Friday, December 9, 2022

Jeffrey Bellin's "Mass Incarceration Nation"

Jeffrey Bellin is the Mills E. Godwin, Jr., Professor at William and Mary Law School. Prior to becoming a law professor, Bellin served as a prosecutor in Washington, DC.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Mass Incarceration Nation: How the United States Became Addicted to Prisons and Jails and How It Can Recover, and reported the following:
One of the themes of the book is that mass incarceration arose, in part, because officials funneled more and more matters to the criminal courts. These matters used to be resolved informally (outside of court) or not at all. One of the best-known examples is drug offenses. While marijuana, cocaine and heroin were illegal long before the dawn of mass incarceration in the 1970s, it used to be much less common that someone using or selling those drugs would be arrested, brought to court, or incarcerated. The same can be said for many other offenses like drunk driving, unlawful immigration, or gun possession. Page 99 is a portion of a discussion of another important example: domestic violence.

Although little discussed, a change in the policing and prosecution of assaults, and especially domestic violence, is one of the most dramatic policy changes across the era of mass incarceration. As explained on page 99, part of this change was the disappearance of once-common, non-punitive “domestic relations courts” as domestic assaults were increasingly treated, first like any other assault, and then, as a particularly serious form of the crime.

This is an important point because it reveals that among the many policy changes that led to mass incarceration are some with noble intentions. All these changes, alongside other important factors (not at all mentioned on page 99!) contributed to the dramatic rise in this nation’s incarceration rate between 1970 and today. This does not mean that we should not do everything we can to reduce the number of people incarcerated in this country. But it does suggest that getting back to the incarceration rates of the 1970s is a difficult challenge. And that process must begin with an unblinking understanding of the scope of the problem – the goal of my book.
Follow Jeffrey Bellin on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Glory M. Liu's "Adam Smith’s America"

Glory M. Liu is a lecturer in Social Studies at Harvard. Previously, she was a postdoctoral research associate at the Political Theory Project at Brown University from 2018-2020.

Liu applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Adam Smith’s America: How a Scottish Philosopher Became an Icon of American Capitalism, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book lands us in the middle of a discussion of key changes in academic political economy in America after the Civil War. Specifically, this page discusses the increased specialization in economics courses, and the influence of rival schools of thought, specifically the German Historical School. This is important context for what ends up being an inflection point in Smith’s American reception. American academic political economists begin historicizing Smith. They begin relegating him and his ideas to the past, though they never really give up on his lasting importance as the founder of the discipline.

On the one hand, I think readers will get a pretty good sense of what my book is like from this page. They’ll get a sense of how I chart important intellectual shifts, and in particular, they’ll get a little taste of how the shift from “Political Economy” to “Economics” in the academy changes the way people encounter, interpret, and use Adam Smith’s ideas in the late nineteenth century. By page 99, I’ve charted some of the origins and evolution of the discipline and shown how many political economists began to self-consciously style themselves as followers of Adam Smith, or continuing the tradition that Smith founded. On the other hand, I think readers might raise an eyebrow at what appears to just be a bunch of “textbook knowledge” about what academic economics looked like between, say, 1860 and 1890. The book is much more than a compilation of textbook knowledge about the history of economics. I use the history of economic thought in order to show how and why certain thinkers—like Smith—become canonized, often in narrow and politically charged ways. And I’m also interested in how Smith comes to represent an entire way of thinking, a mode of reasoning that becomes incredibly politically powerful.
Visit Glory M. Liu's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

"Between Light and Storm"

Esther Woolfson is the author of Corvus: A Life With Birds and Field Notes From a Hidden City: An Urban Nature Diary, which was short-listed for the Wainwright Prize and the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. She has been an Artist in Residence at the Aberdeen Centre for Environmental Sustainability and is an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Aberdeen University.

Woolfson applied the "Page 99 Test" to her recent book, Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Between Light and Storm describes the growth of 19th century industrial meat production, particularly in the United States.

