All posts filed under: Features

The Battle for Russian Journalism

Russia is a heavily authoritarian state, where the ruling class serves itself first and best. The country’s politics revolve almost entirely around the figure of Vladimir Putin, who has been the nation’s president (with one four-year break) since 2000. Closely researched books—such as Putin’s Kleptocracy by the late academic Karen Dawisha, and Putin’s People by the journalist Catherine Belton—convincingly expose his personal corruption and the culture of theft among his closest associates. These people see themselves, in Belton’s phrase, as “anointed custodians,” and have decided that their mission to restore at least part of the empire of which Russia was shorn by the break-up of the USSR entitles them to great power and rewards. Nevertheless, Putin’s Russia is not Xi Jinping’s China nor Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt—there does exist some space for civil society. It is more like an upscaled nuclear-armed version of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. An opposition exists, but it cannot win. The leader may be criticised, but not replaced (except, in Putin’s case, when he arranges it as a manoeuvre to extend his reign). Protests are …

Goodbye to Hong Kong?

I shall always regret not visiting Hong Kong while it was still under British control or while the city remained the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.” For reasons I will get into below, I feel a special affection for the city, and will mourn the loss of its political autonomy and, potentially, the end of its economic prosperity. For classical liberals, Hong Kong had been a beacon of hope for half a century. Peter the Great is said to have built St Petersburg to be “Russia’s window to the west.” Hong Kong was supposed to be liberalism’s window to the future. The city’s fabled wealth was built on four pillars of classical liberalism: limited government, rule of law, free trade, and fiscal probity. And, it worked! We hoped that the rest of the world would follow a similar path. When Britain obtained the territory following the First Opium War (1839 – 1842), British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston denounced the acquisition as a “barren rock with nary a house upon it” …

Condemn this Violence without Equivocation

I thank God that the brutal and senseless killing of George Floyd—an unarmed black man—by the white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, was captured on video for all the world to see. That shocking episode provides irrefutable evidence—yet again—of the callous, corrupt, and inhumane practices that are being used by some of those to whom we have granted the fearsome authority and weighty responsibility of policing the streets of our cities. Chauvin’s behavior (and that of his fellow officers, who are depicted in the video standing idly by for what seems like an eternity, while Chauvin casually kneels on Floyd’s neck choking the life out of him) is contemptible, enraging, and entirely unacceptable. This would be true, of course, regardless of the victim’s or the policeman’s race. Yet, given our country’s history, when the murderous cop is white and the dead civilian is black, it is truer still. So, it is essential that those who committed this apparent crime be held accountable in a duly constituted court and, should they be found guilty, punished to …

COVID-19 Has Exposed Critical Weaknesses in Global Higher Education

The traditional educational services sector in the United States, and world at large, was not prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, including institutions of higher education, leading to significant disruptions in learning outcomes and budgets. Notified at the last minute, many students found themselves having to pack up their bags and leave campus dorms—sometimes with nowhere to go. Although the dust is still settling, four-year colleges might experience a 20 percent decline in fall enrollment, accelerating a trend already in place since 2011. In fact, 500 to 1,000 colleges might be put completely out of business. These new challenges add to already deteriorating outcomes among college graduates, ranging from an all-time high of nearly $1.6 trillion in student debt as of 2020 to a flattening college wage premium. Moreover, a national 2018 survey of employers found that only around 40 percent say that recent college graduates exhibit professionalism, a good work ethic, and have decent oral and written communication, and only 33 percent say that recent graduates possess leadership skills. This is particularly concerning given that …

When I Was in Love with a Comparative Literature Student

She said she did not believe there was such a thing as love—not because she was embarrassed by sentimentality, but because Jacques Derrida had convinced her that language did not actually refer to an external reality. I met her during the period she was reading Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Or maybe it was when she was reading Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, which for weeks she kept open and in front of her at the campus coffee shop. At least once, she carried Heidegger into a bubble bath. The first time we hung out, we read together in an empty classroom. I was reading Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral for a literature class. She was reading “The Concept of Irony” by literary theorist Paul de Man for fun. As in every classroom, there was a clock at the front of the room. The sound of the ticking, which I had unthinkingly accepted as an imperfect part of our environment, irritated her. She stood up on the table and flung the clock to the ground. She put …

