Richard E. Ocejo

 

On his book Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy

Cover Interview of July 19, 2017

In a nutshell

Many blue-collar, manual labor, and service jobs that were once low-status have become “cool” in today’s economy. In fact, jobs like bartender, distiller, barber, and butcher have gone from providing basic services and making mundane products to being cultural tastemakers and influencers. It is elite versions of these jobs, namely cocktail bartenders, craft distillers, upscale men’s barbers, and whole-animal butchers, in hip businesses that are shaping consumer choices in cities across the country.

The most fascinating part of this shift is who has been doing the shifting, or who has been pursuing these jobs. It’s mostly young people with other options for work, like college graduates and people with good jobs in other fields. They want to work in these jobs, and pursue them as careers. And they do so at a time when the economy is largely knowledge- and technology-based, and when jobs in high-end service and creative industries are among the most valued and desired.

At its most general, my book addresses the question: why do people choose the jobs that they do? Specifically, why do people who have the choice to do so refrain from pursuing good jobs in today’s economy and instead take up typically low-status trades?

I found a few key explanations. Primarily, they pursue the elite versions of these jobs because they allow them to use their heads, hands, and social skills. Like much knowledge-based work, these jobs require workers to use cultural information to be creative. Unlike it, however, they get to do so by using their bodies to perform craft-based tasks and provide tangible products and services. Finally, they also get to share this knowledge with consumers. Thus, these attributes give these jobs greater status than they normally have. They become knowledge workers who get to learn a craft and directly serve the public.

Readers of Masters of Craft will learn about the unique history and characteristics of each of these four jobs, workplaces, and industries, and the common features of these workers. Underlying the text is the tension between the positive revival and added social benefits of these jobs, and the negative exclusivity that surrounds them: the people who would most benefit from these jobs—people from working-class and low-income backgrounds—do not get them.




 



 

Tyler Volk

 

On his book Quarks to Culture: How We Came to Be

Cover Interview of July 12, 2017

In a nutshell

Quarks to Culture involves a new, big picture perspective of the universe. Now, by universe I do not mean the astronomical cosmos that the word usually refers to. I mean our lived universe. This includes living cells. It includes the works of all cultures. We might call this expanded universe the universe of all things.

What kind of new perspective? If we go down in scale into the human body and look at the kinds of systems we know about, it is like going back in time. Our bodily cells as living cells, as members of a type of system, came into existence well before bodies, such as we animals who are made of trillions of cells. Taking this time machine further downward in scale, we find the kind of thing known as molecules in this universe of all things. Molecules as a kind of fundamental thing came into existence, indeed, had to come into existence, before living cells.

So, in the questions I asked that led to this work, I wanted to find out if I could discover fundamental levels of kinds of things. I wanted to discern these levels with a consistent logic. I return here to the time machine just noted as one goes back downward inward in scale. Might one start with the simplest entities known to science and build up in a logical sequence from small and simple to large and complex? The logic involves a recurring pattern in time, in which prior existing things combined and integrated into larger things. At each level of larger things, the pattern or process repeated: those larger things now became the prior existing smaller things that combined and integrated into the next level of larger things.

When one follows this logic, as I hope to have done, or at least proposed, twelve fundamental levels emerge: Level 1 Fundamental particles; Level 2 Nucleons; Level 3 Atomic nuclei; Level 4 Atoms; Level 5 Molecules; Level 6 Prokaryotic cells; Level 7 Eukaryotic cells; Level 8 Multicellular organisms; Level 9 Animal social groups; Level 10 Cultural webs of “we”; Level 11 Agrovillages; Level 12 Geopolitical states.


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There is more. Each level contains things that are fundamentally new, because innovations in the relations of the things at each level were necessary to create the things at the next level, at least in our universe of things. This remarkable and special sequence I call the grand sequence.

I have written the book so that readers are walked through the essential, best currently known science and scholarship of the things at each level, the innovative relations, and how those new things and relations led to each subsequent level. That walk takes place in part two of the book, following the general theory of the logic and the quest put forth in part one. Finally, in part three comes what I see as a very exciting part of the book. In part three I treat the levels as a set of phenomena in an attempt at a universal field of scholarship and ask about commonalities or groupings of families within the levels. I will say a bit more about this below.




 



 

Michael Sappol

 

On his book Body Modern: Fritz Kahn, Scientific Illustration, and the Homuncular Subject

Cover Interview of July 05, 2017

In a nutshell

Body Modern focuses on the history of a peculiar kind of imagery of the human body: the conceptual scientific illustration. Primarily found in America and Germany between 1915 and 1960, images of the body modern also traveled to the Soviet Union, China, Latin America, and many other countries, as well as across time; the book follows them to the twenty-first century, where they regularly appear in videos, training manuals, websites, textbooks and magazines—our media environment and experience.

To clarify: Body Modern is not about pictures that teach lessons about the anatomical structures of the body, but about pictures that attempt to entertain and instruct readers with visual explanations of the workings of the human body, using metaphors, sequences, analogies, diagrammatic elements, cross-sections, allusions, playful situations, and juxtapositions. To us, such images seem familiar, something that has always been around, but the genre was novel and remarkable when it was invented in Chicago in the first decades of the 20th century.

Its first great exponent was Fritz Kahn (1888-1968), a German-Jewish physician and popular science writer. In collaboration with a cadre of commercial artists, Kahn brilliantly deployed and redeployed—he was a great recycler and repurposer of his own pictures as well as those of his predecessors and contemporaries—thousands of illustrations, in books, articles and posters that reached a mass audience in Weimar Germany and around the world.


rorotoko.com Head, thorax, and abdomen, all contain gases and help to keep the body afloat in Der Mensch Gesund und Krank (Man in Health and Sickness), vol. 1 (1939).

Body Modern bombards the reader with images from the works of Kahn because Kahn’s pictures were one very remarkable, but now mostly forgotten, part of a pictorial/media regime change, a cultural revolution that aimed to remake the relationship between text, image, and body, and remake, perhaps re-engineer, human subjectivity.






 

William H. Galperin

 

On his book The History of Missed Opportunities: British Romanticism and the Emergence of the Everyday

Cover Interview of June 27, 2017

In a nutshell

The History of Missed Opportunities explores an unrecognized, certainly an unappreciated, development in Romantic-era Britain: the discovery of everyday life as a world that had been overlooked or, as Maurice Blanchot later describes it, “what we never see a first time, but only see again.” Emergence, first theorized somewhat later in the nineteenth century, focused––to no real surprise––on the rise and synthesis of complex entities from components that were less complicated. But in a reversal of this dynamic that might be deemed pre-Darwinian, the impetus behind the everyday’s emergence as a separate stratum of experience involved two things: the emancipation of the world from subjective or phenomenological misprision in allowing a symbol derived from nature (in, say, a Wordsworth poem) to revert back to a more basic materiality or thingness; and second, and related, the recognition that the lives and experiences of individuals (but also of nations and societies) were myopically bound to futurity––to horizons of progress or development––that took little stock of the present, which was increasingly “missable” (as Stanley Cavell has termed it) but as a prelude now to being (re)discovered.

The everyday’s emergence is in the most basic sense, then, an act of recovery that Romantic-period literature restages, transforming “history” into a placeholder for possibilities that had been ignored in deference to the “open futures” toward which seemingly everything, from science to social progress, to bildung on a personal scale, was hurtling in “the age of revolution.”

And what of history at this moment? Well, in addition to being made daily (or so it seemed), history was being mobilized––notably by empirical philosophy––to establish generalities and probabilities so that “what we have found to be most usual,” as David Hume put it, “is always most probable.” For a skeptic like Hume, for whom nothing was knowable beyond a mere impression, history––experience in aggregate––was more than just a guide to understanding what was out there; it was just as importantly a conservative wish that our tomorrows would resemble yesterday.

For the Romantics, however, who were progressively invested in tomorrows that were different and transformative––and less concerned, for their parts, with the limits posed by subjectivity––history was put to different uses. The most common were histories that are broadly linear––so-called Whig histories––where the past and the future were coextensive in the assumption that each moment in time was a step toward absolute modernity and, eventually, the end of history. But there was another use and, as my book shows, it involved something very different: a reckoning where possibility abides in reminders and remainders––opportunities I call them––that are accessible in the wake of being missed after which they are recognized, again and for the first time.




 



 

Caleb Everett

 

On his book Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures

Cover Interview of June 20, 2017

In a nutshell

Numbers, words and other symbols for precise quantities, are a human invention that had a broad impact on our cognitive and behavioral lives. This claim is based on extensive findings obtained by many researchers across a host of fields including linguistics, psychology, and archaeology. Through a novel synthesis of these findings, Numbers and the Making of Us shows that the invention and refinement of numbers across cultures had a profound impact on the human condition.

