Category Archives: Recommendation

It’s an Arbor Day Miracle: A History of the Tennessee Badlands

Image by UNC Press

Duncan Maysilles’s Ducktown Smoke: The Fight over One of the South’s Greatest Environmental Disasters is not actually a history of the Tennessee Badlands so much as it is a history of the legal battles being fought over the smelter smoke that created the badlands. Consequently, for those unaccustomed to environmental or legal history, the narrative can be quite dry. The discussion of legal principles and courtroom delay tactics, interspersed with obscure Latin, is spiced up only with the occasional turn to the chemical reaction of sulfur smoke with water in the air and the resultant effects on top soil. All in all, they are about the two dullest historical imaginable. Yet Maysilles crafts such an interesting narrative about such an unjustly obscure subject, that the curious reader can bear with the limits of his genre long enough to see the story to its end. The result is a fascinating little book that should be of interest to legal historians, environmental historians, and those who, like me, found themselves living right in the backyard of one of the most curious environmental anomalies in America.

The Ducktown Basin, Maysilles explains, was a geography that cried out for disaster. The rich copper deposits right on the surface were too tempting for miners to ignore. Transportation deficiencies made the raw materials too expensive to transport off site to smelt. The sulfur content of the rocks was unusually high, creating unusually toxic smelting smoke. The geography of the basin was such that the smoke, once in the air, could not escape and dissipate into the atmosphere. The moist climate of the temperate rainforest meant that the chemicals were constantly being delivered back into the the soil in the form of toxic rain. The resulting concentration of chemicals in the air and water stripped the soil, killed the trees, and launched a legal battle between the state of Georgia and the mining companies that made it all the way to the Supreme Court on multiple occasions.

Intrigued as I was by this untold story and fortunate enough to be going to east Tennessee for a visit, I took the opportunity to drive down to Ducktown and see what remained of the infamous badlands created through ignorance, negligence, and geographical misfortune. The answer: very little. At the Ducktown museum, which commemorates both the mine and the unusual topography it created, the woman behind the desk took me with pride to a satellite photo of the region from some decades ago. She recalled with pride, “The only two man made things you could see from space were the Great Wall of China and the Tennessee Badlands.” The nostalgia poured out of her as she remembered a time when, stripped of all flora and fauna, she need not worry about snakes or mosquitoes like her neighbors outside the basin in the lush Tennessee mountain forests. “It’s too bad,” she told me, “because we just look like everyone else now.” Maysilles tells a different story, one of workers who had to have separate car for work and everything else because just by driving into the basin the air would begin to peel away the paint. He shares, perhaps for the first time for modern eyes, the stories of small subsistence farmers who had their land stripped of its fertility and, when they protested, found themselves fired from the mines where they worked to supplement their income. He tells of a single woman who spent years in court seeking damages from the mining companies and won, only to have her settlement reduced to one dollar on appeal. Memory is truly a curious phenomenon, and it is difficult to sort out whose story should take precedence: Maysilles, the outside critic, or the woman at the museum who grew up in Ducktown and whose husband was a mine worker.

In any case, the story does not linger in the confusing days of the Tennessee Badlands. Cooperative ventures by the government and the various industries who have controlled the mining companies over the years have struggled to make the basin green again. These herculean efforts to reforest have been largely rewarded, though not immediately and not without struggle and expense. Driving over the crest and into the basin, we noticed no difference between the forests without and the forests within. The Ducktown Basin is teeming with life again, even snakes and mosquitoes. As the reforestation began to take hold, many in the basin, I suspect the woman at the museum among them, lobbied to have a piece of the badlands preserved as a memorial. It was actually this memorial that I had traveled out to see, a relic of the way the basin had looked when it was an environmental catastrophe and a tourist attraction. Here then, is the arbor day miracle. The reclamation efforts have been so successful, life so insistent on reclaiming the dead basin, that it is a struggle to keep the last little bit of badlands in its pristine, unnatural state. Here it is, as it appeared at the time of my visit, trying to fight off the invasion of trees, but failing so completely that the little saplings are springing up even in the steep slope that terminates in a flooded mineshaft:

Ducktown Badlands

Maysilles has given the curious and patient reader a wonderful glimpse into a largely ignored subject. His interest is primarily in the way the legal battle continues to be cited in major environmental cases today. Mine was in the hidden treasure that had been in my backyard all the years I lived in Tennessee but that I had never known about until I left. A law student told me recently that she loved the way Maysilles had made obscure legal principles comprehensible, in ways that even her text books couldn’t. Whatever it may be, if something about Ducktown has peaked your curiosity, I highly encourage picking up this book. I also wholeheartedly recommend that anyone in the region make a journey down to Ducktown to explore. The drive is beautiful (no matter what direction you come from), the community is quaint, and the history is engaging.

And if you should stop in and see the precious little old woman at the museum desk, tell her you read about her online and that there are still people fascinated by her community, even if they “just look like everyone else now.”

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Parsing Justice: Jill Lindsey Harrison’s Pesticide Drift

Image by MIT Press

In the course of batting around with a colleague the possibility of doing a paper about a biblical approach to environmental justice, I picked up Jill Lindsey Harrison’s Pesticide Drift and the Pursuit of Environmental Justice and, candidly, was disappointed. For those who are not familiar with the environmental justice movement, as I wasn’t until recently, it is an attempt to correct what are seen as deficiencies in earlier environmental activism. It does this by recognizing the overlap between environmental and social justice problems, especially the disproportionate environmental burden born by those who are socially and economically marginalized and the same peoples’ lack of voice in crafting environmental policy. Though the movement has been around for decades, and gained steam in the nineties, recently historians (like Ted Steinberg and Thomas G. Andrews), sociologists (like Harrison), and activists have begun to stress more and more that when environmental disasters “strike,” they affect the poor and racial minorities more acutely than anyone else. It is a trenchant critique of the system, one that demands the attention of any and all concerned either with environmental ethics or with social equity. I certainly do not want to imply by my critique of Harrison that there is some flaw in the environmental justice perspective. My problem with Pesticide Drift is more academic and less foundational.

