This Department features reviews and summaries of new books that link history and current events. From time to time we also feature essays that highlight publishing trends in various fields related to history.
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It’s a measure of the pace of technological change these days that linguist David Crystal’s book, which was published last year and just issued in paperback, is already a historical artifact. The word “Twitter,” for example, does not appear in the index; no mention is made of the role of cell phone text messaging in building grass-roots support for Barack Obama, or in the public demonstrations of last summer in Iran (nor, needless to say, its role at the recent G-20 summit protests last month in Pittsburgh). To Crystal’s credit, he anticipates such developments even if he doesn’t name them. In any event, it’s clear that if the book is to have any future, a new introduction will have to be produced –- at the very least. And yet this compact volume, which can be read in little more than a sitting, is both a useful sociological survey of the practice as well as a handy reference guide for novice and veteran alike.
The “db8” of the title refers to a discourse of criticism, common at the start of the decade but since largely resolved, about the potentially deleterious effects of texting on the English language, on the education of the young, and the future of civilization itself. (We now all understand texting is here to stay, though we’re finally getting serious about banning the practice while driving.) But while many of us now take the various linguistic shortcuts that we associate with texting for granted, we often feel unsettled about its seemingly hieroglyphic quality, a sense that it’s a foreign tongue always at the edge of comprehension.
Crystal addresses this unease with a number of important points. First, he notes, there is, in fact, no codified SMS (short message service) idiom; the various forms of shorthand out there are largely contextual and improvised. Second, in almost every case, the abbreviated terms that have entered common usage have pre-texting antecedents. Crystal provides a table from a 1942 dictionary in which many, like “amt” (amount) and “mtg” (meeting) appear, as well as noting that many abbreviations, like “Mr.” long pre-date cell phones, while others, like “obdt.,” as in the “your obedient servant” Abraham Lincoln used to close his letters, have gone out of usage. And third, the anxiety over the linguistic debasement of the young overlooks the fact that ability to abbreviate language presupposes knowledge of how it works in the first place. A staunch defender of the practice, Crystal concludes texting is the “latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and adapt language to suit the needs of diverse settings.”
Indeed, while untangling a series of discrete uses for text-messaging, Crystal emphasizes throughout the sheer pleasure and inventiveness tools like emoticons afford for human beings with an anthropological need for play. He reproduces a series of clever poems written in text language, as well as some lol (“laugh out loud”) pictographs, like this one for the animated television character Marge Simpson: @@@@8-) Homer, for his part, looks like this: ~(_8^(׀)
Crystal devotes a chapter to the complexities of texting in other languages, many of which have adopted Anglicisms along the way. He speculates that over time there will be linguistic mergers. Again, this book was clearly written in the days before the iPhone and the growing proliferation of QWERTY keyboards on cell phones eased the challenges posed by alphanumeric keypads. But as a snapshot of a world in motion, the book shows us how far we’ve come as well as suggesting where we’re headed.
Plus, if you buy a bound book instead of downloading it onto your Kindle or iPod, you can always hold on to it as a collector’s item. ;)
There are scenes in Joyce Purnick’s biography of Michael Bloomberg that could have come straight out of New York in the Gilded Age: titans of commerce plotting in private to change the law so that the wealthiest resident of their city would remain mayor, warding off a takeover by Tammany Hall.
As Purnick, a veteran New York newspaper reporter, tells the story in Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics, the scheme to undo New York City’s term-limits law so that the billionaire media mogul could retain his mayoral seat in this year’s election relied on a hoax of sorts. Wall Street’s flop in September, 2008 created the crisis that Bloomberg used to justify tampering with a law voters had supported in two referenda. But in fact, Purnick notes, Bloomberg had conducted polling months earlier to see how the public would view his attempt to get around the two-term limit. The financial crisis provided a pretext.
Supported by a coterie of wealthy business leaders – including owners of New York’s three major daily newspapers - Bloomberg moved with a sureness that would have impressed New York’s 19th-century robber barons. After gathering up the backing of the city’s newspaper editorial boards, he circumvented the referendum process by getting the City Council to change the term limits law.
“Pressure from business barons,” Purnick writes, cleared away one last obstacle: the wealthy businessman Ronald Lauder, who had bankrolled the term-limits referenda in the past.
The term-limits caper gently marks a turning point in the story Purnick tells about Bloomberg and “his detour to the dark side.” To New Yorkers, it meant he could be “a dreaded selfish pol,” she writes. “He had surrendered to the seduction of politics, the lure of power.”
Still, Bloomberg comes across more Horatio Alger than Charles Foster Kane in this telling. Purnick starts with a breezy account of Bloomberg’s youth in Medford, Mass., where he was an Eagle Scout. (No “rosebud” here.) With clarity and conciseness, she explains how he came into his fortune by renting out computer terminals that provided financial data.
Purnick is particularly good at describing Bloomberg’s days as a social climber in the years following his divorce – “the social reinvention of Mike Bloomberg.” During his Mr. Big phase, Bloomberg sought to be seen with the likes of Barbara Walters, Beverly Sills, Liv Ullman, Marisa Berenson and Diana Ross.
Purnick, however, skewers Bloomberg over his apparent habit of speaking crudely about women. She goes beyond the widely reported allegations in a sex discrimination lawsuit against Bloomberg’s media company to include the perturbed reaction of men who had heard him unfiltered on boys’ nights out.
Still, Purnick portrays a kind of nobility in Bloomberg, detailing his philanthropy, his sense of honesty, his impatience with the phoniness of political discourse, his willingness to take unpopular stands. And, like many New Yorkers, she seems simply happy that he is not Rudolph Giuliani – that he took such basic steps as re-connecting City Hall’s severed lines of communication with African-American leaders after he was elected mayor.
“He is probably the most unusual and perplexing mayor New York has ever seen: diffident, unemotional, hard to like, yet so grounded that he is even harder to disrespect,” Purnick writes, presenting Bloomberg as a paradox.
Purnick makes some stinging observations along the way, but this is not an investigative work. For the most part, she avoids issuing judgments of her subject and seems content to let the readers decide what to make of Bloomberg, who is presented as an effective manager who has improved even New York City’s schools (although not to the extent he claims). At the same time, there is a disturbing undercurrent as Purnick recounts how Bloomberg has used his fortune to buy up politically influential non-profit groups, Republican leaders in the state Senate, members of Congress, and entire elections.
