Smashing Statues

I have a draft blog post from a few years ago where I tried to grapple with my thoughts about monumental statues. The thrust of the post explored how statues are neither mere art nor monuments imbued with an immutable meaning. Rather, they are objects of memory and part of a dynamic process by which history, culture, and commemoration are woven. Their meaning emerges from decisions about what ought to be commemorated and how, so what gets evoked will not only change over time, but will also vary from person to person. They are always contested.

The post worked toward a discussion of the Emancipation Memorial created by Thomas Ball in Washington DC in 1876 and with a copy (formerly) in Boston.

I hate this monument.

Emancipation is a wonderful thing to commemorate, of course, but this is also a monument that shows Abraham Lincoln with his one hand holding his proclamation, which rests on symbols of federal authority like the fasces, his other held beneficently over the back of a barely-clothed black man. Abe towers above, looking on placidly.

Emancipation Memorial, Lincoln Park Washington DC (Wikimedia Commons)

I never finished that post, obviously. I was writing a collection of loosely-connected thoughts and I ran out of steam.

Erin Thompson’s Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments (Norton 2022) makes the argument I was trying to articulate in that post, only, you know, better.

Smashing Statues consists of two parts—four chapters on monuments going up, and four chapters on them coming down—all of which build from a simple premise:

American monuments were built to show us our place within national hierarchies of power. Regardless of our race, they tell us to sacrifice ourselves to the interests of those more powerful than us.

Thompson organizes each chapter around the story of one monument or type of monument as a way of exploring the disconnect between how they went up and the authority and reverence with which they are sometimes received.

For instance, Chapter 3 (“Shafts”) unpacks the history of Civil War monuments showing, among other things, how the most common monument was one that shows a common soldier at parade rest. That is, a monument that celebrates not the soldiers who died or the sacrifices of the living, but the obedience of the soldiers who fought for the cause.

My favorite chapter in the book, and one I’m considering assigning in class in the fall, is “A Shrine for the South,” which details the creation of Stone Mountain in Georgia in the 1920s. This site was intended to be the shrine described in the title, with a ghostly army of Confederate heroes riding along the mountain face. She starts the chapter with the story of how the sculptor Gutzon Borglum took an ax to the model head of Robert E. Lee, declaring that the project was a scam by the KKK to siphon off funds—before revealing that he was Klansman upset that he was being cut out of the profits.

To my mind, this chapter put on display all of the fissures involved in these monuments. Borglum joined the Klan, but he lived in Connecticut and was so enamored of Lincoln that he named his son after the dead president. The project relied on the Lost Cause mythology, but it also grew continuously because this was the surest way to secure additional funding. And, of course, Thompson concludes with a discussion of the project Borglum moved to from Stone Mountain: Mount Rushmore.

Smashing Statues is a quick read. Thompson is an art history professor with a special interest in the destruction of cultural heritage, and this book is based on her numerous articles on the topic of monuments since the summer of 2020. But it is no worse for the sense that it is a series of interconnected essays. The core message comes through like a clarion call, and not a moment too soon.

Traditional monuments put heroes on pedestals to tell us our troubles are over. They are our nation’s selfies—perfectly posed and cropped to show only our best angles. They cover up complications and give a too-rosy view of the past and the future. We need debates, not pieties. we need to question our past in order to remake our future. If monuments try to keep us where we are by holding up examples of impossibly perfect people, well, maybe we don’t need them at all.

Addendum: in the few minutes past when this post went up, a digital friend brought to my attention how these same tactics have been weaponized in Latin America. Smashing Statues is fundamentally oriented toward the the politics of commemoration in the United States where most these statues uphold the traditional political order. But in the sense that statues are not value-neutral, the instinct to tear down can be weaponized against monuments looking to establish a pluralistic vision of the future in much the same way that “heritage” can be used as a rallying cry to preserve those that enshrine the existing political order. Attacks that symbolically lynch the commemorated subject not only assert a political order, but also serve to intimidate the communities that would dare erect the monuments in the first place. This is because, as Thompson argues throughout Smashing Statues, monuments serve as an arena that reflects political debates in society writ large.

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I am hoping to write more in this space now that my semester is drawing to a close. This will likely include some book posts like this one where I give a few thoughts, if not a full review. Since the last one of these went up, I have also finished Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene, Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, and Kathryn Schulz’s Lost & Found, and I am now reading Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea.

A family and social history of bread in the United States

A couple weeks ago, one of my students invited me to give a presentation on sourdough bread to a club she’s involved in, which I did last night I decided to script part of my talk so that I didn’t just blabber in a million different directions.

Below the jump is the transcript of most of that scripted portion, which I called “A family and social history of bread in the United States.” I lightly edited the script to remove the presentation cues and moved forward a paragraph on yeast culture from later in the talk. Enjoy.

Continue reading A family and social history of bread in the United States

Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America

Black and white image of the cover of Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home.

On January 6, 2021, a crowd people stormed the US Capitol Building in order to stop the certification of the electoral votes that made Joe Biden president. This was the result of actions meant to undermine faith in election and polarization heightened by the present media ecosystem, but it was also the culmination of decades of growing extremism among white nationalist and anti-government militia movements. That growth is the subject of Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

While there has been a pronounced strain of separatism in the United States as long as there has been a United States, Belew identifies the modern iteration in the resolution to the Vietnam War in the 1970s. White power was at the heart of the militia movement from its inception, but she argues that the perceived betrayal in Vietnam prompted a very specific metastasis beyond bog-standard racism. It prompted people like Louis Beam to form militia groups with the stated intent of continuing the war. Naturally, they found common cause with groups like the Knights of the Ku Klux Klax that David Duke founded in 1975.

