Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Freely Unequal (Part III)

The following is part of a series of posts on the relationship between freedom and equality in U.S. history. The previous posts are below.

Freedom and slavery grew up in tandem with each other in England’s North American colonies. At the very moment Europeans were striking out on their own in the hope of achieving economic, political, or religious autonomy, they were imposing their will on others, near and far. Slavery had been introduced into the western hemisphere by the Portuguese and the Spanish when it became clear that the indigenous people of the Americas were not going to meet their insatiable demand for labor (in large measure because they were dying off so rapidly). So they introduced Africans to the western hemisphere. Virginia was founded in 1607, and also soon had a labor problem in terms of Englishmen being unable or unwilling to work. So in 1619 – which is to say a year before Plymouth laid the foundations for New England – slaves were imported into Virginia for the first time. By the time of the American Revolution, the institution was established in all thirteen colonies. To be sure, it was more central to the rice plantations of South Carolina than it was small households of New Hampshire. On the other hand, the slave trade was important to places like Newport, Rhode Island, even if there weren’t all that many slaves there. Financing slaves, advertising slaves, insuring slaves, transporting slaves, feeding slaves, clothing slaves: slavery was big business. A global business. Slavery and capitalism went hand in hand.

That said, the morality of slavery was not exactly a topic of frequent discussion. It was a fact of life, and not something anyone expected to go away. (Sort of like poverty.) Virtually everybody lamented it. But there was little effort to do away with it.

I do need to emphasize that from the start there were people who thought slavery was wrong, said so in no uncertain terms, and did what they could to limit or even eliminate it from their day-to-day-lives. Most of these voices were religious, and would emphasize that all human beings were God’s children. Many (though not all) of the Quakers were opposed to slavery, making large swaths of Pennsylvania a relative haven of personal liberty. The most famous work advocating the abolition of slavery in the colonial era came from judge Samuel Sewall of Massachusetts, who had been one on of the magistrates in the Salem witch trials of 1692 (the only one to subsequently apologize for his role in the affair). Sewall protested the sale of slave who had been promised his freedom in The Selling of Joseph (1701), a three-page missive that mixed biblical injunction with language we would find racist (“there is such a disparity in their Conditions, Color & Hair, that they can never embody with us, and grow up into orderly Families,” a sentiment Abraham Lincoln would repeat a century and a half later in those Lincoln-Douglas debates: “There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality). But the heart of Sewall’s argument, that slavery rends husband and wife, parent and child, that God has joined together, and that the barbarity of the slave trade made European accusations of African savagery seem hypocritical at best, was a common view over the course of the next century.

Even among slaveholders. As a whole, they regarded what they called “the peculiar institution” as a necessary evil. It was one they would fight hard for – the Revolution was touch-and-go in South Carolina and Georgia because of slaveholder fears of losing their property, something they fought hard to maintain in the debates over the Constitution – but not one they typically argued was a positive good. This was particularly true of the Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson, who famously wrote that he trembled for his country when he remembered that God is just. “Would anyone believe that I am the master of slaves of my own purchase!” Patrick Henry – he of “give me liberty or give me death!” fame – wrote in 1773. “I am drawn by the general inconvenience of living here [in Virginia] without them. I will not, I can not, justify it.” (Henry, unlike Jefferson, freed his slaves at the time of his death.)

Actually, there was a widespread belief among many national leaders in the United States at the time of the Constitution that slavery was a dying institution, because the number of black persons in the United States appeared to be declining. The Constitutional provision for the closing of the African slave trade in 1808 appeared to be another nail in slavery’s coffin. The first national abolition organization, the American Colonization Society, was founded in 1816 to purchase freedom for slaves and resettle them in Africa with land the society purchased (Liberia, with it capital, Monrovia, named after the current president.) The ACS boasted high-profile charter members like Jefferson and Henry Clay.

By that point, however, the tide had already begun going the other way. In the 1790s, a Connecticut Yankee named Eli Whitney introduced a new engine, the cotton gin, which made this highly labor-intensive crop fabulously profitable. New slave states – Kentucky (1791), Tennessee (1796), Louisiana (1812) Mississippi (1817), among others, entered the Union. By the time of the struggle over the fate of Missouri in 1820, which resulted in the famous Compromise of 1820 brokered by Henry Clay, it was evident that far from declining, slavery was an entrenched force in U.S. national life.

