Tuesday, August 18, 2015
Coming: A "Tilted" List of Recommended New Titles in Law and Religion [WITH UPDATE]
I've been laid up for a good deal of the summer and it's been a good time to read in my field---or browse, anyway, although some of my reading gets done properly. There is no question that law and religion scholarship has exploded in quantity and interest lately, for obvious reasons. I may not agree with all the directions that the literature has taken, but these have certainly been interesting times for it, with a lot of new writers whose primary interests have come to overlap with law and religion. Over the next few months I'll be mentioning some new titles of particular interest. They will primarily be books, not articles. The recent profusion of published monographs and collections in and around the field has been just as impressive as that of journal articles, and with the usual gains in thoughtfulness and expertise--particularly on religion itself, whose treatment in the new legal literature is weaker--that books bring compared to law journal articles. [NOTE: A slight update is offered at the bottom of the post.]
Although I certainly welcome and have been reading "all comers," my list of notices and recommendations will be tilted. In this post, I wanted to say something about how and why. The list will have something of a religious and/or conservative tilt. (The "and/or" definitely applies here.) This has little or nothing to do with my own religious views or politics, and a lot to do with academic diversity and pluralism.
Successful academics in the fields I read in most tend to be heavily networked, and fairly conventionalist in their views. They do a good job of discussing and promoting decent books in their field that come from roughly within their circles and are not too heterodox for that circle, including political heterodoxy of a generally liberal or left-of-center kind. At least in my academic/cultural milieu, if a book meets those qualifications I can rest assured that I will see discussions of the book, generally positive and supportive, everywhere--if one defines "everywhere" in the way that Pauline Kael once defined the universe of anti-Nixon voters. They will be noted on my Facebook feed, given substantial attention on the blogs I read, and, despite being academic books, will receive a number of reviews in those mainstream liberal publications that still review books. Amazon's algorithms will recommend a dozen other books of roughly similar views--and their authors, I notice, are often the same ones conducting the favorable discussions online.
To take an example, I'm currently working on a review (for a print magazine reaching a sub-sector of the same liberal audience, thus underscoring my point above) of Andrew Hartman's A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars. Since I'm still reading it, I won't comment on its merits. But it's fair to say that it's within the political mainstream of the academic milieu I'm talking about--my milieu--and that, for an academic title, it has gotten an enviable amount of attention from the usual academic and journalistic sources; it picked up another review, for an intellectual but general audience, just yesterday. It's not especially surprising that I read the U.S. Intellectual History Blog, or that it has gotten plenty of discussion there, or that Hartman writes on that blog, or that, from my perspective, the blog's community largely shares the same priors. Given that they share some basic assumptions, it's also unsurprising that the reviewers have generally been positive and supportive, despite some disagreements on particulars.
All that is to be expected. It's the way things--our limited attention spans, online algorithms, the current politically polarized culture, the culture and politics of the mainstream academy, elites, and/or the "symbolic analyst" class--work. As Miss Brodie said, "For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like." Although I'm happy to acknowledge it's natural, however, I won't say it's fine, especially for academics. It's lazy, contrary to academic values, and perpetuates an unhealthy form of elitism. It hides from view large numbers of ideas, arguments, and information that ought to be a part of the "standard" conversation and are not--are, indeed, in some sense treated as both beneath notice and below the salt.
Not all of this is ideological, by any means. There are both conservatives and traditionalist religious believers who are given attention within the conventional milieu, although they are exceptional, and these individuals are usually well-networked members of the elite who share some of its conventions. But it is certainly true that given the academy's conventionalism and given the politics of my sector of the academy, a lot of conservative and/or religious writers and books end up hidden from notice, out of the loop, out of the algorithms, not part of "the discussion." (There is an additional and, I think, related problem. A lot of good books that fall within mainstream liberal or progressive thought, or that are more radically leftist or "critical," and that do receive reviews and attention from conventional academics, have potential payoffs and benefits for conservative or religiously traditionalist arguments and groups. Those possibilities are generally neglected. I suspect that wouldn't be as likely if the reviewers gave more thought to books, ideas, and groups outside their usual political and intellectual milieu.)
Doubtless these authors, neglected within what I would consider the mainstream academic milieu, have milieux of their own, although I doubt they have an equal tendency to ignore conventional academic works in their field. But whether they do or not does not excuse anyone else from the general duty to read more widely and give appropriate attention and publicity to a wider range of books and views. Of course, many of the books and articles I read fall within the mainstream of what "everyone" else is reading, and my recommendations will often reflect that. But it seems to me that many heavily discussed books that fit the usual, not-to-be-spoken of qualifications receive too much attention, while many other books get none at all, and for the wrong reasons. I hope to even out the balance a bit, and to tilt a lance or two in doing so.
UPDATE: Elsewhere, a friend writes in with this observation: "I'm not sure whether the category is politically or theologically conservative, or both -- and how these relate to 'traditionalist.' One may be theologically conservative, traditionalist, and yet also quite left on critical issues, in a narrow-political sense." Fair point. I was assuming two categories: politically conservative, especially on social issues--at least in the legal academy, fiscal conservatism does not necessarily lead to one being ejected from the club or ignored by the conversation--and religious in a traditionalist way, since it's obviously possible to belong to the milieu I'm discussing here while privately holding religious beliefs, or to be religious in a milquetoast mainline way, or to be religious in a way that affects one's desire for justice but still make arguments in essentially a secular or secularist way. Deep attachment to a traditionalist religious community with thick beliefs and practices and the desire to witness those commitments in one's arguments, on the other hand, is I suspect not going to be characteristic of most people who make it into the conversation. I suspect that is even true for some whose views are left but still deeply traditionalist--I am guessing, to borrow a Catholic term, that it depends on how much of your seamless garment you let show--but admittedly I had traditionalist religious conservatives primarily in mind. Although this may help clarify--a little--what I meant by the terms I used, I agree that the terms raise a number of questions, and I'm not sure I chose the best descriptors.
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