From Professor and Student to Professional Colleagues:  Malachy McCarthy, OSB and Nancy McGovern ’82

McCarthy and and McGovern

In the Fall of 1980, the Saint Anselm College History Department offered its first course in a practical approach to applying history. Applied History, designed by Professor Frank Mason and Malachy McCarthy, OSB attracted eight students: Julie Carmelo, Mike Duffy, Carol Flanagan, Barbara Flynn, Ellen Lynch, Nancy McGovern, Mary Quinn, and Lori Skeates.

In this course, Malachy McCarthy taught the principles of archival theory while Frank Mason dealt with oral history. During the second semester, many of the students took advantage of an internship opportunity with a local history organization.

Thirty-five years later, Nancy McGovern continues her work in archives as the manager in charge of digital preservation at MIT Libraries in Cambridge. She came back to Saint Anselm College in 2013 to share her expertise with students in Public History, the updated version of the course she took in 1980. Malachy McCarthy is now the Province Archivist for the Claretian Missionaries USA-Canada Province in Chicago. He still teaches archival principles and practice, educating future Catholic religious archivists.

In August 2016, at the annual convention of the Society of American Archivists in Atlanta, Nancy McGovern accepted the mantle of President of the Society and will lead SAA over the next year. Teacher and student were reunited as professional colleagues at the conference after 35 years.

Faculty often wonder what becomes of each student we have had in class. We know that many go on to very successful careers and lives.  Some make it to the top of their profession, like Nancy. If you haven’t taken a moment to let your former professors know what you are currently up to, please do.  We would love to know.

Ixnay on the Council of Historical Advisers to the President

Obama's Cabinet

In an article entitled “Don’t Know Much about History,” which appears in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, Graham Allison (a political scientist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard) and Niall Ferguson (the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard and a Hoover Fellow) have resurrected the call for a Council of Historical Advisers to the President.

One Thing after Another is all about making historically informed decisions, and this blog relishes the kind of influence that might accrue to historians (but only up to a point). However, the arguments Allison and Ferguson present on behalf of this initiative are problematic and seem to show a mistaken understanding of history’s true power or jurisdiction.

Allison and Ferguson lament that “for too long, history has been disparaged as a ‘soft’ subject by social scientists offering spurious certainty.” What they would like to see is a “new and rigorous ‘applied history’—an attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing precedents and historical analogies.” Through these means, applied historians would “find clues about what is likely to happen, then suggest possible policy interventions and assess probable consequences.” Practitioners of this history could provide the President and his Cabinet with the advice on which sound policy could be framed. Allison and Ferguson argue that if historians had counseled President George W. Bush in 2003, he might have realized that regime change in Iraq would probably lead to a Shiite regime beholden to Iran. They also claim that if President Barrack Obama had understood more about the history of Russia’s relationship to the Ukraine, he would have handled Russia’s annexation of the Crimea better.

These examples seem ill-chosen. It would not have required a historian to make the kind of judgments that Allison and Ferguson would have preferred to see in both cases. Even more questionable and significant, though, is Allison and Ferguson’s faith in history’s ability to provide definitive answers to contemporary problems. Unfortunately, when it comes to worthwhile questions, history is only occasionally definitive; more frequently, it is a running conversation or debate among historians that may have a tendency toward an answer. History, after all, is a part of the humanities. Allison and Ferguson envision a situation where applied history would be to mainstream history what medical practice is to biochemistry or what engineering is to physics. The analogy is instructive. Biochemistry and physics are natural sciences. For sure, these fields are characterized by debate, and their models of the natural world are constantly revised to account for various anomalies. Nonetheless, biochemists and physicists can speak with more confidence and exactness about a host of phenomena in their fields than a historian can in his. Yes, historians deal in facts, and in history there are wrong answers. But historians do not and cannot establish historical theories that bear some resemblance to scientific theories—largely because historians cannot isolate the effects of each independent variable in an experiment that can be reproduced. It is for this very reason that in many previous posts, One Thing after Another has inveighed against the careless and over-frequent use of historical analogies. Events across time are usually too dissimilar to do the work of replicated experiments.

