Scott Peeples

 

On his book The Man of the Crowd: Edgar Allan Poe and the City

Cover Interview of May 12, 2021

Lastly

I wrote in the book’s introduction that this is not a work of academic literary criticism (my background) but that I wanted to write primarily for a non-specialist audience with this project. So when I did discuss specific works by Poe, I could hear the clock ticking, if you know what I mean. I wanted to make these stories more interesting to readers than they would be if you just picked them up without knowing anything about the context. But even when I discussed the title story, “The Man of the Crowd”, I kept it to about three and a half pages. I just tried to be selective in the analysis, keeping the book’s focus and my “ideal” reader in mind.

At the same time, I didn’t want to leave significant gaps in the biographical record—I tried to tell a good, true story. If I succeeded, the book works both as an introduction to Edgar Allan Poe and his life for people who are casually acquainted with him and as a book that’s making an argument—that Poe’s career is inseparable from the development of the American city. I hope readers will recalibrate their image of Poe as they read the book and understand him as a writer who was very much engaged with his surroundings, and who struggled to succeed in a rapidly changing world.




 


 

Glenn E. Robinson

 

On his book Global Jihad: A History

Cover Interview of May 05, 2021

Lastly

I am humbled by the fact that the book is already being hailed as a major contribution to our knowledge not only of the global jihad movement but of Middle East politics more generally. While I hope such positive reviews continue, I have three primary goals for this book. First, after four decades of global jihad, and two decades since the attacks on 9/11, I hope this book becomes the “go-to” book on global jihad. For anyone who wants to understand ISIS and al-Qa’ida or similar groups, this is the book they consult first and perhaps last. I hope that it is seen as the best summary study of global jihad for students and the general public to read for years to come. It not only provides the history of global jihad, but also an interpretation of how to best understand that history.

Second, I would like this book to have an impact on the discussions in terrorism studies and broader conversations over political violence concerning the role that the concept of “movements of rage” can play in understanding certain forms of political violence. Conceptualizing such anti-Enlightenment groups as forming a movement of rage can help us more accurately understand the ideologies and organizational structures of such groups, as well as their likely resort to violence.

Third, this book should have an impact in the policy realm, where dealing with global jihad groups and other movements of rage is a major policy concern. Policy makers need to be aware of the variations in global jihad groups, and they need to understand how the current fourth wave of global jihad is quite distinctive from earlier waves. Helping to gauge the overall level of threat from global jihad flows naturally from the concerns in this book. And, moving beyond global jihad groups, policy makers should be aware of the concept of movements of rage and how policies vis-à-vis these groups must by nature be quite distinct from the usual counter-terror type actions.




 


 

Richard Toye

 

On his book Winston Churchill: A Life in the News

Cover Interview of April 28, 2021

Lastly

There are actually some similarities—though one should not overstate them—between current conditions and World War II. This might provide readers with a bit of distraction from the Covid situation. Then, people were desperate for news about the unfolding military situation, and they had to wait for hourly news bulletins that were often bland and uninformative. Today, we often find ourselves “doom-scrolling” through social media, and although news reporting is virtually instant nowadays, it can be just as hard as it was in the 1940s to find facts and analyses that actually meet our emotional needs.

I would also like the book to provoke thought about the relationship between the media and politics. There are many examples in the book of how Churchill overreacted to press criticism; during World War II, he was even getting close to shutting down the Daily Mirror. I don’t give these examples in order to suggest that he was a bad person or even especially unusual—he was under a lot of stress, especially during the war, and many other politicians were equally thin-skinned. The interesting question is why, when he banged the table and started suggesting that the press should be silenced, he tended not to get his way. I think it’s in part because there were robust institutional restraints and in part because different sections of the media stuck together. The Mirror was not much liked by many other papers, but they saw the implications, if one newspaper could be arbitrarily shut down—and rallied round. So, when we see politicians lashing out at the media, we should perhaps think less about condemning them as individuals and more about the collective steps we can take to help preserve press freedom.




