All posts filed under: Features

What We Owe to ‘The Boys in the Band’—and Other Classics of Gay Film

Ryan’s Murphy’s new Netflix production of The Boys in the Band is a time capsule of gay life in New York City, 1968. A group of friends, all but one closeted, get together for a birthday party that makes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf look like a strawberry social. Shame, guilt, fear, and self-loathing rip through a night of pills, alcohol, and panic attacks, ending with the lines, “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse,” and “If we could just not hate ourselves so much… If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.”  I was 18 when I saw the original production, alone, and 19 when I saw the 1970 film adaptation, also alone. I furtively entered and exited the theatre both times, terrified that someone I knew might see me at a show about gays. Would they wonder if I was gay, too? If they guessed, then what? I could end up like those characters, cast off by friends and family, no hope, …

China’s Stateless Nations

I am from a city owned by a country that I don’t belong to. ~Frances Hui Maps of the global nation-state system show us a simplified picture of the world: “a totalizing classificatory grid,” as the political scientist Benedict Anderson famously put it.1 We need this grid for convenience, but we should always remember that it began as the colonial equivalent of an accountant’s ledger books. National maps provided reassurance to imperial powers that their territory was “bounded, determinate… countable.”2 The real world is much messier, and sometimes it changes in ways that no traditional map can show. China’s borders, for example, will soon bear no resemblance to reality. The Communist Party has begun expanding the concept of the nation, attempting to create a new type of global entity. But back home, large numbers of people within the country’s borders no longer see themselves as Chinese at all. From Kashgar to Causeway Bay, millions of citizens are beginning to define themselves in direct opposition to the status that appears on their passports. Today we find …

How Availability Cascades are Shaping our Politics

“When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” – Eric Hoffer, 1955 We are the company we keep. Although our beliefs and actions are personal, they are often heavily affected by the people around us. When everyone else seems to be thinking the same way, we may succumb to crowd pressure rather than thinking for ourselves. When all available information seems to indicate that everyone is falling in line with a certain belief, we may be under the influence of an “availability cascade.” Today, our politics and public discourse are being poisoned by availability cascades. Thanks partly to partisan domination of the media and academia, many people are being pressured into publicly espousing beliefs that are not their own. Two components make up an availability cascade: an informational cascade and a reputational cascade. An informational cascade creates genuine changes in people’s beliefs by providing plentiful but misleading information. A reputational cascade is a vicious cycle in which individuals feign expressions of conviction to retain social approval. In the 2007 …

Elder Millennial Metalheads: Our Shrinking World of Dark Thoughts and Bad Jobs

I was born in 1986, the year of release for the first movie I ever saw, David Cronenberg’s The Fly. I was raised in a middle-class, mixed-race family, in the suburbs of Riverside County, California, surrounded by heavy metal, violent cartoons, and children’s programming like Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark?—all of which warned me that the world I was entering was a wild, nasty place. I also grew up watching Married with Children, sitting on the couch with my father, emulating Al Bundy’s signature pose. Another message I got: Middle-class American life is a nightmare. It’s a vicious trap for suckers too stupid to be successful or too scared to be vagabonds. George Carlin, N.W.A., Black Flag. Everywhere I looked, it seemed all of the cool people had the same message. The American Dream is a sham. You’re better than that. Kurt Cobain, Tupac, Biggie, and River Phoenix showed a generation of suburban boys our nihilistic path. We were too clever for the assembly lines, too principled for Wall Street, too vulgar …

The Importance of Blasphemy

Anyone who thought the age of plague might have banished the specter of religious fanaticism was disabused last week when a middle school teacher in a Paris suburb was beheaded by an Islamist fanatic for displaying caricatures of the prophet Mohammad during a class discussion about free speech. The assailant, a teenager of Chechen origin, murdered and then decapitated his victim before being killed by French police. Less than a fortnight before, there was a stabbing outside the Parisian offices formerly occupied by the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which France’s interior minister also described as an “act of Islamist terrorism.” The stubborn persistence of Islamist terror speaks to the durability of ferocious faith-based dogmas, one of which seeks to reintroduce secular Western democracies to the long-forgotten notion of “blasphemy.” This will only come as a surprise to those with short memories. Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa suborning the murder of Salman Rushdie for merely writing a novel reignited the old debate about the place of tolerance in an age of religious hatred. More than 30 years …

