Category Archives: Reviews

A Social History of Truth

a-social-history-of-truthIn A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England, Steven Shapin tries to answer the question, why do we believe something is true? He argues there is a disconnect between how we think knowledge is obtained and how it is actually obtained. Like scientists today, men of learning in the seventeenth century believed direct experience was the only way to obtain factual knowledge, and they rejected the “testimony of others.” However, Shapin argues testimony and authority are the very foundations of knowledge.

Trust, a necessary ingredient for working with others, is indispensable in science. Scientists use trust to sustain the structures that allow them to maintain and build on the body of knowledge they have acquired over the centuries. This social interaction, Shapin argued, contains assumed knowledge about the external world and who is trustworthy in that world. “The identification of trustworthy agents is necessary to the constitution of any body of knowledge.”

What kind of person do we trust to tell the truth? According to Shapin, it is the early modern English gentleman. A gentleman was a person who, because he was self-sufficient and free from economic burden, had no motivation to lie. Therefore, he had both the qualities of free action and virtue. The gentleman was culturally encouraged not to deceive. Virtue was enforced by the ever-present threat of loss of his status as a gentleman, which had far reaching social and political consequences.

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The Landscape of History: History as a Science

the-landscape-of-historyHistory and the social sciences are very different academic disciplines, and John Lewis Gaddis, in his book The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2004), explains why. Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University and is best known for his work on the Cold War. In The Landscape of History, he argues that both history and the social sciences are scientific, but what the disciplines are concerned with differs. In simplistic terms, social scientists are concerned with the future and historians are concerned with the past. Because the social sciences are more speculative in that way, they are more likely to inaccurately carry out their task. The social sciences will almost never be able to predict future events, but historians will be able to describe the past in more or less accurate ways.

The social sciences understand reality by dividing it into parts and use each part to explain the whole. They look for these independent variables and expect to find them out in the world. Natural sciences like geology and astronomy have an ecological worldview that allows them to study how each part effects the whole and how the whole affects the parts. There is no way to separate each variable from the whole and study them as though the variables could exist independently from the whole.

Gaddis argues, in even more simplistic terms, that the reductionist view is exclusive and the ecological view is inclusive. For the social sciences, the reductionist viewpoint allows them to make predictions about future behavior. Future behavior can be predicted because it conforms to rules that have operated in the past, are operating in the present, and can be discovered. These rules are assumed to apply to everyone, everywhere, and to never change over time. Historians, however, don’t concern themselves with future predictions.

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Gold Glitters

goldGreed and obsession collide in Gold (2016), a gritty morality tale set in 1980s Nevada, Wall Street, and Indonesia. Matthew McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, a prospector desperate for a lucky break. He teams up with geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramírez), and together they descend into the uncharted jungles of Indonesia hoping to find one big score. This poorly-advertised film almost escaped my notice, until I saw it playing at my local theater. I’m glad I took a chance on it. Gold is a solid film and surprisingly entertaining. Matthew McConaughey disappears into the role, achieving absolute rock bottom in body and spirit.

Gold is loosely based on a true story. In 1995, a small Canadian mining company called Bre-X, owned by David Walsh, claimed to find a massive gold deposit deep in the Indonesian jungle on the Island of Borneo, near the Busang River. Filipino geologist Michael de Guzman and John Felderhof convinced Walsh to invest $80,000 to purchase and develop the gold mine.

In 1997, Bre-X collapsed and its shares became worthless in one of the biggest stock scandals in Canadian history. On March 19, 1997, de Guzman committed suicide by jumping from a helicopter in Busang, Indonesia. An independent investigation of core samples from the mine determined de Guzman had been “salting” the samples with gold flakes, some from his own wedding ring. Walsh died of a brain aneurysm in the Bahamas in 1998, and in 2007, Felderhof was acquitted of securities charges. The scandal cost investors an estimated $3 billion.

Gold follows Nevada prospector Kenny Wells, who inherited his father’s company, Washoe Mining, in the early 1980s. Stress-induced alcoholism caused by the economic downturn leads him to sell the last of his jewelry and fly to Indonesia to meet geologist Michael Acosta. There he endures hardship and survives malaria. When he emerges from the illness, Acosta tells him he made what might be the largest gold discovery in history.

