All posts filed under: Features

The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Conor McGregor

Thou knowest this man’s fall, but thou knowest not his wrassling. ~James Baldwin One of the truest tests of a person’s character is how they respond to failure. Wins and losses come and go and we can’t always count on the desired result. What matters more than results is the process by which we navigate those wins and losses—the spirit of resilience developed under adversity and carried over every obstacle along the way. Accepting the challenges we encounter without fear of failure, no matter the risk or the odds, is one kind of victory, and those who can pull it off with style and grace reveal a bit of what human beings are capable. On January 23rd, on the secluded “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, the most iconic, charismatic, and polarizing mixed martial artist to compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), “The Notorious” Conor McGregor, was knocked out in the second round by the Louisiana native Dustin Poirier, thereby avenging the latter’s first-round knockout defeat to McGregor back in 2014. A characterological cross between …

The Problem With ‘Indigenizing the University’

The idea that academics need to “Indigenize” the Canadian education system has become popular in recent years. The Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), Universities Canada, and the Deans of Education all have expressed support for this idea. And the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), created to address the legacy of Canada’s Residential School system, concluded that Canada’s education system “must be transformed into one that rejects the racism embedded in colonial systems of education and treats Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian knowledge systems with equal respect.” The TRC report cites the work of Indigenous academic Marie Battiste and the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ statement that “Indigenous peoples have the right to the dignity and diversity of their cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations which shall be appropriately reflected in education and public information.” Specific proposals at various Canadian universities have included curriculum changes, an overhaul of academic disciplines, and the incorporation of Indigenous “ways of knowing” in tenure and promotion processes. Many …

Remembering Karl Popper

It’s the end of the wartime workday at 14a Westenra Terrace in the Port Hills of Christchurch, New Zealand, high above the southern terminus of the city’s streets. The one-bedroom apartment offers commanding views of a region shaped by the heaving of the Earth’s crust and the dry winds that blow in from the north-west and across the southern alpine range. But for the Austrian husband and wife living here, there’s not much time to contemplate these natural elements. This is the 1940s, and their focus remains instead on the heaving of their native European crust and the calamitous trends of intellectual history now bending their homeland out of shape. Inside, the youngish Karl Popper—dark-eyed and slightly stooped—glances at his handwritten notes. His wife, Hennie, waits, a sheet of fresh paper rolled into the typewriter behind which she is seated. Slowly, he begins to dictate his latest thoughts for a work that he privately fears will receive as little enthusiasm from prospective publishers as he has received from many colleagues in his adopted home. “Great …

Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking

Michael J. Fox, the third president of the United States, was responsible for establishing Presbyterianism as the state religion of the new federation after its peaceful secession from the English empire. Or did he? When you read that sentence, you probably scrunched up your forehead or raised an eyebrow in disbelief. Maybe you know that Michael J. Fox is the actor who played Marty McFly in the Back to the Future movies. Maybe you know the third president of the United States was Thomas Jefferson and that on point of principle, the United States has never had a state religion. I suspect you are probably aware that its citizens fought a war to gain independence and you may know that this independence was gained from Great Britain rather than England. What I am pretty sure you did not do was attempt to look at the sentence from multiple perspectives or evaluate the source. The development of the capacity to think critically is an aim of education on which most of us can agree. It is …

The Narrative and Its Discontents

Human history in two sentences: in pre-modern times, material goods were hard to come by, but small communities offered kinship and their traditions made the world meaningful and comprehensible. Today, physical comforts are plentiful, but belonging and sense-making are scarce. Belonging and sense-making are made of the same raw material: stories. And shared stories are what bring any group larger than a family together, be it “Brazilians,” “Buddhists,” or “Beliebers.” Stories build a shared reality that in turn frames how we interpret the world in our own minds. A story that illuminates reality and unites people will create both belonging and meaning. And thus, all humans converged collectively on the truest possible story of the world and themselves, and lived happily ever after. Wait, that’s not what happened. So what happened? One of the things that happened to stories was memetics. Stories proliferate or decline based on their own Darwinian logic. They may reproduce if they are funny, or if they flatter the listener, or if they are set to a catchy tune. Consider my …

Scott Alexander, Philosopher King of the Weird People

If you (like me) spend an unhealthy amount of time reading about morality and politics online, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex. In the best of all possible worlds, this would be because someone pointed you toward his pun-laden kabbalistic theodicy or his highly accessible musings on psychotropics or his remarkable essay on coordination problems. Alas, Google Trends suggests that search interest in Slate Star Codex spiked dramatically in June of 2020, when its author announced that he was closing the blog to discourage the New York Times from “doxing” him, publicizing his identity in a way that invited negative consequences for his psychiatry career (and his patients). The news media’s response varied—the New Yorker essentially scooped the story, while National Review simply took the Gray Lady to task—but perhaps the most interesting response was the eclectic variety of signatures appearing on an open letter to the Times. Readers of Slate Star Codex may be predominantly childless, educated white men working in the tech industry, but the diversity of …

Struggling with Pixar’s ‘Soul’

In the COVID era, my wife and I are homeschooling our small children. Their endless questions often send me to Google. Why do clouds change color? Where did language come from? Why did our ancestors paint on cave walls? They are not only curious about life after death, but also about life before life. They have concocted the Not-Existing World—an antechamber to life where they were friends before birth. So they naturally loved Soul, Pixar’s foray into the twin metaphysical realms of the Great Before (pre-life) and the Great Beyond (afterlife). Soul opens on Joe Gardner (a black middle-aged jazz pianist voiced by Jamie Foxx) becoming a permanent teacher at a public school as his dreams of professionally performing music fade. Miraculously, there’s a coveted opening in the Dorothea Williams quartet that same day, and Joe nails the audition. Euphoric, he struts through NYC, oblivious to its dangers, and plummets down an open manhole. Suddenly, he’s a fuzzy green-blue blob among other blobs—disembodied souls. (Joe is distinguished by his glasses and spiffy hat.) The souls …

Oscar Wilde’s Utopia

Not that I love thy children, whose dull eyes See nothing save their own unlovely woe, Whose minds know nothing, nothing care to know,— This is the opening verse of Oscar Wilde’s “Sonnet to Liberty.” Beyond its apparent cynicism, it elegantly encapsulates the acute miseries of youth—solipsistic, impatient, devoid of knowledge, and desperate for change. Published when Wilde was 27, the poem already bears the traits of his signature style: the lyric brevity, the cool aloofness, the effete fatigue, which is swept up by passion—“But that roar of thy Democracies… thy great Anarchies… give my rage a brother—!Liberty!”—only to settle on a note of human solidarity: and yet, and yet, These Christs that die upon the barricades, God knows it I am with them, in some things. This captures the torpor of a much older man, unable to summon the revolutionary energy himself, but not yet jaded enough to dismiss the effort. Though the poem seems to end with a shrug, its compassion stems from the fact that Wilde despised the aristocracy’s treatment of the …

The Attack on Timothy Jackson Is an Assault on Liberal Education

Those interested in campus culture may have followed the debate concerning the Journal of Schenkerian Studies at the University of North Texas. Though limited to a very specialized discipline, that debate is no tempest in a teapot. Its implications go well beyond the borders of music theory and should be read as a symptom of the larger problem of higher education in the age of the fetishization of identities. The protagonists of the Schenkerian studies case are Philip Ewell, a professor of music theory at City University New York, and Timothy Jackson at UNT, also a professor of music theory. The debate is about whether we should teach an Austrian Jewish musical theorist of the early 20th century despite the fact that said theorist was also a German nationalist and, in certain writings, expressed his belief in the superiority of German culture. British novelist Leslie Poles Hartley once wrote: “The past is a different country. They do things differently there.” I do not intend to whitewash Schenker’s bigotry. A bigot he was—no less and no more than …

With a Star Science Reporter’s Purging, Mob Culture at The New York Times Enters a Strange New Phase

Speaking recently at a Quillette Free Thought Lives event, Columbia University professor John McWhorter expounded on his thesis that social justice comprises an ersatz religion, complete with rites of confession and penance. It’s a compelling metaphor, especially in the way it helps explain adherents’ overwrought professions of faith and demands for the persecution of heretics. But when it comes to the New York Times’ recent firing of reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr., the metaphor falters. The Times management dismissed McNeil because he was caught instructing a student about racism in 2019; and, in so doing, said the N-word as an example of a gravely racist term. The Times management had initially concluded that McNeil showed “poor judgment” by uttering these two forbidden syllables, but also that he hadn’t harbored any “hateful or malicious” intent. That last part certainly seems sensible, given that McNeil wasn’t actually directing the N-word at another human being or using it to describe a third party. But since these same Times managers had already shown staff they can be bullied by …