Authors Meet Critics

To Defend This Sunrise: Black Women’s Activism and the Authoritarian Turn in Nicaragua

Presented as part of the Authors Meet Critics event series

Recorded on March 7, 2023, this Authors Meet Critics panel focused on To Defend This Sunrise: Black Women’s Activism and the Authoritarian Turn in Nicaragua, by Courtney Desiree Morris, Assistant Professor and Vice Chair of Research in Gender and Women’s Studies at UC Berkeley. Morris was joined in conversation by Tianna Paschel, Associate Professor in the UC Berkeley Department of African American Studies. The panel was moderated by Lok Siu, Chair of the Asian American Research Center and Professor of Ethnic Studies and Asian American/Asian Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley.

The panel was co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley Department of African American StudiesCenter for Latin American Studies, and Department of Gender & Women’s Studies.

Listen to this panel as a podcast below or on on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.

About the Book

To Defend this Sunrise examines how Black women on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua engage in regional, national, and transnational modes of activism to remap the nation’s racial order under conditions of increasing economic precarity and autocracy. The book considers how, since the 19th century, Black women activists have resisted historical and contemporary patterns of racialized state violence, economic exclusion, territorial dispossession, and political repression. Specifically, it explores how the new Sandinista state under Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo has utilized multicultural rhetoric as a mode of political, economic, and territorial dispossession. In the face of the Sandinista state’s co-optation of multicultural discourse and growing authoritarianism, Black communities have had to recalibrate their activist strategies and modes of critique to resist these new forms of “multicultural dispossession.” This concept describes the ways that state actors and institutions drain multiculturalism of its radical, transformative potential by espousing the rhetoric of democratic recognition while simultaneously supporting illiberal practices and policies that undermine Black political demands and weaken the legal frameworks that provide the basis for the claims of these activists against the state.

About the Panelists

Courtney MorrisCourtney Desiree Morris is a visual/conceptual artist and an assistant professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at UC Berkeley. She teaches courses on critical race theory, feminist theory, black social movements in the Americas, women’s social movements in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as race and environmental politics in the African Diaspora. She is a social anthropologist and is currently developing a new project on the racial politics of energy production and dispossession in the US Gulf South and South Africa. Her work has been published in American Anthropologist, the Bulletin of Latin American Research, the Journal of Women, Gender, and Families of Colormake/shift: feminisms in motion, and Asterix. To see her art work, visit

Tianna PaschelTianna Paschel is an Associate Professor in the Department of African American Studies at UC Berkeley. She is interested in the intersection of racial ideology, politics, and globalization in Latin America. Her work can be found in the American Journal of Sociology, the Du Bois ReviewSOULS: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society, and Ethnic and Racial Studies and various edited volumes. She is also the author of Becoming Black Political Subjects, which draws on ethnographic and archival methods to explore the shift in the 1990s from ideas of unmarked universal citizenship to multicultural citizenship regimes and the recognition of specific rights for black populations by Latin American states. It is the winner of numerous awards including the Herbert Jacob Book Award of the Law and Society Association and the Barrington Moore Book Award of the American Sociological Association (ASA). Professor Paschel is also the co-editor – along with Petra Rivera-Rideau and Jennifer Jones – of Afro-Latin@s in Movement, an interdisciplinary volume that explores transnationalism and blackness in the Americas. Professor Paschel is a Ford Fellow, member of the American Political Science Association Task Force on Race and Class Inequality, the Council of the Law Section of ASA, and the Steering Committee of the Network of Anti-Racist Action and Research (RAIAR).

Lok SiuLok Siu (moderator) is Chair of the Asian American Research Center and Professor of Ethnic Studies and Asian American/Asian Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley. She is also an affiliated faculty in Anthropology, the Center for Race and Gender, the Center for Chinese Studies, the Center for Latin American Studies, and the Berkeley Food Institute. Her books include Memories of a Future Home: Diasporic Citizenship of Chinese in Panama (2005) and co-edited volumes Asian Diasporas: New Formations, New Conceptions (2007), Gendered Citizenships: Transnational Perspectives on knowledge Production, Political Activism, and Culture (2009), and Chinese Diaspora: Its Development in Global Perspective (2021).  Her latest manuscript, Worlding Chino Latino: Cultural Intimacies in Food, Art, and Politics, is forthcoming with Duke University Press.

Authors Meet Critics

Cooperating with the Colossus: A Social and Political History of US Military Bases in World War II Latin America

Part of the Authors Meet Critics event series

Recorded on March 6, 2023, this Authors Meet Critics book panel focused on Cooperating with the Colossus: A Social and Political History of US Military Bases in World War II Latin America, by Rebecca Herman, Assistant Professor of History at UC Berkeley.

Professor Herman was joined in conversation by Julio Moreno, Professor of History at the University of San Francisco, and José Juan Pérez Meléndez, Assistant Professor in Latin American and Caribbean History at UC Davis, and a Bridging the Divides Fellow at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in Hunter College. Elena Schneider, Associate Professor in the UC Berkeley Department of History, moderated. (Please note that Professor Meléndez is not included in the video, per his request.)

This panel was co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley Department of History.

Listen to this panel as a podcast below or on on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.

About the Book

During the Second World War, the United States built over two hundred defense installations on sovereign soil in Latin America in the name of cooperation in hemisphere defense. Predictably, it proved to be a fraught affair. Despite widespread acclaim for Pan-American unity with the Allied cause, defense construction incited local conflicts that belied the wartime rhetoric of fraternity and equality.

Cooperating with the Colossus reconstructs the history of US basing in World War II Latin America, from the elegant chambers of the American foreign ministries to the cantinas, courtrooms, plazas, and brothels surrounding US defense sites. Foregrounding the wartime experiences of Brazil, Cuba, and Panama, the book considers how Latin American leaders and diplomats used basing rights as bargaining chips to advance their nation-building agendas with US resources, while limiting overreach by the “Colossus of the North” as best they could.

Yet conflicts on the ground over labor rights, discrimination, sex, and criminal jurisdiction routinely threatened the peace. Steeped in conflict, the story of wartime basing certainly departs from the celebratory triumphalism commonly associated with this period in US-Latin American relations, but this book does not wholly upend the conventional account of wartime cooperation. Rather, the history of basing distills a central tension that has infused regional affairs since a wave of independence movements first transformed the Americas into a society of nations: national sovereignty and international cooperation may seem like harmonious concepts in principle, but they are difficult to reconcile in practice.

