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Archive for October, 2011

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Second Read: Writers Look Back at Classic Works of Reportage

Second Read: Writers Look Back at Classic Works of ReportageThis week our featured book is Second Read: Writers Look Back at Classic Works of Reportage, edited by James Marcus and the Staff of the Columbia Journalism Review.

In describing the book Tom Frank writes, “”Let us now praise forgotten nonfiction. It is the fate of great journalism, perhaps, to fade away just a few decades after appearing. Yet that leaves for us the pleasures of rediscovery, which the essays collected in Second Read bring off in superb style.” Here is the beginning to James Marcus’s introduction, which describes the ambition for the book:

“Curiously enough,” Vladimir Nabokov once observed, “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” Nabokov, whose appetite for the delicious detail in any work of prose made him a ceaseless advocate of rereading, was mainly talking about fiction. But his comment applies equally to nonfiction.

The first time we read a great piece of reportage, we may be swept away by its narrative dash or fact-finding ardor. Only when we go back to it, days or years or decades later, do we discover its hidden charms. The second time through, we latch onto the reflexive, glinting irony in Peter Fleming’s Brazilian Adventure or the surrealistic touches in Gabriel Gárcia Márquez’s The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor. John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World suddenly seems a warmer work, less about auriferous gravels and more about the people who study them. And only in retrospect do we recognize Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day as a precursor of the New Journalistic fireworks that were to follow.


Monday, October 31st, 2011

Kelly Oliver on Pet Lovers, Pathologized

Kelly Oliver, Pet Lovers Pathologized“Within our philosophy and within our culture, we cannot take seriously our love and dependence on animals without turning them into medicine and making ourselves sick.”—Kelly Oliver

“To love animals is to be soft, childlike, or pathological. To admit dependence on animals — particularly emotional and psychological dependence, as pet owners often do — is seen as a type of neurosis,” writes Kelly Oliver, author of Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human, in a recent essay for the New York Times website, The Stone. Oliver argues that we have a complicated relationship with animals, one in which pets are cherished “property” and the act of hunting by presidential candidates symbolizes their ability to keep the nation safe.

Our society now gives legal approval for the use of animals for illness, handicap, or stressful situations to provide emotional support. Courts now allow children to have their pet by their side when called upon to give difficult testimony and doctors write prescriptions for people to bring animals to work for emotional or psychiatric reasons. However, these new regulations reflect our conflicted treatment of animals as well as those who rely on them:

The regulations are very clear: these animals are not pets. They are “serving” an essential therapeutic purpose. The fact that these relationships are circumscribed by laws relegate animals to the role of tools or medication, an act that also pathologizes the people who rely on them. Animals, then, can enter our intimate family units only as pets, which is to say property, or as a result of trauma, disease or disability. This cultural attitude suggests that people who are dependent upon their animals for anything other than amusement or entertainment are abnormal or unhealthy. Loving animals as friends and family is seen as quirky at best and at worst, crazy.


Friday, October 28th, 2011

Caryl Rivers Debates Single-Sex Education with the Headmaster of an All-Boys School

The Truth About Girls and Boys

We conclude our focus on The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children, by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett, by following up on yesterday’s post on single-sex education. Earlier this week, in a fascinating exchange, Caryl Rivers debated the merits of single-sex education with Kerry Brennan, Headmaster at Roxbury Latin, a school for boys. You can listen to their conversation here

Also we would like to extend a 30% discount for The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children. To save 30%, add the book to your shopping cart, and enter code TRURI in the “Redeem Coupon” field at check out. Click on the “redeem coupon” button and your savings will be calculated.

Friday, October 28th, 2011

Barbara Will on Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Fay, and the Vichy Dilemma

“My hope with this book is, first, to resituate Stein where I think she belongs—in the latter camp of reactionary modernism. It simplifies her work and falsifies her life to misread both in the service of our own progressive agendas. The dilemmas of her life, and the realities of her actions and convictions, require careful and objective understanding.”—Barbara Will

Barbara Will’s Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Fay, and the Vichy Dilemma continues to garner attention. This week the book was featured in Rorotoko and in an article in The Chronicle Review (unfortunately, a subscription is required to view the entire article).
Barbara Will, Unlikely Collaboration
In her essay for Rorotoko, Barbara Will describes her book’s focus on the relationship between Gertrude Stein and the French intellectual Bernard Fay. As she explains, Unlikely Collaboration tells the story of Stein and Fay’s involvement and support of the Vichy government — Stein as writer of propaganda for Petain’s regime and Fay as an official in the secret police. Despite their shared affinity for the Vichy government, the two had very different fates after the war as Stein’s wartime writings were suppressed and she was hailed by the American press as being a survivor while Fay was sentenced to life in prison.