 The argument for it remained largely pragmatic (mostly economic). Yes, racism was rampant, and took a variety of forms that ran the gamut from paternalism (slaves as children) to brute supremacy (slaves as animals). But most of this logic was informal, even off-hand.

As has been well documented, this all began to change in the 1830s, when a series of developments really changed the discourse on slavery. The first was a sharp new note of urgency among abolitionists, typified by the militant tone of New Englander William Lloyd Garrison, whose newspaper, The Liberator, drew national attention – and hostility, and not only in the South. Abolition was part of a larger conversation about social reform that swept the Northern states in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, but this sectional accent proved uniquely threatening in terms of intensifying social conflict. The second event was a major slave insurrection, Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831, which terrified the slaveholding states. (Slave revolts had been occurring for centuries by that point, but were typically small, sporadic, and covered up; this one took place in the glare of a growing national media culture.) In the aftermath of the Turner rebellion, the Virginia legislature actually debated a proposal to emancipate slaves in the state. But the bill was defeated, and after that slavery ceased to be a topic of public discussion in Southern life. In fact, southern postmasters refused to deliver materials it considered incendiary, a rather striking rejection of the First Amendment in the name of the freedom to own slaves.

From this point on, those with the deepest investment in slavery, broadly understood, cast the institution not a necessary evil, but a positive good. I could give you lots of quotes to this effect, but the most succinct formulation comes from Alexander Stephens, a Georgia planter who became vice-president of the Confederate States of America. In his famous 1861 “Cornerstone” speech, Stephens explained that his new government, the culmination of decades of growing sectional agitation, “rests on the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” (Note how closely slavery is bound up with inequality here.) In the vehemence with which people like Stephens made his case, I’m reminded of our contemporary discourse on guns, where efforts at gun control have led to ever-more insistent claims that we need more guns, the right to carry concealed guns, and fewer regulations for those who own them.

There is of course a vast amount to be said on the subject of slavery in American life, and only a very small amount I can even begin to hope you might retain in anything I can tell you today. The main point I want to emphasize is that strictly speaking, the Civil War was not really about slavery, per se. Instead, the fight was about the increasingly insistent assertion that slavery was good and right and as such should not only be protected, but expanded. It was this idea, rather than the existence of slavery itself, that so upset Abraham Lincoln and the growing number of people attracted to the way he framed the issue. Lincoln was also upset over the widely held opinion, associated with his great rival Stephen Douglas, who asserted that he didn’t care one way or the other about the fate of slavery. Lincoln was willing to live with slavery (which is why many abolitionists considered him politically lame). What he couldn’t stand, and what he consistently fought his whole adult life, was the idea that it was anything but an unavoidable compromise for the establishment and a survival of a government he loved deeply, a love rooted in his belief that it afforded great opportunities for people like him to advance in the world. Over the course of his life Lincoln repeatedly compared slavery to a tumor in the body politic that could not be cut out without endangering the life of nation. It was one thing to accept this condition; it was another to actively champion its spread. And so he drew the line.

Next: Freedom and Equality since the Civil War.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Freely Unequal (Part II)

The following is the second of a series of posts on the relationship between freedom and equality in U.S. history. The previous post is below.

In a contemporary context, you may not find Abraham Lincoln's famous assertion that “if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong” all that remarkable a statement. You think of that as natural, and always have. In fact, as far as you know, pretty much everyone thinks of it as natural. And always has. If you or someone you know doesn’t feel slavery is wrong, such a sentiment is not likely to get public expression. We all understand that there are plenty of ills in American society today, but we tend to think slavery isn’t one of them, even though there are anecdotal reports of it surfacing again, particularly in poor immigrant communities. Some of those responsible for such evils justify their exploitation of others by distinguishing what they do from slavery – “Hey, she can quit whenever she wants” – and we (perhaps grudgingly) accept that distinction. There’s a line there, a line between slave and free, that’s real and clear.

Except that there isn’t. Even when slavery was widely practiced, there were different kinds. The kind you tend to think of when you think about early American history is chattel slavery, in which some human beings were the personal property of other human beings. They could be bought and sold like livestock or inanimate objects, and had no say in their fate. But elsewhere in the world, and at earlier times in the history of the world, slavery took different forms. In the ancient world, winning armies would take the losers – or, very commonly, their wives and children – as prizes, enslavement as the fruit of victory. In many societies, however, slaves had formal and informal legal rights (like religious privileges), might enjoy some degree of autonomy and mobility, and could hope for earning or receiving their freedom. In ancient Rome, for example, slaves could attain positions of considerable administrative power in managing the affairs of their elite masters, and enjoy at least an element of status greater than most freedmen.

