The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Coney Island

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows, 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.  Today we take a look at Coney Island.

From classic roller-coasters to a nice boardwalk along the beach, Coney Island is one of Brooklyn’s most historic and well-known neighborhoods. It was the site of three famous theme parks that were all affected by fires (many are now used for other purposes, such as housing.) Some old rides remain with the addition of new ones, but the history of Coney Island lingers in the air:

Beautiful artwork by sculptor Deborah Masters is a must-see while walking around Brooklyn, and Coney Island has a piece that shouldn’t be missed. A terra-cotta relief of patrons enjoying Coney Island graces the surface of a supporting viaduct under the tracks of the Ocean Parkway, embodying the fun spirit of the peninsula.

I came face to face with a large, unglazed, brownish-red, terra-cotta-colored relief made of cast concrete, dubbed “Brooklyn…” It consists of a group of people, some standing, others seated in a roller-coaster. Most are wearing bathing suits. To the left on a separate pane is a bare-breasted mermaid.

Of course, Coney Island is famous for its amusement park rides, and Helmreich reflected on his time as a young boy visiting the park with his family. Though some of the park has changed, there remains a sense of the past:

For me, everything about going there, and we went there numerous times, was memorable. Some of the rides, especially the bumper cars, where you could crash into other cars with gusto but with no consequences except for a dirty look or minor retaliation in kind, are indelibly imprinted on my consciousness. The same for the boardwalk, where we delighted in staring at the waves as they crashed ashore, and consumed all manner of delectable treats—potato knishes, hot dogs, and ice cream in crisp, dark sugar cones.

Some of the old rides are still operating, but they exist in a setting that’s a cross between venerating the old and embracing the new.

Coney Island is home to the original Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2016. If you find yourself craving delicious franks and salty crinkle-cut fries with a dash of history, be sure to stop by this famous eatery.

Nathan’s, which turned one hundred in 2016, is still there, the signage recognizable as well as the menu, offering many of old standbys—the crinkle-cut fries and hot dogs, frog legs, ears of buttered corn, and Chow Mein on a bun, but not the real glasses in which orange drinks were once served.

At the end of Coney Island is one of New York City’s oldest gated communities, (one of only four in the city.) Sea Gate is the destination for those seeking a quiet area with private beaches.

Sea Gate, which begins on W. 37th Street, is part of Coney Island, but, as the name implies, it’s a gated community, one of four in the city. The others are Silver Beach Gardens and Edgewater Park, in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx; and Breezy Point in the Rockaways portion of Queens. Sea Gate is the oldest, established in 1898, and the most integrated of the four. It has the feel, if any case, of not being a part of greater Coney Island. It’s quiet, has its own beaches and a visitor needs permission from a guard to gain entry. People who live here have an opportunity to feel they live in an exclusive community…

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. 

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Williamsburg

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows 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.  Today we take a look at Williamsburg:

What was once a largely industrial site in the nineteenth century, a diversified neighborhood in the early twentieth century and a considerably dangerous area in the ’90s, Williamsburg has become a highly sought after and trendy neighborhood.

Once considered a dangerous part of Brooklyn, the neighborhood has gone through a “rebirth” in the northern and eastern sections, with apartment prices “skyrocketing.” It is perhaps the largest rejuvenated neighborhood in New York and one with easy access to Manhattan.


Porkpie Hatters epitomizes Williamsburg’s “hipster culture.

Many neighborhoods have murals that decorate the buildings along the streets. While walking, Helmreich found stunning murals at the intersection of Meserole and Waterbury Streets:

Those in the know come from all over the world with cameras to view and photograph the murals, many created by well-known graffiti artists like Shepard Fairey, Dasic Fernandez, Werc, Icy and Sot, and Giant Robot. The murals change quite frequently, but they are almost always interesting.

Williamsburg is home to one of the best-known motorcycle shops in the country, Indian Larry Motorcyles, located on Union Street. The shops owner Indian Larry, born Lawrence DeSmedt, was famous for his chopper creations.

His nickname came from a chopper brand that he rode… his creations were featured on the Discovery Channel and in Easy Rider Magazine, and he won all sorts of awards and was therefore widely known to cycle enthusiasts. Inside are beautiful bikes, including two very expensive choppers with stupendous, intricate designs that sell for $350K and $750K. The second one, featured in the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, is known as his “Wild Child”.

