Saturday, April 30, 2011

Michael Neiberg's "Dance of the Furies"

Michael Neiberg, a native of Pittsburgh, is an historian who specializes in the ways that societies interact with war and military institutions. His latest book, Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of War in 1914, analyzes the events of that fateful year from the perspective of “ordinary” Europeans. He has been a Guggenheim fellow, a founding member of the Société Internationale d’Étude de la Grande Guerre, and the Harold K. Johnson Visiting Professor of History at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to Dance of the Furies and reported the following:
In the British comedy Blackadder Goes Forth, Private Baldrick pronounces to his fellow soldiers “I heard that it started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry.” While Blackadder is obviously not meant as serious history, the line does reveal two basic truths about 1914. First, like Baldrick, few Europeans had hatreds for people in other countries strong enough to lead them to war. Second, most of them had no idea how the assassination of a little-known nobleman had put them in trenches to fight a war with no end in sight.

Page 99 of Dance of the Furies speaks to how the people of Europe responded to the events of the tragic summer of 1914. They did not go to war for the archduke or to avenge some distant slight to their national honor. Page 99 relates three strikingly similar anecdotes from three nations in the last days of peace. An English mother, in a journal to explain the war to her infant son, wrote that “if we fight, it is because we shall have been dragged in.” French food writer Claire de Pratz spoke with two fishermen who told her that although they did not want war, it was now obvious to them that the Germans did and so they saw no choice but to fight. The Berliner Tageblatt editorialized that “We didn’t want a war and we have done everything in our power to prevent it.” The responses were the same across the continent: few wanted war, but all were determined to resist what they saw as foreign aggression.

I hope that Dance of the Furies will help us to see the people of 1914 as they were, not as sepia-toned figures too simple or too stupid to see what they were unleashing. Their experiences tell us a great deal not only about their age, but ours. If we understand them, perhaps we can understand that the poor old ostrich didn’t die for nothing after all.
Learn more about Dance of the Furies at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Kevin M. Schultz's "Tri-Faith America"

Kevin M. Schultz is Assistant Professor of History and Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise, and reported the following:
I really enjoy my page 99. It is the first page of Chapter 4, which starts with a great story about one of our most accomplished sociologists, Herbert Gans, moving with his wife into Levittown, New Jersey, in order to research his classic book, The Levittowners, which is probably the best book there is on postwar suburbia. But when he moved in, he appeared as just another neighbor, happy to have those 900 square feet rather than a cramped city apartment.

Gans was very confessional in the book, talking about his experiences moving into what had been just months before a potato field. He was also game when I sent him emails in 2008 inquiring about his experiences. For all his fame, he seemed to be a really nice, serious guy.

My wife and kids always tell me that learning history is a lot more fun when it's told as a series of stories that illustrate a point, so the story of Herbert Gans and his wife going to all those public meetings, observing the growth of the synagogues and churches, visiting the T-ball fields, and generally participating in the life of the community leads into the basic point of the chapter, which is that the postwar suburbs were not at all bland places with white picket fences, but rather locations of public discourse, where new neighbors negotiated terrain that was far different from where they had lived before.

Indeed, what Gans discovered is that, while racial divisions were muted from public discourse (there were no black people in Levittown), divisions between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews animated a world of discourse and forced a change in the norms that American lived by. The suburbs were not, in fact, a bland place where everyone melted together, but instead the location where Catholics and Jews demanded the right to be different, to be Catholic or Jewish without having to suffer any consequences.

On page 99, it's the story of Gans that helps me make that point.
Learn more about Tri-Faith America at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

David A. Kirby's "Lab Coats in Hollywood"

David A. Kirby was a practicing molecular biologist before becoming Senior Lecturer in Science Communication Studies in the Center for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester, UK. He has published numerous articles exploring the relationship between science, media and the public.

Kirby applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema, and reported the following:
My book covers the back stage role scientists play in the production of popular films. Scientific expertise can help filmmakers create plausible and visually interesting films. Science consultants become involved in numerous areas of film production including script checking, working with actors, set design, story advice, special effects, on set consultations, and sound design. Yet, scientists’ advice is only useful if it allows filmmakers to better utilize their own creative filmmaking expertise.

I was surprised to find how well page 99 conveys the book’s two central messages. I recount a story concerning the depiction of the alien radio signal in the film Contact. First, this story confirms how scientific certainty actually enhances creativity when filmmakers are faced with too many options:
The alien radio signal was particularly problematic for Contact’s (1997) filmmakers. Being an alien signal they had no basis for determining the transmission’s structure. As discussed in chapter 4, computer and video supervisor Ian Kelly hired Tom Kuiper and Linda Wald to develop the computer displays and audio for the radio signal. While an alien radio signal might sound fantastical, the science is actually mundane. Rather than facing infinite possibilities there is only a single option based on mathematics as long as the aliens live in the same universe as us. According to Kuiper it was fairly easy to determine the signal’s form, strength, and audio, because “It’s radio engineering of a pretty straightforward kind. It’s what radio astronomers do all the time.” Kuiper and Wald knew the precise distance from the Vega star system to Earth and that the signal would be a string of prime numbers housing an embedded television signal. So, to determine the radio signal’s characteristics they plugged the numbers into well-established equations.
Second, this story reveals some of the criteria filmmakers use for determining whether it is beneficial for their film to maintain scientific accuracy by exploring why filmmakers will adamantly adhere to one scientific fact, while quickly dismissing another. The film’s sound editor was not happy to learn that the signal would consist of a pure tone repeated as a prime number sequence (2, 3, 5, 7, 11, etc). The discovery of the alien radio signal is a powerful scene that is crucial to establishing the film’s atmosphere. His professional judgement was that a pure tone was not cinematically interesting enough to convey the combination of exhilaration and dread that the scene required. Likewise, he felt that the scene’s drama would be heightened if they could start the signal’s sequence off with a single ominous sound. One is not a prime number so an accurate sequence would start with two sounds.

When you watch the film you hear that the sound editor decided to maintain accuracy for only one of these facts –the prime number sequence. Why this fact and not the other? I find that filmmakers take into account the public’s familiarity with a scientific fact when making production decisions. Facts that are likely to be known by a majority of the public, like prime numbers, fall into the category I call “public science.” Facts that are relatively unknown outside an expert community I designate as “expert science.” Filmmakers are more likely to modify facts that they perceive as expert science. The fact that the radio signal would be a pure tone, for example, is unlikely to be known to anyone other than radio astronomers.
Visit David A. Kirby’s webpage or learn more about Lab Coats in Hollywood at the MIT Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Roger R. Reese's "Why Stalin’s Soldiers Fought"

Roger R. Reese is professor of history at Texas A&M University and author of Stalin’s Reluctant Soldiers: A Social History of the Red Army, 1925–1941; Red Commanders: A Social History of the Soviet Army Officer Corps, 1918–1991; and The Soviet Military Experience: A History of the Soviet Army, 1917–1991.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Why Stalin’s Soldiers Fought: The Red Army’s Military Effectiveness in World War II, and reported the following:
Page 98-100 closes out parts I and II and the discussion of why so many Soviet soldiers were captured in encirclements in 1941 by showing how in two separate incidents U.S. Army soldiers, facing similar circumstances fared about the same, the main difference being the historical interpretation of their motives. The historical profession is divided over the issues of why Soviet soldiers were captured en masse and why they fought at all for the Stalinist regime. The arguments are that they either fought out of love for Stalin and the Stalinist state, or they fought out of fear of the threat of execution. Anti-Stalinist sentiment is supposedly why they surrendered by the millions in 1941. I argue that while some soldiers did support Stalinism and others despised it, the majority of citizens who became soldiers fought for many reasons, most of which had nothing to do with their feelings about Stalin or his politics, or policies. Soldiers mostly fought out of elemental patriotism, for their country that had been invaded, without reference to or in spite of their government. I further argue that most surrenders and captures were a result simply of the chaos of war, the ineptitude of Soviet generals, and the German intent to capture as many Soviet soldiers as they could. No one has ever ascribed political motives or questioned the loyalty of the U.S. soldiers that were captured. The rest of the book analyzes the motivation and morale of the Soviet soldiery revealing that Russians were the most motivated to fight and the national minorities the least. The fact that there were more than two million cases of desertion and draft evasion disproves the contention that coercion was a significant factor in keeping men in the line. Above all, this book attempts to show, from their perspective, that Soviet soldiers were ordinary human beings who experienced the war in the same ways as soldiers in other armies.
Learn more about Why Stalin’s Soldiers Fought at the University Press of Kansas website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 25, 2011

Gerald Early's "A Level Playing Field"

Gerald Early is Professor of English, African and African American Studies, and American Cultural Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new collection of essays, A Level Playing Field: African American Athletes and the Republic of Sports, and reported the following:
Page 99 of A Level Playing Field lands the reader a bit more than two-thirds through the second essay of the volume: “Curt Flood, Gratitude, and the Image of Baseball.” On this particular page, I am in the midst of an account of how the black press reacted to St. Louis Cardinal outfielder Curt Flood’s legal challenge to major league baseball’s reserve clause, which restricts a player from being able to offer his services to any team even if he has achieved a certain level of seniority. In effect, Flood was suing for free agency, something, of course, which baseball adopted in a modified form in the 1970s, a few years after Flood’s suit but not because of his suit, which was denied by the Supreme Court. The black press was largely supportive of Flood, although Flood’s claim of being “a slave” puzzled many whites (and some blacks, although blacks were less disturbed by the metaphor). He was making $90,000 a year at the time he was traded to Philadelphia in October 1969 (the act that triggered his lawsuit), a considerable sum at the time. But the idea among some blacks—including New York Times sportswriter William Rhoden even today—that playing high-level sports somehow degrades blacks is one of the main themes I explore in my book. This means that any sort of protest by a black athlete against the system, the bureaucracy, the institutional power of high level sports (run by whites and largely supported by white fans) is: 1) highly politicized in a form of entertainment that frequently gets politicized despite the fact that sport acts as an escape, and 2) a symbolic assertion of dignity and freedom for an oppressed group even if the athlete is making millions. I find this belief fascinating. Page 99 does not sum up the book. (No writer would admit to his or her book being reducible to one page, even if it were true.) But it comes close, in a highly truncated way.
Learn more about A Level Playing Field at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Jonathan Dudley's "Broken Words"

Jonathan Dudley is a graduate of Yale's Divinity School and currently a M.D. student at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics (published by Crown), he writes about the evangelical Christian community that raised him.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to Broken Words and reported the following:
Page 99 of Broken Words is at the end of a section titled “The Bible Isn’t Pro-Environmental” and the beginning of another, titled “The Bible Isn’t Anti-Environmental.” These seemingly contradictory section headings reflect an ongoing argument I make throughout the book: how readers interpret the Bible reflects the beliefs they bring to it. As I argue in the first section, there are a host of different passages in the Bible that can be used to justify environmental exploitation, and most theologians in the past did read the Bible in ways that had sorry implications for the environment.

But as I argue in the second section, these previous readings were no more required by the text of scripture than the pro-environmental readings advocated by green evangelicals today. Both sets of readings emphasize some passages and de-emphasize others, construe words this way instead of that, and reflect the culture and assumptions of the interpreters. The God of Genesis may have destroyed almost all biological life on Earth in Noah’s flood, but on the other hand, the same God also commanded Noah to preserve two of each kind of every species.

This page also reflects my efforts in the book to demonstrate that the “Religious Left” has many of the same flawed assumptions about biblical interpretation as the “Religious Right”—and that all appeals to “what the Bible says” are veiled appeals to the cultural values of its interpreters. As I note in my chapter on Christian environmentalism, “the Bible isn’t proenvironmental, and it’s not antienvironmental either, because what the Bible is reflects the beliefs we bring to it.”
Learn more about the book and author at Jonathan Dudley's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, April 22, 2011

John Pollack's "The Pun Also Rises"

John Pollack, who won the 1995 O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships, was a Presidential Speechwriter for Bill Clinton. Earlier, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Spain, as a field assistant in Antarctica, and as a strolling violinist on Mackinac Island.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics, and reported the following:
From Page 99-100 of The Pun Also Rises:
Soon enough, English-speaking Jewish comedians were playing to mainstream audiences and punning to great effect. After all, Americans of diverse backgrounds had long embraced puns and were hungry for fresh talent. In the first half of the twentieth century, many Jewish comedians—Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Henny Youngman, Milton Berle, Gracie Allen and George Burns among them—rose to prominence. It wasn’t that Jewish comedians were the only punsters: Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello were masters of the art as well. From Vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood, puns were stock in trade.

Sometime around mid-century, though, the public’s changing comedic tastes began to maroon the humble pun. Although the precise tipping point is hard to pinpoint, puns began to draw more and more groans. Postwar audiences didn’t reject the pun entirely, but began responding better to humor that was a little more raw and a little less obviously constructed.

In an atomic age of duck-and-cover, the McCarthy hearings, and a nagging ennui about suburban conformism, a new and more irreverent stream of consciousness began to gather force. Much as jazz audiences of the time embraced the more dissonant music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, edgier comedic audiences were applauding iconoclastic Jewish comics such as Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce who, starting in the 1950s, began challenging longstanding humorous forms and taboos.