In English North America this was rare. Most slavery was chattel slavery. The practice of indentured servitude, in which individuals were bound to a master for a fixed (in theory) term, was technically not slavery. But during the period when a person was under such supervision, they were for all intents and purposes enslaved – indentured servitude was de facto, if not de jure, slavery. For much of American history, people have also been subject to wage slavery. Unlike chattel slaves, wage slaves are actually paid for their work. But the pay they receive is so meager that they are entirely dependent on their wages for their biological survival. As Karl Marx’s collaborator Frederick Engels explained the concept in 1847, “The slave is sold once and for all; the proletarian must sell himself daily and hourly.”

You may disagree that wage slavery is, strictly speaking, slavery. You may say the same about indentured servitude (though indentured servants were known to sell the services of their own children in the hope of climbing out of debt themselves). But I think you would have to admit that slavery has not really been exactly the same at all times and places, and that whatever essence it may have is more subtle than it appears. (You might also say that no man is a slave who can think for himself or who can find some way to resist or subvert the will of his master – like the proverbial “lazy” slave who can never seem to get work done – and at least some people will agree with you. But not everybody.) To at least some degree, slavery has a threshold – it’s less of a line than a spectrum.

If that’s that case, then what’s the other end of that spectrum? Or, to put it more starkly: what’s the opposite of slavery? I believe most people would say that the opposite of slavery is freedom. But I think the matter is more complicated than that. Yes: slavery is a form of being subject to restraint, and freedom is matter of lacking restraints, but the two tend to interlock rather than diverge.  In fact, many people have argued – for thousands of years – that not only are freedom and slavery compatible, but that freedom depends on slavery. For the ancient Greeks, a citizen could only participate in politics when he had slaves to take care of the daily drudgery of maintaining an estate and freeing him for the higher calling of statecraft. Freedom is also more than political: there’s also religious freedom, economic freedom, personal freedom, and so on. There’s also the distinction to be made between positive freedom (freedom to) and negative freedom (freedom from).

In an American context, freedom is typically defined in political terms: a negative freedom, expressed in limits on what the government can do to you (limits like those in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, for example). One of the most cherished limits in Anglo-American law is property rights – your sense of security in knowing that what’s yours is yours, and that no one can take it away: that’s freedom. Including the freedom to own other people. You think that sounds strange. But for almost 250 years, that was common sense. It was also explicitly the law of the land.

So if the opposite of slavery is not freedom, then what is? I’m not sure. But if slavery is a spectrum, I believe the far end of it is equality. Equality – social, political, whatever – means treating everybody the same. It means all people having an equivalent degree of power in their relationship with each other, which means that no one has the ability, or the right, to dominate or control anybody else. Equality is in this sense a check on freedom, but the experience of equality is also a form of freedom, a knowledge that domination cannot be achieved nor imposed. Conversely, inequality is the power differential, the enabling mechanism, by which slavery becomes possible. Not inevitable – it’s possible to have inequality without slavery: there’s space on the spectrum for that. But there can be no slavery without inequality, and the greater the concentration of inequality the greater tyranny can be.

The thing that I find endlessly compelling – fascinating, confusing, troubling – is that while slavery is virtually inadmissible in American life today, inequality is not. Plainly put, we take it for granted. In a way, that’s not hard to understand at all. Certain kinds of inequality not only seem permissible or necessary, but are actively celebrated, like the championship team that prevails over its rivals and is rewarded with a wealth of attention. Others are more ordinary: there are certain things I can do, wages I will receive, by virtue – note that word – of this degree or that expertise.

One reason we don’t find this especially problematic is that some kinds of inequality have a sense of reciprocal responsibility built into them. Parents have all kinds of power children don’t, but there’s a collective social understanding that they are accountable for the welfare of their children. That doesn’t always happen, of course. But it’s what we expect. Similarly, as a teacher I have certain privileges that students don’t – I don’t get detention – but my job is to aid your intellectual and social development, and if I fail to do that there are any number of negative consequences that will follow, ranging from you tuning me out, to making fun of me behind my back, to me losing my job. One of the reasons I (unlike some) don’t really consider the medieval institution of serfdom in medieval feudalism to be a form of slavery is that there was always an understanding that the serfs of a manor had a right to expect protection from their lord, which is one of the reasons why medieval warfare so often took the form of armies ravaging the countryside as a way of showing peasants that their current lord is failing them and that they should transfer their loyalty. One could make the argument – some did – that slavery, too, rested on reciprocal responsibility, but slaveholders were inconsistent at best in making that argument, and it was never codified as such in law. Under chattel slavery in the United States, you had no more obligation to your slave than your hat.

