful in everyday life, helping us discriminate the nonsensical from the factual in the numerical world in which we live.

Can you give an example?

MAS: Most people in everyday discourse don’t think much about the distinction between “million,” “billion,” “trillion,” and so on, hearing them all as “a really big number,” with not much difference between them.  It is actually a real problem, and the difference between Federal budget items causing millions vs. billions of dollars is of course huge.  Our politicians and the media are confusing these all the time.  We hope that the readers of this book will come away with a renewed sense of how to think about numbers, big and small, and see whether the numbers they read about in the media make sense.

Is time travel possible?

JRG: In 1905 Einstein proved that time travel to the future is possible. Get on a rocket and travel out to the star Betelgeuse 500 light-years away and return at a speed of 99.995 % the speed of light and you will age only 10 years, but when you get back it will be the year 3016 on Earth. Even though we have not gone that fast or far, we still have time travelers among us today. Our greatest time traveler to date is the Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who by virtue of traveling at high speed in low Earth orbit for 879 days aged 1/44 of a second less than if he had stayed home. Thus, when he returned, he found Earth to be 1/44 of a second to the future of where he expected it to be. He has time traveled 1/44 of a second to the future. An astronaut traveling to the planet Mercury, living there for 30 years, and returning to Earth, would time travel into the future by 22 seconds. Einstein’s equations of general relativity, his theory of curved spacetime to explain gravity, have solutions that are sufficiently twisted to allow time travel to the past. Wormholes and moving cosmic strings are two examples. The time traveler can loop back to visit an event in his own past. Such a time machine cannot be used to journey back in time before it was created. Thus, if some supercivilization were to create one by twisting spacetime in the year 3000, they might use it to go from 3002 back to 3001, but they couldn’t use it go back to 2016, because that is before the time loop was created. To understand whether such time machines can be realized, we may need to understand how gravity works on microscopic scales, which will require us to develop a theory of quantum gravity. Places to look for naturally occurring time machines would be in the interiors of rotating black holes and at the very beginning of the universe, where spacetime is strongly curved.

Do we live in a multiverse?

JRG: A multiverse seems to be a natural consequence of the theory of inflation. Inflation explains beautifully the pattern of slightly hotter and colder spots we see in the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. It explains why the universe is so large and why it is as smooth as it is and still has enough variations in density to allow gravity to grow these into galaxies and clusters of galaxies by the present epoch. It also explains why the geometry of the universe at the present epoch is approximately Euclidean. Inflation is a period of hyperactive accelerated expansion occurring at the beginning of our universe. It is powered by a large vacuum energy density and negative pressure permeating empty space that is gravitationally repulsive. The universe doubles in size about every 3 10-38 seconds. With this rate of doubling, it very quickly grows to enormous size: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024… That explains why the universe is so large. When the high density vacuum state decays, it doesn’t do so all at once. Like water boiling in a pot, it does not turn into steam all at once, but should form bubbles. Each expanding bubble makes a universe. The inflationary sea should expand forever, creating an infinite number of bubble universes, ours being one of them. Other distant bubble universes are so far away, and the space between us and them is expanding so fast, that light from them may never reach us. Nevertheless, multiple universes seem a nearly inevitable consequence of inflation.

What discovery about the universe surprises or inspires you the most?

JRG: Perhaps the most amazing thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible to intelligent, carbon-based life forms like ourselves. We have been able to discover how old the universe is (13.8 billion years) and figure out many of the laws by which it operates. The object of this book is to make the universe comprehensible to our readers.

Don’t miss this C-Span video on the book, in which the authors answer questions about the universe, including how it began and the likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. He is the author of many books, including Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, and the host of the Emmy Award–winning documentary Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Michael A. Strauss is professor of astrophysics at Princeton University. J. Richard Gott is professor of astrophysics at Princeton University. His books include The Cosmic Web: Mysterious Architecture of the Universe (Princeton).

Oswald Schmitz on “new ecology”: How does humankind fit in with nature?

Schmitz Ecology has traditionally been viewed as a science devoted to studying nature apart from humans. But humankind is singlehandedly transforming the entire planet to suit its own needs, causing ecologists to think differently about the relationship between humans and nature. The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocence by Oswald Schmitz provides a concise and accessible introduction to what this “new ecology” is all about. The book offers scientific understanding of the crucial role humans are playing in this global transition, explaining how we can ensure that nature has the enduring capacity to provide the functions and services on which our existence and economic well-being critically depend. Recently, Schmitz took some time to answer a few questions about his new book.


The term Anthropocene is cropping up a lot nowadays in discussions about the environment. What does this term refer to?

OS: The Anthropocene essentially means the Age of Humans. Science has characterized the history of the Earth in terms of major events that have either shaped its geological formations or have given rise to certain dominant life forms that have shaped the world. For example, the Mesozoic is known as the Age of the Dinosaurs, the Cenozoic includes the Age of Flowering Plants, Age of Insects, Age of Mammals and Birds. The Anthropocene characterizes our modern times because humans have become the dominant life form shaping the world.

You’ve written several books about ecology. What’s different about this one?

OS: My goal is to communicate the exciting scientific developments and insights of ecology to a broad readership. I hope to inspire readers to think more deeply about humankind’s role as part of nature, not separate from it, and consider the bigger picture implications of humankind’s values and choices for the sustainability of Earth. As such, the intended audience is altogether different than my previous books. My previous books were technical science books written specifically for ecologists or aspiring ecologists.

What inspired you to write this particular book?

OS: The ecological scientific community has done a great job of conducting its science and reporting on it in the scientific literature. That literature is growing by leaps and bounds, describing all manner of fascinating discoveries. The problem is, all that knowledge is not being widely conveyed to the broader public, whose tax dollars are supporting much of that research and who should be the ultimate beneficiaries of the research. Writing this book is my way of explaining to the broader public the incredible value of its investment in ecological research. I wrote it to explain how the scientific findings can help make a difference to people’s livelihoods, and health and well-being.

What is the main take-home message?

OS: I’d like readers to come away appreciating that ecological science offers considerable means and know-how to help solve many of the major environmental problems facing humankind now and into the future. It aims to dispel the notion, often held in society, that ecology is simply a science in support of environmental activism against human progress, one that simply decries human impacts on the Earth. This book instead offers a positive, hopeful outlook, that with humility and thoughtful stewardship of Earth, humans can productively engage with nature in sustainable ways for the mutual benefit of all species—humans included—on Earth.

Oswald Schmitz is the Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. His other works include Resolving Ecosystem Complexity (Princeton). His most recent book is The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocence.

Joel Mokyr: How the modern economy was born

MokyrBefore 1800, the majority of people lived on the verge of subsistence. In A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, esteemed historian Joel Mokyr explains why in the industrialized world such a standard of living has grown increasingly uncommon. Mokyr offers a groundbreaking view on a culture of growth specific to early modern Europe, showing how the European Enlightenment laid the foundations for the scientific advances and pioneering inventions that would instigate explosive technological and economic development. Recently, Mokyr took some time to answer questions about the book.


How would you sum up the book’s main points?

JM: Before 1800 the overwhelming majority of humankind was poor; today in the industrialized world, almost nobody lives at the verge of subsistence, and a majority of people in the world enjoy living standards that would have been unimaginable a few centuries ago. My book asks how and why that happened. The question of the Great Enlightenment is central to economic history; a Nobel prize winning economist, Robert Lucas, once wrote that once we start thinking about it, it is hard to think of anything else.

Do we know how and where this started? 

JM: Yes, it started in Western Europe (primarily in Britain) in the last third of the eighteenth century through a set of technological innovations we now call the Industrial Revolution. From there it spread to the four corners of the world, although the success rate varied from place to place, and often the new techniques had to be adapted to local circumstances.

How is this book different from other work looking at this event? 

JM: The literature looking at the question of why this happened has advanced three types of explanations: geographical (looking at resources and natural endowments), political-institutional (focusing on the State and economic policies), or purely economic, through prices and incomes. My book examines culture: what did people believe, value, and how did they learn to understand natural phenomena and regularities they could harness to their material improvement.

Whose culture mattered most here? 

JM: Good question! Technological progress and the growth of modern science were driven first and foremost by a small educated elite of literate people who had been trained in medicine, mathematics and what they called “natural philosophy.” The culture of the large majority of people, who were as yet uneducated and mostly illiterate, mattered less in the early stages, but became increasingly important at a later stage when mass education became the norm.

So what was it about these intellectuals that mattered most? 

JM: In my earlier work, especially my The Enlightened Economy (2009), I pointed to what I called “the Industrial Enlightenment” as the central change that prepared the ground for modern economic growth. In the new book, I explain the origins of the Industrial Enlightenment. At some point, say around 1700, the consensus of intellectuals in Europe had become that material progress (what we were later to call “economic growth”) was not only desirable but possible, and that increasing what they called “useful knowledge” (science and technology) was the way to bring it about. These intellectuals then carried out that program through continuous advances in science that eventually found a myriad of economic applications.

How and why did this change happen? 

JM: That is the main question this book is focusing on and tries to answer. It describes and analyzes the cultural changes in the decades between Columbus and Newton, during what is sometimes known as “early modern Europe.” It was an age of tremendous cultural changes, above all of course the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. Equally important was the emergence of what is known as “the Baconian Program,” in which Francis Bacon and his followers formulated the principles of what later became the Industrial Enlightenment. The success of these thinkers to persuade others of the validity of their notions of progress and the importance of a research agenda that reflected real economic needs is at the heart of the story of how the Industrial Enlightenment emerged.

So why did this take place in this period and in Europe, and not somewhere else? 

JM: Europe in this age enjoyed an unusual structure that allowed new and fresh ideas to flourish as never before. On the one hand, it was politically and religiously fragmented into units that fiercely competed with one another. This created a competitive market both for and among intellectuals that stimulated intellectual innovation. It was a market for ideas that worked well and in it the Baconian Program was an idea that succeeded, in part because it was attractive to many actors, but also because it was marketed effectively by cultural entrepreneurs. At the same time, political fragmentation coexisted with a unified and transnational institution (known at the time as the Republic of Letters) that connected European intellectuals through networks of correspondence and publications and created a pan-European competitive market in which new ideas circulated all over the Continent. In this sense, early modern Europe had the “best of all possible worlds” in having all the advantages of diversity and fragmentation and yet have a unified intellectual community.

Of all the new ideas, which ones were the most important? 

JM: Many new ideas played a role in the intellectual transformations that eventually led to the waves of technological progress we associate with modern growth. One of the most important was the decline in the blind veneration of ancient learning that was the hallmark of many other cultures. Shaking off the paralyzing grip of past learning is one of the central developments that counted in the cultural evolution in this period. The “classical canon” of Ptolemy and Aristotle was overthrown by rebels such as Copernicus and Galileo, and over time the intellectuals of this age became more assertive in their belief that they could outdo classical learning and that many of the conventional beliefs that had ruled the world of intellectuals in astronomy, medicine, and other fields were demonstrably wrong. Evidence and logic replaced ancient authority.

Was the success of the new ideas a foregone conclusion? 

JM: Not at all: there was fierce resistance to intellectual innovation by a variety of conservative powers, both religious and political. Many of the most original and creative people were persecuted. But in the end resistance failed, in large part because both people and books — and hence ideas — could move around in Europe and move to more liberal areas where their reception was more welcomed.

Could an Industrial Enlightenment not have happened elsewhere, for example in China? 

JM: The book deals at length with the intellectual development of China. In many ways, China’s economy in 1500 was as advanced and sophisticated as Europe. But in China the kind of competitive pluralism and diversity that were the hallmark of Europe were absent, and even though we see attempts to introduce more progressive thinking in China, it never succeeded to overthrow the conservative vested interests that controlled the world of intellectuals, above all the Mandarine bureaucracy. Instead of explosive growth as in Europe, Chinese science and technology stagnated.

Does the book have any implications for our own time? 

JM: By focusing on the social and economic mechanisms that stimulated and encouraged technological innovation in the past, my book points to the kind of factors that will ensure future technological creativity. First and foremost, innovation requires the correct incentives. Intellectuals on the whole do not require vast riches, but they will struggle for some measure of economic security and the opportunity to do their research in an environment of intellectual freedom in which successful innovation is respected and rewarded. Second, the freedom to innovate thrives in environments that are internationally competitive: just as much of innovation in earlier times emerged from the rivalry between England, France, Spain and the United Provinces, in the modern era the global competition between the United States, the EU, China, and so on will ensure continuous innovation. International competition and mobility ensure the intellectual freedom needed to propose new ideas. Finally, global institutions that share and distribute knowledge, as well as coordinate and govern intellectual communities of scientists and innovators across national boundaries and cultural divides, are critical for continued technological progress.

Joel Mokyr  is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and professor of economics and history at Northwestern University, and Sackler Professor at the Eitan Berglas School of Economics at the University of Tel Aviv, Israel. He is the recipient of of the Heineken Prize for History and the International Balzan Prize for Economic History. Mokyr’s other works include The Enlightened Economy and the Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge of Economy. His most recent book is a Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy.

