O.J. Simpson and the Verdicts in 1995

by W. Joseph Campbell, author of 1995: The Year the Future Began

O.J. Simpson’s parole hearing in Nevada today may have been much-anticipated and widely watched. But it was no “flashbulb moment,” not an occasion so rare and powerful that it will be remembered for years by many thousands of people.

Indeed the hearing’s outcome — Simpson won parole — was more expected than memorable, and more subdued than dramatic.

It was only faintly reminiscent of the “flashbulb moment” on October 3, 1995, when verdicts were read at the close of Simpson’s double-murder trial in Los Angeles.

On that occasion, as I discussed in my 2015 book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, the United States stood still in a rare moment of nationwide anticipation.

Simpson that day in 1995 was acquitted of the vicious slashing deaths of his former wife, Nicole, and of her friend, Ronald Goldman, and Americans by the millions stopped what they were doing to follow the reading of the verdicts on television and radio.

Simpson’s parole hearing today was televised live and streamed online. While it allowed the country an up-close look at Simpson after his nearly nine years behind bars, it was not a moment fated to be long remembered or often recalled.

Simpson, now 70, is stooped and slow afoot. But he is still voluble and self-absorbed. He went before the parole board seeking release from a prison term for armed robbery, kidnaping, and other offenses stemming from an encounter in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2007. Simpson essentially had a small posse to retrieve memorabilia he said had been stolen from him.

For those crimes, he was sentenced to 9 to 33 years in prison. The outcome of today’s hearing means he will be released as soon as October 1.

Simpson often apologized during the hearing for participating in the Las Vegas robbery, saying he wished it had never happened.

He also he revealed flashes of ego and self-absorption that characterized his high-flying celebrity lifestyle before 1995. He told parole board members he was “a good guy” and insisted, without smirking, “I’ve basically spent a conflict-free life, you know?”

He blamed other participants for the encounter in Las Vegas having spun out of control. He was unaware, he said, that handguns had been drawn.

But he made no reference to the killings of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman; their deaths were not germane to today’s hearing.

But a question that was relevant in 1995 lingers after today’s hearing. It’s a question sure to arise again when Simpson is set free from Lovelock Correctional Center in northwest Nevada. The question is:

What accounts for the seemingly endless media and popular-culture fascination with O.J. Simpson?

Some of the Simpson-fixation can be connected to the nostalgia that embraces the 1990s these days. CNN, for example, has begun a seven-part documentary series that revisits the decade. Simpson’s trial in 1995 has to rank among the top 10 events of the decade, at least in America.

It was, after all, commonly referred to as the “Trial of the Century.” While it wasn’t as consequential as the rise of the Internet, the fall of the Soviet Union, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, or the genocide in Rwanda, it was one of the decade’s “flashbulb moments.”

Simpson-fascination also can be attributed to perverse interest in how he won acquittal in 1995 despite the considerable evidence — notably, forensic DNA evidence — that was arrayed against him.

In the face of that evidence, and of the intense pressures he faced, Simpson kept his composure during the months-long trial. He didn’t testify, as he said he would. But his lawyers found ways for Simpson to declare, in the courtroom, that he was innocent.

Polls said most Americans didn’t buy it. But interest endures as to how he beat the rap.

A broader explanation for the continuing fascination lies in Simpson’s stunning fall from grace — from rich and admired celebrity to convicted felon who has spent years of his dotage behind bars. Simpson once seemed to have it all: He was a professional football star who made it to the sport’s Hall of Fame. He was a TV sports commentator, a movie actor, a pitchman. He was well-liked, even esteemed. And all that, he lost. How could he have allowed that to happen?

And then there’s race: The verdicts in 1995 exposed fault lines in how white and black Americans regard and respond to the U.S. criminal justice system. The “flashbulb moment” at the close of the trial was marked by what I described in 1995 as “stark and contrasting reactions”: Many African Americans cheered Simpson’s acquittal while many whites were shocked and dismayed.

The disparate reactions, I noted, “prompted much anguished commentary that America’s racial divide was more profound than had been understood.”

The outcome of today’s hearing precipitated no such clash of reactions.


