All posts filed under: Long Read

Listening to Literature—What We Gain and Lose with Audiobooks

I couldn’t finish Ulysses. This was 1994, the year after I’d graduated from Arizona State University with an English degree, and the year that my rock band started providing a living from playing gigs in Tempe. Both of these events left me divorced from a reading community I’d come to rely on since my junior college days in Moline, Illinois, when I took a class that required the reading of eight novels. I read those novels—which included A Clockwork Orange, The Awakening, 1984—found them more daring and provocative than anything in rock music, and started entertaining the idea that I too might write one someday. It would be 10 years after that class before I would quit my band and jump headfirst into novel writing. Until then, I was left with a music life that paid the bills but ultimately didn’t ask much from me, and a literary life that felt stalled—no more instructors leading me down the path of great literature; no more parsing the differences between romanticism, realism, and naturalism; no more Shakespeare …

The Philologist, the Iraqi Girl, and Me

I hadn’t bargained on the climate, especially not in the summer and especially not on the coast. That didn’t stop me from going ahead and doing what every self-respecting American college kid visiting Israel, such as Bernie Sanders, did back then—a stint of physical labor on a kibbutz. We’re speaking of June 1962. Eichmann’s ashes had just been dumped in the Mediterranean. Aware of this but not of a lot of other things, sporting horn-rimmed glasses, khakis, loafers, and button-down shirt, I washed ashore at a left-wing settlement halfway between Haifa and Tel Aviv where the comrades worked at their own tile factory, in a banana plantation, and on the trawlers of quite an unpretentious little fishing fleet. Of course, I knew from reading that kibbutzim were socialist successes. But as I got up at the crack of that first dawn to ride a manure-spreader out to the bananas I had no idea that various parties and sects of Zionist socialists bickered over who was the most successful at making the vision come true, over …

Historical Racism Is Not the Singular Cause of Racial Disparity

Even before the crescendo of Black Lives Matter last summer, the operative view among progressives was that historical racism is the overriding cause of racial disparities between black and white Americans today. The progressive ethos on race is neatly conveyed by the novelist William Faulkner’s remark: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” If the wide socio-economic gaps between whites and blacks in terms of income, wealth, health, incarceration, and education outcomes speak to the enduring legacy of slavery and segregation, large-scale efforts to improve the conditions of the country without regard for race seem insufficient to many. First, Americans must come to terms with the moral and political implications of living in a country that oppressed an entire class of citizens for hundreds of years on the arbitrary basis of ancestry, while flaunting democratic ideals of freedom and equality it was failing to uphold. Those who respond by pointing to the decline of anti-black racism since the civil rights movement or the subsequent success of other minority groups in the country are …

How All My Politically Correct Bones Were Broken

In my first 10 years of college teaching, from the mid-60s to mid-70s, I modeled myself on my best teachers—men and women who questioned my ideas vigorously. They let me know that I mattered to them, they praised when praise was due, and they pushed me hard. Often I balked, and they continued to push. Indeed, the teachers who sternly, even at times angrily, called me out on my intellectual arrogance and sloppiness became mentors and, in several cases, lifelong friends. I think of one in particular, an English teacher to whom I’d brought a piece of freshman writing I’d ginned up only minutes before a mandatory conference. I knew it was junk when I carried it to his desk. He stunned me, growling, “You get the hell out of this office. And don’t come back until you respect yourself and me enough to do serious work.” The upshot—I admired his refusal of my bullshit. I went on to take all his classes. Today, such a teacher would be subject, at least, to sensitivity training …

In Praise of the Novelization—Pop Fiction’s Least Reputable Genre

This month brings us the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. No, not the film. That came out in 2019. But now HarperCollins is publishing a novelization, written by Tarantino himself, and based on the earlier film. This particular type of fiction—the bastard offspring of the film treatment and the legitimate novel—is probably pop fiction’s least reputable genre, which no doubt is why it appeals to Tarantino. When HarperCollins announced the project last fall, Tarantino issued a statement saying: To this day I have a tremendous amount of affection for the genre. So as a movie-novelization aficionado, I’m proud to announce Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as my contribution to this often marginalized, yet beloved sub-genre in literature. I’m also thrilled to further explore my characters and their world in a literary endeavor that can (hopefully) sit alongside its cinematic counterpart. Movie novelizations have been around since filmdom’s silent era and are still a fairly common sight on the paperback spinner racks of chain bookstores and airport gift shops. The …