Williamsburg 2

St. Vincent De Paul Church was built 145 years ago and now houses condos.

Famous for being an industrial site, Williamsburg has preserved the history of its once industrial neighborhood:

Williamsburg’s industrial area is a perfect place to discover what the city looked like in the early twentieth century, when heavy industry and manufacturing dominated — streets like Waterbury, Stagg, Morgan, Ten Eyck, Gardiner, Scholes, and Meadows, among others.

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 interview with Nancy Malkiel on the struggle for coeducation

MalkielAt the end of the 1960s, a change swept elite institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom: In a remarkably brief span of time, a large number of traditional, conservative, highly prestigious colleges and universities began admitting women. In her new book, Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation, Princeton University professor Nancy Weiss Malkiel examines the historic shift, revealing that contrary to popular belief, the decision was less a moral response to female activists than a strategic one made largely by powerful men. Recently, Malkiel took the time to answer questions about her new book.

What led you to write a book about coeducation?

NM: It’s partly autobiographical. I had been a graduate student at Harvard in the mid-/late 1960s, when the relationship between Harvard and Radcliffe was beginning to be addressed. I joined the Princeton faculty in 1969 as one of the first three women in the professorial ranks; 1969 also happened to be the year when the first women undergraduates arrived. I served as dean of the college, with responsibility for undergraduate education at Princeton, for 24 years. At the same time, I graduated from and served as a trustee of Smith, a women’s college that decided not to go coed. I was very interested in how coeducation came to be embraced at Princeton and so many other elite men’s schools, in why Smith decided against coeducation, and in how women’s education worked in the institutions I knew best.

I was also very interested in processes of institutional change. How did very old, very traditional, very elite institutions decide to go coed? What factors influenced their decision-making? Who provided leadership? Who supported change? Who resisted change? How were competing interests adjudicated?

What made coeducation such a struggle?

NM: There was intense opposition to coeducation, mainly on the part of alumni who treasured their undergraduate experience and thought that admitting women would ruin the camaraderie, the special ambiance that had made all-male institutions so successful. The title of this book comes from a letter from one Ivy League alumnus who wrote, in opposing coeducation, “For God’s sake, for everyone’s sake, keep the damned women out.” Very often, coeducation was instituted over the very strong objections of these alumni. Many of these men later came to change their views when their daughters and granddaughters sought admission to their now-coeducational alma maters.

Your book focuses on decisions for coeducation in a very brief period of time – essentially, 1969-74. Why?

NM: There was a flood of decisions for coeducation in these years, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. That’s when coeducation came to be instantiated at most of the very traditional, very conservative, very elite single-sex institutions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The decade of the 1960s bore on the timing: with the civil rights movement, the student movement, the antiwar movement, and the women’s movement, it was no wonder that colleges and universities began reconsidering many aspects of the educational arrangements that had served them for centuries.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned in the course of your research?

NM: Coeducation was not the product of organized efforts by women activists. Decisions for coeducation were made by powerful men (Mary Ingraham Bunting, the president of Radcliffe, is the sole exception here). And they were acting not on some moral imperative, not on a high-minded commitment to the education of women, but on straightforward self-interest: Coeducation was embraced as a means of shoring up applicant pools that were declining because many students no longer wanted to go to single-sex institutions.

How did you decide which colleges and universities to write about?

NM: In the United States, I focused on the men’s schools that were generally regarded as the influencers, the agenda-setters, the institutions that others looked to, modeled themselves on, and emulated – in other words, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth. As for women’s colleges, Vassar was clearly the most prestigious women’s college that chose to admit men; I included Smith and Wellesley for comparative purposes because both of them had high-level reports in this same period that recommended coeducation, and both of them backed away from admitting men. In the United Kingdom, I wrote about the first three men’s colleges at Cambridge to admit women (in 1972) – Churchill, Clare, and King’s – and the first five at Oxford (in 1974) – Brasenose, Hertford, Jesus, St. Catherine’s, and Wadham.