Drawing on archival research in five countries, Cooperating with the Colossus is a revealing history told at the local, national, and international levels of how World War II transformed power and politics in the Americas in enduring ways.

About the Panelists

Rebecca HermanRebecca Herman is an Assistant Professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of History. Her work explores twentieth-century Latin American social and political history in a global context, probing the intersections between grand narratives and local history. Her book, Cooperating with the Colossus, reconstructs a contentious U.S. military basing project advanced in Latin America during World War II under the banner of inter-American cooperation in hemisphere defense.

Julio MorenoJulio Moreno is a Professor of History at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Yankee Don’t go Home! Mexican Nationalism, American Business Culture, and the Shaping of Modern Mexico, 1920-1950. His other publications are on U.S.-Latin American relations during the Cold War. His research and publications center on the intersection of U.S. business and diplomacy through the subfields of diplomatic, business, and cultural history. He is currently writing a book on the history of Coca-Cola in Latin America.

JJosé Juan Pérez Meléndezosé Juan Pérez Meléndez is an Assistant Professor in Latin American and Caribbean history at the University of California, Davis, and a Bridging the Divides Fellow at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in Hunter College. His work is concerned with nineteenth-century colonization dynamics in Brazil in global perspective, and with the international dilemmas of decolonization in the twentieth-century Caribbean. His forthcoming book, Peopling for Profit, charts the co-production of migrations and regulatory powers in the Brazilian Empire with a special focus on the driving force of oligarchic business dynamics.

Elena SchneiderElena Schneider (moderator) is Associate Professor of History at UC Berkeley. She is a a historian of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic World. Her research focuses on Cuba and the Caribbean, comparative colonialism and slavery, and the Black Atlantic. Methodologically, she seeks to write history that moves across regional, imperial, and national boundaries, integrating diverse stories normally told separately. She is also committed to the practice of writing history “from below” and the challenging archival work that makes reconstructing the experiences of historically marginalized peoples possible. Her book, The Occupation of Havana, is a longue durée history of the causes, central dynamics, and enduring consequences of a crucial incident of imperial warfare, the British invasion, occupation, and return of Havana (1762-3) during the final stages of the Seven Years’ War.

Matrix Lecture

Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar: Reimagining Global Integration

A Matrix Distinguished Lecture

On February 15, 2023, Social Science Matrix was honored to host Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar for a Matrix Distinguished Lecture entitled “Reimagining Global Integration.” Watch the video of the lecture above, or listen as a podcast below or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.


Whether they live in vast cities or rural villages, people in virtually every corner of the world have experienced enormous growth in cross-border economic, political, and social connections since World War II. This latest chapter in the story of transnational activity has coincided with enormous changes in the well-being of billions of people. As China gained access to global markets and its share of worldwide trade increased eight-fold in a single generation, for example, the percentage of its population living in extreme poverty plunged from 72 percent in 1990 to 14 percent in 2010. Global life expectancy has risen from less than 47 years in 1950 to 71 years in 2021, and the male-female gap in primary and secondary schooling globally has almost disappeared.

But increased cross-border trade, migration, flows of information, and political ties have also engendered an intense backlash to “globalization” and related concepts. Today, at a time of major geopolitical upheaval and technological change, policymakers and the public are vigorously debating the merits of domestic policies suitable for an interconnected world. They are exploring new trade and migration rules, reviving strategies for national industrial and technological development, and reflecting on the lessons of 1990s-style globalization for international law and institutions substantially influenced by the United States. Discussions of “reshoring” supply chains and United States-China economic “decoupling” are just two examples of rising concerns in Washington about cross-border ties.

Yet global cooperation remains vital to solving many of humanity’s most urgent challenges: mitigating and adapting to climate change, harnessing technology for the benefit of humanity while taming its risks, reducing poverty, and preventing violent conflict. By better understanding the long-simmering conflicts over global cooperation and integration, policymakers and civil society can further develop the ideas, institutions, and coalitions necessary to create a stable foundation for a more reflective version of global integration: one that addresses the connections between economic well-being and security, and better aligns domestic realities with international norms to tackle the pressing issues of our time.

About the Speaker

A former justice of the Supreme Court of California, Justice Cuéllar served two U.S. presidents at the White House and in federal agencies, and was a faculty member at Stanford University for two decades. Before serving on California’s highest court, Justice Cuéllar was the Stanley Morrison Professor of Law, Professor (by courtesy) of Political Science, and director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford. In this capacity, he oversaw programs on international security, governance and development, global health, cyber policy, migration, and climate change and food security. Previously, he co-directed the Institute’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and led its Honors Program in International Security.

While serving in the Obama White House as the president’s special assistant for justice and regulatory policy, he led the Domestic Policy Council teams responsible for civil and criminal justice reform, public health, immigration, transnational regulatory issues, and supporting the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review. He then co-chaired the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity and Excellence Commission, and was a presidential appointee to the Council of the Administrative Conference of the United States. As a California Supreme Court justice, he oversaw reforms of the California court system’s operations to better meet the needs of millions of limited-English speakers.

A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cuéllar is the author of Governing Security: The Hidden Origins of American Security Agencies (2013) and has published widely on American institutions, international affairs, and technology’s impact on law and government. Cuéllar co-authored the first ever report on the use of artificial intelligence across federal agencies. He has served on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Social and Ethical Implications of Computing Research and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on Accelerating Climate Action.

He chairs the board of the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation and is a member of the Harvard Corporation. He currently serves on the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board. Earlier, he chaired the boards of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies, and co-chaired the Obama Biden Presidential Transition Task Force on Immigration.

Born in Matamoros, Mexico, he grew up primarily in communities along the U.S.-Mexico border. He graduated from Harvard College and Yale Law School, and received a Ph.D. in political science from Stanford University. He began his career at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.



Citrin Award Lecture: “Does Political Propaganda Work,” Donald P. Green


Recorded on February 10, 2023, this video features the 2022 Citrin Award Lecture, presented by Donald P. Green, J.W. Burgess Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. Professor Green’s lecture, “Does Political Propaganda Work?”, was presented by the Jack Citrin Center for Public Opinion Research at UC Berkeley. Professor Green was introduced by David Broockman, Associate Professor of Political Science at UC Berkeley.

The Citrin Award Lecture is an annual event. The Citrin Award recognizes the career of an individual who has made significant contributions to the study and understanding of public opinion. The 2022 Citrin Award honors the career of Donald P. Green, whose pioneering work has advanced knowledge of the formation and change in public opinion in a variety of significant areas. Earlier Award Lecturers were Donald Kinder (2018), Peter Hart (2019), Robert Putnam (2020), and Diana Mutz (2021).

About the Speaker

Donald P. Green is the John William Burgess Professor in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. Before that, he was a member of the Yale Political Science Department from 1989 to 2011 and served as the Director of Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies from 1996 to 2011. Professor Green received his B.A. from UCLA and his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. He is the author of five books: Social Science Experiments: A Hands-on Introduction (2022), Field Experiments: Design, Analysis, and Interpretation (2012), Get Out The Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout (2004), Partisan Hearts and Minds, Political Parties and the Social Identities of Voters (2002), and Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science (1994). He has also published more than 100 articles and essays on a wide array of topics including voting behavior, partisanship, media effects, campaign finance, hate crime, and research methods. He has pioneered the use of field experimentation in political science, and much of his current work uses this method to study the ways political campaigns mobilize and persuade voters. Professor Green was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003 and was awarded the Heinz I. Eulau Award for the best article published in the American Political Science Review during 2009. In 2010, he founded the experimental research section of the American Political Science Association and served as its first president.

About the Citrin Center

The Jack Citrin Center for Public Opinion Research was created in May 2017 through donations from friends, family, colleagues and former students to honor the career and legacy of Professor Jack Citrin’s 47 years on the faculty. It is housed administratively in the the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science. The Citrin Center conducts original polling, engages in other cutting-edge research on public opinion, organizes conferences and lectures to bring together top scholars, supports research conducted by affiliated faculty members and graduate students, and engages in other activities connected to public opinion research. The Center publicizes its research findings to create a broader awareness of the study of public opinion — defined broadly to refer to political culture and political identity as studied through multiple methods.

Authors Meet Critics

Dylan Riley, “Microverses: Observations from a Shattered Present”

Part of the Social Science Matrix Authors Meet Critics series


On February 1, 2023, Social Science Matrix presented an Authors Meet Critics panel on Microverses: Observations from a Shattered Present, a book by Dylan Riley, Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley.

Professor Riley was joined by two discussants: Colleen Lye, Associate Professor of English at UC Berkeley, affiliated with the Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory, and Donna Jones, Associate Professor of English at UC Berkeley and Core Faculty for the Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory and the Science, Technology and Society Center. The panel was moderated by Alexei Yurchak, Professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, and was co-sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities.

As described by its publisher, Microverses comprises over a hundred short essays inviting us to think about society—and social theory—in new ways. It analyses the intellectual situation, the political crisis of Trump’s last months in office, and love and illness in a period when both were fraught with the public emergency of the coronavirus, drawing on Weber and Durkheim, Parsons and Dubois, Gramsci and Lukács, MacKinnon and Fraser.

“It is really a marvelous little volume that takes on a wide range of questions in a short-essay format,” said Marion Fourcade, Director of Social Science Matrix, in her opening remarks. “It beautifully blends the deadly serious with the very important mundane. There are reflections about the weight of history, the usefulness of concepts, the potency of classical music, and last but not least, how to think sociologically about our tumultuous times.”

Alexei Yurchak noted that the book is a “collection of 110 very interesting, sometimes very intense, analytical, sometimes very light, but insightful comments and analysis and thoughts on the current situation.”

In his remarks, Riley explained that Microverses “was really a response to a triple set of crises: one global, one more national, and one very personal.” The global crisis was the COVID pandemic, and “especially the early months of that experience, which were incredibly disorienting for all of us in in various ways — a feeling of suspension, suspension of time, and this fundamental rupture of normal routine that we all experienced.”

The second crisis, he said, was the final months of the Trump administration, “which was a very, very bizarre period politically,” culminating in the January 6 Insurrection.

And the third crisis was Riley’s wife’s terminal illness, which was diagnosed in late August 2020. “These three things came together for me to create a profound feeling of disruption, and a kind of hiatus,” he said. “I was, in a sense, forced to continue being active to write in a different way. And for me, that was essentially pen and paper and notebooks. A lot of these notes were composed in waiting rooms, in parking lots, or in a cafe, because I was just didn’t have access to normal routine…. I had to learn how to write in a way that was more direct than I’m used to.”

Riley explained that the essays in the book have three main foci: politics and political culture, with a running “friendly” critique of the contemporary left in America; a more personal set of notes, focused on illness and related issues; and a constant meditation on sociology and Marxism.

“The idea that I was after,” he explained, “was to try to link the personal to the theoretical, in some kind of fairly direct and unmediated way, and in a way that was not burdened with an overly technical or specialized language — and that could in a sense turn social theory into a tool for mastering, to some extent, life.”

To hear the responses from Professor Lye and Professor Jones, watch the video above or listen to the podcast.

Authors Meet Critics

Authors Meet Critics: How the Clinic Made Gender

Part of the Matrix Authors Meet Critics event series.

Today, a world without “gender” is hard to imagine. Gender is at the center of contentious political and social debates, shapes policy decisions, and informs our everyday lives. Its formulation, however, is lesser known: gender was first used in clinical practice.

On November 9, 2022, Social Science Matrix hosted an Authors Meet Critics panel discussion on How the Clinic Made Gender: The Medical History of a Transformative Idea, by Sandra Eder, Associate Professor of History at UC Berkeley.

Eder was joined in conversation by Laura Nelson, Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at UC Berkeley, and Danya Lagos, Assistant Professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Sociology. The panel was moderated by Catherine Ceniza Choy, Professor of Ethnic Studies and Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Justice, and Belonging in the UC Berkeley Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society.

The panel was co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley Department of History, Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, Center for Race and Gender, and Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society (CSTMS).

In How the Clinic Made Gender, Eder tells the story of the invention of gender in American medicine, detailing how it was shaped by mid-20th-century American notions of culture, personality, and social engineering. The book shows how the concept of gender transformed from a pragmatic tool in the sex assignment of children with intersex traits in the 1950s to an essential category in clinics for transgender individuals in the 1960s.

“As often, this book started from an intriguing question, or rather what seemed a paradox to me,” Eder explained in her presentation. “I started the project to understand how clinicians in the 1950s formulated the idea of a learned gender role, and yet at the same time, the very same people devised normalizing treatment protocols for children with intersex traits involving non-consensual genital surgery, which have been widely criticized since the late 1980s.”

