Donald Lopez on the Lotus Sutra

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

What is the Lotus Sutra?

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

Why is it so famous?

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

What was your first encounter with the Lotus Sutra?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Greenpoint

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods. Over the course of the next several weeks, we will be running features on some surprising facts about each of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods.

Don’t miss Bill Helmreich at the Brooklyn Book Festival this Sunday, September 18! If you visit our booth and tell him your street, he’ll tell you something you didn’t know about it. Our booth is #406 and Bill will be there 11-12:30 (There may even be ice cream.)


Helmreich begins with a look at the neighborhood known as Greenpoint, which sits at the northern-most part of Brooklyn:

Greenpoint was once heavily populated by Polish immigrants, and some of the streets of the neighborhood are lined with Polish stores and restaurants. Although the Polish influence has grown less concentrated, one can still get a sense of the Polish cultural influences.

The area was already home during the (the nineteenth century) for Polish establishments. The Polish-owned establishments are dwindling, slowly receding into the history of the neighborhood as it gentrifies. Yet one still sees Polish men, likely immigrants, trudging home in their work boots, wearing faded shirts and trousers, at the end of the day, and carrying their knapsacks, usually filled with the tools of their trade. Their weather-beaten faces are creased with the lines of hard work and perhaps the assorted worries and even disappointment that have marked their tansition from the old world, an ocean away.

If some parts of Greenpoint look familiar, that may be because parts of the neighborhood have been used in TV shows and movies. While Helmreich was walking, he saw where The Good Wife was currently being filmed.

On nearby Diamond Street, I pass by Blue Bloods Productions. There’s a trailer that’s been driven here all the way from Universal Studios, California. Right now they’re filming The Good Wife. But in a week or a month it could be another series or film. Greenpoint has, in fact, become a popular location for film/TV studios, and there are quite a few scattered throughout the area.

Helmreich takes note of a garden that is full of a variety of flora. What makes this an interesting garden is its location near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE). The juxtaposition of the garden’s scenic environment against the expressway contributes a unique feel to the atmosphere of the park.

(Lentol Garden is) named after former assemblyman and state senator Edward Lentol. The garden, surrounded by an eight-foot-high black steel fence, features juniper and holly trees, a Chinese dogwood, roses, tulips, black-eyed Susans, and other flora and fauna. Inviting looking, wooden benches line a landscape path where you pass by a birdfeeder and a birdbath. I notice that one side of the park border is literally attached to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway… It’s an oasis in a metropolis where every inch of green space counts, even if it’s hard against a major expressway.

Along Hausmann Street, Helmreich noticed that every house, exactly 73 of them, had American flags flying in front of them. A woman he met while admiring the homes explains the reason why:

“The flags have been here since after 9/11, honoring those who fell there, especially Catherine Fagan, who lived here. We keep them up until they get dirty and then we replace them. Most of the owners have lived here for many years and they just decided to do it.”

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City  College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City.

An 816 mile walk in Brooklyn, an interview with William Helmreich

HelmreichIn The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide, William B. Helmreich draws on the hundreds of conversations he had with residents during his block-by-block journey through all 816 miles of Brooklyn. From gentrified neighborhoods to neighborhoods lost in time, the book is filled with fascinating facts and stories, creating an unforgettable chronicle of one of New York’s hottest boroughs. Helmreich recently took some time to answer questions about the various neighborhoods, how they’ve changed, and what he found interesting on his journey.

You’ve walked so many miles, 6,000 for the first book and now another 800 for the Brooklyn volume. How did this idea come about? 

WH: When I was a kid growing up in New York, my father invented a game called “Last Stop.” to keep me occupied. Every weekend we’d take a subway to the last stop. And then we’d walk around whatever neighborhood it was in. When we went to Canarsie, I looked at what was then just marshland and remember how my teacher told me he’d send me to Canarsie if I didn’t behave. And when I saw how desolate the area was in those days I became a more obedient student. In Throgs Neck I saw people pulling fish out of the water. So that’s where they came from. I said to myself. I had assumed they just came from the tank in the fish store. I was a city kid. I went on these trips from the age of 7 until 12. And that’s how I came to love NYC.

Brooklyn has so many varied neighborhoods. DUMBO and Boerum Hill are gentrified and they’re nothing like Gravesend or Flatlands. What unites them? 

WH: One thing that unites them is change. Boerum Hill is gentrifying, with many young people moving in. Flatlands is becoming home to larger numbers of Orthodox Jews and Gravesend has a growing Russian populations. DUMBO has more professionals moving in as opposed to the earlier generation of artists. 
 
Were you afraid when you walked in unsafe areas like East New York or Brownsville?
 
 
WH: Not really. First of all, even areas thought of as dangerous are relatively safe by day. We have 300 murders a year as opposed to the 90s when over 2,000 people were being killed. Also, 80 percent of these murders are at the hands of people who knew each other. Another important reason was my approach. Most people think they have to put on a tough-guy face when they’re in these areas. That’s wrong. You’re not going to scare people. They can see through you. When ever I saw bad-looking types and in general, with anybody, as soon as I made eye contact, I smiled and greeted them with a big hello. “How ya doin?” I’d say. And this was such a counter-intuitive approach that they melted. 
 
How has Brooklyn changed demographically over time?
 
 
WH: In the old days Italians, Jews, and Irish were the major groups. Today, the main groups taking over Brooklyn are Asians, mostly Chinese; Blacks, especially West Indians and Africans; Orthodox Jews, especially Hasidim; Hispanics, most notably Puerto Ricans and Mexicans; and, finally, gentrifiers. 
 
What were some of the most interesting things you saw in Brooklyn? 
 
WH: There were so many things. The man in Bergen Beach who put 1,140 stuffed animals on his tree; the Greenpoint park devoted to plants and trees that produced materials used in industry; the man in Gowanus who kept the grocery store sign in large gold letters in the first floor window of his brownstone out of respect for his Italian grandfather’s struggle to earn a living in America. 
 
Is gentrification good for Brooklyn? 
 
WH: That depends how you look at it and who you are. Let’s say, you’re a black homeowner and you want to make a killing. A white gentrifier offers you 15 times what you paid for it. Suddenly you’re rich and you can buy that farm in North Carolina and retire. But what if you’re a black homeowner living in Bed-Stuy and you want the neighborhood to preserve its history as a center for black history and culture? Then you might feel uncomfortable selling to a white buyer. Gentrification often prices working class-people and the poor out of a neighborhood. But it also results in improved services with respect to sanitation, police patrols, etc. because the gentrifiers have clout. What if new developments have affordable housing units? Is that bad or good and for who? One thing we know nothing about is where those displaced by gentrification went? Did they go to other parts of the same neighborhood? Did they go South or West? Are they in Long Island? We need to know these outcomes if we’re to understand what’s happening here.   

William B. Helmreich  is professor of sociology at the City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. He has written numerous books and is an award winning author. He is the author of The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City, which won the the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City.