I’m not sure I’d have chosen page 99 as a first introduction to the book not because it doesn’t adequately represent it, but because it does. The page is part of a chapter called ‘Blood’ which deals with our relationship with the animals we eat. It’s not an easy subject perhaps but it is a fascinating and increasingly important one. In the chapter, I trace the history of our meat-eating through the by-ways of religion and history, from developments in ancient Levantine thought to the industrialised food-production of today. On the way, I reach page 99 and the growth of the meat industry in the United States and one of the still-relevant dilemmas in which many people find themselves—where do our sympathies, if any, lie towards the fates of other species? I quote a book by Upton Sinclair. Published in 1906, it characterises the dilemma:
‘The Jungle’ (is) a lengthy account of the hardships and tragedies of a Lithuanian stockyard worker, his fellow workers and the unhappy creatures they dealt with. Although the book’s main purpose was to be a rousing call to socialist action by detailing the horrors of the industry, the appeal to readers for sympathy for the workers became eclipsed by their sympathy for the animals. ‘I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident, I hit it in the stomach,’ Sinclair declared.
As on page 99, I try in the rest of the book to hit the public, or the reader, wherever I can in reflecting on how humanity has reached the moment when vast numbers of species are facing extinction and as that sublime poet W.S. Merwin says in his poem ‘A Message to Po Chu-yi’, ‘we are melting the very poles of the earth.’ I write about animal cognition and question ideas of human superiority. I write about animals in art and literature and about the crazy and hidebound ideas of ‘tradition’ which underpin so much wanton cruelty to animals. I write about the love we may feel for some creatures and the inexplicable lack of love we may feel for others. Not only on page 99, I write on the other 297 pages about the urgent need for us to extend our compassion to other species.
Visit Esther Woolfson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Anthony D. Cooling's "Still a Hollow Hope"

Anthony D. Cooling is a Budget and Revenue Officer.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Still a Hollow Hope: State Power and the Second Amendment, and reported the following:
Page 99 in Still a Hollow Hope: State Power and the Second Amendment is conveniently a microcosm of the book’s learned lessons, that the Supreme Court follows the culture rather than leads it, is hamstrung by the weaknesses of courts in that they have no power to implement their own decisions via the sword of the executive branch, that they do not have the legislative power of the purse to allocate funds to implement their decisions, have no control over the timing of cases, and that a court itself can be divided against itself with slim majorities based on the timing of presidential nominations for seats. The page is noting for the reader why it was over a decade after Heller and McDonald, the two cases where SCOTUS decided that the Second Amendment protected an individual right to keep and bear arms and incorporated it against state encroachment, until they took another case. They stayed hands off the issue of guns except for remanding a case about stun guns, saying the ban was inconsistent with Heller. This hands-off approach happened because of the aforementioned weaknesses and thus Courts are generally loath to put themselves at the center of a political controversy unless they are aware that they will be supported in a decision, which they were not during the Obama administration. This is especially true when SCOTUS, as the page notes, was split 5-4 in its ideological divide. By 2019, the next substantive case SCOTUS took was only after Trump took office and there was a strong pro-gun 6-3 majority on the Court.

When SCOTUS decided Heller/McDonald, they set lower courts up to receive a hail of firearms related lawsuits, then they went largely silent themselves, justifying it with allusions in their McDonald decision to state experimentation, under the well-worn mantra that states are laboratories of democracy. The result wasn’t as much that there was variation in the states, but the various circuit courts becoming split. These splits across the states and the lower courts, the page notes “are a product of a divided public, culture, and elected government.” Indeed.
Follow Anthony Cooling on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 5, 2022

Gabriella Safran's "Recording Russia"

Gabriella Safran, the Eva Chernov Lokey Professor in Jewish Studies, teaches in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Stanford University. Her books include The Worlds of S. An-sky, Wandering Soul and The Whole World in a Book.

Safran applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Recording Russia: Trying to Listen in the Nineteenth Century, and reported the following:
A person who reads just page 99 of my book, more than a person who reads the entire thing, might think that it views Russian political history through a contemporary lens. I write about mid-19th-century writers who live in or travel to the Russian Empire and who describe how they and their fictional heroes listen to and record the words of non-writers, whom they sometimes call “the people.” These writers, I argue, evaluated their own and each others’ listening critically; I see the listening scenes they describe as performances in various genres or modes. In their listening, these writers competed with each other, or with what they saw as other sides of themselves. Their accounts of listening constantly reference the changing communication technology of their period. People sometimes assume that Russia was distinctive in the ways its intelligentsia has felt both oppressed by the government and tragically cut off from “the people,” but this book argues that Russian imperial intellectuals had much in common with members of their mid-century media generation in other countries.

