All posts filed under: Review

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire—A Review

A review of The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper, Princeton University Press, 417 pages (October 2017) Why did the Roman Empire fall? The classic answer is given by Edward Gibbon (1737 — 1794), in chapter 38 of the third volume of The History of the Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire (1776 — 1789): The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. Kyle Harper, Senior Vice President and Provost of the University of Oklahoma, seeks to complement Gibbon’s account by emphasising the role of nature, and specifically climate change and infectious disease, in the fall of Rome in his provocative, exceptionally well-written book The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire. Is Harper correct? Were plagues and …

Farewell, My Lovely

A review of The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson, Flatiron Books (February 2020) 397 pages. Editor’s note: the following essay contains spoilers. There’s a moment midway through the film Chinatown (1974) in which the hero, Jake Gittes, hands us a clue—not a clue about the case he’s investigating, the one involving graft and murder in L.A.’s Department of Water and Power, but a more subtextual kind of clue, hinting at the meaning of the film’s enigmatic title. Jake (Jack Nicholson) and his client, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), are standing in her back yard, and she’s prodding him about his life before he became a private eye, when he worked as a cop in Chinatown. What did he do there, she asks? “As little as possible,” Jake replies. This bit of dialogue may seem innocuous, but it was, in fact, the inspiration for the entire film, taken by screenwriter Robert Towne from an actual Chinatown cop, whom he met in the early 1970s. In Chinatown, the policeman explained, you …

‘10% Less Democracy’—A Review

A review of 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less by Garrett Jones, Stanford University Press (February 2020) 248 pages In ‘Federalist Paper #10‘, James Madison mused on the problem of political factionalism. Factionalism was inevitable in a free society, he wrote, as it stems from human nature itself, but it presents a real barrier to good government. His proposed solution was a constitutional republic which could restrain extremes and promote compromise. Pure democracies, he argued, “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” However, a constitutional republic would “…refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary …

Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family—A Review

A review of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family by Sophie Lewis, Verso, 224 pages (May 2019)  Why is it that when we grab for heaven—socialist or capitalist or even religious—we so often produce hell? I’m not sure, but it is so. Maybe it’s the lumpiness of human beings. What do you do with people who somehow just don’t or won’t fit into your grand scheme? So writes Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, the most influential vision of a misogynist dystopia ever created. But Sophie Lewis, author of Full Surrogacy Now, has little time for Atwood. She is suspicious of the “‘universal’ (trans-erasive) feminist solidarity” that seems to be promised by the novel. In the fictional country of Gilead, women are valued for their reproductive capacities alone, while their social status is stripped away. This foregrounding of bodies, and what those bodies can do—or not do—seems to make Lewis uncomfortable, and she is not alone in that view. In 2018, Michael Biggs, Professor of Sociology at the University of Oxford and Quillette contributor, …

The Coming Age of Dispersion

As of this writing, the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic remain uncertain. But one possible consequence is an acceleration of the end of the megacity era. In its place, we may now be witnessing the outlines of a new, and necessary, dispersion of population, not only in the wide open spaces of North America and Australia, but even in the megacities of the developing world. Much of this has been driven by high housing prices and growing social disorder in our core cities, as well as the steady rise of online commerce and remote working, now the fastest growing means of “commuting” in the United States. Pandemics naturally thrive in large multicultural cities, where people live “cheek by jowl” and travel to and from other countries is a fact of international tourism and commerce. Europe’s rapidly advancing infection rate is, to some extent, the product of its weak border controls, one of the EU’s greatest accomplishments. Across the continent, cities have become the primary centers of infection. Half of all COVID-19 cases in Spain, …

