Sunday, May 27, 2018

Peter J. Woodford's "The Moral Meaning of Nature"

Peter J. Woodford is a research associate at the University of Cambridge, where he is collaborating with scientists and philosophers to study the evolution of cooperation and its potential for understanding the roots of human ethical and religious dispositions. He received his Ph.D. in Modern Western Philosophy, Religious Thought, and Ethics from Stanford University.

Woodford applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Moral Meaning of Nature: Nietzsche’s Darwinian Religion and Its Critics, and reported the following:
I do believe my book passes the page 99 test!

In The Moral Meaning of Nature, I narrate how a collection of thinkers understood the relationship between natural processes and human values, especially those values reflected in the aims of science and in the Christian religion. Page 99 occurs towards the end of chapter three, in which I discuss how Georg Simmel—a highly neglected German philosopher and founding figure of modern sociology at the turn of the 20th century—understood this relationship. My chapter on Simmel argues that he took over a core philosophical project from Friedrich Nietzsche, and this was to show that human commitments to the value of life, and even human orientations toward values that transcended life, nonetheless arose out of life. Here, “life” is understood as a natural process or phenomenon that circumscribes all of what we would call the “biological” world—namely, the world of plants and animals, insects and cells, and organisms of all kinds.

On page 99, I am in the middle of trying to explain how Simmel could conceive of religions as products of biological processes more generally. I describe Simmel’s view that religious ways of understanding and responding to reality were products of affective life that comprised emotions, drives, and instincts that preceded and indeed constituted values that emerged in rational reflection. So, page 99 describes Simmel’s view that humans emotions and drives—such as respect, love, fear, longing, admiration, and even hunger—came to “color” the world and to invest it with diverse values. However, for Simmel, these emotions and drives were not “merely subjective” in the way that we might think of them as wishes or feelings “projected” onto a neutral or indifferent world. Rather, these drives reflected something that genuinely did transcend humans and of which humans were a part, something that even pervaded the non-human world, namely, the reality of “life.” For Simmel, life itself was essentially a kind of appetite, striving, and desire, and only by recognizing this could one understand how religious aspirations toward a fulfillment or consummation of human life in response to transcendent realities could emerge from—and not in opposition to—the wider natural world in which they found themselves.

The snapshot of Simmel’s thoughts on these matters on page 99 reflects the larger project of the book, which was to interrogate how thinkers originally applied “Darwinian” notions of evolution, of life, and of human origins to a fundamental, ancient philosophical question: what place does the normative order of human values have in the wider natural world? The book focuses on what the Lebensphilosophen (“Life-philosophers”) saw as the crucial lesson of Darwinism, namely, that human values were not the products of rationality alone, but rather had a deeper past and source in natural history. However, this was not necessarily an easy idea to live with, since recognizing this appeared to challenge the authority that some of these values were thought to have, and this is why the debate about the natural origins of moral and religious values took on existential urgency. Page 99 describes some of Simmel’s views on conceiving human religious values in terms of a “life-process.” It also sets things up for the next chapter, in which I explain the reasons why a prominent Neo-Kantian philosopher, Heinrich Rickert, trenchantly rejected this picture of Darwinism and its implications for understanding guiding values of both science and the Christian religion.
Learn more about The Moral Meaning of Nature at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 25, 2018

Serhii Plokhy's "Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe"

Serhii Plokhy is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University. A three-time recipient of the American Association for Ukrainian Studies prize, he is the author of Yalta: The Price of Peace, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, and The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.

Plokhy applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe, and reported the following:
Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe is the first comprehensive history of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster from the explosion of the reactor no. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant on the morning of April 26, 1986 to the construction of the new shelter over the damaged reactor in 2018. The book tells the stories of the firefighters, scientists, engineers, workers, soldiers, and policemen who found themselves caught in a nuclear Armageddon and succeeded in doing the seemingly impossible: extinguishing the nuclear inferno and putting the reactor to sleep. Below is an excerpt from the story told on page 99 of the book: two firefighters meet each other on the fateful night of April 26 near the damaged reactor. One of them is Hryhorii Khmel, the driver of a firetruck, another--his son, a young lieutenant Petro Khmel.
Hryhorii Khmel spent most of the night near the walls of the turbine hall.... He had no doubt that Petro would be called as well. Around 7:00 a.m., when Hryhorii and his fellow firefighters were ordered to leave their positions and potassium iodide was administered to them, he began asking people whether they had seen Petro. The answer was no. Then someone said: “Petro Khmel was taken there as a substitute.” Hryhorii’s heart sank. “There” meant the damaged reactor. “I thought it was all over, finished,” he recalled later.