In these early ears, the militia movement claimed to be fighting against insidious forces and on behalf of the United States. They were soldiers taking the war into their own hands. However, Belew traces how this resentment and frustration transformed over the course of the 1980s until their orientation had turned 180 degrees. By the start of the 1990s militia groups operating around the country–and not merely at places like Ruby Ridge–saw themselves as soldiers in a war on behalf of white people against the United States, which they referred to as the Zionist Occupation Government. She concludes with a chapter on Timothy McVeigh and his terrorist attack in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, though that incident clearly did not put an end to the movements Belew documents is documenting.

At this point, I feel like I need to offer a caveat. I finished Bring the War Home a month ago and while I take copious notes on the books I read for “work” take only haphazard notes on books that I read for “fun.” This book technically falls in the latter category even though parts of it will undoubtedly make its way into my US history classes. I meant to write this post within a day or two of finishing the book, but it turns out that writing here is a lower priority than, say, my classes or work on academic publications. All of this is to say that the following analysis is going to be more a reflection on what I saw as a couple of key themes and less an actual review.

The first thing that stood out to me in Bring the War Home was how Belew traces multiple loosely-connected organizations joined by a common sense of purpose and sometimes, marriage. The various groups saw themselves as part of the same conflict and Belew shows how they used the early internet to support one another, but the absence of a hierarchy meant that quashing one did nothing to slow the spread of the movement. In fact, efforts by the federal government to address the militia movement in places like Ruby Ridge only galvanized other cells and sympathizers. This part of the book sometimes meant trying to keep track of a web of names, but it effectively highlighted the challenge of addressing the militia movement.

Second, perhaps the most striking chapter in Bring the War Home was “Race War and White Women.” In this chapter, Belew shows how white women were of central importance to the militia movement. That is, they claimed to be defending the virtue of vulnerable white women who, in turn, were expected to bear white children. These vulnerable white women were both an abstract ideal, rather like love interests in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and people who played a concrete role in spreading the militia ideas. In the case of a the Fort Smith sedition trial in 1988 that ended with the jury rendering a not guilty verdict, two of the white women on the jury subsequently entered into public relationships with defendants.

(One of the key witnesses in that trial went on to murder three people at Jewish centers in Overland Park, Kansas in 2014.)

Bring the War Home is a terrifying book in many ways. It brings into focus a strain of extremism in the United States that has been steadily growing in prominence in the past few decades. This movement coalesced around racism, anti-semitism, and christian identitarianism, took advantage of new forms of media new media, and, as Belew put it on the first anniversary of January 6, ruthlessly seizes any opportunity. And yet, while these militia movements have themselves shed blood in their war against ZOG and fully intend to do so again, I can’t help but feel that their presence reveals a bigger and more insidious danger. The militia movement emerged from a specific knot of beliefs, but its growth and evolution stems in no small part from how many people not directly affiliated with any tentacle of the movement express sympathy for their positions. That is, the militia movement won’t win its war through force of arms, but through a steady campaign of radicalization that plays on preexisting prejudices. The fact that their ideas can be found elevated into nearly every level of government demonstrates that it is working.

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Crunch time on getting my book together meant giving almost all of my spare time to that, but I have still been reading a little bit every day because it helps me feel normal. Since my last one of these posts I finished Trevor Strunk’s Story Mode, a literary analysis of video games that had some interesting things to say about the evolution of games and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, which had a gift for rich descriptions of place and with a clever story structure but that I ultimately found disappointing in terms of the characters and how the plot was written, James S.A. Corey’s Nemesis Games (Expanse, book 5), and S.A. Chakraborty’s Empire of Gold. I intend to write about the latter two series at some point. Currently, I am reading Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne.

What is Making Me Happy: Byzantium and Friends

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Byzantium and Friends

I am a longtime listener to podcasts, so much so that I wrote one of these entries on the topic way back in 2016. I also once suggested that every history program ought to have a student-run semi-regular podcast where members of the department and alumni could talk about their their research. In addition to being outreach for the program, such a podcast would give students multiple types of experience, as producers, as interviewers, and, of course, talking about their own work. This idea came to me too late in my graduate career to put something in action, though, and I have largely resisted the urge to start a podcast of my own both because I don’t have a clear sense of what I would want the project to do and because I haven’t had time.

Several weeks ago I started listening to the Byzantium and Friends podcast hosted by Anthony Kaldellis thanks to a recommendation on Twitter from Matthew Simonton. Four episodes in, I am already prepared to say that his is what I would want it to look like were I to start a Greek history podcast.

The stated goal of the podcast is to make current research in the diversifying field of Late Antique studies accessible a wider audience such as students and teachers.

Each episode features a conversation between Kaldellis and a guest grounded in something that the guest has written, whether a book or an article, but then flows outward. Kaldellis is adept at guiding this discussion, informed by careful and generous readings of their work, as well as his own scholarship, and a curiosity about trends and different methodological approaches in historical study. Since the goal is explanatory and collaborative rather than critical, I find that the discussion transcends the limits of the specific publication and become about the process of doing history. Some of the resonance stems form the broad similarities between ancient history and Late Antiquity, but other parts are universal to the study of the past. This was particularly true in the fourth episode with Kristina Sessa about environmental approaches to ancient history, which I am going to suggest as an assignment for a World History course next fall, but it was also present in the other episodes—with George Demacopoulos about colonialism and post-colonial theory in the Fourth Crusade, Ellen Muehlberger about imagination, and Leonora Neville on gender.