While both of them appreciated wordplay and Bruce pushed public language to new frontiers of impropriety, they drove American comedy in a whole new direction, away from the standard joke-and-punch-line routines. Other great comics quickly followed suit, and as the 1960s gathered momentum, traditional comedy began to seem passé, especially if audiences considered the topic to be tame. As such, the popularity of puns took a dive.
By this point in The Pun Also Rises, readers have explored the myriad forms that puns can take, examined how the brain extracts meaning from ambiguous sound, followed the rise of puns from ancient times, and are tracing the pun’s decline in western culture. Later in the book readers will learn the catalyst role that punning played in the invention of the world’s first alphabet, why puns still matter in today’s political and social discourse, and how they continue to facilitate human creativity and progress.
Learn more about the book and author at the official The Pun Also Rises website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 21, 2011

David J. Linden's "The Compass of Pleasure"

David J. Linden, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. His laboratory has worked for many years on the cellular substrates of memory storage in the brain and a few other topics.

His publications include The Accidental Mind, a book that "seeks to explain how brain evolution has given rise to those qualities that most profoundly shape our human experience."

Linden applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good, and reported the following:
Imagine my delight in finding that page 99 of The Compass of Pleasure is not only smutty, but has my favorite illustration of the entire book.
Most but not all homosexual behavior seen in animals would be more accurately described as bisexuality. In many species heterosexual contact occurs only during the female’s fertile phase, but homosexual behavior is common at other times. In some, like bonobos, it seems as if homosexual behavior, in addition to providing
sexual pleasure, also fulfills a social role by diffusing tension and promoting social bonding at the expense of aggression. At present, there are only a few examples of animals engaging in lifelong, purely homosexual behavior, and these have occurred mostly among males and mostly in captivity. Nonetheless, in a number of zoos around the world, male penguins of several species have been observed to form stable monogamous couples. They build nests together and use a rock as a surrogate egg. In one well-publicized case, a pair of male chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo in New York City were provided with a fertilized egg, from which they successfully hatched a chick.4 Likewise, about 6 percent of domesticated rams court and mount other males exclusively, even when estrous females are present.

Figure 4.1 Adult bonobo females engaging in genital-genital rubbing, a common expression of bonobo sexuality that can result in orgasm. Illustration by Joan M. K. Tycko.

We can’t close out this discussion of animal sexuality without mentioning some even more exotic phenomena. Cross-species sex is most commonly observed in animals in captivity, but examples have been documented in wild populations as well. For example, male moose have been known to have sex with female horses. In a zoo in Siberia, a tiger and a lion were encouraged to mate and bore (infertile) offspring. Genetic analysis has been employed to identify offspring from cross-species hybrids in the wild, providing evidence for sexual encounters between grizzly bears and polar bears.
This section is part of a larger explication of the point that human mating, dominated by monogamous pair-bonding, a single sexual partner during a given ovulation cycle, and a paternal contribution to child rearing, is highly aberrant in the larger mammalian community.

So our conclusion in light of these findings is a bit counterintuitive. It’s not really kinky or forbidden behavior such as homosexuality, masturbation or even cross-species sex that makes humans sexually unique—those things are well-represented in our mammalian kin. Rather, it’s our most conventional and socially sanctioned mating behavior that is totally aberrant in comparison to other mammals.

Overall, in this case, page 99 gives a fairly good idea of the flavor of the book.
Learn more about the book and author at the official The Compass of Pleasure blog.

The Page 99 Test: David J. Linden's The Accidental Mind.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Amy Ellis Nutt's "Shadows Bright as Glass"

Amy Ellis Nutt has been a staff writer at The Star-Ledger newspaper in Newark, NJ since November 1997. She is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Nutt was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for her story “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” which ran as a 20-page special section of The Star-Ledger in November 2010.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Shadows Bright as Glass: The Remarkable Story of One Man's Journey from Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph, and reported the following:
Shadows Bright as Glass is all about the search for the soul. Jon Sarkin lost himself after a devastating stroke -- and he knew it. He was that rarest of individuals. He’d been radically altered in body, mind and spirit, and yet he understood intimately, painfully, all that he’d lost. His obsession with creating art was in part an acknowledgment of that loss and a desperate, almost primal attempt to figure out what had happened to his brain. Throughout the book, Jon’s experiences, his search for himself, mirrors the strange journey that science has taken in trying to answer that most fundamental of questions: Who are we? Page 99 takes the reader into Jon’s world several months after his stroke, when he’s finally returned home. Instead of his staid, button-down workaholic personality, he is flamboyant and impulsive and drawn to color. He is self-absorbed, wrapped up mostly in his own head, in part because the way he experiences the world, post-stroke, is so different from his former self. He is partly deaf, has constant double vision, cannot process multiple ideas simultaneously and has an almost child-like ability to be stimulated by the simplest things.

Excerpt from p. 99:
On another occasion, before he gave up driving, Sarkin decided to go to the florist himself. After spending $100 on crocus, tulip, an daffodil bulbs, he returned home and dug a couple of dozen small, randomly placed holes in the steeply banked backyard.

“Jon, what are you doing,” Kim asked?

“Don’t worry. It’s a surprise. Just wait until spring.”

In April, May and June, the yard exploded with a new color nearly every day – sudden bursts of lavender, yellow, orange, and red shooting out of the ground like slow-motion fireworks.
Learn more about the book and author at Amy Ellis Nutt's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Stephen Singular's "The Wichita Divide"

Stephen Singular, is a two-time New York Times bestselling author whose articles have appeared in New York Magazine, Psychology Today, Inside Sports, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and American Photo. From 1983 to 1987, he was a staff writer at The Denver Post and his first book, Talked To Death: The Life & Murder of Alan Berg (1987), was nominated for an Edgar Award. Since then, he’s published 18 more non-fiction books about high-profile crimes, social criticism, and business and sports biographies.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Wichita Divide: The Murder of Dr. George Tiller and the Battle over Abortion, and reported the following:
In 1987 I published Talked to Death, about the life and murder of Denver talk show host, Alan Berg. The Oliver Stone movie, Talk Radio, is based in part on this book. That story described how nine, obviously-fanatical neo-Nazis plotted to kill Berg and launch a white power revolution, designed to rid America of minorities. For the past decade, I’ve wanted to revisit this subject because disturbing pieces of the mindset -- the anger, fear, and blame -- of those who assassinated Berg have gradually crept from the fringes of our society into the mainstream. On May 31, 2009, when abortion doctor George Tiller was gunned down by Scott Roeder inside his Kansas church, I began researching the follow-up book.

