All posts filed under: Review

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 …

Marketing Grit: When Science Lags Behind Populism

A review of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth. New York: Simon & Schuster (2016), 352 pages. Psychologist Angela Duckworth is a genius. This is only partly because she’s considered a MacArthur “Genius” by virtue of a grant she received in 2013. Much more impressive is that she’s managed to tap into a vein of American ethos that promises that anything is possible with effort, grit, and a can-do attitude, and she’s managed to do it in a way that has captured the attention of not only famous people — like one of the most well-known coaches in the National Football League, along with artists, writers, and the CEO of JP Morgan Chase — but also of educators, policy-makers, and the public. Her book on grit, the topic she’s dedicated her life to since she found her “calling,” as she puts it, will doubtless be popular. It has already been lauded by pop-psychologist and New Yorker author Malcolm Gladwell as a “persuasive and fascinating response to the cult of IQ fundamentalism.” …

Authenticity and Experience: The Problem of Identity Politics in Literature

In a seemingly shrinking poetry community, increasingly quarantined to the academe, a small maelstrom, barely visible upon the cultural radar, appeared, dissipated and vanished. Our culture, dominated by the 140 character limit, is particularly apt at creating tempests in teacups, each evoking an explosion of drama that exhausts itself in a mere matter of days (or in some cases a matter of hours). This particular incident might never have developed the cultural momentum to even garner the attention of even a few hundred people had it not involved a world renowned writer and the cultural bête noire of our time. After submitting his poem “The Bees, The Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” forty times and each time receiving rejection, Michael Derrick Hudson, a 51 year old white poet, submitted his work under a new name: Yi-Fen Chou. Under Hudson’s new pen name, the poem was published by The Prairie Schooner and then later selected by the esteemed Native American writer Sherman Alexie for inclusion in the 2015 edition of the anthology Best …

Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity

A review of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge by Joanna Williams. Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan (2016), 217 pages. A new book by education professor Joanna Williams explores how changing ideas about the purpose of a university have altered the concept of academic freedom and provided a foundation for student censorship in the U.K. The book is called “Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge” and Williams was recently interviewed by Inside Higher Ed. In the interview Williams discusses her model of academic freedom as a “marketplace of ideas” where even the most controversial, contentious, and/or reprehensible views are given a public hearing: To me, the idea of placing some issues beyond discussion in a university — the very places that should be most suited for free and robust debate — is just bizarre.  This doesn’t mean I think all ideas are equally valid or equally deserving of a place on the curriculum. But I do think it is incumbent upon academics to …

Harold Bloom and Aesthetics in an Age of Piety

Decades ago the literary critic Harold Bloom predicted that a new cultural and historical epoch would emerge in the West, perhaps in the world, determining, to some extent at least, the course of literature in the 21st century. Bloom believed that a new “Theocratic Age” was on the horizon — a moment in which aesthetic values and artistic forms would again be governed by a religious Weltanshauung. Bloom’s prediction must be understood in the context of the global political climate of the post-Cold War age, in which the resurrection not only of religious belief, but of faith-driven life-worlds, godly ways of conceiving morality and politics, were ascendant in North America and the Islamic world. Bloom seems to have believed that Evangelicals, whom he wrote about frequently in his books and essays on American Christianity, would be the dominant force in the West’s most powerful nation (a prediction that from our vantage point of 2016, we can see turned out to be false.) However, his prognosis was correct in a manner in which he may not have …

Music and Language, Cultural Identity and Fame

In this essay I hope to cover all the topics above – an ambitious ask – and suggest why some great composers are forgotten and then revived. In particular there is the mystery of J. S. Bach. Why was Johann Sebastian highly regarded during his lifetime, but only as one good composer among many, then forgotten, and now regarded as one of the great geniuses of all time, ranking with Albert Einstein, Michelangelo and Shakespeare? In 1846 a group of “Ethiopian Serenaders”, including a New Yorker, my great-grandfather John Cragin Rainer, performed for Queen Victoria, their faces painted black and lips white. The jokes were suitably toned down for the royal family. While on tour in the United States Rainer’s forehead was grazed by a bullet from a man in the audience, who presumably thought the black faced minstrels were black. In 1852 he arrived in Sydney from the Californian goldfields with his group, “Rainer’s Original Ethiopian Serenaders”. If his would-be assassin had been a better shot I would not be writing this article now. …

A Memoir from Mesopotamia

A review of The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq by Emma Sky. New York, NY: PublicAffairs (2015), 402 pages. Emma Sky’s memoir of her time in Iraq captivates. Her account, as a British, female, one-time opponent of the Iraq war, deals with how she administered an Iraqi province in the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The book documents the years she spent in the country, working closely with the American military — the same organisation she and many like-minded individuals opposed so vigorously in the run up to the war. In the latter role, Sky became associated with what she calls the ‘American tribe’ (despite being a British citizen with little formal guidance from her own government), serving as a political advisor to American officials including Raymond Odierno (‘General O’) and David Petraeus. A great deal of the memoir consists of the realities of administering a newly-liberated nation, with dramatic descriptions of the work the military undertook, the realities of working in a warzone, and interesting dissections – complete with …