As much as I love the conversations, though, it is the final question that particularly makes me happy. Kaldellis closes the show by asking the guest for two reading recommendations outside their specific field. This is a show about Late Antiquity and Byzantium, but this closing question reinforces how historians bring a wide range of influences to their work and benefit from looking beyond the narrow bounds of their research. Every time he asks this question I think about how I might answer the question. As I write this, I’m still trying to decide.

In short, this is my platonic ideal of an academic podcast and I would love to see this format proliferate. Even if I had time to take on such a project, though, I could only hope to emulate Kaldellis’ erudite and considered skill as a host so while I could could provide a lengthy list of scholars I would excitedly badger to come talk to me about their work, I will save everyone the embarrassment by just pressing play on episode five.

The Bright Ages, or I’d love to write one of these for Ancient Greece

This is not a review of Matt Gabriele and David Perry’s The Bright Ages (Harper: 2021). The book is a Grand Tour of medieval Europe, a breezy romp that aims to counteract popular depictions of the period as backward and grim that has received a lot of praise and some disingenuous reviews for that purpose. It is an excellent book that sweeps from episode to episode demonstrating how the vibrancy of the medieval period was the result of its connection to a broader world. Rome didn’t fall, they argue, or, at least, Rome’s “fall” didn’t mean what people usually think. Likewise, this is a world filled with powerful women, muslims, Jews, and people with skin tones of multiple hues. There was violence and prejudice in the Middle Ages, of course, but one only needs to read modern headlines to see that violence does uniquely define the period. The result is a refreshing and synthetic introduction to the period that injects humanity and complexity into a period usually viewed through the lens of Romance.

But, like I said, this is not a review. There are other people who have done an excellent job contributing to the discussion around this book. Rather, I want to reflect on the value of something like this for Ancient Greece.

Last week a friend of mine reached out looking for a book to recommend to a student who wanted an introduction to Greek history. As much as I think there is a lot of great research available right now, I struggled to come up with a satisfactory answer. The textbook I use in class, Pomeroy et al.’s A Brief History of Ancient Greece, is okay, but textbooks and books have somewhat different purposes. However, I also struggled to come up with a good alternative because I am not satisfied with how most synoptic histories present ancient Greece.

Here is how I articulate the problem as I see it in the book I am writing:

Histories of Classical Greece tend to follow well-trod paths. A series of political and military events like the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars mark the trail and point out a standard set of sights. Athens is well-represented, for reasons of evidence as much as anything, and puncturing the Spartan mirage has done little to blunt popular fascination, while Thebes and Macedonia make grand appearances in the fourth century. And yet, if one were to complete this metaphor, most of Greek history takes place elsewhere in the forest and only obliquely intersects with the usual paths. 

That is, the story of ancient Greece is not the history of Athens or Sparta or Macedonia, but the history of more than a thousand independent poleis scattered across the breadth of the Mediterranean and Black Seas bound by ties like language, culture, genealogy, and Panhellenic institutions that together created an imagined community of “Greeks.”

The primary exception to this rule that I could think of is Paul Cartledge’s Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities (now in the Oxford Very Short Introduction Series). To his credit, Cartledge chooses cities outside of the Balkans, but the approach also atomizes the selections into discrete units that he parachutes into as representative of a time or theme where they interact largely through conflict. Similarly, while Cartledge does not deny interaction with the Near East, I often find off-put by the framing of “Western Civilization” that runs through his accounts of Greek history.

When I teach Greek history I like to seed the ground by pointing out to them the complexity of the topic. Any history is, if you look close enough, but other survey courses I teach have a few choices for narrative arcs to follow that, while imperfect, work for the purposes of the course. A survey of Roman history, for instance, usually centers on Rome. Greek history, by contrast, is more like a Medieval history survey in that there is a plurality of actors continuously in states of conflict and cooperation with one another as well as with those outside the “in” group. What I try to convince my students is that that complexity is what makes Greek history interesting, and we usually conclude the semester engaging with how it often comes to be centered on Athens.

It was perhaps inevitable that at the same time that I read The Bright Ages I found myself making mental notes for the sorts of scenes I would include in a comparable volume on ancient Greece — Cynisca’s victories at the Olympics in the 390s BCE, average Athenians choosing to write “hunger” (ΤΟΝ ΛΙΜΟΝ) rather than a name during an ostracism vote in the 480s or 470s, Greek soldiers in Egypt leaving graffiti on a statue of Rameses II at Abu Simbel in the 590s, and the Greeks working at the Persian palace complexes in the 6th century, the poet Choerilus of Samos spending his large stipend from the Macedonian king on fish, the metics credited by the Athenians with saving the democracy in 403, workers constructing the monumental temples and people petitioning small oracles, to name just a few. This hypothetical tour wouldn’t ignore Athens, Sparta, or major figures, but they wouldn’t dominate the narrative and it would have to push back against both histories dominated by the story of military conflict and those dominated by the so-called Greek miracle

I have strong ideas about what I want to see from this book, but equally inspiring about The Bright Ages was its collaboration that seemed to embody some of the larger themes on the page. Were I to write one of these covering ancient Greece I wouldn’t want to produce it like Athena bursting, fully-formed, from the forehead of Zeus. Rather, like Greece itself, it should be the result of a lively exchange that enriches the overall project.

