Month: August 2018

As a Former Dean of Harvard Medical School, I Question Brown’s Failure to Defend Lisa Littman

This week’s controversy surrounding an academic paper on gender dysphoria published by Brown University assistant professor Lisa Littman—brought on by the post-publication questioning of Dr Littman’s scholarship by both the journal that published it, PLOS One, and Brown’s own School of Public Health—raises serious concerns about the ability of all academics to conduct research on controversial topics. Gender dysphoria—the clinical term used to describe a condition in which one’s sense of gender identity diverges from one’s biological sex—is an important issue that cries out for more research. In the case of children who assert a transgender identity, clinicians, researchers, school officials and other interested parties face profound, life-altering decisions regarding treatment. As a physician, endocrinologist and medical researcher, I have a professional interest in the topic. But the biology, psychology and treatment of gender dysphoria is not the focus of this article. Rather, I herein consider the reaction to Dr Littman’s survey research, which explored the reportedly growing phenomenon by which clusters of socially connected teenage girls, some beset by autism spectrum disorder and other …

Why Do We Feel the Need to Transgender the Dead?

Earlier this month, a list of vaudeville-era “non-binary and transgender public heroes” compiled by actor Jeffrey Marsh was circulated widely on social media. The accompanying photos are fascinating, which helps explain why the list has been re-Tweeted more than 7,000 times. But notwithstanding the above-quoted title, only one of the listed entertainers are actually transgender. Nor did any of them call themselves “non-binary”—since the term didn’t exist until recently. Rather, what Marsh actually has provided is a list of people who cross-dressed—a practice that was common in the days of vaudeville and early cinema, largely because audiences found it entertaining. One of the listed figures is Marlene Dietrich, who dressed in male clothing and kissed another woman in the 1930 film Morocco. But Dietrich was not trans, even if, like many of her stage contemporaries—including Bessie Bonehill, Vesta Tilley, Ella Wesner and Gladys Bentley—she experimented with gender-bending. (The word Dietrich would have used to describe this practice, I suspect, would have been acting). Marsh’s statement that Dietrich “openly dated folks of various genders” is inaccurate …

I Sold My Soul on Twitter. Now I’m Trying to Win It Back

I didn’t like John McCain’s politics. He supported wars of aggression, and wasn’t nearly as “moderate” in his politics as many claimed. I also thought it was ridiculous that he was called a hero for telling a crazy woman that Barack Obama wasn’t an undercover Arab. If McCain were alive today, I’d still be complaining about him. But he’s not. This week, he died of brain cancer. His family lost a son, father and husband. And ordinary Americans lost a real war hero who refused early release from a North Vietnamese prison unless every man taken in before his capture was released with him. But you wouldn’t know any of this from my left-wing Twitter feed, which looks like normal-human Twitter did the day U.S. soldiers killed Osama Bin Laden: Macabre celebration, and attacks on anyone who has anything nice to say about McCain. Dear lord, social media has turned us into terrible people. It wasn’t that long ago that I would have done the same thing. Twitter allows us all to rush to bad …

What Is the Law?

Recent debates about the looming appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court have once again indicated the depth of disagreement amongst American jurists and politicians about what legal officials should do and which legal interpretations are valid. Should a state have an interventionist Court or a restrained one? Is an interventionist Court one that takes a pragmatic approach to the law, or one that stresses paying attention to the so called ‘original meaning’ of legal texts? The intensity of these debates reflects the power granted to many legal officials in the American constitutional order. At different times, judges have handed down enormously consequential decisions that impact the way civil rights are understood, determine whether or not abortion will be legal and accessible, help us to understand the structure of American democracy, and so on. Americans are not alone in deliberating on these hot button issues—criticism of the power of legal officials, and discussion about what constitutes legitimate legal interpretation, also rage in Canada and on the European continent. These debates belie deeper and more complex questions …

Unpacking Peggy McIntosh’s Knapsack

[White Privilege is] the unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits, and choices bestowed upon people solely because they are white. Generally white people who experience such privilege do so without being conscious of it. —Peggy McIntosh, quoted in the Racial Equity Resource Guide The concept of ‘white privilege’ was popularized by Peggy McIntosh in a 1989 paper written at Harvard University and titled, “White Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack.” It was written as a personal, experiential essay, and it details 26 ways in which McIntosh’s skin color has been decisive in determining her life outcomes. This hugely influential paper has been responsible for the subsequent proliferation of a rigidly enforced theory of privilege throughout social movements and university classrooms. So central has this doctrine become to progressive politics, pedagogy, and activism, that to even question its validity is to invite the inquisitorial wrath of ‘social justice’ radicals. But it is for this very reason that it is important to subject McIntosh’s ideas to scrutiny. So let us return to the source and to first principles …

