All posts filed under: Journalism

The Enduring Relevance of Czesław Miłosz’s ‘The Captive Mind’

Anyone watching the shenanigans at the New York Times of late could be forgiven for thinking it was a modern-dress staging of The Crucible or a Soviet purge. The US’s central “newspaper of record” (founded 1851) has recently, it seems, surrendered all editorial balance and autonomy. Bari Weiss, the op-ed staff editor who quit her job there last August, said in a resignation letter that the paper’s editorial staff were effectively in power no longer: “Twitter has become its ultimate editor.” She spoke too of “constant bullying” by colleagues, a “civil war … between the (mostly young) wokes” and “the (mostly 40+) liberals” and a culture of “safetyism” now prevalent in the newspaper. “The right of people to feel emotionally and psychologically safe,” she wrote, “trumps what were previous considered core liberal values, like free speech.” The defenestration of Donald McNeil, a veteran science reporter who’d been with the paper since 1976 and has been nominated for a Pulitzer for his coverage of the pandemic, is a case in point. And McNeil’s departure wasn’t the first …

Against Dilettantes

“Welcome to the country of amateurs,” a good friend said when I first arrived in England. That was 20 years ago and, now that I’ve had time to think about it, my friend stands corrected. He should have said, “Welcome to the country of dilettantes.” Because there is a difference, you see. While both species belong to the verminous family of the overambitious and the under-qualified, an amateur poses a lower environmental threat. Aware of his limitations, he keeps a certain distance from his subject and treats it with respect. A dilettante, regrettably, does no such thing. Instead, a dilettante dabbles. In anything, everything, trying his hand at things he is not remotely qualified to do. A fellow with no linguistic training writes a book on the English language. Another fellow with no literary training writes a book of literary criticism. Hacks of every genre, from lifestyle to cookery, opine on politics and economics. I meet a lot of publishers. Where I come from, an average publisher has a postgraduate degree in philology and a …

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 …

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 …

Stop Sensationalizing the Threat of Right-Wing Political Violence

On Friday, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki announced that President Joe Biden had ordered intelligence agencies to conduct a “comprehensive threat assessment” regarding domestic terrorism. “The [January 6th] assault on the Capitol and the tragic deaths and destruction that occurred underscored what we have long known,” Psaki said. “The rise of domestic violent extremism is a serious and growing national security threat.” It’s beyond question that the riot at the Capitol building—in which crowds of incensed Trump backers invaded Congress, interrupted the certification of the presidential election, ransacked offices, and provoked deadly fights—was an unprecedented security failure. And a thorough investigation should be completed into why 2,300 members of the Capitol Police weren’t able to protect the building and its occupants. But it’s also worth examining Psaki’s claim that the riot at the Capitol proves that domestic violent extremism in the United States is a “serious and growing national security threat” that could be used to justify the expansion of censorship, surveillance, and possibly new anti-terror laws. Simply put, this is an example of what …

Beating Up Boomer

Reviews of A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America by Bruce Cannon Gibney, Hachette, 465 pages (March 2018) OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind by Jill Filipovic, Atria/One Signal, 336 pages (August 2020) Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster by Helen Andrews, Sentinel, 256 pages (January 2021). Beating up on Baby Boomers is rapidly becoming the favorite sport of Gen-Xers and Millennials eager to deflect attention from their own privilege. Whether they are leftwing BLM sympathizers, card-carrying libertarians, or rightwing NRA members, there is one thing about which every American under 56 seems to agree: the Boomers are horrible. This month brings us the latest anti-Boomer manifesto, Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster by Helen Andrews, a senior editor at the American Conservative. Her book is among the smartest and most intelligent of the lot, but before we delve into its contents let’s take a look at some of the previous highlights of the genre. In 2017 Bruce …

The Death of Political Cartooning—And Why It Matters

Six years ago, on January 7th, 2015, two brothers armed with Kalashnikov rifles assaulted a building on Rue Nicolas-Appert in Paris, where they killed a maintenance man named Frédéric Boisseau and forced their way into the second-floor offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. They asked for four cartoonists, by name, and executed each of them. They also killed four other journalists, a bodyguard assigned to protect one of the cartoonists in the event of just such an attack, police officer Ahmed Merabet, and a friend of one of the cartoonists. Following a nihilistic two-day crime spree, the brothers were killed in a hail of police bullets outside a printworks north-east of Paris. The ghastly murders at Charlie Hebdo shocked the world. Yet while the scale and violence of the incident were unprecedented, such attacks against cartoonists are hardly unknown. Throughout history, cartoonists have been jailed, kidnapped, tortured, exiled, and murdered. Ostensibly, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were killed for drawing pictures of the prophet Muhammad. (Two days after the murders, an al-Qaeda cell in Yemen …

Journalism’s Ivory Towers

In a recent essay entitled “The Resentment That Never Sleeps,” New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall explains how a lowering of social status among non-college-educated white Americans has increased that demographic’s anxiety and helped fuel the populism that made possible Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. Reporters at many of America’s most prestigious journalistic outlets have echoed these sentiments. But none of those reporters ever seems willing to acknowledge their own complicity in the situation. Plenty of jobs that once used to require no university degree or special certification now do. According to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the number of American jobs requiring state certification has risen from one in 20 60 years ago to one in four today. Technically, journalists do not require a university degree in order to practice their trade. Practically speaking, however, they do. No-one who writes for the New York Times, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, or any other major US journalistic venue lacks a college degree. …

Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb—A Review

Fifty years ago, in a small mountain town in Colorado, a young writer led a band of misfits against the establishment in a grassroots political movement they called “Freak Power.” That writer was Hunter S. Thompson, author of Hell’s Angels and creator of Gonzo Journalism. His revolutionary campaign would capture the attention of the nation and influence local politics for decades to come. These improbable events are the subject of a new, independently produced documentary comprising recently uncovered archival footage. In 1970, Thompson was just a year away from writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and fast becoming a name in the world of American journalism. While researching Hell’s Angels, he had embedded with the notorious biker gang and rode with them until they inevitably turned on him and issued a savage beating. Although he dismissed the Angels as “losers,” he recognised that their violent image provided them some measure of power in a society that was otherwise tipped against them: “In a prosperous democracy that is also a society of winners and losers, …