Book Review: This Gulf of Fire

This detailed & readable history of the Great Lisbon Earthquake is well worth your time.

On November 1, 1755 – All Saints Day in the Catholic Church – the greatest natural catastrophe in the history of modern Europe took place: the Great Lisbon Earthquake. The earthquake, one of the largest ever recorded, completely destroyed the glittering capital of the Portuguese Empire and claimed victims on four continents. The tremors, along with the resulting tsunami and firestorm, turned Lisbon, previously a cosmopolitan masterpiece of a city replete with imperial grandeur, into a hulking collection of burnt-out ruins. Yet most of us interested in history (even European history) may not have heard of this cataclysmic event or had only heard of it in passing. A 2015 book by historian Mark Molesky seeks to right that wrong and give the Lisbon earthquake its proper historical due as a key event in the European Enlightenment. [Sidebar: Dr. Molesky is one of my professors at Seton Hall University and I have studied under him.]

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The End of History or a Familiar Refrain?

The River of Time

From the very beginning of recorded history through the modern day, humans have experienced radical fluctuations in our political systems, our personal ideologies, our liberties, and the way we live our lives. We have embraced the idea of change as a species, and writers and thinkers throughout the course of history have reflected this obsession. Heraclitus of Ephesus, one of the earliest ancient philosophers, saw the reality of change as universal in nature and among mankind; his idea that the only constant in life is change has echoed through the millennia that have elapsed since he lived.[1] One of the trademark opaque phrases of Heraclitus that illuminates this idea states that “All things come into being through opposition and all are in flux like a river”[2]; this image of the river is useful in understanding change and our human perception of it. For as much as we can see the change that is occurring through the flow of the river, we also perceive the river as unchanging so long as it remains flowing and within its banks. This perception of change reflects a deeper reality in human affairs, as we often recycle or rediscover older ideas or paradigms and see them as novel inventions of our own time. Our language and idioms have reflected this for quite some time; the phrase ‘everything old is new again’ is common in English-speaking societies, but the feeling it expresses is universal. The French use – in their stereotypically pessimistic and existential manner – the idiom ‘plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose’, which translates roughly as ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’.[3] This phrase captures a key sentiment in humanity which has been repeated through history – that of the fact that constant change generally does not truly reverse the basic order of things or change human nature. This is true for historical change in ideologies and political systems as much as it is for anything else; the only constant, which remains the same throughout time, is that things are always in a state of flux and humans tend to repeat older ideas or cycles in newly updated ways. If this is true, we should expect human societies to always be in a state of change and conflict; yet some theorists throughout history have taken an opposite approach, claiming that history itself has an endpoint or goal. Historians and thinkers who fall into this teleological camp – from Augustine and Bossuet to Hegel and Marx – vary wildly in their ideas about history, but all agree that history is progressing towards a specific end. Still, few of these thinkers saw their own time as representing the ‘end of history’, only predicting that it would come at some point in the future. For most of the human past, the idea that history had ‘ended’ would have seemed ridiculous, especially given the inexorable reality of change and the often-drastic upheavals that surrounded it. But apparently unique historical circumstances only a few decades ago led many to embrace this old philosophy anew and claim that their era was indeed the realization of the ‘end of history’.

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Book Review: White Fragility

Thankfully I didn’t pay for this book, and you shouldn’t either.

Those of you who know me personally may know that I am a voracious reader, especially when it comes to nonfiction. Usually I’m interested in books about history, political philosophy, military, or international affairs, but when I saw a book called White Fragility trending around the internet, sitting atop the New York Times bestseller list, and receiving mass praise, I felt it was important to read it to see what all the fuss is about. I can report back that this is easily one of the most racist, ahistorical, poorly argued, and absurd books I’ve ever read. I cannot believe that this was written in the 21st century given the paternalistic assumptions it makes about those who the author, Robin DiAngelo, considers ‘non-white’. I’ve delved deeply into the official reports and personal writings of British colonial officials in the 19th century for my academic research and I cannot understand how a modern, popular, purportedly ‘antiracist’ book mirrors and exceeds the frankly racist language of those dispatches. There is an incredible array of issues with the book (I could’ve spent ages reading this and pushing back line-by-line), but I’m going to skim the surface so as to touch on the major problems, factual errors, and faulty assumptions which underlay the author’s theory.

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