All posts filed under: Books

Intellectual Freedom and the Culture Wars—A Review

A review of Intellectual Freedom and the Culture Wars by Piers Benn. Palgrave MacMillan, 168 pages (October 2020) I attended a notably liberal state university in the early 2000s. Most politically-minded students regarded themselves as either conventionally liberal or part of an amorphous Left which was focused primarily on cultural issues. I counted myself peripherally among the campus Left and participated occasionally in political activism—attending protests against the policies of the World Trade Organization and against American military adventures overseas (views which were then seen by enlightened opinion as left wing but are now, apparently, the domain of isolationist reactionaries). Most instructors on campus who revealed their political views also showed themselves to be a part of the Left. However, there were several popular conservative professors, a vibrant sect of College Republicans consisting mostly of garden-variety neocons, plenty of libertarians, and a couple of paleoconservative Buchanan brigaders. I sparred regularly with these people in class discussions, and regarded several of them as my friends. This was not especially uncommon. The kids who were genuinely invested …

Gender Activists Are Trying to Cancel My Book. Why is Silicon Valley Helping Them?

The day after I tweeted about the ongoing attempts to block sales of my book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, I was stuck on the phone with my parents’ real estate agent. “How’s your book going?” she wanted to know. “Is there a lot of controversy?” I know it’s fashionable these days to claim to be an introvert—something to do with an unwarranted assumption of depth, maybe—but I actually am an introvert. Small talk exhausts me, not because I believe it’s beneath me, but because it feels like being handed a socket wrench. I have no idea what to do with it. “Well, you had to expect that, right?” she added casually. “When you write a book like that, that’s what you’re expecting.” This is, more or less, most people’s reaction to the efforts to suppress my book. It isn’t that they agree with censorship per se. But you also can’t go setting fires without expecting Big Tech’s cops to shut them down. “If you’re going to talk about the trans thing, …

My Own Private Chateau—Pauline Réage’s ‘Story of O’ Revisited

I’m sitting on a plane and I’m feeling increasingly excited. I’m flushed. My heart rate is up, and I can’t seem to find a comfortable way to sit. My agitation isn’t caused by any nervousness about flying, nor by any fears of contracting COVID-19 during the flight. My disquiet has been triggered by the book I’m reading. The sensations it arouses almost overwhelm me. I find I have to pause every few paragraphs, close the slim volume, and rest it on my lap in order to regain some sense of personal composure. Fiction usually transports my imagination away from myself, but this book is accomplishing the opposite: I feel increasingly aware of my body as I read it, as though being immersed in fiction has drawn me into a moment of privacy with myself. It feels somehow unseemly for the public world of the airplane to intrude on my private sensations. I have to put the book down frequently in order to remind myself that it is no act of indecency for the happy family …

For Some Adjunct Professors, It’s Speak Your Mind versus Keep Your Job

The issue of academic freedom is particularly tenuous for the growing number of college teachers who hold positions that are neither tenured nor on the tenure track. Various titles are used to describe these positions, including adjunct professor, visiting professor, professor of practice, professor in residence, acting professor, and lecturer. There is wide variation in the job duties, qualifications for appointment, and appointment procedures associated with such titles. (And in some rare cases, it should be noted, university instructors who aren’t tenured faculty do have security of employment—such as at the University of California, at which some adjuncts have a “Lecturer with Security of Employment” job title.) But for simplicity, we will use the term “adjunct” to describe any college instructor who does not have, and is not on a formal track to receive security of employment through the tenure system. There is tremendous variation regarding the length of service and level of involvement that adjuncts have with colleges. An adjunct might be hired for a period of only a few months to teach a …

George Orwell, Henry Miller, and the ‘Dirty-Handkerchief Side of Life’

I. In December 1936, George Orwell was on his way to Spain to join the Republican side in the fight against fascism. On the way, he stopped in Paris where he met with Henry Miller in his Montparnasse studio. As D. J. Taylor notes in Orwell: The Life, Miller’s friend Alfred Perlès was present for the meeting, and he recalled an encounter that perfectly captured the seemingly antithetical worldviews of the two men. Miller thought Orwell’s decision to fight in Spain was absurd—as Taylor puts it (summarizing Perlès’s account of Miller’s attitude): “Wasn’t he more use to the world alive than dead? Orwell replied ‘earnestly and humbly’ that in extraordinary times there could be no thought of avoiding self-sacrifice.” Miller then offered his corduroy jacket as a “contribution to the Republican war effort,” but he “tactfully refrained from adding that Orwell would have been welcome to the jacket even if he had been fighting for Franco.” “Watching the two of them together,” Taylor writes, “Perlès was struck by the sharp contrast in personality and temperament, …

Analyst of Totalitarianism—Reading Simon Leys Today

Simon Leys was perhaps the pre-eminent Western chronicler of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and it is worth returning to his work for its vivid first-hand accounts of life in Beijing during this period. But Leys was also interested in the process by which, under the right conditions and with the right ideology, a society can collapse into insanity and murder. His description of the Cultural Revolution showed how political hysteria and the legitimization of violence and hatred combined to ravage a nation. These developments, however, are by no means unique to communism in general or China in particular, and Leys explored similar themes in his retelling of the harrowing true story of a ship wrecked off the coast of Australia in 1629. His book on the topic, The Wreck of the Batavia, is a short masterpiece about how the small society that the ship’s survivors tried to construct in the wake of the disaster was plunged into apocalyptic madness and murder by a psychopathic leader operating according to his own deranged totalitarian ideology. The parallels to Maoism—although Leys …

Inside Story—A Review

A review of Inside Story by Martin Amis. Knopf, 560 pages. (October 2020) As literature’s cultural relevance washes out on the high tide of digital media, self-absorption becomes the order of the day. Those who can still be bothered to write “serious” books aren’t interested in telling other people’s stories. They want to tell their own. And in the age of profiles and self-promotion, it’s not surprising that auto-fiction—or what I like to call the ME novel—is the literary genre with the most purchase. ME writing, while centuries old, has exploded in the last decade: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (to name a few in fiction); Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering (for non-fiction novels)—while other excesses, like blog novels and memoirs written by 28-year-olds have even managed to find their way to audiences. Now Martin Amis’s new novel Inside Story joins this club of “life writing” (a genre he describes as “rather dubious”). Inside Story is a ME …

Postmodernism: Some Corrections and Clarifications

Before I proceed with a brief discussion of postmodernism and its contribution to the 20th century thought, a clarification: contrary to the common view, the “modernism” part of the word “postmodernism” does not denote “modernity.” Such an interpretation is wrong (and also raises the question of why postmodernism had not happened 200 years earlier). The “modernism” part of the word refers to the dominant literary and artistic movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In other words, postmodernism is not what came after the Renaissance, the industrial revolution, Voltaire and Descartes—it is what came after the cubists, the existentialists, Kafka and Joyce. This correction is important for reasons of formal accuracy—but it is also a reminder that postmodernism was neither the first, nor the most important movement to attack the values of Western civilisation. Mannerism did it in the 1520s, followed by baroque, then the gothics and romantics, and, finally, at the turn of the 20th century, the modernists. The latter rebelled on a truly grand scale, negating and annihilating everything that had …

The Dishonest and Misogynistic Hate Campaign Against J.K. Rowling

When J. K. Rowling first outed herself as a gender-critical feminist, my first thought was: If Rowling can be cancelled, anyone can be cancelled. Not only is she one of the best known and best loved authors in the world (the writer of children’s books, for goodness sake), she also has a personal history that ought to make her un-cancellable. This was the mum who escaped an abusive marriage and lived off benefits, writing the first Harry Potter book in an Edinburgh café while rocking her sleeping baby in a pram. This was the woman who became a billionaire, but then lost her billionaire status by giving away so much money to charity. If anyone was safe, Rowling should have been safe. And it turns out that she was, because despite the best efforts of her critics, she hasn’t yet been truly cancelled. Her latest book, the murder mystery (written under the pen-name Robert Galbraith), was published on Tuesday and, as of Thursday, was number four on Amazon’s bestseller list for all literature and fiction. …

Corruption and Remorse—The Novels of a Watergate Conspirator

As an avid reader of pop fiction, I’m more partial to the Nixon administration than any other White House. The Reagan years may have produced more crooks, and the Trump years may have produced more chaos, but there is one measure by which the criminal and criminal-adjacent members of the Nixon White House were far more productive: they produced a hell of a lot more novels. In May 1976, disgraced vice president Spiro Agnew published his first and only novel, The Canfield Decision, about a sitting US vice president pondering his own run for the White House. This was followed in January 1977 by a political thriller entitled Full Disclosure from Nixon and Agnew’s former speechwriter William Safire. Safire would go on to write three more novels—Freedom (a massive Civil War epic), Sleeper Spy (an espionage thriller), and Scandalmonger (about muckraking journalists in the age of Thomas Jefferson). G. Gordon Liddy, one of the masterminds of the Watergate break-in who served 52 months behind bars before the balance of his sentence was commuted by President …