Purnick doesn’t put it this way, but what she describes amounts to a subversion of democracy. And, as the book makes clear, Bloomberg had harbored a deep desire to use his fortune in an even bigger way - to run for president in 2008.
Purnick’s even-handedness is welcome at a time when much political discussion is anything but. It is a strength of the book because it makes her tougher observations very credible. At the same time, it is a frustration that she tends to report what Bloomberg’s friends and critics say without offering her own conclusion. If any writer has earned a right to express such a judgment, it is Purnick. She has long experience in covering New York City politics, having served at The New York Times as a columnist, metropolitan editor and City Hall bureau chief (I was a reporter for the competing New York Newsday when we both covered the Koch administration.).
Mike Bloomberg is an important book because heretofore, Bloomberg has been able to define his own story mostly unchallenged, whether through his profligate campaign advertising or his boastful 2001 memoir, Bloomberg by Bloomberg. Purnick’s well-written, knowledgeable, fair-minded account provides much-needed perspective on a man of enormous influence in the interlocked worlds of business, politics and philanthropy.
This book arrives just as Bloomberg is running for election to a third term and, as Purnick notes, third terms usually go badly for New York mayors. So there will be room for more books about Bloomberg.
One will most likely be by Bloomberg – he reportedly (http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/10/27/the-fate-of-bloombergs-memoir/)wrote a new memoir, but held it back from publication because he is said to have feared its boasting might turn off voters in the 2009 mayoral race. Presumably, it will be issued after the election – he is not one to let others take control of his story.
SOURCE: Special to HNN ()
The Oxford University Press History of the United States, for which eight of a projected twelve volumes, each well over 700 pages, have now been published in non-chronological order, is certainly among the most ambitious enterprises of its kind in modern times. No one, however, could call it a quickly realized one. First conceived two grand old men of the profession, C. Vann Woodward and and Richard Hoftstadter, a half century ago, the first volume, Robert Middlekauff's The Glorious Cause, covering 1763-1789, did not actually appear until 1982. (A revised edition was issued in 2005.)
It took another six years before James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, on the Civil War era, appeared in 1988, though it was well worth the wait: winner of a Pulitzer Prize, it remains the standard one-volume history in the field twenty years later. The next title to appear, James Patterson's Grand Expectations, covering 1945-74, did not surface until 1996; it won a Bancroft Prize for the best work of history that year. In 1999, David Kennedy's Freedom From Fear, covering the Great Depression and World War II, won a Pulitzer Prize. By that point, Hoftstader, who died in 1970, was long out of the picture, as was the remarkably productive nonagenarian Woodward, who finally died in 1999. So Kennedy himself took over editorship of the series.
The pace picked up significantly in this decade. Patterson reappeared in 2005 with Restless Giant, covering 1974-2000. In 2007, Daniel Walker Howe published What Hath God Wrought, covering 1815-1845; it won the third Pulitzer of the series. Last year witnessed the only book in the series to cover a single topic comprehensively, George Herring's survey of U.S. foreign policy, From Colony to Superpower. Future projected volumes include Peter Mancall on the early colonial era, Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton on the British empire in North America, and Bruce Schulman on the early twentieth century. An H.W. Brands volume covering 1865-1900 was withdrawn under ambiguous circumstances (though the same might be said of any number of prospective authors who have come and gone in the last four decades). That segment is now apparently to be written by Richard White.
All of this is a long way of introducing the latest volume in the series, Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty, which spans from ratification of the Constitution to the end of the War of 1812. Yet rehearsing this history of the series seems important in understanding the book and its larger significance. Like its predecessors, Empire of Liberty is a huge work of synthesis by a major scholar and represents the distillation of a lifetime's worth of study. Like its predecessors, too, it is a book notable for the clarity of its prose, something that can be attributed to the strong editorial hand guiding the project as well as the liquid smoothness that has always characterized Wood's work (he's long been a fixture at the New York Review of Books, among other publications). Magisterial, authoritative, comprehensive -- these are words you can apply to this book, just like you can the rest in the series. If Empire, perhaps more than others, illustrates some of the limits of grand visions, it must be said that the book is an achievement of a very high order, among the highest in two centuries of American historiography dating back to David Ramsay's history of the revolution published in 1789.
As Wood makes clear at the outset, Empire is less an extension than a recapitulation of his earlier work, notably his groundbreaking The Creation of of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969) and the Pulitzer-Prize winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991). In those books and elsewhere, Wood, reflecting the influence of his mentor, Bernard Bailyn, as well as the generational temper of his historiographic generation, emphasized the role of ideology as a force in provoking and sustaining the American Revolution. Radicalism in particular was notable for its conceptually elegant narrative arc, which moved across a tripartite social transition from monarchy to republic to democracy in the half-century after 1776.
In Empire, Wood provides much more detail about a much shorter stretch of time. The key transition here is from the dominance of the avowedly elitist Federalist faction led by Alexander Hamilton in the 1790s (which he views as largely necessary, but necessarily doomed) and the somewhat paradoxical celebration of the people emphasized by the Republican faction and embodied most vividly by the aristocratic, slaveholding Thomas Jefferson. This transition is captured at either end of the book in mentions of the arch-Federalist Noah Webster, who starts out by defining a"gentleman" as a person who has a liberal arts education and is not in engaged in trade, and ends up defining gentleman simply as a courtesy title to describe"men of education and breeding of every occupation." Wood expands upon this well-established historiographic framework in chapters that take him to relatively fresh ground, in particular a pair on the evolving U.S. judicial system, and others on evangelical religion, Republican foreign policy, and a notably provocative foray into cultural history. In all these cases, Wood traces the powerful egalitarian currents that course through early American society, even as he notes the counter-currents and paradoxes that result.
But those counter-currents and paradoxes never overshadow what Wood considers the bright mood of the times -- and Wood's own bright view of early American history. He of course is careful to consider the blight of slavery, which he discusses periodically over the course of the book and focuses on in one chapter. Yet given that 1789-1815 is the period in which slavery changed from what seemed to be a fading fact of life to a newly revitalized and nearly fatal cancer in the body politic, it's not hard to imagine another historian making much more of it. Ditto the treatment of U.S. Indian relations in the West. Or the role of women in society. These are, on the whole, subjects handled with both more depth and facility in what is the next chronological volume in the series, Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought -- which, in its full-throated affirmation of Whig ideology, has a somewhat sharper argument, beginning with its dedication to the oft-overlooked John Quincy Adams. In reading Wood's book, I found myself wondering what a younger historian like Woody Holton might have said on such subjects if he had this assignment, particularly since Holton's just-published book, a biography of Abigail Adams, casts her in a distinctively new light as a financial speculator. And I find myself asking -- as well as whether I should be asking -- how big a problem it is that every one of the published or projected volumes in this series is currently assigned to a white male historian.
