All posts filed under: Review

Suspicion and the Corruption of the Liberal Mind

What is the difference between leftists and cannibals? Cannibals don’t eat their friends. ~attributed to Lyndon Johnson I am liberal to my core and like many liberals I’ve become increasingly disturbed by the escalation of totalitarian impulses on the Left. For the past six years I’ve been exploring the phenomenon and teasing out its underlying dynamics. While many writers and thinkers have been going head-to-head with extremists and confronting their ideological inconsistencies, the book I’ve found most helpful is Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Unlike other writers, Felski approaches the dynamic obliquely and her foundational point is more subtle. How we feel is almost always the first signal we have about the nature of our surroundings. For example, all of us have had the experience of walking into restaurant with a friend; all of us engage in some form of the following when we do: We stop just inside, pause a moment, and get a feel for the place. And every one of us has, at one time or another, …

Did British Merchants Cause the Opium War?

A review of Song-Chuan Chen’s Merchants of War and Peace: British Knowledge of China in the Making of the Opium War, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press (January 12, 2017) 240 pages. The war had a name even before its first shot. The first recorded use of the moniker, the ‘Opium War,’ was in an 1839 piece in the London Morning Herald; within months it would be echoed across the benches of Parliament and across the carronades of the fleet sent to punish the Chinese crackdown on British trade. The war’s nomenclature revealed from the beginning the multivalent views the British public held towards the war: it was at once the “unjust and iniquitous” Opium War — to use Gladstone’s well-known phrase — as well as the patriotic ‘China War,’ as its proponents wanted it to be called. The historiography of the war is similarly divided among varied lines. Some see the war as reflective of China’s failure to catch up to Western technologies; others emphasize the British desire to avenge their slighted national honour as the …

Intersectionality—A Review

A review of Intersectionality by Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge. Flatiron Books (April 2016) 260 pages. With Intersectionality, Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge have provided a handy explanation of the theory’s foundational concepts. In accessible language they sketch the history of intersectional thought, provide helpful definitions of its concepts, explain the main debates within intersectionality to outsiders, and competently elucidate the topics with which intersectional theorists are preoccupied. So, as primer on a currently fashionable branch of academic theory, Intersectionality is quite useful. But if their book is pedagogically valuable, it is substantively objectionable. Perhaps the most striking aspect of intersectional theory is the extent to which it has become a totalizing ideology. Many commentators—critics and sympathizers alike—have often failed to appreciate this. Intersectionality is not just a branch of feminism, a means by which to advance women’s interests, or an analysis of matters of social concern. It is an all-encompassing philosophy that advances a unique politics, metaphysics, aesthetics, and epistemology, as well as its own (rather bizarre) interpretation of history. It is effectively a secular religion.1 The …

The Three Languages of Politics—A Review

A review of The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides by Arnold Kling. Cato Institute (May 2017) 146 pages.  …the existence of alternative (or opposing) conclusions is something quite reasonable to expect among intelligent and informed individuals who read the complicated evidence differently, or who weigh the intricate factors or the perplexing probabilities differently. ~Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about how to improve political discourse. We’re slowly waking up to the divisive nature of social media, the news cycle, victimhood culture, and identity politics. We’re seeing how outrage and contempt, though they make us feel righteous, are often counterproductive. And we’re becoming more aware of our biases, in hopes of trading reflexive action for reflective thought. Yet despite these realizations, political discourse remains fraught. Like sick patients struggling to follow the doctor’s orders, people act out old habits even as they learn they’re destructive. Many of us stick to our news feeds and trusted sources, preferring the familiar sound of our echo chambers to …

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 …

‘She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity—A Review

A review of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer. Dutton (May 2018) 656 pages.  In this book, Carl Zimmer tries to lay out how our ideas and knowledge of genetics have developed over time, and where we are today. He mixes in discussion of the social impact of these ideas. Some of those discussions are reasonable, some are not. He covers a very wide range of topics, from contagious cancers in clams to recent developments in genetic engineering. Before I go any further – Zimmer is wordy. He has things to say, but he never uses one word when ten will do. The facts are always part of some long-winded human-interest story. If you like that sort of thing, you may like this book. I cannot say that I did. The real problem with this book is that, to Zimmer and many other people, genetics itself is the enemy. The facts, not the discipline, particularly in how they apply to humans. We now know that everything is …

The War on Normal People—A Review

A review of The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income is Our Future by Andrew Yang. Hachette Books (April 2018) 305 pages.  “I am writing from inside the tech bubble to let you know that we are coming for your jobs.” So begins Andrew Yang’s book, The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income is Our Future. Despite the tagline, this isn’t fundamentally a book about Universal Basic Income (UBI). It’s about the market, and our attitude towards it. American society has been reorganising over the past few decades. Some business sectors have faded, while others have surged. Importantly, many of the surging sectors are concentrated in a few key regions. This has led to what Yang refers to as “six paths to six places,” meaning that the most qualified college graduates generally choose a career in one of six sectors and in one of six places: finance, consulting, law, technology, medicine, or academia in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, …

‘Factfulness’—A Review

A review of Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Flatiron Books (April 2018) 352 pages.  With environmentalists predicting the end of the world like evangelists of doom, 800 million people languishing in extreme poverty worldwide, and an ever-present threat of nuclear conflict in perpetual limbo, it is perhaps understandable that many people assume that the 21st world is in crisis. Stark disparities of wealth in the US and the UK fuel bitter political polarisation and we appear to be obsessed with our differences at the expense of our commonalities. But is it correct to conclude that everything is therefore terrible and only likely to get worse? This is the world as we understand it through the media and pessimistic perceptions are, in part, a product our own failure to keep up with the times. Journalists naturally seek interesting and sensational stories but these are not representative of the wider picture. Our perspective on the state of the world is …

Man of Yesterday: Karl Marx and His Place in History

A review of Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (New York: Liveright Publishers, 2013). The great achievement of Jonathan Sperber’s absorbing biography of Karl Marx is to debunk the complementary images of Marx as a bogyman of the Right whose ideas are responsible for the horrors of Stalinism, Maoism, Pol Pot etc, and as an icon of the Left who laid bare the inner workings of the capitalist economic system, foretold the workers’ millennium and, like Moses leading the Israelites to the promised land, gave them the political weapons with which to achieve it. On the contrary, Sperber demonstrates convincingly that Marx was a man of his time – another ambitious systems builder, whose vision of politics was anchored in the French Revolution of 1789 and whose understanding of the economy was limited to the turbulent industrial expansion of early nineteenth century Britain. It has often been said that Marxism grew from a fusion of German (Hegelian) philosophy, French socialism and English political economy. Sperber shows that insofar as this analysis is true …

In Search of Utopia for Lobsters Like Us

A review of 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B Peterson, Random House Canada (January 23, 2018) 409 pages, and Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari, Bloomsbury USA (January 23, 2018) 336 pages. Two recent and highly influential books have both addressed a puzzling question: despite unprecedented levels of material wealth, why are so many people in the modern world still so anxious and depressed? For Canadian clinical psychologist / intellectual celebrity, Jordan B. Peterson, the issue lies primarily within individuals themselves. His book 12 Rules for Life argues that many people, especially young men, lack meaning, purpose and connection because they have not taken on enough personal responsibility for their own lives. In contrast, Johann Hari, a British journalist and author, places the fault for rising levels of depression and anxiety upon the much broader shoulders of dysfunctional modern societal norms and institutions. People are miserable, he argues in his book Lost Connections, because the dominant culture in the West emphasises ‘junk …