Most people would likely claim a general understanding of neoliberalism as a movement of laissez-faire principles aimed at ensuring free markets and an “unfettered” economy. In Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, one of the first intellectual histories of the movement, Quinn Slobodian shows that, in the beginning, neoliberalism was actually about shielding the economic world from the political world—about protecting the global economy, not freeing it. For Slobodian, neoliberalism is ultimately less a theory of the market or economics than of law and state, and his work gives us a much clearer sense of how the old world of empire gave way in the twentieth century not to a quasi-libertarian world of markets but to international institutions that were highly active in prescribing trade policies and rules about competition. Below, Slobodian introduces his study, and recounts its origins in a late-1990s moment when passion could often outpace understanding.
If I had to give this book an origin point, it would be almost 20 years ago, at the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. For people who don’t know much about it, a famous coalition of “teamsters and turtles,” meaning environmentalists along with labor unions, students, anarchists, old hippies, and assorted others shut down the meeting and shook the organization to its core. Despite the director-general’s famous call to “re-brand” in the early 2000s, the WTO hasn’t completed a negotiating round since. So, the protest was a big deal.
I was a junior in college in Portland at the time, a few hours south of Seattle, and for reasons mostly to do with laziness and ennui, I didn’t go. I remember watching the protests on our small box TV with a coat hanger stuck in the back with the sinking feeling that “oh no, a world historical event is taking place that I passed on to watch some Lars von Trier movies on VHS.”
My friends and classmates felt activated, painting huge papier-mâché fists and strapping them to their backpacks, filled with certainty. Myself, I felt demobilized and filled mostly with disorientation.
The 1990s were a weird time to come of age. Middle class North American white kids like me were profiting from everything that went under the decade’s buzzword of globalization but also saw it as something ominous, sometimes verging on evil. We were the Adbusters generation. My sixteen-year-old sister was printing small stickers attacking McDonald’s viscerally. I wrote and photocopied a zine that said on the cover in block letters: OPEN YOUR EYES.
But open them to what exactly? The world economy was like the Nothing from my favorite childhood film, The Neverending Story, an anonymous, faceless force that seemed to swallow everything in its path, extinguishing particularity; it Coca-Colonized, to use a term of the time, squashed dreams of global modernization and turned the Third World back into a labor colony to make our stuff.
Before there was fake news there were what I saw then as fake needs, created by advertising and the mind control of the blizzard of logos—the swooshes and stripes that now adorn the cool kids in Berlin and Brooklyn. Back then we were all little Frankfurt Schoolers, or Frankfurt Pre-Schoolers, distrustful of irony though we were steeped in it, seeking elusive authenticity, wanting to unveil, unmask, expose, and upend—in my case, preferably from my desk, typewriter, and the warm chairs of the library.
So this book came out of a simple question that germinated at that time: why would anyone defend the great Nothing of the world economy, the power that forced the hands of democratically elected governments, anonymously imposed new rules and strictures and only rewarded us with what I saw in my adolescent mind as a disposable culture that would choke us all with plastic, garbage, and refuse before I even had a chance to die a natural death. (Capturing some of the melodrama of the time here).
I wanted to come as close as I could to a kind of deep logic of the moment. I knew, or thought I knew, what “we” wanted—but what did “they” want? How did “they” understand their own mission in the world?
The word that arose in the 90s to describe what “they” believed was “neoliberalism.” Although the term was coined by a group of intellectuals in the 1930s to describe themselves, as I recount in the book, in the 1990s and afterward it was used mostly by its enemies—as an academic curse word. As I write in the book’s introduction:
Neoliberals, we were told, believed in global laissez-faire: self-regulating markets, shrunken states, and the reduction of all human motivation to the one-dimensional rational self-interest of Homo economicus. The neoliberal globalists, it was claimed, conflated free-market capitalism with democracy and fantasized about a single world market without borders.
But why would anyone promote such a philosophy? There are a few obvious answers. The first is that the big Nothing was actually the big Everything: it was lifting the aggregate wealth and productivity of humanity as a whole. The number of people living on a dollar a day was dropping year to year. Even if inequality was also growing—and ecological problems were not going anywhere—the rising tide, globally speaking, was lifting all ships. Therefore there was nothing “evil” about the IMF, the World Bank, the economics profession, and the Financial Times op ed page. They were simply watching the biggest line graph of all—world economic growth—creep ever higher. We, on the other hand, were all nostalgic brats of the global north, unable to apprehend the bigger picture.
The second explanation was that neoliberal globalization made a small number of people very rich, and it was in the interest of those people to promote a self-serving ideology using their substantial means by funding think tanks and academic departments, lobbying congress, fighting what the Heritage Foundation calls “the war of ideas.” Neoliberalism, then, was a restoration of class power after the odd, anomalous interval of the mid-century welfare state.
There is truth to both of these explanations. Both presuppose a kind of materialist explanation of history with which I have no problem. In my book, though, I take another approach. What I found is that we could not understand the inner logic of something like the WTO without considering the whole history of the twentieth century. What I also discovered is that some of the members of the neoliberal movement from the 1930s onward, including Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, did not use either of the explanations I just mentioned. They actually didn’t say that economic growth excuses everything. One of the peculiar things about Hayek, in particular, is that he didn’t believe in using aggregates like GDP—the very measurements that we need to even say what growth is.