Mark Williams: A look at Irish gods and their legacy

WilliamsAgeless fairies inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal elves; W. B. Yeats invoked Irish divinities to reimagine the national condition. Why have Ireland’s mythical beings loomed so large in the world’s imagination? In Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, Mark Williams weaves together the fascinating stories of some of Ireland’s famous gods and goddesses, from the heroic Lug to the fire goddess Brigit. He explores the religious history in the myths, showing how Ireland’s pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era. Recently, Williams took the time to answer some questions about Irish gods and their stories.


Apparently Ireland has a pantheon of native gods?!

MW: Yes! — though in many ways they are unique, and don’t look all that much like the pantheons of other peoples and places. They’re called the Túatha Dé Danann in Irish, or ‘The Peoples of the Goddess Danu,’ as it’s usually translated. They tend to be imagined as immortal, beautiful aristocrats, sumptuously dressed and eternally young. In many stories from medieval Ireland, they live in a kind of parallel world, which can be accessed via the hills and Neolithic passage-graves which dot the Irish landscape. Some of them have vivid personalities: there’s the Morrígan, a battle-goddess who sometimes takes the form of a crow, for instance, or the young and heroic god Lug of the Long Arm. My favorite is Brigit, the goddess of poetry, medicine and blacksmithing who also moonlights as Ireland’s most important female saint — or at least has been thought to.

What is unusual about the Irish gods?

MW: Across Irish literature, in both Irish and English, their major characteristic is ontological ambiguity: the nature of their nature, so to speak, is never wholly fixed. In the first place, it’s hard to simply identify them as gods, as they have only an uncertain and wavering link to the actual deities worshiped by the pre-Christian Irish. Ireland’s conversion to Christianity saw the jettisoning of the vast majority of deities the Irish had once worshiped, while a small number were ‘reincarnated’ as medieval literary characters. This latter process was in no way inevitable, and the Anglo-Saxons did nothing of the sort, for example: you don’t find versions of Woden and Thunor turning up as literary characters in secular story, whereas the Irish constantly worked former gods into their sagas and tales, often worrying about how to place them in a Christian cosmos. Serious suggestions included the idea that they were merciful angels, ‘half-fallen’ angels, demons, or a race of humans who had somehow escaped the Fall and so retained more-than-human powers.

That the old gods were remembered at all was down to the deep respect for the past, which was characteristic of the medieval Irish. The Anglo-Saxons knew that they had arrived from somewhere else in the relatively recent past, but the Irish — around the conversion period, at least — seem to have thought themselves to be indigenous to their land. They were deeply invested in their own nativeness, so that their landscape, culture, and ancestry were all bound up together. (A new story was developed later which asserted that they hailed from Scythia, via Spain). But literature and shaping of a literate culture were in the hands of a clerical intelligentsia, who felt perfectly at liberty to make major changes in the depiction of ancient, once-divine figures. It is very striking how much the multi-talented god Lug (or Lugh) resembles the biblical King David, for example — both are young, handsome, royal figures, both are skilled musicians and poets, and both kill a giant with a slingshot to the head in single combat. Though there is no question that a god named Lug (or Lugus) was part of Irish paganism, one wonders how much of his ancient character actually persists in the literary Lug. This kind of remodeling might have happened to any number of the divine figures in Irish literature; far from representing the ignorant interference of clerics in ancient traditions, it actually reflects an attitude of deep respect on their part, and underscores their investment in the patterns and personages of their island’s ancient past.

The second peculiarity about the gods is that they are often depicted as ‘fairies’ — the not very satisfactory English term for the Irish áes síde, ‘the people of the hollow hills’. It is the second of these two Irish words which was later anglicised as Shee — a term familiar to all aficionados of nineteenth-century Irish literature. Rather than being gods, in this guise they act as humanity’s idealized twin-race. They are beautiful, immortal, and gifted with magic powers, and their lifestyle is largely characterized by graceful ease. In many ways they are the forerunner of Tolkien’s Elves, but they are less solemn and remote. In this guise they balloon in number: they become an imagined people, not a pantheon.

The third factor is that towards the end of the first millennium AD the Irish developed a complex backstory for their island, and a place for the Túatha Dé Danann was found within this elaborate timeline. They were now imagined as only one of a series of invading races who had ruled Ireland in the deep past. The climax of this kind of ‘synthetic history’ (as it is known) came in the late eleventh century, with the creation of ‘The Book of Invasions.’ In this schema, the gods were imagined as human beings who had simply learned how to supercharge their abilities with magical knowledge. They were (the synthetic history tells us) the third or fourth race to rule over Ireland, before they were in turn defeated by the incoming Gaels, the ethnic Irish. This scenario is transparently a creation of the high Middle Ages, but it became the basic imaginative frame for Ireland’s native gods until the nineteenth century.

The upshot of all these variations on the ontology of the Túatha Dé Danann was that it was actually quite difficult for antiquarian writers in modernity — as they combed through the records of the Irish past —to spot that these literary figures had once been Ireland’s native gods. Considerable preparation of the intellectual ground was necessary, and here the newly developed scholarly disciplines of anthropology, philology, and comparative mythology all played important roles. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the idea really took off, and soon it became a cultural and scholarly commonplace.

Why are the Irish gods less famous than the Graeco-Roman and Norse gods?

MW: The classical gods were the divinities of two cultures which were deeply admired by later ages, and were inseparable from the literature of those cultures; the gods of Greece and Rome therefore became part of the universal intellectual and imaginative patrimony of Europe. In the Middle Ages and on into the Early Modern era, Christian intellectuals felt perfectly at liberty to adopt them as symbols, personifications, allegories, and rhetorical tropes. (Dante calls on Apollo, for example, right at the heart of the greatest Christian poem of the Middle Ages). And later, with the Romantic movement, the impulse emerged to take the classical gods down from their niches in literary rhetoric and reclaim them as images of divine power in the natural world, even as living spiritual forces. So the gods of Greece and Rome have never actually been away, and have been naturalized for centuries in literature in English.