The Destructive Illusion of Moral Authority

Two stories about the Roman Catholic Church have saturated the headlines for much of the summer of 2018. One concerns developments in the sex abuse crisis that has scandalized the church for almost 20 years: these include revelations of cover-ups in Chile, Australia, and, most recently, Pennsylvania in the United States. The other story concerns Pope Francis’s recent decision to revise the Catholic catechism’s position on the death penalty: previously the church merely discouraged the death penalty, but the new teaching now condemns it without exception. If you don’t stop to consider it, you might not see how these stories are related. Some commentators, especially conservative critics of the Church’s opposition to the death penalty, have suggested that the revision to the catechism was intended to distract the public’s attention from the intensifying sex abuse scandal. However, I think that if there is a hidden agenda, it’s more likely that it encourages a kind of reflection about the predators. After all, if we are encouraged to show mercy to murderers, then it follows that we …

Automation and the Death Knell of the American Workforce

Throughout this Summer, I worked for Amazon as an ‘associate.’ I worked shifts of four to five hours a day, six days a week, during which I performed various manual labor tasks. So I am familiar with the kind of people who work at Amazon fulfilment centers, and how the company treats its workers. Recently, Amazon has been the subject of a public campaign led by Senator Bernie Sanders for higher wages and better working conditions. Having listened to the Senator’s rhetoric, I have concluded that Amazon risks significant damage to its reputation if the company mishandles this situation. I have identified three likely outcomes: wages and conditions could increase, nothing could be accomplished at all, or the workers could be replaced by automation. Careful consideration makes it clear that only feasible outcome is automation, for several reasons. Consider the predicament of the Amazon warehouse worker. The Amazon worker commutes to a warehouse where he will stand for many hours, performing the same task over and over again, day after day, month after month. Filling …

Taming the Lizard Brain

There is money to be made from stopping us from using our devices, but it might involve better regulation of our most primitive selves. Apple’s controls to help us limit our phone usage is the clearest evidence yet that self-regulation of technology companies must include not just data privacy, but protections of our humanity. Apple has included features on its new phones that turn off notifications overnight, during driving and expand parental protections. Google is implementing similar such controls. In the wake of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica data scandals, the so-called tech-lash is the ultimate wake up call. It’s never been more essential that the industry considers implications beyond the user experience in the race to further monetise our attention. “If you don’t self-police, if you don’t preserve the trust of your user community, then you will get regulated. The downside with regulation is that government can’t keep up with the pace of technology,” says John Hennessy, the Chairman of Alphabet. That erosion of trust stems from growing mental health effects linked to technology …

The Self-Defeat of Academia

These last few years have been tough for higher education. Enrollment is down year after year, state funding increases have stalled even as costs skyrocket, and most people don’t have much confidence overall in American colleges and universities. The standard explanation within academia for these trends is that the relentless drumbeat of criticism of universities from right-wing media have combined with increasing anti-intellectualism in the US to erode public perceptions of the value of higher education. Attacks from conservative media have increased, focused in particular on the well-established liberal bias in higher ed, so the partisan divide in perceptions of universities is not surprising. But right-wing attacks on the academy and its denizens are only part of the story. A closer look at the data shows that a sizeable number of liberals are dissatisfied with higher education. Besides, focusing only on partisan media places the responsibility for recent downward trends in enrolment, funding, and public opinion outside of academia. We – professors and administrators in higher education – need to accept our role in these trends. Only by …

The Man Who Predicted the Venezuelan Catastrophe in 1893

On 19 August, the Guardian reported that Venezuelans fleeing their country’s economic, political, and humanitarian crisis are being attacked by natives of neighbouring countries, who have grown weary of the relentless influx of migrants (a term that sounds increasingly euphemistic—’refugees’ is a more accurate descriptor). For nearly 20 years, Venezuela’s regime has blamed foreign actors and ‘neoliberal’ subversives for every woe and calamity that has befallen the country. But the disastrous results of the Bolivarian socialist experiment were both predictable and widely predicted—and not just by contemporary observers and analysts. They were also foretold 125 years ago by a now-obscure German politician, journalist, and author named Eugen Richter. Richter was what we would now call a ‘classical liberal.’ He appraised socialist doctrine before an actual socialist state put theory into practice, and he found it wanting. In 1893, he turned his concerns into a dystopian novella entitled Pictures of the Socialistic Future, in which he vividly predicted what would happen if the socialists of his day were to gain control of the German economy. Narrated by a …