The Wichita Divide: The Murder of Dr. George Tiller and the Battle Over Abortion is really about the new American civil war that’s infected our country for roughly the past four decades. It’s about how deeply personal issues, especially sexual issues like reproduction, have been used to demonize entire segments of the population. And about how this has been driven not by nine fanatics, but by corporate media, major religions, and leaders at the highest levels of government. The first sentence on page 99 clearly reflects this theme: “In addition to the ongoing death threats [to the physician], the efforts to close Tiller’s clinic were moving into mainstream politics. Since Roe v. Wade, Kansas had placed only minor restrictions on late-term abortions, but that was changing…”

The book’s narrative focuses on the lives of two families, Dr. Tiller’s and Scott Roeder’s, and describes how both were trapped inside this war and experienced their own tragedies. I’ve tried to show the heart and the cost of this war, mostly through the eyes of Roeder’s ex-wife, Lindsey, who found out first-hand what it’s like to marry a relatively “normal” man and watch him turn into an American terrorist.

When people at the very top of society sanction hatred in a public way, it filters down to those not only less fortunate, but sometimes to those who are emotionally unstable. Then violence becomes not just likely, but virtually predictable. And then, when it’s too late, the haters claim they had nothing to do with the bloodshed and run for the hills…Whether we want to be or not, we’re all involved in this war.
Learn more about the book and author at Stephen Singular's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 18, 2011

Steven J. Brams's "Game Theory and the Humanities"

Steven J. Brams is Professor of Politics at New York University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Game Theory and the Humanities: Bridging Two Worlds, and reported the following:
The page 99 test, I'm afraid, wouldn't work so well for my book--at least, I think, for your readers. It puts you in the Philosophy chapter, wherein I discuss a rather abstract question relating to the fair division of indivisible goods.

If you lop off the second digit and go to page 9, you're in the Literature chapter. I think my discussion of a strategic situation in Faulkner's Light in August, wherein Faulkner introduces a fictitious "Player" who directs Percy Grimm's moves, is more enlightening about what game theory has to say in literary exegesis.
Learn more about Game Theory and the Humanities at the MIT University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Tracey Jackson's "Between a Rock and a Hot Place"

A screenwriter for seventeen years, Tracey Jackson has written and sold films to all the major studios. Her most recent writing credits include Confessions of a Shopaholic and Lucky Ducks, a feature-length documentary that she also produced and directed.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Between a Rock and a Hot Place: Why Fifty Is Not the New Thirty, and reported the following:
I was quite startled when I opened my book to page 99 and realized that it indeed encapsulates one of the main points I am trying to make. The book deals with the mythology Boomers have perpetuated that “fifty is the new thirty.” While many people do not like to hear it, the fact is we are fifty, we are not thirty, and with fifty comes a myriad of life changing and often times challenging experiences that we did not have to face in our fourth decade.

The other big point I try to make and the one that page 99 seems to represent is in regards to the mixed signals we receive from society. Fifty, while not the fifty of yesteryear, is still considered, if not old, at least on the way to old age. And not only are we telling ourselves and each other that we aren’t growing older (forget better), we are even claiming that we are actually growing younger. Yet the media is constantly reinforcing that we are in fact “elderly”, and so we are marketed to accordingly.

Since the book is humorous, I use page 99 to compare the commercials of my youth to the commercials of today. And in doing this I make the point that in the eyes of marketers and manufacturers the only things they are now willing to sell us, or think we need, are meds.
I can’t remember a time when there were ads for so many prescription medications, especially those with dastardly side effects. I remember “Charlie says, ‘Love my Good & Plenty,’ ” not “All around the world, men with ED have taken thirty-six-hour Cialis.”

Then there was “Two times the flavor, two times the fun, Doublemint, Doublemint, Doublemint gum.” A hell of lot catchier and more uplifting than “Another heart attack could be lurking.”

How about “Does she or doesn’t she?” for Clairol hair color, as opposed to “Depression hurts” for Cymbalta.
This comparison truly sums up the reality of what being fifty today means. We are not being sold washing machines, sneakers, or cars, despite the fact Boomers control the majority of wealth in America. We are being sold prescription medication, and that is pretty much it.

We may think that because we wear jeans and have an iPod we have somehow turned back the clock. But, while these meds do in fact keep us alive longer and, depending on the side effects, healthier, we are not getting younger—we are getting older. And if we ever doubt it, all we have to do is turn on the TV to remind us.
Learn more about Between A Rock and a Hot Place and its author at Tracey Jackson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, April 15, 2011

Sophia Rosenfeld's "Common Sense: A Political History"

Sophia Rosenfeld is Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia.
She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Common Sense: A Political History, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Common Sense: A Political History is devoted to proverbs—and old ones at that. You may be relieved to hear that this discussion is suitably pithy. It is over by page 100. But proverbs are actually a pretty good place to start looking if you are interested in thinking about common sense.

In principle, proverbs and sayings encapsulate the common wisdom of common people: A leopard can’t change its spots. Good fruits come from good harvests. These are the basic notions that all “sensible” people everywhere accept as self-evidently true. We often use a special tone of voice when stating them to suggest that we know that what we have just said is obvious, that no one is taking anyone else for a fool. Yet exploring the proverbs of the eighteenth century can also remind us how different common sense was in the past. Bad blood cannot lie? Maybe proverbs, or the wisdom behind them, isn’t so universal after all. Moreover, even when we still recognize their form, such sayings turn out to have been subject to a wide variety of interpretations and uses. Does a leopard can’t change its spots mean “accept people for who they are”? Or “race is destiny”? Many famous proverbs and dictums focus on common sense—and they generally remind us just how suspicious we should be about taking anything that presents itself as common or good sense at face value. As the deeply cynical Duke de la Rochefoucauld famously put it in one of his own maxims, found on page 99: We never find anyone to have good sense except those who agree with us.

That, in a nutshell, is also the message of this book. The advent of democracy has been largely premised on the idea that common sense solutions work best. But common sense has been put to multiple, contrary uses over the last three hundred years, especially when it comes to politics. Common Sense: A Political History is the first book to tell this story. With the resurgence of populism in contemporary American political life, it high time we reflected on our own, longstanding faith in the common sense of common sense.
Learn more about Common Sense: A Political History at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 14, 2011

David Fisher's "Morality and War"

David Fisher is a Visiting Senior Fellow at Kings College, London where he has recently completed a Ph.D. in War Studies. He has served in senior positions in the Ministry of Defence, Foreign Office and Cabinet Office, including defence adviser to the Prime Minister in the Cabinet Office and the UK Defence Counsellor to NATO, and is co-Chairman of the Council on Christian Approaches to Defence and Disarmament. He regularly contributes to books and journals on defence and ethical issues, and is the author of Morality and the Bomb and co-editor of Just War on Terror?

