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Interpreting ossuary boxes

Roughly seven years ago the discovery of a 2000-year old bone box (or, ossuary) which is engraved with the words James, Son of Joseph, brother of Jesus, was announced, setting in motion a media, scholarly, and now judicial frenzy.  There is not much doubt that the 20-inch long box is about the right age to be from the period when Jesus lived; the controversy has to do with whether the inscription was added later.  The editor of the Biblical Archeological Review (BAR first headlined the find in 2002 in an essay written by the Sarbonne scholar André Lemaire) has written a book defending the authenticity of the find, which he says makes this one of the greatest archeological finds of all time since it would be the only contemporaneous evidence that Jesus lived and that the New Testament naming of his (step-)father and brother is accurate.  By contrast, Nina Burleigh has a new book out (Unholy Business:  A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land, Harper Collins) arguing the whole thing is, as the title implies, a gigantic hoax.

The antiquities collector who sprang the find on the world is Oded Golan, who says he was sold the box by an Arab antiquities dealer; he can’t remember who the man was.  An investigation was subsequently undertaken by the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which pronounced the inscriptions a fraud (their Final Report is available on their main website); soon thereafter Golan and three others were arrested and, for the last almost four years, have been on trial for taking valuable historical artifacts and adding fake lettering in a scheme to make them massively more valuable.  Golan denies the charges.

The case is obviously complicated, and pretty interesting.  Golan is accused of also faking a tablet he claims came from the first Solomon Temple.  The ossuary, if confirmed, might rock the world of Christian scholarship (more on that in a moment); the Jehoash tablet, if confirmed, might rock the world of Judaism by proving the existence of Solomon’s Temple on the historically contested Al Aqsa Temple Mount.

A lot of the skepticism derives from the fact that the finds just seem too good to be true.  The tablet contains sixteen full lines of text, when similar finds from the right period are lucky to include a smattering of textual fragments.  Burleigh note that when the authorities searched Golan’s house, they found little baggies of ancient dirt and charcoal, along with carving tools one would use to fake age an object.  During one search, as the Toronto Star reported it, “the James Ossuary was found sitting atop a disused toilet, an odd place, police felt, for a box purported to have once contained the DNA of Jesus’ family.”

The Israel Antiquities Authority sees the case as open and shut.  While some have argued that scientifically valid tests of the stone patina verify the authenticity of the engraved lettering, the panel of experts convened by IAA judged the inscription a fraud.  In part their argument was based on a finding that the inscription cut through the old patina (implying it was of recent origin).  Parts of the inscription, they argued, were recently baked on; in that more recently applied inscription patina (the part that seems to connect the box to someone named Jesus), they found trace elements that wouldn’t have existed in ancient Jerusalem but are found today in chemically treated tap water.

But under intensive question-and-answer in the lawsuit, the case has weakened – one expert from Germany said the IAA had contaminated the key evidence and another (Ada Yardeni) said she would leave her profession if the ossuary turned out to be a fake.  Opponents of the IAA conclusions argue that their objectivity cannot be trusted given IAA’s strong opposition to artifacts brought to light via the commercial antiquities trade.  The testimony has been so conflicted that two months ago the judge actually suggested the prosecution drop the charges against Golan; he said it seemed unlikely to him a conviction could be achieved (which in turn led Hershel Shenks, the BAR editor, to issue a report that the find had been “vindicated” – this month writing, the “forgery case collapses”).  Burleigh is frustrated because a possible key witness is an Egyptian who says he used to forge for Golan.  But Egypt won’t extradite the man and he doesn’t seem interested in testifying, and so his story likely won’t be heard.  Defenders of the box’s authenticity argue Burleigh is just trying to sell her book, and the book’s thesis blows up if the find proves genuine (and so, they insinuate, she’ll say anything to discredit it).

The whole thing got even wilder earlier this year when a documentary film produced by James Cameron (yes, the Titanic guy) was released.  Directed by Simcha Jacobovici, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which has by now screened around the world (Jacobovici has also co-authored a book on the subject called The Jesus Tomb and the documentary aired under the title The Jesus Family Tomb on the Discovery Channel), argues that the James ossuary and others found nearby establish (at a high level, they say, of statistical probability) that what had been found was the final burial grounds of Jesus’ family.  The statistical part is interesting – the expert quoted in the film did calculations given a series of contingencies laid out by the film’s director.  The statistician is credible (Andre Feuerverger, from the University of Toronto) and the calculations have been judged serious and methodologically sophisticated by a peer-reviewed forum in a leading statistics journal, but the original parameters are highly disputed (especially given how common the names Mary, Jesus, Joseph, and James were back then).

Stephen Pfann, from the University of the Holy Land, isn’t buying it:  “What database serves as the basis for establishing the probability of this claim?  There are no surviving genealogies or records of family names in Judea and Galilee to make any statement concerning frequency of various personal names in families there.”  Joe Zias, former curator of archeology at the Rockefellar Museum in Jerusalem, quoted in a March 2007 Newsweek article, was even blunter: “Simcha has no credibility whatsoever.  He’s pimping off the Bible…  Projects like these make a mockery of the archeological profession.”

Smart people got involved in the film (among them Princeton’s James Charlesworth and the University of North Carolina [Charlotte]’s James Tabor), but the film still reaches pretty far.  Based on a fourth ossuary from the same tomb (which some now aim to turn into a mega-tourist site), (here quoting a summary by David Horovitz in the Jerusalem Post) the filmmakers:

 …point to Ossuary 701… inscribed “Mariamne,” who they say is identified as Mary Magdelene in the 4th century text, The Acts of Philip.  And since Mary Magdalene is in the Jesus family tomb, and ultra-modern testing has established, astoundingly, that her bone-box and Jesus’ contained DNA of non-blood relatives, she must have been Jesus’ partner, they reason.  And since there’s a “Judah son of Jesus” in the tomb too (Ossuary 702) they dare to suggest he was most likely their son.  

Why, it’s the Da Vinci Code, all over again!  Burleigh half jokingly predicts we’ll soon see Solomon’s crown and Abraham’s sandals appearing on the antiquities market.

The case, beyond its intrinsic interest, has implications for how knowledge is created and distorted and popularized.  Some believers eager for evidence confirming their faith prove gullible to media mythmakers who popularize (and sometimes grotesquely distort) the scientific basis for their claims.  And the scientists get hauled into courts, where the standards of evidence vary dramatically from the tests of the laboratory or the peer review publication process.  Two sides get ginned up, science goes on trial, and (as Burleigh puts it) “the subjective underbelly of the science is… exposed…, big time” (qtd. by Laidlaw, Toronto Star, 11/4/08).  In cases of ambiguity, either fraud is perpetuated or doubt cast on potentially astonishing discoveries.  The debate rages on forever, creating cottage industries of scholarly blood feud.  It is this very cycle that accounts for the fact that Holy Family tombs have now been “authenticated” (as the Newsweek report put it) beneath the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem and at another site in Ephesus (the Catholic Church says Mary was buried both places), the rock on which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was erected in Jerusalem (Constantine said that was where Jesus was laid to rest), and a tomb in Safed (where last year Tabor said he found a Jesus tomb).

Stay tuned.  The Golan trial gets going again later this month.

SOURCES:  “’Jesus box’ may not be a fake after all,” Daily Mail (London), 30 October 2008, pg. 11; Stuart Laidlaw, “Forgery of antiquities is big business,” Toronto Star, 4 November 208, pg. L01; David Horovitz, “Giving ‘Jesus’ the silent treatment,” Jerusalem Post, 2 March 2007, pg. 24; Nina Burleigh, “Faith and fraud,” Los Angeles Times, 29 November 2008, pg. A21; “Forgery case collapses,” Biblical Archeology Review, January/February 2009, pgs. 12-13; Lisa Miller and Joanna Chen, “Raiders of the lost tomb,” Newsweek, 5 March 2007, pg. 60; Nicole Gaouette, “What ‘Jesus hoax’ could mean for Mideast antiquities,” Christian Science Monitor, 19 June 2003, pg. 7.

Publishing the papers of the U.S. founders

More than a half century ago, the Congress committed to producing definitive editions of the papers of the American founders – Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin in particular.  The first volume (which happened to be volume one of the Jefferson papers) was published in 1950, while Harry Truman was president.  Since then only the Hamilton papers have been completed.  As Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) put it in congressional hearings held last February:

According to the National Historic Publication and Records Commission [NHPRC], the papers of Thomas Jefferson will not be completed until 2025, the Washington papers in 2023, the papers of Franklin and Madison in 2030, and the Adams papers in 2050.  That is a hundred years after the projects began.  We spent nearly $30 million in taxpayer dollars in Federal taxpayer projects, and it is estimates another $60 million in combined public and private money is going in here.  One volume of the Hamilton papers costs $180.  The price for the complete 26-volume set of the papers is around $2,600.  So… only a few libraries [have] one volume of the papers, and only six percent [have] more than one volume.

The challenge, of course, is that everyone wants these collections, which have been often described as American Scripture, to be academically accurate, definitively comprehensive, and available yesterday.  But the imperatives of accuracy and speed work at cross purposes.  Some sense of why it takes so long to pull together and confirm the impossibly numerous details was conveyed in a story told by the historian David McCullough, who testified at the hearings.  McCullough, now at work on a Jefferson project, wanted to know the exact contents of the eighty or so crates Jefferson shipped back to Virginia while he was doing diplomatic work in France, information he rightly felt might convey some sense of Jefferson’s thinking.  The answer was to be found in volume 18 of the published papers, “the whole sum total in a footnote that runs nearly six pages in small type.”  McCullough has proposed that the national investment in the work of editing be doubled, so that the papers can be published more speedily but at no loss of historical quality.

The complications of doing this work are legion.  The papers of contemporary presidents are routinely collected and published soon after administrations end, but it wasn’t until 1934 and the founding of the National Historical Publications Commission, the precursor to today’s NHPRC, that a serious effort was made to comprehensively collect 18th century documentation, often scattered in private collections.  Although 216 volumes have now been published and praised, the frustration of the anticipated 2049 completion date has resulted in a drumbeat of criticism.  Private funding has been mobilized (the Pew Charitable Trust was the main original funder and has been persistent in directing funds over the years, including a failed 2000 challenge grant of $10 million – more on that soon), and the pace of publication is accelerating, but these final deadlines remain far off.

Rebecca Rimel, president of Pew, argues that there has been too little accountability for funds already spent – “there has never been a full accounting of the Founding Fathers Project.  There has been a lack of performance metrics” able to measure progress over time, she argues (11).  Pew has a special reason for frustration because they made the funding they coordinated contingent on production of such information, and they say it has never been forthcoming.  The criticism was reiterated in a more particular way by Deanna Marcum of the Library of Congress, who expressed the concern that university project work is spending too much of the funding to float graduate student stipends and on connected graduate programs, sometimes at the expense of faster methods of completion (37).  Stanley Katz has responded to this critique by noting that the expenditures of the projects are held tightly accountable to the reporting processes at NHPRC and NEH, in ways no different than any other funded project supported by those agencies.

The scholarly challenges of doing this work are also enormous.  To assure that consistently high standards of annotation are used in all the collections, very complex protocols of verification and citation are in place.  When one hears that a given project may “only” be producing one or two new volumes a year, it is easy to forget that each of these volumes may run to 800 pages with a large number of small print footnotes, and the Washington papers alone run to 27,347 pages.  Ralph Ketcham, an emeritus historian at Syracuse University who has spent his entire career on these projects (first working on Franklin and now on Madison), noted that the longevity of many of the Founders adds additional challenges – “It’s not surprising,” he noted, “that Alexander Hamilton’s papers are the only ones that have been completed.  The chief editor of the Hamilton papers, Cy Surrett, emphasized long ago that he thought he might dedicate his volumes to Aaron Burr, who made completion of the task possible” (14).  Sometimes this longevity results in vast collections of material – if the microfilmed papers connecting to the Adams papers were stretched out (the collection includes the presidential papers but also the materials produced by Henry and Charles Francis Adams) it would extend more than five miles long (McCollough, pg. 20).  The actual papers, when not in the custodial care of the Library of Congress, have to be transcribed and proofread on-site at collections often unwilling to let them physically travel.  To take just one example, the Jefferson papers are geographically dispersed over 100 different global depositories (Katz, pg. 18).

Fundraising has always been a challenge despite recent Congressional support.  The projects were intended from the outset to be funded privately, although public funds have also been allocated (the National Endowment for the Humanities started providing project grants in 1994).  Stanley Katz, a Princeton professor and former president of the Organization of American Historians, chairs NHPRC’s fundraising operation, whose major purpose is to do fundraising for all the Founders projects with the goal of freeing scholars at work on annotation from that burden, and although the organization has raised millions, many more are needed.  Although federal funding was restored after considerable lobbying, last year’s Bush budget proposal recommended zeroing out the NHPRC altogether.  And the story of the finally failed Pew matching grant, which imposed a probably impossible challenge, is also instructive:  Pew (this according to Katz, pg. 28) gave Founding Fathers Papers, Inc., nine months to come up with the requisite 3-to-1, $30 million match.  When they couldn’t raise that amount of money so quickly, the Pew match was withdrawn.  The model of creating so-called “wasting funds” (large endowments designed to spend down to zero with the completion of a project) makes sense (the strategy was used to complete the Woodrow Wilson papers and is a solution to the threats posed by funding uncertainty), and the Pew impulse to put tight timeframes on creating such funds also makes sense.  But too optimistically calibrated, overly-fast timetables can produce wasted effort and final funding failure.

Katz has also warned against the temptation of thinking the projects can simply be scaled up to speed publication:  “These are rather extraordinary works of scholarship.  This a craft skill, this is not an industrial skill.  It can’t be scaled up in the way that industrial skills can” (12).  Progress has been expedited by splitting up projects so that different parts can be simultaneously worked on; this is the strategy now in use with the Jefferson and Madison papers.   But because this is the case for most of the series in process, the marginal possibilities for accelerating production are not likely as great as one might imagine.

A common refrain is to call attention to the presumed absurdity of continuing the commitment to expensive hard copy printing, when many imagine the papers could be scanned, thrown up on the Worldwide Web, and annotated perhaps by the collaborative wikipedia-type work of a preselected group of scholars.  In fact, this is already well underway, though the new commitments add major new work to existing teams.  Allen Weinstein, the U.S. Archivist, has committed to online dissemination, and digital commitments go back all the way to 1988, when agreements were made with the Packard Humanities Institute.  Packard continues to plug away along with the University of Virginia Press (the electronic imprint is called Rotunda).  The University of Virginia work also received major support from the the Mellon Foundation.  Rotunda, which is receiving no public funds for its work (31), has already posted the papers of Washington and Dolley Madison, with Adams, Jefferson, Ratification, and James Madison papers slated for online publication by the end of 2009.

But that solution, for anyone who has struggled to put up a respectable website, is a lot more complicated than it may seem.  For one thing, unlike the recent NEH initiative to digitize American historical newspapers, which can be electronically scanned, the handwritten papers of the founders have to be keyed in by hand and then verified one at a time, an exceptionally labor-intensive process.  The publication arrangements that have been made with major university presses makes it a challenge to place unannotated material on a website, which would seriously subvert the investments those presses have made in projects in anticipation of a return on investment with publication.  For another, nationally-sanctioned authoritative editions need to be handled with great care and with sensitivity to the fast changing environments of digital presentation, so that money will not be wasted investing in formats that will soon be judged unworthy of the material.  Still, the Library of Congress, which has proprietary control over many of the materials, has already begun significant digitization connected with its American Memory Project (e.g., all the Washington, Jefferson, and Madison papers are available online).  Their position is that they can do the job given more money.

And thus the brilliant, historically incomparable Founding papers annotations roll out, one expensive volume at a time, inexorably researched and in a seemingly never-ending quest for financial support, so that their educational potential for scholars, citizens, and students will not be delayed for yet another half century.

SOURCE:  The Founding Fathers’ Papers:  Ensuring Public Access to Our National Treasures, Hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, S. Hrg. 110-334 (Serial No. J-110-72), 7 February 2008.

When social science is painful

The latest issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (#621, January 2009) is wholly focused on the report authored in 1965 (read it here) by Daniel Patrick Moynihan focused on the status of black families, “the most famous piece of social scientific analysis never published” (Massey and Sampson, pg. 6).  The report arose out of Moynihan’s experience in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations working on poverty policy; his small group of underlings included Ralph Nader, working in his first Washington job.  Inspired by Stanley Elkins’ work on slavery (a book of that name argued that slavery set in motion a still-continuing tendency to black economic and social dependency), Moynihan’s group examined the ways in which welfare policy was, as he saw it, perpetuating single-family households led mainly by women, and at the expense of social stability and racial progress.  [In what follows I am relying almost totally on the full set of essays appearing in the January 2009 AAPSS, and the pagination references that follow are to those articles.]

Moynihan was writing in the immediate aftermath of passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and a principle theme of the report is that the eradication of legal segregation would not be enough to assure racial equality given larger structural forces at work.  Pressures on the black family had produced a state of crisis, a “tangle of pathology” that was reinforcing patterns of African-American poverty, he wrote.  Moynihan’s larger purpose was to recommend massive federal interventions, a goal subverted, unfortunately, by the report’s rhetorical overreaching (e.g.:  matriarchy in black families were said to prevent black men from fulfilling “the very essence of the male animal from the bantam rooster to the four star general… to strut”).  The solution, in his view, was to be found in a major federal jobs program for African American men.

The report was leaked to the press and was, by and large, immediately condemned, first because it seemed to provide aid and comfort to racists in its emphasis on out-of-wedlock births as a demographic pathology, and second because it seemed to many readers a classic case of “blaming the victim.”  In fact, the term “blaming the victim” may have its genesis in William Ryan’s use of the phrase to critique Moynihan in the Nation.  I think it likely that cultural salience of these critiques was later reinforced by a memo he wrote to Richard Nixon advocating the idea that “the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect,’” a locution he came to regret since that one soundbite came to dominate the actual point of the memo, better encapsulated in this perspective:  “We need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades” (contrary to the impression given by the benign neglect comment, he was actually trying to be critical of the hot and racially charged rhetoric coming out of Vice President Agnew).  Moynihan’s report proved divisive in the African American community, endorsed on release by Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King, Jr., but condemned by James Farmer.  By the time the report itself was more widely read its reception was distorted by the press frame, and a counter-tradition of research, celebrating the distinctiveness of black community formation, was well underway.

Read by today’s lights the Moynihan report has in some respects been both confirmed and its critics also partly vindicated too.  The essays in this special issue offer many defenses.  Douglas Massey (the Princeton sociologist) and Sampson (chair of sociology at Harvard, both writing in the introduction at pgs. 7-8) defend the report against the accusation of sexism:

Although references to matriarchy, pathological families, and strutting roosters are jarring to the contemporary ear, we must remember the times and context.  Moynihan was writing in the prefeminist era and producing an internal memo whose purpose was to attract attention to a critical national issue.  While his language is certainly sexist by today’s standards, it was nonetheless successful in getting the attention of one particular male chauvinist, President Johnson, who drew heavily on the Moynihan Report for his celebrated speech at Howard University on June 4.

Ironically, though, the negative reactions to the leaked report (which suffered since the report itself was not publicly circulated, only the critical synopses) led Johnson himself to disavow it, and no major jobs program for black men was forthcoming as part of Great Society legislative action.  Moynihan left government soon afterward and found the national coverage, a lot of which attacked him as a bigot, scarring and unwarranted given the overall argumentative arc of the report.  Only when serious riots reerupted in 1968 did jobs get back on the agenda, but the watered down affirmative action programs that resulted failed to transform the economic scene for racial minorities while proving a galvanizing lightning rod for conservative opponents (Massey and Sampson, 10).  The main policy change relating to black men since then has been sharp increases in rates of incarceration, not rises in employment or economic stability, a phenomenon which is the focus of an essay by Bruce Western (Harvard) and Christopher Wildeman (University of Michigan).

Several of the contributors to the special issue mainly write to insist that Moynihan has been vindicated by history.  His simple thesis, that in subgroups pressures tending to disemploy males will in turn fragment families and produce higher incidences of out-of-wedlock birth, divorce, all at the main expense of women and children, is explicitly defended as having been vindicated by the newest data.  James Q. Wilson writes that the criticism the report received at the time “reflects either an unwillingness to read the report or an unwillingness to think about it in a serious way” (29). Harry Holzer, an Urban Institute senior fellow, argues that the subsequent trends in black male unemployment have only intensified since the 1960’s, thereby reaffirming the prescience of Moynihan’s position and strengthening the need for a dramatic federal response (for instance, Holzer defends the idea that without larger educational investments the destructive perceptions of working opportunities will produce perceptual barriers to cultural transformation).  The predicate in Ron Haskins (of the Brookings Institution) essay is announced by its title:  “Moynihan Was Right:  Now What?” (281-314).

Others argue that the Moynihan claims, which relied on the assumption that only traditional family arrangements can suitably anchor culture, ignore the vitality of alternative family forms that have become more common in the forty years since.  Frank Furstenberg notes that “Moynihan failed to see that the changes taking place in low-income black families were also happening, albeit at a slower pace, among lower-income families more generally” (95).  For instance, rates of single parenting among lower-income blacks have dropped while increasing among lower-income whites.  Linda Burton (Duke) and Belinda Tucker (UCLA) reiterate the criticism that the behavior of young women of color should not be pathologized, but is better understood as a set of rational responses to the conditions of cultural uncertainty that pervade poorer communities (132-148):  “Unlike what the Moynihan Report suggested, we do not see low-income African American women’s trends in marriage and romantic unions as pathologically out of line with the growing numbers of unmarried women and single mothers across all groups in contemporary American culture.  We are hopeful that the uncertainty that is the foundation of romantic relationships today will reinforce the adaptive skills that have sustained African American women and their families across time” (144).  Kathryn Edin (Harvard) et al., criticize Moynihan’s work for diverting research away from actual attention to the conditions of black fatherhood, which in turn has meant that so-called “hit and run” fathers could be criticized in ways that have raced far out of proportion to their actual incidence in urban populations (149-177).

