James Simpson

 

On his book Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism

Cover Interview of October 16, 2019

Lastly

As a cultural historian, I work to the ideal that cultural history is ancillary to the complex history of freedoms. I also aim to write what I call “cultural etymology,” by which I designate a practice of excavating the present. The present is, if we are to be honest with ourselves, the place where most historical enquiry most urgently and frequently starts. I myself always start with the conditions of contemporary modernity, where “conditions” also designates pathology. Many cultural historians would describe their work as an act of discovery. My project is rather one of recovery, where one starts from the present and recovers immanent histories by which the present is understood, as if for the first time.

As a cultural historian, I write as, and for, both scholar and citizen.

To the scholar, my appeal is to write cultural history with long chronologies, as we try to evade the historiographical deformities imposed upon us by the standard periodic divisions of cultural history. To write either as “medievalist” or as “early modernist” is already to buy into many prejudicial presuppositions. The standard divisions of cultural history are designed so as neutralize most powerfully the interest of our fractured histories.

As a citizen, I appeal not to the evangelical, since in my experience that reader judges only from their convictions. If any evangelical is prepared to engage with me, I will be delighted, but that has not been my experience with previous books. As a citizen, I appeal instead to the liberal. I ask her or him to understand the liberal tradition more deeply, as a precious but fragile product of history. As Liberalism is in retreat worldwide, liberals need to understand their opponents, and their intimate relation with their opponents. They need to understand that they, as liberals, can be just as intolerant as their evangelical opponents, and they need to understand Liberalism less as a belief system and more as an instrument for managing potentially violent belief systems.




 


 

Herbert S. Terrace

 

On his book Why Chimpanzees Can't Learn Language and Only Humans Can

Cover Interview of October 02, 2019

Lastly

There are two major implications I would like the reader to draw from my book. The first is the importance of non-verbal experiences that an infant shares with their parents. The other is how to overcome the weakness of Chomsky’s theory of the evolution of language.

Now that intersubjectivity and joint attention have been well documented by developmental psychologists, we need to learn more about their antecedents. For example, the renowned anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, has suggested that Homo erectus benefited from cooperation instilled by collective breeding, the practice of sharing the care of infants with relatives. Unlike a chimpanzee mother, who won’t allow anyone to approach a newborn infant for six months, there is evidence that Homo erectus’ infants were raised by “alloparents” in addition to their own mothers. Satisfying alloparents is presumed to strengthen intersubjectivity which, in turn, facilitates cooperation.

Recent advances in technology allow researchers to detect the focus of attention of a parent and their infant over long intervals of time. Such data will, for the first time, allow investigators to measure joint attention precisely in a variety of situations.

Chomsky’s prominence as a linguist is based on his concept of a Universal Grammar that can generate any of the languages that people speak. Those models have transformed linguistics and have contributed significantly to cognitive psychology. Chomsky’s anti-behaviorist stance has served him well in developing models of grammar. The same cannot be said for his treatment of words. Although Chomsky believes that grammar is innate and that it resulted from a mutation, the same cannot be said of words. Words have obvious behavioral origins, origins that are clearly social. The challenge is to determine those origins. If I were starting out as a graduate student and needed a field of inquiry to study, that would be my focus.

Given our current technological sophistication, I anticipate important discoveries about how language not only began but how it has also thrived. Words provide the glue that allows for and preserves learning, intelligence, knowledge, invention, discovery, understanding, wisdom, and love.