Barbara Will’s investigation into how a Jewish-American writer and a French aesthete were drawn to a fascist government is complemented by her exploration of larger questions about what drew many modernists to reactionary politics. Will writes:

What was it that drew these thinkers toward such regimes? My book sees Stein and Faÿ as case studies of this larger phenomenon, arguing that there is no necessary correspondence between avant-garde or radical thought and progressive politics. Indeed, in uncertain times, the avant-garde can sometimes take on rear-guard or reactionary positions. Being attentive to the particular reactionary agendas of Stein and Faÿ—including their idealization of the eighteenth-century and their sense of Pétain as a revolutionary war hero—allows us a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the broader points of convergence between modernism and fascism or authoritarianism.


Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Caryl Rivers on The False Promises of Single-Sex Education

Caryl Rivers, The Truth About Girls and Boys

As the dubious assertions regarding differences between girls and boys begins to take hold, there has bee a push for single-sex education. In an article in the Huffington Post from earlier this month, Caryl Rivers coauthor of The Truth About Boys and Girls: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children, describes the growth of the single-sex movement and the rise of “self-appointed gurus” spearheading it:

Leonard Sax, head of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education and best-selling author of Why Gender Matters and Michael Gurian (The Wonder of Boys) have been pushing the single-sex agenda. They speak before huge audiences of teachers, parents and school administrators and are the darlings of the media, drawing extensive coverage in which their statements about “science” are generally accepted as fact.

The single-sex movement in public schools has been growing fast. According to the New York Times, there were only two single-sex public schools in the mid-1990s; today, there are more than 500 public schools in 40 states that offer some single-sex academic classes.

The problem as Rivers points out is that the “science” supporters of single-sex education use to back up their claims has been refuted by many scientists and researchers. These findings were published and discusses in a recent issue of Science. Moreover the schools Rivers and her coauthor Rosalind Barnett have visited seem to suggest that single-sex education does not match up to the claims made by its supporters:

We’ve looked at the claims for single-sex schools and find that many are just plain wrong. For example, both Sax and Gurian argue that the brains of boys and girls are so different that they should be parented and educated in very different ways. But research does not support such assumptions. After an exhaustive review of the scientific literature on human brains from childhood to adolescence, neuroscientist Lise Eliot found “surprisingly little evidence of sex differences in children’s brains.” Eliot is an associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School and one of the authors of the Science article. In her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, Eliot accuses Sax and Gurian of pushing shoddy science.

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett Dispel Myths About Girls and Boys

The Truth About Girls and Boys

On their website, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett, authors of The Truth About Boys and Girls: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children, challenge some myths concerning the ways in which girls and boys learn:

Myth: Girls’ and boys’ brains are so different throughout childhood that they need to be taught and parented very differently

Fact: Major reviews of the scientific literature on human brains from childhood to adolescence conclude that there is “surprisingly little evidence of sex difference in children’s brains.

Myth: Boys have inherently weaker verbal skills than girls. They should be given “informational texts” to read instead of the classics or any material containing emotion, which they aren’t good at either. The media swallow this idea uncritically.

Fact: Overall, there are virtually no differences in verbal abilities between girls and boys.

Myth: Boys have brain structures that girls don’t possess, allowing them to be better at math and science.

Fact: Girls have made great strides in math and science, now scoring on par with males. A flood of new research casts doubt on the idea that girls are not “wired” to do well at math.

Myth: Boys are biologically programmed to focus on objects, predisposing them to math and understanding systems, while girls are programmed to focus on people and feelings.

Fact: There is a long literature flat-out contradicting this idea. Male and female infants tend to respond equally to people and objects. Well-designed studies show no male superiority in spatial and mathematics at an early age.

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

Interview with Rosalind Barnett, Coauthor of The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children

Rosalind Barnett, The Truth About Girls and Boys

Earlier this year Rosalind Barnett was interview by the Boston Globe about her and Caryl Rivers’s new book The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children. The interview can also be read at on the book’s website The Truth About Girls and Boys.

Q: You and coauthor Caryl Rivers subtitled your book Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children. What are some stereotypes?

