All posts filed under: Review

Liberal Orthodoxy and the New Heresy

I teach college in a small city in Arkansas, deep in the American Bible Belt. I am a historian of Africa and in my department that means that I also teach a world history survey. I always start with the expansion of modern humans out of Africa and their encounter with other types of humans: Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Denesovians and what seems like an ever-growing list of newly discovered human-like creatures. It’s less the case now, but when I started twenty years ago this part of the course was initially met with polite but firm resistance, which gradually gave way to a sort of furtive curiosity. I eventually realized that even my cleverest students knew very little about human evolution except that it was false and that they were supposed to reject it. They came to the university having been taught that evolution was part of a larger attack on their faith and values, but they had never really been exposed to anything but a sort of parody version of it. A small number of …

The Bolivarian God That Failed

The day after Venezuela’s National Assembly voted to declare its president, Juan Guaidó, interim President of the Republic, I received a text from a former friend. “If the U.S. topples Vz [Venezuela],” he wrote, “I will hold you responsible.” I would have been happy to accept this responsibility had I done anything important enough to deserve it. But the idea was absurd and he knew it. If the Venezuelan regime falls—and I hope that it does—it won’t even be possible to credit (or blame) the United States. It is the Venezuelan people who finally are taking their destiny in hand and rejecting an intolerable status quo. The message was not a serious attempt to apportion responsibility for Venezuela’s current upheaval; it was an attempt to shame me for my treacherous betrayal of the Bolivarian cause. An early supporter of the Revolution, I had traveled to Venezuela in 2013 to cover the April presidential elections. By the time I returned to the US, I was disillusioned and depressed. I decided I needed to start writing and …

Why Do People Tell Me I’m Not Allowed to Write?

When I first started writing, it was on something of a dare. In 8th grade my friends and I ate lunch in the librarian’s office in the school library. We’d had enough of the cafeteria, with its cliques, nasty comments, and seating hierarchies. Since one of us worked in the library helping shelve books (it wasn’t me), we bought our ice creams and fries in the lunch line and hightailed it to the bright, lovely library that took up the center core of the building. Picture The Breakfast Club‘s library, but sized down for middle school. These library girls were badass. The wittiest, smartest, cattiest, snarkiest girls and I sat around the librarian’s conference table, and with the doors closed, we could say anything we wanted. What we mostly wanted to talk about would have gotten us into trouble in the lunch room, and one day Bree said we should write a story together, incorporating some of this material. I think it was Bree, but it might have been me. We took out some loose …

Taking on the Offendotrons: a review of Russell Blackford’s ‘The Tyranny of Opinion’

A review of The Tyranny of Opinion by Russell Blackford. Bloomsbury Academic Press (October 18, 2018) 240 pages. It’s fair to say I have a leitmotif when it comes to commentary. Starting in 2015 (in the Guardian) and multiple times since, I’ve written about offendotrons getting people sacked for their dissenting from progressive orthodoxy breaching politically correct speech codes. Typically, these episodes begin with something like an open letter, a Twitter pile-on, a petition. Sometimes the desired outcome isn’t a sacking. It can be having a book or paper withdrawn, or a publication contract terminated, or no-platforming a speaker, or inducing advertisers and funders to end financial support. Occasionally, it veers into criminality—doxxing, calling police to an individual’s house (known as “swatting”), street harassment. I could bang on about offendotrons every week and have to resist the impulse. At the time of writing, Oxford Law Professor John Finnis—one of my university tutors and a devout Catholic—was in scope. The attacks on him proceeded in the familiar way. He wrote something “offensive” about gay marriage in a 2011 …

Francis Fukuyama’s Master Concept

Dignity, recognition, esteem, respect, and the resentment that arises when they are not accorded—these are the themes of Francis Fukuyama’s new book. Like many political commentators, he was surprised by the results of two elections in 2016: the victories for Brexit and Donald Trump. To understand them, he sought a “master concept,” something that would explain not only these results, but also the many other political movements of this decade, from the rise of populism around the globe to #MeToo and campus protests in America. In Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, he proposes “identity,” a concept that grows “out of a distinction between one’s true inner self and an outer world of social rules and norms that does not adequately recognize that inner self’s worth or dignity.” Fukuyama’s book moves adroitly between a history of how this concept emerged to an explanation of how it has caused our present crisis, before concluding with some suggestions for the future of liberal democracies. His framing of our present crisis as one of …