 


 

Ian Hodder

 

On his book Where Are We Heading? The Evolution of Humans and Things

Cover Interview of September 25, 2019

Lastly

I have wanted to make an intervention into current debates about issues of planetary concern, in particular the debates about global warming and environmental crisis. I have been very struck at how the focus is usually placed on human relationships with the environment and energy use. For example, in both Al Gore’s films An Inconvenient Truth and An Inconvenient Sequel the emphasis is on humans and their impact on the climate and the need for renewable energy. Neither film really probes at any great depth the reasons we are using so much energy. A part of the answer is undoubtedly our dependence on things. But we don’t look at that. Our dependence on things is so obvious that we take it for granted and try and find an answer outside ourselves in renewable energy. Or we have become so persuaded by high capitalism that our happiness depends on things that we cannot question that dependence. Increased use of renewable energy sources may contribute towards solving global warming, although the extent to which this is possible remains unclear given path dependency. But the fix also involves us in new entanglements such as lithium mining and complex energy saving and management systems. As an example, solar panels only last about 30 years, and there are projects worldwide to produce them in their millions such that toxic waste from used solar panels now poses a global environmental threat, with solar panels creating 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than nuclear power plants. (I am aware of the contention surrounding such estimates.) And some of the geoengineering solutions for dealing with CO2 emissions such as sulfur dispersion in the upper atmosphere involve enormous technological investment.

The primary response to global warming, and indeed to the other great scourge of our times, global inequality, is to find technological solutions to, for example, providing renewable energy or various forms of aid. We think we can fix things by using more things, as part of a complex set of multi-stranded responses. This is what we have always done, and the message from an ‘archaeological’ scrutiny of the long-term is that the result will be yet more entanglement and entrapment and inequality. People often blame the last 200 years of industrial capitalism, but the archaeological view is of a much longer term and deeper human propensity towards human-thing entanglement. Consumerism produces inequality and contributes to global warming and it derives from longer-term trends. Alternatives such as decluttering, sustainable shopping, minimalist living, seem important at the grass-roots level, while no-growth capitalism and stronger global governance seem worth exploring at the structural level. But the long-term view is of ever-increasing dependencies.

My contribution is to say that in our responses to global warming we are doing what we have always done. The likely result will be an ever-greater entanglement with things such that material things and technologies will become increasingly part of our lives, and we will become increasingly dependent on them and on the technological systems that run them. We will all increasingly be cyborgs lost in the machines we have made and that determine our direction.




 


 

Frank O. Bowman III

 

On his book High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump

Cover Interview of September 18, 2019

Lastly

In my role as constitutional historian, I have striven for political objectivity. Nonetheless, the lessons history teaches compel what will undoubtedly seem to some a partisan conclusion. Put simply, impeachment is the Constitution’s defense against a president who, by conscious design or because of defects in his character, threatens republican government. The Framers made impeachment hard because they didn’t want Congress throwing out presidents in partisan hissy fits. Still, the framers meant it to be used if, somehow, a manifestly unfit person were to become president and endanger the constitutional order they so carefully constructed. Donald Trump is the contingency for which they gave us the weapon of impeachment. The question is whether our politics is so broken that we lack the will even to pick it up.




 


 

Carla Yanni

 

On her book Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory

Cover Interview of September 11, 2019

Lastly

Why continue to build residence halls in the age of distance learning? Do colleges need these buildings? Perhaps not. For centuries, students at community colleges and the universities of Europe managed to attain education without living on campus. On the other hand, the long history of dormitories suggests that fellowship and esprit de corps are enhanced by communal living. As more classes are taught online, demand for residence halls might decrease and living at home will be an inexpensive option. But the attraction of living on campus will endure. Some empty-nesters are relieved to have teenaged children out of the house. Students are motivated to move out of their family homes, because that transition traditionally draws a sharp line between high school and college, between adolescence and adulthood. Residence halls solidify, even magnify, social differences. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening in American society at large, and this fact makes the in-person networking opportunities afforded to those who live on campus more valuable than ever. Living in a residence hall gives students a boost up the social ladder and has done so since the earliest days of the colonial colleges. Living on campus will remain essential for face-to-face networking, for both friendship and future careers, and that social connection will continue to serve as a major incentive for students to attend college in the first place. The architecture of dormitories, therefore, is an ever-changing manifestation of the social meaning of higher education.