W. Joseph Campbell is the author of 1995: The Year the Future Began and Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism.


A Deepening Political Divide

By Ruth Braunstein, author of Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy across the Political Divide

The ascendance of Donald Trump to the presidency, and the groundswell of resistance that followed, revealed a rift in the American populace. Some have been shocked by the depth, rancor and seeming intractability of this divide. The election of President Obama (twice) was widely viewed as a sign of national healing. Through this lens, Obama’s hopeful words of solidarity and progress had been a balm on the wounds left by centuries of racial strife, religious disagreement, and ideological antagonism. Trump’s election tore those wounds open anew.

But the apparent disjuncture between Obama’s and Trump’s victories can be reconciled by recalling that America’s history has not been a steady march of progress; rather, it has been marked by a pattern of advances and retrenchment. The age of Lincoln was also the age of the Know-Nothings; FDR provoked a backlash from groups ranging from conservative business and religious leaders to the Klan; and Kennedy’s moment was also Wallace’s. If Obama’s election represented an expansion of the symbolic boundaries of American belonging, then Trump’s rise marked the relatively predictable return of reactionary politics to the national stage.

Yet we should not forget that the country was also deeply divided during the Obama era. The divisions of those years may appear quaint compared to those that have revealed themselves since Trump’s election. But they laid the groundwork for the situation in which we find ourselves today. I spent several years on the front lines of that political divide during the Obama years. In the wake of the Great Recession and amid growing discontent with government responsiveness to ordinary citizens, I began conducting ethnographic fieldwork with a progressive faith-based community organizing coalition and a local Tea Party group.

While attending their rallies, protests, public actions, meetings with legislators, town halls, hearings, and internal meetings, I documented the ways in which members of the two groups told very different stories about America’s past, present and future. The Tea Partiers were nostalgic about the past and worried that the country’s turn away from its Judeo-Christian heritage and Constitutional principles foretold apocalyptic decline. Meanwhile, the progressive community organizers were critical of the country’s past (and ongoing) failings, but cautiously optimistic about its capacity to become a “more perfect union” that lived up to its founding ideals. The stark differences between the two groups’ visions of America mirrored differences found among the broader public, as described in an American Values Survey in 2015, when asked when America was greatest, and during discussions about American identity).

These were not merely stories that members of the two groups told; they were scaffolding for the interpretive worlds in which they embedded themselves, and from within which they evaluated the credibility of authorities and information, the appropriateness of different styles of action, and the democratic legitimacy of other grassroots groups.

As we reflect on the current crisis in which Trump’s supporters and resistors cannot agree even on a set of shared facts, view one another as stupid and un-American, and appear to live within entirely different realities, these two groups’ experiences offer insight into how we reached this moment.

Complicating matters, however, I found that members of these groups did not tell entirely different stories of America; they told different versions of the same story.

Members of both groups embedded themselves in a historical narrative in which active citizens have repeatedly played a pivotal role in saving the American democratic project from ruin. Whether they framed the protagonists in this narrative as prophets or patriots (and yes, these differences were significant), they agreed it was ordinary citizens’ sacred duty to hold elites accountable and to project their voices, values, and knowledge into public debates about the issues that impacted their lives.

In this way, members of both groups embedded their action within a populist story: in which ordinary citizens are heroes and out-of-touch elites are villains; in which grassroots power is virtuous and elite control (of any kind) is suspect. The grassroots populism I found among these progressive community organizers and conservative Tea Partiers was a far cry from the authoritarian populism that is currently on display among Trump’s “forgotten men and women,” who turn out for worshipful rallies while doing nothing to hold the president accountable for his promises to represent their interests.

By keeping these Obama-era movements in view, it becomes clear that the political divide we are witnessing today is not new, nor is Americans’ turn toward populist politics. Yet the divide appears to have deepened, while the populism has become shallower.

The questions we might now ask are how a commitment to grassroots populism that transcended deep political divides gave way to the authoritarian populism we see today (particularly on the political right), and whether there is a path forward to a shared vision of America that calls upon ordinary citizens across the political divide to play an active role in building a common life.


Ruth Braunstein is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut.