What I found is that neoliberalism as a philosophy is less a doctrine of economics than a doctrine of ordering—of creating the institutions that provide for the reproduction of the totality. At the core of the strain I describe is not the idea that we can quantify, count, price, buy and sell every last aspect of human existence. Actually, here it gets quite mystical. The Austrian and German School of neoliberals in particular believe in a kind of invisible world economy that cannot be captured in numbers and figures but always escapes human comprehension.
After all, if you can see something, you can plan it. Because of the very limits to our knowledge, we have to default to ironclad rules and not try to pursue something as radical as social justice, redistribution, or collective transformation. In a globalized world, we must give ourselves over to the forces of the market, or the whole thing will stop working.
So this is quite a different version of neoliberal thought than the one we usually have, premised on the abstract of individual liberty or the freedom to choose. Here one is free to choose but only within a limited range of options left after responding to the global forces of the market.
One of the core arguments of my book is that we can only understand the internal coherence of neoliberalism if we see it as a doctrine as concerned with the whole as the individual. Neoliberal globalism can be thought of in its own terms as a negative theology, contending that the world economy is sublime and ineffable with a small number of people having special insight and ability to craft institutions that will, as I put it, encase the sublime world economy.
To me, the metaphor of encasement makes much more sense than the usual idea of markets set free, liberated or unfettered. How can it be that in an era of proliferating third party arbitration courts, international investment law, trade treaties and regulation that we talk about “unfettered markets”? One of the big goals of my book is to show neoliberalism is one form of regulation among many rather than the big Other of regulation as such.
What I explore in Globalists is how we can think of the WTO as the latest in a long series of institutional fixes proposed for the problem of emergent nationalism and what neoliberals see as the confusion between sovereignty—ruling a country—and ownership—owning the property within it. I build here on the work of other historians and show how the demands in the United Nations by African, Asian, and Latin American nations for things like the Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources, i.e. the right to nationalize foreign-owned companies, often dismissed as merely rhetorical, were actually existentially frightening to global businesspeople. They drafted neoliberal intellectuals to do things like craft agreements that gave foreign corporations more rights than domestic actors and tried to figure out how to lock in what I call the “human right of capital flight” into binding international codes. I show how we can see the development of the WTO as largely a response to the fear of a planned—and equal—planet that many saw in the aspirations of the decolonizing world.
Perhaps the lasting image of globalization that the book leaves is that world capitalism has produced a doubled world—a world of imperium (the world of states) and a world of dominium (the world of property). The best way to understand neoliberal globalism as a project is that it sees its task as the never-ending maintenance of this division. The neoliberal insight of the 1930s was that the market would not take care of itself: what Wilhelm Röpke called a market police was an ongoing need in a world where people, whether out of atavistic drives or admirable humanitarian motives, kept trying to make the earth a more equal and just place.
The culmination of these processes by the 1990s is a world economy that is less like a laissez-faire marketplace and more like a fortress, as ever more of the world’s resources and ideas are regulated through transnational legal instruments. The book acts as a kind of field guide to these institutions and, in the process, hopefully recasts the 20th century that produced them.
The tiny, innocuous fruit fly has been a subject of research for more than a century, and is discussed in upwards of 100,000 scientific publications. Its surprising parallels with humans—the fruit fly has a beating heart, a brain, and other organs comparable to our own; exhibits complex behaviors including sleep and aggression; and slows down with age—have made it an ideal subject for research that’s furthered our understanding of biology, health, and disease. In First in Fly: Drosophila Research and Biological Discovery, Stephanie Elizabeth Mohr celebrates the power and importance of curiosity-driven pure research conducted with fruit flies, providing historic and contemporary examples of the profound knowledge such work has afforded. After First in Fly, readers will have a new appreciation for the beauty of the fruit fly, and the common genetic threads that connect us to other creatures. And yet, for many of us, that recognition won’t likely dislodge the lived experience of the fruit fly as a miraculously multiplying kitchen nuisance. For that, Mohr offers up the flytrap described below.
Although researchers take great care to contain fruit flies in a lab setting, some inevitably get free, and once free, the flies will follow enticing scents to places they are unwelcome, such as a lunchroom or a yeast research lab. Drosophila researchers are not likely to bring insecticides into the lab—we are for the most part trying very hard to keep fruit flies alive, after all, so that we can perform genetic crosses and do other types of studies. But even the most dedicated fly researchers recognize that rogue flies can be a nuisance. We have developed an effective strategy for capturing flies that have escaped from their culture vials: we place simple flytraps in strategic locations around the lab. The same approach can be used in a home to get rid of an unwanted infestation or to collect wild flies for study. In the 2014 BioSCAN project, volunteers in Los Angeles, California, placed flytraps in their backyards as part of a species survey. These backyard collections led to identification of several new species of phorid flies, as well as the observation that Drosophila flavohirta, a species not previously found in the Americas, has taken up residence in Los Angeles.
To make a trap, first gather the following: an empty bottle, a rubber band or tape, and a tablespoon of something attractive to the flies, such as fruit juice, cider, champagne, wine, red wine vinegar, mushy banana, tired grapes, or overripe mango. The materials should be assembled as shown, then placed in areas frequented by the flies. The paper cone or a similar cover with a single small opening is essential: an open jar constitutes a fly feeder rather than a flytrap. The opening in the paper cone or cover should be just large enough for the small flies to fit through. Flies will be attracted by the bait and enter the chamber. Once inside, they are unlikely to try to escape, and even if they try, it will be next to impossible for them to find the tiny hole through which they entered.