In some sense such questions go to the core of what makes this project important and problematic at the same time, and to a great extent why it was conceived in the first place: a perceived need for synthesis in an age of ever-growing diversity. Given the demographic as well as intellectual pluralism that has characterized the profession in the last forty years, the series is bucking the tide of History. This is true in terms of its evident belief that U.S, history can be rendered in a fully integrated narrative. And it's even more true in terms of affirming the role of narrative itself in an age of monographic literature in which mastery of a discrete sub-specialty, coupled with a carefully wrought analytic apparatus, are regarded as the highest, and most readily rewarded, forms of historical writing in academe.
The people writing these books are hardly mavericks; indeed, they are among the most celebrated and esteemed in the profession, precisely because they've mastered the game as it's been played in the second half of the twentieth century. In their ends, they are throwbacks to a consensus era; in their means, they implicitly accept that the post-1960s academic scholarship they lean heavily upon (much of it their own) has not really been able to communicate effectively with a broader public without the kind of mediating function that they serve here. Which raises another issue: Who has time these days to read a single 800-page doorstop, never mind a dozen, even if you can download them all on a single Kindle?
Of course, for many in the profession, the situation I'm describing is hardly a problem, but rather a solution: having everybody write synthesis would be too many chiefs and not enough Indians. A career track in which junior historians write monographs that become grist for the mill for the senior ones makes a lot of sense, whether or not the Holy Grail of"the general reading public" is ever found. Looked at in this way, this series demonstrates what was was possible during what may well come to be known as a Golden Era of American history.
If so, however, it is an era that may be rapidly drawing to a close. The now well-publicized upheaval the University of California at Berkeley, along with the financial pressures at university presses (though not, apparently, at Oxford University Press, itself a wily survivor of earlier imperial buckling), are undermining the intellectual infrastructure that that made this series possible: Taxpayers and tuition payers are unlikely to maintain current support of the sabbaticals, fellowships, research assistants and other perquisites that make books such as these possible much longer. The Oxford History of the United States has been a long time coming. It may be even longer before we see anything like it again. We should savor these books -- as books -- while they're being bound and printed in the present tense.
The Guantanamo Bay prison has became infamous as a symbol of injustice and of the human rights abuses associated with the War on Terror. An important new book, The Guantanamo Lawyers, edited by Mark Denbeaux, a Seton Hall University law professor, and Jonathan Hafetz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, provides a revealing look into the abandonment of due process by the Bush administration and horrors experienced by Guantanamo inmates, a large number of whom were detained without evidence or charge. Stephen Irving Max Schwab’s book, Guantanamo USA: The Untold History of America’s Cuban outpost, meanwhile shows the longer history of U.S. control of Guantanamo Bay and how the recent pattern of violence is far from an anomaly in American history.
On November 14, 2001, the Bush administration issued a military order for the detention and trial of non-citizens considered to be terrorists and claimed the authority to kidnap them anywhere in the world while eliminating normal legal protocols. The Guantanamo Lawyers provides testimonials from a group of courageous lawyers who, because of an abiding belief in the tenets of the U.S. constitution, provided pro-bono legal assistance to the Guantanamo detainees. Initially, prisoners were deprived of even the right to representation, although this right was eventually granted by the Supreme Court in Al-Odah V. the United States and Rasul V. Bush. Hundreds of lawyers from across the country, including many with conservative backgrounds, subsequently volunteered to represent the Guantanamo inmates. Many were shocked to discover that their clients were well-spoken, intelligent and often quite moderate in their political views – in contrast to the claim by Donald Rumsfeld that they represented the “most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth.”
While some were affiliated with Al Qaeda, in a large number of cases, the detainees had been either caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were randomly picked up by American military forces and their proxies in the Middle-East and were the victims of extortion rackets. Ironically, some had even served in the Karzai government and with Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan, and one was a leading Pakistani doctor. Most of the lawyers found their clients nothing like the stereotyped characterization of Arab peoples in the media: they were regular human beings. They recount how their clients were grateful just to have any human contact. They had spent years on end in solitary confinement, in tiny cells with minimal opportunities for recreation or exercise (at best one hour per day in a cage) and were deprived the opportunity for contact with their families. Reminiscent of the infamous Tiger Cages in South Vietnam, some of the prisoners were kept permanently shackled to the floor causing permanent health damage. Many of the cells were infested with rats, snakes and scorpions and had no toilet facilities. Inmates described open air cages as resembling kennels.
The Guantanamo Lawyers makes an important contribution in helping to expose the wide scale of physical and psychological torture at the military prison. Many inmates showed bruises and scars from intense physical beatings. One man spoke about being beaten by the half-educated guards to the point of unconsciousness. Others were typically subjected to extreme temperatures, sensory torments and sleep deprivation. Some of the worst treatment – including being hung from the ceiling in chains – took place at pre-transfer facilities, including the American-run military prison at Baghram in Afghanistan. For many inmates, the mental torture they experienced could be just as damaging as physical beatings. The aim of the torture was to break the human spirit by creating a sense of total fear, hopelessness and despair. Many of the inmates had attempted suicide and others were deprived of needed medications and medical operations, and died while in custody. One of the victims, Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, was ironically fought against the Taliban for the Northern Alliance and was never formally charged with any crime. He died in Guantanamo of a treatable form of colon cancer for which he was only given painkillers.
The Guantanamo Lawyers provides an illuminating portrait of the hellish conditions pervading in the military prison and of the miscarriage of justice and retreat into moral barbarism that has resulted from the waging of the War on Terror. From a practical perspective, it is clear from the testimony that the facility has done little to deter future terrorist attacks but has instead created a generation of angry victims and stained America’s global reputation, perhaps irrevocably. The lone bright spot in the story is the role of the pro-bono lawyers and human rights activists in raising public awareness of the atrocities taking place and providing the legal counsel and advice that has in some cases contributed to the release of innocent detainees. These efforts unfortunately are not enough to heal the damaged psyche of the torture victims or bring back the dead.