Harrison’s book is not, first and foremost, an apology for environmental justice, though she does more than her fair share of preaching. Instead, she turns her critical eye on the movement’s own perception of its place in the greater environmental discussion to point out an error in thinking among environmental justice advocates.

My aim in this book is to both uphold and amend this EJ argument. This book pivots around…a case that illustrates in sharp, present detail how the workings of “raw power” shift the burden of pesticide pollution to the bodies of California’s most marginalized and vulnerable residents. That said, I also challenge the claim that environmental inequalities exist because mainstream (i.e., non-EJ) environmental politics are devoid of justice. I contend instead that environmental inequalities emerge from the cruelty and malfeasance, but also from the ways in which many well-intentioned actors are engaging in efforts to make California agriculture more environmentally sustainable.

Or, in other words, the road to the toxic contamination of Hispanic communities is paved with good intentions. It strikes me as something of an obvious point, but one that undoubtedly still needed to be made considering how haughty activists can be in the presentation of their causes as just and their methods as the lone means of achieving that justice. So, with the aim of exploring how alternate theories of justice have unintentionally collaborated with pesticides to create an environmental and social disaster, Harrison gives an overview of the pesticide drift problem in southern California and the many fateful ways that individuals, industry, and the regulatory bodies of the state have failed to prevent it.

Except that Harrison never actually proves her central claim, that there are other theories of justice operating in the various responses to environmental issues. That is not, of course, to say that she is wrong. Her proposition, having been stated, is so self-evident that it undoubtedly will stand without a proper defense. Her book, however, lacks a raison d’être without it. Harrison proposes the existence of two alternate theories of justice: the libertarian and communitarian. The former sees justice as primarily concerned with upholding personal property rights. The latter holds the community is best positioned to locate and enact justice. It is a simple taxonomy, so simple that it elucidates nothing for the reader. It would be just as convincing to say that a libertarian sense of freedom is centered on private property, or a libertarian conception of personal well-being. Or you could leave out “justice” altogether and say that libertarians focus on private property. Communitarians focus on the community. It says nothing about “justice” to collapse an entire worldview into it: Christian justice is cristocentric, utilitarian justice stresses utility. Harrison had the opportunity to explore the notions of justice–the ideas, the impulses, the cultural drivers–that inspire these alternate responses to environmental issues, but she declined to pursue any deeper than the most superficial definition of what “justice” might mean outsider her own movement.

Instead, she spends the majority of her time taking libertarianism and communitarianism to task more generally. (After all, not having defined their visions of justice with any rigor, it would be hard to do otherwise.) Libertarians have a false hope in the power of the person working in concert with the market. Individuals, while laudable in their efforts to farm sustainably, inevitably lack the ability to affect such a systemic issue as pesticide drift and struggle with the economic disincentive to do so. Industry, less laudable (why is not clear) has an even more powerful economic disincentive to create sustainable farming techniques, not when the pesticide industry is a multi-billion dollar quasi-monopoly for a handful of companies. Politicians, incentivized by industry, are content to shirk off their responsibility in exchange for campaign contributions. Communitarians are similarly naive in their assumption that a community can correct a structural issue in society and achieve social justice. Even agrifood advocates, the rank and file of the sustainable agriculture activists reading Michael Pollan and shopping at Whole Foods, reflect the kind of wealthy middle class assumptions about choice that cannot function for the impoverished communities that bear the brunt of environmental injustice. The problem with both mindsets is that problems of the size and scale of pesticide drift “require substantial government intervention” (189).*

Harrison is more than willing to set out detailed proposals for how to enact the environmental justice vision of justice on a national level, and for those who are interested only in exploring environmental justice policy, I can with all sincerity recommend (at least the last chapter of) Pesticide Drift. But for anyone expecting to have presented a compelling new intellectual framework for considering the way justice operates in environmental politics, Harrison proves an unforgivable tease. The book which will explore justice as an environmental concept in pre-EJ environmentalists, in industry, or in alternate political philosophies cries out to be written. Perhaps, if time and good fortune permit, we may yet make a contribution to that discussion by considering the implications a biblical approach to justice might have for environmental justice. In the meantime, Harrison has promised to fill a void and only stepped in to show us how empty it still is.

*(It is here that the regular reader will expect me to launch into a tirade about the gross inadequacy of the state to achieve anything of lasting good. I did just that in my personal conversations with my colleague who, like Harrison, seems to believe that after fifty years of intensive federal environmental legislation, the reason we are not seeing the kind of improvements we want is because we are simply not surrendering enough power to the state. I won’t distract myself with that nonsense here.)

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A Southern Nation of Speechifiers: Heyrman and Eastman in Conversation

University of Chicago Press

Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross makes a wonderful companion piece to Caroline Eastman’s A Nation of Speechifiers. More precisely, Heyrman preemptively corrects a historical oversight in Eastman’s much more recent work. Both authors are concerned with identifying the relationships of nonelites to structures of power in the early national period. Both argue that the changes which took place after the turn of the century were not the rosy picture of democratization which has been the academic orthodoxy for politics, society, and religion for some time. Both excellently demonstrate their cases. Yet, while Heyrman treats her subject comprehensively within her limits, Eastman claims a broader scope than she is ultimately able to encompass.

In Nation of Speechifiers, Eastman argues that far from a great triumph of democratization that once dominated thinking on Jacksonian politics or even the perpetual repression of nonelites that has dominated some feminist and minority histories, the period immediately after the Revolution was one of profound cultural negotiation in which nonelites were able to seize access to public participation in limited but meaningful ways. She looks at politics, education, voluntary associations, trade organizations, publishing, and professional oratory to see the ways that women, children, and racial minorities had a public voice prior to 1810. After that, however, culture shifted as the nation solidified. A war won, a peaceful party transition, and a new vision of suffrage for white men all functioned to close the previously permeable borders of public participation and exclude nonelites.