Jailcare Launches at Potter’s House in Washington, D.C.

By Carolyn Sufrin, author of Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women behind Bars

Earlier this month, the book launch event for Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women behind Bars was held at The Potter’s House in Washington, D.C., a progressive non-profit bookstore and café with roots in social justice.

It was an apt community space to host a discussion of this book, which describes some of the everyday realities of mass incarceration in our country and how the failures of society to care for women on the margins have created a situation where jail has become an integral part of the safety net for these women.

I was fortunate to speak in front of a standing room-only, engaged audience from an array of backgrounds—health care providers, lawyers, activists, students, anthropologists and other researchers, as well as people from the Department of Justice, Planned Parenthood, local non-profits, and others.

Carolyn Sufrin (L) with Amy Fettig (R).

Amy Fettig, Deputy Director at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, moderated the event and shared an overview of incarceration and health care behind bars. Fettig herself has successfully litigated many cases to improve health care conditions for incarcerated people. After I read a few excerpts from Jailcare, Fettig asked questions that got to the heart of the nuances and contradictions of jailcare, such as how jail workers approach pregnant women as deserving—or not deserving—of care. This sparked a lively discussion about the paradoxes of the constitutional requirement that prisons and jails must provide health care.

A question from the audience built on this requirement, specifically the idea of keeping prisoners alive through health care with a probing reminder of the connections with slavery—“Once you become incarcerated you become property of the state. And then the system has a responsibility to keep you alive”—similar to plantation owners needing to keep their slaves alive to continue to exploit their labor.

The discussion also included some practical strategies for shifting the role of jail and incarceration in managing social problems. For example:

  • Comprehensive bail reform: filling jails with people who are not a safety or flight threat puts undue pressure on the system. The issue of people being held in jail for long periods of time because they cannot afford small bail amounts helped people recognize the role that poverty plays in incarceration.
  • Neighborly community interaction: An audience member suggested that we, as neighbors, rethink the reasons for why we call the police to come to our neighborhoods and consider alternative strategies that make the police more community members rather than those policing the community.
  • Helping the helpers: we discussed the importance of making social safety net services higher quality by trying to address staff burnout, thereby improving their investment and relationships they have with the people whom they are attempting to help.

Carolyn Sufrin is a medical anthropologist and an obstetrician-gynecologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Learn more about Jailcare at www.jailcare.org/.


Variants and Errors in Old Editions of Island of the Blue Dolphins

by Sara L. Schwebel, editor of Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader’s Edition

This guest post is published in conjunction with the meeting of the Children’s Literature Association taking place June 22-24 in Tampa, FL and the American Library Association conference taking place June 22-27 in Chicago, IL. #ChLA17 / #ALAAC17


Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader’s Edition

While preparing Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader’s Edition, I was shocked to learn how significantly the text of individual copies of Scott O’Dell’s Newbery-winning novel differed. Island of the Blue Dolphins is not Sister Carrie, with its complicated publication history, or Walden, famous for its textual variants. It is a twentieth-century Newbery winner published with numerous printing but just three editions: the first (1960), a thirtieth anniversary edition (1990), and a fiftieth anniversary edition (2010). Given the availability of late twentieth-century computer software, I had thought the editions would be identical.

How wrong I was.

Houghton Mifflin first sold the paperback rights to Island of the Blue Dolphins in 1971, and this opened the floodgates to variants in U.S. editions. Dell retyped the first edition, and in doing so inserted a series of variants. The first printing of the first Dell paperback, for example, introduced 6 variants in punctuation, omitted one word (the pronoun “I,” in chapter 8), and made seven printing errors, ranging from a lower case “i” that is missing its dot to a lower case “m” that is only half printed.

In some but not all reprintings of this Dell paperback, errors were corrected. For example, the Laurel-Leaf Historical Fiction imprint published in 1978 corrects two missing periods and a missing comma, as well as the missing pronoun “I;” however, it inserts a different error (“though” for “thought,” in chapter 8). The 1987 Yearling paperback is identical to the 1971 Dell first printing with one exception: it corrects a missing open quotation mark in chapter 8. But bafflingly, the 1999 Newbery-Yearling imprint reverts to the original 1971 Dell paperback: no corrections are made at all. These variants, while slightly annoying, are largely insignificant. And this is where things stood until 1990.

