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New books about women in history (2014-16)

Posted in African, American, Books by Alex L. on December 14, 2016

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In the past, women have not often been the focus of historical studies. The following books shed light on their role in past struggles and events.

The first work is by Rebecca Traister and is titled, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. Women in the United States are waiting longer to get married today. But the phenomenon of “single ladies” traces its history back to at least the 19th century, where the history of single women was intertwined with struggles such as temperance and abolition. It’s worth looking at this history to understand demographic changes today.

The second book is Cokie Roberts’s Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868, released in 2015.  After a war, women have often gained more independence throughout modern history because of their important role on the home front during the conflict. From Southern women leaving Washington, D.C. at the outbreak of the Civil War to the flood of Northern women coming to the capital to help out with the war effort, Roberts examines the changing place of American women during these tumultuous years.

Finally, we have The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney, which was published in 2014. This is the story of ancient Egypt’s longest-ruling female pharaoh, who cross-dressed the part of a king. Cooney looks at the political power plays that helped Hatshepsut rise to power (and stay there) and seeks to solve the mystery of why those that followed her sought to erase her from public memory.

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New books about early U.S. history (Fall 2016)

Posted in American, Books by Alex L. on December 9, 2016

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Today we take a look at a selection of new books about U.S. history before the 20th century.

First up, we have Daniel K. Richter’s work titled, Trade, Land, Power: The Struggle for Eastern North America. From what I can tell, there are relatively few works being published about early colonial history. Richter’s book examines the different conceptions of trade, land, and power between Native Americans and Europeans on the North American continent, and how these different conceptions played out as the Europeans began to dominate their neighbors. In October, the paperback version of this book came out, which was originally published in 2013.

Next is Angelic Music: The Story of Benjamin Franklin’s Glass Armonica by Corey Mead. Have you ever rolled your fingers over the rim of a wine glass to produce a tone? Benjamin Franklin invented a musical instrument based around this idea–the glass armonica–that became so popular that the great composers of the day (such as Mozart and Beethoven) wrote music for it. Published by Simon and Schuster in October, this is a work of popular musical history, which makes it unique in my eyes.

Also published this October but by Knopf is Peter Cozzens’s The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. As one Amazon reviewer put it in writing about this Amazon Best Book of November 2016, “the Indians weren’t all good and the white people weren’t all bad.” The history of the American West is complicated, and this comprehensive (at 576 pages) new work picks it apart in a fresh way.

Activism works

Posted in Politics, Television by Alex L. on December 7, 2016

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Political activism isn’t a very sexy topic. The crowds of demonstrators, the clashes with police, the long and slow struggle with marginal gains: these lack the heroic glory of the battlefield. With failure to effect change happening as often as success (if not more), one may be tempted to say that activism is ineffective. But I had a paradigm shift about this issue earlier this year when I watched a TYT interview with Van Jones.

In this video, Van Jones talks about why progressives failed to push their agenda forward after Obama was elected. His claim was that social change only comes in America when grassroots political movements pressure the president and Congress to act on a certain issue. This has been borne out in history with such movements as abolition, women’s suffrage, and the struggles for civil rights. The grassroots groups, says Van Jones, relaxed their efforts after Obama was elected, and so failed to provide the necessary push to effect social change.

This argument made me realize the foundational importance of political activism for progressive social change: electing a president or a congressperson is not enough. Another person who keenly feels this idea is Bernie Sanders. Since the beginning of his meteoric rise in popularity during the previous election season, he had argued that he sought to build a movement rather than just run a campaign. It could only take a social movement, he would say, to effect real change in the United States. Sanders has recently come out with a new book about this struggle, titled Our Revolution. (more…)

Apologetics in the park

Posted in Christianity, Islam, Television by Alex L. on December 6, 2016

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The internet often seems like one faceless mass of websites and media without any discernible communities. But if you look carefully, one can find micro-communities embedded within this fabric on such websites as Twitch and YouTube. One such example I stumbled into is a small community on YouTube of religious apologists, of different faiths, who often vehemently disagree and try to disprove each other. My first point of contact with this virtual village was the channel of David Woods.