The lessons drawn by the AAPSS commentators from all this for the practice of academic research are interesting.  One drawn by Massey relates to the “chilling effect on social science over the next two decades [caused by the Moynihan report and its reception in the media].  Sociologists avoided studying controversial issues related to race, culture, and intelligence, and those who insisted on investigating such unpopular notions generally encountered resistance and ostracism” (qtd. from a 1995 review in Massey and Sampson, 12). Because of this, and the counter-tendency among liberal/progressive scholars to celebrate single parenting and applaud the resilience of children raised in single-parent households, conservatives were given an ideological opening to drumbeat media reports about welfare fraud, drug usage rates, and violence, and to pathologize black men, an outcome M/S argue led to a conservative rhetoric of “moralistic hectoring and cheap sermonizing to individuals (“Just say no!”).  Not until William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), did the scholarly tide shift back to a publicly articulated case for social interventions more in tune with Moynihan’s original proposals – writing in the symposium WJW agrees with that judgment and traces the history of what he argues has been a social science abandonment of structural explanations for the emergence of poverty cultures.  The good news is arguably that “social scientists have never been in such a good position to document and analyze various elements in the ‘tangle of pathology’ he hypothesized” (Massey and Sampson, pg. 19).

The history of the report also calls attention to the limits of government action, a question with which Moynihan is said to have struggled for his entire career in public service.  Even accepting the critiques of family disintegration leaves one to ask what role the government might play in stabilizing family formations, a question now controversial on many fronts.  James Q. Wilson notes that welfare reform is more likely to shift patterns of work than patterns of family, since, e.g.,  bureaucrats can more reasonably ask welfare recipients to apply for a job than for a marriage license (32-33).  Moynihan’s answer was that the government’s best chances were to provide indirect inducements to family formation, mainly in the form of income guarantees (of the sort finally enacted in the Earned Income Tax Credit).  But asked at the end of his career about the role of government, Moynihan replied:  “If you think a government program can restore marriage, you know more about government than I do” (qtd. in Wilson, 33).

Moynihan was an intensely interesting intellectual who thrived, despite his peculiarities, in the United States Senate (four terms from New York before retiring and blessing Hillary Clinton’s run for his seat), as he had earlier serving as Nixon’s ambassador to India and Ford’s representative at the United Nations.  At his death in 2003, a tribute in Time magazine said that “Moynihan stood out because of his insistence on intellectual honesty and his unwillingness to walk away from a looming debate, no matter how messy it promised to be.  Moynihan offered challenging, groundbreaking – sometimes even successful – solutions to perennial public policy dilemmas, including welfare and racism.  This is the sort of intellectual stubbornness that rarely makes an appearance in Washington today” (Jessica Reaves, Time, March 27, 2003).  His willingness to defend his views even when deeply unpopular gave him a thick skin and the discipline to write big books during Senate recesses while his other colleagues were fundraising.

Moynihan’s intellectualism often put him at odds with Democratic orthodoxy, and maybe on the wrong side of the issue – he opposed the Clinton efforts to produce a national health insurance system, publicly opposed partial birth abortion (“too close to infanticide”), was famously complicit in pushing the American party line at the United Nations, a fact that has been much criticized as enabling the slaughter of maybe 200,000 victims, killed in the aftermath of Indonesia’s takeover of East Timor.  But he also held a range of positions that reassured his mainly liberal and working class base:  opposed to the death penalty, the Defense of Marriage Act, NAFTA, and a famous champion of reducing the government’s proclivity to classify everything as top secret.

But Daniel Patrick Moynihan will be forever linked to his first and most (in)famous foray into the nation’s conversation on race, which simultaneously revealed the possibilities for thoughtful social science to shape public policy and the risks of framing such research in language seeking to make such research dramatic and attention-getting in a glutted sea of white papers and task force reports whose issuance typically come and go without any serious notice.

Neil Armstrong’s sublime silence

Over the holiday I had a chance to watch Ron Howard’s elegant documentary about the US-USSR race to the moon, a film that interviewed nearly all those who still live and walked on the moon.  All, that is, but Neil Armstrong, the very first human being to step foot on the lunar surface.  If human beings are still around in 5000 years, and barring a catastrophic erasure of human history, Neil Armstrong’s name will still be known and his serendipitous selection to be the first astronaut to step outside the lunar module at 2:56 UTC July 21, 1969, will still be celebrated as an astonishing feat of corporate (by which I simply mean massively collective) scientific enterprise, and the one line first spoken from the moon’s surface – “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” – will still be recited.  Since more than two-thirds of the world’s population had not yet been born in 1969, perhaps my thought is a naive one; I hope not.

Armstrong has been accused of being a recluse (historian Douglas Brinkley famously described him as “our nation’s most bashful Galahad”), but that descriptor doesn’t quite work.  After all, now 78 years old, Armstrong followed up his service to NASA by doing an ASO tour with Bob Hope and then a 45-day “Giant Leap” tour that included stops in Soviet Russia.  For thirteen months he served as Deputy Associate Administrator for Aeronautics at DARPA, and then taught at the University of Cincinnati for eight years.  More recently he has served as a technical consultant on two panels convened to report on space disasters (in the aftermath of the Apollo 13 and Challenger explosions; NA vice-chaired the Rogers Commission investigating the latter).  Armstrong has spoken selectively at commemorative events, including at a White House ceremony recalling the 25th anniversary of the moon walk, at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of NASA just a couple months ago, and the opening of a new engineering building at Purdue University (his alma mater) named after him in 2007.

So, no, Neil Armstrong is not a recluse in the sense we typically ascribe to monks or the painfully shy.  He is willing to be interviewed (he does seem to be tough on his own performances, which may explain some of his selectivity in accepting offers – after a 60 Minutes profile in which he participated, he gave himself a C-minus).  He gives speeches.  He has been happy to offer commentary on public policy subjects relating to outer space.  But what he has refused to do is endlessly reflect on what he did that July day.  And I admire him for this, not because others who have been forthcoming and talkative about the experience are to be criticized – their stories are compelling and their histories worth recalling and Aldrin and Lovell and the others have been important ambassadors and salesmen for space exploration – but because what Armstrong did, and the event in which he so memorably participated, would be diminished by more talk.

The recognition of this fact is the brilliance of the one line he so famously spoke, which remains a masterfully succinct response to a world historical moment.  Speech was required – the first man to step on the moon had to say something, after all – but too much yammering would have undermined the collective majesty of the moment, and excessive talk after the fact would have done the same.  Can you imagine a thousand years from now school children watching hours upon hours of the alternative, Neil Armstrong in a hundred oral history interviews?  Were you sweating?  Did you burp in your space helmet?  Were your space boots chafing?  As you jumped off the last step did you think you would be swallowed up?  Did you get verklempt?  How do people pee in space?  How did the event compare with taking your marriage vows?  To whom were you dedicating the experience?  Did you hear God’s voice?  If you were, in that moment, a tree, what kind of tree would you have been?

Ugh.  No thank you.  I don’t want to know the infinite and microscopic details and I don’t think they matter one whit.  The deeply powerful impression created by watching that grainy black and white event on a small television, for me as a child three days short of my eighth birthday, remains indelible – pay attention!  watch this!  look out the window – do you see the moon? – those people on the television are actually up there – one small step…  It was late at night (close to 11:00 EST in the United States) and I was getting tired and grumpy – why weren’t we going home yet? – but when the moment came I and the other 450 million estimated to have also watched the landing live (some estimates range as high as one billion) sat completely absorbed by what we were seeing and held our breaths to see later if the landing vehicle would escape the moon’s atmosphere.

And Neil Armstrong, at some deeply personal level, understands all this in a way that may be best analogized to the disappearance of musicians and celebrities who leave the stage and never reappear again.  In the television context, think Johnny Carson or Lucille Ball, who knew they could only subvert the quality of their life’s work in public by agreeing to appear in “comeback specials” and all the rest.  (This is why DVDs with nonstop director’s commentary are so often, in my view, a terrible mistake – let the work make its own impression.)  And so Armstrong, since 1994 or so, has stopped signing autographs (he found out they were simply being sold for profit and decided he didn’t want to be involved, paradoxically of course only increasing their value).  He also hasn’t been arrested shoplifting or been accused of harassment or even, so far as I know, been caught speeding, any of which would also have diminished his most public visible moment of achievement in the space program.

In the words of one writer, “Neil Armstrong achieved one of the greatest goals in human spaceflight but then did not go on to proselytize the faith…  For True Believers in the Cause, this is apostasy, and they resent him for it.”  Thomas Mallon, writing in the New Yorker, seemed to criticize Armstrong (the implicit assumption was that he’s too litigious) because he sued his barber – turns out the guy was cutting his hair and then selling it online.  I think Armstrong was right:  the hair thing was cheap and exploitive and diminished the work.

When Armstrong agreed to participate in the writing of a biography, which appeared in 2006 (James Hansen, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, Simon and Schuster), there was a lot of speculation that at last its subject was prepared to go onto the couch, if only to debunk the stories that implied there was something creepy about his reluctance to talk all the time to reporters.  In reading the book I am struck by the good choice Armstrong made in settling on a collaborator – Hansen’s book is saturated with information (almost four hundred pages before we even get to Apollo 11), but the information is crisply organized. Hansen refuses the temptation to plant thoughts, speculate endlessly about feelings, and so on, and if pressed Armstrong to undergo psychoanalysis that doesn’t come across in the narrative.  Some have criticized the short final section (covering the years post-moon landing) as less interesting, and others have found fault in the fact that the book reveals Armstrong’s occasionally interpersonal coldness and the toll his career took on his family life.  Only in reading that Armstrong didn’t take souvenirs on the mission for his two sons did I start to think this is too much information.  But I found myself wondering if his notorious interpersonal coolness is also the reason he made a perfect astronaut – ice in the veins, cool under pressure, and all that.

Neil Armstrong is no Superman.  He was one of a thousand military men who might have served as the public face of the mammoth and expensive engineering triumph that achieved spaceflight, and had he come down with the flu it would probably be Buzz Aldrin we most remember today.  And so my point is not to celebrate the relative silence because it creates a mythology.  To the contrary, what I admire about Armstrong’s long refusal to be daily feted and interrogated about July 21 is that as he recedes, the work is allowed to dominate the scene.  In the eloquence of his one first sentence spoken from the lunar surface, and in his silence on that experience since, the sublime accomplishment of this supreme national effort is best recollected.

Oh, and one other thing:  Armstrong donated the royalties from the biography to Purdue, to be used to build a space program archive there.


How free trade regimes collapse

Under circumstances of international economic duress, free trade is especially jeopardized:  democratically elected officials, even those committed in principle to unfettered commerce as the best-available engine of economic growth, will cede to local demands for protection.  Desperate to preserve market share, governments will be tempted to raise tariffs that make imports more expensive and locally produced goods cheaper, or they will be persuaded that economic exigency warrants temporary protections that will likely only induce retaliation elsewhere.  Thus are set in motion cycles of retaliatory protectionism like the one perpetuated by the notorious Smoot-Hawley tariffs (the Tariff Act of 1930) now believed to have worsened the deep economic depression of the late 1920’s and 1930’s.

When Herbert Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley Act in June 1930, Thomas Lamont, a J.P. Morgan partner and Hoover adviser, begged him not to (along with a thousand economists who also petitioned against the bill):  “I almost went down on my knees to beg Herbert Hoover to veto the asinine Hawley-Smoot Tariff.”  The legislation jumped duties on almost 900 American imports.  Decades later, debating the merits of NAFTA with Ross Perot on the Larry King CNN show, then-Vice President Gore presented Perot with a framed picture of the two Congressmen.

While free trade regimes are regularly defended by economists – the intellectual commitment remains strong despite work done over the last several decades showing that nascent markets require or at least have inevitably benefited from protective regulatory regimes and that regimes today most adamant in their declared support for free trade (like the United States and Japan) provided intensive protection for their long-dominant manufacturing sectors – the arguments for and against protectionism are alive again thanks to the severity of the current economic downturn.

The uncertain signals sent during the campaign by Barack Obama (he said we couldn’t hide from the world economy but also that NAFTA should be renegotiated) have been reinforced by his early Cabinet picks.  As Clive Cook put it last week, “Mr. Obama’s US trade representative (his chief international negotiator) will be Ron Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas, a leading proponent of NAFTA and a long-time supporter of liberal trade.  His appointment disappoints the president’s supporters on the left of the party.  The new labour secretary has them applauding, however:  she is Hilda Solis, an ally of the unions, a leader in Congress of opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement and a forthright critic of orthodox liberal trade.”  Larry Summers, director-designate of the National Economic Council, is a big-time free trader; Bill Richardson, picked to be the next Commerce Secretary, kept calling for “fair” trade on the campaign trail.

The debate over the consequences of free trade, especially when broadened beyond the technical mathematical models and into the domain of distributive politics, gets complicated fast.  Even the strongest advocates of free trade agree that codifying it sets in motion significant sectoral dislocations that imperil communities and work at odds with local social justice imperatives.  President Clinton tried to square this circle by arguing that trade needed to be promoted, but that such promotion also needed to include strengthened social security networks to help those dislocated by the vagaries of global capital, a position that has become today’s trade realpolitick on both sides of the political aisle.  This position has enabled the ongoing negotiation of global trade instruments, both on a regional and national basis (such as the agreement now being advocated by President Bush negotiated with Colombia) and within the ongoing framework of what started as the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and has since evolved into the World Trade Organization legal regime.

The common expectation is that the global trade talks most recently stalled in the so-called Doha Round will be even more imperiled by the bad economy.  Clive Crook:  “With unemployment rising, wages under pressure and no firm countervailing push from the administration, protecting jobs (or claiming to, at any rate) is likely to be a higher priority than liberal trade.  The prospects for widening the opportunities for international commerce look grim.”  The Doha failure was disconcerting even to some economic progressives since global poverty was explicitly on the agenda – “while idealistic in its goal, [Doha] set out in 2001 to develop a new platform for global cooperation that would depart from traditional aid and development programs” (MacBain, 39-40).  The World Bank had estimated that a Doha agreement might have brought as many as 32 million persons out of extreme poverty.

Just this month, the World Bank projected that the total volume of global trade is likely to fall in 2009 by 2%, the first actual drop since 1982 (the estimate might be conservative given December reports, based on year-to-date data through November, showing roughly twenty percent drops in exports from Taiwan, Chile, and South Korea).  Several countries, including Russia and India, have already announced tariff increases, although jumps so far haven’t posed a major threat because they only undo tariff cuts previously announced that went lower than international law had required (and so the new increases don’t violate WTO protocols).  But even this path to higher tariffs poses dangers:  “If all countries were to raise tariffs to the maximum allowed, the average global rate of duty would be doubled, according to Antoine Bouet and David Laborde of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC.  The effect could shrink global trade by 7.7%” (Economist, “Barriers”).  As the magazine editorialized, even “a modest shift away from openness – well within the WTO’s rules – would be enough to turn the recession of 2009 much nastier.”

In such an environment two prospects seem especially likely (in addition to the third:  mounting outright protectionism and the risk of reprisals).  One is that global economic giants like the European Union, China and the United States will continue to sidestep global framework talks by cutting one-on-one-deals with specific trading partners.  The problem with that approach is that side deals can complicate wider talks; local arrangements thus undermine international ones.  And one-on-one negotiations are more easily dominated by this-or-that industrial lobby, where final arrangements end up sideskirting fundamental distortions in trading for the benefit of entrenched corporate interests on both sides.

The other prospect may be the most insidious, and has already been set in motion thanks to bipartisan support.  This approach provides protection not by taxing imports but by subsidizing exports.  The latest automobile bailout is a classic example of this sort of non-tariff trade barrier; American cars have been given a massive $18 billion economic benefit relative to the car companies manufacturing in other nations.  For now the huge investments being made in national banking and manufacturing and infrastructural development have not triggered serious retaliation since everyone is doing it and all are agreed that bailouts are needed to avert far greater economic catastrophe (at least this is the rhetorical bludgeon that has been used so far to enact gargantuan packages).

These subsidies are not new – in the United States, the 2008 Farm Bill promised another $20 billion in help for cash-crop producers.  But individual ad hoc bailouts acquire an accelerating logic, and turn into subsidy cycles that are hard to resist – China is now talking about domestic steel subsidies and has already put in place more than 3,000 tariff rebates established to promote Chinese products.  Indonesia has raised tariffs on 500 products this month; France has started a national fund to protect French companies from being bought out by foreigners; and Russia has imposed a tax on imported pork and cars (Faiola and Kessler).  And “there are other, more subtle, means of protection available.  Marc Busch, a professor of trade policy at Georgetown University in Washington DC, worries that health and safety standards and technical barriers to trade, such as licensing and certification requirements, will be used aggressively to shield domestic industries as the global downturn drags on” (Economist, “Barriers”).

Over time these localized subsidies unravel both the legal architecture of global trade and the political good will necessary to sustain it.  Part of the reason the Doha Round failed was an inability to come to terms on long standing trade subsidies, such as American and EU cash support for their agricultural sectors and other smaller but flash-making provocations.  When America refuses to import Chinese toys we say it’s on account of safety but they see it as a trade barrier.  When France throws up obstacles to importing American wine they say they are simply protecting their national culture, but we cry foul.  South Africa insists that Italian mining companies doing business outside Pretoria adhere to affirmative action mandates, which Italy says is an impediment to international commerce.  Europe threatens to prohibit the import of American cars because they pollute too much, and we cry protectionism.  And so on.  Patterns of reasonable protection are thus made acrimonious, and nations unable to throw cash at their favored industries consider reverting to more traditional forms of tariff protection.  And this is how trade wars are ignited.

It has to be conceded that the political/rhetorical threat of trade war! is too easily bandied about, and liberals have long rightly complained that economic justice policies are inevitably thrown under the bus when such Great Depression talk looms.  As I read a recent column by Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, laying out a case for why “business and government leaders must reset the debate, re-establishing why interdependent economies and healthy competition are good for the world,” and then proposing six “GE” principles to take charge of such a debate that try to have it both ways (protectionism must be resisted and global trade must be fair), I admit to skepticism.  And even a recent essay in the free-trade-leaning Economist admitted recently that “few economists think the Smoot-Hawley tariff was one of the principal causes of the Depression.”

But the history of the Smoot-Hawley protections is cautionary nonetheless.  The bill was not supposed to be so draconian, but started as a much more modest effort to provide some quick help to American agriculture.  “With no obvious logic – most American farmers faced little competition from imports – attention shifted to securing for agriculture the same sort of protection as for manufacturing, where tariffs were on average twice as high” (Economist, “Battle”).  In a nearly six-month conference reconciliation process, the bill was quickly larded up – Robert LaFollette, the Wisconsin progressive, said the bill was “the product of a series of deals, conceived in secret, but executed in public with a brazen effrontery that is without parallel in the annals of the Senate.”

While the actual economic costs associated with the bill’s 890 tariff hikes were modest, the deal soured international comity – the League of Nations (which of course the United States had never joined) was negotiating a “tariff truce” which fell through in the resulting acrimony.  Even in a climate like today’s, where product manufacturing is deeply interdependent and reliant on multinational industrial networks, political disputes can easily escalate.  British prime minister Gordon Brown has already given major speeches implicitly connecting the car bailout to protectionism, the German automaker Opel has used the bailout to argue for 1-billion euros in credit guarantees, and the EU recently agreed to a $50 billion package of support that will help European automakers meet newly toughened environmental standards.  And regimes of free trade, deeply imperfect as they are, may thus give way to even more destabilizing nationalistic free-for-alls.

SOURCES:  Clive Crook, “Obama has to lead the way on trade,” Financial Times, 22 December 2008, p. 9; Jeff Immelt, “Time to re-embrace globalisation,” Economist/World in 2009, p. 141; “The battle of Smoot-Hawley,” The Economist, 20 December 2008, pgs. 125-126; “Barriers to entry,” The Economist, 20 December 2008, pg. 121; “Farewell, free trade,” The Economist, 20 December 2008, pg. 15; Louise Blouin MacBain, “Doha’s good deeds,” World Policy Journal (Summer 2008): 39-43; Anthony Faiola and Glenn Kessler, “Trade barriers toughen with global slump,” Washington Post, 22 December 2008, p. A01; Jemy Gatdula, “Trade tripper: Cars, plans, and bailouts,” Business World, 28 November 2008, pg. S1/5.

How global warming imperils our history

C. Brian Rose, president of the Archeological Institute of America, introduced the November/December 2008 issue of Archeology with an editorial that begins as follows:

Global warming is real and it is one of the gravest threats facing our shared cultural heritage.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the ten warmest years have all occurred since 1995, and the UN’s Environment Program notes that the world’s glaciers are receding at a record pace.  This situation brings a cascade of problems that are having a catastrophic impact on archeological sites.  Melting of ice and permafrost endanger most frozen sites on the continents, while rising sea levels promote the erosion and submergence of others…  Examples in recent years include Ötzi, the late Neolithic herdsmen discovered in the Italian Alps; the 550-year-old Native American hunter whose body was recovered from a melting glacier in British Columbia; and the Inca human sacrifices found on Andean peaks.  Similarly endangered are the frozen burials of Eurasian nomads… Remains of 5,000 year old stone houses built by Neolithic farmers and hunters at Skara Brae, Orkney, may have to be dismantled and moved inland for protection.  Portions of the ruins of Nan Madol, an ancient political and religious center on the Pacific island of Pohnpei in Micronesia, may soon be submerged.

In the context of the larger consequences of global climate change, these effects on the historical record may seem incidental or modest, but of course the losses might be permanent, and as Rose has noted, not that difficult to document now.  He calls for a UNESCO and NASA and ESA program to do fast satellite imaging to map glaciers, since the ultraviolet readings can lead investigators to burial sites.

Every other year the World Monuments Fund releases a “world monuments watch list” to call attention to endangered sites.  For the first time in 2008, global climate change is named as a cause of urgent concern, noting that “several sites… are threatened right now by flooding, encroaching desert, and changing weather patterns.”  Two examples:  (a) Herschel Island, Canada, “home to ancient Inuit sites and a historic whaling town at the edge of the Yukon Territory that are being lost to the rising sea and melting permafrost in this fastest-warming part of the world”; and (b) Sonargaon-Panam City, Bangladesh, “a former medieval trading hub and crossroads of culture, whose long-neglected and deteriorating architecture is increasingly threatened by flooding in this low-lying country, one of the most vulnerable to the impacts of global warming.”  The dangers, because they are likely to approach gradually, are easy to ignore, and in the context of archeological sites where the main evidence is already obscured and not in plain site, awful losses might be occurring without anyone even knowing it.

Despite such warnings, there is little evidence of policy action to move in ways that would conserve historical preservation sites, perhaps not surprising given the lack of action on climate change’s broader consequences.  A recent study published by the journal Climate Change notes in Great Britain, where some emphasis has been placed on cataloging climate effects, “lack of a widespread consideration of heritage has resulted in a relatively low profile more generally for the subject.”  A 2005 UK Environment Agency report organized to set “a science agenda… in light of climate change impacts and adaptation” never mentions heritage preservation.

The danger does not simply derive from changing levels in oceans and rivers.  A 2006 “Heritage at Risk” report argues that climate change is partly responsible for the summer of 2007 fires that were among “the largest catastrophes in the Mediterranean in the last century.”  Warming was at fault because it made fires more common and intense; research reported by the Athens Observatory notes that global warming also changes soil humidity levels, and this also contributes to fire susceptibility.  While climate change is not the only cause of fires, their 2007 severity raised alarms in the historical preservation community, especially given damage to “our cultural heritage in the Peloponnese.  This included the Arcadian landscapes, Byzantine churches and monasteries, Apollo Epicurius at Bassae (a World Heritage Site), the Antiquities in Ilieia and especially the archeological site of Olympia (also a World Heritage Site).  There was damage to the area surrounding the Olympia archeological site.  The Kladios stream, a tributary of the Alpheios River, was burnt to a great extent, whereas the Kronios Hill was burnt entirely.  The park and the surroundings of the International Olympic Academy were destroyed.  Furthermore, some slopes near the ancient stadium were also burnt.”

The Centre for Sustainable Heritage at University College London released (in 2005) a major report on these issues, Climate Change and the Historic Environment, authored by May Cassar.  The document summarizes a comprehensive effort to catalog the risks, but for me most compelling starts by quoting Titania’s “weather speech,” a part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act II Scene I), which eerily anticipates the threat, and may even have been prompted by the “meteorologically turbulent time when Shakespeare was writing his play” (Cassar):

                …the spring, the summer,
                The chiding autumn, angry winter, change
                Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world
                By their increase, now knows not which is which:
                And this same progeny of evil comes
                From our debate, from our dissension;
                We are their parents and original.

SOURCE:  A.J. Howard et al., “The impact of climate change on archeological resources in Britain: A catchment scale assessment,” Climate Change 91 (2008): 405-422; May Cassar, Climate Change and the Historic Environment (London: English Heritage and the UK Climate Impacts Programme, 2005).

On the relevance of Lionel Trilling

I am aware of no specific anniversary that has prompted the spat of recently revitalized interest in the life work of Lionel Trilling, the legendary Columbia University professor and author most famously of The Liberal Imagination (1950).  But suddenly his writing has sprung back into intellectual circulation:  the first third of an unfinished novel, The Journey Abandoned, has been published this year, and New York Review Books has just reissued The Liberal Imagination.  Read by today’s lights, which is to say to read it outside the culturally dominant frame of the Cold War and American anti-communism that shaped its production and Trilling’s world view, it is hard to imagine what made it a national bestseller (more than 100,000 copies were sold in paperback).  All the essays had previously appeared in print, many in the Partisan Review to which Trilling was long attached, and many of the essays engage particular novelistic texts in ways one would assume rather inaccessible to the wider reading public.  Still, I have found myself attracted to Liberal Imagination (and have been recently reading my way through it), in part because of the way it has been described as a “monument of humanism” (McCarter) but also just to gain purchase on the basis of his enormous influence in American literary critical circles.

Louis Menand’s introduction to the new reprint, which has been strongly attacked by Leon Wieseltier (a Trilling student) as misconstruing Trilling’s sense of the relationship between art and literature and thereby demeaning the sense of urgency Trilling saw in the literary critical enterprise, nonetheless rightly calls attention to a combination of humbled arrogance I find attractive in his work.  Trilling did not mainly want to be remembered as a critic (he wished most of all to be considered a novelist); in fact, because he only knew the English language he expressed the concern that he was not even properly a scholar.  “But,” writes Menand, “although he may not have wanted what he had, and he may not have understood entirely why he had it, he appreciated its value and tended it with care.”  The result is deeply polished prose that, if it fails, likely does so because Trilling’s work is saturated by the expression of dialectical tendencies that can become sources of frustration when one seeks to finally understanding his position, more than any sense of overweening arrogance in his compositional style.

The central theme of the book, which was also a central problematic of Trilling’s lifetime critical production, strikes me as possessing a profound continuing relevance even if Trilling’s own position reads as less coherent than it would have more than a half century ago.  Trilling was concerned to specify and sometimes to ambiguate the relationship between literature and liberal politics.  Liberalism, whose ideological impulses (and this is true of all ideological formations) can lead to an inevitable oversimplification of the human condition (in the case of liberalism by reducing the aim of all politics to the attainment of equality and freedom, which when applied risk doing violence to the rougher edges of the polity that should by liberalism’s own lights be tolerated), required reflective challenge if it was to survive without lapsing into empty and dangerous dogma.  Because conservatism seemed to Trilling an unavailable corrective in producing morally mature individuals (as he famously put it in the preface, “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.  For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.”), it fell to the novelist to interrogate the tendency to empty certitude to which liberalism in all its American variations was prone.

Why literature?  Because great novels (and for Trilling this mainly meant stories to some extent historically distant from contemporary culture) offer representations that invite critical speculation and open ethical vistas.  This is so because the novelist situates moral and political struggle within characters, imagined persons who make ideological abstractions concrete and on account of their embodiment reveal the limits of theory (Donald Pease has suggested that Trilling’s main contribution was to “elevate the liberal imagination [and the liberal anticommunist consensus] into the field’s equivalent of a reality principle”).  Literature, Trilling wrote, is “the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.”  And all this is accomplished in a manner assured to interest and engage readers able to connect emotionally to vivid and rich scenes of imagined human interaction.  The novel thus possesses the twin capacity to enact moral ambiguities while also attracting the interest of audiences more numerous that those who would ever read theology or philosophy or other theory. (Ironically, perhaps, John Vernon criticized Trilling’s later writing as suffering because it offered a wholly disembodied and thus cold analysis, which is to say his criticism lacked the formal virtues of the novel he so regularly praised).