Yet Eastman glaringly omits religion as an arena in which women, children, and racial minorities had a public voice, a curious oversight particularly in view of Eastman’s stress on oratory as a means of public power. The omission might have made a good avenue for further research had not Heyrman perfectly tackled the question more than a decade earlier. Heyrman takes the same period Eastman considers, treats the same nonelites that Eastman does, but focuses narrowly on religion in the South. The conclusions she draws are largely the same. A newly formed (at least in the South) evangelicalism is initially open to the public voice and at least informal authority of women, children, and racial minorities. After the turn of the century, however, Heyrman exhaustively and convincingly traces the restriction of power into the hands of older white males. She concludes, much as Eastman does, by attacking facile notions of democratization by asking the question democratization for whom.

Eastman’s omission of religion—and of the South and transmontane America almost in their entirety—clearly could have been corrected by reading Heyrman, and the failure to do so borders on inexcusable. Yet readers of Heyrman can benefit from consulting Eastman as well. Heyrman explains the changes in evangelicalism largely as evangelistic necessities. “To put the matter bluntly, evangelicals could not rest content with a religion that was the faith of women, children, and slaves” (193). Growth required appeasing and then appealing to white men, in whose hands all temporal power rested. Eastman suggests there is something more at work in the culture at large here. Eastman’s exclusion of the South from her study may throw this observation into doubt for the arena of Heryman’s work, but nevertheless the question must be raised whether or not evangelistic necessity adequately explains the need for a more male-oriented, “traditional” religious structure. Even if it does, do the broader cultural changes charted by Eastman explain what is driving this evangelistic need? In Heyrman, essentially, evangelicals hit a glass ceiling above which a movement of women could no longer ascend. The time of the early nineteenth century as the period of change is incidental; it is just when the need for change outweighed the inertia of convention. Eastman’s work suggests there is something more happening in the period.

Both books are supremely readable, and Heyrman in particular has a literary flourish rarely seen among historians. Though my interests and preferences tend toward Heyrman’s work, I confidently recommend either for general reading. Eastman’s more theoretical framework may scare off non-academics, but anyone who has even a hobbyists interest in the period will be more than amply rewarded by putting in the effort to understand her argument. Together, these two works give a picture of early national American democracy that will challenge the narrative taught in most colleges not to long ago and still, consequently, taught in most grade schools.

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This is the House that Chris Built

I did not enjoy reading 1493. I fully expected that I would, given my recent foray into environmental history, but it turns out that the very act of gaining knowledge in advance sapped the joy from the reading. Mann, it seemed, had little new to offer me that I hadn’t already seen argued with more force and clarity elsewhere. In fact, I found the reading so dreary, so basic and redundant, that I had entirely discarded my original intention to review it here. This past week, however, the book came up in a discussion of those who were either new to the field of environmental history or who were outside the field of history altogether. Their unabashed enthusiasm about the work led me to reconsider Mann’s purpose and thus to reevaluate the book’s value.

Charles Mann hardly needs my recommendation. His earlier book, 1491, was a bestseller. That work explored the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus. This latest work, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, is sometimes, though inadequately, cast as a sequel. In fact, what Mann sets out to do is to update and make accessible the pioneering work of Alfred Crosby first expressed in books like The Colombian Exchange and Ecological Imperialism. The basic premise is that in inaugurating the modern age of truly global intercourse Columbus did not discover a new world so much as create one. The rapid, primarily unintentional, transport of organisms big and small, the change in the way the land was used, and massive demographic shifts made the world of today what it is, making 1493 the beginning of our present age.

This conceptualization of the world is, unsurprisingly, necessarily flawed. Global intercourse no more started with Columbus than electricity started with Thomas Edison. The first voyage of Columbus makes for a convenient watershed moment, and Columbus himself is an important if exaggerated figure. Nevertheless, a view of history in grand, sweeping moments of dramatic change pervades the book, even as it is at odds with the way professional historians generally conceive of historical change.

Beyond this, however, Mann does a phenomenal job both of engaging serious scholarship in environmental history and, in spite of not being under the strictures of academic ethics, citing precisely from whom he derives the ideas he synthesizes. Those familiar with the field will notice the strong hand not only of Alfred Crosby but William Cronon, John McNeil, and countless others. Of course, if those names are familiar to you, as they are to me, then you may find nothing to intrigue you in Mann. For the vast majority of the reading public, however, for whom the Colombian exchange is still little more than the uneven trade of smallpox for syphilis, Mann opens up a whole new world of just how dramatically the transition to large scale global commerce has altered the world. Extended sections on potatoes, rubber, and mosquitoes introduce the reader to the all-too-often unwritten changes that the Americas brought to the world. A host of lesser actors appear: earthworms, honey bees, pigs, malaria, sweet potatoes, and more. All, Mann successfully and correctly argues, typically had a much larger impact on the course of human history than did the human agents conventional history is preoccupied with.

So in the end, it is impossible to fault Mann’s work for what it is: a synthesis of historical scholarship intended for a general audience not familiar with the material. The reader who knows this can find in Mann an unusually useful tool, infinitely more accessible than the standard work by historians and even more dramatically superior in its scholarship when compared to the pop histories of journalists, not to mention talk show hosts. It is a long book, prohibitive for those unaccustomed to anything more intense than a blog post (not, of course, to disparage that medium), but Mann’s style will generally appeal to avid readers making the heft bearable. Time and inclination permitting, 1493 is an excellent place to get your foot in the door of the cutting edge of one of the youngest subdisciplines in historical research.

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The Road to Hiroshima Is Paved with Good Intentions

Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature is a work of sufficient size and importance to warrant a full review of its contents. William Cronon, rock star of the environmental history world, offered significantly more effusive praise in his foreword: “It is surely among the most important works of environmental history published since the field was founded four or more decades ago. No book before it has so compellingly demonstrated the value of applying environmental perspectives to historical events that at first glance may seem to have little to do with “nature” or “the environment.” No one who cares about he American past can ignore what Fiege has to say.” Nor should they. Fiege’s work–which takes nine standard topics in American history and refashions them to include environmental history–demands engagement from scholars and its easy style invites it from the general public. Necessarily, a work which is linked by a common methodology rather than a common chronology or theme will be somewhat uneven, but Fiege succeeds more often than he fails in challenging the standard historiography and revolutionizing the way environmental history applies to more “conventional” history. But, as much as Fiege’s work demands full engagement, a particular chapter has so seized my attention as to compel me to stop the general review there and turn to a more particular issue: the development of the atomic bomb and Fiege’s attempts to justify it or, at the very least, mitigate the responsibility of the scientists involved.