In Defense of the (Historical) Study of Food

I was thinking again this week about a conversation I had with my advisor back in graduate school. I was already on the job market and we were talking about how I was marketing myself in cover letters. My first book project would obviously be the revised version of my dissertation project and I had (and have) plans for a second book that is a natural continuation of that research. But I was already starting to lay the groundwork for a new research project into bread in ancient Greece.

The trajectory of my research has never been solely dictated by the relationship with my Doktorvater, but this was a conversation about how to market myself to jobs and branding is something he is particularly good at. Ultimately, his concerns about mentioning this future project came down to two points:

  1. That this project marked too great a departure from my current research such that there might be questions about my creating a coherent research portfolio. Scholarly publications often build on each other, as it were, with books begetting articles and new leads, so too much dilettantism can just be a distraction.
  2. That telling people I wanted to study food would mean that my research is not taken seriously.

His first point is both more and less valid than it was when we had this conversation maybe a half decade ago. I suspect that there is some benefit on the job market to being a generalist unless you happen to research the specialty that is hot in a given year, provided, of course, that your research in whatever you do is compelling to committees. But, at the same time, I have recently found myself wondering if the various strands of my research are too dissimilar from each other. That is, I currently have ambitions to write four books (three non-fiction, one fiction) after the one I am currently writing. Each one scratches a different itch that I have as a person, but they only tangentially intersect with each other.

However, the second point is the one I want to develop further here. Some of my advisor’s concern is a matter of his personal research, which skews to the political and diplomatic with a heavy dose of biography. He is not so myopic as to think that these are the only things that matter as far as I am aware, but he raised the possibility that the study of food might be regarded as too frivolous to be taken seriously.

I suspect that he is right, at least in some circles.

Without question, some of this is discipline- and sub-discipline-specific. For instance, here are excellent books on food written by modern historians. For instance, I particularly enjoyed Jeffrey Pilcher’s Planet Taco and my friend and graduate school colleague Christopher Deutsch is working on the delightfully-titled Beeftopia, which looks at how the United States became a beef-eating country. Although Maria Balinska is a journalist by trade, my favorite one-star Amazon review calling her The Bagel “Jewish social history” warrants honorary status.

My casual survey of work from the ancient Mediterranean suggests that food studies receive more attention among archaeologists. Patrick McGovern, for instance, is a molecular archaeologist who collaborated with Dogfish Head brewery on their Ancient Ales series and delivered a keynote address at the AIA meeting in Philadelphia in 2012. Likewise, Farrell Monaco and J.T. Benton are both archaeologists who work on bread and technology in the Roman world. And yet, just two years ago the zooarchaeologist Flint Dibble nevertheless published a “manifesto” at Eidolon where he conducted a survey of recent research and defended the study food because of what it can reveal about climate and a given society.

In a similar manner to Flint in his manifesto, I want to suggest that food isn’t just a valid topic of historical study, but an important one.

The truth is that I receive very different responses from people when I talk about my work on Ionia (that is, all of my publications so far) and when I talk about even the little bit of food research I have done to this point. This is not meant as a strike against my other work. I think it is important and hope that the book will help change some ideas on how to look at Classical Greece, but I also once delivered a paper on Ephesus, perhaps the best-known of the cities in the region, and had an ancient historian tell me on the way out that he wouldn’t have been able to identify Ephesus on a map. That is, there are more barriers to entry for my work on Ionia. Sometimes it results in long, sprawling conversations. Sometimes I can see eyes glaze over.

The latter almost never happens when talking about food.

There is an appetite for learning about food. This likely explains the burgeoning market for food-related books, almost all of which are historical in nature but relatively few of them are actually written by historians. (To say nothing of Gastropod, which looks “at food through the lens of history and science.”) Other than a handful of exceptions like those listed above, two broad groups of people write these books: journalists and scientists. Both make sense. Journalism is where a lot of food writing takes place and books are a logical extension of this form in much the same way that science journalists turn their reportage into books. Thus you get Jonathan Kauffman’s Hippie Food and Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer. Scientists, on the other hand, have multiple points of entry. Food involves at minimum chemistry, biology, and agronomy, so books like Cheese and Culture (Paul Kindstedt, a chemist and food technologist) and Sourdough Culture (Eric Pallant, an environmental scientist) are natural extensions of these disciplines. After all, the Global Sourdough Project at North Carolina State University belongs to the Ecology Department.

These are all fascinating projects, but their history is, to put it nicely, wildly inconsistent. I will write a full post of Eric Pallant’s Sourdough Culture later this week, but it can stand in as an example here since I just finished reading it.

Pallant is telling a particular story about trying to trace the origins of his Cripple Creek starter, in much the same way that Kindstedt’s book follows a particular arc for cheese and Balinska’s book largely treats New York bagels as normative until starting a discussion of how the Lender’s company took the bagel mainstream. What Pallant does here is blend the story of learning about his starter with a longer discussion of attitudes toward sourdough breads. In this second objective, his discussion of the transition to industrial bread was particularly fascinating. Not coincidentally, this was also a topic that had served as the basis of a Fulbright project. By contrast, other parts of his historical discussion weaker and included a few turns of phrase that made me physically wince.

Sourdough Culture is not the sort of book designed to have a comprehensive bibliography and a review of the references revealed omissions that could have strengthened the book. At the same time, though, I found myself reflecting on how at least some of the limitations reflect the contours of the existing scholarship, meaning that Egypt and Rome are better represented than was Greece. This is understandable, at least to an extent; Pallant is not an ancient historian. However, it did lead him to give Greek in particular only cursory treatment when there is a more compelling to story to tell there.

I like these books, broadly speaking, and am not at all saying that scientists and journalists need to stop writing about historical food. However, when historians pass the responsibility for writing about historical food to non-historians then they forfeit the right to complain when their historical periods get misrepresented.

Providing material for scientists to improve their books is just a side benefit. Food offers insight into a whole range of historical topics, from gender roles, to cultural values, to turns of phrase, to economic and political systems. Food also provides opportunities for historical work to be interdisciplinary in the best ways possible. Not every scholar needs to start studying food, of course. But where food’s ubiquity may make it seem banal, the very fact that food (or its absence) is intimately connected to every single person’s daily existence means that it is threaded into every historical time and place, if we’re only willing to look for it.

The Scapegoat

—That’s the danger with freedom: it’s an abyss. Will you fall in? It’ll depend on you Georgiou.

In May 1948 a Greek fisherman discovered a body floating in the Thermaic Gulf. George Polk was a CBS foreign correspondent then reporting on the Greek Civil War where he was unsparing in his coverage of government corruption and atrocities. Despite receiving death threats, he had nevertheless travelled to Thessaloniki, only to disappear until his body was fished from the bay. The government, naturally, blamed their communist enemies and arranged a show-trial that ended in the conviction of three men: two in abstentia (they also had not been in Greece at the time of the murder) and the journalist Gregoris Staktopoulos, who confessed under torture and served more than a decade in prison.

A fictionalized version of this murder and wrongful conviction serves as a jumping off point for Sophia Nikolaidou’s The Scapegoat (trans. Karen Emmerich).

The Scapegoat consists of two intersecting storylines, though neither strictly adheres to a single chronology. The first plot centers on the 1948 murder of the American journalist, here named Jack Talas, who we meet in the opening pages. At the same time, we are introduced to Manolis Gris, a journalist who accompanies an officer to the police station thinking he is dealing with the theft of his laundry by gypsies that he had reported earlier that day:

“It was twelve years before Manolis Gris made it home. His eyes were still chestnut brown, but his hair had turned gray.”

This narrative unfolds through the voices of people around Manolis, including his sister Violeta, his mother Kyria Maria, and Jack Talas’ widow Zoe (Zouzou), as well as a host of others. We learn how Manolis and his family were refugees relocated from Pontus during the forced population exchanges of the 1920s and how he generally kept his head down while diligently working to support his family. And we learn how Zouzou faced a torrent of accusations after the death of her fiancé as the institutional forces in Greece worked to close the case quickly and ensure that the “right” people took the blame. Manolis’ signed confession seals the deal.

The second plot line flashes forward sixty years. In the 2010–2011 school-year, at the height of the financial crisis in Greece, Minas Georgiou has decided that he does not want to go to college. Previously a star student, Minas’ decision has shattered the peace of his household, particularly devastating his mother, Teta, who gave up a career after college to raise him. Minas’ decision also caused his grades to start slipping in advance of the mandatory exams, which serve as a critical point of divergence for the rest of his life. His history teacher Souk (Soukiouroglou) makes him an offer: instead of completing homework for the class, Minas can complete a research paper and presentation for his grade.

His topic: The trial of Manolis Gris.

Minas throws himself into research, aided by materials put together over the years by his own journalist father — albeit distracted the ordinary pursuits of high school seniors, like trying to strike up a relationship with Evelina, the other star student in the class.

Each plot works on its own, the second somewhat more than the first, but The Scapegoat comes alive in the resonances between the two stories. Nikolaidou takes the universal position that the 1949 trial was a sham that turned the convicted into scapegoats who absolved a community of responsibility for its sins. (These were called pharmakoi in Ancient Greek practice, though the original Greek title of this novel is Χορεύουν οι ελέφαντες, or The Elephants are Dancing.) In and of itself, that part of the story is not particularly exceptional except that she uses the kaleidoscope of voices who articulate the layers of disruption in 1940s Greece.

The second plot, set at another time of disruption in Greece that was creating waves of new sacrificial victims, responds to the first. Three generations of Greeks are invested in Minas’ investigation, and are caught up in a tighter web of relationships than they first realize. Minas’ investigation eventually leads him to Evelina’s grandfather Nikiforos, the lawyer who defended Manolis Gris in 1948, but the old man refuses to speak to him until he arranges a meeting with his grandmother Evthalia — who Nikiforos admired from afar as a young man about to marry. Meanwhile, Souk is the sort of eccentric literary teacher who is easy to admire until you realize the consequences of his methods (his father Tasos knew Souk’s advisor and can’t stand him, but his grandmother, a former teacher, approves). Nikiforos doesn’t see the value in re-litigating the past, but Souk demands that Minas do just that in taking a stand. Minas concludes:

In studying them carefully, in marking passages with his highlighter, Minas had come to realize that justice is an abstract concept. Perfect on paper. But in practice, riddled with qualifications, asterisks, interpretations, clashes of opinion. History books offered no catharsis, as tragedies. did; there were no happy endings, as there were in fairytales or soap operas.

In sum, The Scapegoat is an impressive novel that grapples with the living consequences and echoes of historical events, even as Nikolaidou injects light into that darkness through a number of sweet relationships, none more so that the clumsy tenderness and unbridled optimism of young love.

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Since my last books post, I finished reading Charles Soule’s The Oracle Year and David Elliot’s Bull. The latter is a verse re-imagination of the Minotaur story where each character receives a different meter. It wasn’t my favorite riff on the Minotaur story (that would be The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break), but it had some powerful moments. I am now reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, a memoir about trying to find information about the six family members none of his relatives will talk about — the six who were killed in the Holocaust.