The book “shows the intrinsic links between these two stories by examining the shifting landscapes of discussion about sex and gender and sexuality in these cases,” Eder said. “Above all, the book is a story about how gender was made, the intricate way in which ideas were put into practice, and practices informed ideas…. While novel in its formulation is sex gender binary, it was rather a consolidation of several currents in the social sciences, psychology, and psychiatry, with medical practices and social norms.”

“Gender was and is a dynamic category,” she said. “Different groups use the term gender to delineate various relationships between nature and nurture, biology and culture. So these meanings change over time and through practices.”

In commenting on the book, Danya Lagos said that she “really liked the book” and was “interested in the insight it gives us into the logic of how gender was shifting with all of these imperatives of economic, national, and political interests.”

“The most interesting part of the book for me was the context of the World War II social engineering,” Lagos said. “It’s very different from kind of the laissez faire neoliberalism after the 1980s. One question I had was, what are the norms towards which society is being engineered?  There’s the concern for the parents, but there’s also this handling of someone who really does not fit the mold that society would have set out for them.”

She pointed to the example of how doctors were concerned that a woman, Carol, who was born with male sex traits would not be able to marry and so “might be hard pressed to support herself,” and thus determined that male sex assignment would be a practical solution. “There’s this dialogue between the social sciences and the active social engineering going on,” Lagos said. “It’s never considered that we would allow someone like Carol to live life as a masculine woman. It was, if this person is unmanageable, let’s put them to work and have them at least be able to take care of herself, or themselves, as a man….”

Laura Nelson also said that she found the book thought-provoking. “The concreteness of the research and the storytelling was really helpful in understanding how this particular choreography of the analytic — taking [gender] apart and putting together, taking apart and putting together — happened over time,” Nelson said. “The presumed goal throughout the book is that binary is goal. So what drew me in was the irony of the missed opportunity to take the growing medical and social recognition of the imperfection of a binary sex gender as a call to complexify and recognize variation as normal, and normativities as unrealistic.”

Nelson noted that doctors were too often trapped by societal norms, and so “defined variation as pathology, thereby reinforcing ideas of a normal, even when the variations continue to be confounding of simple binary sorting. Over and over again, you get people wrestling with this binary and saying that that’s pathological, rather than saying that is normative. It’s a story about finding real and profound discoveries of medical and biological operations, and binding them to conservative ideas and practices, rather than allowing discovery to lead to transformation.”

Listen to this event as a podcast below or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.

Matrix On Point

Matrix on Point: The Court and the People

In the wake of recent decisions on abortion, First Amendment rights, gun rights, Miranda rights, and jurisdiction over Native American reservations, the Supreme Court today seems particularly out of sync with the American people.

On October 20, Social Science Matrix hosted a “Matrix on Point” panel featuring UC Berkeley experts discussing what these decisions and the conservative turn in the Supreme Court mean for the relationship between the Court and the people.

The panel featured Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean, Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law at Berkeley Law; Thomas Biolsi, Professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies and Native American Studies in the Department of Ethnic Studies, UC Berkeley; and Khiara M. Bridges, Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law. The panel was moderated by Ronit Stahl, Associate Professor in the UC Berkeley Department of History. This event was co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley School of Law.

We have assembled a stellar group of Berkeley faculty,” said Marion Fourcade, Professor of Sociology and Director of Social Science Matrix. “As scholars, they can offer us historical grounding and insights that move us beyond the headlines. And we are really thrilled to have them here to discuss this enormously consequential ideological shift, or series of ideological shifts.”

Ronit Stahl agreed that “it has been a really transformative several years at the Supreme Court with new justices, and quite a few decisions that have shifted the landscape of American law in a range of domains.”

In his remarks, Dean Chemerinsky provided a concise summary of some of the recent Supreme Court cases and their broader implications. “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the last year in the Supreme Court was the most dramatic term in my lifetime,” he said. “It was a year in which the Supreme Court changed the law not incrementally, but dramatically. It was a year in which the Supreme Court dealt not with minor or technical issues, but with enormously important questions that affect all of us, often in the most important, most intimate aspects of our lives.”

Chemerinsky provided an overview of “how we got here,” including the partisan appointments of conservative justices by Republican presidents. “Between 1960 and 2020, Republican presidents picked 15 justices of the Supreme Court, and Democratic presidents picked only eight justices,” he said. “That’s an almost two-to-one difference. President Donald Trump picked three justices in his four years in the White House. The prior three Democratic presidents, who spent combined 20 years in the White House, picked only four Supreme Court justices.”

The Berkeley Law dean highlighted select recent decisions, including Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade and ruled that abortion is not a constitutional right. “It is rare in all of American history that the Supreme Court has taken a right away from people,” Chemerinsky said, “That’s exactly what the Supreme Court did, putting many people’s lives in jeopardy, putting many people’s health in jeopardy, and making abortion what is going to be the dominant issue in our political and legal process for years to come.”

Chemerinsky talked through other recent decisions on issues such as religion and gun rights, and noted that the conservative trend is sure to continue in the near- and long-term future. “This term again, the Supreme Court has cases that are likely to dramatically change the law and push it much further to the right,” he said. “I don’t think anyone, liberal or conservative, has much doubt what the Supreme Court is going to overrule 44 years of precedent and eliminate affirmative action. What a devastating effect that’s gonna have on diversity in higher education. What will it mean to have a court that’s come down so solidly on one side of that political divide? What will it mean for our society to have a Court that so lost its legitimacy?”

In his remarks, Thomas Biolsi focused on recent Supreme Court cases related to Native American territories, including McGirt v. Oklahoma, a 2020 case with a majority opinion written by Neil Gorsuch. “What this decision did was to basically declare that most of eastern Oklahoma is still what’s technically called, in Federal law, ‘Indian country,’ and that the reservations that had been established there in the 19th century were still legal in the territory, in which tribal governments have very expansive rights of self-government. And the state of Oklahoma has very limited intrusion into that.”

The decision was described as the “Indian law bombshell,” Biolsi said, because “what it did was to change the jurisdictional map, literally, of Oklahoma. So tribal governments have jurisdiction over Native people throughout these reservations. And more importantly, the state of Oklahoma does not have criminal jurisdiction.”

This finding, however, was “quickly counterbalanced” by another case, Oklahoma vs. Castro-Huerta, which “declared that the state of Oklahoma has concurrent criminal jurisdiction with the federal government over any non-Indian who commits a crime against an Indian person.”

Biolsi noted that this case “is perceived in Indian country as a great loss for tribal sovereignty,” as it held that “the state has jurisdiction over non-Indian people on the reservation…. The principle from the tribes’ point of view should be a government-to-government relationship, in which the state does not try to enter the territory of the tribe.”

In her remarks, Professor Khiara M. Bridges provided an overview of the history of Dobbs decision, including an explanation of how abortion laws have evolved since Roe v. Wade. The court’s decision in that 1973 case was remarkable, Bridges said, in part because “several of the justices in the majority were appointed by Republican presidents,” and the issue of abortion was “much less partisan.”

Still, she said, the decision was “derided and criticized from the moment that it was handed down, and anti-abortion activists and advocates immediately began brainstorming ways to limit Roe. And the end goal, of course, was to overturn it.”

Bridges traced the history through subsequent cases, including Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which “said that a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy before viability is the most central principle of Roe. It is a rule of law and a component of liberty we cannot renounce.”

The decision did, however, “replace the trimester framework with the undue burden standard,” which allowed states to impose regulations throughout the entirety of pregnancy. “The states were permitted under the undue burden standard to promote fetal life throughout pregnancy, and states could do that through the informed consent process by telling pregnant folks that their abortion will kill the life of a separate unique living human being, which is what North Dakota and South Dakota required physicians to tell pregnant folks before terminating a pregnancy,” Bridges explained. “The undue burden standard allowed states to erect obstacles in front of abortion care, and many of those obstacles would be surmountable by people with privilege…, but were insurmountable by folks without privilege, people who are poor, people who lived in rural areas, people who had disabilities, people who were young, or people who were undocumented.”

Bridges explained that everything changed with the Dobbs decision, as Justice Alito “argued that Roe was egregiously wrong, and as such the court was not bound… to respect it as precedent.” Alito’s decision “interpreted the 14th Amendment due process clause to protect a right to terminate a pre-viability pregnancy,” Bridges said. “According to the majority, because the clause only protects the rights that are ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition’ and ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty’.”

“Alito canvassed3 abortion regulations in and around 1868, and concluded that abortion rights are not part of the nation’s history and tradition,” Bridges said. “The painfully obvious point is that folks capable of pregnancy were not part of the body politic during the period of the nation’s history that the majority believes is decisive of the constitutional inquiry…. As Justice Breyer explains, in his dissent, people did not ratify the 14th Amendment, men did. So it is perhaps not so surprising that the ratifiers were not perfectly attuned to the importance of reproductive rights for women’s liberty, or for their capacity to participate as equal members of our nation.”

Bridges also noted that the choice of 1868 was a selective history, as the social movement to criminalize abortion only began in the 19th century, as it was led by “white obstetrician male gynecologist interested in taking the fields of obstetrics and gynecology away from those who had been deemed experts in that field before: midwives.”

She also pointed out that the selection of 1868 as a benchmark for modern laws “does not bode well for the persistence of other fundamental rights that earlier iterations of the court have found in the due process clause,” such as the right to obtain contraception or to marry or have consensual sex with an adult of the same sex.

“The methodology of constitutional interpretation that the majority deploys to return the question of abortion’s legality to the states could be just as easily be deployed to do the same with regard to the legality of contraception, the legality of same-sex sex, and the legality of same-sex marriage. And as a reproductive justice scholar, I want to point out that I can make the same point about the right to be free from coerced sterilization.”

Listen to a podcast recording of this event below or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.

Authors Meet Critics

Voices in the Code: A Story About People, Their Values, and the Algorithm They Made

Recorded on October 10, 2022, this “Authors Meet Critics” panel focused on the book Voices in the Code: A Story About People, Their Values, and the Algorithm They Made, by David Robinson, a visiting scholar at Social Science Matrix and a member of the faculty at Apple University. Robinson was joined in conversation by Iason Gabriel, a Staff Research Scientist at DeepMind, and Deirdre Mulligan, Professor in the UC Berkeley School of Information.

The panel was co-sponsored by the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, the Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity, and the Algorithmic Fairness and Opacity Group (AFOG).

About the Book

Algorithms – rules written into software – shape key moments in our lives: from who gets hired or admitted to a top public school, to who should go to jail or receive scarce public benefits. Today, high stakes software is rarely open to scrutiny, but its code navigates moral questions: Which of a person’s traits are fair to consider as part of a job application? Who deserves priority in accessing scarce public resources, whether those are school seats, housing, or medicine? When someone first appears in a courtroom, how should their freedom be weighed against the risks they might pose to others?

Policymakers and the public often find algorithms to be complex, opaque and intimidating—and it can be tempting to pretend that hard moral questions have simple technological answers. But that approach leaves technical experts holding the moral microphone, and it stops people who lack technical expertise from making their voices heard. Today, policymakers and scholars are seeking better ways to share the moral decisionmaking within high stakes software — exploring ideas like public participation, transparency, forecasting, and algorithmic audits. But there are few real examples of those techniques in use.

In Voices in the Code, scholar David G. Robinson tells the story of how one community built a life-and-death algorithm in a relatively inclusive, accountable way. Between 2004 and 2014, a diverse group of patients, surgeons, clinicians, data scientists, public officials and advocates collaborated and compromised to build a new transplant matching algorithm – a system to offer donated kidneys to particular patients from the U.S. national waiting list.

Drawing on interviews with key stakeholders, unpublished archives, and a wide scholarly literature, Robinson shows how this new Kidney Allocation System emerged and evolved over time, as participants gradually built a shared understanding both of what was possible, and of what would be fair. Robinson finds much to criticize, but also much to admire, in this story. It ultimately illustrates both the promise and the limits of participation, transparency, forecasting and auditing of high stakes software. The book’s final chapter draws out lessons for the broader struggle to build technology in a democratic and accountable way.

Listen to this panel as a podcast below or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.

Authors Meet Critics

Keeping It Unreal: Black Queer Fantasy and Superhero Comics

Presented on October 14, 2022 as part of the Social Science Matrix Authors Meet Critics series, this panel focused on the book Keeping It Unreal: Black Queer Fantasy and Superhero Comics (NYU Press, 2022), by Darieck Scott, Professor of African American Studies at UC Berkeley.

Professor Scott was joined in conversation by Ula Taylor, Professor & 1960 Chair of Undergraduate Education in the UC Berkeley Department of African-American Studies and African Diaspora; and Scott Bukatman, Professor of Film and Media Studies in the Stanford University Department of Art & Art History. The panel was moderated by Greg Niemeyer, Professor of Media Innovation, Toban Fellow, Director of the Art Practice Graduate Program at UC Berkeley.