It’s worth noting, however, that the classical gods had no specifically national dimension, precisely because they were so universal. The Norse gods were quite different. Like the Irish gods, they were associated with a vernacular northern European language and had starring roles in a splendid medieval literature. In modernity, they could be claimed as the ‘native’ gods of those areas of Europe in which a Germanic language was spoken. This meant Germany, of course, but also — because of the Anglo-Saxon heritage — England, which gave the Norse gods a ready-made audience and a role as the ‘divine machinery’ in many forms of quasi-nationalist creative expression. The classic example is Wagner, whose monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen brought the Northern pantheon to international attention as a family of archetypal figures on a cosmic scale, explicitly paralleled to the gods of Greece. The Gaelic gods, in contrast, were associated only with Ireland and with the poorest and most remote parts of Scotland, and so seemed vague and outlandish in comparison.

Why did someone like W. B. Yeats take an interest?

MW: Yeats, and his friend the mystic George Russell, are really the essential figures in the late nineteenth century recovery of the Irish gods, though they had important precursors. Yeats was well-placed to take advantage of the new scholarship which had retrieved the Túatha Dé Danann as Ireland’s native pantheon. In his early-career siftings of material, he was able to boldly assert the fundamental identity of the fairies of folklore, the Túatha Dé Danann of the medieval literature, and the gods of the ancient Irish. Here the occult acted as a crucial unifying frame; Yeats was deeply invested in occultism as a system of thought, and he used it to give meaning and context to the Irish pantheon. To use anachronistic language, he came to believe, around the turn of the century, that the native gods were the archetypes of the national

unconscious, and that it might be possible to retrieve and reactivate them, creating a system of hermetic ‘images’ with which to reimagine the national condition. To this end he attempted to establish the so-called ‘Celtic Mysteries’ — a hermetic order on specifically national lines which would invoke and stir into life these figures from the depths of the national psyche, persuading them to intervene in a conflicted present. He certainly didn’t succeed in the way that he expected, but—more than a hundred years later—more people have heard of Lug, and Danu, and Brigit than ever before, and indeed the Irish gods are the focus of several forms of renewed and reimagined modern Paganism. So who knows? They are certainly alive now.

Is Ireland’s Immortals meant to be funny?

MW: In places, yes, I hope so; the material seemed to demand it, but in two different ways. On one level, the ferocious weirdness of some of the medieval tales can be laugh-out-loud funny in a way that must have been intentional on the part of the saga-authors. My colleague at Oxford, Heather O’Donoghue — who’s written a wonderful history of Norse mythology — has remarked that myth tends to be the most surreal manifestation of a given culture, and I’ve tried to bring this dimension of the literature out. I dwell, for example, on a scene in a ninth-century saga in which the Dagda, the Falstaffian ‘great father’ of the Irish gods — the rough equivalent of Zeus — takes a very long time to relieve his bowels, before being spanked by a woman he is trying to seduce.

On another level, some of the activities of those involved in the gods’ retrieval in modernity — especially in what might be called the late-Victorian New Age — can’t help but raise a smile in a more cynical era. To me it’s fascinating that a connection can be traced between major political movements that affected the fate of nations on the one hand, and the activities of a clique of irrationalizing intellectuals, fired up by some pretty way-out ideas, on the other. That aspect of things seemed to demand a certain respectful wryness, because the idea of ritually awakening the archetypes of the national unconscious is an astonishing and beautiful one, even if the actual execution could be a bit bonkers. The only such person whom I couldn’t write about respectfully — to start with — was William Sharp, the Scottish writer who posed as a Hebridean seeress he named ‘Fiona Macleod.’ He was a plus-fours wearing six-footer with a big, red face, but he wrote all his most successful ‘Celtic’ work in the guise of this wafty, Enya-like figure. He probably reminds me a bit too closely of my own naïve, teenage forays into things Celtic — all mist-shrouded dolmens and dangly druidical tat — and the act of self-exorcism led me to be unfair to Sharp. I was taken to task — quite rightly — for being too nasty by one of the referees of the book, and in revisions I hope I’ve been more even-handed.

Finally, I have to say that writing about Liam O’Flaherty’s 1930 story The Ecstasy of Angus — a steamy bit of erotica involving the hot-to-trot goddess Fand and the love-god Angus Óg — was an absolute hoot. As the couple get down to it, O’Flaherty actually brings on a chorus of fairies who prance about brandishing dildos. It was impossible to analyze with a straight face, though I hope I’ve made the case that the story does have a dark, politically serious dimension to it.

Why did you write the book, and what influenced it?

MW: I had various aims in mind. First, there was a gap in the scholarship: there was no up-to-date guide to the gods in medieval Irish literature, nor to their recuperation in the modern era. In the two parts of the book I’ve tried to tell both stories in a way that makes one dimension illuminate the other. I’d always wanted to do the project: my undergraduate training was in Classics and English, so I cut my intellectual teeth on reception history, meaning the afterlife and reworking of classical texts by later writers. So we would look, for example, at Milton’s reuse of Virgil and Homer, or at Shakespeare’s allusions to Ovid, or at the links between the end of the tradition of epic poetry and the genesis of the novel. One of the things this gave me was a predisposition to read culture in terms of wholeness and continuity, rather than fracture and disjointedness. But the relationship between Irish literature in English and medieval Irish literature is very different to that between later literature and that of Graeco-Roman antiquity. With the Irish material, ‘reception’ of this sort is problematic because everything is charged with the legacy of a contested and traumatic colonial history, so my impulse towards wholeness needed considerable modification. In 1981 Richard Jenkyns — later to be my Oxford tutor — wrote a splendid book called The Victorians and Ancient Greece, which I actually read at school, and that was a big influence: Part Two could have been subtitled ‘The Victorians and Ancient Ireland.’ Another big influence was the Norse expert Heather O’Donoghue, as — of course — were the works of Roy Foster: one of the greatest pleasures of the process was getting to know him. The biggest influence of all is Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol. I read his The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles when I was seventeen, and Part One of the book is in one sense a vast expansion of his chapter in that book on the Celts, ‘The People of the Mist.’ He has also written an elegant few pages about Yeats’s and Russell’s astral adventures in his book The Triumph of the Moon, and Part Two of Ireland’s Immortals handles the same material at book length.

One thing I hope for the book is that it might have the effect of freeing things up a bit for younger scholars in Celtic. Celtic Studies as an academic discipline emerged from various kinds of Romantic nationalism in the nineteenth century, and the legacy of that origin is only now really being assessed by scholars — we’re starting to get superb biographical studies of major figures, for example. But the most obvious consequence has been a massive counter-reaction in scholarship against anything woolly or mystical: Celtic Studies has evolved into a hard-headed and rather inward-looking discipline, focused on the production of critical editions and the analysis of the languages. Unfortunately, the field is currently undergoing a period of contraction: there are fewer places in the world where the languages are taught, and important Professorships—including that at my own institution—are under threat. I hope one thing the book might do is to say, look, as Celticists we can reach out, we can talk to colleagues in English and in intellectual history. People who work on Irish literature in English and those who work on literature in Irish hardly ever seem to talk to one another, with a few noble exceptions such as Declan Kiberd. I hope that one thing the book will do is to underline that there is genuine value in seeing the bigger picture from time to time. (That said — lest any colleagues reading this think me to be encouraging a hermeneutic free-for-all — I must say to any student Celticists out there: make sure you learn your paradigms.) But the literature — extraordinary, uncanny, and beautiful as it is — will languish in neglect until we get in the habit of claiming for ourselves significance and status.

Mark Williams teaches medieval Irish, Welsh and English literature at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, where he is the June Li Fellow in the Humanities and Tutor in English. He has also taught for Cambridge University’s Department of of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, & Celtic. Williams is the author of Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700–1700.

A journey of disease and discovery, a look at scurvy with Jonathan Lamb

lambInternal bleeding, black gums, morbidly sensitive skin, even “scorbutic nostalgia,” in which victims imagined mirages of food, water, or home—these are just some of the symptoms of the disease associated with maritime travel: scurvy. Jonathan Lamb traces the cultural impact of scurvy and details the medical knowledge surrounding the disease, which stems from a vitamin deficiency and is still found today. Drawing on historical accounts from scientists and voyagers as well as major literary works, the book charts a unique eighteenth-century journey of discovery. Jonathan Lamb recently took the time to answer some questions about the book.

 


Why did you write a book about a disease that doesn’t trouble us anymore?

JL: Actually it does. On a trip to Easter Island I met a woman who got scurvy from dieting. A survey of North American college students discovered that 40% had levels of vitamin C below the minimum level required for good health. War veterans, recent widowers, children addicted to food lacking vitamins A, B, C and D, people caught in sieges like the citizens of Aleppo in Syria or Mount Sinjar in Iraq, they are all vulnerable. Like goiter, rickets, pellagra and beriberi, scurvy is a nutritional disease. That is to say, you don’t catch it, like ebola or bubonic plague, it lies in wait for an interruption in the ingestion of fresh food, and then inevitably (if the interruption is long enough) it makes its fatal appearance. True there are no great outbreaks such as those that killed two-thirds of the complement of George Anson’s naval squadron in the 1740s, but it does to remember that it was rife, for instance, in the penal settlements of early Australia, and on Scott’s Discovery expedition to Antarctic, and among the South Asian regiments of the British Army in Iraq during the First World War. Eric Newby got it sailing on a windjammer to South Australia in 1939. The symptoms of scurvy’s cousin pellagra, a staggering walk and a distracted mind, are evident in Primo Levi’s account of the so-called Muselmaenner of Auschwitz in his memoir If this is a Man.

What are the symptoms of scurvy?

JL: They are divided between purely physical effects and alterations in the nervous structure of the brain. Generally scurvy begins with sensitive gums, aching joints, blood-spots and bruising of the skin that eventually ulcerate. When this happens in the mouth, the gums turn black and swell. Sailors used to call it `bullocks’ liver.’ Teeth fall out, old fractures open up, cartilage disappears from the bones, artery walls weaken, the tendons shrink, and internal bleeding begins. Soon after this breathing becomes stertorous, the heart is under pressure, brain haemorrhages will occur, and death is not far away. While this is happening the mind is affected either with stupor or with powerful hallucinations and dreams. It was generally agreed by close observers of the disease that the imagination of scorbutic patients was desperately signaling to the body to get hold of the right kind of food: chiefly green vegetables, fish and meat. Of course dreams so vivid raised powerful expectations, and when the poor sailors awoke to find none of what they needed, they were prone to weep uncontrollably. The physical symptoms were owing to loss of collagen which the body cannot restore without an adequate supply of vitamin C: basically the scaffold and hydraulic system of the body collapse. The psychological symptoms were the result of free radicals, normally scavenged by the vitamin, clogging the synapses, resulting either in extreme lethargy or a morbid sensitivity to light, texture, smells and sounds.

Since we all know now that scurvy is cured by oranges and lemons, what was going to be new about your book?

JL: The thing is everybody always knew the cure of scurvy. If you could get hold of fresh fruit, kale, onions or potatoes you would soon recover. The problem was that at sea no fresh food was available, only salt meat, flour, dried peas, raisins, oil or butter and oatmeal. You needed a medicine capable of preventing or alleviating the symptoms of eating nothing but preserved food. But of course the medicine itself had to be preserved too. Ever since the days of Hawkins and Drake it was known that the juice of lemons, limes and oranges was a powerful antiscorbutic, the trouble was how to preserve it. Boiling got rid of the vitamin; sometimes the fruit (West Indian limes for instance) was naturally low in ascorbic acid; sometimes extremes of heat and cold ruined what virtue the juice had; and sometimes wicked contractors used imperfect fruit, or blended and diluted the juice to the point where it was useless. Besides these obstacles there was no agreement among surgeons and physicians as to whether a cure for scurvy was the same as a preventive. James Lind, famous for a clinical trial proving beyond doubt that citrus juice cured scurvy, had no faith in its value as a preventive, for like many other naval physicians he believed that scurvy was caused by defective food, not by food deficient in some vital principle. That is to say he thought the disease was caught from the environment, not from a genetic mutation in humans that prevents them from synthesizing a chemical crucial to life.

Well, even if Lind got it wrong, Cook got it right and there was no more serious scurvy after they got rid of it in his voyages of discovery, was there?

JL: That is the story that is generally told, but it is not quite true. On his three voyages to the Pacific scurvy occurred, but never fatally. Cook ran his ships with exemplary care for hygiene, warmth, dry clothes, clean air and regular stops for refreshment, and on top of that he was carrying a host of preserved dietary supplements that he hoped would keep scurvy at bay, including lime juice. He had a low opinion of the juice, privately favouring sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) and spruce beer (fermented malt sharpened with pine needles and bark). But nutritional politics played a large part in his official endorsement of malt wort, the brainchild of a physician called David MacBride who was patronized by powerful people. Malt was easily concentrated, and it was a lot cheaper than citrus juice, and so it received official backing and was used well into the 19th century, even though it had no antiscorbutic value whatsoever. Many historians think Cook contributed to postponing the reforms of Nelson’s navy by forty years. From 1795 onwards Gilbert Blane saw to it that every sailor in the British Fleet drank an ounce of concentrated lime-juice per day, to which was owing the health of British seamen during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Hence `limeys,’ the derogatory name applied by American sailors to their British cousins.