How to Hide an Empire

I remember playing a pool game when I was young where one person chose a category and then called out options until the specific example one of the other players had secretly chosen came up. If I recall the game correctly, you then had to race that person across the pool. On this day, I chose the category “empires,” which left the other players wracking their brains trying to come up with enough empires for each to have one. There was the Roman Empire, sure, and the British Empire. Were the Aztec an empire? Maybe? Being a know-it-all at that age, I rattled off a bunch more (Inca, Mongol, Persian-Achaemenid, Parthian, etc, etc) before choosing another category.

I would not have included the United States in my list of empires. My understanding of the United States and its possessions at that time was what Daniel Immerwahr calls “the logo map.” That is, the lower 48 states with little corner cutouts for Alaska and Hawaii. I knew of other possessions at that time, including both bases and territories, but they did not register as parts of the United States. For Immerwahr, that gloss is part of the problem. From there, it is just a short hop to a sitting US congressperson referring to Guam, a US territory for longer than she has been alive, as a foreign country.

Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire is an intensely sophisticated, yet immensely readable history of the United States beyond the logo map. To do this, he offers two interlocking investigations.

First, how did the United States get colonial possessions and how were those possessions treated? Here, Immerwahr starts with the very early days of the American Republic, using Daniel Boone and the Indian removal acts to explore the imperialism that created the logo map and how those borders quickly became treated as eternal. Starting in the third chapter, though, Immerwahr sets sail beyond those territorial borders, first landing on the guano islands (literally islands buried under tons of bird droppings) that fueled 19th century industrial agriculture and later landing on Spanish territorial possessions around the world.

Suddenly, the United States had territorial possessions, just like the countries of Europe. Welcome to the club, wrote Kipling, with a heap of racism:

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    Have done with childish days—
The lightly proffered laurel,
    The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
    Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
    The judgment of your peers!

However, for the United States, these possessions marked a turning point. Most of the states had begun their existence as territories that later applied for statehood. Would these new territories have the same privilege? The Philippines had millions of residents and a city in Manila nearly as large as any in the country. Just putting the territories to scale against the logo map was revealing (naturally, cartographers made a point of not doing this).

Of course the answer would be “no.” Even if the civilizing mission took, as they saw it, the people of the Philippines weren’t Americans. Some, and far more than most Americans thought, spoke English, but they weren’t white, which was itself disqualifying. But neither would the United States give up the territorial claim, which led to the brutal repression of the archipelago, including extensive use of “water torture,” a forerunner of modern water-boarding.

With this empire gained, Immerwahr sets out to tackle the second part of the book: why don’t people consider this an empire? After the second world war, the United States began to divest itself of imperial holdings. Alaska and Hawaii did indeed become states, while The Philippines became independent. The US kept most of the small islands, which it still uses to house military bases, but during this period it also expanded the global network of military bases that had developed for the purpose of fighting the war. Thus, Immerwahr argues, the United States went from being a territorial empire to being a “pointillist” one, capable of extending military power almost anywhere in the world. But the change in form only serves to hide the imperial structures of the United States.

How to Hide an Empire is not a celebration empire, and Immerwahr does not shy away from the atrocities committed in the name of civilization, but neither is it simply anti-imperial. Rather, Immerwahr aims to understand the consequences of this empire, identifying any number of social and cultural developments from birth control pills (developed in tests on Puerto Ricans) to the Beatles (coming of age in the shadow of a US military base) that are the consequences of American imperialism.

I have been meaning to read How to Hide an Empire since hearing Immerwahr talk about this research a few years ago. It does not disappoint. This is a meticulously researched book that offers a timely reconsideration of what the borders of the United States look like — so much so that I am seriously considering this as one of the book I assign when I get a chance to teach US history next year.

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I am still plugging away at writing about books I’ve read, and will at least be writing about Arkady Martin’s A Memory Called Empire. Since the last books post went up, I have finished Anne Zouroudi’s The Lady of Sorrows, a seven deadly sins novel that brilliantly evokes the Greek Islands. I just started C. Pham Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold.

Caste

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 might have been heralded as a the final triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, and with some reason. Millions of Americans voted for a well-spoken African American man whose middle name was Hussein, which prompted speculation that the United States had finally put to rest the ghosts of history and begun a post-racial society.

But the ghosts of history are not so neatly exorcised. President Obama was repeated lynched in effigy while white critics — including a future president of the United States — openly questioned the legality of the election on the charge that he was not an American citizen. President Obama himself charted a moderate, technocratic approach to governance that won a second term, again with historic numbers of people voting for him, even as some white people who voted for him the first time began to grumble that that he was playing the race card. Discontent has only grown in the years since President Obama left office. Celebrations of diversity and conversations about appropriation have prompted bitter accusations of bias and deep-seated identity politics being weaponized against marginalized people.

For my part, I have spent the last few years working to educate myself, particularly by reading scholarship by African Americans, including Carol Anderson’s White Rage and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning. These books peel back the curtain on the painful history of race in America in ways that clearly demonstrate the historical roots of structural issues, often while providing a vocabulary to talk about race. However, they also tend to cover similar ground. What Isabel Wilkerson brings to the table in Caste, a beautiful book layered with history, reportage, and metaphor, is a big picture assessment of how structural racism works and why everyone ought to care.