The kinds of questions that Allison and Ferguson propose sending to such their council also do not inspire much confidence that they fully appreciate this point about historical analogies. For example, they ask: “As tensions increase between the U.S. and China in the South and East China Seas, are U.S. commitments to Japan, the Philippines, and other countries as dangerous to peace as the 1839 treaty governing Belgian neutrality, which became the casus belli between Britain and Germany in 1914?” One Thing after Another is not really sure how the 1839 treaty governing Belgian neutrality was dangerous to the peace in 1914. It is sure, however, that questions such as this one are based on mistaken premises:

The short answer is that the causes of war in Europe in 1914 (let alone the circumstances of that time and place) are not really comparable to the potential causes of war in Asia in 2016.

Or what about when Allison and Feguson propose posing “what if?” questions to this council, such as: “What if Obama had enforced his ‘red line’ against the Assad regime, rather than working with Russia to remove Syrian chemical weapons? Was this decision, as critics maintain, the biggest error of his presidency? Or was it, as he insists, one of his best calls?” It is hard to see what historians bring to the table in assessing this moment from the very recent past, unless Allison and Ferguson have a particular historical analogy in mind. This suggested question probably comes from Ferguson who is a big proponent of counterfactual history and even edited a collection of essays entitled Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997). Such exercises are useful in pointing out that developments in the past were often contingent and not determined. However, counterfactual claims in history are impossible to prove, and they are uncertain ground from which to issue strong judgments of policy.

Finally, Allison and Ferguson suggest a whopper of a question for the council to tackle: “Is the U.S. in decline?” On its face, this issue is not necessarily one for historians to study (it does not have a historical dimension). If Allison and Ferguson believe they can use historical analogies to crack this nut, it is hard to see what state or empire from the past they propose employing for the purpose. Assyria? Rome? Spain? Austria-Hungary? Britain? All of these comparisons present huge challenges. This question of decline does bring Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987) to mind. Kennedy was an ambitious historian who sought to gain entry into policymaking with this book. In other words, Kennedy did the kind of applied history that Allison and Ferguson recommend. While The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was influential in its time and had the appearance of a magisterial work, it aged fairly quickly, its findings were not always useful, and its predictions were not necessarily fulfilled.

At this point, one may ask, if a council of historians cannot offer us much help through a new “applied history,” what’s the point of studying history? One Thing after Another responds (patiently, since it has been over this point before in previous posts) that history does not provide precise answers about questions arising from our immediate predicaments. At most, it helps us understand how certain situations came to be. In general, though, it should hone our judgment, provide insight into human nature, inspire empathy, and inform (but not determine) our decisions. Such an answer might be too “soft” for ambitious historians, but it is important that they do not promise too much, overreach, and bring unwarranted discredit on the discipline when they cannot deliver.

Professor Moore Wins Grant from Luce Foundation

Carter and Moore

Professor Andy Moore recently landed a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to host the conference, “Jimmy Carter and the ‘Year of the Evangelicals’ Reconsidered.” Recently, One Thing after Another asked Professor Moore about the conference, the Luce Foundation, and Jimmy Carter.

Q: What is the Henry Luce Foundation?

A: Henry Luce was the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time magazine, and in 1936 he established the Henry Luce Foundation to honor his parents who had been missionaries to China. According to its website, the Foundation “seeks to bring important ideas to the center of American life, strengthen international understanding, and foster innovation and leadership in academic, policy, religious and art communities.” This grant came from the Foundation’s Theology program.

Q: What is the purpose of the grant that you won?

A: I was awarded the grant to host an academic conference. The conference commemorates the 40th anniversary of a Newsweek magazine cover story about the appearance of evangelical Christians in public life. Newsweek borrowed a recent phrase from pollster George Gallup and labeled 1976 the “Year of the Evangelicals.” That issue appeared on October 25, 1976. I had hoped to schedule the conference for the 40th anniversary, but the timing is not going to work out. The best we can do is the spring 2017 semester, and January, February, and March are too unpredictable weather-wise. So the conference will take place April 6, 7, and 8.

