All posts filed under: Long Read

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, …

James Baldwin and the Trouble with Protest Literature

“The hardest thing in the world to do,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in a 1934 article for Esquire, “is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn and anybody is cheating who takes politics as a way out.” Of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, he quipped, “see how you will have to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it, because they are no longer either true or important, if they ever were more than topical, and see how true and lasting and important the people and the action are.” Hemingway was not discounting the political, merely clarifying its relationship to literature. “Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study up about. If you write them truly they will have all the economic implications a book can hold.” Be it a piece …

Taboo: Why Is Africa the Global COVID ‘Cold Spot’ and Why Are We Afraid to Talk About It?

The first COVID-19 case in Africa was confirmed on February 14th, 2020, in Egypt. The first in sub-Saharan Africa appeared in Nigeria soon after. Health officials were united in a near-panic about how the novel coronavirus would roll through the world’s second most populous continent. By mid-month, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed four sub-Saharan countries on a “Top 13” global danger list because of direct air links to China. Writing for the Lancet, two scientists with the Africa Center for Disease Control outlined a catastrophe in the making: With neither treatment nor vaccines, and without pre-existing immunity, the effect [of COVID-19] might be devastating because of the multiple health challenges the continent already faces: rapid population growth and increased movement of people; existing endemic diseases… re-emerging and emerging infectious pathogens… and others; and increasing incidence of non-communicable diseases. Many medical professionals predicted that Africa could spin into a death spiral. “My advice to Africa is to prepare for the worst, and we must do everything we can to cut the root problem,” Tedros Adhanom …

Thomas Sowell: Tragic Optimist

History is not destiny. ~Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture Somewhere out of the mysterious interplay between nature and nurture, internal and external factors, cultures and structures, and bottom-up and top-down forces there emerge the individual and group outcomes that we care about and which ultimately make the difference between human flourishing and its absence. What distinguishes various political ideologies, in effect, is how the line of causation is drawn, or, more specifically, from which direction. What gets left unexamined in the rush for compelling narratives and ideological certainty, however, is the territory between different causes and how they combine to shape reality. Few have gone further to map that territory than the American economist, political philosopher, and public intellectual Thomas Sowell. At 90 years of age, Sowell remains among the most prolific, influential, and penetrating minds of the past century. He understands the world in terms of trade-offs, incentives, constraints, systemic processes, feedback mechanisms, and human capital, an understanding developed by scrutinizing available data, considering human experience, and applying robust common sense. Sowell has written …

Mailer and the Second Wavers

The March 1971 issue of Harper’s was one of the most famous—and notorious—that the magazine had published in its then-121-year history. Even now, 50 years later, it is still just as famous and just as notorious. The issue consisted almost entirely of a cover-story essay by Norman Mailer (then aged 48) entitled “The Prisoner of Sex,” that ran into tens of thousands of words and declared war on the movement then known as “women’s liberation.” Within two months, the essay appeared in slightly altered form as a book, also entitled The Prisoner of Sex, and shot to the top of the bestseller lists. Mailer was already infamous in feminist circles for such remarks during media interviews as “All women should be kept in cages” and “[T]he prime responsibility of a woman probably is to be on earth long enough to find the best possible mate for herself, and conceive children who will improve the species.” (He maintained that both statements were testimony to women’s powers.) At the time “The Prisoner of Sex” appeared, Mailer had …

Leaving Portland

Portland, Oregon, has been the most politically violent city in the United States since Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Just a few days after the result, a peaceful protest against the incoming president turned into a riot when anarchists broke off from the main group and rampaged through the Pearl District, a renovated SoHo-like neighborhood adjacent to downtown packed with art galleries, loft apartments, bookstores, and restaurants. Vandals used baseball bats and rocks to break cars, plate glass windows, bus shelters, electrical boxes, and anything else that looked smashable. The election-night mayhem was not an attack against Republican voters. Donald Trump received a paltry 7.5 percent of the vote in that precinct. It was an assault on the urban middle class and bourgeois society itself, and it was perceived as such by most people who lived there. (The protest organizers, not incidentally, raised tens of thousands of dollars on GoFundMe and disbursed checks to damaged businesses.) I was born and raised in Oregon, and it’s where I live now. I spent most of my …

The Threat to Academic Freedom: From Anecdotes to Data

Academia has become a closed system, a moral community defined by a set of sacred progressive values. The surge of no-platformings which took off in America in 2015 and hit Britain in 2018–19, or the fivefold jump in the rate of cancelling American academics which took place in 2019, present merely the tip of an iceberg of self-censorship and conformity. In this essay, I present extensive new survey data on the scale of the problem in the US, Canada, and Britain from my new report for the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology entitled “Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship.” This leads, at the end, into a discussion of policy solutions, where I argue that only government intervention can break the spiral of conformity gripping the contemporary university. The British government’s recent policy white paper on academic freedom, which adopted most of the recommendations of my previous co-authored report, “Academic Freedom in the UK,” is a blueprint that other jurisdictions are invited to follow. My current report represents an expansion …

To Expower the People

“Reckoning” is a new word in food-media vocabulary. For decades, food journalism flourished as a safe, G-rated corner of publishing, an agreeable refuge from the strife of politics and the passions of fiction. In the extended family of literature, gastro-journalism blossomed as the approachable younger sibling to the fiery op-ed and the moody novel. Slick journals like Gourmet or Bon Appétit projected a dinner-table fantasy ideal for suburban daydreams. Recipes, travelogues, and restaurant reviews allowed readers to escape their world without leaving their living room. The field’s rare ventures into the political usually took the form of culinary cheerleading: “Tacos are My Resistance” or “The Vietnamese Sandwich Shop Teaching Dallas how to Hire Differently.” Then George Floyd died. The residual anger from the protests hit the sheltered cradle of food media with blistering volley of accusations about racial inequity. And the reckoning was immediate. In the course of one month, the top editors of both Bon Appétit and the LA Times Food Section (Adam Rapoport and Peter Meehan respectively) were forced to resign, and culinary …

“I Was Never More Hated Than When I Tried to Be Honest”

Ralph Ellison, author of the timeless American classic Invisible Man, was among the most commanding black literary voices to emerge in the 20th century. It is a designation he would almost certainly have resented. Ellison didn’t see his work through the prism of his racial identity but as a means of transcending it—using the particulars of his experience to explore human universals. His ambition was not to be a great black writer but to be a great writer who happened to be black, competing in his own mind with Dostoevsky, Melville, Twain. He wanted to “do with black life what Homer did with Greek life” as Clyde Taylor, a professor at NYU, put it. Above all, he wanted blacks to recognize their essential place in the unfolding American story as part of a larger effort to dismantle the artificial racial barriers between disparate ethnic groups that has stalled the evolution of our shared national identity and culture. Quite unusually, Ellison’s work has resonated across the political spectrum and even pierced the bubble of pop culture. The …