There are forms of inequality in contemporary life where there is no such sense of reciprocal responsibility, either.  Take good looks. We all know that some of us are more physically attractive than others, and that while there’s some degree of subjectivity involved in this, there’s general consensus about who’s attractive and who’s not. But we don’t feel that being beautiful confers any particular obligation to those who are less so. Unlike a college degree, attractiveness is not something you can systemically acquire (even if it requires increasing amounts of maintenance and will ultimately perish). Beauty falls into the realm of what might be considered God-given. Like intelligence. Or health. Or, to a great degree, wealth, which is very often inherited, and where there’s no formal expectation you should simply give it all away, even if there are pressures, internal or external, to convert it to some good use.

One key difference between feudalism and more contemporary forms of inequality is that unlike feudalism, we tend not to think of our inequalities as fixed. Children are not the equal of parents at the start of their lives, but they often grow up and become parents themselves. Intelligence, like wealth, may be inherited, but knowledge and money can be earned – and such earned capital may prove to be more pivotal than the inherited kind. Health gets gained, lost, and is relative. Even ugly ducklings can turn into swans.

This is an important reason why we don’t simply live with equality – we embrace it, even promote it. A life where everyone was equal in every way seems boring at best and oppressive at worst. But, as we know, the reality of inequality imposes its own oppressions, some of them very great. Moreover, if we look hard, we often find that inequalities are a lot less fluid than they might seem. Not all ugly ducklings become swans, or even that many. Enough do – or we tell ourselves enough do – so that we can get away with assuring ourselves that the inequalities we live with are temporary, inoffensive, even good.

This doesn’t happen with slavery: we don’t accept it, much less celebrate it. We assume slavery is – was – bad. But that’s a problem. To be clear: I’m not saying slavery is good, though I am saying it that it might be helpful to understand a little better why there was a time when its evil was not an assumption – in particular, I want to zero in on a specific moment when slavery was aggressively upheld as a positive good – and to get a better sense of its allure. Perhaps by acknowledging the appeal of slavery for those who advocated it, we might gain a new understanding of its relationship with inequality.  In the process, we might also gain a better of the what freedom, the concept that sits uneasily between them, really means.

Next: Freedom an inequality before the Civil War

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Freely Unequal (Part I)

The following is the first of a series of posts on the relationship between freedom and equality in U.S. history.

“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.             --Abraham Lincoln, April 4, 1864

We all have our heroes. Mine is Abraham Lincoln. I spend a fair amount of time asking myself, especially when I’m dealing with a knotty problem in my job, WWLD: What Would Lincoln Do? As a Christian, I also sometimes ask myself WWJD – What Would Jesus Do? – but I tend to find the Lincoln question more arresting. Jesus was divine; Lincoln was mortal. By that I mean not only that he died a tragically premature death (Jesus did that, too), but that he was a fallible human being. I’m not sure, for example, that Lincoln was all that great a husband – he was away from home for long stretches of time, and I believe the stories I’ve heard about shouting matches with his wife at the Lincoln home in Springfield Illinois, where he spent most of his adult life. Nor do I think he was all that great a father. He seems to have had a chilly relationship with his oldest son, Robert, which I suspect was not entirely Robert’s fault (though I must say I never found much to like about Robert Lincoln, who always struck me as chilliness personified). Conversely, Lincoln seems to have been indulgent, to the point of irresponsible, with his sons Tad and Willie when he was in the White House. (Willie, who got sick and died in the White House, was apparently the one who was most like his dad, and it breaks my heart every time I read Lincoln say, “I know he is better off in heaven, but then we loved him so.”) Lincoln’s relationship with his own father wasn’t that great, either. He refused to refused to go see Thomas Lincoln when he was dying, telling his cousin that he suspected the encounter would be more painful for his father than his absence would be.

And that’s just the private Lincoln. Lincoln was racist. (He said so himself: “I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race,” he explained in the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.) Lincoln misjudged the determination of southern states to secede. He pushed his generals into battle sooner than he should have at the start of the Civil War. You get the idea: the guy screwed up a few things along the way.