Rosalind Barnett: That there are big differences in cognitive ability – girls are better at verbal and boys are better at math. That’s gotten to be conventional wisdom, and the consequences are very dramatic. It creates a negative spiral. Boys themselves start saying, “I can’t handle Tom Sawyer; give me ‘Captain America.’ ”

Q: Are there any true gender-related learning differences?

RB: There are, but they’re trivial and no reason for same-sex education. Even if there were tremendous differences, why would we argue for homogenous classrooms when in every other case we want heterogeneity?

How do these beliefs influence parents?

RB: Parents want the best for their kids. If people with fancy initials after their names tell them Johnny’s not a natural reader, [that] he’s going to be athletic, they’re going to spend their time with him doing sports. But the brain is not like other organs. It’s enormously influenced by the environment. So if you do more reading, it’s going to become better at that.

Q: Who likes the idea of innate differences?

RB: Marketers. We did an informal analysis looking at toy catalogs, and you would be flabbergasted at what’s sold to girls. They’re more than half of all graduates of college, and it’s fantasy dress-up, kitchen toys, dolls – and not dolls that drive creativity. For boys,the word is “action figures,” dolls that move every which way. Boys are learning scientific notions, but the girl’s doll can move only one way – to hold a baby.


Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

New Book Tuesday: Socialism Unbound and a Radical Luhmann

Stephen Bronner, Socialism UnboundSocialism Unbound, Second Edition: Principles, Practices, and Prospects
Stephen Bronner

The Radical Luhmann
Hans-Georg Moeller

Hindu Widow Marriage
Ishvarchandra Vidyasagar

Monday, October 24th, 2011

The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children

The Truth About Girls and BoysA new biological determinism is sweeping through American society.

This week we’ll be featuring The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children. Here’s the opening to the book:

A new biological determinism is sweeping through American society. Old myths about gender differences are being packaged in shiny new bottles and sold to parents and teachers desperate to do the best they can for the children in their care. And the major mediaincluding PBS, Newsweek, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Parents magazine, and many others—are uncritically embracing these new-old stereotypes .

From the media, you’d think that there is a scientific consensus that boys and girls are profoundly different from birth, and that these differences have huge consequences for aptitude and performance in such areas as math and verbal abilities, for how the sexes communicate, for the careers for which they should aim, and for the kinds of classrooms they should attend.

As a parent or teacher, you can be forgiven for assuming that all of these beliefs are based on fact; the idea of great differences between boys and girls is the new scientific truth, “proved” by many experts and many studies. This toxic message—which is everywhere today—has real-life consequences. Important new research shows that kids pick up very early—often as early as two years of age—on gender stereotypes, and if parents and teachers don’t intervene, kids may get stuck in damaging straitjackets.

The true story is exactly the opposite of the popular narrative. The overwhelming consensus, validated by dozens of researchers using well-designed samples, is that girls and boys are far more alike than different in their cognitive abilities and the differences that do exist are trivial. That’s not to say there are no differences between the sexes—indeed there are—but when it comes to the way boys and girls learn and the subjects they are good at, sweeping statements about innate gender differences don’t hold up. Human beings have multiple intelligences that defy simple gender pigeonholes.

Friday, October 21st, 2011

Who Are the Critical Children in Critical Children?

Richard Locke, Critical Children

We conclude our week-long focus on Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels with a special offer for the book and by ending where we perhaps should have begun.

First of all, we would like to extend a 30% discount on Critical Children. To save 30%, add the book to your shopping cart, and enter code CRILO in the “Redeem Coupon” field at check out. Click on the “redeem coupon” button and your savings will be calculated.

In previous posts, we’ve mentioned a few of the children Richard Locke discusses in Critical Children but here’s the full list:

Oliver Twist
David Copperfield
Huckleberry Finn
Tom Sawyer
Miles and Flora (The Turn of the Screw)
Peter Pan
Holden Caulfield
Alexander Portnoy


Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Richard Locke on Holden Caulfield

Richard Locke, Critical Children

“Salinger transforms Huck the frontier fugitive into Holden the prep-school dropout: both boys’ famously provocative colloquial voices embody their quests for American freedom and authenticity.”—Richard Locke, Critical Children

In Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels, Richard Locke discusses many notable children from literature ranging from Oliver Twist to Lolita. One of the most memorable chapters in the book is J. D. Salinger’s Saintly Dropout: Holden Caulfield.

