Revue de Press: February 2

2 February 2020


Whatever you believe, you’re probably wrong about inequality. At least that’s what Jonathan Rothwell thinks. In an article for Foreign Policy, he argues that globalization and corporations are not to blame for the astronomical levels of inequality in the United States. Nor is inequality the natural product of innovation and competition. Rather, inequality is the result of unequal political power. Specifically, high-paying service providers have created monopolies through associations like the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association. These  organizations use their outsized political power to out-regulate the competition, setting up barriers to entry and exacting exorbitant fees. According to Rothwell, this imbalance among service providers explains why so much wealth is concentrated at the top of the income hierarchy.


John Raimo recently sat down with the French sociologist Gisèle Sapiro to talk about Sapiro’s recent book, Les écrivains et la politique en France: De l’affaire Dreyfus à la guerre d’Algérie. The conversation on the JHI blog explores some of what prompted Sapiro’s personal passion for the sociology of literature and why Sapiro thinks the fields of politics and literature splintered into separate domains in the second half of the nineteenth century. In brief, Sapiro argues that politics became more professionalized, altering the way writers intervene in the political field.


Harrison Stetler explores the French genre of environmental collapsologie in The New York Review of BooksCollapsologists, Stetler says, are right to decry the injustice and futility of the incremental measures championed by the traditional environmental movement and welcomed by the world’s governments. But they forget that environmental collapse will not provide a tabula rasa for the communalism they might secretly be wishing for. Instead, collapse will spell the death of untold millions in the Third World, while likely sparing the super-rich. An ecological democracy, according to Stetler, is still our best hope.


The New York Times Magazine launched its “1619 Project” last August and made a bold claim for thinking of America’s birth not in terms of the Revolution of 1776 but rather with the year 1619, when the first African slaves arrived in Virginia. The Project was meant to remind a general audience about America’s tortured history of slavery and the long aftermath of Jim Crow and racism. Yet “1619” has since touched off a major controversy among professional historians. Alex Lichtenstein, current editor of The American Historical Review, reports it was all anyone asked him about at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in January. Lichtenstein defends the framing of the Project, but some senior US historians—most notably Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, Sean Wilentz, and Gordon Wood—point to factual inaccuracies and worry about the Project’s adaptation in school curricula. In December, they asked the Times to issue a correction.


One unexpected element of the “1619” debate is that the most coordinated criticism has come from the International Committee of the Fourth International, which ran a series of interviews with prominent historians (including signatories to the Times letter) on its World Socialist Web Site. For the Trotskyists, “1619” represents the sort of “identity politics” which distract from a genuine workers’ revolution. The historians leading the charge, however, have taken a mostly non-Marxist perspective. In a speech reprinted by the NYR Daily, Princeton professor Sean Wilentz argues that, despite the best of intentions, the Project’s factual errors risk perpetuating the sort of “cynicism” that undermines historical inquiry. Wilentz lays out his main factual objections in The Atlantic.


In the Nation, Tocqueville21 contributor Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins interviews philosopher Martha Nussbaum on her latest book, The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal. For Nussbaum, “cosmopolitanism” inspires a universal respect for human rights and justice, but it also ignores major economic disparities and the “material aid” necessary for a decent life. Steinmetz-Jenkins prompts Nussbaum to explain how her critique of cosmopolitanism relates to some of her past work and how her “capabilities approach” to civic choice-making relates to current debates over nationalism, socialism, non-Western philosophy, and foreign aid.


The Nation also features Keith Thomas, a leading authority of early modern religion, on the long political arc of Calvinism. Thomas reviews Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism, the latest book by Harvard professor James Simpson. For Simpson, it is a powerful irony that modern liberalism emerged out of the English Reformation, which Simpson takes to have been a rather authoritarian chapter in European history. Thomas, however, wonders if Simpson’s view of the early Reformation is excessively dim and if Simpson’s use of a term as broad as “liberalism” does more harm than good.


In The Los Angeles Review of Books, the prominent historian of science Lorraine Daston talks with Jack Gross about her longstanding interest in the history of rules. Daston makes a distinction between the general spirit of applying philosophical reason and “Cold War rationality.” The former is more supple than the approach to science developed in the mid-twentieth century. Daston likewise reflects on how approaches to reason and probabilistic thinking relate to notions of labor, law, and modern decision-making. She points out that the history of science has resisted the normal academic division of labor.


When it comes to a bold defense of political liberties, Jeremy Popkin thinks the French revolutionaries outdid their counterparts in the US. The French of the 1790s experimented with equal rights for women, legalized divorce, and abolished slavery—although this all changed under Napoleon. Does the fact that the French Revolution made more radical claims correlate with the reality that it was also more violent? In an article for Aeon (which previews his general history of the Revolution, A New World Begins), Popkin resists treating figures like Maximilien Robespierre as scapegoats, even as he cautions that The Terror and Napoleon’s dictatorship make it impossible to “simply hail the French movement as a forerunner of modern ideas about liberty and equality.”


The American historian of France Joan W. Scott pulls no punches in her account of the affaire Matzneff for the New Statesman. The once-celebrated author Gabriel Matzneff never shied away from his pedophilic fantasies in his writings, nor his long history of making these fantasies a reality. For Scott—whose book Sex and Secularism was the subject of one of our special sections not long ago—Matzneff was protected not only by a French publishing culture tolerant of abusers, but also by myths of sexual freedom and artistic genius. Only belatedly has it become apparent how these myths serve as cover for heinous acts.


Joseph Confavreux reviews two books on militant jihadism in France for Mediapart. The first, Les Territoires conquis de l’islamisme by Bernard Rougier, emphasizes the growing role of prisons in the radicalization process, although Confavreux does not think Rougier fully spells out the relationship between religion and political socialization. The second, Hugo Micheron’s Le Jihadisme français : quartiers, Syrie, prisons, features interviews with more than eighty French jihadists. Rather than follow Foucault and see the prison system as an institution cut off from society, Micheron argues that the prison has evolved into a complex society of its own, where jihadists are socialized into a culture of Islamic proselytizing.


Photo Credit: Ian Dooley, The Things You Need, via Unsplash.


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