All posts filed under: Politics

George Orwell and the Struggle against Inevitable Bias

In the bleak post-war Britain of October 1945, an essay by George Orwell appeared in the first edition of Polemic. Edited by abstract artist and ex-Communist Hugh Slater, the new journal was marketed as a “magazine of philosophy, psychology, and aesthetics.” Orwell was not yet famous—Animal Farm had only just started appearing on shelves—but he had a high enough profile for his name to be a boon to a new publication. His contribution to the October 1945 Polemic was “Notes on Nationalism,” one of his best and most important pieces of writing. Amidst the de-Nazification of Germany, the alarmingly rapid slide into the Cold War, and the trials of German and Japanese war criminals, Orwell set out to answer a question which had occupied his mind for most of the past seven years—why do otherwise rational people embrace irrational or even contradictory beliefs about politics? As a junior colonial official in Burma, the young Eric Blair (he had not yet adopted the name by which he would be known to posterity) had been disgusted by …

Getting Rid of Bar Exams Won’t Help Anyone

For years, affirmative-action proponents have urged colleges and universities to reduce (or eliminate) their reliance on standardized tests as a basis for admission. The COVID-19 pandemic has opened up a window of opportunity for these activists, as many high-school students have been unable to sit for tests. And so a growing list of schools are waiving SAT and ACT requirements for their applicants. What is less known is that the same trend is gaining traction in the professional sphere. Last month, Darleen Ortega, a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals, cast doubt on the value of state bar exams, arguing that the bar-passage requirement “does not function to protect the public by assuring a minimum level of competence to practice law… I have never heard anyone make a cogent connection between the types of lawyer conduct that harms the public and the screening that occurs via the bar examination.” Similar arguments have appeared in the Washington Post and trade publications. Under the headline COVID Should Prompt Us To Get Rid Of New York’s Bar …

At the NHS and BBC, Important Steps Toward Restoring Balance in the Gender Debate

In recent months, a sense has emerged that the tide might finally be starting to turn in the gender debate: Things that most everyone believes to be true, but that no one has been allowed to say, are now increasingly being said by writers, lawmakers, and litigants. Certainly, the battle is still far from over. CNN is referring to women as “individuals with a cervix.” Last month, J.K. Rowling was trolled yet again for stating ordinary views about men and women (though thankfully, the media is no longer getting away with defaming her). And best-selling children’s author Gillian Phillip has been sacked by her publisher, Working Partners, because she added the hashtag #IStandWithJKRowling to her Twitter bio. But at least now, in mid-2020, these acts attract growing criticism. We are no longer in 2018, when the most militant gender activists could still pretend that they spoke for the entire LGBT community, with the “debate,” such as it then was, consisting mostly of endless mobbing campaigns against so-called “TERFs.” One reason it has taken time to …

The Woke Left v. the Alt-Right: A New Study Shows They’re More Alike Than Either Side Realizes

A common criticism of the ultra-progressive Left is that its culture warriors now resemble the right-wing ideological enforcers of yore, excommunicating those deemed to have sinned or performed heresies. Indeed, anyone older than 30 or so should have at least a dim memory of the social conservatives who wanted every aspect of American society—from universities, to the media, right down to the content of children’s television shows—hewing to the same family-values prayer book, and who led campaigns to censor violent video games, rap music, and edgy Hollywood entertainment. In 1996, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole called out Time Warner for publishing hip hop music whose lyrics glamorized violence against police officers. (“I would like to ask the executives of Time Warner a question: Is this what you intended to accomplish with your careers? You have sold your souls, but must you debase our nation and threaten our children as well?”) A quarter-century later, it’s progressives demanding the cancelation of movies and TV shows that present the police in any kind of positive light (and numerous …

The Futility of the Conservative War on Pornography

As we head into a tumultuous US election season, it is worth remembering that political parties can get trapped in partisan frameworks that cater to the loudest sections of their base, but which prevent them from appealing to a wider range of voters. Ideological litmus tests not only narrow appeal, but they cause politicians to pander, to disregard evidence, and to reject compromise in favor of rhetorical stridency. Social conservatives’ endlessly sputtering crusade over pornography is unusual in that it brings them into alliance with many radical feminists on the Left. Nevertheless, of the two main parties, it is the moral majoritarians in the Republican Party who have most frequently attempted to generate political capital by inveighing against pornography. This movement’s foundational moment was President Reagan’s Meese commission established to investigate the potential harms caused by pornography. The Meese Report, however, badly over-reached—even those who worry about the effects of pornography acknowledge it made unsubstantiated claims about its effects. Recent US presidential election years have seen promises to strengthen anti-pornography laws included as part of …