Stephen Irving Max Schwab’s book Guantanamo USA: The Untold History of America’s Cuban Outpost provides an interesting historical perspective on how the U.S. came to acquire Guantanamo at the dawn of the 20th century. A former analyst for the CIA’s South America Division who teaches at the University of Alabama, Schwab mined the archives in both Cuba and the United States to tell the story, which as he demonstrates, is inextricably linked to the broader history of American expansion in Latin America.
American strategic planners such as Alfred Thayer Mahan, Elihu Root and Theodore Roosevelt prized Guantanamo as a naval station capable of safeguarding U.S. access to the Panama Canal and as a base for mounting incursions into Cuba to ensure a stable pro-American client after the passage of the Platt amendment in 1902. This amendment granted Cuba nominal independence after the U.S. occupation but allowed the U.S. the right to intervene, which it did on several occasions, to “restore order and stability” ostensibly to protect its economic interests. In subsequent years, Guantanamo provided a launching pad for the Wilson administration’s brutal invasions of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Schwab is adept in articulating the imperialist motives and assumptions that led to the development of the base, including the pejorative attitude towards the Cuban capacity for self-government. He also notes the backlash that U.S. policies garnered among Cuban nationalists, culminating in the 1959 Castroist revolution.
In his fourth chapter, Schwab notes that Cubans themselves contributed to the growth of Guantanamo, though provides minimal evidence for the claim that it provided positive benefits to the Cuban population by creating employment for Cuban laborers and a steady flow of foreign investment. Jana Lippmann’s recent study on this topic in fact details through first-hand interviews the stark exploitation of Cuban workers on the base, some of whom, as Schwab himself notes, established pro-Castro cells and smuggled weapons and other crucial material to the guerrilla movement during the anti-Batista war.
Meanwhile, the Cuban revolution was in large part based on popular opposition to the United States’ exploitation of Cuba’s sugar resources and the dominance of its economy by multi-national corporations such as the United Fruit Company and the American mafia. In this latter context, the foreign investment expedited through Guantanamo was hardly favorable for Cuba.
During the Cold War, Guantanamo was crucial for waging clandestine operations in the attempt to overthrow Castro’s revolutionary government and was used for the launching of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs attacks. After this was repelled, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations continued to use the base for an array of illegal covert operations, including efforts to plant saboteurs in the country, foment riots, sabotage the economic system, and have Castro assassinated. Fidel frequently included Guantanamo in his inflammatory attacks on U.S. policies and denounced it before the UN General Assembly. During the Cuban missile crisis, Castro expressed repeated fear that the U.S. was plotting a full-scale military invasion from the base, which fortunately was never brought to fruition.
Not surprising for a former CIA analyst, Schwab is generally apologetic of the United States, claiming that kidnappings of U.S. naval personnel, propaganda and sabotage actions such as the attempt to manipulate the bases water supply, combined with reports of growing communist influence within Castro’s movement antagonized the U.S., justifying the hostile attitude of the Eisenhower administration and his successors. For him, American imperialism was an anomaly in the first half of the 20th century, and U.S. action in the Cold War was predominantly defensive, or at least a response to provocation. Schwab is entitled to his opinion, though his views are contradicted by the longer history of U.S. interventionism, opposition towards Castro’s land reform initiatives, and the aggressive American subversion campaign in the fifties in Guatemala against a mildly reformist regime, which set the precedent for Cuba.
Regardless of his political views, Schwab on the whole provides a well-researched account of the significance of Guantanamo Bay to U.S. foreign policy vis á vis Cuba. The trajectory of the base which he chronicles is particularly relevant in understanding that the most recent abuses have not occurred in a historical vacuum. From its origins as a way-station into the Caribbean and base for intervention in Cuban affairs, to its current status as a penal colony and site of torture for adversaries in the War on Terror, Guantanamo has served as an important venue for the projection of American power. Then, as now, it is a symbol of empire and of the violence and illegalities associated with it.
SOURCE: Special to HNN ()
One of the more interesting books published to coincide with the anniversary of the coming down of the Berlin Wall is Slavoj Zizek’s, “First As Tragedy, Then As Farce.”
The title comes from Karl Marx’s, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” and its excavation of the farce of the rule of Louis Napoleon, last monarch of France and nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Zizek tells us straight away that if you think he is writing a polemic against communism, “I sincerely advise you to stop here...Indeed the book should be forcibly confiscated from you.” He is referring to two other events; 9/11 and the financial meltdown of 2008.
For the uninitiated, this is a solid introduction to Slavoj Zizek. Zizek -- in certain intellectual circles -- is something of a rock star. He has made movies, written numerous books and is widely seen as one of the most important philosophers living today. When he spoke at New York’s Cooper Union recently the 900 seat auditorium was sold out well in advance.
And he is a certain kind of philosopher. In that regard another quote from Marx springs to mind, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” That Zizek has written a book defending the idea of communism ought to make anyone concerned about the future sit up and take notice.
The book is divided into two sections. The first deals with ideology where he engages in a sharp critique of the current order and its thinking. The second examines the “Communist Hypothesis.”
There is something deeply challenging here. Take for example the gauntlet he lays down to those putting forward the idea that the world as it currently exists is the quintessence of what humanity can achieve. “Enemy propaganda against radical emancipatory politics is by definition cynical -- not in the simple sense of not believing its own words, but at a much more basic level: it is cynical precisely insofar as it does believe its own words, since its message is a resigned conviction that the world we live in, even if not the best of all possible worlds, is the least bad, such that radical change will only make things worse.” Agree or not this is not easily dismissed.
Of the current capitalist order he has quite a bit to say -- not much of it good. For example, he tells us of the recent state of emergency enacted in Italy--part of a trend toward"states of emergency" that is best exemplified in the post 9/11 repressive atmosphere in the U.S.
In Italy the target has been immigrants from Africa. As part of this state of emergency seven Tunisian fisherman were put on trial in Sicily in 2007, charged with aiding and abetting illegal immigrants. Their aiding and abetting came about after the fisherman, anchored and asleep, were awakened by screams. They in turn came to the rescue of a sinking rubber boat crammed with people; among them two children and 11 women, two of them pregnant. The actions of these fishermen stood in contrast to another incident in which fisherman had beaten the immigrants with sticks to keep them from boarding -- thus leaving them to drown. The latter case is what the authorities would see as legal and legitimate. That such circumstances exist, or that torture is no longer beyond the pale -- but is something up for debate -- is something Zizek sees as emblematic of the troubling state of things.