Q: Besides the Luce Foundation, have you received other support?

A: Yes. Both the History and Politics Departments are contributing money, and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and the office of the Vice President of Academic Affairs are covering what the Luce Foundation grant does not. Conferences are not cheap, and I am grateful for everyone’s support.

Q: Do you know yet who will be participating in the conference?

A: Not entirely. Soon I will formally announce the conference and invite historians, political scientists, sociologists, religious studies scholars, and journalism scholars to participate (what academics call a ‘call for papers’). I have received a few commitments from some prominent historians. Notably, Randall Balmer will deliver the conference opening keynote address. He is the Dartmouth Professor in the Arts and Sciences at Dartmouth College and the author of many books—most recently, a biography of Jimmy Carter called Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. That lecture will also be the College’s Norwin S. and Elizabeth N. Bean Distinguished Lecture. There are a few other historians—from as far away as Britain—who are committed also. The Newsweek religion editor who wrote the original story—Kenneth Woodward—also has expressed an interest in participating, and I am hopeful we can pull that off as well.

Q: Why was the Newsweek article on the Year of the Evangelicals” so important?

A: A bit of history helps here. After the infamous Scopes Trial in 1925, fundamentalist Protestant Christians gradually removed themselves from public life. They concentrated on building their own institutions—churches, schools, missionary societies, etc.—so that they essentially ended up talking to each other and not trying to influence politics or public policy or change the culture. In the years after World War II, some of those people decided they needed to stop isolating themselves and start trying to engage the world around them. They decided they had something to offer to public debate, including politics and culture. They thought of themselves as “evangelicals,” and their desire to engage with outsiders intellectually and culturally distinguished them from fundamentalists. By 1976 they were becoming enough of a recognizable voting bloc that both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter believed it would benefit them to be identified as “born again” Christians. The Newsweek cover story marked a realization of those evangelicals’ growing public influence. The story had sort of a “gee whiz, who knew there were these people out there. Isn’t this fascinating?” feel to it.

Q: And why was Jimmy Carter’s election to the presidency so significant in the context of the evangelical movement?

A: Carter knew those people were out there, because he was one of them. He talked about being born again himself, and his life story—raised Southern Baptist, he was active in his church as a deacon and Sunday School teacher—resonated with those evangelicals. He spoke their language, and for their part it was exciting to have one of their own be running for president. However, he made some missteps—like granting an interview to Playboy magazine—and squandered some of that good will in the weeks leading up to the election. Still, he garnered enough evangelical support to win, and the election of 1976 does mark their re-entry into public life as a recognizable voting bloc. To be sure, by 1980, most of those evangelicals gave up on him in favor of Ronald Reagan.

Q: How did you get interested in Jimmy Carter?

A: Several years ago I had finished writing a book on Catholics in the post-World War II American South, and I was looking around for my next research topic. I was asked by an editor at Louisiana State University Press if I was interested in writing a biography of someone. I chose Carter. I was raised Southern Baptist myself, and I have certain expectations about the relationship between church and state. For those reasons, Carter interests me, so I agreed to write a biography of him. I figured I could use him to explore some issues related to my home region and my own faith. I have already published a little bit about Carter and the election of1976, but other projects have intervened over the years, and I have made what can only be considered glacial progress on the book. Still, I’m plugging away and hope the book appears eventually.

Q: What’s the story behind the picture of you with Carter?