Locke opens by describing how Caulfield encompasses some of the characteristics of other famous child characters:

Salinger’s most famous character, sixteen-year-old Holden, is a holy rebel who combines elements of Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger, Huckleberry Finn and Peter Pan. Like Oliver, Holden can be said to represent “the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last.” Like the Artful Dodger, he is a quick-tongued urban trickster. Like Peter Pan, he mocks his own conventional (and comfortably affluent) society and wants to never grow up. But his most celebrated ancestor is Huckleberry Finn. Salinger transforms Huck the frontier fugitive into Holden the prep-school dropout: both boys’ famously provocative colloquial voices embody their quests for American freedom and authenticity.


Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

The Hazards of Fairyland: The Wall Street Journal Reviews Critical Children, by Richard Locke

Critical Children, Richard Locke

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a very thoughtful review of Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels.

The reviewer, Frank Cottrell Boyce, calls the book “incisive and entertaining,” and discusses Locke’s examination of novels such as David Copperfield, Peter Pan, Huckleberry Finn, and Lolita. As Boyce explains, Locke views these novels as prism to understand cultural issues ranging from economic exploitation and racism to sexuality and mortality.

Boyce concludes the review, writing

For all the exuberant genius of Twain and Dickens, for all the dangerous potency of “Peter Pan,” the most accurate book about children on Mr. Locke’s list is surely Henry James’s horror story “The Turn of the Screw”—not because it says that children are wicked or amoral but because it says that they are unknowable. Mr. Locke calls it “a perfect example of a work constructed to defeat the reader’s effort to resolve its intrinsic indeterminacy.” We do not know if the ghosts in the story are haunting the young girl and boy or haunting their governess—or if the children are on the side of the ghosts. Because it is impossible, James realizes, to know what children are really thinking. The horror at the heart of “The Turn of the Screw” is the revelation that there are places even a great story cannot take you.

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Udi Aloni Directs an Arab Adaptation of “Waiting for Godot”

Udi Aloni

Last night, The Freedom Theater a troupe in the Jenin refugee camp, performed “Waiting for Godot at Columbia University’s Miller Theater. The play was directed by Udi Aloni, author of What Does a Jew Want?: On Binationalism and Other Specters. As described in a recent New York Times article, Aloni became the director after the founder of the The Freedom Theater, Juliano Mer Khamis was murdered outside the troupe’s building.

Udi Aloni, who had been Mer Khamis’s friend, decided to step in as director after learning of the murder. The production breaks with several conventions relating to “Waiting for Godot,” including the casting of women in the roles of Vladimir and Estragon. As BatoolTaleb, who plays Estragon, explains, “Waiting for Godot” has special resonance for Palestinians and The Freedom Theater: “Everyone in life is waiting, with his own goals to reach. For us in our situation in Palestine, we are waiting for freedom, and for us in the Freedom Theater, we are working for the future, waiting for something to happen that will change something.”

The article describes Mer Khamis’s reputation for putting on plays that were controversial among both Palestinians and Israelis. His productions challenged Arab patriarchal conventions as well as the Palestinian authority. Mr Aloni describe Mer Khamis as ““loved and hated in Tel Aviv and loved and hated in Jenin…. some people said he was a Palestinian in Israel and an Israeli in Palestine, and then somebody else said, no, he was a Palestinian in Palestine and an Israeli in Israel. But I say he was a Palestinian Jew in Israel and a Palestinian Jew in Palestine.”

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

Interview with Richard Locke, Author of Critical Children

Richard Locke, Critical ChildrenThe following is an interview with Richard Locke, author of Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels.

Question: What were the criteria for selecting the characters? Did you consider discussing any children from more recent literature?

Richard Locke: I was struck that there should be so many instantly recognizable children in novels written for adults quite long ago. People still know immediately who Huck Finn or Lolita is, and Oliver Twist asking for more is indelible and recurrent – the very first line of a new first novel about children by Justin Torres called We the Animals begins like a trumpet call with “we wanted more” and builds from there. It turns out that dozens of literary novels over the past 170 years – it started with Oliver Twist in 1838 — use children as a way of exploring and evading large social, psychological, and moral problems. There are so many that I figured I’d take a few child characters who’ve become icons, who still shake people up and are cherished or banned (like Huck or Holden Caulfield or even Lolita once upon a time in France). If I’d included less well-known contemporary characters – for example in books by Ian McEwan and Don DeLillo and Kazuo Ishiguro and Jonathan Lethem and Francine Prose and Emma Donoghue – I’d never stop. It certainly wasn’t easy to exclude Salman Rushdie’s Indian children or Ben Okri’s Nigerians, but they’re not as recognizable as Tom Sawyer, and if I went global I’d never get out of the forest.

