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The Review

Understand the big ideas and provocative arguments shaping the academy. Delivered on Mondays.

March 15, 2021

From: Len Gutkin

Subject: The Review: 'Bad History and Worse Social Science Have Replaced Truth'

The Irish novelist and essayist Anne Enright's contributions to the London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books offer, to my mind, some of the best writing about religion in recent years — sympathetic but skeptical, alive at once to the poignancy and cruelty of the thirst for supernatural transcendence (and to the comedy, too). Born-again in her youth but long since fallen off the path, Enright is clear-eyed but not condescending about the oppressive cultural politics religious orthodoxies can give rise to. Her 2018 LRB essay on Genesis (the book, not the band) was a twisty meditation on the shapes of myth and the gender of sin. It should have won a prize.

In the most recent NYRB, Enright, in the guise of a review of two new books about religion — the anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann's How God Becomes Real (Princeton) and the poet-scholar Eliot Weinberger's Angels and Saints (New Directions) — explores the intertwined forces of narrative and belief. "The difference between the novelist and the woman at prayer is that the novelist knows, more or less, that the voices she generates come from herself." I love that "more or less." And for more: Willa Glickman at the NYRB blog interviews Enright about her recent essay and what she's working on now.

The Latest

'Bad History and Worse Social Science'

Last week I talked with the Howard University historian Daryl Michael Scott, the author of Contempt and Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1880-1996 (North Carolina, 1997) and, more recently, an article in Liberties on "The Scandal of Thirteentherism." One of the most interesting parts of our conversation, to me, was Scott's discussion of the "other frames or other myths" for writing about the history of Black people in the New World — frames that, he says, were left out of The New York Times's "1619 Project." In the published interview, some of that material was left on the cutting-room floor. Here's a fuller version of his response to my question about what the "1619 Project" missed.

What about other frames or other myths? For instance, the “Atlantic world.” Once you start making worlds, you are making myths. You’re circumscribing the world for your purposes, and you’re tracing origins.

When the nation-state comes along and pretends that 1619 is the starting point, that’s making a myth. The Atlantic-world scholars do a very similar thing. A priori, they have a "world" that they think they can establish exists. And that world has slavery. In that Atlantic world of slavery, 1619 is not an important moment.

And then you get the scholars who believe they can trace a Black identity across time and space back to Egypt, and for them 1619 is not a good date.

A guy like me comes along and says: There’s nothing wrong with identity history. There’s nothing wrong with sub-identities. African Americans as an ethnic group can validly, in an ethnic myth, say 1619 is a good point of origin, because we’re an English-speaking Black ethnic group.

So there are various ways scholars tell their tale. "1619" could have been a set of debates about that, but all of the other perspectives lost out. All of these critiques fell to the wayside in the traditional way that they do: You get a debate between white liberals and their allies, and white conservatives, and everything in America reduces to race and slavery. That’s culture-war stuff.

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  • “My wife was traveling for work, and I just spent a few days and nights not really sleeping, going through the whole text until I felt like I had figured it out,” Dershowitz said. “I had convinced myself it was not only an ancient document, but actually the ancestor of the Book of Deuteronomy.” The textual scholar Idan Dershowitz may have made an amazing discovery, according to Jennifer Schuessler in The New York Times.

I'm always hoping to hear from you — write to opinion@chronicle.com.

Yours,
Len Gutkin

Len Gutkin is a senior editor at The Chronicle Review. His first book, Dandyism: Forming Fiction From Modernism to the Present, was published in February 2020 by the University of Virginia Press.