Monday, March 3, 2014

Peter Stamatov's "The Origins of Global Humanitarianism"

Peter Stamatov is Associate Professor of Sociology at Yale University. He works in the areas of sociology of culture and religion, comparative-historical sociology, and the sociology of global and transnational processes. His current research focuses on the intersections of popular politics and religious organizations in early-modern and modern Europe, as well as in the context of imperial expansion overseas. In his earlier work he has addressed issues of ethnicity and nationalism, as well as the political implications of cultural production and consumption.

Stamatov applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Origins of Global Humanitarianism: Religion, Empires, and Advocacy, and reported the following:
The Origins of Global Humanitarianism is about the long, complex and often forgotten history of how our familiar contemporary forms of solidarity with distant others developed between the sixteenth and eighteenth century. It is a book written by an academic for academics. But it is also a book of stories: the stories of the Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, Capuchins, and Quakers who often against all odds stood up and fought for the rights of indigenous people and enslaved Africans in European colonies.

Some of the protagonists of these stories, like Bartolomé de las Casas and Anthony Benezet, are well-known. Some, to use George Eliot’s words from the book’s epigraph, “rest in unvisited tombs.” Have you ever heard of Francisco de Jaca and Épiphane de Moirans, the two Capuchins who crisscrossed Cuban plantations in 1681 calling on slave-owners to liberate their slaves or risk the eternal damnation of their souls? No? Check out page 83 then.

The reader will find none of these fascinating and often moving stories on page 99. The page catches me, instead, in the middle of discussing other writers' contribution to my topic. Academic books are expected to proclaim their distinctiveness. Otherwise why write them? In this context, giving space to other authors in your text can be as deceptive as any of the insincerities of The Good Soldier's narrator. You discuss these fellow writers only in order to highlight the unmistakable wrongness of their arguments as the contrastive background on which your own argument shines seductively at the reader.

So it happens that on page 99 I discuss the explanation of the origins of the modern antislavery movement by three fine historians who have taught me a lot: David Brion Davis, Seymour Drescher, and Christopher Brown. I'm not sure what the page reveals to the reader. To me it brings back memories of the struggle to write prose that captures the essence of these authors' theses, gives them well-deserved credit for their important contribution, yet points out the inconsistencies of their argument. All at the same time.

So, Gentle Reader, do not trust the 99 page test. If it were all in one specific numbered page, Bible dipping would not have been invented.
Learn more about The Origins of Global Humanitarianism at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue