The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson [Review]

I’ve mentioned before that, after the 2016 election, I began a new reading agenda. (I essentially sacrificed November and December’s reading budgets for this.) One puzzle, which I discussed in my review of Justin Gest’s The New Minority, was why people voted for Trump. The other was why Hillary lost. And after time spent reading a lot about the first puzzle, I was informed that I should probably be spending some time on the second one. That, in turn, led me to books such as Carol Anderson’s White Rage (my review here), as well as others not yet reviewed in this space. So I came to Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a Christmas present, with an agenda: how could it help me understand the country in which I live?

Wilkerson’s book–a vast and awesome, in the fullest sense of the term, work–helped me answer that, but it is much more than that. It is a bold and welcome telling of a story that was given, I believe, a paragraph in my high school history textbooks; certainly I recall “The Great Migration” as being a boldface term that I had to learn. In Wilkerson’s hands, though, the extent of that migration–the degree to which this voluntary movement of a people reshaped the United States–becomes clear. Wilkerson’s real aim here is to introduce Americans, or I should say White Americans, to their country, because its story has never been told.

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Nancy Isenberg, White Trash [Review]

Attention Conservation Notice: An ambitious but sprawling book that, amazingly, silences the people it claims to describe while also doing good work in de-mystifying colonial-era myths. (Originally published 15 December 2016 but lost in the Great Server Error of 2017.)

Class and race intersect in many ways. Until November 8, the most common contemporary invocations of such intersectionality came from the Left to justify and explain the grievances of members of their coalition. Sometime around 8:30 p.m. Eastern time on Election Day’s night, though, the discourse changed radically, and it was suddenly the intersection of Whiteness and Working-Classness that obsessed observers–including myself.

Like many people, I turned to three books implicitly or explicitly on this subject: Kathy Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash.

Of the three, Hochschild’s is probably the most readable, Cramer’s the most perceptive and theoretical, and Isenberg’s the least useful. Hochschild and Cramer focus their attention on the contemporary intersection of identities and relate it directly to political action (or inaction). Isenberg’s book, however, is vastly more ambitious. It attempts to deliver a 400-year history of its subject, and, to give it credit, the first 250 years of that history are genuinely revelatory. (One can never again really give credence to Louis Hartz’s liberalism thesis after reading how the English upper classes viewed the New World as a cesspool in which to deposit their refuse classes.) In that sense, however, it is indeed an “untold” story (or at least a story not told often enough).

Yet the book suffers from too many flaws, many of which are structural. Its ambition is fatally undermined by the fact that it must rely on the testimony  largely of people outside the class of “white trash”; we rarely hear people in that category speaking for themselves even though they do. (In fact, there is an entire genre of music that mourns, celebrates, documents, and valorizes precisely this group.)  The contrast with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is stark: we are presented with enormous quantities of travelers’ reflections on encountering people who seem not quite human, reams of testimony about official actions that punished (or sometimes rewarded) members of the class, and, finally, a conclusion that literally quotes Mario Cuomo as often as it does a member of the group.

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The Fourteenth Day, David Coleman [Review]

Originally published 3 November 2016 but lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017.

Freedom, Donald Rumsfeld memorably pronounced, is messy. So too is history, although not the way political scientists do it. For political scientists and international-relations folks, especially in their more traditional security and policy-analytic guises, history is a source of data, a repository of cases, and, fundamentally, a storehouse of facts, neatly waiting to be trundled into a book or paper or rectangular dataset as needed. This is the only mindset under which the common conflation of “case” and “history” makes sense: cases can only be histories if histories themselves are simple and unproblematic once the relevant actors and factors are identified.

Among the most important cases in the study of security and policymaking in IR and foreign policy analysis are such well-worn topics as the outbreak of the First World War, the negotiations at the Conference of Versailles, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Recent scholarship has upended many of the conventional understandings of these events, with the rather salutary effect that scholars know more but “know” less about these traditional cases than they used to. In general, the more political scientists and IR types have adopted historical methodologies, the less they have found themselves trying to prove that a given theory was right. Instead, engaging in conversations with evidence, scholars have found that the evidence should inform the theory, even as the theory tells them where to look for evidence.

Yet with all the progress that has come in recent scholarship, there yet remains a sense that there is a canonical set of cases that not just students but scholars should respect. The trouble does not come from the investiture of a canon; without a shared vocabulary, how could we ever converse? Instead, it comes from the fact that these are canons of cases, and our understanding of cases remains mired in the idea that a case has an outcome and an initiation. If instead we decided to treat cases as investigations of histories–as artificial schemata imposed upon a complex, chaotic bundle–then we would recognize immediately the dangers, and the absurdities, of finding — indeed, requiring — an “end of history”.

In his The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis (2012, Norton), David Coleman does an excellent job of exploding just such an absurdity forced upon us by generations of scholarship, hagiography, and propaganda.

