What Happened to the Arab Spring?

Years ago, when the media was filled with optimistic treatments of the Arab Spring, I remember reading a quote from a Mideast bishop, who remarked that there was no such thing as an Arab Spring, “only Winter.” Certainly the Arab Spring hasn’t worked out terribly well for the region’s Christians. It hasn’t been a great success for others, either. A new book from Yale, however, has a more optimistic assessment of the future of the movement. Readers can judge for themselves. The book is The Levant Express: The Arab Uprisings, Human Rights, and the Future of the Middle East, by University of Denver professor Michelene Ishay (international relations). Here’s the description from the Yale website:

The enormous sense of optimism unleashed by the Arab Spring in 2011 soon gave way to widespread suffering and despair. Of the many popular uprisings against autocratic regimes, Tunisia’s now stands alone as a beacon of hope for sustainable human rights progress. Libya is a failed state; Egypt returned to military dictatorship; the Gulf States suppressed popular protests and tightened control; and Syria and Yemen are ravaged by civil war. Challenging the widely shared pessimism among regional experts, Micheline Ishay charts bold and realistic pathways for human rights in a region beset by political repression, economic distress, sectarian conflict, a refugee crisis, and violence against women. With due attention to how patterns of revolution and counterrevolution play out in different societies and historical contexts, Ishay reveals the progressive potential of subterranean human rights forces and offers strategies for transforming current realities in the Middle East.

A Bit More Restraint

The University of Kansas press has long punched above its weight. Lately, it has been publishing books concerning the “political” (that is, non-judicial) Constitution by political scientists, political theorists, and constitutional theorists. Many of these are part of a sort of judicial restraint revanchism, which is itself largely out of vogue among many constitutional theorists. Here’s another book that fits into this general category: Reconsidering Judicial Finality: Why the Supreme Court is Not the Last Word on the Constitution (Kansas Press), by Louis Fisher.

“Federal judges, legal scholars, pundits, and reporters frequently describe the Supreme Court as the final word on the meaning of the Constitution. The historical record presents an entirely different picture. A close and revealing reading of that record, from 1789 to the present day, Reconsidering Judicial Finality reminds us of the “unalterable fact,” as Chief Justice Rehnquist once remarked, “that our judicial system, like the human beings who administer it, is fallible.” And a Court inevitably prone to miscalculation and error, as this book clearly demonstrates, cannot have the incontrovertible last word on constitutional questions.

In this deeply researched, sharply reasoned work of legal myth-busting, constitutional scholar Louis Fisher explains how constitutional disputes are settled by all three branches of government, and by the general public, with the Supreme Court often playing a secondary role. The Court’s decisions have, of course, been challenged and reversed in numerous cases—involving slavery, civil rights, child labor legislation, Japanese internment during World War II, abortion, and religious liberty. What Fisher shows us on a case-by-case basis is how the elected branches, scholars, and American public regularly press policies contrary to Court rulings—and regularly prevail, although the process might sometimes take decades. From the common misreading of Marbury v. Madison, to the mistaken understanding of the Supreme Court as the trusted guardian of individual rights, to the questionable assumptions of the Courts decision in Citizens United, Fisher’s work charts the distance and the difference between the Court as the ultimate arbiter in constitutional matters and the judgment of history.

The verdict of Reconsidering Judicial Finality is clear: to treat the Supreme Court’s nine justices as democracy’s last hope or as dangerous activists undermining democracy is to vest them with undue significance. The Constitution belongs to all three branches of government—and, finally, to the American people.”

What Can the Government Say?

An area of law and religion that has gotten a bit of attention relatively recently is the so-called “government speech” doctrine, which concerns the fairly liberal (in the non-political sense) rules about what the government may express about religion. So, for example, Summum v. Pleasant Grove City, in which a municipality rejected a privately donated monument by a religious group for display in a public park alongside several other monuments, including a Ten Commandments monument, was decided in favor of the municipality on the basis that the government has considerable latitude in deciding how to speak.

Here is an interesting new book that focuses on the doctrine of government speech in the law and religion context and elsewhere: The Government’s Speech and the Constitution (Cambridge University Press), by Helen Norton.

“When we discuss constitutional law, we usually focus on the constitutional rules that apply to what the government does. Far less clear are the constitutional rules that apply to what the government says. When does the speech of this unusually powerful speaker violate our constitutional rights and liberties? More specifically, when does the government’s expression threaten liberty or equality? And under what circumstances does the Constitution prohibit our government from lying to us? In The Government’s Speech and the Constitution, Professor Helen Norton investigates the variety and abundance of the government’s speech, from early proclamations and simple pamphlets, to the electronic media of radio and television, and ultimately to today’s digital age. This enables us to understand how the government’s speech has changed the world for better and for worse, and why the government’s speech deserves our attention, and at times our concern.”

Not Too Happy With the Roberts Court

Here’s a new book by Slate magazine writer Mark Joseph Stern about the Roberts Court. He seems to have some criticisms, and I have no doubt that some of them concern the Court’s religion clause jurisprudence. The book is American Justice 2019: The Roberts Court Arrives (University of Pennsylvania Press).

“Following the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy and the controversial confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court plunged into a contentious term that featured divisive cases involving abortion, immigration, capital punishment, and voting rights on the court’s docket. In American Justice 2019, Mark Joseph Stern examines the term’s most controversial opinions and highlights the consequences of Chief Justice John Roberts stepping into a new role as the court’s swing vote.

No longer bound by Kennedy’s erratic moderation, Roberts has begun doling out victories to both Democrats and Republicans, albeit with a clear rightward tilt. Early in the term, Roberts delivered a public rebuke to Trump’s attacks on the judiciary, foreshadowing his refusal to tolerate some of the president’s most extreme contortions of the law. Stern tracks the chief justice’s evolution from staunch conservative to part-time centrist. Along the way, he details the term’s blockbusters and surprises, including an unlikely alliance between Justices Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor on criminal justice, and an especially radical ruling on the death penalty that overturned decades of precedent. Stern’s account depicts a court sharply divided over its role in American democracy, with the man at its center striving to stay above the political fray without abandoning his conservative instincts.”

A Point of Personal Privilege

I’m delighted to announce the publication of this new volume of collected essays on the history, political theory, and law of religious freedom, co-edited by my friend Michael Breidenbach and Owen Anderson: The Cambridge Companion to the First Amendment and Religious Liberty (Cambridge University Press). It won’t be out for a few more months, and I’ll mention it again closer to the date of release. But it’s loaded with interesting pieces by the likes of John Finnis, Steve Smith, Don Drakeman, Zoë Robinson, Phillip Muñoz, Jonathan Den Hartog, and many others. I’ve got a piece in there as well.

“This book is an interdisciplinary guide to the religion clauses of the First Amendment with a focus on its philosophical foundations, historical developments, and legal and political implications. The volume begins with fundamental questions about God, the nature of belief and worship, conscience, freedom, and their intersections with law. It then traces the history of religious liberty and church-state relations in America through a diverse set of religious and non-religious voices from the seventeenth century to the most recent Supreme Court decisions. The Companion will conclude by addressing legal and political questions concerning the First Amendment and the court cases and controversies surrounding religious liberty today, including the separation of church and state, corporate religious liberty, and constitutional interpretation. This scholarly yet accessible book will introduce students and scholars alike to the main issues concerning the First Amendment and religious liberty, along with offering incisive new insights into one of the most important topics in American culture.”