 


 

David Sulzer

 

On his book Music, Math, and Mind: The Physics and Neuroscience of Music

Cover Interview of April 21, 2021

Lastly

In the Introduction, I write “no one needs this book”, as artists create great work without understanding the universal and physical bases of what they do. Yet artists and art lovers have imaginations that allow them to enter new territories and make the ones they already work in more profound. This book will help them further appreciate their own nervous systems, the intelligence of other species, and the nature of the cosmos—this might seem over the top, but as readers will come to appreciate, a great deal of what humanity learned in these topics genuinely comes from the investigation of music.

As much as I hope that this learning will help creative readers develop new work, and help listeners develop their appreciation, I think that there are a series of profound lessons in how these investigations broaden our horizons and insights.

For example, there is a controversial hypothesis from Gordon Shaw’s “Mozart effect”, in which he theorized that children would be smarter if they listened and learned to play Mozart, and that this can be used in the treatment of childhood epilepsy. In some studies, the decrease in seizure activity lasted beyond the duration of the music, suggesting that such music may be therapeutic. While the evidence is unclear, we have traced how sound and music travels to the cortex to modulate its synaptic activity, and in that way, playing a sound is analogous to a stimulating electrode in the deep brain.

Our understanding of wave theory, which underlies all contemporary electronics, in part came from the development of the siren, as in a police siren, which was originally a musical instrument invented by a Scottish physicist, John Robison (1739-1805), and further improved by Charles de la Tour (1819), who named it for the mythical Greek singing legends. The study of these soundwaves led to the discovery by Christian Doppler of the Doppler effect, which explains how siren pitches rise and fall. Albert Einstein extended Doppler’s insight in 1905 to describe how light travels at a constant velocity. The wavelength emitted from stars also stretches or compresses, and Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), extended this by noting that the most distant galaxies appeared red, suggesting that the “red shift” was due to the galaxies moving away from us, and so introduced the theory that we live in an expanding universe.

For the future, I suspect that some of humanity’s most important work will be in understanding other life. In this way, Roger Payne and colleague’s discovery of whale song, I think to some extent, helped to save them from extinction by our species. Recently, the primatologist Susan Savage-Rumbaugh with the musician Peter Gabriel showed that bonobos can improvise music, and Richard Lair and I showed the same with elephants. Perhaps the understanding of the art of other species will help us commit to treating them better and find ways by which they can survive the greed, thoughtlessness, and predation of our species.

And they will respond by lending insight into ourselves. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Itai Roffman, and others in their field are now writing convincing arguments that some of these species should be legally treated as human beings, with the same rights to survive and prosper. I suspect that the more we know, the more we will agree with them, and the richer our relationship with nature will be. In my opinion, this is the essence of spirituality and the most essential goal for all us. There is much to do…

Art for all species!




 


 

Kiran K. Patel

 

On his book Project Europe: A History

Cover Interview of April 14, 2021

Lastly

Project Europe sheds new light on where the EU comes from, what it is and where its potentials might lie. It argues that it would be wrong to project the European Union’s undisputed contemporary status back into its early decades. In many respects the EU is a surprisingly young construct in which powers and processes are a good deal less entrenched than one might expect, given that its earliest predecessor organization was founded some seven decades ago. It has weathered many storms better than we tend to think. The crises the EU finds itself in today are therefore much less unusual than many have argued.

The European Union’s incremental growth in significance has made it both resilient and vulnerable. On the one side the EU is now responsible for truly important matters and enjoys perceptible influence. Additionally, diverse synergies arise when so many questions and policy areas are dealt with in a single institutional framework. The European Union has become astonishingly robust. This stems less from the idealism of the participants than the enormous inertia of established institutions, the diverse interests contained within them, and the general momentum of the integration process. At the same time, the EU of our time is not only systemically more relevant than ever before. Its rise to importance has also made it more vulnerable to fundamental crises, simply because it is now in charge of crucially important issues.

History teaches us how improbable and fragile our own times are; from the perspective of the past, the present was but one of many futures (and potentially an unlikely one). That is the case for the European Union too. Rather than proceeding as the implementation of a masterplan, the EU we have today appeared in fits and starts. Above all, the project set out to make the future more predictable. It is this hope that shines through all the treaties and directives, summits and compromises, plans and proposals. While many saw precisely that as a value in its own right, the model of European integration as an attempt to contain the future is less certain again today.