Tiers of Pride and Shame

On December 9, in the small hours of the morning, a drunk Columbia undergraduate student named Julian von Abele was filmed outside the campus’s main library delivering a passionate ode to whiteness. “White people are the best thing that ever happened to the world,” von Abele declared to a group of students, many of whom were not white. “We invented science and industry, and you want to tell us to stop because, ‘Oh my God we’re so bad.’” In an ill-fated attempt to pacify the collection of students surrounding him, he added the caveat, “I don’t hate other people, I just love white men.” Students and administrators reacted to the incident with unanimous condemnation. Barnard College, Columbia’s sister school, banned von Abele from campus. Many argued that von Abele’s tirade should be understood not as an isolated event, but as a symptom of the university’s ongoing complicity in white supremacy—a systemic problem calling for a systemic solution. Columbia’s Black Student Organization led the charge with a list of demands including extra time for affected students …

“Jihadists”—A Review

Jihadists (dir. François Margolin and Lemine Ould Salem, Cinema Libre Studio 2018, 75m) Some years ago, when assessments of the Arab Spring were at their most optimistic, it became common to hear it suggested that al-Qaeda was, if not defeated entirely, then virtually irrelevant. And yet, with all eyes on the Middle East, towns and cities in Mali would soon be falling like dominoes to al-Qaeda and its Islamist allies. This was the context in which two French filmmakers, François Margolin and Lemine Ould Salem, boldly journeyed to North Africa to document life in territory now governed by sharia law. The result of that trip is an extraordinary documentary entitled Jihadists, an unprecedented, unflinching, and unsettling glimpse into life under Islamist control. While it is increasingly hard to miss the existence of this totalitarian ideology, the same cannot be said for Margolin and Salem’s film. Worried that Jihadists offered no dissenting voices to counter the extremists featured in the film, France’s National Center of Cinematography expressed concern that, rather than repel people, the film’s stark portrait …

Enlightenment Wars: Some Reflections on ‘Enlightenment Now,’ One Year Later

You wouldn’t think that a defense of reason, science, and humanism would be particularly controversial in an era in which those ideals would seem to need all the help they can get. But in the words of a colleague, “You’ve made people’s heads explode!” Many people who have written to me about my 2018 book Enlightenment Now say they’ve been taken aback by the irate attacks from critics on both the right and the left. Far from embracing the beleaguered ideals of the Enlightenment, critics have blamed it for racism, imperialism, existential threats, and epidemics of loneliness, depression, and suicide. They have insisted that human progress can only be an illusion of cherry-picked data. They have proclaimed, with barely concealed schadenfreude, that the Enlightenment is an idea whose time has passed, soon to be killed off by authoritarian populism, social media, or artificial intelligence. This month’s publication of the paperback edition of EN in the US and UK is an occasion for me to weigh in on the controversies that have flared up in the year since …

Every Schoolchild Should Read This Book

A review of Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are by Kevin J. Mitchell. Princeton University Press (October 16, 2018) 304 pages. Kevin Mitchell’s Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are is a book for high school students. And I mean that as a compliment. Profound misunderstandings about the genetic nature of human beings lie at the heart of the social justice movement, as well as some education reforms, attitudes toward mental disorders, aspects of the self-help industry, and social policies including but not limited to immigration, welfare, racism, and sex/gender issues. What a person understands or misunderstands about genetics is a foundation for evaluating new ideas encountered in college, forming political opinions, dealing with difficult co-workers, tackling issues of parenthood and family, and generally living day-to-day life. If read early enough, Innate might provide some inoculation against bad or naïve information about human nature and the indisputable role played by genes. That is why it belongs on high school reading lists, not just in science classes. Think …

Feminism’s Dependency Trap

Reading the news stories about #MeToo and sexual harassment, and the barrage of social media posts that accompanied these headlines, I became saddened but also increasingly frustrated. It wasn’t the reports of men behaving badly that angered me, but the despair that seemed to be the expected response to these stories, and the helplessness that my female friends appeared to attach to femininity itself that I found troubling. The unintended and painful irony of recent feminism’s preoccupation with overcoming male oppression has been to place men at the centre of female identity. This makes the feminine experience something like an echo; women’s voices seem to be little more than a response, or a rebuttal, to men’s voices, which are taken to be primarily an instrument of patriarchal oppression. But, in my own experience, men aren’t interested in maintaining power and control over women—they simply don’t see women as a group that they are oppressing, or that they would like to oppress. We hear a lot about “male privilege” but historically it has been the “privilege” of …