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Morality and War: Can War be Just in the Twenty-First Century?, and reported the following:
On page 99 I discuss whether non-combatant immunity is absolute. Is it always wrong to kill non-combatants in war? That may seem obviously true. It is surely always wrong to kill innocent civilians. That is a fundamental moral principle to which there should be no exceptions.

But suppose you are a USAF pilot flying your plane over Manhattan on September 11 2001. A civilian airliner hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists is about to crash into the Twin Towers, killing three thousand innocent civilians. You can save their lives by firing a missile to shoot the plane down. But if you do that you will kill thirty innocent passengers on board. What should you do?

There is no easy answer to such an agonising moral dilemma. But the conclusion I reach on page 99 is that, like Agamemnon at Aulis torn between his duties as king and his duties as a father:
We can be presented with situations where ‘there are no ways that do not lead to ill.’ In such circumstances the right thing to do, however morally regrettable, may be to choose the lesser of two evils. Moral absolutism pretends that such dilemmas never happen. But they do. Hence, as Aeschylus recognised, derive the springs of moral tragedy.
So in order to save the lives of many thousands of innocents it may be morally permissible, however regrettable, to take the lives of a few.

This is just one example of the many difficult moral dilemmas with which we are daily presented by the shifting nature of modern warfare, to which I seek to provide answers in the book. Others include: the morality of torture, military pre-emption, the Iraq war and humanitarian intervention.

But do moral questions have objective answers? Isn’t morality just a matter of personal opinions and preferences? The book argues that such moral scepticism, widely prevalent in society, is profoundly mistaken. Drawing on a way of thinking that goes back to Aquinas, Aristotle and beyond, it concludes that there are rationally based ways to answer moral questions. Such moral reasoning, based on the just war tradition, provides a robust and indispensable guide to resolve the security challenges of the twenty-first century.
Learn more about Morality and War at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Jason Brennan's "The Ethics of Voting"

Jason Brennan is assistant professor of philosophy at Brown University. He is the coauthor of A Brief History of Liberty.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Ethics of Voting, and reported the following:
From p. 99:
Robert Nozick illustrates this point with a story called the “Tale of the Slave”. Nozick describes the changing conditions under which a slave lives and asks his readers to point out when the slave stops being a slave. Here’s how the story goes. Let’s say you are the slave. At first, you live under a cruel master, who beats you arbitrarily. Then the master posts a set of rules and only punishes you when you violate the rules. The master then starts allocating resources among all of his slaves on kindly grounds, considering their needs, merit, etc. The master then decides to allow the slaves to spend 4 days doing whatever they please and only requires them to work 3 days on his manor. The master then decides to allow the slaves to live in the city or wherever else they like, provided they send the master 3/7ths of their income. The master also continues to regulate many of their activities and can call them back to the manor for defense. The master decides to allow his 10,000 slaves—other than you—to make decisions among themselves about how to regulate their behavior and how much of their income they must send the master. You are bound by their decision, but cannot vote or deliberate.

When the master dies, he leaves all of his slaves, including you, to each other as a collective body, except for you. That is, his 10,000 other slaves collectively own everyone, including you, but you own no one. The other 10,000 slaves decide to allow you to advise them about what rules they should pass. These rules govern both their behavior and yours. Eventually, as a reward for your service, they allow you to vote whenever they are evenly divided—5000 to 5000—over what to do. You cast a ballot in an envelope, which they agree to open whenever they are split. Finally, since they’ve never been evenly split, they just include your vote with theirs all the time.

At the end of the story, many readers think the slave never stopped being a slave. This is disturbing because by the end of the story, the situation very much resembles modern democracy. I don’t invoke the story here to prove that we are all slaves in modern democratic societies. Even though I agree that modern democratic societies abuse their citizens in certain ways and don’t afford them as much freedom as citizens by right should have, we’re freer than the slave at the beginning of the story. (Notice, for one, that Nozick’s tale doesn’t mention whether the 10,000 slaves recognize and protect rights.)

Instead, what I think we should learn from Nozick’s story is that being a member of rule-making body, especially a large one, does not give one much control. Each slave in the tale of the slave can legitimately claim that everyone else makes all the decisions and that the decisions the body makes would have occurred without her input. Democratic politics can sap us of autonomy in part because democratic bodies often rally around charismatic leaders and split into warring tribes. But even when political power remains equal, and even when democratic outcomes result from the equal input of all, there can be feeling of an utter lack of power. Our voices and votes are lost.

In parallel: I went to Mardi Gras one year. At night, the streets were so congested that I could lift my feet and be carried along by the crowd. It took serious effort to move against the current. Everyone in the crowd had the same predicament. We were all equals. Our individual movements equally decided the collective movement of the crowd. Yet, we were each powerless.
Before p. 99, I've done a lot of philosophical work. I have already argued that people have no duty to vote. I've even argued that participating in politics is nothing special, morally speaking. A person can be a good citizen in all sorts of ways, even if she avoids political participation. So, despite the elitist tone of some of the book, I've argued for an unusually egalitarian and populist view of good citizenship. However, while I argue that citizens have no duty to vote, I do argue that they do have a duty not to vote badly. We are not obligated to become parents, but if we are to be parents, we ought to be responsible, good parents. We are not obligated to become surgeons, but if we do become surgeons, we ought to be responsible, good surgeons. We are not obligated to drive, but if we do drive, we ought to be responsible drivers. The same goes for voting. (And, I've argued, this holds even though individual votes don't make any difference.)

On p. 99, I'm in the process of responding to a series of objections to my argument that ignorant, irrational, or biased citizens have a duty to abstain. One of these arguments holds that by abstaining, a citizen loses autonomy. She is no longer self-controlled in a way she otherwise would be had she voted. Now, there are a lot of ways of interpreting this objection. What exactly is autonomy, why is it valuable, and how is abstention supposed to cause us to lose it?

One version of this objection says that democracy makes me autonomous, because it makes me in part an author of the laws. By voting, I am one of the people that determines what the rules of the game are. Thus, I have some power over the laws. The laws are not simply imposed upon me.

I don't find this plausible. Voting grants each of us so little power that we're effectively powerless. On page 99, I illustrate this point by recounting two stories. One is a hypothetical story by Robert Nozick called "The Tale of the Slave". In the tale of the slave, you start off as a typical slave, and through a series of steps, come closer and closer to living in modern democracy. You're suppose to raise your hand at the step where you stop being a slave, but many readers never raise their hands. The second story just recounts an experience from Mardi Gras. In both stories, the idea is that democracy makes us all equally powerful by making us equally powerless. Whatever we're getting from that, it isn't autonomy.
Read an excerpt from The Ethics of Voting, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

Visit Jason Brennan's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Jennifer Graber's "The Furnace of Affliction"

Jennifer Graber is assistant professor of religious studies at the College of Wooster.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America, and reported the following:
“Eddy wrote a pamphlet accusing city officials of using the treadmill for ‘degrading rather than reforming purposes’…. Officials allowed visitors to ‘gawk at criminals on the treadmill,’ treating them ‘as beasts in the market.’”