Hryhorii was told to surrender all his clothing and take a shower. Only after that did he see his son. “I went out onto the street, looked around—it was light, and everything was visible—and saw my Petro coming in uniform, with a coat on, a fire belt, a cap, and leather boots.” “Are you here, Father?” Petro asked his dad before being taken away for decontamination. Hryhorii must have felt like Nikolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba at the execution of his son Ostap, who shouted into the crowd, “Father, where are you? Do you hear me?” before he was put to death. Hryhorii refused to leave the premises and waited until his son had taken a shower. Petro was obviously sick. As he recalled later, “I started to feel bad in the shower. I came out; my father was waiting for me. ‘How do you feel, sonny?’ Hearing almost nothing by then, I heard only ‘Hold on.’”
The Page 99 Test reveals the essence of the book better than any test I can imagine.
Learn more about Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe at the Basic Books website.

My Book, The Movie: The Last Empire.

The Page 99 Test: The Gates of Europe.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Susan Thomson's "Rwanda: From Genocide to Precarious Peace"

Susan Thomson is associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University. In 1994, she was program officer for the United Nations Development Programme and present in Rwanda during the crisis.

Thomson applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Rwanda: From Genocide to Precarious Peace, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Rwanda: From Genocide to Precarious Peace finds the reader almost a third of the way into the story. We meet Placide, Esther, and Gisele, middle-aged Tutsi siblings, all of whom returned to Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. The trio was born in eastern Rwanda to a Hutu mother and a Tutsi father. The family scattered in 1959 when political violence targeting Tutsi intensified. Ephram, their father, made life-changing calculations to find safety for his family. Placide traveled by car south to Burundi his father while his sisters fled east to Tanzania by foot with their mother, Anysie. They were reunited almost 40 years later, in 1996, having been raised in vastly differing circumstances, some of which are explained on page 99.

Their experience of returning to Rwanda and trying to settle into postgenocide society are but one of many such stories that frame my book. I situate the experience of Rwandans within the country’s centralized bureaucracy, mindful of different forms of stratification beyond ethnicity. Whether it’s age, gender and experience of exile like Placide and his sisters, or education, generation or occupation, the book pay close attention to Rwandan voices.

The goal is to explain the political, social and cultural reasons why the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front has adopted the policies it has from the perspective of the ordinary men and women subject to them. To do so, each chapter presents the stories of Rwandans like Placide, Esther and Gisele to analyze Rwanda’s prospects for lasting peace.

I find that government promise of peace and prosperity are reserved for political and military elites. This generally means RPF party officials and their kin networks. For most Rwandans, RPF policies have resulted in increased economic hardship and social shaming. Poverty, particularly for Rwanda’s rural majority, remains a pressing issue that the RPF is barely addressing. Instead, Kigali, the capital city, gleams as an ode to RPF policy while the majority of Rwandans continue to struggle, economically, politically, socially and emotionally.
Learn more about Rwanda: From Genocide to Precarious Peace at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

James Hudnut-Beumler's "Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table"

James Hudnut-Beumler is the Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and the author of several books, including In Pursuit of the Almighty's Dollar. He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table: Contemporary Christianities in the American South, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Of course, the black population of North Carolina had never been convinced that the state had rejected its Jim Crow past and turned into a smart and genteel version of the Research Triangle, Charlotte, and the Triad, writ large. This is where the Reverend Barber came in, for he was prepared with a deep analysis, a set of progressive allies, and something else rarely seen in public—a willingness to use the ordinary stuff of biblical exegesis, moral argumentation, and old-fashioned preaching in public to make a Christian case for why what the governor and legislature were doing was wrong.
Opening my book to page 99 one finds oneself in the middle of a faith and politics conflict in the state of North Carolina with Reverend William J. Barber II and Moral Monday facing off against Republican state leaders. This proves to be great place to jump right into Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table because the entire book is a testament to the vital range of Christianities underneath those red election night congressional maps that signal the dominance of the conservative white Southern evangelicals in the American South in the early 21st century. While no other non-Christian body can count more than .6% of any southern state's population, the arguments between Christians over whether and how to welcome LGBT members in their churches and schools, how to address racism, whether even to honor the voting rights secured by the civil rights movement are anything but settled.

