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.



Dag Nikolaus Hasse


On his book Success and Suppression: Arabic Sciences and Philosophy in the Renaissance

Cover Interview of April 05, 2017

In a nutshell

If you were asked to name some famous figures of Renaissance culture, you would probably name Leonardo, Michelangelo or Erasmus. But you could have mentioned some Arabic names too. There was an Arabic side to the European Renaissance, which is hardly known today. Arabic scientists and philosophers were mandatory reading at many Renaissance universities, especially in medicine, philosophy and astrology. On the book market of the time, Latin translations of Arabic scientific works were very successful. New, often multi-volume editions of these works steadily poured forth from presses in Venice, in Lyon, in Basle. The great names of Arabic science – Avicenna, Averroes, Mesue, Rhazes – were to be found everywhere on the academic bookshelves of Renaissance Europe. Every educated person knew these names.

This is the success side of the story. But there is also a suppression side to it. There was open opposition to Arabic traditions in Western culture, especially from humanists and church officials. Radical humanist scholars, in their enthusiasm for a return to the Greek and Latin sources, polemicized against Arabic science and demanded that university curricula be purged of Arabic authorities. As a result, these authors disappeared from many university curricula of medicine in the early sixteenth century – only to return, at least partially, at the end of the century.

In philosophy, the Arabic writer Averroes gave rise to a deep division among Renaissance intellectuals. He had dedicated partisans and bitter enemies. Many university professors believed Averroes to be the new Aristotle, but humanists protested against his lack of Greek; church officials against his alleged denial of personal immortality. In 1489 and 1513, the Bishop of Padua and the Lateran Council issued condemnations of select theses by Averroes. The effect can be traced in the intellectual biographies of some of Averroes’ partisans. But Averroes continued to be read and admired until the end of the sixteenth century.

The attempts to suppress Arabic traditions left clear traces in Renaissance scientific culture. Medicine, philosophy and astrology, the three areas of Renaissance learning most clearly influenced by Arabic sources, were greatly transformed by the polemical impact, with considerable gains and losses. The Arabic traditions lost their dominating position in many areas and subareas, in spite of the great success of some Arabic theories that we can still observe in the Renaissance. In this sense, the Renaissance is the period in which the West began to forget its debt to Arabic culture.

My book is about this double story of success and suppression.



Tom Toles


On his and Michael Mann’s book The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy

Cover Interview of March 30, 2017

Different Backgrounds, Joint Take

As co-authors, each of us two has experience on the front lines of the battle to communicate the risks of climate change to the public.

I am an editorial cartoonist and I have been exposing the hypocrisy of climate change denying politicians and fossil fuel industry front groups and advocates for years on the pages of the Washington Post.

I have felt that the media in general has done a poor job in explaining the subject and its critical nature of its importance. My response has been to keep the subject front and center for readers, and to point out in my artwork both the challenge and the obstacles.

My co-author Michael Mann is a climate scientist who has been on the front lines of the battle.  In the late 1990s, Michael published the iconic “Hockey Stick curve which has now become both a symbol of the reality and threat of climate change and an object of attack by climate change deniers.

The Madhouse Effect represents an effort by both of us to draw upon our very different backgrounds and perspectives and to jointly provide readers with a unique take on the issue of climate change.



Michael E. Mann


On his and Tom Toles’ book The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy

Cover Interview of March 29, 2017

In a nutshell

This book is about the single greatest challenge that we face as a civilization, the challenge to tackle the problem of human-caused climate change.  It is about the ongoing campaign, by fossil fuel interests and those who do their bidding, to deny the reality and threat of climate change.  It is about how we get out of this “Madhouse” in which find ourselves.

When we published the book in Fall 2016, prior to the latest presidential election, some of our colleagues criticized us about writing a book about climate change denial. Denial has become irrelevant, they said. Why give it oxygen by writing about it?

Sadly, climate denialism is very much back in vogue in Washington DC now.  A climate change denying president has appointed climate change deniers to key positions in his nascent administration.  If there was any question about it before, there is none anymore.  We are very much back in the Madhouse.

We use brilliant, hard-hitting climate-themed cartoons by my co-author Tom Toles as the scaffolding for telling the story.  The text unpacks, supports and expands on the message of the cartoons.  This book has attitude.

In the book’s eight chapters we cover the basic philosophy of science, the science of climate change, climate change impacts, the campaign to deny climate change and the hypocrisy associated with it, the dangers of so-called “geoengineering” techno-fixes to the problem, and finally, the path forward toward actually solving the problem.  Where appropriate, we name names and call out the bad actors.  The book ends on a note of cautious optimism.

Where our book differs from past books about the climate change topic is that it uses humor, satire, and ridicule — rather than graphs and charts and science-speak — to assess the problem.  By framing the issue in terms humor and satire, we hope to reach folks who haven’t otherwise yet been engaged by the issue.



Larry Wolff


On his book The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage from the Siege of Vienna to the Age of Napoleon

Cover Interview of March 22, 2017

In a nutshell

The Singing Turk explores the huge cultural phenomenon of European operas about Turks, flourishing especially during the eighteenth century, in the European age of Enlightenment. Though most people interested in opera are familiar with Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, this was just one among hundreds of operas about Turks — most of them forgotten — which were staged all over Europe from the 1680s to the 1820s. The Singing Turk, first of all, attempts to recover the dimensions of this lost repertory — including works by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, and Rossini, but also many other lesser known composers. While my research ranges around the opera houses of Europe, particularly important foci for me were the operatic centers of Venice, Milan, Vienna, and Paris.

The Ottoman empire was a great empire on three continents — including North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeastern Europe — and operas about Ottoman Turks in the eighteenth century were relevant to international relations; they were not just works of theatrical fantasy and entertainment. I try to place these operas in the context of European-Ottoman relations: relations of intermittent military warfare, but also of ongoing cultural and commercial exchange. I analyze how the figure of the singing Turk on the European stage illuminated certain issues that seemed particularly interesting to the enlightened European public — especially political issues concerning absolute rule, in the monarchical state and in the patriarchal family (or harem), but also issues concerning the control and display of extreme emotions in civilized society. Singing Turks on stage were seen and heard as the vocal avatars of absolute power and, at the same time, the emblematic voices of extreme emotion.

I’m interested in the ways that Ottoman Turkish instrumentation — especially “Janissary” percussion — was adapted to European orchestras for these operas, to mark their Turkishness, and I also study the special significance of the basso voice in expressing a sort of Turkish hyper-masculinity on stage. I explore how the singing Turk first came to the stage in the 1680s, immediately following the defeat of the Turkish army at the siege of Vienna in 1683. The Ottoman armies were then driven back into southeastern Europe, and this was the moment at which Ottoman power no longer seemed invincible, so that Turkish scenarios became plausibly entertaining on stage. I spend a significant part of the book reflecting on Rossini, the last great composer of “singing Turk” operas, and I’m especially interested in how Rossini’s Turks intersect with the Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic moment in Europe. Rossini’s Maometto Secondo, his daring opera about Mohammed the Conqueror, the Ottoman sultan who conquered Constantinople and toppled the Byzantine empire, was certainly also a post-mortem musical reflection on the Napoleonic project of continental conquest.  Finally, I consider how the phenomenon of the singing Turk vanished from the European operatic repertory after the 1820s, such that the standard nineteenth-century repertory includes no singing Turks at all.