Front Table - 9/30/2020

September 30th, 2020

On our Front Table this week, find political transformations past and present: an analysis of the rise of right-wing violence in the United States; ancient warnings about the dangers of demagogues; an inquiry into the impact of Reformation ideas; a history of the abolition-era development of ethical commerce; reflections on the internalization of capitalist imperatives; and an argument on the corporate co-optation of free speech. Browse anytime at

Against Demagogues: What Aristophanes Can Teach Us About the Perils of Populism and the Fate of Democracy (University of California Press)
Robert C. Bartlett

Against Demagogues presents Robert C. Bartlett's new translations of Aristophanes' most overtly political works, the Acharnians and the Knights. In these comedies, the politician Cleon proves to be democracy's greatest opponent. Both plays make clear the dangers to which democracies are prone. Combating the allure of demagogues and the damage they cause, Against Demagogues disentangles Aristophanes' serious teachings from his many jokes. The book features an interpretive essay for each play, guiding readers through the most important plot points, explaining the significance of various characters, and shedding light on the meaning of the plays' episodes. Along with a contextualizing introduction, Bartlett offers extensive notes explaining the many references and allusions. Aristophanes' comedic skewering of the demagogue and his ruthless ambition—and of a community so ill-informed about the doings of its own government, so ready to believe in empty promises and idle flattery—cannot but resonate with readers today.

The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (Yale University Press)
Steven Ozment

In this book, Steven Ozment traces the growth and dissemination of dissenting intellectual trends through three centuries to their explosive burgeoning in the Reformations—both Protestant and Catholic—of the sixteenth century. He elucidates the complex philosophical and theological issues that inspired antagonistic schools, traditions, and movements from Aquinas to Calvin. This synthesis of the intellectual and religious history of the period illuminates the impact of late medieval ideas on early modern society. With a new foreword by Carlos Eire and Ronald K. Rittgers, this modern classic is ripe for rediscovery by a new generation of students and scholars.

American Zealots: Inside Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism (Columbia University Press)
Arie Perliger

In recent years, attacks originating from the far right of American politics have targeted religious and ethnic minorities, with a series of antigovernment militants, religious extremists, and lone-wolf mass shooters inspired by right-wing ideologies. The need to understand the nature and danger of far-right violence is greater than ever. In American Zealots, Arie Perliger provides a wide-ranging and rigorously researched overview of right-wing domestic terrorism. He analyzes its historical roots, characteristics, tactics, rhetoric, and organization, assessing the current and future trajectory of the use of violence by the far right. Perliger draws on a dataset of more than 5,000 attacks and their perpetrators from 1990 through 2017 in order to explore key trends. He describes the ideological spectrum of the American far right, including today’s white supremacists and antiabortion fundamentalists, as well as the histories of the KKK, skinheads, and neo-Nazis. Based on these findings, Perliger suggests counterterrorism policies that can respond effectively to the far-right threat.

Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close (Simon and Schuster)
Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman

A close friendship is one of the most influential and important relationships a human life can contain. But for all the rosy sentiments surrounding friendship, most people don’t talk much about what it really takes to stay close for the long haul. Now two friends, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, tell the story of their Big Friendship in this book that chronicles their first decade in one another’s lives. As the hosts of the hit podcast Call Your Girlfriend, they’ve become known for frank and intimate conversations. In this book, they bring that energy to their own friendship—its joys and its pitfalls. A testament to the power of society’s most underappreciated relationship, Big Friendship will invite you to think about how your own bonds are formed, challenged, and preserved. It is a call to value your friendships in all of their complexity. Actively choose them. And, sometimes, fight for them.

Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century (Anchor Books)
Charles King

A century ago, everyone knew that people were fated by their race, sex, and nationality to be more or less intelligent, nurturing, or warlike. But Columbia University professor Franz Boas looked at the data and decided everyone was wrong. Racial categories, he insisted, were biological fictions. Cultures did not come in neat packages labeled “primitive” or “advanced.” What counted as a family, a good meal, or even common sense was a product of history and circumstance, not of nature. In Gods of the Upper Air, Charles King shows how these intuitions led to a fundamental reimagining of human diversity. Boas’s students were some of the century’s most colorful figures and unsung visionaries. Together, they mapped civilizations from the American South to the South Pacific and from Caribbean islands to Manhattan’s city streets and unearthed an essential fact: that humanity is an undivided whole. Their revolutionary findings would go on to inspire the fluid conceptions of identity we know today.

Having and Being Had (Riverhead Books)
Eula Biss

“My adult life can be divided into two distinct parts,” Eula Biss writes, “the time before I owned a washing machine and the time after.” Having just purchased her first home, the poet and essayist now embarks on a provocative exploration of the value system she has bought into. Through a series of engaging exchanges— in libraries and laundromats, over barstools and backyard fences— she examines our assumptions about class and property and the ways we internalize the demands of capitalism. Described by The New York Times as a writer who “advances from all sides, like a chess player,” Biss offers an immersive and revealing new portrait of work and luxury, of accumulation and consumption, of the value of time and how we spend it. Ranging from IKEA to Beyoncé to Pokemon, Biss asks, of both herself and her class, “In what have we invested?”

