All posts filed under: Review

“What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?” A Discussion of Helen Dale’s Kingdom of the Wicked

It’s 31 AD or 784 AUC (ab urbe condita) in the Roman calendar. Jerusalem is packed with visitors for the Passover, and Pontius Pilate returns home from the office with a thick dossier on the recent riot at the Temple, caused by Yeshua Ben Yusuf and his rowdy followers. He greets his wife (hi honey), pats the dog, welcomes his young daughter’s handsome lover, has a bath, turns on the TV, and orders pizza for dinner, home delivered by a Greek boy on a motor-bike. It’s the Easter story, but not as told in the St Mathew Passion: the Rome of Kingdom of the Wicked has experienced an industrial, electronic and medical revolution and, with all our domestic comforts, sophisticated weaponry, computer equipment and wonder drugs, it is in many respects indistinguishable from the world of the 21st Century. The plausibility of this scenario is less important than the creative use that Helen Dale makes of it, but let us consider the case that she puts forward. Are there any reasons for thinking that the …

Steven Pinker’s Counter-Counter-Enlightenment

A review of Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker. Viking (February 2018) 576 pages.  Every so often, something will unite individuals in outrage who disagree furiously about virtually everything else. For the moment, that something is Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. At the New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat decried what he called Pinker’s “smug secular certainties,” and in the London Evening Standard, Melanie McDonagh declared that his “Whiggish case” ignored the “fruits of belief in [God]” and the “old problem of existential angst.” Meanwhile, in the left-leaning New Statesman, surly pessimist John Gray showered extravagant contempt over Pinker’s “evangelism of science” and “ideology of scientism,” and at ABC, Peter Harrison took exception to his “teleological view of history” and “misplaced faith in data, metrics and statistical analysis.” It is worth noticing that Pinker’s most trenchant critics are eager to flaunt their aversion to the very values Pinker sets out to defend – reason, science, humanism, and progress – and that their critiques display the traits and tics of exactly the kind of …

Liberalism Can Succeed

[This is Part II of a two-part review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. You can read Part I here] If we’re already at the point where liberal citizens cannot remember what our regime is supposed to protect — the individual and her natural rights to self-determination — what do we do? Answer: remind them what it is to be one, and why the individual is the pearl of greatest price. If we want to stand athwart the march toward illiberalism, moreover, and are so bold as to try to reverse its course, restoring confidence in the justice and wisdom of liberal practices and philosophy, what do we do? Answer: respond to liberalism’s critics, whether Deneen, the postmodernists, or the illiberal regimes abroad. After all, our preference for Western liberalism over these rivals is not enough to exonerate it from their critiques. We must respond to them, urgently, so that thoughtful Westerners who have lost confidence in the project, or at least its coherence, may find it once again. In a pair of essays on this …

Is Democracy Doomed?

A review of The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save it by Yascha Mounk, Harvard University Press (2018), 393 pages The great Austrian-American political economist Joseph Schumpeter once asked, “[c]an capitalism survive?” He answered this question in the negative, believing that markets undermine themselves because they perform too well. The market’s emphasis on innovation and disruption make it difficult for people to recognize how essential they are to rising standards of living. In Schumpeter’s view, capitalism’s downfall will be due to its success. Schumpeter agreed with Marx that socialism (or something like it) would eventually emerge in capitalism’s place, but he believed it would happen gradually. Willing majorities, buttressed by the anti-capitalist mentality of the intelligentsia, would snuff out entrepreneurs through legislation with large welfare states and burdensome regulations. Schumpeter didn’t live to see the collapse of socialism around the world. Nor did he witness the rise of social democracy in Europe, where states provide generous social safety nets while maintaining liberal economic policies in other areas such as international trade. …

Has Liberalism Failed?

Fascism failed. Communism failed. The last of the three major political philosophies that clashed through the twentieth century—Liberalism—still stands. It won, whether by force of arms or argument, but is now in retreat. Regimes once liberal have recently become authoritarian; more ominously, Americans have become impatient with liberal procedures and compromises. Many of its proponents argue that these setbacks are temporary, problems to be solved by certain adjustments of policy, rhetoric, or leadership. In Why Liberalism Failed, however, Patrick Deneen argues forcefully that the problems are congenital. Liberalism was bound to fail in the end as a politics because it was doomed from the beginning by its philosophy. In this dire judgment he agrees with a whole host of present critics. Notable among them are resurgent global rivals to liberalism’s postwar world-order: Xi Jinping’s China, Putin’s Russia, Khameini’s Iran. But the critics are also domestic. In universities sustained by liberal values, ironically, postmodernists have been declaring liberalism a failure since at least 1968—sometimes for the same reasons as the foreign rivals. Deneen agrees with their …

The Real Gender Trouble

A Review of When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment by Ryan T. Anderson, Encounter Books (February, 2018) 264 pages. In his new book, When Harry Became Sally, Ryan Anderson provides a sustained critique of the transgender rights movement. The book’s irreverent title is sure to turn heads; its contents will probably change some minds, too. Although Anderson is an outspoken social conservative, most of his arguments in this work could be advanced by someone who is politically left of center. Anderson is at pains to distinguish his criticism of transgender activists – by which he means people who promote a certain ideology, regardless of their sexual identities – from condemnation of transgender individuals as such. Surely he knows that such protestations will not insulate him from the charge of transphobic hatred. Here I analyze Anderson’s criticisms of the transgender movement and offer a few criticisms of my own, which I intend to be constructive in spirit. The Transgender Movement’s Philosophy Although they don’t usually acknowledge it, transgender activists make philosophical claims, which are …

Identity but Not as a Straitjacket

Identity can enrich and also limit a writer’s repertoire. Who she is and where he comes from matter, but should not be an end in itself. In particular, works of art born out of identity politics may seem like significant artistic statements when they are made, but may quickly become dated. What lasts is where the personal becomes universal. In pursuing these points, I shall contrast the lives and works of the African-American writers Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, then go on to discuss the experiences I had co-editing a 1090 page anthology of Australian poetry, when my co-editor and I serendipitously discovered the work of a poet Tricia Dearborn. *   *   * The African-American writer Richard Wright has been credited with helping to change race relations in the United States. This is not a small achievement. Wright’s Native Son (1940) was the first novel by an African-American to be selected by the Book of the Month Club. The following year his play of the same name opened on Broadway with Orson Welles directing. …

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life—A Review

A Review of The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, Oxford University Press, (January 2, 2018) 418 pages. “The elephant in the room” is any important and obvious fact that, for whatever reason, no one is willing to talk about. In their new book, The Elephant in the Brain, authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson extend the concept to one the most important and obvious, yet unspoken, facts about the human mind: that we are masters of self-deception, equipped by evolution with an “introspective blind spot” that hides our deeper, selfish motives, even when the same motives are easy to spot in others. The result is an entertaining and insightful book that sheds light on a diverse collection of perplexing human behaviors — from laughter to religion to the origin of language. For fans of books like The Selfish Gene and The Mating Mind, The Elephant in The Brain will be familiar territory. But for almost everyone else, the core thesis is likely to be extremely challenging. That’s …

“Canada Has Gone Mad”: Indigenous Representation and the Hounding of Angie Abdou

Late last year, I wrote an essay for Quillette describing how the fight against cultural appropriation had suddenly gone viral in Canada—particularly regarding stories about indigenous peoples. The issue “has become the subject of full-blown social panic among the country’s intellectual class,” I argued, and would remain so until artists and authors of color themselves “eventually become exasperated by doctrines that limit the influence and reach of their [own] literature.” I’m not holding my breath. But a telling controversy involving a newly published novel by Athabasca University creative writing professor Angie Abdou does show us that even some First Nations intellectuals now are becoming infuriated by the campaign to control the permitted range of literary expression in my country. I’m hoping it’s a sign of things to come. *     *     * Abdou is one of those progressive, conscientious, sensitive white writers who dedicate themselves to all the penitent literary rituals of our age. She seems to have done everything humanly possible to make sure her new book, In Case I Go, would offend no one, …

Rethinking Romance with Stendhal’s ‘On Love’

Insomnia has its hazy, surreal benefits. “If you’ve never read Stendhal’s On Love, well, you should,” my professor informed me, in a rapid-fire email exchange that took place, improbably, at 3:31 AM. (Somehow, we were both awake.) At the end of the trading of messages, I groaned at the prospect of adding something else to my reading list, set the laptop down, rolled over, and went back to sleep. But my trust in the suggestions of an authority figure was rewarded, as it often is: the next week I found myself not only reading On Love but enjoying it, while formulating questions, thoughts, and ideas in response. The text, a courtship manual of sorts from 1822, is sophisticated and lively. The key term Stendhal introduces, which is central to his vision of romance, is (to use the Americanized spelling) “crystallization”; the term refers to a twig thrown into a salt mine which, when “taken out two or three months later … is covered with brilliant crystals.” Beautiful patterns form around something that wasn’t necessarily beautiful …