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Patriots Day: A Gut-Wrenching Portrayal of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing

patriotsdayPatriots Day follows fictional Boston police sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) as he helps track down brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who detonated two bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon. The tragedy occurred at 2:49 p.m. local time on April 15, 2013. Massachusetts celebrates Patriots’ Day on April 15 to commemorate the anniversary of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the Revolutionary War. It’s estimated around 500,000 spectators attend the marathon. The bombs, made from pressure cookers, detonated 12 seconds apart, killing three and wounding approximately 264.

The film opens the night before the marathon, establishing a backstory for Sergeant Tommy Saunders. He is a well-meaning cop who got into a fight and has to pull guard duty at the marathon finish line before he can assume his regular duties. From there, we are shown snapshots of characters as they get up and start their day, but it is unclear how most of them will tie into the plot. We see future bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, his wife and daughter, at their apartment. Their morning is not typical, as one watches a video of masked terrorists demonstrating how to construct a pressure cooker bomb.

The terror, gut-wrenching shock, and confusion of the bombing is dramatically portrayed, as is the following manhunt. We see both law enforcement and the Tsarnaev brothers as they head for a fiery confrontation in the Boston suburb of Watertown. Moments of humor break up the dramatic, heart-racing scenes. During the final shootout with the Tsarnaev brothers, a man tosses a sledgehammer from his porch at police officers crouched behind the fence. “Give ’em hell!” he shouts, as if the crude melee weapon will do anything against the terrorists’ guns and homemade bombs.

It is meant to show defiance and resiliency in the face of terror, and Patriots Day is full of such crowd-pleasing moments, but how accurately does the film depict these events?

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Live by Night: A Lively Gangster Tale

live_by_night_filmStrong performances by supporting actors and actresses, wonderful choreography, and exciting action make Live by Night (2016) a thrilling gangster flick despite Ben Affleck’s uninspired acting. Affleck adapted the screenplay from a novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane. The film’s genuine look and feel is no doubt attributable to the source material. Although the characters are not based on real people, they might as well have been. For his part, Lehane wrote the novel about rum running to show the “sexy side of Prohibition.” Exotic, tropical locales, flashy clothes, fast cars, and excessive violence characterize both the novel and the film.

This sprawling movie spans several decades and locations, from Boston to south Florida. As the film opens, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a WW1 veteran and bank robber in Boston. He falls in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), mistress of Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) tries to blackmail Coughlin into killing Albert White. Unfortunately, Emma betrays him and White tries to have both her and Coughlin killed.

After spending several years in prison for a bank robbery gone wrong, Coughlin approaches Pescatore and asks him to help get revenge on Albert White. Pescatore sends him to Ybor City, Tampa, Florida, where White had set up his own operation, to run his speakeasies and muscle out White.

While there, Coughlin meets and marries a Cuban woman named Graciela Corrales (Zoe Saldana). He battles the KKK, other gangsters, hostile businessmen, and Evangelical Christians in his pursuit to corner the rum market and ultimately get Florida to legalize gambling so the mob can run its casinos. Coughlin and Pescatore come to blows in a bloody climax and Coughlin retires from his life of crime.

Live by Night is ultimately about “what goes around, comes around.” In several instances, characters’ past decisions come back to haunt them, and their bad behavior is repaid with pain, suffering, and loss. No one escapes this movie unscathed, except perhaps for Coughlin’s son, who I assume goes on to lead a normal life. Read the rest of this entry

Affairs of Honor: Political Culture of the Founding Generation

affairs-of-honorJoanne B. Freeman’s book, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (2002), is straightforward and compelling. In it, she argues that the political culture of the United States’ first generation of congressmen under the constitution of 1788 was based on a strong sense of personal honor, governed by “a grammar of political combat.” Because there were no formal political parties, representatives had to try to best represent their constituents in an unfamiliar environment, while working with people from diverse regions whose loyalties or support could never be fully known or assured.

Joanne B. Freeman is a professor of History specializing in the politics and political culture of the revolutionary and early national periods of American History at Yale University. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. Affairs of Honor won the Best Book award from the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic.

Freeman uses many primary sources to flesh out her argument, including the diary of William Maclay, a member of Pennsylvania’s first two-member delegation to the U.S. Senate. Maclay’s diary was a convincing way to illustrate his contemporary political culture because he seemed to be an observer more than a participant, and was therefore in a good position to critique it. Maclay was not without his biases, however. He was an outsider who was critical of the non-republican nature of congress, and that certainly led him to highlight certain aspects of the political culture that played into his own viewpoint.

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