All posts filed under: Features

The Man at the Arcade

It was March, 1987, and I was 15 years old. I was in the arcade on Wilson, in Uptown, Chicago, asking for quarters. I’d only recently been released from the mental hospital. I didn’t know where my parents lived. That morning, I’d made my way to the 51st Street Elevated, where I climbed the back of the station onto the platform and caught a train to Loyola. There I met up with some friends. I had new friends at the group home, but I didn’t like them as much as my friends on the North Side. That doesn’t explain how I arrived at the arcade on Wilson, though. Why Wilson, and not Dennis’s place on Clark Street near the 24th District? Maybe I had a meeting with my caseworker at the Department of Children and Family Services office, or something like that. We’re talking 32 years ago. Maybe it wasn’t March. Maybe it was April. I asked a man for a quarter and he said no. The guy kind of sneered at me. He had …

‘Cancel Culture,’ Roaring Twenties-Style

The term “cancel culture” has become hotly contested of late. Critics say it is indiscriminately used to describe different degrees of mass opprobrium produced by transgressions that range from the trivial to the criminal. Now, while mob justice is never a particularly good idea, it is certainly true that some instances are more serious than others. Probably the worst kind involves a serious accusation made against a public figure, who is then investigated and cleared, but whose life and reputation are never allowed to completely recover. I was reminded of this reading Claire Lehmann’s recent essay about the fate of Giovanni da Col, a young man driven from the journal he founded amid accusations of sexual and financial impropriety, despite the fact that these claims had been investigated and found to be baseless. Woody Allen, meanwhile, had his career belatedly derailed by the reemergence of child molestation allegations, first made by his estranged partner Mia Farrow during an ugly custody fight in 1992. These claims, too, were thoroughly investigated at the time and dismissed, but …

My Book Defending Free Speech Has Been Pulled

I recently completed a book defending free speech. Emerald Press scheduled it for publication but then decided not to proceed. Here’s what it said about the book in Emerald’s September 2019 catalogue: In Defense of Free Speech: The University as Censor Author James R. Flynn, University of Otago, New Zealand Synopsis: The good university is one that teaches students the intellectual skills they need to be intelligently critical—of their own beliefs and of the narratives presented by politicians and the media. Freedom to debate is essential to the development of critical thought, but on university campuses today free speech is restricted for fear of causing offence. In Defense of Free Speech surveys the underlying factors that circumscribe the ideas tolerated in our institutions of learning. James Flynn critically examines the way universities censor their teaching, how student activism tends to censor the opposing side and how academics censor themselves, and suggests that few, if any, universities can truly be seen as ‘good.’ In an age marred by fake news and social and political polarization, In …

Postmodernism’s Dead End

As an undergraduate studying English at the University of Utah, I was required to take Introduction to the Theory of Literature. The course was a disaster. I was an awful student of critical theory. Like most burgeoning English majors I knew at the time (the early 1990s), I wanted to read and write literature, not to study what people had decided it meant to read and write literature. And then there was the professor who headed the class. He had a pretentious fondness for the French deconstructionist Derrida that I did not understand, partly because I did not understand Derrida himself, and partly because as a teacher this fellow was so single-minded that he could not reach any but the most earnest students. After class, I would often see him in the cafeteria, where he would practice his French with a colleague who also taught theory for the department. I guessed they were talking about Derrida, but who could say? Together, these elements would constitute my introduction to the baffling world of postmodern theory. I …

How the Trans-Rights Movement Is Turning Philosophers Into Activists

On July 3, I received an innocuous-seeming email from the Digital Content Editor of a London-based arts organization called the Institute for Art and Ideas. She asked if I might set out my views on the question, “How can philosophy change the way we understand the transgender experience and identity?” As the expected response was supposed to be only 200 words in length, the task didn’t seem particularly demanding. So I agreed, and sent along a brief answer in which I focused on the now common assumption that everyone has a “gender identity.” I provided some (necessarily) brief objections to the concept as it is currently being advanced by some trans rights activists, and ended by commenting that philosophers can help people to “understand what a gender identity might be, and whether it’s a fitting characteristic to replace sex in law.” The gender wars in philosophy had been heated since May, igniting with University of Sussex philosopher Kathleen Stock’s Medium post asking why academic philosophers—feminist philosophers, in particular—weren’t contributing to the discussion about Britain’s Gender …