This is a live trap method. To get rid of the flies, seal and throw away the trap within a few days. If forgotten, the trap is likely to become the birthplace of a next generation of flies. Before tossing the trap out, the curious might examine the flies to determine what species of flies were caught and whether they have unusual or interesting attributes. Should you decide to culture the flies, sliced bananas with a sprinkle of baker’s yeast should suffice as a food source, and a piece of cloth secured with a rubber band or a plug of cotton can be used to stopper the top without depriving the flies of oxygen. Be careful not to let the food dry out or expose the flies to prolonged heat or cold. To anesthetize the flies for close examination, place the trap on ice for five to ten minutes. If the food is very mushy, put the trap on its side, so the anesthetized flies do not get stuck in the food, or use a funnel to transfer the flies to an empty bottle before placing them on ice. A small paintbrush, makeup brush, or crab pick can be used as a pusher, and a magnifying glass, macro lens attachment on a camera, or smartphone-compatible microscope can help you inspect your flies closely. Further information, including food recipes and video demonstrations, can be found online. Who knows? Isolation of a spontaneous mutation, observation of an interesting behavior, or some other chance finding might launch a groundbreaking study.
Over the month’s course the store received dozens of outstanding entries from around the world, including drawings, photographs, videos, poems, essays, paintings, and more. A handful of submissions illustrating the fragment “I went in search of myself” are below; for a more complete roundup of highlights from the month, head on over to the Co-op’s blog.
The passing of the Rev. Billy Graham, who spent more than six decades as the nation’s most prominent Christian evangelist before retreating from the public spotlight in recent years, has occasioned both glowing appreciation for his life’s work and fierce condemnation of the social and political movements he led. One particular point around which that condemnation has clustered has been Graham’s support for America’s wars, and specifically the tactics he encouraged in Vietnam. In his authoritative account of Graham’s personal evolution and public significance, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation, historian Grant Wacker writes that Graham “displayed an uncanny ability to adopt trends in the wider culture and then use them for his evangelistic and moral reform purposes,” but that he also “brought to the table a long list of liabilities: conventional beginnings, serious mistakes of judgment, mordant criticism from others, shifting public identities, and elusive mythic dimensions.” In the following excerpt from America’s Pastor, we see evidence of both in Graham’s views on communism and the Vietnam War.
One of the most durable conventions about Graham is that he was a hawk of the fiercest kind. The convention bears a large measure of truth for the Graham of the late 1940s, 1950s, and most of the 1960s. To a great extent the early Graham defined himself not only politically but also culturally and even theologically as a warrior against communism. As with millions of Americans, Graham’s hatred and fear of communism was palpable, profound, and pervasive.
The story is long and complex. Before plunging into it, however, four generalizations are helpful. First, Graham’s attitudes toward communism not only changed but also zigzagged. The changes unfolded in different ways in different times and places. Second, Graham did not do it alone. The culture changed—and zigzagged—right along with him. Third, Graham and the West did not do it alone, either. The Soviet Union changed at the same time, and so did the Eastern Bloc nations, and, to a lesser extent, so did China and North Korea. Finally, Graham’s star remained high long after the Cold War died. The Cold War helped propel him into public visibility but it did not keep him aloft. Other factors, including the culture’s needs and his personal skills, did.
In the early years of his career Graham hammered the communist threat constantly. Next to the gospel message, by his own recollection, he preached about it more than anything else. In 1953 the Chicago Daily News dubbed Graham “Communism’s Public Enemy Number One,” a view echoed by Soviet newspapers. Graham famously ridiculed “the pinks, the lavenders and the reds who have sought refuge beneath the wings of the American eagle.” The alarmist words on the front page of a “News Letter” of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, mailed to listeners of the Hour of Decision in July 1953, represented hundreds if not thousands of paragraphs in Graham’s preaching and writing of that era. “This is no time to be lulled by the constant talk of ‘peace’ by the Communist spokesmen,” he cautioned. “Their program of world conquest is moving ahead at a steady pace.” British Guiana and Guatemala effectively have fallen, Graham warned. Communists intend “to bring Japan to her knees economically,” then all of the Far East. “Other countries are to follow. We are being gradually encircled.” Many of the most memorable lines Graham ever preached targeted the communist enemy: “Stalin’s fixed purpose is to holster the whole world for communism”; “They have knifed their way across Laos”; “Communism is a fanatical religion that has declared war upon the Christian God.” Communism framed his image of the world, aroused his listeners’ anxieties, and prompted them to take action.
Graham’s attacks on communism started slowly but quickly gained momentum. The first comments turned up here and there in his preaching in the late 1940s. They appeared forcefully in his opening sermon in his first major urban crusade in Los Angeles in 1949. They reappeared with equal force in his first major outdoor meeting in the East: the revival sited on the Boston Common in the cold wet spring of 1950. The continually swelling audiences on both coasts and pretty much everywhere else suggested that the people eagerly embraced them.
Graham shared other Americans’ fears about the danger communism posed, but as a Christian he also brought concerns born of religion to the table. Communism threatened the American way of life at its roots. It represented a total system, encompassing and threatening every aspect of the culture, just as any authentic religion did. It drew its force from a sense of revelation, just as Christianity and Judaism did. Communism paraded as actively anti-Christian. More precisely, communism was not simply an alternative religion like Zen but an aggressive destroyer of souls. It manifested missionary zeal, with a track record of winning converts’ hearts and souls. It employed deception and fostered treachery.
Communists added military might to missionary zeal. They possessed the power to destroy or at least inflict vast damage on the United States and other Western nations. When they acted, they acted with cruelty and inhumanity. And many Americans refused to see it. Still worse, America was unprepared. The nation had proved hapless after the Korean truce, shackled by its commitments to the United Nations. Individuals within the nation proved more interested in materialism and recreation than in moral rigor and hard work. Like a demonic religion—or even as a demonic religion—the communist threat was real, lethal, imminent, and violent. Subtle, too. The communists quietly infiltrated churches and other institutions, working behind the scenes, invisibly. Communism represented the most grievous combination of threats imaginable, for it portended the annihilation of all that Americans held most dear.
Graham held all of these views, and many other men and women who commanded respect held some or all of them too, including such worthies as Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles. Far from being a voice crying in the wilderness, Graham found himself in good and strong company. Possibly he made communism more fearsome than any politician could do. He possessed the tools to leverage a political and military threat into a godless attack on an essentially Christian or at least Christian-influenced American way of life.
On April 15, 1969, he dispatched a thirteen-page letter to President Nixon. Declassified in 1989, the letter became one of the most important and controversial documents he ever wrote.
Though Graham’s view of the Vietnam War was tangled, several overall comments seem warranted. First, he moved from jut-jawed support for the administration’s policies in the mid-1960s to professed neutrality, born of deep uncertainty, by the time the U.S. involvement ended in 1973. In the beginning his main fear centered on the domino effect: we must stop communist expansion now, over there, before it materializes here, on our doorstep. Graham pointed out that President Kennedy made the initial commitment of sixteen thousand soldiers and Johnson had inherited the burden. In these respects Graham mirrored the views of many high-ranking figures in the United States government and millions of Americans too. Despite some congressional misgivings, the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the use of conventional military force, won resounding support in the U.S. Congress.
By the very end of the 1960s, however, Graham’s support for how the administration was prosecuting the war started to waver, at least in his private communications. On April 15, 1969, he dispatched a thirteen-page letter to President Nixon. Declassified in 1989, the letter became one of the most important and controversial documents he ever wrote, at least in retrospect. It purportedly reflected the views of a group of American missionaries in Vietnam, but it almost certainly expressed his own views too. Graham acknowledged that the missionaries spoke from “hawkish” sympathies, but they also expressed deep dissatisfaction with how the administration had executed the war.
The missionaries—presumably Graham too—outlined several possible scenarios. The majority of the options assumed that the Paris peace talks, which had started the previous year, would not end productively and honorably. Under those circumstances, the thrust of the recommendations involved five steps. First, turn the war over to the South Vietnamese government and military. It was, after all, their war. Second, withdraw “rapidly!” The American presence corrupted the economy and poisoned the culture. Third, empower South Vietnamese Special Forces for guerilla warfare. Their methods might seem “brutal and cruel in sophisticated Western eyes,” but the Viet Cong used those methods every day to “spread terror and fear to the people.” Fourth, emphasize propaganda, especially psychological. And fifth, “Use North Vietnamese defectors to bomb and invade the north. Especially let them bomb the dikes which could over night destroy the economy of North Vietnam.” The import was clear: attack and demoralize the civilian population.
One sharply critical biographer of Graham wrote that the fifth part of the plan would have taken a million lives. Correct or not, there could be little doubt that many civilians would have suffered and died. In the light of the group’s hawkish views, and its lament, stated earlier in the letter, that the bombing of North Vietnam had stopped prematurely, waging war on the civilian population made sense as a strategic assumption. But the plan made little sense morally, for it surely violated Christian principles of just war as well as the Geneva Conventions.
Replicating a life-long weakness for speaking beyond his knowledge (a fault he admitted), he was simply out of his depth.
There is no way to know if the document influenced anyone with power, but it could not have instilled restraint. One interpretation of the event is that Graham knew the consequences of the recommendation and pressed it anyway. Another interpretation is that he did not know the consequences and pressed it anyway. Either way, there was scant evidence that he possessed the training or experience to advise the president of the United States about military strategy. Replicating a life-long weakness for speaking beyond his knowledge (a fault he admitted), he was simply out of his depth. Moreover, the letter undermined his repeated claim that he did not offer Nixon—or any other president—specific policy recommendations. And it arrived at a time when Graham was entering the height of his political influence.
A second overall observation is that in the late 1960s and early 1970s Graham oscillated between noninvolvement and involvement. On one hand, in public he spoke very little about the geopolitical details of the conflict. On the other hand, in public, with rare exceptions, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Presidents Johnson and Nixon. Graham felt that God had authorized civil authorities to do their job. Citizens should support them unless they saw clear evidence of incompetence, moral turpitude, or violation of religious liberty. Besides that principled point, Graham projected a pragmatic one. Presidents usually knew things that ordinary people did not. Graham apparently did not suspect that his close friendship with Johnson and Nixon might have clouded his judgment about their judgment.
As the 1970s wore on, Graham, like millions of Americans, grew increasingly ambivalent about the reasons for the war. He admitted that he was profoundly perplexed yet saw no way out. Repeatedly he said that he would keep his thoughts to himself and not take sides. Many Americans doubted that his neutrality was genuine or that his uncertainty ran very deep. They took his professed neutrality as tacit or even covert support for the war, especially in light of his refusal publicly to challenge the invasion of Cambodia in 1970 or the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972. Dr. Ernest Campbell famously used the pulpit of New York’s Riverside Church to accuse Graham of a “moral ‘cop-out’” on the Cambodian bombing.
