All posts filed under: Review

The Implosion of Western Liberalism

“Western liberalism is under siege,” writes Edward Luce in his short new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism. Whether it is under siege, retreating or imploding, there is no longer any doubt that it is embattled. To anyone over forty, moreover, this is a puzzling—and likely also disturbing—development. By the end of the twentieth century, liberal democracy seemed not only triumphant but, to some, inevitable. In the 1970s, Portugal, Greece and Spain closed the long chapter of European fascism. As the Soviets retreated from their satellites, democratic governments (more or less liberal) spread across central and eastern Europe. Through the 1990s, even Russia appeared to be moving closer to the Western consensus over individual human rights and popular representation through genuine, multi-party elections. In three decades (1970–2000), the number of democracies worldwide went from thirty to one hundred. Perhaps even China would liberalize, many Western leaders hoped, as it opened up to Western investment, belying its Marxist rhetoric with an increasingly capitalist reality. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama foresaw the possibility …

Sex and the Seductions of Social Explanation

A review of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, by Angela Saini. Beacon Press (May 30 2017) 224 pages. I saw a funny cartoon: a man lies hopelessly drunk in a gutter while, slumped next door, his bulbous-nosed friend utters the punchline: “He’s been celebrating not having the alcoholism gene again.” This was a long time ago, when I was a researcher in a university psychology department, and the cartoon was pinned to the door of a senior colleague working on the social psychology of alcoholism. He was a man, it’s safe to say, who didn’t like genetic explanations for human behaviour. Over the years I’d largely forgotten about the cartoon, as well as most of what I once knew about psychology. The memory came back to me in recent months, however, as the long-simmering question of what kind of explanations we should give when we turn our attention to ourselves, to questions of human behaviour, has boiled over. Once again there is a partisanship for certain types …

Haruki Murakami, Poet of Loneliness

Do you ever want to take a walk? Not around the neighbourhood. Not around the park. Not around the city. Nothing planned. Nothing orderly. A walk with a beginning but no middle and no end. That is the fate of many characters in the novels of Japan’s Haruki Murakami. It is also his appeal. The reader goes for a walk: starting somewhere familiar and going somewhere strange. There is much one could dislike about Murakami’s books. The prose can be cliche-ridden. The tropes can seem cloying. The characters and plots can seem predictable. While he has been consistently popular, Murakami’s critical reception has been mixed. “Falling out of love with Murakami” was the title of one essay in the Guardian. His popularity, indeed, exposes him to cynicism as his fans can be among the most cultlike in literature: whimsical “Harukists” who love his most formulaic elements and bemoan his annual failure to win the Nobel Prize. One could easily imagine a satire of his books. A single man lives alone, cooking miso soup and listening to the Beatles. He …

Read Houellebecq To Free Your Mind

Let’s say that you, like many Quillette readers, are part of the broad coalition that aims to promote greater engagement with dangerous ideas and fight political correctness – call it cultural libertarianism if you wish, but in reality the coalition includes many social conservatives and others who don’t really fit that label. What should you read? Who should your intellectual heroes be? An obvious answer is John Stuart Mill; approving references to Mill’s wonderful On Liberty have become something of a ritual for those of us with such concerns. But there’s room for more heroes besides Mill, and room for disagreement and debate about who those figures should be. In this essay, I’d like to suggest that the contemporary French novelist Michel Houellebecq may be such a figure. Though Houellebecq has a large international audience and many Quillette readers are surely familiar with his work, I find that his name isn’t invoked that often in the discussions of cultural issues with which we are concerned. But it should be. Houellebecq has something to offer to …

Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle: Science, Commerce, Freedom, and the Origins of Modernity

They are [letters] from brothers of mine in Europe. They tell a story – albeit in a fragmentary and patchwork way – of a sea-change that is spreading across Christendom, in large part because of men like Leibniz, Newton and Descartes. It is a change in the way men think, and it is the doom of the Inquisition. — Edouard de Gex in the dungeons of the Mexican Inquisition Athenian civilization defended itself from the forces of Ares with metis, or technology. Technology is built on science. … The process of science doesn’t work unless young scientists have the freedom to attack and tear down old dogmas, to engage in an ongoing Titanomachia. Science flourishes where art and free speech flourish. — Enoch Root, in a later incarnation in Cryptonomicon The principal and proper work of history being to instruct and enable men by the knowledge of actions past to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently toward the future. — Thomas Hobbes, introduction to his translation of Thucydides Commentary on Neal Stephenson’s Baroque …

Germaine Greer and the Emma Dilemma

Rescuing Jane Austen from Both Her Well-Meaning Admirers and Her Less Well-Meaning Political Critics In the commentaries devoted to Jane Austen this year on the two-hundredth anniversary of her death, the cultural basis of her importance as a historical figure and of her great appeal as a novelist was largely overlooked, neglected, or misunderstood. The best way to approach this question is by comparing Austen’s Emma with Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. Though at first glance these two books, one a work of fiction, the other of non-fiction, but each influential in its own way, would seem to have little in common, the story of Austen’s heroine in fact anticipates the actual experience of many modern women, including Ms. Greer. To begin by clearing up one large misconception: Greer’s treatise is not only about women’s liberation. Greer herself emphasized this point in drawing a distinction between “reform” feminism and “revolutionary” feminism. Reform feminists believed women could gain the same legal and political rights, equality of opportunity in education and career choices, and sexual freedom that …

Dodging the Hard Question on Economic Mobility

A review of Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It, by Richard V. Reeves. Brookings Institution Press (June 13, 2017) 240 pages. In an era increasingly defined by arguments about income inequality, any discussion of improving economic mobility is a welcome one. In his recently released book, Dream Hoarders, Brookings Institution Scholar Richard V. Reeves tackles the subject head-on and finds an unlikely culprit for America’s lackluster economic mobility: the upper middle class. The book is well researched and clearly lays out some of the ways in which members of the American upper middle class are entrenching their status by taking advantage of opportunities not available to everyone. According to Reeves’s analysis, this “opportunity hoarding” is a major reason why Americans are not as economically mobile as they have been in the past. Because his findings and recommendations highlight the failures of the upper middle class rather than just the dreaded “one percent,” the book has garnered plenty …