In a chapter entitled “atomic sublime,” Fiege directly challenges the traditional historiography of the Manhattan Project. The interpretation of the scientists as cold, rationalists with an instrumental view of nature has dominated our collective memory of the makers of the atomic bomb. Instead, Fiege proposes to proceed from the assumption that “the atomic scientists and their families felt a deep affinity for all that was human, natural, and good.” This is, not in itself, an objectionable conclusion. In fact, the assumption that natural scientists should have a love of and fascination with nature is admirable. The problems arise, however, with Fiege moves beyond this to argue that the drive of the scientists to make the bomb proceed from this love of the natural and the good rather than in spite of it. Thus, at the close of the opening section of the chapter, Fiege drops this bomb (so to speak):

Perhaps a powerful attraction to nature in all its guises, whether pine trees or submicroscopic particles, encouraged intellectual processes that enabled the scientists to imagine and design the bomb. Perhaps–and here is a truly unsettling thought–the bomb was the fulfillment of all that was human, natural and good.

That is, sure enough, a deeply unsettling thought. It is, in fact, one that I find acutely unsettling given my prejudices against violence in general and against the bomb in particular. That anything which is inherently good can lead to something so unequivocally evil as the atrocities perpetrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki seems to me so impossible on its face as to be easily dismissed. And yet, as a historian, I compelled myself to give, as far as I was humanly able, a fair reading to Fiege’s argument. I hoped that perhaps, at the end, I would find that the scientists had been coerced into creating the bomb by the government(which I am always happy to cast as the ultimate enemy) or that they had had been duped by the military about the applications of their new technology, that it would function only as a deterrent. Unfortunately, Fiege only convinced me that the scientists fooled themselves.

Fiege offers a very compelling, if sentimental, portrait of the love of the scientists for nature. Each had been drawn into science through some love of and curiosity about the natural. Fiege likens scientific research to the explorations of Victorian adventurers (whitewashing over the imperial designs of both). He tells of the times at Los Alamos where, when they were not engulfed in creating weapons of mass destruction, the scientists hiked the canyons and searched for rare cacti and waxed poetic about desert sunsets. At Los Alamos “the scientists fashioned a community that embodied their life-affirming values.” It was these very values that led them to collaborate on the atomic bomb.

How is that possible? Fiege stresses that the scientists sincerely believed that a single use of the bomb would be so dramatic, so devastating, that it would inaugurate an era of world peace–ultimately saving more lives than it took–and fling the doors of society open to allow a utopian global community. The description would be comic had Fiege intended it as a farce, but he truly believes that the scientists, through purely humanitarian motives, were compelled to create the most destructive weapon in human history. Never mind that anyone with a high school level grasp of history could have easily demonstrated that bigger weapons make for bigger wars, not peace. The scientists, as the day of completion drew nearer, began to have these same realizations but, rather than abandoning the project, instead convinced themselves that a benign demonstration of its power would be sufficient to establish their idyllic society.

These were among the most brilliant men and women in history, and what Fiege has demonstrated is not their pure motives but the ability of brilliant people for brilliant rationalizations. It is impossible to deny the obvious confluence of the greatest successes in atomic science and the most destructive global war in history. What’s more, it is difficult to not assume that the one caused the other, especially since the specific purpose of the scientists at the Manhattan Project was to develop a super weapon for use against the Germans and Japanese. What motivated the creation of the atomic bomb was precisely what motivated World War II: fear and self-interest. Fiege notes that in spite of their humanitarian concerns, scientists flocked to Los Alamos to create the bomb. In spite of their moral qualms about its use, they completed the project.

The true nature of their motives is apparent enough in their language and behavior. Just as it is apparent that wartime fervor drove the scientists to Los Alamos in spite of their theoretical reluctance, the reaction of the community at Los Alamos to Hiroshima testifies to their true feelings whatever their theoretical moral turmoil. “When news of Hiroshima reached Los Alamos, the atomic community celebrated. The revelry was spontaneous and intense. ‘We jumped up and down, we screamed, we ran around slapping each other on the backs, shaking hands, congratulating each other,’ Richard Feynman wrote.” The party continued on into the night, was formalized in a meeting in the town auditorium where Oppenheimer gave a speech received by resounding cheers, and repeated itself when the bomb fell on Nagasaki, though Fiege is careful to point out that, for Nagasaki, “the spirit just wasn’t there.” The scientists could convince themselves they were for world peace not victory, but when success and victory were at hand, they gave no thought to life or peace or morality. Instead, they indulged in the self-delusion typified by David Bradbury, child of Los Alamos, who later advocated the use of atomic weaponry for population control but insisted that he was “not pro-war. I’m most strongly pro-nature, pro-earth, pro-tree.”

It was a beautiful and thorough deception, no doubt, but it was still false and ultimately incomplete. The scientists, history remembers, went on to regret their mistake, to see the atomic bomb for what it really was. A horror, both in principle and in its tragic application in Japan. An enormity of the modern mind that is without justification and without legitimate purpose. That this realization hit only when the war was over and a cessation of hostilities (but by no means peace) was won demonstrates the true root of the scientists motives. They were engaged in an epic struggle for nation or, if you prefer, self-preservation. They were not, as Fiege concluded, pursuing the good, the beautiful, the true with an innocent curiosity and in a context of “openness, toleration, and democracy.”* As much as Fiege may wish it were so, the heart of war is not “deep moral ambiguity” and the scientists are not absolved by their good intentions. In fact, Fiege neglects to entertain the seemingly logical conclusion that they had no such benign intentions, only convincing rationalizations. It is in the clear distinction between motives and justifications that Fiege’s interpretation flounders.

Republic of Nature is worth every penny of its price, both for the times when it is compelling right and the times when it is unnervingly wrong. The success of any historical work is in provoking critical reaction, and while Fiege is unsuccessful in redeeming the Manhattan Project through environmental history, he is at least capable of forcing the reader to reconsider it. The final judgment, however, remains the same. Fiege’s is a wonderful book, even if at times it has a perverse logic. The reader ought to find repugnant (and blatantly hypocritical) the attempt to sanctify the atomic assault on Japan with the passing observation that most of the civilians killed had acquiesced to Japan’s “military conquests, slaughter of civilians, and suicidal resistance,” but it is this same willingness to challenge conventional interpretations that convincingly reinterprets the Salem witch trials as a conflict between the ideal and the real in nature. The reader simply must keep in mind that not all history is in need of revision.

*(Here Fiege is at his most disturbing and his most inadvertently brilliant when he points to the dark fact that democracy allowed the US and Britain to create the bomb and authoritarianism prevented Germany from achieving the same end. Suddenly it seems that if ever their were a critique of democracy, the atomic bomb is it.)

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I recently had the opportunity to watch the film Detachment, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The ensemble cast, led by veteran Adrien Brody and accompanied by Sami Gayle in a stunning film debut, presents us with a picture that is quirky and unexpectedly funny, but, overall, deeply unsettling. Most importantly, Detachment condenses into a startlingly plausible caricature all those problems which can and do coincide to make the American educational system so frequently and deeply prone to disaster: underfunding, absentee parenting, unchecked bullying, an undeserved sense of entitlement (for both students and parents), teen depression, promiscuity, the conflicting priorities for educators and administrators, sexual paranoia, disciplinary impotence, the practical application of ideologically conceived legislation, the inevitable bleeding in of teachers’ personal lives into the workplace, violence, a culture which promotes disrespect, and, finally, almost inevitably, teacher burnout. As could be expected, Detachment is gritty and vulgar, meaning that those whose sensibilities or ethics would be violated by the foul language, the violence, or the nudity should forgo this particular film. But since real life isn’t suitable for broadcast on ABC Family, Detachment takes the reality, actual or merely potential, and slaps the viewer across the face with it. It is a necessary service.

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Hating Francis Asbury

I love the Methodists. During the wild, rebellious days of my collegiate youth, on any given Sunday you might find me in an early morning service rocking out to the praise band and defiantly not taking weekly communion. More to the point, I enjoy Methodist history. It functions as a powerful corrective when I am tempted to overstress the peculiarities of the Stone-Campbell Movement. The history of Methodism in America provides an important precursor and parallel to my work in the Churches of Christ in the South. I include that disclaimer only because when I vocalized the following criticisms to a colleague, he immediately assumed “Oh, you must not like the Methodists” (drawing on a comment I had previously made about abhorring Puritan history). That is not the case at all. When I first cracked the spine of John Wigger’s American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists it was with joyful anticipation. When I finally retired the last page, I had nothing left but bitter disappointment.

Wigger’s recent and expansive (not to mention expensive) critical biography of Francis Asbury, the patriarch of American Methodism, fills a void. Or so I hear. My experience, however, tells me that there are quite enough rambling, distracted, self-indulgent works in the broad field of history to satisfy even the most committed masochist. Wigger may treat a new subject, but it is in the same tried and true unreadable style. The work suffers from that most basic error of misplaced purpose, a fact which becomes abundantly clear even before the introduction is completed. The reader gets a vague sense that Wigger intends to rehabilitate Asbury from generations who have seen him as nothing more than a power-hungry autocrat. Yet even to understand this theoretically governing thesis requires wading through more than four hundred pages of largely unrelated travel accounts, and even so, I am not confident that this or any guiding purpose can be asserted with any force.

Wigger aims at a truly comprehensive biography, by which I mean everything imaginable short of the regularity of Asbury’s bowel movements–a detail I fear was omitted because Wigger could not find adequate source material on the subject. Yet he does not stop there but complicates the narrative by inserting dozens of miniature biographies of every passing acquaintance in Asbury’s life. Or in the lives of Asbury’s passing acquaintances. Or…well you get the picture. To these are added tangents about the four kinds of malaria and other trivialities until the volume becomes bloated to the point of rupture. The final straw comes in the conclusion as part of a discussion of past biographies of Asbury. It is here that Wigger derisively comments, “One has to admire the audacity of an author who, when faced with a lull in his narrative, simply makes something up, the more outrageous the better.” I would recommend to Wigger that, on page 416 of an unusually dry and meandering text, he not be so condescending about authors who care whether or not their audience is awake.

Still, Wigger’s work is more than just undirected, unmanageable, and unreadable. Those are claims that could be made about countless “good” works of history. Wigger does further violence to his subject by pulling Asbury off his horse and forcing him onto the therapist’s couch. In playing Freud, Wigger returns frequently and unconvincingly to the “significant” relationship between the distant Asbury and his supposedly overbearing mother. Never mind that Wigger never produces any evidence of such a relationship. He is not even bothered to cite directly contradictory evidence immediately after his claims. He is convinced that the relationship exists and is determinative, the evidence be damned. The psychoanalysis does not stop there, either. He speculates about Asbury’s relationship to social elites in boyhood, about the sources of his father’s drunkenness, and about the effect of the childhood death of his sister on Asbury’s love life. The cumulative effect is to make the reader long for the days when the incompetent historian merely portrayed Asbury as an autocrat.

At the end, I was duly convinced that Asbury was no tyrant. I was more profoundly convinced that Wigger is an intellectual sadist. I realize, of course, that this is something distinct from the normally restrained reviews I prefer to offer here, and, moreover, that it runs contrary to the accolades of the proud few who make a living congratulating one another on the sheer volume of their publications. Nevertheless, I felt it my sacred duty to warn people that there is a menace on the loose, and he appears as an unassuming itinerant on a horse. But don’t be deceived. Boredom can kill.