The Dead Are Rising—A Review

A review of The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne. Liveright Press, 640 pages (October 2020) Stylized in Spike Lee’s excellent 1992 film and canonized by the thousands of high school and college instructors who have made his autobiography required reading, Malcolm X has become a man for all seasons. As a result, activists and commentators on both the Left and Right want the once-controversial figure all to themselves. To the Left, he is an icon of resistance to white political and cultural hegemony. To some on the Right, he stands apart from the Great Society statism that became the policy prescription of choice among the Civil Rights establishment, offering an alternative of self-reliance, entrepreneurship, and voluntary communalism. Not bad for a figure deemed, at best, divisive by respectable opinion during his lifetime. The latest biography of Malcolm X will serve boosters of either narrative. In The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, the late Les Payne shows his subject to have been a complex …

Philosophy Is Being Hijacked by Woke Twitter Mobs

Philosophers tend to be highly influenced by their environment, and can often be found rationalizing instead of critically examining the conventional views of the people around them. But if anything warrants philosophical scrutiny, surely it is our national taboos. As a philosopher of biology, one taboo is of particular interest to me: the taboo on considering the possibility that genes play a role in group differences in psychological traits. So I wrote a paper arguing that, while nothing can be definitively proved, there is strongly suggestive evidence that genes are involved in group differences, and we should stop suppressing and censoring research into this topic. I submitted the paper to Philosophical Psychology—a respected journal that publishes work on the connection between philosophy and psychology, which at the time was co-edited by Mitchell Herschbach (a philosopher) and ‪Cees van Leeuwen (a psychologist). To my pleasant surprise, I received two positive referee reports along with a request for revisions. After two rounds of review, the paper was accepted and published in the January 2020 issue of the …

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 …

Who Speaks for Black Lives Matter? The Answer Can Be Complicated

On October 2nd, the New York Times ran a profile of Hawk Newsome, the Bronx-based co-founder of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York. “At over 6 feet tall and 300 pounds, often wearing a bulletproof vest beneath his shirt and puffing on a Padron 1964 Anniversary Series cigar, Hawk Newsome is hard to miss,” wrote reporter Derek M. Norman. “When [he] is not speaking with the news media or organizing events, Mr. Newsome, 43, can be found at marches from Charlottesville, Va., to Minneapolis to New York City. ‘The first thing I do is open up my Bible to see what the scripture of the day is,’ Newsome told the Times. ‘If there’s anything I want back more than anything from before, it’s church. Every Sunday I’d go, twice.’” Aside from wearing a bulletproof vest, Newsome also rents multiple cars, so he can “switch them up because it’s safer and nobody could keep track of what I’m driving.” He also told the Times that when he attends protest events, “Usually, I’ll have one or …

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The Moral Panic over ‘Sexualisation’

When I was running a streaming adult movie site in 2007, two business threats appeared almost simultaneously—one from the market and the other from the state. The first was the arrival on the scene of YouPorn and a plethora of similar “tube” sites, which provided free streaming content. Within a couple of years, the tubes had ravaged the global pornography industry and put most players out of business. With their retail base annihilated, many of the big production studios were snapped up by Manwin (which later became Mindgeek), the owner of the biggest tube sites, and it gained a near-monopoly over what remained of the industry. My business limped on for a few more years, but from the autumn of 2007 onward, we saw a consistent month-on-month decline in sales. The second threat came from what are euphemistically called British media regulators. Ofcom—a huge state-funded body with a wide range of responsibilities—maintained a tight grip on TV and radio, and the British Board of Film Classification or BBFC (a private business) enjoyed a government monopoly …