Twilight of Democracy—A Review

A review of Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum, Doubleday (July 2020), 224 pages. Historian and journalist Anne Applebaum’s new book The Twilight of Democracy sees a democratic world, as Rupert Brooke saw his world at the onset of World War I, “grown old and cold and weary.” So weary of democracy’s institutions and processes, so coldly contemptuous of the liberals of the Left and Right who administered them, that many of those who previously supported these central pillars have instead embraced one or another form of right-wing fundamentalism. This may manifest as nostalgic yet virulent nationalism, or reactionary Catholicism, or an invocation of Great Leader-ism which is, she writes, “at once serious and unserious.” Illustrative of the last of these types, she says, is Santiago Abascal, the leader of the Spanish anti-immigrant party Vox, who was filmed riding a horse to the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings—unserious, because plundering popular culture for the purposes of rousing self-glorification is so obviously crass; serious, because it is rousing, nonetheless. The title of Applebaum’s book communicates the seriousness …

The Piety of the Impious

Writing with not a little insight, commentators have observed a deeply intriguing dimension to the protests currently convulsing the United States: Percolating beneath the callow progressivism lies a kind of spiritual fervour, which animates a great swathe of the demonstrators. It’s not simply the case that some people have been driven by prior religious convictions to respond to the killing of unarmed African Americans by police; rather, it’s that much of the outpouring of grief, activism, and even violence triggered by the death of George Floyd is itself quasi-religious in character. Popular opinion holds that the United States remains a bastion of piety within the community of Western nations; although European states long ago settled into an easy secularism, the pulse of vital religion still beats strongly on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s true that the US remains an outlier in this regard, although the reality is far more complicated than common narratives suggest. Moreover, statistical evidence indicates that the country may be on the same trajectory towards secularisation as the Continent. But …

Lessons from the Last Empire of Iran

By the mid-620s, the Persian king Khusro II had conquered most of the Eastern Roman Empire. A final push toward Constantinople was planned. The armies of Iran and her nomadic allies of the steppe were to descend upon the capital, blockade it by land and sea, and receive the emperor’s surrender. The nobles and retired worthies of the Roman Senate had earlier sent a grovelling letter to the Persian government, urging Khusro to impose a client king over them and spare what was left of the empire. But Khusro ignored it. For a moment, the extinction of 800 years of Roman rule in the Mediterranean world hung in the balance. Khusro’s authority now stretched from the Nile to the Euphrates and from the Tigris to the Indus, and was about to be extended into Europe. Like his Persian forebears Cyrus and Darius, he commissioned monumental rock reliefs to commemorate his conquests. His vast empire might have lasted for centuries, binding together the fringes of Europe with North Africa and the Levant with the Iranian plateau, …

Our Oppressive Moment

As one of the signatories to the much-discussed “Open Letter” in Harper’s magazine, I’ve been bemused by the objection that we are merely whiners—people with impregnable career success, flustered that social media is forcing us to experience unprecedented criticism, particularly in the wake of the Floyd protests. This represents a stark misunderstanding of why I and many others signed it. I am certainly not complaining about being criticized. As someone frequently described as “contrarian” on the fraught topic of race, I have been roasted for my views for over 20 years—it’s just that, when I started out, I received invective scrawled on paper folded into envelopes instead of typed into tweets. The sheer volume of criticism is greater, of course, but the last thing I would do is sign a letter protesting it. For writers of commentary on controversial subjects, the barrage keeps us on our toes. Haters can be ignored, but informed excoriation can help sharpen our arguments and ensure we remain acquainted with the views of the other side. The Harper’s letter is …

Understanding Totalitarianism

In recent years, amid concern about a possible resurgence of totalitarianism, a number of books and articles have appeared that are intended to warn about the rhetoric and behavior of the populist Right. At the same time, a countercurrent of public intellectuals and journalists have leveled similar accusations at the radical Left, alleging illiberal motives, ideas, and tactics for influencing culture and politics. Alarm about both of these developments can be found across the political spectrum. A sense of proportion is important when discussing this topic. For all its problems, America does not seem to be on the brink of a totalitarian revolution. Its institutions have been stressed during Trump’s term in office, but they have proved to be remarkably robust. And while there has been a concerning resurgence of radical leftwing activism in the months following the death of George Floyd, the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for American president is a political moderate. And, although the pandemic provides unique challenges for the election in November, the country remains a constitutional republic of laws and …