Q: On a more general level, Critical Children is written in a clear, jargon-free style but in such a way that it grapples with complex, literary issues. You have spent many years in the world of literary criticism and book reviewing – what’s your sense about contemporary discourse about books and literature?

RL: It’s true that over the past few decades the gap between literary creation and literary criticism has grown very wide, but there’s a tradition of informal, essayistic criticism that’s still alive – and such novelists as Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Lethem easily turn to criticism with great success. The internet is full of excellent literary reviews (as well as spritzing goofiness – thumbs up! thumbs down!). And in many ways MFA programs – particularly those with strong literary nonfiction – attract the kind of readers and writers who fifty years ago would have written autobiographical first novels (not yet “memoirs”) and happily celebrated classic and contemporary literature. Informal, untechnocratic writing about literature (often building on the tradition of the personal essay) is still possible and may be growing.


Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

New Book Tuesday: Mute Speech by Jacques Ranciere

Jacques Ranciere, Mute SpeechMute Speech: Literature, Critical Theory, and Politics
Jacques Ranciere

Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters
Gordon Shepherd

Evolution and the Emergent Self: The Rise of Complexity and Behavioral Versatility in Nature
Raymond L. Neubauer

The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, Abridged Edition
Edited by J. Thomas Rimer and Van C. Gessel

Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, Revised Edition
Victor Turner


Monday, October 17th, 2011

The Opening to Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels

Richard Locke, Critical ChildrenThis week we will be featuring Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels, by Richard Locke. We begin with the opening paragraph to the book:

In 1876 Mark Twain stopped working on the manuscript of Huckleberry Finn and didn’t pick it up for three years. He’d written 446 pages and come to the middle of the eighteenth chapter. The fugitive orphan Huck and the runaway slave Jim have been violently separated once again after a steamboat has crushed the raft that is their home and their vehicle to freedom. Huck dives toward the bottom of the river below the thirty-foot steamboat wheel, but when he surfaces he can’t find Jim and finally scrambles ashore in the dark. He comes to a backwoods country mansion, a “big old fashioned double-sized log house” guarded by dogs and armed men in a state of high suspicion and alarm, and after a terrifying interrogation that establishes his status as a castaway and his ignorance of the local war, he is adopted by the “aristocratic clan” of the Grangerfords, who tell him “I could have a home there as long as I wanted it.” Huck has survived a rite of passage from river to shore. He has reentered civilization.

Friday, October 14th, 2011

Demented Faith or Godless Mamon: The Financial Times on Denis Lacorne’s “Religion in America”

Denis Lacorne, Religion in America

We conclude our week-long focus on Religion in America: A Political History, by Denis Lacorne with some excerpts from a review of the book in the Financial Times.

In his review, Clive Crook praises Religion in America for its timeliness as well as its ability to weave together two histories: the role of religion in the United States and what French commentators, including Voltaire, Tocqueville, Sartre, and Bernard-Henri Lévy. Crook also cites Lacorne’s focus on two narratives which have competed to define America’s identity. These include the story of it being a secular state which separates church and state and a “Neopuritan” identity. Crook writes:

The second narrative, which Lacorne calls “Neopuritan”, denies the radical break and sees the American project as “the climax of a continuous progression of freedom starting with the Reformation and culminating with the first New England Puritan colonies”. This is America as the “City upon a Hill” – a biblical phrase used in a sermon by John Winthrop to the first Massachusetts colonists, and co-opted by John F. Kennedy and then by Ronald Reagan more than three centuries later. It sees the American creed as an indissoluble blend of Protestant and republican values.

Then again, Kennedy was a Catholic and Reagan was not religious. Lacorne’s point – and it is surely correct – is that both stories are true. This is what makes America so perplexing, not just to Voltaire and Sartre, but to Americans as well.

This is a country whose highest court outlawed prayer in state schools, and where taxpayer-funded Christmas nativity displays invite prosecution; yet where children recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which (since revision in 1954) declares the US to be “one nation under God”. What president – certainly not Barack Obama – neglects to end a speech by saying, “God bless the United States of America”? “In God We Trust,” says the dollar bill. The French love that one.

In phases, the two narratives gain or lose prominence, and their respective adherents become more or less angry. Lacorne applauds the American ideal of a “faith-friendly secularism”, in which people of all faiths can feel welcome. Or, for that matter, people of no faith: he notes that Mr Obama’s inaugural address was the first ever to acknowledge that some Americans do not believe in God.

