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1. An interview with Shadi Hamid

With turmoil in the Middle East, from Egypt’s changing government to the emergence of the Isalmic State, we recently sat down with Shadi Hamid, author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, to discuss about his research before and during the Arab Spring, working with Islamists across the Middle East, and his thoughts on the future of the region.

In your recent New York Times essay “The Brotherhood Will Be Back,” you argue that there is still support for the mixing of religion and politics, despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent failure in power. So do you see a way for Egypt to achieve stability in the years ahead? Can they look toward their neighbors (Jordan, Tunisia?) for a positive example?

Cultural attitudes toward religion do not change overnight, particularly when they’ve been entrenched for decades. Even if a growing number of Egyptians are disillusioned with the way Islam is “used” for political gain, this does not necessarily translated into support for “secularism,” a word which is still anathema in Egyptian public discourse. One of my book’s arguments I is that democratization not only pushes Islamists toward greater conservatism but that it also skews the entire political spectrum rightwards.

In Chapter 3, for instance, I look at the Arab world’s “forgotten decade,” when there were several intriguing but ultimately short-lived democratic experiments. Here, the ostensibly secular Wafd party, sensing the shift in the country toward greater piety, opted to Islamize its political program, something which was all too obvious (perhaps even a bit too obvious) in its 1984 program. It devoted an entire section to the application of Islamic law, in which the Wafd stated that Islam was both “religion and state.” The program also called for combating moral “deviation” in society and purifying the media of anything contradicting the sharia and general morals. The Wafd party also supported the supposedly secular regime of Anwar Sadat’s ambitious effort in the late 1970s and early 1980s to reconcile Egyptian law with Islamic law. Led by speaker of parliament and close Sadat confidant Sufi Abu Talib, the initiative wasn’t just mere rhetoric; Abu Talib’s committees painstakingly produced hundreds of pages of detailed legislation, covering civil transactions, tort reform, criminal punishments, as well as the maritime code.

The point here is that the Islamization of society (itself pushed ahead by Islamists) doesn’t just affect Islamists. Even Egypt’s president, former general Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, cannot escape these deeply embedded social realities.

Egypt is de-democratizing right now, but the Sissi regime, unlike Mubarak’s, is a popular autocracy where the brutal suppression of one particular group — the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists — is cheered on by millions of Egyptians. Sissi, then, is not immune from mass sentiment. A populist in the classic vein, Sissi seems to understand this and, like the Brotherhood, instrumentalizes religion for partisan ends. In many ways, Sissi’s efforts surpass those of Islamists before him, asserting great control over al-Azhar, the premier seat of Sunni scholarship in the region, and using the clerical establishment to shore up his regime’s legitimacy. Sissi has said that it’s the president’s role to promote a “correct understanding” of Islam. His regime has also been politically ostentatious with religion in its crackdown against the Gay community, leading one observer to note that

Religion is a powerful tool in a deeply religious society and Sissi, whatever his personal inclinations, can’t escape that basic fact, particularly with a mobilized citizenry.

Looking at the region more broadly, there are really no successful models of reconciling democracy with Islamism, at least not yet, and this failure is likely to have long-term consequences on the region’s trajectory. Turkish Islamists had to effectively concede who they were and become something else — “conservative democrats” — in order to be fully incorporated in Turkish politics. In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party, threatened with Egypt-style mass protests and with the secular opposition calling for the dissolution of parliament and government, opted to step down from power. The true test for Tunisia, then, is still to come: what happens if Ennahda wins the next scheduled elections, and the elections after that, and feels the need to be more responsive to its conservative base? Will this lead, again, to a breakdown in political order, with secular parties unwilling to live with greater “Islamization”?

You began your research on Islamist movements before the start of the Arab Spring. How did your project change after the unrest in 2011? What book did you think you would write when you began living in the region — and what did it become after the revolutions?

I began my research on Islamist movements in 2004-5, when I was living in Jordan as a Fulbright fellow. These were movements that displayed an ambivalence toward power, to the extent that they even lost elections on purpose (an odd phenomenon that was particularly evident in Jordan). Power, and its responsibilities, were dangerous. After the Islamic Salvation Front dominated the first round of the 1991 Algerian elections, and with the military preparing to intervene, the Algerian Islamist Abdelkader Hachani warned a crowd of supporters: “Victory is more dangerous than defeat.” In a sense, then, I was lucky to be able to expand the book’s scope to cover the tumultuous events of 2011-3, allowing me to explore evolving, and increasingly contradictory, attitudes toward power. Because if power was dangerous, it was also tempting, and so this became a recurring theme in the book: the potentially corrupting effects of political power, a problem which was particularly pronounced with groups that claimed a kind of religious purity that transcended politics. The book became about these two phases in the Islamist narrative, in opposition and under repression, on one hand, and during democratic openings, on the other. And then, of course, back again. I knew the military coup of 3 July 2013 and then the Rabaa massacre of 14 August — a dark, tragic blot on Egypt’s history — provided the appropriate bookend. The Brotherhood had returned to its original, purer state of opposition.

The Arab Spring also provided an opportunity to think more seriously and carefully about the effects of democratization. Would democratization have a moderating effect on mainstream Islamist movements, as the academic and conventional wisdom would suggest? Or was there a darker undercurrent, with democratization unleashing ideological polarization and pushing Islamists further to the right? I wanted to challenge a kind of cultural essentialism in reverse: that Islamists, like its ideological counterparts in Latin America or Western Europe, would be no match for “liberal democracy,” history’s apparent end state. Any kind of determinism, even the liberal variety, would prove problematic, especially for us as Americans with our tendency to believe that the process of history would overwhelm the whims of ideology. In a way, I wanted to believe it too, and for many years I did. As someone who has long been a proponent of supporting democracy in the Middle East, this puts me in a bit of a bind: In the Middle East, democracy is simply less attractive. Yes. And now, since the book has come out, I’ve been challenged along these very lines: “Maybe democracy isn’t so good after all… Maybe the dictators were right.” Well, in a sense, they were right. But this is only a problem if we conceive of democracy as some sort of panacea or short-term fix. Democracy is supposed to be difficult, and this is perhaps where the comparisons to the third-wave democracies of the 1980s and 1990s were misleading. The divides of Arab countries were “foundational,” meaning that they weren’t primarily “policy” problems; they were the more basic problems of the State, its meaning, its purpose, and, of course, the role of religion in public life, which inevitably brings us back to the identity of the State. What kind of conception of the Good should the Egyptian or Tunisian states be promoting? Should the state be neutral or should it be a state with a moral or religious mission? These are raw, existential divides that hearken back more to 1848 than 1989.

Tahrir Square on February11 by Jonathan Rashad. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Tahrir Square on 11 February 2011, by Jonathan Rashad CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

You conducted many interviews to research Temptations of Power. How did the interviews craft your argument — whether you were speaking with political leaders, activists, students, or citizens? Feel free to mention some examples.

Spending so much time with Islamist activists and leaders over the course of a decade, some of whom I got to know quite well, was absolutely critical. And this book — and pretty much every thing I know and think about Islamist movements — has been informed and shaped by those discussions. I guess I’m a bit old-fashioned that way; that to understand Islamists, you have to sit with them, talk to them, and get to know them as individuals with their own fears and aspirations. This is where I think it’s important for scholars of political Islam to cordon off their own beliefs and political commitments. Just because I’m an American and a small-l liberal (and those two, in my case, are intertwined), doesn’t mean that Egyptians or Jordanians should be subject to my ideological preferences. If you go into the study of Islamism trying to compare Islamists to some liberal ideal, then that’s distorting. Islamists, after all, are products of their own political context, and not ours. So that’s the first thing.

Second, as a political scientist, my tendency has always been to put the focus on political structures, and the first half of my book does quite a bit of that. In other words, context takes precedence: that Islamists — or, for that matter, Islam — are best understood as products of various political variables. This is true, but only up to a point and I worry that we as academics have gone too much in this direction, perhaps over-correcting for what, decades ago, was a seeming obsession with belief and doctrine.

When religion is less relevant in our own lives, it can be difficult to make that jump, to not just understand — but to relate — to its meaning and power for believers, and for those, in particular, who believe they have a cause beyond this life. But I think that outsiders have to make an extra effort to close that gap. And that, in some ways, is the most challenging, and ultimately rewarding, aspect of my work: to be exposed to something fundamentally different. I think, at this point, I feel like I have a good grasp on how mainstream Islamists see the world around them. What I still struggle with is the willingness to die. If I was at a sit-in and the army was coming in with live fire, I’d run for the hills. And that’s why my time interviewing Brotherhood members in Rabaa — before the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history — was so fascinating and forced me to at least try and transcend my own limitations as an analyst. Gehad al-Haddad — who had given up a successful business career in England to return to Egypt — told me was “very much at peace.” He was ready to die, and I knew that he, and so many others, weren’t just saying it. Because many of them — more than 600 — did, in fact, die.

Where does this willingness to die come from? I found myself pondering this same question just a few weeks ago when I was in London. One Brotherhood activist, now unable to return to Egypt, relayed the story of a protester standing at the front line, when the military moved in to “disperse” the sit-in. A bullet grazed his shoulder. Behind him, a man fell to the ground. He had been shot to death. He looked over and began to cry. He could have died a martyr. He knew the man behind him had gone to heaven, in God’s great glory. This is what he longed for. As I heard this story, it couldn’t have been any more clear: this wasn’t politics in any normal sense. Purity, absolution. This was the language of religion, the language of certainties. Where politics, in a sense, is about accepting, or at least coming to terms, with impossibility of purity.

Are you working on any new publications at the moment?

I’m hoping to build on the main arguments in my book and look more closely at how the inherent tensions between religion and mundane politics are expressed in various contexts. This, I think, is at least part of what makes Islamists so important to our understanding of the Middle East. Because their story is, in some ways, the story of a region that is breaking apart because of the inability to answer the fundamental questions of identity, religion, God, citizenship, and State-ness. One project will look at how various Islamist movements have responded to a defining moment in the Islamist narrative — the military coup of July 3, 2013, which has quickly replaced the Algerian coup of 1992 as the thing that always inevitably comes up when you talk to an Islamist. In some ways, I suspect it will prove even more defining in the long-run. Algeria, as devastating as it was, was still somehow remote (and, ironically enough, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Algerian offshoot allowed itself to be co-opted by the military government throughout most of Algeria’s “black decade”).

This time around, there are any number of lessons to be learned. One response among Islamists is that the Brotherhood should have been more confrontational, moving more aggressively against the “deep state” instead of seeking temporary accommodation. While others fault the Brotherhood for not being inclusive enough, and alienating the very allies who had helped bring it to power. But, of course, these two “lessons” are not mutually exclusive, with many believing that the Brotherhood — although it’s not entirely clear how exactly this would work in practice — should have been both more aggressive and more inclusive.

You recently went on a US tour to promote and discuss Temptations of Power­ — any recent discussion items, comments or questions which supported your conclusions or refined your thinking that you would like to share?

During the tour, I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to discuss the more philosophical aspects of the book, including the “nature” of Islam, liberalism, and democracy. These are contested terms; Islam, for instance, can mean very different things to different people. A number of people would ask about Narendra Modi, India’s democratically-elected prime minister and somewhat notorious Hindu nationalist. Here’s someone who, in addition to being illiberal, was complicit in genocidal acts against the Muslim minority in Gujarat. But an overwhelming number of Indians voted for him in a free, democratic process. There’s something inspiring about accepting electoral outcomes that might very well be personally threatening to you. Another allied country, Israel, is a democracy with strong (and seemingly stronger) illiberal tendencies. Popular majorities

In some sense, the tensions between liberalism and democracy are universal and trying to find the right balance is an ongoing struggle (although it’s more pronounced and more difficult to address in the Middle Eastern context). So it makes little sense to expect a given Arab country to become anything resembling a liberal democracy in two or three years, when, even in our own history as Americans, our liberalism as well as our democracy were very much in doubt at any number of key points. (I just read this excellent Peter Beinart piece on our descent into populary-backed illiberalism during World War I. Cincinnati actually banned pretzels).

At the same time, looking at other cases has helped me better grasp what, exactly, makes the Middle East different. For example, as illiberal as Modi and the BJP might be, the ideological distance between them and the Congress Party isn’t as much as we might think. In part, this is because the Hindu tradition, to use Michael Cook’s framing, is simply less relevant to modern politics. As Cook writes, “Christians have no law to restore while Hindus do have one but show little interest in restoring it.” Islamists, on the other hand, do have a law and it’s a law that’s taken seriously by large majorities in much of the region. The distinctive nature of “law” — and its continued relevance — in today’s Middle East does add a layer of complexity to the problem of pluralism. This gets us into some uncomfortable territory but I think to ignore it would be a mistake. Islam is distinctive in how it relates to modern politics, at least relative to other major religions. This isn’t bad or good. It just is, and I think this is worth grappling with. As the region plunges into ever greater violence, with questions of religion at the fore, we will need to be more honest about this, even if it’s uncomfortable. This, sometimes, can be as simple as taking religion, and “Islam” in particular, more seriously in an age of secularism. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, which I cite in the book, from the great historian of the Muslim Brotherhood, Richard Mitchell. The Islamic movement, he said, “would not be a serious movement worthy of our attention were it not, above all, an idea and a personal commitment honestly felt.”

Heading image: Protesters fests toward Pearl roundabout. By Bahrain in pictures, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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2. Peace treaties that changed the world

From their remotest origins, treaties have fulfilled numerous different functions. Their contents are as diverse as the substance of human contacts across borders themselves. From pre-classical Antiquity to the present, they have not only been used to govern relations between governments, but also to regulate the position of foreigners or to organise relations between citizens of different polities.

The backbones of the ‘classical law of nations’ or the jus publicum Europaeum of the late 17th and 18th centuries were the networks of bilateral treaties between the princes and republics of Europe, as well as the common principles, values, and customary rules of law that could be induced from the shared practices that were employed in diplomacy in general and in treaty-making in particular. Some treaties, particularly the sets of peace treaties that were made at multiparty peace conferences — such as those of Westphalia (1648, from 1 CTS 1), Nijmegen [Nimeguen] (1678/79, from 14 CTS 365), Rijswijk [Ryswick] (1697, from 21 CTS 347), Utrecht (1713, from 27 CTS 475), Aachen [Aix-la-Chapelle] (1748, 38 CTS 297) or Paris/Hubertusburg (1763, 42 CTS 279 and from 42 CTS 347) — gained special significance and were considered foundational to the general political and legal order of Europe.

This interactive map shows a selection of significant peace treaties that were signed from 1648 to 1919. All of the treaties mapped here include citations to their respective entries in the Consolidated Treaty Series, edited and annotated by Clive Parry (1917-1982). (Please note that this map is not intended to be an exhaustive representation of the most important peace treaties from this period.)

Headline image credit: Dove. CC0 via Pixabay.

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3. A visual history of the Roosevelts

The Roosevelts: Two exceptionally influential Presidents of the United States, 5th cousins from two different political parties, and key players in the United States’ involvement in both World Wars. Theodore Roosevelt negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War and won the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize. He also campaigned for America’s immersion in the First World War. Almost 25 years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt came into office during the calamitous aftermath of the Great Depression, yet during his 12-year presidency he contributed to the drop in unemployment rates from 24% when he first took office, to a staggering mere 2% when he left office in 1945. Furthermore, the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged discussion and implementation of women’s rights, World War II refugees, and civil rights of Asian and African Americans even well-after her husband’s presidency and death. Witness the lives of these illustrious figures through this slideshow, and take a look at the first half of 20th century American history through the lives of the Roosevelts.


Headline image credit: The Roosevelt Family. Library of Congress.

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4. True or False: facts and myths on American higher education

American higher education is at a crossroads. The cost of a college education has made people question the benefits of receiving one. We asked Goldie Blumenstyk, author of American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know to help us separate fact from fiction.

True or False? It doesn’t pay to go to college.

False: Generally speaking, college is still worth the money in the long run. According to the latest figures from the College Board, the median earnings for a person with a bachelor’s degree was 65% greater than those for someone with just a high-school diploma over a 40-year working career. Those with associate degrees, typically earned in community or technical colleges, had earnings that were 27% higher. What’s more, the job market of the future will continue to offer more opportunities to those with post-secondary education. By 2020, experts predict two-thirds of jobs will require at least some education and training beyond the high school level. Forty years ago, only about 28% of jobs required that higher level of education.

It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to college.

False: While there are colleges that charge upwards of $50,000 a year for tuition, room, and board (at least 175 of them, counting the half-dozen or so public universities that charge their out-of-state students that much) most colleges cost a lot less. Last year half of all four-year public-college students attended an institution where the annual in-state tuition rate was below $9,011. Some 85 percent of them attended a college where tuition charges were below $15,000. Private colleges charge more but with student aid from the federal and state governments and the colleges themselves, the price students actually pay is often substantially lower than the “sticker price.” Last year the average “net price” at a four-year private college was $12,460. And the average tuition at community colleges, where about four out of ten undergraduates now attend college, was about $3,300 a year.

Student debt is unmanageable.

True (and False): About 40 million Americans now carry student-loan debt and for many of them, particularly recent graduates struggling to get established in a tough job market, student-debt burdens are a real challenge. That’s evidenced by the rising rate of defaults on student loans. But according to the latest data from Project on Student Debt, for students graduating from college with debt, those who attended four-year public colleges had an average debt burden of $25,500. For comparison sake, a new Ford Focus automobile costs anywhere from about $17,000 to $35,000, depending on the options. The average debt level for graduates from four-year private colleges was $32,300. About 40% of student debt is for balances smaller than $10,000, according to the College Board.

Of all the factors that have propelled college prices up faster than the costs of most other goods and services over the past for 40 years, the cost of all those tenured professors isn’t one of them.

True: Actually, while college costs have been rising, the proportion of faculty members who are tenured professors, or on track to be considered for tenure, has shrunk precipitously during the same period. In the mid-1970s according to the American Association of University Professors, about 45% of all faculty members were tenured or on the tenure track; today only about one-quarter of them are. Full-time professors are well paid, but colleges now increasingly rely on faculty members who they hire annually, adjunct professors who they pay only about $2,700 per course, on average, and graduate teaching assistants. Meanwhile, factors that do seem to more directly drive up costs and prices include: growing numbers of administrators, new facilities, major reductions in state support, and the costs for student aid.

Online education takes place primarily at for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix and DeVry University.

False: For-profit colleges like those were among the first to use distance education-technologies to expand their enrollments, but online education is now increasingly commonplace in more traditional public and private colleges. According to the latest available data, more than five million students — about a quarter of the student population — took at least one course that was fully or partly online in fall 2012. About half of them took a class that was exclusively online. The medium, however, still seems more popular for certain fields of study. For both graduate and undergraduate education, the most common courses and degrees offered via distance education are in business, marketing, computer- and information-technologies, and health-related fields. In the future, students can expect to see more and more classes that use distance-education technology in a hybrid format, mixing face-to-face instruction with online components.

Headline image credit: Graduation By Tulane Public Relations, CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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5. Catching up with Gemma Barratt, Marketing Manager

From time to time, we try to give you a glimpse into work in our office around the globe, so we are excited to bring you an interview with Gemma Barratt, Marketing Manager for clinical medical journals. We spoke to Gemma about her life here at Oxford University Press.

When did you starting working at OUP?

I started working at OUP five years ago in the Online Products department as a Marketing Assistant. I worked on everything from Oxford Scholarship Online and the Oxford English Dictionary, to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Oxford Reference. I moved to become a Marketing Manager in the Journals End User Marketing team about a year ago and I now work on some of our major Clinical Medicine society titles.

What was your background before you started working at OUP?

I did my undergraduate degree in English literature and then a master’s in gender and culture. I originally planned on becoming an early years teacher, but was encouraged to do the MA instead and never went back! After my masters I volunteered for a number of arts festivals including the Cheltenham Literature Festival and Larmer Tree Festival, and ended up doing a six month marketing internship with Salisbury International Arts Festival.

What drew you to work for OUP in the first place? What do you think about that now?

Following my internship I knew I wanted to work in marketing and I was attracted to OUP because of the size and reputation of the organization, and that’s still true. The work ethos of OUP is something that I really value and if you like working with passionate and driven people this is certainly a good company to be in.

Gemma Barratt

What is your typical day like at OUP?

My typical day is busy and challenging. It can include anything from recruiting new members of staff to troubleshooting issues raised by societies, working on new bids to training — it’s very broad and varied.

What’s the most enjoyable part of your day?

I enjoy being busy and there is always plenty to do. I attend a lot of meetings and for the most part this is one of the things I most enjoy. They are opportunities to troubleshoot issues, share new ideas, and work collaboratively with colleagues.

What are the biggest challenges of working in the Journals End User Marketing team?

One of the biggest challenges is also one of the biggest draws to being part of this team — it’s incredibly busy and there are a lot of people to work with. The work is varied and challenging and you need to be on the ball all the time to make sure that deadlines are met and the societies we work with are happy.

What do you see as the key skills for a marketing team in journals publishing?

To be robust, creative, and not to be afraid to question the way things are done to find better ways of working. Also to be able to juggle and prioritize tasks. There are always new things coming in so it’s important to be flexible. I also think it’s very important to be personable and friendly, as managing relationships within the department, OUP more widely, and externally is a huge part of a marketing team’s role.

What is the most exciting project you have been part of while working for the team?

Probably working on new bids — we work collaboratively with the editorial team and it’s really a chance to showcase what we can do and demonstrate our creative ideas and results.

If you didn’t work in publishing, what would you be doing?

I would probably be doing a PhD — my MA focused on remembrance of World War I through contemporary fiction, so perhaps an extension of that?

How would you sum up your job in three words?

Challenging, rewarding, and creative.

 

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6. The problem with moral knowledge

Traveling through Scotland, one is struck by the number of memorials devoted to those who lost their lives in World War I. Nearly every town seems to have at least one memorial listing the names of local boys and men killed in the Great War (St. Andrews, where I am spending the year, has more than one).

Scotland endured a disproportionate number of casualties in comparison with most other Allied nations as Scotland’s military history and the Scots’ reputation as particularly effective fighters contributed to both a proportionally greater number of Scottish recruits as well as a tendency for Allied commanders to give Scottish units the most dangerous combat assignments.

Many who served in World War I undoubtedly suffered from what some contemporary psychologists and psychiatrists have labeled ‘moral injury’, a psychological affliction that occurs when one acts in a way that runs contrary to one’s most deeply-held moral convictions. Journalist David Wood characterizes moral injury as ‘the pain that results from damage to a person’s moral foundation’ and declares that it is ‘the signature wound of [the current] generation of veterans.’

By definition, one cannot suffer from moral injury unless one has deeply-held moral convictions. At the same time that some psychologists have been studying moral injury and how best to treat those afflicted by it, other psychologists have been uncovering the cognitive mechanisms that are responsible for our moral convictions. Among the central findings of that research are that our emotions often influence our moral judgments in significant ways and that such judgments are often produced by quick, automatic, behind-the-scenes cognition to which we lack conscious access.

Thus, it is a familiar phenomenon of human moral life that we find ourselves simply feeling strongly that something is right or wrong without having consciously reasoned our way to a moral conclusion. The hidden nature of much of our moral cognition probably helps to explain the doubt on the part of some philosophers that there really is such a thing as moral knowledge at all.

Edinburgh_Castle,_Scottish_National_War_Memorial_rear
Scottish National War Memorial, Edinburgh Castle. Photo by Nilfanion, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1977, philosopher John Mackie famously pointed out that defenders of the reality of objective moral values were at a loss when it comes to explaining how human beings might acquire knowledge of such values. He declared that believers in objective values would be forced in the end to appeal to ‘a special sort of intuition’— an appeal that he bluntly characterized as ‘lame’. It turns out that ‘intuition’ is indeed a good label for the way many of our moral judgments are formed. In this way, it might appear that contemporary psychology vindicates Mackie’s skepticism and casts doubt on the existence of human moral knowledge.

Not so fast. In addition to discovering that non-conscious cognition has an important role to play in generating our moral beliefs, psychologists have discovered that such cognition also has an important role to play in generating a great many of our beliefs outside of the moral realm.

According to psychologist Daniel Kahneman, quick, automatic, non-conscious processing (which he has labeled ‘System 1′ processing) is both ubiquitous and an important source of knowledge of all kinds:

‘We marvel at the story of the firefighter who has a sudden urge to escape a burning house just before it collapses, because the firefighter knows the danger intuitively, ‘without knowing how he knows.’ However, we also do not know how we immediately know that a person we see as we enter a room is our friend Peter. … [T]he mystery of knowing without knowing … is the norm of mental life.’

This should provide some consolation for friends of moral knowledge. If the processes that produce our moral convictions are of roughly the same sort that enable us to recognize a friend’s face, detect anger in the first word of a telephone call (another of Kahneman’s examples), or distinguish grammatical and ungrammatical sentences, then maybe we shouldn’t be so suspicious of our moral convictions after all.

The good news is that hope for the reality of moral knowledge remains.

The good news is that hope for the reality of moral knowledge remains. – See more at: http://blog.oup.com/?p=75592&preview=true#sthash.aozalMuy.dpuf

In all of these cases, we are often at a loss to explain how we know, yet it is clear enough that we know. Perhaps the same is true of moral knowledge.

Still, there is more work to be done here, by both psychologists and philosophers. Ironically, some propose a worry that runs in the opposite direction of Mackie’s: that uncovering the details of how the human moral sense works might provide support for skepticism about at least some of our moral convictions.

Psychologist and philosopher Joshua Greene puts the worry this way:

‘I view science as offering a ‘behind the scenes’ look at human morality. Just as a well-researched biography can, depending on what it reveals, boost or deflate one’s esteem for its subject, the scientific investigation of human morality can help us to understand human moral nature, and in so doing change our opinion of it. … Understanding where our moral instincts come from and how they work can … lead us to doubt that our moral convictions stem from perceptions of moral truth rather than projections of moral attitudes.’

The challenge advanced by Greene and others should motivate philosophers who believe in moral knowledge to pay attention to findings in empirical moral psychology. The good news is that hope for the reality of moral knowledge remains.

And if there is moral knowledge, there can be increased moral wisdom and progress, which in turn makes room for hope that someday we can solve the problem of war-related moral injury not by finding an effective way of treating it but rather by finding a way of avoiding the tragedy of war altogether. Reflection on ‘the war to end war’ may yet enable it to live up to its name.

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7. Kissing from a strictly etymological point of view

Like every other custom in life, kissing has been studied from the historical, cultural, anthropological, and linguistic point of view. Most people care more for the thing than for the word, but mine is an etymological blog, so don’t expect a disquisition on the erotic aspects of kissing, even though a few lines below will lead us in that direction. Did the ancient Indo-Europeans, the semi-mythic people who lived no one knows exactly when and where kiss? And if they did, what was their method of performing this “gesture”? Did they rub one another’s nose, the way many people do? Did they kiss their children before putting them to their nomadic beds? Did they kiss goodbye to lost objects, blow a kiss to a friend, or kiss the hand of the woman whose affections they hoped to gain? Alas, we will never know. Even a common Indo-European word for “head” does not exist, and if there is no head, how does one kiss in a truly Proto-Indo-European way? Our records, beginning with Ancient Egypt, the Old Testament, and Vedic texts are quite old but not old enough.

In 1897 Kristoffer Nyrop (1858-1931), a distinguished student of Romance linguistics and semantic change, wrote a book called Kysset og dets historie (The Kiss and Its History; being a nineteenth-century Dane, he stuck to the reactionary habit of writing his works in Danish, but the book was translated into English almost immediately and is still available.) The 190-page study reads like a novel. A week after its publication, all the copies were sold out, and Nyrop was asked to prepare a second edition and do so in a wild hurry, to be ready for Christmas sales. As could be expected, he complied. Regrettably, he said nothing about the origin of the word. Yet the literature on the etymology of kiss is huge.

As usual, I’ll begin with Germanic. The ancestors of the Modern Germans, Dutch, Frisians, Scandinavians, and English had almost the same word for “kiss,” approximately koss (coss). Part of the New Testament in Gothic has come down to us. Gothic is a Germanic language, recorded in the fourth century, and the word for the verb kiss in it is kukjan. As early as 1861, Dutch dialectal kukken surfaced in a scholarly work, and somewhat later an almost identical East Frisian form was set in linguistic circulation. It became clear that at one time Germanic speakers had two forms—one with -ss-, the other with -kk-. Their relation has never been explained to everybody’s satisfaction.

Solomon in The Song of Songs mentions passionate kisses on the mouth, and Judas must also have kissed Jesus on the mouth. At least, such was the general perception in the Middle Ages (for example, this is how Giotto and Fra Angelico, but more explicitly Giotto, represented the scene), so the Hebrews and the Romans kissed as we do, and Wulfila, the translator of the Gothic Bible, probably had a similar image before his eyes while working with the Greek text. So the speakers of the Germanic languages called “kiss” a kuss- (the vowels might differ slightly) or a kukk-.

Whenever the ritual of kissing came into being, some kisses were used to show respect and in other situations served a purpose comparable to shaking hands (think of a handshake sealing a bargain). Kissing the foot of a king or the Pope belongs here too. Dutch zoenen has the root of a verb meaning “reconcile” (a cognate of German versöhnen). Consequently, people kissed to mark the end of hostilities. Later the Dutch verb broadened its meaning and began to denote any kiss. Something similar happened in Russian, in which the verb for “kiss” is akin to the adjective for “whole”: tselovat’ (stress on the last syllable), from tsel. A kiss must have been a gesture signifying “be healthy, gesundheit.” Another Dutch verb for “kiss” (this time, dialectal), with a close analog in dialectal German, is poenen ~ puunen and seems to have meant “push, plunge, thrust; come into contact.” Here the emphasis was obviously on the movement in the direction of another person. Then there is Engl. smack, believed to be sound-imitative: apparently, when one kisses someone, smack is heard. Onomatopoeia is always hard to prove, but compare Russian chmok, which means exactly the same as smack. Latin savium, of obscure origin, designated an erotic kiss, while osculum goes back to the word for “mouth” (os). Neither is sound-imitative.

Klimt's The Kiss
Klimt’s The Kiss

Where then does Old Germanic kuss- ~ kukk- belong? Many researchers have suggested that it is sound-imitative, like smack. Perhaps we really hear or think we hear smack, chmok, kuss, and kukk when we kiss. However, even an onomatopoeic word can have a protoform. Reconstructing any protoform is pure algebra. For example, the Gothic for come is qiman (pronounced as kwiman). Its indisputable Latin cognate is venire. To make the two belong together, we should posit an ancestor beginning with gw-. In Latin, g was lost, and in Germanic it yielded k, according to the law of the consonant shift (b, d, g to p, t, k). Did the ancestors of Latin speakers ever say gwenire? Most likely, they did.

In the same way, kiss was tentatively connected with Latin gustare “to taste,” on the assumption that at one time the sought-for form began with gw-. Although this suggestion can be found in one of the best Germanic etymological dictionaries, it now has few, if any, supporters. More instructive is the fact that the Hittite for “kiss” was kuwaszi, and it resembles Sanskrit ṡvaṡiti “to blow; snort” (k- and s- alternate according to a certain rule, while u and w are variants of the same phonetic entity). Add to them Greek kuneo “kiss,” in whose conjugation -s- appears with great regularity: the future was kuso and the aorist ekusa, earlier ekussa. On the basis of this evidence, several authoritative modern dictionaries posit a Proto-Indo-European form of kiss. Can we imagine that three or so thousand years ago there was a common verb for kiss that has come down to our time? Possibly, if “kiss” designated something very common and important, that is, if, for example, it existed as a religious term, something like “worship an idol by touching the image with one’s lips.”

Other hypotheses also exist. Kiss was compared with the verb for “speak,” from which English has the antiquated preterit quoth; Engl. choose and chew; Swedish kuk “penis,” Low (= Northern) German kukkuk “whore; vulva,” Irish bel “lip,” and especially often with Latin basium “kiss” (noun) ~ basiare “kiss” (verb), recognizable today from its cognates: French baiser, Italian baciare, and Spanish besar. All those conjectures should probably be dismissed as unprofitable. The origin of basiare is unknown, and nothing good ever comes from explaining one obscure word by referring it to another equally obscure one.

We are left with two choices. Perhaps there indeed once existed a proto-verb for kiss sounding approximately like it, but who kissed whom or what and in what way remains undiscovered. Or, while kissing, different people heard a sound that resembles either kuss or kukk. Neither solution inspires too much confidence, but, in any case, the long consonant (-ss and -kk) points to the affective nature of the verb. Perhaps an ancient expressive verb belonging to the religious sphere had near universal currency, with Hittite, Sanskrit, and Germanic still having its reflexes. If so, the main question will be about the application of that verb. The sex-related look-alikes (“penis,” “vulva,” and the rest) should, almost certainly, be ascribed to coincidence.

To prevent the Indo-European imagination from running wild, one should remember that alongside kiss, Engl. buss exists. Although it sounds like Middle Engl. bass (the same meaning), bass could not become buss, and it is anybody’s guess whether bass is of French or Latin origin. Swedish dialectal puss corresponds to German Bavarian buss, which is remembered because Luther used it. French, Spanish, Portuguese, Lithuanian, Persian, Turkic, and Hindu have almost identical forms (Spanish is sometimes said to have borrowed its word from Arabic), while Scottish Gaelic and Welsh bus means “lip; mouth.” Even Engl. ba “to kiss” has been recorded. This array of b-words seems to tip the scale toward the onomatopoeic solution, the more so because, to pronounce b, we have to open the lips. For millennia people have kussed (no pun intended), kossed, kissed, kukked, bassed, and bussed, to show affection and respect, to conclude peace, and just for the fun of it, without paying too much attention to origins. This is not giving a kiss of death to etymological research: it is rather a warning that some things are hard to investigate.

Nowadays the question where does a certain sentence occur? has lost its edge. Google will immediately provide the answer. So find out who wrote: “‘A gentleman insulted me today’, she said, ‘he hugged me around the waist and kissed me’.” Then read, laugh, and weep with the heroine.

Image credits: (1) “The prince awakened Sleeping Beauty.” From Kinder und Hausmarchen, von Jakob L. und Wilhelm K. Grimm; illus. von Hermann Vogel. Dritte Auflage), 1893. NYPL Digital Gallery. Digital ID: 1698628. New York Public Library (2) The Kiss. Gustav Klimt. 1907-1908. Austrian Gallery Belvedere. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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8. 10 ways to survive being a psychology student

How do you survive as a psychology student? It might be a daunting prospect, but we here at OUP are here to give you a helping hand through three years of cognitive overload. Here are our top tips:

1. Do some essential reading before you start your degree! Psychology is a very broad subject, so build some strong foundations with a wide reading base, especially if you’re new to the subject. Check out our Essential Book List to get you started (and recommendations welcome in the comments below).

2. Stay up-to-date with current affairs. Psychology is a continually evolving subject, with new ideas and perspectives emerging all the time. Read blogs, journals, and magazines; watch TED talks; listen to podcasts; and scan newspapers for psychology-themed stories.

3. Always keep your eyes and ears open. University is your chance to learn beyond the classroom. Pay attention to life – just watching your favourite TV programme can give you an insight into how a theoretical concept might actually work. Use everyday events and interactions to deepen your understanding of psychological ideas.

4. Learn from everyone around you. Psychology asks questions about how we as humans think – so go and think together with some other humans! Compare and contrast different ideas and approaches, and make the most of group learning or other opportunities, like taking part in other people’s surveys or experiments. Joining your university psychology society is a great way to learn from your peers and to balance work with play.

Photo by Reidaroo CC BY-SA 2.0  via Wikimedia Commons
Business Student. Photo by Reidaroo CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

5. Learn how to study independently. This is your chance to learn what you want, not what you have to. You will have much greater academic freedom than ever before. Wherever you choose to study, you will have to take on your own independent research, and if you see yourself building a career in psychology, then independent investigation is crucial.

6. Hone your note-taking / diagram-making skills. On your laptop, tablet, smartphone — or with paper and pens — you’ll be writing a lot of notes over the course of your degree. Referencing and formatting might not seem like the most exciting aspects of your degree, but good preparation and organisation will make them more bearable (and quicker!). Get to know how best you learn, remember and process information.

7. Get enough sleep. Sitting up late staring at textbooks and computer screens is easy, but it’s not the healthiest habit to get into. Studying well is less about the number of hours you put in, than how effectively you spend those hours. Keep up a balanced diet, stay hydrated, do regular exercise, and find someone to talk to if you’re feeling stressed.

8. Don’t be afraid to admit to your own weaknesses. Psychology is a demanding subject, and questions are more common than neat answers.

9. Try to enjoy your studies. There are many ideas to explore, from behaviour to dreams, memory to psychoanalysis. Keep looking at different topics that interest you to stay motivated. When it does get too much, don’t be afraid to step back and take a break.

10. Finally, remember what psychology is about. You can get lost in surveys and experiments, theories and concepts, but try to always keep in mind what drew you to psychology in the first place. In studying psychology you’re taking part in a great tradition of questioning how the human mind works and behaves – be proud of that.

Heading Image: Student. Photo by CollegeDegrees360, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

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9. The Oxford DNB at 10: new research opportunities in the humanities

September 2014 marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Over the next month a series of blog posts consider aspects of the ODNB’s online evolution in the decade since 2004. Here the literary historian, David Hill Radcliffe, considers how the ODNB online is shaping new research in the humanities.

The publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in September 2004 was a milestone in the history of scholarship, not least for crossing from print to digital publication. Prior to this moment a small army of biographers, myself among them, had worked almost entirely from paper sources, including the stately volumes of the first, Victorian ‘DNB’ and its 20th-century print supplement volumes. But the Oxford DNB of 2004 was conceived from the outset as a database and published online as web pages, not paper pages reproduced in facsimile. In doing away with the page image as a means of structuring digital information, the online ODNB made an important step which scholarly monographs and articles might do well to emulate.

Database design has seen dramatic changes since 2004—shifting from the relational model of columns and rows, to semi-structured data used with XML technologies, to the unstructured forms used for linking data across repositories. The implications of these developments for the future of the ODNB remain to be seen, but there is every reason to believe that its content will be increasingly accessed in ways other than the format of the traditional biographical essay. Essays are not going away, of course. But they will be supplemented by the arrays of tables, charts, maps, and graphs made possible by linked data. Indeed, the ODNB has been moving in this direction since 2004 with the addition of thousands of curated links between individuals (recorded in biographical essays) and the social hierarchies and networks to which they belonged (presented in thematic list and group entries)—and then on to content by or about a person held in archives, museums or galleries worldwide.

Online the ODNB offers scholars the opportunity to select, group, and parse information not just at the level of the article, but also in more detailed ways—and this is where computational matters get interesting. I currently use the ODNB online as a resource for a digital prosopography attached to a collection of documents called ‘Lord Byron and his Times’, tracking relationships among more than 12,000 Byron-contemporaries mentioned in nineteenth-century letters and memoirs; of these people a remarkable 5000 have entries in the ODNB. The traditional object of prosopography was to collect small amounts of information about large numbers of persons, using patterns to draw inferences about slenderly documented lives. But when computation is involved, a prosopography can be used with linked data to parse large amounts of information about large numbers of persons. As a result, one can attend to particularities, treating individuals as members of a group or social network without reducing them to the uniformity of a class identity. Digital prosopography thus returns us to something like the nineteenth-century liberalism that inspired Sir Leslie Stephen’s original DNB (1885-1900).

The key to finding patterns in large collections of lives and documents, the evolution of technology suggests, is to atomize the data. As a writer of biographies I would select from documentary sources, collecting the facts of a life, and translating them into the form of an ODNB essay. Creating a record in a prosopography involves a similar kind of abstraction: working from (say) an ODNB entry, I abstract facts from the prose, encoding names and titles and dates in a semi-structured XML template that can then be used to query my archive, comprising data from previous ODNB abstractions and other sources. For instance: ‘find relationships among persons who corresponded with Byron (or Harrow School classmates, or persons born in Nottinghamshire, etc.) mentioned in the Quarterly Review.’ An XML prosopography is but a step towards recasting the information as flexible, concise, and extensible semantic data.

The ODNB as an online resource. Image courtesy of the ODNB editorial team.
ODNB, online. Image courtesy of the ODNB editorial team.

While human readers can easily distinguish the character-string ‘Oxford’ as referring to the place, the university, or the press, this is a challenge for computation—like distinguishing ‘Byron’ the poet from ‘Byron’ the admiral. One can attack this problem by using algorithms to compare adjacent strings, or one can encode strings by hand to disambiguate them, or use a combination of both. Digital ODNB essays are good candidates for semantic analysis since their structure is predictable and they are dense with significant names of persons, places, events, and relationships that can be used for data-linking. One translates character-strings into semantic references, groups the references into relationships, and expresses the relationships in machine-readable form.

A popular model for parsing semantic data is via ‘triples’: statements in the form subject / property / object, which describe a relationship between the subject and the object: the tree / is in / the quad. It is powerful because it can describe anything, and its statements can be yoked together to create new statements. For example: ‘Lord Byron wrote Childe Harold’, and ‘John Murray published Childe Harold’ are both triples. Once the three components are translated into semantically disambiguated machine-readable URIs (Uniquely Referring Identifiers), computation can infer that ‘John Murray published Lord Byron.’

Now imagine the contents of the ODNB expressed not as 60,000 biographical essays but as several billion such statements. In fact, this is far from unthinkable, given the nature of the material and progress being made in information technology. The result is a wonderful back-to-the-future moment with Leslie Stephen’s Victorian DNB wedded to Charles Babbage’s calculating machine: the simplicity of the triple and the power of finding relations embedded within them. Will the fantasies of positivist historians finally be realized? Not likely; while computation is good at questions of ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, and ‘when’, it is not so good at ‘why’ and ‘how’. Biographers and historians are unlikely to find themselves out of a job anytime soon. On the contrary, once works like the ODNB are rendered machine-readable and cross-query-able, scholars will find more work on their hands than they know what to do with.

So the publication of the ODNB online in September 2004 will be fondly remembered as a liminal moment when humanities scholarship crossed from paper to digital. The labour of centuries of research was carried across that important threshold, recast in a medium enabling new kinds of investigation the likes of which—ten years on—we are only beginning to contemplate.

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10. ‘This is my word’: Jesus, the Eucharist, and the Bible

It is a well known fact that the Christian church has, in the course of its 2,000-year long history, often been torn with controversy over how to understand those four simple words, ‘This is my body.’

The Orthodox have never been entirely comfortable with the label ‘transubstantiation,’ and at the outset of the Reformation, the Catholic understanding of the Mass was one of the prime issues that provoked Luther to decry the ‘Babylonian captivity’ of the church.

Luther, of course, went on to denounce Zwingli’s view of the Eucharist as vehemently has he had the Catholic one, and slightly later the Reformed followers of Calvin decided that they disagreed with both Luther and Zwingli. The intensity of these debates is understandable in light of the fact that all involved assumed that a correct understanding of the Eucharist had a direct bearing upon the manner in which Jesus was present to his followers.

Was Jesus still here, bringing salvation to his church, or had he departed and left them to get by as well as they could on their own? Defining the nature of this ritual was intrinsically tied to understanding the purpose of this community. Although this story is one often told, the parallels it presents to Christian views on the Bible have often gone overlooked. For the sources of Christian communal identity for the past two millennia include not only a ritual meal but also a written book.

30.12.2012: Kariye Camii, Müzesi or Chora Church, Istanbul
Cyril of Alexandria. Photograph by Nick Thompson. CC-BY-SA-2.0, via Flickr.

At first this assertion strikes the reader as so obvious it hardly merits mentioning. However, recognizing the importance of this principle accounts for some of the disconnect modern readers of the Bible experience when they attempt to read accounts of scriptural interpretation from late antiquity.

As recounted in Michael Legaspi’s The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, in the past five hundred years the Bible in the West has undergone a transformation as it was abstracted from its previous home in a unified Christian church and resituated in the context of modern academia.

Such a move would have appeared quite foreign to Christians of an earlier age who assumed that the Bible could not be understood properly apart from grasping its place in the divine plan of salvation centered upon the person of Jesus Christ.

For example, Cyril of Alexandria, the fifth-century bishop of the city that served as the intellectual capital of the Roman world, liked to use a metaphor to explain the Bible’s purpose to his Christian hearers.

In his sermons and writings, he explained the presence of the Bible in the church by stating that Jesus had given this book to his followers, like a shepherd providing his flock with green grass for their nourishment.

Cyril, of course, knew that the Bible was written by countless persons over a vast span of time, and he tried, using the best tools available to him, to attend to that sort of historical detail. But what was most important, in his view, was the fact that when the Bible was read, Jesus himself was present to save, in a manner akin to his presence in the Eucharist.

Whether it was the words of Moses or of the evangelist Mark, when Christians sitting in the basilica in late antique Alexandria heard the scriptures, what they experienced was Jesus himself speaking to them through that myriad of human voices.

And in making this assumption they were following a trajectory already begun in the New Testament itself. Had not the Apostle Paul declared that Christ was speaking in him (2 Cor. 13.3), and did not Jesus himself say that his words were ‘Spirit and life’ (John 6.63)?

For most twentieth-century historians, early Christian exegesis was regarded as unworthy of historical attention due to its failure to attain the standards of modern hermeneutical method.

Imagine the absurd parallel of modern scientists rejecting medieval views on the Eucharist on the basis that those benighted premoderns did not properly understand the chemical composition of bread and wine. Such a dismissal hardly grapples seriously with the way Christians tried to articulate the function of the ritual.

supper
The Last Supper. Photography by Novica Nakov (originally posted to Flickr as Icon #8) CC-BY-SA-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Late antique readers fair somewhat better when seen in their own context. If the Bible is viewed as the written and living voice of Jesus, then the task of interpretation comes to mirror this assumption.

Just as Jesus speaks through the human authors of the Bible, so interpretation must be a process of finding Jesus in those same words, so as to provide spiritual nourishment for Christians seeking to grow in virtue and understanding.

In this way, what Cyril and his contemporaries believed about the Bible determined the way in which they read the Bible as a community, and the consistency of their approach is laudable.

The Bible is open to a great many interpretive approaches, and the plausibility of those methods will always be a product of the community in which the reader is situated. Late antique Christians, who assumed that scripture functioned analogously to the Eucharist, at least managed to find an interpretive method that accorded with their communal experience of this book.

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11. So Long, Farewell

Dearest readers, I am sorry to say that the time has come for me to say goodbye. I have had a wonderful time meeting you all, not to mention learning more than I ever thought I would know about the fantastic field of oral history. However, grant applications and comprehensive examinations are calling my name, so I must take a step back from tweeting, Facebooking, tumbling and Google plusing (sure, why not).

Fear not, we have found another to take my place: the esteemable and often bow-tie-wearing Andrew Shaffer. I chatted with him earlier this week and I already think he’ll make a wonderful Caitlin 2.0. (For instance, Andrew originally wanted to introduce himself with the lyrics from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song. A+.)

*   *   *   *   *

So, Andrew, tell us a bit about yourself.

Well, Caitlin, I am a first year PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studying gender and sexuality history in a modern US context. I’m originally from Illinois, but lived in San Francisco for three years before coming to Madison. There I received an MA in International Studies and worked at a non-profit that provides legal resources and policy analysis to immigrants and immigration advocates.

Do you have any interests outside of school?

Honestly? Not really… But when I’m not thinking about school, I sometimes read, go on walks, or explore all the exciting things Madison has to offer.

That’s a little sad. But since you love school so much, I bet you have exceptionally exciting research interests?

I’m really interested in the ways LGBT activists have responded to political and social changes, and how their efforts have impacted the everyday lives of LGBT communities. Because of the incredible diversity among LGBT communities, I use intersectional approaches to better understand how various segments of our community are affected, or even created by these changes.

Oh, awesome! Do you use oral history or interviews in your research?

Absolutely! I had the good fortune to take a class on oral history methods in college, and I fell in love with it right away. Since then, I’ve been involved with multiple oral history projects, and I think it is one of the best tools available to preserve a community’s memories. Because I study the very recent past, I’m lucky to be able to use interviews and oral histories extensively in my research.

You’ll fit in just fine here then — perhaps even better than I did. Speaking of, what are you looking forward to about this position?

I’m most looking forward to meeting and interacting with people who are using oral history to accomplish new and interesting things. The Oral History Review has featured some really great articles on things like using Google Glass for interviews, and using oral history to document the lives of people with schizophrenia. I’m excited to learn more about novel uses of oral history.

Thanks for noticing! I (and Troy) have worked hard to keep up with the latest trends in the field and to shine a spotlight on all the great work oral historians have been doing. Any concerns about taking over?

Definitely! Like most academic types, I find it easier to write 30 pages than 140 characters, but hopefully I’ll learn some brevity. You’ve done a really great job of preparing and sharing high quality posts through Oral History Review’s social media outlets, and I hope I can continue to provide an enjoyable experience for all of our followers!

I’m sure you’ll do great. Best of luck!

*   *   *   *   *

Andrew has already taken over all the social media platforms, so you should feel free to bombard him with questions at @oralhistreview, in the comments below or via the other 3 million social media accounts he now runs. He and I will also be at the upcoming annual meeting in October, so be sure to say hi — and goodbye.

Image credit: Cropped close-up of two hands passing a relay baton against a white background. © chaiyon021 via iStockphoto.

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12. Eight myths about Fair Rosamund

Most of what we hear and read about twelfth-century hottie Rosamund Clifford, aka “Fair Rosamund,” just wasn’t so. True, she was Henry II’s mistress. But that’s about it. Like so many other medieval myths, Rosamund’s legendary life and death are a later invention. Herewith, the best of (untrue) Rosamund:

Myth 1:   She went to school at, lived at, had assignations with the king at, retired to, died at, or in any way hung out at Godstow Abbey.

Sadly, Rosamund never entered Godstow until she was a fair corpse. She died around the year 1176, in the midst of her affair with the king, and was buried at Godstow, probably because her mother was already buried there. Contrary to what you will read in various places, there is no evidence that the king paid for her tomb. Her tomb was placed in the front of the high altar, and the king did show particular favor to the monastery because of it. Fifteen years later, Bishop Hugh of Lincoln made the nuns move the tomb out of the church because it was inappropriate for a “whore” to be buried there.

Myth 2:   She and Henry went drinking at the Trout. Or the Perch.

I read this about the pubs near Godstow in a student handbook when I was doing my postgraduate work at Oxford, and I wanted to believe it. So did visiting relatives. Alas, not true. See number 2 above: no hanging out at Godstow. But my visitors and I did enjoy some pleasant pints at both the aforementioned hostelries.

Myth 3:   She lived in a maze at Woodstock.

Of course this is a later embellishment, related to the next two myths. But a fairly elaborate pleasure garden does seem to have been incorporated into the royal residence at Woodstock in this period, adjacent to a room that just a generation later was known as “Rosamund’s Chamber.” So the maze story may have evolved from a real trysting place in a complex garden.

Myth 4:   The queen found her in the maze by means of a silken thread.

See previous myth. But there is, just barely, a silken thread in Rosamund’s true story. After her burial at Godstow, King Henry wanted a special relationship with her burial place, so the nunnery’s patron deeded his patronal rights in Godstow to the king. In the ceremony he used a silk cloth that was later described as “a silken thread.”

Queen Eleanor & Fair Rosamund by Evelyn de Morgan. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Queen Eleanor & Fair Rosamund by Evelyn de Morgan. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Myth 5:   She was murdered by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The earliest version of this story, from the fourteenth century, has Eleanor stabbing Rosamund; in Renaissance versions the queen makes Rosamund choose between stabbing and poison. Interestingly, even the Victorians made a sympathetic victim of poor Rosamund (the fornicating mistress) and turned Eleanor (the wronged wife) into a murderous monster. Needless to say, there’s no truth to the murder stories, which arose long after Rosamund died.

Myth 6:   She was the mother of Henry II’s illegitimate son Geoffrey Plantagenet, archbishop of York, and/or his illegitimate son William Longespee, earl of Salisbury.

Rosamund was too young to be Geoffrey’s mother, who was apparently a woman named Ikeni. William Longespee was the son of Ida de Tosny.

Myth 7:   Latin bell inscriptions all over England make reference to her.

These inscriptions read, “I who am struck am called Maria [or Katherine], the rose of the world.” Rosamund was a rare, possibly unique, name for a woman in twelfth-century England, but the phrases rosa munda (pure rose) and rosa mundi (rose of the world) were epithets for the Virgin Mary. It’s likely that Rosamund Clifford was named (creatively and, as it turned out, ironically) in honor of the Virgin, and that the bell inscriptions came from the same general cultural source.

Myth 8:   Roses were spread over her tomb.

No, just a silken pall and candles, as far as we know. It’s possible, however, that the Gallica rose ‘Rosa Mundi’ was named for her, as her legend grew in the later Middle Ages. Perhaps the rose, like the bells, was named for the Virgin Mary, but the name of the rose is one bit of Rosamund lore that seems plausible.

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13. Life’s uncertain voyage

Uncertainty is everywhere. There can hardly be a person alive who has not experienced it at some time. Indeed, as Shakespeare indicates in his play The Tempest (Act I) we are all submitted to “life’s uncertain voyage.” We may well find ourselves asking “What shall I do?” or “How should I react?”, familiar questions as we continue our voyage.

This common factor in human experience is heightened when the circumstances involve serious illness, whether for the patient or for those who care for them. Living with uncertainty affects all at the bedside. The patient longs for normality and yearns for safety. The family has to face unexpected disruption bringing new routines, responsibilities, and many new people into their lives. A whole new world seems to open up. A client once said, “It is like having a new job” referring to all the new things she had learnt following her husband’s terminal diagnosis.

The professional or volunteer carer, too, has to adjust to uncertainty. The progression of the disease is endlessly variable. There are no certainties in medicine, only likelihoods. This may place the carer under pressure to say something that will give patients and their families a sense of having a handle on their life, regardless of the seriousness of the condition. There are also the practical issues, often difficult and complex, about, for instance, discharge arrangements and future support. Working alongside the families, the carer must hold an appropriate balance between hope for the future alongside a realism about what is or could be involved.

Challenges and choices in life-threatening illnesses create a spectrum of strong feelings among those experiencing them. The patient may well ask “Will I ever be well again? What are they going to do to me? Can I cope with the noise and bustle of a hospital ward? Why has this happened to me?” Fear, anger, grief and helplessness are all present in some degree. Even time itself seems to drag amidst the pain and weakness, loss of ability and responsibility. The notion of self-worth can be seriously challenged. The present and the future may look bleak and insecure as compared with “normal” life. Many of the same feelings will be felt also by families, including anxiety about whether they will be able to cope with the new circumstances and the inevitable increase in financial costs.

Fagus Sylvatica  by Jean-Pol Grandmont. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Fagus Sylvatica by Jean-Pol Grandmont. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The radical changes in circumstances can promote the reasonable question “Why me or us?” Disease is often understood to be a form of judgement, and where the patient has done their best, and in their own view, lived a “good life,” the question arises out of what is felt to be an unjust judgement and cruel sentence. People can feel rewarded, unjustly, by the disease, even if in some ways they have unconsciously contributed to its onset by excessive working, smoking, or drinking. The disease can also arise out of the environment in which the patient lives, or their genetic make-up, over which they have no control. The illness therefore becomes an unfair threat and obstruction in the mind of those involved whether as a patient or family member.

Major disease can not only radically change a person’s circumstances, but also their judgement, attitude, and mood. They can be changed as people. Medical experience can be overwhelming, distorting judgements and decisions, undermining relationships, and creating a deep sense of vulnerability. “Why me?” becomes a cry from the heart; a cry for help; a cry out of hopelessness. But it need not be.

We are all vulnerable. There is a fault in creation, just as there is wonder and genius. Both facets can be seen within scientific fact as well as religious and moral recognition. Disease can be judged as part of nature just as death is part of life. Such reality challenges the patient just as it does the doctor and researcher.

Such natural faults need to be accepted and worked with. They confront but they also inspire. Our uncertain voyage can involve major illness and its concomitants. A constructive but very difficult response can be to accept, remain positive and be grateful to those who are helping by their skills, support, and encouragement. Disease and disorder are part of the underbelly of creation of which we are all a part. “Why me?” can be changed to “Why not me?” The change in the question can bring about change in outlook and peace.

As Shakespeare reminds us of “life’s uncertain voyage”, we wrestle with uncertainty. Often, we hope, we may find resources which help us along the road. Close supportive relationships, a commitment to an ideal or an allegiance to a faith which inspires, even those quiet times of reflection and self-realization can prove invaluable. They all have a part to play in helping us to cope with the unknown. Self-confidence or lack of it can be instrumental in how we manage uncertainty, but neither can assure us that our thoughts and actions are right. Subsequent experience is often the only measure of that.

We can learn from experience — we can learn to live life fully, whatever the circumstances, even when we are uncertain as to what they may be or lead to. We will never know everything, and perhaps it requires a sense of peace to live with such uncertainty — a tough challenge, but one with a great reward.

Heading Image: Snowstorm by William Turner. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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14. What commuters know about knowing

If your morning commute involves crowded public transportation, you definitely want to find yourself standing next to someone who is saying something like, “I know he’s stabbed people, but has he ever killed one?” . It’s of course best to enjoy moments like this in the wild, but I am not above patrolling Overheard in London for its little gems (“Shall I give you a ring when my penguins are available?”), or, on an especially desperate day, going all the way back to the London-Lund Corpus of Spoken English, a treasury of oddly informative conversations (many secretly recorded) from the 1960s and 1970s. Speaker 1: “When I worked on the railways these many years ago, I was working the claims department, at Pretona Station Warmington as office boy for a short time, and one noticed that the tremendous number of claims against the railway companies were people whose fingers had been caught in doors as the porters had slammed them.” Speaker 2: “Really. Oh my goodness.” (Speaker 1 then reports that the railway found it cheaper to pay claims for lost fingers than to install safety trim on the doors.)

Photo by CGPGrey and Alex Tenenbaum. Image supplied with permission by Jennifer Nagel.
Photo by CGPGrey and Alex Tenenbaum. Image supplied with permission by Jennifer Nagel.

If you ever need a good cover story for your eavesdropping, you are welcome to use mine: as an epistemologist, I study the line that divides knowing from merely thinking that something is the case, a line we are constantly marking in everyday conversation. There it was, in the first quotation: “I know he’s stabbed people.” How, exactly was this known, one wonders, and why was knowledge of this fact reported? There’s no shortage of data: knowledge, as it turns out, is reported heavily. In spoken English (as measured most authoritatively, by the 450-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English), ‘know’ and ‘think’ figure as the sixth and seventh most commonly used verbs, muscling out what might seem to be more obvious contenders like ‘get’ and ‘make’. Spoken English is deeply invested in knowing, easily outshining other genres on this score. In academic writing, for example, ‘know’ and ‘think’ are only the 17th and 22nd-most popular verbs, well behind the scholar’s pallid friends ‘should’ and ‘could’. To be fair, some of the conversational traffic in ‘know’ is coming from fixed phrases, like — you know — invitations to conversational partners to make some inference, or — I know — indications that you are accepting what conversational partners are saying. But even after we strip out those formulaic uses, the database’s randomly sampled conversations remain thickly larded with genuine references to knowing and thinking. Meanwhile, similar results are found in the 100-million-word British National Corpus; this is not just an American thing.

Kanye West performing at Lollapalooza on April 3, 2011 in Santiago, Chile. Photo by rodrigoferrari. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Kanye West performing at Lollapalooza on April 3, 2011 in Santiago, Chile. Photo by rodrigoferrari. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It’s perhaps a basic human thing: conversations naturally slide towards the social. When we are not using language to do something artificial (like academic writing), we relate topics to ourselves. Field research in English pubs, cafeterias, and trains convinced British psychologist Robin Dunbar that most of our casual conversation time is taken up with ‘social topics’: personal relationships, personal experiences, and social plans. Anthropologist John Haviland apparently found similar patterns among the Zinacantan people in the remote highlands of Mexico. We talk about what people think, like, and want, constantly linking conversational topics back to human perspectives and feelings.

There’s an extreme philosophical theory about this tendency, advanced in Ancient Greece by Protagoras, and in our day by the best-known living American philosopher, Kanye West. Protagoras’s ideas reach us only in fragments transmitted through the reports of others, so I’ll give you Kanye’s formulation, transmitted through Twitter: “Feelings are the only facts”. Against the notion that the realm of the subjective is unreal, this theory maintains that reality can never be anything other than subjective. Here (as elsewhere) Kanye goes too far. The mental state verbs we use to link conversational topics back to humanity fall into two families, with interestingly different levels of subjectivity, divided along a line which has to do with the status of claims as fact. The first family is labeled factive, and includes such expressions as realizes, notices, is aware that, and sees that; the mother of all factive verbs is knows (and according to Oxford philosopher Timothy Williamson, knowledge is what unites the whole factive family). Non-factives make up the second family, whose members include thinks, suspects, believes and is sure. Factive verbs, rather predictably, properly attach themselves only to facts: you can know that Jack has stabbed someone only if he really has. Non-factive verbs are less informative: Jane might think that Edwin is following her even if he isn’t. In saying that Jane suspects Edwin has been stabbing people, I leave it an open question whether her suspicions are right: I report her feelings while remaining neutral on the relevant facts. Even when they mark strong degrees of subjective conviction — “Edwin is sure that Jane likes him” — non-factive expressions do not, unfortunately for Edwin in this case, necessarily attach themselves to facts. Feelings and facts can come apart.

Factives like ‘know’, meanwhile, allow us to report facts and feelings together at a single stroke. If I say that Lucy knows that the train is delayed, I’m simultaneously sharing news about the train and about Lucy’s attitude. Sometimes we use factives to reveal our attitudes to facts already known to the audience (“I know what you did last summer”), but most conversational uses of factives are bringing fresh facts into the picture. That last finding is from the work of linguist Jennifer Spenader, whose analysis of the dialogue about railway claims pulled me into the London-Lund Corpus in the first place (my goodness, so many fresh facts with those factives). Spenader and I both struggle with some deep theoretical problems about the line between knowing and thinking, but it nevertheless remains a line whose basic significance can be felt instinctively and without special training, even in casual conversation. No, wait, we have more than a feeling for this. We know something about it.

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15. Shamrock and Saltire: Irish Home Rule and the Scottish Referendum, 1914-2014

This is the centenary year of the enactment of the third Home Rule Bill, as well (of course) as the year of the Scottish referendum on independence. Yet the centenary conversation in Ireland and the somewhat more vigorous debate upon Scots independence, have been conducted — for the most part — quite separately.

While it would be wrong to push the analogies too far, there are some striking similarities – and some differences – between the debate on Home Rule in 1912-14, and the current debate upon Scottish independence. These similarities (and indeed distinctions) might well give food for thought to the protagonists within the Scottish ‘Yes’ and ‘Better Together’ camps — and indeed there is evidence that both Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond have ruminated accordingly.

One critical difference between Ireland in 1914 and Scotland in 2014 is that of militancy — Ireland on the eve of the First World War being an armed camp comprising the Ulster and Irish Volunteer movements, opponents and proponents of Home Rule, as well as the British Army. The Scottish political debate has not been militarised, and there is no evidence that it will become so (the Scottish National Liberation Army, for example, has never posed a significant threat). Modern Scottish nationalism has developed as a wholly constitutional and pacific phenomenon.

Of course mainstream Scottish nationalism has only recently, through successive Holyrood elections, emerged as a majority phenomenon. But it has never had to encounter the challenge (faced by Irish nationalism a century ago) of returning a majority of elected representatives, while being lengthily resisted in London.

One aspect of the Irish experience in 1914 was that a fraught constitutional debate, heightened political expectations, and the delaying or disappointment of those expectations (with Unionist resistance and the onset of War), combined to make a highly volatile political chemistry. The hardening expectations of change across Scotland in 2014 mean that national (as well as social and economic) aspirations may need to be quickly and sensitively addressed, whatever the result of the referendum.

Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Irish Unionist Party, inspecting members of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The UVF were founded in 1913 by the Ulster Unionist Council to resist the implementation of Home Rule. Q 81759 Imperial War Museums. IWM Non Commercial Licence via Wikimedia Commons.
Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Irish Unionist Party, inspecting members of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The UVF were founded in 1913 by the Ulster Unionist Council to resist the implementation of Home Rule. Q 81759 Imperial War Museums. IWM Non Commercial Licence via Wikimedia Commons.

One critical dimension of this militancy in 1914 was the trenchant support given to Ulster Unionist paramilitarism by the British Conservative leadership — this in part a symptom of the profound divisions in British and Irish politics and society precipitated by the debate over Home Rule. It is striking that both the Home Rule issue in 1914 and the referendum in 2014 have each attracted an unusually broad range of declarations of allegiance from a complex array of interest groups and individuals. In 1914 there was a high level of ‘celebrity’ endorsement and intervention over Home Rule: taking literary figures alone, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came out as a Home Ruler, while Rudyard Kipling was a strong Unionist. In 2014 Irvine Welsh has declared in favour of independence, while J.K. Rowling is against. Ian Rankin provides a case-study in the complexity (and profundity) of division: he is an agnostic on the issue, but is clear that his characters would have strong opinions. So, Inspector Rebus joins the unionists of 2014 (though the actor Ken Stott, most recent of the TV Rebuses, is reportedly in the ‘yes’ camp).

The analogies between Home Rule and the debate on Scottish independence extend much further than the ‘A’ list, however. The substantial strength and challenge of Home Rule sentiment produced striking intellectual movement before and in 1914 — just as the strength of the movement for Scots independence has produced similar movement a century later.

In 1912-14 the constitutional impasse over Home Rule in fact helped to stimulate support for (what was then called) ‘federalism’ among some of the Unionist elite, including even Edward Carson. In terms of the (nearly) equally weighted forces fighting over Scottish independence, Gordon Brown has now moved to embrace the idea of a federal United Kingdom; and he has been joined or preceded by others, including (for example) the Scottish Conservative journalist, David Torrance. Discussion of a possible English parliament was broached prominently in 1911-1914 and again in 2014. Both in 1914 and in 2014 it appears that the constitutional shape of the ever-malleable United Kingdom is once again in transition — but because unionists are now shifting no less then nationalists.

And indeed some Scots Nationalists have moved towards embracing at least some of the symbols of the British connection. John Redmond, the Home Rule leader, emphasised monarchy and empire in his vision of Irish autonomy during the Home Rule era, partly through personal conviction, and partly in terms of subverting unionist arguments. In similar vein, Alex Salmond (despite a strong tradition of republican sentiment within the SNP), has embraced the ‘union of the crowns’ as SNP strategy, and has in recent years referred deferentially to the Queen (‘of Scots’), and her central place in an independent nation.

Here, as elsewhere, Ireland’s century-old debate on Home Rule speaks to the current condition of Scotland. Indeed here, as elsewhere, Ireland’s wider experience of Union chimes with that of the Scots.

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16. The construction of the Cartesian System as a rival to the Scholastic Summa

René Descartes wrote his third book, Principles of Philosophy, as something of a rival to scholastic textbooks. He prided himself in ‘that those who have not yet learned the philosophy of the schools will learn it more easily from this book than from their teachers, because by the same means they will learn to scorn it, and even the most mediocre teachers will be capable of teaching my philosophy by means of this book alone’ (Descartes to Marin Mersenne, December 1640).

Still, what Descartes produced was inadequate for the task. The topics of scholastic textbooks ranged much more broadly than those of Descartes’ Principles; they usually had four-part arrangements mirroring the structure of the collegiate curriculum, divided as they typically were into logic, ethics, physics, and metaphysics.

But Descartes produced at best only what could be called a general metaphysics and a partial physics.

Knowing what a scholastic course in physics would look like, Descartes understood that he needed to write at least two further parts to his Principles of Philosophy: a fifth part on living things, i.e., animals and plants, and a sixth part on man. And he did not issue what would be called a particular metaphysics.

Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_Descartes
Portrait of René Descartes by Frans Hans. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Descartes, of course, saw himself as presenting Cartesian metaphysics as well as physics, both the roots and trunk of his tree of philosophy.

But from the point of view of school texts, the metaphysical elements of physics (general metaphysics) that Descartes discussed—such as the principles of bodies: matter, form, and privation; causation; motion: generation and corruption, growth and diminution; place, void, infinity, and time—were usually taught at the beginning of the course on physics.

The scholastic course on metaphysics—particular metaphysics—dealt with other topics, not discussed directly in the Principles, such as: being, existence, and essence; unity, quantity, and individuation; truth and falsity; good and evil.

Such courses usually ended up with questions about knowledge of God, names or attributes of God, God’s will and power, and God’s goodness.

Thus the Principles of Philosophy by itself was not sufficient as a text for the standard course in metaphysics. And Descartes also did not produce texts in ethics or logic for his followers to use or to teach from.

These must have been perceived as glaring deficiencies in the Cartesian program and in the aspiration to replace Aristotelian philosophy in the schools.

So the Cartesians rushed in to fill the voids. One could mention their attempts to complete the physics—Louis de la Forge’s additions to the Treatise on Man, for example—or to produce more conventional-looking metaphysics—such as Johann Clauberg’s later editions of his Ontosophia or Baruch Spinoza’s Metaphysical Thoughts.

Cartesians in the 17th century began to supplement the Principles and to produce the kinds of texts not normally associated with their intellectual movement, that is treatises on ethics and logic, the most prominent of the latter being the Port-Royal Logic (Paris, 1662).

By the end of the 17th century, the Cartesians, having lost many battles, ulti­mately won the war against the Scholastics.

The attempt to publish a Cartesian textbook that would mirror what was taught in the schools culminated in the famous multi-volume works of Pierre-Sylvain Régis and of Antoine Le Grand.

The Franciscan friar Le Grand initially published a popular version of Descartes’ philosophy in the form of a scholastic textbook, expanding it in the 1670s and 1680s; the work, Institution of Philosophy, was then translated into English together with other texts of Le Grand and published as An Entire Body of Philosophy according to the Principles of the famous Renate Descartes (London, 1694).

On the Continent, Régis issued his General System According to the Principles of Descartes at about the same time (Amsterdam, 1691), having had difficulties receiving permission to publish. Ultimately, Régis’ oddly unsystematic (and very often un-Cartesian) System set the standard for Cartesian textbooks.

By the end of the 17th century, the Cartesians, having lost many battles, ulti­mately won the war against the Scholastics. The changes in the contents of textbooks from the scholastic Summa at beginning of the 17th century to the Cartesian System at the end can enable one to demonstrate the full range of the attempted Cartesian revolution whose scope was not limited to physics (narrowly conceived) and its epistemology, but included logic, ethics, physics (more broadly conceived), and metaphysics.

Headline image credit: Dispute of Queen Cristina Vasa and René Descartes, by Nils Forsberg (1842-1934) after Pierre-Louis Dumesnil the Younger (1698-1781). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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17. RestUK, international law, and the Scottish referendum

With Scotland voting on independence on 18 September 2014, the UK coalition government sought advice on the relevant law from two leading international lawyers, James Crawford and Alan Boyle. Their subsequent report has a central argument. An independent Scotland would be separatist, breaking away from the remainder of the UK. Therefore, the latter (known as restUK or rUK) would be the continuator state – enjoying all the rights and duties of the existing UK, while Scotland would be new state having none of rUK’s rights and especially no membership of any international organizations it enjoys now as part of the UK. The bargaining power of rUK as to what it might concede of the UK’s rights would be complete, e.g. with respect to a common currency. This legal opinion has created a confrontational atmosphere around the referendum vote and caused anxiety among Scottish voters about to ‘jump into the unknown’.

It is essential to unpack the distracting complexity of the expert international law professionalism of this advice. Firstly, Crawford and Boyle gloss over the actual legal circumstances of the contract of union between Scotland and England, in particular that the Union was a bargain among powers equal in the eyes of international law at that time. More specifically, the England which, with Wales, concluded the Treaty of Union is exactly the same entity standing opposite to Scotland now as then (leaving aside the North of Ireland which has the option under the Belfast Agreement of leaving the UK by referendum).

There is no international standard, in the event of a dissolution of a union, which can provide any objective criterion to determine that Scotland is the breakaway entity. In international law, recognition of new states is largely a matter of the political discretion of existing states. It depends on an international consensus, or lack of it, where political preference may or may not trump any possibly objective standard of political legitimacy, e.g. self-determination by democratic consent. The vast amount of state practice which Crawford and Boyle’s legal opinion displays is misleading insofar as there is, in fact, no definitive legal marker of guidance. This is shown by the fact that England is the continuator state because it is larger than Scotland. Legally, there has to be a continuator state. But since this obviously cannot be Scotland, it must be England. Even Scotland assumes this to be the case.

Scottish Parliament Building. © andy2673 via iStock.
Scottish Parliament Building. © andy2673 via iStock.

It is necessary to focus upon an international legal history of the individual states, rather than the more general international law offered by Crawford and Boyle. The Anglo-Scottish Union displays a phenomenon that Linda Colley has referred to as the composite state. This is where two or more sovereign nations agree to merge their highest governmental level institution (parliament) into a single state made up of several nations – a state-nation – but other lesser local institutions might remain. In the Europe of the 15th to the 17th century this was a common phenomenon, the most celebrated being in Scandinavia, involving Sweden, Denmark and Norway in a variety of partnerships from the Kalmar Union (1397) onwards. The logic of these partnerships was that they were always open to renegotiation. Now, this is precisely what the English generously recognize in the Edinburgh Agreement. The logic of the composite state does not cover the many cases in which a core nation forms itself into a state and then jealously guards its territorial integrity against dissident minorities, which are then regarded as separatist and destructive of national unity. It is possible that an aura of this type of scenario runs through the legal opinion of Crawford and Boyle, although they have to accept the consensual context of the advice they are being asked to give.

The real issues facing Scotland have to be confronted on a basis of equality and mutual consent in accordance with the international law established as apposite for this case. These issues are a matter of history, not merely that of the 17th-18th century, but also the evolution of the 1707 Treaty of Union (implemented through separate Acts of Union passed in the Scottish and English Parliaments) to the very recent past – especially the Thatcher years and the neo-liberal revolution in English-dominated UK politics. It has to be recognized that there are profound differences of social philosophy now between Scotland and England around the issue of neo-liberalism and the defense of community. These provide good reasons to revisit that 1707 bargain. This revisiting should be on the basis of complete equality. The sharing of common institutions of the United Kingdom, such as the currency, would have to be negotiated after reaching an agreement in which neither side – as so-called continuator state – would have a higher standing.

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18. Coffee tasting with Aristotle

Imagine a possible world where you are having coffee with … Aristotle! You begin exchanging views on how you like the coffee; you examine its qualities – it is bitter, hot, aromatic, etc. It tastes to you this way or this other way. But how do you make these perceptual judgments? It might seem obvious to say that it is via the senses we are endowed with. Which senses though? How many senses are involved in coffee tasting? And how many senses do we have in all?

The question of how many senses we have is far from being of interest to philosophers only; perhaps surprisingly, it appears to be at the forefront of our thinking – so much so that it was even made the topic of an episode of the BBC comedy program QI. Yet, it is a question that is very difficult to answer. Neurologists, computer scientists and philosophers alike are divided on what the right answer might be. 5? 7? 22? Uncertainty prevails.

Even if the number of the senses is a question for future research to settle, it is in fact as old as rational thought. Aristotle raised it, argued about it, and even illuminated the problem, setting the stage for future generations to investigate it. Aristotle’s views are almost invariably the point of departure of current discussions, and get mentioned in what one might think unlikely places, such as the Harvard Medical School blog, the John Hopkins University Press blog, and QI. “Why did they teach me they are five?” says Alan Davies on the QI panel. “Because Aristotle said it,” replies Stephen Fry in an eye blink. (Probably) the senses are in fact more than the five Aristotle identified, but his views remain very much a point of departure in our thinking about this topic.

Aristotle thought the senses are five because there are five types of perceptible properties in the world to be experienced. This criterion for individuating the senses has had a very longstanding influence, in many domains including for example the visual arts.

Yet, something as ‘mundane’ as coffee tasting generates one of the most challenging philosophical questions, and not only for Aristotle. As you are enjoying your cup of coffee, you appreciate its flavor with your senses of taste and smell: this is one experience and not two, even if two senses are involved. So how do senses do this? For Aristotle, no sense can by itself enable the perceiver to receive input of more than one modality, precisely because uni-modal sensitivity is what according to Aristotle identifies uniquely each sense. On the other hand, it would be of no use to the perceiving subject to have two different types of perceptual input delivered by two different senses simultaneously, but as two distinct perceptual contents. If this were the case, the difficulty would remain unsolved. In which way would the subject make a perceptual judgment (e.g. about the flavor of the coffee), given that not one of the senses could operate outside its own special perceptual domain, but perceptual judgment presupposes discriminating, comparing, binding, etc. different types of perceptual input? One might think that perceptual judgments are made at the conceptual rather than perceptual level. Aristotle (and Plato) however would reject this explanation because they seek an account of animal perception that generalizes to all species and is not only applicable to human beings. In sum, for Aristotle to deliver a unified multimodal perceptual content the senses need to somehow cooperate and gain access in some way to each other’s special domain. But how do they do this?

Linard, Les cinq sens
Linard, Les cinq sens. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A sixth sense? Is that the solution? Is this what Aristotle means when talking about the ‘common’ sense? There cannot be room for a sixth sense in Aristotle’s theory of perception, for as we have seen each sense is individuated by the special type of perceptible quality it is sensitive to, and of these types there are only five in the world. There is no sixth type of perceptible quality that the common sense would be sensitive to. (And even if there were a sixth sense so individuated, this would not solve the problem of delivering multimodal content to the perceiver, because the sixth sense would be sensitive only to its own special type of perceptibles). The way forward is then to investigate how modally different perceptual contents, each delivered by one sense, can be somehow unified, in such a way that my perceptual experience of coffee may be bitter and hot at once. But how can bitter and hot be unified?

Modeling (metaphysically) of how the senses cooperate to deliver to the perceiving subject unified but complex perceptual content is another breakthrough Aristotle made in his theory of perception. But it is much less known than his criterion for the senses’ individuation. In fact, Aristotle is often thought to have given an ad hoc and unsatisfactory solution to the problem of multimodal binding (of which tasting the coffee’s flavor is an instance), by postulating that there is a ‘common’ sense that somehow enables the subject to perform all the perceptual functions that the five sense singly cannot do. It is timely to take a departure form this received view which does not pay justice to Aristotle’s insights. Investigating Aristotle’s thoughts on complex perceptual content (often scattered among his various works, which adds to the interpretative challenge) reveals a much richer theory of perception that it is by and large thought he has.

If the number of the senses is a difficult question to address, how the senses combine their contents is an even harder one. Aristotle’s answer to it deserves at least as much attention as his views on the number of the senses currently receive in scholarly as well as ‘popular’ culture.

Headline image credit: Coffee. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay

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19. Scottish Women and the Vote

Scottish women are said to hold the key to independence, as they predominate in the ‘no’ camp. Men have been repeatedly estimated from poll data to be around 50:50 for and against, while those women who were sure of their intentions were 60% against.

This has been represented as an alarming gender divide, but a look at the history of women fighting for the vote in Scotland shows they have long been resolute in their positions, more concerned with what politics could do in real life than the grandstanding of political ideas, and much more internationalist than their sisters south of the border.

The Scottish route to women’s suffrage started in 1867 with the Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage; similar societies were established in Manchester, London, and Dublin. Later these suffragists were joined by the suffragettes, who attracted considerable publicity for arson, vandalism, and hunger-striking in the cause, to the disdain of the constitutional campaigners who thought this sort of behaviour counter-productive. This major division in tactics has served to obscure the fundamental similarity of both campaigns as both sides were directed towards the same objective: for women to have the vote on the same basis as men, which was then on a property-owning franchise. They also both steered away from engagement in other social activities. The vote was all-important, it was a millennialist objective, which once achieved would inaugurate an era of social justice and peace. Other social activity was at best a distraction and could wait till after the advent of the franchise. For this reason English suffragists such as Millicent Fawcett were not involved in important campaigns like those against the Contagious Diseases Acts and for temperance, whatever their personal views may have been.

The Great Procession and Women's Demonstration, 1909 on Princes Street, Edinburgh. Photograph taken by James Patrick. The People's Story, Edinburgh Museums & Galleries. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The Great Procession and Women’s Demonstration, 1909 on Princes Street, Edinburgh. Photograph taken by James Patrick. The People’s Story, Edinburgh Museums & Galleries. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Scottish women took another path, with a much more inclusive vision of the purpose of political activism. For them the vote was one of a number of issues on which to campaign, and temperance was another. Using the vehicle of the Scottish Christian Union, Scottish women allied with the American Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the most powerful women’s suffrage organisation in the world.

The temperance cause was part of a set of progressive measures as disparate as anti-slavery, ‘social purity’ (sexual control), universal education, and promoting enhanced domestic skills to the poor. All had women as prime movers or playing a prominent part – the so-called ‘feminine public sphere’. Scottish women embraced this ‘woman’s mission’ with a vengeance, for example eagerly seizing on the municipal vote which was granted to Scottish women in 1881, in order to favour candidates who wanted strict alcohol licensing. Other areas of activity included such practical institutions as the Glasgow Samaritan Hospital for ‘diseases of women’ and rescue homes for ‘female inebriates.’ It has been said that alcohol more than slavery or suffrage or any other single cause politicised American women. Megan Smitley in The Feminine Public Sphere (MUP, 2009) has convincingly argued that the same can be said for Scottish women.

In the United States the Women’s Christian Temperance Union saw through enfranchisements state by state, and sent out missionaries to New Zealand (which became the first nation to enfranchise women in 1893) and to Australia (which started enfranchising with South Australia in 1894). Isabel Napier, who was National Superintendent of the Suffrage Department of the Scottish Christian Union, grew up in New Zealand and retained strong links. “When Suffrage became law in New Zealand all their influence was thrown on the side of Temperance Reform,” she said, “and so you have the advanced laws that now obtain.” WCTU speakers toured Scotland from the Shetlands to the Borders, hosted by the Scottish Christian Union.

In contrast, English women considered the US temperance campaign vulgar and did not welcome WCTU speakers; they feared the ‘Americanisation’ of their field. Nor did English and Welsh temperance organisations officially support women’s suffrage (though individual members doubtless did).

The importance of this tradition of social activism for the independence debate has been that Scottish women were not moved by the same arguments as men. The ‘Braveheart tendency’ of independence at all costs as a patriotic ideal, regardless of the consequences, has had limited feminine appeal. As Lesley Riddoch wrote in The Scotsman: “Toughing out controversy and appearing to spoil for a fight may earn respect from male commentators and small armies of cyber-angry, anonymous men. Clever dick answers, snide-sounding put downs and swaggering arrogance turn off watching women as swiftly as they appear to engage watching men.” That was the level at which most of the independence campaign was fought, however, leading to a frantic late catch-up as more ‘woman friendly’ policies were rolled out.

The issues that women took most interest in were: How would either side deal with child poverty, low pay, and poor housing? What could be done about the European-wide disgrace of poor health and low life expectancy in parts of Scotland? Finally (and in a manner that would be instantly recognisable to nineteenth century prohibitionists) how to deal with the appalling levels of alcohol abuse in Scotland which are so damaging to personal health and family life?

Such practical matters of national renewal were often drowned out by masculine bluster.

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20. Beyond #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft

#WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft are great steps toward an improved public response to domestic violence. There are many, many risks and obstacles that make “Why didn’t she just leave?” at best an ignorant question and at worst the beginning of a victim-blaming spiral that can be as traumatizing as the violence.

Sympathy is a good start and it is truly amazing to see the media and the general public open their eyes to some of the challenges women face when their relationships turn violent. However, there are still many other stereotypes and old ways of thinking that are getting repeated even today. Here are a few items on my wishlist for beyond #WhyIStayed:

(1)   Starting asking what is going on with the perpetrators. Batterers create domestic violence and yet we still turn to the victims of domestic violence and ask what they can or should do. Where are the batterers? Where are the men? When a burglar breaks into a house, we do not spend all of our time trying to understand the homeowner. We do not expect an explanation about why they decided to stay in their home or need an analysis of why they purchased that flat-screen TV. We try to catch the burglar and understand that the victims are just going about their lives, trying to get their needs met like the rest of us.

(2)   Do not stereotype anyone or any institution. In the last several days there have particularly been numerous negative comments about churches and other religious organizations. Yes, some religious leaders send bad, blaming messages about domestic violence and encourage victims to stay for the sake of the marriage. However, many religious leaders and religious institutions are important parts of the solution to domestic violence in many communities. Many religious leaders stand by victims with years of support, both tangible and intangible, often long after social service benefits are tapped out. We know that many family members sometimes pressure victims to stay too, but we do not start describing families in a negative light. Do not assume that every religious organization is part of the problem.

(3)   Awareness is not enough. We need to follow up with better services. The first and most obvious step is to do a better job with safety planning and risk assessment. Risk assessment needs to include all of the reasons people have shared with #WhyIStayed. The Victim Inventory of Goals, Options, and Risks, called The VIGOR, offers a big-picture, holistic approach for risk assessment. The VIGOR allows victims to report all of the risks and obstacles they might be facing, including not only the violence to them, but also threats to loved ones, housing needs, financial needs, legal needs, and issues related to the rejection by family or community members. The VIGOR is also unique in that it asks victims to describe their strengths and resources and helps them brainstorm about their options.

Research with the VIGOR backs up this newly empowered view of victims of domestic violence. The women who participated came up with over 150 different coping strategies for domestic violence. This is far more than any existing safety plan. This can also be the legacy of #WhyIStayed—more comprehensive safety planning that recognizes the complexities and also the many strengths of battered women.

Headline image credit: Blue door by Ana_J. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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21. African encounters in Roman Britain

Hadrian’s Wall has been in the news again recently for all the wrong reasons. Occasional wits have pondered on its significance in the Scottish Referendum, neglecting the fact that it has never marked the Anglo-Scottish border, and was certainly not constructed to keep the Scots out. Others have mistakenly insinuated that it is closed for business, following the widely reported demise of the Hadrian’s Wall Trust. And then of course there is the Game of Thrones angle, best-selling writer George R R Martin has spoken of the Wall as an inspiration for the great wall of ice that features in his books.

Media coverage of both Hadrian’s Wall Trust’s demise and Game of Thrones’ rise has sometimes played upon and propagated the notion that the Hadrian’s Wall was manned by shivering Italian legionaries guarding the fringes civilisation – irrespective of the fact that the empire actually trusted the security of the frontier to its non-citizen soldiers, the auxilia rather than to its legionaries. The tendency to overemphasise the Italian aspect reflects confusion about what the Roman Empire and its British frontier was about. But Martin, who made no claims to be speaking as a historian when he spoke of how he took the idea of legionaries from Italy, North Africa, and Greece guarding the Wall as a source of inspiration, did at least get one thing right about the Romano-British frontier.

There were indeed Africans on the Wall during the Roman period. In fact, at times there were probably more North Africans than Italians and Greeks. While all these groups were outnumbered by north-west Europeans, who tend to get discussed more often, the North African community was substantial, and its stories warrant telling.

Birdoswald Roman Fort, Hadrians Wall (8751341028)
Hadrian’s Wall, by Carole Raddato. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most remarkable tale to survive is an episode in the Historia Augusta (Life of Severus 22) concerning the inspection of the Wall by the emperor Septimius Severus. The emperor, who was himself born in Libya, was confronted by a black soldier, part of the Wall garrison and a noted practical joker. According to the account the notoriously superstitious emperor saw in the soldier’s black skin and his brandishing of a wreath of Cyprus branches, an omen of death. And his mood was not further improved when the soldier shouted the macabre double entendre iam deus esto victor (now victor/conqueror, become a god). For of course properly speaking a Roman emperor should first die before being divinized. The late Nigerian classicist, Lloyd Thompson, made a powerful point about this intriguing passage in his seminal work Romans and Blacks, ‘the whole anecdote attributes to this man a disposition to make fun of the superstitious beliefs about black strangers’. In fact we might go further, and note just how much cultural knowledge and confidence this frontier soldier needed to play the joke – he needed to be aware of Roman funerary practices, superstitions, and the indeed the practice of emperor worship itself.

Why is this illuminating episode not better known? Perhaps it is because there is something deeply uncomfortable about what could be termed Britain’s first ‘racist joke’, or perhaps the problem lies with the source itself, the notoriously unreliable Historia Augusta. And yet as a properly forensic reading of this part of the text by Professor Tony Birley has shown, the detail included around the encounter is utterly credible, and we can identify places alluded to in it at the western end of the Wall. So it is quite reasonable to believe that this encounter took place.

Not only this, but according to the restoration of the text preferred by Birley and myself, there is a reference to a third African in this passage. The restoration post Maurum apud vallum missum in Britannia indicates that this episode took place after Severus has granted discharge to a soldier of the Mauri (the term from which ‘Moors’ derives). And has Birley has noted, we know that there was a unit of Moors stationed at Burgh-by-Sands on the Solway at this time.

Birdoswald eastern wall
Hadrian’s Wall, by Midnightblueowl. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, Burgh is one of the least explored forts on Hadrian’s Wall, but some sense of what may one day await an extensive campaign of excavation there comes from Transylvania in Romania, where investigations at the home of another Moorish regiment of the Roman army have revealed a temple dedicated to the gods of their homelands. Perhaps too, evidence of different North African legacies would emerge. The late Vivian Swann, a leading expert in the pottery of the Wall has presented an attractive case that the appearance of new forms of ceramics indicates the introduction of North African cuisine in northern Britain in the second and third centuries AD.

What is clear is that the Mauri of Burgh-by-Sands were not the only North Africans on the Wall. We have an African legionary’s tombstone from Birdoswald, and from the East Coast the glorious funerary stela set up to commemorate Victor, a freedman (former slave) by his former master, a trooper in a Spanish cavalry regiment. Victor’s monument now stands on display in Arbeia Museum at South Shields next to the fine, and rather better known, memorial to the Catuvellunian Regina, freedwoman and wife of Barates from Palmyra in Syria. Together these individuals, and the many other ethnic groups commemorated on the Wall, remind us of just how cosmopolitan the people of Roman frontier society were, and of how a society that stretched from the Solway and the Tyne to the Euphrates was held together.

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22. World Water Monitoring Day 2014

World Water Monitoring Day is an annual celebration reaching out to the global community to build awareness and increase involvement in the protection of water resources around the world. The hope is that individuals will feel motivated and empowered to investigate basic water monitoring in their local area. Championed by the Water Environment Federation, a broader challenge has arisen out of the awareness day, celebrated on September 18th each year. Simple water testing kits are available, and individuals are encouraged to go out and test the quality of local waterways.

Water monitoring can refer to anything from the suitability for drinking from a particular water source, to taking more responsibility for our own consumption of water as an energy source, to the technology needed for alternative energies. Discover more about water issues from around the world using the map below.

Image credit: Ocean beach at low tide against the sun, by Brocken Inaglory. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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23. Scots wha play: an English Shakespikedian Scottish independence referendum mashup

THE DATE: 18 September 2014, Fateful Day of Scotland’s Independence Referendum

THE PLACE: A Sceptred Isle

DRAMATIS PERSONAE:
Alexander the Great, First Minister of Scotland
Daveheart, Prime Minister of the Britons
Assorted Other Ministers, Attendant Lords, Lordlings, Politicos, and Camp Followers
Three Witches
A Botnet of Midges
The Internet (A Sprite)
A Helicopter
Dame Scotia
St George of Osborne
Boris de Balliol, Mayor of Londres
UKIP (An Acronym)
Chorus

ACT I: A Blasted Heath.

Enter THREE WITCHES

When shall we three meet again,
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

When the referendum’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.

That will be when Salmond’s gone.

Where the place?

Hampstead Heath.

Better Together unto death!

Is that your phone?

Daveheart calls: anon! –
Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the plebs and filthy air.

[WITCHES vanish.]

ACT II: The Scottish Camp (Voters at Dawn)

Enter a SMALL FOLKS’ CHORUS, Botnet Midges,
Who flap their wings, and then commence this chant:

See here assembled in the Scottish Camp
The Thane of Yes, Lord Naw-Naw, Doctor Spin.
Old folk forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But we’ll remember, with advantages,
This Referendum Day. Then shall that name
And date, familiar as our household words –
Alex the Great, the eighteenth of September –
And many, many here who cast their votes,
A true sorority, a band of brothers,
Long be remembered — long as “Auld Lang Syne” –
For she or he who votes along with me
Shall be my sibling; be they curt or harsh
This day shall gentle their condition:
Scots students down in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed, they were not here,
Casting their votes in this our referendum.

ACT III: On Arthur’s Seat, a Mount Olympus
Near the Scots’ Parliament at Holyrood

Proud Edward Milibrand, Daveheart, Nicholas Clegg,
And Anthony a Blair perch on the crags
With English Exiles. Now Lord Devomax speaks:

Stands England where it did? Alas, poor country,
Almost afraid to know itself, a stateless
Nation, post-imperial, undevolved;
Still sadly lacking its own Parliament,
It commandeers to deal with its affairs
The British Parliament, whose time it wastes
With talk of what pertains to England only,
And so abuses that quaint institution
As if it were its own, not for these islands
Set in a silver sea from Sark to Shetland.

[Exit, pursued by A. Blair]

ACT IV: The Archipelago (High Noon)

Enter THE INTERNET, A Sprite, who sings:

Full fathom five Westminster lies;
Democracy begins to fade;
Stout, undevolved, John Bull still eyes
Imperial power so long mislaid;
England must suffer a sea-change
Into something small and strange,
MPs hourly clang Big Ben:

DING-DONG!

Come, John Bull, and toll Big Ben.

ACT V: South London: top floor of the Shard

Boris de Balliol, St George of Osborne,
Attendant Lords, and Chorus Bankerorum,
Et Nympharum Tamesis et Parliamentorum

Sheet lightnings flash offstage while clashing cymbals
Crescendo in a thunderous night’s farrage.

ST GEORGE: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!
Ye exit polls and hurricanoes spout!
Come, Boris, here’s the place. Stand still.

How fearful

And dizzy ’tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs, that wing the midway air
Seem gross as bankers’ apps: here from this Shard
See floors of smug short-sellers, dreadful traders
Inside a giant gherkin, and the City
Fraternity of inegalite
Spread out around us while its denizens
Appear like lice.

ATTENDANT LORDS: Scotia and Boris, hail!

BORIS: O Bella, Bella Caledonia,
Hic Boris Maior, Londinii Imperator,
Ego –

Fanfare of hautboys, bagpipes, and a tucket.

ST GEORGE: A tucket!

BORIS:                             Tempus fugit.

CHORUS:                                                    Fuckaduckit!

Pipers, desist! Your music from this height
Has calmed the storm, and, blithely, while we wait
For the result to come from Holyrood,
So charms the ear that, clad in English tartans –
The Hunting Cholmondesley, the Royal Agincourt,
And chic crisscrosses of the National Trust –
Our city here, ravished by this fair sound
Of tweeted pibroch, YouTubed from the Shard
To Wapping, Westminster, and Heathrow’s tarmac,
While gazing up from bingo and Big Macs,
Brooding upon our disunited kingdom,
Stands all agog to hear Dame Scotia speak.

Scotia descends, ex machina helecopteris

HELICOPTER: Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

SCOTIA: O England, England, your tight cabinet’s
Sly Oxbridge public-schoolboy millionaires
Fight while your country sinks beneath their yoke;
It weeps, it bleeds; and each new day a gash
Is added to those wounds: new Europhiles
Repulsed, the world repelled; England whose riots
Failed to stop students’ fees for your own folk
Or to contain their escalating cost.
Sad, catastrophic, calculating drones
Miscalculating loans, kicking the arts,
England betrayed by Scoto-Anglish Blair
Into wrong wars and then to Gordon Brown,
Jowled lord of loss and light-touch regulation.
O England, England! Rise and be a nation
United under your own Parliament!
Methinks I am a prophet now inspired
And thus, inspiring, do foretell of you:
Your Europhobia must not endure,
For violent fires must soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short.
Learn from the Scots: plant windfarms, make yourself
A Saudi Arabia of tidal power,
Though not of gender; learn, too, from the French,
There is no need to stay a sceptred isle,
Scuffed other Eden, demi-paradise;
No fortress, built by UKIP for themselves,
Against infection in their Brussels wars;
Be happy as a nation on an island
That’s not England’s alone, a little world,
This precious stone set in a silver sea,
Which serves to link it now with all the globe,
Or as the front door to a happy home,
Be, still, the envy of less happier lands,
And set up soon an English Parliament,
Maybe in London, Britain’s other eye,
Maybe in Yorkshire, so you may become
A better friend to Scotland whose folk love
This blessed plot, this earth, and independence.

She zooms northwards.

Heading image: Macbeth by John Martin (1789–1854). Scottish National Gallery. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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24. China’s economic foes

China has all but overtaken the United States based on GDP at newly-computed purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates, twenty years after Paul Krugman predicted: “Although China is still a very poor country, its population is so huge that it will become a major economic power if it achieves even a fraction of Western productivity levels.” But will it eclipse the United States, as Arvind Subramanian has claimed, with the yuan eventually vying with the dollar for international reserve currency status?

Not unless China battles three economic foes. One is well-known: diminishing marginal returns to capital. Two others have received less attention. The first is Carlos Diaz-Alejandro. Not the man, but the results uncovered by his research on the Southern Cone following the opening up of its capital account that culminated in a sovereign debt crisis and contributed to Latin America’s lost 1980s. If the capital account is liberalized before the domestic financial system is ready, the country sets itself up for a fall: goodbye financial repression, hello financial crash. The second is the “reality of transition”: rejuvenating growth requires hard budgets and competition to improve resource allocation and stimulate innovation, counterbalanced with a more competitive real exchange rate. This is the principal insight from the transition in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), which was far simpler than anything China faces.

China was able to raise total factor productivity (TFP) growth as an offset to diminishing marginal returns to capital, especially after joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, and faster growth was accompanied by a rising savings rate. But TFP growth is hard to sustain. Any developing country targeting growth above the steady state level given by the sum of human capital growth, TFP growth and population growth (the latter two falling rapidly in China) will find that its investment rates need to continually increase unless it can rejuvenate TFP growth. China’s investment rates have risen from around 42% of GDP over 2005-7 (prior to the global crisis) to 48% in recent years even as growth has dropped from the 12% to the 7.5% range. Savings rates have hovered around 50%, reducing current account surpluses (numbers drawn from IMF 2010 and 2014 Article IV reports).

Hall of Supreme Harmony, Beijing.
Hall of Supreme Harmony, Beijing, by Daniel Case. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This configuration has forced China to choose between either investing even more, or lowering growth targets. It has chosen the latter, with its leaders espousing anti-corruption, deleveraging, environmental improvement and structural reform to achieve higher quality growth. The central bank, People’s Bank of China (PBoC), has reaffirmed its goal of internationalizing the yuan and liberalizing the capital account.

China’s proposed antidote is to “rebalance” from investment and exports to domestic consumption. But growth arithmetic would require consumption to grow at unrealistic rates, given the relative shares of investment and private consumption in GDP, even to meet scaled-down growth targets. Besides, households need better social benefits and market interest rates on bank deposits to save less and consume more. Hukou reform alone, or placing social benefits received by rural migrants on a par with their urban counterparts, could easily cost 3% of GDP a year for the next seven years as some 150 million additional people gain access to such benefits—quite apart from the public investment needed to upgrade urban infrastructure, according to calculations shared by Xinxin Li of the Observatory Group. And the failure to liberalize bank deposit rates has led to the rise of “wealth management products” in the shadow banking system. These “WMPs” offer higher returns but are poorly regulated and more risky.

Indeed, total social financing, a broad measure of credit, has soared from 125% to 200% of GDP over the five years 2009-2013 (Figure 2 in the July 2014 IMF Article IV report, with Box 5 warning that such a rapid trajectory usually ends in tears). Local government debt was estimated at 32% of GDP in mid-2013, much of it short-term and used to fund infrastructure projects and social housing with long paybacks. Housing prices show the signs of a bubble, especially away from the four major cities. Corporate credit is 115% of GDP, about half of it collateralized by land or property. While the focus recently has been on risks from shadow banking, it is hard to separate the shadow from the core. Besides, WMPs have become intertwined with the booming real estate market, a major engine of growth yet the centre of a “web of vulnerabilities” (to quote the IMF) encompassing banks, shadow banks, and local government finances. A real estate shock would ripple through the system, lowering growth and forcing bailouts. The gross cost of the bank workout at the end of the 1990s was 15% of GDP in a much simpler world!

2014 began with fears of a hard landing and an impending default by a bankrupt coal mine on a $500 million WMP-funded loan intermediated by a mega-bank. The government eventually intervened rather than let investors take a hit and risk a confidence crisis. And starting in April, stimulus packages were launched to meet the 7.5% growth target, a tacit admission that rebalancing is not working. But concerns persist around real estate. Besides, stimulus will help only temporarily and China is likely to be facing the same questions about growth and financial vulnerability by the end of the year.

With rebalancing infeasible, and investing even more prohibitively costly, virtually the only remaining option is to spur total factor productivity growth: China is still far from the global technological frontier. This calls for a package that cleans up the financial sector and implements hard budgets and genuine competition, especially for the state-owned enterprises (SOEs), while keeping real exchange rates competitive. The real appreciation of the past few years may have been offset by rising productivity, but continued appreciation will make it harder for the domestic economy to restructure and create 12 million jobs a year to absorb new graduates and displaced SOE workers.

In sum, China must heed Diaz-Alejandro. No one knows what the non-performing loans ratio is in China and few believe the official rate of 1%. If the cornerstone of a financial system is confidence and transparency, China is severely deficient. This must first be fixed and market-determined interest rates adopted before entertaining hopes of internationalizing the currency. China must also accept the reality of transition; the formidable remaining agenda in the fiscal, financial, social, and SOE sectors reminds us that China is still in transition to a full-fledged market economy.

The combination of a financial clean up and the policy trio of hard budgets, competition, and a competitive real exchange rate will improve resource allocation and force innovation, boosting total factor productivity growth. But doing this is hard—that’s the essence of the “middle-income trap”. Huge vested interests will be encountered, evoking Raghuram Rajan’s description of the middle-income trap as one “where crony capitalism creates oligarchies that slow down growth”. Dealing with this agenda is the Chinese leadership’s biggest challenge.

The era of cheap China is ending, while the ability of the government to virtually decree the growth rate has fallen victim to diminishing returns to capital. Diaz-Alejandro and the reality of transition are no less important as China seeks a way forward.

Headline image credit: The Great Wall in fall, by Canary Wu. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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25. A role model for black feminism: Harriet Ross Tubman

Harriet Ross Tubman’s heroic rescue effort on behalf of slaves before and during the Civil War was a lifetime fight against social injustice and oppression.

Most people are aware of her role as what historian John Hope Franklin considered the greatest conductor for the Underground Railroad. However, her rescue effort also included her work as a cook, nurse, scout, spy, and soldier for the Union Army. As a nurse, she cared for black soldiers by working with Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, who was in charge of front line hospitals. Over 700 slaves were rescued in the Tubman-led raid against the Confederates at the Combahee River in South Carolina. She became the only woman in U.S. history to plan and lead both white and black soldiers in such a military coup.

It is the latter activity which caused black feminists in Roxbury, Massachusetts to organize themselves during the seventies as the Combahee River Collective. When Tubman died, she was given a military burial with honors. It is also Tubman’s work as an abolitionist, advocate for women’s suffrage, and care for the elderly that informs black feminist thought. It is only fitting that we remember the life of this prominent nineteenth century militant social reformer on the 165th anniversary of her escape from slavery on 17 September 1849.

The Runaway

Tubman was born into slavery around 1820 to Benjamin and Harriet Ross and given the name Araminta. She later took her mother’s name, Harriet. As a slave child, she worked in the household first and then was assigned to work in the fields. Her early years as a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland were traumatic and she was sickly. An overseer threw an object that accidentally hit Tubman in the head. The head injury she sustained caused her to have seizures and blackouts all of her life. She even had visions and this combined with her religiosity caused her to believe that she was called by God to lead slaves to freedom. It is believed that her work in the fields gave her the physical stamina to make her rescues. She was married in 1844 to John Tubman, a free black man, but her anxiety about being sold caused her to run away to Philadelphia and leave John behind. Runaways were rare among slave women, but prevalent among slave men.

Harriet Tubman by H. Seymour Squyer, 1848 - 18 Dec 1905 (National Portrait Gallery). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Harriet Tubman by H. Seymour Squyer, 1848 – 18 Dec 1905 (National Portrait Gallery). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Abolitionist

Between 1846 and 1860, Tubman successfully rescued close to 300 family members and other slaves. She became part of a network of prominent abolitionists who created escape havens for passage from the South to Northern cities and then on to Canada. The recent award winning film, Twelve Years a Slave reminds us that even free blacks were subject to being turned in as a runaway after passage of The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Tubman was bothered by this new law and was eager to go directly to Canada where she herself resided for a time. She made anywhere from 11 to 19 rescue trips. The exact count is unclear because such records were notkept in this clandestine social movement. Maryland plantation owners put a $40,000 bounty on Tubman’s head. She was never caught and she never lost a passenger. Like Patrick Henry, her motto was give me liberty or give me death. She carried a pistol with her and threatened to shoot any slave who tried to turn back. The exodus from slavery was so successful that the slaves she led to freedom called her Moses. She was such a master of disguise and subterfuge that these skills were used after she joined the Union Army. It has also been reported that the skills she developed were so useful to the military that her scouting and spy strategies were taught at West Point. She purchased a home in Auburn, New York where she resided after the Civil War. Her husband, John Tubman, died after the war, and she married Nelson Davis, another Civil War veteran. From her home in Auburn, she continued to help former slaves.

The Social Reformer

Historian Gerda Lerner once described Tubman as a revolutionist who continued her organizing activities in later life. Tubman supported women’s suffrage, gave speeches at organizing events for both black and white women, and was involved in the organizing efforts of the National Federation of Afro-American Women. After a three decade delay, Tubman was given $20 a month by the government for her military service. Tubman lived in poverty, but her mutual aid activities continued. She used her pension and money from fundraising activities to provide continued aid to freed slaves and military families. She died in 1913 in the home she established for the elderly and poor, the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People, now a National Historic Monument.

Harriet Ross Tubman escaped from slavery, but remembered those she left behind. She was truly an historic champion for civil rights and social justice.

Heading image: Underground Railway Map. Compiled from “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom” by Willbur H. Siebert Wilbur H. Siebert, The Macmillan Company, 1898. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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