The book blog

February 16th, 2017

How to do things in with words

posted by Ruth Marshall

Mere CivilityBejan revisits early modern times of extreme verbal violence, sectarianism, and bloodshed with an eye on our own. Her brilliant re-reading of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes and her rescue of the lesser-known Roger Williams from the distorting clutches of Martha Nussbaum, et al. result in her careful endorsement of an “evangelical mode and motivation of conversational engagement” as a way to address our contemporary “crisis of civility,” one that “seems uniquely well-suited to explain—and to sustain—a commitment to ongoing, active, and often heated disagreement in the public sphere.” She deserves congratulations for the feat of cultivating such succulent fruit in the overworked field of scholarship on early modern political thought and “toleration” studies.

If by their fruits ye shall know them, then Bejan’s book shows her to be a brilliant scholar of Locke, Hobbes, and Williams, a great evangelist for the importance of historicizing in a new way, and a daring and original thinker of the first order. She also writes beautifully; her dry wit and perfectly turned phrases make reading this book a true pleasure.

Read How to do things in with words.
February 14th, 2017

From Christ to Confucius

posted by Udi Greenberg

From Christ to ConfuciusIn his exciting and beautifully written book, From Christ to Confucius: German Missionaries, Chinese Christians, and the Globalization of Christianity, 1860-1950, Wu charts a fundamental shift in European missionaries’ conceptions of non-Europeans, from child-like barbarians in need of discipline to representatives of venerated civilizations worthy of respect. He meticulously reconstructs a century of missionary conferences, activities, and publications—both Catholic and Protestant—to demonstrate that German missionaries stood at the forefront of this transformation.

Like almost all Europeans, Germans of the late nineteenth century were steeped in the call for a “civilizing mission,” and took for granted that their duty was to instill both the gospel and European social norms (especially monogamy) in “heathens” across the globe. However, the shock of World War I and Germany’s humiliating defeat induced German missionaries to develop a new understanding of their place in the world.

Read From Christ to Confucius.
February 9th, 2017

Politicizing Islam: An introduction

posted by Z. Fareen Parvez

Politicizing IslamPoliticizing Islam is a comparative ethnography that analyzes the religious and political dynamics of the Islamic revival in France and India, home to the largest Muslim minorities in Western Europe and Asia. These two secular democracies make for a productive comparison on the topic of Islam and politics, despite their obvious differences. In both places, Muslims have long been racialized and suffer disproportionate rates of poverty and unemployment. Islamic revival and the reactions to it in the last two decades have struck at the core of both nations’ secular doctrines.

The arguments presented in the book draw on two years of participant observation research in Lyon and the Indian city of Hyderabad, two cities with significant numbers of Muslims and forms of Islamic revival that the state has targeted in various ways. Specifically, I show how the politics of Islamic movements differ across class, a crucial factor that existing literature has largely overlooked.

Read Politicizing Islam: An introduction.
January 30th, 2017

Civility, identity, and agency

posted by Jeffrey Collins

Mere CivilityAs an American teaching university in Canada, where the illiberal regulation of disfavored speech is increasingly common, I am tempted to simply applaud Bejan’s book. (Or perhaps place a bulk order for distribution at a future faculty meeting.) The politics of personal outrage has reached an exhaustion point. University campuses are bedeviled by a paradoxically aggressive discourse of vulnerability, victimhood, and “triggers”. Vaguely Orwellian “human rights tribunals” police speech with increasingly minute attention. Bejan astutely suggests that the war on “hatred” (and for civility) is often disingenuously waged to silence dissent or enforce moral consensus.

Trump may well represent a Molotov cocktail thrown by those resentful of these constraints. (Though his own appalling weaponization of insult and ridicule indicates the limitations of a politics of pure verbal transparency.)

Read Civility, identity, and agency.
January 27th, 2017

Civility, toleration, and “human rights as empathy”

posted by Catherine Arnold

Mere CivilityAs part of her argument in favor of mere civility, Bejan decisively rejects contemporary “civilitarian” claims that mutual respect and affection for one’s opponents are the minimum necessary for civil discourse. Her critique rests on her reading of John Locke. Although political scientists usually describe Lockean toleration as ethically minimal, Bejan contends that Locke actually imposed significant ethical demands on members of a tolerant society.