Into the 1970s, Graham made statements that appeared to minimize if not trivialize the human cost of the fighting by universalizing the problem. In November 1969 the story of the My Lai massacre hit the headlines. According to the story, U.S. forces had gunned down some five hundred men, women, and children in cold blood. A military court convicted Lieutenant William Calley of killing twenty-two Vietnamese civilians. Graham claimed that the lieutenant represented the evil in everyone: “We have all had our Mylais in one way or another, perhaps not with guns, but we have hurt others with a thoughtless word, an arrogant act or a selfish deed.” From a Christian theological or human rights perspective the statement may have been factually true, but the way he framed it—in the highly visible venue of the New York Times, no less—appeared to thin out the atrocity by spreading it.
The early 1970s saw a man in turmoil. The lesson of the war, Graham told the British correspondent David Frost in 1970, was that “we should do more talking and less fighting.” In the spring of 1973, Graham supported Nixon’s plan for an orderly withdrawal, yet he worried that the Paris peace talks would leave the South Vietnamese in peril and betray a nation that had trusted the United States. America, after all, had made promises. Fidelity remained an enduring American value. There, Graham undoubtedly touched a chord of approval. In June he told reporters that the Vietnam War had taught Americans that “we are not all-powerful and that America is not the Kingdom of God. We can go into it with a lot more humility. We have a lot to be proud of in the past; we have a lot to be ashamed of in the past.” Later, he said that America never should have gotten into a no-win land war in Asia in the first place. In 1997 Graham told Larry King that he regretted that he had not spoken against it.
Graham’s position on the Vietnam War merits reflection. Considered whole, it placed a stain on his record. The problem was not that he took the wrong stand on the war by the light available to him (and many others) at the time, or that his views changed, at least to the point of finding the rationale for American involvement unconvincing. So did those of the journalism icon Walter Cronkite. The problem was different. First, he waffled. If he had taken a clear prowar stand, or a clear antiwar stand, or offered a clear explanation for changing his mind, then, all right, people differed on weighty matters of public policy. And sometimes they changed their minds. But his waffling looked like he was just putting his finger to the wind. Second, he dissimulated. Or at least he appeared to do so. On one hand, after 1970 or so he repeatedly said he was neutral about the war. On the other hand, his fervent public support for Nixon, continually paraded in front of the press without any hint of distancing, let alone criticism, left all but the most ardent partisans scratching their heads.
This week brought the unveiling of the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery. Each image is both visually striking and laced with symbolic meaning, as well as imbued with the significance of the nation’s first African American presidential couple having selected African American artists to produce their likenesses. The former first lady tapped Amy Sherald, who employs a stylized realism in her portraits of African American subjects and has relatively recently garnered art world acclaim. For his portrait, Barack Obama selected Kehinde Wiley, who’s known for depicting young black people in portraits that echo earlier traditions of painting.
Joining archival and portraiture thematics, paintings by Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977, Los Angeles, California) transport the viewer to the realm of the seventeeth-century European Baroque. In works such as Portrait of Pablillos de Valladolid, Buffon de Phillip IV, II (2005), the second Roman numeral in the title signifies a contemporary doubling of a 1636-1637 portrait by Diego Velázquez. Substituting an African American man adorned in late twentieth-century hyperblack vernacular style for the original figure—in this case, an actor in the Spanish royal court—the artist asks young men on city streets if they would like their portraits painted, and individuals then select a work from a catalogue of canonical portraits. Code-switching black street style with the self-glorification of European noblemen does not aggrandize the former in terms set by the latter but sets off interruptive discrepancies that question the codes through which male power is portrayed. Wiley titled his Passing/Posing exhibition of 2003 after his observation that young black men appropriate the inner-city street as a runway on which to perform identities for an audience. Black male self-fashioning with baggy jeans, branded clothes, ritual handshakes, and body language that struts or limps rather than walks employs the artifice of style to counteract perceptions that black men with limited life choices are powerless. But on the two-way street of Wiley’s portraiture, the posturing driven by self-protective defenses exists on a transcultural continuum with displays of power in Western art history that also relied on deliberately ostentatious performances in the stylized language of clothes. “Ultimately, what I’m doing is jacking history,” the artist says. “I’m emptying out the original. It’s almost a type of drag anyway.”
Mercer goes on to note the ways in which Wiley’s decorative designs—patterned backgrounds like the greenery against which he placed Obama—“isolate his figures in an intensified realm of purely pictorial space” and “reveal vulnerability that macho posing tries to mask.” It’s fascinating to consider the layering involved in Wiley’s having gone from portraits of urban black male youth who’ve adopted “macho posing” to this painting of Obama, who’s famously comported himself in a manner designed to negate the stereotyped expectations of African American manhood with which Wiley’s earlier work plays, and from subjects who’ve employed “the artifice of style” to counter perceptions of their powerlessness to one who’s consciously sought to make others comfortable with his great power.
We’re very pleased to share the news that Joy de Menil has been appointed to the newly created position of Executive Editor and Director of Belknap Publishing. In addition to acquiring her own titles, de Menil will oversee the rebranding of the prestigious Belknap imprint, with an eye to widening awareness of its titles.
De Menil, who was most recently an executive editor at Viking, has acquired a wide range of successful books across a long and varied career. Her experience publishing significant works, including Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Crisis of Islam by Bernard Lewis, and Napoleon by Andrew Roberts, will be an important asset in revamping the Belknap imprint, according to HUP Director George Andreou.
