All posts filed under: Books

Fully Automated Luxury Communism—A Review

A review of Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani, Verso, 288 pages (June, 2019) In one of the opening chapters of Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Aaron Bastani cites a famous passage from the Communist Manifesto: The bourgeoisie […] has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian Pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades. This quote conveys a sense of Karl Marx’s ambivalent attitude towards capitalism. Disgusted as he most famously was by capitalism’s excesses, he was clearly also impressed by its immense productive potential. He reconciled these conflicting impulses by dreaming up a theory of history in which capitalism represented a necessary but transient stage in the story of human progress. Marx believed that capitalism was a powerful engine of economic development up to a point. But beyond that point, it would increasingly become a hindrance. Understood in this way, there is no contradiction between acknowledging—or even marvelling at—the …

How Antifa’s Apologists Fell in Love With Street Violence

A day before the 2017 Women’s March, spectators and activists of all stripes descended on Washington, D.C. for the inauguration of President Trump. Supporters of the new president wore “Make America Great Again” baseball caps and toted “Trump-Pence 2016” signs. Detractors were more colorful. “Trump is the symptom, capitalism is the disease, socialism is the cure,” read one sign, wielded by a woman with a T-shirt depicting a clenched fist. Others were at least funny: I spotted a man holding a sign featuring a cartoon Batman slapping Trump in the face with the caption “Stop tweeting!”—a parody of a drawing from the Batman comics, in which the caped crusader slaps Robin. The demonstrations were mostly peaceful. Mostly. Masked protesters known simultaneously as the “black bloc” (because they wear black clothes and hoods to mask their identities) and “antifa” (as in anti-fascist) smashed the windows of a local Starbucks and a Bank of America. They also set a limousine on fire. How these acts of property damage were intended to undermine Trump remains a mystery, given …

What Defenders and Critics Get Wrong about the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’

In his book How Fascism Works, Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley exposes the weakness in the most common argument for free speech. According to this argument, which can be traced back to liberal thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, free speech leads to a “marketplace of ideas” in which the truth prevails and falsehoods are widely rejected. Stanley argues that the recent proliferation of conspiracy theories and dog-whistles refute the premise that “reason always wins out in the public square of liberal democracy.” He is primarily concerned about conspiracy theories, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which serve to spread fascistic worldviews. This type of speech, he concludes, cannot be effectively countered through a free exchange of ideas. The motif of the marketplace of ideas, Stanley argues, only works with descriptive speech. Descriptive speech occurs when words are communicated precisely in their logical or semantic sense. The paradigmatic example is of scientists engaged in an exchange where words have precise and agreed meanings. Non-descriptive speech, by contrast, is exemplified by rhetoric, such …

The End of an Era—A Feminist Firebrand Looks Back

After 9/11, I felt as if the Afghanistan I’d fled so long ago had followed me right into the future and into the West. That distant and dangerous country began to dominate American and European headlines. Muslim women started wearing burqas (head, face, and body coverings) and niqabs (face masks) on the streets of New York City, London, and Paris. As global violence against women gained horrendous momentum, many Western feminists became increasingly afraid to criticize that violence lest they be condemned as colonialists and racists. This fear often trumped their concern for women’s human rights globally. This was not the universalist feminism I helped pioneer. We favored multicultural diversity; we were not multicultural relativists. We called out misogyny when we saw it and didn’t exempt a rapist, a wife beater, or a pedophile because he was poor (his victims were also poor) or a man of color (his victims were often also people of color). We had little sympathy for a perpetrator because he had suffered an abused childhood (so had his victims). Fighting for abortion …

