Scott Peeples


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

Cover Interview of May 12, 2021

In a nutshell

The Man of the Crowd is a biography of Edgar Allan Poe that focuses on the four American cities—Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York—where he made his career as a writer and editor. Poe lived in a time of rapid urbanization, and I contend that his life and work are best understood in terms of that development, and in terms of what was happening in these particular cities in the 1830s and 1840s.

The book chronicles Poe’s entire life, but I arrange his story into chapters corresponding with specific cities. In the first chapter, I highlight, among other things, the fact that Richmond was a center of the domestic slave trade; Poe grew up and later worked within blocks of auction houses, jails, and hotels that provided the infrastructure for that trade. I speculate that some of the physical cruelty and sadism that shows up in Poe’s later fiction might have been inspired by the dehumanizing practices associated with slave auctions.

In the chapter that centers on Baltimore, we see Poe experiencing real poverty as a man in his early 20s. There he began writing fiction for magazines—not a very reliable way to make a living, but it was what he would do for the rest of his life. He also found a family with his aunt Maria Clemm and her daughter Virginia, whom he would soon marry.

In the third chapter, on Philadelphia, I describe Poe hitting his stride as a fiction writer. Philadelphia was a city whose image depended on orderliness and Quaker probity, but urban squalor was barely hidden behind grand façades, and mob violence was a constant threat. I trace that contradiction through discussions of some of Poe’s lesser-known satires as well as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and the proto-detective story “The Man of the Crowd”, which gives my book its title.

Poe moved to New York in 1844 to be at the center of American publishing, and much of his writing during his years in Manhattan comment on the world of magazines, literary reputations, and the terms of success and failure. Poe even wrote a series of gossipy personality profiles called “The Literati of New York City”, while fomenting scandal and rivalry with the Boston literary establishment.

The final chapter is titled “In Transit”—though still ostensibly living in New York (specifically, in what would become the Bronx), Poe spent about half of this period traveling, visiting Philadelphia and Richmond before his life ended tragically and mysteriously in Baltimore.

Throughout the book, I stress the influence not just of these cities but of the city as a phenomenon of the early nineteenth century, and I see Poe, for all his genius, as a man who, like many others, saw opportunity in rapidly growing urban centers but more often than not found frustration and disappointment.



Glenn E. Robinson


On his book Global Jihad: A History

Cover Interview of May 05, 2021

In a nutshell

In Global Jihad I make two unique arguments. First, I provide an interpretive history of this important movement by showing how there have been four distinct iterations, or “waves”, of global jihad since it began in the 1980s. Each wave had its own distinct crisis that initiated it, and its own peculiar ideological vision for the path ahead. In each case, the fundamental problem was seen as systemic to the international system, which is why they are examples of global jihad.

The first wave, in response to the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, focused on liberating occupied Muslim territory around the world; it was led by a pious warrior class I term a “Jihadi International”.

The second wave, led by Usama Bin Laden and al-Qa’ida, sought to drive the Americans out of the Middle East as part of an “America First” campaign that would lead to the easier overthrow of local apostate regimes.

ISIS’s state-building campaign, the third wave, sought to eliminate apostasy by creating a puritanical and globalized caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.

The fourth and current wave of global jihad is focused on the survival of global jihad through “jihad fardi”—personal terror attacks undertaken by individuals and small groups who are connected online by a shared ideology but whose attacks are autonomously orchestrated. This form of “stochastic terror” was initiated by white nationalists who, with the birth of the internet, realized they could influence and connect with the audience without ever having any logistical connection in the planning and execution of violent acts. Global jihadis have made full use of this “inspired terrorism”, the acts of which are stitched together in an ever-evolving wiki-narrative by an online jihadi community.

The second big argument I make is to situate global jihad in the universe of all violent political groups over the past century. I borrow and build on the theory of “movements of rage” to suggest that there is a unique form of political violence that is marked by calls to nihilistic violence and that adopt apocalyptic ideologies. Both religious and secular groups can constitute movements of rage, from global jihad to white nationalism. Movements of rage are usually small and weak, and rarely come to power. But when they do seize power, such as the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the results can be devastating.

