All posts filed under: Features

The Rule of the Masses

As cities burn across a divided United States of America, it is worth considering some of the conditions that foment the country’s increasingly radical politics. During the past few years, the United States has experienced a series of cultural shifts in which the public’s perception of numerous—primarily social—issues has been abruptly and dramatically altered. In a matter of months, the minority views of political activists become normalised while views which were previously tolerated in mainstream discussions are suddenly impossible to hold in public life. Though one would expect such shifts to occur gradually over many years and feature prominently in fierce public debate, the change always arises suddenly, at once a surprise to many who pride themselves on being informed about—and having a stake in—public life, and yet succeeding overwhelmingly against virtually no formal organised opposition. Moreover, these shifts are supported by private and public institutions which become, without warning, part of the vortex of mass opinion. I Writing between the two world wars that would shape the rest of his century and the beginning …

The Failure of Fusionism

Conservative parties throughout the West are in crisis. This may not be fully understood by simply looking at recent election results, as conservative parties have continued to win elections. But these parties are currently in a state of ideological flux, and their commitment to existing liberal democratic principles and institutions are in noticeable decay. The conventional perception of conservative parties as steady and secure governing hands has made way for a more volatile and agitated form of politics. Parties that have routinely positioned themselves as defenders of the established order have instead become actively hostile to it. Conservative parties, the Economist noted last year, are now “on fire and dangerous.” This phenomenon is most evident in the United States, where the Republican Party has become a wholly owned subsidiary of Donald Trump; a political actor guided solely by parochial instincts and personal narcissism, untethered to any intellectual understanding of his party’s traditions. The party’s convictions are now driven solely by fealty to the president, regardless of his actions. While Trump may be a singular figure, …

Under the Frog: Why Tibor Fischer’s 1992 Booker-Nominated Novel May Have Found its Moment

In Szeged Hungary, while teaching at the university there, I met a student who read Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog (1992) every single autumn. It was, she said, part of  her annual ritual, and I wasn’t that surprised. A crazy tale of a basketball team in post-war Stalinist Hungary—a time of terror retold with Fischer’s ink-black humour—it’s got something for almost anyone, and it’s rare to find readers happy to sample it just the once. Written following the fall of communism in 1989, a period Fischer covered as a journalist while living in Budapest, it nearly didn’t reach them at all. Under the Frog was rejected by all but two of the UK’s publishers, yet went on to become the first debut novel ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize. It is still Fischer’s most successful—and best known—book. Fischer knew what he was writing about. Under the Frog was based on his Magyar parents, both of them basketball players who, in the wake of the doomed 1956 uprising against the Soviets, fled Hungary for …

At the Intersection of Art and Science: Revisiting EO Wilson’s ‘Consilience’

I first read EO Wilson’s Consilience in the late 1990s when I was a student in a contemporary literary theory class. The class was taught by a poet, Gerald Locklin, who assigned it as a counterpoint to the postmodern theorists we’d be reading that semester. Wilson makes the case for the unification of knowledge—in the convergence of diverse disciplines such as the sciences and the arts, he says, there is an important story to tell, “about where we came from and why we are here: Neither science nor the arts can be complete without combining their separate strengths. Science needs the intuition and metaphorical power of the arts, and the arts need the fresh blood of science.” As someone who writes poetry, novels, and short stories, I have often drawn inspiration from science and its “fresh blood.” When I teach creative writing classes, I tell my students that aspiring writers not only need to read novels if they want to be a novelist, or poems if they want to be a poet, they need to …

Police Violence and the Rush to Judgment

In the days and weeks following George Floyd’s death in May, activists flooded the streets with placards and slogans to denounce racism and police violence. But the zeal with which they mobilized support for their cause frequently clouded complex issues and events that demanded greater scrutiny than conviction and piety provide. For partisans on social media, hearsay and rumor became grist to ideological mills and facts were only relevant if they were politically useful. An inquisitorial climate developed in which everyone was expected to take a side without unseemly hesitation. Are you on the side of social justice or are you on the side of racial oppression? Silence on this question is violence, we were told. As a result, a rush to judgment is disfiguring how we consume and understand reports of events unfolding rapidly in confusing circumstances. The political biases of the loudest voices may be obvious and their manipulations may be crude, but doubt and restraint risk accusations of callousness and racism, which is often motivation enough to declare one’s allegiance before the …

The Myth of Harmonious Indigenous Conservationism

It seems like a long time ago. But only six months ago, pundits had convinced themselves that the great morality tale of our time was playing out in an obscure part of British Columbia. Following on an internal political fight within the Wet’suwet’en First Nation over a local pipeline project, one columnist wrote that “the Indigenous people of Earth have become the conscience of humanity. In this dire season, it is time to listen to them.” In fact, the elected leadership of the Wet’suwet’en had chosen to participate in the controverted pipeline project. The nationwide protests against the pipeline that followed were, in fact, sparked by unelected “hereditary” chiefs who long have received government signing bonuses. It’s unclear how this qualifies them for the exalted status of humanity’s conscience. Yet the whole weeks-long saga, which featured urban protestors appearing alongside their Indigenous counterparts at road and rail barricades throughout Canada, tapped into a strongly held noble-savage belief system within progressive circles. Various formulations of this mythology have become encoded in public land acknowledgments, college courses, …

The China Syndrome Part IV: Did China Fudge its Data?

Note: This is the concluding part of a four-part series of essays looking in detail at China’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic. Part One looked at the circumstances surrounding the initial outbreak; Part Two looked at the discovery of human-to-human transmission and the immediate response; Part Three investigated allegations that the pandemic began in a “wet market” or that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan; this part examines charges that China falsified its pandemic data.  Allegations that China was falsifying its COVID-19 figures began to appear when its death and case rates were overtaken by even more dismal figures in parts of Europe and America. How could a repressive society like China possibly be getting this right while the West’s democracies were getting it wrong? As Western numbers climbed, commentators and politicians declared with growing certainty that China’s claim to have successfully suppressed its epidemic was simply the propagandistic lie of a mendacious totalitarian regime intended to fool its own citizenry and the rest of the world. Back in April, Bloomberg reported that, according …

The China Syndrome Part III: Wet Markets and BioLabs

Note: This is the third part of a four-part series of essays looking in detail at China’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic. Part One looked at the circumstances surrounding the initial outbreak; Part Two looked at the discovery of human-to-human transmission and the immediate response; this part investigates allegations that the pandemic began in a “wet market” or that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan; Part Four examines charges that the Chinese have falsified their pandemic data.  Among the most controversial questions debated in the wake of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak are how and why the pandemic began in China in the first place. In the previous part of this essay, I argued that, to the extent that China was blameworthy for the pandemic, it was down to a matter of chance. Had the pandemic started in the West instead of China, it would likely have been much worse, so unless you believe in moral luck it doesn’t make sense to blame China. However, if the outbreak began as a result of Chinese negligence …

The Crimes of the Red Emperor

Show absolutely no mercy. ~Xi Jinping On July 30th, Chinese state media published details of the upcoming fifth plenary session. The Party’s leaders have traditionally used the conference to lay out their next five-year plan, but this time a new detail was included—a pointed reference to “targets for 2035.” The date may give us some indication of how long Xi Jinping intends to retain his position as president. China has reached a crucial stage of its development, with superpower status at last in sight, and Xi has decided that only one man can be trusted to guide the country through the final stages of its glorious journey. That man is himself, of course. He has assumed the role of Great Helmsman, famously ordering the removal of presidential term limits in 2018 to ensure that the inferior leaders of the future don’t botch the job. In the years since becoming president, Xi has drawn state powers to himself like no other Chinese leader since Mao. Today he oversees all aspects of economic, political, cultural, social, and …

The China Syndrome Part II: Transmission and Response

Note: This is the second part of a four-part series of essays looking in detail at China’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic. Part One looked at the circumstances surrounding the initial outbreak; this part looks at the discovery of human-to-human transmission and the immediate response; Part Three investigates allegations that the pandemic began in a “wet market” or that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan; Part Four examines charges that the Chinese have falsified their pandemic data.  There is evidence that, in mid-January, Chinese officials withheld suspicions that sustained human-to-human transmission was occurring. Nevertheless, most of the claims about Chinese mendacity and its implications have been wildly exaggerated. A useful account of the ways in which the local health authorities delayed the release of crucial information was published on February 5th, 2020, in China News Weekly, but apparently deleted from their website almost immediately. Fortunately, it was archived and eventually translated by China Change, a website created by Chinese human rights activists in the US. A fair-minded story published by Associated Press also illuminates the role played by …