January 23, 2005

The Search for Order: 1877-1920

Robert H. Wiebe | First published 1968| Amazon

This is a stunning synthesis of a period many people prefer to ignore. Rather than playing with the usual stereotypes of The Gilded Age, Wiebe starts by looking at the dislocations that change has brought in post-Civil War America:

The great casualty of America's turmoil late in the [19th] century was the island community. Although a majority of Americans would still reside in relatively small, personal centers for several decades more, the society that had been premised on the community's effective sovereignty, upon its capacity to manage affairs within its boundaries, no longer functioned. The precipitant of the crisis was a widespread loss of confidence in the powers of the community. In a mannger that eludes precise explanation, countless citizens in towns and cities across the land sensed that something fundamental was happening to their lives, something they had not willed and did not want, and they responded by striking out at whatever enemies their view of the world allowed them to see. (44)

Wiebe circles over American history, looking at problems from different perspectives and comparing those perspectives as they collide. The period he covers was in many way the largest transformation in American history, a time in which people and communities more rapidly grew connections than has happened since. Isolation was largely shattered, interdependence expanded, and people rapidly found themselves feeling that they had less control over their lives.

Much of the book reflects efforts to fight that feeling, to maintain a sense of community values even as economic and technological change combined with the sheer physical growth of the nation to make that sense of community more difficult to sustain. Wiebe does an excellent job weaving together a variety of stories to tell a grand tale of conflict and fear of chaos.

My one concern about the book is that while it probably can be read by someone without much knowledge of the period, names and events can be hard to follow unless you've already looked at this period. It's a comprehensive synthesis, and not a total introduction.

Posted by simonstl at 09:47 PM

January 17, 2005

Collapse

Jared Diamond | First published 2005 | Amazon

Like Diamond's earlier bestseller, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse assembles an argument from a variety of stories. In that book he looked at why civilizations succeed, while in this one he looks at why they fail - in particular, why they sometimes fail at what seems to be the peak of their achievement. That framework of stories approach is a pleasant alternative to the usual statistical pile-on, though no doubt it will give an out to people who'd rather not listen to Diamond's hypothesis.

Diamond's stories range from Montana to Easter Island to Chaco Canyon to Greenland to Africa to Australia and back again to Los Angeles. Despite the book's title, collapse isn't the only theme. He studies cases of success as well as failure, situations where people learned from previous problems to do better the next time. (He also notes cases where successful adaptations later proved to have their own problems.) The stories come with some delightful tidbits - make sure never to eat crystallized sugar off a desert cliff face - and all kinds of archeological detail.

Diamond's final chapters assemble all the stories to look at ways we can escape collapse, and how different parties within a society take different roles. One of the more interesting pieces for me was his look at different extractive industries - petroleum, coal, metal mining, logging, and fishing. The closer an industry is to the public, the better the public understands the connection between their purchases and the environmental consequences, the better the odds of making changes for the better. Oil companies that sell to the public have more of an interest in maintaining their reputation than copper miners whose product reaches the public deeply hidden in various devices that people want to buy as cheaply as possible. Corporate cultures also matter - Diamond cites oil company employees who want the environment preserved and mining company officials who expect the world to end soon anyway.

I'm not sure I can write a simple review of this one, but I'll be digesting its lessons for a long time.

Posted by simonstl at 09:08 PM

January 11, 2005

Amish Society

John A. Hostetler | Fourth Edition 1993 | Amazon

I've always been interested in the Amish, and my developing interest in Quakerism led me to take a closer look at some of the other peace churches. There are as many differences as similarities, but the Amish are also fascinating for their sheer perseverance. Most other sects have accepted modern ways, but they've taken a much slower path, picking and choosing along the way.

The entire book was interesting, but the opening and conclusion were particularly interesting for looking at how the Amish maintain their community, and how that community is different from those surrounding it. Sectarian foundations, taking the Sermon on the Mount and the New Testament as a guide for living, combine with a small scale, an insistence on being a distinctive community, and with an enormous set of traditions to keep the Amish going. Despite not evangelizing and losing about 22% of any given generation, the Old Order groups have grown substantially in size over the past century.