The second chapter of Caste captures each of these elements. This chapter, “An Old House and an Infrared Light” begins with an extended metaphor of a housing inspector evaluating a bowing of a ceiling. “With an old house,” Wilkerson writes, “the work is never done, and you don’t expect it to be.” When the storm comes, your basement floods, but you can’t just ignore it because “whatever you are ignoring will never go away…ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction.” The United States is this house. Whether one was there when it was built does not matter. If you live here now, it is your responsibility to deal with it.

Unaddressed, the ruptures and diagonal cracks will not fix themselves. The toxins will not go away but, rather, will spread, leach, and mutate, as they already have. When people live in an old house, they come to adjust to the idiosyncrasies and outright dangers skulking in an old structure. They put up buckets under a wet ceiling, prop up groaning floors, learn to step over that rotting wood tread in the staircase. The awkward becomes acceptable, and the unacceptable becomes merely inconvenient. Live with it long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal. Exposed over the generations we learn to believe that the incomprehensible is the way that life is supposed to be.

At this point one might be forgiven for asking what, exactly, caste is and what it has to do with the function of race in the United States. If you have heard of caste, you probably know it as an archaism of Indian society where certain Hindu texts established a four- or five-fold social hierarchy. Brahmin (priests and teachers) were the highest caste, Kshatrya (warriors and rulers) were the second, Vaishya (farmers, traders, merchants) the third, and Shudra (labourers) the lowest formal caste. Beneath these were the Dalit (untouchables), regarded as impure. The history of the caste system is somewhat more complex in that it developed in the modern sense through the canonization of certain Brahmin texts in 19th century British India that hardened the lines of social categories. Nevertheless, the caste system in India came to be accepted as an eternal truth about social hierarchy.

Wilkerson juxtaposes this social model against the systems of the United States and Nazi Germany. The fact that Nazi Germany looked to the Jim Crow south as a model for its legal restrictions is at this point well-documented, but Wilkerson’s inclusion of India allows her to go beyond those two explicitly racial ideologies and their legal restrictions. All three developed a caste system designed to eternally reshape the social hierarchies of their populations, and thus allow her to offer a concise definition of the phenomenon:

A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis on ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.

Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. They can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race is the skin. Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is. Caste is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place.

The problem in the US, Wilkerson suggests, is that while the worst of the Jim Crow legal restrictions are gone, the caste structures remain in place. Some problems come from out and out racism, but she also offers anecdotes where the way someone treated her changed once he stopped seeing her as a black woman and started seeing her as Isabel Wilkerson — that is, as a person. This, she says, is the problem of caste. It conditions people to assume that she (as a woman, as a black person) is someone who can and should be ignored, thereby priming the environment for micro-aggressions and causing constant stress that leads to negative health consequences, to say nothing of reproducing the caste system.

Oddly enough, the instinctive desire to reject the very idea of current discrimination on the basis of a chemical compound in the skin is an unconscious admission of the absurdity of race as a concept.

I found Caste to be entirely compelling. Wilkerson simultaneously avoids pointing fingers at any one person while pointing fingers at everyone: “A caste system persists in part because we, each and everyone one of us, allow it to exist” She acknowledges in her epilogue (“A World Without Caste”) that the United States is heading toward a caste-induced identity criss that is already leading to “anticipatory fear” about the changing demographics. I often think about these fears and the ways in which they have been stoked for monetary and political gain over the past few years. Wilkerson elegantly points out that a rejection of caste will set everyone free, but when she (correctly) argues out that the only way to destroy the caste system is for everyone to reject its authority, I worry that there are too many people invested in seeing the old house come down around them for no other reason than that they believe the house is theirs and theirs alone.

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I have again reached a point of the semester where my reading of books has outstripped writing them. I still have hopes of writing about Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy in some form — I liked it, but also wanted to unpack a few things in the series about belief that I found interesting — and have firm plans to write about Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire and Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire, both of which are excellent. By contrast, I didn’t have nearly as much to say about Alexandros Papadiamantis’ The Murderess, a 19th century Greek novella that offers a grim commentary about the value of women…by following a bitter old woman who kills little girls. I also recently finished Boris Akunin’s The Coronation, a novel about his detective hero Fandorin who I was told was a Russian Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, but who just wasn’t, and Un-Su Kim’s The Plotters, a Korean mystery centered on an assassin-for-hire who who doesn’t always follow the plots. The Plotters had several clever ideas and scenes — receiving hospitality and words of wisdom from a target, commentary about business capitalism taking over the assassin business, and perpetually under-estimated women — but it never really came together for me enough to want to write about it.

Dreadnought

One of the most revolutionary ships in the history of seafaring launched on February 10, 1906.

Just over a century earlier, Horatio Nelson had seized control of the seas for the British Empire by defeating the combined fleets of Spain and France. He did this from the deck of the HMS Victory, a first-rate ship of the line carrying 104-cannons launched a full four decades before earlier. In effect, ships of the line were floating artillery batteries that lined up next to each other and pounded each other into submission. Displacing 3,500 tons and launching a full-broadside of over half a ton of metal, the Victory was not the largest battleship at Trafalgar (the Spanish flagship Santísima Trinidad was larger by nearly a third), but was representative of its age. Effective distances were quite close and Nelson and his fellow British commanders attempted to magnify their firepower through superior seamanship by sailing their ships into close contact before opening fire, even at great cost to themselves—the Victory was practically disabled at Trafalgar, and Nelson fatally wounded.