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Rethinking the Turks and Recommending Casale

Giancarlo Casale’s recent work, The Ottoman Age of Exploration, is an innovative attempt to rewrite not only Ottoman history but also the broader understanding of the Age of Exploration, what constituted it and who its participants were. Taking the sixteenth century as his subject, Casale explores Ottoman activities in the Indian Ocean, drawing compelling parallels between the way Ottomans conceived of and executed this unprecedented expansion and the way historians traditionally conceive of the European histories of early exploration. Ultimately, Casale asks the question “Did the Ottomans participate in the Age of Exploration?” and answers boldly that they did.

Proceeding chronologically, Casale begins with what he considers to be the inaugural event in the Ottoman Age of Exploration, the conquest of Egypt by Selim the Grim, whom Casale creatively renames Selim the Navigator in a nod to his European counterparts. From there, Casale inducts the reader into a fascinating story of intellectual awakening, world war, political infighting, the construction of a worldwide “soft empire,” and the loosing of an army of merchants into the Indian Ocean. Casale makes the most of already compelling subject matter, colorfully populating this world with sultans, queens, scholars, pirates, cannibals, spies, and at least one morbidly obese octogenarian admiral apparently too ugly and pugnacious to be omitted.

Casale’s decision to rename Selim the Grim and to title his inaugural chapter “Selim the Navigator” is but the opening salvo in an unrelenting effort to unseat entrenched notions about Ottoman history, an effort which proves immensely fruitful. Casale, in clearing initial objections to an Ottoman Age of Exploration, discards the traditional question “Why didn’t the Ottomans explore the Americas” and asks instead “Why should they?” Pointing out that the Europeans only undertook New World exploration in an attempt to access the Indies, Casale legitimatizes Ottoman apathy about the Americas. After all, with Egypt conquered, they had access to the most direct route between the Mediterranean and India. Similarly, Casale goes on to directly challenge notions of the Ottomans as an exclusively land-based empire, of presumed state disinterest in sponsoring commercial activity, of extra-regional politics as an exclusively European concern, and of Islamic nations as intellectually indistinct and interchangeable. The result is a startlingly fresh picture of the Ottoman Empire as a Mediterranean state much like any other, one which realized he tremendous political and economic advantages of control in the Indian Ocean and worked out the means of achieving that control in ways not entirely unfamiliar to the student of European exploration.

Throughout the narrative, Casale attempts to highlight four key themes which he considers to be both commonly agreed upon as characteristic of the Age of Exploration for European powers and particularly relevant to the characteristics of the Ottoman participation in this period. He first notes the relative conceptual and geographical isolation of explorers prior to their initial voyages of discovery. With the onset of these voyages, Casale then notes the development of a new political ideology in the exploring nation that offers a new conception of sovereignty. For the actualization of this new ideology, he points to the importance of new technologies particularly military and transportation technologies. Finally, Casale sees during the Age of Exploration an expansion of intellectual activity facilitated by new information streaming in from abroad.

As Casale weaves these themes into his narrative, not all appear equally convincing. Certainly, the author proves near definitively that the Ottomans were no more connected to the Indian Ocean than their European counterparts prior to the conquest of Egypt and offers a withering indictment of those who baselessly attempt to collapse the Turkish worldview into the Arabic based simply on a common religion. In the same way, Casale gives an impressive catalogue of new and forward thinking texts—travel narratives, geographies, histories, and maps—produced by the Ottomans, most written and disseminated in spite of the absence of a printing press.

On the other hand, the development of a new political ideology and the employment of new technology present less straightforward pictures. The place of advanced weaponry has a direct parallel to European history, particularly as a commodity for export and as a tool for necessary cementing overseas relationships, but Casale admits that the Ottomans did not make the transition to large sailing vessels that Europeans did. Instead he proposes that they adapted traditional technologies to new uses, but these adaptations seem less novel than Casale would have the reader believe, consisting largely of exploiting the traditional advantages of shallow-bottomed, oared ships: the ability to travel into the wind and escape into shallow waters. Similarly, the suggestion that the “Universal Caliphate” and its ideology of extra-political sovereignty represented something new is belied by Casale’s regular reference to the longstanding Islamic conception of umma. This invites questions about whether what was actually new was the political ideology or the Ottomans ability to actualize it on a global scale.

These and other problems arise in part from Casale’s decision to structure his work as a chronological narrative, specifically rejecting the notion that it might be comparative. While this undoubtedly enhances the readability of the work and lays the necessary historical groundwork for later studies, it leaves the reader with a host of unanswered questions. What are the essential features, as distinct from the incidental manifestations that characterize the Age of Exploration? Why did Ottoman notions of control and empire differ so dramatically from the Portuguese? The questions could be multiplied and, perhaps, could have been addressed had the author elected to structure the book as a comparative study or, at the very least, used the four themes rather than time as the primary organizing principle.

Nevertheless, these questions are as much a testament to the work’s heuristic value as to any structural defect. In The Ottoman Age of Exploration, Casale invites the historian and the reader into a reconceived world of the sixteenth century Indian Ocean, one which has been methodically researched and persuasively reconstructed. The result is thoroughly compelling work which challenges the traditional thinking of historians and will hopefully usher in a new paradigm for investigating both the Ottomans and the broader Age of Exploration. A riveting collection of true stories that would put Hollywood epics to shame, this extremely accessible book has my unqualified recommendation for even the general public.

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“The Christian World” and Its Shortcomings

Martin Marty is, unquestionably, one of the giants in Christian scholarship and publishing. Consequently, and perhaps unfairly, there is a heightened level of expectation when consuming any of his work and, if that effort should prove lacking, an exaggerated sense of disappointment. Such was the case when I expectantly picked up his The Christian World: A Global History. Published as part of the Modern Library Chronicles, The Christian World is purposefully brief and its treatment deliberately shallow. Instead, the book sets out to give an overview of Christianity from the perspective of it’s global presence, purporting to correct a typically euro-centric reading of the majority of Christian history. Instead, Christianity for Marty is a narrative best seen through its various continental episodes by which he organizes the larger work (e.g. “The First Asian Episode,” “The Latin American Episode,” “The Second African Episode”).