It’s important to note that lots of other American institutions went coed in this period – men’s schools as well as women’s schools, colleges as well as universities. But the others were less influential, less precedent-making, than the elite institutions I focused on.

What were the biggest differences between coeducation in men’s colleges and coeducation in women’s colleges?

NM: When a men’s college coeducated, there was no question that it would attract a large number of highly qualified women applicants. When a women’s college coeducated, it was much less clear that there would be a sufficient pool of highly qualified male applicants.

Why did you want to compare American and British universities and colleges?

NM: A very similar phenomenon – the advent of coeducation at very old, very traditional, very elite institutions – was occurring on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The movements of the 1960s affected colleges and universities in both countries. Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were fully aware of what was happening in the United States, and there were some explicit connections between some of them and institutions like Princeton and Yale. There were also similarities in alumni resistance to coeducation. Heads of colleges at Oxford and Cambridge sought to assuage the concerns of their alumni by reminding them of the decision taken many decades earlier to remove the requirement of celibacy for fellows (faculty members) of the colleges – suggesting that coeducation, like married fellows, would soon come to be seen as perfectly normal.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel is a professor of history at Princeton University. From 1987 to 2011, she served as Dean of the College, overseeing the University’s undergraduate academic program, making her the longest serving dean. Malkiel’s current research centers on the decisions for coeducation at elite colleges and universities in the Unites States, as well as the United Kingdom, from 1969 to the mid 1970s. She is the author of  Whitney M. Young, Jr., and the Struggle for Civil Rights and Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (both Princeton). Her most recent book is “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation.

Peter Dougherty & Al Bertrand: On Being Einstein’s Publisher

by Peter Dougherty and Al Bertrand

So many people today—and even professional scientists—seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. (Albert Einstein to Robert A Thornton, 7 December 1944, EA 61-574)

For all of the scholarly influences that have defined Princeton University Press over its 111-year history, no single personality has shaped the Press’s identity as powerfully, both directly and indirectly, as Albert Einstein. The 2015 centenary of the publication of Einstein’s “Theory of General Relativity” as well as the affirmation this past February and again in June of the discovery of gravitational waves has encouraged us to reflect on this legacy and how it has informed our identity as a publisher.

The bright light cast by Einstein the scientist and by Einstein the humanist has shaped Princeton University Press in profound and far-reaching ways. It expresses itself in the Press’s standard of scholarly excellence, its emphasis on the breadth and connectedness of liberal learning across all fields, and in our mission of framing scholarly arguments to shape contemporary knowledge. All the while, Einstein’s role as a citizen of the world inspires our vision to be a truly global university press.


Albert Einstein is not only Princeton University Press’s most illustrious author; he was our first best-selling author. Following his public lectures in Princeton in 1921, the Press—itself less than 20 years old at the time—published the text of those lectures, titled “The Meaning of Relativity”, in 1922. Publication followed the agitated exhortation of the Press’s then-manager, Frank Tomlinson, urging Professor Einstein to get his manuscript finished. Tomlinson wrote:

My dear Professor Einstein—

On July 6 I wrote you inquiring when we might expect to receive the manuscript of your lectures. I have had no reply to this letter. A number of people have been inquiring when the book will be ready, and we are considerably alarmed at the long delay in the receipt of your manuscript, which we were led to believe would be in our hands within a month after the lectures were delivered. The importance of the book will undoubtedly be seriously affected unless we are able to publish it within a reasonable time and I strongly urge upon you the necessity of sending us the copy at your earliest convenience. I should appreciate also the favor of a reply from you stating when we may expect to receive it.

the meaning of relativity jacketMr. Tomlinson’s letter marks something of a high point in the history of publishers’ anxiety, but far from failing, The Meaning of Relativity was a hit. It would go on to numerous successive editions, and remains very much alive today as both a print and digital book, as well as in numerous translated editions.

For all its glorious publishing history, The Meaning of Relativity can be thought of as a mere appetizer to the bounteous publishing banquet embodied in THE COLLECTED PAPERS OF ALBERT EINSTEIN, surely PUP’s most ambitious continuing publication and one of the most important editorial projects in all of scholarly publishing.

The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein

Authorized by the Einstein Estate and the PUP Board of Trustees in 1970, and supported by a generous grant from the late Harold W. McGraw, Jr., chairman of the McGraw-Hill Book Company, THE EINSTEIN PAPERS, as it evolves, is providing the first complete and authoritative account of a written legacy that ranges from Einstein’s work on the special and general theories of relativity and the origins of quantum theory, to expressions of his profound concern with civil liberties, education, Zionism, pacifism, and disarmament.

einstein old letterAn old saying has it that “good things come to those to wait,” words that ring resoundingly true regarding the EINSTEIN PAPERS. Having survived multiple obstacles in the long journey from its inception through the publication of its first volume in 1987, the Einstein Papers Project hit its stride in 2000 when Princeton University Press engaged Professor Diana Buchwald as its sixth editor, and moved the Project to Pasadena with the generous support of its new host institution, the California Institute of Technology.

Since then, Professor Buchwald and her Caltech-based editorial team, along with their international network of scholarly editors, have produced successive documentary and English translation volumes at the rate of one every eighteen months. To give you an idea of just how impressive a pace this is, the Galileo papers are still a work in progress, nearly four centuries after his death.

The EINSTEIN PAPERS, having reached and documented Einstein’s writings up to 1925, has fundamentally altered our understanding of the history of physics and of the development of general relativity, for example by destroying the myth of Einstein as a lone genius and revealing the extent to which this man, with his great gift for friendship and collegiality, was embedded in a network of extraordinary scientists in Zurich, Prague, and Berlin.

Along with the EINSTEIN PAPERS, the Press has grown a lively publishing program of books drawn from his work and about Einstein. Satellite projects include The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, as well as volumes on Einstein’s politics, his love letters, and the “miraculous year” of 1905.

Last year the Press published two new books drawn from Einstein’s writings, The Road to Relativity, and the 100th anniversary edition of Relativity: The Special and General Theory, both volumes edited by Jürgen Renn of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, and Hanoch Gutfreund of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.   These volumes celebrate the centenary of Einstein’s publication of the theory of general relativity in November 1915.

In this same centenary year, PUP published several other Einstein titles, including:

— Volume 14 of the Collected Papers, The Berlin Years, 1923-1925.

An Einstein Encyclopedia, edited by Alice Calaprice, Daniel Kennefick, and Robert Schulman;

Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity, by Andrew Robinson

Especially notable, in January 2015 the Press released THE DIGITAL EDITION OF THE COLLECTED PAPERS OF ALBERT EINSTEIN, a publishing event that has attracted extraordinary worldwide attention, scientific as well as public. This online edition is freely available to readers and researchers around the world, and represents the historic collaboration between the Press and its partners, the Einstein Papers Project at Caltech and the Albert Einstein Archive in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Moreover, works by and about Einstein sit at the crossroads of two major components of the Princeton list: our science publishing program which comprises a host of fields from physics through mathematics, biology, earth science, computer science, and natural history, and our history of science program which connects PUP’s Einstein output to our humanities publishing, helping to bridge the intellectual gap between two major dimensions of our list.

Einstein’s dual legacy at Princeton University Press thus serves to bookend the conversation defined by the Press’s unusually wide-ranging array of works across and throughout the arts and sciences, from mathematics to poetry. C.P. Snow famously described the sciences and the humanities as “two cultures.” Einstein’s legacy informs our effort as a publisher to create an ongoing correspondence between those two cultures in the form of books, which uniquely serve to synthesize, connect, and nurture cross-disciplinary discourse.


Much as the living legacy of the EINSTEIN PAPERS and its related publications means to Princeton University Press as a publisher, it holds a broader meaning for us both as editors and as leaders of the institution with which we’ve long been affiliated.

Like most of our colleagues, we arrived at the Press as editors previously employed by other publishers, and having little professional interest in physics. Each of us specialized in different editorial fields, economics and classics, respectively.

Our initial disposition towards the field of physics, while full of awe, was perhaps best summed up by Woody Allen when he said: “I’m astounded by people who want to ‘know’ the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.”  

But we soon discovered, as newcomers to PUP inevitably do, that the Princeton publishing legacy of Albert Einstein carried with it a set of implications beyond his specific scientific bounty that would help to shape our publishing activity, as well as that of our colleagues. We see the Einstein legacy operating in three distinct ways on PUP’s culture:

First, it reinforces the centrality of excellence as a standard: simply put, we strive to publish the core scholarly books by leading authors, senior as well as first-time. Einstein’s legacy stands as a giant-sized symbol of excellence, an invisible but constant reminder that our challenge as publishers at Princeton is not merely to be good, but to be great. As we seek greatness by publishing those books that help to define and unite the frontiers of modern scholarship, and connect our authors’ ideas with minds everywhere, we are upholding a standard embodied in the work of Albert Einstein.

The second implication of the bounty Albert Einstein is a commitment to seeing liberal knowledge defined broadly, encompassing its scientific articulation as well as its expression in the humanities and social sciences. PUP purposefully publishes an unusually wide portfolio of subject areas, encompassing not only standard university press fields such as literary criticism, art history, politics, sociology, and philosophy, but a full complement of technical fields, including biology, physics, neuroscience, mathematics, economics, and computer science. A rival publisher once half-jokingly described PUP as “the empirical knowledge capital of the world.” She was referring to our capacious cultivation of scientific and humanistic publishing, an ambitious menu for a publisher producing only around 250 books a year, but one we think gives the Press its distinctive identity.

It is no coincidence that Albert Einstein, PUP’s most celebrated author, cast his influence across many of these fields both as a scientist and as a humanist, engaged fully in the life of the mind and of the world. His legacy thus inspires us to concentrate our editorial energies on building a list that focuses on knowledge in its broadest and deepest sense—that puts into play the sometimes contentious, and even seemingly incongruous, methodologies of science and the humanities and articulates a broad yet rigorous, intellectual vision, elevating knowledge for its own sake, even as the issues change from decade to decade.

A third implication appears in Einstein’s challenge to us to be a great global publisher. Einstein, a self-professed “citizen of the world” was in many ways the first global citizen, a scholar whose scientific achievement and fame played out on a truly global scale in an age of parochial and often violent nationalist thinking.

Einstein’s cosmopolitanism has inspired the Press to pursue a path of becoming a truly global university Press. To do this, PUP has built lists in fields that are cosmopolitan in their readership, opened offices in Europe and China, expanded its author and reviewer base all over the world, and has licensed its content for translation in many languages. As we go forward, we intend to continue to build a network that allows us to connect many local publishing and academic cultures with the global scholarly conversation. This vision of the Press’s future echoes Einstein’s call for a science that transcends national boundaries.


It has been nearly a century since publication of The Meaning of Relativity and half that since the original agreement for the EINSTEIN PAPERS was authorized. We can only imagine that the originators of the latter project would be proud of what our collective effort has produced, grateful to the principals for the job they have done in bringing the PAPERS to their current status, and maybe above all, awed by the global exposure the PAPERS have achieved in their print and now digital formats.

As we continue our work with our colleagues at Caltech and the Hebrew University to extend the EINSTEIN PAPERS into the future, we are reminded of the significance of the great scientist’s legacy, especially as it bears on our identity as a global publisher, framing the pursuit of knowledge imaginatively across the arts and sciences.

The eminent Italian publisher Roberto Calasso, in his recent book, The Art of the Publisher, encourages readers to imagine a publishing house as,

“a single text formed not just by the totality of books that have been published there, but also by its other constituent elements, such as the front covers, cover flaps, publicity, the quantity of copies printed and sold, or the different editions in which the same text has been presented. Imagine a publishing house in this way and you will find yourself immersed in a very strange landscape, something that you might regard as a literary work in itself, belonging to a genre all its own.”

Now, at a time when the very definition of publishing is being undermined by technological and economic forces, it is striking to see each publisher as a “literary work unto itself.” So it is with Princeton University Press. In so far as PUP can claim a list having a diversified but well-integrated publishing vision, one that constantly strives for excellence and that stresses the forest for the trees, it is inescapably about the spirit and substance reflected in the legacy of Albert Einstein, and it is inseparable from it.

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Peter J. Dougherty is Director of Princeton University Press. This essay is based in part on comments he delivered at the Space-Time Theories conference at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in January, 2015. Al Bertrand is Associate Publishing Director of Princeton University Press and Executive Editor of the Press’s history of science publishing program, including Einstein-related publications.

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.