But, my God, Lincoln was a deeply admirable man. The clarity of his thinking – the way he was able to slice through to the heart of an issue and frame it not in a persuasive, but deeply moving way. His instinctive sense of generosity toward opponents, a refusal to believe other people were any worse than he was, even when he disagreed with them profoundly. And his sense of humor. Lincoln makes me laugh all the time – “God must love ugly people; he made so many of them”; “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt”; describing Union General Joe Hooker as having his headquarters where his hindquarters should be – the one liners and jokes are sprinkled across various accounts of his life and never fail to amuse me.

But the real reason Lincoln is so important to me is that he has decisively shaped my moral imagination. To put it more simply, he has durably defined the line between right and wrong. And you know what? He hasn’t just done this for me. He’s pretty much set our national standard for morality for the last 150 years.

This is a bold, and somewhat touchy, claim. We Americans, especially of the liberal stripe, get nervous when some of us start making broad statements about good and evil (or even just start tossing around words like “evil”); we tend to call that “imposing our morality” on others. The matter is complicated further by the fact that there’s virtually nothing that’s entirely universal as a matter of morality. Murder, incest, rape: You not only can find people doing these things at any given time, but you can find people justifying them at any given time. Hell, you can even find people justifying them in the United States at different times. Of course a lot turns on context and definitions (does one soldier killing another constitute murder, for example? Is cousin marrying cousin incest? Can a husband assert conjugal rights?), but that’s kind of my point – we tend to shy away from absolutes.

But in at least one case, Lincoln didn’t. It happened late in his life, in an 1864 letter to a supporter who had been upset that Lincoln was recruiting African American soldiers in Kentucky, a slave state that had barely remained in the Union, and one where putting black men in uniforms and giving them guns was controversial, to put it mildly. Lincoln apparently explained his position so effectively that this person, a newspaper editor, that he asked Lincoln to write it down. Here, as Lincoln remembered it, were his first words: “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.”

If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong: for Lincoln, slaveholding is the very essence of evil. For him, this view is “natural,” and it’s one he’s always held. Simple and direct.

Now, at this point I’m going to say two things you probably know but which I think I need to say. The first is that prior to the Civil War, a great many Americans were not anti-slavery. They did not think of it as wrong, and never had. The other is that that Lincoln certainly did not invent the notion that slavery was wrong. That notion had been around as long as slavery itself had been around in the Americas. Nor, until the last three years of his life, was Lincoln regarded as any great champion of ending slavery among the people who cared most about the issue. Indeed, a great many of these people felt Lincoln was too timid in his antislavery beliefs, that he should have done more than he did to bring it to an end.

Lincoln’s great distinction, then, was not his conviction, which represented a minority view but certainly not unique. Instead, it took two forms. The first, of course, is that he’s the guy who actually ended slavery – or, more precisely, he issued the order as the head of the U.S. army that set slavery on the road to destruction in the form of the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863. The other, more subtle but for our purposes more important thing he did was explain the end of slavery in a way that became the prevailing common sense ever since. He did it in a series of speeches in a series of ways, whose essence was that the only real way to save the country he and others loved was to end a practice that was destroying it and to give what he called “the last best hope of earth” a second chance.

Next: Varieties of slavery

Monday, November 11, 2013

Spirited argument

In Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith, Paul Buhle and his collaborators bring a redeemer to life in novel form

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.

As a public intellectual, Paul Buhle has had as protean and prolific career inside as well as outside academe as anyone in the last half-century. An acolyte of William Appleman Williams at Wisconsin, and an early member of Students for a Democratic Society, Buhle established himself at the forefront of labor history  -- he is the author of a widely read history of the Communist Party of the United States, which has just been reissued in an expanded edition -- before going on to write an authorized biography of Trinidadian writer and activist C.L.R. James. In the 1980s and '90s, Buhle's work turned toward cultural history, producing books on the Hollywood blacklist, among other topics. From his perch at Brown University at the turn of this century, Buhle taught courses in oral history, taking his work in a more ethnographic direction before his retirement from teaching and return to Madison.

Reviewing, however briefly, this storied career seems like a necessary prerequisite for explaining -- and, for this publication at least, explaining why one would review -- Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith, in which Buhle collaborated with well-known artists Sabrina Jones, Gary Dumm, and Nick Thorkelson. In recent years Buhle has argued that historians must take alternative media seriously if they wish to have an impact on the young, and he regards the graphic novel as a promising avenue of that outreach. To that end, he has collaborated on graphic histories of major historical figures as well as graphic renditions of works by writers including Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn.