So that was that, end of story?

JL: Not really. You see these were all either theoretical or empirical solutions to the problem of scurvy. MacBride for instance considered that scurvy was a shortage of air in the body, and he believed that malt released carbon dioxide into the organs, ventilating them. Thomas Beddoes had a similar theory about oxygen. Thomas Trotter on the other hand, physician to the Channel Fleet in the early 1790s, said the only treatment of scurvy worthy the name was based on observation and experience, and strongly advocated lime-juice as both a preventive and a cure, although he thought its acidic qualities might corrode the mucus tissue and the stomach lining. But none of these men knew for sure what it was in air or lime-juice that caused them to prevent or cure scurvy. However they were agreed that the body needed more from food than carbohydrates and protein.

They were getting closer to the truth, weren’t they?

JL: Yes, in a way, although the best investigators of scurvy in the 17th century had reached the same conclusion. Those who had a theory of deficient food were on the right track, while those who thought scurvy was caused poisoned by spoilt supplies were wrong. However, it was the latter school that was destined to triumph in the latter part of the 19th century. A series of disastrous expeditions to the Arctic were to blame, beginning with Franklin’s where the evidence pointed to tainted cans of meat as responsible for the first stage of the tragedy. A few years later Nares’s expedition was afflicted with scurvy even though a copious amount of preserved lime juice was distributed among the crew. It was even observed that the symptoms of scurvy worsened as more of the juice was consumed. It was not long before an influential physician, Sir Almoth Wright, instituted a germ theory of scurvy that dominated medical thinking until the discovery of vitamin C in 1933. Captain Scott referred to sealmeat as an `antidote’ to the ptomaine poisoning he believed damaged cans of meat were causing among his men.

And that is the story, right?

JL: I wasn’t sure it was. Scurvy was regarded as a shameful disease, associated with dirt and malingering and horrid to watch and smell. The French historian of smell, Alain Corbin, says that in the catalogue of noisome diseases, scurvy was far and away the worst. The most frequent testimony coming out of the experience of scurvy is that it was hard to say what it was like to have it, and that it was impossible to describe the condition of those suffering from it. So you will often find commanders and doctors trying to cover up its presence, usually by calling it something else, such as rheumatism, dysentery, typhus or erysipelas. It is common to find surgeons reporting that their scorbutic patients recovered nicely after they had been dosed with malt—either a mistake or a lie. In 1834 at the penal settlement of Port Arthur half the convicts were showing signs of the disease, 19 were in the last stages of scorbutic decline in the hospital, yet only a single death from scurvy was reported for the whole year. It is hard to find pictures of scorbutic bodies and with the exception of Thomas Trotter’s books on naval medicine, there are very few closely observed accounts of its progress. Since Jean-Jacques Rousseau had said scurvy was a matter for `shocking calculation’ why were accounts of it so coy or misleading? Here there was truly a `secret history’ to uncover.

You are a professor literature. Has scurvy anything to do with your specialism?

JL: Yes it does. There is a genre of utopian fiction that weaves stories around outbreaks of scurvy. Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis begins with scorbutic English sailors being cured with blood oranges; Diderot’s Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville uses Bougainville’s experience of the same thing at Tahiti as the basis of fantasy about an island of free love, very similar in its outline to Henry Neville’s Isle of Pines. Gabriel Francois Coyer wrote a supplement to Anson’s voyage, turning a tale of a stricken crew landing at a verdant island into the discovery of a civilization devoted to idle forms of artifice, breeding horses too delicate to ride, growing fruits that are beautifully coloured but inedible, and amusing themselves with operas and romances. Bernardin de St Pierre’s famous novel, Paul et Virginie, is an exquisite pastoral tale set on Mauritius which the author first reached when his nerves were so disordered by scurvy he found every shrub, tree, animal and bird on the island repellent. A fascinating story to come out of Cook’s second voyage is called The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman, and tells the story of the alleged eleventh man in the Adventure’s cutter whose crew were cut off by Maori while in search of antiscorbutic herbs, then killed and eaten. Bowman’s travels take him to nations that each cultivate a sense well beyond the degree of gross normality: one whose citizens can see in the dark, another where they enjoy extraordinarily sensitive hearing, and lastly one where responsiveness to touch is so exquisite it has carried sexual pleasure to a new height. There is a unique pattern in this fiction, for each story is fashioned out of two versions of the same story, modeled on the succumbing to scurvy and the recovery from it, where inexpressible pains are transformed into wonderful delights. So there you are, scorbutic fiction—a newly discovered genre.

Jonathan Lamb is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. His many books include The Things Things Say (Princeton) and The Evolution of Sympathy in the Long Eighteenth Century. His most recent book is Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery.

Cross-Cultural Responses to Discrimination

This post originally appeared at Harvard University’s WCIA Epicenter website and is reproduced with permission.

A Q&A with Michèle Lamont

Racism and discrimination are daily realities for members of marginalized groups. But what does it look like at the ground level, and how do individuals from various groups and countries respond to such experiences? Drawing on more than 400 in-depth interviews with middle class and working class men and women residing in the multi-ethnic suburbs of New York, Rio, and Tel Aviv, and representing five different racial “groups,” a team of sociologists examine how people deal with and make sense of the various forms of exclusion that are ever present in their lives.

Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil & Israel opens up many new perspectives on the comparative analysis of race and identity.

Lamont

© Martha Stewart


Q: What inspired you and your colleagues to write Getting Respect, and how does it connect to your past scholarship?

A: Back in 2000, I published a book called The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration. It was based on interviews with African American and white workers in New York, and native white workers and North African workers in France. I asked questions about what makes people equal and was surprised to discover that in France workers never talked about money making people equal, whereas many white and black American workers believe that “if I can buy a house, and you can buy a house, we’re equal.” There is very little in the literature about “everyday” conceptions of racial inequality. We wanted to get at how people in different parts of the world understand similarities and differences and to learn about what kind of thinking racism is based on.

Q: In writing Getting Respect, what new insights have you learned about racism in the United States?

A: One of the main findings is that African Americans use confrontation (speaking up or calling out someone’s behavior) in response to discrimination more frequently than any of the other groups studied—black Brazilians, and Ethiopian Jews, Mizrahim and Arab Palestinian citizens in Israel. Asking why it is that they confront so readily made us understand African Americans through a different lens. We found that black Brazilians confront as well, but they’re equally as likely to stay silent.

Among African Americans, not responding to a discriminatory incident is half as frequent as confronting. So our question became: What are the conditions that legitimize this confrontation in the United States?

Another finding was that African Americans are more likely to “name” racism than the members of other groups. This speaks to how readily available narratives or scripts about group discrimination are in the United States, compared to Israel and Brazil. In contrast, Brazilians were far more hesitant to say that they experienced racism.

Q: How did you select groups for the study?

A: When we first started, we thought we’d pair black Brazilians, for whom group identity has traditionally been described in the literature as not salient, to a group with strong boundaries, Arab Israelis. We weren’t sure where African Americans would fall yet. Then we added the Mizrahim (Jews whose families immigrated to Israel from Middle Eastern and North African Muslim and Arab countries) and black Ethiopian Jews who are even more recent immigrants. It transformed our project, because now we had two groups who had very strong group identification (African Americans and Arab Israelis, and to some degree, Ethiopian Jews) and two groups with weaker group boundaries (black Brazilians and Mizrahim). So this really brought home the issue of how the sense of ‘groupness’ influences the experience of racism.

We found that, because you belong to a strongly bounded group, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are more confrontational. Although they are “strongly bounded,” Israeli Palestinians living in Israel are not very confrontational because they have little hope of being recognized. They are often viewed as the enemy within, suspected of being allied with Hezbollah or Palestinians living in the occupied territories, and they believe their treatment is ultimately tied to this larger conflict, so are much less likely to speak up, as it would be pointless. After all, they are an unassimilated minority living in conditions of deep segregation within the Jewish state.

As to the weakly bounded group, the Mizrahim, they clearly suffer from underrepresentation in academia, institutions of high culture, top political circles, and so on, while being over represented at the bottom of the social scale. That is, they are clearly discriminated against by all standards. However, in contrast to the other groups, they are the demographic majority in Israel’s Jewish population. They have strong sentiments of belonging to the Jewish state and often downplay discrimination and prefer to tell stories of how well integrated they are.

Q: Your book suggests that black Brazilians differ from African Americans in that they don’t zero in on race as a basis for exclusion, but rather on their presumed low socioeconomic status, or poverty.

A: That’s the traditional observation about concepts of race in both countries. However, our Brazilian collaborators bring a lot of wrinkles to this story. Their respondents identified themselves as being black, and by blackness they point more to skin color than to a shared culture. In part this is because black Brazilians are half the population of Brazil, but also because they don’t think they have a distinctive culture because their culture is the majority culture. So that’s a very big difference from how ‘blackness’ is understood in the United States, where our African American interviewees experience their shared identity as having a strong cultural component. It’s also very different from the Israeli groups we studied.

Q: So, if you want to eliminate segregation based on skin color, wouldn’t the best path be to promote intermarriage? Is this what happened in Brazil?

A: Well, historically that was what happened in Brazil; that’s one of the reasons why group boundaries are so much weaker there. The old ideology of the “moreno,” which was part of the Brazilian national ideology of racial democracy, celebrated intermarriage as the origins of the country. Moreover, spatial segregation in Brazil is based more on socioeconomic class than race. Even if the few upper-middle-class neighborhoods are nearly all white, the working-class and poor neighborhoods are much more racially mixed. In the United States a number of middle-class blacks live in lower-middle-class and working-class black neighborhoods partly out of choice, but also because the spatial racial segregation is extremely strong here.

Q: How did you select for skin color in Brazil?

A: In selecting our black respondents in all three countries we did not take into consideration actual skin color. But we did ask people if they identified themselves as black. In Brazil, we chose people who self-identified as pretos and pardos (black and brown). There are many other words in Brazil that indicate pale blacks (e.g., morenos) and those people were not part of our study. This broad color spectrum is present all over Latin America. They have many categories and words to talk about skin color, many more than we do in the United States, where the ‘one drop’ rule continues to prevail in the minds of many whites. Nevertheless, we found that our Brazilian interviewees increasingly identify with the political term “negro,” especially among the middle-class respondents.

Q: You describe the Arab Palestinians in Israel as being the most “excluded” of the groups you studied. Why is this the case?

A: The situation for the Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel today is problematic because they are so clearly segregated as a group. They are excluded from many job opportunities, have separate schools, housing discrimination is rampant, and most live in segregated villages or towns separate from the larger society. However, we should keep in mind that they are an unassimilated minority. The strong social boundaries between Palestinians and Jews are maintained by both. In other words, we are not talking about a shared civil space where Arab Israelis, the majority of whom are Muslims, are interested in crossing national and religious boundaries. A simple example is that intermarriage is inconceivable on both sides. The Arab Palestinian citizens are not drafted into the military, which is a known path to upward mobility and social integration. There is a growing middle class and upward mobility within the Arab sector, but ultimately they will always be excluded in a state where symbolic belonging to the community depends on whether or not you’re Jewish. This makes it harder for them to respond to stigma and exclusion by focusing on individual self-improvement.

Q: All the groups your team interviewed experienced unfair treatment and responded in different ways. One type of response you label “individualistic.” Can you explain what this means?

A: It means “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “work harder,” “get your education,” “be upwardly mobile,” et cetera. It’s the individual’s behavior that’s considered a determinant for success. A more collectivist response is oriented toward social change, as illustrated by the amazing outcomes of the civil rights movement in the United States, where people agitated and lobbied and actually changed the law. In our interviews, when we asked, “What are the best tools that your group has had at its disposal to improve its situation?” the majority talk about individualistic solutions. And the group that most frequently answered this way was the African Americans, second were Ethiopian Jews, then Mizrahim.

The individualistic response implies: “Don’t blame other people and don’t blame racism. You should do your thing and try to be upwardly mobile.” African Americans all experience discrimination; it’s very much part of their daily lives. But at the same time a large number think the (normative) solution is not necessarily to moan and to decry injustice, but to try to create the conditions for personal advancement. This response is particularly present in the United States, but also among the Mizrahim and Ethiopian Jews, despite neoliberalism being more influential on this side of the pond than in Israel. But it’s also an indication of having a sense of national belonging: it’s easier to feel self-improvement is a viable strategy when you feel like you belong.

Q: Because African Americans have the cultural history of the civil rights movement, wouldn’t you expect them to say collective mobilization is the best tool for their group?

A: There’s a real tension there because the great gains of the 1960s were achieved through collective mobilization and have come to be largely taken for granted, even if some are contested at the level of the United States Supreme Court. But at the same time the generations that we interviewed had a lot of experience being told that to blame racism is to make excuses. And we all know that many white people decry reverse racism. Therefore a number of our African American respondents believed there’s only so much you can gain by denouncing injustice. It’s in line with the American dream, the main tenets of which are if you work hard you will “make it,” and that’s how you gain social membership. So that’s the sacred value of this society—not all societies are organized around the same notions.