Readers primarily interested in the history of global jihad from the 1980s to the present can focus on the Introduction and first four chapters. Those mostly interested in the current wave of global jihad can focus on Chapter Four, Personal Jihad, in which a networked system using the internet and social media has replaced old-fashioned organizations to make for a much more durable form of violence. And for those readers more attuned to scholarly arguments about terrorism and other forms of political violence, the concluding chapter on movements of rage will hold the most interest.



Richard Toye


On his book Winston Churchill: A Life in the News

Cover Interview of April 28, 2021

In a nutshell

The book is about Winston Churchill’s relationship with the media and the news. Churchill was active in politics from the age of Queen Victoria to that of Elizabeth II, a period which included two world wars, in both of which Churchill played a leading role. During his lifetime, the mass popular press came into its own, but then came under challenge from new media—newsreels, radio, and eventually TV.

The book tackles Churchill’s relationship with the news in three dimensions, first, his own journalism. Second, his efforts to influence or control what was said about him. Third, his evolving media image.

The book starts with the very earliest mentions media mentions of Churchill, the child of Lord Randolph Churchill, who was a renowned and mercurial Conservative politician. It continues until his death and funeral in 1965. During this period, the press was evolving and becoming ever more intrusive. During Churchill’s retirement he made plenty of trips abroad, and the paparazzi would follow him everywhere, trying for example to get shots of him painting, a favourite hobby of his.

The book also deals with the symbolism that surrounded Churchill and the way that he was portrayed. Now, if we think of an object we associate with him, we might think of a cigar. Earlier in his career, though, cartoonists typically drew him wearing a tiny hat. Churchill claimed this was due to an incident during an election campaign in which he picked up the wrong headgear when going outside. Certainly, he knew the value of having identifiable quirks and a colourful image that would ensure he got a lot of coverage.

I would say that the book is best read from start to finish but each chapter is self-contained and therefore hopefully useful in its own right to readers who are interested in particular phases of Churchill’s career.



David Sulzer


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

Cover Interview of April 21, 2021

In a nutshell

Music, Math, and Mind is written for musicians and music lovers, and will take them through a journey that uncovers the science of music and sound. Because artists and art lovers rarely have a good familiarity in math beyond multiplication, and even less in physics and biology, the book finds ways to make even difficult concepts in physics completely understandable with only grade school level math. Indeed, by the end of the first chapter, readers can derive their own musical scale. This is not meant to be a typical popular science book of short anecdotes to read in an afternoon at the beach, but a book that readers come back to for a long time, each time understanding more.

The book tackles some basic questions on math, physics, and the nervous system that are not discussed in music theory classes: Which sounds are in-and out-of-tune? Is it true that scales are really never in tune? What are overtones and harmonic sounds? Sound is formed from air waves that move in space and time. What shapes are these sounds, how big, fast, and heavy? How are sound waves different in air, under water or in the earth? Why do voices and instruments sound different from each other? Why do larger instruments play lower pitches? We have only two eardrums and two ears, how can we identify many simultaneous sounds in a band or in conversations (the “cocktail party problem”)? Are there mathematical definitions of noise and consonance? How does the brain understand what it is listening to? How are emotions carried by music? How do other animals hear and make sound differently than us?

If these issues are not taught to musicians and music lovers, it is not from lack of curiosity. Artists have of plenty of that, and this book is for them.



Kiran K. Patel


On his book Project Europe: A History

Cover Interview of April 14, 2021

In a nutshell

Project Europe book offers a radically different interpretation of the European Union’s history. It shifts the focus away from the motives and driving forces of European integration to the concrete effects and results for the lives of people in the member states and beyond. In doing so, it challenges and deconstructs the myths surrounding the establishment and evolution of the European Community (EC) as the predecessors of today’s EU. Project Europe also assesses the various forms of criticism the EU frequently finds itself confronted with. The book covers the period from the first institutional attempts to build Europe in the second half of the 1940s until the end of the Cold War. It also discusses the lessons we can learn from this past for debates about the EU today.