A self-admitted sociopath turned Christian, Woods now practices Christian apologetics on YouTube with abrasive (in my opinion) zeal. But what does it entail to do apologetics on YouTube? I’ve found apologetics videos of generally three different types in my exploration of this community: (a) videos defending certain doctrines of one’s faith, (b) video criticizing doctrines of other faiths, and (c) videos of debates between Christians and Muslims or either of them against atheists. This latter category mostly features formal debates usually on college campuses.

But one interesting subset of this third category are religious debates in the park. I encountered this on the Muslim EFDawah channel, which I found through the grapevine of the apologetics community on YouTube. There, a group of Muslims apologists go to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park (London) and engage in rapid-fire discourses with all takers who seek such a challenge (usually with Christians but sometimes with an atheist). I watched a few of these exchanges between Hamza Myatt, an Englishman who converted to Islam, and others.  (more…)

Harmony of the Bible?

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Podcasts by Alex L. on December 2, 2016

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For those interested in Scripture, I highly recommend The Bible as Literature Podcast. In a recent episode (149), the hosts (whom I know personally) make the case that reading the Bible literally (though without prooftexting) is a good thing. In fact, they call out those that “[spout] platitudes about the ‘dangers’ of taking the Bible literally.” In this post, I will examine this claim and why I have a difficult time coming to grips with it.

On the surface, there are admittedly many strange and discomforting passages in the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. The intellectual underpinnings of the exegetical view above, it seems to me, is the assumption that the unsavory parts of the Bible can be explained away by using the literary context surrounding the offending passages. In other words, if the Bible is saying something “bad,” then you haven’t read that section of the Bible correctly. The mistake that the fundamentalist makes, this view goes, is to prooftext and thereby ignore what the context of their chosen passages is, missing the greater picture. Another related axiom that can be implied from listening to the podcast (as I understand it) is that the individual books of the Bible also harmonize into a cohesive whole, producing one singular message of goodness about God.

I find these assumptions difficult to accept (though I try) for reasons of historical context. Mores change. The past seems more barbaric to us than the present as civilization progresses to reduce rates of disease, poverty, illness, homelessness, ignorance, and other ills. An alternate view of the Bible emerges than that put forward in the podcast. The Bible, rather, is a collection of works spanning centuries and the older books of the Hebrew Scriptures are murky waters filled with questionable moral standards from a time of primitive understanding and tribal justice. We should take into account not only the literary context but also the historical context and recognize that some stories in the Bible are good and others come from a time less civilized than our own. (more…)

A balanced media diet

Posted in Journals, Politics, Reading, Television by Alex L. on November 28, 2016

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Every presidential election cycle, I get interested in politics all over again. This recent election was no different. But apart from conversation with politically-minded friends, something has to fuel and sustain the interest over the long months of the build-up to the election: informative and entertaining media sources. During the many months before November 2016, the go-to media source for me was The Young Turks, an online news show.

TYT is a progressive daily (Monday through Friday) show that is freely available live on YouTube. It has pros and cons for me. The big benefit is the commentary of Cenk Uygur, the outspoken founder and co-host. Like a more aggressive Noam Chomsky, Cenk cuts through the noise of establishment rhetoric to tune into a rarefied perspective about what’s really going on behind the scenes in the halls of power (it rarely looks pretty). The drawback of the show is a lack of intelligent conservative perspectives to provide a counterpoint to Cenk’s commentary. Cenk and his co-hosts (who rarely disagree with him on substantial issues) are always “right” and listening to TYT exclusively can lead one to develop political blinders, in my opinion.

There are intelligent counterpoints out there, though. Recently, I picked up The Economist from the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble. I used to read The Economist weekly back in college, but let my subscription lapse some years ago. Like TYT, the magazine has a self-confident tone backed by factual evidence. There are some areas where The Economist agrees with TYT, such as on the threat of climate change. On other issues–such as support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and whether the Democratic Party should go in a populist direction–these two media sources disagree. (more…)

HC 004 – “Herodotean Studies in the Twenty-First Century” by H.J. Kim

Posted in American, Ancient, Podcasts, Politics by Alex L. on August 8, 2016

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In the fourth episode of the History Considered Podcast, I discuss new books critical of the right wing in American politics. I also conduct an overview of a new article from the Journal of Ancient History about the contemporary study of Herodotus. Please send your feedback about the podcast to historyconsidered [at] gmail [dot] com.

