All posts filed under: Features

In Defence of the Humanities

The Australian government’s recent decision to cut funding for university courses in the arts and humanities was greeted with rapturous delight by many commentators I respect. In addition to encouraging students to pursue “job-friendly” subjects such as STEM and nursing, the move was interpreted as a flip-off to the branch of higher education notorious for placing left-wing indoctrination ahead of scholarship. As much as I agree with the latter point, I cannot bring myself to join the celebrations. To the contrary, I find the Australian government’s decision highly unfortunate. That is because I firmly believe that a degree in the humanities is the finest start in life a young person can get. Or, to be more precise, I firmly believe that a degree in the humanities in its pre-1990s form is the finest start in life a young person can get. So, while I don’t wish to defend what the humanities have become, I still think it’s important to defend what the humanities ought to be. I have a humanities degree in one of the …

The Passing of the Second Imperial Age

In the half-millennium of modern European imperialism, from the Spanish and Portuguese in the 16th century to the withdrawing roar of the British and French empires in the 20th, there was one truth on which all of these powers, often at war with each other, could agree. That was, land which could be designated terra nullius (“no-one’s land”) could be taken—indeed, had to be taken—by one of the powers, or another power would get it. So empires conquered large swathes of territory in Africa, India, the Middle East, South-East Asia, North America, and Australasia, most of which was regarded as unoccupied. They did so in pursuit of precious metals and stones, for settlement and defence (of other lands already seized), for points of supply to their ships, in order to demonstrate their power, and—the most cited reason in polite society, even more polite if put into French—for the mission civilatrice or the mission religieuse. That last of these—the obligation to deliver Christianity to uncivilised heathens—is sometimes dismissed as merely the hypocrisy of pious icing layered over …

In Defense of ‘Reactionary Liberalism’—A Reply to Osita Nwanevu

I am a liberal conservative, or as the New Republic‘s Osita Nwanevu would have it, a “reactionary liberal.” I lean right-of-center and, as I have argued before, I believe that many of the West’s most cherished values—individualism, due process, free speech and inquiry, and the rule of law—are imperiled by radical progressivism. So, I was delighted to be challenged by Nwanevu’s recent article entitled “The Willful Blindness of Reactionary Liberalism.” Although the piece is highly tendentious, it is a vigorous defense of progressive identity politics and an attack on liberals like me. Nwanevu’s basic thesis is that progressives are actually the modern champions of the liberal tradition and that those who oppose and criticize them from the Left (Matt Taibbi and Jonathan Chait) or the Right (Andrew Sullivan) or both (the members of what was once known as the Intellectual Dark Web) are actually fighting a reactionary battle against an expansion of freedom. Therefore, Nwanevu argues, it is progressivism’s enemies who are illiberal. He describes liberalism—correctly, so far as it goes—as “an ideology of the …

Why I Signed the Harper’s Letter

In 1996, the late great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami was on stage taking questions at the Lincoln Center in New York City after the premiere of his film Through the Olive Trees, when someone asked why he had used classical music (a piece from Concerto for Oboe and Strings by Domenico Cimarosa) in a movie that was set in a small village in northern Iran? Kiarostami turned to me, his translator for the hour, and said, in his soft voice and even softer manner, “Tell him classical music has long ceased to belong to the West. It belongs to the world now.” That exchange, the way Kiarostami disabused the audience of the notion that music knew borders or that great ideas, once invented, remained the “property” of one nation or region, was on my mind when I signed the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which ran in Harper’s Magazine last Tuesday. What I saw at the heart of the text was a defense of American democracy, which no longer belongs solely to America. For …

Thoughts on Longevity

Olivia de Havilland, the oldest surviving actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age, turned 104 last week. To live that long is in itself an act of generosity. She won Oscars for her leading roles in To Each His Own (1946), and William Wyler’s 1949 classic, The Heiress, in which she starred opposite Sir Ralph Richardson and Montgomery Clift. But she is probably best remembered for her role as Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind—a film that just narrowly avoided cancellation, and now carries health warnings on most streaming services for its outdated depictions of race relations in the ante- and post-bellum South. Its sexual politics are also likely to wrinkle a forehead or two. De Havilland may outlive it yet. Contemplation of such great age is intrinsically moving, perhaps because it releases us from the oppressive clamour of the moment. It restores our sense of time itself, and calms the shrill, neurotic demands of the 24-hour news cycle. “Man is the measure of all things,” said Protagoras, the pre-Socratic philosopher (though of course, he didn’t …