“I am thrilled at this chance to work with an editor whose work I have so long admired, and whose energy and talent are so widely recognized,” Andreou said.
De Menil also looks forward to new challenges and opportunities on the horizon.
“I can’t wait to work with George and his team of talented editors to bring new voices to Harvard University Press and new readers to its distinguished books,” de Menil said. “In this moment of transformation, with the entire media landscape shifting, I am convinced that there is real opportunity for serious books from a publisher like HUP to have more impact, reach and relevance than ever before.”
Prior to joining Viking, de Menil was an acquiring editor at Random House, where she published such bestsellers as Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi and Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan. She then moved to London to become editorial director of William Heinemann, where she developed a distinguished non-fiction list. Returning to the US in 2006, she spent two years at The Atlantic before joining the Penguin Group in 2008 as an executive editor at Viking.
Working from Washington, D.C., from which she has served Viking for nearly a decade, de Menil will also work with the director and the editorial team to maximize the commercial potential of HUP’s trade list, which counts Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others, The Habsburg Empire by Pieter Judson, and Thomas Piketty’s #1 New York Times bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century among its most distinguished titles in recent years.
In the days since Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address, one of the most consistently noted elements of the evening has been the speech’s heavy reliance on the stories of individuals, the so-called “heroes in the balcony” whose courage, kindness, strength, and suffering have long lent pathos to the annual episode. Though the practice is now deeply ingrained in the choreography of presidential address, it’s actually a fairly recent development. In fact, as so much else political theater, it began only with Ronald Reagan. As Corey Robin reminds us, the maneuver’s emergence was tracked by Daniel Rodgers in his Bancroft Prize-winning Age of Fracture, which begins with a revelatory look at the highly structured affair of modern presidential oratory. In the brief Age of Fracture excerpt below, Rodgers points to the ways in which the employment of balcony heroes reinforced Reagan’s subtle insistence on the individual as the fundamental component of a nation founded by and for a people.
Getting himself out of the way was key to Reagan’s gestures. Restoration was his primary rhetorical act. He gave the nation’s freedoms and its future promise back to “the people.” It was their seamless history that he painted in verbal miniatures, their hopes he claimed to enunciate. Reagan performed the part of identification with the people far more effortlessly and with vastly less inner contradiction than did his rival, the populist Carter, despite Carter’s sweaters, suitcases, and Mr. Rogers–derived props of neighborliness. Carter and his advisers, struggling to read the minds and the anguish of the people, worried through a relationship that Reagan simply took for granted. “Just three words,” Reagan told the nation’s children in his State of the Union address of 1987, contained the whole secret of America: “We the people.”
Reagan’s commitment to these lines was unswerving. Kenneth Khachigian, called in to work on the 1987 State of the Union message, heard the “We the people” motif from Reagan himself, and wrote it into the speech with the excitement of adding a new and “perfect Reagan touch.” In fact it had been part of Reagan’s core stock of phrases since at least the mid-1960s. In Reagan’s mind the anecdote paired with the words was always the same. In other countries, governments told the people what to do. In contrast, “Our revolution is the first to say the people are the masters and government is their servant.”
To insist on the concrete reality of “the people” was, for Reagan and conservative Republicans, an essential precondition to the act of wedging the government and the people apart into sharply antagonistic political fields. The division was old in Reagan’s rhetoric. “Already the hour is late,” he had warned in 1964. “Government has laid its hand on health, housing, farming, industry, commerce, education . . .” For the Constitution’s drafters, the phrase “We the People” had been a legitimating device: a means to give moral and political foundation to a stronger national government. In Reagan’s speeches, the same words were refashioned to distance the natural, spontaneous acts of the people from the work of those they elected to be their representatives.
Reagan was not the first of the post-1945 presidents to run on an antigovernment program. “Government cannot solve our problems,” had been Carter’s line in the 1970s; “it can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision.” Carter’s populist rhetoric, however, had strained toward healing. Alienation underlay these formulas as strongly as antagonism underlay Reagan’s. We “have seen our Government grow far from us. . . almost become like a foreign country, so strange and distant,” Carter lamented in his 1978 State of the Union message. He talked easily of humility, mercy, justice, spirit, trust, wisdom, community, and “common purpose.” “It is time for us to join hands in America,” he urged in his energy crisis address. Reagan’s talk of government and the people, by contrast, pushed toward severance. His goal was to rearrange the verbal system such that government was not the agent, embodiment, or reflection of the people. Rather, government was the people’s antagonist, the limiter of their limitlessness. The twin pillars of his domestic policy—tax cutting and corporate and environmental deregulation—flowed directly from those premises.
But to devolve power to the people required that the people themselves be made visible. They needed words and representation. The terms in which Reagan referred to the people were instinctively expansive and inclusive. He was the last president to preside over the common audience that television network news had made, where a single voice could be imagined to speak to and for the nation. The gray, muffled prose of an Eric Sevareid and the mannered but reassuring avuncularisms of a Walter Cronkite were already under challenge in 1980. The pioneer of argumentative television, where panelists faced off like wrestling team opponents to parry, declaim, interrupt, and shout, Agronsky and Company, had been launched in late 1969. The McLaughlin Group, a favorite of Reagan’s, heated up the formula in 1982, from which it was quickly and widely cloned. Radio, with its smaller niche audience always more argumentative than television, turned up the volume of dispute sharply with the arrival of Howard Stern and, by 1988, Rush Limbaugh. But Reagan still presided over an America in which public speech was not yet systematically polarized, and the notion of the “people” was not yet a mere verbal fig leaf covering the fact of permanent political campaign.