A: I went to his church in Plains, Georgia—Maranatha Baptist Church—one Sunday. Carter teaches a Sunday School class for adults there. The church advertises his teaching schedule, and tourists come to see Carter. A few years ago, my family and I were on vacation at the beach in Georgia, and I drove over for church that Sunday. He teaches a room full of a couple hundred people or so, and if you stay through the worship service, then Carter will pose for a photo with you. There are very strict rules for the photo line (no touching Carter, no trying to chat him up, keep moving), so it’s not like I actually met him. I said, “Hello, Mr. President.” He nodded and mumbled in my general direction. The designated picture-taker pushed the button on my phone and then yelled “next!” And then the Secret Service made sure I didn’t hang around.

Very Short Reviews: Mitter’s Forgotten Ally

Forgotten Ally

Rana Mitter is currently a Fellow of St. Cross College at Oxford and a member of the faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University. He has written extensively on modern Chinese history with a special focus on the period before, during, and after World War II. His latest work, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945, was named a book of the year by the Economist, Financial Times, Observers, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, and New Statesman.

Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 (Boston: Mariner Books, 2013).

  1. Mitter argues that the true story of the war, never well understood in the West (partly due to the influence of subsequent Cold War politics) and largely obscured until recently in China by the ruling Communist Party, played an enormously significant role in shaping Chinese attitudes and making China what it is today.
  2. An extremely important theme running throughout this book is the way the experience intersected with the modernization of China.
  3. The conflict interrupted an earnest Kuomintang initiative to bring China into the 20th century China, halting modernization in some areas (e.g. economic development), pushing it forward in desultory fashion in others (e.g. social welfare provisions), and accelerating it dramatically in still others (e.g. political mobilization).
  4. As Mitter points out, the war helped determine who among the following would guide China’s modernization and therefore how it would unfold: Chiang Kai-Shek (leader of the Kuomintang government), Mao Zedong (who seized the opportunity presented by the war to become the unquestioned leader of the Communists), and Wang Jingwei (a member of the Kuomintang who advocated cooperation with the Japanese and eventually defected to them to found a collaborationist government in Nanjing).
  5. China’s future course, however, would not be determined exclusively by these leaders or even the Chinese people; it was contingent on the events of the war and the Japanese, the Soviets, the British, and the Americans who helped influence those events.
  6. Mitter recognizes Chiang’s weaknesses as well as those of the Kuomintang government (some readers, however, may think that he does not lay enough stress on these weaknesses, including widespread corruption and incompetence), but he also emphasizes the enormously difficult position in which this government found itself throughout the war.
  7. Much of that difficulty had to do with the Western imperialist powers: for over four years, until December 1941, they left the Chinese to their own devices in dealing with a militarily superior Japan; although China did enormous service to the Allied cause by refusing to surrender and holding down 500,000 Japanese troops, the Allies never made a priority of assisting Chiang; and when assistance did come, it was accompanied by very difficult conditions (e.g. General Joseph Stilwell was imposed on Chiang as chief of staff and commander of the China Burma India Theater which gave the American control of all Lend-Lease supplies to China, an unfortunate situation, for as Stilwell exercised enormous leverage over Chiang, the two grew to hate each other).
  8. Of course, the Nationalists discredited themselves with repeated defeats in 1937 and 1938 (that led to widespread loss of territory), the breaching of the Yellow River dikes to halt the Japanese advance in 1938 (that caused the deaths of 500,000 Chinese civilians), the failure of the campaign in Burma in 1942 (yet another disaster for Chinese arms), the Henan famine of 1942 and 1943 (which killed some 3 million more civilians), catastrophic losses during Japan’s Ichi-Go campaign in 1944, as well as the unraveling of the Chinese government and economy.
  9. Although they also faced a number of difficulties, the Communists emerged from the war with a better reputation at home and even abroad—in part because they did not have to bear the logistical and administrative burden of supporting a conventional army the way the Nationalists did.
  10. This book is not a military history, and Mitter does not seem particularly comfortable discussing military subjects in any kind of detail; this story is  cetered on Chiang, Mao, and Wang with occasionally forays into the lives of everyday people or a bird’s eye view of great events.