Houghton Mifflin celebrated Island of the Blue Dolphins’ thirtieth birthday by issuing a gift edition of the book illustrated by Ted Lewin. This cloth edition made a series of welcome corrections to Houghton Mifflin’s first edition; most of these corrects are inconsequential (commas, subjunctive verbs, etc.), but three are interesting and substantive.

Continue reading “Variants and Errors in Old Editions of Island of the Blue Dolphins


What’s Left of Pride?

By Emily K. Hobson, author of Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left

Commemorations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer resistance have not always held up the banner of “Pride.” Before the early 1990s, anniversaries of the Stonewall Riots were typically marked as rallies for “liberation” or as “Lesbian and Gay FreedomDay.” These earlier events were both celebrations and acts of protest — “marches” rather than “parades,” with advertisements nowhere to be seen.

When gay liberation emerged in the late 1960s, it sought to redefine sexuality through revolution, and vice versa. Gay liberationists and lesbian feminists claimed common cause with the anti-war movement and Black Power, and they insisted that straight radicals recognize sexual freedom as central to a just society. Across the 1970s and 1980s, a vibrant gay and lesbian left forged anti-capitalist, anti-militarist, and anti-imperialist sexual politics, demanding self-determination and organizing solidarity. Gay and lesbian leftists defended the radical underground, mobilized against the New Right, advanced anti-racism in queer communities, and helped build the Central America movement, among many other causes.

The gay and lesbian left holds strong echoes in current queer radicalism. Yet this politics met a downturn in the early 1990s, when many longtime activists died of AIDS and neoliberal agendas cohered. The language of “Pride” ascended, reflecting broader shifts in LGBTQ politics away from radical transformation and towards inclusion in the existing economy and state.

“Pride” aligned with these shifts because it expresses satisfaction with the present, rather than demands for change. Its closest analogues are patriotism and family — pride in one’s country, pride in one’s children. Like those analogues, LGBTQ “Pride” too often makes sameness and respectability the conditions for acceptance. It risks sending the message: be proud of who you are, as long as you make us proud. The language of Pride helps obscure the complexity of LGBTQ history by privileging heroism over critique. It celebrates gay military veterans but ignores queer opposition to militarism; reclaims figures such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson but brushes aside opposition to the presence of police. Small wonder that some queer radicals today mobilize Gay Shame, a network that calls out corporate sponsorship of Pride events and that seeks to prevent gentrification from hiding behind “inclusive values.”

We need joy, pleasure, and humor; we need rage, solidarity, and resistance. Do we need pride? The history of the gay and lesbian left calls on us to reconsider the sentiments we attach to our queer pasts and futures as well as our present. What happens after liberation? How will we live when we get free? This June, let’s use queer radical history to reimagine a future in which we don’t have to settle for less.


Emily K. Hobson is the author of Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left. She serves as Assistant Professor of History and of Gender, Race, and Identity at the University of Nevada, Reno.

 


The Afterlife of the American War in Vietnam

by Mark Padoongpatt, author of the forthcoming Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America

As we celebrate Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month this year, we do so right as the United States is commemorating the 50th year anniversary of the “American War” in Vietnam. The war has had a profoundly deep, wide-ranging, and lasting impact on Asian/Pacific Islander America. It resulted in the death of millions of Vietnamese, Hmong, Laos, and Khmer people, including civilians, at the hands of U.S. soldiers and bombs. It generated displacement, trauma, political destabilization, and the migration of roughly 1.2 million Southeast Asians, many of them refugees, to the United States between 1975-2000 — a migration that (coupled with the 1965 Immigration Act) transformed the composition and demographics of Asian/Pacific Islander America and America as a whole.