Holding the Camera (Spector Books)
Alberto Vieceli

Before one's camera was one's phone, the camera makers of the world had to explain the possible uses of their product in the space of a few pages of a user's manual. How one tilts the camera, holds it with both hands in front of the waist. How one looks through the viewfinder, gazes one-eyed into the world. How one hides it in stockings, behind the back, and how one lets it peep out from behind the corner of a building, as though he or she were a detective. Holding the Camera shows a pictorial genre from the now extinct era of analog photography. These images that were once distributed a million times over in instructions and advertisements had almost entirely disappeared from culture, until now.

Not Made by Slaves: Ethical Capitalism in the Age of Abolition (Harvard University Press)
Bronwen Everill

“East India Sugar Not Made By Slaves.” With these words, consumers of the early nineteenth century declared their power to change the global economy. Bronwen Everill examines how abolitionists used new ideas of supply and demand, consumer credit, and branding to shape an argument for ethical capitalism. Antislavery affected business operations, as companies in West Africa developed new tactics in order to make “legitimate” commerce pay. Everill explores how the dilemmas of conducting ethical commerce reshaped the larger moral discourse surrounding production and consumption, influencing how slavery and freedom came to be defined in the market economy. Ethical commerce was not without its ironies; the search for supplies of goods “not made by slaves” expanded the reach of colonial empires. Not Made by Slaves illuminates the early years of global consumer society, while placing the politics of antislavery in the history of capitalism.

The Saddest Words: William Faulkner's Civil War (Liveright Publishing Corporation)
Michael Gorra

William Faulkner is an author who defies easy interpretation. Born in 1897 in Mississippi, Faulkner wrote such classic novels as Absolom, Absolom! and The Sound and The Fury, creating in Yoknapatawpha County one of the most memorable galleries of characters in American literature. Yet, as Michael Gorra explains, Faulkner has sustained justified criticism for his failures of racial nuance, demanding that we reevaluate his life and legacy. Interweaving biography, literary criticism, and travelogue, The Saddest Words argues that William Faulkner still needs to be read and remains central to understanding the contradictions inherent in the American experience itself. Gorra illuminates what Faulkner maintained was “the South’s curse and its separate destiny,” a class and racial system built on slavery that was devastated during the Civil War and was reimagined thereafter. Driven by currents of violence, a “Lost Cause” romanticism not only defined Faulkner’s twentieth century but even our own age. Upending previous critical traditions, The Saddest Words returns Faulkner to his sociopolitical context.

The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America (Amistad Press)
Ellis Cose

Free speech has long been one of American's most revered freedoms. Yet now, more than ever, free speech is reshaping America’s social and political landscape even as it is coming under attack. Ellis Cose wades into the debate to reveal how this Constitutional right has been coopted by the wealthy and politically corrupt. Social media has become a widespread disseminator of false information. The world watches in shock as white nationalism rises, race and gender-based violence spreads, and voter suppression widens. The problem, Cose makes clear, is that ordinary individuals have virtually no voice. He looks at the danger of hyper-partisanship and how discriminatory structures that determine representation threaten democracy. He argues that safeguards built into the Constitution have instead become instruments of suppression. Finally, analyzing the experiences of other countries, weaving landmark court cases together, and invoking the lessons of history, Cose offers a call for activism and change.

Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was A Girl (Tin House Books)
Jeannie Vanasco

Jeannie Vanasco has had the same nightmare since she was a teenager. It is always about him: one of her closest high school friends, a boy named Mark. A boy who raped her. When her nightmares worsen, Jeannie decides—after fourteen years of silence—to reach out to Mark. He agrees to talk on the record and meet in person. Jeannie details her friendship with Mark before and after the assault, asking the question: Is it possible for a good person to commit a terrible act? Jeannie interviews Mark, exploring how rape has impacted his life as well as her own. Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl is part memoir, part true crime record, and part testament to the strength of female friendships—a recounting and reckoning that will inspire us to ask harder questions, push towards deeper understanding, and continue a necessary and long overdue conversation.

Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die (Princeton University Press)

Steven Nadler

In 1656, after being excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Portuguese-Jewish community for “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds,” the young Baruch Spinoza abandoned his family’s import business to dedicate his life to philosophy. He quickly became notorious across Europe for his views on God, the Bible, and miracles, as well as for his uncompromising defense of free thought. Yet the radicalism of Spinoza’s views has long obscured that his primary reason for turning to philosophy was to answer one of humanity’s most urgent questions: How can we lead a good life and enjoy happiness in a world without a providential God? In Think Least of Death, Steven Nadler connects Spinoza’s ideas with his life and times to offer a compelling account of how the philosopher can provide a guide to living one’s best life.
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