While many people seem to find the Amish strange, either weird throwbacks to an earlier age or angelic exiles in a world that lost their values, Hostetler does an excellent job of looking at the Amish from a perspective that takes their community seriously. Hostetler also looks seriously at the mechanisms they use to maintain their community, notably excommunication and shunning. He periodically notes his own youth among the Amish:

The difference in these two views [of how shunning applies] can become very important in case of excommunication. Social avoidance is implied in the former but not in the latter. As a young man considering baptism in the Amish church, I remember the above two opposing views being expressed by two ministers. I did not want to take a vow I could not keep, nor take a vow that implied social avoidance in case I could not live by Amish standards. Consequently, on the day my chums began their instruction for baptism, I drove my horse and buggy to the nearby Mennonite church.

I expect I'll keep this book on my shelf for ready reference for years to come, and I'm also interested in another Hostetler book on the Anabaptists, Hutterite Society.

Posted by simonstl at 08:16 PM

January 04, 2005

Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform

William G. McLoughlin | First published 1978 | Amazon

I ordered this because I wanted to know more about the dynamics of earlier revival moments - the First and Second Great Awakenings, and the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century. I definitely got that, as McLoughlin traced how these bursts of faith reflected changes in the underlying society. A bonus was McLoughlin's discussion of how the "peculiar institution" of slavery affected religious perspectives in the American South:

If demography and environment helped to make the difference between the awakening experience and church life North and South, it also goes far to explain the failure of southern revivalism to eventuate in political reform. What the southern churchgoer came to consider social reform (the only kind of reform appropriate to the Christian qua Christian) was the personal moral reform that brought order to the community by restraining violence, strengthening self-discipline, and encouraging familial and neighborly responsibilities for good behavior. Beyond personal behavior lay politics, and according to the southern definition of the separation of church and state, the church was not to concern itself with politics. Among the Methodists the doctrines of perfectionism were especially strong in inculcating this emphasis on personal morality as the measure of Christian virtue, but Baptist church discipline also emphasized the need to subdue the unruly nature of self-assertion. (133)...

The reason why southern revivalism failed to produce the same kind of political reform and institutional restructuring that occurred among "romantic perfectionists" in the North lies in the problem of slavery. Even a major prophet like Peter Cartwright dared not touch on the issue of slavery after 1830, and when he tried other ways to oppose that institution, he was finally forced to give up preaching in the South. He was not afraid to say that slavery was "a domestic, political, and moral evil," but southern folk were unwilling to hear it. This mixing of social reform and spiritual affairs cut too deeply into the traditional fabric of the southern way of life. It threatened rather than consolidated communities; it promised violence when the function of religion was to curtail violence. The kind of perfectionism the Methodists and other denominations sought was inward and personal holiness, and southern preachers could find nothing in the Bible that told them to declare the institution of slavery was a sin. In fact, taken literally, the Bible seemed much more clearly to accept slavery as a sad but necessary condition for some people....

Christianizing the social order in the South, as among the more intense holiness groups in the North, meant converting every individual to the basic moral pattern of rural middle-class virtue. The awakening challenged southern culture - or was allowed to - only in terms of private self-control. In a land with little real poverty, no urban slums or factory towns, minimal culture conflicts with Roman Catholic immigrants, with Indians removed to the West and the blacks considered childlike beneficiaries of civilization, the white southerner felt that his region was closer to millenial perfection than any other part of the country....

In the North, the Second Great Awakening challenged the older way of life at every turn, producing endless schisms and theological debates. In the South, after some initial denominational turmoil in the first decade of the century, this awakening confirmed the prevalent lifestyle, increased religious homogeneity, and made the Methodists and Baptists so dominant that other sects were an almost invisible minority. Southern white Christians were not averse to benevolent reform if that meant encouraging personal temperance and helping the orphan or widow, the deaf, the dumb, the blind, and the insane. But if it meant rearranging the social order, tampering with slavery, interfering with state sovereignty, defending the Indians' right to remain on good farm and cotton land, then benevolent reform was totally misguided. It was in fact un-Christian, since it created political tests for spiritual organizations. Whether a man held slaves or not was irrelevant to his right to join a church. (136-7)

McLoughlin's bias throughout the book seems pretty clearly toward such benevolent reform, misguided or not. As the book continues, it becomes clearer and clearer that he prefers reformers who want to apply Christ's teachings more broadly. At the end of the book, after an interesting look at how beatniks and hippies fit into American religious patterns, this leads him into a serious misprojection of where the "Fourth Great Awakening" he sees starting after World War II will lead the country, though:

By giving total attention to whether one's own or one's neighbor's heart is right with God, neo-Evangelicalism justifies turning one's back on worldly affairs so complex that only God can cope with them. It argues that we can change the world only when God has changed the hearts of everyone in it.

