MixedThe Financial Times (UK)In Dominion Tom Holland is excellent at showing how Christianity overthrew antiquity .... Holland shines in his panoramic survey of how disruptive Christianity was for the ethical and political assumptions that preceded it ... Holland astutely shows just how transformative for the west Christianity in particular was. And Christianity really was essential in the making of some modern values, such as the stress we lay on equality or love ... Holland brings the past to life through his characters, which are always vividly drawn, and with accessible scene-setting, which is always lush with detail. Yet the illustration of the conquest of the west by Christianity risks becoming so total that it explains everything and nothing ... The danger in seeking to claim modernity for Christianity is not that it is exaggerated, but that it wants us to acknowledge that there is no relation between the west and the rest that is not religious in form ... Fortunately, that choice is false. Even if the \'West\' is \'moored\' to its Christian past, it is also unmoored from it, and Christianity made this departure possible...
Cass R. Sunstein
MixedThe NationOne of the most striking features of On Freedom is...that Sunstein has written a book about liberty that ignores how, even without government interference, the most insidious threats to it transpire when people believe they are in pursuit of their own preferences. The main problem in today’s society is not, as Sunstein maintains, that the state tends to transgress its bounds and overregulate; instead, it is that in the state’s absence, private coercion often holds sway, allowing powerful forces like the \'free market\' and structural injustice to reduce humankind to servitude, both in choosing its ends and in fulfilling them ... Sunstein’s thinking never strays far from the mantra that people are in charge of their own preferences and that the main problem is helping individuals get what they want. But without a bigger theory of how people come by their desires, what forces stand in their way, and what democracy can do to help, no approach to navigability can transcend the status of advice on the Titanic long after it has gone steaming toward the iceberg.
RaveThe New RepublicIn Red Meat Republic, Specht has brought to the story of American beef the kind of attention to commodity chains that is becoming increasingly fashionable in history, and for good reason ... Explaining how Americans came to eat so much beef and to pay so little for it turns out to be an especially gargantuan enterprise, which Specht pulls off with aplomb, in accessible and sprightly prose ... Specht’s profoundest contention for readers today is that a consumer-oriented activism, playing on concerns for animals (or even the health of our own bodies), is bound to fail.
MixedLondon Review of Books (UK)Our Man takes the measure of America’s lost illusions, even though Packer’s sympathies tend to lie with those who long indulged them ... Holbrooke gave his own account of the negotiations [during the Bosnian Civil War] in To End a War (1998), and Packer draws heavily on it. He keeps his cynicism at bay, and suspends hindsight, as he grants Holbrooke his glorious moment ... Whatever credit is due to Holbrooke as a broker among regional potentates, Packer’s book, in its Balkan chapters, becomes a handmaiden of the humanitarian ideology it purports to be dissecting ... fortune cookie adages...appear throughout Our Man ... Packer skates over Holbrooke’s support (and his own) for the Iraq War in 2003 ... For [some], the only interesting question that Holbrooke’s career raises is how to account for such deeply ingrained mendacity. Packer provides no answer, but in spite of itself Our Man may be the most vivid tour of America’s foreign delusions that has been offered since the Vietnam War.
PositiveThe New RepublicNick McDonell’s striking new book about America’s forever war, The Bodies in Person, is a call to contain or minimize one kind of outrageous violence: the killing of civilians in America’s contemporary wars, fought since 9/11 across an astonishing span of the earth ... The Bodies in Person works through a series of narrative set pieces: McDonell witnesses the violence itself and studies its various aftermaths, like a seismologist traveling to assess the damage of an earthquake at various ranges from the epicenter. He movingly narrates the death of \'Sara,\' a young Iraqi girl from Tikrit who has been recuperating after a lifesaving operation, only to be killed by a bomb meant for the ISIS stronghold across the street ... But through these stories, McDonell is preparing a very specific moral inquiry: How much should Americans contain their violence?
PanThe New RepublicNot only does Pinker argue that these advances fulfill Enlightenment hopes, he proposes they are a direct result of the Enlightenment itself...which Pinker defines as a reliance on institutions to counteract the evil and violent propensities of humankind while coaxing the capacity for cosmopolitan sympathy to its maximum ... But Pinker’s view is catastrophic for anyone who seriously aims to foster progress, since those who claim too flimsy a warrant for optimism—and fail to recognize that it is a matter of faith—do not just fail to convince skeptics. Their complacency blinds them to unexpected reversals in history and conceals from them the threats to their own hopes ... Big changes rather than gleeful self-congratulations are in order if progress is to become our mantra anytime soon. The most formidable challenge to Pinker’s vision ultimately comes from the Enlightenment itself. Not only is authentic optimism not data-driven, but it may have to be established by heirs of reason and humanism who make Pinker look complacent.
James C. Scott
RaveThe NationIn his sparkling new book, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, Scott makes his case by tracing, step by unholy step, how human beings were led first into the agricultural fields and then into the domain of the state, bringing a vast set of conscripts into the army of supposed advancement ...if you view history as an unalterable dialectic of state oppression and ordinary resistance, inevitably you will also wonder how it got started — and whether it was inevitable. This genealogical task is the central ambition of Scott’s new book ...a lot more is going on in Against the Grain than a book report: Scott believes that he has made several advances thanks to his outsider status, and he has unmistakably imported a prior intellectual project — the prosecution of the state — into the literature about how the first examples of it were born.
PositiveThe New RepublicTo grasp the fear and desire behind violent reaction, Mishra contends, we need not just Karl Marx and Thomas Piketty, but also analysts of the psyche and spirit ... A self-proclaimed history of the present, Age of Anger also feels like a blast from the past. In its literacy and literariness, it has the feel of Edmund Wilson’s extraordinary dramas of modern ideas but with a different endpoint and a more global canvas. Mishra reads like a brilliant autodidact, putting to shame the many students who dutifully did the reading for their classes but missed the incandescent fire and penetrating insight in canonical texts ... he holds out no defined alternative. It is unclear whether Mishra feels the chief flaw lies in modernity’s failures—its false promise to liberate everyone—or in its successes, and the devastation that has accompanied them ... If intellectual history matters in this parlous situation, then getting Rousseau right does, too. Interpreting him, as Mishra does, as nostalgic for ancient liberty or protective of interior freedom in the face of the modern catastrophe, will ultimately not work.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewDanner sounds the alarm in hectic prose, relying on a somewhat hazy concept of the war on terror as a 'state of exception' normalized by our wartime presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama ... Obama may have banned torture, but Danner is clearly and understandably angry that the president has not advocated punishment for those who ordered [it].