Trilling did not believe that literature always apprehends or represents or has some unique insight into the Truth.  He understood that not all writers see themselves as working in explicit opposition to liberalism, which for him was beside the point since any rich ethical interrogative novel poses an useful if implicit challenge to ideological certitude.  Nor did he believe that writers have (either on account of their separation from the wider culture or their innate madness) special access to privileged knowledge.  He simply believed that writers who attempt to offer richly plotted stories recognizable to their readers will necessarily induce critical analysis and reflection.  As Menand notes, referring to Trilling’s famous essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” Trilling

…had come to believe that “art does not always tell the truth or the best kind of truth and does not always point out the right way, that is can even generate falsehood and habituate us to it, and that, on frequent occasions, it might well be subject, in the interests of autonomy, to the scrutiny of the rational intellect.”  …Humanism might be a false friend. This willingness to follow out the logic of his own premises, to register doubts about a faith for which he is still celebrated by people who are offended by attempts to understand books as fully and completely implicated in their historical times, is the finest thing about his work.

Along with mass culture, literary criticism can too easily become a culprit in degrading the complexity proper to a well-functioning liberalism as well, for if the critic tries to ignore the broader culture and its history altogether (and this was the major shortcoming Trilling saw in the work done under the name New Criticism), or insists on applying the strictures of scientific covering laws or a predetermined ideology, all the richness of the realist novel is erased, thereby simply opposing liberalism’s potential platitudes with the verities of alternatively over-basic theories of collective life.

In judging the contemporary relevance of Trilling’s case for high literary culture one immediately wonders if a position so intimately connected to 1950’s hyper-ideological Cold War culture makes sense given today’s arguably post-ideological times.  Here is the case made by McCarter:

The “Stalinist-colored” ideas that Trilling sought to rebuke are now tough to spot, unless you’re a Fox News contributor.  But even as some liberal excesses have receded, the book has lost none of its urgency.  For it celebrates something that is imperiled in our high-speed, always-on media culture:  imagination itself.  Trilling foresaw the threat:  “The emotional space of the human mind is large but not infinite, and perhaps it will be pre-empted by the substitutes for literature – the radio, the movies, and certain magazines,” he wrote, prophetically.  A shrinking national attention span and eroding reading habits aren’t just bad news for liberal politics.  The moral imagination excited by good books, he argues, teaches us sympathy and a respect for variety:  the waning novel leads to “our waning freedom.”

Such a position is not altogether self-evident, especially given the manner by which popular culture has been vigorously defended in the last quarter-century (or more) as enabling vernaculars both of understanding and potential resistance to the stultifications of ideology.  To specify the point by asking a rather mundane question: why is it that the nation’s critical faculties are raised by reading an E.M. Forster novel (a writer Trilling praised) but not by seeing A Room With a View in the cinema multiplex?  I have not encountered a fully elaborated critique of popular cultural mass mediation so far in Trilling, but can imagine some lines of argument he might attempt.  He might first call to mind his often articulated view that the historical distance created by great novels is required to counteract the tendency to revert to current ideological accounts, possibilities subverted by necessarily simple film or journalistic treatments that translate rich novels into the contemporary vernacular.

Trilling might also evoke the long-standing case against mass culture as inevitably inclined to conformity and utopianism, versions of which often start with the view that, organized as they are by the desire for lowest-common-denominator mass audiences and controversy shyness (since controversy can be a stigma that suppresses profits), mass cultural artifacts will inevitably lapse into intellectual quietism or outright boosterism for self-satisfying verities.  As Hersch puts the potential case, “while literature encourages critical reflection, mass culture produces a predetermined emotional and intellectual response in the reader, discouraging and atrophying the ability to think independently.  Such pseudo-literature encouraged passivity, paving the way for totalitarianism.”  Agree or disagree, it should be noted that this view of mass culture may have contributed to Trilling’s own late-in-life pessimism even regarding the capacity of literature to break through, since (again quoting Hersch), “in a conformist culture, literature presents minority views that are likely to be scorned by the majority” (99).

Even conceding Trilling’s case, which many thoughtful observers of contemporary culture would never do (Herbert Gans and Raymond Williams would stand near the head of a long line), LT is often attacked for his tendency to read liberalism as wholly shaped by a now nonexistent monolithic middle class (that if it existed in the 1950’s certainly does not today, a point that underwrites part of Cornel West’s critique), which given current conditions of fragmentation does not exist in any meaningful way and probably cannot be rearticulated.  Another common criticism is that in developing his case for interrogating liberalism Trilling only paved the way for neoconservatism (a cottage industry continues to debate whether Trilling was a closet case neoconservative:  his wife Diana has adamantly refused the possibility, while Irving Kristol has claimed that LT was simply a neocon lacking the courage to say so in print).

Both arguments, it seems to me, miss the deeper commitment in Trilling’s work to a messy and complex humanism, and his recognition that for societies to proceed thoughtfully requires both a sense of common vision and purpose and also an always acknowledged sense that ideologies cannot be permitted, in the name of such commonalities, to erase or suppress what he called the “wildness of spirit which it is still our grace to believe is the mark of full humanness.”  As Bender has argued, “Trilling’s very middle classness – by providing the perspective of distance – ends up, however paradoxically, providing contemporary American culture with a radical challenge, urging critics to find some space among nostalgia, politicized group identities, and specialized academic autonomy for the creation of a public culture” (pg. 344).

SOURCES:  Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society, intro. by Louis Menand (New York:  New York Review Books, 2008 [1950]); Jeremy McCarter, “He Gave Liberalism a Good Name,” Newsweek, 6 October 2008, pg. 57;  Leon Wieseltier, “The Shrinker,” New Republic, 22 October 2008, pg. 48; Louis Menand, “Regrets Only: Lionel Trilling and His Discontents,” New Yorker, 29 September 2008, pgs. 80-90; Russell Reising, “Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, and the Emergence of the Cultural Discourse of Anti-Stalinism,” boundary2 20.1 (1993): pgs. 94-124; Donald Pease, “New Americanists: Revisionist Interventions into the Canon,” boundary2 17 (1990);  Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); Thomas Bender, “Lionel Trilling and American Culture,” American Quarterly 42.2 (June 1990): pgs. 324-347; John Vernon, “On Lionel Trilling,” boundary2 2.3 (Spring 1974): pgs. 625-632; Charles Hersch, “Liberalism, the Novel, and the Self:  Lionel Trilling on the Political Functions of Literature,” Polity 24.1 (Fall 1991): pgs. 91-106; Robert Genter, “’I’m Not His Father’: Lionel Trilling, Allen Ginsberg, and the Contours of Literary Modernism,” College Literature 31.2 (Spring 2004): pgs. 22-52; T. H. Adamowski, “Demoralizing Liberalism:  Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler, and Norman Mailer,” University of Toronto Quarterly 73.3 (Summer 2006): pgs. 883-904.