All posts filed under: Politics

Muslim Vikings and Abuses of History

Two weeks ago, Swedish researcher Annika Larsson of Upssala University announced that she had discovered a thousand year-old Viking textile with ‘Allah’ inscribed on its hem. Major international media outlets rushed to publish news of Larsson’s supposed discovery. Within a few days, the BBC, The Guardian, and The New York Times had run articles on the subject, all of which raised the possibility that the Viking wearer of this cloth might have been Muslim, or even a Muslim immigrant from the Middle East. Larsson, and the reporters who echoed her, argued that the Viking culture of medieval Sweden was therefore open to Islamic influence–an idea, they gleefully noted, bound to enrage right-wing opponents of mass immigration from majority-Muslim countries. The New York Times was insistent on the political meaning of the ‘Allah cloth,’ interviewing Swedish activists who try to disassociate their country’s Viking past from its appropriations by right-wing nativist groups. Archaeologists and historians immediately pointed out problems in Larsson’s interpretation, recalling similarly outlandish claims that she had made in the past. In response, Sigal …

Identitarianism and the Splintering of Democracy

You can know X if, and only if, you are of part identity group Y. This is the theory of what I will call ‘Identitarian Epistemology.’ While generally not articulated in abstract form, this doctrine has managed to infect our political culture. It is the major philosophical justification for dismissing anyone’s argument, question, or thought, based on nothing more than his or her identity group. One identity group, so the theory goes, cannot acquire the unique knowledge of another. Identitarian Epistemology is based upon the following premises: Being part of identity group Y necessarily involves certain experiences which are unique to that group. These experiences are a necessary condition for acquiring certain kinds of knowledge. And therefore: People not of identity group Y cannot know certain things, which only identity group Y can know. Being “part of identity group Y” here means being accurately described with a certain identity predicate: “black,” “female,” “gay,” et cetera. There are an infinite number of such predicates because there are an infinite number of ways to qualitatively describe an …

Rethinking Gender, Sexuality, and Violence

Over the past two weeks, America has been rocked by the revelation that the Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein has engaged in numerous instances of sexual harassment and possibly even sexual assault. In response, the actress Alyssa Milano began a social media campaign to raise awareness of these forms of abuse in the world at large, tweeting: While Milano may have had the admirable goal of drawing attention to a serious issue, the subsequent narrative that has been presented has not been entirely accurate, and a non-trivial amount of ugliness has also been unleashed. In the mainstream and on social media, we’ve been told that that all women live under constant threat and that all men are part of the problem.1 If a man had the audacity to say #MeToo and point out that he had also been a victim, he might have been ridiculed for being insensitive to women: One columnist admonished “nice guys” that they were most likely responsible for the bulk of the problem and bore the responsibility for fixing it.3 The …

Oppression, The Flag, and the Quarterback Whose Aim is Untrue

The NFL “take a knee” efforts continue. On Sunday, October 15, German soccer team Hertha Berlin took a knee and asked “for an open-minded world,” hip-hop artists such as Eminem are writing songs in support of the protest, and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has filed a grievance claim against the NFL, alleging the owners colluded to keep him from being signed. When Mr. Kaepernick first refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem, he was asked by a reporter about his actions. Mr. Kaepernick responded: I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder. Mr. Kaepernick is sincere, but protesting the flag to protest police brutality is just throwing the ball in the wrong direction. His statement calls for …

Why Liberals Are Turning Against the Internet

Following the news of late might lead one to conclude that Mark Zuckerberg is America’s Public Enemy Number One, and that the World Wide Web is destroying the foundations of the country’s democratic system. “Silicon Valley Is Not Your Friend,” cried a recent headline in The New York Times. Perhaps surprisingly, the long article below called for federal regulation of the destructive and arrogant information high-tech companies now being blamed for the election of President Donald Trump and much else besides. Having spent years telling its readership that Zuckerberg was a revolutionary innovator and boy genius, The New York Times has had second thoughts. If you believe that the most pressing danger facing the American Republic is sitting in the White House, the author explained, then think again. Apparently, it’s hidden in Silicon Valley. So, let us go back to the early days of the 21st century, when celebrating the promise of the Internet was just another way of asserting your commitment to liberal principles, democratic ideals, human rights, and political and cultural freedom. Innumerable opinion pieces were penned, studies …

Does Free Speech Need Boundaries to Survive?

 “Opinions,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “are to the gigantic apparatus of social life what oil is to machines. No one goes up to an engine and douses it in machine oil; one applies a little to the hidden spindles and joints one has to know.” Those defending free speech today may recoil from this advice. The idea of society as a machine, which came naturally to the Marxist Benjamin, is a long way from the ideal of free and creative individuals that many of them cherish. Nonetheless, it strikes me as a useful metaphor, if only because of the image it brings to mind of the era we’ve now entered: an engine drowning in so much oil that it has begun violently shaking, sputtering and threatening to collapse. It wouldn’t be misleading to say that the greatest threat to free speech today comes from free speech itself. In particular, it comes from the sheer volume and chaotic nature of that speech. The current polarization of politics is rooted in an endless, sprawling argument about values taking …

Beware the Emerging Field of ‘Trump Studies’

In a recent article at the usually excellent Washington Post “Monkey Cage” blog, Thomas Wood attempts to argue that, “Racism motivated Trump voters more than authoritarianism.” To make his case, Dr. Wood leads with a chart showing that, contrary to popular narratives (like this one), Trump voters actually seem less supportive of authoritarianism than those who voted for Romney or McCain. He then turns to racism—and in particular, data exploring partisan differences in endorsements of “symbolic racism” among whites. Here is the chart: Now, for the sake of intellectual charity we’ll set aside questions about the extent to which his authoritarianism and symbolic racism scales are accurate measures of respondents’ mental states. We’ll just grant, for the sake of argument, that these are accurate measures of racist and authoritarian tendencies, and that the survey population is sufficiently representative that one could make sound generalizations about Trump and Clinton voters on the basis of his study. With these concessions in mind, what does the data show us? One thing readers may notice about the second chart, …