William B. Helmreich on The Brooklyn Nobody Knows

HelmreichThis September, Princeton University Press is thrilled to release The Brooklyn Nobody Knows by William B. Helmreich. You may remember that Helmreich, a professor of sociology, walked every block of New York City to write the award-winning The New York Nobody Knows. Now he’s back, and has re-walked Brooklyn—all 816 miles—to write this one-of-a-kind walking guide to the borough that’s hot with hipsters and rich in history. Drawing on hundreds of conversations he had with the residents of this diverse, booming, ever-evolving borough, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows captures the heart and soul of the unique city blocks that define cool around the world. In the coming weeks, PUP will be featuring blog posts that highlight a number of the neighborhoods in the book. Don’t miss Helmreich at the upcoming Brooklyn Book Festival, where you can tell him your street, and he’ll tell you something you didn’t know. But first, an introduction to our Brooklyn blog series from William Helmreich himself:

Brooklyn is one of the world’s greatest outdoor museums with something to interest everyone. I took an 800 mile walk through the city’s hottest borough and found that even though neighborhoods differed from each other there were certain things they had in common.

The first is self-image, a belief that Brooklyn is a place on the move, one that has become a world destination. This idea has captured the imagination of Brooklynites wherever they live—not only in the trendy neighborhoods of Williamsburg, DUMBO, or Cobble Hill—but the quieter and less well-known communities like Marine Park, Sheepshead Bay, and Gravesend.

Second, Brooklyn is a borough that is constantly changing. Puerto Ricans experience it in South Williamsburg and in Bushwick, when they see gentrifiers moving in. Poles in Greenpoint feel the same when they see gentrifiers arriving on their block. Hasidim and Chinese immigrants get a taste of it as they compete fiercely for homes on the Sunset Park-Borough Park border. Long time residents living in modest ranch homes look on in wonderment as wealthy Russians build McMansions in Mill Basin.

 Third, these changes have resulted in a need for engagement. Groups living near each other are exposed to other peoples’ cultures. Whites become part of the West Indian Parade; Hispanics and whites line up in front of trucks in Red Hook to eat pupusas and quesadillas. Blacks in Crown Heights look on with curiosity as Lubavitcher Hasidim celebrate the joyous holiday of Simchat Torah by dancing in the streets. An African American pokes his head into a Cambodian temple in Flatbush, while an Albanian immigrant in Bensonhurst tries her best to decipher a front lawn filled with statues of American icons—Batman, Al Capone, Iwo Jima, Betty Boop, Elvis Presley, and a photo of Ebbets Field. Of equal importance, Brooklynites meet in the elevators of their buildings, in block associations, churches, in parks, and on beaches. In a crowded city, no man can be an island.

This engagement leads to a fourth aspect of Brooklyn—the incredible diversity of its people. Those who live here come from more than one hundred nations, speaking many different languages. They represent the most of the world’s religions. New Yorkers don’t really have to travel to other countries to experience what’s happening there. Want to know about Russians? Come to Brighton Beach, or as it’s also known, Odessa by the Sea. Want to experience how devout Haitians express themselves religiously? Step into an East Flatbush Church. And if visiting a seaside community is your thing, walk through Gerritsen Beach.

The book I wrote is intended to be a guidebook for those who want to experience Brooklyn in real time. It’s different from other guidebooks in a very important way. It doesn’t focus on the well-known aspects of the borough—famous restaurants or nightclubs, festivals, hotels, bridges, and the like. Rather, its goal is to find the hidden things that people don’t know about.

For example, there’s a man in Bergen Beach who has a tree outside his home from which hang 1,140 stuffed toy animals. In Lefferts Gardens, a man from the Caribbean quietly creates boats, birds, bracelets, and other items from animal horns. He’s a hornsmith, possibly the only one in the country and if you want he’ll tell you about his craft and why it’s special. Stand atop Sunset Park and you’ll see an amazing sunset.

Step into World Class Aquarium on Flatbush Avenue in Marine park and listen as the owner tells you why he loves what he does even if it’s a hard way to earn a living.Travel to East New York and enjoy the delectable cakes and cookies that have been prepared there since 1927.  The place is Mrs. Maxwell’s Bakery and they claim the famous recipe for Junior’s cheesecake was stolen from them. Maybe, maybe not, but their version is pretty good. Watch some of the best handball games in the country on Surf Avenue in Coney Island.

These are only a few of the many discoveries awaiting those wishing to explore Brooklyn from the ground up. The coming blog posts highlighting neighborhoods featured in The Brooklyn Nobody Knows will give you a real taste of what’s out there.

—William B. Helmreich

A historical alliance: Victor Cha on the US-Asian relationship

ChaHow was the critical American alliance system originally established in Asia, and is it currently threatened? In his most recent book, Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in AsiaVictor Cha draws from theories about alliances, unipolarity, and regime complexity to examine the fascinating evolution of the U.S. alliance system. Exploring the motivations and aspirations of the Truman and Eisenhower presidencies, Cha explains the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Asia and how it contributes to the resiliency of global alliances  today. Recently Cha took some time to discuss his book and what he learned while writing it.

Why did you write this book?

VC: I was motivated to write a history of how the United States created this incredibly unique and important alliance system in Asia.  Long after the Cold War, these alliance still exist and indeed are critical to US policy today.  So how and why were these alliances formed?  Powerplay is one of those studies that a scholar can work on for years.  It deals largely with archival work and in that regard, it is timeless!  In my case, I had started the project some 12 years ago and had written about 100 pages.  Then, I left Georgetown to take public service leave when I worked on the National Security Council as a director for Asian affairs.  I did this for nearly three years between 2004 and 2007 and when I returned to the academy, I took on two additional book projects which took me away from Powerplay for four years.  I was so happy to get back to it, however, and spent the last two years going back into the archives and recreating the history of how Kennan, Dulles, Eisenhower and Truman thought about Asia at the end of World War II.  I was also able to weave into the last chapter my thoughts about the future of the US alliance system based on my experiences in government.  I am so happy with the result and look forward to sharing this with readers.

What did you learn in the course of writing the book?

VC: Perhaps the most interesting lesson for me was how the American experiences as a great power in Asia were truly unique.  Even as a colonial power in the 19th century, the United States did not behave like European powers or like prewar Japan.  It was a hegemon in Asia, but was more inclusive in its thinking and genuinely interested in more than simply imperial designs.  Just as an example, the United States in the 19th century actively encouraged its missionaries to go to Asia to teach about worship, values, and faith.  This was unlike the British who banned their missionaries from educating Asia and the Japanese which later imposed state worship on their colonial subjects.  The American interest was cultural and economic before it was strategic.  It was only with the Cold War that the United States was compelled to create strategic relationships, but then used these relationships to promote democracy and prosperity in the region.

What is your favorite chapter in the book?

VC: Like all authors, I enjoyed the conclusion, because it meant the book was done!  Aside from that, I enjoyed very much writing the case study chapters on Korea, Taiwan, and Japan as the stories for each case are different and special in each of their own ways.  There are some wonderful quotes by Asian leaders like Syngman Rhee of Korea and Chiang Kai-shek of Taiwan that were fun to discover in the archives.  I also enjoyed writing the section in Chapter 7 about the region’s efforts to form a multilateral security organization in 1949.  These efforts are not really covered in other histories.

What is the story behind the cover art?

VC: So, the editors at Princeton and I discussed for a while an appropriate cover for the book.  There were some fantastic pictures in the Dulles papers at Princeton that I had come across, and the one we chose is that of John Foster Dulles at the front in Korea one week before the North Korean invasion of 1950.  The other photo we considered was Japanese prime minister Yoshida Shigeru signing a document at the San Francisco conference with Dulles and Dean Acheson standing behind him.  Both photos conveyed the inordinate strength that the United States wielded at the time over these countries, but also an appreciation of the strategic importance of these new allies.   The book is about “control” and these photos seemed to convey the “hands-on” nature of the U.S. commitment.

Victor Cha holds the D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Government and is the director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. He is also senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, and formerly served as director of Asian Affairs on the White House National Security Council. Cha is an award-winning author, receiving awards for his books The Impossible State and Alignment Despite Antagonism. His most recent book is Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia.

Nile Green: What happened when a Muslim student went to Cambridge in 1816

GreenTwo hundred years ago, there arrived in London the first group of Muslims ever to study in Europe. Dispatched by the Crown Prince of Iran, their mission was to survey the new sciences emerging from the industrial revolution.

As the six young Muslims settled into their London lodgings in the last months of 1815, they were filled with excitement at the new kind of society they saw around them. Crowds of men and women gathered nightly at the ‘spectacle-houses’, as they called the city’s theatres. London was buzzing with the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo a few months earlier, and the new sciences – or ulum-i jadid – that the students had been sent to discover seemed to be displayed everywhere, not least in the new steamboats that carried passengers along the Thames.

As the weeks turned into months, the six strangers began to realise the scale of their task. They had no recognisable qualifications, and no contacts among the then-small groves of academe: they didn’t even know the English language. At the time, there was no Persian-to-English dictionary to help them.

Hoping to learn English, and the Latin that they mistakenly took to still be Europe’s main language of science, the would-be students enlisted a clergyman by the name of Reverend John Bisset. An Oxford graduate, Bisset told them about England’s two ancient seats of learning. When two of the students were subsequently taken on by the mathematician and polymath Olinthus Gregory, further links were forged with the universities, since Gregory had spent several years as a successful bookseller in Cambridge. A plan was hatched to introduce at least one of the students, Mirza Salih, to a professor who might be amenable to helping a foreigner study informally at one of the Cambridge colleges.

This was long before Catholics were allowed to study at Britain’s universities, so the arrival in Cambridge of an Iranian Muslim (one who would go on to found the first newspaper in Iran) caused sensation and consternation.

The don who was selected to host Salih was a certain Samuel Lee of Queens’ College. Lee appears to have been an odd candidate for supporter of the young taliban, as the students were called in Persian. A committed Evangelical, Lee was devoted to the cause of converting the world’s Muslims to Christianity. Along with other colleagues at Queens’, including the influential Venn family, he also had close ties to the Church Missionary Society. Founded in 1799, the Society was fast becoming the centre of the Cambridge missionary movement.

Yet it was precisely this agenda that made the young Muslim so attractive to Lee. The point was not so much that Salih’s conversion might bring one more soul to Christian salvation. Rather, it was that as an educated Persian-speaker, Salih might help the professor in his great task of translating the Bible into Persian, a language that was at the time also used across India, as well as what is today Iran. Lee jumped at the opportunity. And so it was that Salih was invited to Cambridge.

As his Persian diary reveals, Salih came to like the professor enormously. For though posterity would commemorate Lee as the distinguished Oxbridge Orientalist who rose to the grand status of Regius Professor of Hebrew, his upbringing was far humbler. Lee had been raised in a small Shropshire village in a family of carpenters and, in his teens, was apprenticed to a woodworker himself. On a research trip from California, I visited Lee’s home village of Longnor. It is still a remote place today, reached by single-lane tracks hidden in the hedgerows. At the local church, I was delighted to find the initials of his carpenter great-grandfather, Richard Lee, carved into the pews he had made for his fellow villagers.

Two hundred years ago, it was almost unknown for a country boy like Sam Lee to become a Cambridge professor, but he had a genius for languages that won him the patronage of a local gentleman. As a similarly ambitious young scholar on the make, Salih warmed to the self-made Lee, and in his Persian diary he recorded his life story with admiration.

Through Lee’s patronage, Salih was able to lodge at Queens’ College, and dine in the hall with dons such as William Mandell and Joseph Jee. At the time, the president of Queens’ was the natural philosopher Isaac Milner, as famous a conversationalist as he was a chemist. Salih certainly enjoyed the dinners at the high table, but his time in Cambridge was not all a Regency feast. He made study tours of the libraries that interested him, especially the Wren Library at Trinity College, which housed the statue of Sir Isaac Newton. In his diary, Salih called him ‘a philosopher who was both the eyes and the lantern of England’.

In return for having the closed world of the university opened to him, Salih helped Lee in his work on the Persian Bible. He even wrote a letter of recommendation when Lee was first nominated for the post of Regius Professor. The letter is still preserved in the university archives.

Between Salih’s diary, Lee’s letters and university documents, a rich picture emerges of the unlikely relationship formed between this foreign Muslim and what was then the most muscularly Christian of the Cambridge colleges.

The university was only one of many places that Salih and his fellow Muslim students visited during their four years in England, questing for the scientific fruits of the Enlightenment. The encounter between ‘Islam and the West’ is often told in terms of hostility and conflict, but Salih’s diary presents a quite different set of attitudes – cooperation, compassion and common humanity – and, in preserving the record of an unexpected relationship with the evangelical Lee, unlikely friendships. Written in England at the same time as the novels of Jane Austen, Salih’s diary is a forgotten testament, and salutary reminder of the humane encounter between Europeans and Muslims at the dawn of the modern era.

Nile Green is professor of history at UCLA. His many books include Sufism: A Global History and The Love of Strangers. He lives in Los Angeles.

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

Leah Wright Rigueur: Black conservatives do not speak for the black majority

Aeon Magazine logo

By Leah Wright Rigueur

Published in association with Aeon Magazine, a Princeton University Press partner.

When black voices rally to validate and defend extremist ideas, political observers should watch with heavy skepticism. In April, the National Diversity Coalition for Donald Trump launched a campaign in support of the controversial presidential candidate. ‘This man is no more racist than Mickey Mouse is on the Moon!’ Bruce LeVell, the coalition’s co-founder and a businessman from Georgia, told The Washington Post. Better yet, what are we to make of the former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s puzzling endorsement of Trump?

At a moment when black Americans, of all ideological persuasions, are deeply concerned with a status quo in the United States that allows racial inequality (and discrimination) to fester, black boosters for the party’s right wing have insisted that the ‘race issue’ is a distraction. Some even claim that black America will benefit from a Trump presidency. This kind of posturing might seem mystifying to some degree, but it is not new; there have always been black people willing to endorse the nation’s most extreme figures. The civil rights activist James Meredith worked for the Republican senator Jesse Helms in 1989, after all.

Employing black ‘surrogates’ or spokespeople for extremist candidates has become a way of validating non-traditional ideas as ‘authentic’, while at the same time invalidating accusations of racism. While the Democratic Party also has employed black voices in this manner (much to the distaste of its critics), the Republican Party’s use of conservative black voices is all the more fascinating because black conservatives’ beliefs are generally at odds with mainstream black opinion.

