All posts filed under: Review

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 …

Review—The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics

A review of The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, by Mark Lilla. HarperCollins, (August 15, 2017) 160 pages.   Like Hillary Clinton, many commentators of all stripes are still looking back at the 2016 presidential election and asking: “What happened?” Mark Lilla’s short book builds on a New York Times editorial claiming liberal identity politics drove voters toward Donald Trump. The problem, Lilla tells us, isn’t just Trump’s victory. Liberals have failed to provide “an image of what our shared way of life might be”, leading to electoral failure across the board: local, state, national. So what is “identity politics”, and who are these “liberals” who have been lost in it? It’s never made clear. “Liberal” seems to mean just “Democrat”, without any explication of what political liberalism should entail. “Identity politics”, Lilla says, is “a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities.” Even those of us who aren’t fans of college students’ shenanigans might want to hear more about why or how the concerns …

Review—The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from ‘Islamic State’

A review of The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from ‘Islamic State‘, by Samer. Interlink Pub Group (1 March 2017) 112 pages. The Syrian war has produced a great deal of writing, but little of real permanence. Most of its derivative works are journalistic accounts and dry geopolitical analyses. It has yet to produce a new novelist, poet, or memoirist of note, rather than simply providing new material for old hands. Some day, a great book about the Syrian civil war will be written – something that draws deeply from the conflict and sets the tone for a changed nation, region, and world. Such an era-defining conflict will have that effect. The Raqqa Diaries by ‘Samer’, a pseudonymous media activist who documented the daily reality of the occupation of his city by the Islamic State (ISIS), is not that book. Its brief length and episodic narrative do not allow it to reach great literary heights. It is presented too generally, in a way that will render it accessible to Western audiences. Arabic terms, even basic ones, are explained …

“Kill All Normies” Online Culture Wars and the Rise of the Alt-Right—A Review

A Review of Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt- Right, by Angela Nagle. Zero Books, $9.99 (Kindle edition).   An Irish literary critic and academic as well as a “dirtbag leftist” with bylines in Jacobin, The Baffler, and Current Affairs, Angela Nagle documents here the background and breakthroughs of the online politics which helped shape the 2016 election. It is an important topic and a fascinating one, and Nagle demonstrates the requisite impartiality: her conclusions do end up fitting her new-old-left politics nicely (as demonstrated by approving book-jacket quotes from Connor Kilpatrick of Jacobin and Amber A’Lee Frost of Chapo Trap House and Current Affairs), but they’ve garnered approval across the political spectrum, from Nagle’s neck of the woods all the way to the stodgy Never-Trumpism of the National Review. Unfortunately, one gets the impression that Nagle and Zero were both quite aware of how urgently this analysis was needed; the product seems rushed, even unfinished. Kill All Normies is merely a good start in need of deeper research, …

Laura Kipnis, Camille Paglia and the Redefinition of Sex

Reading Laura Kipnis’ Unwanted Advances is challenging. Not because Kipnis isn’t a gifted writer, but because her experience with Title IX administrators, today’s campus equivalent of a morality squad, is downright noxious. What landed her in trouble was an article she wrote, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” (Chronicle of Higher Education, February 2015). Many of us who remember the heady days of 70s and 80s campus life appreciated her candour about sex, especially when it came to the empowerment we felt then. Young campus feminists today, groomed to see themselves as victims disagreed, claiming they found the article “terrifying.” A campus petition to sanction Kipnis at Northwestern followed, as did a Title IX inquiry. Kipnis’ cautionary tale dovetails with Camille Paglia’s collection of essays, Free Women, Free Men. Paglia also draws inspiration from her own life, although her analyses focus more on shifting cultural Zeitgeists, the kind that empower or disempower women. Loosely, both books form a subjective (Kipnis) and objective (Paglia) look at how current iterations of feminism are curbing freedoms and diminishing the quality …

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 …