Locke’s demanding theory of civil charity may not provide the most practical solution to our current crisis of civility. However, Bejan’s reading of Lockean toleration as civil charity does have important implications for the histories of human rights and humanitarianism. Historians have recently begun to examine historical moments in which humanitarian concern for the victims of bodily depredation fused with rights talk, creating a type of liberal human rights politics that Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann calls “human rights as empathy.” The early eighteenth century was one such moment. Between 1690 and 1750, Britain began to engage in humanitarian diplomacy to prevent Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in other European states from being punished for their religious beliefs. In what follows, I will suggest that Bejan’s reading of Locke helps to explain why and how this politics—which fused natural law arguments with appeals to humanitarian sentiment—developed in early eighteenth-century Britain.

Read Civility, toleration, and “human rights as empathy”.
January 23rd, 2017

Power and civility

posted by Murad Idris

Mere CivilityMere Civility’s final rendering of the link between civility and the future is suggestive; it excavates a democratic ethos from mere civility. Bejan points to an egalitarian openness about the future of others, asking citizens to engage with opponents while understanding that the person they are now may not be the person they will become.

But if citizens are thus future strangers to each other, they are also strangers to their future selves. We might then add what Williams refused to say or recognize about himself—and which, importantly, did not happen: that he, too, could have come to agree with or belong to the groups he targeted with his “evangelical toleration” and held in disdain. It should be troubling that Williams’s rendering of civility anticipates the conversion of all others, but not his own; that his politics revolve around a theology in which those marked as different need to be rescued and saved; and that his approach to difference predicates the value and inclusion of others upon their transformability.

Read Power and civility.
January 20th, 2017

Seinfeld, Roger Williams, and religious toleration

posted by Samuel Stabler

Mere CivilityGeorge: This is what she said to me, “Can we change the subject?”

Jerry: See, now that I don’t care for.

George: Right. I mean, we’re on a subject. Why does it have to be changed?

Jerry: It should resolve of its own volition.

George: That’s exactly what I said, except I used the word “momentum.”

Jerry: Momentum – same thing.

(Seinfeld S7E02, “The Postponement”)

This comedic blip from Seinfeld might seem miles away from the early modern debates around religious toleration, but Teresa Bejan’s Mere Civility demonstrates that early modern thinkers expressed similar concerns about the power of free-flowing conversation. In this reading, Martin Luther, George, and Jerry stand on one side, defending the importance of ongoing debate. On the other side stand early-modern strategies of tolerance that use speech norms to keep peace in the face of religious argument. For both sides of this debate, republican notions of civility can provide important ways of situating a demand to either continue or avoid further discussion.

Read Seinfeld, Roger Williams, and religious toleration.
January 19th, 2017

Mere Civility and Jeremiah Wright

posted by Benjamin Hertzberg

Mere CivilityReporters who covered the Jeremiah Wright controversy during the 2008 United States presidential campaign would have benefited from reading Mere Civility. Barack Obama’s Chicago pastor was briefly famous when ABC News aired a video of him crying “God damn America” from the pulpit of his church. Mere Civility suggests that Wright’s insults not only mimic his Biblical namesake, but also channel Martin Luther, who frequently damned Catholics, and Roger Williams, who offered similar imprecations and felt that doing so should be considered civil.

In this impressive new work, Teresa Bejan does the contextual and interpretative analysis necessary to exhume Williams’s theory of civility, and she compares it favorably with those of Williams’s more famous contemporaries, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. She claims Williams’s view brings analytical clarity to contemporary discussions of civility and should be adopted today.

Read Mere Civility and Jeremiah Wright.
January 19th, 2017

Mere Civility—An introduction

posted by Teresa Bejan

Mere CivilityAt the height of the 2016 American presidential election, a colleague asked whether I was worried that my forthcoming book on civility might be overtaken by events. . . . With the inauguration of our new Incivilitarian-in-Chief, a man who has apparently elevated ad hominem to new heights of electoral success, surely the once perennial bloom is, at long last, off the “civilitarian” rose?

Yet, as lamentations about our pathological public sphere continue to mount in some quarters—met by calls for conscientious incivility as a sign of one’s intolerance towards the new regime in others—deeper reflection on the meaning of civility and its vexed relationship to toleration appears more timely than ever. As a marriage of political theory and intellectual history, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration explores our contemporary crisis of civility by way of an in-depth examination of seventeenth-century debates about religious toleration.

Read Mere Civility—An introduction.
December 19th, 2016

The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction

posted by Michael C. Behrent

The Shipwrecked MindThinkers like Joseph de Maistre and the attitudes they embody are the subject of Mark Lilla’s new book, The Shipwrecked Mind, an important and timely study of political reaction. The fantasy of returning to a bygone era is, Lilla argues, the crux of reactionary thought: “Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has,” he writes, “the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes.” Whether the goal be monarchical restoration, a new caliphate, or to “make America great again,” the reactionary mind is, more than anything, haunted by nostalgia—the longing for those “fresh Eden[s]” that arise during periods of disorienting social upheaval. Yet to indulge such fantasies, Lilla believes, is to succumb to “magical thinking.” In every reactionary, he thinks, there lies a bit of Don Quixote, pining for the Golden Age—and making a fool of himself in the process.

