All posts filed under: Features

Understanding and Misunderstanding ‘Dog-Whistling’

Accusations of ‘dog-whistling‘ are commonplace in contemporary politics. Politicians and pundits regularly accuse each other of using apparently benign words and phrases to conceal dreadful meanings. It is, however, chiefly the Left that accuses that Right of dog-whistling, and mostly to disclose and denounce the supposed racism lurking in conservative language. President Trump is a lightning rod for such accusations, which have, however, also struck politicans in Australia and the United Kingdom.  But in spite of the ubiquity of these accusations, it is not clear what dog-whistling is. We might understand dog-whistling as a form of coded communication, by which a political leader passes a secret message to a specific audience without the larger public picking up what he means. Or we might see it as a form of strategic ambiguity by which a speaker allows different constituencies to understand him in different ways. Considered yet another way, dog-whistling could appear as a kind of subliminal method of activating listeners’ unconscious prejudices. Philosopher Jennifer Saul is developing a fruitful analysis of dog-whistling, which she breaks …

Devastation and Denial: Cambodia and the Academic Left

Looking out across the yellow-washed angular buildings that clutter the inner city of Phnom Penh in 2016, hindsight fills me with anxiety. Imagining myself here in 1975, I recall the jubilant and cheering crowds in the spring of that year who weren’t privy to that hindsight as they welcomed Khmer Rouge communists into Cambodia’s capital city after months of siege. On the morning of 17 April, word had arrived that the Khmer Rouge had captured the government’s last beleaguered military stronghold on the outskirts of the city. Prime Minister Long Boret could hardly believe the news. He demanded to be driven to the riverside to see it with his own eyes. By the time he arrived, order had already collapsed in the streets and men wearing the black shirts of the Khmer Rouge surrounded his small entourage and demanded his guards put down their guns. Managing to slip away in the chaos, Boret reported back to his cabinet at the Defence Ministry that the enemy was already in the streets. The rush then began to …

The Islamic Republic Must Fall

The breathtaking, unprecedented displays of dissent throughout Iran—most notably by the mostazafeen or the traditionally ‘downtrodden’ base of support for the regime—are important. They are important to the Iranian people who brave imprisonment and torture as they struggle for their livelihoods, their freedom, their dignity, and the futures of their children. But they are also important because they offer a glimpse of a more liberal, more peaceful, and more prosperous Middle East—a region at last open to the world, ready to move forwards not backwards, and to prosper rather than terrorize. Belief in such a prospect cannot be scorned as naïve, nor offered as an act of mere charity. Without such a future for Iran, the turmoil of the Middle East and the exodus of refugees to the shores of the free world will continue. Polarization of American politics and civic discourse has left the struggle for freedom in Iran almost exclusively within the purview of the political Right, where the threat posed by Islamist ideas and terrorism have always been taken more seriously. But …

Free Speech Doesn’t Protect Nazis. It Protects Us From Nazis

Free speech has recently become a cause célèbre of the nationalist and racist right-wing in the United States, as provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos bring their roadshows to college campuses, flout the values of progressive students, and then publicize and ridicule those students’ emotional or sometimes violent responses. As a result, some on the Left have become skeptical of the benefits of the First Amendment. Prior to last year’s violent confrontation in Charlottesville, VA, during which an alt-right protester rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman and injuring others, the ACLU defended the right of neo-Nazis and white nationalists to demonstrate in support of Confederate monuments. For this, the ACLU was widely criticized by progressives, and since then, some progressives have begun to argue that a society with unfettered free speech is one that fails to protect marginalized communities. Former ACLU legal director and Berkeley law professor john a. powell recently told a reporter from the New Yorker that absolutist free speech rules in the United States fail to weigh the value …

Does Progress Exist?

I should start with a caveat. This article discusses an issue which reaches well beyond the scope of a couple of thousand words or so, and as such will provoke questions and challenges which cannot be addressed within these limits. The argument presented, being downstream of some more fundamental principles not covered here, is necessarily incomplete, and therefore I don’t mean to present it as a slam-dunk refutation of progress (it falls well short of that), but merely as a curio; a piece of argumentation that hopefully amuses even as you conjure ways to disagree with it. Moreover, contrary to the ‘anti-progress’ tenor of much that follows, I actually mean to provide a template that allows for more effective innovation—a consequence that I hope will become clear by the end of the piece. So, does progress exist? Clearly I’m going to argue that it does not, since otherwise this would be a pretty redundant piece. However I should point out up front that this isn’t to say that things can’t get better, and haven’t been …

Why Should We Be Good?

