BR Blog

March 25, 2015 For Americans, Science and Religion Are Largely Compatible Claude S. Fischer

Adam names the animals, from the Creationist Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Image: Michael Rivera

Many of America’s cultural battles in recent decades seem to be face-offs between science and faith: over the teaching of evolution, the reality of climate change, the value of stem cell research, the personhood status of an embryo, and the so on. Many on the liberal side of these issues see the controversies as part of a confrontation between ignorance and knowledge. For the more philosophically inclined, it is about a centuries-old tension between faith and the Enlightenment’s assertion of reasoned observation. (Michael Shermer’s “Skeptic” column in Scientific American is largely devoted to this theme.) Recent research suggests, however, a more complex structure behind both these debates and Americans’ views: many of those on the religious side are far from scientific naifs; some are scientifically quite knowledgeable. It is when science directly touches faith that the conflict flares up.

Facts and Faith
A newly published study by sociologists Timothy O’Brien and Shiri Noy (...

March 17, 2015 Learning from Obama's Campaign Andrew Mayersohn

The 2016 cycle has begun in earnest, bringing with it speculation about which candidates will be able to capture the supposed magic of Barack Obama’s small-dollar donor base, big data analytics, and electrifying speeches. While all of the above deserve some credit for Obama’s success, their role is often overstated. In Groundbreakers: How Obama’s 2.2 Million Volunteers Transformed Campaigning in America, Hahrie Han and Elizabeth McKenna present a great corrective to some of the myths about Obama’s success.

Han and McKenna have written a history of the Obama campaign in which the candidate himself has little more than a cameo. Obama For America’s famed fundraising operation and formidable web presence play only supporting roles. John McCain and Mitt Romney have a combined total of seven mentions in the index. Instead, as the title implies, Han and McKenna tell the story of the organization—from top political operatives to field staff to dedicated volunteers—that ran the biggest voter contact operation ever seen in 2008 and then repeated the feat four years later.

While many modern campaigns rely on volunteers for little more than routine door-knocking, the...

March 16, 2015 Building the Natural Market Claude S. Fischer

"The Wealth of a Nation," a mural by Seymour Fogel on the Social Security Building, 1942.

Builders of the American republic in the decades either side of 1800 grasped and employed new philosophical and ideological tools for its construction.  The revolutionary idea of inherent political equality—“all men are created equal” with “inalienable rights”—however limited its reality then seems looking back from now, was the Next Big Thing of the day. Also critical were economic analyses originating with Adam Smith and his British colleagues. “Free market” arguments asserted that self-interested actors uncontrolled by authorities combine to create the greatest good for the greatest number.

John Lauritz Larson, in a recent presidential address to the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, notes a couple of important similarities between the political theories and the economic theories of America’s revolutionary era. Both sets of ideas demanded that the king’s government get off people’s backs, especially by stopping its interference in commerce. And both sets of ideas asserted, based 18th-century...

March 12, 2015 Crisis of Man? Lighten Up Kevin Mattson

The Reading Room, Johann Peter Hasenclever, 1843.

The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973
Mark Greif
Princeton University Press, $29.95 (cloth)

What a ponderous question to end a book with: “What should be the starting point for twenty-first-century thought?” Soon after asking it, and after a long disquisition into thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Jean Paul Sartre, Claude Levi-Strauss, numerous post-war novelists, and I won’t complete the list since it is quite long, after all this, Mark Greif slams the brakes to a screeching halt. Sounding like Delmore Schwartz’s arm-waving anti-hero in “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Greif writes, “My feeling from investigating the efforts of the mid-twentieth century to reopen a fundamental philosophical anthropology, bearing upon the most urgent crises under the question ‘What is man?,’ is that for my own time, I want to tell my contemporaries: Stop! . . . just stop.” Strange after tracing out a lineage to warn others not to go down that road. But I suppose it is the job of this intellectual historian, who...

March 11, 2015 Against Type Lucy McKeon

Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, and Lincoln (Hannibal Burress) in Broad City. Photo: Comedy Central.

Before Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat—a memoir about growing up with Taiwanese immigrant parents in suburbia—debuted on ABC in early February, it had been twenty years since Margaret Cho’s All American Girl, America’s first and last sitcom centered on an Asian family. Huang has recently written about how network television, “the one-size fits-all antithesis” to his memoir, “neutered” his father, “exoticized” his mother, and altogether reduced his story to a weak stereotype. Still, is its existence better than nothing?

Network sitcoms on network TV face a set of regulatory tests and limiting aspirations to reach a “universal” (read: white) audience that perhaps premium channel shows do not. Huang laments that this universal demographic, in the sense that it even exists, “watches cornstarch television and eats at Panda Express” only “because that’s all they’re being offered.”