 

Adrienne Mayor

 

On her book Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology

Cover Interview of September 04, 2019

Lastly

In historical antiquity, animated devices were actually built, culminating in a host of automatons in the great center of imagination and invention, Alexandria, Egypt. The last chapter of my book surveys real, historical inventions of engineering marvels. Ctesibius, Philo, Heron, and others designed android servants that poured wine, singing birds, moving figures of dragons and serpents, and colossal animated statues. The first model of a bird that could fly was invented by the Greek engineer and politician Archytas, who was a friend of Plato in the fourth century BC. Did “science fiction” myths about self-moving devices inspire the real craftsmen who began to produce wonders of technology? Many of their machines alluded to mythological figures.

Gods and Robots presents a wide range of forms of artificial life in mythology, quests for a longer, even eternal life, superhuman powers borrowed from gods and animals, and automatons and lifelike replicants. The imaginary marvels are not exactly machines, robots, or AI in the modern sense, of course. My book is not intended to suggest direct lines of influence from myth or ancient history to modern technology. Yet the resonances with modern science and popular culture are striking, making the myths as “good to think with” now as they were then.

Sophocles wrote tragedies featuring both Talos and Pandora, now lost. But his paean to human ingenuity survives. Praising the audacious creative powers of men and women in contriving ways to escape and imitate the forces of nature, the playwright noted that the outcomes could be for good or evil. Notably, Aristotle referred to the labor-saving automatons created by Hephaestus in his discussion of slavery. Millennia ago, musings on artificial life were already raising questions of free will, slavery, the origins of evil, natural limits, and what it means to be human. I hope my book might enrich our understanding that imagination has always been the spark that ignites science.




 


 

Allan J. Lichtman

 

On his book The Embattled Vote in America: From the Founding to the Present

Cover Interview of August 21, 2019

Lastly

I wrote The Embattled Vote as both a history and a call to action. A New York Times review said that it “uses history to contextualize the fix we’re in today. Growing outrage, [Lichtman] thinks, could ignite demands for change. With luck, this fine history might just help to fan the flame.”

Outrage over the Supreme Court’s abdication of a judicial check on partisan gerrymandering should rivet attention on the remedies in Chapter 8. The state of Florida ironically offers an anti-gerrymandering model for the nation. In 2010, 62 percent of Florida voters backed a state constitutional amendment to restrict partisan gerrymandering for congress and the state legislature. After years of resistance from Republicans in the state legislature, the state courts compelled the redrawing of district lines to treat each party fairly. Florida-style amendments could be effectively combined with redistricting conducted by independent commissions to stifle pernicious gerrymandering, with enforcement by the state not the federal courts.

An affirmative right to vote amendment, like the version of the Fifteenth Amendment that Congress rejected in 1869, would bring America into line with most other democratic nations and with international conventions. It would not invalidate every restriction on the vote, any more than the right of free speech invalidates libel and slander laws. But it would rebalance the scale of justice in favor of the voter, not the state.

Other reforms are in reach even without a new amendment. A lack of registration locks out tens of millions of potential voters. The opportunity to register when showing up to vote and automatic enrollment when applying for or renewing a driver’s license or applying for government services, could substantially reduce this barrier. Other reforms with the potential to expand turnout and improve the conduct of elections include a restoration of Justice Department preclearance, elimination of felon disenfranchisement, and federal aid for upgrading voting technology and protecting the vote from manipulation by the Russians or another malevolent foreign power.

The Embattled Vote optimistically concludes that America can reclaim her place in the front ranks of the world’s democracies. Simple, practical reforms are within reach to enhance access to the vote in America, end discriminatory practices, and help assure that people’s vote will count effectively in the election of public officials. But change will come only if the American people demand it. America needs the kind of concerted grassroots action that led to enactment of the Voting Rights Act.




