Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Bible Unearthed / Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman -- NY: Simon and Schuster, 2002

In the 19th century, archaeologists began a concerted effort to uncover the remains of biblical places and events, and in the course of about 100 years, evidence began mounting to corroborate the historical accuracy of the Bible. Modern archaeological techniques have, however, cast doubt on these conclusions. A leading figure challenging the historicity of the Bible is Israel Finkelstein. His book The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origins of Its Sacred Texts is a persuasive summary of his main arguments. With his co-author Neil Asher Silberman, Finkelstein effective separates fact from legend regarding the patriarchs, the Exodus, Joshua's conquest of Canaan, the golden age of David and Solomon, and the subsequent history of Israel and Judah.

The argument against believing that the biblical stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob refer to historical individuals is based on numerous anachronisms. It was commonly thought that the patriarchs lived in the early second millennium B.C.E. However, camels -- a common pack animal in the stories -- were not domesticated until later in that millennium and were not commonly used in caravans until the first millennium B.C.E. Gum, balm, and myrrh were the common items of trade with the Arab world in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. Isaac's encounter with the Philistines is particularly problematic in that the Philistines did not arrive in Canaan until after 1200 B.C.E., and the stories suggest that the Philistine city of Gerar was of some significance, but it did not become eminent until the late eighth century B.C.E. A conservative reading of the evidence would indicate that the patriarchs might have existed, but that the stories about them were not finalized until the seventh century and that much of what is said about them cannot be true. More likely, they were legendary figures in the mold of the Greek heroes of the Iliad.

Finkelstein points out that there is no evidence that the Hebrews ever lived in Egypt. Given the huge amount of historical evidence from the period of the Exodus, it is easy to accept that the lack of reference to the Hebrews means that the stories of in Exodus are purely legendary.

Some of the best analyses in The Bible Unearthed refute the invasion of Canaan by Joshua. Early evidence suggested a number of cities that might have been destroyed by Joshua, but Finkelstein demonstrates that the destruction layers could not be of the time purported to Joshua. Furthermore, settlement patterns and material remains indicate that the Israeli population in the highlands of Judea and Samaria were a natural development from a mixed population of farmers and herders that regularly moved between the lowlands valleys and the hills.

Finkelstien does not, however, understand the monarchies of David and Solomon as purely legendary, but the archaeological evidence that Finkelstein presents makes them out to be minor chieftains of a marginal hill people. Evidence would suggest that the first great Israelite Kingdom began with the Omri dynasty, which flourished not in Judea, but in the north during the 9th century.

Examining the archaeological remains and comparing it with the Bible would indicate that the Pentatuch and the Deuteronomistic histories (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) were largely composed (or at least substantially completed) in the seventh century during the reign of Josiah in Judah. Josiah's reign followed the collapse of Samarian Israel and was strengthened by a large influx of Israeli refugees. The strict "Yahweh-Alone" movement that characterized Josiah's time would have greatly benefited from a sweeping national epic that delegitimized all political and religious tendency that were not faithful to Yahweh and centered on the temple in Jerusalem.

The strength of The Bible Unearthed lies in its methodology. Instead of starting with the biblical texts and seeking archaeological support those texts, Finkelstien begins with the facts on (or in) the ground and compares the biblical text to these. What does not conform to the facts then must be reinterpreted. As iconoclastic as the arguments seem to be, they have come to be the orthodoxy among biblical archaeologists and provide a fascinating new story of the history that has been central to the Middle Eastern and European world views for millennia.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Constitutional and Political History of the United States, Vol. 1 / Hermann von Holst -- Chicago: Callaghan and Co., 1889

Von Holst describes his eight volume work The Constitutional and Political History of the United States as the work of a lifetime and after reading volume one and volume seven, I can say that it was a worthwhile life. The first volume, entitled State Sovereignty and Slavery traces the political currents of the period 1750-1833. Von Holst makes two clear and strong arguments. First, the fundamental constitutional question of the time was state sovereignty and second, either explicitly or implicitly, the status of slavery animated the dispute between federalists and states rights advocates. There is, however, a third mostly subtextual argument: specific political commitments usually trumped commitments to constitutional principles.

The volume begins by describing attitudes toward government and national identity in the colonial period through the period governed by the Articles of Confederation. The inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation led to the Constitutional Convention that resulted in the adoption of the Constitution. Von Holst's description of the negotiations leading to adoption is compelling.

The great bulk of the book, however, traces the political conflicts that strained the bonds of union. The imposition of a tax on wiskey led to threats of rebellion in Western Pennsylvania, which was suppressed by resolute proclamations from President Washington and a lessening of the tax. Later, in the wake of Genet's mission to the U.S., the "XYZ Affair," and the Alien and Sedition Laws during the Adams administration, Madison and Jefferson drafted the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, proclaiming the authority of the states to "interpose" (Madison) themselves between the federal government and the state or to "nullify" (Jefferson) federal laws. These resolutions served as the cornerstones for future secessionist arguments.

Seccessionist arguments came, however, from the federalists as well. During Jefferson's administration, the embargo against England rankled Northeastern commercial interests so much that talk of succession arose there. Jefferson needed to insist on the authority of the federal government to maintain the embargo against federalist objections. Later, during the War of 1812, anti-war sentiment rose so high in New England that Rhodes Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut sent delegates to a convention in Hartford to discuss seccession. The report of the convention asserted the value of establishing a separate league of states for self protection and implicitly recognized the right of secession.

Von Holst's treatment of the period following the War of 1812 tends to be more political than constitutional. In particular, he examines the disputes over slavery, in particular the extension of slavery to Florida, the Alabama territory, and the territory of the Louisiana purchase. However, his analysis inevitably returns to assertions of the right of states to secede and these assertions invariably come from those states that appear to be losing the battle for or against slavery.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the union prior to the Civil War came during Jackson's administration. Though ostensibly a states rights Democrat, Jackson opposed South Carolina's attempt to nullify the federal tarrif. Holst presents this conflict compellingly. The result was a political win-win which solved nothing. South Carolina insisted upon the right to nullify federal law, Jackson declared that federal troops would enforce federal law, and the tarrif that was the source of the conflict was reduced to a level that South Carolina could accept. Consequently, neither side needed to assert its claim in practice.

The tarrif nullification crisis demonstrated that federalists and states rights advocates were willing to use consitutional principles to assert their political agendas, but that in the end, a political compromise was always better than pushing the issue to civil war -- that is, of course, until 1861.

What is most clearly revealed in this volume is how tenuous the bonds of union were in the first decades of the nation's history. One is left with the impression that the bulk of opinion, among all parties, was that the federal government had no right to compell states to remain in the union, but that presidents appealed to the minority opinion in favor of federal supremacy to further their objectives. All that kept the union intact were political compromises sufficient to stay rebellion.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Science of Yoga / I.K. Taimni -- Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1975.

Patanjali's Yoga-Sutra is widely recognized as the most important treatise describing the philosophy and practice of yoga. Written sometime between the 2nd century B.C.E and the 4th century, the Yoga-Sutra outlines Patanjali's eight steps to liberation and self-realization. The work is composed of 196 aphorisms, grouped into four sections. By themselves, the aphorisms do not communicate a great deal to anyone not already familiar with the philosophy and practice of yoga. Consequently, numerous scholars and yogis have written commentaries explaining the significance of each aphorism. Among thes commentaries is I.K. Taimni's The Science of Yoga.

While a commentary probably is necessary for a deep understanding of the Yoga-Sutra, it is difficult for someone new to yoga to know if any particular commentary accurately conveys the ideas of Patanjali. This is especially true in that yoga tradition admits of numerous paths to liberation and self-realization unique to whatever is effective for a practitioner. Under the circumstances, one might reasonably abandon the need to gain an accurate understanding of Patanjali, and simply entertain whatever interpretation seems to make sense, leaving the pursuit of Patanjali's actual views to more advanced scholars.

If one approaches Yoga-Sutra commentary in this fashion, I.K. Taimni's The Science of Yoga is likely to be rewarding to anyone seeking a pragmatic approach to yoga. It will not, however, completely satisfy anyone with a moderately skeptical disposition. Nonetheless, there is much that is worthwhile in the commentary, if one cares to separate the practical, experiential claims from those relying on non-falsifiable claims.

The truely valuable aspects of the work come in the elaboration of Patanjali's eight steps to liberation and self-realization or Raja-Yoga. These steps are yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. Yama and niyama are essentially moral practices. Yama refers to the concerted effort to do no harm. Niyama refers to a set of positive practices that cultivate purity and self-discipline. Asana refers to the yogic practice most well-known around the world, that of assuming physical postures that stretch and strengthen the body. Pranayama is the practice of breath control for the purpose of preparing the yogi for later stages of meditation. Pratyahara refers to withdrawing from the objects of the senses such that one is no longer drawn to pleasures and driven from pains, thereby enhancing one's autonomy.

The last three steps, dharana, dhayana, and samadhi, make up three stages of concentration and meditation. These are the most signficant yogic practices. All others might be seen as preparations for these. It is in the description of these that Taimni's Science of Yoga really stands out. Roughly put, the goal of yoga is to free oneself from the delusions of ordinary life and realize one's true self in union with pure consciousness or the absolute. Yogic practices are attempts to eliminate the obstacles to that supreme spiritual state. The most important obstacles are delusions about the self and its relation to reality.

Dharana is the first stage of meditation, seeking to escape delusions of materialism. Here the yogi meditates on external objects until one recognizes the distinction between the object and the mental impressions of an object. In this stage the yogi has transcended naive realism and simple materialism and thoroughly accepts idealism, rather in line with the metphysics of George Berkeley. A clear self-consciousness brings awareness to the self in a mental state that is distinct from ordinary unselfconscious engagement with the objects of the world. In dharana, the self is separated from the material world.

Dhayana is the second stage of meditation in which the true self is discovered to be yet deeper within consciousness. Just as dharana separated the self from the material world, dhayana separates the self from the impressions that are present to the self. The self is now the observer separate from the observed. More radically, the self is not even the thoughts or ideas that pass into and through one's consciousness, but is that which is afflicted by thoughts and ideas, all alien to the self.

Finally, when the yogi is firmly established in dhayana, she can enter the highest state of consciousness, samadhi, in which "the mind's own form or essential nature disappears, as it were." There are no distractions separating the self from ultimate reality.

Taimni's account of passing through these stages is a remarkably lucid phenomenology of meditation. This alone, makes his complex and detailed 446 page work most rewarding.

Patanjali's Yoga-Sutra contains many aphorisms aluding to the fantastic abilities acquired by advanced yogis, for example, levitation, extrasensory perception, knowledge of past lives, and the ability to take control of the bodies of other people. Despite Taimni's assertions that these claims are founded on sound scientific methods, i.e., the experience of advanced yogis, his case for them is remarkably weak, given that he was a Professor of Chemistry at Allahabad University. It fails on the grounds that these abilities are known to only advanced yogis who, having no interest in the material world, do not show off these abilities. One must take it on faith that the practice of yoga leads to these abilities.

One might argue by analogy that the validity of proofs in extremely advanced mathematics are only known to a tiny number of very advanced mathematicians. The analogy fails, however, in that the extraordinary claims of the yogi are the sort that should be easily demonstrated. That yogis choose not to demonstrate them seems entirely too convenient.

Setting aside these essentially superstitious claims, Taimni's commentary on Patanjali lucidly describes methods that have reliably led countless yoga practitioners to a liberation and self-realization that induces a profound spiritual peace. While yoga is generally associated with Hinduism and the traditions of India, the practice is perfectly compatible with many other religious, philosophical, and spiritual views and traditions. A year or so of practicing the asanas alone is enough to demonstrate its worth to most anyone.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ugarit and the Old Testament / Peter C. Craigie -- Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdman's Publishing, 1983

A full understanding the Old Testament requires not only knowledge of the text itself, but also of the culture out of which it came; however, if we are limited to the Old Testament to understand its culture, then a full understanding of the Old Testament is not possible. We need, instead, additional sources of information to provide the context. Numerous archaeological and historical resources are available for this, but perhaps the most interesting are the ancient artifacts uncovered at Ras Shamra in Syria on the Mediterranean coast.

Beginning in 1929, archaeological digs at Ras Shamra have produced a wealth of cuneiform tablets from what has been determined to be the ancient city of Ugarit. These tablets, along with the ruins of buildings and other artifacts, shed a clear light on the culture of the Old Testament as life in Ugarit appears to have been similar to life among the Hebrews. This can be concluded from the temporal and spacial proximity of the two cultures, the similarity of their physical environment, and the similarity between ancient Hebrew and the language of the Ugarit cuneiform tablets.

Ugarit was destroy approximately in 1200 B.C., just centuries prior to the settlement of the Hebrews in Canaan, and while this might seem like a long time from a modern perspective, the pace of cultural change in the ancient world was very much slower than the pace of change in modern times. Linguistically, Ugaritic is nearer to Hebrew than any other middle eastern language. Consequently, we can conclude that the cultures are likely to be more closely tied to one another than the culture of the Hebrews is to any other known contemporary or near-contemporary culture.

Like the Hebrew's Hebron, Ugarit was a small city state that expanded to become a small buffer state between two ancient superpowers. Both maintained this status for several centuries. Ugarit appears to have been more cosmopolitan than Israel, probably due to its role as a regional trading center.

The Ugarit tablets provide a wide variety of information about life in Ugarit, including its religion. Three deities are prominent in the texts: El, Baal, and Dagon. It is noteworthy that the world "el" is used in biblical texts to refer to God, as in for example, "Elohim" and "Bethel" (house of God). Furthermore, the character of Baal appears strikingly similar to Yahweh. Both are, for example, sky gods who made their earthly homes in sacred temples within a city or cities; however, the Hebrews made a transition possiblty from polytheism through henotheism and finally to monotheism. All three gods mentioned in the Ugarit tablets are mentioned in the Old Testament, indicating a direct connection between the writers of the Old Testament and the writers of the Ugarit tablets.

Beyond making these sorts of connections, Peter Craigie's Ugarit and the Old Testament gives close analyses of some of the Ugaritic texts, showing their similarity to certain biblical passages, particularly Psalm 29, Psalm 104, Amos 7:14-15, Deuteronomy 14:21, Exodus 23:19. Craigie also suggests that the Hebrews were not unique in understanding themselves as having a "covenant" with their god, but that this relationship was common in Canaan's religious milieu. Craigie also provides an interesting glimpse into Ugarit in its own right, describing its most prominent buildings, libraries, languages, populations, and commercial relations with the Egyptian and Hittite empires. Furthermore, Ugarit's access to the Mediterranean made it an important commercial gateway between Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations.

Ugarit and the Old Testament provides a very interesting -- though brief -- tour of the discoveries of Ras Shamra and their significance. It leaves the reader hungry from more.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Lost Road and Other Writings / J.R.R. Tolkien -- New York: Ballantine Books, 1996

Following J.R.R. Tolkien's death, his son Christopher Tolkien began combing through Tolkien's papers to provide the world with posthumous works much in demand. Among the material the Christopher published is the twelve-volume series The History of Middle-earth. Volume Five The Lost Road and Other Writings is among the most important of the series. In it, we find versions of the stories that serve as the backdrop for The Hobbit and especially The Lord of the Rings. Furthermore, the versions in Volume Five were written just before the time of the writing of The Lord of the Rings. Consequently, they give us the clearest picture of Tolkien's legendarium as it bears on understanding The Lord of the Rings.

The first part of the work details the history of Numenor and its fall. Numenor was an island created for the race of men who fought with their half-kin the elves in the epic battle against Morgoth. Ultimately, the Numenoreans were seduced by Saron into waging war against the Valar, the gods who inhabited the forbidden Western land of Valinor. Upon the defeat of the Numenoreans, the island of Numenor was submerged into the ocean, with only a remnant of the race (loyal to the gods) escaping to Middle-earth. With the destruction of Numenor, the Valar reshaped the planet -- Arda -- such that it was now impossible for mortals to travel "the road" to the forbidden shores of Valinor, forever separating the men Middle-earth from alinor; hence, the story of "the lost road."

The Lost Road itself was an attempt by Tolkien to write a time travel story in which the travelers found their way back to Numenor through the vehicle of dreaming. The Lost Road was never completed, though Tolkien again attempted the story in a later work known as The Notion Club Papers. The Notion Club Papers can be found in Volume Nine of The History of Middle-earth -- Sauron Defeated.

Time travel as conceived in The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers bears an interesting relationship to the work that Tolkien was engaged in as a philologist. Reconstructing dead, prehistoric languages from the remnants of descendant historical languages and thereby recreating the prehistoric culture is at least as much an art as a science. It inevitably involves creativity and imagination which are most at liberty in our dreams. How much Tolkien saw his work as a philologist as traveling through time is an open question, but The Lost Road is strong evidence that this is how he conceived of it.

Part two of Volume Five reaches even further back in the history of Arda, providing a description of its creation, annals of the world before the fall of Morgoth, and a version of the Quenta Silmarillion which tells the history of elves from their origins to the fall of their arch enemy, Morgoth. It also includes a version of The Llammas, a treatise on the history of the languages of the people of Arda.

Much of the material in Volume Five appears in earlier published work by Tolkien, particularly The Silmarillion. After each section by Tolkien, Christorpher makes an heroic effort to describe how the present version differs from other versions, but the level of detail is too great for the casual reader to appreciate the distinctions. Setting the texts side by side and using Christopher's notes as a guide might yield valuable insight into the transformation of Tolkien's creation, but in the end, it would probably only be of interest to the most dedicated Tolkien scholar. Nonetheless, Tolkien's narative, given to us in The Lost Road and Other Writings will reward anyone who appreciates Tolkien's work.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

History in English Words / Owen Barfield -- Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 1967

A lot of people are very fond of tracing the origins of words, such that a dictionary that does not provide etymological information can be a real disappointment. Our fascination for etymology, however, usually stops short of a passion for philology, i.e., understanding the relationship between words and culture and the principles that lie behind the changes in words and their meanings. The 19th century saw the heyday of philology, though a good deal of philological work was done in the early part of the 20th century; but by that time, there was a struggle in academic English departments between professors of literature and professors of language. With the rise of linguistics departments, the professors of language tended to lose ground in English departments, bringing on the decline of philology.

Owen Barfield's History in English Words is a late reminder of how fascinating philology can be. Barfield strategically selects words that have entered the English language to provide a brisk history of the English speaking people. As the conditions of life and our perspectives on the world changed, our language changed to express these new conditions and perspectives. Our history is revealed in our language.

Barfield's first chapter, "Philology and the Aryans," reaches back to the millennia prior to the advent of English. This is perhaps the most speculative, but also most interesting, facets of philology -- the attempt to identify common roots in recorded languages, to reconstruct prehistoric languages and thereby shed light on prehistoric culture. By the second chapter, "The Settlement of Europe," Barfield's subject becomes historical and he begins employing his primary method of study -- selecting newly introduced words to illustrate the changing currents of culture. In the early Middle Ages, words such as altar, candle, clerk, creed, deacon, hymn, martyr, mass, nun, priest, shrine, and temple entered the English language. This was, of course, a reflection of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, the absence of such institutions among the pagan Anglo-Saxons, and the centrality of religion to the lives of the post-conversion English speakers.