At the same time he is a sharp critic of what he calls the “Really Existing Socialism” that manifested itself in the twentieth century, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Some will find Zizek hard to follow at times -- and that is largely a result of a thinking style that pushes at the edges. This is not academic writing, nor is it common sense. And what other student of the French psychoanalyst Lacan do you know invoking “Kung Fu Panda” to elaborate a point?
While the core of his ethical and philosophical arguments are sound -- and in many ways you get the sense he wants these things to just be considered -- it is frustrating this is not fleshed out more. While upholding the communist Idea one does get much sense of how this would be realized -- or how ‘things would be different next time.’
That said this is all on a much different plane than popular received wisdom. It is interesting to contrast Zizek’s skew on things with that of the Wall Street Journal. In their recent editorial commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall they quote George Orwell, "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." The paper was referring to the failed utopia of the communist system. Of course the unintended irony is this is fully applicable today. In that regard we are fortunate to have Slavoj Zizek pointing that out.
The walls were huge, dark and threatening even for me, a Correctional Chaplain, as I approached the entrance to a state prison in Pennsylvania. I knew I would leave after a meeting and seeing some of the men incarcerated there. I could only imagine the terror for those who enter in handcuffs and shackles. It was with that perspective that I read Stephen Cox’s The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison.
The first part of the book looks at the development of the big prisons, or Big Houses, as we know them through the movies, music and other popular art forms. The author traces the evolution of these prisons as a replacement for public whippings, stocks and public hangings to the psychological pain of being controlled, isolated, humiliated and deprived of much that has meaning for men and women. Some of the big houses resemble Egyptian temples, Greek architecture, state houses and gothic designs which excited visitors but hid from the public the brutality behind the walls.
Although the history of the Big Houses was interesting, I was especially intrigued by the impact of these facilities on those incarcerated and those who work within the system. Stephen Cox describes how the system strips the person who enters from his humanity. It begins with the humiliation of a body search, lack of privacy while showering and using the toilet, becoming a number, receiving inmate clothing, hearing an orientation of the rules and then the assault on the senses of smell, sight and sound as the inmate enters the Big House for the first time. Cox looks at life behind the walls and well describes inmate food, utensils, and problems with contraband, bribes, living conditions, and convict labor that is often described as slave labor. And always there is the threat of violence. He has an entire chapter devoted to sex in a womanless world, either consensual or forced. He also looks as other ways humiliation becomes an art within these dungeon-like facilities.
I was glad the book also looks at the need for some form of cooperation between security staff and inmates, the keepers and the kept,for the safety of both. There are rules in every prison but also constant violations resulting in physical attacks and, in extreme cases, strikes or riots. Cox describes how administrations have to learn to maintain control with the smallest application of force. As examples of this, Cox examines two Big Houses, one controlled by the Warden (Statesville in Illinois) and the other controlled by the inmates (Jackson in Michigan). He also tracks those who worked to reform the Big Houses with industrial training, educational courses, lectures and other methods hoping to transform inmates into responsible citizens.
The last part of the book looks at prisons today and riots like the one in 1971 in Attica, New York, plus gangs, drugs and the impact of the closing of large psychiatric hospitals. Cox traces the move away from the Big Houses to the development of smaller prisons which are often in more rural areas and, in some cases, to the privatization of prisons. He also touches on improved training of correctional officers. However, the aura and mystery of the Big Houses continues through films.
The text, the extensive notes and works cited as well as the index makes this book a valuable resource for those concerned about prisons and jails. The 25 pages of photos make the text even more vivid. We need to know the past to understand the present and to fashion a system that is humane for those who are now incarcerated. As one who works behind the walls and razor wire, I feel an urgency to re-look at how we deal with those who break the law. The Big House is a valuable resource to understand the complexity of prisons historically and to challenge us as a society to try to transform people who are locked away out of sight.
Well, Lew, they are now.
Still, looking back, it’s hard to believe that an army of volunteers was ever meant to be anything but peacetime force, available only for an occasional march into a feeble state in, say, the Caribbean or Central America
After Korea and before Vietnam, very few men were drafted. Public demonstrations were unheard of. Vietnam changed everything. Since the early seventies, when opposition to the draft mushroomed as its lack of fairness became so evident (yes, college students were exempt, but so too were pro baseball players whose bosses had a tacit agreement with government allowing them to play soldier in occasional reserve duty, the children and grandchildren of fire eating Congressmen, prowar editorial writers and pundits, and future hawks hiding behind numerous deferments) a few libertarians such as economist Martin Anderson of Stanford helped lead the fight to end the draft. Drawing upon the conservative/libertarian stance of the draft as a violation of one’s personal freedom, Nixon said he was concerned about “the question of permanent conscription in a free society.” It was just campaign rhetoric, but a handful around him thought that no draft would mean the end of mass campus and street demonstrations. In 1973, relying on Anderson, Nixon fulfilled his campaign promise and ended the despised draft. The last man inducted, Beth Bailey tells us in"America's Army," was in December 1972.
Despite contemporary conservatives who would like to see it reinstated to maintain American worldwide hegemony and liberals like Charles Rangel and Bill Moyers who fantasize that a draft will lead the American people to rise en masse and shut down our current two wars (it never happened in Korea and Vietnam), Nixon preferred a “market-driven all-volunteer force.”
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that an army of volunteers was ever meant to be anything but a peacetime force, available solely for an occasional invasion of a frail nation in, say, the Caribbean or Central America.
But most significantly, Nixon and his advisors recognized the absence of a draft meant fewer anti-war protests and student protestors. And they were right. Certainly, non-vets George Bush and Dick Cheney understood this as did Donald Rumsfeld, who went a step further in believing that the era of WWII great land and sea battles were ended and what was needed was a smaller army populated with men and women who want to be in the military, much preferable to relying on reluctant, short-term conscripts. This new army of choice would then attract volunteer specialists trained in the new techniques of contemporary, counter-insurgency, counter-terrorist warfare. Of course the assumption proved to be questionable given that well-paid mercenaries outnumber U.S. troops in Iraq (and will perhaps in Afghanistan as well) plus the onerous reliance on the National Guard, whose members signed up for home front duty and extra pay with no idea they would end up in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Beth Bailey, who teaches history at Temple University, has painstakingly and perceptively detailed the process involved in ending the draft after combat troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. She also poses thorny questions—though never quite answers—such as whether a volunteer army offers young men and women a chance to better their lives and serve their country or is merely a duty to be borne by every citizen. Then there is a central question: Why serve in the military at all when the wars to be fought may be unworthy of the pain and sacrifice demanded of our young men and women?