 


 

George C. Galster

 

On his book Making Our Neighborhoods, Making Our Selves

Cover Interview of August 07, 2019

Lastly

Understanding how we make our neighborhoods and then they make us in turn, forces us to ask a critical normative question. Do our human-made neighborhoods make all of us equally? Sadly, the answer is a resounding “no.” Savage inequalities embedded in our neighborhoods, most critically manifested as low-quality environments segregated by economic and racial status, expose the fiction in our cherished notion of “equal opportunity in America.” We must intervene strategically in the market-driven processes governing flows of resources across metropolitan space if as a society we want to affirm our better selves and restore “equal opportunity” to its rightful place as a hallowed premise, instead of a hollow promise.




 


 

André Millard

 

On his book Equipping James Bond: Guns, Gadgets, and Technological Enthusiasm

Cover Interview of July 24, 2019

Lastly

Taken as a whole, the Bond film franchise has provided a primer in the technology of weapons of mass destruction. The films faithfully followed the development of dangerous technologies, from conventional atomic bombs and every declension of missiles through to bacterial and chemical warfare and finally to “the little man with the heavy suitcase” in Fleming’s words: “The most deadly saboteur in history.”

In following the development of Bond’s gadgets and the technology that underlies them, this book examines the boundary between fantasy and reality in the equipment of espionage. Bond’s amazing feats of derring-do can only be carried out by super heroes with the assistance of computer-generated graphics. Yet such is the potency of the Bond character that any gadget he uses is given the air of technological authenticity no matter how outrageously it defies logic and science.

The producers of the films claimed that Bond’s gadgets represented “science fact not science fiction,” and in some cases they presented futuristic technology, from GPS to the Space Shuttle, in Bond’s hands well before these wonders became part of our daily lives. So it would be premature to dismiss all of Bond’s gadgets as fantasies when some of the more futuristic technology presented in the films, such as the ubiquitous smart phone, are now a reality.

Bond’s equipment often represents the future of consumer technologies. Video-recording and smart phones were in his hands long before they became commercially available. Similarly, he also uses and faces the most advanced weapons. The producers of the Bond films can rightly claim to have introduced the laser to global audiences and have educated millions of people in the development of this technology as a weapon. At the same time that Bond enjoys the equipment of the future he must also face the threat of this technology in the wrong hands. The Bond villain must change with the times, from the Hitler-like madmen who want to rule the world of the 1960s through to terrorists and cyber hackers of the twenty-first century. Each decade brings a different threat, and it is always embedded in new technology.

In this way the Bond canon of books and films act as a mirror to our anxieties about new technology, articulating the threat—whether it is the menace of artificial intelligence or the remote control for Bond’s BMW that befuddles Q in Tomorrow Never Dies—that Bond will meet and ultimately defeat. The fight against evil has moved into the internet and cyberspace, against malicious hackers and digitally enhanced villain.

Bond’s missions always bring him face to face with a world brought to the edge of extinction by dangerous new technology. And they always climax with him triumphing over the machine. That is why the films obligatory ending is always the destruction of the villains’ lair, along with the equipment inside it. The key to Bond’s enduring appeal is that he maintains the ingenuity and resilience of the human race while wielding the latest gadgets that technology can offer. The gadgets give him an edge, but the ultimate triumph is of the resourceful individual using his wits rather than a photogenic piece of branded equipment. Thus in the last chapter of the book, or the last reel of the film, Bond saves the world with a screw driver or by one finger typing a command to change the course of deadly missile.

We the audience are certain that our hero will thwart the cunning plans of the villain and save the world. And when he does, we are comforted that human agency will no doubt triumph over the machine.

So this book provides an explanation for our sixty-year love affair with a fictional character. James Bond reassures us that humankind will always find a way to negate the threat of new technology and return to the status quo. No matter how great the menace of futuristic technology, we know that in the end tranquility will be restored by a hero created out of the experiences and values of Great Britain in the 1940s.