At times, Reagan’s speechwriters slipped into something close to Franklin Roosevelt’s image of the people as a broad occupational phalanx: workers, farmers, and businessmen bound together by bands of economic interdependence. “We the people,” Reagan limned them in 1981: “neighbors and friends, shopkeepers and laborers, farmers and craftsmen.” But Reagan’s word-pictures of the people almost never showed them working together, their energy and talent joined in a common action. As Benjamin Barber, one of the first to pick up this subsurface theme, wrote of “the people singing” sequence in Reagan’s Second Inaugural in 1985: “The speech lauds ‘We the People,’ but its heroes are men alone . . . In the President’s script, Washington leans on no comrades in arms, Lincoln consults no cabinet . . . a single settler is conjured for us—his family wagon and the long train of Conestogas that must surely have accompanied it are kept out of sight (and out of mind).” In Reagan’s very celebrations of the people, the plural noun tended to slip away, to skitter toward the singular.
The impulse to disaggregate and individualize the people took still more prominent symbolic form in the so-called heroes in the balcony segment of his State of the Union messages. Reagan did not inaugurate the practice of calling forward an individual’s special deeds in a major state address. He was the first, however, to take the inherently public occasion of a report on the nation from the chief of one branch of government to the heads of another and dissolve it, toward the end, into a montage of individual faces. Heroes, volunteers, teenagers with dreams, returned prisoners of war were gathered in the halls of Congress, where Reagan, stepping out of the camera’s eye once more, would introduce them one by one. In 1963, John Kennedy had read the names of three American soldiers killed in Cuba, South Korea, and Vietnam. But here they now were in the flesh, where the applause, the acts of individual accomplishment, and the guest-program tableau all redounded to the administration’s acclaim. The first three heroes in the balconies appeared in Reagan’s State of the Union address in 1982; five more appeared in 1984, two in 1985, four in 1986.
Reagan was fond of saying that his political opponents saw people only as members of groups; his party, to the contrary, saw the people of America as individuals. In fact, no set of Americans was ever chosen with a keener grasp of interest group politics than were Reagan’s heroes in the balconies. A charitable black woman reassured Reagan’s audience that the president had not forgotten the poor; a Hispanic medic drew sympathy for the Grenada invasion; a returned prisoner of war appealed to the patriotic electorate; a teenager whose experiment had been lost in the Challenger explosion lobbied silently for the high frontier of space; the two business figures on the list, a black female advertising executive and a Cuban refugee entrepreneur, spoke to the aspiration of minority business owners.
But the collective calculations of politics brooked no mention. Introduced by the presidential program host, the constituent atoms of the people stood up, for their moment in the camera’s eye, one by one. Reagan asked viewers, not to imitate them or to rise to the challenge they set, but only to applaud them, to believe that their acts were possible. “We the people,” as a collective entity, tacitly disaggregated under the touch.
Harvard’s Michael Sandel is an unusually prominent thinker in North America and Europe, but in China he’s a verifiable celebrity, inspiring what New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos describes as “near religious devotion.” On one recent trip, the border guard checking passports told Sandel that he was one of his heroes. Scalpers around the country make huge profits selling tickets to his talks. He is a regular on state television, and China Newsweek selected him as 2011’s “most influential foreign figure.”
Part of Sandel’s fame in China is surely due to the engaging style of his lectures, which rely heavily on interactions with the audience. Other factors include the rarity of public discussions of morality in China, where market reforms and exponential economic growth have left a “moral vacuum” in their wake, along with a thirst for alternatives to communist and market-based systems of thought. It’s also helpful that Sandel’s ideas, with their communitarian inflections, echo traditional Chinese teachings about private and public ethics.
Those echoes and connections are the focus of a new volume of essays on the ways in which the ideas that Sandel offers intersect with, resemble, and differ from Confucian and Daoist thought. Encountering China: Michael Sandel and Chinese Philosophy collects nearly a dozen original pieces from leading scholars who tease out how the affinities between Sandel’s work and the major Chinese traditions help audiences to confront questions of utmost significance in Chinese public life: What is the role of the individual to the family, and of the family to the community? What is the relationship between the virtue of a social institution and the virtue of those who lead it? What is the significance of individual liberty if the common good is based in shared values? How does one celebrate human diversity while cultivating a strong sense of community?
“China is now in search of a public philosophy beyond GDP,” Sandel writes in his reply to the volume’s contributors. “As in so much else, China’s success or failure in this quest will matter greatly for its own future and for the rest of the world.” Abiding by the pluralist conception of the common good which Sandel has always defended, the contributors to this collection provide access to and encourage participation in the spiritual and moral debates that have begun to permeate life in the world’s newest superpower.
In Life through Time and Space, Wallace Arthur brings together the latest discoveries in biology and astronomy to examine our deepest questions about where we came from, where we are going, and whether we are alone in the cosmos. The answer to that last question is almost certainly negative, but, below, Arthur addresses a slightly different puzzle: life is probably out there—but can we see it?
For sure it’s there. The odds of it not being there are negligible. By “there” I mean somewhere in our home galaxy, the Milky Way. But can we see it? Strange question perhaps, since the obvious answer would appear to be “no.” But it’s always worth poking under the skin of seemingly obvious answers. And sometimes the first step in this poking process is refining the question.
