Noah Feldman


On his book The Arab Winter: A Tragedy

Cover Interview of May 27, 2020

In a nutshell

Today many people think that, in retrospect, the Arab spring was doomed to fail. Arab popular self-government was a “mirage,” a “false dawn.” There was no truly transformative political self-determination in those countries where people took to the streets and expressed their will to change.

The purpose of this book is to save the Arab spring from that verdict of implicit nonexistence. I propose an alternative account that highlights the exercise of collective, free political action—with all the dangers of error and disaster that come with it.

There is no question that, apart from removing a handful of dictators, the Arab spring did not achieve most of its grander aspirations.

Nevertheless, there was an Arab spring that led to today’s Arab winter. People whose political lives had been determined and shaped from the outside tried politics for themselves, and for a time succeeded. That this did not lead to constitutional democracy or even to a more decent life for most of those affected is not a reason to believe that the effort was meaningless. Failure is always one possible outcome of attempting self-determination.

Regardless, the effort mattered for the course of history. And it matters for the future. The central political meaning of the Arab spring and its aftermath is that it featured Arabic-speaking people acting essentially on their own.

The Arab spring marked a crucial, historical break from a long era in which empires—Ottoman, European, and American—definitively shaped the course of Arab politics. The participants in the events of the Arab spring and its aftermath took charge of their politics through action. In doing so, they remade and transformed the two big forces that have dominated political ideas in the Arabic-speaking world for the past century, namely Arab nationalism and political Islam.

This book is not an attempt to explain precisely why the Arab spring took place when it did or why the outcomes differed from place to place. It’s not a work of history or of structural political science.

My constant question is, rather, what does it mean that these things happened?

This is the sort of question that Hannah Arendt so influentially asked about the American and French revolutions, and indeed about political action itself. The exploration I undertake is indebted not only to Arendt’s question but also to her distinctive view that people who engage in genuine collective political action are exercising freedom in the truest sense.



Edward Ashford Lee


On his book The Coevolution: The Entwined Futures of Humans and Machines

Cover Interview of May 20, 2020

In a nutshell

We are all used to the idea that humanity shapes technology. After all, we humans are the designers, right? Wait. Maybe we are being a bit arrogant here. The French philosopher Émile-Auguste Chartier, known as Alain, wrote this about fishing boats in Brittany:

Every boat is copied from another boat. ... Let’s reason as follows in the manner of Darwin. It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages and thus never be copied. ... One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

In this view, boat designers are more agents of mutation than designers, and sometimes their mutations result in a “badly made boat.” Could it be that Facebook has been fashioned more by teenagers than by software engineers?

My book takes the position that digital technology coevolves with humans. Facebook changes its users and its designers who then change Facebook. The thinking of software engineers is shaped by the tools they use, themselves earlier outcomes of software engineering. And the success of each mutation depends less on its technical excellence than on its ability to “go viral.” The techno-cultural context has more effect on the outcome than all of the deliberate decisions of the software engineers. And this context evolves.

All of this implies that we humans are less in control of the trajectory of technology than we tend to think. My book tries to help us understand this trajectory as a Darwinian coevolution. To do that, I had to take a deep dive into how evolution works, how humans are different from computers, and how technology today resembles the emergence of a new life form on our planet.

This latter idea, to view digital technology as a new life form, is likely to be the most controversial idea in the book. Computers are made of silicon and wires, not meat and leaves. Sure, the mechanisms and the chemistry are different, but what we need to focus on is not how they are made, but rather on how they work.

Life is a process, not a thing. In the words of Daniel Dennett, “It ain’t the meat, it’s the motion.” The digital processes that surround us, like living creatures, respond to stimulus from their environment. They grow. Think about how Wikipedia started on one server in 2001 and has grown to run on hundreds of servers scattered around the planet. The machines, and most especially the software, even reproduce (mostly with our help, for now). They also inherit traits from their forebearers (“Every boat is copied from another boat.”)

Don’t get me wrong. To consider the machines to be “living” is not to assign them rights or agency. It is just understanding that they have a certain autonomy and an ability to sustain their own processes. Some are capable of behaviors that we can call “intelligent,” but most are not.

Even if we view them as “living,” in some sense, we have to recognize that they are not biological beings, and they differ from us in important ways. Digital machines, defined by software, can be copied perfectly and “travel” at the speed of light. No biological being can do that. Also, no AI software has a body like ours. To the extent that our own cognitive selves depend on our embodiment, the AIs will never be like us. But the machines are acquiring bodies. Consider a self-driving car. Will it ever reach the point that we must hold it accountable for its actions?



Samuel Zipp


On his book The Idealist: Wendell Willkie’s Wartime Quest to Build One World

Cover Interview of May 13, 2020

In a nutshell

The Idealist is the story of one man, a world-circling journey, and an influential book. But it is more than that, too. It’s a story about an idea and a moment in time, and their implications for our own lives. I tell the tale of Wendell Willkie’s trip around the world in late 1942 and the unprecedented buzz surrounding One World, his blockbuster 1943 bestseller, to consider a larger dilemma: how should we handle the sense of planetary interdependence brought on by globalization?

This question is much with us today in the time of Covid-19, but I want readers to see that it has a longer history than one might expect. The book takes us back to World War II, another time of great global crisis, but approaches the war from a perhaps unexpected angle. Those familiar with Willkie will likely know him as Franklin Roosevelt’s Republican opponent in the election of 1940. The usual story is that Willkie’s internationalism helped neutralize America First-style nationalism and allowed FDR to take the nation into the war. Willkie becomes a supporting player in the familiar narrative of American ascendance. He helps the United States to save the world from fascism and erect the postwar “liberal world order” that is in so much trouble today. In that sense, his story appears as a kind of sunny rejoinder to the noir alternative history on offer in David Simon’s recent HBO version of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America.

But the truth about Willkie—and the war—is more challenging than this conventional, and, to many Americans, comforting tale. The key here is to see Willkie’s trip and book as a crucial but forgotten drama of the war era. Organized initially with President Roosevelt as a way to boost Allied morale, the closely watched journey became that and much more.

Forced to avoid occupied Europe, Willkie made stops in Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, the Soviet Union, and China. This itinerary allowed him to discover an entirely different war, one between empires as much as against fascism. In One World—deemed the “the most widely read and discussed non-fiction book of the twentieth century” by its publishers—Willkie looked to bring home what he called an “invitation” from the “peoples of the East.” Americans, he argued, had to join the true world war. If the conflict could not bring about a postwar peace that delivered an end to empire it would not be truly won.

Willkie challenged Americans to see their fate as bound up with many millions they had tended to ignore—and whom common histories of the war still ignore. The world, he tried to show Americans, was “one,” united by technology and global war—and it was this interdependence that would shape the rest of the twentieth century. Ultimately, the history revealed by Willkie’s story should ask us to confront anew the dilemmas of interdependence he and others faced three-quarters of a century ago.



Henry Jenkins


On his book Comics and Stuff

Cover Interview of May 06, 2020

In a nutshell

After decades of disreputable status, contemporary comics are undergoing a transformation into the hard-bound graphic novel, shifting from a disposable to an enduring medium. There has also been a move from the larger-than-life subject matter of superhero comics towards an alternative focus on everyday life. We thus see a shift in what comics depict from urban landscapes and epic battles to still life drawings, which focus the attention on “stuff”—understood as the material objects with which we surround ourselves and the emotional baggage they carry for us, thus becoming our possessions.

Our culture is awash in stuff, and comics are one of the mediums which help us to make sense of our material culture. They do so in three ways: comics are stuff which we collect and appraise; comics depict stuff through their images; and comics tell stories about how stuff enters or exits our life.

Following a two-part introduction which guides readers through key concepts from comics studies, material culture research, art history, and cinema theory, each chapter centers on a contemporary comic artist and their work read through the lens of ‘Stuff Studies.”