Very Short Reviews: Mary Beard’s SPQR


Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, serves as the Times Literary Supplement’s classics editor, and regularly contributes to the New York Review of Books. Due to her frequent appearances on television, radio, and social media, she is, without question, the most publicly prominent classicist in Britain. Just last year, she published SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, an overview of Roman history that represents a lifetime of thinking about the topic. In this past, One Thing after Another has read books so you don’t have to. In this case, the blog has read this book and exhorts you to do the same—SPQR is an excellent work of “popular history” in the best sense of the term.

Mary Beard, A History of Ancient Rome (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015).

  1. As a classicist, Beard is, of course, interested in Romans, but she thinks the rest of us could profit from studying the experiences of these ancient people; as she puts it, while we cannot “learn directly from the Romans,” we “have an enormous amount to learn . . . by engaging with the history of the Romans” because “our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury, and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans.”
  2. In some ways, the questions that Beard asks which drive the analysis and narrative forward are traditional ones that have occupied the attention of scholars for centuries: How was Rome founded? How did it grow to overmaster the other city-states of Italy and dominate the Mediterranean world? How did the republic eventually collapse? How did the empire work?
  3. It is her approach to these traditional questions that is novel and stimulating—for example, she returns repeatedly to questions of identity (e.g. How does one define a Roman, and how did the Romans define themselves?) that have resonance today.
  4. For example, once Rome became a power on the Italian peninsula, Romans had to reconceive who they were, what their role in the world was, forge new relationships with their defeated enemies (which often included a grant of citizenship), and deal with the consequent strain on their political institutions/culture.
  5. Once Rome had destroyed its most dangerous rivals in the Mediterranean, its “relatively small-scale political institutions” were hardly capable of “controlling and policing a vast empire,” and “Rome relied more and more on the efforts and talents of individuals whose power, profits, and rivalries threatened the very principles on which the Republic was based.”
  6. In other words, the empire created the emperors (not the other way around), which necessitated another reconsideration of what Rome was and who Romans were.
  7. Just as important and interesting (if not more so) as her approach to traditional questions is the way Beard patiently sifts through the existing archaeological and literary evidence to explain what we know about Romans and how we know it (much is a matter of educated guesswork that includes a great deal of reading between the lines).
  8. In other words, SPQR is not a plain, old narrative history in which one damn things happens after another in an inevitable chain (although one will get a good sense of the main periods of Roman history and how they are linked together); it is an extended and thoughtful meditation on Roman history.
  9. Surviving documents in Roman history are skewed heavily toward wealthy and powerful men, but Beard makes an enormous effort to represent the lives of slaves, women, the poor, peasants, provincials, frontier peoples, and others who have not figured prominently in most narratives; although these folks possessed multiple identities and often clashed with the powerful, she argues that they also participated in a vital, popular Roman culture that united them with their betters.
  10. This extremely accessible work reads like an engaging after-dinner lecture by an erudite person who knows not only how to entertain but also how to convey some thought-provoking ideas to an audience of non-specialists (this would be a very interesting work to use with undergraduates).

Interesting Fact: SPQR is the Roman acronym for Senatus PopulusQue Romanus which means “The Senate and People of Rome.” The phrase appeared on Roman coins, Roman documents, and the standards of the Roman army.

Very Short Reviews: Dominic Sandbrook’s _Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979_

Over the course of a decade, Dominic Sandbrook has written a series of works detailing the history of contemporary Britain: Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (2005), White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties (2007), State of Emergency: The Way We Were—Britain, 1970-1974, and Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (2013). Sandbrook is apparently at work on the next book in the series which will cover the period from 1979 to 1984 and is provisionally entitled Who Dares Wins.

But back to Seasons in the Sun. Why read an 811-page book that covers only five years of British history? First and most important, the years between 1974 and 1979 (which included Harold Wilson’s second ministry and Jim Callaghan’s stint as prime minister) are widely perceived as a major tipping point in contemporary British history. Second, it was an eventful period, not just in politics, but socially, economically, and culturally. Third, Sandbrook is a wonderful narrator with an eye for symbolic anecdotes.

