All posts filed under: Books

Immigration and Inequality

A big problem with the mass immigration that began in the United States in the 1970s was that it bred inequality. Its role in creating the highly stratified American social structure of the twenty-first century was as significant as that of other factors more commonly blamed: information technology, world trade, tax cuts. In 1995, the economist George Borjas, writing in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, modeled the actual effects of immigration on Americans. He found that while immigration might have caused an increase in economic activity of $2.1 trillion, virtually all of those gains—98 percent—went to the immigrants themselves. When economists talk about “gains” from immigration to the receiving country, they are talking about the remaining 2 percent—about $50 billion. This $50 billion “surplus” disguises an extraordinary transfer of income and wealth: Native capitalists gain $566 billion. Native workers lose $516 billion. One way of describing mass immigration is as a verdict on the pay structure that had arisen in the West by the 1970s: on trade unions, prevailing-wage laws, defined-benefit pension plans, long vacations, …

Romance, Race, and Retribution

I “This is a crisis of epic proportions,” wrote an alarmed Romance Writers of America (RWA) board member on Christmas Eve as the scenery started to collapse.1 Longstanding tensions within the trade organization had detonated the previous day when novelist Alyssa Cole revealed that RWA’s board of directors had suspended her friend Courtney Milan. The decision provoked a hurricane of condemnation from the membership, mass resignations from the board, and a spectacularly vicious frenzy of internecine bloodletting online. Milan’s suspension has been widely reported as the latest indignity suffered by a woman of color in an ongoing battle between RWA’s old guard and minority authors struggling against marginalization. In this version of events, Milan had exposed and confronted the scourge of racism within RWA and been crucified for it. For a few days, the 40-year old organization looked like it might tear itself to pieces, until what remained of the board agreed to commission an independent review of the events that led to Milan’s suspension. RWA retained multinational law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP …

The Decline of the Great American Family Saga

In February, the Atlantic published a much discussed essay by David Brooks entitled “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” Brooks noted that the conditions that once made nuclear families viable—strong unions, plenty of jobs that paid living wages, inexpensive housing and transportation and education costs, stay-at-home mothers, high numbers of churchgoers—were products of a very brief window of time that only lasted from about 1950 until about 1965. For centuries prior to that, Americans tended to divide themselves into extended families, vast networks of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives, all of whom remained connected to one another by some sort of family enterprise. Here’s how Brooks sums up the extended American family: In 1800, three-quarters of American workers were farmers. Most of the other quarter worked in small family businesses, like dry-goods stores. People needed a lot of labor to run these enterprises. It was not uncommon for married couples to have seven or eight children. In addition, there might be stray aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as unrelated servants, apprentices, and farmhands…Extended …

On the Study of Great Books

Anyone familiar with Australian universities will recognize the opportunistic hype produced by their marketing departments and distilled in titillating slogans like: “Create Change,” “Life Impact,” “Research with Impact,” “Make Change—Change Your Life, Change the World,”  “A University for the 21st Century,” “The University that Makes a Difference.” The problem with this is not just the fatuous hubris, it is the open betrayal of the ideals of liberal education. Compare the slogans listed above with the proverbs that still adorn the archaic coats-of-arms of some of the nation’s universities. Another representative sample: Sub Cruce Lumen (“Light Under the Cross”), Scientia Manu et Mente (“Knowledge by Hand and Mind”), Sidere Mens Eadem Mutate (“The Stars Change, The Mind Remains the Same”), Ancora Imparo (“I am Still Learning”). Where the new slogans are dominated by the images of change and impact, generating a sensation of hectic and thrilling novelty, the older proverbs are sober and modest, emphasising the patient and hard-won acquisition of learning and enlightenment, and suggest that a university education is more concerned with what endures than …

The Decadent Society—A Review

A review of The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, by Ross Douthat. Simon & Schuster (February 25 2020) 272 pages.  Writing about decadence can be symptomatic of the condition. How many conservatives—this reviewer included—have eased out article-length moans about sclerotic institutions, falling birth rates and mindless popular culture without as much as a thought of having an effect on them. In our lazier moments we are not opposing decadence but merely providing a soundtrack. I suspect that Ross Douthat knew this when he wrote The Decadent Society. Douthat has long been an outpost of conservatism at the New York Times. The Grey Lady specialises in bland liberal conservatives like David Brooks, Bill Kristol and Bret Stephens but Douthat is both more traditional and more incisive. A social conservative, he also has too much mischief and curiosity about him to succumb to the stuffiness of the stereotype. Readers who might fear that a book bearing the name The Decadent Society would be humourless and cranky, then, need have no such fears. The …