In order to understand today’s EU, we need to revisit its history. Project Europe explains why a rather narrow organization that initially comprised just six Western European states is today so frequently equated with Europe as a whole. There was no single blueprint behind this process, but a complex web of different and often contradictory trends. European integration has fundamentally changed over the course of its history, and its undeniable importance today would have appeared improbable just a few decades ago. Many of the aspects we project back onto the early years in fact only took shape much more recently. Particularly the period of turmoil during the 1970s and 1980s helped to promote the European Community into the central European project. Incrementally, a new institutional reality arose, that subsequently also transformed the political systems of its member states.

The EC was born with a focus on economic integration, and to this day, the EU cannot deny its economic DNA. This business-centered capitalist logic was one of the main reasons why the EC were able to become the dominant forum of international cooperation in Europe at the time. Seeing the world through an economic lens decisively shaped the EC and continues to do so today—for better and worse.

That said, the effects of European integration on people’s lives remained mostly indirect and rather limited until the 1990s and 2000s. This explains why the relationship between citizens and the EC was often brittle. The results of European integration only became fully evident decades later, and this gap between decisions and effects explains many of the challenges and crises the EU has to deal with in our own times.



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

In a nutshell

This book is about understanding how schools influence achievement gaps. The traditional story is that schools are part of the problem and that large differences in school quality make achievement gaps worse. This view is so widely accepted that it is now asserted without evidence. But if we do look at the evidence, we find some surprising patterns.

First, socioeconomic gaps in math and reading skills are already large at kindergarten entry, and then do not appear to increase during the school years. This pattern is better known now that we have high-quality data that begin at kindergarten, follow children for many years, and use scales of math and reading skills that allow an understanding of how gaps change over time.

Second, schools serving mostly advantaged children (high-socioeconomic status and white) do not produce any more math and reading learning than schools serving mostly disadvantaged children (low-socioeconomic status and black). Of course, schools serving advantaged children tend to have higher test scores than schools serving disadvantaged children, but careful analyses indicates that these differences are due to the skills the students develop outside of school. Once in school, both advantaged and disadvantaged children learn at roughly the same rate. This pattern replicates across many datasets but, surprisingly, is hardly talked about in the policy world.

Combined, these two patterns suggest that, when it comes to achievement gaps, schools are more part of the solution than the problem. Rather than focus our attention on schools, these patterns prompt us to consider the way that highly unequal early childhood conditions generate and maintain achievement gaps.

There are many policymakers interested in reducing achievement gaps, but most of their solutions focus around school reform. Those attempts are not without merit, but they are unlikely to do much to reduce societal-level achievement gaps, because the gaps are mostly developed when children are not in school. If we really want to reduce these achievement gaps we will need to think bigger than school reform. We will need to consider reforms that reduce the widely unequal family and neighborhood conditions children experience when not in school.



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

Five of Eight:
You met Gorbachev personally after he left office. What would you say about the after-office life of ‘the human factor’? Do leaders out-of-office continue to influence international relations?

I’ve met Mikhail Gorbachev about ten times, starting in 1993, when I made the introductory speech (not that he needed much introduction) before he spoke in Oxford Town Hall. Subsequent occasions included my speaking at several conferences he chaired in Moscow and Turin and being at his 70th, 75th, and 80th birthday celebrations.

rorotoko.comArchie Brown speaking at a conference in the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow in March 2010. The others in the photo are Mikhail Gorbachev who was chairing the session and (between him and the author) Alexander Bessmertnykh who was Soviet Foreign Minister in 1991, following the resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze.

It is impossible to measure how much influence a former leader wields or can wield. Gorbachev has not, unfortunately, had much impact in post-Soviet Russia. Both Yeltsin and Putin for different reasons have preferred to marginalise him. In the contemporary Russian mass media it is a bit easier to praise Stalin than to praise Gorbachev. Nevertheless, the censorship is not as comprehensive as it was in the pre-perestroika Soviet Union and some appreciative articles have been published in small-circulation papers and online journals. There is a minority of Russians who still have the highest regard for Gorbachev and value highly what he did to introduce a whole range of freedoms they had not enjoyed before and his laying the foundations of Russian democracy which have, however, not been built on in subsequent years. Some of the freedoms he initiated, including the freedom to travel, still continue, but others have been greatly attenuated.