Page 99 depicts the conflict between Vladimir Dahl, a lexicographer born in Luhansk, and the St. Petersburg censor’s office. When he tried to publish his Sayings of the Russian People in 1853, the reviewers complained that the collection was too inclusive, containing, as it did, evidence of and thus dangerous support for the “people’s” superstition, ignorance, and sectarianism. Dahl defended his collection and his listening techniques, insisting on the authenticity and value of his material, and he drafted a sarcastic letter offering to provide a copy of the manuscript to the Academy of Sciences “if I did not fear the accusation that I would corrupt its innocent morals.” I describe Dahl as listening in an “omnivorous” mode and decrying the censors’ “suspicious” mode of listening, their eagerness to define what others said as threatening to the regime. Dahl too listened suspiciously at times, as when, as part of his work as an imperial official, he made dictionaries of the argots of groups suspected of sectarianism – but he was shocked and insulted to be accused of insufficient loyalty to the government himself. He was not the only imperial bureaucrat to find himself in this paradoxical position.

Like the other characters in the book, Dahl judged himself and was judged by others for his listening to “the people.” His case indicates that although there is a tradition of defining thinkers from this part of the world as simply dissidents or government loyalists, they are actually multifaceted and hard to place. The story of Dahl’s dispute with the censors is representative of the book as a whole in that he was not the only writer I examine to be censored; he resembled Alexander Herzen, Ivan Turgenev, Pavel Rybnikov, and Fedor Dostoevsky, all of whom produced ethnographic work after they were exiled for what seemed to be disloyal behavior or writing. Today, in late November 2022, nine months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the question of this Eastern Ukrainian’s loyalties matters differently than it did when I started writing this book. At a moment when hundreds of thousands of people who disagree with Putin’s war have left Russia, it is tempting to categorize Russians as either oppressed or oppressors, good or bad. My book as a whole argues against this bifurcation, even as page 99 provides poignant evidence for its historical longevity.
Learn more about Recording Russia at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Susan Colbourn's "Euromissiles"

Susan Colbourn is a diplomatic and international historian interested in questions of security and strategy since 1945. She specializes in transatlantic relations, European security, and the history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Colbourn is associate director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, based at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, and a senior fellow at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book,  Euromissiles: The Nuclear Weapons That Nearly Destroyed NATO, and reported the following:
Flip to page 99 of Euromissiles and we’re right in the thick of NATO’s 1979 deliberations about whether to deploy new nuclear missiles to Western Europe. Helmut Schmidt’s government wants to ensure that the West Germans are not alone in hosting any new nuclear missiles and, surveying the political realities of alliance politics, the Carter administration realizes that, whether they like or not, the United States is the only country powerful enough to exert sufficient leadership within NATO. “We,” as one administration official, Jim Rentschler, put it, “have never been able to fix with any precision (or safety!) the point where our European allies could effectively float the load.”

Look at that – the test holds up! Page 99 highlights two of the book’s central themes: (1) how anxieties about West German power and influence shaped NATO’s policies, particularly its nuclear strategy and (2) the critical role that the United States – and US leadership – played within the Atlantic alliance.

These two appear time and again in Euromissiles as I follow the rise and fall of the arms race over theater nuclear forces in Cold War Europe. The debates over theater nuclear forces – the so-called Euromissiles – exposed tensions and contradictions within NATO as an alliance, many of which dated back to its founding in 1949. Two of those critical structural dilemmas were the page 99 pair: the difficulties created by an alliance of notional equals dependent on one power, the United States, for the bulk of its security, and the problems of crafting a strategy that kept West German power in check without making West Germans feel as though they were second-class citizens. NATO’s leaders confronted other structural challenges, to be sure, such as making the case for a strategy that kept the peace by threatening unimaginable destruction with nuclear weapons. At various points over the decades, thinking through these dilemmas forced allied leaders and allied citizens alike to question the wisdom of their alliance and wonder whether there were better ways to secure the peace in a world with nuclear weapons.
Visit Susan Colbourn's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Neil Tarrant's "Defining Nature’s Limits"