Thomas Eddy’s 1823 pamphlet referred to three treadmills installed inside New York City’s penitentiary. Sixteen inmates powered each mill by stepping for hours on end. According to the London Quakers who came up with the idea, the instrument should grind grain or pump water, making the inmates’ labor productive.

As Eddy’s critical pamphlet shows, there were sharp disagreements about how new punitive technologies were implemented. In New York, the treadmills merely turned in circles, without processing grain or propelling water. Visitors paid to watch inmates at this tedious work. Eddy was outraged. “Every attempt to treat [the inmate] as less than human is equally to outrage the feelings of nature…and to violate the principles of Christianity.” A member of the Society of Friends, Eddy articulated similar criticisms of almost every kind of punishment used in the early republic.

Except for his very own prison. In this way, Eddy’s treadmill critique stands as one small example of the way evangelical Protestant reformers approached corrections from the 1790s through the 1850s. Just as he hated the treadmill, he railed against corporal punishments and bad prison food. According to Eddy, imperfect criminal justice jeopardized both the criminal’s humanity and nation’s moral standing.

What Eddy, and reformers like him, could not see was that their own prescriptions for punishment were also degrading – at least from the prisoners’ perspective. Eddy did not want to abolish the treadmill, but to use it differently. Though he never saw himself as using force, the prison he designed and administered in lower Manhattan stripped criminals of their clothes, hair, and freedom of movement. He advocated long periods of solitary confinement. He mandated inmate labor meant to fill state coffers.

The Furnace of Affliction explores the way Protestant reformers such as Eddy brought their own notions of human connectedness and redemptive experience to early republic prison experiments. At different points, reformers had significant influence on prison architecture, discipline, and management. At other points, like the treadmill controversy, reformers disagreed with state officials and positioned themselves as outside critics. Over time, however, a trend emerged. To maintain influence, reformers surrendered more and more of their particular Protestant practices and articulated a “religiosity of citizenship” in which virtue could be equated with hard work and criminals suffered in prison not for offending God, but for their crimes against the state.
Learn more about The Furnace of Affliction at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Richard Pells's "Modernist America"

Richard Pells is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author of Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culture Since 1945, The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age: American Intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s, and Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years. He has been a visiting professor in many European countries, as well as in Brazil, Australia, and Indonesia.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Modernist America: Art, Music, Movies, and the Globalization of American Culture, and reported the following:
Modernist America is a book about the influence of foreign cultures on American painting, architecture, advertising, music (including jazz and Broadway musicals), and movies. More specifically, it describes the ways that European modernism in the arts and high culture were transformed in America into a popular culture that had an impact all over the world in the 20th and early 21st centuries. The book deals not only with the effect of foreign ideas but also with the presence in America by the 1930s of European intellectuals, artists, composers filmmakers, and entertainers, all of them in a desperate flight from Nazism.

click to enlarge
On pp. 99-100, I introduce a chapter called “From the Rite of Spring to Appalachian Spring.” The chapter title refers to the evolution of classical music in America, and particularly the influence that Igor Stravinsky had on American composers like Aaron Copland. All of the chapters in the book follow this example. They analyze the impact of modernist painting on American Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, of German architects like Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe on modern American architecture, of Caribbean and European music on the development of American jazz, of European and Japanese film directors on Hollywood movies, and of the acting theories of the Russian theater director Constantin Stanislavski on American actors on stage and screen.

On a more personal note, Modernist America gave me the opportunity to write about the artists and entertainers I love. So the book is meant for a general, as well as scholarly, audience. I hope the book will allow all readers to appreciate why George Gershwin’s music, Cole Porter’s lyrics, the innovative jazz of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, Jackson Pollock’s paintings, Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings, Fred Astaire’s dancing and Bob Fosse’s choreography, Marlon Brando’s acting, Francis Ford Coppola’s movies, and Orson Welles’s storytelling were so influential, and why these and other artists represent both a uniquely American and a modern global culture.
Learn more about Modernist America at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Dennis J. Frost's "Seeing Stars"

Dennis J. Frost is Wen Chao Chen Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at Kalamazoo College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Seeing Stars: Sports Celebrity, Identity, and Body Culture in Modern Japan, and reported the following:
When I first glanced at page 99 of Seeing Stars, I initially thought that it couldn’t possibly be representative of the book because a photograph from a 1915 sumo specialty newspaper takes up 1/3 of the page. I realized, however, that the photograph itself highlights several of the book’s larger points.

For one, the very existence of this photograph, one of several published to celebrate the retirement of sumo grand champion Hitachiyama, demonstrates that sports celebrities were generating popular and media interest in Japan far earlier than most people assume. The photo, and especially its subject Hitachiyama—one of Japan’s first modern sports stars—hints at sumo’s important role in the history of sports stardom in Japan. Hitachiyama, in particular, represents a bridging figure connecting a long line of sumo stars (stretching as far back as the 1600s) to the multitude of sports celebrities in Japan who came after him. Finally, this photograph—and the 36 other images in the book—is evidence of the critical relationship between the mass media and sports celebrity. As I argue at several points, many of the developments of Japanese sports coverage paralleled changes in media treatment of sports in other national contexts. Nevertheless, sports reporting in Japan was more than imitation of American or other Western practices, often reflecting the particulars of the socio-historical contexts, the market-driven needs of publishers and writers, and the patterns established in earlier periods.