Listen: HC 004 – Herodotean Studies in the Twenty-First Century.mp3

The works that I mention in the podcast are as follows:
Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism by George Hawley (2016)
Why the Right Went Wrong by E.J. Dionne Jr. (2016)
Dark Money by Jane Mayer (2016)
“Herodotean Studies in the Twenty-First Century,” Journal of Ancient History, by Hyun Jin Kim (2016)

HC 003 – “Baltimore Teaches, Göttingen Learns” by Emily J. Levine

Posted in Academia, Ancient, Podcasts by Alex L. on August 1, 2016

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I have finally recorded the first publicly-available episode of my long-promised podcast, History Considered. Although I’ve recorded two episodes prior to this one (see end of this post) I have decided to feature only the third as the “first,” which I recorded today.

Listen: HC 003 – Baltimore Teaches, Gottingen Learns.mp3

The works that I mention in the podcast are as follows:

Pericles: A Biography in Context by Thomas R. Martin (2016)
Pericles and the Conquest of History by Loren J. Samons II (2016)
The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta by Paul A. Rahe (2015)
The Classical World by Nigel Spivey (2016)
The Marketplace of Ideas by Louis Menand (2010)
“Baltimore Teaches, Göttingen Learns,” American Historical Review, by Emily J. Levine (2016)

If you are feeling particularly intrepid, feel free to listen to my rough-hewn first and second episodes of the podcast (but I don’t recommend it :)).

New books with unique approaches to religious history (2015-16)

Posted in Ancient, Books, Pagan by Alex L. on July 18, 2016

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Today’s selection of interesting new books ponders the origins of religious impulses and also their detractors. These works look interesting enough to read, in my humble opinion.

The first book is Divination and Human Nature: A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity, by Peter T. Struck, and it’s being published tomorrow, July 19. There has been a renewed interest in historical scholarship in what was once dismissively labeled as “magic” in history, and this book provides a deeper examination into divination–the reading of signs–as perceived by ancient philosophers. The thesis, in a nutshell, suggests that the philosophers saw divination as a form of human intuition and took it seriously, unlike academic scholarship until as of late.

In February of this year, Susan Jacoby published her book, Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. Her approach looks at a slice of religious history related to the changing of faiths of various prominent people. Since faith exerts such a powerful influence in people’s lives, the locus where a person decides to accept one path over another seems like a worthy area of study.

Finally, published by Knopf last year, we have Tim Whitmarsh’s book, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. The central theme of the work appears to be that atheism wasn’t invented during the Enlightenment but rather has its roots even in classical antiquity. As a religious person myself, such a book would be challenging (in a good way) to read, but I think it is important to remember the complexities of religious experience as well as the adherents of atheism that profoundly changed our world even for the better (such as Democritus, who posited the atomic theory of the universe).

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A progressive rebellion in Mississippi

Posted in American, Film, War by Alex L. on June 25, 2016

Newt and Moses from the movie "Free State of Jones"Yesterday, I watched “Free State of Jones” starring Matthew McConaughey. The movie follows the story of Newton Knight, who led a pro-Union rebellion deep in Mississippi during the American Civil War. I liked the movie, and there are a few things that stood out to me about it.

First, the film challenges the idea that all white Southerners during the Civil War were racists bent on preserving the institution of slavery. Newton was a complicated man who bucked convention, married a black woman, and also allowed an ex-wife to live on his property. His rebellion in Jones County seems to have been as much a socioeconomic one as well as abolitionist — he resented the poor fighting a rich man’s war.

Second, the film portrays the transmutation of racism in the south throughout generations very well. There are scenes cut into the Civil War narrative of a 20th-century trial of Knight’s descendant that put the question of his racial composition to the court. The institution of “apprenticeship” during Reconstruction and of course segregation itself illustrate how the South continued to grapple with virulent racism even after the overthrow of slavery.

An interesting article to read as a supplement to the movie is the Smithsonian’s “The True Story of the ‘Free State of Jones.'” It examines attitudes toward the film in the complicated world of the South today. It also clued me into something that I wish the film did portray. Newt Knight was staunchly pro-Union, but strangely ended up voluntarily enlisting to fight in the Confederate Army. I wish the film would have explored Newt’s pre-war life to explain this contradiction, but already being over two hours long, it may have risked excess.