All posts filed under: History

The Philologist, the Iraqi Girl, and Me

I hadn’t bargained on the climate, especially not in the summer and especially not on the coast. That didn’t stop me from going ahead and doing what every self-respecting American college kid visiting Israel, such as Bernie Sanders, did back then—a stint of physical labor on a kibbutz. We’re speaking of June 1962. Eichmann’s ashes had just been dumped in the Mediterranean. Aware of this but not of a lot of other things, sporting horn-rimmed glasses, khakis, loafers, and button-down shirt, I washed ashore at a left-wing settlement halfway between Haifa and Tel Aviv where the comrades worked at their own tile factory, in a banana plantation, and on the trawlers of quite an unpretentious little fishing fleet. Of course, I knew from reading that kibbutzim were socialist successes. But as I got up at the crack of that first dawn to ride a manure-spreader out to the bananas I had no idea that various parties and sects of Zionist socialists bickered over who was the most successful at making the vision come true, over …

A Toast to Randolph Bourne

The pandemic has taken from us a bold and gifted writer, just 32 years old—only not this pandemic but the one that swept the world in 1918. The story of Randolph Bourne confirms that history perpetually forgets what it perpetually remembers. Every decade rediscovers Bourne and every decade loses him again. Once Bourne loomed large as a brash American essayist who championed a new generation of iconoclastic intellectuals. Lewis Mumford, the urban critic, recalled the thrill of reading Bourne on the eve of World War I. I still remember, he wrote, “when I paced back and forth pondering Bourne’s prophetic words” about the war. Ten years later, he queried a student about him. “I belong to the class of 1926,” she replied, “and the truth is, I never heard of Randolph Bourne.” So it would continue. In the 1960s, my teacher Christopher Lasch heralded Bourne—to little effect. In the 1980s, a book on Bourne entitled Forgotten Prophet appeared—and was forgotten. Why summon Bourne again today? For several reasons. He spoke in a voice as clear …

Historical Racism Is Not the Singular Cause of Racial Disparity

Even before the crescendo of Black Lives Matter last summer, the operative view among progressives was that historical racism is the overriding cause of racial disparities between black and white Americans today. The progressive ethos on race is neatly conveyed by the novelist William Faulkner’s remark: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” If the wide socio-economic gaps between whites and blacks in terms of income, wealth, health, incarceration, and education outcomes speak to the enduring legacy of slavery and segregation, large-scale efforts to improve the conditions of the country without regard for race seem insufficient to many. First, Americans must come to terms with the moral and political implications of living in a country that oppressed an entire class of citizens for hundreds of years on the arbitrary basis of ancestry, while flaunting democratic ideals of freedom and equality it was failing to uphold. Those who respond by pointing to the decline of anti-black racism since the civil rights movement or the subsequent success of other minority groups in the country are …

The Strange Rehabilitation of the Black Panther Party

Isn’t it a little late for the rehabilitation of the Black Panther Party (BPP)? After all, the organization that first caught the public’s attention in 1969 was already in its death throes by the early 1970s, beset by internal splits, criminal prosecutions, and violent faction-fighting. Yet, five decades later, the BPP is being energetically romanticized, its legacy is being whitewashed, and its leaders are being valorized in murals, documentaries, and major Hollywood productions that portray the movement and its leaders as revolutionary icons of righteous struggle. The most recent attempt to rehabilitate the BPP began in 2015, when Stanley Nelson’s hagiographic documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution received theatrical distribution, followed by a nationwide PBS broadcast the following year. Notwithstanding a devastating critique by Michael Moynihan in the Daily Beast, the film received a generally favorable critical reception from a credulous media class and was duly followed by further revisionist histories. The most recent and popular of these is Shaka King’s 2021 feature film, Judas and the Black Messiah. Daniel Kaluuya plays Fred …

Blessed Are the Sense-Makers

Years from now, if anyone looks at a line graph (in the OED or Google dictionary) tracking the frequency with which a word is mentioned in print, they may notice the current affinity for the word “narrative.” An already overworked word (by virtue of its abstractness), it is now almost impossible to avoid; we encounter it on a daily basis, especially when reading the news. It is a writer’s job to point out how words become flabby through overuse (such is the visceral aversion to cliché), but that is an elitist’s grievance. More telling is the way in which “narrative” has lately acquired the flavor of a pejorative. The popular connotation, in this case, is one that encourages suspicion. For example, Eric Weinstein likes to refer to what he calls the “Gated Institutional Narrative” (a coinage he uses to indict the insular bias and self-protecting interests of newspapers like the New York Times) to describe a false sense of reality, supported by a phony consensus that is held in place (often in bad faith) by …