The South is a region where many people, liberal and conservative, black and white, call themselves Matthew 25 Christians, and visit people in prison because Jesus suggested its importance. Nevertheless, the southern states persist in having the highest incarceration rates in the nation with the highest percentage of its population in prison. Ironies abound. In North Carolina after Republicans took over both houses of state government and the governorship for the first time since Reconstruction in 2012, efforts were made to turn back the clock on voting rights, and health, education and welfare policies. On page 99 we meet a coalition of faith and social justice groups organized under the banner of faith determined to resist the government. One of the members of the movement, Courtney Ritter, mother of three from Pittsboro wears pearls and a cardigan for her arrest, so as to look as conservative and respectable as possible. She reports: "I felt a moral obligation to all of those people in the civil rights movement who had put their lives and jobs on the line. I wanted them to know that what they did mattered." Courtney is white and reported that she and her husband had moved to North Carolina from Alabama thinking it was familiarly southern but more progressive. In her disappointment Courtney thought, "Wow, I could have stayed in Alabama."
Learn more about Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Michael Zakim's "Accounting for Capitalism"

Michael Zakim teaches history at Tel Aviv University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Accounting for Capitalism: The World the Clerk Made, and reported the following:
The ninety-ninth page of Accounting for Capitalism is devoted to a pictorial parable that appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1854, depicting the “two paths in life” (earnestness versus dissipation) faced by everyone who assumes exclusive sovereignty over their fate. The Harper’s caricature is part of my book’s third chapter, which contends that the “self-made man,” a distinctly modern cultural hero born of the industrial century, constituted one of the great production projects of the new capitalist economy, namely, the production of oneself. Such “individualism” (a neologism of the times) marked a radical departure from republican tradition in America, which had rested on the moral economy of patriarchal households.

The individual’s transformation into an “ism” was closely related to another etymological event of equal revolutionary significance: capital’s transformation into “capitalism,” which was revealing of the growing relevance of truck and barter to the whole of social experience. The rise of capital to such moral and material status begat a class of “merchant clerks” assigned with administering the industrial century’s second great production project, production of the market. Indeed, the clerk personified both of these developments. Moving from farm to metropolis, from homestead to boarding house, and from growing things to selling them, he not only kept the accounts, delivered bills, distributed samples, paid import duties, figured interest charges, and copied out a constant stream of correspondence, but conceived of his own life as the subject of the same gestalt of utility, enterprise, and calculation. This turned him into an unlikely icon of the age, as well as the anti-hero of Herman Melville’s famous story of the Wall-Street scrivener, “Bartleby,” published a year before the Harper’s pictorial. Negotiable, impermanent, unhinged from the soil, and carried along by commerce’s tides of boom and bust, the clerk did not just produce the market, in other words. He was himself one of its products, the pioneer of what we so casually call today “human capital.”
Learn more about Accounting for Capitalism at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 18, 2018

Stephanie J. Rickard's "Spending to Win"

Stephanie J. Rickard is Associate Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Spending to Win: Political Institutions, Economic Geography, and Government Subsidies, and reported the following:
By chance, page 99 begins with a nice summary of the argument I make in Spending to Win. Discussing two subsidies funded by governments in France and Austria in violation of European Union rules that regulate state aid, I conclude that leaders implemented these subsidies because the benefits of doing so outweighed the costs.
The domestic benefits of these subsidies were large precisely because of the constellation of economic geography and electoral institutions. Together, electoral institutions and economic geography robustly predict the likelihood that a government will violate EU state aid rules – illustrating that domestic politics shape not only national economic policy but also international economic relations.
This paragraph from page 99 nicely illustrates the main argument in Spending to Win. I argue that politicians’ willingness to selectively target economic benefits, like subsidies to businesses, depends on the way politicians are elected and the geographic distribution of economic activities. Based on interviews with government ministers and bureaucrats, as well as new quantitative data, I demonstrate that government policy-making can be explained by the combination of electoral institutions and economic geography. Political institutions interact with economic geography to influence countries’ economic policies and international economic relations. As a result, identical political institutions can have wide-ranging policy effects depending on the context in which they operate.