Margaret Atwood Wrote a Great Novel. Unfortunately, Her Fans Turned It Into a Cult

Among the notable cultural events of the last decade, one must count the emergence of the Handmaid’s Tale franchise: the hit television series loosely based on the 1985 dystopian novel by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, the novel’s return to bestsellerdom as a trade paperback, and The Testaments, Atwood’s 2019 sequel, which won the Booker Prize and has topped the New York Times best-seller list, where it is currently in its 16th week and in fifth place. It is a phenomenon that has made Atwood, who turned 80 last November, not only a celebrity but a cultural icon: “Queen Margaret,” as The Atlantic recently dubbed her. She was the subject of a recent 7,000-word interview in New York magazine, as well as one of Glamour magazine’s “Women of the Year” for 2019.  There is a certain irony in Atwood’s cultural queenship. The significance of The Handmaid’s Tale is not primarily artistic but political: Set in a speculative world where the United States has been taken over by an oppressive, hideously misogynistic regime, it is seen as …

The National Book Foundation Defines Diversity Down

Last month the Huffington Post published an essay by Claire Fallon entitled “Was this Decade the Beginning of the End of the Great White Male Writer?” Fallon celebrated the notion that white men are losing their prominence in contemporary American literature and that the best books being published in America today are being written by a wider variety of authors than ever before: “What was once insular is now unifying,” National Book Foundation director Lisa Lucas told the crowd at the 2019 National Book Awards Gala, where the fiction, nonfiction, and poetry honors all went to writers of color. “What was once exclusive is now inclusive.” Lucas took over the foundation in 2016, at a time when the high-profile awards had a somewhat checkered record with representation. Though historically the honorees had skewed heavily white and male, that began to change around 2010. (However, there had been some other recent embarrassments, like 2014 host Daniel Handler’s racist jokes following author Jacqueline Woodson’s win for “Brown Girl Dreaming.”) Lucas, the first woman and person of color …

The Million-Petalled Flower

Who wrote this? “Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” But you guessed straight away: George Orwell. The subject stated up front, the sudden acceleration from the scope-widening parenthesis into the piercing argument that follows, the way the obvious opposition between “lies” and “truthful” leads into the shockingly abrupt coupling of “murder” and “respectable,” the elegant, reverse-written coda clinched with dirt-common epithet, the whole easy-seeming poise and compact drive of it, a worldview compressed to the size of a motto from a fortune cookie, demanding to be read out and sayable in a single breath—it’s the Orwell style. But you can’t call it Orwellian, because that means Big Brother, Newspeak, the Ministry of Love, Room 101, the Lubyanka, Vorkuta, the NKVD, the MVD, the KGB, KZ Dachau, KZ Buchenwald, the Reichsschrifttumskammer, Gestapo HQ in the Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, Arbeit macht frei, Giovinezza, Je suis partout, the compound at Drancy, the …

Science Fiction Purges its Problematic Past

Since 1991, the James Tiptree Junior Award has been given annually to a work of “science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.” The award was founded by two women science fiction writers, Pat Murphy and Karen Jay Fowler. From next year, it will be called the Otherwise Award. James Tiptree, Jr. was the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon. Born Alice Bradley in 1915, she travelled the world with her parents as a young child. In 1940, after a brief unhappy marriage, she joined the women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and worked in intelligence. She married Huntington “Ting” Sheldon in 1945, and in 1952 they both joined the CIA. She later earned her doctorate and took up writing. She wrote short stories and novels, but it is the former that stand out as truly remarkable. With prose as subtle and precise as the most refined literary fiction, she penned imaginative tales like “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and “The Girl Who was Plugged In,” which became classics of science fiction and also important …

‘For the Love of Men’—A Review

A review of For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity by Liz Plank, St. Martin’s Press (September 2019) 336 pages. “There is no greater threat to humankind,” Liz Plank announces on the first page of her book For the Love of Men, “Than our current definitions of masculinity.” A bold claim. “Toxic masculinity,” Plank claims, underpins vast amounts of suffering across the globe. Lest this introduction lead one to expect an anti-male screed, Plank is at pains to insist that many of the victims of “toxic masculinity” are men themselves. Who could claim that masculinity cannot be problematic? Men are undeniably responsible for most of the rape and murder in the world, and suicide claims a disproportionate number of male lives. The male bias towards camouflaging vulnerability—expressed, for example, in men’s disproportionate unwillingness to address potential health problems, be they mental or physical—was more adaptive when familial life depended on men getting up to work and fight every day of every week, but it is less so in our more comfortable …