Nobody knows what the future will bring for the EU. But one thing is certain: It will depend not least on the conclusions Europeans and others derive from its history.




 


 

Douglas B. Downey

 

On his book How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption about Schools and Inequality Is Mostly Wrong

Cover Interview of April 07, 2021

Lastly

My hope is that this book prompts a more careful consideration of schools’ role in shaping achievement gaps. The assumption that schools are largely responsible is misplaced and can divert attention from larger social problems that likely are the source.

Consider how we stack up against Canada. Our 15-year-olds score .30 standard deviation units behind Canada’s on international reading tests. Most would blame our schools for this gap but it turns out that the same cohort of children were .31 standard deviation units behind Canadians at age 4-5, before schools had a chance to matter. This pattern highlights how school reform is not the likely explanation for why our teenagers’ skills are behind those in other countries. The problem is rooted in early childhood conditions where too many of our children experience stressful environments. Notably, high-performing American five-year-olds did about as well as high-performing Canadian children. The large gap across the two countries is due primarily to very poor-performing children. The U.S. has more very poor-performing students than does Canada.

So, are Canadian children just genetically superior to American children? That doesn’t seem likely (unless you’re Canadian). A more plausible explanation is that Canadian children, on average, experience better early childhood conditions. And that is likely due to a broad range of policy decisions Canadians have made differently than Americans, such as the provision of universal health care, which reduces stress for the disadvantaged. Of course, the battle in the U.S. over policies like universal health care is a more difficult battle than school reform. But just because it is easier to focus on schools does not mean that they are the appropriate policy lever. Reducing inequality requires us to think bigger than school reform.




 


 

Archie Brown

 

On his book The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War (Another four questions)

Cover Interview of April 01, 2021

Eight of Eight:
What would you wish a reader to take away from your book?

I would hope that people would see that Western triumphalist accounts of the Cold War’s ending, in which American military and economic strength forced the Soviet Union, in effect, to run up the white flag, are wrong. That interpretation is not only highly misleading, it’s very dangerous. The idea that superior armed force can secure the desired political change has underpinned several military interventions in the post-Cold War era which have made a bad situation worse. It has also led to the abandonment of important arms control and arms reduction agreements signed by Gorbachev, along with Presidents Reagan and Bush.

There was one sense in which the end of the Cold War was a victory for the West. Not only in Eastern Europe but crucially in the Soviet Union as well, there was support for freedom and democracy and an end to one-party dictatorship.

That policy was not forced on the Soviet leadership. Behind the monolithic façade that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union presented to their own people and the outside world, there was actually a wide diversity of views. Gorbachev himself evolved within a few short years from Communist reformer to democratizing transformer. The fact that he embraced ideas of freedom and democracy, very much in the way these notions were understood in the West, made possible their implementation in the Soviet Union and, with still greater alacrity, in Eastern Europe.

There was nothing inevitable about that, as the backsliding from democracy in the years since then makes clear. But ideas mattered, individual leaders mattered, dialogue and engagement mattered.

Reagan’s arms build-up came close to making the Cold War’s ending less rather than more likely. Until Gorbachev became Soviet leader, the Politburo response was to continue to build up its own military capacity and to strengthen political discipline at home and throughout the Warsaw Pact. The former long-serving Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, was just one of many senior officials to point out that Reagan’s first-term policies, including his Strategic Defense Initiative, and his rhetoric of those years, strengthened Soviet hard-liners in the internal Communist Party struggle. In March 1983, he launched SDI, a programme of research and development of anti-missile defence and, in the same month, described the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’.