Other than periods of economic distress, recruiting was always a problem. The army sought to cope with the many societal changes occurring in civilian life, and their efforts, at times well-intentioned, are covered well in the book. Advertising slogans were written and rewritten. Agencies were changed. As Iraq demanded more and more troops, and as tours were extended time and again, even recruiters felt the stress, Bailey noting that thirty-seven of them went AWOL in 2005. In 1978 ABC-TV featured a program, “the American Army: A Shocking Case of Incompetence.” Critics spread the false and deliberately racist rumor about volunteers as “too dumb, too black.” However, Bailey rightly nails the critics by writing that in 2007. “Even in enlisted ranks,” the army is “fairly solidly middle class,” (also noted in an earlier conservative Heritage Foundation study) and that “people of color have not borne the brunt of the war.”
Many volunteers have certainly benefitted from their service and performed well. But we now know that many have also suffered the agony of death and destruction, multiple tours, government falsehoods and the consequences of alcoholism, divorce, domestic violence, post-combat mental illness, rape in the ranks, shockingly high rates of suicide and grievous wartime injuries. Who, other than Hollywood and TV myth-makers, and think tank patriots, ever thought real war was easy and fun?
As problematic as depending on volunteers to fight two wars, resorting to a draft as an alternative is no answer. Simply put, no draft is fair. Four million Americans turn eighteen every year. Should the current lottery system even be utilized, how could a draft of about 50,000 annually be justified when all the rest are free to go about their civilian lives? As happened during Vietnam, virtually no Washington VIP in or outside the government today (save Joe Biden’s son) has a child on active military duty in Iraq/Afghanistan. The same elitism and deference to influence and wealth will certainly prevail in any future draft. Anyone with serious political contacts and family connections will always be able to avoid active military duty, or if not, receive plum jobs.
This is not to say that efforts have not been made to reinstitute a draft. Bailey reports that during the Reagan Administration the Department of the Army issued a “secret” report urging a draft. When the Washington Post reported it, Secretary of Defense Weinberger exploded and the White House instantly announced it had no intention of reinstating conscription. Every president and presidential candidate since then has restated his opposition to a draft to widespread national approval. It is also evident that no draft has ever deterred policymakers from going to war. All it does is provide an endless supply of cannon fodder.
Then again in 1980, Jimmy Carter, seeking to bolster his failing presidency and buffeted by home front neocons demanding a more warlike foreign policy, called for every eighteen old male to register (remarkably, it’s still in effect) for a non-existent draft and then spun the deed as a symbolic protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which Bailey describes as a “sensible move.” Why so is entirely unclear since there is not a shred of evidence that Moscow, mired in its own overwhelming domestic and foreign problems, was swayed in any way by American high school boys signing registration cards in U.S. post offices. Within ten years the USSR collapsed of its own incompetence and corruption, not draft registration.
Historically addicted to war, the U.S. has a vast “national security” apparatus, more than 1000 bases, and with much money to be made by arms producers and global weapons traders. To service this immense and complex system requires a constant supply of troops. Meanwhile, far from the battlefield, politicians and pundits debate the “proper” use of military intervention, whether for allegedly humanitarian causes or by invading, bombing and occupying to ensure economic and military domination. Now, faced with nonstop wars in the Middle East and possibly elsewhere, and while the drums of war against Iran are heard in Washington and Jerusalem, the question remains, who will be required to serve and fight, and most important, why?
SOURCE: HNN ()
Now, in “Catcher,” Morris tells the story through the last three decades of the 19th century and into the 20th, when the game became essentially the one played today. He does so by focusing on the role of the catcher. Although his argument that for a couple of decades the catcher became a folk hero like the cowboy or even Daniel Boone is more than a bit of a reach, the rest of his book is so well done that Morris’s occasional detours into the Am Civ theorizing are only minor distractions.
Until after the Civil War, the pitcher’s job was pretty much to lob the ball over home plate so that the batter could put it in play. The catcher’s job was not particularly exciting or dangerous; he was basically just another fielder. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, by the 1870s that was changing. Pitchers were still prohibited from throwing overhand, but they fudged, avoided, or ignored the rule as much as they could, and threw harder and harder. When Arthur “Candy” Cummings and others added curveballs to their repertoire, the game—and the catcher’s role—changed dramatically. The catcher moved closer to the plate and, in Morris’s words, stood “slightly stooped, with both hands together to catch the ball, and legs far apart to allow him to lunge in either direction after a foul tip or an errant pitch.”
A writer in 1910, looking back to catchers of that era, noted that “in those days, when there were no gloves, or only those leather-tipped things for the catcher and first bagger, the palm was kept out of the way, if possible…[T]he oldtimers aimed to catch the ball in a trap or spring box made of the fingers. They showed wonderful deftness in taking every pitch and every throw upon the fingers, and seldom letting it strike the palm. Once in a while, however, there was a miscue, and either a stone bruise or a split hand resulted. The fingers, too gave way before the shock, and most of the oldtime players had their digits twisted, gnarled and horribly distorted.”
Confined to the pitcher’s box but not yet anchored to a pitching rubber, pitchers got a running start and fired the ball toward the batter from less than 45 feet away. Not surprisingly, scoring plummeted, and fielders had less and less to do because most of the outs came from strikeouts and foul tips caught by the catcher. All a team really needed was a reasonably good pitcher and a competent catcher. Interestingly, Morris argues, the latter was lionized more than the former. Standing behind the plate, clenching a strip of rubber between his teeth to protect them, and with only his nimbleness to protect the rest of him, the catcher personified courage and cool competence.
Understandably, however, baseball played as a two-man game lost its appeal for spectators and other players. Things hit bottom, Morris says, “on May 11, 1877, when a twenty-four-inning scoreless tie between Harvard University and the professional Manchester club was played with a baseball that was very hard to begin with and eventually became so ‘punky’ that it was impossible to hit out of the infield.” Increasingly featuring games that dragged on and on, with most outs recorded by strikeout, baseball was becoming dull, even excruciating, to play or watch . The game was at a crossroads—and leaving it the way it was might well have doomed it to being a “niche sport,” like today’s fast-pitch softball, rather than the “national pastime.”
To make it more inviting, to make both offense and defense more interesting, the game’s movers and shakers made numerous important adjustments over the next 30 years: among other rule changes, the pitcher was moved further from the batter (reaching the current 60-feet 6-inches in 1893), while the catcher moved even closer to him and began to use protective gear—the mask, the glove, the chest protector, and finally, in 1907, shinguards, Roger Bresnahan’s claim to fame. Some fans—and some catchers—lamented the anonymity and apparent loss of manliness that accompanied these developments, but catchers soon regained much of their lost prestige when it became clear how much skill was involved in snaring pitchers’ ever-growing assortment of unpredictable pitches, most notably the spitball.
In addition, said the Albany “Evening Journal” in 1911, “the star catcher is the real brain center of his team when it is on the defensive. Usually the man behind the mask plans out every play made in the field….What the quarterback is to the football team the catcher is on the diamond.” So in the half century between the Civil War and the Great War, the catcher went from being a paragon of physical courage, to a mere “backstop,” to the “thinking man’s” athlete, the equivalent of a football quarterback.
To trace this developmental arc, Morris has consulted an enormous number of contemporary newspapers, magazines, and personal papers. Indeed, he brings so many examples to his narrative that the players involved start to blend into one another. Still, some, like Charley Bennett and “Doc” Bushong stand out, and Morris closes his book with a plea that one of their number, Jim White, be added to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I rise to support that motion, not least because honoring White will also draw attention to how the game was played little more than a century ago—before steroids, and the lively ball, and batters wearing helmets and elbow pads, and warnings from umpires about beanballs. Not “the good old days,” by any means, but different, and fascinating, and well worth remembering.
January 30, 1933 did not mark the end of political discourse in Germany. Eric Kurlander in Living with Hitler: Liberal Democrats in the Third Reich illuminates how, liberal democrats at least, continued to publish and debate their political ideas throughout Hitler’s twelve year reign. As long as they did not oppose the regime too vigorously (which they did not), Kurlander, Associate Professor of History at Stetson University, demonstrates that liberal democrats even enjoyed a remarkable amount of personal and professional freedom in Hitler’s Germany.
Liberal democrats, members of the German Democratic Party (DDP), acquiesced in the accession of Hitler and the NSDAP to power. Exhausted by years of weak and ineffective Weimar governments, Kurlander observes that liberal democrats embraced Hitler’s government because it shared many of the same goals of the D.D.P.’s “Naumannite philosophy,” including Friedrich Naumann’s advocacy of a “national-social” form of German government. In fact, liberal democrats supported a German dominated Central Europe (Mitteleuropa) and common economic market.
Liberal Democrats, and most Germans, hated and despised the Versailles Treaty imposed on Germany in 1919, and they supported Hitler’s efforts to revise it. As Kurlander points out, “German parity in armaments, regaining the Saarland from France, re-militarizing the Rhineland, achieving union with Austria, revising the eastern borders with Poland, and recovering German minorities abroad” were all goals espoused by the DDP throughout the Weimar Republic. Even before 1933, they advocated “restoring German sovereignty over Danzig and the Polish corridor.” Thus, Kurlander writes, Democrats shared an “ideological continuum” with the National Socialists. At least in foreign affairs, Hitler’s plans did not seem all that distasteful to them.
Unfortunately, they also seemed to share an ideological continuum with Nazi racial and Jewish policies. Kurlander observes that the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty caused many democrats to “fall back on a more chauvinist and irredentist vision of Mitteleuropa, a ‘Greater Germany’ that sought the (re) incorporation of Europe’s ethnic Germans, with little regard for their Slavic or Baltic neighbors.” Their attitude to the Nazi’s anti-Semitic Jewish policy, at least up to 1938 and the pogroms of Kristallnacht, seem surprisingly casual. Democrats, writes Kurlander, believed the 1935 Nuremberg Laws that disenfranchised Germany’s Jews, “would make it possible for the German people to be able to seek a tolerable relationship with the Jewish people.” He observes that Democrats believed that the “Jewish Question” would be settled by Jewish assimilation into German culture and life. For Democrats, the Nuremberg Laws simply “stabilized the situation.” They, and many Germans, did not realize until it was too late, that the Hitler regime did not want a “tolerable relationship with the Jewish people”; they wanted them gone—and dead.
Kurlander also shows how Democrats strove to help their Jewish colleagues on an individual basis as the regime’s noose slowly closed around them. However, it was only in 1938 and Kristallnacht that some Democrats began to understand the brutal nature of the regime. Among these few was the future president of the Federal Republic of Germany, Theodor Heuss. Even then however, outright opposition to the regime remained “disorganized.” Moreover, Kurlander points out, “most Democrats failed to propose a conceptual alternative to the Nazi ‘Jewish Question.’ ”
Even Democrat feminist activists (to which Kurlander devotes a very informative chapter) found positive aspects in Nazi racial doctrines and policies toward women. For example, the Nazis granted women more rights when seeking a divorce and generally liberalized divorce law, promised more assistance for unwed mothers, and greater maternity leave. Yet, as Kurlander points out, the regime’s goal was more “Aryan children,” not greater freedom for women.
And then came Stalingrad. By 1943 it was clear that Nazi racial policy and foreign policy differed substantially from anything Naumann had proposed or Democrats had ever envisioned. More vicious and nihilistic than anything they could have imagined, Democrats realized too late that the regime they had “engaged” was leading Germany to total ruin and Europe to utter destruction. Some then joined the active resistance or cooperated with the conspirators in the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. Still, as Kurlander rightly points out, most of those executed after the July 20th assassination attempt were conservative aristocrats or socialists. “Where were the liberals?” he asks.
By then, most liberal democrats had retreated into inner exile and began to conceptualize a Germany after Adolf Hitler. Did Democrats advocate the extermination of whole races of people and the ethnic cleansing of central and eastern Europe? Certainly not. But Kurlander makes clear that Democrats believed they could realize many of their long-held political objectives in the National Socialist regime. He also demonstrates that this was clearly a Faustian bargain that liberal democrats realized only too late.
Confronted with overwhelming evidence of atrocities, and the total destruction of Germany and Europe, Democrats began to rethink their long held Mitteleuropa philosophy. After Stalingrad, but especially after the total capitulation of the nation in May 1945, Democrats (West Germany’s future political elites) began to espouse a “post-nationalist, pan-European peace” that would include a Germany that “accepted the commonalities in all peoples”. Democrats transformed their Naumannite “national social” philosophy from a German dominated central Europe, into a paradigm for a European dominated Germany. Thus, the underlying philosophy of the post-war Federal Republic was born. Kurlander writes that “Naumann’s malleable concepts now came to define a liberal vision of European community.”