Neil Tarrant is a Teaching Fellow in Early Modern History at University of Leeds.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Defining Nature’s Limits: The Roman Inquisition and the Boundaries of Science, and reported the following:
A reader turning to page 99 of my book would find the title page of the second section ‘Mendicant Reform and the Inquisition of Magic’ rather than a section of prose. While the reader may not be able to get a sense of my writing style or the manner in which I construct my arguments, it does offer a succinct summary of the main themes of the book. Historians have often maintained that the Roman Inquisition (founded in 1543 to combat Protestantism) only began to investigate magic after it had successfully eliminated the Protestant threat in Italy. I have set out to trace a longer history of the inquisition of learned magic, one that traces connections between the medieval and early modern periods. I argue that Observant reform – a movement that revitalized religious orders such as the Franciscans and Dominicans – played a crucial role in transforming clerical attitudes towards learned magic. Since their foundation in the thirteenth century, both orders of mendicant friars had been closely involved in efforts to promote orthodox belief and combat heresy and superstition among the people of Europe by preaching, offering cure of souls and by serving as inquisitors. My book shows how Observant reform encouraged the friars to renew their efforts to combat deviance from the fifteenth century onward. When the Roman Inquisition was founded, the friars imported these ambitions into the Roman Inquisition. From the outset they sought to use it not only to combat Protestantism, but to continue their efforts to purify and reform Catholic society.
Learn more about Defining Nature’s Limits at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, December 2, 2022

Mary-Jane Rubenstein's "Astrotopia"

Mary-Jane Rubenstein is professor of religion and science in society at Wesleyan University. She is the author of Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters; Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse; and Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe, and coeditor of Entangled Worlds: Religion, Science, and New Materialisms.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race, and reported the following:
Nicely done, Ford Madox Ford.

Turning to page 99, I am dropped onto the apex of an escalating critique of the billionaires currently jockeying to conquer the cosmos. In particularly impassioned prose (I hope it’s less jarring when you reach page 99 more organically), the first paragraph summarizes the socio-economic ruse of the “astropreneurs.” Claiming to devote their obscene fortunes to the “salvation of humanity,” Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and a burgeoning throng of space-mining CEOs are decimating wetlands, polluting the skies, surrounding the earth in a corona of space trash, exploiting and intimidating workers, and competing for enormous government contracts. “Honestly,” the author quips, “it’s as if Americans are paying taxes directly to Bezos and Musk.”

However appalling, the situation is more intensified than it is new. When Neil Armstrong proclaimed his first step a “giant leap for mankind,” he encapsulated JFK’s baffling insistence that the US had to get to the Moon first for the sake of all humanity. And of course, the 35th president had hardly invented the strategy of cloaking imperialism in humanitarian garb; such was the founding dissimulation of the American nation itself. From the moment Pope Alexander VI “gave” the New World to Spain for the salvation of human souls and the building of the kingdom of God, the distastefully economic project of taking land has always required more ideologically palatable glazing.

In US history, such glazing has been dutifully administered by an imperial form of Christianity—first officially, institutionally, explicitly (“Christ has given the Pope dominion over Turtle Island, and the Pope now gives it to Spain”), and then more subtly, as it was when the crew of Apollo 8 read the first chapter of Genesis as they watched the earth rise over the moon, or when Donald Trump called outer space America’s “Manifest Destiny,” or when Elon Musk proclaims that this world is coming to an end but that with faith and hard work, we can build a new New Jerusalem on Mars.

