by Doctor Science
Number of voters who showed up for 2008 General Election: 503. Prediction: We will be *really* busy in November.
Books read: 2.3
1. American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan.
I heard about the book Ta-Nehisi Coates. TNC said:
Morgan's basic contention, one which I increasingly find convincing, is that American slavery made American freedom possible. Thus, it is an understatement--and perhaps even a falsehood--to cast slavery, as Condoleeza Rice has, as the "birth defect" of American freedom. The term "birth defect" conveys the notion of other possibilities and unfortunate accidents. But Morgan would argue slavery didn't just happen as a byproduct, it was the steward. Put differently, slavery is America's midwife, not it's birth defect.Now I've read Morgan's book, and I disagree with both TNC and Morgan.
Morgan adduces no evidence IMHO that slavery was *necessary* for American ideas about politics and freedom to develop. He does not demonstrate, for instance, that "freedom" was a more salient concept for the colonists of Virginia than it was for those of New England. Indeed, the fact that the New England colonists spit out Governor Andros and the idea of a Dominion, but Virginia accepted both, suggests that the idea of political independence was more firmly grounded in the North than in Virginia.
I side with those who view slavery as neither "birth defect" nor "midwife", but as "original sin". That is, slavery was a choice, and it was a choice to be evil -- and the consequences have reverberated down from generation to generation of people who made no choice about the matter at all. It is a choice we inherited and the consequences of which we have to deal with even hundreds of years later, which we can't escape by saying that we never made that choice ourselves.
Morgan's book (published in 1975) gives a well-rounded picture of the development of the Virginia colonies from Roanoke forward; as far as I can tell it's not terribly outdated by more recent research. One persistent theme is the consistent contempt the English showed toward agricultural labor and the people who do it. Jefferson rhapsodized about "yeoman farmers", but the history of Virginia is full of men who felt *anything*, up to and including actual cannibalism, was better than working in the fields or paying people well to do it. Jefferson's "yeoman farmers" had no dirt under their nails, they had indentured servants or outright slaves to do the grubby work.
If Jefferson and Madison were eloquent, impassioned philosophers of republican freedom, maybe they had to be eloquent to conceal from themselves that their "independence" was absolutely dependent on other people doing their subsistence work: they could not feed themselves.
2. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation by Elaine Pagels.
Not very long, not terribly detailed. Her interesting theory: that John of Patmos was warning various (Jewish-)Christian churches not to be seduced by the followers of Paul and their Gentile-favoring laxity about the Torah.
She talks a lot about similarities and differences between Revelations and various of the Nag Hammadi texts, but IMHO overlooks one crucial difference which makes Revelations much more like the rest of the (New and Old) canon: Revelations talks about social and political justice, not a path for personal spiritual development.
For instance, she says the First Horseman is "War", when it's clear to me that he is Tyranny, the over-powerful ruler. The Second Horseman is clearly War. During most of the past two millennia, though, it's been dangerous to recognize that the First Horseman represents something that can be wrong with kingship, so he gets re-cast a lot. Similarly, I think it's obvious that the Third Horseman is Economic Injustice, a constant refrain of the Hebrew prophets -- but very uncomfortable for the temporal powers to recognize. Better to call him Famine, as though he's the fault of the weather -- instead of being the embodiment of Amartya Sen's theories about famine arising from economic inequality.
+0.3= bits of:
3.1 St. Patrick's Gargoyle by Katherine Kurtz.
3.2 When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson.
A gorgeous writer who makes you work for her meaning. I only read three pieces in this essay collection before it was time to go, and I found her prose better than her thinking. In particular, her examples aren't *specific* enough, too much of the time she's generalizing about These Modern Times. And I don't think she recognizes that infection with Cicero's prose isn't just her problem, but is endemic in Western literature -- I'm not sure I'm completely over it myself.
4. It turns out that it's possible for a beer to be too chocolaty. Now I know.