Most of the volume’s essays first appeared in The New York Review of Books and were composed without political reaction as their explicit theme. They are written with enviable clarity. Lilla has an uncanny knack for distilling complex ideas to their intuitive essence in lucid, jargon-free prose. Yet while these essays are illuminating to a fault, one wonders if it is always on the reactionary mind that they shed their light.

Read The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction.
December 19th, 2016

Beheading the Saint: An introduction

posted by Geneviève Zubrzycki

Beheading the SaintBeheading the Saint is about the shifting relationship between nationalism, religion, and secularism in a society which was, until the late 1960s, exemplary of what Charles Taylor calls the “neo-Durkheimian” link between national identity and religion, wherein “the sense of belonging to the group and confession are fused and the moral issues of the group’s history tend to be coded in religious categories” (2007, 458). I examine how the relationship between French Canadianness and Catholicism was configured in the nineteenth century, how it was reconfigured as Québécois and secular in the 1960s, and why and how that transition informs recent debates over secularism in Québec. The secularization of national identity during the Quiet Revolution remains the key to understanding the role and place of religion in the public sphere in today’s Québec.

Read Beheading the Saint: An introduction.
December 12th, 2016

Radical Secularization?

posted by Ulrike Spohn

Radical Secularization?In a discussion in the German press about the displacement of continental philosophy in Europe by the increasingly triumphant advance of analytical philosophy, Charles Taylor warned against ideals of purity in philosophy. He argued that questions concerning the philosophy of religion, political philosophy, and philosophical anthropology cannot adequately be addressed within the sterile categories of a self-sufficient philosophy. Rather, they require hermeneutic engagement with the social sciences and the humanities.

The book Radical Secularization? An Inquiry into the Religious Roots of Secular Culture, edited by Stijn Latré, Walter Van Herck and Guido Vanheeswijck, shows such courage towards “impurity,” making it a particularly stimulating new contribution to the current debates about secularization and the role of religion in contemporary secular societies. Its focus is on the genealogy of secularization, and the title “Radical Secularization” refers to both the roots, or radices, of secularization and the end of secularization—where “end” could either mean that the process of secularization has been completed or, conversely, that it has been stopped by the “return of religion.”

Read Radical Secularization?.
December 5th, 2016

The Virtues of Abandon

posted by Hannah Callaway

The Virtues of AbandonIn 1698 the Parlement of Dijon found a Catholic priest guilty of engaging in sex with members of his flock. Philibert Robert, the cleric in question, characterized the sexual abandon he and the women experienced as a devotional act that brought them closer to God. If that’s not an arresting opening hook for a scholarly book, I don’t know what is! Robert and his followers were Quietists, adherents of a theology that explored the individual’s ownership of herself and feared an obsession with consumer goods might ultimately alienate people from their true identities as selfless fragments of a divine whole. As a spiritual practice that links self-surrender to a rejection of too much stuff, one can’t help but wonder if Quietism could be the missing link between Marie Kondo and E. L. James. Suffice it to say, Charly Coleman’s lucid, insightful book, The Virtues of Abandon: An Anti-Individualist History of the French Enlightenment, arrived at an ideal moment.

Read The Virtues of Abandon.
November 29th, 2016

Muslim Cool: An introduction

posted by Su'ad Abdul Khabeer

Muslim Cool

The book focuses on interminority relationships to articulate a narrative of race and racism in the United States that transcends the Black-White binary and also the fallacy of postracialism, which holds that racism, particularly anti-Black racism, is over and that any talk of race is actually counterproductive to the work of antiracism. I identify the ways in which race, and specifically Blackness, is marshaled in the work of antiracism.

For Muslim Cool, Blackness is a point of opposition to white supremacy that creates solidarities among differently racial­ized and marginalized groups in order to dismantle overarching racial hierarchies. Yet as the stories in this book illustrate, these solidarities are necessarily entangled in the contradictions inherent in Blackness as something that is both desired and devalued. The engagement with Blackness by young US Muslims, Black and non-Black, is informed by long-standing discourses of anti-Blackness as well as the more current co-optation of Blackness in the narratives of United States multiculturalism and American exceptionalism.