A key point underscored in the experimental data surveyed is the following: While even at birth humans have some abilities to differentiate quantities, these abilities are very limited until we are taught number words and counting. We seem to have a native ability to discriminate small quantities from each other, say two from three items. We also have a native ability to discriminate large quantities from each other if they differ in marked ways. We can differentiate, for instance, four from twelve items even at birth.

Surprisingly, perhaps, we require numbers to build upon these basic quantity differentiation skills. Numbers are the conceptual scaffolding that allows us to construct uniquely human quantitative thought. In the book, this point is supported with data from prenumeric children, anumeric adults in places like Amazonia, and members of other species.

So how do humans arrive at numbers if we do not just “grow” into the recognition that, for instance, eight items can be consistently and precisely distinguished from nine items? How were numbers ever invented?

Through the examination of linguistic data across cultures, the book highlights a simple point: Numbers are typically invented after people come to recognize correspondences between the fingers on their hands and other items in their natural environment.

This manual route to numbers is not the only one cultures may take, but it is the most common route. As people come to recognize, in a haphazard and inconsistent manner, that a “hand” of something can refer to a specific quantity (five) of that something, they verbally reify numerical concepts. These verbal numbers can then be passed to others, refined, and built upon. The subsequent construction of more elaborate numerical concepts is essential to the development of other impactful cultural practices like agriculture and writing. In other words, the book suggests that the cognitive tools called numbers helped lead to a reshaping of the lives of most humans.




 



 

William D. Araiza

 

On his book Animus: A Short Introduction to Bias in the Law

Cover Interview of June 14, 2017

In a nutshell

This book explores the concept of “animus” in the law of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. Over the last thirty years, the Supreme Court has decided several important equal protection cases by concluding that the challenged government action was motivated by “animus.” Animus is a tricky concept in constitutional law. It has an everyday meaning, denoting action that is motivated by ill-will. But this common-sense meaning does not easily translate into equal protection law. Equal protection concerns itself with government action, and thus, action that is often institutional, rather than action taken by an individual whose subjective motivations can be examined.

The book constructs a constitutional theory of animus—that is, a theory that provides a workable approach by which courts can determine whether an action is based in animus. The first half of the book is mainly taken up with examining the Court’s most important statements about animus. The foundational case, from 1973, stated that “a bare ... desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate government interest.” That case, Department of Agriculture v. Moreno, struck down an amendment to the federal food stamp law that denied food stamps to unrelated groupings of persons living in the same household. The Court cited congresspersons’ statements that the amendment targeted “hippies” and “hippie communes” to conclude that the statute was, indeed, motivated by “a bare ... desire to harm” such persons.

Starting a dozen years later, in 1985, the Court began building on Moreno’s statement as a justification to strike down laws ranging from a city’s rejection of a group home for the intellectually disabled to the federal government’s refusal, in the Defense of Marriage Act, to recognize same-sex marriages valid in the states where they were performed. While all of these cases relied on a conclusion that the challenged action was motivated by animus, and while all of them added to our understanding of the emerging animus doctrine, the Court has yet to unite these strands into a coherent whole.

The second part of the book attempts to create that doctrinal fabric. It explains how the strands of animus doctrine parallel another equal protection doctrine, one that governs how courts determine whether a government action was taken with “discriminatory intent.” The concepts of discriminatory intent and animus are analogous. As the book explains, it thus makes sense that the Court’s approach to discriminatory intent provides a template for its emerging animus doctrine. But even though the concepts are similar, they’re not identical. Thus, the book also explains how its proposed approach to uncovering animus differs from discriminatory intent doctrine.

After setting forth this approach, the book concludes by applying it to a variety of current equal protection issues, from gay rights to transgender rights to the rights of disabled people. It concludes by returning to a point the book makes in Chapter 1: namely, that the concept of “animus” is one with deep roots in American law that go back even before the Equal Protection Clause was drafted. Thus, it argues that our modern concern with animus is faithful to our deepest constitutional traditions.