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The New Minority, Justin Gest [Review]

Like many people, in the aftermath of the election I discovered a keen interest in the reasons why so many White Americans had voted for Donald Trump. This followed from one of two puzzles that gripped me at about 8:30 pm Eastern time on 11/8. The first was, “How could Hillary lose?” The second, and the one more pertinent here, was “How could so many people vote for Trump?”

These questions have fueled two quite different reading agendas. Justin Gest’s compelling, excellent The New Minority fits comfortably into the second one. And I want to underscore how important the distinction is. Even had Trump lost, the question of how so many people voted for Trump should have dominated academic political science in the aftermath. To sum this up with “racism” or “classism” or “partisanship” is merely to label the unknown and pretend the labeling constitutes an answer. Exactly how does identity play into a vote for someone so manifestly unqualified? Exactly why would racism prove compatible with voting for Obama over Romney but Trump over Clinton? And why did Trump’s appeal resonate so much with people who had almost nothing in common with him? Nothing is so bizarre, then or now, as the spectacle of the disaffected, the marginal, the left out coming together in solidarity with the penthouse billionaire.

The answers to these questions will be different than the question of why Hillary lost. Nor does investigating this question require focusing on the politics of the white working class to the exclusion of Blacks, LGBT Americans, or immigrants. The surprising political power and the massive shift of this group make it worthy of study–not least because perhaps nobody, including themselves, thought that they mattered very much until the upheaval of 2016. One of Gest’s lessons is that had more work been done to integrate such perspectives earlier that the conditions for the calamity might not have occurred.

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The Silk Roads, Peter Frankopan [Review]

From time to time, I feel an obligate to perform counter-Eurocentricity by reading books that decenter Western Europe in world history. (That strange little corner of the world! The most marginal part of the most miserable part of the world in 1000 AD—its glories more akin to contemporary Somalia than to the splendor of the Song dynasties–and yet its descendants recount world history as if it were the omphalos.) Last year, it was Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, a highly readable (if perhaps a bit idiosyncratic) retelling of world history through, well, Islamic perspectives; the year before that, Pankaj Mishra’s The Ruins of Empire.(which I also used successfully in a college course). And this year, clearly, the world-history entry is Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.

Despite the cover and title, this is not really a book about the “Silk Road” (and note Frankopan’s “s”). This is about world history told as if the center of gravity of human history is somewhere nearer Tashkent than Tours. China, India, and the Levant figure far more prominently in the retelling than do Europe or Africa (and, for all the “new history of the world”, the New World seems terra incognita). Although Frankopan doesn’t really use the term in the manuscript, this is a history of crossroads and encounters–about how the forging of ties (usually economic) led to transformations (cultural and then political, or at other times the reverse) and the knitting together of the major human settlements throughout Eurasia.

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Stalin and the Scientists, Joseph Ings [Review]

Somehow, reading about the Soviet history has become my hobby. Readers should therefore appreciate in advance that my comments here are from a particular standpoint. And I should also note that I have no love for the Soviet state: I think that Ronald Reagan was more right than wrong when he called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.”


I also grew up in the shadow of the Cold War in the American Midwest. The demotic understanding of the USSR was that they were the bad guys–pre-1991, they were bad guys who wanted to kill (enslave? humiliate?) us, and post-1991 they were the bad guys who lost because their system was bad. The sophisticated explanation, based on a mishmash of Orwell, Chambers, and Koestler (often as translated through third- and fourth-hand impressions of those texts), was that Soviet society was a particular kind of evil, a melange of the gray and the violent.

Reprogramming myself from that perspective began with, surprisingly enough, a Time-Life book called, simply, The Soviet Union. I encountered this on my middle-school library’s shelves, which meant that this had to have happened post-collapse (1993 or 1994). I think I read it eight or nine times; I know for certain I stole it from the library (a sin, to be sure, but I don’t think that I’ve deprived anyone of its circulation!).  I was enthralled by the portrait of Soviet normalcy it portrayed: people getting married, people going to work, people attending poetry readings (a novel thought in more than one way), people engaging in “hero projects” to build the trans-Siberian railroad, and so on. The overwhelming takeaways were that the Soviets were … normal. Poor. Constricted. But normal. Everyday people made their life there, and considered other ways of living strange.

Heady stuff at 12 years of age

I know now about the fine variations in Soviet strategies of rule–the distinctions between 1937, 1957, and 1977 in the USSR are almost as familiar to me now as the parallel changes in, say, British life would be. But it’s in the spirit of that first shock that a culture could exist on so fundamentally different lines that I continue to read about Soviet history. In essence, I’m still trying to square the puzzle of my childhood: how could people living in a system so different from mine nevertheless seem so similar?

Simon Ings’s Stalin and the Scientists speaks more to my chosen career now (although I wish for a companion volume: Stalin and the Social Scientists). How did Soviets at the height of Stalinism do science? Ings’s answer is: cautiously, but with more dedication than one would expect.

Ings’s world of Soviet science focuses on the mixture of the political and the scientific. As he writes (xiv), “In the end, only obedience mattered. Stalin believed that science should serve the state.” For a political scientist, I will confess to a slight frisson at the idea that STEM should be so subordinated to the political; contemporary American discourse makes the opposite claim (frequently to its demerit). Of course, the result of this was awful: “It was counterproductive. It was tantamount to wrecking.” (xv) This led to a bizarre paradox: “By the time Stalin died on 5 March 1953, the Soviet Union boasted the largeest and best-funded scientific establishment in history. It was at once the glory and the laughing stock of the intellectual world.” (xv)

This was the system that produced both the first artificial satellite and Trofim Lysenko’s counter-Darwin explanation of evolution, both the first man in space and the waste of Kazakhstan’s virgin lands. So what happened?

At this point,  I have links to share. To learn more about the Soviet science system, I recommend:

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Analyzing the End of the World

Via the excellent What the End of the World Looked Like (click on picture for ink)

Originally published 14 October 2016 but lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017.

A message to participants in my class on The Politics of the End of the World.

How should we understand the “end of the world”? Answering this question matters. We can imagine plentiful ends of the world. This might seem like an oxymoron: how can there be more than one end of the world? On reflection, however, ends of the world are all around us (and behind us and in front of us). There have been several different “ends of the world” for life on Earth: the BBC lists five major extinction events, for example. Moreover, ends of the lines for species are commonplace: roughly 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are extinct. And if we turn to the future, we can mark out several different physical impending ends of the world, from the cessation of Earth’s ability to sustain life to the dissolution of stars to, in a hundred billion years or so, the likely heat death of the universe. All of these, and more, rank as “ends of the world” from one vantage point or another.

So the first task we have to do is establish the vantage point that we want to take in discussing various ends of the world. In doing so, we don’t want to participate in the sleight of hand that STEM-y types often unconsciously (or not) engage in: the equation of “the end of the world” with some physical or biological process that leads to the death of the human species, or near enough as to make no difference. We also want to consider the social processes that can lead to ends of the world. Sometimes, these are equally cataclysmic. Consider the fate of Yiddish-speaking civilization. Despite the valiant efforts of survivors and revivalists, Yiddish culture was largely extinguished during the Holocaust (the site is propaganda, but the point at the link isn’t really). If we take the broader point that the death of a language means the end of the worldview and culture associated with that language (a debatable point, but a not unreasonable one!), then we are faced with the fact that more than 90 percent of these social worlds have ended or will soon.

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Notes for Undergraduate Success

Originally published 17 October 2016 but lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017.

Some notes prepared for an undergraduate group-mentoring session.

There’s no great mystery to college success. All–or almost all–professors want you to succeed. All–or almost all–students want you to succeed. All–or almost all–of the people in your life want you to succeed. The only things you have to do in order to succeed is to build on that foundation in order to put the time and effort in to mastering course material, figuring out what you want to study, establishing how that relates to your goals for success later on in life, defining what “success” means to you, paying for college somehow, having a social life, broadening your horizons…

Well, you get the idea. At the 100,000-foot level, college success is pretty simple. You’re among the most favored people in the history of the human species. But up close and personal, the fact that you can afford to spend four (or however many…) years investing in yourself and your society doesn’t change the fact that succeeding in college is still hard.

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Phoenix, Arizona: A Quasi-Conspiracy Theory About Names

Originally published 7 August 2016, but lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017. I’m reposting here.

Like many people on the Internet, I enjoy selected conspiracy theories (for the record, my favorite remains the ones concerning Denver Airport). Read what follows in that spirit–except that I’m also quasi-serious.

I think the name of Phoenix, Arizona, reflects crypto-Confederate propaganda hiding in plain sight. My evidence for this is entirely circumstantial, but it seems a much better story than the received wisdom that it commemorates the rebirth of civilization on a site originally settled by the Hohokam people.

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Talking Points for Panel on Trump and Foreign Policy

Donald Trump Signs the Pledge, by Flickr User Michael Vadon

These were my notes for a presentation at a campuswide panel at UMASS delivered on 16 November 2016. They were originally posted then but were lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017. I’m reposting them here, unaltered.

What can we expect from the Trump administration in its foreign policy?

It is difficult to tell. The Trump campaign is perhaps the least vetted on foreign policy since–ironically–the Clinton ’92 campaign. Trump is long on attitudes and chauvinism (in the literal, textbook sense of that word), but he is short on specifics.

Three major trends seem likely:

  1. The liberal trade order will be substantially modified, if not ended.
  2. The U.S.-led alliance system will be substantially weakened, if not catastrophically eroded.
  3. The post-Second World War period of U.S. leadership and hegemony will likely come to a close.

Let me stress that what I am most certain of is the width of the error bars in my predictions, not in the point prediction itself. The Trump administration could be, at best, weakly mediocre in its exercise of U.S. leadership. The depth of foreign distrust and shock in the Trump administration — and in what it represents for U.S. legitimacy — cannot realistically permit anything more than that. The worst-case scenario, to be frank, is the worst-case scenario, and even if that remains unlikely it is much more likely than it was a couple of weeks ago.

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