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Books I didn’t read this semester

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It’s early May, and I’ve got stacks of exams and papers to grade, a book manuscript and overdue book chapter to put finish up, and a host of other annoying end-of-semester tasks that make the next few weeks seem daunting. One ritual of this time of year, for me, is the mass return of interlibrary loan books accumulated throughout the semester. In other words: giving up.

Dayton’s library, while respectable enough, doesn’t have most books I might want, but requesting a book from any University library in Ohio is free-to-me and easy; a few keystrokes and it shows up in my mailbox in a few business days on a renewable six week loan. I rarely return these books during the semester, unless they’re recalled (you can renew them online) but make an effort to return most of the ones I have no immediate use for, so that I don’ accumulate an unwieldy quantity of them. There are essentially four reasons I might request a book, listed here in order of frequency:

1. Seems to be potentially relevant to some current or planned future research project
2. Seems to be potentially relevant to some current or planned future course I teach
3. Seems interesting
4. ???

It will probably surprise few readers that many, indeed probably most, of these books go back to the library largely unread. Some are literally unopened, others briefly skimmed or mined for a specific citation. So anyway, this delivers on an idea for a post I’ve toyed with doing for years: some scattered notes and thoughts on some books I failed to read this semester.

Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (Yale, 2016)

I read a few bits and pieces here and there. It’s not a (1) because the slavery and freedom paper is done and published, and I have no immediate plans for a follow-up. I expect I thought I might find some excerpts to use in my “Slavery, Freedom and American Political Thought seminar, in which we spend a couple of weeks on white abolitionists. Sinha seeks to disrupt the received conventional wisdom of white abolitionists and economically conservative bourgeois paternalists and moralists, not because the received wisdom is entirely wrong, but because it’s profoundly incomplete, and is conducive to a narrative about 19th century abolitionism that ignores the slaves themselves. Of particular interest to me is black abolitionists’ role in the decline of the popularity of the ACS and its “free them then deport them” politics in abolitionist circles. This looks like a fantastic book, and I’ve ordered a used copy, to be read in parks, coffee shops, and beaches over the summer and on my upcoming sabbatical. Adam Rothman wrote an excellent review at The Atlantic a year ago.

Clement Fatovic, America’s Founding and the Struggle over Economic Inequality (Kansas, 2015)
Probably a combination of (2) and (3); mostly (3) since the topic is a bit off-theme for my APT class and I overstuff the Founders’ weeks as it is. Fatovic makes the case that the debates about the problems of economic inequality were much more central to the political thought of many of the founders than contemporary representations and reputations would suggest, and he seeks to unearth them, with particular attention to Paine, Jefferson, and Webster. Paine’s Lockean anti-government moments are most likely to make it into anthologies and the popular imagination, so his chapter rescuing Paine from the libertarians and those who would surrender him to them and sketching Paine’s (still largely Lockean) case for what amounts to a reasonably robust welfare state, at least by late 18th century standards.

That’s the only chapter I read with any care. I also skimmed chapter four is also of some potential interest to those who followed the Lin-Manuel Miranda inspired conversation about the proper role of Alexander Hamilton in the progressive imagination. In this chapter Fatovic argues that Hamilton’s reputation as a champion of the plutocrats is less a reflection on what Hamilton actually thought and more a reflection on the success of Hamilton’s much longer-lived adversaries, who promoted this view of his work. His three major reports (Public credit, the National Bank, and Manufacturing), his occasional remarks about the ignorance and folly of “the multitude” and his not-undeserved reputation for as a grasping social climber made it easy for his opponents to caricature him as little more than a plutocrat-apologist, which obscured greater depths and complications. Fatovic certainly comes up with a fair amount of textual evidence from beyond those sources Hamilton was concerned about economic inequality, and was willing to endorse federal measures to attempt to address excesses of inequality; as a champion of increasing pay for the lowest rung of federal workers, and more importantly by keeping taxation as progressive as popular by taxing wealth and luxury items rather than general taxes or taxes on necessities.

Lorna Finlayson, The Political is Political: Conformity and the Illusion of Dissent in Contemporary Political Theory

(1); I’m writing a paper for APSA on the uses, abuses, and shortcomings of the “realist” turn in political theory, with particular attention to David Miller’s (dubious and revealing, I will argue) invocation of a realism in his new book the political theory of immigration. Her paper on the seemingly accidental conservatism of self-described realists in the European Journal of Political Theory is excellent and I wanted to see more of what she has to say on the topic.

This is an odd, scattered book, with what appear to be moments of brilliance. It purports to offer simultaneous critique of the dominance of liberalism in contemporary analytic political philosophy on three levels: methodological, philosophical, and political. The whole field, she wants to argue, is structured to discredit alternatives and herd political philosophy into a relatively constrained political space, focusing on narrow issues within a broader Rawlsian/liberal framework. I say “wants to argue” because it looks like the sum total is likely to add up to less than I think she suggests it does. Her tone is unique and at times refreshing, veering between the professional standards for political philosophy and humorous, snarky, and irreverant asides, which can be jarring, but amusing and refreshing. (Example: “There is a good deal of controversy as to the extent to which the transition from Rawls’ first major work, A Theory of Justice, to the later Political Liberalism marks a decisive break in his thought, as opposed to a harmonious development or shift in emphasis. I cannot stress enough how little I care about this question.”)

I’m going to give more time and attention to chapter three (“Foul Play: the Norm of Philosophical Charity”), because she offers there her “defense of uncharitable readings,” which I’m temperamentally inclined to resist. The centerpiece of her case is a Raymond Guess’ infamous remark that John Rawls’ political philosophy is “generically the same kind of thing” as the governing philosophies of George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice. I’m not particularly Rawlsian (I quite like some of her critiques of Rawls’ use and abuse of the concept of “reasonable” in the previous chapter) but this nonetheless strikes me as a good example of all that’s wrong with uncharitable readings

She also has a chapter arguing against the Austinian re-interpretations of MacKinnon’s feminist case against pornography (like I said, a scattered book), which needs to be singled out for the cleverness of the title: “How to Screw Things with Words.”

Biskupski and Pula, eds, Polish Democratic Thought from the Renaissance to the Great Emigration: Essays and Documents.
(3), Scott and I open ch. 6 of our book manuscript with an brief discussion of the liberum veto, a convention that makes the modern Senate look downright reasonable. Any member of the Sjem, the legislature of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (a “gentry democracy” (5-7% of the adult male population, on one estimate were franchise eligible members of the gentry) with an elected King that was imagined to be considerably less powerful than he actually was) could invoke this veto and invalidate the work the legislative session entirely. On the positive side of the ledger, the liberum veto is credibly associated with greater-than-average levels of religious freedom during the relevant era. On the other hand, the veto provided a way for hostile foreign interests to mess with Poland, arguably making a considerable contribution to the downfall of the commonwealth in 1795.

The book contains five thematic historical essays on Polish democratic thought during different eras, spanning the 16th through the 19th century, and a number of primary text documents of relevance, including defenses of the liberum veto as a central and crucial aspect to a free and democratic polity, not just because is promotes consensus politics but because it protects against the tyranny of a law you oppose.

Polish democratic theory during this era seems fascinating and probably unreasonably neglected in the history of political thought. I would have liked to have read more of this book.

Jonathan Lamb, The Rhetoric of Suffering: Reading the Book of Job in the 18th Century.

(4). One cold day in January, this showed up in my mailbox at work. I went online and confirmed that I did, in fact, place an interlibrary loan request for this book. It appears I did. I have absolutely no idea why. For the last four months, it’s sat on the corner of my desk, taunting me. Every so often I’d pick it up, look over the table of contents or index, trying to find some clue about why I thought I wanted to read it. Nothing resembling a clue was ever found. Today it will begin the journey back to its rightful home on the shelves of the library at the Winebrenner Theological Seminary, where (if the checkout stamps are to be believed) it had quietly resided, unmolested by human hands, for 16 years prior to my inexplicable decision to summon it to me.

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