 



 

Mark Bartholomew

 

On his book Adcreep: The Case Against Modern Marketing

Cover Interview of June 07, 2017

In a nutshell

By some counts, the average American is exposed to over three thousand advertisements each day. It is not just the number, but the nature of these ads that are different from those in the past. They are more personalized, more insistent, and, somewhat paradoxically, more clandestine. What does it mean to live in a world of non-stop selling? Are consumers adequately equipped to deal with modern marketing’s use of new technologies to surveil our activities, study our brains, and score our social interactions? Are there costs to this fundamental rebalancing of the relationship between advertiser and audience? If so, why hasn’t there been more resistance on the part of lawmakers and the general public?

Adcreep exposes the initiatives that advertisers try to keep hidden. Each chapter in the book describes a new advertising technique and its accompanying social dangers. Advances in neuroscience have become a tool for subconsciously stimulating shoppers’ appetites. Corporate infiltration of schools, state parks, and other civic territories alters the way identities are formed so as to best suit Madison Avenue. A world of non-stop digital surveillance leaves consumers open to blackmail and discrimination. Celebrity advertising on social media creates a false equivalence: the famous possess special VIP tools to manage online disclosures while ordinary citizens must forfeit control of their posts to false friends, hostile outsiders, and data-hungry marketers.

This is a book that should especially appeal to readers with an interest in history. To explain why advertisers have been allowed to proceed with these new selling techniques, it helps to have a historical backdrop in mind.

Past controversies over invasive advertising strategies triggered a series of legal battles, ultimately producing a regulatory framework meant to keep business freedom and consumer protection in balance. The book describes this regulatory framework, and uses historical examples to show how it has dealt over time with a variety of advertising innovations. Disputes over billboard regulation, snake oil salesmen, subliminal advertising, and the use of digital technology to reanimate dead celebrities are all instructive examples. They illustrate how the new advertising techniques of today echo the forbidden techniques of the past.

The book’s ultimate conclusion is that, on a variety of fronts, the legal system is allowing invasive advertising to proceed unchecked. Novel interpretations of the First Amendment, contract law, intellectual property law, and the publicity rights of celebrities all handcuff fledgling efforts to adjust the law to account for commercial innovation.

By the end of the book, readers should be convinced of two things. One is that modern marketing has entered a new, profoundly different era. The other is that, in contrast to the past, lawmakers have done little to safeguard consumers from adcreep.




 



 

Justin V. Hastings

 

On his book A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy

Cover Interview of May 31, 2017

In a nutshell

A Most Enterprising Country asks why North Korea still exists, and locates the country’s survival in its economy’s interconnectedness with the global economy. It argues, while overall, North Korea remains a disaster in all dimensions—socially, economically, and politically—both for its own population and for East Asia, North Korean trade networks have been surprisingly effective. The networks have shown surprising resilience despite (or perhaps because of) their ambivalent reception by the North Korean central state, and throughout the fraught relationship between North Korea and the rest of the world.

For many average North Koreans, trade allows them to survive, or even to acquire lifestyles that the state is unable to provide. For the North Korean state, trade networks are partially responsible for keeping elites in power. The networks are effective because, at the most basic level, North Korean businesspeople are ruthlessly pragmatic and adaptable. They operate with something approaching Darwinian economic logic, as if their survival were at stake, because it often is.

Paradoxically, the harsh political and economic environment that North Korean enterprises experience both overseas and within North Korea, encourage pragmatism, as ideological trappings are stripped away. North Koreans at all levels have been forced by their circumstances to become entrepreneurial. From the 1970s onward, North Korean officials posted overseas were expected to provide both for themselves and for the regime back home, by whatever means necessary. From the 1980s, state companies received permits to engage in foreign trade.

In the face of the famine and the collapse of the formal economy in the 1990s and early 2000s, private citizens were also forced to become entrepreneurial in order to survive, leading to the private markets that sprung up across the country. Hybrid trading networks that mixed private agency and state resources, in turn, emerged from state and private entrepreneurialism by providing goods for the private market through the co-optation of state actors.

State entities themselves have also become hybrid entrepreneurs as they have been forced to provide for themselves and the state, and as state officials have used their positions to engage in creative private income generation even as the formal economy broke down. These networks are highly risk-acceptant, and have become experts at operating in the blurred zones between licit and illicit, or between formal and informal trade, at least as defined by the outside world. They are adept at identifying and operating in jurisdictions that provide a combination of technological development, logistical connections, market and nonmarket ties to foreign trade networks, and friendly (or at least neutral) political and legal environments.

While the central state can shape the contours of the trade—by selectively cracking down on or ignoring market activity in North Korea, and by giving out licenses for formally permitted trade overseas—and can profit from trade through imported goods, bribes, taxes, fees, and loyalty payments up the food chain, the extent to which it actually controls what happens on the ground to any but the most centrally directed networks is unclear. North Korea’s economy has long since ceased to be something tightly controlled by the central government.




 



 

Stephen Sheehi

 

On his book The Arab Imago: A Social History of Portrait Photography, 1860–1910

Cover Interview of May 24, 2017

In a nutshell

Arab Imago has a dual personality. It explores the undiscovered history of indigenista, or indigenous, photography of the Arab world. I am particularly interested in the earliest decades of photography, specifically, nineteenth and twentieth century studio portraiture in Arab, or, at least pre-1914, Ottoman photography.

Dedicated exclusively to native photography, the book offers new information about lesser known photographers from Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt, such as Jurji Saboungi, the Kova Brothers, Garabed Krikorian, Khalil Raad, Muhammad Sadiq Bey, and Ibrahim Rif’at Pasha. The book also revisits and offers an original reading of well-known Ottoman photographers, who operated both in Istanbul and Cairo, such as Abdullah Frères and Pascal and Jean Sébah.

The book’s alternate personality is theoretical. It develops a theory of reading photography and shows how integral “non-Western” photography really is to the history of photography as a whole. A theory of reading portraiture, then, may be able to cross borders and boundaries and take into account the specificities of social, political, and visual histories of particular photographic practices.

Considering the mass of uncharted material, I chose to focus on photographic portraiture, mostly produced in the studies of Beirut, Cairo, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Istanbul. But the theoretical arc bridges a number of different genres of photography. While the book is dualistic, it is also integrated, and I would hope that readers see how the material and social history of photography in the Arab world can be read simultaneously as empirical and theoretical.




 



 

April D. DeConick

 

On her book The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion from Antiquity to Today

Cover Interview of May 16, 2017

In a nutshell

In The Gnostic New Age, I tell the powerful story of how gnostic groups arose in the first century CE as countercultural religious innovators, offering people in antiquity a completely new way to look at themselves, their world, and their gods. I present gnosticism, not as a religion, but as a religious worldview or spirituality that engages multiple religions and affiliations, and remodels them in countercultural ways, producing new religious movements even to this day.

All the religions of antiquity – Judaism, Christianity, and Greco-Roman, Egyptian and Babylonian religions – based their beliefs and practices on a type of spirituality that envisioned human beings as slaves or servants to very powerful and often capricious gods and government authorities who were their deputies on earth. These religions mainly served to keep the world orderly and the gods satisfied and happy, so as to avoid punishments like famine, disease, and defeat in war. People did this by providing the gods with sacrifices that fed them, worship that respected their power, and lifestyles that honored their rules and kept chaos at bay.

Gnostic spirituality interrogated this traditional understanding of religion by turning worship away from the gods of the nations to a supreme transcendent God whom they considered the source of all life. This made the gods of the nations, including the biblical God, lesser deities, even false gods and demons. Furthermore, this transcendent God of worship was not a God that could be described or learned about through some catechism or scripture. This supreme God beyond all Gods had to be experienced by each person or met face-to-face in a mystical embrace. Gnostic groups used rituals they designed to bring about this initiatory experience.

These practices significantly changed ancient people’s understanding of the human being. The human being was no mere mortal according to gnostics. Humans, they thought, contained an actual piece of the transcendent God within them, and they called it the human spirit. This piece of God is what makes humans transcendent, capable of journeying beyond their bodies, beyond their world, to a place of utter Good and Light, which is their source. This journey home and integration with God transforms and empowers the human initiates to externalize the God Within, to become gods on earth, to make their own choices based on conscience rather than obedience to gods and kings.

This meant that religion took on a specific therapeutic function that it did not previously have, to transform and empower human beings as gods, to give humans the power to conquer fate, resist the dominant authorities and traditions, and create a better world for themselves. This reorientation of religion features the rise of the individual and free thinking which became foundational to the history of the Western world and our own history as Americans.




 



 

Aaron Cowan

 

On his book A Nice Place to Visit: Tourism and Urban Revitalization in the Postwar Rustbelt

Cover Interview of May 10, 2017

In a nutshell

A Nice Place to Visit explores how four American cities – Baltimore, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis – coped with the problems of economic decline after World War II, and how and why tourism gradually gained a vital position in their postindustrial economies. The book is organized into case studies of each city, paired with a particular type of tourist development. So, for example, in Cincinnati, I look at the transformation of downtown hotels in the postwar decades, or in Pittsburgh, the story of professional sports and stadium development. In each case, I focus on the story in one city to illustrate broader consequences of tourist development in these four cities, and postwar urban America generally.

The urban tourist industry began with the growth of business conventions in the post-World War II period. Beginning in the 1950s and accelerating thereafter, cities rushed to build massive convention centers, new convention hotels, and develop aggressive marketing campaigns to recruit trade and business meetings. For the first time, city governments played a direct role in facilitating, and often subsidizing, construction of this infrastructure. Even in the 1950s and early 1960s, the loss of manufacturing jobs and residents left city leaders increasingly desperate to spur a new economic base. St. Louis mayor A.J. Cervantes spoke in the 1960s of tourism as one business “that cannot move to the suburbs.”

Other types of tourist development sought to create attractions – for example, St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, or Baltimore’s Inner Harbor – that would both draw leisure travelers and provide an easily-marketable “front door” that could reshape the perception of the city in public media. Again, public subsidy and public-private partnerships played a key role in these sites. By the 1980s, cities across the nation pursued new tourism trophies – festival marketplaces, aquariums, “experiential” museums, casinos – in a seemingly endless competition to capture the tourist dollar.

These developments had varying degrees of success, but even the most popular failed to fully address the problems of poverty, underemployment, crime, and suburban flight. And tourist-oriented construction often absorbed increasing percentages of city’s precious public resources, while remaking major portions of the city’s downtown to serve visitors, not locals.

Historians, geographers and cultural scholars have written a great deal about tourism in places like Las Vegas, New Orleans, and major resort areas. This book reminds us that the rise of the tourism industry also reshaped less exotic locales, in both positive and negative ways.




 



 

Geoffrey Heal

 

On his book Endangered Economies: How the Neglect of Nature Threatens Our Prosperity

Cover Interview of May 03, 2017

In a nutshell

Environmental conservation is essential to a prosperous, healthy lifestyle. It is a necessity and not a luxury. We are part of the environment: we evolved with nature and depend on nature. Conserving the environment means conserving ourselves.

Yet our current economic model poses a threat; the threat is catastrophic environmental change within decades. This conflict between economy and environment is not inevitable, but arises from failures in our economic system. We can readily fix the most egregious flaws in the system to allow the economy and the environment to coexist and nurture one other.

External costs pose the biggest of these market failures that threaten the environment. They occur when a third party must pick up the tab for the negative consequences of a transaction. Let’s say, I buy gasoline and burn it in my car. Thereby, I harm people, who inhale the exhaust fumes, and people, whose climate is altered by the greenhouse gases that the car I drive generates. The people who are injured did not purchase and burn the gas – I did. Yet, I do not pay for the harm done to them, so there is little to make me aware of it, and I have no incentive to stop.

A second problem is that property rights are not always clearly defined, and here, too, the consequences are dire. Valuable capital is destroyed or harmed. No one owns the fish in the sea; they become property only in the marketplace. This leads to overexploitation because no one has an incentive to conserve resources that they don’t own. As a result, many fish stocks have plummeted by 90% in the last 50 years. It’s not just that the number of fish has fallen. Small fish tend to mature faster and have a better chance to breed before being caught; they also have a better chance of escaping capture. Thus, the process of natural selection has resulted in a diminished population of ever-smaller fish.

A third problem is that the natural world provides services that are essential to our prosperity, but that are not valued in our economic calculations. Natural assets provide a stream of services over time, just as physical or intellectual capital goods provide a flow of benefits, which makes the natural world a form of capital. Some of our most important and valuable assets are in fact natural capital, yet we generally don’t include them in our accounts or on our balance sheets. Our accounts don’t reflect their loss. Take the case of fish stocks: we are depleting this asset, yet we don’t mark this in any of our accounting at the national or personal levels.

The final economic flaw driving conflicts between the economy and the environment concerns how we evaluate our economic performance: we worship false gods. We use Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the performance standard, but it’s wrong. GDP can go up when bad things happen, such as a hurricane or flood that necessitates rebuilding and generates income for contractors and their employees and suppliers. GDP can fall because of good outcomes, such as the introduction of long-lasting light bulbs. Fewer of these are sold, leading to a drop in the income of producers – but overall we are better off because we are using resources and energy more efficiently. We shouldn’t be rating ourselves by GDP growth, but by sustainable increases in human wellbeing.




 



 

Robert L. Kelly

 

On his book The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us about Our Future

Cover Interview of April 26, 2017

In a nutshell

I’m what is known in my field as a “dirt archaeologist.” I’ve been excavating archaeological sites in various places for 43 years, and I’m not ready to quit. Why do I do archaeology? Honesty compels me to admit one reason: field research is fun. But I also do archaeology because I believe what Winston Churchill once said: “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” A few years ago I admitted that I hadn’t lived up to Churchill’s words. So I decided to make an effort and the result was The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us about Our Future. At 122 pages, the book is a quick romp through human history—all six million years of it. It’s a lot to cover, but I can do so by using archaeology’s strength.

Many of my colleagues in history see archaeology as their poor country cousin because archaeologists can’t see the past in the detail that historians think is necessary. Our weakness, however, is actually a strength. Without all the details to worry about, archaeologists see the biggest of history’s big pictures. We think about the past in slices of time, periods such as the Stone Age, the Copper Age, or the Iron Age. In The Fifth Beginning, I take that approach to its limit, and search all of human history for global phases. I find four of these, and I call them beginnings: the beginning of technology, the beginning of culture, the beginning of agriculture, and the beginning of the state.

From an archaeological perspective, changes in humanity’s material signature demarcate these beginnings, and those changes signal significant transitions in the organization of human society. The first beginning is marked by crude but effective stone tools. These signal a change in how our ancestors dealt with their environment. Occupying the African savanna, our ancestors became hunters, captured fire, cooked food, and developed pair-bonding and rudimentary language. Natural selection favored this creature, and our ancestors spread beyond Africa into southern Asia and Europe. We never turned our back on technology, of course. Those simple stone tools, in fact, were the beginning of space travel.

The second beginning occurred long after, sometime between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago, and is marked by art and burial ritual. This was when our human ancestors truly became human—when we became cultural, capable of using symbols and of thinking of life in terms of a symbolically constructed world. This was when we could tell myths and legends (and lies), use metaphors and analogies, envision an afterlife, and think about gods and supernatural beings. The second beginning saw the appearance of all that makes humans unique: kinship, religions, and ethnicities. The capacity for culture was also adaptive, and it allowed humans to spread, again, out from Africa starting about 60,000 years ago, and to colonize almost the entire globe over the next 50,000 years.

The third beginning began about 12,000 years ago, and took place in many different places over the next few thousand years. The appearance and spread of domesticated plants and animals, as well as permanent villages with substantial houses marks this transition. This was also the beginning of trade; some goods were exchanged for purely economic reasons and some symbolized cooperative relations of support.

The fourth beginning started around 5000 years ago, and is the time of “states,” of stratified societies with professional classes of merchants, bureaucrats, and warriors. Massive public architecture—temples and tombs, public squares, buildings for government and commerce—mark this transition. This was the time of the Uruk kingdom in southern Iraq, of Egypt’s pharaohs, of the Greeks, Romans, and Phoenicians, and of Chinese dynasties. It was the time of the Maya and Toltecs and Aztecs, of the Huari and Inca. It was a time of remarkable achievements in mathematics, architecture, science, art, and government. And it was also the time of inequality, slavery, warfare, and empire. We still live in the fourth beginning.




 



 

Judith Weisenfeld

 

On her book New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration

Cover Interview of April 19, 2017

In a nutshell

New World A-Coming examines a set of religious movements founded in the early twentieth-century urban north whose members refused the racial category of Negro and rejected Christianity in favor of other identities. In the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, members believed their true identities to be Asiatic Muslim, while members of Congregation Beth B’nai Abraham and the Commandment Keepers embraced Ethiopian Hebrew identity. In the Peace Mission movement, Father Divine’s followers believed him to be God and took up his call to reject race altogether. I argue that what drew people to these movements was not only that they offered diverse religious options, but that in linking religious and racial identity, they provided new ways of thinking about black history and peoplehood.

