All posts filed under: Review

Review—Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India by Shashi Tharoor

A review of Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India by Shashi Tharoor.  Hurst (March 2, 2017). In November 2011, Pankaj Mishra, an Indian author, literary critic, and essayist for the Guardian and the New York Times, wrote a scathing review of Niall Ferguson’s Civilisation: The West and the Rest in the prestigious London Review of Books. Ferguson is a pop historian, and his recent polemic depicting Henry Kissinger as an idealist is a corny and ahistorical piece of work for any serious scholar of International Relations. But on one point, Ferguson has been remarkably consistent and fair—that there needs to be a more nuanced assessment of Britain’s Imperial legacy. Since the Second World War, the prevailing view in academia has been that colonialism was an unpardonable and incomparable sin that plagued the globe for over two hundred years. Any counterpoint to this view is routinely dismissed as pro-colonial and therefore, by definition, racist. Ferguson has argued in several books that colonialism is a much more complicated subject than such black-and-white rhetoric allows. For this, he has been skewered from all sides, most savagely by Mishra in the LRB, who was subsequently threatened …

Reviving “Essentialism” and Other Scientific Straw Men

Cordelia Fine’s latest attempt at human exceptionalism and biology denial Testosterone Rex has drawn rave reviews from (almost) everyone, from the popular press to Nature. Happy to go against this grain, I would like to suggest that these much-circulated rumours of the death of human nature have been somewhat exaggerated. Most of Fine’s targets are probably quite well deserved chunks of popular science, male chauvinism, and journalistic overreach. However, when she turns her sights on serious science she makes some rather egregious blunders. This is a pity—because there is much in the public understanding of sex differences that could really use some popular explication and myth busting. Let’s start with what is positive about the book. Many will find her anecdotal approach to be engaging and charming. I didn’t, but I’m a miserable old curmudgeon who wants to get to grips with the facts, not be reassured via an anecdote about kangaroo testicles that that the writer “doesn’t hate men really”. On this point: I’m always a little unsettled by people who feel the need …

The Changeling — A Review of ‘In Full Colour’ by Rachel Doležal

A review of In Full Color by Rachel Doležal. BenBella Books, Dallas, Texas (April 2017) 282pages. When I was a girl, my mother said wanting something too much often led to its opposite. It could mean I’d get something almost – but not completely – unrelated to what I desired, even something I hated. If this happened, she would say and that’s what the fairies sent you. The fairies sent things and took them away all the time among my Irish kin, none more distressingly than changelings, where newborn natural children were stolen and replaced with fairy children. Fairy changelings were not like their parents, were greedy, and always unwanted. Changeling stories – present in Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Scandinavia, and among the Igbo people of Nigeria – seldom show the fairy child growing up to be loved and accepted by its human family. Usually it is killed, but only after being beaten, dunked in the river, or left on a hot stovetop. Its parents complain about its ravenous hunger, its odd appearance, its sickliness, its …

Cordelia Fine’s “Testosterone Rex” — A Review

A review of Testosterone Rex, by Cordelia Fine. W.W. Norton and Company (January 2017) 272 pages.  “Scientism”. “Orientalism”. “Historicism”. The trouble with inventing a belief system and ascribing it to your opponents is that you might inadvertently have built a straw man. After all, nobody actively signs up to these supposed philosophies: they’re terms of criticism or abuse. One such nebulous belief system is the topic of psychologist Cordelia Fine’s new book, Testosterone Rex. Unconcerned by the straw-manning risk, Fine introduces the eponymous “Testosterone Rex” as the “story of sex and society” that holds that there are male brains and there are female brains, programmed by evolution to be irreconcilably different, with testosterone explaining males’ greater risk-taking, promiscuity, competitiveness, and dominance. Fine argues that modern science is the asteroid that wiped out this T-Rex, revealing subtler cultural—not biological—explanations for the sex differences we see in society. Fine’s first target is the ‘Bateman Gradient’, a seminal (excuse the pun) finding on sexual selection from 1940s experiments on fruit flies. Geneticist Angus Bateman found that the link …

Review: The New Philistines

A review of The New Philistines: How Identity Politics Disfigure the Arts by Sohrab Ahmari. Biteback Publishing (2016), 144 pages.   “Today’s art world isn’t even contemptuous of old standards — it is wholly indifferent to them,” writes Sohrab Ahmari in this timely polemic, in which he writes passionately in defence of humane art and the critical standards once thought to be of supreme importance and permanence: “sincerity, formal rigour and cohesion, the quest for truth, the sacred and the transcendent.” Editorialist for the Wall Street Journal, contributor to Commentary magazine, author and editor of works analyzing the Arab Spring and its aftermath, and a recent convert to Catholicism, Ahmari makes his own position clear. His book is aimed at readers who want to engage with art but find too little of it that speaks to them. He is not concerned with winning over the art world insider or academic expert, but rather wishes to aid the confused and disgruntled arts lover. Ahmari was raised in Iran while the “cultural revolution” busied itself purging the academy and cultural …