This event was co-sponsored by the Department of African American Studies and the Berkeley Center for New Media.

About the Book

Darieck Scott
Professor Darieck Scott

Characters like Black Panther, Storm, Luke Cage, Miles Morales, and Black Lightning are part of a growing cohort of black superheroes on TV and in film. Though comic books are often derided as naïve and childish, these larger-than-life superheroes demonstrate how this genre can serve as the catalyst for engaging the Black radical imagination.

Keeping It Unreal: Comics and Black Queer Fantasy is an exploration of how fantasies of Black power and triumph fashion theoretical, political, and aesthetic challenges to—and respite from—white supremacy and anti-Blackness. It examines representations of Blackness in fantasy-infused genres: superhero comic books, erotic comics, fantasy and science-fiction genre literature, as well as contemporary literary “realist” fiction centering fantastic conceits.

Darieck Scott offers a rich meditation on the relationship between fantasy and reality, and between the imagination and being, as he weaves his personal recollections of his encounters with superhero comics with interpretive readings of figures like the Black Panther and Blade, as well as theorists such as Frantz Fanon, Eve Sedgwick, Leo Bersani, Saidiya Hartman, and Gore Vidal.

Keeping It Unreal represents an in-depth theoretical consideration of the intersections of superhero comics, Blackness, and queerness, and draws on a variety of fields of inquiry. Reading new life into Afrofuturist traditions and fantasy genres, Scott seeks to rescue the role of fantasy and the fantastic to challenge, revoke, and expand our assumptions about what is normal, real, and markedly human.

Listen to this panel as a podcast below or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.

Authors Meet Critics

Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley

Part of the Social Science Matrix “Authors Meet Critics” series

Recorded on September 30, 2022, this Matrix “Author Meets Critics” panel focused on the book Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley, by Carolyn Chen, Associate Professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Ethnic Studies.

Work Pray Code explores how tech companies are bringing religion into the workplace in ways that are replacing traditional places of worship, blurring the line between work and religion and transforming the very nature of spiritual experience in modern life. Chen spent more than five years in Silicon Valley, conducting a wealth of in-depth interviews and gaining unprecedented access to the best and brightest of the tech world. The result is a penetrating account of how work now satisfies workers’ needs for belonging, identity, purpose, and transcendence that religion once met.

Professor Chen was joined in conversation by Arlie Hochschild, Professor Emerita in the UC Berkeley Department of Sociology, and Morgan Ames, Assistant Professor of Practice in the UC Berkeley School of Information and Associate Director of Research for the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society. The conversation was moderated by Marion Fourcade, Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley and Director of Social Science Matrix. The event was co-sponsored by the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion and the Berkeley Culture Center.

“This is such a quintessentially important topic — how people find meaning in their lives, and how the institutions they are part of shape those meanings,” Fourcade said in her opening remarks. “I’m excited because it’s Silicon Valley, which I’m a bit obsessed about… and I’m excited because the book is really a beautiful exemplar of a classical sociological approach to religion, and also a classical sociological approach to work.”

“I came to the study of work in Silicon Valley by accident,” Chen explained in her presentation of the book. “I was interested in capturing religious presence among the non-religious, so I started first by looking at religion and spirituality in secular spaces. And I started by studying yoga practitioners. I asked yoga practitioners about how, when, and why they practiced yoga, but they kept talking to me about work. I had gone in thinking that yoga was the sacred practice because of its connection to Hinduism. But I was mistaken. Yoga wasn’t sacred, work was. Yoga practitioners told me stories about how they had sacrificed and surrendered their time, energy, and devotion to work. And according to Emile Durkheim, they had set their work apart and made it sacred. So I’ve realized that I’d been looking for the sacred in the wrong place. If I really wanted to understand religion and contemporary where America, I needed to be studying the workplace.”

Chen said that her ethnographic fieldwork included spending time with workers in tech firms; she interviewed more than 100 people in the industry. “I had many gourmet lunches, I attended exercise and dance classes, I attended professional development seminars and executive coach trainings. And yes, I even participated in trance dance. I meditated with tech workers a lot,” she said.

Some workers have largely abandoned their traditional religious practices after joining Silicon Valley firms, Chen said. “America’s highly skilled have not abandoned religion; instead, they find it at work,” she said. “More and more companies have become America’s new temples, churches, and synagogues. People are not selling their souls at work, rather work is where they find their souls.”

She described meeting one tech worker who “used Christian language to describe the company’s mission, saying over and over again to me that he had a ‘burden to come up with this thing that’s going to change the world’ …and that ‘you’ve got to drink the Kool Aid, you have to believe that your company is one of those one out of 10 that’s going to make it’.”

She pointed out that companies have embraced their role as providers of “spiritual cultivation” largely because it serves their interests by boosting workers’ productivity and sense of commitment. “Professionals are looking to work for identity, meaning, purpose, and even transcendence — and companies, for their part, have taken up spiritual care and spiritual cultivation as ways to make their workers more productive,” Chen explained. “In response to the broad economic changes of the late 20th century, such as the rise of global capitalism, and the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial flash knowledge economy, corporate America has changed its organizational culture and labor management practices in order to elicit the full discretionary effort of its highly skilled workers. Corporate managers have shifted their metaphor of employees in the company from cogs in an efficient, well-oiled machine to something that increasingly resembles a religious congregation, with members who belong to a shared community and believe in a higher and transcendent goal. Today, companies are not just economic institutions, they’ve become meaning-making institutions that offer a gospel of fulfillment and divine purpose in a capitalist cosmos. And there’s no better example of this than Silicon Valley’s tech industry…. Workplaces are now in the business of providing meaning and purpose for their workers because this translates to higher performance.”

Chen coined the phrase “techtopia” to describe this new merging of organizational culture and spiritual connection. “In techtopia, people naturally direct their devotion to work because they live in a social ecosystem where all of the community’s material, social, and spiritual rewards are concentrated in the institution of work,” she said. “In techtopia, work is like a big powerful magnet that attracts all of the time, energy, and devotion of a community away from the smaller and weaker social institutions, like families, faith communities, and other civic organizations. The problem with techtopia is that it may be making elite workers happy, whole, and productive, but it leaves everyone else broken. Work monopolizes so much of the time, energy, and devotion of a community and fulfills so many of elite workers’ needs that people disinvest from public in civic life, and this corrodes the collective capacity to build and sustain a common good.”