I would say that Gorbachev has continued to have some influence on international opinion through his speeches around the world (which continued until very recent years), books, articles, and interviews. Probably, though, he has not had much impact on Western office-holders. They have to deal with their counterpart in the Kremlin, whoever that person may be. But Gorbachev, who was well ahead of most political leaders in the 1980s in taking ‘green’ issues seriously, has never stopped speaking out on his ecological concerns and on the dangers of scrapping arms reduction and arms control agreements. These included not only those which Gorbachev signed with Reagan and with Bush the elder, but even the ABM Treaty which put limits on the development of anti-ballistic missile systems. That Treaty was signed as long ago as 1972, but the United States withdrew from it in 2002, during the presidency of George W. Bush.

As recently as December 4th, 2018, Gorbachev and former US Secretary of State George Shultz (who died in February aged 100) published a joint article in the Washington Post warning of the dangers of abandoning the INF Treaty, signed by Gorbachev and Reagan in Washington in 1987. As Gorbachev and Shultz wrote in the Post, this eliminated an “entire class of nuclear missiles” and “opened the way to a process of real nuclear disarmament”. Respected international elder statesmen—a category which included Shultz as well as Gorbachev—can have some influence on the climate of political debate. But when we examine the actual policy choices made by their successors in government, there is not much evidence of their arguments having any real impact where it would make the biggest difference.



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

One of Eight:
What is your new book all about?

It’s about the biggest political event of the second half of the twentieth century—the end of the Cold War. Linked to that was the transformation of the Soviet system and the de-Communization of Eastern Europe. As the title and subtitle suggest, the book also focuses on three political leaders, their interrelations, and the contribution each of them made to the Cold War’s ending.

The speed and extent of the change took everyone by surprise, but especially those who said that change from within was impossible in the USSR and that no Soviet leader could ever contemplate doing what Mikhail Gorbachev proceeded to do. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher also said and did things in the second half of the 1980s that were unimaginable for their supporters just a few years earlier.

During Reagan’s first term, the Cold War got colder. Who, at that time, would ever have expected to see him standing in front of a large bust of Vladimir Lenin in Moscow State University, telling a Russian student audience in June 1988 that they were “living in one of the most exciting, hopeful times in Soviet history”? And who would have thought that the ‘Iron Lady’, Margaret Thatcher, would become the leading proponent among conservative leaders worldwide of the idea that the political change Communist Party leader Gorbachev was introducing in Moscow was not cosmetic but fundamental?

In 1985, when Gorbachev entered the Kremlin, the Soviet Union was a military superpower. It dominated the Warsaw Pact, the alliance of European Communist states that was the counterpart of NATO. The United States, led by Reagan, was both a military and economic superpower. And though NATO was more of a partnership than was the Soviet-controlled Warsaw Pact, the United States was unquestionably the dominant partner.

Thatcher’s prominent place in the book alongside Gorbachev and Reagan needs, therefore, some explanation. Britain’s superpower days were long behind it, so how does the UK’s first woman prime minister come into the story? An important reason is that she was far and away Ronald Reagan’s favourite foreign leader. They had first met in the mid-1970s, when she was already Leader of the UK Conservative Party but not yet prime minister and Reagan was still several years away from becoming president. From that moment on, he described Thatcher as a “soulmate”.

Her closeness to Reagan in itself made Thatcher significant for Gorbachev, but the warm relationship she established with the Russian politician was not only because of her high standing with the Reagan Administration. She had invited Gorbachev to visit the UK at a time when he was still number two in the Soviet hierarchy, getting to know him three months before he became General Secretary of the Communist Party and thus the Soviet top leader. He spent a week in Britain in December 1984, accompanied, in a break with Soviet tradition, by his wife Raisa. His programme included five hours of discussion with Mrs Thatcher, in which the pair argued vigorously but without rancour. The visit ended with the prime minister famously declaring, “I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together”.



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

In a nutshell

Göring’s Man in Paris is about three things: first, it is a detailed portrait of a Nazi art plunderer (Dr. Bruno Lohse); second, it tells the story of what happened to Lohse and his associates after the war; and third, it’s about the relationship that developed over a nearly ten-year period between Lohse and the author.

In terms of the first, the book provides a close and personal perspective of a Nazi art plunderer. It takes the reader into Bruno Lohse’s world of Nazi thievery—from his heyday as “king of Paris”, to his capture, imprisonment, and rehabilitation. During the war, Lohse boasted that he killed Jews with his own hands, and while this is unconfirmed, it is known that Lohse regularly joined in on the commandos’ raids of the homes of French Jews. Sometimes these domiciles were still “warm”, the Jewish residents having just recently been evicted, which shows how plundering was inextricably linked to the Holocaust. It also highlights the moral complexities of history, as Lohse was able to protect some Jews (mostly those who helped him), and he also played a key role in saving Neuschwanstein Castle that contained tens of thousands of looted artworks when rogue SS units roaming the south German countryside at war’s end threatened to blow up the castle and its contents.

rorotoko.comLohse shows Göring and Hofer two works by Henri Matisse. The one on the left is now in the Art Institute of Chicago and the Odalesque on the right is in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California. Archives Nationales in France.

The second main contribution of the book is that it takes the story of Nazi art plundering into the postwar world. Once the judicial trials and denazification process were completed by 1950, the paper trail in the archives ends. For this part of the history, I was able to interview Lohse and other Nazi plunderers, as well as their friends, and I had access to many of Lohse’s own papers, which allowed me to write about the postwar period. What is most stunning is the degree to which Bruno Lohse revived his career after 1950: he formed a friendship with Theodore Rousseau, a former OSS officer who became the chief curator for European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He consorted with the elite of the art world. Perhaps most remarkable, he became an associate of the Wildensteins—the French-American Jewish family that rose to become arguably the greatest art dealers in the second half of the twentieth century. The complicated relationship between Lohse and the Wildensteins is the subject of the last chapter of the book.

Third, in the epilogue, I detail my experiences interviewing old Nazis, and Bruno Lohse in particular. Over a nine-year period, I met with Lohse dozens of times and pressed him on questions about the fate of missing artworks such as the “Fischer Pissarro” (one of the last paintings by the French Impressionist that was once owned by members of the famous publishing dynasty, the Fischer family). Lohse and I played a cat and mouse game, but I eventually discovered some of Lohse’s secrets, including his keeping the looted Fischer Pissarro in a Zurich bank vault, along with other stolen artworks (the Fischer Pissarro was eventually restituted to the heirs). Göring’s Man in Paris shows the challenges and pitfalls of interacting with an old Nazi like Bruno Lohse.



Jon Butler


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

Cover Interview of March 17, 2021

In a nutshell

Max Weber, the German sociologist, and his wife Marianne weren’t impressed with Manhattan’s spirituality when they visited New York City during their 1904 trip to the United States. They probed for religion throughout their American visit but found only disappointment in Manhattan. “The tremendous increase in the clubs and orders here substitutes for the declining organization of the church,” Weber observed. The sermons they heard were boring. St. Paul’s Chapel, built in the 1760s, a “little church” with a “gothic tower that tries to assert itself like an island of peace amid the untamed din of the streets,” symbolized to him faith’s fate in the urban cauldron. Fifteen years later Weber famously proclaimed the “disenchantment of the world.” Wonders, spirits, and the miraculous were evaporating, giving way to bureaucracy, science, technology, and the loss of face-to-face community, when rural villagers flocked to cities. Modernity was killing religion as Western civilization had known it for centuries.

In contrast, Judy Blume’s 1970 teen fiction bestseller, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, described American suburbs full of religion, an extension of young married couples’ urban religious upbringing. Far from confronting modern “disenchantment,” Margaret Simons, Blume’s sixth grade, Manhattan-born, newly suburbanized protagonist found herself surrounded by synagogues and churches. Which was right for her?

Margaret’s infamous talk about boys, her first bra, and her eagerly anticipated first period won Blume immediate attention from school censors. Yet Blume’s title caught Margaret’s main worry: religion. Margaret had none. Facing their parents’ objection to a mixed marriage, Margaret’s Jewish father and Protestant mother punted on faith. But all her suburban classmates “belonged,” and Margaret persistently sought out religion in suburban congregations and nightly “talks with God,” her prayers raising transcendent questions about loneliness, shame, and responsibility.