Unfortunately, this methodology, which should be the primary draw for the work, manifests in ways more artificial than informative. Marty admits early on that when defining what is “Asian,” “African,” and “European” that he will be using modern continental distinctions. The problem with this approach is that the modern continents do not reflect the outlook of ancient peoples. In the Mediterranean world in particular, Marty’s segregation of the Roman empire into Asian, African, and European contingents proves nothing short of willful anachronism.

The initial chapter beyond Marty’s retelling of the Gospel is supposedly about Christianity in Asia, though in fact it focuses almost exclusively on the Levant and Asia minor. That the Levant is technically in Asia according to modern line drawers says nothing of its essential orientation at the time of Christ or the centuries that followed. It faced—ideologically, commercially, and politically—to the West, which is why the end of Paul’s earth, a fact which Marty earlier notes, was Spain and not China. Meanwhile, calling the Byzantine “episode” Asian only creates the impression of global focus. The majority of the “story” narrated is one included in Western-centric retellings and intimately involved, though he is loathe to mention it, interaction between Constantinople and Rome. The same is not true of Constantinople and any truly Asian Christian centers, great or small.

Unfortunately, the same complaint holds for the first African episode, which focuses on North Africa to the exclusion of the rest of the continent (in spite of a thriving Christian community in sub-Saharan Ethiopia). The central “African” figures are Tertullian and Augustine. Never mind that Tertullian spent most of his time indulging in Phrygian heresies and arguing with Rome about them, or that Augustine’s most influential teaching revolved around a British heretic. The story, rightly told, is a single Mediterranean episode, and any continental scheme to the contrary reflects, rather blatantly, a modern understanding of what it means to be global.

Marty realizes, if never fully admits, how problematic his scheme is, and he is forced to abandon it on several occasions. For example, having nowhere else to put them, most of the major late antique heresies find their way into a catalog of error in the first African chapter. The fact that Montanism and Manichaeism are Asian heresies, and Pelagianism and Novatianism European ones, does not warrant their removal to their respective chapters. Instead, through scholastic sleight of hand, Marty talks about them as imports to North Africa, never bothering to stress that they were equally if not more fully present in Europe or Asia as well. Perhaps most amusingly of all, Marty apologetically includes much of Eastern Europe in his first Asian chapter because to treat it where it technically belonged would be to put the European Orthodox in an episode with Rome rather than the with Constantinople. Then, in a radical about-face, all the Orthodox find themselves lumped into the second European episode “for convenience’ sake” and because they have “location and interests in Europe.” Had he been honest from the beginning, he would have made his divisions on the basis of where “interests” lay throughout the work.

Even as he moves into Latin, North American, and later Asian and African chapters where the focus is truly on continents and those continental divisions represent real cultural orientations, Marty’s system remains an overemphasized organizational tool rather than a means for enriching the readers understanding of Christianity. Very little effort is made to link what makes, for example, Asian Christianity Asia or European Christianity European beyond merely their locations. The exceptions here are with Latin American Christianity and modern African Christianity, which Marty gives the kind of local flare necessary to a better understanding of Christianity as a global movement. Unfortunately, Marty’s attempts to parrot this effort in North America fall into the old traps of too often artificially dividing the Atlantic world in the way he divided the Mediterranean one. The final Asian episode is the least fruitful, as the narrative told is less about Asian Christianity than about the failures of European Christianity in Asia. Even leaving aside that his tour of “all continents” neglects Oceania for all but one short paragraph near the end of the concluding chapter, there is a thriving indigenous Christianity in Asia that warrants further study.

The other major shortcoming of Marty’s work–which I hope I can treat more briefly–is his never very subtle apology for inclusivism as the cure to Christianity’s ills. In the Introduction, Marty has already begun, arguing that Christianity’s greatest atrocities have been committed where exclusivist claims exist. Christianity has been an agent of love, he insists, but when it isn’t, exclusivism is to blame. Assuming a causal relationship of necessity between exclusivism and evil misunderstands the connection. Exclusivism is only necessary for religion to function as a justification for evil. That it does not cause evil is evidenced by the persistence of evil even in the absence of religious exclusivism as a stated cause. Other exclusivist motives gladly take up the slack to justify what is ultimately a deeper impulse to evil: racial, national, and ideological exclusivism have all been marshaled to justify greater atrocities in the last century than religious exclusivism.

Of course, Marty never engages the issue that directly, preferring to let it hover beneath the surface, bubbling over in only slightly more subtle ways. His eulogistic praise of little known inclusivists like Bardesanes or the the “adventuresome” theologians after Vatican II who wanted to dialogue between Buddhists and Catholics until the fearful, censorious exclusivists silenced them. Marty contrasts Enlightenment figures who saw the “moral and humanitarian equivalence” of the Abrahamic faiths with “militant dogmatic Christians” who opposed them. He brings to the forefront as often as manageable and in the best light possible any movement which tended toward ecumenicism, inclusivism, or inter-faith dialogue. It is only in his concluding notes that he formally recognizes this bias, answering his own “so what” with a plea to allow interfaith dialogue to ameliorate conditions between rival religions. It is an interesting issue which warrants attention, but it is, nevertheless, grossly out of place in a condensed survey of Christian history. More to the point, the furtive way that Marty weaves it into the narrative, allowing it to color his reading of history only to pretend at the close that history has independently led the reader and writer both to a common conclusion, is, for lack of a more diplomatic and academic word, sleazy.