The war, of course, is not a vestige of the past. As such it demands critical, relentless reflection if we want to understand the diversity and tensions among Asian/Pacific Islander Americans today as well as the workings of the postwar American empire. For one, the war extended beyond Vietnam and was a flashpoint (a bloody and violent one, no doubt) of a much longer period of U.S. Cold War intervention throughout Southeast Asia. The affects of U.S. empire and war also ran much deeper than combat, bombings, militarization, and state-sponsored dictatorships. America insinuated itself into the textures of everyday life via embassies, businesses, private organizations, educational programs, modernization projects, popular culture, tourism, and various other forms of cultural diplomacy, such as the Peace Corps, to win “hearts and minds” in pursuit of foreign policy objectives in the region. All of which shaped personal and group identities, relationships, worldviews, and cultural practices as people in Southeast Asia came to terms with American global power.

One way to understand the everyday life — and “afterlife” — of U.S. empire in Southeast Asia is through foodways. My book, Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America, traces how the informal postwar U.S. empire in Thailand turned Thai food into a central site of Thai American identity and community formation in Los Angeles. Though Thailand has the distinction of being the only Southeast Asian country to avoid formal Western colonization (a distinction Thais take immense pride in), after World War II, however, the United States, as a new global leader, maneuvered itself into the country more intrusively than ever before to combat the spread of communism, ushering in what Benedict Anderson has referred to as Thailand’s “American Era.” This neocolonial relationship established circuits of exchange between the two countries. It allowed thousands of U.S. citizens to go toThailand and “discover” the exciting new flavors and tastes of Thai food. Many, particularly white women, introduced Thai cuisine back in the United States by writing “Siamese” cookbooks and teaching cooking classes. When Thais arrived in Los Angeles, they reinvented and repackaged Thai food in various ways to meet America’s growing fascination with the cuisine. This led to Thais constructing their identities mainly through the perceived exoticness and sensuousness of Thai food.

The history of Thai food reveals that the American war in Vietnam was more than Vietnam, and that it lives on in mundane ways and unexpected places. Its legacy affects everything from the cuisines featured in restaurants and the identities of restaurateurs, cooks, and grocery store clerks to the contours of entrepreneurship and the look and feel of urban and suburban spaces. The experiences and stories that stem from it — though not reducible to a singular time, place, group, or narrative — stand as a reminder that, as Asian/Pacific Islander Americans, our relationship with America is rooted in and defined by dominance.


Mark Padoongpatt is Assistant Professor of Asian and Asian American Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

His book Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai Americapublishing this September, explores the factors that made foodways central to the Thai American experience.


Melania and Melania: Two Vexing Icons of Early Christianity

by Caroline T. Schroeder, co-editor of Melania: Early Christianity through the Life of One Family

This guest post is part of a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity, the official book series of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago for their annual conference. #NAPS2017


If you say the name Melania to your friends and family, what words come to their minds?  Wealth, fame for sure.  And perhaps recluse, devoted mother, though perhaps not devoted wife.

Tell them if they really want to read about a controversial and vexing Melania, they have two even more intense icons to choose from. Melania the Elder and her granddaughter Melania the Younger had wealth and fame to spare. Despite their ascetic commitments — even because of them — they were no recluses.  As two of the richest and most influential Christians in late antiquity, they traveled the Mediterranean, building institutions (monasteries and churches), patronizing important early Christian writers, and lobbying the imperial family.  True, Melania the Elder was once imprisoned, and Melania the Younger once sequestered herself in a tiny cell in her monastery.  Yet these moments of confinement, while telling, were not defining. Neither locked themselves behind the gates of their estates.  Instead both women were praised by late antique authors for their roles as architects of an emerging church.

Such influence did not put the Melanias beyond controversy, ancient or modern.  Although spiritual mothers to many of their fellow ascetics, neither dedicated their lives to the physical care of biological children.  Melania the Younger’s children died young, and her grandmother famously left her son behind in Rome to pursue her ascetic career.  Melania the Elder also ruffled the feathers of none other than the famous Jerome.  As several contributors to this book (Luckritz Marquis, Doerfler, Krawiec, and Darling Young) show us, this conflict with Jerome helped shape definitions of heresy and orthodoxy during the Origenist controversy and most certainly affected later Christian tradition’s memory of her.  Melania the Younger, her hagiographer tells us, went even so far as to interrupt and challenge Augustine, in what Susanna Drake calls a “curious case of scriptus interruptus” (171).  Jumping to the twentieth century, Melania the Younger “went viral” (as the kids say) when Cardinal Rampolla published her vita in 1905.  As Michael Penn recounts in the book, the story of the “richest woman in history” rebounded in the popular press. I find myself frequently returning to Elizabeth Castelli’s reading of the Melanias and “The Future of Sainthood.”  Castelli reminds us that these women’s ancient virtues remain provocations for modern readers.  For example, their status as slaveholders was an unquestioned part of their “birthright” in their own time, but one that disturbs the sensibilities of ours.