Judy Blume versus Max Weber? God in Gotham: The Miracle of Religion in Modern Manhattan bets that Blume was right, not Weber. Far from exemplifying Weber’s famous “disenchantment,” modern Manhattan birthed an urban spiritual landscape of unparalleled breadth that post-WWII Manhattan exiles sought to reproduce in the suburbs. In the Manhattan of their childhood, modernity refreshed religion.

Between the 1880s and the 1940s Gothamites stuffed the city with the sacred, just when Weber thought it would be dying. Catholics, Jews, and Protestants peppered the borough with sanctuaries black and white, great and small. Manhattan became a center of religious publishing and broadcasting. It nourished a host of spiritual reformers from Reinhold Niebuhr to Abraham Heschel, Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Jr., Dorothy Day, and Norman Vincent Peale. Nontraditional white groups met in midtown hotels while nontraditional black worshipers gathered in Harlem’s storefront churches. Though denied the ministry in all the major denominations, women shaped the lived religion of congregations everywhere, founded missionary and literary societies, and fused spirituality and political activism in organizations such as the Zionist Hadassah.

After 1945, when young Manhattan families rushed to the New Jersey and Long Island suburbs, they recreated the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant religious worlds to which Judy Blume’s young Margaret Simons so wished she could belong—none of this possible without religion’s success in early twentieth-century Manhattan, contrary to Weber’s famous prognostication.



Karl Gerth


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

Cover Interview of March 10, 2021

In a nutshell

My book reconsiders the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1949 from a novel perspective: the spread of consumerism in a self-proclaimed communist country.

The book title, Unending Capitalism, suggests my interpretation: The Chinese Communist Party’s Revolution aimed to end capitalism but instead accelerated its development. To use a term of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the party “negated” its Communist Revolution by expanding rather than ending capitalism. In my view, the CCP’s self-defined socialist state was not an antithesis to capitalism but rather a moving point on a spectrum of state-to-private control of industrial capitalism.

By examining the spread of consumer products and impacts on everyday life, I argue that the People’s Republic of China was a country closer to the “state capitalist” end of a spectrum of capitalism. This spectrum ranges from a capitalism entirely dominated by the state to one entirely dominated by the private sector. In my interpretation, all countries are on a spectrum of capitalism because all countries, including the PRC, have continually shifted their policies regarding the ownership of capital—sometime public, sometime private—and the allocation of resources—sometimes with greater state planning, other times by using markets.

I make my case with sources focusing on everyday life, using everything from blogs and newspaper clippings to internal government reports and archival documents. These sources reveal what “socialist” policies looked like from the bottom up rather than from the stated intentions of policy elites down.

I document unending capitalism through the spread of consumerism and all the inequalities accompanying consumerism with numerous examples. Take wristwatch production and distribution. In the early 1950s, after decades of relying on imports, China began to produce its own brands of wristwatches. Who got those watches first and why? What does the distribution of those watches say about the priorities of the state? In my analysis, facilitating the expansion of capital—even at the expense of socialist egalitarianism—was always more important. The state allocated those watches to those thought best able to help expand capital, not “build socialism”: managers rather than workers, people in factories rather than on farms, and those living in the prosperous coastal areas rather than the poorer interior. The same distribution priorities of capitalism everywhere with the minor difference of the managers being state employees rather than private businesspeople.

In short, the actual policies introduced and elaborated by the Communist Party manifested the forms of social and economic inequalities associated with capitalism, not socialism.



Frank A. Guridy


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

Cover Interview of March 03, 2021

In a nutshell

The Sports Revolution tells the story of the impact of the Civil Rights and Second-Wave feminist movements on the world of big-time professional and collegiate sports in the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s. The setting is the state of Texas, a region that had a profound impact on the expansion of professional and collegiate sports in this period. Texas merits attention not only because of the enormous influence of the state’s sports entrepreneurs and athletes, but also because it serves as a fascinating case study in its own right.

