All posts filed under: Review

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 …

Review: Doing Good Better — William MacAskill

A review of  Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Help Others, Do Work that Matters, and Make Smarter Choices about Giving Back, by William MacAskill. Avery; Reprint edition (August 2, 2016), 272 pages. Imagine you’re walking down the street when you see an out of control stroller speeding past. A mother screams out in horror as her child rockets towards traffic. You burst into action, sprint onto the road, and divert the baby from an oncoming truck. You’ve saved a life. You’re a hero. Now, imagine doing that several times. You rescue one person drowning at the beach, drag another from a burning building, foil an attempted murder… as the saviour of several lives – you’re rapidly approaching superhero status. But, according to William MacAskill’s book Doing Good Better, we can do more than that. ‘Far more than that’. MacAskill seeks to convince that not only are we in the developed world in a position to do a tremendous amount of good, but that our approach to doing good is itself tremendously …

The Paradox of Democracy

Jason Brennan’s lengthy and provocative essay on democracy, is a follow up to his book and it challenges the foundational wisdom of our time, that democracy is good and moral. I hesitate to spoil the book so early at this stage, but democracy according to Dr Brennan, is inherently flawed, and that’s not because people are stupid, or misinformed, but they lack the incentive to know. In simpler terms, this data rich book shows that people who vote, take their voting rights for granted, and essentially cheer their side or team, without understanding the nuances of such momentous decision making, which affects everyone’s lives. Everyone under the sun opines on politics and economics, unlike neurosurgery and astronomy; even though politics and economics are also highly specialised areas which require knowledge and consideration. Brennan looks at data collected over a sixty year time-span, which suggests that most of people who take part in political process wouldn’t pass a University Politics or Economics 101 course. Nor are they even interested in understanding or knowing how basic taxation, …

Review: Islam and the Future of Tolerance

A review of Islam and the Future of Tolerance, by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (2015), 144 pages. In Islam and the Future of Tolerance, ex-jihadist and Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz teams up with Sam Harris in an open dialogue to prevent radicalisation and to promote reasonable interpretations of the Islamic faith. An essential question Nawaz seeks to answer is how to converge on interpretations of Islamic theology that are consistent with modern political liberalism. Their conversation canvasses Nawaz’s ambitious project to convince millions of Muslims worldwide that the religion of Islam can indeed be rendered compatible with liberal values and institutions. Harris, despite his repudiation of the religion’s truth-claims elsewhere, also embraces this pragmatic objective, on the basis that converting all religious believers into atheists is simply not a feasible precondition for lasting peace across the majority-Muslim world. The unlikely duo’s strategy thus echoes the approach of influential political philosopher John Rawls, who argued that we should not demand citizens to converge on fundamental worldviews as a condition for particular …

Giving Genes Their Due, But Not More

A review of Behaving: What’s Genetic, What’s Not, and Why Should We Care? by Kenneth B. Schaffner. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2016), 304 pages. No one gets anxious about using genetics to help explain a medical disease like cancer or heart disease. But using genetics to help explain a normal behavior like aggression, or a psychiatric disorder like depression, can be an entirely different story. At first blush, this difference in response to using genetics to explain different features of the same animal seems odd. After all, it’s not as if medical geneticists, on the one hand, and behavioral and psychiatric geneticists, on the other, employ different research methods. The difference, of course, is that the behavioral and psychiatric geneticists investigate features of ourselves that we take to be central to our humanity: our ways of acting and being in the world. To use genetics to try to explain those features elicits the anxious question, is human behavior genetically determined? Few people have been thinking about that question for as long, or with as much devotion …