During Reagan’s eight years as president, four different leaders were his Soviet counterparts—Leonid Brezhnev (whose last two years coincided with Reagan’s first two), Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, and Mikhail Gorbachev. As Reagan understandably complained, “These guys keep dying on me”. Of the four, only Gorbachev survived Reagan. (His ninetieth birthday fell on March 2nd this year.) And it was only after Gorbachev came to power that East-West relations began to improve—within a few years dramatically so. Reagan, during his second term, played an essential part in this, and Margaret Thatcher was an active intermediary, but I think a fair-minded reader of my book would reach the conclusion that Gorbachev was the most crucially important leader of the three.

I hope, too, that such a reader would realize the importance of dialogue and engagement with countries of different systems and ideologies. This has relevance for contemporary politics. There should be a distinction between principled criticism of other countries and demonizing them.

It is worth remembering that the end of the Cold War was a victory for both sides, and the only sense in which the West ‘won’ was in the realm of ideas. The principles and practice of democracy proved more attractive than Leninism, censorship, and one-party Communist rule. The power of political example was more important than the example of military power. The Soviet Union found it much easier to keep up militarily than to match the attraction of Western freedoms and democratic elections. In the end, a substantial section of the ruling party, including a leader unlike any previous Soviet leader, themselves embraced ideas which held sway in democracies worldwide.

But today we have moved far from the too easy assumptions at the end of the 1980s that there was something both preordained and lasting about democracy’s triumph. It is not only that Russia is substantially more authoritarian at present than it was in the last years of the Soviet Union (though less authoritarian than was the Soviet system pre-Gorbachev). It is also that we are living in a time when an American president has just refused to recognize the result of a democratic election which he comprehensively lost.

“Understanding what went right during the years in which Soviet domestic and foreign policy were transformed—and how and why it went right—may provide”, I wrote in the conclusion to my book, “useful insight into what has gone wrong since”. I would hope that the book’s readers will find themselves drawing lessons for the here-and-now as well as learning more about an exceptionally important period in the recent past.




 


 

Archie Brown

 

On his book The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War (The first four questions)

Cover Interview of March 31, 2021

Four of Eight:
I’d like to ask you to expand on what you have just said about your personal encounters with Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev and what could be called your indirect communication with Ronald Reagan. First of all, on the Chequers seminar in 1983. That must have been an impressive event. What was Thatcher’s reaction when you spoke about Gorbachev? Do you write about this in the book?

I do write about that 8 September 1983 seminar in the book. It was one of three meetings on developments in the Soviet Union, chaired by Margaret Thatcher, in which I took part, and it was the most important of them. That was because, as I mentioned in my previous answer, it led to a change of policy—well documented in the now declassified government papers and attributed there to that seminar—to much greater contact, including political dialogue, with the Soviet Union and Communist Europe. When we (the eight ‘outside experts’, of whom I was one) were asked by the prime minister for policy recommendations, we said, “the more contacts the better, and at all levels—from dissidents to general secretaries”.

My paper for the seminar was about how the Soviet political system worked, so what I said about Gorbachev was just a part of it. However, the very much longer paper from the Foreign Office did not mention Gorbachev or any other possible future Soviet leaders at all. Thatcher, Howe, and the small group of senior ministers and officials who participated in the seminar read the eight papers from the academics in advance of that meeting (which lasted from 9 o’clock in the morning until 3 p.m. and continued with just the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Defence Secretary, and key officials present after we, the outside specialists, departed). In my paper I wrote that Gorbachev was a likely future Soviet leader and that he was not only the youngest but also “the best-educated member of the Politburo and probably the most open-minded”. I added that he “might well be the most hopeful choice from the point of view both of Soviet citizens and the outside world”.

After I had elaborated on those written remarks in a 10-minute oral presentation at the seminar, Mrs Thatcher turned to the Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe and said, “Should we not invite Mr Gorbachev to Britain?”. That was a fleeting remark which did not get into the official note of the seminar. In fact, it would have been premature to invite Gorbachev and might have done him more harm than good. He was not yet number two in the Soviet system. That was Konstantin Chernenko. Yuri Andropov was still general secretary and Andrei Gromyko was Foreign Minister. However, the seminar helped to lodge Gorbachev in Thatcher’s mind. Later that month (still September 1983) she asked Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau about him. Gorbachev, in his capacity as the Secretary of the Central Committee responsible for agriculture, had visited Canada earlier that year and had met with Trudeau.