Discovering the Link Between Gender Identity and Peer Contagion

The following is excerpted, with permission, from Abigail Shrier’s newly published book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, Regnery Publishing (June 30, 2020) 276 pages. In 2016, Lisa Littman, ob-gyn turned public health researcher, and mother of two, was scrolling through social media when she noticed a statistical peculiarity: Several adolescents, most of them girls, from her small town in Rhode Island had come out as transgender—all from within the same friend group. “With the first two announcements, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s great,’” Dr. Littman said, a light New Jersey accent tweaking her vowels. Then came announcements three, four, five, and six. Dr. Littman knew almost nothing about gender dysphoria—her research interests had been confined to reproductive health: abortion stigma and contraception. But she knew enough to recognize that the numbers were much higher than prevalence data would have predicted. “I studied epidemiology… and when you see numbers that greatly exceed your expectations, it’s worth it to look at what might be causing it. Maybe it’s a difference of how you’re counting. It could …

Arguing in America

Jacob Siegel’s recent essay for Tablet entitled “The New Truth” manages to capture something important about the current state of discourse in America. Essentially, the marketplace of ideas is beholden to a despotic elite, and is being used to proselytize a new moral order. This moral order is perpetually in flux and is subject to ongoing revisions from its adherents. The only constant is that current systems of morality have failed and are, in fact, perpetuating immorality. The important question of how we got here has yet to receive a satisfactory answer. Yes, clear and early warning signs about the growth of this new culture on campuses were missed or dismissed. Yes, the hard sciences are becoming increasingly politicized and pressured to accept that “other ways of knowing” are at least as valuable as the scientific method. But none of the existing answers properly explains how the national discourse has surrendered to the ascendant dogma of what Seigel’s Tablet colleague Wesley Yang has called the successor ideology. The successor ideology is what happens when ideas …

Free Speech is a Value, not a Right

Free speech is a value, not a right. Understanding this distinction sheds light on the various debates in the culture war—who social media platforms should ban, the role of the First Amendment, and cancel culture. It’s true that companies like Twitter and Facebook have the moral right to allow whoever they like on their platforms. In that sense, customers do not have some immutable right to say whatever they please, but instead must conform to the companies’ rules or risk banishment. The same holds for a suburban dinner party—the host owns the house and so determines the rules of engagement for guests. In general, it is the owner of the property who decides what is and is not acceptable speech there. Even the First Amendment of the United States’ Constitution does not really grant its citizens a right to free speech. The Amendment is more about constraining government encroachment rather than allowing Americans to speak their mind in all places and at all times. “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or …

On Steve Hsu and the Campaign to Thwart Free Inquiry

Academics who conduct research on intelligence and human differences, or who comment on it, are being removed from their positions, either as faculty or university administrators, at an accelerating rate. This development is clear to those who follow such things, but it deserves closer examination so we can better understand it. For young academics interested in this kind of study, it is a critical area of research, not a growing archive of misconduct. It is equally important to young professionals who are looking to innovate on education paradigms, which are informed by an expanding understanding of intelligence, the original driving force in pedagogy. The problem is that it is not easy for such a person entering the field to grasp from the many dismissals and demotions what is going on. Intelligence research and researchers are being categorized as racists, sexists, and eugenicists, but the reasoning and evidence offered in support of such serious charges is often unconvincing, certainly by the standards of publication peer review. Nonetheless, such claims are sometimes quickly and tacitly accepted by …

The New York Times and the Importance of Conclusion Neutrality

Earlier this month, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas wrote a controversial New York Times op-ed arguing that President Trump should send the US military to quell riots in cities across the country. The article produced a staff mutiny within the Times and a predictable and philosophically banal debate outside it. On one hand, there was a defense of a free press—in the pages of the Times itself, Bret Stephens wrote “it is not the duty of the paper to make people feel safe”—and on the other, a call for the Times not to provide platforms for “dangerous” ideas. This episode is representative of a longstanding debate over where the line around permissible opinion should be drawn by the media. When David Remnick disinvited Stephen K. Bannon from the New Yorker Festival, we witnessed the same argument between those who emphasize the hypothetical dangers of some speech, and those who believe open intellectual inquiry is the best means of ultimately overcoming “bad” ideas. Invariably missing from these debates is a thoughtful interrogation of the principle …