The Islamic State in Britain

Next month, Cambridge will release a study of a terrorist group called “The Emigrants,” whose goal was to create an Islamic state in the United Kingdom. I’ve never heard of this group, myself, but the blurb suggests it was involved in a number of terrorist incidents and eventually supplied fighters for ISIS in the Middle East. The book is The Islamic State in Britain: Radicalization and Resilience in an Activist Network. The author is international affairs scholar Michael Kenney (University of Pittsburgh). Here’s the description from the Cambridge website:

Drawing on extensive field research with activists on the streets of London, Michael Kenney provides the first ethnographic study of a European network implicated in terrorist attacks and sending fighters to the Islamic State. For over twenty years, al-Muhajiroun (Arabic for ‘the Emigrants’) strived to create an Islamic state in Britain through high-risk activism. A number of Emigrants engaged in violence, while others joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Kenney explains why young Britons joined the Emigrants, how they radicalized and adapted their activism, and why many of them eventually left. Through an innovative mix of ethnography and network analysis, Kenney explains the structure and processes behind this outlawed network and explores its remarkable resilience. What emerges is a complex, nuanced portrait that demystifies the Emigrants while challenging conventional wisdom on radicalization and countering violent extremism.

The Kids Are Alright

That young Americans affiliate with religion much less than past generations seems irrefutable. But does that mean twentysomethings lack interest in religion? Maybe–but most Nones, young and old, say something different. Nones lack interest in traditional religion, but typically say they believe in God and think it possible to follow their own, individuated, spiritual paths. A new book out this month from Oxford, The Twentysomething Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults, by sociologist Tim Clydesdale (College of New Jersey) and religious studies scholar Kathleen Garces-Foley (Marymount), explores the phenomenon. I wonder how it compares with Smith and Denton’s Soul Searching, from 2005? Here’s the description from the Oxford website:

Today’s twentysomethings have been labeled the “lost generation” for their presumed inability to identify and lead fulfilling lives, “kidults” for their alleged refusal to “grow up” and accept adult responsibilities, and the “least religious generation” for their purported disinterest in religion and spirituality. These characterizations are not only unflattering — they are wrong. 

The Twentysomething Soul tells an optimistic story about American twentysomethings by introducing readers to the full spectrum of American young adults, many of whom live purposefully, responsibly, and reflectively. Some prioritize faith and involvement in a religious congregation. Others reject their childhood religion to explore alternatives and practice a personal spirituality. Still others sideline religion and spirituality until their lives get settled, or reject organized religion completely.

Drawing from interviews with more than 200 young adults, as well as national survey of 1,880 twentysomethings, Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley seek to change the way we view contemporary young adults, giving an accurate and refreshing understanding of their religious, spiritual, and secular lives.

Somehow Everyone Missed It

Here is a very odd-looking book from Yale University Press: Polygamy: An Early American History, by historian Sarah Pearsall (Cambridge). Based on the blurb and the reviews, the book argues that polygamy was much closer to the center of early American culture than we understand today–a “shocking” discovery, in the words of one of the reviewers. I haven’t read the book, but I have to say I’m skeptical, both because I’m skeptical generally when historians claim to have discovered a salient feature of the long-ago past that no one has noticed, and also because the thesis fits so well with the current policy goals of so many academics. Wouldn’t it be great to learn that our ancestors approved of polygamy all along, and thought of it as one marital option among many?

To learn that polygamy historically existed in America would not be “shocking.” It exists today. But, as today, it seems to have been very much a fringe phenomenon. There’s a reason polygamous groups, like 19th Century Mormons, had to move repeatedly and finally settle in the frontier. Americans at the time precisely did not see polygamy as one option among many. Anyhow, readers can judge for themselves. Here’s the description of the book from the Yale website:

A groundbreaking examination of polygamy showing that monogamy was not the only form marriage took in early America.

Today we tend to think of polygamy as an unnatural marital arrangement characteristic of fringe sects or uncivilized peoples. Historian Sarah Pearsall shows us that polygamy’s surprising history encompasses numerous colonies, indigenous communities, and segments of the American nation. Polygamy—as well as the fight against it—illuminates many touchstones of American history: the Pueblo Revolt and other uprisings against the Spanish; Catholic missions in New France; New England settlements and King Philip’s War; the entrenchment of African slavery in the Chesapeake; the Atlantic Enlightenment; the American Revolution; missions and settlement in the West; and the rise of Mormonism.
 
Pearsall expertly opens up broader questions about monogamy’s emergence as the only marital option, tracing the impact of colonial events on property, theology, feminism, imperialism, and the regulation of sexuality. She shows that heterosexual monogamy was never the only model of marriage in North America.

The City of Churches

“Brooklyn is peculiarly a city of churches, and what is better, they are generally well filled.” So proclaimed The Brooklyn Evening Star in 1841, and the nickname has stuck–even if, alas, the borough’s religiosity has fallen somewhat over time. Brooklynites historically thought of themselves as more pious and sober than their wild neighbors across the East River. Who’s to say? But the borough still hosts lovely, vibrant churches–and synagogues, mosques, and temples–in a way that belies easy assumptions about godless New York

Last week, Princeton University Press released a new history, Brooklyn: The Once and Future City, by Cornell professor Thomas Campanella (Urban Studies and City Planning). Looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:

America’s most storied urban underdog, Brooklyn has become an internationally recognized brand in recent decades—celebrated and scorned as one of the hippest destinations in the world. In Brooklyn: The Once and Future City, Thomas J. Campanella unearths long-lost threads of the urban past, telling the rich history of the rise, fall, and reinvention of one of the world’s most resurgent cities.

Spanning centuries and neighborhoods, Brooklyn-born Campanella recounts the creation of places familiar and long forgotten, both built and never realized, bringing to life the individuals whose dreams, visions, rackets, and schemes forged the city we know today. He takes us through Brooklyn’s history as homeland of the Leni Lenape and its transformation by Dutch colonists into a dense slaveholding region. We learn about English émigré Deborah Moody, whose town of Gravesend was the first founded by a woman in America. We see how wanderlusting Yale dropout Frederick Law Olmsted used Prospect Park to anchor an open space system that was to reach back to Manhattan. And we witness Brooklyn’s emergence as a playland of racetracks and amusement parks celebrated around the world.

Campanella also describes Brooklyn’s outsized failures, from Samuel Friede’s bid to erect the world’s tallest building to the long struggle to make Jamaica Bay the world’s largest deepwater seaport, and the star-crossed urban renewal, public housing, and highway projects that battered the borough in the postwar era. Campanella reveals how this immigrant Promised Land drew millions, fell victim to its own social anxieties, and yet proved resilient enough to reawaken as a multicultural powerhouse and global symbol of urban vitality.

On the Ghetto

The religious associations have largely disappeared, but in its original meaning ghetto referred to a segregated district in which European Jews were required to live–most notably in Italian cities like Venice, Padua, and Rome, where former ghettos have now become tourist attractions. Next month, Harvard releases Ghetto: The History of a Word, which traces the word’s evolving meaning across time. The author is historian Daniel Schwartz (George Washington University). Here’s the description from the Harvard website:

Just as European Jews were being emancipated and ghettos in their original form—compulsory, enclosed spaces designed to segregate—were being dismantled, use of the word ghetto surged in Europe and spread around the globe. Tracing the curious path of this loaded word from its first use in sixteenth-century Venice to the present turns out to be more than an adventure in linguistics.

Few words are as ideologically charged as ghetto. Its early uses centered on two cities: Venice, where it referred to the segregation of the Jews in 1516, and Rome, where the ghetto survived until the fall of the Papal States in 1870, long after it had ceased to exist elsewhere.

Ghetto: The History of a Word offers a fascinating account of the changing nuances of this slippery term, from its coinage to the present day. It details how the ghetto emerged as an ambivalent metaphor for “premodern” Judaism in the nineteenth century and how it was later revived to refer to everything from densely populated Jewish immigrant enclaves in modern cities to the hypersegregated holding pens of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. We see how this ever-evolving word traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, settled into New York’s Lower East Side and Chicago’s Near West Side, then came to be more closely associated with African Americans than with Jews.

Chronicling this sinuous transatlantic odyssey, Daniel B. Schwartz reveals how the history of ghettos is tied up with the struggle and argument over the meaning of a word. Paradoxically, the term ghetto came to loom larger in discourse about Jews when Jews were no longer required to live in legal ghettos. At a time when the Jewish associations have been largely eclipsed, Ghetto retrieves the history of a disturbingly resilient word.

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