The work of my co-authors reminds me that we often see in the Melanias what we want to see.  They become ciphers for each interpreter’s own struggles with power and resistance.  Did Melania the Elder abandon her maternal duty or embrace a higher calling?  Was the patronage of Evagrius a dangerous slide into heresy or a courageous display of intellectual and political strength?  Is the swat of a hand a reminder of protocol or a refusal to perform on someone else’s terms?  Reading and writing about the Melanias in ways that reckon with these women as individual agents while simultaneously illuminating the social and discursive networks in which they operate requires tenacity, finesse, and scholarly self-reflection.  One of the privileges of editing this book was witnessing my co-authors write with such qualities, unearthing the many Melanias of history and legacy.  Many of us have learned (or, speaking for myself, have tried to learn) this kind of scholarship from the woman whose work inspires this volume:  Elizabeth A. Clark.  Clark was of course President of the North American Patristics Society and a founding editor of its journal,  the Journal of Early Christian Studies.  As Randall Styers writes in the afterword to the book, Clark’s scholarship has been “in the vanguard” of the field, “exerting enormous energy, creativity, and methodological innovation as she worked to remake the craft of late ancient history” and religion. (284)   Clark, too, is an architect of the field we have become. 

Early Christian studies is now a field that takes seriously theology and history while producing new critical theories of religion and gender, and one that does not shy away from examining its own history and politics.  And thus, we are thrilled that Melania, which wrestles with all of these theoretical threads, appears in our Society’s book series.


Caroline T. Schroeder is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of the Pacific and author of Monastic Bodies: Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe. She is co-editor of Melania: Early Christianity through the Life of One Family with Catherine M. Chin, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of California, Davis and author of Grammar and Christianity in the Late Roman World.


Why Late Antiquity (and All History) Needs Twits

by Andrew S. Jacobs, author of Epiphanius of Cyprus: A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity

This guest post is part of a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity, the official book series of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago for their annual conference. #NAPS2017


“What a twit.” So a wise colleague recently described Epiphanius of Cyprus (d. 403), the oft-maligned subject of my recent book.

At a conference in March, another prominent historian described Epiphanius as “the stupidest of all Church Fathers.”

In conversations with friends and fellow scholars while writing Epiphanius of Cyprus, I heard him called “horrible” and “a liar.”

To be sure, Epiphanius — monk, bishop, controversialist, and author of a massive, multi-volume encyclopedia of heresies characterized by invective, mendacity, and intolerance — was probably not a nice person. But the pages of history books are not populated by “nice guys”: so why the persistent distaste for Epiphanius? This scholarly aversion to Epiphanius is a puzzle I return to in the concluding chapter of Epiphanius of Cyprus, a puzzle compounded by Epiphanius’s undeniable prominence in his own day and time: a celebrity among monks and bishops, dismissed (or, at the least, marginalized) as a liar and twit by scholars today.

I have no interest in promoting Epiphanius’s intellect (although he probably wasn’t so much stupid as he was unphilosophical) and I have no interest in making us like him (he certainly wouldn’t care for me). But I do believe that history-writing is always to some extent an exercise in answering pressing issues in the present by reimagining traces of the past. We find certain persons, texts, and events “interesting” precisely because of our own interests (meaning both our engagements and our stakes). If Epiphanius seems not to fit into our histories, it is because he works against those interests.

What kind of past are we determined to create that has no room for Epiphanius? Why doesn’t our late antiquity have room for twits?

The writing of history, like any cultural production, is a story we want to tell about ourselves. Late antiquity — born in the colonial 19th century, nourished in the postcolonial 1950s, and matured in the multicultural 1970s — was a period of intellectual ferment, transformation, and rebirth, a Eurasian renaissance from which emerged new thinking, new arts, and new religions. It reversed the sneering disdain of Enlightenment historians like Edward Gibbon. It claimed as its mascots the great thinkers and idea men (and, in more recent years, idea women), impresarios of change and authors of new worlds. It is entirely understandable that we would want to produce a late antiquity from which we might imagine a better present and future for ourselves.

History-writing, like all culture-making, is about inclusions and exclusions, about viewing our world with certain blinders. Epiphanius was perhaps a twit, certainly intolerant, absolutely dedicated to finding and rooting out “the other” from his orthodox empire. To exclude him from our culture-making forays into the past, however, is to leave ourselves open to all sorts of unpleasant surprises about the world we inhabit in the present. Epiphanius’s prominence in late antiquity was not, I argue, a fluke but rather the dark side of a new, transformative, diverse world being born. I am not calling for a return to Gibbon’s sneering condemnation of late antiquity, but rather a more clear-eyed appreciation of all of its shadows and nuances.

We may not like the twits of history, but without facing them head on we are disarming ourselves against them in the present and the future.


Andrew S. Jacobs is Professor of Religious Studies and Mary W. and J. Stanley Johnson Professor of Humanities at Scripps College in Claremont, California. He is the author of Remains of the Jews: The Holy Land and Christian Empire in Late Antiquity and Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference.


Are Contemporary Political Movements Ancient “Heresies” in Disguise?

by Yonatan Moss, author of Incorruptible Bodies: Christology, Society, and Authority in Late Antiquity

This guest post is part of a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity, the official book series of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago for their annual conference. #NAPS2017


In 1959 the British historian of the Roman Empire, A. H. M. Jones, published an influential article entitled “Were Ancient Heresies Political or Social Movements in Disguise?”. Despite the interrogatory pose assumed in its title, Jones’s essay was more of a response than a question. It responded to the then regnant understanding among historians that the series of “heretical” movements that rocked the late ancient Roman imperial church were motivated by national aspirations and social grievances. Jones effectively showed that this was not at all the case. National and social concerns were, Jones argued, predominantly modern categories which the historians of his day had anachronistically imposed upon the theologically-minded inhabitants of the later Roman Empire.

My recent book, Incorruptible Bodies: Christology, Society and Authority in Late Antiquity, studies one of those late ancient “heresies” examined by Jones: the group now commonly referred to as the Miaphysite movement. The Miaphysites (from Greek mia-one, physis-nature) disputed the definition reached at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, according to which there are two natures, one human and one divine, in Christ. Contrary to the imperial administration’s enforcement of Chalcedon as official policy, millions of Christians from Egypt to Eastern Turkey continued to adhere to one-nature theology. They gradually established churches of their own, separate from the ecclesiastical structures of the Empire. Although these churches ultimately came to be known under the names of Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox, each with its own distinctive language of liturgy and theological expression, Jones was right to point out that initially, in the fifth-and-sixth centuries, these were not “national” movements. Several of the foundational figures of the Syrian Orthodox church, such as Severus of Antioch, one of the main actors in my book, spoke and wrote in Greek, rather than in Syriac. Contrary to a narrative popular in earlier scholarship, according to which Severus of Antioch strove to separate from the official, Chalcedonian church of the Empire, Incorruptible Bodies shows that he actually did everything he could to remain within the imperial church, seeking to win it over to his anti-Chalcedonian stance.

The lesson learned from Jones’s article, one which we historians find ourselves relearning time and again, is how not to project contemporary categories back onto the past. Yet, does this mean that no connections exist between the past and the present? Having published my book last year, as I now witness the political events unfolding in Washington, I see deep similarities between the two. I have come to realize how, rather than viewing the past through the prism of the present, we can do the reverse.