Radical Jesus, for which Buhle wrote much of the text, is divided into three parts. The first section, by Sabrina Jones, rests heavily on scripture, using the words of Jesus of Nazareth -- not surprisingly, his role as Jesus Christ is not prominent here -- as a point of departure for images that illustrate the political implications of his ideas. A strong element of willful anachronism animates these panels; Jones uses contemporary settings alongside ancient words to vivify the ongoing relevance of Jesus's message. A dramatic sense of line in these black and-white-drawings provide an animating friction for the rectangular organization of the pages.

The second section of the book, "Radical History," is a series of chapters on the role of Christian activism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Some of these tales, like those of the Lollards, are well known (but with lots of details likely to be of interest to novices). Others, like the story of the Hutterite Brethren, are more obscure. But this mix of what might be termed canonical history along with obscure byways widens the appeal of the stories Buhle and artist Gary Dumm (a frequent collaborator with the late Harvey Pekar) choose to tell.

The final part of "Radical Jesus," by Nick Thorkelsen, carries the to the modern day by looking at a wide variety of social justice issues around the globe. Thorkelsen has a distinctive pluralistic approach to his art -- which is colorful in more than one sense -- that rounds out a distinctive, yet overlapping set of stories, images, and messages.

As a matter of religion, popular culture, and historiography, then, Radical Jesus is a rich and striking social document. It is one worth considering as art, pedagogy, and history.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


In Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations, sociologist Vern L. Bengtson traces paths of transmission -- and broken signals

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network site

One of the major findings of Robert Putnam and David Campbell's important 2011 study American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us is the rise of what scholars of religion call "the nones": a rising tide of religiously unaffiliated Americans, which is now in the neighborhood of 20% of the U.S. population. (See my review here.) Such a statistic is often cited as an example of how, amid the prominence and evident power of evangelical Christians in U.S. society (who, by the way, tend to see themselves as beleaguered), the nation is becoming increasingly secular. But in Families and Faith, sociologist Vern Bengtson and collaborators Norella Putney and Susan Harris report that the picture is somewhat more complicated. To be sure, they say, there has been significant churn in religious identity since 1970. But there's also been a lot more continuity than you might think.

Families and Faith is a brief distillation of The Longitudinal Study of Generations (LSOG), a 35-year project begun by Bengtson in 1970 drawing on over 2,000 respondents in over 350 multi-generational families. The goal of the study was to analyze patterns of religious transmission, or lack thereof, across four generations. In the broadest sense, what Bengtson found is that about six in ten children kept to the religious tradition of their parents -- more for Mormons and Jews, less for Catholics and mainline Protestants.

You can interpret that as a glass that's a little more than half full or almost half-empty, depending on your predilections. But Bergston leans toward the former, for a number of reasons. One is that many of those who have not maintained faith traditions in any formal sense nevertheless profess loyalty to them and eventually return to them (the so-called prodigals). Another is that non-religious affiliation is itself significantly a matter of generational transmission. Contrary to a widespread perception that unaffiliated Americans (only a small percentage of whom are avowed atheists) typically drift away from or rebel against family traditions, about two-thirds of such people very are very often affirming active or implicit family non-practice. Perhaps most fundamentally, while the rate of transmission may not seem all that impressive, it's essentially unchanged since 1970 -- which is to say that the tremendous social transformations that have occurred since that time (e.g. race, gender, sexuality) have had little impact on the underlying rhythms of religious continuity.

An early chapter of Family and Faith discerns a distinctly generational flavor in patterns of religious conception and intensity -- Americans born in early decades of the twentieth century, for example, tend to consider religiosity and spirituality as essentially interchangeable, while those born later in the century increasingly distinguish between the two (and place greater emphasis on personal spirituality than collective religiosity). But in general, the study shows that the single most important influence on outcomes for children is the tenor of parental commitment. In general, if you want to have religious kids, you should marry someone in the same faith, actively practice that faith in a religious community, and demonstrate that faith in your everyday life. That's not surprising. Nor is it surprising that life events like divorce or family stress weaken religious ties. Or that remote or hypocritical parenting has obvious implications for whether or not children keep the faith.