So for example, Mimi Pond’s Over Easy, an autobiographical comic about working as a waitress, evokes the tactile dimensions of working in food service; Derf BackDerf’s Trashed shows us the way our trash collectors see our lives through what we discard; and Joyce Farmer’s Special Exits and Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant deal with the emotional and physical labor family members perform in going through what’s left behind after the death of a parent. On the other hand, David Mazzuccheli’s Asterios Polyp captures the ebb and flow in a romantic relationship through a series of panels focused around the furniture arrangements in their apartment, while Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters shows a young girl’s transformative practices, such as turning her Barbie doll into a werewolf, because she lacks the resources to collect the paraphernalia associated with the monster culture of the 1960s. Seth and Kim Deitch come at collecting culture from many different perspectives, helping us to think about, in Seth’s case, the ethical relations between rival collectors and in Deitch’s case, the haunted history of popular media. And there’s more.

In each case, our ability to read the social cues associated with the accumulation, display, and discarding of stuff gives us an entry point into the emotional lives of the characters and the particular obsessions of the comics artists themselves. Each, in turn, sheds life on our own everyday practices and our own physical and mental landscape. Comics invite us to read the depicted stuff the ways we might read a friend’s book shelves or knickknack collections.



Thomas Borstelmann


On his book Just Like Us: The American Struggle to Understand Foreigners

Cover Interview of April 29, 2020

In a nutshell

Foreignness: how have Americans thought about it? Who are we, who are they, and how are we related to each other? These questions have underpinned all of American history, as an expansive colonial project and subsequent nation engaged with new and different peoples, first in North America and then all around the world. Just Like Us tells the story of how Americans have struggled to understand other peoples, both those living elsewhere and those coming to the American shores.

You could think of it as a combination of the history of political and popular culture (who Americans believe they are), immigration history, and the history of U.S. foreign relations. The book shows how Americans developed over time what they understood as a culture of individual freedom, and how they believed that culture to reflect essential qualities of human nature. They saw American culture and American values, in other words, as natural, and the United States as the place where people could truly become themselves, free from the constraints of unjust rulers and oppressive traditions. In this sense, Americans across the political spectrum have tended to be universalists: they may have been ethnocentric, but they also thought everyone else was American at heart.

It seemed only logical that others would try to get to this land of opportunity. The United States received the largest number of immigrants across the past two centuries. But were these newcomers ultimately similar to Americans and could they fit in here? Or were they instead fundamentally alien and unable to be incorporated?

This long debate has shaped much of the American past and present. But it is not, ultimately, a story of xenophobia and exclusion, powerful as those forces have been at times, including the Trump era. Instead, the larger picture is one of an even more powerful inclusiveness and assimilation, which have rendered the United States the most diverse great power in the history of the world. The United States today has more than 40 million residents who were born abroad, more than four times the number in Germany, which has the second largest number.

Believing themselves to be the ultimate free people and understanding this to be the highest expression of human nature, Americans have had a distinctive anxiety about losing that freedom through subversion. Immigrants represented one of the primary possible threats to American society. A second was Communism, which would eliminate private property, the foundation for American political liberty. Ultimately, the story of the twentieth century turned out to be the victory of markets, not the victory of Marxism. And rather than being subverted, the United States turned out to be a powerful subversive force for the socialist world instead. Americans may have worried about Communist brainwashing, but it was Communists who should have been much more fearful of the profit motive.

A third threat to the freedom culture of the United States was the influence of other peoples whom Americans encountered as they expanded their borders and then their influence around the world. The foreigners they met might change them. While that may have been true to some extent, it was even truer that the spread of American-style capitalism and consumer culture helped to reshape the entire globe. Leery of foreigners, Americans also embraced them—and, ironically, subverted them along the way.



Lydia G. Fash


On her book The Sketch, the Tale, and the Beginnings of American Literature

Cover Interview of April 22, 2020

In a nutshell

Between the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), US folks celebrated US beginnings in all sorts of ways. They formed Forefather Societies. They held Forth of July parades and oration contests. They painted grand historical canvases. They founded historical societies. They erected monuments. And they wrote lots of stories about Puritans, revolutionaries, and ancestors.

I was fascinated by this concerted attention to beginnings and how white US writers and citizens were using these beginnings to define who was “American” and what it meant to be “American.” (The most accurate adjectival form of the United States is US, but I use “American” to acknowledge how grandiose and manufactured the concept is.) Even though, following Sir Walter Scott’s success with Waverly, there was plenty historical fiction published in the States, to me, this problem is fully narrative and not just about historical fiction. Rather this moment, which I call the culture of beginnings, is about a widespread effort to define beginnings and, in turn, use those pinpointed moments and ideas to articulate the sense of a national people.

Because the beginning is more prominent in shorter works—where the beginning and ending are close together—and because shorter works were easier to publish before the 1850s, this theorization of who was American took place in sketches and tales, the two dominant forms of short fiction. As I show, a number of really important authors, including Edgar Allan Poe, innovate with narrative beginnings as they cater to a public that wants to define the present through the past. It is in reaction to the culture of beginnings, I argue, that Poe creates the whodunnit, which places the temporal beginning (the murder) at the story-end (when the detective reveals who did it).

While I talk about a number of other authors, Poe is helpful to pull out because the racism of his whodunits is blatant. His villains are apes and “swarthy” sailors, and the city-setting of his stories associates crime with the presence of foreign others. Poe is far from alone. All the sketches and tales that I discuss define Americanness in terms of whiteness. And such figurations still frame how we, as a culture, think about who counts as fully American.



Jennifer Delton


On her book The Industrialists: How the National Association of Manufacturers Shaped American Capitalism

Cover Interview of April 15, 2020

In a nutshell

Manufacturing once drove the U.S. economy. Its factories and innovations defined American capitalism in the twentieth century. At its height in the 1950s, American-based manufacturing represented 25.8% of GDP and employed one in four American workers. When it declined in the 1980s, it took organized labor and the Democrats’ New Deal coalition down with it.

This book is a biography of “organized manufacturing” in the twentieth century, as represented by manufacturing’s main trade association and lobbyist, the National Association of Manufacturing, or NAM.

While historians and political scientists have written about NAM, they have done so from the perspective of its many enemies, namely labor, liberals, and environmentalists. What makes my approach unique is that I look at it from the perspective of manufacturing.

I ask, what did NAM do for manufacturing? How did it serve (or not) its members? What was its role in manufacturing’s rise? How did it contribute to its decline (in the U.S.) and how did it rework manufacturing in an age of finance and international supply chains?

In answering these questions, I end up telling a story about the rationalization and globalization of American industry, a story that touches on tariffs, trade expansion, labor, management, conservatives, liberals, lobbying, civil rights, immigration, mergers and acquisitions, automation, U.S. politics, and the rise of a finance-based economy.

Though nothing seems more boring than a trade association, I write about NAM as if it was a high-achieving dysfunctional family, riven by generations of divisions and conflicts between protectionists and globalists, small concerns and big corporations, liberal staff members and conservative leaders, with recurrent and public resignations, yet somehow maintaining itself as the singular “voice of industry.”



Marilyn Strathern


On her book Relations: An Anthropological Account

Cover Interview of April 08, 2020

In a nutshell

How do anthropologists describe their own practices? Their working concepts would have to be part of it. Nothing could be more diffuse or ubiquitous than the English-language use of relation, yet many socio-cultural anthropologists would claim it as a signature concept for their discipline. It holds a privileged place both in how they think and write and in the social and cultural lives they study. Importantly, uncovering relations that may not be immediately apparent often signals a critical or questioning move. The driving question of this book is how to provide a critical account of that very practice.

English speakers call kinsfolk their relations or relatives. This idiosyncratic usage seeds an exploration of changing articulations in knowledge relations and interpersonal relations over the last three hundred years. Familiar notions of identity, selfhood, consciousness, family, friendship, comparison, connection, affinity, resemblance, similarity, difference, and so forth, acquire new interest. They feed into an argument about the nature of relations that also springs from materials with lives of their own, an unlooked-for outcome being a novel understanding of ‘Western’ (Euro-American) kinship. While the investigation draws on anthropological works from numerous locations, it also touches on different theoretical stances, on critical theory, and on historical interpretations of early modern social life, with a taste of philosophical writings from the time. The reader is invited to observe how relations act and behave (so to speak) in diverse circumstances. We could call it an ethnographic exploration, but—insofar as it too works with relations—it has to move beyond the usual comfort zones of exposition.

Behind the driving question is another driver. Only now do we seem to be hurrying to take action on numerous relational deficits in our understandings of, and care of, an ecologically and politically precarious world. Being critical is also taking care and, when it comes to taking care of relations, taking conceptual care.

Now scholars often criticize the concepts other scholars use in order to herald new horizons: out with the old, in with the new! In this case I wish to criticize a concept—not just to create a wider context (as in critique) but to raise objections (as in criticism)—while not wishing to get rid of it. The reason lies in a conundrum as old as scholarship itself: because the concepts we value also get in the way of what we want to express.

Social anthropology responds to the conundrum like no other discipline in the tools it has at its disposal. It actively invites what it learns from its subjects and objects of study (across the world) to challenge its own modes of exposition. Uncovering relations enables anthropologists to draw things together and give coherent accounts of apparently disparate elements in people’s interactions with one another; at the same time, the very concept of relations may block other understandings, limit what can be conveyed, and even import unwarranted assumptions about the nature of social life.



Michael D. Gordin


On his book Einstein in Bohemia

Cover Interview of April 01, 2020

In a nutshell

The point of departure for Einstein in Bohemia is a simple observation: for about sixteen months, from April 1911 to August 1912, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was professor of theoretical physics in Prague. Everyone has heard of Einstein, and he has attracted more than his fair share of biographers, all of whom mention his time in the capital of Bohemia. For the most part, though, all you get is a mention. Prague was a “sojourn,” an “intermezzo,” a “way station.”

Suppose that’s wrong. True, Einstein was only there for less than a year and a half, but he didn’t know that when he arrived from Zurich; he had been planning on settling down into his new position. We might judge with the benefit of hindsight that he was only there for an intermezzo, but in April 1911 Einstein thought he was settling in for the full opera.

So let’s take the Prague period the way Einstein did when he lived it: seriously. You might try to trace, in micro-historical fashion, Einstein’s every day as he trotted between his apartment and his office. Even for a scientist as well documented as Einstein—and there is probably no other figure in the history of science, with the possible exception of Charles Darwin, who can compare in terms of the density of surviving materials—this is not possible, and it would probably be a little dull.

Einstein in Bohemia opts not to narrow the angle, but to widen it. We know a lot about Einstein, but we also know a lot about Prague. It was, at that time, the third largest city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a pivotal economic and cultural center, and one experiencing a demographic transition from a roughly balanced city between Czech- and German-speakers to one overwhelmingly the former (93% and 7%, respectively, when Einstein arrived). It was a city with a strong Jewish community and a rich past and future.

Picture a messy collision. An especially interesting individual interacted deeply with an extraordinary place, and then they parted. Both left traces on each other. The first three chapters of the book chronicle the narrow interaction: how Einstein got to Prague, the work on general relativity that he concentrated on while there, and then his daily life until he came to leave. The four remaining chapters explore the aftermath of the collision: how Einstein and Prague marked each other when it came to philosophy of science, literature, Zionism and Judaism, and the intellectual history of the Czechs.

I want the reader to dive in and feel the immersive effect of a culture on a person, and vice versa. Whatever preconceptions you have about Einstein or Prague ought to be jostled by the experience.



Benjamin R. Cohen


On his book Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food

Cover Interview of March 25, 2020

In a nutshell

Pure Adulteration is about the origins of manufactured food. More centrally, it is about the struggles people had with the introduction of new foods in the later 1800s. The book follows the “pure food crusades” that raged between the 1860s and early 1900s as a window onto those forms of resistance and accommodation.

That era revealed confusing new tensions in the ways people understood, bought, trusted, and ate their food. Cultural factors help explain why anyone cared. They show that a prevailing suspicion of cheats, frauds, hucksters, and con men—and an associated fervor for sincerity, authenticity, and honesty—provided the foundation from which the era was born.

Environmental factors help explain how the prevailing cultural concerns made things worse. New supply chains, complex commodity flows, far-flung land-use patterns, and theretofore unknown ingredients all formed a new infrastructure of food and agriculture that made the view from farm to fork thick and opaque.

Together, that host of cultural and environmental conditions shaped the pure-food crusades and the set of chemists, analysts, and public health officials bent on commandeering and policing the concept of purity. The brunt of those collective changes led to this: whereas into the mid-nineteenth century it was still common to understand food purity based on its origins, its provenance, and its purveyors, by the early twentieth century the concept of purity had moved from its agricultural setting to be relocated into the hands of the analyst and lab. Purity had become a scientific concept policed by government agencies and backed by certified analysis. It would be the analysts and scientists who drew the line between pure and adulterated.

All of that suggests that a different way to give the “in a nutshell” answer is that Pure Adulteration is about how people changed the way they drew the line between pure and adulterated. There is (and was) no natural, pre-human distinction that we can simply uncover and enforce; we have to decide where to draw it and how to police it.

Today’s world is different from that of our nineteenth-century forbearers in so many ways, but the challenge of policing the difference between acceptable and unacceptable practices remains central to daily decisions about the foods we eat, how we produce them, and what choices we make when buying them.

I want readers to see how people made meaning about big key terms that we may otherwise take for granted: nature and artifice, authenticity and insincerity, purity and adulteration. Trust and confidence sit at the center of all of those terms—whether we trust people, why we do, what we trust them about, how we challenge those modes of trust and belief. I hope readers gain the view that modern, post-war worries over industrial food identity and health have their basis much earlier in century-old modes of producing, buying, and consuming food. If we want food reform today, we need to have a clearer understanding of the foundations of our manufactured, industrial food system.



Jason Pine


On his book The Alchemy of Meth: A Decomposition

Cover Interview of March 18, 2020

In a nutshell

The Alchemy of Meth, to me, is really about the second part of the title, A Decomposition. It is steeped in the materials of meth making, but it is also an alibi for talking about decomposition in the United States in its multiple forms: the breakdown of everyday consumer products—the active unmaking of industrial chemicals in meth labs and their ordinary, passive leaching and off-gassing anywhere and everywhere; the slow deformation of any ordinary home and the accelerated transmutation of people and landscapes through biochemical tweaking and ecological injury; and the disintegration of the American Dream, which has had a very long toxic half-life.

The American Dream is the gateway drug. Intoxicated and triggered by it, some people reach for meth because it promises to make dreams come true. Meth increases energy and alertness. More importantly, it generates excitement about good rewards to come. This felt sense of futurity is like hope. The Alchemy of Meth is set in this overdrawn future. It follows how things, people, landscapes and lives have come to decompose and bust apart, leading the way toward how they are composed in the first place, and how they are recombining again and again in unforeseen ways.

I needed a form of writing that wouldn’t simply describe, or worse, explain decomposition, but instead perform it. At some point the answer became obvious: rather than compose a book (academic writing as usual), I made a decomposition. That is, the book is my refusal to overwork the material I gathered and subordinate it to authorial mastery (theory as usual). Of course, I am the author from beginning to end and every choice, even the most uncomfortable ones like self-exposure, is mine, but the decompositional form of the book—the fragmented and incomplete narratives and the third-person voice (free indirect discourse) that issues simultaneously from me and the author and the people I write about (including “Jason”)—leaves room, I hope, for readers to enter the text and make their own way.

So I hope readers do just that. I wield my authorial power not to direct their reading as much as to make one kind of reading untenable. That is, a comfortable, distanced reading that leers at a “them” in “that place over there.” Meth cooking is a hyperbolic version of something intimately familiar to a lot of people: coming undone while in pursuit of something greater, or simply something livable, in late liberalism. I implicate myself and I hope the book implicates readers. More than anything, I want readers to feel something for the people whose stories make the book what it is.



Mona L. Siegel


On her book Peace on Our Terms: The Global Battle for Women's Rights After the First World War

Cover Interview of March 10, 2020

In a nutshell

Peace on Our Terms recounts the dramatic story of female activism around the world during a single, remarkable year in history, 1919, when the bloodshed of World War I finally gave way to the long-anticipated but still tenuous peace. Nineteen-nineteen witnessed the collapse of four major continental European and Middle Eastern empires, the first sustained challenge to European colonialism in Asia and Africa, and the emergence of the first standing world government. The year opened ripe with promise, as global statesmen gathered in Paris vowing to bring peace, democracy, and justice to a war-torn world.

Among the many millions listening attentively to the peacemakers’ promises were female suffragists, trade unionists, anti-imperialists, and civil rights activists. Though encouraged by statesmen’s lofty rhetoric, these women were not naïve. They knew that diplomacy was a man’s world. To have a voice in the shaping of the new world order, women were going to have to demand to be heard. Across Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Asia, these women rolled up their sleeves, packed their bags, and crossed oceans and continents, determined to hold global statesmen to their word.

Peace on Our Terms traces the history of these women’s historic actions. It invites readers to enter raucous meeting halls in Paris, Zurich, and Washington, D.C. and to join audacious women marching through the streets of Cairo and Beijing to demand a more just and equitable world.

The women who congregated, spoke, and marched in 1919 brought differing visions of women’s rights and responsibilities to the global stage, but their agendas were all shaped by the monumental expectations for democratic reform, economic justice, and global restructuring generated during the Paris Peace Conference. These pioneering activists shared a common belief that the construction of a just and stable world depended on the inclusion of women in all levels of political decision-making.

Some of these women—like American reformer and future Nobel peace laureate Jane Addams—were already famous in activist circles. Others—like Egyptian nationalist and feminist Huda Shaawari—would gain notoriety in the months that followed. Throughout 1919, they and thousands of like-minded women worldwide cracked open the male-dominated world of diplomacy and policymaking and transformed women’s rights into the global rallying cry that continues to reverberate around the world today.



Walter Scheidel


On his book Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity

Cover Interview of March 04, 2020

In a nutshell

Escape from Rome offers an answer to a very big question: Why has the world become modern instead of remaining stuck in the agrarian age, when hunger, disease, illiteracy, and despotism were the norm? We know that the transition to greater affluence, much better health, and vastly expanded knowledge began in Western Europe. Yet the reasons behind this take-off remain fiercely debated. Did Europeans come up with unique political and economic institutions that favored transformative development? Did they benefit from overseas trade, colonization, slavery and ruthless exploitation? Did they find ways of fostering a culture of knowledge that opened up new vistas, and did they embrace novel norms and values that liberated entrepreneurs and eventually the masses?

I make the case that while all these factors contributed to modernization, every single one of them was rooted in a single cause that has not been properly recognized: the fact that ever since the fall of ancient Rome, Europe housed many different states that were fought over by rival groups from kings and aristocrats to priests and merchants. For 1,500 years, enduring competition and pluralism shaped this environment in ways that encouraged modern breakthroughs. This fragmentation caused a lot of suffering both within Europe and around the world but also created the space that was required for sustained innovation to take hold.

In other parts of the globe, by contrast, large empires continued to rise and fall and rise again. This closed off comparable pathways to modernity. Had the Roman Empire survived or been replaced by similarly powerful entities, Europe would most likely have shared this fate. In that sense, the collapse of Rome may well have been the best thing that ever happened to humanity.



Sarah Cole


On her book Inventing Tomorrow: H. G. Wells and the Twentieth Century

Cover Interview of February 26, 2020

In a nutshell

Inventing Tomorrow sets out to tell a story of 20th century literary culture that follows an entirely different path from the one that has dominated academia for the last fifty years. Rather than taking modernism as its starting point (whether to analyze, critique, or expand), it asks how the first half of the 20th century would look if we begin, instead, with the most widely read English writer of this period, and one whom modernism itself saw as fundamentally its other, H. G. Wells. Wells, I argue, delivers a profoundly different 20th century from the one bequeathed by modernism, yet resonating with contemporary concerns and popular culture. Palpitating with the technology and encompassing the world trends that in many ways defined this historical period, Wells’s work claims its own place as a driver of political and cultural change. Over a half-century (1895-1946) of nonstop writing, which comprised an array of genres and styles, Wells hoped that his work would help to coax the world into the shape he ardently believed to be its destiny: a single world state, free of war and injustice. An avowed utopian, Wells offered his contemporaries a voice they deeply sought. His enormous body of writing produced a powerful sense of literature as a force for social change and proffered itself as an incubator to propel ones dreams and to sculpt ideals into imaginative shape. At the same time, his imagination was drawn into the dark and terrifying; his visions were—and remain—often disturbing.

My argument, in short, is that Wells transforms the view of a literary period that was rich in innovation, yet whose breadth of experiment opens much more widely, and changes its character, when we consider what he offered. Wells bursts into the scene with an unfamiliar and generative set of principles and accomplishments. At the same time, that unfamiliarity is perhaps only an academic one, since his ideas were so influential in the popular imagination that they seem to tap directly into our cultural unconscious, having provided the germ for a huge swath of contemporary popular forms and fantasies. Formally, Wells’s approach to literature as a force in the world and his writing styles provide a bracing new set of cues for a literary culture formed in modernism’s image. To give just several examples: Wells felt no need to banish the pedagogic voice from his fiction. On the contrary, he saw literature as deeply embedded in the cause of education, and his books regularly both show and tell (a distinct taboo in modernism and its legacies). Another significant writerly contribution was his freedom with genre and form, where he radically innovated, melded, and mixed, as needed to push forward his vision of the world’s ills and its potential for salvation (as he saw it). Wells declared himself a journalist, facing off against modernism with its rarefied aesthetics and its narrowing of audience. Such a principle comes to look distinctly compelling for us today, when global and environmental forces once again threaten essential features of human well-being and where the democratization of knowledge and ideas is an essential value.

Thematically, Wells’s writings covered a huge breadth of topics, from time, to war, to science, to government, to gender, to the nature and fate of humanity. I consider the range and complexity of his presentations in each of these broad areas. One key feature of my book is that it engages Wells’s full body of writing (whereas the vast majority of Wells critics limit themselves to a few titles from the first 10-15 years of his 50-year writing career) and considers how his work entered the cauldron of cultural and literary politics. My most salient message is that when we take account of Wells, we discover crucial features of this period’s literary ambitions and achievements, and, more, that we encounter some of the most compelling imaginative formations of the 20th century, and our own time as well.



Micheline R. Ishay


On her book The Levant Express: The Arab Uprisings, Human Rights, and the Future of the Middle East

Cover Interview of February 19, 2020

In a nutshell

First, the book title, The Levant Express, is a metaphor representing the demands for human rights that raced across the Arab world like a high-speed train during the Arab uprisings of 2011. Within two years, the fast moving revolutionary contagion slowed to a halt. When the Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter, some governments (Egypt and the Gulf monarchies) reestablished even more repressive authoritarian regimes, while other states (Libya, Syria, Yemen) devolved into civil wars. What led to those uprisings and their tragic consequences? My book addresses those questions by identifying how patterns of revolution and counterrevolution have played out in different societies and historical contexts. I then apply those insights toward offering hopeful and realistic proposals to reroute The Levant Express.

What makes my book unique are the arguments I offer for hope, and the paths that I offer for resuming the advance of human rights in the Middle East. Other experts view the region as trapped in an endless maelstrom, or offer incremental steps aimed at one or another immediate crisis. True, the region has been beset by a long history of political repression, economic distress, sectarian conflict, and violence against women. But that history pales in comparison to the tragedies of the West, which was also plagued by religious wars, and by two World Wars that brought Europe unprecedented devastation.

Hopefully, readers will be stimulated and informed by the lessons I draw from those European struggles and apply to the Middle East, and by my identification of current possibilities, including subterranean social forces for progress. I remind readers that before the defeat of Nazism, Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned a post-war reconstruction effort based on foundational principles of freedom. His Four Freedoms (Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear) paved the way for the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Marshall Plan, Bretton Woods, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. History offers no better success story than these post-World War II endeavors. We need to remember that sustainable peace needs to be planned even during times of war.

In short, this book is attentive to the current plight of people in the Middle East. It also challenges the pessimistic malaise that undermines Western interest in developing substantive plans for regional progress. It prods readers to resist succumbing to populist, protectionist, and nationalist fervor, and to understand why a restored international liberal order requires a peaceful Middle East. For example, the refugee crisis in Europe cannot be addressed without human rights, political stability, and economic opportunity in the Middle East and North Africa. Our futures are intertwined.