All posts filed under: Features

The Problem with Public Art

This is a good example of bad public art. It’s not new—it’s from 2011—but the design is still printed onto seats on the Tube in London, and I found myself staring at it the other day with appalled fascination. It’s called Acts of Kindness, by Michael Landy, and the public were meant to go to a website to share stories of people being nice to one another. What’s wrong with that? Almost everything. One thing to notice is that the figures are all adult men: they have broad shoulders and narrow hips. Presumably the artist wanted to be inclusive, yet it didn’t occur to him to draw a gender-neutral figure, or a mix of men, women and children. And what does the image mean? Self? Other? Who talks that way? No one. The natural word choice would have been me and you—but that would have sounded cute and childlike, and exposed the vapid sentiments for what they are. ‘Be nice.’ It is insincere, trite and patronising. If I see someone in need on public transport …

Academic Freedom Under Threat in Sweden

“You will include Judith Butler in your course.” That was announced to Erik Ringmar, senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Lund University, after the September meeting of the department’s board of directors. Not that there’s anything wrong with reading the queer studies feminist Butler. It’s just that the course Ringmar teaches is primarily about the reaction to modernity at the turn of the last century, with a focus on fascism. During earlier semesters it included a part about postmodernism, and within it Butler, but it was removed because it didn’t fit in with the rest of the course. “There is not a course committee in the world which can force me to teach Judith Butler unless I want to,” Ringmar wrote on his blog. This has led to strong protests from student activists, the board, the director of studies and the dean. Of course, this is no great catastrophe in and of itself. It’s just a literature list, after all. But it is part of a much larger process by which academic …

Populism and Nostalgia’s False Promise

Yuval Levin’s book The Fractured Republic and Andrew Brown’s essay on Trollhätten in Granta recount how Western societies have moved from a conformist and consolidated culture to a diffuse but bureaucratically centralised one, paralysed by gauzy nostalgia for a time that is never coming back. Such nostalgia has helped fuel the populist surge seen across the West today. The present poses challenges to who we are, how we behave, what we believe and how we act out those beliefs in everyday life. But the wish to return to the past is perhaps an inherent part of the human condition, and one that must be resisted lest it disfigure our perceptions and control our actions too greatly. The populist revolt symbolised by the surge across Europe by parties like the Sweden Democrats and in America by Donald Trump is both a product and driver of a kind of nostalgia that risks trapping us in a spiral of longing and bitter disenchantment. It represents a backlash against an ossified establishment nostalgia that has failed to deliver on its …

Why Are Non-Believers Turning to Their Bibles?

Even in the middle of the atheism boom, Richard Dawkins described himself as a “secular Christian”. To the author of The God Delusion this meant an appreciation of “aesthetic elements” such as church bells. Christopher Hitchens felt the same. At the end of one interview with the firebrand antitheist the interviewer invited him to the pub. “That’d be nice,” he said, “But actually I really want to go to Evensong.” Hitchens, the interviewer reflected, “had some enthusiasm for the words and sounds of the church, which he could easily disassociate from the actual believing part.” Decades before, Philip Larkin had admitted, in “Church Going”, that a church was: A serious house on serious earth… In whose blent air all our compulsions meet Are recognised and robed as destinies. The poet would later describe religion as “that vast moth-eaten musical brocade” but he felt a certain awe inside a church: If only that so many dead lie round. Europe and America, of course, have Christian heritage and there is no excuse for intelligent citizens to lack …

Why I’m Uneasy With the #MeToo Movement

For many women, the breaking of the Weinstein scandal has been a moment of catharsis and deferred justice. In the wake of the appalling revelations of rape and abuse, women were invited to detail their own experiences of sexual assault on social media under the #MeToo hashtag, and the subsequent outpouring of testimony was held up by some campaigners as proof that America is indeed a culture in which women are routinely victimised, and men are routinely complicit. Celebrity journalists and Hollywood stars have been named and shamed; denunciations have proliferated and shamefaced apologies have been offered; unsubstantiated spreadsheets listing alleged offenders have been circulated and leaked; and glittering careers and reputations are being reduced to powder overnight. But as someone who has experienced what many would perceive to be a sexual assault, the momentum of the #MeToo movement makes me uneasy. Before I explain why, I should tell my story and the lessons I learned along the way. Those lessons were painful and the price I paid was steep, but I emerged from the …

From Roosevelt to Trump: The Presidential Smile

Sometimes the little things are really the biggest. It may come off as a paradox, but nowhere is this truer than in that palace of power, the White House. When it comes to American Presidents, kinks and quirks can reveal more about the kind of leaders they are than heavy biographies and dusty archives. Scrutinising a President’s demeanour and bearing — with a keen eye and a perceptive mind — helps shine a glaring light on the virtues or failings of his character. As the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, once remarked, “Character is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.” And what better marker of character is there than a smile? Smiling is a deceivingly simple act, perhaps even ubiquitous, yet it’s a highly expressive display of emotion. It’s immediately recognisable as a universal form of non-verbal communication, no matter the status or background of the recipient. So much so we don’t think when we see someone smile… we just feel. A smile is as much interpreted by the unconscious as it is produced …

Intersectionality and Popper’s Paradox

Conservative rationalist Karl Popper wrote in The Open Society and Its Enemies that “unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.” In a society that tolerates intolerant forces, these forces will eventually take advantage of the situation and bring about the downfall of the entire society. The philosophical foundation of this belief can trace its roots to Plato’s ideas of the republic or Machiavelli’s paradox of ruling by love or fear, and a practical example of this in action is jihadists taking advantage of human rights laws. Nothing should be absolute and without reasonable boundaries, not even freedom. In light of this, there are three observable, identifiable ways in which this latest fad of intersectionality is taking advantage of and destroying the rational enlightenment roots of Western academia from within. The approaches are, namely, infiltration, subversion, and coercion. *** On the face of it, infiltration at first sounds conspiratorial and even counterintuitive. There is, of course, no grand conspiracy or a cabal with a smoke-filled headquarters in the Swiss Alps led by a bald, …