The book illustrates how an unlikely alliance among sports entrepreneurs and athletes from marginalized backgrounds changed American sporting culture. It shows how Texan sports entrepreneurs transformed American sports spectating by building new facilities like the Houston Astrodome, America’s first domed sports stadium that combined suburban-style comfort while catering to a cross-class, cross-racial constituency. It shows how farsighted white team owners, college athletic administrators, and coaches teamed up with aspiring black athletes to usher in the racial integration of professional and intercollegiate sports in the state.

It also chronicles how Texas became a major site of gender transformations by illustrating how feminist-inspired sports entrepreneurs used Philip Morris tobacco money to launch the first women’s professional tennis tour in Houston at the same time that the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders provoked intense debates about the meaning of womanhood in the age of the Sexual Revolution and Second-Wave feminism.

It also tracks the expansion of the professional sports industry into the state by telling the story of how the mayor of an emerging suburb in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex lured Major League Baseball from Washington, DC. while documenting how Mexican American fans helped spark a revival of professional basketball in San Antonio.

By the 1980s, the book argues, the social achievements that were catalyzed by these alliances were undone by the very same forces of commercialization that had set them in motion. Tracking these changes on the field, in the stands, and in the television truck, the book illustrates how, for better and for worse, Texas was at the center of America’s expanding political, economic, and emotional investment in sport in this period.

The book offers an interpretative history of the 1960s and 1970s, the period when the gains of the black freedom and feminist movements could be vividly seen in the world of sports. During these years, marginalized athletes of color and women athletes entered realms of the athletic labor force where they had been previously excluded, yet they did so under the careful supervision of white male owners, managers, and coaches. By analyzing these dynamics on and off the field, the book draws together the traditions of sports writing and critical sports studies with the insights of intersectional feminist ethnic studies.

Though written for a general interest reader, the book aims to make an intervention in the historiography of sports and the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Whereas most sports books treat “the black athlete,” “women in sports”, and un-marked white sportsmen separately, this book puts them in the same analytic field, highlighting both the racial and gender implications of the sports revolution within a larger context of deepening capitalist social relations. The book asks readers to scrutinize the terms of inclusion that were established in this period, to highlight the ways sport performance catalyzed and represented freedom and equality, while underscoring the clear limits of that transformation.



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

In a nutshell

This is the first book to tell the fascinating story of American isolationism across the full arc of U.S. history. The United States that we know today has dominated global affairs ever since it entered World War II in 1941. But for much of its history, the nation steered clear of strategic commitments beyond North America. From the founding era until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans sought to run away from the world, not run it. They were avid international traders from the nation’s earliest days, yet apart from detours during the Spanish-American War and World War I, they shunned strategic entanglement outside their own neighborhood. In his 1796 Farewell Address, President George Washington set the nation on a clear course: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.” Thereafter, isolationism had a virtual lock on American politics.

With the United States in the midst of a bruising debate about its role in the world, Americans need to better understand the enduring connection between the isolationist impulse and the American experience. Isolationism is part and parcel of the nation’s creed, and its citizens need to know much more about their long-running aversion to foreign entanglement. To be sure, President Donald Trump’s America First brand of statecraft constituted a sharp break with the recent past. Nonetheless, it had deep roots in the nation’s history and identity. Isolationism, unilateralism, protectionism, racism—these were all defining features of America’s approach to the world from the nation’s birth well into the twentieth century. Trump harkened back to these earlier traditions in American statecraft, sensing the electorate’s discontent with international overreach—too many wars in the Middle East, too much free trade, too many immigrants, too much focus on solving the problems of others. In short, too much world, not enough America.

Yet Trump overcorrected. He should have tapped on the brakes and eased off international ambition. But he took a wrecking ball to the world America made after World War II. He insulted and estranged allies; backed away from the international teamwork needed to address global challenges in the age of inescapable interdependence; launched trade wars that did little to benefit U.S. workers; and fostered nativism and intolerance at home and abroad.

Instead, the United States needs to undertake a “judicious retrenchment” that constitutes the middle ground between doing too much and doing too little. Americans cannot afford to let dangerous overreach turn into even more dangerous underreach. The nation learned the dangers of underreach the hard way during the 1930s. It was a passive bystander amid one of history’s darkest decades, running for cover in the face of spreading fascism and militarism in both Europe and Asia.

