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.




 


 

Michelle Baddeley

 

On her book Copycats and Contrarians: Why We Follow Others... and When We Don't

Cover Interview of May 01, 2019

Lastly

To capture the overall point of the book, the final chapter argues that social media and online social networks have perverted our instincts to follow others. Social information and social feedback travel rapidly and in large volumes via our online social networks. Added to this, the anonymity of online interactions means that people do not have to take the same responsibility that they have to take when interacting in more traditional contexts.

The pre-online equivalents of Twitter trolls and cyber-bullies, for example, may have had the inclination to persecute others but the channels for their anti-social behaviors were limited, and the chances of being detected and suffering social sanctions were larger. More benignly, memes can circulate and multiply online in ways that would have been unimaginable even 20 years ago.

Online, we tend to gather in echo chambers; most of us are selective about who we follow online and we tend to follow those who share our opinions. In these echo chambers, herds of voters quickly reinforce each other’s social opinions and partisan political positions. So herds’ opinions are magnified much more quickly than in the past, tipping over into impactful, real-world choices– for example, voting patterns. We may dismiss online opinion as ephemeral and diffuse but when it generates herds of people reinforcing specific political and social positions, and if these online herd opinions change people’s behavior, there will be wide-reaching consequences.

One solution would be to institutionalise mechanisms to preserve contrarian opinion - for example by protecting mavericks and contrarians, including whistle-blowers, from vilification and ostracism. Given that humans are inclined to be copycats most of the time, our world urgently needs more contrarians to ensure that wrong-headed conventional wisdoms cannot persist for too long.




 


 

Mimi Sheller

 

On her book Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes

Cover Interview of April 24, 2019

Lastly

I believe that a full transition in the currently dominant fossil-fuel based automobility system will only take place when we simultaneously address the issues of social inequality that underpin the un-sustainability of the current system and we begin to promote mobility justice as integral to sustainability. Spatial and cultural contexts for dwelling and moving must be redesigned to promote both sustainable mobility and mobility justice. This may mean restricting or reducing the mobilities and energy consumption of the kinetic elite. Children around the world are currently mobilizing climate marches and school strikes to get politicians to listen to them. They tell us that we need to urgently change the way our current system works. I hope this book will contribute to that movement.

In the conclusion of the book I call for “commoning mobility” or creating a “mobile commons” as a possible way forward toward more just and sustainable mobilities. I hope to develop this concept further in my next project, and I hope to find others who want to work on this. I describe commoning mobility as a verb: the enactment of cooperative social territories and shared infrastructures for moving, sharing, and conserving places. Mobile commons have been cooperatively produced by human relation to others, both human and more-than-human, through common passage, translation, and co-usage over time. Commoning mobility empowers assemblages of people-plants-animals-places to exercise generative forms of autonomous social cooperation outside of capitalism. How can we build on and sustain the mobile commons and take our world back from extractivist capitalism and the violent security state?




 


 

W. Fitzhugh Brundage

 

On his book Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition

Cover Interview of April 17, 2019

Lastly

I intended the book to be a call for vigilance. America’s leaders, or those who act on our behalf, possess no innate moral or ethical lodestar that predisposes them to respect human dignity or rights. To the contrary, the American political system rests on the recognition that Americans, like all other human beings, have the capacity, even the inclination, to abuse power. The oft-repeated claim that the United States is a “nation of laws” is a concise expression of the Founders’ aspiration to channel and temper the exercise of power with rules, procedures, and constraints. Yet despite the Founders’ fear of an oppressive government, the nation’s democratic institutions and traditions have proved far more hospitable to torture than many Americans assume.

Bedrock elements of American democracy have arguably both fostered torture and hindered efforts to curtail it. Dispersed authority across multiple layers of local, state, and federal government along with the tradition of popular democracy and localism may have protected citizens from the tyranny of the national government. But that same decentralized power gave license to countless legal and self-declared agents of the state to wield the power of petty despots. Consequently, Americans should be vigilant against abuses of power in all severely hierarchical state institutions or wherever extreme inequality have been tolerated, even defended, in the name of the public good, tradition, or a consequence of human nature.




 


 

Dean Keith Simonton

 

On his book The Genius Checklist: Nine Paradoxical Tips on How You Can Become a Creative Genius

Cover Interview of April 10, 2019

Lastly

Authors are probably overly inclined to engage in big fantasies about the consequences of their work. After all, even a book that’s only a few hundred pages took a lot of effort to write. Going through the copyediting and proof-correcting phases is by no means fun. Hence, the writer has to look for some compensation down the line.

There are always the forthcoming royalty checks. But here I do not have high expectations. University presses seldom publish bestsellers. Indeed, I’ve long ago stopped visiting Amazon.com to see what my best sellers rank might be. Darn, I was just tempted to look, and right now there are more than 100,000 books that are higher ranked!