Naval technology developed through the nineteenth century, with the French navy introducing a steam-powered battleship, Le Napoléon (5100 tons), in 1850 and ironclad battleships starting with Gloire (5600 tons) in 1859. Sail slowly fell out of use, and smoothbore cannons gave way to more powerful rifled guns and explosive shells. By the 1890s most major navies used fully-steam powered battleships of roughly 15,000 tons, with mixed-caliber weaponry, including several batteries of four 10- or 12-inch guns as a main armament, designed to combat threats of various sizes and speeds.

Then, in 1906, the Royal Navy launched the HMS Dreadnought, which, in a stroke, made earlier battleships obsolete. Fifteen years later, the Dreadnought, now obsolete, was sold for scrap in part of the downsizing of navies after World War One.

The Dreadnought was revolutionary in several respects. First, it was enormously large, displacing up to 21,000 tons, with the extra weight coming in large part from its armor. Second, it was fast, with a new steam turbine system that pushed water through the engine to generate steam rather than older reciprocating engines. But most notable was that the Dreadnought only carried a single caliber of main battery, ten 12-inch guns of which up to eight could be fired at once. Each shell weighed 850 pounds, giving the Dreadnought a broadside of 6,800 pounds made up of high-explosive shells capable of hitting a target at a range of more than 15 kilometers. Streamlining the caliber of the armament and centralizing the firing systems also served to increase accuracy because the main batteries all fired at the same elevation and range. In short, this was a superior warship worth two or even three battleships of the type launched even a year before.

Within ten years, the Dreadnought itself had been superseded by battleships built in its image, setting up a clash between the German and British fleets of Dreadnought battleships at Jutland in which the HMS Dreadnought did not participate. However, although the launch of the Dreadnought was a crucial development in the history of naval warfare, it was merely one turning point in a larger story of the naval arms race that led up to World War One.

Puck Magazine 1909, “No Limit” arms race, Wikimedia Commons

Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought sets out to tell this story, but winds up telling a different, albeit connected, one. While the development of the Dreadnought appears in a pivotal chapter at the center of the book, Massie is much more interested in the personalities involved the naval arms race between Germany and the UK. The result is a book of high politics and biography.

I was mostly familiar with Massie by way of his massive biography of Peter the Great that I read in high school, and individual scenes showed many of the same flairs. Most chapters followed one or more characters, using a mini-biography to chart a particular developments, and Massie works to bring those characters to life with little details like their smoking habits and gustatory tendencies (it is little wonder so many of them suffered from gout). The picture of Otto von Bismarck and King Edward VII smoking like chimneys and Bismarck staring a table full of people down over a plate of pâté are images not likely to leave me any time soon, but the need to paint a new portrait for nearly every chapter also serves to cover a lot of the same ground through each repeated character.

The issue to my mind was that that the high political approach too often put the focus on the arms race between Germany and England as it played out in the halls of Parliament and the German Reichstag and in the personal letters between two royal families. This is not to say it is wholly uninteresting. I was only loosely familiar with the origins of the Boer war, for instance, or just how much of a international incident it became because the German establishment saw it as a war of British aggression, which was a reasonable, if not wholly accurate, interpretation. Similarly, given the seriously extravagant costs of building and maintaining these fleets, explaining how seriously the British government took its mandate of maintaining an overwhelming advantage that served to explain the international arms race and I was fascinated to learn that the day of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, British battleships were in Kiel on their way to tour Baltic ports.

However, personality-driven approach worked particularly well when exploring the principal characters in the Royal Navy. The middle portion of Dreadnought leading up to the ship itself introduces the reader to the likes of Admiral John (Jacky) Fisher, whose oversight led to the construction of the Dreadnought and sweeping naval reforms, and his arch-rival Admiral Charles Beresford.

In sum, I found Dreadnought to be a highly frustrating book. In part, I went into it hoping that there were would be more, well, boats. Beyond their relative absence, however, there lies a more substantive critique: Dreadnought is frustratingly uneven. Massies’ richly detailed, biographically-centered narrative largely focuses on the building of a bipolar world between Germany and the UK, with other countries generally appearing in the story only insofar as they connect to one of his protagonists. That France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and other naval powers were building up their own fleets gets mentioned, but is of secondary concern to the “coming armageddon,” while the fact that British companies were constructing Dreadnoughts for the Ottoman Empire gets omitted.

Now, one of the hallmarks of a poor review is to critique an author for not writing the book he or she wanted them to write. I would have preferred a more traditional naval history, either of the Dreadnought as a style of ship that got only about fifteen years of ruling the seas or a social history of the British navy. Massie is telling a different story, however, one that is a more sophisticated spin on the idea of a family rivalry that spurred on a global war. But even as a more sophisticated spin, I found the narrow focus on these two powers is limiting and incomplete. For instance, the discontinuities between the personalities of the British navy on the one side and the German army leading to a discussion of the German navy primarily through the lens of politics on the other led to an imbalance even just between these two powers. To be sure, there was a lot of information packed into this lengthy tomb but I couldn’t help but feel that Massey’s style was better suited to the biography of one or more people than it was to the story of this particular arms race.

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I remain better at writing then reading of late, but am still holding out hope that I will write about some of the recent mysteries I have read as well as Kevin Gannon’s pedagogy manifesto Radical Hope. I also recently finished Maja Novak’s bizarre satire about Slovenia’s transition to a capitalist economy, Feline Plague, and have nearly completed Cixin Liu’s Death’s End, the concluding volume to the trilogy that began with The Three-Body Problem. Liu’s trilogy has gotten better as it went along, building out a future history of humanity in the mode of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series or Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Man.