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

How the French Have Viewed American Religion

Religion in America, Denis Lacorne

The following is an excerpt from Denis Lacorne’s Introduction to Religion in America: A Political History.

“Twentieth-century French perceptions of America, however contradictory, share a common pessimistic message. The United States is not really a democracy. It is either a godless nation dominated by the profit motive, or the very opposite: an intolerant Anglo-Protestant theocracy.”—Denis Lacorne

There is general agreement that the United States is the most religious of advanced Western democracies. The level of religious observance in the country is unusually high and political language is imbued with religious values and religious references. “In God We Trust” is the national motto of the United States and enshrined on its currency, “one nation under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, and an impressive number of elected officials—members of Congress, cabinet officers, and presidents such as Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush—have claimed a special relationship with the Almighty following a momentous adult conversion experience. And yet this reality is the source of major misunderstandings, clichés, and misperceptions between the United States and other Western nations regarding the proper role of religion in a modern democracy.

Nowhere is this more evident than in France where contemporary writers—journalists, political scientists, philosophers, novelists—are particularly disturbed by what they see on the American political scene: the proliferation of religious slogans and allegories; the frequency of worship services, prayer meetings and thanksgiving celebrations organized by public authorities; the inordinate use of a Manichean rhetoric opposing the forces of Good to the forces of Evil. Such manifestations of an overwhelming public religiosity reinforce the French belief that the United States is an aggressively and unapologetically Christian nation. Its political creed, it is argued, has remained fundamentally Anglo-Protestant, despite an increasing influx of Asian and Latino immigrants whose cultural values are by definition outside the ambit of Anglo-Protestantism.

Based on these assumptions, numerous French observers have concluded that there is no escape from religion in American politics and that, despite its well-established republican framework, American democracy is less advanced because it has not yet completed its process of secularization. The French, they argue, are more authentically “republican” than the Americans, because they have enshrined a secular ideal in the first article of their constitution and have established a long-lasting separation between church and state.

Against the background of these widely accepted continental clichés, I have attempted to do two things in this book. The first is to trace the broad outlines of the role of religion in the formation of a distinct American national identity. The second is to examine, against this background, how key French thinkers, from Voltaire and Tocqueville to Sartre and Bernard-Henri Lévy, have tried to explain the place and significance of religion in American politics….


Thursday, October 13th, 2011

Avidan Milevsky on Sibling Relationships

The following is a video with Avidan Milevsky, author of the recently published Sibling Relationships in Childhood and Adolescence.

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Tony Judt on Denis Lacorne

Denis Lacorne, Religion in America: A Political History

As Denis Lacorne makes his way around the United States to discuss his new book Religion in America: A Political History (Bostonians: You’ll have two chances to see him today!), we decided to post an excerpt from Tony Judt’s foreword to the book (you can the read it in its entirety here):

In his latest book, Religion in America: A Political History, Lacorne does more than just offer an overview of the place of religious practice and religious conflict in the making of America (though he does this in a way that American students and general readers will find extremely helpful); he integrates his story into another story, that of the French fascination with America and the insights and misunderstandings to which it has led. He observes that even the earliest commentators, men like Jean de Crèvecœur, were disposed to conflate the Puritan and republican strands in colonial political culture—whereas, as Lacorne demonstrates, these were juxtaposed and often contradictory elements that surfaced at different occasions and create not so much a complexity of American roots as a tension between alternative models for the good society.

These tensions run through American history, and the contradictions they pose to observers are well illustrated in the work of both the greatest commentators—Tocqueville, most obviously—and the most superficial. Nor do the tensions run conveniently along political lines. The populist tradition that fed into the modern Democratic Party was at least as religious as the more conventionally Protestant Republican heritage: the defense of dissenting Baptists or persecuted Catholics could take radical and oppositional form to the power structure of a republic run by and for a small commercial elite. Indeed, the emphasis on the separation of church and state long favored minority religions frightened at the prospect of their suppression at the hands of the dominant mainstream heritage of the Episcopalians.

Conversely, the established elite—having no need of religion to support their authority from the late nineteenth century onward—were quite content to see religion retreat to the private sphere, but took great care to emphasize the need to keep all forms of faith and practice equally clear of public favor. From the point of view of the foreigner, and particularly the French observer with a Cartesian preference for rigorous logic and sustained categories, the periodic resurfacing of these issues in the form of juridical revision of the interpretation of the First Amendment was a source of confusion: surely these things had been settled once and for all in 1789?