In addition, neoliberalism has had a much greater impact in the United States than it has in Israel and Brazil. And by neoliberalism I mean the idea that market mechanisms should guide all forms of social arrangements, government should remove barriers to the circulation of goods and people, limit the impact of unions, et cetera. This is connected to the widespread notion that our value as human beings is tied to how successful or competitive we are. Such views may seem quite absurd outside the United States, whereas here they are largely taken for granted by a huge portion of the American population.

Q: You found that intergroup relationships were quite different in the United States compared to Brazil.

A: In Brazil the dominant myth, has been, historically, that of racial democracy. Even if few of our respondents believe Brazil is a racial democracy, there’s a strong emphasis put on racial coexistence. My collaborators found that many of their interviewees believe that being in people’s faces confronting racism all the time is an antisocial behavior that is very destructive to society. They prefer to gently “educate the ignorant.” Even as we were putting our interview schedule together, this affected which questions we could ask. In the United States one of our questions was, “Do you have friends of another racial group?” which is an obvious question to ask. And surveys show that roughly 75 percent of Americans don’t. My Brazilian collaborators argued that we could not ask this very same question in Brazil as our respondents would view it as a deeply insulting question. Most people there claim to have friends from a range of racial groups. This is based not only on preference but is also tied to one’s chances of meeting people from other racial groups in their neighborhood, at work, and in public spaces, especially when you come from a working-class background. Interestingly, however, a few middle-class black Brazilians said most of their friends are white, and point out the small number of blacks in their work and educational environments. This also challenges any absolute understanding of Brazil as racially mixed and the United States as racially segregated. In professional work environments, it seems to be the other way around.

Q: Is there anything in your personal background that drew you to the study of inequality?

A: I am a Québécois, and I grew up during the peak of the nationalist movement there, a time when we saw massive political mobilization, and at the cultural level, assemblies with folk singers and people working to celebrate and transform Québécois identity. And having worked with a number of African American students, I was taken by the many similarities in the quest for equality across national contexts—even though in Québec, of course, the stigma is language and culture, whereas in the United States it’s skin color.

After the English conquest, the French population was controlled by a small French Canadian elite made up of members of the liberal professions (doctors, lawyers, professors). The majority of the French population was not educated—they were farmers and blue collar workers. The English Canadians had a strong sense of their superiority over the colonials, and the French, of course, fed that as well. The Québec movement for independence turned out to be an important and very successful social movement aimed at transforming both intergroup power relations and the meaning associated with being Québécois. I was born in 1957, so my youth was shaped by this social mobilization. It is interesting to me that while anticolonial and antiracist discourse about Latinos and blacks are widely available in the United States, such is not the case for French Québecois identity.

Q: What impact do you hope Getting Respect will have?

A: The book should make it more obvious what stigmatization is about. It argues that stigmatization is a crucial dimension of inequality that is often ignored, as economists and sociologists so often focus on the distribution of resources. People experience stigmatization deeply and it affects their sense of self, certainly as much as being deprived of resources does. I think that claims for recognition should be taken very seriously by policy makers and social scientists. We have yet to understand how inequality and stigmatization articulate with one another.

Policy makers of all kinds should be much more attuned to how the policies (such as welfare) and laws (such as gay marriage) they pass can be stigmatizing or destigmatizing. It’s also important to think carefully about each form of redistribution both in terms of impact on material resources and also in terms of construction of the self. My hope is that by reading this book, white people—and other non-minority members—will gain a much better understanding of the wear and tear that comes with living as the nonmember of the dominant group. It’s important to realize that dealing with this kind of challenge and assault on your worth all the time takes a toll. And if we look at massive racial disparities in health in this country, that foundations like Robert Wood Johnson have documented and addressed, our book is totally in conversation with the agenda they are setting. It’s necessary to look at the daily experience and cost of dealing with exclusion on people’s lives.

Q: Reflecting on your decades of work on inequality, can you draw conclusions about which social or institutional conditions lead to more equitable societies?

A: How do you achieve a society that is equitable? Well, the classic approach has to do with the politics of recognition and redistribution. Take the Nordic response for example—let’s have a strong state that taxes wealthier people and redistributes resources. That works very well for Nordic societies, which have oil money and all kinds of other resources, and historically have had a fairly homogeneous population. But it doesn’t work across the board.

Another response is the politics of recognition. Canada and to a lesser extent the United States do this better than other countries, by proclaiming very loudly that diversity is a strength and resource, and that it is something that we value as a society. Many societies don’t do this as well (France and Israel, to name two examples). Through this message of diversity, those countries have achieved greater equality through the legal process for women, people of color, and other groups. The rapid legalization of gay marriage stands out particularly starkly.

Q: It sounds like you believe collective movements are the most successful way to effect change.

A: In the United States, there’s no doubt that the determinant of social change is the fact that Americans can activate the legal process to redefine rules of coexistence for greater social justice. This is how they have imposed new rules on people who were resistant (e.g., Southerners who refused racial desegregation in schools). And this has been extremely powerful over time, but it also has many limitations.

In the French context there’s been far more resistance to recognizing diversity by the state. In contrast to the United States, France promotes secularism to reject any form of expression of religious identity in public life. The recent incidents with the government’s attempt to ban burkinis (a full body unitard that Muslim women wear at the beach) are constant reminders to minority Muslim groups that they have to lend themselves to the rules of the majority, which is quite different than what we’re experiencing in the United States.

In Canada, the ideology of multiculturalism has had a very positive impact in pushing immigrants to be much more emotionally and cognitively invested in their society, and even to run for political office. Today, Trudeau has a number of Muslims in his cabinet, which is quite different from the American political context.

So, I believe we can create inclusion in the context of the law, through narratives, through social policy, and by using institutional tools and cultural repertoires together to create shared notions of solidarity. In some ways it starts at the top, but then change is also produced by ordinary people responding to racism. Does a country create a climate for people to organize and to be heard? That is the crucial question.

—Michelle Nicholasen, Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Getting RespectWeatherhead Center Director Michèle Lamont is the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies and professor of sociology and of African and African American studies at Harvard University. A cultural and comparative sociologist, Lamont studies culture and inequality, racism and stigma, academia and knowledge, social change and successful societies, and qualitative methods. She is the coauthor of Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil, and Israel, with Graziella Moraes Silva, Jessica S. Welburn, Joshua Guetzkow, Nissim Mizrachi, Hanna Herzog, and Elisa Reis.