Remembering My Friend Peter Beard

Peter Beard, internationally renowned photographer, author, railroad-fortune heir, and socialite, died last month. Or possibly in March. Beard (b. 1938) had been ill, and suffering from dementia. He wandered off into the forest near his home on Long Island. He was 82. His body was found in a nearby national park, which is grimly fitting, for wildlife and parks were some of his abiding passions. The unconventional manner of his death also matched the way he lived. And if he were going to pick a way to go out, this might have been it. Having gotten to know him reasonably well when we both lived in Kenya, I suspect he would have preferred not to have been found, however, as he was a consummate trickster. He might well have preferred an obit that said, “Mr. Beard disappeared from his home in Montauk sometime in the spring of 2020. His whereabouts are unknown.” Peter was a gifted photographer, an engaging diarist, a gracious and generous host, a non-stop raconteur, universally described (truthfully) with that cliché, “one …

Ronan Farrow’s Botched Journalism is Troubling. The Response to It Has Been Worse

On January 9th, during jury selection for the sex-assault trial of Harvey Weinstein, Ronan Farrow tweeted that a “source” with knowledge of the proceedings had told him that “close to 50 potential jurors have been sent home” because they’d read his book, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators. In fact, the number of jurors sent home for that reason was two, as a New York Times reporter had already noted. Source involved in Weinstein trial tells me close to 50 potential jurors have been sent home because they said they’d read Catch and Kill. — Ronan Farrow (@RonanFarrow) January 10, 2020 Twitter typically isn’t journalism, and Farrow wasn’t tweeting in his capacity as a reporter. But the fact that he believed the vastly inflated figure to be accurate, saw fit to boast to his followers about it, and even stood by the number when later challenged on it, is indicative of his robust sense of self-regard and the ease with which he is seduced by dramatic but dubious narratives. As …

Captain Cook and the Colonial Paradox

On April 29th, 1770, a longboat from the Royal Navy bark Endeavour grounded on Silver Beach at Botany Bay in what is now Sydney’s southern suburbs. Isaac Smith, a young midshipman, leapt out and became the first European to set foot on Australia’s east coast. Four men followed—Swedish scientist Daniel Solander, English Botanist Joseph Banks, Tahitian navigator Tupaia, and the commander of the expedition, Lieutenant James Cook. They had rowed towards an encampment of the Gweagal Aboriginal people in the hope of speaking to the inhabitants. However, all the people had fled, save for two men, who seemed determined to oppose Cook’s landing. Cook tried to speak to them, but to no avail—neither he nor Tupaia could understand the language they called back in. Cook tried throwing some nails and beads onto the shore as a peace offering, but they didn’t understand the gesture, and according to Cook, made as if they were going to attack. He fired a musket between them, and one responded by throwing a rock. He fired a second shot, wounding …

The Fight over Alternative Education

Articles in college alumni magazines, even in the Ivy League, are usually puff pieces about academic programs and professors. They are designed to make graduates feel so good about their alma mater and its intellectual achievements that they will write out yet another donation check. Seldom do the articles circulate much outside of the closed circle of alums. Not so with a 1,007-word piece in the May – June 2020 issue of the Harvard Magazine entitled “The Risks of Homeschooling” in which Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet recommended a “presumptive ban” against parents’ educating their children at home (as between three and four percent of US parents currently do). That is, unless these parents can prove to educational authorities “that their case is justified.” Bartholet had already expressed this view in an extensively footnoted 80-page scholarly article for the Arizona Law Review entitled “Homeschooling: Parent Right Absolutism vs. Child Rights to Education & Protection” published earlier in 2020. There, she wrote: A very large proportion of homeschooling parents are ideologically committed to isolating their …

Barney Rosset and the Unending Struggle to Read Freely

It is by now a familiar truism that the Internet—and social media, in particular—has awarded the intolerant, the narrow-minded, and the censorious unprecedented power. To this challenge from below, publishers have, by and large, responded with dismaying timidity. Large multinational publishing firms have hastily withdrawn controversial titles and it has become distressingly common to read apologies issued to those vilifying their authors from the blogosphere, along with undertakings to “listen” and “do better” in the future. With these regrettable circumstances in mind, it is worth recalling the life, career, and example of renegade American publisher Barney Rosset. During the 1950s and 1960s, Rosset turned a tiny publishing company named Grove Press into one of America’s most provocative and effective instruments of free expression. He published some of the most controversial books of the 20th century and he never apologized for anything. In 1968, his offices were firebombed by anti-Castro Cuban reserve officers in the American Air Force because he had published excerpts from Che Guevara’s diaries in Grove’s magazine, the Evergreen Review. The same year, …