Egregious contemporary and historical examples abound. Consider the National Black Silent Majority Committee (BSMC), a black conservative organisation launched on 4 July 1970. Founded by Clay Claiborne (a former Republican National Committee staffer acquitted of defrauding black voters in the 1964 presidential election), the BSMC professed a faith in free-market enterprise and two-party competition, and adhered to a strict anti-communist, anti-welfare, anti-busing, pro-‘law and order’ agenda. Unlike other black Republican groups of the era, the BSMC articulated neither public nor private complaints about race and the Republican Party. Instead, the organisation exclusively blamed black people for the country’s problems with race. Upon the group’s founding, the civil rights activist Julian Bond called the BSMC a ‘trick’ to ‘subvert black political hopes on the altar of white supremacy and political expediency’.

The BMSC used Richard Nixon’s rhetoric of a forgotten class of Americans, claiming to speak for a majority of silent black Americans, ‘sick and tired of the agitation, shouting, burning and subversion carried out in their name by self-styled militant groups’. The organisation assembled a high-profile group of black men and women willing to endorse conservative values, including the national president of the Negro Elks fraternal order, the founders and publishers of the black newspapers the Atlanta Daily World and the Arizona Tribune (now The Informant), and dozens of black ministers from around the country. Black women also took on prominent roles as BSMC surrogates – an unusual occurrence, as black women were, and still are, the least likely of any demographic to support the Republican Party.

In 1972, for example, Mary Parrish was the star speaker of the BSMC’s 52-city ‘Black Youth Voter Crusade’. Parrish, a black Democrat-turned-Republican (who started her career campaigning for Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm) used her pulpit to claim that liberals had ‘politically enslaved’ black people, especially black women; the Republican Party, she insisted, without providing tangible examples, represented the best hope for the ‘continued advancement of black people’. Parrish’s unusual turn as the ‘face’ of the BSMC is not an isolated event. Today, black women are among the most high-profile of the Trump campaign’s spokespeople.

But such minority endorsements are sporadic, and rarely translate into partisan support. When the BSMC launched in 1970, more than 72 per cent of black Americans held unfavourable views of President Nixon. Currently, about 80 per cent of black people hold unfavourable views of Trump. For both the BSMC and Trump’s black surrogates, this disconnect is consistent with their resolute dismissal of issues related to racial and social inequality, and their harsh criticism of black people who reject the Republican nominee.

Back in the 1970s, the BSMC readily admitted that the vast majority of its supporters were white. As the historian Matt Lassiter has suggested, the Nixon White House ‘orchestrated’ the creation of the BSMC to provide a counter-narrative to black moderate, and militant, voices, which also appealed to ‘white voters who believed that the civil rights and antiwar movements had gone too far’.

My own research shows that the all-white National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) was also a heavy financial backer of the BSMC from the start, providing start-up funds, financing the group’s cross-country ‘Patriotism’ and ‘Anti-Busing’ crusades, regularly highlighting the BSMC’s adventures to the public, and arranging private meetings with influential white officials.

In an unintentionally ironic moment in 1970, the then South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, a vocal cheerleader for the BSMC, declared that the organisation’s existence proved that plenty of black radicals were attempting to ‘speak for groups which they do not actually represent’. Indeed, by the mid-1970s, politicians actively used the BSMC to elicit broader political support for right-wing agendas largely rejected by black audiences, by suggesting that the group spoke for a black majority. The BSMC also provided a buffer against charges of racism, with white politicians arguing that their own policies couldn’t possibly be racist or discriminatory, since the BSMC endorsed them. In this way, the BSMC reassured white conservative voters uncomfortable with the social taboo of racism.

The BSMC is just one example of many organisations (and individuals) to emerge in the past few decades in support of ideas on the fringes of black political thought. As a result, black Republicans critical of their party’s position on race saw their influence within the party dwindle, as groups such as the BSMC saw their stock rise among the Republican Party’s right wing. New quantitative research suggests that little has changed; Republican politicians are more interested in championing right-wing black Republicans whose views on race fall outside mainstream black political thought than those whose race-conscious messages are more closely aligned with the attitudes of black people at large. For most black Republicans within the party, this sends a clear and troubling message – power for the party’s minorities often comes by way of endorsing right-wing extremism.

Thus Trump’s turn to minority (especially black) spokespeople should come as little surprise. But while race lends an air of legitimacy to extremist candidates, it rarely presents an accurate picture of black political opinion. If anything, when the extremists play the ‘race card’, genuine concern for racial issues are likely to be buried.

Leah Wright Rigueur The Loneliness of the Black Republicanis an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (2015).

An interview with Tonio Andrade, author of Gunpowder Age

To what degree do times of peace impact military power and precision? In his new book, Gunpowder Age, Tonio Andrade shows how throughout Chinese history, powerful enemies have inspired periods of intense military innovation and technological advancement. Andrade recently took the time to answer some questions about his book, China’s fascinating military past, and its potential emergence a modern day superpower.

Gunpowder AgeChina is fast becoming a military superpower now. Your book claims to find a “pattern to the Chinese military past.” How do current events fit into this pattern?

TA: China under its current leader, Xi Jinping, has become increasingly assertive, for example by building artificial islands in the South China Sea to buttress China’s claims to jurisdiction over the vast majority of the sea. These claims are disputed by many nations, including the USA, and analysts wonder whether China would really go to war to defend them. Some believe that it inevitably will, because rising powers tend to use their muscle to overturn the status quo, while existing powers tend to defend the status quo. Others, however, argue that China has traditionally maintained a defensive perspective on military power and is typically uninterested in waging aggressive wars. If we look at China’s deep history, however, we find numerous occasions when China used its overwhelming military power for aggressive warfare. Intriguingly, many of those occasions occurred at times analogous to today, when the dynasty in question had consolidated power after a difficult period, often spanning generations, and had reached a position of overwhelming regional power.

So you believe that China will likely use military force to assert itself over surrounding areas?

TA: China will use the most effective means to achieve its ends and maintain its security. Xi Jinping has said that war between the USA and China would be disastrous at present for both countries, and I believe China will try to avoid direct confrontation. Typically, in the past, when China has waged aggressive war, its power was overwhelming (or perceived as such) vis-à-vis its enemies. Today, however, China is in a situation less like the early Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) or Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), in which China was far more powerful than any surrounding country, than like the Song Dynasty (960-1279), which faced enemies that matched it in power, or, indeed, outmatched it. The Song fought many wars, but usually these were defensive wars, not wars of expansion.

You argue that when China faces powerful enemies it tends to be stronger and more innovative, and when it is overwhelmingly powerful its military power tends to atrophy. Is its current military power due to the fact that China faces an unusually strong rival in the USA?

TA: China’s military past seems to follow distinct patterns. We have to be careful to distinguish what we mean by “China,” however, because much Chinese warfare has typically been against other Chinese, and/or against other states occupying parts of what is today China. In any case, for much of its history, China has shuddered between periods of intense warfare and periods of relative peace, and during times of frequent warfare it has tended to have state-of-the-art military technology, techniques, and organization. During periods of extended peace, on the other hand, it has tended to fall behind, simply because it had fewer reasons to invest in military innovation. China’s current military power has been stimulated by more than a century of war and geopolitical insecurity, and there’s no doubt that China’s current military innovation and expansion is stimulated by competition with powerful rivals, most importantly the USA.

What were other periods of strength and weakness in China’s history?

