All posts filed under: Culture Wars

Mailer and the Second Wavers

The March 1971 issue of Harper’s was one of the most famous—and notorious—that the magazine had published in its then-121-year history. Even now, 50 years later, it is still just as famous and just as notorious. The issue consisted almost entirely of a cover-story essay by Norman Mailer (then aged 48) entitled “The Prisoner of Sex,” that ran into tens of thousands of words and declared war on the movement then known as “women’s liberation.” Within two months, the essay appeared in slightly altered form as a book, also entitled The Prisoner of Sex, and shot to the top of the bestseller lists. Mailer was already infamous in feminist circles for such remarks during media interviews as “All women should be kept in cages” and “[T]he prime responsibility of a woman probably is to be on earth long enough to find the best possible mate for herself, and conceive children who will improve the species.” (He maintained that both statements were testimony to women’s powers.) At the time “The Prisoner of Sex” appeared, Mailer had …

The Enduring Relevance of Czesław Miłosz’s ‘The Captive Mind’

Anyone watching the shenanigans at the New York Times of late could be forgiven for thinking it was a modern-dress staging of The Crucible or a Soviet purge. The US’s central “newspaper of record” (founded 1851) has recently, it seems, surrendered all editorial balance and autonomy. Bari Weiss, the op-ed staff editor who quit her job there last August, said in a resignation letter that the paper’s editorial staff were effectively in power no longer: “Twitter has become its ultimate editor.” She spoke too of “constant bullying” by colleagues, a “civil war … between the (mostly young) wokes” and “the (mostly 40+) liberals” and a culture of “safetyism” now prevalent in the newspaper. “The right of people to feel emotionally and psychologically safe,” she wrote, “trumps what were previous considered core liberal values, like free speech.” The defenestration of Donald McNeil, a veteran science reporter who’d been with the paper since 1976 and has been nominated for a Pulitzer for his coverage of the pandemic, is a case in point. And McNeil’s departure wasn’t the first …

Science Goes Rogue

Social justice activists have been arguing for some time that scientific societies and institutions need to address systemic sexism and racism in STEM disciplines. However, their rationale is often anything but scientific. For example, whenever percentages in faculty positions, test scores, or grant recipients in various disciplines do not match percentages of national average populations, racism or sexism is generally said to be the cause. This is in spite of the fact that no explicit examples of racism or sexism generally accompany the statistics. Correlation, after all, is not causation. Without some underlying mechanism or independent evidence to explain a correlation of observed outcomes with population statistics, inferring racism or sexism in academia as the cause is inappropriate. One might have hoped for more rigor from the leadership of scientific societies and research institutions. Alas, this has not been the case. In the current climate, many have simply adopted popular rhetoric and the jargon of critical theory has begun to dominate communications by these institutions. Pandering and virtue signalling have begun to generate proactive initiatives …

Leaving Portland

Portland, Oregon, has been the most politically violent city in the United States since Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Just a few days after the result, a peaceful protest against the incoming president turned into a riot when anarchists broke off from the main group and rampaged through the Pearl District, a renovated SoHo-like neighborhood adjacent to downtown packed with art galleries, loft apartments, bookstores, and restaurants. Vandals used baseball bats and rocks to break cars, plate glass windows, bus shelters, electrical boxes, and anything else that looked smashable. The election-night mayhem was not an attack against Republican voters. Donald Trump received a paltry 7.5 percent of the vote in that precinct. It was an assault on the urban middle class and bourgeois society itself, and it was perceived as such by most people who lived there. (The protest organizers, not incidentally, raised tens of thousands of dollars on GoFundMe and disbursed checks to damaged businesses.) I was born and raised in Oregon, and it’s where I live now. I spent most of my …

Replacing One Kind of ‘Conversion Therapy’ With Another

This week, British MPs called for a legislated ban on “conversion therapy.” This is a phrase traditionally used to describe pseudo-therapeutic techniques aimed at convincing gay individuals that they are actually straight. Given that a person’s sexual orientation cannot be changed by therapeutic intervention, such a legislative initiative would appear to be justifiable (even if many such discredited therapies would already be illegal under existing laws). However, the term “conversion therapy” has taken on a broader meaning in recent years, and now is often taken to include efforts to scrutinize a person’s belief that he or she was “born in the wrong body.” The result is that the term can be used to conflate harmful attempts to suppress homosexuality with responsible therapeutic treatment of gender dysphoric children. Such conflation is unwarranted, as abundant evidence now shows that “desistance”—the reversion of trans-identified individuals to a gender identity consistent with their biological sex—is a common outcome of childhood trans identification. Indeed, Dutch research suggests it to be (by far) the most likely outcome. The example of Keira …