But here's something that is surprising: It's fathers more than mothers who tip the balance (except among Jews for whom inheritance is matrilineal). A remote or authoritarian father is one of the surest ways to snuff out religious feeling among children. Here's something else: grandparents play a major and growing role in shaping outcomes. Though if you think about it for a moment it's easy to see why -- not only are they living longer, but they in many cases are doing a significant amount of child-rearing.

If there's one thing that's clear in Families and Faith, however, it's that there's no sure-fire formula for having your children follow your preferred path. Except, perhaps this: exhibiting an element of tolerance toward your kids, of making clear that the decision to choose the faith of their fathers is just that: a choice. Whether or not that's a typically American approach to God, it seems to be the one works best on these shores.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Unfinished rhapsody

Linda Ronstadt's Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir has too many silent notes

The following review has been posted on the Books page at the History News Network

When I was a kid in the 1970s, I always kinda liked Linda Ronstadt, even though she was a "mere" pop singer rather than a "serious" rock artist known for pop ballads like "You're No Good" and "Blue Bayou." By the 1980s, I had come to appreciate the sheer power of Ronstadt's voice, which she fused with a wonderful sense of theater and an impeccable sense of taste in her choice of material, which seemed to range across every idiom of American popular song. In the decades since, that appreciation for her work has only grown. My genuine affection for pop ingenues from Alanis Morrisette to Taylor Swift -- and respect for their songwriting talents -- notwithstanding, the sheer beauty of Ronstadt's voice is one I turn to again and again in the solitude of my car, about the only time I can seem to carve out for music in my middle-aged ears.

It was with a sense of deep disappointment, then, that I read Ronstadt's new published Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir. Ronstadt does worse than simply give the years of her best-known work short shrift: she actively dismisses them. "I never felt that rock and roll defined me," she explains at one point in one of the rare moments she really engages with the key phase of her career in the latter half of the 1970s. "There was an unyielding attitude that came with the music that involved being confrontational, dismissive, and aggressive -- or as my mother would say, ungracious." It's not that Ronstadt is wrong in such an assessment, necessarily, or that she didn't produce work of considerable value in her recordings with the legendary arranger Nelson Riddle in albums like What's New (1983) or her wonderful collaborations with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton like Trio (1987). But really: does this sum up her feelings about Chuck Berry, whose version of "Back in the USA" was the cornerstone of Ronstadt's 1978 album of the same name, which prompted her friend, New York Times critic John Rockwell, to pen a classic essay for the Greil Marcus collection Stranded: Rock & Roll for a Desert Island (1982)? About Buddy Holly and her version of "That'll Be the Day"? Warren Zevon's "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" (and her more obscure, but magnificent, rendition of "Mohammed's Radio")? Ronstadt gives a chapter to her work with New York theater impresario Joseph Papp. Fair enough. But is there nothing to be said of the making of Simple Dreams and the exceptional crew of session musicians like Waddy Wachtel and Russ Kunkel who enlivened her most commercially successful work?

It's not that Rondstadt has no stories to tell. We get some fine sketches of the leading figures form the Los Angeles rock scene of the early seventies like Jackson Browne and members of the Eagles (who at one point were her backup band). We also get unexpected glimpses of less predictable personalities like Keith Richards (Ronstadt tells a funny story about getting stranded as the only sober person at a west-coast mansion with no one to take her home). And she shows real gifts as a writer. She describes the 64 year-old Atlantic Records founder Jerry Wexler -- another surprise cameo -- as speaking like "a Jewish bopper with a Jesuit education."

But she simply holds too much back. I wasn't seeking or expecting a tell-all autobiography. But really: can she reveal nothing about how she crossed paths, and began a romance with, California governor Jerry Brown? New York journalist Pete Hamill? We hear more about Ronstadt's relationship with her childhood horse than we do these people. Actually, the evocation of her Tucson youth -- in effect, the reassertion of her Latina identity -- is skillful and welcome. But as it became increasingly clear just how much Ronstadt was going to withhold, I couldn't help but a feeling growing resentment. In one sense, she of course is under no obligation to tell me anything. But when she literally makes it her business to sell her life story, I would have liked to see a more active and generous attempt to calibrate what she would choose to relate.

After finishing this book, I went to Amazon.com and bought a recent compilation of Ronstadt recordings from 1975-80. I probably should have done instead of reading this book. No hard feelings, Ms. Ronstadt. I would be worse than a fool to let this episode in our relationship linger. Thanks for the memories, even if they don't mean as much to you as they do to me.