In the chapter that includes page 99, I explore the politics behind two subsidy programs in France and Austria. I use parliamentary records, industry publications, and local media coverage to elucidate the politics behind these two subsidy programs. Why focus on these two particular programs? As I write on page 99,
Myriad subsidy programs exist. Given the ubiquity of government subsidies, it would be far too easy to cherry pick cases that best fit my theory. To guard against this, I use a methodical, multistep selection criterion.
I go on to describe my selection criterion. I aim to convince readers that I did not cherry pick these two cases but instead investigate the universe of cases that meet the detailed selection criterion. Both subsidies provide evidence in support of my argument and illustrate the importance of electoral incentives and economic geography for economic policy-making. The two cases involve government subsidies to wine makers. Perhaps this is a chapter best enjoyed with a cold glass of Austrian GrĂ¼ner Veltliner!
Learn more about Spending to Win at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Lucas A. Powe Jr.'s "America’s Lone Star Constitution"

Lucas A. Powe, Jr. is Anne Green Regents Chair in the School of Law and Professor of Government at the University of Texas.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, America's Lone Star Constitution: How Supreme Court Cases from Texas Shape the Nation, and reported the following:
Page 99 of America’s Lone Star Constitution consists of two paragraphs about the case challenging school financing via local property taxes because of wealth disparities. The first discusses choosing a Hispanic as plaintiff. The second, in detail, illustrates wealth discrepancies between two school districts within San Antonio. The latter paragraph is typical of the book in providing the necessary detail to comprehend both the litigation strategies and the decision of the Supreme Court. The former mentions the lawyer and his substitution of a Hispanic for an Anglo to highlight that the case, while about wealth discrepancies, has a minority component to it.

In discussing the plaintiff, Demetrio Rodriguez, an armed services veteran, was verbally harassed by Anglos. That represents my effort to bring as much local culture into the case discussion as well as illustrating the conservatism of the state.

What page 99 does not have is a single word about a Supreme Court justice even though every justice of the last six decades is evaluated at some point in the book where, unsurprisingly one can learn that William O. Douglas and Thurgood Marshall were the most liberal justices and William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia rank as the most conservative. It also lacks mention of any Texas politician.

Nor does page 99 discuss the outcome of the San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973), the majority and the dissent’s reasoning, or the national importance of the case. A few pages later Justice Lewis Powell, who wrote the majority opinion, in his private note asserts the plaintiff’s claim is both communistic and “the type of thing that emerged from the French Revolution.” Had the dissent of Thurgood Marshall, who was the last century’s most important lawyer, prevailed, federal courts would have been commandeered to supervise how fairly states and localities were funding their schools, a task far better suited to state courts and legislatures. Rodriguez was a conservative victory, but cases banning organized prayer at high school football games and protecting the burning of the American flag were liberal victories, and Texas cases have split evenly between the poles.
Learn more about America's Lone Star Constitution at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

David Charles Sloane's "Is the Cemetery Dead?"

David Charles Sloane is professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis in the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. He grew up in Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse, New York, and is the author of The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History.

Sloane applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Is the Cemetery Dead?, and reported the following:
My book is a discussion of the challenges confronting the cemetery in the 21st century. The modern cemetery was established during the antebellum period, and has throughout the remainder of American history served as the primary place for the interment of our dead.

Yet, circumstances are changing. Over the first one hundred years after the invention of the indoor mechanical crematory, the vast majority of Americans rejected the practice, even though it was cheaper. Over the last few decades the percentage of deaths that are cremated has risen to the point where in the last year or so more Americans were cremated than buried or entombed.

How does this relate to page 99? On page 99, I discuss the meaning of a visitation to the cemetery. I remind readers that even though fewer people seemed to be going, the “cemetery remains a place apart, the last stop of grief for millions of people.”

I note that the visit to the grave is a performance of grief and remembrance. “We tend the grave, replace the old flowers, and dust the top of the monument. We might leave a small memento – a photograph, stone, figurine, or stuffed animal.” These mementos don’t last long in the large cemeteries since they violate the needs for maintenance and standardized appearance, but people keep leaving them.

The restrictions are why some people are moving their mourning away from the memorial landscape of these “special sacred spaces.” As I discuss in the remainder of the book, we mourn online and in public, we place everyday memorials along the roadside, on the back car window, even on our bodies through a memorial tattoo. Many feel a diminished attachment to the place where, others still believe, mourners “can recreate a ‘home’ for the deceased.” Maybe, but many people seem to be learning less from the cemetery, and mourning in other places.
Learn more about Is the Cemetery Dead? at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Emily Ogden's "Credulity"

Emily Ogden is assistant professor of English at the University of Virginia.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism, and reported the following:
Credulity tells how mesmerism, an early form of hypnosis, started out as a mind control technique and then became, improbably, a means of free expression. Page 99 is right where this shift occurs. Before, the book is mostly about control; after, freedom takes over.

Mesmerists claimed they had the ability to entrance people, transforming them from ordinary citizens into obedient robots with clairvoyant powers. The practice first emerged in France, then took an extraordinary journey across three continents to get to the US in 1836. From strictly run French hospitals, it migrated to Caribbean plantations and then to American factory towns. A slaveholder, Charles Poyen, brought it to America. Here's how I summarize the travels of this brainwashing method on page 99:
In Paris, the powers that magnetism had borrowed from the world's false religions made some patients compliant and helped diagnose others. In Guadeloupe, mesmerism warded off rebellion. And in the United States, it made a more tractable weaver [factory worker] out of the first American somnambulist. ("Somnambulist" is a name for the mesmeric subject.)
On page 99, things look dark. But this program of domination is about to unravel. In the chapters to come, mesmeric clairvoyants turn mind control into entertainment. They fly through the air, they do impressions of other people's personalities, and eventually they develop something similar to the stage hypnosis you can still see today, where people quack like ducks and do other outlandish things at the mesmerist’s bidding. By the end of the book (and of mesmerism’s history), brainwashing is no longer a dark art; it’s an improv technique.
Learn more about Credulity at the University of Chicago Press website.

My Book, The Movie: Credulity.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Gregory Barton's "The Global History of Organic Farming"

Gregory Barton is Professor of History at Western Sydney University and the University of Johannesburg, and the author of Empire Forestry and the Origins of Environmentalism, Lord Palmerston and the Empire of Trade, and Informal Empire and the Rise of One World Culture. For eight years he was the Editor-in-Chief of the noted historical journal, Britain and the World.

Barton applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Global History of Organic Farming and reported the following:
While Ford Madox Ford spent much of 1931 writing his autobiography, Return to Yesterday, another writer in that same year launched the organic farming movement with a book that also harkened back to the romantic world of the past.

Alas, the book was titled, unappealingly, The Waste Products of Agriculture. But despite the off-putting title, Albert Howard along with his first wife Gabrielle, and then his second wife Louise, would soon take his place as the founder of the organic farming movement and change forever how millions of consumers thought about modern industrial farming.

Page 99 of my book, The Global History of Organic Farming, captures the essence of this story that marries ancient wisdom with scientific discovery. Page 99 also captures the tragic death of his first wife and fellow scientist, Gabrielle, who worked side by side with Albert in the blinding heat and grinding poverty of India. Here they devised a new method of composting that allowed Indian peasants to fertilize their crops without artificial fertilizers and pesticides.

After Gabrielle’s tragic death Howard retired to England broken hearted and exhausted from overwork. With the help of Louise, Gabrielle’s sister, Albert began writing for a popular audience of farmers and gardeners that launched a new movement that would throw down the gauntlet and challenge the values of chemical farming and mass consumerism. This book—based on newly discovered archives— tells the untold story of how the organic farming movement attracted the support of millions of followers from Gandhi to Prince Charles, and from both the left and the right of the political spectrum.

The story also highlights the forgotten role of women in the broader environmental movement. After Albert Howard’s death, Louise Howard almost single handedly carried the message of the organic farming to the world. Throughout the 1950s to the 1960s she maintained a network of amateur activists fighting against the damage of DDT on the environment and against the ill effects of industrial pollution on human health. Little could she foresee at the time, that her lonely battle for organic farming would gain widespread acceptance after 1980 and change the way hundreds of millions of consumers think about how the food they eat affected human health and the health of the entire world of nature.
Learn more about The Global History of Organic Farming at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue