Author: Jonathan Kay

A Black Eye for the Columbia Journalism Review

Ideological polarization has become a growing problem in many sectors of society. But it is especially corrosive to public discourse when it infects organizations whose traditional role has been to hold everyone else to account for the integrity of their reporting. We need those organizations to act as a sort of referee when journalists of any description—including those at Quillette—fail to exhibit high standards. This becomes impossible when they instead act as combatants in the culture wars. Earlier this month, for example, the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), which describes itself as “the national voice of Canadian journalists,” “committed to protecting the public’s right to know,” and “dedicated to promoting excellence in journalism,” signed on to the claim that Canada is perpetuating an ongoing “genocide” against Indigenous people, and encouraged journalists to take on an activist role by promoting “decolonizing approaches to their work [and] publications in order to educate all Canadians about Indigenous women, girls & 2SLGBTQQIA people.” It hardly needs pointing out that this sort of explicit activist agenda—however well-intentioned—is completely incompatible with …

On Its 70th Anniversary, Nineteen Eighty-Four Still Feels Important and Inspiring

Nineteen Eighty-Four is divided into three parts, the second of which is structured around Winston Smith’s love affair with Julia, a co-worker at the Ministry of Truth. Their romance begins with Smith offering Julia the sort of smooth talk that would send any woman’s heart aflutter: “I’m thirty-nine years old. I’ve got a wife that I can’t get rid of. I’ve got varicose veins. I’ve got five false teeth.” Moments later, he seals the deal by telling Julia that she’d always been in his thoughts. “I hated the first sight of you,” he tells her. “I wanted to rape you and then murder you afterwards. Two weeks ago, I thought seriously of smashing your head in with a cobblestone.” Naturally, Julia is seduced. Several pages later, Winston “pressed her down upon the grass, among the fallen bluebells.” It is a symptom of George Orwell’s genius that, taken in context, this sequence makes perfect sense. In his life, Orwell seems to have been somewhat mortified by the sex act. And one can almost see him squirming …

The Ultimate ‘Concept Creep’: How a Canadian Inquiry Strips the Word ‘Genocide’ of Meaning

In 208 AD, the Roman warrior emperor Septimus Severus arrived in Britain with 40,000 soldiers, intent on subduing the tribes inhabiting the northern part of the island. These tribes were part of the Caledonian confederacy, which occupied modern Scotland. But to the Romans, most everyone who lived outside the empire was a barbarian, full stop. So when Severus became frustrated by the Caledonians’ (sensible) refusal to submit to pitched battle, the emperor settled on another strategy, which we would now call genocide. In 210, he assigned the job of extermination to his son Caracalla, a mass-murdering lunatic who would later assassinate his own brother Geta in front of their mother. It likely was only Severus’ death in 211 that cut the operation short and saved Scotland from a complete holocaust. Caracalla always is listed by historians among the worst emperors of Roman history. But tellingly, his attempted annihilation of the Caledonians isn’t typically cited in the historical bill of particulars. In ancient Rome, genocide was seen as an acceptable military tactic if it was directed …

How to Prevent Campus Deplatformings: Lessons from Harvey Mansfield and Concordia University

It’s been a year since Atlantic magazine hired, then abruptly fired, conservative writer Kevin Williamson. Shortly after the story came full circle, I caught up with a friend who then worked closely with the Atlantic. He told me that hiring Williamson had been a mistake from the get go. “So you agreed with the decision to fire him?” I asked. “Not quite,” he replied. “Imagine you have this friend who tells you he’s going to get a puppy. And you say, ‘Don’t do it. I know you. You’re not a puppy person.’ But he gets the puppy anyway. Then the weeks pass, and he comes to you and says, ‘You were right. I shouldn’t have gotten the puppy.’ But now it’s too late. Your friend is stuck with the puppy. That’s how life works.” It’s an allegory I come back to often in this age of deplatforming. Universities have no obligation to invite any particular public figure to speak on campus. But once they’ve promised someone a platform, the stakes are raised: Both speaker and …

The Circular Firing Squad Is Destroying the Left’s Political Brand: A Case Study from Canada

On last week’s Quillette podcast, I asked Marginal Revolution host and Mercatus Center director Tyler Cowen whether socialism could become a mainstream political movement in the United States. Cowen answered in the affirmative, though only insofar as socialism was presented in a constrained form—as “extreme discontent with capitalism, more redistribution, much more government regulation, [and] nationalization [of] the health sector.” I believe Cowen is correct. As a Canadian who travels often to the United States, I often find myself shocked by the vast gulf between haves and have-nots in American society. Even here in Canada, where the class divisions are less stark, I’m a supporter of more aggressive measures aimed at helping people who are disabled, uneducated, mired in poverty, imprisoned (or recently released from prison), or burdened with care for the very old or very young. I believe income inequality is a real problem, and I’m troubled by the self-segregation of populations according to socioeconomic status, a phenomenon that has all sorts of toxic political repercussions. And at election time, I seek out parties …

Giving the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ Its Star Turn on Video

When we consider the way video has helped fuel the movement that’s sometimes described as the Intellectual Dark Web, we often think about famous thinkers such as Jordan Peterson delivering speeches or lectures on YouTube and other social media sites. It’s a phenomenon I wrote about back in September, in a Quillette piece entitled Amidst the YouTube Junkies of MythCon, wherein I described the extraordinary popularity of video pundits collecting millions of hits with thoughtful—but often simple and low-budget—monologues delivered from their basement, bedroom or kitchen table. But Washington, D.C.-based documentarian Rob Montz, co-founder and CEO of Good Kid Productions, takes a more ambitious approach. Montz has produced tightly narrated, inventively shot documentaries about American politics and campus life that manage to be both intellectually penetrating and surprisingly funny. One of his 2017 documentaries, published on We the Internet TV, won the 2018 Reason Video Prize. And his work has been covered in The Economist, The New York Times and the Washington Post. In late March, I interviewed Montz for the Quillette podcast—a conversation you …

An Interview With Lisa Littman, Who Coined the Term ‘Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria’

In 2018, Lisa Littman, Assistant Professor of the Practice at the Brown University School of Public Health, published an article in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE entitled Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria in Adolescents and Young Adults: A Study of Parental Reports. The article drew attention to a phenomenon that had attracted widespread concern among parents, but which had not yet been studied systematically in the scientific literature. Following publication, Dr. Littman and her study became the subject of intense criticism from some activists, who accused the author of spreading misconceptions about transgender people and employing biased methods. In response to this criticism, PLOS ONE initiated a re-review of Dr. Littman’s paper. This week, following the recent conclusion of that review, a modified version of Dr. Littman’s paper was published by PLOS ONE. And both Dr. Littman and PLOS One have released statements. According to the Notice of Republication, “Other than the addition of a few missing values in Table 13, the Results section is unchanged in the updated version of the article. The Competing Interests statement …

The Rise and (Possible) Fall of Justin Trudeau Show the Perils of Woke Governance

The scandal that has engulfed Justin Trudeau’s government in recent weeks is, in many ways, a very Canadian affair: It involves no sex, violence or even allegations of personal enrichment. Rather, it centers on the question of whether the Prime Minister and his representatives improperly pressured his ex-minister of justice—a former Indigenous chief named Jody Wilson-Raybould—to back off the criminal prosecution of a well-connected Quebec-based engineering firm that has been charged with fraud and corruption. To be clear, no one is alleging that Trudeau and his minions flat-out ordered Wilson-Raybould to reverse her decision in the case. In true Canadian style, the badgering of the former justice minister seems to have been a largely passive aggressive exercise, with a succession of public figures reminding her about all the many, many jobs that might be lost in (politically sensitive) Quebec if she didn’t reconsider her decision. And when she stuck to her principles and failed to relent, the PM removed her from her justice-ministry post, and pushed in a newcomer named David Lametti who—quelle surprise—seems quite …

Punishing the Crime vs. Blacklisting the Soul

The assassination of Julius Caesar is known best for the fictional elements that Shakespeare and others invented. Caesar never actually said “Et tu, Brute?,” and Brutus never said “Sic semper tyrannis.” The historical record suggests the dictator remained silent and covered his head while the conspirators rained daggers upon him. The whole scene actually sounds quite grubby. No one even bothered to collect Caesar’s body until slaves got around to it on their own initiative. The truly amazing fact is that Brutus and Cassius had no real follow-up plan. They lived in a bubble of their own conspiratorial making, and imagined that the great mass of ordinary Roman citizens would laud them as heroes. When this didn’t happen, they simply fled the city as power coalesced around Mark Antony. In the civil war that followed, two sides emerged—those who cast Brutus and Cassius as noble Liberators (as the conspirators called themselves), and those who demanded they be hunted down as enemies of the state. The stabbing of Caesar was one of history’s most famous homicides—which …

Entering the Mind of an Inuit Whale-Hunter

This is a review of the Greenland (Second Ed.) Board Game, from Sierra Madre Games. A bowhead whale is a majestic and intimidating creature—up to 60 feet in length, weighing up to 100 tons, with a triangular hunk of bone for a skull, which the bowhead uses to smash through Arctic ice on its way to the ocean surface. Yet amazingly, the Indigenous peoples of northern Europe and North America found a way to kill and harvest these massive creatures without modern ships or weapons. Their hunts, conducted by small kin groups operating out of coastal hunting camps, could be extraordinarily risky. Even the job of butchering the giant beasts and hauling the proceeds back home was exhausting and dangerous. But the enterprise was worthwhile, because a single Bowhead might provide enough food and fuel to keep the hunters and their families alive for a whole year. Any visitor to the far north can only marvel at how any community could not only survive, but at times even flourish, in a region where almost any modern …