Eric Kurlander’s Living with Hitler illuminates the ideological transformation that middle class Democrats experienced as a result of their political engagement with the Third Reich. This transformation was crucial to the survival of democracy in Germany after 1945.
Extremely well written, and very well documented, Eric Kurlander has provided us with not just another book about political parties in Hitler’s Germany. Rather, Living with Hitler also provides us with yet another perspective on how democracy thrived in post-war Germany against seemingly overwhelming odds.
After having grown up on Walton Avenue in the Bronx, N.Y., three blocks west of the Grand Concourse, I can emphatically say that Constance Rosenblum is correct. It was indeed a source of great pride to have resided near that magnificent thoroughfare in the 1950s. “The Concourse,” as it was called, was where worldly Bronxites viewed foreign films at the Ascot Theater, Hollywood productions at the Loew’s Paradise, under a ceiling sprinkled with stars, and purchased affordable but eminently respectable clothes at Alexander’s department store. It was also the showplace of the West Bronx, with broad roadways, Art Deco apartment buildings, and splashy Memorial Day parades. To the south was the massive Bronx County Courthouse, overlooking 161st Street and Yankee Stadium, where the lords of baseball reigned supreme.
As attractive as these features were, the Concourse neighborhood was where a working-class Jewish family such as mine could live in decency. An automobile was not a necessity, because there was ample public transportation, including two subway lines four blocks from each other. Then, too, there were synagogues on and just off the boulevard, and excellent public schools on all levels. It seemed ideal, and in Boulevard of Dreams, Constance Rosenblum has captured its spirit.
In addition, she has added names and faces and imparted a human touch, with numerous black-and-white archival photographs. Here one can see engineer Louis Risse, the engineer who designed the Grand Concourse, as well as Gerald McQueen, an usher at the Loew’s Paradise, and African American women awaiting job offers on a street corner in what came to be known as the “Bronx Slave Market,” located just off the boulevard. “Hired by the white, mostly Jewish matrons of West Bronx,” these women were household workers, and virtually the only blacks in the area. Almost all of the broad thoroughfare, Rosenblum notes, “during most of its existence . . . was off limits to blacks in virtually every respect. . . . Along the Grand Concourse . . . resistance to minorities was notorious.” Amidst the grandeur of the stately Concourse Plaza Hotel, Andrew Freedman Home and Theodore Roosevelt apartments, this “slave market” endured into the 1950s.
A social and economic history of the West Bronx as well as the thoroughfare, Boulevard of Dreams contains relatively few political names, but is loaded with architectural, entrepreneurial, literary, entertainment, and celebrity figures. The long list includes former residents such as architects Israel Crausman, Horace Ginsbern, and John Eberson, developer Logan Billingsley, novelists Theodore Dreiser, E. L. Doctorow and Avery Corman, singer Eydie Gorme and film director Stanley Kubrick. In addition, it features urban builder Abraham Kazan and “power broker” Robert Moses, whose creations, Co-Op City and the Cross Bronx Expressway, respectively, contributed to the decline of the West Bronx, beginning in the late 1950s. New apartments to the north, increasing crime rates, and bulldozed neighborhoods, as well as destructive public and private attitudes, led to the “abandonment” of the previously glorious Grand Concourse.
Rosenblum concludes her book on a cautiously optimistic note. Hoping for the area to rebound, she identifies recent revitalization efforts, including the reclamation of the Loew’s Paradise and the construction of the new Yankee Stadium. However, she also reports that “everyone agrees [there is] a long and arduous journey ahead, particularly given the economic upheavals that began in 2008.”
Despite this difficult task, pride in the Grand Concourse and West Bronx remains alive. This affectionate volume will help keep it that way by serving as a tangible reminder of what is very much saving and restoring in the Bronx. There was and still is something special about that “boulevard of dreams.” The ethnicity of the dreamers may have changed, but the hopes have not.
Everyone knows about Francis, right? He talked to the birds and started a religious order that survives to this day. But unless you've done your homework with serious historians, you'll get some startling surprises from the new book of Paul Moses, professor of jour-nalism at the City University of New York and a former editor at Newsday. He centers on Francis's dedication to peace, highlighting the saint's 1219 meeting with Sultan Malik al-Kamil,with its implications for today's over-eager crusaders.
Moses has done extensive research in fourteenth century history and visited Italian and middle-eastern sites connected with Francis's life, but his book is for general readers. Although today's papacy is not calling for a crusade, readers are reminded that Rome has often betrayed the Gospel's message of peace.
The opening chapter will surprise many, presenting the 21-year-old Francis fighting on horseback in a dispute between Assisi and Perugia. Moses believes Francis actually killed men on the battlefield, which led to a year in prison and a life of penance.
A process of conversion began, revealing itself first in generosity to the poor. But Francis allowed himself to be persuaded to fight again on the papal side against imperial forces. His militarism was ended, however, by a dream in which he was told to go home.
He sold his horse and armor, rid himself of money, and devoted himself to serving lepers. Praying before a painted crucifix in the broken-down church of San Damiano, he heard Jesus instruct him: “Francis, go, repair my house, which as you see, is falling to ruin.”
Embracing a life of poverty, he was joined by other young men fleeing the violent culture around them, whom he exhorted to preach peace and repentance.
Knowing his brother-friars needed protection from the persecution they experienced, Francis decided to seek papal approval for their way of life from Innocent III, probably the most powerful pontiff in history.Innocent, knowing the friars could help the church's image as
long as they were obedient,approved Francis' Rule.
The saint's long-standing desire to preach to the Muslim world led to his famous encounter with Malik al-Kamil in 1219. He came across the lines unarmed, singing “The Lord is my shepherd.” There are different reports of what took place, but Moses follows James of Vitry, emphasizing that Francis came as God's ambassador, not the pope's. Al-Kamil was impressed with Francis; he was already a serious Muslim who respected Christian monks.
The experience made Francis want to send other Friars to preach to Muslims, but the naiveté of the monks who tried to follow his example produced poor results. The age continued to be dominated by papal power and the crusades mentality, and Francis' later years were filled with poor health and the difficulties of running an order without firm discipline. Sadly, most Christians only know the story of the saint and the sultan in the version of Bonaventure, which has Francis advocating the eradication of Muslims for blasphemy.
Moses's realistic and powerful book gives readers an informed idea of how difficult it was to follow Francis in an age of papal power and the broad acceptance of violence. The saint comes through as both lovable and naïve, never able to win sufficient acceptance for his approach, even among his own followers.