The internalization of values is a crucial process in any awakening... but too much of the old political and economic conservatism of the Fundamentalist ideology is implicit in neo-Evangelicalism. Too much narrow-minded authoritarianism and obscurantism is heard from its leading church spokesmen to enable it in its current foundations to offer "new light" for the future. Somewhere within it, among those unattached to any denominational institution and unwedded to ritualized behavior and escapism, may well lie the seeds of this awakening's new light. But this light has yet to become distinct and evocative. Soul-winning neo-evangelicalism is a divisive, not a unifying, force in a pluralistic world.

At some point in the future, early in the 1990s at best, a consensus will emerge that will thrust into political leadership a president with a platform committed to the kinds of fundamental restructuring that have followed our previous awakenings - in 1776, in 1830, and in 1932. Prior to this institutional restructuring must come an ideological reorientation. Such a reorientation will most likely include a new sense of the mystical unity of all mankind and of the vital power of harmony between man and nature. The godhead will be defined in less dualistic terms, and its power will be understood less in terms of an absolutist, sin-hating, death-dealing "Almighty Father in Heaven" and more in terms of a life-supporting, nurturing, empathetic, easygoing parental (Motherly as well as Fatherly) image. The nourishing spirit of morther earch, not the wrath of an angry father above, will dominate religious thought, (though different faiths and denominations will communicate this ideal in different ways). Sacrifice of self will replace self-aggrandizement as a definition of virtue; helping others will replace competitiveness as a virtue; institutions will be organized for the fulfillment of individual needs by means of cooperative communal efforts rather than through the isolated nuclear family.

While I share McLoughlin's biases to a substantial degree, and wish the present looked more like that vision than its present state, it seems pretty clear that things have turned out very differently from what he predicted in 1978. The "conservatism of the Fundamentalist ideology" is presently triumphant in politics, and seems to be reaching a larger and larger number of people. The focus on the politics of personal behavior seems to have annihilated hopes for a broader "benevolent reform" and left a lot of people on all sides cynical.

Posted by simonstl at 12:10 PM

January 01, 2005

Freethinkers

Susan Jacoby | First published 2004 | Amazon

I wanted to like this book more than I wound up able to like it. There's a lot of excellent material here, especially in the 19th century coverage, and Robert Ingersoll comes to life in a way I hadn't seen before. The connections between feminism, abolitionism, and various kinds of free thinking get excellent coverage, and Jacoby does a great job of exploring how difficult it has been at various periods to speak about religion in anything other than a worshipful way. Material I've seen more heavily covered elsewhere, notably the Founding Fathers and Thomas Paine, is done well.

The last chapter, "Reason Embattled," left me mostly annoyed. She does an excellent job of telling the story from the secularist position, but I kept wishing for more attention to the questions that drive the current tension. Why has the conflict between secular and religious viewpoints become so much sharper in the last thirty years? Are there plausible strategies for reducing the conflict? I didn't find much more than "we're right and they're wrong" at the closing. This was maybe a start:

To make an effective case to their fellow Americans, secular humanists must reclaim the language of passion and emotion from the religiously correct.

I think she's right about the need for passion and emotion, but "reclaiming" isn't going to be an easy process for liberals, much less secular humanists, especially as she notes later in the same paragraph:

Secularists frequently present themselves, and are perceived by others, as a cool lot, applying intellectual theories to social questions but ignoring the emotions that move religious believers.

There may be room for reason with emotion, and her thinkers throughout the book demonstrate it quite well, but I hear a lot of rhetoric these days from people who just plain don't value emotion (including faith) when it comes to making political decisions. People who consider themselves pure rationalists aren't much fun to deal with, I'm afraid.

Posted by simonstl at 09:56 PM