So that’s the point of the book: the new space race is replaying the old, messianic drama of earthly imperialism. The question is whether there might be other ways to go about things. Can we explore other planets without ransacking them? Can we build a society that would be genuinely new—which is to say, peaceful, just, and kind? And can we remake ourselves into cosmic citizens without destroying our Earth in the process? I actually think it’s possible. Just not in the hands of the astropreneurs.
Visit Mary-Jane Rubenstein's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Jeffrey M. Binder's "Language and the Rise of the Algorithm"

Jeffrey M. Binder is a programmer, historian, and writer based in New York City. He has developed software for natural language processing and published peer-reviewed research on such topics as eighteenth-century mathematics, computational research methods, machine-generated poetry, and expressions of emotion on social media. He has a PhD in English from the Graduate Center, City University of New York and has taught at Hunter College and Pennsylvania State University; Binder currently works as a security researcher at Open Raven.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Language and the Rise of the Algorithm, and reported the following:
A reader who turns to page 99 of my book will learn about a debate between two French Enlightenment thinkers, Jean le Rond d’Alembert and the Abbé de Condillac, over whether algebra should count as a language. Overall I think the Page 99 Test worked fairly well. This particular passage might seem a bit obscure without context, but it touches on a major theme that the book traces over the centuries.

Language and the Rise of the Algorithm is about the intellectual developments that gave us the idea of the algorithm. A crucial moment in this history was the development, in the early 1600s, of modern algebraic notation—the way students now learn to write equations, as in ax + b = c. Unlike words, these symbols could apparently be understood by speakers of any language. Admirers such as G. W. Leibniz attempted to extend this power to other fields, envisioning a universal notation that could express anything whatsoever with the certainty of algebra.

By the mid 1700s, the excitement had cooled, and many thinkers were more skeptical of the idea that symbols were inherently better than words. Page 99 quotes a statement to this effect from Condillac: “We should not suppose that the sciences are exact—or that we prove rigorously—only when we use x’s, a’s, and b’s.” The power of algebra, for Condillac, stemmed not from the symbols themselves, but from the clarity of the ideas they expressed.

Condillac, however, may have been overstating this clarity. In the 1700s, algebra was plagued by theoretical problems, and much that is now drilled into our heads in high school was still controversial—in fact, some mathematicians even believed that negative numbers were unscientific nonsense. D’Alembert did not go quite so far, but he did maintain that algebra differed fundamentally from how we ordinarily think and speak.

Although the debate I discuss on page 99 is largely forgotten, it gained a new relevance in the computer age. As I show later in the book, the developers of early programming languages encountered similar issues. Computer code is, paradoxically, both clear and opaque: its symbols have precise definitions, and yet most people find it incomprehensible. The rise of computers has given a new relevance to the rift between symbols and everyday language that troubled Enlightenment mathematicians centuries ago.
Visit Jeffrey M. Binder's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Suisheng Zhao's "The Dragon Roars Back"

Suisheng Zhao (赵穗生) is Professor and Director of the Center for China-US Cooperation at Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, The Dragon Roars Back: Transformational Leaders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy, and reported the following:
Page 99 of the Dragan Roars Back: Transformational Leaders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy is an analysis of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as part of his enlarged periphery strategy to build China’s regional primacy toward global dominance, like the US beginning in West Hampshire to build global primacy.

The Page 99 Test may not be the best browsers' shortcut to the book but works well because the analysis presents a crucial case of chapter 3 with the title, “Xi Jinping’s Big Power Diplomacy: Showing China’s Sword,” which explores how Xi Jinping buried his predecessors’ low-profile diplomacy and pursued the China Dream of Great Rejuvenation. Xi Jinping is one of the three transformational leaders studied in the book who have charted unique courses of Chinese foreign policy in the quest for security, prosperity, and power. Mao Zedong led revolutionary diplomacy to keep the wolves off the door; Deng Xiaoping’s developmental diplomacy created a favorable international environment for economic prosperity; Xi Jinping launched big power diplomacy to return China to the global centrality it occupied throughout most of human history. With the ultimate decision-making authority on national security and strategic policies, these leaders have made political use of ideational forces, tailoring bureaucratic institutions, exploiting the international power distribution, and responding strategically to the international norms and rules to advance their foreign policy agendas in the path of China’s ascendance.

This book provides a historically in-depth, conceptually comprehensive, and up-to-date analysis of the critical role of transformational leaders in the transition of Chinese foreign policy, leading to the ascendance of China to global power. Understanding how these leaders saw the world and how they tried to change it is essential if we are to understand where Xi Jinping intends to lead China.
Follow Suisheng Zhao on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue