All posts filed under: History

‘Oikophobia’: Our Western Self-Hatred

It was an Italian evening in late summer at the end of the previous decade, and I was having dinner outside in the shade of the Roman Colosseum—the emblem of a decadent Empire whose ruins were everywhere to be seen. One of my fellow diners, a young graduate student of Ancient History, suddenly made the disquieting observation that she could never speak ill of another culture. Not only was she unable to do so, but in fact she emphasized that she did not even have the right to do so. When I asked her, alluding to her own Austrian roots, what she might say of a culture that produced, say, Adolf Hitler, she replied that she as an Austrian European may criticize European and Austrian culture, and consequently that brutal dictator. My follow-up question, whether then by her logic a non-Austrian or non-European should not be allowed to criticize Nazism, did not receive a clear reply. But my fellow diner continued to insist that we should only criticize our own cultures, never others. I thus …

‘Cancel Culture,’ Roaring Twenties-Style

The term “cancel culture” has become hotly contested of late. Critics say it is indiscriminately used to describe different degrees of mass opprobrium produced by transgressions that range from the trivial to the criminal. Now, while mob justice is never a particularly good idea, it is certainly true that some instances are more serious than others. Probably the worst kind involves a serious accusation made against a public figure, who is then investigated and cleared, but whose life and reputation are never allowed to completely recover. I was reminded of this reading Claire Lehmann’s recent essay about the fate of Giovanni da Col, a young man driven from the journal he founded amid accusations of sexual and financial impropriety, despite the fact that these claims had been investigated and found to be baseless. Woody Allen, meanwhile, had his career belatedly derailed by the reemergence of child molestation allegations, first made by his estranged partner Mia Farrow during an ugly custody fight in 1992. These claims, too, were thoroughly investigated at the time and dismissed, but …

The Real Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

This article does not reflect the views of the Transportation Security Administration.  It is most living Americans’ “Where Were You When” moment, the day we all watched looped film of airliners crashing into the Twin Towers, watched victims trapped by raging flames forced to choose between being burned alive and jumping to their deaths. Readers not old enough to remember the horror of that day can get a sense from audio of 9/11 released by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in 2018. The TSA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that was created as a response to the 9/11 attacks to make sure nothing like that ever happens again. As that collective trauma fades into history, the TSA, where I work, enjoys about the same level of public support as a measles outbreak. The Threat and Why We Do What We Do If you worked for the federal government on 9/11 in any sort of national security capacity, you knew fear of further attacks were pervasive, particularly after the anthrax mailings …

In Praise of Renoir’s Male Gaze

Renoir took such presumptuous, slavering joy in looking at naked women. ~Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker The Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir faces stern moral criticisms in Peter Schjeldahl’s recent New Yorker essay “Renoir’s Problem Nudes” for paintings deemed to be too adoring of women as soft fleshy creatures. On this basis, Schjeldahl argues, Renoir should be dismissed from canonical art. The evident pleasure Renoir took in painting female bodies represents his moral failure—the sexist and unethical “male gaze.” Renoir’s patriarchal attitudes, Schjeldahl writes, “may be worse than misogyny, which at least credits women with power as antagonists.” The scandal of Renoir’s nudes is that his canvases express his love of women’s bodies: “Sex and art figured for him as practically interchangeable rewards for living. An argument is often made that we shouldn’t judge the past by the values of the present, but that’s a hard sell in a case as primordial as Renoir’s.” The man evidently enjoyed the female form, and thought that sex and art were good things. What a monster. Schjeldahl’s description …

No, Jonathan Haidt is Not Like a Slavery Apologist

Eve Fairbanks, in an essay for the Washington Post, argues that many of the writers on the so-called “reasonable right,” a group that includes such seemingly benign figures as Bari Weiss and Jonathan Haidt, are making many of the same arguments and using much the same language as proslavery advocates in the American South: The reasonable right’s rhetoric is exactly the same as the antebellum rhetoric I’d read so much of. The same exact words. The same exact arguments. Rhetoric, to be precise, in support of the slave-owning South. Fairbanks follows this breathless announcement by acknowledging that she is not accusing anyone of defending slavery, and that includes, weirdly enough, actual antebellum proslavery writers. “Proslavery rhetoricians talked little of slavery itself,” she writes. “Instead, they anointed themselves the defenders of ‘reason,’ free speech and ‘civility.’” This is a bit like smearing someone as a Nazi, then qualifying it with the claim that overt anti-Semitism was really quite atypical of Nazism. In her characterization of proslavery thought, Fairbanks has taken a line that not even the …

A New Republic of Letters

For the past few years, I have been corresponding with an old school friend via email. We write to each other as if we were exchanging letters, which makes the correspondence richer than if we were merely texting. But my friend once expressed his dissatisfaction with the digital medium—if only stamps were not so expensive, he sighed, he would write on paper. I am not so unhappy about digital letter exchanges. For one thing, my handwriting is atrocious. So, while I enjoy receiving handwritten physical letters, I much prefer the convenience of typing. And corresponding online is cheaper, easier, simpler, and faster in ways that do not negate the benefits of long-form communication. Letters have interested me ever since I read Tobias Smollett’s wonderful eighteenth century epistolary novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. I don’t see why our society’s switch from pen and paper to virtual exchanges mediated by screens should mean that the culture of letter writing needs to die. To ensure that it doesn’t, a new platform has been launched which aims to …

John Adams and the Search for a Natural (and Needed) American Aristocracy

In 1787, two years before he was elected vice president of the United States—a role in which he served until 1796, when he was elected president—John Adams completed a massive multivolume treatise titled A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States. He supplemented it with a further series of essays later published in 1805 as Discourses on Davila. When the Discourses were written, America was seized with the question of how to view the French Revolution. On one side were those who enthusiastically endorsed its egalitarian principles and wished to see them extended to the United States. Thomas Jefferson was their champion. On the other were those opposed to the leveling demands of the French Revolution. In their view, these represented a dangerous species of lawlessness. Against it they defended the values of tradition and hierarchy. In Europe, their most forceful spokesman was Edmund Burke. On this side of the Atlantic it was John Adams, who is sometimes called America’s Burke. The Discourses on Davila cover a great deal of ground in …

The Drayton Icon and Intellectual Vice

Some attacks are best absorbed, not fended off. Some accusations are best let past, not answered. Life is far too short to slap down every slight, and those of a determined ill will won’t be moved anyway. Besides, too thin a skin betrays a touchy insecurity that suggests the critic’s barbs have found their target. For those reasons, I have hesitated to respond to Richard Drayton’s essay, “Biggar vs Little Britain: God, War, Union, Brexit and Empire in Twenty-First Century Conservative Ideology,” which was published last month in a collection entitled, Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain.1 His assault is at once morally vicious and rationally weak. Moreover, it displays such an incontinent hostility that it’s doubtful anything I say would make an impression on him or his allies. Nevertheless, Drayton’s diatribe does reveal something important—not much about me, something about him, but mostly about the vices that fester in certain reaches of our universities, which serve to undermine rational dialogue and public norms of liberal civility. For that reason, I take up the cudgels …