After the death of Andropov in early 1984 and the choice of Chernenko to succeed him as Soviet leader, Gorbachev duly became number two in the Soviet hierarchy, although some in the old guard tried to prevent this. One largely formal role which went along with the position of second Secretary of the Central Committee was that of Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Supreme Soviet (the rubber-stamp Soviet legislature). The British government was able to invite Gorbachev, in the latter capacity, to lead an ‘inter-parliamentary delegation’ to the UK. The invitation was sent in June 1984 and (as I mentioned earlier), Gorbachev came with his wife in December of that year. The group he led included Alexander Yakovlev, an influential adviser and ally, whom Gorbachev promoted at great speed once he became general secretary.




 


 

Jonathan Petropoulos

 

On his book Göring's Man in Paris: The Story of a Nazi Art Plunderer and His World

Cover Interview of March 24, 2021

Lastly

I think the book has many implications—about the nature of the art world, about the nexus of culture and barbarism (the Nazis devoted so much time to art and yet murdered systematically), and about the fate of Nazi looted artworks after the war; but the point I would emphasize here is that there is still so much to uncover. History is accretional, and while I have made my contribution here, I look forward to others continuing to add to the story.

To begin writing this story, it was important that I go and meet Bruno Lohse in 1998, and that I continued to interview him right up until his death in March 2007. Lohse agreed to meet with me for a number of reasons. I had done a Ph.D. at Harvard University and had come to know two of the other OSS officers who had interrogated Lohse at war’s end (Rousseau died in 1973 and I never met him). The two OSS officers had also attended Harvard and Lohse held them (and the university) in particularly high regard. The fact that I could speak and correspond with him in German was critical. Over the years, Lohse became more relaxed and expansive when telling his stories, and these stories served as one of the pillars of this book. I could check them against the extant documentation and talk to those in his circle in order to form a picture of his postwar career.


rorotoko.comAuthor with Dr. Bruno Lohse in 1999.

Lohse sold valuable paintings to museums in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States. In the last years of his life, around 48 pictures that he owned, including works by Monet, Renoir, Nolde, and Albrecht Dürer, were found. These works were worth millions of dollars. How he became such a wealthy individual and established networks that spanned Western Europe and North America is a big part of this story.

I don’t have all the answers, but I think I was able to frame the story and fill in some of the gaps. There is still more work to be done.




 


 

Jon Butler

 

On his book God in Gotham: The Miracle of Religion in Modern Manhattan

Cover Interview of March 17, 2021

Lastly

God in Gotham wasn’t written to celebrate religion. But it was written to help readers understand what might have been accomplished by religious people in seemingly strained settings. In this regard, it is implicitly and explicitly critical of two strands in writing about religion in twenty-first-century America.

First, God in Gotham is critical of histories that implicitly and explicitly celebrate the religious commitment of previous rather than recent times. Historians and scholars of religion have spent too much time insisting that before 1500 religion in the West was essentially “axiomatic,” or a given. But after 1500 (yes, it’s not an accident that the Protestant Reformation dates from 1517) it is said that Westerners faced choices that ultimately led to secularization and its steady effacement of religion. Such accounts dismiss the complexity of the past. Religious commitment and adherence were problematic in all ages and all settings, if hardly in the same ways. It was not without reason that before 1500 every European nation attached horrific penalties to those who rejected religion broadly or spurned its specific government- or church-sanctioned forms, including maiming and death.

Second, God in Gotham is critical of histories that treat twentieth-century American life as all but bereft of religion, especially from the 1920s into the 1970s. They often bypass the deep religious dimensions of the post-1945 civil rights crusade, despite the religious affiliations of so many civil rights leaders. Then such histories breathlessly scramble to describe the rise of conservative evangelical politics, deftly avoiding any account of how the movement could have emerged from the seemingly silent religious stage of the previous half-century.