The Prophet of Dystopia at Rest: Margaret Atwood in Cuba

Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. ~Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale As a Cuba scholar, a student of literature and politics, and an enthusiastic reader of Margaret Atwood’s work, I have collected articles and media clips over the years related to the Grande Dame of CanLit’s many private and official visits to Cuba. Frankly, the file is thin. Generally, scholars engage with her important body of work (more than 60 books, fiction and non-fiction), without mentioning this topic. It is an interesting footnote, no more. Why interesting? Because it illustrates, in her case and as a pattern, how an inquiring mind sincerely committed to human rights and democratic values can turn off its critical antennae. Atwood allowed herself to become a compliant guest in a country that checks almost all the boxes of totalitarianism, minus extensive terror: a single-party state, no rule of law, arbitrary arrests (2,000 of them during the first eight months of last year), stultifying media (even Raúl Castro says so), and a regime of censorship …

The Route to Re-Enchantment

The modern world cries out for definition. But only a handful of thinkers have been bold enough to answer the call, searching for that overarching essence which distinguishes the modern age from all that came before it. What does it mean to be Modern, as opposed to Medieval or Early Modern? Max Weber, the German sociologist, landed on the idea of Entzauberung, or disenchantment, when more than a century ago, he asked himself that question. Borrowed from Friedrich Schiller, the term disenchantment was meant by Weber to capture what it meant to live in the early 20th-century West, with its bureaucratic systems and secular rationalist values. This was a culture which, after the Enlightenment, had outgrown piety and religious myths. Past cultures, honouring their local religious stories, certainly regarded the world as “a great enchanted garden”; but modernisation was the process of replacing these bygone charms with the rational administration of society by scientifically minded bureaucrats. Science and reason, thought Weber optimistically, would guarantee freedom for the citizens of this disenchanted world. Weber had no …

Why Fake News Flourishes: Emitting Mere Information Is Easy, But Creating Actual Knowledge Is Hard

In America’s founding era, journalism was notoriously partisan and unreliable. Almost anyone could open a newspaper, and almost anyone did. Standards were low to nonexistent. “Editors and promoters, however much they proclaimed their loyalty to truth, more often than not were motivated by partisan political goals and commercial interests in the sensational,” writes the historian Barbara J. Shapiro. Newspapers did not scruple to publish what today we call fake news. In 1835, the New York Sun published bogus reports of life on the Moon; in 1844, it published a fake story—­by one Edgar Allan Poe—­about a transatlantic hot-air-balloon journey. Fake news was not always harmless. Benjamin Franklin complained that “tearing your private character to flitters” could be done by anyone with a printing press. Press freedom, he groused, had come to mean “the liberty of affronting, calumniating, and defaming one another.” At the Constitutional Convention, Elbridge Gerry, a prominent politician, observed bitterly that the people “are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions, by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which …

Tocqueville and Us

Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. ~Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness Come around to my way of thinking. Don’t you want to, want to get along? ~Urge Overkill, “Sister Havana” The University of Michigan just signaled its plan to fight racism: “Over the next three years, the university will hire at least 20 faculty members with expertise in racial inequality and structural racism.” The key words here are “at least”; count on more than 20. Corporations like Microsoft, Disney, and Genentech now routinely browbeat managers and employees into moral conformity by way of “diversity training.” The Biden administration has reactivated “racial justice” and “equity” programs across federal agencies and at the unit level of the armed forces. The self-flagellation in such powerful American institutions only perplexes those who love their country for all it has overcome and still see it as a beacon of freedom and prosperity. A few brave souls have decried these academic, corporate, and federal policies to the detriment of their careers. But, in response, the agents …

Why Is the Society for American Archaeology Promoting Indigenous Creationism?

In April, one of us—Elizabeth Weiss—gave a talk, titled Has Creationism Crept Back into Archaeology?, at the 86th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA). The 87-year-old SAA identifies itself as “an international organization dedicated to research about the interpretation and protection of the archaeological heritage of the Americas.” The SAA board of directors includes professors, curators, and government archaeologists, all of whom presumably appreciate the importance of studying artifacts and human remains as a means to understanding the history of our species. The subject of the April 15th talk, co-authored with James W. Springer (who also co-authored this essay), was the threat of religious literalism being used as a means to insist on the repatriation of human remains (mainly skeletons) and artifacts to presumed descendent populations—i.e., present-day Indigenous communities whose members live near the location where such remains are discovered. However, our use of the term “repatriation” more broadly encompasses the new laws, ideological claims, and policies that serve to give Indigenous claimants control over remains and artifacts, as well as over …