The New Age of Empire—A Review

A review of The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World by Kehinde Andrews. Bold Type Books, 288 pages. (March 2021) In the days and weeks following the death of George Floyd, as Americans marched, and in some cases, burned their own cities, the world of public relations swung into action. They advised their clients to take note of these developments, and to be aware that hitherto innocuous attitudes and products might cause unintended offence in the new climate. This produced some surprising and counter-intuitive behaviour. When a happy customer congratulated Yorkshire Tea on Twitter for resisting the urge to make a fashionable political statement, a representative curtly responded that Yorkshire Tea “stood against racism” and then, for good measure, added: “Please don’t buy our tea again.” The PG Tips tea company owned by Unilever rapidly expressed solidarity with its rival. As anti-BLM bloggers and tweeters began demanding a boycott of Yorkshire Tea, Unilever issued a statement: “If you are boycotting teas that stand against racism, you’re going to have to …

Does Suffering Provide Meaning and Purpose in Life?—A Reply to Freya India

A recent article in Quillette by Freya India raises the age-old problem of how to understand the connection between suffering and meaning in one’s life. India’s argument is that some suffering is unavoidable, but more suffering may be beneficial if one is able to understand its advantages. Generation Z—those born since 1997—are historically unique insofar as they arrived in the Internet and social media age. But is suffering experienced differently according to a person’s circumstances? And are today’s under-25s that much different from earlier generations in the way they respond to stressors? A key characteristic of the social climate in which today’s under-25s live is that they cannot afford to ignore the pressures of creating and maintaining an identity on social media, and of trying to avoid the many hazards presented by aggressive activism and what has become known as “cancel culture.” This environment brings its own anxieties, because what is done on the Internet is very difficult to undo. Arousing serious and/or widespread antipathy from others may ruin one’s life-chances with no means of …

Towards Practical Empowerment

The following critique of anti-racism is intended to empower people of color and stave off the modes of disempowerment I see in my field of rhetorical studies. Rhetorical studies examines persuasion in all its forms, but just like everyone else, rhetoricians have a hard time communicating with one another, especially when it comes to anti-racism. I’m not suggesting that all scholars, activists, and pedagogues interested in anti-racism abide by the detrimental ideology of orthodox anti-racism, but enough do that a dissenting voice is in order. Critiques like mine are often understood as oppression or “punching down” because they threaten a narrative of anti-racism in which people of color are perpetual victims fighting the ubiquitous and systemic specter of white supremacy. Anti-racists go to great lengths to discredit such views, even—or especially—when they are espoused by people of color. Consider the newly coined term “multiracial whiteness,” which NYU professor Cristina Beltrán defines as: …an ideology invested in the unequal distribution of land, wealth, power and privilege—a form of hierarchy in which the standing of one section …

Struggling with Pixar’s ‘Soul’

In the COVID era, my wife and I are homeschooling our small children. Their endless questions often send me to Google. Why do clouds change color? Where did language come from? Why did our ancestors paint on cave walls? They are not only curious about life after death, but also about life before life. They have concocted the Not-Existing World—an antechamber to life where they were friends before birth. So they naturally loved Soul, Pixar’s foray into the twin metaphysical realms of the Great Before (pre-life) and the Great Beyond (afterlife). Soul opens on Joe Gardner (a black middle-aged jazz pianist voiced by Jamie Foxx) becoming a permanent teacher at a public school as his dreams of professionally performing music fade. Miraculously, there’s a coveted opening in the Dorothea Williams quartet that same day, and Joe nails the audition. Euphoric, he struts through NYC, oblivious to its dangers, and plummets down an open manhole. Suddenly, he’s a fuzzy green-blue blob among other blobs—disembodied souls. (Joe is distinguished by his glasses and spiffy hat.) The souls …

Unspeakable Truths about Racial Inequality in America

This is the text of a lecture delivered by the author as part of the Benson Center Lecture Series at the University of Colorado, Boulder, on February 8th, 2021. I am a black American intellectual living in an age of persistent racial inequality in my country. As a black man I feel compelled to represent the interests of “my people.” (But that reference is not unambiguous!) As an intellectual, I feel that I must seek out the truth and speak such truths as I am given to know. As an American, at this critical moment of “racial reckoning,” I feel that imperative all the more urgently. But, I ask, what are my responsibilities? Do they conflict with one another? I will explore this question tonight. My conclusion: “My responsibilities as a black man, as an American, and as an intellectual are not in conflict.” I defend this position as best I can in what follows. I also try to illustrate the threat “cancel culture” poses to a rational discourse about racial inequality in America that …