Credit and Blame

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Shortly after Charles Tilly’s death on April 29, 2008, Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University, where Tilly had held the Joseph I. Buttenwieser Professorship in the Social Sciences, noted that Tilly “could write, interpret, and explain virtually anything to curious minds.” Bollinger went on to say that during Tilly’s fifty-year academic career, he had published more than six hundred articles and fifty-one books and monographs. Credit and Blame, released around the time of Tilly’s death, amply demonstrates the breadth and depth of his thinking and writing. His two books that immediately preceded Credit and BlameWhy?, published in 2006, and Democracy, published in 2007bear a relationship to Tilly’s final publication. Why? seeks to understand explanations that are used to get to the roots of human actions and reactions. As Tilly pondered such questions, he began to focus on people’s acceptance of credit and assignment of blame as they affect human relationships.

In Why?, Tilly categorizes explanations into four classifications that he calls dereliction, deviance, distinction, and good fortune. He points out that if one misses an appointment, an explanation might be that one is having a “senior moment.” This explanation is generally sufficient if one is explaining such a dereliction to family members or close friends. It is not appropriate, though, if one is attempting to explain a missed appointment for an important job interview. Considerations relating to blame, inherent in this earlier study, led Tilly to a deeper probing of how people deal with blame in various contexts.

In Democracy, Tilly focuses on how people often misinterpret what democracy is. As in Credit and Blame, he probes deeply into misunderstandings of many principles and conventions that people have grown so accustomed to that they fail to arrive at a critical understanding of those principles and conventions.

Tilly’s explanation of the two major terms he considers in his work, credit and blame, is useful. He cites the Oxford English Dictionary, the most comprehensive etymological dictionary of the English language, for the origins of these terms. Credit is derived from the Latin word credere, which means to trust or to believe. Historically, its participial form, creditum, refers to something entrusted to another person, including a loan. Tilly is accurate in contending that where there is credit there also exists a human relationship between those receiving and those giving credit.

Blame is derived from the Latin blasphemare, which means to revile or blaspheme. Implicit in this term is, as in the other term upon which Tilly is focusing, a human relationship between one who blames and one who receives blame. He emphasizes that both of the terms he is exploring generally involve human relationships, a point he reiterates throughout his book.

In discussing the trials relating to a Rhode Island nightclub fire in which more than one hundred people died, Tilly relates how, during the sentencing of the Derderian brothers, who owned the nightclub, and a band manager, Daniel Biechele, who ignited the fireworks that spawned the deadly conflagration, victims and those related to victims swarmed into the courtroom to place blame and demand justice for their losses.

Throughout Credit and Blame, Tilly demonstrates how those who ascribe blame are ultimately seeking what, in their eyes, constitutes justice. In most cases, an eye-for-an-eye retribution is sought by an injured public that is predictably disappointed at what might be considered light sentences. Tilly points out, however, that “judges try to keep decisions on the unemotional tracks of existing codes. They steer discussion away from popular justice toward what a ’reasonable person’ would do in the circumstances.” In Democracy, Tilly provides similar cogent examples of how the masses misinterpret situations in which they have vested interests.

In essence, Tilly assesses how emotion often thwarts reason in instances where credit is given or blame is ascribed. He cautions that blame is not necessarily credit turned upside down,...

(The entire section is 1747 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The New York Times Book Review 255, no. 14 (August 17, 2008): 10.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 14 (April 7, 2008): 56.