Our Age of Empathy

In 2009, the primatologist Frans de Waal published a bestseller called The Age of Empathy, in which he suggested that humanity might be rediscovering its propensity for cooperation and kindness. No longer would we be fooled by the myths of politicians and economists about our apparently selfish nature. He cited as evidence for this the recent election of a man who seemed to speak about empathy more than any other, Barack Obama. As Wordsworth famously wrote about the start of the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” How much older and sadder the West seems today — its conversations about politics and ethics bitter and polarized, all basis for rational disagreement evaporating before our eyes. And yet, de Waal’s claim that we are “pre-programmed to reach out” has not been dispensed with — in fact, many continue to believe that the world is awash with empathy. Only there is now a growing suspicion that this might actually bear some responsibility for our discord. In 2012, a …

Make Expertise Great Again

A review of  by The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, by Tom Nichols. Oxford University Press, (1 April, 2017) 272 pages.   The long-awaited book by Professor Tom Nichols, (AKA @RadioFreeTom) The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters is finally out this year. And perhaps no other topic can be as important, given the tectonic shifting year in global politics we just had. Political Scientists don’t often get credit for genuine predictions or trend recognition, although the majority of them invite flak for failed ones. Credit, therefore goes to Nichols. He identified, what is currently one of the most destructive trends in this post-truth world, a disdain towards any sort of acquired knowledge and expertise, and he identified that trend in 2013 in this famous blog post. That blog post was expanded to a full length Op-Ed for The Federalist in 2014, which came out as a complete thesis in the first month of 2017. The book, which  is soon to be …

Stand Up For Heresy

A review of The New Philistines: How Identity Politics Disfigure the Arts by Sohrab Ahmari. Biteback Publishing, (October 16, 2016) 128 pages. Postmodernism might have had a liberating effect on the arts. Skepticism about the objectivity of truth provided artists with limitless imaginative possibilities, while a critical analysis that privileged subjective interpretation over authorial intent opened the doors to a bracing new iconoclasm. Postmodernism, in other words, seemed to herald a democratization of form, meaning, and value. It would rescue the arts from the dusty irrelevance of the traditionalist canon, and the pointy-headed elitists who presumed to decide what was of worthy of greatness and study and what was not. Hitherto neglected artists and their works were disinterred and reappraised (some of which turned out to be good and some of which did not), while sacred cows were gleefully slaughtered and gutted (some of which deserved it and some of which did not). And some exciting and vibrant new art got produced in the process — hip, ironic, self-referential, irreverent, and smart. But then postmodernism began …

Review: Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream — Sara Goldrick-Rab

A review of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, by Sara Goldrick-Rab. University of Chicago Press (September 13 2016) 368 pages.  Let’s say you’re a high-school student yearning to attend college. But nobody in your family has graduated high-school,  and your household income is only about $25,000. You have three siblings, money’s always tight, and you often skip meals to make sure your younger siblings have enough to eat. Your senior year of high-school you apply to college. You get in. Congratulations! But there’s one problem: How will you pay for college? And will the struggle to pay for college prevent you from completing it? This is where the book “Paying the Price” by Temple University sociology professor, Sara Goldrick-Rab comes in. Goldrick-Rab has long been a scholar in the field of higher education policy, and is perhaps the most well-known name in the field of college affordability. Paying the Price draws on an unprecedented study that tracked the educational outcomes of 3,000 young adults that entered college in Wisconsin …

Review: Hillbilly Elegy — J.D. Vance

A review of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D Vance. Harper, (June 28, 2016) 272 pages. Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir written by young American lawyer, J.D. Vance. Through it he tells the story of hillbillies, impoverished immigrants who came from Scotland and Ireland in the eighteenth century to settle in the American south. It’s also an apologia of sorts, one that may explain why Donald Trump, that inveterate carnival barker, has achieved political prominence. At a time when flame wars equal public discourse, Vance’s calm, thoughtful analysis is a welcome respite. It reflects on the current presidential race, revealing it for star-spangled spectacle and bun fight it’s become. That’s because Vance’s exhortations for better behaviour are handed out equally. Liberals who dismiss the working classes — Clinton’s “deplorables” come to mind — are chastised along with the unemployed, able-bodied neighbours who keep hitting up Vance’s grandmother for cash. Conservative businessmen, who moved their midwestern factories to the third world, are criticized along with the drug lords who moved their empires …