All posts filed under: History

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 …

Jeffrey Epstein and All the Others: An Explainer

Jeffrey Epstein is the model villain for this cultural moment. He stands at the nexus of three of our hottest flashpoints: male sexual assault, capitalism’s oligarchs’ greed, and corruption, and the vulnerability of children horribly mistreated in Manhattan townhouses and private Caribbean islands as well as along our Southern borders. So it’s understandable that a lot of people have looked at Epstein’s venality primarily through the lens of these contemporary themes—understandable, but myopic. Epstein’s crimes present an opportunity to consider larger historical, anthropological, cultural lessons about the seemingly endless, whack-a-mole reappearance of men with his obsessions. The truth is the attraction of older males to young females on the cusp of maturity is not so much the story of rich capitalist scumbags exercising droight du seigneur, as it is a universal urge for reproductive success likely grounded deep in our primitive brains. This is in by no means to excuse or forgive any grown men who seek sex with young girls. On the contrary. They violate one of the modern world’s key moral principles. And …

How Feminism Paved the Way for Transgenderism

In the last decade, in many parts of the English-speaking world, transgender advocacy has made substantial, and at times, expansive gains, with trans rights becoming embedded in institutions and enforced by the state. Like any significant historical event, this gender revolution has multiple causes. One is digital technology, providing virtual worlds which transcend physical reality and online networks for spreading activism. Another is academic theory: postmodernism and queer theory. I want to make the less obvious argument that transgenderism has been promoted by feminism. Not all feminism, of course. From the start of the second wave, some radical feminists opposed the inclusion of male-to-female transsexuals under the general heading of “women.” Their argument culminated in Janice Raymond’s Transsexual Empire (1979): “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact.” Transsexualism, she observed, was the creation of medical men like John Money and Harry Benjamin. As the current wave of transgenderism was building at the beginning of the 21st century, a handful of radical lesbian feminists warned that it was detrimental …

Why Is a Top Australian University Supporting Indigenous Creationism?

The Australian recently reported that the University of New South Wales (UNSW) is advising its staff to avoid teaching students about the arrival of Australian Indigenous people onto the Australian continent. As part of the development of materials used to guide teaching, the university has produced a diversity toolkit in regard to culturally diverse students. One of these, entitled Appropriate Terminology, Indigenous Australian People, provides guidelines about how staff should refer to Aboriginal people, their culture and events connected with the arrival of Europeans. For instance, it advises staff not to describe Australia as having been “discovered’ in 1788 (when the first fleet of British ships arrived at Sydney), since this implicitly denies the fact that Australia already was occupied by Aboriginal peoples. Such information already is standard for anyone in Australia who has familiarised themselves with the approved form of navigating discussion of Indigenous issues. While the vast majority of the advice contained in the document is cultural in its orientation (albeit with a decidedly political flavour at some points), the guidelines occasionally wander …

Abandon in Place: The Price of the First Steps to the Moon

The sun pours down on a sweaty Florida morning. The deserted, circular concrete slab just steps from the Atlantic Ocean is wider than an American football field. Today, it hosts two visitors: Someone with a very intimate connection to this place, who has agreed to serve as my tour guide. And me. That’s it. Somehow, this space seems to expand in all directions, across the wetlands to the immediate west and out to sea to the east. And then vertically all around. Up, up, up. To forever. Dominating the space is the looming, four-post, 25-foot-high pedestal in the center of the slab. It supports a platform with a wide, circular opening to the sky. A few other items are strewn about amid blowing sand and random scrub vegetation. Two heavy, angled metal structures, neglected and alone across the slab at the edge, resemble skateboard ramps. These turn out to be rocket exhaust flame deflectors. Nearby are the two launch pads on which the moon rockets once stood. But this morning, except for the occasional squawk …

Age of Amnesia

We live, as the Indian essayist Saeed Akhter Mirza has put it, in “an age of amnesia.” Across the world, most notably in the West, we are discarding the knowledge and insights passed down over millennia and replacing it with politically correct bromides cooked up in the media and the academy. In some ways, this process recalls, albeit in digital form, the Middle Ages. Conscious shaping of thought—and the manipulation of the past to serve political purposes—is becoming commonplace and pervasive. Google’s manipulation of algorithms, recently discussed in American Affairs, favors both their commercial interests and also their ideological predilections. Similarly, we see the systematic “de-platforming” of conservative and other groups who offend the mores of tech oligarchs and their media fellow travellers. Major companies are now distancing themselves from “offensive” reminders of American history, such as the Nike’s recent decision to withdraw a sneaker line featuring the Betsy Ross flag. In authoritarian societies, the situation is already far worse. State efforts to control the past in China are enhanced by America’s tech firms, who are …