In her response, Arlie Hochschild drew contrasts with Silicon Valley based upon her research on Americans living in “red states,” most notably Louisiana, as detailed in her renowned book, Strangers in Their Own Land, for which she lived among communities that have not gained from the economic benefits of the digital age. “We sadly have a Red America and a Blue America,” Hochschild said. “I’ve been spending the last six years of my life in Red America. What is that story? It’s almost the opposite of this story. Religion has been liquefied there, too, but it’s gone a different direction. Red and Blue America since the 1970s have come to represent different economies in general. Blue America attracts highly educated workers and it’s a new service sector. Red states are in older industries that are more vulnerable to offshoring and automation. Upward mobility for Blue, downward mobility for Red. And even under the four years of the Trump presidency, most of the new jobs went to the Blue states, to urban, educated people in knowledge industries.”

In red states, Hochschild said, religious zeal has converged with political devotion. “When I studied Louisiana for Strangers in their Own Land, I hung around the highly religious. There the church is elaborated. There you get your gyms and childcare enveloped within a large, invitational church that is beefed up because of the distress around it. But that church, especially evangelical churches, have turned to Donald Trump, and I think we are seeing the sanctification of a charismatic leader. And he has become in way a cult leader…. What I think we’re seeing on on the Right, and why religion is being sucked into a faith in this man, is that we have to think about pride and shame. And that a lot of this downward mobility for people who really believe in the American dream… they’re feeling bad for things they’re not responsible for. This is a structurally induced shame. But it’s felt, and I think it makes them very susceptible to the kind of things that Trump came along and said: ‘You are suffering. I see it. And look how I am suffering. The Deep State is attacking me, the nefarious press is attacking me, the Democratic Party is attacking me, the liberal elite is attacking me. I’m taking it for you.'”

In her remarks, Morgan Ames pointed out that Silicon Valley “continues to be a heterogeneous place with many cultural influences,” and that Chen’s book builds upon the work of other scholars, such as communications scholar Fred Turner, Douglas Thomas, Steven Levy, Gabriella Coleman, and UC Berkeley’s AnnaLee (Anno) Saxenian. “The thread that you follow in Work Pray Code is a thread I know well myself as a former technology worker. And now as a social scientist who, for almost two decades now, has been studying these ideological underpinnings of this complicated place, industry, and belief system colloquially known as Silicon Valley. Your account also echoes those of a number of other scholars hailing from communication, information science, anthropology, media studies, and beyond who have similarly turned their analytic eye to this fascinating and fraught side of inquiry.”

Ames pointed out that “the technology world is not the first to shape worker beliefs toward corporate interests and encourage their workers to find higher meaning in their jobs. Indeed, it takes a page from white collar and even blue collar manufacturing a longstanding capitalistic practice to control not only the labor, but also the hearts and minds of their workers. Even with this corporate maternalism, though, the technology world has very high levels of worker burnout, which may seem surprising given the amenities that tech workers enjoy. But as you vividly illustrate, when considered in the context of the limitations of investing one’s whole self into the corporate bottom line, however it might be camouflaged, it makes a lot more sense.”

Listen to this presentation as a podcast below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.

Matrix On Point

Humanitarian Technologies

Now more than ever, humanitarianism is being conducted at a distance. As humanitarian efforts shift from in-kind and in-person assistance to cash- and information-based assistance, how does this change what humanitarian work looks like?

Recorded on September 26, 2022, this “Matrix on Point” panel featured a group of scholars examining how technology raises new questions about the efficacy of humanitarian interventions, the human rights of recipients, and the broader power relations between donors and recipients.

The panel was moderated by Laurel E. Fletcher, Clinical Professor of Law at the UC Berkeley School of Law, and Director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic. The panel included Daragh Murray, Senior Lecturer at the University of Essex Human Rights Centre & School of Law; Fleur Johns, Professor in the Faculty of Law & Justice at UNSW Sydney; and Wendy H. Wong, Principal’s Research Chair, Professor, Political Science, The University of British Columbia.

The panel was co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley School of Information, the Center for Technology, Society & Policy, and the Human Rights Center.

This panel was presented as part of the Matrix On Point discussion series, an event series focused on cross-disciplinary conversations on today’s most pressing contemporary issues. Offering opportunities for scholarly exchange and interaction, each Matrix On Point features the perspectives of leading scholars and specialists from different disciplines, followed by an open conversation. These events are free and open to the public.

Listen to the panel as a podcast below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.



Authors Meet Critics

The Government of Emergency: Vital Systems, Expertise, and the Politics of Security

Part of the Social Science Matrix “Authors Meet Critics” series.

On Friday, September 9, 2022, Social Science Matrix hosted an “Authors Meet Critics” panel discussion on the book The Government of Emergency: Vital Systems, Expertise, and the Politics of Security, by Stephen Collier, Professor in the UC Berkeley Department of City and Regional Planning, and Andrew Lakoff, Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California. This new book looks back to the 20th century to explore how experts and officials have come to approach challenges like pandemics and cyberattacks as catastrophic risks that demand a constant state of preparedness.

The authors were joined in conversation by Cathryn Carson, Chair of the UC Berkeley Department of History, and Michael Watts, Class of ‘63 and Chancellor’s Professor of Geography Emeritus at UC Berkeley. The panel was moderated by Aihwa Ong, Professor Emerita at UC Berkeley. The panel was co-sponsored by Global Metropolitan Studies.

Aihwa Ong
Aihwa Ong

“The current series of relentless crises raises questions about the nature and scope of the government of modern living,” Ong said in her opening remarks. “We know the welfare state can barely keep up with the proliferation of uneven life chances across the world. Meanwhile, governments are menaced by countless known and unknown threats looming on the horizon. So how can catastrophic events be predicted, regulated, or even tamed? How did a sense of vulnerability develop in the United States? Do the expertise of emergency and politics of precarity protect the living, or are they merely experiments with our fragile future? These are some of the themes dealt with by The Government of Emergency.”

Andrew Lakoff
Andrew Lakoff

Andrew Lakoff introduced the book by explaining that its central themes emerged from an initial “puzzle” related to modern life in the United States. “Although most of the book is based on historical material from the mid-20th century, our research actually began with a puzzle in the present,” Lakoff explained. “We were looking into novel formations of security in the United States in the early 2000s, in the aftermath of 9-11 and the anthrax attacks that followed — formations like biosecurity and homeland security. We came upon a series of government plans, strategy documents, think tank reports, and so on, which we could not make sense of in terms of familiar understandings of collective security, whether national defense or social welfare. These plans and programs were not oriented to the defense of national territory against an external enemy, nor toward managing problems of population security, like endemic disease or poverty — the traditional task of biopolitics. Rather, they focused on potential future events whose probability from the perspective of the experts charged to deal with them was difficult to calculate, but whose consequences might be catastrophic — not only terrorist attacks, but also natural disasters, environmental accidents, or outbreaks of infectious disease.”