While contemporary American political controversies deal with very different concerns than those that plagued the churches of the later Roman Empire, both revolve around disagreements over the proper route to what may be called individual and collective “salvation,” whether that salvation is spiritual, moral or material. The dilemma that now plagues the Democratic Party (and which similarly occupied Republicans during the Obama administration), is structurally equivalent to the key question underlying the disputes among the sixth-century anti-Chalcedonian bishops analyzed in my book: how must one implement one’s vision of salvation when power lays in the hands of those whose views one considers “heretical” and obstacles to salvation? Does one insist on ideological purity, or does one try to change the system from within, either in the name of social unity or in the name of shorter-term gains? The range of answers offered within the Democratic Party mirrors the array of positions defended by the late ancient Miaphysites. But whereas the end of the current political debate is still open, we do know what course of action the Miaphysite movement ultimately decided on. What was this course of action? Readers of Incorruptible Bodies, whether or not they happen to be Democratic policy-makers, can find out for themselves.


Yonatan Moss is a scholar at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he teaches in the Department of Comparative Religion.


APA / Heritage / Month: A Problem in Three Parts

by Sharon Luk, author of the forthcoming The Life of Paper: Letters and a Poetics of Living Beyond Captivity

for Lawson Fusao Inada

1. APA (Asian Pacific American)

“Asian Americans” and “Pacific Islanders” are two different panethnic groups, each with their own history, development, and problems… for the most part, Pacific Islanders have fought to be excluded from the Asian American category.

J. Kehaulani Kauanui

Gala, Granny Smith, Fuji, Jazz — each its own variety, grouped into what we commonly call “apples” for a certain kind of efficacy.

Navel, Valencia, Blood (can Tangerines fit here?) — each its own variety, grouped into what we commonly call “oranges” for perhaps comparable purposes of reference.

If someone invited me to celebrate Apples Oranges Month, I imagine my first response might be, “Do you mean Apples and Oranges?”

In this crude analogy to Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (do you mean Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month?) I don’t assume that the “someone” who invited me to their celebration would hear my question. In many settings, they almost never feel a responsibility to answer or seek clarity.

What exactly is it, then, that we are being asked to celebrate?

2. APA Heritage

…the old poem
birthing itself
into the new
and murderous century.

Li-Young Lee

My heart goes out to the students in my Introduction to Asian American Studies class (and in this present discussion now, I’m excluding Pacific Islanders to honor their distinction). I told them this course could not in any way approach the depth and breadth of all the people who have, at one time or another, been included in the racial category “Asian/- American.” I told them it could not represent any, let alone all, particular ethnicities ortheir experiences. I told them it certainly could not reveal to anyone “who they are.” In this context, then: What is it that we are supposed to be learning?

I ask students to study the processes involved in creating an Asian/-American racial distinction. We examine specific instances in post-1865 U.S. history to question how this distinction has mediated developments in racial capitalism. The construction of nation-states. Empires. War. Survival. More war… I don’t know how to make any of this easy to digest (and now, a corollary issue — can this really be the goal?). The deeper we get into the twentieth century, the more confused students become. Their faces look at me as if to ask, so are Asian Americans good or bad?

Despite the profound constraints on their universe of reference, I think students’ confusions about the contradictions of “Asian American” distinction may still get at the crux of the dilemma the latter heritage presents. That is, what “truths” are to be found in such cycles of suffering?

3. APA Heritage Month

every word of every image is a step towards the end this
urgency dictates that the sentence as we know it no longer
an option grammar is obsolete stories once told in detailed
chapters have been reduced to a noun a verb the father dies the
lover leaves in search of his own ending perhaps now the
writing can finally begin

Truong Tran

What is a month supposed to measure? What story does this measurement tell? In whose words does that story come? What end do those words bring (or, try in vain to defer)?

Let’s assume that Asian American heritage cannot fit into those limits — nor Pacific Islander, nor any people’s heritage, for that matter. Then, the problem of heritage remains beyond what is celebrated in a month and its killing, the problem’s most urgent expressions coming in forms that at once accept their mortality and open out to the living.


Sharon Luk is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of Oregon.

Her forthcoming book The Life of Paper explores the evolution of racism and confinement in California history. Publishing this November, the book offers a wholly original and inspiring analysis of how people facing systematic social dismantling have engaged in letter correspondence to remake themselves.