Later, in Modern England, the language was supplemented by a huge infusion of French and Latin words, but also words from other European languages, reflecting the integration of Europe and international commerce. Indeed, the Age of Discovery brought words to English from all over the world; however, the simple borrowing of words from other languages to enrich English does not adequately illustrate Barfield's study. The real work is done in subsequent chapters in which Barfield identifies important currents in the zietgeist of the English speaking people, for example, the rise of experimental science, the discovery of individuality, personality, and reason, and the hegemony of a mechanistic world view. Barfield illustrates each of these new currents of thinking with the new words that entered the English langauge that were needed to express the new ideas.

Much of this is not surprising, but some is quite startling and revealing. Barfield observes that after the Reformation a host of new words entered the language that began with the prefix "self-," e.g., self-conceit, self-liking, self-love, self-confidence, self-command, self-contempt, self-esteem, and self-pity, among others. Today we use most of these words without thinking, but their sudden, simultaneous appearance in our language is evidence of an important change in how people thought of themselves. The explosion of the "self-" prefix seems to reveal something much more subtle and deeper in the cultural changes of the time, whereas the appearance of new scientific terms to describe new instruments and processes is relatively unremarkable.

History in English Words is alternately unenlightening and exquisitely surprising, since much of the changes to our language are ones that we would easily understand and predict, given our general understanding of history, but others reveal a largely imperceptible plasticity of culture not marked by what is obvious to any historian.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook / Alan Lee -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005

Peter Jackson's series of movies based on The Lord of the Rings was nominated for thirty Academy Awards, winning seventeen. All three movies were nominated for Best Art Direction and the third movie, "The Return of the King" won in this category. Much of the art in the movies was based on the drawings and and paintings of Alan Lee. Work on the movies was, however, not Lee's first effort to depict Middle-earth. By the time of the release of "The Fellowship of the Ring," Lee's vision of Middle-earth had become widely known among Tolkien fans. So by hiring him to work on the films, Peter Jackson ensured that a large portion of his audience would leave the theater thinking, "That's exactly how I pictured it." It was as if a film of Alice in Wonderland would have John Tenniel involved in its art direction.

The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook is a fine collection of work by Alan Lee which takes the reader through the story of The Lord of the Rings by presenting sketches of critical images, including characters, buildings, landscapes, locations, armour, props, and more. Accompanying the sketches are brief paragraphs in which Lee explains his art or elaborates on the subject that image depicts. Lee also provides a peak behind the scenes of the making of the movies.

The book does not have any great pretensions. It neither provides any deep insight into Tolkieana nor does it treat Lee's art as more than story board illustrations. It is nevertheless an enjoyable romp through Middle-earth and Peter Jackson's movies.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide / Peter Del Tredici -- Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010

For at least a century, American botanists have raised the alarm over the invasion of non-native plant species. The immigration to North America of people from all over the world has brought with it food crops, ornamental plants, and stow-away seeds that have found a congenial new habitat in the Americas. The primary concern is that these non-native species are sometimes "invasive," meaning they exist without natural predators and therefore spread out of control. Their success crowds out many native species, thus reducing the diversity of the native ecosystem and damaging the health of the environment.

Despite the apparent threats, Peter Del Tredici, Senior Research Scientist at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, is not so alarmed about non-native invasives. Starting from the premise that our native ecosystem has been irreparably transformed by urban development, native species are now as alien to the new urban ecosystem as non-natives. For Del Tredici, the important question in the urban setting is not whether the plant thrived in a by-gone local ecosystem, but whether the plant provides "ecosystem services" that would not otherwise be provided to the city.

In place of the native/non-native distinction, Del Tredici distinguishes plants that grow spontaneously in the urban environment versus plants that require cultivation. In the concrete jungle, Ailanthus altissima (the tree-of-heaven) is able to grow without any help from us, and according to Del Tredici, without this species, our urban tree canopy would be greatly impoverished. Replacing them with "native" species and maintaining natives would require an enormous effort for little or no increased benefit. Among the ecological benefits that spontaneous plants can provide to the city are temperature reduction, food and habitat for wildlife, erosion control, riparian stabilization, nutrient absorption, soil building, and phytoremediation or the ability to absorb and store heavy metals thereby cleaning contaminated sites.

Del Tredici's argument is persuasive, but only as long as we accept that our urban environments will be built without caring that they be hospitable to formerly native species. Careful urban planning can increase the areas that are compatible with native plants and thereby preserve the local biological heritage. Del Tredici would, however, point out that this reflects a cultural value judgement and can not be defended on the basis of biodiversity or ecological services. On the other hand, invasives are often able to spread rapidly outside of the urban environment and into relatively undisturbed ecosystems. Such escapees from the city likely pose all the threats to native species about which botanists warned us.

Del Tredici's argument in favor of spontaneous plants makes up just 23 of the book's 374 pages. The rest of the book is, as the subtitle states, a field guide in which spontaneous urban plants are cataloged and described in a manner traditional to such field guides. Each entry includes, however, information on the ecological functions and cultural significance of the plant described. This is consistent with Del Tredici's two primary goals, "to teach people how to identify the plants that are growing in urban areas, and to counter the widespread perception that these plants are ecologically harmful or useless and should be eliminated from the landscape." Each entry also includes five or six useful color photographs of the plant or its near cousins.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Library Ethics / Jean Preer -- Westport, Conn: Libraries Unlimited, 2008

The following review is scheduled to be published in The Library Quarterly, 81(1), 2011.

There are two common approaches to thinking about ethics: descriptive and normative. Descriptive ethics attempts to understand the ethical standards employed by a person, institution, or society. Normative ethics attempts to justify specific ethical standards. Jean Preer’s Library Ethics is mainly descriptive. She writes, “this book will examine how our understanding of library ethics has evolved along with the development of librarianship itself” (p. xiii) and “librarians developed rules in practice that were determined by institutions, customs, and local needs. Indeed, ethics relates to ‘custom,’ the word deriving from ethos, the way things are done” (p. 2.). Often works of descriptive ethics are inherently conservative. They guide us by describing prevailing practices. Preer’s work does a fair job of avoiding this trap by giving fair accounts of countervailing ethical tendencies. In the end, the reader gains a firm understanding of the main ethical challenges facing the profession as well as the evolving answers to those challenges as codified in the American Library Association (ALA) Code of Ethics, the ALA Library Bill of Rights, and other documents. Moreover, the reader is poised to consider these issues more deeply and with fresh eyes.

Early on, Preer addresses the professional aspirations of 19th and early 20th century librarians. A code of ethics is presented as an essential element of any profession. While the aspiration to professional status may seem self-serving, the 1938 ALA Code gave guidance to library workers who sought to understand what the profession expected of them. One year later, the ALA Library Bill of Rights was a promise to patrons, communities, and the world as to what they could expect from the profession.

In tracing the subsequent development of these documents, Preer describes a transformation of ethical imperatives from concrete obligations to broad assertions of professional values. Her history begins with statements by eminent librarians, most importantly Charles Knowles Bolton’s 1909 library code. Bolton prescribed library administrators’ obligations to the library’s board, staff, and patrons. The 1938 ALA Code of Ethics preserved Bolton’s approach with its implicit value of library service; however, according to Preer, the social conditions and the practice of librarianship gradually changed the profession’s ethical foundations. In 1975, the ALA adopted a Statement on Professional Ethics in which specific obligations gave way to an assertion of values; furthermore, the explicit value of access replaced the implicit value of service.

Preer presents the re-conceptualization of library ethics from obligations to values as an advance, but it is hard to see how this is so. To provide concrete help in behaving ethically, a code must not be couched in overly general, ambiguous statements of value, particularly when the code includes multiple conflicting values, e.g., freedom of information and respect for copyright. This is not to say that statements of value are useless, but they must be able to specify obligations that direct our actions. Perhaps a more useful way to think about this history is that the elements of a general formula have been emphasized differently over time. Consider the basic ethical formula: “Librarian A has an obligation to B (a patron, community, or society) to do or not do action X.” Bolton’s code and the 1938 ALA Code more or less explicitly specified the formula’s variables, but by 1975, the object of our obligations (B) had become amorphous and the substance of our obligations (X) had become abstract. Given these changes, we indeed might want to characterize our code as asserting “values.” On the other hand, we simply may have abandoned the difficult work of identifying our obligations in favor of bromides that will pass in the ALA Council.

The more consequential evolution that Preer identifies is our shift from valuing service to valuing access. In the 19th and early 20th century, our ability to provide access was relatively limited. We, therefore, emphasized our role as educators. Preer quotes Alvin Johnson, president of the New School, as observing, “Not buildings nor even book collections, but trained, intelligent, enterprising library service makes a real library” (p. 10); but as the publishing industry expanded, as our collections grew, and as we developed increasingly sophisticated tools for controlling information, our emphasis shifted toward helping each patron access whatever information she or he could identify. The role that information plays in a democratic society ennobled this effort, but when access is the paramount value, the librarian’s primary role is technocratic. We identify the requested item or meme and provide it, increasingly “just in time” rather than “just in case.” We become, essentially, unfiltered search engines.

It is noteworthy that with the expansion of free, full-text internet access to increasing shares of the information universe, access is slipping out of the hands of librarians and into the hands of advertisers, like Google. If our primary value is access, this trend will undermine our reason for being and potentially doom the profession. The following might be as self-serving as developing a “professional” code of ethics, but resurrecting the venerable value of service could give us a more lasting future. At the same time, it will resurrect important ethical problems that faded with the valorization of access.

When service is paramount, other ethical obligations arise. Preer describes an early role of librarians as educators who sought to raise the intellectual and cultural standards of the community. She quotes ALA President Arthur Bostwick’s 1909 presidential address, saying that the books to be collected “must be morally beneficial, contain accurate information or satisfy the esthetic sense in its broadest meaning” (p. 90). Today, most librarians recoil from a role that seems to objectify goodness, truth, and beauty, but this might be only because of our recent, overriding commitment to ostensibly neutral access. Against this, the explosion of readily available information and the commercial provision of this information leaves patrons in need informed advice about which information sources to take seriously and which to ignore. A new day may be dawning for the services of the reader advisor.

Clearly, a move back to valuing service over access would resurface numerous ethical issues. Many of these issues are valuably illuminated by Preer’s fourth and fifth chapters, “Access: What Information” and “Conflicts of Interest: Philosophical.” Her fourth chapter focuses on issues of censorship and obscenity, but it also discusses quality assessment and selection criteria. Separating the wheat from the chaff can be the service that librarians add to ready online access. In her fifth chapter, Preer addresses significant ethical pitfalls on this path. It is difficult to know how we can set aside our “personal” beliefs when selecting items for their goodness, truth, and beauty. Indeed, what counts as a “personal” belief and whether we should set them aside merits examination. Different criteria might be needed for writing general guides versus offering specific advice to individual patrons. In any case, the expertise of the librarian would certainly be at a premium with this restored educational role. We would no longer be technocratic experts in document delivery, but we would become qualified subject specialists whose task would be to provide our patrons with the best of what they want, not merely anything that approximates it. This would require knowing the subject matter, the available resources, and the specific needs of the patron. In school and academic libraries a certain amount of paternalism would be in order just as teachers have an obligation to use their expertise to guide the research of their students. The ethics of librarians would begin to look more like the ethics of teachers.

Preer’s eighth chapter, “Confidentiality,” deserves special attention. Preer notes that confidentiality (or privacy) initially appears in conflict with access, but she does an admirable job of explaining how freedom of expression is predicated on freedom of inquiry which in turn requires a safe environment for inquiry. This can only come about when researchers have reasonable assurances that their research will not be made known against their will. Preer goes on to apply this principle to several circumstances and patron populations. The chapter ends with a succinct discussion of privacy in the era following Sept. 11, 2001 and the advent and implications of the USA PATRIOT Act.

Throughout Library Ethics, Preer traces the ethical attitudes within the library profession and how these attitudes became expressed in codes, statements, and particular policies. It is, as she declares, an examination of library ethics based on practice. Preer largely escapes the conservativism of descriptive ethics through the depth and sensitivity of her treatment of the issues. One might say that Library Ethics begs the normative ethical questions in a good way. The reader is left understanding many of the ethical issues that have challenged librarians as well as understanding how and why ethics codes and statements were promulgated. Equipped with this knowledge, the reader is primed to ask the ultimately more important normative questions.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains / Nicholas Carr -- NY: W.W. Norton, 2010

Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains is a thoughtful examination of how digital communication technology might inexorably be changing fundamental human mental capacities. His argument begins by noting that our brains are not like computer hardware with a fixed, physical configuration that changes only insofar as it naturally degrades. Instead, brain circuitry is part of a living, changing organism, that is reconfigured by use and disuse. This phenomenon, known as “neuroplasticity,” is well established in the scientific literature.

Following Marshall MacLuhan’s thesis in Understanding Media, Carr argues that the medium that transmits information more profoundly affects our lived experience than the information content that it transmits. As cases in point, Car presents the changes that took place with the advent of typographical spaces between words, the printing press, and finally, the “electric media,” culminating in the internet.

Prior to the printing press, reading and writing was done by a tiny minority of people working as professional scribes. These people became practiced at the careful examination of texts that were written in scriptura continua, i.e., text written without spaces between words. Reading scriptura continua meant that reading was tantamount to solving a puzzle, accomplished by sounding aloud the letters to slowly form the coded message. Consequently, readers became practiced at the careful examination of individual characters and the translation of these symbols into sounds. The assimilation of the meaning was slow and interrupted.

With the advent of spaces between words, words could be quickly recognized as wholes, allowing a text to be read easily, quickly, and silently. According to Carr’s thesis, the shift from reading scriptura continua to reading text with spaces would have caused a significant reconfiguration of the brains of readers, activating and expanding new neurocircuits. It would have reduced certain basic mental capacities while it improved others. As reading became less difficult, readers experienced a state of mind Carr calls “deep reading,” in which readers could become completely engrossed in the content of the text. Reading became a meditative act. This also changed writing in that authors could assume that readers were “attentive” and “deeply engaged both intellectually and emotionally,” thus allowing more complex literary forms.

As the printing press expanded the universe of readers, more and more people developed the mental capacities for deep concentration and sustained attention. Deep reading fostered deeper thinking and the development of more complex mental schemas that foster long-term memory and understanding. With changes to brain circuitry, these capacities could be employed not only when reading, but during other activities.

Of course, all of this changed with the advent of what McLuhan called the “electric media,” which is becoming mature in the internet. This is Carr’s main concern. Unlike the deep reading fostered by books, the internet is fostering short, superficial bursts of reading and viewing. Its designers are seeking to constantly interrupt us and lure us to a new Web site where new content and advertisements can seize our attention briefly before moving us on to the next Web site. We find ourselves scanning information for interesting fragments and multi-tasking because we are lured out of one task before it is complete to begin another. We are not reading in the traditional sense, we are “power browsing.”

Proponents of this new form of information acquisition suggest that the wealth of information now available to us will allow us to make more and various connections between intellectual content and generate novel ideas, but Carr argues that while power browsing may be exhilarating, and may seem to be connecting us quickly to just the information we seek, the gains are ephemeral. Citing research on working memory and long-term memory, he notes that power browsing does not allow us the time to fix the information presented to our working memory in long-term memory. It is out of long-term memory that we construct our conceptual schema that allows us a deep understanding of the world. As a result, power browsing not only diminishes our capacity for sustained concentration, it undermines the sort of intelligence that has been promoted by the literary mind.

Carr's thesis is provocative, but he is at pains not to overstate it. Throughout The Shallows, Carr reminds us that the internet is not only impoverishing specific intellectual powers, it is improving others. For example, experienced Web surfers are able to quickly identify on a Web page the item or fragment of information that they seek. This ability to pick out what is critical in a cluttered visual field is a "bottom-up" brain mechanism that transfers to other contexts just as the "top-down" ability for sustained concentration translates across contexts. Nonetheless, Carr’s sympathies are clearly with deep reading.

Certainly, proponents of the internet will down play what is lost with the decline of deep reading and play up what is gained with the ascent of power browsing, but Carr’s warning is hard to ignore. Neuroplasticity makes our changing reading habits much more significant than one might originally think, and I expect that many people who already have developed the habit of deep reading will recognize the cognitive changes that Carr observes coming from working with electronic media, particularly the internet. Perhaps it is because the assessment of the value of this change is coming from a deep reader, but it certainly seems that something very valuable is being replaced with something terribly, terribly shallow.

It is also interesting to consider Carr's claims in the context of Jaron Lanier's recent book, You Are Not a Gadget (reviewed in this blog). Lanier warns that the internet is increasingly dehumanizing us by reducing us to fragmented content contributors to a vast network of computers. He warns that our very personhood is being reduced to what can be indexed in social networking metadata and presented by Web search engines. "You are not a gadget" is Lanier's rallying cry to resist this dehumanization. Unfortunately, if Carr is right about the restructuring of our brains, one might argue that the internet is, indeed, slowly, but inexorably, turning us into gadgets.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Merchants of Doubt / Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway -- N.Y.: Bloomsbury Press, 2010

If I were to nominate a "Book of the Year," it would certainly be Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Their history of "how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming" is timely and important.

Meticulously researched, Merchants of Doubt traces the formation and development of a contrarian cabal of scientists. Funded by commercial interest groups, these scientists implemented a concerted strategy to discredit scientific research that might lead to the regulation of industry. In some instances, the effort led to the defamation of the scientists behind the research.

Four names stand out in the origins of the effort: Robert Jastrow, William Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and Fred Singer. All were physicists who had worked on important defense projects during the Cold War and all were ardent anti-communists. Two of their early efforts to affect the public debate surrounding scientific conclusions were the defense of the tobacco industry and the defense of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.

In the 1960s, Seitz led the effort (paid for by the tobacco industry) to sew doubt on the connection between tobacco and cancer, despite the industry's full knowledge that smoking caused cancer. This was done through the "Council for Tobacco Research," formerly the "Tobacco Industry Research Council," which had been renamed to avoid its obvious connection to the tobacco industry. Seitz was following the footsteps of C.C. Little whose work for the tobacco industry also attempted to sew doubt about the dangers of smoking. There is "no proof" served as the public relations mantra of the industry and it was lent credibility by a small number of scientists on their payroll. Eventually, they could delay public acceptance of the science no longer. Tobacco was regulated and the industry was convicted of racketeering.

Robert Jastrow lead the effort to promote the perception that a space-based anti-ballistic missile system would not only be possible, but would ensure the safety of the public, adopting the premise that a nuclear war was winnable. This effort pitted him against Carl Sagan whose research with four other scientists suggested that even a limited nuclear exchange would plunge the world into a "nuclear winter." Later research suggested that the consequences would not be a severe as Sagan et al. thought, but they would be sufficient to destroy global food production. So contrary to Jastrow's claims, a nuclear war could not be won. Nonetheless, Jastrow pressed his claims by creating the George C. Marshall Institute, with Fred Seitz as the founding chair. In the end, not only has it been accepted that a limited nuclear war would have dire consequences for the planet's ecosystem and vital global economy, but that the possibility of a workable space-based nuclear defense shield is a fantasy.

As the debate over the Strategic Defense Initiative wound down, one participant in the debate, William Nierenberg, co-founder of the Marshall Institute, was appointed by President Reagan to chair the Acid Rain Peer Review Panel, charged with reviewing the results of U.S.-Canadian research on acid rain. His panel included Fred Singer who was suggested to him by the White House. Nierenberg's panel recommended significant reductions in sulfur emissions to control acid rain; however, after showing the draft to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Nierenberg returned the report to the committee with changes that significantly reduced the level of confidence in the danger of sulfur emissions.

More amazingly, Fred Singer, charged with writing the final chapter, could not draft anything that the other eight members of the committee could accept. Still, Singer's chapter became an appendix that completely rejected the force of the Panel's report. To top it off, at the behest of the OSTP, Neirenberg attached -- without the consent of the committee -- an executive summary which belied the report's conclusions. These changes confused the public reception of the panel's conclusions, resulting in significant misunderstandings of the science of acid rain.

After leaving the Acid Rain Peer Review Panel, Fred Singer, supported by the Marshall Institute, began promoting a counter narrative to the science establishing the depletion of ozone by CFCs. He was joined in this by Fred Seitz and Patrick Michael, an agricultural climatologist who would later participate in casting doubt on the effects of green house gasses on the climate. The counter narrative to ozone depletion once again stressed the uncertainty of the science, despite the fact that the relationship had been firmly established among the experts in the field.

Beginning in 1998, Fred Seitz and, shortly after, Fred Singer took up the cause of discrediting the dangers of second hand smoke on behalf of the tobacco industry. In this effort, the tobacco industry's public relations firm APCO Associates formed The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition led by lobbyist Steven Milloy to help sway public opinion against the conclusions of the EPA which was warning of the dangers of second hand smoke. Milloy and TASSC coined the tag line "junk science" to smear whatever scientific conclusions (or scientists) were the target of their anti-environmentalist campaigns. This tag line is currently being used by Milloy to attack climate science.

By now the basic pattern of attack was well established: find any reason -- even assert demonstrable falsehoods -- to cast doubt on the scientific conclusions that might possibly call for commercial regulations, and make use of non-peer reviewed mass media channels to confuse public opinion.

By 1979, climate science was arriving at the conclusion that green house gasses are a significant threat to the planet's climate. Of all environmental threats, green house gases, particular CO2, strikes at the core of the world's industrial economy. So it is no surprise that the merchants of doubt would quickly turn there guns on climate science and its scientists. The first responses came from economists Tom Shelling and William Nordhaus, but other familiar actors soon joined the fray, particularly William Nierenberg.

In 1988, James Hansen's testimony to Congress asserting empirical evidence of climate change, raised the stakes, and the Marshall Institute responded, enlisting Jastrow, Seitz, and Nierenberg. Singer joined the attack by publishing an article he purported to be co-authored by Roger Revelle, an eminent scientist who had warned the world of the threat of global warming. Singer's article suggested that Revelle had changed his mind about the certainty of global warming, but Revelle's family and closest friends denied that he had changed his mind. Singer appears to have taken advantage of an ailing (indeed dying) octogenarian to advance Singer's own political agenda. Also joining the global warming deniers was Patrick Michaels who previously had risked depleting the ozone by defending CFCs.

Perhaps the most amazing attack of the doubt merchants is a recent attack on Rachel Carson's indictment of DDT in her book Silent Spring. In this instance, the campaign appears to be generated by a number of libertarian think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Hoover Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Oreskes and Conway suggest that attacking Rachel Carson and the long settled debate about the dangers of DDT is a deeply strategic move. They write that if the deniers could effectively suggest that "Carson was wrong, then the shift in orientation [that Silent Spring inaugurated]might have been wrong, too. The contemporary environmental movement could be shown to have been based on a fallacy, and the need for government intervention in the marketplace would be refuted." Whether this is the deniers' intent or not, the campaign against Carson at very least shows the extent to which the merchants of doubt are willing to go to attack environmental science.

With the amazing advance of science and technology, our ability to affect the planet has been significantly increased. Understanding the consequences of those effects is critical to our survival, whether they are various carcinogens, ozone depletion, acid rain, or global warming. Oreskes and Conway have made an unimpeachable case that the ideological agenda of libertarian think tanks and lobbyists and their hired scientists is to discredit whatever scientific research supports regulation. This is a grave threat to the planet and to the quality of our life on it. Oreskes and Conway's expose of these machinations should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand current environmental debates.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Kingdom of God Is Within You: Christianity Not as a Mysitical Teaching But as a New Concept of Life / Leo Tolstoy -- Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1961

Leo Tolstoy's reputation as a novelist much overshadows his reputation as an author of non-fiction, but a great deal of his literary output is non-fictional. He was particularly concerned in the later stages of his career to express his views on religion and non-violence. His two most important works in this regard are My Religion also known as What I Believe and The Kingdom of God Is Within You. What he attacks in Kingdom gives ample reason for understanding why his views have been dismissed.

The work begins with an exposition of what Tolstoy thought was the central philosophy of Christ, expressed in Mathew 5:39, "I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (KJV). From this, Tolstoy constructs the moral philosophy of "non-resistance to evil:" a radical rejection of violence in all of its forms. Not only does this imperative proscribe serving in the army, it rejects serving as a police officer, and enacting punishments of any kind.

Tolstoy recognizes that all governments depend upon the threat of punishment and so consequently, he rejects government. Equally, he criticizes revolutionists inspired by a sense of justice to commit acts of violence, but he saves his deepest scorn for leaders of the Christian churches, who he sees as distorting and rejecting true Christianity. As worldly powers, Christian churches have made accommodations with secular powers and even vigorously endorsed various forms of violence at least since Constantine. His criticisms go beyond established institutions and their leaders as Tolstoy hold accountable upper and middle class individuals who accept the benefits of violent economic, social, and political arrangements.

With the depth and breadth of his critique, it is no wonder that his books were banned by Czarist Russia, and that he found no meaningful support from other governments, revolutionary socialist parties, the Christian church, or many people in the literate classes. His reputation as a "crank" was all but assured by his uncompromising attachment to the principle of non-violence.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to find fault with the basic thrust of his arguments. If we are to understand the message of Christ to be of historical significance, it must depart from the political and moral compromises that putatively Christian institutions have made. Such institutions could have engaged in exactly the same behavior as they have while embracing any number of secular ideologies, and had Christ's message been consistent with these actions and arguments, his contribution to the history of moral ideas would not be noteworthy.

If there is a weakness in Tolstoy's critique of law and punishment, it lies in his failure to recognize the possibility that self-imposed laws can be legitimately enforced by self-imposed punishments. A truly democratic society may adopt rules for behavior and employ punishments to guard against the weakness of will that characterizes us all, though one might argue that each person must willingly accept the legitimacy of the governing institution.

In defense of Tolstoy's critique of even ostensibly democratic governments, one can point out that no actual government is born of institutions that can confer truly democratic legitimacy, certainly not the U.S. government with its plutocratic electoral system. Consequently, the legitimate use of violence by a government can only occur under hypothetical circumstances.

Tolstoy's moral demands are strict, but they establish an ideal that deserves the deepest respect.

Heart of Darkness / Joseph Conrad -- London: Hesperus Press, 2002

Not long ago I watched "Apocalypse Now: Redux" which inspired me to finally read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The work was much less shocking than I had expected. This is probably due to the explicit descriptions of brutality that flood the world today, but despite this, Conrad's dream-like prose remains powerful and deeply affecting. His sometimes subtle observations of the brutality of the exploitation of the Congo by Belgian commercial interests remains haunting, perhaps even more so for anyone who has read Adam Hochschild's history of this era, King Leopold's Ghost. Among the most striking aspects of the work is Conrad's ability to quickly and succinctly describe characters in a way that makes them seem highly multi-dimensional.

The Dance of Persons and Place: One Interpretation of American Indian Philosophy / Thomas M. Norton-Smith -- Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2010

In The Dance of Persons and Place Shawnee philosopher Thomas Norton-Smith brings his background in analytic philosophy to bear on the question of the legitimacy of the world view(s) of American Indians or at least as he understands them. The standard he uses for assessing the world view is based largely on the work of the American philosopher Nelson Goodman who argued against ontological objectivity in favor of multiple well-formed world versions.

Overall, the work is successful, but not without making a number of controversial commitments along the way. For example, Norton-Smith suggests that acceptable world versions might dispense with fundamental canons of reason. In place of these, Norton-Smith would put world-creating activities of the kind he argued for in his articles in the Philosophy of Mathematics. His views are well-argued and founded, in part, on his experiences crossing the boundaries from a "Western" philosophical background into the community of American Indians.

Originally skeptical of Goodman's views, Norton-Smith adopted an ontology along the lines of Goodman in the course of learning the Shawnee language, particularly as he noticed that the Shawnee language employed the same phonemes for all animate objects, blurring the distinction between humans and animals. Upon accepting a Goodmanesque view, Norton-Smith developed his understanding of American Indian philosophy. According to this understanding, there are four common themes in American Indian philosophy: "relatedness and circularity as world-ordering principles, the expansive conception of persons, and the semantic potency of performance."

While Norton-Smith is at pains to emphasize that his exposition of the American Indian World version is "an interpretation" -- suggesting that others are equally legitimate -- his treatment of the "Western" world version is perhaps insufficiently nuanced, allowing scientific realism to stand for all of "Western" culture. This misses the numerous other world versions coming out of Europe which included much that is antithetical to scientific realism, e.g., belief in spiritual beings and miracles. Indeed, these beliefs have been (and remain) more common in the U.S. than scientific realism and may have some things in common with the American Indian world view.

Norton-Smith's juxtaposition of American Indian philosophy and scientific realism makes one wonder if a more significant comparison might be made between the world views of literate versus non-literate peoples. The trappings of ethnocentric ontological legitimacy might find their roots in the products of written language as opposed to the narrower characteristics of science realism. In any case The Dance of Person and Place is an extremely valuable contribution to improving the cross-cultural exchange of ideas.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Science as a Contact Sport : Inside the Battle to Save Earth's Climate / Stephen H. Schneider -- Washington D.C.: National Geographic, 2010

While the science related to climate change is becoming more and more refined and firmly established, the political struggle over its acceptance within decision making circles remains troubled. This is due primarily to the economic and political power of industries that are dependent upon the burning of fossil fuels. From the perspective of oil, coal, natural gas, automobile companies, and others, the primary threat is not climate change, but government regulation of their profitable businesses. Consequently, these industries have given financial support to a number of "think tanks" dedicated first of all to libertarian economic policies. In defense of these policies, writers (generally not scientists) have sought to raise doubts about the conclusions coming out of climate science and related disciplines. By throwing in question the emerging scientific conclusions, threatened industries are able to buy time to continue their profit-making activities, regardless of the effects on the planet.

Numerous methods are used to sew doubt. Anomalous results are presented as refutations of well-corroborated hypotheses, lists of so-called experts are compiled to challenge the claim that there is widespread agreement among climate scientists, and in some cases, law suits are filed against scientists to badger them into abandoning their work.

Reports written by libertarian "think tanks" are published by political presses and reproduced on numerous blogs, and occasionally disseminated by conservative newspapers, talk radio, and television stations like FOX News. The result is an "echo chamber" of propaganda that reaches a wide audience.

Stephen Schneider has been intimately involved in confronting and responding to these public relations tactics in defense of the climate science that he has been in part responsible for discovering. As a student in the late 60s and early 70s, Schneider began studying the climate through computer models. His first conclusions were that the climate was cooling, but as climatology improved its observation and methods, he came to understand that the climate is in fact warming. Since then, he has been one of the leading researchers, playing a significant role in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fourth assessment report.

In Science as a Contact Sport, Schneider recounts his career in climatology. He is justly proud of several accomplishments, including promoting a system of tiered models for refining climate predictions and establishing an agreement among scientists to quantify ordinary language descriptions of probabilities. What is, however, the most interesting aspect of his book is his accounts of interactions with climate change deniers and the media that enable them. Typically, one does not find accounts of the doing of science mixed with refutations of the claims of climate deniers, but Schneider's smooth passage between both kinds of accounts gives urgency to his science and credibility to his criticism.

While other works are more effective in exposing the deceptions of the climate change deniers (see for example Climate Cover-Up by James Hoggan), none that I have read are so compelling in showing the personal toll that climate change deniers take on responsible scientists. One is left wondering how much more we might understand about the climate if people like Phil Jones, Michael Mann, and Stephen Schneider were not compelled to respond to the groundless, but well-funded attacks from political operatives.

Sadly, Stephen Schneider died just a few weeks ago. It is a blessing that his determination to understand the world and apply this understanding to solve the planet's problems lives on in so many of his colleagues.

Yoga / Ernest Wood -- Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1967

Not long after the Penguin Book series became successful, Penguin put out a series under the imprint "Pelican Originals" which offered the reading public new works on topics intended to educate. Ernest Wood's book Yoga is in this series. Wood moved to India after completing firsts in Physics, Chemistry, and Geology from Manchester College of Technology. In India, he had a stellar career in higher education administration, while studying Yoga and Vedanta philosophies in Sanskrit. Consequently, his book Yoga presents the practice from a the point of view of a sympathetic well-educated Englishman with much experience in India.

Wood explains the the point of Yoga is self-improvement and self-realization. Beginning with the intellectual aspects of Yoga, Wood describes the importance of concentration, meditation, and contemplation -- three stages of yogic enlightenment. His accounts here have much in common with and indeed rely upon Buddhist concepts.

Following this, Wood turns to the physical aspects of Yoga, more well known around the world. Importantly, Wood asserts that there is an interrelationship between mind and body which allows mental well-being to foster physical well-being and vice versa. Throughout, there is nothing mystical or mysterious about the essentials of his account, though he sometimes seems to give accounts of the fabulous powers of advanced Yogis.

Wood provides chapters on the use of sounds and images (mantras and yantras) to have beneficial effects on one's practice along with a chapter describing the Yoga of the Bhagavad Gita; however, the main influence in his work is Pantanjali's Yoga Sutras.

Overall, Wood's Yoga is an excellent introduction to the practice and begs the reader both to take it up and to seek out Pantanjali's Yoga Sutras for further understanding.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Sixth Extinction: Journeys Among the Lost and Left Behind / Terry Glavin -- NY: St. Martin's Press, 2006

In The Sixth Extinction: Journeys Among the Lost and Left Behind, Terry Glavin provides a moving narration of the world we are losing. The book is most statistical in its first few pages, where Glavin lays out how the pace and scope of extinctions we face today is comparable to five historical periods of significant extinction. The book's seven chapters are stories of risk and resilience among (as the subtitles outline): a tiger, a bird, a fish, a lion, a whale, a flower, and a world.

While the highly readable narrative style is commendable on its own, the book also is satisfying for its geographic scope - taking readers to varied cultures and ecosystems - and several strains of analysis woven throughout the text. Glavin borrows an analytical tool from the United Nations Environment Programme, which developed four scenarios of how humans might respond to loss of biodiversity, dubbed the "security first," "markets first," "policy first," and "sustainability first" options. Introducing their basic tenets in the prologue, Glavin further elucidates the scenarios in his chapters by pointing to ways in which the movements he documents might be categorized. Although the set of possible future conditions is virtually infinite and inevitably messier than is suggested by scenario analyses, I find them useful tools for understanding likely consequences of different sets of values. The scenarios Glavin borrows are relevant to responses underway today, and his use of them enriches both the scenarios set forth and his narratives of biodiversity challenges.

The book understands extinctions to be complex phenomena, with a variety of proximate and ultimate causes. Glavin both implicates humans and goes easy on us, identifying human actions as the critical factor in the current wave of extinctions, but noting that it was not our intention and that humans have made many noble efforts to reverse or mitigate this impact. Human actions have lead to extinctions not only by directly killing animals but also by destroying habitat and by introducing exotic species that crowd out natives. Glavin seems to imply that because our destructiveness is a secondary effect of our actions, we are somehow less culpable for their results. In the long span of history, there may be something to this argument, but we now have the ability to anticipate secondary effects and do have responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of our actions. On the other hand, the evidence the book provides that humans do value the natural world is a source of hope that we might in fact take responsibility for and change our actions.

Another recurring theme is Glavin's assertion that humans (and environmentalists in particular) have made false distinctions between humans and nature, civilization and wilderness. Although this is an intriguing and on some level compelling assertion, Glavin does a mediocre job of substantiating it in his writing. His illustration of how societies in different times and places have had various relationships with nature successfully casts doubt on the notion that there is one Right Relationship or that we have found it (although I don't think either of these beliefs are widely held), but does not successfully breakdown distinctions between human society and the natural world. Moreover, the writing style, while enjoyable, tends to re-enforce the us/them dichotomy. In telling the story of endangered species, the style tends to exoticize the animals and conveys an almost voyeuristic sense of watching them in their habitat (almost like a National Geographic special) rather than relating to them in the world we share, as I might expect from someone trying to break down arbitrary distinctions.

The strongest way in which Glavin establishes a unitary sense of nature is by addressing both species loss and the loss of diversity in human cultures as part of the same "dark and gathering sameness." Having the stories of losses of human languages, history, and local knowledge and lore woven with the stories of habitat and species loss adds richness to the storytelling. However, the analysis of the association of these two phenomena is a bit shallow. In the examples provided, their causes and consequences seem a bit distinct (e.g., cultural repression in Soviet Russia led to losses in human culture while fish species fared better in Soviet days). Also, while the text draws on a fairly well established literature regarding the benefits of biodiversity (especially as laid forth by E.O. Wilson), it does not provide comparable references or well formed arguments regarding the benefits of diverse human cultures. Glavin asserts that the human species is more "resilient" for having diverse cultures, in parallel to an example about crops with diverse sub-species being more resilient to diseases. However, the book does not grapple with the fact that cultures are not static artifacts under any conditions (gathering sameness or otherwise) nor compare the benefits of diverse cultures to those of a more homogeneous culture which is also more complex. Perhaps he will explore the connections more fully in another work.

Another area that was not adequately addressed was climate change. Glavin makes mention of climate change a few times in the book, as something that will worsen the current period of extinction. Indeed, other reading I've done (e.g., The Rough Guide to Climate Change: Symptoms, Science, Solutions by Robert Henson (London: Rough Guides, 2008) has pointed to the biodiversity impacts of climate change that we already are experiencing and expect to intensify in the coming decades. While The Sixth Extinction is more historic than predictive and I would not expect Glavin to include a great deal of anticipatory evidence of the impact of climate change, devoting a couple of solid paragraphs would be a worthwhile addition to the book, as considering an expanded set of causes for extinctions has a significant impact on the set of responses we should be preparing.

What most disappointed me about the book is Glavin's rejecting environmentalism and the "language of environmentalism."  He defines these terms in fairly broad brush early on, and goes on to repeat his criticism at several points in the book. This troubles me because of the suggestion that the environmental movement is some solid, well defined structure of a white liberal elite walking in lock step and speaking with one voice. It's not. And while I might enjoy watching Carl Pope, Wangari Maathai, and Van Jones duke it out to claim the microphone of Environmentalism, the reality is that these are just a few figures inside a big tent of people that come with diverse values and proposed solutions. They form alliances. They have arguments. The behavior among the various groups and activities that I would include as part of today's environmental movement look an awful lot like the whole rest of the world. Perhaps defining an environmental movement within human society at all is a false distinction on the order of considering nature as "other."

The reason this is more than a minor irritation to me is that it seems a familiar tactic. Writers decry environmentalism in an effort to have their environmental arguments taken seriously by a public they believe are not environmentalists. That the naysayers draw arbitrary distinctions is illustrated, conveniently, by an article that appeared in the New York Review of Books while I was reading The Sixth Extinction. John Terborgh's review of Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution by Caroline Fraser (15 July 2010) sets forward a different notion about what humans' relationship with nature is and should be. In the Rewilding analysis, conservation is best achieved when humans are willing to respect a separate space for wildlife, giving up the "romantic" and "fanciful" European/American idea that people and nature can co-exist peaceably (perhaps that we are in fact one...?). This group of romantic westerns sounds an awful lot like Glavin's environmentalists, the ones who draw false distinctions between humans and nature, society and wilderness. Hmmm...

A similar ploy has been used in works like "The Death of Environmentalism" (Shellenberger and Nordhaus, 2004). I've argued against the environmental movement's being viewed as a uniform, cohesive group, but do think there is some valid criticism of the power structure within parts of the movement and manner in which groups have chosen to talk about and address environmental issues. Certainly the movement has as yet been insufficient to the task of changing our course or transforming our ethos. Still, I would call on critics not to wholly dismiss environmentalism but rather to identify allies within the movement and to call on everyone to think deeply about their relationship with the world we live in and how to appropriately act on their own values. Drawing arbitrary lines among people will no more get us to our goal of living in a just, peaceful, and flourishing world than will drawing arbitrary lines between humans and nature.

The Sixth Extinction is an enjoyable and thought provoking read. I hope to find other books that draw on Glavin's style and theme to explore our relationship with and impact on the planet.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

You Are Not a Gadget: a Manifesto / Jaron Lanier -- NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010

Jaron Lanier was among a handful of virtual reality pioneers, and so you would think that he would be excited about the prospect that a global network of computers, programs, and computer users might allow us to transcend the limits of our pre-internet understanding of the world through the development of a transcendent silicon-based intelligence, but such is not the case. In You Are Not a Gadget Lanier expresses his discomfort, even horror, at the de-humanizing effects of what he calls "cybernetic totalism," i.e., the "ideology" that intelligence, even consciousness, can be explained through computationalism and that the developing global network of computer connections will eventually evolve into a super-intelligence or conscious being.

Lanier offers little argument against this view, except that it is based on the romantic hopes of cybernetic totalists. In the meantime, the popularity of cybernetic totalism has meant that computer engineers are designing hardware and software that dismisses the contributions of human individuals and "locking in" a computer infrastructure that requires devaluing their contributions. Lanier suggests that the computer industry has and is turning its back on many more creative and valuable lines of development in pursuit of cybernetic totalism.

Early in the book, he criticizes Web 2.0 technologies as doing to people what MIDI did to music, i.e., identifying aspects of music that are useful in defining notes, without succeeding in capturing the whole of musical experience. For Lanier, MIDI has homogenized music, forcing it into the constraints of a computer program. Simialry, Web 2.0 technologies have led us to represent ourselves in pre-packaged ways, chopping up our selves into smaller and smaller encodeable fragments that can be captured in cloud computing for the benefit of the "Lords of the Cloud," or those who can mine the collective data made available on the Web by the "Peasants of the Cloud."

The benefits that might accrue to the Lords of the Cloud depend on the truth of a hypothesis advanced by James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. (See this blog for a review of The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki claims that very often the aggregated (or averaged) opinions of a large number of lay people will be more accurate than highly educated expert opinion. If this is true, then the Lords of the Cloud can employ "crowd sourcing" to generate a more accurate understanding of the world than was possible prior to the advent of the Web. Lanier's response to this is nuanced. While he recognize that a collective opinion is more valuable in many instances, a small group of people organized around an individual's vision or inspiration often can produce a much superior outcome. Lanier's case is surprisingly strong here.

Lanier's colorful language makes You Are Not a Gadget an entertaining read, but his book is strong on assertions and weak on arguments. In his introduction to the final chapter he tellingly writes, "This is about aesthetics and emotions, not rational argument. All I can do is tell you how it has been true for me, and hope that you might also find it to be true." Unfortunately, much of what he asserts is amenable to rational argumentation. Hopefully, his provocative presentation will prompt others to provide it.

Lanier also skips from subject to subject at astonishing speed. Sometimes the work appears to be more a collection of blog posts than a coherent, extended book-length argument. He appears to have been affected by the very atomization of discourse that he laments. He takes up metaphysics, epistemology, political philosophy, psychology, sociology, language, and music among other topics. Clearly, he recognizes how his work in computer science has important ties to all of these fields, but it is difficult to know how grounded his conclusions are. Certainly his treatment of metaphysics and political philosophy is at best extremely superficial and at worse sophomoric. Nonetheless, he bravely advances views on issues that deserve more serious consideration than they have received.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Guide to the Flora of Washington and Vicinity / Lester F. Ward -- Washington DC: GPO, 1881

Flora of Washington is a monograph in the series Bulletin of the United States National Museum, published by the Department of Interior under the direction of the Smithsonian Institute. It is the first "scientific" attempt to catalog the flora of Washington and the surrounding region since the 1830 catalog entitled Florae Columbianae Prodromus, and it contains lists of plants found by several botanists (mostly Ward) over the years 1878-1880.

The volume begins with 59 pages describing the range and localities where plants were collected with various information about the flowering of plants, their statistical frequency, and the methods for classifying them, but the heart and bulk of the volume is a list of the Latin names of the collected plants. Usually accompanying each entry is the name of the collector, the common name or names of the plant, the times when it flowers and fruits, and, when the plant is not commonly found in the region, the locale where it was found. Sometimes further information is included in a note.

Ward's list of plants includes an indication as to whether the plant appeared on the 1830 Prodromus list, providing a valuable record of the impact of the growth of the Washington D.C. on the flora of the region. Unfortunately, the method of classifying plants has changed since 1881, making current use of the list difficult. However, many names are consistent with our names today. For example, Ward writes that Cannabis sativa grows in "waste lots in the city." Somethings haven't changed. Throughout the work, many current concerns about invasive species and habitat destruction are raised, though the concern is understandably less critical than it is today.

The final 28 pages are "Suggestions to Beginners," explaining in extraordinary detail the equipment needed to identify, collect, transport, preserve, and mount plants to be included in one's herbarium. Ward even recommends methods for mailing one's plant inventories and duplicate plants to other botanists when making trades. (By including nothing in writing in the packages of plants, one could take advantage of a cheaper postal rate.)

Flora of Washington contains a final gem: a 31" x 24" fold out map of the Washington D.C. region, printed in 1882. The region ranges from the Rockville and Laurel post offices in the north to the confluence of the Occaquan and Potomac Rivers in the south; and from the Bull Run post office in the west to the Patuxent River in the east. Along with the river system of the region, roads also appear on the map. Some have retained their names to the present, others have changed, but hardly any follow the same routes of their descendant roads today.

Days on the Road: Crossing the Plains in 1865 / Sarah Raymond Herndon -- Guilford, Conn.: Morris Book Publishing, 2003

This blog entry will not only review the book in the title, but will also review An Excursion to California over the Prairie, rocky Mountains, and Great Sierra Nevada by William Kelly published by chapman and hall, 1851. Both are accounts of travels across the Great Plains during America's westward expansion.

William Kelly describes his 1849 trip from Bristol, England to the United States and his overland travel to Missouri. Along the way, he joined with 23 other men looking to emigrate to California. At first the account seems rather fanciful, crafted mostly to entertain, but as the narrative proceeds, the mundane details of life crossing rough country demonstrate a degree of authenticity to Kelly's reporting. Much of his work describes the work needed to cross rivers, marshes, and rough country, the constant search for forage for the wagon train's mules and horses, the maddening irritation of biting insects, hunting expeditions, and sometimes dangerous encounters with Indians. The most harrowing segment of his trip occurred crossing the Nevada desert. Here, one gets a clear sense that the journey could easily end in the death of every emigrant.

In contrast, Sarah Raymond Herndon's account of traversing virtually the same ground (up to the Rocky Mountains) 16 years later, describes pic-nics and parties, visits to settlements along the route, and frequent encounters with other wagon trains. She reports hundreds of wagons gathered together in a "town of tents and wagons" at the crossing of the South Platte, with "thousands of cattle, hundreds of horses, and more than a thousand human beings" crossing the river in a single day. Like Kelly, Herndon describes encounters with bad weather, but for the 1865 emigrants, they were nuisances. For Kelly's 1849 expedition, they were life threatening.

While the elements posed a greater risk for Kelly, resistance from Indians were a greater threat to Herndon. Kelly describes encounters with the Pawnee, the Sioux, the Crow, the Utah, and the Digger Indians. His assessment of each group was a reflection of their wealth and hostility. Kelly found the Sioux, contrary to reports, quite dignified and amiable. The Crow were clearly the most hostile. Kelly scorned the impoverished Diggers, who eked out a meager existence in the deserts of Nevada.

In contrast, Herndon had few direct encounters with Indians. Certainly, the size of the wagon trains crossing the continent by 1865 and the hostilities between emigrants and natives made encounters less likely, but the fear of Indian attacks was great among many in Herndon's party and Herndon recounts reports of massacres.

Both narrators describe the encounters with Mormons and are repelled by their polygamy, but Kelly acknowledges their hospitality and industry, coming away with no small respect for them. Herndon's interactions are more superficial and likely less forgiving of their gender relations from the start.

After crossing the Rocky Mountains, their journeys take different paths. Kelly proceeds through Utah and Nevada to cross the Sierra Nevadas, while Herndon travels north through Idaho to Montana. Both parties were drawn by the allure of recently discovered gold.

Reading the two accounts back to back provides a clear picture of how conditions changed for emigrants during the intervening years. It is hard to imagine how wagons could have been pulled across the continent in the spring and summer of 1849 and amazing how civilized the trail had become in 16 short years. It is also striking how unaware most of the Native Americans were in 1849 of the pending consequence of white emigration through their lands, but by 1865, the disaster must have been clear to them. What does not change is the racist views of the white emigrants and their inability to see beyond the values of their own culture.

After reading these two accounts, I was moved to pick up Francis Parkman's classic work The Oregon Trail, an account of a historian making a journey across the plains to the Rocky Mountains, then south to New Mexico and back to Missouri. As Parkman was not an emigrant himself, his perspective on the emigrants and the people of the West is more objective and rather disparaging. From the several score pages that I have read in The Oregon Trail, Parkman's literary style is far more refined than either of the authors reviewed here. It promises to be very engaging.

An Excursion to California Over the Prarie, Rocky Mountains, and Great Sierra Nevada / William Kelly -- London: Chapman and Hall, 1851

This blog entry will not only review the book in the title, but will also review Days on the Road: Crossing the Plains in 1865 the diary of Sarah Raymond Herndon, published by the Morris Book Publishing Company, 2003. Both are accounts of travels across the Great Plains during America's westward expansion.

William Kelly describes his 1849 trip from Bristol, England to the United States and his overland travel to Missouri. Along the way, he joined with 23 other men looking to emigrate to California. At first the account seems rather fanciful, crafted mostly to entertain, but as the narrative proceeds, the mundane details of life crossing rough country demonstrate a degree of authenticity to Kelly's reporting. Much of his work describes the work needed to cross rivers, marshes, and rough country, the constant search for forage for the wagon train's mules and horses, the maddening irritation of biting insects, hunting expeditions, and sometimes dangerous encounters with Indians. The most harrowing segment of his trip occurred crossing the Nevada desert. Here, one gets a clear sense that the journey could easily end in the death of every emigrant.

In contrast, Sarah Raymond Herndon's account of traversing virtually the same ground (up to the Rocky Mountains) 16 years later, describes pic-nics and parties, visits to settlements along the route, and frequent encounters with other wagon trains. She reports hundreds of wagons gathered together in a "town of tents and wagons" at the crossing of the South Platte, with "thousands of cattle, hundreds of horses, and more than a thousand human beings" crossing the river in a single day. Like Kelly, Herndon describes encounters with bad weather, but for the 1865 emigrants, they were nuisances. For Kelly's 1849 expedition, they were life threatening.

While the elements posed a greater risk for Kelly, resistance from Indians were a greater threat to Herndon. Kelly describes encounters with the Pawnee, the Sioux, the Crow, the Utah, and the Digger Indians. His assessment of each group was a reflection of their wealth and hostility. Kelly found the Sioux, contrary to reports, quite dignified and amiable. The Crow were clearly the most hostile. Kelly scorned the impoverished Diggers, who eked out a meager existence in the deserts of Nevada.

In contrast, Herndon had few direct encounters with Indians. Certainly, the size of the wagon trains crossing the continent by 1865 and the hostilities between emigrants and natives made encounters less likely, but the fear of Indian attacks was great among many in Herndon's party and Herndon recounts reports of massacres.

Both narrators describe the encounters with Mormons and are repelled by their polygamy, but Kelly acknowledges their hospitality and industry, coming away with no small respect for them. Herndon's interactions are more superficial and likely less forgiving of their gender relations from the start.

After crossing the Rocky Mountains, their journeys take different paths. Kelly proceeds through Utah and Nevada to cross the Sierra Nevadas, while Herndon travels north through Idaho to Montana. Both parties were drawn by the allure of recently discovered gold.

Reading the two accounts back to back provides a clear picture of how conditions changed for emigrants during the intervening years. It is hard to imagine how wagons could have been pulled across the continent in the spring and summer of 1849 and amazing how civilized the trail had become in 16 short years. It is also striking how unaware most of the Native Americans were in 1849 of the pending consequence of white emigration through their lands, but by 1865, the disaster must have been clear to them. What does not change is the racist views of the white emigrants and their inability to see beyond the values of their own culture.

After reading these two accounts, I was moved to pick up Francis Parkman's classic work The Oregon Trail, an account of a historian making a journey across the plains to the Rocky Mountains, then south to New Mexico and back to Missouri. As Parkman was not an emigrant himself, his perspective on the emigrants and the people of the West is more objective and rather disparaging. From the several score pages that I have read in The Oregon Trail, Parkman's literary style is far more refined than either of the authors reviewed here. It promises to be very engaging.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Blindness / Jose Saramago -- Giovanni Pontiero, trans., NY: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1998

Blindness describes the experiences of a small group of people who are among the first to go blind in a nearly sudden, universal epidemic of blindness. The primary interest in the story is its account of how human behavior would change under such circumstances. The basic premise is implausible, but could be easily forgiven if it served to illustrate some important idea. It does not. Furthermore, many of the actions of the characters are less than believable. During the epidemic, there is one woman who retains her sight. There is no explanation for the exception. Her purpose in the novel appears only to allow the other characters some greater degree of freedom to cope with their situation.

Saramago's writing occasionally hints of a broader meaning of the blindness, but he is never clear, and his hints are too infrequent and unintelligable for any text-based interpretation to emerge. If Blindness is an allegory, it is hopelessly obscure. What is left is a simple exploration of how an epidemic of blindness might lead to social chaos and psychological stress -- not a terribly surprising consequence. For a more meaningful examination of how people behave under extreme stress, one would do much better to read Elie Wiesel's account of his actual experiences during the Holocaust in Night.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Die Is Cast: Arkansas Goes to War, 1861 / Mark K. Christ, ed. -- Little Rock, Ark.: Butler Center Books, 2010

One of the amazing things about the American Civil War is that after almost 150 years, so many people remain utterly obsessed with it. The war's enormous human toll is surely a significant explanation for this. Nonetheless, it is astonishing that people in every corner of the country that saw any part of the struggle meticulously pick over the smallest details of their locality's role in the war, making the Civil War perhaps the most studied (and understood) events in history.

In August of 2008, the Old State House Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas hosted five historians at a seminar entitled "The Die is Cast: Arkansas Goes to War" in which the secession of Arkansas was examined from a variety of perspectives. Under the editorship of Mark Christ, the seminar's five papers create a brief but interesting insight into a little-studied corner of the Civil War.

Among the most interesting papers is Thomas A. DeBlack's "'A Remarkably Strong Union Sentiment': Unionism in Arkansas." DeBlack explains, "Arkansas needed the Union more than many other states. Citizens of western Arkansas, bordered by the Indian Territory, wanted the protection and economic benefits that the presence of federal troops supplied. Delta residents hoped to benefit from a federal swamplands reclamation project begun in 1850." Only 20% of the white population owned slaves and the remaining population saw no strong reason to sacrifice their interests for these slave owners. Even the slave owners were divided as to the wisdom of secession. Economically, Arkansas was more closely integrated with Missouri and the Old Northwest than with the rest of the South. While the sentiment in favor of secession was weak, the sentiment against forcing states to remain in the Union was strong, ultimately resulting in the secession of Arkansas.

In "Why they Fought: Arkansas Goes to War, 1861," Carl H. Moneyhon explains that the allure of adventure and manly pride motivated the state's young men to sign on to the Confederate cause. Once committed to the struggle, the combatants remained in the struggle both out of personal integrity and out of a conversion to the cause. In "Domesticity Goes Public: Southern Women and the Secession Crisis," Lisa Tendrich Frank describes the moral force that women played in pushing men into battle.

The remaining two papers tell less specialized stories, or at least cover the kind of subject common in Civil War histories. Michael A. Dougan describes the Arkansas Secession Convention and William Garrett Piston describes the involvement of Arkansas troops in the Wilson's Creek Campaign.

While each of the five papers address a distinct aspect of the Civil War in Arkansas, there is enough overlap and connection between them to provide the reader with a coherent, broad picture in a rather short work. Whether this was accidental or a result of the work of editor Mark Christ is not clear, but the volume certainly benefits from the interconnections. The work, however, is not so compelling that one is left with a strong desire to learn more about Arkansas in the Civil War. A brief glimpse is enough.