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


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


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

December 09, 2004

The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth

Editor: Thomas Jefferson | Written 1820 | Amazon

Thomas Jefferson was amazing in lots of ways, but I still find it surprising that he ordered a group of bibles, cut them up, and rearranged and reduced the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) into what he figured was what Christ had really done. He didn't think the text as handed down was particularly accurate, and he removed miracles and other things he didn't find plausible.

What's left is still stunning. It occasionally repeats as different books tell stories mostly but not quite the same, but I don't think the story loses much of its power. Christ's message comes through clearly overall, though the story is very different thanks to Jefferson's powerful doubts.

In the Preface, Forrest Church writes of how the book brought him into religion, letting him get past the skepticism of his youth. The Introduction looks at the story of the book's creation more closely, while an Afterword by Jaroslav Pelikan provides more context for the project, looking at other efforts to rearrange the Gospels and the problems involved.

It's hard to believe that conservatives have published a version of this book with a preface that tries to describe Jefferson as an explicitly Christian Founding Father. I'll have to track it down and read it, but I can't see spending money on it.

Posted by simonstl at 11:28 PM

November 28, 2004

Chronicles, Volume One

Author: Bob Dylan | First published 2004 | Amazon

This was also a birthday present, from my brother Andrew. We saw a Dylan concert in Elmira together two years ago, and I think we both saw him at Canandaigua in 1989. I think he's fonder of the current Dylan, and I tend to be one of those horribly nostalgic people who wishes he'd seen him in '67 or '77. (The Elmira show was pretty amazing.)

After reading Tarantula a few years ago, I wasn't sure I'd want to read anything more that Dylan wrote except for lyrics. While Chronicles isn't too particular about telling things in the order they happened, it's structurally a much easier book to read. It's not a straightforward "this happened then this happened" autobiography, and sometimes he shoots forward or backward. Most of it is about his time starting out, but then suddenly the third and fourth chapters are about making the albums the chapters are named after - New Morning and Oh Mercy.

Dylan's style is distinctive, lots of long flowing thoughts often forced into short sentences. I'm not sure why they chose a font that feels all bold all the time, but maybe it's appropriate to the stories. He's pretty blunt about his opinions throughout, and every now and then I had to shake my head. Some of the people, especially the people I've never heard of before, are memorable. Sun Pie, who expects the Chinese to take over America as they've been planning since the Bering land bridge was open; Jon Pankake, who seems to tell him not to be one kind of folksinger without quite giving him a direction; and Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel, who give him a place to stay and all kinds of conversation.

The message I get most strongly from the book is that Dylan wants to be Dylan, and he's intensely frustrated when other people tell him what that should be or not be. He's exasperated by people who wanted him to lead a revolution, by people who think folk should just be one kind of music, and (reasonably) by people who invade his property and walk all over his roof. Reading this, I get the sense that he's still Bob Dylan and he's not done changing yet.

Posted by simonstl at 07:37 PM

November 27, 2004

Lost in the Woods

Author: Julian Palacios | First published 1998 | Amazon

Tracey got me this biography of Syd Barrett for my birthday, and it's amazing, if dense. Syd Barrett was the original lead singer and guitarist for Pink Floyd, the genius behind Piper at the Gates of Dawn, who then vanished as the band took off.

Apart from the general psychedelic atmosphere Syd was instrumental in creating, the nursery-rhyme like lyrics are amazing, though there aren't very many of them. It seems to be an open question whether LSD masked his growing schizophrenia or led to it, but in either case Syd threw off sparks briefly but couldn't sustain the burden.

The book is a difficult read at times because of the way Palacios wrote it, often assembling large chunks of direct quotes from people who were there and leaving the reader to sort it out. While that's occasionally a challenge, as there's some repetition and keeping track of everyone is difficult, the result of reading through it is pretty amazing.

The portrait Palacios creates is sympathetic but simultaneously acknowledges the difficulty of being near Syd, especially as his problems shifted from catatonia to occasional violence, and a general withdrawal from the world. It's also interesting to read with an eye to what became of Pink Floyd, with their later successes and breakups. Roger Water appears early as a difficult character, but one who seems to find his way early, and David Gilmour comes in first as a childhood friend of Syd and Roger's and later as the guitarist who replaces the increasingly incoherent Syd.

Gilmour seems to have had plenty of patience for dealing with Syd (whose solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, he produced) and with Waters, whose notoriously prickly nature produced some powerful music. If only the Gilmour-era Pink Floyd music was any good...

Oh well. Palacios does a great job of exploring the intersection between genius and madness, valuing the sparks this 'crazy diamond' threw off while recognizing the problems he created as well.

I've got a bike
You can ride it if you like
It's got a basket, a bell that rings and
Things to make it look good.
I'd give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it.
- "Bike", from Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Posted by simonstl at 05:04 PM


Author: George Orwell | First published 1948 | Amazon

I hadn't read this one since middle school, and figured it was worth a try. It's much more nuanced than I remembered, interweaving a number of themes that don't quite resolve.

Newspeak is most of what I remembered, the effort to create a language in which thoughtcrime (itself a Newspeak word) simply becomes impossible by restricting the number of choices dramatically. Orwell's appendix on Newspeak talks about it in the past tense and uses more ordinary English, so I'm happy to see he didn't think it would stick.

The 'memory hole', an incinerator for information about the past, is another device that comes up all the time, a perfect metaphor for the way too many of us are willing to ignore the past or deny its relevance. Modern 'memory holes' aren't usually as explicitly destructive, but they're certainly out there, and not just among the Holocaust deniers.

The romance between Winston and Julia is interesting, as it starts from simple rebellion against the Party and develops into something deeper, though it doesn't particularly last. I find Winston's other 'romance' (my term, not his), with O'Brien, both more believable and more troubling. Winston puts tremendous faith in O'Brien as a guess, and continues to maintain that faith even as O'Brien pays it back to him mercilessly with the pain dial and Room 101.

While I suspect Orwell is in many ways right about the depths to which people and societies will sink, I have to wonder how stable structures like that described in 1984 really are. We haven't seen any survive more than a human lifetime since the advent of modernity, and the Party's claim over everything feels much more extreme than even the ugliest of pre-modern political systems.

Revolt seems inevitable. Is it?

Posted by simonstl at 04:39 PM