God in Gotham is hardly without criticism of the figures and movements it describes and discusses. Nor does it suggest that success in grappling with urban modernity after 1880 precluded new difficulties such as those that have emerged powerfully since the 1980s—from the sexual abuse scandals in Catholicism and Protestantism to the stark decline in the mainstream denominations and the rise of the religious “nones”, especially among the young, who are indifferent to traditional organized religion. For better or worse, God in Gotham is a distinctly historical book about the fate of organized religion in a specific place during specific decades. It is not a breezy prognostication about religion’s future in twenty-first century America or the world. However potentially interesting, that is a task blessedly beyond the skills of a historian, and certainly beyond the skills of this one.




 


 

Karl Gerth

 

On his book Unending Capitalism: How Consumerism Negated China's Communist Revolution

Cover Interview of March 10, 2021

Lastly

I hope my book helps readers reexamine a familiar history of China, and indeed the world since the Second World War. In my book, many famous events such as the Mao badge fad take on different meanings. In doing so, I invite readers to reconsider the history of capitalism through its relationship to consumerism.

My analysis suggests an ongoing need to move past Cold War-era binaries—a world we still imagine was divided between planned economy vs. free markets, dictatorship vs. democracy, interests of the collective vs. freedom of the individual, and public vs. private enterprise. Unending Capitalism suggests that these dichotomies may have become so politicized and inaccurate that they hide more than they reveal.

What emerges is a state capitalism that shifted back and forth along various points on a state-to-private spectrum of industrial capitalism, each permutation affecting consumerism in a different way. During the late 1950s and late 1960s, the political economy moved in the direction of state-controlled accumulation, whereas during the early 1950s, early 1960s, and 1970s the political economy shifted toward market-mediated accumulation and consumerism. These shifts were justified as a necessary part of Communist Party efforts to “build socialism” in order to reach communism. But the existence of such shifts reveals that neither the state’s vision of socialism nor its practice of state capitalism and consumerism were static.

Demonstrating that the terms state capitalism and state consumerism refer not to a fixed but rather to a fluctuating point on the state-to-private spectrum of industrial capitalism provides a reminder that all economies mix elements of institutional arrangements associated with both ends of the spectrum. All forms of industrial capitalism involve attempts to manage consumer desires.

Viewed from this perspective, the “market reforms” since the death of Mao in 1976 that promoted greater consumerism in China appear to be less of a break with Maoist ideology and policy and more as yet another shift in state-led capitalism. Such shifts also suggest that, aside from state capitalism and private capitalism, there are other varieties of capitalism in between these extremes.

I hope that expanding the study of the varieties of capitalism to include “socialist” countries such as China presents an opportunity to render the history of capitalism and consumerism as more truly global, and to think of the Mao era as part of an integrated world history rather than an isolated and exotic “socialist” interlude.




 


 

Frank A. Guridy

 

On his book The Sports Revolution: How Texas Changed the Culture of American Athletics

Cover Interview of March 03, 2021

Lastly

I hope that readers who are not sports enthusiasts will come to appreciate the relevance of sports as a topic of inquiry. I hope the skeptical reader can see sport as more than mere entertainment. I want to encourage further investigation into the growth of the sports industry, its importance to the political economy of cities and of the country as a whole during the past century, its centrality to the constitution of racial and gender understandings, and national identifications.

The outsized impact of big-time sports has been painfully clear during the COVID-19 crisis, as professional sport leagues and universities have coerced their athletic laborers to risk their lives competing in sporting events even as the pandemic has raged on without an end in sight.

And I hope that sports enthusiasts will appreciate the merits of a portrait of sport and society that is based on Black and Ethnic Studies and feminist perspectives. Popular and even academic sports history has historically been a heavily masculinized genre. My book contributes to the growing literature inside and outside of academia that interrogates much of the mythologies surrounding sport in America, while highlighting its potential for social change.

