All posts filed under: Books

Young Adult Fiction’s Online Commissars

In the late 1930s, more than 40 years before my family emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States, my maternal grandmother had a chance to become a published children’s author. She had been writing short stories for her two children, and my grandfather encouraged her to send them to a publisher. To her surprise, she heard from an editor. When she came to see him, he told her he liked the stories very much, except for one problem: they lacked a Soviet spirit. But that, he reassured her, could be easily fixed: for instance, in the story where a young girl who befriends a hedgehog in the woods and promises she’ll always be his friend, she could just say that she gives her word as a Young Pioneer. (The Pioneers were the Soviet mass organization for middle-school-age children.) My grandma was not a closet anti-Soviet rebel, but she did quietly rebel at being told how and what to write. She thanked the editor, picked up her stories, went home, and never tried to get published again. In recent …

What Can We Learn from Dictators’ Literature?

Dictators, of course, are terrible people. They also tend to be terrible writers. Yet many tyrants have entertained the illusion that they were literary super geniuses. Mein Kampf and Quotations from Chairman Mao (aka The Little Red Book) are the best-known works in the dictatorial canon, but they represent only a fraction of the awfulness on offer in a vast, infernal library. There are so many other books: from Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia to Khomeini’s Islamic Government to Gaddafi’s The Green Book and beyond. In the heyday of 20th century tyranny, the writings of dictators were placed at the center of their personality cults, officially revered as sacred texts, and imposed upon (literally) captive audiences. That the books were frequently unreadable mattered little when the authors controlled the printing presses and the education systems, and could imprison or execute anyone who gave them a bad review. And yet, when regimes fall, how quickly these books vanish. Those who suffered under the dictators wish to move on, while those who did not are …

Why Men Can’t Write About Sex Anymore

Back in the early 1990s, I was one of the thousands of young, idealist Gen X Americans who moved to freewheeling post-Communist Prague to relive their version of “Paris of the 20s.” Before the advent of smartphones, YouTube, and Netflix, novels were still considered the preeminent artistic form, and most of the expats who flocked to the land of Vaclav Havel were obsessed with writing the “Great American Novel.” The literary icons for our generation—those who fetishized the absinthe-tinted bohemia of Hemingway’s Paris—were mostly masculine writers like Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Bret Easton Ellis. Though there were plenty of women among the wine-sozzled bohemians of our expat massive, Henry Miller’s assertion that “Sex is one of the nine reasons for reincarnation, and the other eight are unimportant,” was embraced by us all, regardless of gender. Men read poems called “Women who moan” at raucous expat readings, while girls wrote about their experiences with Czech lovers twice their age. Sex was the social currency of our close-knit literary community, and writing with brutal honesty …

Thirty Years After ‘The Closing of the American Mind’

Over thirty years ago, Allan Bloom—the late American philosopher and university professor who was the model for Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein—published The Closing of the American Mind. He began with a startling declaration: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” Relativism, Bloom claimed, “is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it.” Students “have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society.” What students “fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance.” At the end of the opening paragraph, Bloom summarized the result: “The point is not to correct [their] mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.” In the ensuing pages, Bloom argued that modern universities were failing their students in part because postmodern trends …

Germaine Greer’s ‘On Rape’—A Review

A review of On Rape by Germaine Greer. Bloomsbury Publishing (September 2018) 92 pages. Germaine Greer’s On Rape is roughly the size and thickness of a Beatrix Potter story. And why not? As it happens, The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck also says a great deal of what young people need to know about the topic: beware of polite, well-dressed gentlemen (especially if they have foxy whiskers and black prick ears); don’t go uncritically into dismal summerhouses in the woods; and accepting a dinner invitation does not imply consent to everything the polite gentlemen is looking for. Greer’s book is not as incisive as Potter’s and it is considerably more expensive. But that is not to say it is a complete waste of money. In some ways it fizzes along with ideas and raises lots of questions that others are frightened to ask. Why are we so afraid of the penis when a fist and a thumb can do more physical damage? Why do some women fantasise about being raped? Are sentences for rapists too long? Should rapists be compulsorily castrated? …