These religio-racial movements, as I call them, emerged in the context of the large-scale migration of African Americans from the South to the cities of the North and the immigration of Blacks from the Caribbean to the U.S. The cultural creativity in black literature, visual arts, and music of the Great Migration era is well known, as is the political activism in movements like Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Religious creativity also marked the period, and charismatic leaders, some claiming status as prophets or divinities, captured the imaginations of black urbanites. These leaders’ preaching and teaching motivated many to transform how they understood their individual identities, collective histories, and imagined futures.

In addition to examining the religio-racial theologies and histories the leaders put forth, the book explores the question of how one transforms one’s identity. How did a black migrant from the South or an immigrant from the Caribbean detach from the identity of Negro once they came to believe that it was a false category produced in slavery and imposed on them? Through what means did they become what they believed they truly were, be it Asiatic Muslim, Ethiopian Hebrew, or raceless child of God? What were the stakes for them in doing so in a highly racialized society in which people of African descent had long invested in racial solidarity under the banner of Christianity to oppose racism and oppression?

In order to understand this process of transformation, I examine embodied practices members used to remake themselves, such as adopting new names, styles of dress, dietary practices, and approaches to health and healing they believed were appropriate to and required by their religio-racial identity. I also consider how participation in a religo-racial movement transformed members’ understandings of family, community, politics, space and place, and relationships to the world beyond the movement. The book explores the distinctive elements of each religio-racial movement while also offering a sense of the common practices and strategies members developed to become what they believed God had made them. For members, these were not practices that led to conversion, then, but reversion to a divinely ordained self.




 



 

Andrew Burstein

 

On his book Democracy's Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, a Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, All the While Being Dead

Cover Interview of April 12, 2017

In a nutshell

Democracy’s Muse examines why it is that Thomas Jefferson has come to represent American ideals for all modern generations, why the most emotive figure of the founding era appeals to the political Left as well as the Right. He was the first, but by no means the last, to designate his nation as “the world’s best hope,” and that’s part of it. But his malleability says more. It says that the historical Jefferson is manipulated with too little regard for context. How can he be a big-government New Dealer and a small-government Reaganite?

Jefferson’s political sentiments have reverberated across time and space in enchanting ways. Mikhail Gorbachev said that he frequently turned to Jefferson when he was fashioning reform of the Soviet system. Barack Obama, while better known for his embrace of Abraham Lincoln, met the visiting French president at Jefferson’s Monticello home, in Charlottesville, Virginia, in recognition of Jefferson’s embrace of French culture. Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, offhandedly stated that he could foresee a monument in Washington celebrating his achievements––“but maybe I’d share it with Jefferson.” Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Jefferson.

It’s hard to say which of the two transformative presidents adored Jefferson more: Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. Both channeled the third president in their conception of government’s role in the lives of citizens. Given this curious conundrum, my book charts the strong statements of presidents, congressmen, and public intellectuals, from FDR’s time to Obama’s. Our self-anointed monitors of historical continuity have all struggled to define what the “Jeffersonian ideal” means to modern America’s national self-image. Sometimes they argue by resort to colorful language, and at other times they sound downright desperate.

FDR helped to design the Thomas Jefferson Memorial that proudly stands over at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. He opened it to the public on the founder’s 200th birthday, April 13, 1943. At the time of Jefferson’s 250th, in 1992, President William Jefferson Clinton recalled that day, fifty years earlier, attesting to FDR’s Jeffersonian credentials, while adding his own thoughts on the illustrious Virginian. Thomas Jefferson believed, Clinton said, “in government being constantly reformed by reason and popular will.” The Economist wasn’t so convinced that the historical Jefferson had a reliable connection to ordinary people, and questioned assumptions about Jefferson universality: “He is the intellectual’s president, the president of the uncalloused hands.” In 2004, Time magazine actually queried whether President Jefferson would have invaded Iraq.

Jefferson also remains a flashpoint in national conversations about the inherently secular or religious character of the American republic. And then there’s his sexual activity across racial lines. We care about the ways Jefferson is portrayed––so much so that politicians have been known to put their own words in his mouth and repeat invented Jefferson quotes that support whatever agenda they are pursuing. Democracy’s Muse is as concerned with popular culture as with the pathos and pathology of the present partisan environment; the book weighs in on what we can and cannot know about the historical Jefferson, and why that question matters.