Picking up on these points, the text on the remaining 2/3 of page 99 concludes a section examining why Hitachiyama’s “character” was a critical element of his celebrity image. This section of the chapter emphasizes the fact that there was much more to Hitachiyama’s fame than success in the sumo ring:
In the end, Hitachiyama’s activities promoting and building the sport outside the sumo ring were just as important to his image as what he did in the ring as a wrestler, helping assure what Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang have called the “durability of reputation.” Like the well-known artists analyzed by Lang and Lang, Hitachiyama had so many powerful friends within and outside the sumo world and had, in their minds, done so much for the sport that his reputation would be—perhaps had to be—protected, projected, and evoked well beyond his lifetime.
One consequence of Hitachiyama’s early celebrity status was the emergence of what I call a sports-star paradigm, which cast Hitachiyama in the role of an athletic self-made man, a narrative pattern that has had a profound impact on how later sports celebrities have been portrayed and understood. The book’s focused examinations of several other stars—a female track star, a wartime baseball player, an Okinawan boxer, and a contemporary Japanese MLB superstar—all demonstrate the continued influence of this paradigm, but also highlight the particular ways in which the celebrity images of these individual sports stars have both reflected and shaped society and body culture in Japan and beyond.
Learn more about Seeing Stars at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Martin Kihn's "Bad Dog"

Martin Kihn is an Emmy Award–nominated former writer for MTV’s Pop-Up Video and the author of House of Lies and A$$hole. He has worked at Spy, Forbes, and New York, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Details, and Cosmopolitan.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Bad Dog (A Love Story), and reported the following:
Page 99 contains one of the few at-work scenes in my comic memoir Bad Dog (A Love Story), which unfolds mainly in rain-drenched dog parks, AA meetings and E.R. waiting rooms. It kicks off a bizarre subplot that's also an authentic, heretofore unrevealed piece of digital pop-culture history.

I invented a word. True story: I consciously decided to create a new "word" and seed it into the culture using diabolical digital marketing techniques. Page 99 describes the moment the idea occurred to me. What precedes this particular brainwave are 98 pages of alcoholic insanity, bad human and dog behavior, and a few (very few, at this point) steps into the light. What I'm saying is I wasn't making sense, even to myself.

Still, I invented a word. I'm at work, at a big online ad agency in New York, at I'm listening to a young woman who works for me -- a woman who (on Page 99):
... is always raving about somebody or other's WOM [word-of-mouth] and VOM [viral online marketing] strategy, so I watch her lips move for a while.

"... just need to figure out a revenue model."

"Totes," I say.

A moment


"Totes. It's like totally, only shorter. Everybody's saying it."

She nods, dubiously. "Right."

I've noticed if you mention everybody's doing something, and it's a remotely good idea, eventually somebody starts doing it. Thus, I wasn't exactly lying, just playing with the element of time.
There you have it, on Page 99: the invention of the word "totes." Yes, that was me. And you're welcome. What comes next of course is that this highly wired young woman tells her two thousand "friends," who tell their "friends," and lexicographical cyber-history is made.

Postscript: subsequent to my authorship, the word went viral, and many glory-seekers appeared to seize credit. They know who they are. Page 99 speaks for itself. Totes.
Learn more about Bad Dog: A Love Story at Martin Kihn's website and the Bad Dog Facebook page.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Martin Kihn and Hola.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

John Darnton's "Almost a Family"

John Darnton is an award-winning journalist and best-selling novelist. He worked for forty years for The New York Times as a reporter, foreign correspondent and editor. He won two George Polk Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. He has written five novels: Neanderthal, The Experiment (both on the NYTimes best-seller list), Mind Catcher, The Darwin Conspiracy and Black and White and Dead All Over.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Almost a Family: A Memoir, and reported the following:
I've done this page 99 test before and now that I do it again, Ford Madox Ford was on to something. This time, in dipping into my new memoir, Almost a Family, I find a description of my life as a young boy in Westport, Connecticut, where I experienced "a time of consummate freedom." The passage talks about playing soldier out of doors, sleeping in the woods on sultry summer nights, making "Indian" fires to cook slabs of bacon in the winter, shoveling snow on frozen ponds to skate, and so on. I recalled getting a present of an English racing bike -- jumping on it, speeding rapidly for miles on end. Then comes a hint of trouble ahead: "Much of the exhilaration came from leaving the world behind me, from flight. But flight from what?"
Learn more about the author and his work at John Darnton's website.

The Page 99 Test: Black and White and Dead All Over.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 4, 2011

Carolyn Korsmeyer's "Savoring Disgust"

Carolyn Korsmeyer is Professor of Philosophy at the University at Buffalo. She is the author of numerous works in philosophy, especially aesthetics and philosophy of art, including Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy (1999) and Gender and Aesthetics: An Introduction (2004). She is a past president of the American Society for Aesthetics.

Korsmeyer applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics, and reported the following:
Whether in scientific, philosophical, or ordinary usage, the term “disgust” is usually taken to refer to an utterly aversive recoil from objects that are foul and contaminating. While this description captures the emotion’s undeniable force, to focus exclusively on extreme aversion ignores the subtler varieties of disgust, many of which are aroused by works of art. While a good deal of art also trades on strongly aversive responses, once we notice the nuances of disgust, additional artistic examples abound. They may be sad, scary, horrible, funny, grotesque, disturbing – and sometimes even beautiful.

Disgust has a long history of exclusion from among the emotions that art can positively arouse, for it is the one emotion that philosophers traditionally consider an uncompromising antithesis to beauty or to other forms of positive aesthetic value. Although I argue against influential theorists such as Kant who make this claim, I also find that their reasoning illuminates the immediacy and power of aesthetic disgust. By “aesthetic disgust” I do not mean being repulsed such that one closes a book, turns away, or leaves a theatre. Rather, I refer to a range of somatic reactions that register some aspect of material vulnerability – illness, death, or bodily disintegration. What intrigues me about disgust is its sensory, visceral nature – literally a gut reaction. The emotion’s distinctive physical disturbance is one of the indispensable tools by means of which works of art can convey intimately an understanding of bodily fragility.

By the time one reaches page 99 of Savoring Disgust, the argument for the uses of disgust in art has been launched. Page 99 itself is mostly taken up with a picture – one of the examples I use to propel my case for diversity in aesthetic disgust. The fact that an illustration occupies this focal page indicates something of my general approach, for I believe that philosophy of art best proceeds by beginning with particular cases that raise puzzles and prompt investigation. While certainly some general meanings of aesthetic disgust obtain, I resist unduly systematic treatments of this emotion, preferring to emphasize particular varieties manifest in individual works of art.
Learn more about Savoring Disgust at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Jay Sexton's "The Monroe Doctrine"

Jay Sexton is University Lecturer in American History at Oxford University. He is the author of many works in the field of foreign relations, including Debtor Diplomacy: Finance and American Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era 1837–1873.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America, and reported the following:
We now view the Monroe Doctrine as the cornerstone of early American foreign policy. Yet it was not always seen as such by nineteenth century Americans. Monroe’s 1823 message, which proclaimed U.S. opposition to future European colonization in the Western Hemisphere, largely dropped out of the American consciousness after the threat of European intervention in Spanish America subsided. There was little reason to assume in, say, 1830 that Americans soon would come to see the 1823 message as a binding doctrine of their foreign policy.