Luckily, as a scientist I put a bigger premium on influence. I want the Genius Checklist to exert an impact on what people know about the science of genius. I’d like to get them beyond the popular myths and stereotypes associated with world-class creators. And insofar as the scientific results have any practical use, then may this book lead to real-world applications. Such as helping parents who find themselves with a highly gifted child, or teachers who find that same child disrupting their classroom, or prospective employers who are grappling with a job applicant with a rather unusual résumé once that child grows up.

Who knows? The volume might even enjoy a positive influence on future research as well. A reader might be a scientist who becomes inspired by one of the paradoxical tips to conduct original inquires. Or the book might be assigned in an undergraduate course that then has repercussions when a student later goes to graduate school and selects some issue for their doctoral thesis and later research program—like I did more than four decades ago.

Am I fantasizing again? It’s way too early to know, given the recent publication date. But I’m hopeful. I just learned that the book will be translated into Mandarin and Japanese. So right there I have a substantial increase in potential bookstore and online browsers. Besides, the worst-case scenario is not all that bad anyway. I wrote a book that needed to be written. It was put out by a prestigious publisher that did excellent production and promotion. Plus, I received an invitation for this interview!




 


 

Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh

 

On her book The Missing Pages: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript, from Genocide to Justice

Cover Interview of April 03, 2019

Lastly

The last decade has seen the transformation of the public debate about cultural heritage, art and its intentional destruction, the responsibilities of museums, and the challenges of restitution. The Missing Pages builds on these debates. It uses the litigation in Los Angeles and the gripping story of a single manuscript, to delve into these complex and overlapping issues in a substantive way.

Questions of restitution will likely increase and become more pressing worldwide in the future. I believe we will see more struggles between powerful institutions and communities over the control of cultural patrimony. American museums have already had to change the way in which they react to these challenges — the public today is showing little tolerance of the condescending, tone-deaf, and Eurocentric attitudes that used to be common. Many tensions remain, however, as we are seeing in the debate on the proposed restitution of African art held by French museums that is unfolding now. I am heartened to see that some museums are taking proactive steps towards the whole issue of restitution; they are making great efforts at being inclusive and approachable, even decolonial, and some art museums are even integrating painful histories into their exhibitions in innovative ways. However, we still have a long way to go.

The book, I hope, will prompt deeper reflection and action on cultural heritage and human rights, as well as on the whole issue of restitution and reparation at all levels. There is no one-size-fits-all model. In the case of the Zeytun Gospels, a settlement was reached in 2015. The Getty acknowledged the Armenian Church’s historical ownership of the pages, and the church donated the pages to the Getty Museum. The ownership is acknowledged, the pages are preserved, and they are available to the public to view in Los Angeles, where as many as 500,000 people of Armenian extraction live, many of them descendants of survivors of the Armenian Genocide. In this case, both sides made concessions, and both sides achieved some of their original goals. The art press hailed the settlement as an important precedent in disputes between museums and religious communities. However, it is also critical to acknowledge that there are tremendous asymmetries of power and that restitution and reparation are very difficult to achieve in most cases. For the Zeytun Gospels, there could not be a return to the past, and the injuries of war and genocide can never be repaired. Ultimately, the greatest impact of settlements like this is that they help develop greater collaboration between museums and communities over the appreciation of works of art and the telling of difficult histories.




 


 

David L. Hu

 

On his book How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls: Animal Movement and the Robots of the Future

Cover Interview of March 27, 2019

Lastly

The topics in this book have potential applications in the field of robotics.

Robots have long been relegated to perform repetitive tasks such as assembling parts of a car in factories. In the future, however, robots will leave the factories and enter our everyday lives. Many of the environments that need robots are outdoor environments, such as the open ocean and the sandy surface of Mars. Designing machines to tackle many of these environments can be difficult, due to the physics of the varying medium which still cannot be well predicted on computers.

One shortcut to designing machines that can move with speed and good gas mileage is by looking at how animals move through these environments. To traverse natural terrain, robots may need multiple legs like an insect, or no legs at all like a snake. Robots that successfully traverse outdoor environments are already showing resemblance to the animals that make this place their home. This is because the laws of physics pose unbreakable constraints that influence what kind of motion is most effective.

This book has been a big hit among young audiences. Animal motion is one of the most accessible and interesting subjects around. And it applies to multiple subject areas such as physics, biology, and material science to satisfy anyone’s curiosity. In the book, I spend equal time going through the science behind the discoveries as well as the excitement and thought process of the scientists at work. I hope this book shows that science can be fun and that anyone can be a scientist.