One version of our question here is “do any of the stars we can see with the unaided eye have inhabited planets?” The likely answer to this version is “yes.” This positive answer is yielded by doing a few exceedingly simple sums. To a rough approximation, we can see about 10,000 stars from a dark sky location. Well, that’s for folk with really good eyesight. But even for others, like me, the answer is still in the thousands. The proportion of those stars that have planets orbiting them is probably well over 90%, based on exoplanet searches to date. And most of those stars will have multiple planets, not just one. Last month, the first 8-planet system other than our own was discovered, when an extra planet was found orbiting the star Kepler-90.
If the average number of planets per star is 5 (though it’s probably higher) then we can see the host stars of about 50,000 planets. That’s great, but now we need to guestimate what fraction of these have life. If we use our own solar system as a yardstick, the answer is 1⁄8th, which works out at 6250. But that’s probably too high. To err on the cautious side let’s assume that our initial answer was out by an order of magnitude in the wrong direction. In this case the right answer is 625. And if we want to be really cautious we could go with two orders of magnitude, in which case the right answer is still over 60. Could it in fact be zero? Well, yes, but that’s really not likely. So in one sense we can see the home of alien life, but only in the sense of its host star rather than its host planet.
Another version of the question with which we started is: can we see life from other planetary systems because it has come to see us? The probable answer to this question—at least in my view—is “no.” However, our recent visit from the elongated interstellar object called 'Oumuamua might make us think again. I wouldn’t urge belief in the accuracy of all those YouTube depictions that see it as an alien spacecraft disguised as a long thin rock. But then again, no one has come up with a convincing explanation of how a natural object in space comes to be approximately cylindrical. In our own system there are more than a million asteroids. Not one of them, as far as we know, is of this shape.
A third version of the question emerged from discussion at the end of a talk I gave at a famous second-hand bookshop—Barter Books—in the ancient English town of Alnwick, a talk that was tied in with the launch of Life through Time and Space. A member of the audience took issue with my carbon chauvinism, but not in the usual way, by proposing silicon-based life. Rather, he asked if it might be possible for life to be made of dark matter. What a fascinating question!
My gut feeling is that such a form of life isn’t possible. But just supposing that it is—this would mean that we couldn’t see it even if it landed here on Earth. Of course, we can’t go too far with this line of thought because we don’t yet know what dark matter is made of; we just know that MACHOs are less likely than WIMPs. Nevertheless, the vast majority of matter in our galaxy is dark, not light, so we shouldn’t altogether ignore it.
So, to summarize: We can see the home stars of as-yet undiscovered life. And we can see a very odd-shaped interstellar visitor, but it’s probably uninhabited. We can’t see any DML (to coin a new acronym) if it exists, even if it’s currently sitting just across the table. What will change in the next decade or so? One distinct possibility is that we will see the signatures of life in exoplanet atmospheres. Here’s a specific hypothesis: we will first see such signatures in the year 2030. This, like all good hypotheses, is ultimately testable—but it won’t be so until December 31st 2030, or, more realistically to allow for data analysis, early in the year 2031.
In the last months of 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a series of five lectures that stand as his final testament on racism, poverty, and war. Later published as The Trumpet of Conscience, the lectures included King’s urgent call for a global movement for justice:
But we do not have much time. The revolutionary spirit is already world-wide. If the anger of the peoples of the world at the injustice of things is to be channeled into a revolution of love and creativity, we must begin now to work, urgently, with all the peoples, to shape a new world.
The book is an effort to present a full analysis of King’s thinking from the perspectives of political philosophy, political theory, and the history of political thought, fields that have thus far largely failed to recognize King’s contributions. Indeed, though King stands as one of America’s most revered political figures, he has been generously honored but not adequately studied, for a variety of reasons that Shelby and Terry consider in their introduction to the volume. The hope they share with their contributors—who represent different approaches to the history of political thought and political theorizing, and who present differing interpretations of King—is to help readers recognize in King not just a leader to be revered but also an important and challenging thinker whose ideas remain relevant and have surprising implications for public political debate.
Given the crises of our own political and intellectual moment, the volume is imbued with the very sense of urgency that King expressed in those lectures of 1967. Here are Shelby and Terry, who allude to James Baldwin’s 1961 Harper’s piece on “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King” in assessing our own path forward:
Not even a decade after the first African American president of the United States installed a bust of King in the Oval Office, our landscape has been dominated by insurgent social movements and urban riots, racist invective and ethno-nationalism, intractable inequality and civic distrust, and a loss of faith in political institutions and, possibly, in democracy itself. In a way reminiscent and resonant with the later years of King’s life, we find ourselves and our students more frequently asking difficult and unsettling questions about what political morality and justice demand of us. On campus, battles over how or whether to forge community, and over the stance we should take toward those persons and ideas with which we have profound disagreements, are waged with passion and often contempt. So, too, are those controversies regarding the role of philosophical reflection on and in politics, and the place of academics and intellectuals within the muck and mire of public debate. Our suggestion is that now, perhaps especially, with all that is at stake, a turn to King and his efforts in public philosophy can provide us with a more robust ethical vocabulary, a smarter set of judgments, a more expansive political imagination, and a richer set of traditions to help navigate our own “dangerous road.”
In this year of the fiftieth anniversary of King’s assassination, we still and again face the need to shape a new world.
Brandon Terry edited a forthcoming Boston Review forum, Fifty Years Since MLK, featuring contributions from Barbara Ransby, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Andrew Douglas, Jeanne Theoharis, Elizabeth Hinton, and Bernard E. Harcourt; read Terry’s introductory essay on the intellectual and political significance of King here.
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