Yet, for all that, Marty’s The Christian World is not a bad book. As noted from the outset, many of the complaints arise from heightened expectations based on the author’s status. If the totally uninitiated reader picks up this text and reads it cover to cover–and it is a remarkably easy read, if a bit dull at times–he will emerge on the other side with substantially more hard data about Christian history. As a survey, there are better texts, ones not so hampered by the author’s political agenda or marriage to an artificial, often distracting, methodology. As a look at Christianity’s global character, it falls short in that it fails to recognize and study along real lines of cultural, political, and ideological distinction. The reader might have been better served–at least in this particular goal–by dropping the Mediterranean and Atlantic stories altogether, instead giving exclusive focus to India, Mongolia, Ethiopia, indigenous African and South American Pentecostalism, and Korea (among others). Of course, with its primary purpose being to survey all of Christian history, Marty clearly should instead have dropped the flawed methodology.

Though it may come as a shock, I do recommend Marty’s book, to a limited audience and for perhaps more venal reasons. For those who have no concept of Christian history or have only a rudimentary grasp of post-Reformation Protestant history, the book is an acceptable survey to begin with. There are others, certainly, but to have a scholar of Marty’s trustworthiness–and there are no grave errors in the book, other than interpretive ones (which are, of course, subjective)–as the author of a book that Amazon will let you have in hardcover for less than ten dollars (free shipping) is a blessing.

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A Change of Perspective

Africa's Discovery of EuropeIt has been a long time, a very long time, since I have been excited about reading a history text outside my field of academic specialty, but a brief description of David Northrup‘s Africa’s Discovery of Europe (2nd ed) was more than enough to arouse my interest. In this concise but engaging study, Northrup attempts to dissect the Afro-European encounter of the pre-colonial era from the perspective of the Africans. The approach doesn’t seem all that novel on its face, until you really begin to consider just how euro-centric our perceptions of the “discovery” of Africa are. It doesn’t take long before Northrup begins to turn standard wisdom on its head, forcing the reader to reconsider what idiosyncratic ideologies, politics, and historiographies have motivated the retelling of this history up to this point. The final result is a more fully rounded, realistic picture of Afro-European relations, one that is not dominated by the historiography of racial guilt but which privileges the historical recordings of actual Africans to European assumptions about what Africans must have been doing, feeling, and thinking.

The only real drawback in his exciting new approach is that Northrup has a frustrating habit of hedging his bets, an unfortunate necessity in an academic climate where the fear of political intrusion with its standard accusation of racism has taken on far too much weight. It is so obvious that it ought not need restating that the experience of Africans in the Americas was dominated for centuries by overwhelming racial prejudices. This fact notwithstanding, we ought to have the intellectual fortitude to let the evidence decide what the experience of Africans in Europe was or, for that matter, that of Africans in Africa encountering Europeans. The regular reminders by Northrup that his facts may be tainted, biased, skewed, or corrupted eventually begin to come across as defensive and indecisive, even if he follows these caveats with assurances that he is confident in his rendering. It is not for the historian to remind us that historical records are not scientific data which can be analyzed like so many particles under a microscope.

Nevertheless, Northrup’s text is deeply challenging and, because of this, immensely satisfying. He takes direct aim at the popular notion of the African encounter as one between the exploitative light-skinned pillagers and the poor, dark, benighted villagers. He points out that war, plundering, and the slave trade all antedated the Africans first encounters with the European. Taking specific aim at the politicized notion of a European-induced cycle of selling slaves to get guns to capture more slaves, Northrup even cites explicit statements from African rulers that capturing slaves is a centuries old part of African culture (as it was in European culture) and that he never goes to war simply to take slaves. The guns, Northrup points out, that so fascinated the Africans, actually did very little to give any one combatant a decisive advantage in war, making such a cycle unlikely if not impossible. Northrup also debunks the notion that European trade somehow destroyed native craftsmanship. He combats blanket assumptions of racism, showing cases where Africans were encouraged to marry white Christian woman rather than black pagan ones and numerous cases in which Africans in Europe translated a lionizing of their skin color into educational, political, and social opportunities.

What remains then is a less stylized and more human picture of the Afro-European encounter. Contrary to prevailing notions, Africans and Europeans entered into mutually beneficial economic, social, and political relationships which made many on both sides extremely wealthy at the expense of the lower classes (an economic circumstance which has always dominated history). Africans and Europeans mingled and even intermarried at almost every level of society with restrictions of class and religion being infinitely more important than those of race. Of the many successful and long-lasting conversions to Christianity, those which were in any sense forced were the exception rather than the rule, and most accounts by actual Africans represent the choice of Christianity as a conviction of faith that they embraced rather than a decision of expediency. (Interestingly, Northrup points out as a historian what many theologians and ministers have been realizing for some time now, that the metaphysical world of tribal Africa is on many of its most important levels, compatible with Christianity.) Local artisans continued to create local crafts, local peoples continued to embrace local customs, and even “westernized” Africans remained acutely aware of their cultural heritage and those features of it which were non-negotiable just to suit their fascination with the technological and cultural advances of the West.

This is, of course, not to say that everything was rainbows and roses. Africans made war on Africans; Africans made war on Europeans; Europeans made war on Africans. Slaves were taken by Africans to be kept, to be sold to other Africans, or to be sold to Europeans (who would in turn typically resell them). Slaves ships, while probably not most accurately represented in the polemical accounts of the abolitionists, did have a one in eight mortality rate, with the cause of death ranging from disease, dehydration, capital punishment, and, all too often, suicide. However muted the inter-cultural animosity among Europeans and Africans was, it is an inescapable fact that many Africans ended up in the Americas where conditions were brutal and racism rampant, and, before long, European colonialism would irrevocably change the dynamic between the cultures.

Nevertheless, what Northrup offers is an account that steps away from using history in the ongoing blame-game and instead engages the accounts on their own terms. He admits that his credulity in reading some of the accounts will strike some historians as naive, but–and I cannot stress my agreement with him here too strongly–the alternative method of assuming a certain narrative and then discounting accounts which deviate from it is infinitely more suspect. What Northrup does instead is challenge the reader to take Africans at their word rather than assuming to speak for them, which seems to me to be a more pernicious form of racism anyway. The final product then is not only a great work of history covering a specific subject in a specific time period but also a convicting challenge to be wary of our inevitable and natural inclination to assume that history exists only in our default perspective of it.

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