A response to Niki Whiting’s review of my book, Faultlines

Replying to reviews with which an author disagrees is in many ways a waste of time.  Reviewers and other readers bring their own preconceptions and biases to whatever they encounter, just as do authors.  It is no surprise two people will read the same book and emphasize different dimensions of it, both possibly different from what the author tried to emphasize.  But at a minimum a review should give the reader a reasonable idea of what the book is about. I was disappointed that Niki Whiting’s review of my book on Patheos did not.   Whiting admits after reading it she did not know for sure what the book was about. I am honestly amazed at this, but agree with her.

That in my judgment no one reading Whiting’s review could grasp what the book is about, plus Patheos’  importance in the Pagan community leads me to reply.

The issues Whiting describes about modernity being overwhelmingly masculine in its bias are central to my argument, and I appreciate her pointing out I do not make an essentialist argument but rather something quite different. But, Whiting’s misreading aside, the book is NOT mostly about the West being “overwhelmingly masculine” and “dismissive” of the feminine. There are plenty of very good books already making that case. Why write another?  My distinction between masculine and feminine contributes to a different argument, one that has not been made elsewhere. And if it is true the implications are important.

What my book is about

Faultlines argues the US today is caught up in a perfect storm of three major cultural crises, all coming together at the same time. They constitute cultural ‘faultlines” and as they shift our country is torn.

• Crisis I: The collapse of the moral framework of the Enlightenment and the habits of thought that it bred. This is hitting us later than it hit Western Europe in the late 19th century, culminating after WWI. But as then, is breeding powerful nihilist responses that are destructive to our society.

• Crisis II: The toxic re-emergence of the cultural and religious divide that originated between the antebellum and Confederate South and the more egalitarian democratic North. This divide first formed after the War of 1812, when many of the North’s leading thinkers focused on issues like feminism, nature, utopian communities, and new religions. Simultaneously in the South a newly profitable slavery led to a repudiation of the principles behind our Declaration of Independence while embracing authoritarian political and religious views to legitimate a slave society. The 60s were a re-emergence of the same cultural energies that enriched Northern history back then (which is why Thoreau was regarded as the era’s ‘patron saint’) just as the subsequent ‘culture war’ was a re-emergence of the values of the slave-owning South decked out in modern form.

• Crisis III: The epochal transition from a society rooted in rural hierarchical agricultural ways of thinking to one rooted in urban, scientific, and egalitarian values. This is as big a transition as the one from hunting and gathering to agriculture, many thousands of years ago. This is my book’s most original claim. It is also where Pagan religion comes in.

It is in the context of this third crisis that there is rising interest in the divine feminine as contrasted with the divine masculine, and a similar rise of interest in nature as a good in itself. They are connected. NeoPagans are playing a very disproportionate role in this rethinking of cultural and religious basics.   I argue Starhawk in particular will go down in history as one of the most important religious figures of her time. This is one more reason I am deeply disappointed by this review. In a Pagan site she does not even mention the important role NeoPaganism plays as both a sign of a fundamental transition in society and its role in inspiring other religions to make a similar shift.

Instead she spends a great deal of her review discussing a quotation and a footnote.

The matter of Larry Summers

Whiting strongly objects to my use of a quotation by Larry Summers. Here is what Summers wrote:

“The measurements of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. . . . I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City.”

Brazil’s Secretary of the Environment at the time, Jose Lutzenburger, wrote Summers, “Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane.” He added “Your thoughts [provide] a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and the arrogant ignorance of many conventional ‘economists’ concerning the nature of the world we live in.”

My book gives both quotes to make a point unconnected with Summers as an individual. They are accurate. Lutzenberger did not consider it satire as she suggests it might have been. She also ‘hopes’ Summers didn’t really mean it. This is a strange remark in what is supposed to be a review by someone wrapping herself in claims of academic rigor.  The evidence is he did because it is 100% in keeping with his style of economic thinking. I have personally heard almost the same views from other economists.

Not academic enough?

Whiting didn’t like my footnote to Summers statement because I did not trace the quotation all the way back to its original source, as would be expected for an academic book. This comment illuminates what I think is the core reason she failed to follow, let alone evaluate, my argument. Whiting describes her own work as focusing on the divine feminine, an important and much needed field, but I think her professional focus and admitted bias towards academic styles of research got in the way of grasping my larger argument.

Academic training provides deep but narrow training in a particular field, or even a subfield. In many cases style can matter more than substance.  Their presses encourage this focus. The old saying that when the only tool you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail is not entirely fair for describing an academic mindset, but it has a point. Economists look at every issue as economists. As Summers does.  This holds to some degree for every other specialty. The academic press likes specialized studies and is deeply suspicious of large integrative works.

Faultlines is not an academic book- it’s published by Quest, a very respectable non-academic press. I did not submit it to an academic press because it does not fall into traditional academic disciplinary categories.

My book  combines cultural analysis, history, sociology, philosophical analysis, political analysis, and studies of religion. It is not a study of the thought of Larry Summers or anyone else.  It looks at very large cultural and political upheavals that I argue have very deep roots.  It examines patterns, and uses examples to illustrate them.  Whiting focuses on the sacred feminine in her academic work, and so perhaps was hampered by her disciplinary boundaries in grasping the book’s larger contexts. Yes, it looks at masculine and feminine and, at the end, discusses the sacred feminine in some depth. But many books do one or the other.  Whiting failed to grasp the context in which they play such important roles.

I believe this bias in outlooks appears again when Whiting claimed I spent too much time establishing my argument, even though she admitted she was not sure what it was. My argument has never to my knowledge been made before, is important to any American interested in the fate of their country, and involves integrating many fields in some of which I have made original academic contributions and some of which I depend on the work of others. The issue is not footnotes, so long as they are accurate. It is not seeking to find typos. (She didn’t find any although that was apparently one of her criteria for reading it- as if it were a term paper.) It is certainly not trying to read Larry Summers’ mind.   The issue is whether my argument is coherent and important.

I argue it is. But Whiting says she ‘was bored.” Perhaps she was too busy seeking typos to understand the argument.

Apparently the Association of Independent Publishers agrees with me, for they recently gave it a “silver” award, giving it 2nd place nationally in 2014  for all “New Age” books dealing with body, mind, and spirit.

 

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