Today we are witnessing an irrepressible and admirable pushback against the specters of ‘cultural relativism’ and moral ‘nihilism.’ On the Right, thinkers such as Patrick Deneen and Jordan Peterson have responded to an increasingly cynical postmodern culture by arguing for a return to traditionalist and/or local values. More centrist thinkers such as Steven Pinker and Sam Harris have argued for a return to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on using reason and its handmaiden, empirical science, to develop an ever more objective set of ethical norms. And even on the far-Left, radical thinkers such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek have levelled scathing attacks against postmodern relativism and ‘totalitarian’ identity politics, calling for a return to ethics properly understood: Indeed, relativism and the moral nihilism with which it is often affiliated, seems to be in retreat everywhere. For many observers and critics, this is a wholly positive development since both have the corrosive effect of undermining ethical certainty. I think there are two motivations behind this disdain for relativism and moral nihilism: one of which is negative …

A Progressive Defense of Thomas Jefferson

Since the election of President Trump, American progressives have been looking at their country and its Founders with renewed scrutiny. Although protesters have rallied against Confederate statues for decades, in recent years left-wing activists have increasingly included Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers in their calls for a thoroughgoing repudiation of America’s racist past. In 2015, protesters at the University of Missouri covered a statue of Jefferson in sticky notes labelling him a “racist” and a “rapist” for his ownership of slaves and sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. (For a defense of Jefferson from these specific charges, see Race Hochdorf’s excellent piece.) More recently, activists in Jefferson’s own state at the University of Virginia shrouded his statue, and later vandalized it with the same insults. At Hofstra University in New York, a crowd including the local College Democrats went so far as to demand the removal of a Jefferson statue from campus, declaring in a petition that he had “been embraced as an icon by white supremacist and neo-nazi organizations such as the Ku Klux …

Unfabling the East—A Review

A review of Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia by Jürgen Osterhammel (translated by Robert Savage). Princeton University Press (June, 2018) 696 pages. Late nineteenth century Europeans were arrogantly certain of the inherent superiority of their civilization. Edward Said’s influential book Orientalism (1978) describes representations of the East as inverted projections of Western superiority. Europeans looked down on the East and created myths that flattered the supposedly more advanced and civilized imperialists. Said’s thesis is controversial, but there’s no question that headstrong imperialism was an intellectual force at the apogee of Empire. The problem is that the critique of representation has itself become dogmatic, losing sight of the diversity of historical sources and unable to reflect critically on its own practices. Postmodern critiques either accuse Europeans of ignoring difference, because they are blinded by universalism, or of the opposite: exaggerating difference and creating the stigmatised ‘Other.’ The diagnoses can be diametrically opposed, but the common theme is that Europeans’ prejudices render them unable to understand Asia. Edward Said’s acolytes have become the new …

Through the Looking Glass at Concordia University

It was in a class called Representations of Minorities in Documentary Film, the last elective I needed to receive my BA at Concordia University in Montreal, that I first realized something was very wrong. The class had just watched Sound and Fury, a 2000 Oscar-nominated documentary about deaf culture. The film follows a 6-year-old deaf girl named Heather and her family (several members of whom also are deaf) as they go back and forth on the issue of cochlear implants, a then-new technology that allows some deaf people to hear. Heather wants cochlear implants so she can talk to people and hear lions. Her mother, too, opts for the implants. But when she discovers the implant will not be as effective for her, she changes her mind, and, without consulting her daughter, decrees that neither of them will be undergoing the procedure. After the film ended, our professor asked students for their thoughts. When called on, I said that parents should try to make their children’s lives easier. If I remember my words correctly, I …

Heterodoxy is Hard, Even at Heterodox Academy

Heterodox thinking requires room to be made for different views, different ideas, and different voices to be heard. With sufficient heterodox thinking, it is hoped, the bonds that blind and bind people into groups of tribal moral warriors might wither and eventually allow for truth to replace ideology. However, if the first Heterodox Academy meeting is any indication, heterodox thinking poses substantially more problems than even the hardworking leaders of Heterodox Academy realized. Entering the meeting I was immediately struck by the fact it was held in the New York Times conference center—a beautiful area replete with wait staff, security, and a professional grade lighting and recording area. Everything was well orchestrated, professional, and deliberate. And as Jonathan Haidt took the stage, I felt a sense of respect for a man who has not only deepened our understanding of humanity but who has also worked diligently to make Heterodox Academy a reality. He has, in many ways and sometimes against scathing criticism, popularized the idea of intellectual diversity—making the case that people like me, who …