Read Muslim Cool: An introduction.
November 21st, 2016

Islamic and Jewish Legal Reasoning: An introduction

posted by Anver Emon

Islamic and Jewish Legal ReasoningIslamic and Jewish Legal Reasoning: Encountering Our Legal Other is a curious book, in part because it came out of a working group that seemed the least likely vehicle for producing a collection of articles in book form. For five years, sponsored by the University of Toronto and Canada’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council, approximately six Rabbinic law scholars and six Islamic law scholars sat around a table with various legal texts from their respective traditions and talked, discussed, and queried.

As a protocol of discussion, we would have the scholar of one tradition introduce the text of the other tradition. In other words, a Rabbinic scholar would introduce the Islamic legal text, and the Islamic law scholar would introduce the Rabbinic text. This process precluded anyone from claiming expertise over what the text “says,” and instead created a space of openness, engagement, and even play. The endeavor was not designed to make us into scholars of our tradition’s Other, but rather to experience (in the most robust sense of that word) the encounter with our legal tradition’s Other.

Read Islamic and Jewish Legal Reasoning: An introduction.
November 14th, 2016

The Weimar Century

posted by Or Rosenboim

The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold WarThe international turn in intellectual history, which David Armitage announced in 2014, has evolved into a surge of publications on the global, international, and transnational aspects of the history of ideas. The migration of concepts around the world and moments of conceptual conjunction in history have attained growing attention from historians. Although methodological nationalism had never been the only option for writing the history of a specific country or society, it seems that now an international perspective is indispensable for explaining the political, cultural, or economic history of any given country. Historians seek to put their finger on the complex, dynamic moments which generate and reverberate influential ideas around the world. The patterns of relationship between different social, cultural, and political spheres, and the exchanges that lead to the evolution of ideas and concepts across national boundaries, have become increasingly appealing to historians of all creeds.

Udi Greenberg’s The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War can be read as a contribution to this growing literature on international intellectual history.

Read The Weimar Century.
November 3rd, 2016

God in the Enlightenment

posted by Simon Brown

God in the EnlightenmentIn a speech before the Brexit vote, Boris Johnson offered a controversial historical pedigree for his campaign to leave the European Union. He insisted that the Leave campaign members were not all backward Little Englanders but rather deserved the reputation as the real upholders of the “liberal cosmopolitan European enlightenment.” He and his colleagues inherited the tradition, he claimed, because they too were “fighting for freedom.” An interview Johnson gave a year earlier, when he claimed that London and Paris shared a commitment to “enlightenment and freedom,” offers some indication about what that “freedom” entailed. He described how these values assured the right to open expression, even when that expression might critique religions and provoke “would be . . . jihadis.”

Johnson’s evocation of the Enlightenment testifies to the continual contest over its political meaning and to its deep associations with anti-religious critique. The contributors to God in the Enlightenment, edited by William Bulman and Robert Ingram, offer nuanced narratives to articulate a “usable” Enlightenment whose meaning can help us arrive at a more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between religion and secularity in public debate.

Read God in the Enlightenment.
October 17th, 2016

Race and Secularism in America

posted by Grace Goudiss

Race and Secularism in AmericaOn September 13, 2016, Clemson University’s head football coach Dabo Swinney was asked what he would do if one of his players refused to stand for the national anthem. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had recently done so, explaining that he would not “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Swinney took issue not with Kaepernick’s message, but with his method. Dismissing Kaepernick’s refusal to stand as “distracting,” Swinney deployed the image of Martin Luther King Jr. as a model of “the right way” to protest.

Swinney’s words immediately sparked controversy. Clemson professor Chenjerai Kumanyika responded with an open letter to Swinney, sharply titled “Take MLK’s name out your mouth.” He chastised Swinney for participating in a long, misguided heritage of sanitizing King’s radicalism, and of corrupting King’s legacy for the purposes of white moderate liberalism. “In the face of the injustices in his own time,” Kumanyika writes, “Dr. King called for direct action, not press conferences.”

The editors of Race and Secularism in America, Vincent Lloyd and Jonathon Kahn, would not be surprised by this marshalling of Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy, nor by the fact that this legacy is constantly contested and renegotiated along lines of protest, race, and religion. Indeed, in the collection’s introduction, the King monument in Washington, DC serves as a towering symbol of the complex relationship of its two subjects—race and secularism—and their analytical inextricability. King is central to the collection’s claim: Because “whiteness is secular, and the secular is white,” “the careful management of race and religion are the prerequisite for accepting the public significance of a fundamentally raced religious figure.” Indeed, the collection takes as its central stance that secularism itself is primarily a (white, liberal) game of managing and excluding difference.

Read Race and Secularism in America.