 


 

Charlie Hailey

 

On his book Slab City: Dispatches from the Last Free Place

Cover Interview of July 10, 2019

Lastly

Slab City is a field guide to a remote, transitory place. A folded map in the back pocket shows the layout and inventory of the military camp’s 1946 facilities. We carried that map each day we walked among the slabs. It helps locate the sixty-five slabs that have remained after the camp was decommissioned and its structures were removed. Like the slabs, the map is also a substrate for coming to terms with this place, for understanding how Slab City’s residents endure the difficulties of desert life and the frequent challenges to its public status. To pour concrete on sand is to test permanence in a mutable place. To live in Slab City is to experiment with the idea of freedom in a vestige of frontier space. And to write about and to photograph Slab City’s structures is to narrate an ongoing struggle between autonomy, necessity and control.




 


 

Susan Schulten

 

On her book A History of America in 100 Maps

Cover Interview of June 26, 2019

Lastly

My hope is that this book demonstrates that maps are essential artifacts of history. Judging from the enthusiastic reception the book has had to this point, I have every expectation that maps and graphic materials of all sorts will only become more central to the study of history. In my own research, maps have put into high relief people and places that otherwise remain invisible to the historical record. For instance, by studying hundreds of manuscript maps drawn by schoolgirls after the Revolution, I’ve come away with a deeper understanding of the way women were educated. There are many more examples like this, where maps don’t just complement our beliefs about the past but raise new questions about it.

To put it briefly, when people hear me speak, or reach out to me about the book, the most common thing they say is this: I will never look at a map the same way again.




 


 

Kirsten Fermaglich

 

On her book A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America

Cover Interview of June 12, 2019

Lastly

I hope that this book will encourage more American Jewish historians (and indeed more Americans) to consider the significance and the meaning of antisemitism in American life, particularly in thinking about the relationship between the state and private actors. We need context to understand the politics of our contemporary era.

I also hope that the book will encourage more historians to take names seriously in general. Too often we use names as mere markers, rather than historical subjects themselves. But names are historical documents, full of historical meaning, and have not been explored enough.

Finally, I hope that the book will encourage all readers to reconsider the name changing in their own lives, or in their families’ lives. Name changing has too frequently been understood either as a joke or as a shameful abandonment of community. I would like my book to help readers consider the real struggles faced by Jews in the middle of the twentieth century, and the ways that those struggles shaped Jewish life and community.




 


 

Sara Lodge

 

On her book Inventing Edward Lear

Cover Interview of May 30, 2019

Lastly

In my final chapter, I look at Lear’s life-long history of self-caricature – always as a small creature, a snail, a bee, a bird – and how his self-presentation as an object of amused sympathy has affected his reputation as a poet who is loved but has not until recently been accorded serious critical attention. Lear usually gave his illustrated letters, poems, songs, alphabets, and botanies, as gifts; they were only subsequently published. In his own words, he was an ‘Adopty Duncle.’ This, too, has affected how we approach Lear’s work. It remains in the realm of gift; Lear’s exuberant but self-deprecating, cartoon body is part of the gift. He became identified with his nonsense and was sometimes hailed as ‘Book of Nonsense’ by strangers in hotels. His nonsense is created in social dialogue; it creates a game for more than one player, a song for more than one voice.

I think we should value tremendously highly the personal, affectionate nature of the relationship Lear builds with each reader, while also treating him with the respect we give to other Victorian polymaths he knew – John Ruskin, Alfred Tennyson, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Gaskell, William and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I would like my book to be a step in that direction.

To take entirely at face value the comic, small and ungainly figure of Lear that he promulgates in cartoons – the Lear who hangs on the horns of a mouflon or like a pupating caterpillar in a bag from a tree – runs the risk of re-creating in different form the patronage on which he depended during his lifetime. Lear performed dependency, just as he performed hanging from his inside-out umbrella when the wind sweeps him away, or as he performed the hapless protagonist of the comic song ‘Tea in the Arbour.’ If we assume that Lear’s poetry is always chiefly and directly about his feelings at the moment of composition, we are reading cabaret as soliloquy.