That this would happen owed much to President James K. Polk, who invented in 1845 what he called “Monroe’s doctrine” to justify his expansionist designs on western territories, particularly California (then held by Mexico). Polk turned to the largely forgotten 1823 message for two reasons. First, and probably most important, he recognized its domestic political utility. Well aware that not all of his compatriots shared his expansionist goals, Polk sought cover by presenting them as an outgrowth of the anti-imperial foreign policy of a popular president from an imagined, non-partisan era of good feelings. It was a shrewd political move – and one that would be repeated by later presidents.

The second reason why Polk invented “Monroe’s doctrine” is explored on page 99. The 1823 message appealed to Polk because it comported with his worldview. Polk took it as a given that hostile Old World powers sought strategic advantage in the New World and, unless checked, would gobble up coveted territories like California. We now know that Britain and France did little to stand in the way of American expansion. Even at the time, many of Polk’s political opponents, such as Henry Clay, argued that the foreign threat was not as menacing as the president contended. Why was Polk so convinced that hostile European powers lurked behind every tree in North America? It is the task of page 99 to historicize Polk’s perception of threat. The page suggests that the answer lies not in the ideology of manifest destiny, but in the way Polk – and many of his contemporaries, it should be said – internalized certain assumptions about Old World powers, particularly the British.

Text from page 99:
The underlying assumption of the 1823 message – that Old World powers sought to expand their interests in the New World – reinforced Polk’s conception of British and European foreign policy. It requires much historical imagination to understand how deeply Polk, as well as many of his contemporaries, internalized this notion. In part, Polk took European intervention in the Western Hemisphere as a given because it was what he had always been told. The state papers of Jefferson and Jackson – the intellectual and political founders of Polk’s Democratic Party – were laden with Anglophobic statements that presumed the incompatibility of monarchical and republican governments. So too did a hostile Britain and Europe comport with Democrats’ own experiences. Many of the formative events for Polk’s generation of politicians involved conflict between the United States and Old World powers: the War of 1812, the Holy Alliance crisis of 1823, Indian uprisings that were blamed on the British, the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies and alleged British meddling in Texas. Furthermore, the threat from the Old World was not just diplomatic and strategic. The early and mid 1840s were years of economic depression, which witnessed nine states of the union default on their debts held largely by British capitalists. Presiding over a nation deeply indebted to the very foreigners who had burned Washington D.C. to the ground in his own lifetime, Polk never saw reason to interrogate his assumption that Britain and other European powers were hostile to the United States.
Learn more about The Monroe Doctrine at the publisher's website. Visit Jay Sexton's University of Oxford faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, April 1, 2011

Roger Lancaster's "Sex Panic and the Punitive State"

Roger N. Lancaster is Professor of Anthropology and Cultural Studies at George Mason University and is the author of several books, including Life Is Hard and The Trouble with Nature.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Sex Panic and the Punitive State, and reported the following:
My book examines how modern moral panics around sex have stoked a distinctively American culture of fear. Reportage on violent pedophile predators, the perils of the Internet, the priest abuse scandals, the Michael Jackson trial, and so on have made sex crime stories part of the furniture on twenty-four-hour news services, local television news stations, and even newspapers of record. By degrees, then, the figure of the imperiled child has come to occupy center stage in the national morality play, and narratives of rescue have become the dominant justification for political action. I show how the one thing—obsession with extreme perils and statistically anomalous events—substitutes for the other: a concern for child welfare writ large.

Page 99 comes near the end of Chapter 3 and develops a key thread of the book’s argument: I show how sex panics are built into the architecture of a state that preempts, punishes, and surveils on an unprecedented scale. New laws have eroded rights of the accused, while Megan’s Law registries, civil confinement statutes, and “child safety zones” undermine constitutional protections against ex post facto penalties, preventative detention, and excessive punishment. And the techniques used by moral entrepreneurs in sex panics have become replicable templates for governance, movable type for lawmaking in general.

Page 98 inaugurates a discussion of what I dub “first-name laws.” “Historically, laws that bore names bore the surnames of their authors: Taft-Hartley, Humphrey-Hawkins, McCain-Feingold. Since the early 1990s Americans have increasingly named laws—which are supposed to be impersonal, detached, aloof—after individual victims, usually a child or young adult. These laws are typically referred to in familiar form: not the Megan Kanka Act, but ‘Megan’s Law.’” This “personalization” of the law, I reason, “bends lawmaking to the passions of the populace; it reinforces punitive trends to strip away rights of the accused and protections for the convicted; and it ratifies the power of the special case to steer the general rule.”

Segue to the fraught case of Terri Schiavo, who had been kept alive in a persistent vegetative state for thirteen years when her husband had the feeding tube removed. In 2003 the Florida legislature passed “Terri’s Law,” empowering Governor Jeb Bush to have the feeding tube reinserted. After the Florida Supreme Court struck down the law in 2005, the federal government intervened.
The Schiavo case is usually understood to have been a campaign by religious conservatives and pro-life activists, who equated removal of the feeding tube with euthanasia and euthanasia with abortion. And so it was, but what is striking about these events is how closely they follow the script of sex panic and the cult of child victimhood. The campaign for government intervention was spearheaded by Terri Schiavo’s parents, who assumed the role of the victim’s family. Congressional Republicans and right-to-lifers deployed the usual tropes of moral alarm. Allegations were floated that Michael Schiavo (decidedly not “family”) was a violent spouse abuser, and some made dark insinuations about his motives for wanting to remove the feeding tube. The family’s complicated ordeal was packaged as one more outrage against the innocent. Videotapes and posters of the comatose woman put a face on the suffering.

Well in advance of Terri’s Law and federal intervention in the case, a growing body of sex crime laws had prepared the way for just such use and abuse of lawmaking. It cannot quite be said that Aimee’s Law, Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, or the Adam Walsh Act were special statutes passed for individual people or particular cases. But they did push legal norms toward reactive, ad hoc lawmaking around special cases. Their naming, their valorization of victimhood, their conflation of horrifying anomalous events with pervasive risks, the techniques of suasion used to pass them, not to mention the special provisions they applied against ex-convicts who had already served their sentences, deeply eroded fundamental legal principles. Many such laws have to do with sex crimes, others with federal involvement in the search for missing adults (Bryan’s Law, Kristen’s Act, Jennifer’s Law), others with routine appropriations for mundane undertakings.
I sum up on pp. 99-100:
While first-name laws are becoming a normal technique of governance, still other statutes take commemorative form, populating the legal landscape with icons of misfortune. By degrees the social drama boils down to stories of innocence and victimization. The state is cast as the parental figure who will save the imperiled child. By increments exception becomes the rule, emotionality replaces reason, and special provisions become ordinary. This happens not through the suspension of the law but through a hollowing-out of law’s essence.
Read an excerpt from Sex Panic and the Punitive State, and learn more about the book at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue