All posts filed under: Features

Bloody Harvest—How Everyone Ignored the Crime of the Century

In June of this year the China Tribunal delivered its Final Judgement and Summary Report.1 An independent committee composed of lawyers, human rights experts, and a transplant surgeon, the Tribunal was established to investigate forced organ harvesting on the Chinese mainland. These rumours have haunted the country for years—lurid tales of the fate suffered by members of the banned Falun Gong religion after being taken into police custody. Their organs, so the rumours go, are cut from their bodies while they are still alive, and then transplanted into waiting patients. The Tribunal examined these claims, extending the group of victims to include Uyghur Muslims (among others), and its findings were unambiguous. “On the basis of all direct and indirect evidence, the Tribunal concludes with certainty that forced organ harvesting has happened in multiple places in the PRC [People’s Republic of China] and on multiple occasions for a period of at least twenty years and continues to this day.”2 Further to this, “the PRC and its leaders actively incited the persecution, the imprisonment, murder, torture, and …

Politics and Rationality: On the Uses and Limits of Science

How rational is your politics, and how rational could or should politics be, in general? What is, and what ought to be, the role of reason and of science in policy-making or in campaigning? To answer such questions in a reasonable or scientific way, it would first be necessary to define such terms as “rationality,” “reason,” and “science.” That’s a nice Socratic-style challenge, anyway, and I’m not confident that people mean anything very clear or specific by them on most occasions. And, whatever they mean, the things themselves—conceived as faculties in people’s heads or as a series of procedures or guidelines for how to gain knowledge—have little to do with why anyone has the politics they do. People who think their own politics are rational and those of their opponents irrational (that is, more or less everybody) are engaged in a self-congratulatory self-delusion. A traditional account of the faculty of rationality might be that it encompasses the canons of deductive and inductive reasoning and perhaps the scientific method (which it then is incumbent on the …

Accessibility, Ableism, and the Decline of Excellence

For many years, colleges and universities have observed the Americans with Disabilities Act by finding alternate ways for students with disabilities to meet course requirements. For example, a blind student might be accommodated by allowing a university representative to orally read the student questions from a written exam. A student with limited mobility might be allowed some extra time in getting from one class to another. More recently, many universities have expanded accommodations to cover conditions that might have been ignored in the recent past: today, students who can document Attention Deficit Disorder are routinely offered extra time in taking exams. One example of the rapidly changing institutional culture regarding students with disabilities is a new service provided by Blackboard, which is perhaps the most common software platform in American colleges for delivering course content. Through Blackboard, professors post required readings and assignments, grade student work, and even facilitate online discussions among members of the class. This fall, the university at which I teach implemented an additional service offered by Blackboard that is called “Ally.” …

‘White Christmas’ and the Triumphs of the Greatest Generation

Michael Curtiz’s 1954 classic White Christmas is so popular that it generates new think-pieces every time the holiday season rolls around. Last year, the New York Times republished its own original review of the film, in which the late Bosley Crowther panned the movie. Other pieces in other places discussed Vera-Ellen’s alleged bulimia, the fact that her neck is covered throughout the film, the rumor that Bob Fosse was an uncredited choreographer on the film, and the many continuity errors. The film has been called a romantic comedy, a buddy picture (or “bromance”), a musical, and a holiday film. Curiously, I’ve never seen it listed in the war genre, which is the category in which it really belongs. For all its holly and ivy and hot-buttered rum, White Christmas is as much about World War II as Edward Dmytryk’s The Caine Mutiny (both films were among the five highest grossing movies of 1954) or Casablanca (released in 1942, and which Curtiz also directed). It opens in war-torn Italy on Christmas Eve, 1944. Bing Crosby plays …

How Bitcoin Can Protect Free Speech in the Digital Age

Think about what happens when you buy a newspaper at a local cafe with cash. The shopkeeper takes your paper money, and gives you the item. They don’t know your name, address, phone number, email, or what you bought yesterday. They are not collecting any data about you. Until now, this level of financial privacy was perfectly normal. Today, cash is disappearing. In the UK, just 42 percent of transactions are still performed using cash. In America, it’s down to 32 percent. In Sweden, 20 percent. And in South Korea, only 14 percent. In some urban areas—for example, Stockholm or Beijing—electronic and touchless payments are virtually everywhere. In an increasingly cashless world, citizens are losing their privacy and, by extension, their civil liberties. When you buy a subscription to a political magazine like this one, you almost certainly do so with a credit card or through a platform like PayPal. These payment processors collect data about you that can be sold, leaked, hacked, or handed over to a curious government. When you make an electronic …

How to Tackle the Unfolding Research Crisis

Research [is] a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education. ~Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Scholarly research is in crisis, and four issues highlight its dimensions. The first is that important disciplines such as physics, economics, psychology, medicine, and geology are unable to explain over 90 percent of what we see: dark matter dominates their theoretical understanding. In cosmology, 95 percent of the night sky is made up of dark matter and dark energy which are undetectable and inexplicable. Some 90 percent of human decisions are made autonomously by our sub-conscious, and even conscious decisions often emerge from a black box and have little support. The causes and natural history of important illnesses—including heart disease, cancer, obesity, and mental illness—are largely unknown for individuals. The second dimension of the research crisis is that systems which are critical to humankind—especially climate, demography, asset prices, and natural disasters—are minimally predictable. The best example of misguided theory can be seen in the conduct of organisations. Although a high …

Create Dangerously: Albert Camus and the Power and Responsibility of the Artist

On December 14, 1957, only four days after he had delivered his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Albert Camus gave another speech in Sweden, this time at Uppsala University, called “Create Dangerously: The Power and Responsibility of the Artist,” in which he argued, “To create today means to create dangerously. Every publication is a deliberate act, and that act makes us vulnerable to the passions of a century that forgives nothing.” Exchange century for internet and you’ll know why Vintage has just rereleased this speech as its own pocket book in a new translation by Sandra Smith. These are dangerous times to create art. Which is also to say, these are the best times to create art. But what makes these times dangerous anyway? After all, Camus gave his speech only a decade after WWII when fascism had almost conquered Europe, and the Soviet Empire was just beginning its rule over half the continent that would last the next half a century. In today’s West, this idea of “danger” seems—to use one …

Yukio Mishima: Japan’s Cultural Martyr

The enthusiasm with which the people of Japan recently celebrated the enthronement of their new emperor, Naruhito, indicates the extent to which Japan has regained confidence in its imperial institution. Not coincidentally, in recent years Japan has also seen a resurgence in the reputation of Yukio Mishima (1925–1970), the writer and activist who most forcefully asserted the cultural importance of Japan’s emperor system at a time when it was considered inflammatory to do so. Though he remains controversial, not least for his notorious samurai-style suicide, Mishima is finally receiving the serious critical consideration he deserves. Mishima was a formidable presence in Japan’s cultural scene in the years following the nation’s catastrophic defeat in World War II. Immensely prolific, he produced hundreds of works in almost every genre. His novels Confessions of a Mask (1948) and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) were among the first works of modern Japanese fiction to win an international readership. As a playwright, Mishima achieved success with his modern adaptations of plays from the classical Noh repertoire and his …

Mark Zuckerberg and the Changing Civil Rights Movement

On October 17, 2019, defending Facebook’s generally hands-off policy with respect to regulating the content of political advertisements, CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to the podium at Georgetown University and delivered an eloquent defense of free expression. In his address, he linked speech to the historic pursuit of justice for the powerless, and made reference to his experience as a student immediately following the invasion of Iraq. This fed his later conviction that open forums for discourse are essential to the advocacy of political causes: Back then, I was building an early version of Facebook for my community, and I got to see my beliefs play out at smaller scale. When students got to express who they were and what mattered to them, they organized more social events, started more businesses, and even challenged some established ways of doing things on campus. It taught me that while the world’s attention focuses on major events and institutions, the bigger story is that most progress in our lives comes from regular people having more of a voice. This …

Australia’s PISA Shock

Last week, the latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released. These were based on tests taken in 2018 in reading, mathematics and science by a sample of students from each of the relatively wealthy OECD member countries as well as a range of other partner countries. Importantly, PISA researchers also surveyed participants on everything from their social media use to classroom climate. The results have rightly produced a great deal of comment in Australia because they are further evidence of the country’s long-term decline in education. Mathematics and science have both continued their relentless downward drift and although reading held steady since the last round of testing in 2015, it has slid a long way since the first round in 2000. In the context of Australia’s PISA results, it is tempting to look to the results from other countries for ideas on how the country can get out of this rut. Over the last decade or so, the region most cited by educationalists as an example to follow is the small Northern …