The goal of the governmental plans, Lakoff said, was to “ensure the ongoing function of critical infrastructures — systems of transportation, energy, food, water, and communication — in the aftermath of such potential events. And they generated knowledge about the vulnerability of these systems and how to mitigate this vulnerability, not through the analysis of patterns of incidents in the past… but rather through techniques of imaginative enactment, such as scenario-based exercises, computer simulations, or catastrophe models…. We came to call this formation of expert knowledge and political administration ‘vital systems security,’ in contrast to sovereign state security or population security. And we found elements of its guiding practices not only in federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security or the CDC, but also in local emergency management offices, as well as in multilateral organizations like the World Health Organization.”

“Vital systems security is arguably one of the dominant governmental rationalities of our time,” Lakoff said. “Of course, to say that it is dominant is not to say that it is successful in achieving its aims. Indeed, it more typically fails. But crucially, it provides norms such as ‘resilience’ and ‘preparedness,’ against which such failure is measured. And it is mostly taken for granted as a political obligation, even as it continually fails.”

The scholars approached their research not as history, but as “geneaology,” Lakoff explained, tracing the lineage of systems put in place over the past several decades. “We looked for moments in which what are now fairly ubiquitous expert techniques and governmental practices were invented, often for other purposes, and we traced how they were gradually assembled into a coherent schema or apparatus,” he said.

Stephen Collier
Stephen Collier

In his remarks, Stephen Collier provided a more detailed overview of the content of the book, which chronicles the emergence of “vital systems security” from the era prior to World War II. “Through World War II, emergency government was about the management of economic crises — whether economic downturns, industrial strikes, or mobilization for war,” Collier said. “By the late 1950s, emergency government had come to refer to something quite different. Namely, it came to refer to preparedness for a future event that disrupts the vital systems upon which modern life depends. The book shows how vital vulnerable systems came into being, or at least became the objects of sort of systematic knowledge and management for the first time. And this event in thought corresponded to the emergence of new ways of acting and governing in particular.”

The first section of the book, Collier explained, covers the period roughly from the early 1930s to 1945, an era marked by the Depression and World War II, when experts (primarily economists) “assembled a novel knowledge infrastructure” for mapping and managing vital systems. At the same time, a group of government reformers created new methods for managing ongoing emergency situations.

“A central challenge for these reformers was the one that was most famously formulated by Carl Schmitt, the German jurist, who was an explicit point of reference for some of the Reformers that we traced in this part of the book — namely, can liberal constitutional democracies manage crisis situations and remain democratic?” Collier explained. “In response, these reformers devised a set of mechanisms for governing emergencies that they thought were compatible with democracy. These were things like the delegation of legislative authorities to the executive, and the use of so-called ‘reorganization power,’ through which the president could create administrative agencies and other apparatuses to manage emergency situations.”

The second part of the book, Collier said, addresses the period between 1945 and the early 1950s, when “many of the actors and government offices that were involved in mobilization turned to a new problem, which was the prospect of a Soviet attack on American vital systems, using airplanes, long-range bombers, and atomic weapons…. The problem of emergency government was being beginning to shift during this period. Rather than managing a specific, ongoing crisis, it was mutating into an ongoing task of preparedness for a future catastrophe that might arise at any moment.”

This evolution continued, Collier explained, as the focus of emergency government shifted from mobilization planning toward a new mindset of constant emergency preparedness or emergency management. “The ‘government of emergency,’ which is understood not as a kind of sporadic task that emerges during specific crises, but an ongoing task of preparedness, had become an obligation of the government,” Collier said. “We think of this mutation of emergency government — and the creation of what we refer to in the book as an emergency state — as a very significant episode in American political development.”

Michael Watts
Michael Watts

In his commentary, Michael Watts noted that The Government of Emergency’s central themes are deeply resonant in the era of climate change, pandemics, and other threats. “If you needed a ringing endorsement of the relevant saliency of emergency government on a global scale, take a look at the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risk Report,” Watts said. “It’s an annual inventory and compendium of all of these vulnerabilities inherent in vital systems and the forms of emergency government, what they call effective mitigation, that we do or do not have. That report says that the most effective and currently well-established mitigation measures are in the realms of — wait for it — financial stability and weapons of mass destruction.”

“What I liked about the book was that it really does delve into the innards of the security state and Cold War bureaucratic,” Watts said. “Any authors that are prepared to take on a 47-volume strategic bombing survey, which they do, I hold in the highest regard. The granularity of the narrative is compelling, but they’re always tacking back to look at how the logics of future catastrophe run aground, or confound some of the founding principles and ideological convictions of American politics and political economy.”

Cathryn Carson
Cathryn Carson

Cathryn Carson — a historian whose work focuses on the 20th century and the rise of nuclear weapons — described the book as “incisive, careful, and far-seeing.” She said that she regarded The Government of Emergency “as a story of the conceptualization and ordinary practice of securing threatened infrastructures, the ones that sustain collective life in modern societies.”

“The subject matter of the book is nominally the systems of industrial and urban modernity, not just how they grow or get built and crumble over time, but the possibilities of catastrophic breakdown and the cascading social failures that follow,” Carson said. “And then you pay attention to the emerging expectation that it’s the responsibility of government to respond to and mitigate and, probably most important, prevent, as far as possible, that kind of breakdown, through a kind of prophylactic planning called preparedness.”

Carson hailed the book’s examination of the infrastructure of “vital systems, the multi-layered and complex systems that sustain urban and industrial life, which is itself a mid-20th century notion of systems. And then you look at those systems’ vulnerability, and the counter-move of preparedness that you wrap up in the term ‘security’ — a term with meanings far beyond this text.”

Carson said that the book gives new shape to our traditional understanding of the Cold War. “As a historian, I want to say I am deeply impressed by the history in here,” she said. “What you show us is how civil defense strategies, which historians have written about, actually come out of things like supply chain management, those techniques of the 1930s and 1940s, the new sciences of administration…. To me, it’s simply good history.”

Listen to this event as a podcast below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.