The book also aims to alter understandings of Texas in the American imagination. Now that I am back in New York, I see that Texas is poorly understood by imagined enlightened East Coasters, who often cast Texas as little more than a conservative bastion of Red State America. The fact that the Republican Party has held onto state power through gerrymandering and voter suppression leads many to overlook the fact that the state has fascinating freedom traditions by its Black, Latinx, indigenous working-class populations. In this regard, the book aims to portray Texas as a dynamic region, a place where rigid racial hierarchies were altered during the 1960s and 1970s, a place where the region’s marginalized communities and civic-minded entrepreneurs left their imprint on U.S. society. In this sense, the book joins the work of Max Krochmal’s Blue Texas, Tyina Steptoe’s Houston Bound, Brian Behnken’s Fighting their Own Battles, and Stephen Harrigan’s Big Wonderful Thing, and others that provide an alternative view of a state that has a long history of struggle for social transformation.

Finally, I think the book can shed light on the current wave of athlete activism that has been galvanized by the Black Lives Matter movement. The gestures and tactics of Colin Kaepernick and other politically engaged athletes have a long history, much of which dates back to the era I explore in my book. While today’s athletes have taken courageous stands against black oppression and police violence, they have yet to address the inequities in the sports world itself. College athletes who play revenue-generating sports remain exploited, while coaches and universities, and the bloated predominantly white management class profit handsomely from their labor power. Inequities between men’s and women’s sports continue to prevail, notwithstanding the great strides that have been made during the past fifty years. In this sense, the book suggests that the revolution that transformed the sports world in the United States fifty years ago remains unfinished.




 


 

Charles A. Kupchan

 

On his book Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself From the World

Cover Interview of February 24, 2021

Lastly

I hope that Isolationism leavens the global conversation that needs to take place about the nature of U.S. statecraft moving forward. Given the outsized role that the United States plays in global affairs, Americans as well as many other peoples affected by U.S. policy need a better understanding of America’s role in the world across the longue durée of the nation’s history. And we need to learn the right lessons from that history, drawing on both isolationist and internationalist traditions to find a sustainable brand of statecraft that constitutes the middle road between overreach and underreach.

I lay out a strategy of “judicious retrenchment” as a means of arriving at that middle road. I hope that the book and the debate it provokes help build intellectual and political support for this strategy. Judicious retrenchment entails ending the forever wars in the Middle East and pulling back from the region militarily—while maintaining America’s main strategic commitments in Europe and the Asia Pacific. The United States continues to have an overriding interest in managing great-power competition in Eurasia. Russia and China both pose expansionist threats to their neighbors, which means that the same objective that guided U.S. strategy during World War II and the Cold War—preventing the domination of Eurasia by a hostile power—still applies.

Less reliance on wars means more reliance on diplomacy. Judicious retrenchment entails restoring America’s role as a team player that works with other nations. Only through joint international action can we effectively address the paramount challenges of our time, including managing a globalized and interdependent economy, arresting climate change, shutting down terrorist networks, countering nuclear proliferation, promoting cybersecurity, and advancing public health. Such joint action will often require U.S. leadership to get off the ground.

And judicious retrenchment entails reclaiming America’s exceptionalist calling as a beacon of democracy. Nonetheless, the United States must return to its original conception of exceptionalism and seek to spread its republican experiment by example rather than by more forceful means. Knocking off unsavory regimes usually causes more harm than good. Russian and Iranian influence may be increasing in the Middle East as the United States pulls back from the region. But it is Washington’s foolhardy penchant for toppling regimes, not its self-restraint, that is the root cause of the inroads being made by Moscow and Tehran.

Reclaiming the nation’s original conception of exceptionalism requires more than exercising restraint and coming to terms with the reality that the United States cannot solve all the world’s problems. It also requires putting America’s own house in order. The United States cannot serve as a model for other nations when its political landscape is so deeply polarized and its institutions so dysfunctional. The first priority is to tackle the sources of the nation’s political ills, including the pandemic, inequality, racial injustice, and the profound sense of economic insecurity that pervades much of the electorate.

Exceptionalism is inseparable from the American creed. And with illiberalism and intolerance on the march globally, the world urgently needs an anchor of republican and pluralist ideals—a role that only the United States has the power and credentials to fulfill. But the exceptionalist narrative has for way too long been an excuse for doing too much abroad. Given the dilapidated state of the American experiment, the renewal of the nation’s unique calling must start at home.