How a Feminist Prophet Became an Apostate—An Interview with Dr Phyllis Chesler

Dr Phyllis Chesler has never been afraid to be unpopular. During 60 years as an academic, feminist campaigner, and psychotherapist, she has frequently courted controversy. Her new memoir, A Politically Incorrect Feminist, details her experiences as a leader of the Second Wave feminist movement in the United States. Readers are introduced to a star cast that includes household names such as Andrea Dworkin and Gloria Steinem, as well as women such as Kate Millett, Robin Morgan, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Mary Daly, and Shulamith Firestone, women who produced influential work that is now often forgotten, or else misremembered by Third Wave feminists keen to distance themselves from their feminist foremothers. But Chesler refuses to be misremembered. She’s here to give her side of the story, and she doesn’t pull her punches. We spoke over Skype from her home in New York. Chesler in conversation is just the same as Chesler in print: warm and razor-sharp. At the age of 78, she is both a prolific writer and an energetic campaigner. Most of her campaigning interests are concerned …

Pop Fiction’s Rich History of #MeToo Drama

Lately, the very serious people who write about TV and film and books for publications such as the New Yorker and the New York Times have been tripping over themselves to heap praise on highbrow novelists, filmmakers, and screenwriters who have used their platforms to tackle issues such as rape and sexual harassment in the workplace in the wake of the #MeToo movement. To hear these writers rhapsodize about Susan Choi’s novel Trust Exercise or Lisa Hanawalt’s TV series Tuca and Bertie, one might conclude that these are the first creative endeavors that ask Americans to examine how unfair the contemporary workplace can be to women, how serious the threats of date rape and acquaintance rape are, and the many ways that powerful men such as Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves can use their power to destroy the careers of subordinates who refuse their sexual advances. Writing in the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum calls Tuca and Bertie “the latest in a deluge of TV series that feel like a direct response to the #MeToo movement, …

‘The Guarded Gate’ Review: Elites and Their Eugenics Projects

A review of The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants out of America by Daniel Okrent, Scribner, 496 pages (May, 2019). ….our people refuse to apply to human beings such elementary knowledge as every successful farmer is obliged to apply to his own stock breeding. Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum. Yet we fail to understand that such conduct is rational compared to the conduct of a nation which permits unlimited breeding from the worst stocks, physically and morally… —T. Roosevelt to C. B. Davenport, January 3, 1913 How are we to understand the widespread enthusiasm for eugenics in the U.S. a century ago? Some scholars like Nicholas Pastore have argued that hereditarianism in general and support for eugenics in particular is more commonly found on the political right, whereas others like John Tierney argue that eugenics is …

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 …

Goodbye, Herman Wouk

On May 17, American novelist Herman Wouk died, just ten days before he was due to turn 104. If Ernest Hemingway’s life and career had been as long as those of Herman Wouk, he’d have been alive as recently as 2003 and he’d have published a book in 1999. Had John Steinbeck lived and worked as long as Wouk, he’d have seen the re-election of George W. Bush and have published a book around the same time as Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Had Charles Dickens lived as long as Wouk, he’d have witnessed the arrival of World War I. Had Arthur Conan Doyle lived as long, he might’ve heard the Beatles first single, “Love Me Do,” on the radio in his final days. Rudyard Kipling would have been able to purchase a copy of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Wouk not only outlived all of his Lost Generation heroes (notably Thomas Wolfe and Hemingway), but also all of his literary contemporaries of the Greatest Generation (Malmud, Welty, Salinger, Bellow, Mailer, Cheever, Vonnegut, Vidal, Heller). …

The Case for Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov, whose 120th anniversary we mark this Spring, remains one of the 20th Century’s most acclaimed and enduring writers. He keeps turning up on various Greatest–Books lists, often more than once—for the novels Lolita and Pale Fire, as well as his autobiography, Speak, Memory. And yet in this day and age, Nabokov is clearly a “problematic” fave. Not only is he a dead white male of privileged pedigree, but the novel that made him a literary star is, in the scolding words of feminist essayist Rebecca Solnit, “a book about a white man serially raping a child.” What’s more, Nabokov, a Russian-born refugee from both Communism and Nazism who died in 1977, made no secret of his contempt for both progressive political causes and literature as a means to advance them. He was politically incorrect avant la lettre.  And so it is not surprising that anti-Nabokov rumblings have been bubbling up in recent years. They include Solnit’s widely praised 2015 essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me,” in which she wrote about being lectured by …