TA: Probably the most significant period of relative weakness was the nineteenth century, when China found itself spectacularly vulnerable to western power, as first made clear in its humiliating loss to Great Britain in the Opium War (1839-42). Many Westerners explained China’s stunning weakness at that time by recourse to its cultural conservatism, to what they felt was a deep resistance to new ways or foreign ideas. These sorts of ideas are still very much around. But in fact, China’s resistance to innovation was a pretty short-lived phenomenon, and it can be explained by looking at the incidence of warfare experienced by China. Starting in the mid-eighteenth century, China’s Qing Dynasty had a position of such overwhelming strength and authority both within and beyond its borders that for nearly a century its inhabitants faced fewer wars (both external and internal) than ever before in the historical records. China was, in a sense, too strong for its own good, because this overwhelming power removed the stimulus for military improvement. Meanwhile, the British and their neighbors were fighting huge wars and innovating furiously. When China and Britain went to war in 1839, the British had military capacities that were far beyond those of China: Congreve rockets; light and powerful cannons; light, mobile howitzers; percussion cap muskets; explosive shells of unprecedented precision; and artillery tables that allowed the calculation of trajectories with extraordinary accuracy.

After the Opium War, why did it take so long for China to catch up with the west?

TA: Actually, Chinese officials, military and civil, carried out quite a bit of innovation right after the Opium War, studying Western guns, steamships, and sailing ships, and that innovation sped up during the intense military conflagrations that beset China starting in the 1850s. Many historians (I am one) now believe that from a technical standpoint the Qing were catching up quite effectively by the late 1860s and early 1870s. Indeed, it seems likely that up to that point their modernization attempts were even more effective than than those of Japan. But by the late 1880s, the trajectory changed, with Japan’s innovations becoming more effective. The reason is not technological or cultural but political. Japan’s old regime fell in 1867, replaced by a newer, centralized government that modernized its political structures. The Qing, however, held on, and its political structures failed to adapt. In fact, it’s a curious coincidence of history that the Qing and Japan’s old regime lasted exactly the same number of years. It’s just that the Japanese regime, which was founded first, also fell first. Japan had a clean slate and could sweep away old, unproductive aspects of its old regime. China couldn’t, so the Qing, although it effectively added new military structures – huge factories, innovative new armies, powerful new navies – couldn’t get rid of old ones, and so it was burdened and inflexible.

Your book starts with the invention of gunpowder and traces the evolution of the gun in the period 900-1280 or so, but one of the great questions of world history is why, if the Chinese invented the gun, they didn’t use it as effectively as the West?

TA: Most people know next to nothing about early gunpowder weapons, and I was no different when I started writing the book. In fact, even experts in China’s military history knew very little about early guns until recently, but what we’re learning is causing us to question some deep narratives in world history. Guns were tremendously important in China, used highly effectively. By the mid- to late-1300s, some 10% or so of Chinese infantry soldiers were armed with guns, meaning there were probably more gunners in Chinese armies than there were troops of all kinds in Western Europe (excluding Iberia). By the mid-1400s, the proportion of gunners in China had reached 30% or so of infantry forces, a level Europeans didn’t reach until the mid-1500s. And Chinese soldiers used guns more effectively as well, deploying them in advanced and highly-disciplined formations by the mid-1300s. Similar disciplinary techniques and formations didn’t spread in Europe until the 1500s. So you can see that Chinese gunners were highly effective, more effective than westerners during this period. This early history of Chinese gunnery is almost entirely unknown, but it is a key part of world history.

That’s very interesting, but of course Europeans did eventually get better at gunpowder technology. When and why did this happen?

TA: During the early gunpowder Age, from around 900 or so (when the first gunpowder weapons were used in battle) to around 1450, East Asians led the world in gunpowder warfare. Starting around 1450, however, Europeans pulled ahead. Why? I believe the answer has to do with levels of warfare. From 1450 or so, the Ming dynasty entered into a period of relatively low warfare, which contrasted with the previous century of intense warfare. This period of relative peace (emphasis on the word relative) in China contrasted with a period of tremendous warfare in Europe. So Europeans, fighting frequently, developed new types of guns – longer, thinner, lighter, and more accurate – whereas Chinese guncraft stagnated. This period lasted only a short time, however. By the early 1500s, Chinese were innovating furiously again, and the period from 1550 to 1700 or so was a time of tremendous warfare in China. China stayed caught up with the west from a military perspective – ahead in certain respects, behind in others – until the mid-1700s when, as I said before, it entered into a great period of relative peace (again, emphasis on the word relative), during which it fell behind, a situation that lasted until the Opium War.

Tonio Andrade is professor of history at Emory University and the author of Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West (Princeton) and How Taiwan Became Chinese. His most recent book is Gunpowder Age.

Justin E. H. Smith on six types of philosophers

Smith jacketThe Natural Philosopher, the Sage, the Gadfly, the Ascetic, the Mandarin, and the Courtier. What would the global history of philosophy look like if it were told as a series of job descriptions—ones that might have been used to fill the position of philosopher at different times and places over the past 2,500 years? The Philosopher: A History in Six Types by Justin E. H. Smith does just that, providing a new way of looking at the history of philosophy. Why six types? Are some types superior to others? Recently, Smith took the time to answer these questions and more about his latest book.

This book doesn’t have a conventional structure or approach. In addition to straightforward scholarly exposition, it also contains autobiographical elements, as well as what appear to be fictional excursuses, written from the perspective of invented historical figures who represent different philosophical types. What are the reasons for this experimental approach?

JS: When I began speaking with my editor at Princeton University Press, what intrigued him most were some reflections of mine on the relationship between the activity of a philosopher and the practical need we all have to earn money and pay the bills. I had recently moved to Paris, was having trouble making ends meet with my modest French university salary, and so had begun experimenting with some ‘freelance’ philosophical dialogues with people willing to pay—mostly Anglo tourists who were looking to experience the frisson of sitting in a Parisian café and talking about love and death and stuff just like Sartre and De Beauvoir. So when I began writing, that personal experience served as the point of departure for reflecting on the long history of the problematic relationship between money and philosophy—after all, one of the most common foundation myths of the tradition is that it began when Socrates refused remuneration, thus liberating whatever it is we’re doing qua philosophers from whatever it is the Sophists had been doing. This approach then sort of expanded to other parts of the book: launching into an investigation of some aspect of the definition of philosophy by revealing something about my own personal engagement with it.

As for the fictional elements, I suppose this is just an irrepressible symptom of the sort of writing I’ve come to believe can best get across what I’m trying to do philosophically. I’m with Margaret Cavendish, who explicitly lays out at the beginning of her delirious 1666 novel, Blazing World, how it is that fantasy can be harnessed and utilized for the exploration of philosophical questions in ways for which the faculty of reason alone might be less ideally suited. I faced some resistance to these portions of the book from some readers of drafts. They wanted me to more clearly mark off and explain what I was doing in them, somewhat as Martha Nussbaum does when she introduces a fictional figure in one of her books to guide as through the exposition of arguments that follow. But I didn’t want my characters to serve simply as didactic aides. I wanted rather for the work to be, at least in part, a work of fiction, a product, like Cavendish’s, of the literary imagination.

Is this book philosophy, or is it about philosophy?