 


 

Firmin DeBrabander

 

On his book Life After Privacy: Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society

Cover Interview of February 17, 2021

Lastly

Many have observed in 2020 that democracy is endangered, largely by the lure and power of populist autocracy, which is ascendant worldwide—even in the United States, the largest and oldest democracy. Early internet evangelizers believed digital media would be a boon for democracy, enabling different people from across society, even all over the world, to communicate with one another, and build bridges. It did not work out this way: online, people flock to their own kind; they do not want their worldview challenged, but affirmed. They migrate to echo chambers, where they are hardened in their views, and vilify the opposition. Thus, digital media have made for greater political division and partisanship, especially in the United States.

In 2011, during the Arab Spring, it looked like digital media would be a wellspring of democratic revolution; now, autocratic regimes have fully coopted said media. They have learned it is easy to isolate and influence people online, confuse them and splinter them, and prevent popular power from coalescing.

I hope Life After Privacy might make people aware of the dangers and shortcomings of digital technology. We are wrongly urged to put our hopes in protecting privacy, as if that were the way to salvage liberty and democracy. But online privacy is worth little—it amounts to little political power—even if it were possible to achieve, or preserve.

Democratic citizens must reach across the digital divide. They must step outside their solipsistic digital bubbles, which give the illusion of privacy and solitude, encourage all manner of asocial behavior, and sunder communal ties. This is not to say we must abandon digital technology. That is hardly possible—never more so than in the age of Covid-19, when we rely on digital media to get anything done. Rather, the digital revolution must be balanced by a return to the public square, where we convene and encounter one another in non-transactional, non-commercial relationships, and see people in their full complexity.

Democracy requires that citizens relearn the art of politics, the art of conversing and deliberating with fully rounded peers, who are respected and recognized. This is how we truly see one another in all our nuances; this is where we construct bonds that overcome partisan divides, enable us to live together in peace and security, and preserve and expand freedom.




 


 

Ray Brescia

 

On his book The Future of Change: How Technology Shapes Social Revolutions

Cover Interview of February 10, 2021

Lastly

My hope is that advocates will learn not just from the examples of successful social change efforts from the past, but also the contemporary case studies I highlight. Advocates can learn how to use the technologies at their disposal today, as well as those that are likely to emerge in the future.

Think of examples like the #MeToo movement or the campaign for Marriage Equality. These efforts have stressed shared humanity and shared destiny. Successful coalitions such as these do not always consist of people or organizations that agree on everything or see the world in completely the same way. Instead, successful coalitions often come together around shared interests, even self-interest: Alexis de Tocqueville, that French observer of American life in the early 19th century, described this as self-interest “well understood”.

When this self-interest is blended across different groups, that is, when a movement experiences what the late Derrick Bell called an “interest convergence,” unlikely alliances can form. Bell argued that the victory in the decision in Brown v. Board of Education came about because the Civil Rights Movement shared the goal of dismantling the Jim Crow system with white elites. Civil rights advocates wanted to attack the system because of its impact on the African-American community. White elites saw that system as harming the American reputation abroad as the U.S. was locked in a cold war with the Soviet Union. This interest convergence ultimately led to the demise of the Jim Crow system.

What I try to do in the book is show other examples of groups forming coalitions in light of the shared interests of sometimes oppositional groups. In one case study, I describe the efforts of a union to raise the minimum wage for hotel workers in Long Beach, CA. The workers attracted allies among the small business community as well as local homeowners. Both of these groups wanted to see local workers earning more so that they would spend more in local shops, improving the quality of life for everyone. The workers and these other groups did not see eye-to-eye on every issue but the coalition they formed was so powerful, and it won a ballot referendum on the issue of hotel workers wages so convincingly, that it had union leaders wondering if they should have asked for an even higher wage than that they were able to secure through the referendum.

What this and other examples in the book show is that coalitions can be created among seemingly unlikely allies if leaders search for areas where interests may overlap, and leverage those overlapping interests to fight for real, lasting, and meaningful change. This book explores how to do that in today’s fast-moving media environment.