In the U.S. Campus Speech Wars, Palestinian Advocacy Is a Blind Spot

In 2015, a group of undergraduates applied to establish Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) as a club at Fordham University in New York City. In accordance with the school’s policies, the students submitted paperwork stating that their goal was to “build support in the Fordham community among people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds for the promotion of justice, human rights, liberation and self-determination for the indigenous Palestinian people.” The applicants also stated that the club would participate in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. In 2016, Fordham’s Dean of Education denied the club’s application on the grounds that it would likely be polarizing, singling out its support for BDS. The students took Fordham to court. In August, a New York judge struck down the Dean’s decision as “arbitrary and capricious.” The court’s verdict was a win for the Fordham students. But the fact that setting up their club required four years and a lawsuit is telling. As the judge noted, Fordham has clear rules about creating clubs, and they don’t …

Diet Reporting—the Real Fake News

No one would choose to study diet as a way to understand the way humans metabolize food. Effects are delayed, often for years. Experimentation is usually impossible for ethical and practical reasons—subjects cannot be sacrificed and dissected to see the physiological effects of different food regimens. And much better methods are available to study how food is processed by the body. On the other hand, people are very interested in what they should eat. There is a huge market for ‘diet science.’ Diet Reporting Should Go on a Diet The New York Times once had a reputation as the “paper of record,” a reliable, if left-of-center, source of information. I’m not sure it’s ever been reliable when it comes to diet. In an article published on 26th August headlined ‘Our Food Is Killing Too Many of Us’ (should our food be killing just the right number?), the paper recounts a list of ‘facts’ and prescriptions about how Americans—indeed, everybody—should change their diet in order to prolong their lives. The article is written by two dietary …

Confessions of a Social Constructionist

If I had known, 20 years ago, that my side in the ideological wars over gender and sex was going to win so decisively, I would have been ecstatic. Back then, I spent many evenings at the pub or at dinner parties debating gender and identity with other graduate students; or, really, anyone who would listen—my mother-in-law, my relatives, or just a random person unlucky enough to be in my presence. I insisted that there was no such thing as sex. And I knew it. I just knew it. Because I was a gender historian. This was, in the 1990s, the thing to be in history departments across North America. Gender history—and then gender studies, more generally, across the academy—was part of a broader group of identity-based sub-disciplines that were taking over the liberal arts. History departments across the continent were transformed. When the American Historical Association surveyed the trends among major fields of specialization in 2007, and then again in 2015, the single largest field was women’s and gender history. This was right up …

Europe’s Virtues Will Be Its Undoing

Terrible is the temptation to be good. ~Bertolt Brecht We often forget that contemporary Europe was not born, as the United States was, in the euphoria of new beginnings, but in a sinking sense of its own abjection. The crimes of the Nazis affected the entire Old World, like a cancer that had long been growing inside it. Thus, the European victors over the Third Reich were contaminated by the enemy they had helped defeat, in contrast to the Americans and Soviets, who emerged from the conflict crowned in glory. Ever since, all of Europe—the East as well as the West—has carried the burden of Nazi guilt, as others would have us bear the guilt of North American slavery and Jim Crow. It has left us sullied to the very depths of our culture. Isn’t this what the Martinique poet Aimé Césaire contends when he de-Germanizes Hitler and makes him the very metaphor of the white man in general? In 1955, in his Discours sur le Colonialisme, Césaire points to: [The] very distinguished, very humanist, …

William Peter Blatty’s Counter-Countercultural Parable

In her new book Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics (excerpted in Quillette on August 27), essayist and cultural critic Mary Eberstadt documents just how damaging the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and its normalization of divorce in particular, has been to America’s children. She mentions many publications that comment on “the correlations between crumbling family structure and various adverse results,” particularly for the children of divorce. The authors she cites include former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, social scientist James Q. Wilson, and Elizabeth Marquardt, author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. A writer she doesn’t mention, however, is William Peter Blatty, author of the blockbuster 1971 horror novel The Exorcist. Those who have never read the novel, or are familiar only with its 1973 cinematic incarnation, probably believe the book to be a potboiler about demonic possession. But it is also an allegorical warning about the importance of the traditional family unit and the devastation wrought when it breaks down. Curiously, this aspect of the …