JS: I don’t know that there can really be a valid distinction here. By the same token, I’ve never understood what people mean when they talk about ‘metaphilosophy’. We’re all just trying to come to a clearer understanding of the nature of this activity we’re engaged in, in order, in part, to better engage in it. Philosophy is peculiar in that a great deal of effort is expended, by those who profess to practice it, in seeking to determine where its boundaries are, and what falls outside of them. This is a problem sedimentologists, say, don’t have, and one might easily suspect that philosophy is essentially constituted by this activity, that there’s not much left over to do once philosophers have stopped trying to determine what philosophy is not. I think my approach, the transregional and wide-focused historical survey of the very different ways people we think of as philosophers have themselves conceived what they were doing, helps to establish this point: ‘philosophy’ is said in many ways, to paraphrase Aristotle. I’m sure some critics who have some stake in portraying philosophy as essentially thus rather than so, or vice versa, will be quick to say that this book is ‘not philosophy’. But I think I can survive that, and in fact I think they’ll be helping to support my thesis.

Why six types? Is this list exhaustive or arbitrary?

JS: I make it very clear in the book that there has been no transcendental deduction of all possible types of philosopher, or anything like that. My approach is more like the one Kant accused Aristotle of taking in his elaboration of the ten categories: his listing of them continued until he grew tired. I also make clear that what we usually see when we look at actual philosophers is hybrids of two or more of the types, or different dimensions of the types becoming apparent at different moments in their work. The point of thinking in terms of types is to help reveal the degree to which the expectations placed on a person occupying the social role of the philosopher will determine in part the range of questions or problems that philosopher considers worthy of attention. I think of types as social categories, and for this reason certain social circumstances need to obtain in order for a given type of philosopher to make an appearance. Is an amateur observer of the way snails copulate in Central Park in 2015 a philosopher? No, but someone who was doing the same thing in the Jardin des Plantes in 1665 probably was.

You seem to be more sympathetic to some types than to others. Why?

JS: My training as a scholar, and so to speak my spiritual home base, is in the 17th century, which I see as a brief period of tremendous openness, of liberality and of true love of knowledge, inserted in the middle of what has generally been, philosophically speaking, a long, dark history of tedious scholasticism, provincialism, and submission to authority. Not coincidentally, this is also the period in which most of the philosophical action was going on outside of universities.

While I didn’t mean to structure things in this way when I began writing, as it turned out the chapters, each of which focuses on a particular type, move from my most to my least favorite. The first chapter is on what I call the ‘Curiosa’ (or, masculine, ‘Curiosus’), and the fictional personnage is inspired by none other than Margaret Cavendish. She represents the intellectual virtue that I believe is most lacking in university-based philosophy since at least the moment, sometime around the end of the 18th century, when the natural sciences broke off from philosophy and ‘natural philosophy’ ceased to be a vital and central concern of philosophers. My least favorite figure is the Courtier, whose fictional representative is based loosely on Jan Sten, the Soviet philosopher who was called in to tutor Stalin on Hegel and dialectical materialism and whatever other profound things the dictator was having trouble understanding, and who was eventually purged in the Moscow show trials. Serves that groveling worm right, we’re inclined to say at our safe distance, but the truth is many of us are doing something somewhat similar when we bend ourselves to the reigning ideology of market-driven university research, and pretend to ourselves and others that that’s still philosophy.

You draw on many sources that are not traditionally considered philosophy in the narrow sense. What is the purpose of this?

JS: I just don’t know how one could possibly coherently define the corpus of texts that deserve to be included in, as it were, the imaginary library of the history of philosophy. Recently (too recently to be included in the book) I’ve been thinking a great deal about the philosophical problem of the concept of ‘world’, as it developed in the 17th century, and the way in which this development is central for our understanding of the metaphysics of possibility, counterfactuals, one of Kant’s three transcendental Ideas, and so on. I’ve learned a great deal about the history of this concept from the work, in French, of Édouard Mehl. One thing I’ve come to appreciate is that this concept simply cannot be adequately understood without reading early modern novels, particularly the ones we might call ‘proto-science fiction’, such as Cyrano de Bergerac’s Les états et empires de la Lune. Am I supposed to exclude that just because it’s not a treatise? But then I will fail to adequately understand the philosophical problem that interests me, and that would be bad.

Often we are willing to pay attention to things that canonical philosophers say that are, quite frankly, no less fantastical than 17th-century lunar fantasy novels, simply because they are already categorized as canonical philosophers and therefore, we presume, everything they say is of interest. So Leibniz says that every drop of water in a pond is a world full of beings, and that is poetic and wonderful, but is it any more worthy of our attention as philosophers than when, say, Walt Whitman finds that he incorporates “gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss”? Both capture something profound about nature and our place in it. Whitman says it better, in my view, and there’s no reason not to pay attention to it, as philosophers, on the grounds that Whitman didn’t also come up with the principle of sufficient reason or the infinitesimal calculus.

In the end you describe the work as ‘aporetic’? Does this indicate a failure?

JS: No, it’s philosophy’s fault.

Justin E. H. Smith is university professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot—Paris VII. He is also the author of Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy and Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life (both Princeton). He writes frequently for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, Cabinet Magazine, and other publications.

 

McGovern scholar Thomas Knock on classic presidential reads

election blog banner logoThomas Knock is the author of The Rise of a Prairie Statesman: The Life and Times of George McGovern, the first volume of the first major biography of the 1972 presidential candidate and eloquent critic of the Vietnam War. Called “the standard bearer of all future biographies” by the San Francisco Chronicle, Knock’s reconsideration of the politician is a perfect pick for election season. Recently we asked Knock what classic books on presidents we would find in his own library.

By Thomas Knock

I’m happy to recommend five books about major presidents and the politics of their times— from the early 20th century to the early 21st century—all classics in their field and favorites of mine. My list of personal favorites encompasses several historically great presidents or otherwise quite notable ones—Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton— who still have something to say to us today.

1.  John Milton Cooper, The Warrior and the Priest, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt (Harvard, 1983).  This is a dual biography of two progressive presidents—one a Republican, one a Democrat—and the two most literate chief executives of the 20th century.  Together TR and Wilson recreated the modern presidency and, in their respective programs (the New Nationalism and the New Freedom) they laid the foundations for Big Government as we have come to know it today.  Cooper has definite and persuasive reveries about who is the Warrior and who is the Priest.

2.  Robert McElvaine, The Great Depression and the New Deal (Times Books, 1993).  A sweeping account of the crisis of the 1930s that gives both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt their due and even stresses a significant element of continuity between the policies of the two antagonists.  In this, while providing a most lucid interpretation of New Deal politics and culture, one also can see a parallel between Hoover and FDR, on the one hand, and George W. Bush and Barack Obama, on the other, as the latter pair struggled to contain the gathering disaster of 2008-09.

3.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and his America (St. Martin’s, 1976, 1991).  This remains one of the two or three best, and most moving, books ever written about Lyndon Johnson, who I myself would describe as half a great president.  Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this work are the implications of a single remark of Johnson’s to Goodwin:  that he believed when he entered office that he had only 18 months or so to get done whatever it was he was going to accomplish.  And that—the concept of the 18-Month Presidency, so to speak—is something that too many presidents have never grasped.