Dominic Sandbrook, Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (London: Penguin Books, 2013).

  1. Although historians have generally represented this period as one of wrenching change, from politics to punk rock (to name just two examples), Sandbrook stresses the continuities in British life during this period; Callaghan’s government anticipated some of Margaret Thatcher’s moves (e.g. making a priority of fighting inflation rather than unemployment) while art colleges, which had long influenced British popular music, continued to play a vitally important role in in the punk movement.
  2. If the period was not characterized by wrenching change, it was no doubt wrenched: high inflation, rising unemployment, a falling pound sterling, anemic rises in productivity, declining competitiveness, a mortifying IMF bailout, massive strikes, and the drop in real wages created a profound sense among almost all Britons that their country had entered an irreversible decline—something that was reflected in literature and music throughout this period.
  3. Yet Wilson’s Labour administration was paralyzed largely because the Cabinet was terrified of crossing the unions, while Wilson himself was exhausted, bankrupt of ideas, involved in petty quarrels, and consumed by conspiracy theories.
  4. After Wilson retired in 1976, however, Jim Callaghan, the new Labour prime minister, along with Denis Healey, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, brought inflation below 10% by explicitly abandoning Keynesian economics (see below), cutting government spending, and limiting wage hikes.
  5. This achievement was fragile because Labour did not command a majority in the Commons (it relied on support from Liberals), and wages could only be held down for so long when inflation was still above 8%.
  6. Sandbrook argues that the problem with keeping wages down was not that the unions were leftist and wanted to continue building a “New Jerusalem;” rather, years of affluence under the welfare state had eroded class solidarity, contributed to greater individualism among blue collar workers, raised expectations, and led to competition between unions to obtain ever greater pay hikes.
  7. At the same time, the great union bosses who oversaw the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which was the backbone of the Labour Party, belonged to an older generation that had lost touch with the shop stewards on the factory floor; in other words, the connection between the Labour Party and the union rank and file had begun to dissolve in such a way that the party could not control union members or appeal to their loyalty.
  8. When Callaghan sought to keep wage from climbing higher than 5%, the result was the infamous “Winter of Discontent” (1978-1979), when a massive series of strikes (coupled with terribly cold weather) practically paralyzed the country before the Labour government had to climb down in humiliating fashion; the stage was now set for the Conservative victory in the General Election of 1979—although Sandbrook emphasizes Thatcher’s weaknesses and the extent to which her positions on the issues in that particular contest were not all that different from those of Callaghan.
  9. The Labour government’s vain attempt to stay in power and fix Britain’s economic problems is at the heart of Sandbrook’s story, but this book is about so much more: the Troubles in Northern Ireland (which spread to England), the public debate on the emergence of comprehensive schools (and new, experimental pedagogy), the rise and fall of punk rock (according to Sandbrook, Elton John was the real soundtrack of the 1970s), the 1975 referendum on EEC membership, the Notting Hill riots of 1976, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (1977), Scotland’s improbable (and disastrous) run at World Cup glory in 1978, the 1979 devolution referenda in Scotland and Wale, the rise of leftist student organizations, strikes too innumerable to mention, the Yorkshire Ripper’s rampage around Leeds, attempts at police reform, the terrible sex-attempted murder scandal that brought down Jeremy Thorpe (the Liberal Party leader), the varying fortunes of the National Front, the discovery of North Sea oil, and more!
  10. The stress on continuities, the marginalization of certain movements (e.g. Sandbrook claims student radicals were not particularly representative of students as a whole), and the evident respect for leaders of the Labour Party’s moderate wing (Sandbrook obviously appreciates the work of Callaghan and Healey while Tony Benn comes off as a worm) marks this out as conservative history, but a fine history it is.