Humanity’s Greatest Foe: Pandemics Through the Ages

A review of Plagues and Peoples by William McNeill, Anchor, 365 pages (1998) Readers seeking a longer historical perspective on the coronavirus pandemic would do well to consider William H. McNeill’s brilliant book, Plagues and Peoples. Originally published in 1976, Plagues and Peoples shows, in less than 300 pages (not including the appendix, notes and index), “how varying patterns of disease circulation have affected human affairs in ancient and modern times.” Not everyone, understandably, will wish to dwell upon the endless series of calamities infectious diseases have exacted in our collective past. The uncertain, terrifying ordeal immediately before us is quite enough. But along with well-informed worry, McNeill’s masterful account induces both awe and hope at our species’ capacity to endure the worst from its most ancient adversaries. To adapt words McNeill wrote in a slightly different context: The history of mankind’s long struggle against infectious diseases “will not solve contemporary dilemmas. It may, nonetheless, provide perspective and, as is the wont of historical awareness, make simple solutions and radical despair both seem less compelling. …

‘Against Democracy’—A Review

A Review of Against Democracy by Jason Brennan. Princeton University Press (September 2016) 304 pages.  Many voters can find democracy exasperating, particularly when watching the TV on the night of an election which hasn’t gone their way. But most would still likely endorse Winston Churchill’s observation that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (Unlike most of the quotes attributed to Churchill he actually said this, in the House of Commons on November 11th, 1947, but he didn’t claim it was original to him.) Few citizens in a democracy want to delimit or do away with their democratic institutions entirely, and most are genuinely grateful that they do not live in an undemocratic state. Georgetown professor Jason Brennan dissents from this prevailing view. In Against Democracy, he argues in an engaging and witty fashion that we would, in fact, be better off ditching (or at least seriously curtailing) democracy. The book pre-dates the Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, so …

Conceit and Contagion: How the Virus Shocked Europe

The World Health Organization announced last week that Europe is now the epicentre of the new coronavirus epidemic. As the announcement was made, many countries in Africa and Asia were imposing strict restrictions on the arrival of flights and visitors from Europe. It felt like a great historical reversal, one full of irony. Suddenly Europeans were being kept away, they who for so long fortified their borders against all the dangers—real or imagined—arriving from the developing world. The coronavirus crisis in Europe is, before everything else, a public health crisis, but it also reflects profound changes in the way the continent sees itself. Many of these changes have been taking place for a while. Previous moments such as the debt or refugee crises can be linked with the ongoing epidemic as part of a larger pattern, but the coronavirus has made everything more visible and certainly more tragic. It seems clear to me that the extent of the outbreak in Europe is directly connected to subtle questions of cultural identity, some of which I want …

Fabricated Innocence: The Self-Exoneration and Re-Incrimination of Jens Soering

One of the narrative paradigms in Kurt Vonnegut’s typology of stories is called “Man in a Hole”: Someone starts out doing pretty well at the beginning of a story, then plunges into a deep hole of misfortune, then scrambles out of it again. Jens Soering is that man in the hole. Soering’s promising life went off the rails at the age of 18, when the young German student at the University of Virginia began a love affair which culminated in the brutal double murder of Derek and Nancy Haysom, the parents of his girlfriend Elizabeth. That was act one. Act two involved an international flight from the law, hours of confessions, and a judicial decision which has shaped human rights law to this day. Act three begins with Soering’s conviction and sentencing to life in prison at a televised 1990 murder trial. The pace of the drama then slows for act four: Working from his prison cell, Soering patiently constructs, over decades, an alternate history of the love affair and murders, and convinces a dedicated …

I’ve Been Fired. If You Value Academic Freedom, That Should Worry You

Orthodoxy whether of the right or of the left is the graveyard of creativity. ~Chinua Achebe Until a week ago, I was a tenure-track assistant professor at a small college. Then I was fired. And although I am but one professor at one small college in one small town, I want to persuade you that, if you care about free speech and free inquiry in academia, you should be alarmed by my termination. My troubles began in October 2019 when I was invited to address an evolutionary group at the University of Alabama. I had decided that I would discuss human population variation, the hypothesis that human biological differences are at least partially produced by different environments selecting for different physical and psychological traits in their populations over time. I planned to defend this view as most consistent with a Darwinian understanding of the world. My first day in Tuscaloosa was uneventful. On the second day, I visited a class and had an enjoyable discussion with students about various topics, including human evolution and social …