4.  Sidney Blumenthal, Pledging Allegiance, The Last Campaign of the Cold War (Harper/Collins, 1990).  This study offers a trove of insights into American politics at the end of the Cold War.  Its most significant achievement is to establish Reagan and Gorbachev as an irreducible team–that the advent of each was fundamental to the other’s well being if either was to have the salutary legacy that they are both credited with today.  Along with the entire cast of candidates in the 1988 knock-down, the volume also addresses the matter of the presidential sex scandal, something new in the politics of the ensuing post-Cold War era, which fatally ensnared the formidable Gary Hart, a former McGovern protege.

5.  David Maraniss, First in His Class, A biography of Bill Clinton (Simon and Schuster, 1995).  An essential work about the first post-Cold War president, this biography also includes substantial instructive coverage of the early life of Hillary Rodham.  The thrust is the striving of the first Boomer to enter the White House, who left Arkansas to be schooled at Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale Law; lived the politics of the Sixties and Vietnam and earnestly embraced McGovern’s campaign (learning chastening lessons along the way); and then returned to Arkansas as his means to power.  From a 2016 perspective, one can fully appreciate his enormous capacities while apprehending the bridge the two Clintons constitute between past, present and future.

KnockThomas J. Knock is Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor at Southern Methodist University. He is the author of the prize-winning To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order and the coauthor of The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century (both Princeton). He lives in Dallas, Texas.

The Arab Imago: A slideshow of portrait photography

The Arab Imago book coverThe dawn of photography coincided with the expansion of European imperialism; as a result, many of the oldest photographs from the Middle East come from the skewed colonial perspective of Europeans. In his forthcoming book, The Arab Imago: A Social History of Portrait Photography 1860-1910Stephen Sheehi offers an alternative history via numerous Arab and Armenian photographers who created their own images of Middle Eastern people. Sheehi seeks to define the past by these insider photographs, not the Orientalist pictures first circulated by foreign photographers. Many of the images come from posed studio portraits, showcasing the intricacy and clarity of the style, as well as the wide range of people who chose to be photographed.

This slideshow represents just a small selection of the early photographs featured in the book. Click on an image to enlarge and read the caption.

 

 

Q&A with Fawaz A. Gerges, author of ISIS: A History

Iisis gerges jacketSIS has become a notorious menace in today’s world, its name synonymous with ideologically motivated savagery. But what exactly explains the group’s spectacular rise and its unsettling recruiting success? In ISIS: A History, (April, 2016), Fawaz A. Gerges argues that ISIS is a manifestation of the breakdown of state institutions and intense foreign intervention. In contemplating its future trajectory, Gerges takes a look at the group’s weaknesses, including what he terms “extreme totalitarianism, even with its allies”, as well as the absence of “a social and economic blueprint”. Today, Gerges answered a few questions about why this written history is so important and what needs to be understood about ISIS.

What makes your book different from other recent books on ISIS?


FG: In the last two years a significant amount of books on ISIS have been published, and more are yet to be released. While most books do a great job at presenting ‘ basic’ facts about the organization and the chronology of its activities, with this book I want to produce an approachable analysis of ISIS’ mission, ideology, struggle and strategy. The book highlights some important features and aspects of ISIS history that have received at best limited coverage in the other available works.

In a way, ISIS: A History is an extension of my two previous books on the global jihadist movement: Why Jihad Went Global [Cambridge University Press, 2005] and The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda (Oxford University Press, 2011), in that it contextualizes the organization, its growth and evolution within the global jihadist movement. My aim is for the reader to understand how ISIS emerged out of the complexities of militant jihadist politics and to explain the ideological framework within which the organization operates and how it consolidates and expands its influence near and far. I also provide an important analysis of the relationship(s) between the “Arab Spring” uprisings and the rise of ISIS, which in my opinion, is an aspect that has too often been neglected and side-lined.

What’s the most important thing you want your readers to understand about ISIS?

FG: I would want the reader to understand that the spectacular surge of ISIS should be understood on one level, as the symptom of a severe, organic crisis of Arab governance and on another level, as a manifestation of decades of developmental failure in the Arab world and the social and economic pauperization of Arab societies. Moreover, ISIS is in part a product of intense and persistent foreign intervention in the internal affairs of Arab countries.

Among the important arguments and conclusions presented in this book is the recognition of diversity among radical religious activists: global jihadists are not a monolith and their internal conflicts and power struggles are significant in shaping their actions. Similarly, it is shown that while these groups are embedded in local, regional and global context, in the case of ISIS, the local dimension of the movement is pivotal.

What do you think would most surprise your readers to learn about ISIS?

FG: While the world is captivated by ISIS’ brutality and institution of a modern sex trade, less is known about the group’s capacity to govern, how it is digging in, and embedding itself deeper into the fabric of life in war-torn Iraq and Syria. By increasingly acting like a pseudo-state, ISIS makes the inhabitants dependent on its services, planting the idea in their minds that they are in control. In zones torn out by war, insecurity and abject poverty, ISIS has increasingly co-opted local communities under its control by filling a governance void and providing public services and good salaries. According to local residents in Raqqa, Deir al-Zour, Mosul, Fallujah, and other cities, ISIS has set up rudimentary bureaucracy and administration and functioning institutions; it improved security and law and order, if harsh, and provided jobs in decimated economies. Residents report that ISIS delivers important services, such as bakeries, policing, a swift sharia-based justice system, identity cards and birth certificates, consumer watch, garbage collection, dare-care centres, clean and well-run hospitals, and procured teachers to work in its schools, even though the quality of these services is neither stellar nor free.

As a result, ISIS is both welcomed and feared by Sunni communities who have lived through decades of repression, tyranny, corruption and violence.

What is the most understood aspect of ISIS?


FG: The most understood aspect of ISIS is its brutality. The group is synonymous with savagery, which the group is itself openly advocating. From the videoed beheadings of hostages and dissidents to the ethnic cleansing of minorities, ISIS makes a point of disclosing its goal to cleanse Sunni society of other cultural influences. In Iraq, it clearly aims at dismantling the diverse social fabric made up of Sunnis, Shia, Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians. A case point illustrating ISIS’ ethnic cleansing is its extraordinary punishment against the Yazidis, in the summer 2014, after its capture of Mosul.

How does your explanation of the rise of ISIS differ from that of others?


FG: As I mentioned earlier, while jihadist groups are embedded in local, regional and global contexts, in the case of ISIS, its local dimensions are significant. Although ISIS is an extension of the global jihadist movement in its ideology and worldview, its social origins are rooted in a specific Iraqi context, and, to a lesser extent, the Syrian war that has raged since 2011. Its strategic use of sectarian clashes between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims within the Iraqi and Syrian contexts has greatly benefited the organisation and shaped its activities. In addition, like the Taliban, if ISIS retains control over territory and peoples and delivers public services, it would likely consolidate its hegemony and gain the inured consent of the governed. This makes ISS radically different from and more dangerous than Al Qaeda Central, which never controlled territory and people or had immediate designs to create a state of its own. In contrast, ISIS is building a rump state in both countries and offers a subversive vision that dates back to seventh century Arabia. By doing so, it threatens the foundation of the Middle Eastern state system in a fundamental way than no other non-state actor has done before.

What are the most important differences between ISIS and Al-Qaeda?