Ironic Fact: The EEC referendum of 1975 was curiously the reverse of the EU referendum of 2016. In the former, Labour’s Harold Wilson, who was prime minister, sought to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s entry before the vote. He himself was very lukewarm on the EEC, and his party was divided on the issue. The Conservatives—both the parliamentary party and the voters–led by Margaret Thatcher no less, wholeheartedly supported entry into the EEC. But in 2016, it was David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, who renegotiated the terms of Britain’s membership before the referendum. And this time, it was the Conservative Party that was divided on the issue, but Labour was generally pro-Europe.

And Finally: What makes this book so fascinating is that many key moments that Sandbrook describes appear on YouTube. Here’s “Sunny Jim” Callaghan not being so sunny, as he drops some truth on the Labour Party Conference of 1976 and abandons Keynesian economics.

Or how about Scotland’s run at the World Cup in 1978? Many thought the Scots had a shot at the title. However, they lost 3-1 against Peru and tied Iran 1-1. According to the rules as they then stood, Scotland needed a three-goal victory over the Netherlands to advance. The Dutch had come in second in 1974 and would finish as runners-up in 1978, so Scotland had a tall order. The Scots did not get their three-goal victory, but look at what they managed against the second-best team in the world.

Hugh Dubrulle

Very Short Reviews: Karen Armstrong’s _Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence_

Fields of Blood

Since many people associate religion with the contemporary conflicts we have witnessed across much of the globe since 9/11, it seemed to make sense that this blog review Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. In other words, One Thing after Another read the book so you don’t have to.

Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (New York: Anchor Books, 2014).

  1. Armstrong asserts that her primary motive in writing this book consists of refuting an assertion repeated to her relentlessly “like a mantra” by people from all walks of life: “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.”
  2. Attempting to disprove this assertion makes it unclear who this book is for; scholars do not make these kinds of generalizations in academic forums, and laypeople who do make these kinds of generalizations are unlikely to read an overlong book larded with so much detail that the thesis is occasionally lost.
  3. Along the way, Armstrong does remind her readers of some important, well-established truths: religion is difficult to define; until the emergence of the modern age, people could not really make a distinction between religion and politics; over time, religious traditions have been interpreted in a variety of ways and therefore have no true “essence” (although she undermines this argument by claiming from time to time that a religious tradition was not implicated by the violent acts of its adherents because they were not acting according to the “true” spirit of that tradition); and most faiths have experienced an ambivalent relationship with violence.
  4. Armstrong’s main argument is that the responsibility for the great majority of violence lies with the state and that in the contemporary period, war is the product of imperialism or the strains of modernization; religion has been distorted by these forces and often reflects rather than instigates them.
  5. So far from being the problem, she argues, religion is the solution: “Somehow we have to find ways of doing what religion—at its best—has done for centuries: build a sense of global community, cultivate a sense of reverence and ‘equanimity’ for all, and take responsibility for the suffering we see in the world.”
  6. One of the main problems with this book is that it is too broad (it starts with the Sumerians and proceeds to the present), which means that Armstrong often ventures into areas where she has no experience or background; to name just one of many examples, she claims there is little evidence that humans fought one another before the advent of agriculture and civilization—but since Laurence Keeley wrote War before Civilization (1996), scholars (backed by mounting archaeological evidence) have increasingly taken the view that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were pretty violent.
  7. As other reviewers have pointed out, her history inclines toward an economic and social determinism that tends to be superficial and poorly explained; culture does not display much autonomy in her narrative. (See The Economist:
  8. It is not clear whether Armstrong’s sources influenced or express her stance, but her notes and bibliography are idiosyncratic and often do not reflect the latest literature in the periods or topics she studies.
  9. There are important contradictions in her argument; to name perhaps the most important one, if, as she states, religion could not be distinguished from politics up until the modern period, and political motives generally inspired warfare, it would seem that religion is still culpable.
  10. Or, to look at the same problem from another angle, as Mark Juergensmeyer writes in his Washington Post review of Armstrong’s work, “Religion — in the sense of what theologian Paul Tillich called ‘the repository of symbols’ — has also had long relationships with grandiose power, violence and blood. So religion is not totally off the hook.” (See the Washington Post:

Hugh Dubrulle