The Bias Narrative versus the Development Narrative: Thinking About Persistent Racial Inequality in the United States

Quillette invited author and Brown University professor of economics Glenn Loury to respond to Aaron Hanna’s recent critique of black conservatives. He replied: I read Hanna’s long piece. It is very thoughtful and provocative. You are to be commended for publishing it. [Thomas] Sowell and [Shelby] Steele can speak for themselves. I hope one or both elects to do so. As for my part (as a fellow-traveller with those black conservatives) here is my answer. Attached was a transcript of a talk Professor Loury delivered at Pepperdine University on June 5th, 2021. It is not a direct reply to Hanna’s essay but we are reprinting Loury’s remarks below to further discussion of this important and timely topic. A video of the talk is embedded for those who prefer to watch the speech rather than read it. The text has been lightly edited. *     *     * The power of the narrative Let me be as provocative as I can. I want to talk about the power of narratives to shape racial politics in this …

The Limitations of Black Conservative Thought

I. Can we choose to be optimistic or pessimistic about our future prospects? Can we choose our appetite for risk or our attitude toward conformity? Can we choose to bolster our self-esteem if we know that low self-esteem is causing us grief? Few of us believe we are entirely free to conduct a sober, sophisticated cost-benefit analysis every time we face an important decision in life, whether it’s how much to study for a final exam, when to end a long-term relationship, or if we should order one last drink before the bar closes. Similarly, few of us believe we live in an entirely deterministic world in which we are free only to rationalize our behavior after the fact. So, how free are we? Science provides us with plenty of empirical evidence to suggest we are not as free as our most exuberant defenders of human freedom assume, but it will likely be a few more decades, if not longer, before neuroscientists, endocrinologists, evolutionary biologists, sociologists, psychologists, and scientists of as-yet-unnamed disciplines identify precisely where …

The ‘Lab Leak’ Inquiry at the State Department

The following essay was originally posted at the author’s Medium blog here. In both journalism and policymaking—if not always in politics, or in the sordid world of score-settling by unemployed, second-rate apparatchiks—facts matter, and intellectual integrity matters. In light of the remarkable quantity of errant nonsense that has been written in the last couple of weeks about squabbles inside the US State Department about how to look into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 in the closing weeks of the Trump Administration, I hope this essay will help set the record straight for those who still care about things such as facts. I write this because, to put it bluntly, I’m tired of being the butt of stupid and paranoid conspiracy theories being promulgated by those who know better. I recognize that some of these conspiracy narratives are, for any thoughtful person, self-refuting even on their face. (As someone who has been warning the policy community since at least 2007 about threats to the United States and the democratic world from the Chinese Communist Party’s geopolitical ambitions—including …

Understanding the Unidentified

An advantage of having worked in the skeptical business for 30 years is institutional memory that enables me to place current claims and controversies into historical context. So, when the New York Times published their article on “The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program” in December 2017, and CBS’s 60 Minutes reported that “UFOs Regularly Spotted in Restricted U.S. Airspace” in May 2021—the reports bracketing the latest wave of apparent sightings—I immediately recalled similar waves dating back to the 1890s groundswell of “mystery airships” (later identified as dirigibles). Historian Mike Dash’s description of the 1896–1897 reports in his book Borderlands: The Ultimate Exploration of the Unknown will sound familiar to those energized by the latest round of UFO videos: Not only were [the mystery airships] bigger, faster and more robust than anything then produced by the aviators of the world; they seemed to be able to fly enormous distances, and some were equipped with giant wings … The files of almost 1,500 newspapers from across the United States have been combed for reports, an astonishing feat of …

Debate and Disinformation: The Ugly Quarrel Over the UK Government’s Race Report

Howard Beckett is the deputy leader of the largest trade union in the UK, a frontrunner in the race to be its new leader, and the elected representative of the country’s unions on the executive of the UK Labour Party. On Friday, May 14th, the party suspended Beckett, and he was reported to the police for tweeting this about the Home Secretary, a woman of Ugandan Asian descent: Although its use in the US dates back to the 1960s Black Power movement, the phrase “institutional racism” gained political currency on this side of the Atlantic following an official investigation into events surrounding the racially motivated murder of a black British teenager, Stephen Lawrence, in 1993. The report produced by this inquiry concluded that the Metropolitan police force investigating that murder was guilty of: …a collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. [Institutional racism] can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour that amount to discrimination through prejudice, ignorance, …