All posts filed under: Politics

The Dangerous Life of an Anthropologist

Limping in crutches, his broken leg shielded in plaster following a jogging accident, the distinguished biologist Edward O. Wilson made his way slowly toward the stage at a convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1978. Climbing the stairs, taking his seat, and shuffling his notes, a sudden burst of activity punctuated the silence as the entire front row of the audience leapt onto the stage hurling insults. They jostled Wilson and then poured iced water over his head. The protesters would turn out to be Marxists, incensed by the publication of Wilson’s book Sociobiology. This story has become a familiar feature of the nature/nurture debate, used to illustrate the vitriolic hostility expressed by ideological groups scrambling to silence what most people already take to be an incontrovertible fact: that humans, just like every other species on earth, have a nature. As crowds abandoned Wilson to evacuate the auditorium that day, one man at the back of the room tried to push his way forward against the multitude heading towards the …

University Harassment Policy and Its Problems

Chatting with a student at the end of a long day, our conversation shifts from academic matters to the personal when I mention that I have to get home to my kids. He says I look too young to be a mother. I tell him I’m so tired all the time that I feel ancient. He asks if I have any time off coming up, and what I’d like to do to relax. It dawns on me that he’s flirting. And it occurs to me that I might be flirting back, awkwardly. I certainly didn’t mean to flirt with a student. I was just, you know, being myself. He’s 23 and I—ahem—am not. He’s cute. And clever. It’s not the worst conversation I’ve had with guy. But it’s not the best, either. After a few minutes, I tell him I have to go, and that it’s been a great semester. We were just two people talking, enjoying a moment of unguarded informality in the empty halls of the academy. This kind of conversation has happened …

Understanding the Propaganda Campaign Against So-called ‘TERFs’

“TERFs and what everyone needs to know about trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” ran the title of an article in Cosmo last month. TERFs—a term of abuse that means “trans-exclusionary radical feminist”—are a “minority group who usually stick to online forums,” it explained, though they also hand out “transphobic leaflets.” Under the guise of protecting women, they spread the idea that “trans women are a threat because they are men, attempting to gain access to women’s spaces such as bathrooms and trick lesbians into having sex with them.” Many are, apparently, “funded by anti-abortion and evangelical groups.” Some call themselves “gender-critical” to seem more “palatable to the general public.” But, the article argues, it would be best to call them what they are: “anti-trans activists.” The same themes appeared in an article published a few weeks earlier by Vox, entitled, “The rise of anti-trans ‘radical’ feminists, explained.” So-called TERFs, author Katelyn Burns wrote, are anti-trans bigots and anti-feminist; funded by conservative Christians; a small online cabal in thrall to gender stereotypes. Burns also set out, in some …

Gilead Resembles an Islamic Theocracy, not Trump’s America

Margaret Atwood, whose work I have long admired, is now being hailed as a prophet. It is quite the phenomenon. According to the pundits, Atwood’s 1985 work, The Handmaid’s Tale, which Mary McCarthy once savaged, and the recently-published 2019 sequel, The Testaments, are dystopias which aptly describe the contemporary climate change crisis, toxic environments, the rise in infertility, and the enslavement of women in Trump’s America. Is this all Atwood is writing about? Do the increasing restrictions on abortion in America parallel the extreme misogyny of Gilead, the theocratic state in Atwood’s saga? Is the unjust separation of mothers and children, a la Trump on the southern border, what Atwood has foretold? Every review and interview with Atwood that I could find strongly insists that this is the case. Michelle Goldberg, in the New York Times, attributes the current popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale to Trump’s ascendancy. She writes: “It’s hardly surprising that in 2016 the book resonated—particularly women—stunned that a brazen misogynist, given to fascist rhetoric and backed by religious fundamentalists was taking power.” Michiko Kakutani recently reviewed The Testaments for the New York …

Hong Kong: First Line of Defence against a Rising Fascist Power

On July 7, a young man from China crossed the border into Hong Kong, found the nearest KFC, and locked himself in the bathroom. He took out a pen and a paper sign, trembling at the thought of how his life was about to change. “I come from the mainland,” he wrote. “Thank you, Hongkongers! Don’t give up, fight for freedom!” Then he joined the protesters marching from Tsim Sha Tsui to West Kowloon, and held up his sign. When he returned to China the police arrested him, stripped him naked, forced him to sing “There is no new China without the Communist Party,” and held him in a room with forty other prisoners. They threatened to beat him to death for betraying the Chinese “race.” The man, whose name is Lu, was released ten days later. It is quite common in China for people to be arrested and rearrested multiple times in quick succession, and it is also common for the police to use torture. With this in mind, Lu fled to Thailand. Now …

The Cancelation of Shane Gillis Provides the Mob with Another Win

I used to have a joke where I said the word “faggot.” I wasn’t trying to be hateful. It was a kind of cheap joke where I said the word in the voice of the bigot. In my comedy act, I would talk about how in Texas the state motto was, “Don’t mess with Texas”—the only state where the motto was a threat. I then would imitate the meeting they must have had when coming up with it, and then conclude, “If that’s the motto they went with, imagine what they rejected.” Cue southern drawl. “How about…‘Texas! You better back the fuck up, faggot!’ ” Laugh laugh laugh. I’m hilarious. I had a large LGBT audience and talked a ton about same-sex marriage. (This was when George W. Bush was still in office. I was woke when being woke meant fighting for people’s rights, not trying to stick someone’s head on your Twitter trophy wall.) The joke always got an applause break, and no one thought I actually was the type of person who used …

Why Has Kamala Harris’s Campaign Fizzled?

For Democrats, the current 2020 election cycle is perhaps the most important in modern history. For the party faithful, unseating Trump—a man Democrats consider to be the worst President in modern history—has become the overriding concern, even eclipsing the party’s lively policy debate. One rising star, and a politician many considered would give the President a run for his money, is the junior senator from California, Kamala Harris. Superficially, Harris looks like the party’s dream candidate. She is a woman—an asset to a party animated by gender politics, concerns about diversity and still reeling from the #MeToo movement. She is also an ethnic minority (her mother is Indian, her father is Jamaican), another box ticked for a party which draws considerable support from non-whites. Her former life as a prosecutor, San Francisco district attorney and California state attorney would be a dangerous match-up for the unscrupulous Trump, who has spent more time than most avoiding a court room. Having been a senator since 2016, she is already a national political figure. She has also proved …

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 …

Michel Houellebecq: Populism’s Prophet

In the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, more newspaper op-eds and opinion pieces in magazines catering to the “well-informed public” have been written about the populist phenomenon than any other topic. Populism has been unpacked, dissected, defined, and analysed, and the results have all been discouraging. Identifying the cause or causes of populism is no simple matter. Does populism stem from dissatisfaction with the economy, immigration, or some combination of issues? When surveys are taken of populist voters, these broad categories are used to determine the reason for a voter’s decision. Lost in these statistical analyses of populism, however, is any real understanding of the lives and motivations of the individuals who end up making political decisions. In an age of ubiquitous scientific polling and surveying, of commentary and opinion, it is curious that perhaps the most powerful and accurate examination of the forces behind the modern populist groundswell should come from a French novelist. In the press, Michel Houellebecq has held the distinction of being France’s literary, right-wing enfant terrible. …

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 …