Reasons to Be Fearful

Editor’s note: The following excerpt is abridged from Chapter One of The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism by Russell Blackford (Bloomsbury Academic, October 18 2018, 240 pages).  I’m afraid. Like many people, I’m afraid to speak up and say exactly what I think. I’m afraid to contribute to public debate with total frankness. I’m more afraid of my allies than I am of opponents, since the latter can do me less harm (though if they’re so minded they can probably do enough!). I’m not afraid of my closest friends, the people who love me, who have my back and will keep my secrets, but it gets more frightening as soon as I step out into wider circles of colleagues and acquaintances. I come from a working-class family, and I grew up in an industrial city in Australia that was dominated at the time by its steelworks. I’m the first person from my family ever to attend university. I still have those connections, and I’ve inherited some blue-collar, trade-union values. But my social …

What Does Genetic Research Tell Us About Equal Opportunity and Meritocracy?

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from Robert Plomin’s new book Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are. For a review of Blueprint by Gregory Cochran, see here. For a piece by Toby Young on the book, and a wider discussion of social genomics and why it attracts the hostility of some academics, see here. If schools, parenting and our life experiences do not change who we are, what does this mean for society, especially for equality of opportunity and meritocracy? In particular, does it mean that the genetically rich will get richer and the poor poorer? Are genetic castes inevitable? What does this say about inequality? These questions have been bound up in the topic of meritocracy, which is not the same thing as equal opportunity. Equal opportunity means that people are treated similarly, for example, everyone is given equal access to educational resources. Meritocracy only comes in when there is selection, for example, for education and employment. Meritocracy means that selection is based on capability and competence rather than unfair criteria such …

From Party of Ideas to Party of Dittoheads

Editor’s Note: This is excerpted from The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right, by Max Boot, 288 pages, Liverlight (October 9, 2018).  The modern history of the Republican Party is a warning to be careful of who you pretend to be, because sooner or later you will become that person. Republicans have long flirted with populism, conspiracy-mongering, and know-nothingism. This is why they became known as the “stupid party.” Stupidity is not an accusation that could be hurled against such early Republicans as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root and Charles Evans Hughes. But by the 1950s, it had become an established shibboleth that the “eggheads” were for Adlai Stevenson and the “boobs” for Dwight D. Eisenhower—a view endorsed by Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which contrasted Stevenson, “a politician of uncommon mind and style, whose appeal to intellectuals overshadowed anything in recent history,” with Eisenhower—“conventional in mind, relatively inarticulate.” The Kennedy presidency, with its glittering court of Camelot, cemented the impression that it was the Democrats who represented the …

Moral Pollution In Place of Reasoned Critique

I was chief researcher and in-house editor for The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. In the book, we outline three misguided principles (“Great Untruths”) that form the foundation of the new moral culture we are seeing on some college campuses: The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.  The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. We also trace six explanatory threads—cultural trends and practices that explain why this new moral culture, which we call “safetyism,” seemed to emerge so rapidly between 2013 and 2015: Rising teen depression and anxiety. The damaging effects of overprotection and social media. The loss of play in childhood. The polarization of the country. New ideas about justice. The bureaucratization of higher education. As we compiled story after story, we noticed that rather than making counterarguments to disfavored claims, students (and sometimes professors) seemed to focus on discrediting the speaker or writer instead. They …

Helping Children with Autism

An adapted extract from The Politics of Autism by Bryna Siegel, PhD. (Oxford University Press, September 3 2018). I met my first child with autism when I was a 19-year-old undergraduate, in 1972. Since then, the “autism” landscape has changed: In the early 1970s, autism had not quite emerged from its Dark Ages. In those days, mothers of autistic children were strongly suspected of an early, profound, unconscious rejection of their infant, and it was believed that the ensuing failure to bond resulted in the solipsistic autistic aloneness with which the child faced the world. Leo Kanner, an American child psychiatrist, was the first to describe “early infantile autism,” a condition whereby the child acted as if others were not meaningful to constructing his or her emotional life. While Kanner himself did not argue that parents were the cause, he acknowledged that many parents who sought out his academic expertise were not the warm, fuzzy parents he felt had “the right stuff” to naturally break through their child’s self-isolation. Others, like Bruno Bettelheim, a professor …