FG: What sets ISIS apart from other non-state actors, including Al Qaeda Central, is possession of material capability, will power, and ideological capital, which it combined to deadly effects. ISIS controls a wide swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria that contains a population estimated at over 5 million people. In addition it controls a sectarian army numbering more than 30,000 fighters. In contrast during the height of its power in the late 1990s, Al Qaeda Central possessed fewer than 3,000 fighters with no territories of its own. Moreover, while Al Qaeda’ s Osama bin Laden was under the protection of Mullah Omar, the late Taliban leader in Afghanistan, by anointing himself supreme ruler of Muslims worldwide, ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi directly challenged Omar’s claim to the same title. ISIS’ blatant challenge of the Al Qaeda leadership and its imperial ambitions show an organisation determined to impose its will as a new major player in the region and a de facto State as well.

There is also an important ideological distinction between the two organisations. Al Qaeda emerged from an alliance between ultraconservative Saudi Salafism, or Wahhabism, and radical Egyptian Islamism, known as Salafi-jihadism. In contrast, ISIS was born of a marriage between an Iraq-based AQI (Salafi-jihadism) and an identity frame of politics. The ISIS ideological lineage of Salafi-jihadism, a union between Saudi Wahhabism and revolutionary Egyptian Islamism, forms part of the ideological impetus, the other part of its ideological nature is a hyper Sunni identity driven by intrinsic and even genocidal anti-Shia ideology.

Is ISIS more or less dangerous to the West than Al-Qaeda? Why?


FG: From a Western perspective, ISIS’ swift conquests in the Arab heartland, which is strategically and economically significant, constitutes a serious security dilemma facing pro-Western Arab regimes. Western governments also fear the potential spill-over effects of the expansion of ISIS’ power on their own national security in the long term. More than 20,000 foreign fighters from more than 90 countries have travelled to Syria and at least 3,400 of them come from Western countries. The fact that the number of foreign fighters continues to increase is particularly alarming and reflects a phenomenon that deserves critical scrutiny. European and American leaders are also anxious that the foreign fighters radicalized and militarized in Iraq and Syria could return home and carry out terrorist attacks. The Charlie Hebdo attack in France on 7 January 2015 did little to qualm such fears.

Do you think ISIS is a longterm threat?


FG: Yes I do. ISIS’ umbilical cord is tied to the raging sectarian fires in Iraq and Syria and the clash of identities that is ravaging Arab countries. If those problems are not dealt with, even if ISIS is defeated, there is always the risk of another like-minded militant group, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the official arm of Al Qaeda Central, filling a power vacuum in the region. If as I argue ISIS is a manifestation of the breakdown of state institutions, then the fragile authoritarian state system must be rebuilt on a more solid, legitimate foundation. What we need is for governments in the region to be transparent, inclusive and representative of their population. They need to deliver public goods, including jobs, and give millions of young men and women a stake in the future of their countries. A more complex challenge is also to confront ISIS’ ideology and worldview. Following the repression or, in the case of Iraq and Syria, the abortion of the Arab Spring uprisings, a lot of people feel that peaceful demonstrations had failed to provide them with the justice, freedom and dignity they had called for. As a result we now need to (re)-convince them that there are nonviolent options that can bring about meaningful and substantive political change. Until we do, the menace of the “Islamic State” will remain a problem both for the Arab-Islamic world and for the international community.

Has ISIS gone global?


FG: Although ISIS attracts recruits from various countries, as of now, it remains more interested in the ‘near enemy’ than ‘the far enemy’. Clearly, ISIS has placed the struggle against the Americans, Europe and even Israel as a distant secondary goal that must be deferred until liberation at home is achieved. One needs to recall that at the height of the Israeli assault on Gaza during the summer of 2014, after being criticised by militants for failing to intervene, ISIS insisted that its main struggle was the one it wages against the Shias. ISIS is more interested in building a Sunni “Islamic state” in the heart of Arabia and consolidating its grip on the Iraqi and Syrian territories in which it occupies than marching on Rome or Washington. In his second address to the world, Baghdadi explained that ISIS’ grand ambition is to expand in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. The group has also managed to obtain pledges of allegiance from factions who had been part of Al Qaeda in Egypt, Libya, Somalia, and Nigeria. ISIS has even made inroads in Yemen, home to Al Qaeda’s strongest affiliate (AQAP), in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and is also beginning to challenge the Taliban in Afghanistan and several prominent figures among the Al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban factions have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi.

What do you think is most likely to happen with ISIS in the near 
future? In the long term?


FG: The menace of the “Islamic State” needs to be taken seriously. As “Islamic State” militants swept across Syria and Iraq, they destroyed, damaged and looted numerous cultural sites and sculptures, condemning them as idolatry. For an authentic Islamic state to be erected, the Sunni militants of ISIS feel that the Islamic lands must be cleansed of apostasy and heretics regardless of the human or civilizational costs. In fact, ISIS’ planners are keen on displaying ideological zeal and purity to outbid rival Islamists and show that they are the sole defender of the faith and the (Sunni) umma.

For example, in an attempt to cleanse Sunni society of other cultural influences, ISIS has sought to dismantle the diverse social fabric made up of Sunnis, Shia, Kurds, Yazidis, Druze, and Christians that have developed and persevered from the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq.

A case point illustrating ISIS’ ethnic cleansing is its extraordinary punishment against the Yazidis, a tiny religious minority who represent less than 1.5 percent of Iraq’s estimated population of 34 million and whom ISIS considers heretics. After the capture of Mosul and its outlaying towns in summer 2014, including Sinjar, near the Syrian border, home to tens of thousands of Yazidis, ISIS engaged in systemic cultural cleansing, forcing hundreds of thousands of minorities from their homes, and using sexual violence as a weapon by indiscriminately raping Yazidi girls and women. ISIS viciously attacked the Yazidis, killing men and boys of fighting age and abducting a total of 5,270 Yazidi girls and women (at least 3,144 are still being held at the time of writing), which were subsequently forced into sexual slavery, according to human rights organisations, United Nations figures and community leaders. To handle the modern sex trade, ISIS has developed a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery, including sales contracts notarized by its Islamic courts. And systemic rape has become an established and an increasingly powerful recruiting tool for ISIS to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden.

One of the weaknesses of ISIS is its extreme totalitarianism, even with its allies, as well as lack of a social and economic blueprint. The schism between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the official arm of Al Qaeda Central, in Syria shows that its strategy to impose itself as the absolute jihadist movement does not always work out in its favour. Instead, it can lead to internal splits and turn former allies into enemies. ISIS has mastered the art of making enemies of the entire world, including potential allies, and top militant clerics and theorists. Although for now ISIS is ascendant, its long term prospects are grim. Once ISIS’ military fortunes decline it would face a reckoning. Under ISIS, there is no breathing space for social mobilization and political organization, including like-minded Salafi-jihadi activism. ISIS possesses a totalitarian, millenarian worldview that eschews political pluralism, competition and diversity of thought. Baghdadi and his associates criminalize and excommunicate free thought and the idea of the “other” is alien to their messianic ideology. Any Muslim or co- jihadist who doesn’t accept ISIS’ interpretation of the Islamic doctrine are apostates who deserve death.

Fawaz A. Gerges is author of ISIS: A History. He is professor of international relations and Emirates Professor in Contemporary Middle East Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His many books include The New Middle East, Obama and the Middle East, and The Far Enemy. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Foreign Affairs, and other publications.