Lear was an intellectual who liked the company of other intellectuals. His closest friends included some of the foremost Cambridge scholars of their generation; the women whose company he preferred were authors, musicians, artists, travel writers, linguists, and translators. He read widely and thoughtfully all his life, consuming periodicals and books in several languages that included philosophy and religion, poetry, essays, biography, letters, natural history, travel, novels, and parliamentary reports. He was taller, slimmer, fitter, more capable, more attractive to others, less isolated than is often assumed. In many cases, we can read Lear only through the lens of his self-mockery – as it is such an essential part of his letters and diaries – but it is vital at least to recognize how effectively Lear created his nonsense persona. Only by recognizing Lear’s self-fashioning as a character and responding to his ideas, rather than merely to the pathos of his biography, can critics fully appreciate his art. For ‘Edward Lear’ has proved, in many ways, to be Lear’s greatest and most enduring invention.




 


 

Lesley A. Sharp

 

On her book Animal Ethos: The Morality of Human-Animal Encounters in Experimental Lab Science

Cover Interview of May 15, 2019

Lastly

One can never predict how one’s work will be received. What has intrigued me thus far, in the few months since the release of Animal Ethos, is the interest it has sparked among lab-based personnel, especially those whose day-to-day work concerns lab animal care and welfare. I have received requests to participate in discussions and initiatives about how to think creatively about lab practices as well as how to speak publicly about realms of research, and associated daily work, that involved parties assume are highly stigmatized.

More specifically, researchers and other lab personnel are reluctant to tell others—including close friends and family—about any work that involves animal experimentation. Their interest and invitations stand in stark contrast to my earlier work on organ transplantation: as I soon learned there, biomedical personnel express faint interest in reading analyses of their professional work, whereas involved lay parties, such as the recipients of transplanted organs and the kin of deceased donors, are avid readers, including anthropological studies of their lives.

On yet another front, I’ve been surprised by the responses I’ve encountered among members of my own profession: whereas successful anthropological field research is based on the premise of cultural relativism, a project that addresses the lives and deaths of research animals exposes a fragile line demarcating where one’s own moral principles can eclipse a professional ability to suspend one’s judgment of a specialized social domain. In several instances I’ve faced the perplexing question, “why don’t you tell us how to think?” My purpose, however, is not to craft others’ moral frameworks but, instead, to open up a world that is troubled on a daily basis by the messiness of the moral. The lesson here is that animals—especially research animals—inspire highly emotional responses in many of us, regardless of one’s training and profession.




 


 

William L. Silber

 

On his book The Story of Silver: How the White Metal Shaped America and the Modern World

Cover Interview of May 08, 2019

Lastly

Here are the main “takeaways” from the book: First, FDR ignored how the Silver Purchase Act inadvertently encouraged Japanese aggression in the 1930s, demonstrating the danger of formulating domestic policy without reference to international consequences. It is a cautionary lesson for putting America First today, especially since the fallout from such narrow-minded policymaking may not materialize until it is too late, just like back then.

Second, the ongoing world-wide experiment in fiat currency that began in 1971 has succeeded so far but 50 years is a heartbeat in world history. Uncontrolled spending by the federal government in a fully-employed economy suggests that precious metals like gold and silver belong in every portfolio to hedge against a failure by central bankers to avoid the political pressure to run a printing press.

Third, silver has been more than just an investment vehicle for Americans like Nelson Bunker Hunt and Warren Buffett; it has been part of the country’s monetary system since the founding of the Republic and is woven into the fabric of our history like the stars and stripes.

Fourth, investors like Warren Buffett discovered that silver is like a switch hitter in baseball, an industrial batter but also comfortable from the precious side of the plate. Silver soared like gold after Lehman’s bankruptcy in 2008, unlike copper and oil which collapsed along with the stock market.