The United States cannot afford to repeat that mistake. Yes, Americans need to carefully weigh the pros and cons of both isolationism and internationalism, seeking to bring the nation’s foreign commitments back into line with its means and purposes. But the task ahead is to step back, without stepping away—to do less, but to still do enough.



Firmin DeBrabander


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

Cover Interview of February 17, 2021

In a nutshell

Life After Privacy examines the grave threat to privacy in the digital age, and its political implications. Unlike other writings on the topic, Life After Privacy does not lament or hyperventilate over the loss of privacy, nor does it aim to galvanize popular appreciation for this endangered institution. Rather, this book points out that privacy is but a recent institution, which has not been enjoyed for long, and that people have long lived—and flourished—without it.

We have a curious relationship to privacy: we will say we value it, but our behavior suggests otherwise. We seem all too willing to sacrifice data in exchange for the wondrous conveniences of technology—even for menial benefits, too, like sharing on social media.

Privacy advocates are horrified by this state of affairs. There are several reasons we might be less concerned—and place our concern elsewhere. For one thing, privacy is a young institution, and has ever been threatened. For much of its brief history, privacy was the province of the rich. Only in the mid-twentieth century was privacy widely enjoyed, for example, in middle class suburbia; no sooner had we achieved the apex of privacy than the digital age was upon us, and it was routed again.

A closer inspection, furthermore, reveals that privacy is an incoherent notion. Louis Brandeis provided a seminal legal definition when he said privacy is the ‘right to be left alone.’ But what exactly does it mean to be ‘left alone’? When am I ‘left alone’?—and can I be sure? Who ensures that I am ‘left alone’? Isn’t that principally up to me, whether I am resistant to intrusion or interference? In short, privacy is a moving target, impossible to pin down. How can we then defend it with any certainty?

Luckily, privacy is not so essential to democracy and freedom as its defenders think. Civil libertarians claim privacy is critical for developing autonomous, independent minded citizens. It creates that crucial space for free speech and thought, upon which expansions of liberty rely. And yet: civil rights activists never enjoyed any privacy in which to work out their controversial ideas and make plans. They succeeded, rather, thanks to cooperation, coordination of powers, and effective organizing—in the public sphere. The experience was the same for gay rights activists and labor activists, who never had the luxury of privacy, but delivered the most consequential civil rights gains of the past century nonetheless.

The health of the public—not the private—realm is essential to democracy, though it is equally endangered in the digital age today. If we would hope to defend civil liberty, we must learn how to make the public sphere vibrant again, and the internet is a poor substitute. Luckily, evidence abounds that we are hungry to inhabit public spaces again, where we can physically mingle, encounter difference, build resilient connections, and reap the fruits of community life.



Ray Brescia


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

Cover Interview of February 10, 2021

In a nutshell

The Future of Change uncovers the relationships between advances in communications technologies and the rise and success of some of the iconic social movements over the course of American history.

Advances in communications technologies and strategies create what I call “social innovation moments.” The printing press was integral to the American Revolution; the steam printing press supercharged the Abolitionist Movement; the telegraph helped spread word about the Seneca Falls Convention, sparking the Women’s Movement of the 19th century; the Civil Rights Movement and the television were inextricably intertwined.

What I argue is that these advances in communications have created these social innovation moments: times when new means of communicating strengthen the ability of social movements to communicate and coordinate action. What often happens in these moments is that activists, who usually face long odds and significant impediments to success, find themselves reaching for the most modern communications tools at their disposal. They then innovate and use these tools in ways that were not necessarily foreseen.

What is more, the movements not only shape these means of communication, but they are also shaped by them. In one contemporary example of this phenomenon, after the shooting in Parkland, FL, the students there, who were sophisticated social media users, showed a deftness with the medium in their efforts to rally supporters and counter the rather feeble social media efforts of their adversaries. By harnessing this new means of communications, these agile activists took their advocacy to new heights, showing how the medium could serve their efforts in powerful ways.

In the end, the book tries to understand this interplay between social movements and innovations in communications over the course of American history so that we can learn from those successes and emulate them now and in the future, because I believe we currently find ourselves in a social innovation moment—one that requires creativity and inspired action to advance meaningful social change.