All posts filed under: Review

Totally Under Control—A Review

Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control revisits a time, the legacy of which still haunts us. Spanning the period between January of 2020 and late spring of 2020, his new documentary traces the rise of the pandemic which has become a defining feature of our time. A New York Times headline on January 21st read “China Confirms New Coronavirus Spreads From Humans to Humans.” The full horror of mass deaths and economic lockdown hadn’t dawned on the world yet. Even in Wuhan there wasn’t full comprehension of what was to come. Nevertheless, the next day President Donald Trump was asked if he was worried about the pandemic and responded that “We have it totally under control.” Obviously, Trump was wrong. Totally Under Control is squarely focused on the bungling, mismanagement, and incoherence of the Trump administration. Gibney’s documentary is fundamentally a chronicle of the lopsided match between the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump administration. As a point of contrast, Gibney focuses on the coherent and concerted efforts of America’s Pacific Rim ally, South Korea. The comparison …

Intellectual Freedom and the Culture Wars—A Review

A review of Intellectual Freedom and the Culture Wars by Piers Benn. Palgrave MacMillan, 168 pages (October 2020) I attended a notably liberal state university in the early 2000s. Most politically-minded students regarded themselves as either conventionally liberal or part of an amorphous Left which was focused primarily on cultural issues. I counted myself peripherally among the campus Left and participated occasionally in political activism—attending protests against the policies of the World Trade Organization and against American military adventures overseas (views which were then seen by enlightened opinion as left wing but are now, apparently, the domain of isolationist reactionaries). Most instructors on campus who revealed their political views also showed themselves to be a part of the Left. However, there were several popular conservative professors, a vibrant sect of College Republicans consisting mostly of garden-variety neocons, plenty of libertarians, and a couple of paleoconservative Buchanan brigaders. I sparred regularly with these people in class discussions, and regarded several of them as my friends. This was not especially uncommon. The kids who were genuinely invested …

The Dead Are Rising—A Review

A review of The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne. Liveright Press, 640 pages (October 2020) Stylized in Spike Lee’s excellent 1992 film and canonized by the thousands of high school and college instructors who have made his autobiography required reading, Malcolm X has become a man for all seasons. As a result, activists and commentators on both the Left and Right want the once-controversial figure all to themselves. To the Left, he is an icon of resistance to white political and cultural hegemony. To some on the Right, he stands apart from the Great Society statism that became the policy prescription of choice among the Civil Rights establishment, offering an alternative of self-reliance, entrepreneurship, and voluntary communalism. Not bad for a figure deemed, at best, divisive by respectable opinion during his lifetime. The latest biography of Malcolm X will serve boosters of either narrative. In The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, the late Les Payne shows his subject to have been a complex …

Inside Story—A Review

A review of Inside Story by Martin Amis. Knopf, 560 pages. (October 2020) As literature’s cultural relevance washes out on the high tide of digital media, self-absorption becomes the order of the day. Those who can still be bothered to write “serious” books aren’t interested in telling other people’s stories. They want to tell their own. And in the age of profiles and self-promotion, it’s not surprising that auto-fiction—or what I like to call the ME novel—is the literary genre with the most purchase. ME writing, while centuries old, has exploded in the last decade: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (to name a few in fiction); Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering (for non-fiction novels)—while other excesses, like blog novels and memoirs written by 28-year-olds have even managed to find their way to audiences. Now Martin Amis’s new novel Inside Story joins this club of “life writing” (a genre he describes as “rather dubious”). Inside Story is a ME …

One Billion Americans—A Review

A review of One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger by Matthew Yglesias, Portfolio, 288 pages (September 2020) Matthew Yglesias began his career as an online wonk, advocating a muscular American foreign policy that amounted to social work in the Middle East. While still an undergraduate at Harvard, he blogged up a storm, hoping to kickstart a democratic revolution in a region whose regimes he regarded as sufficiently evil and dangerous to warrant American intervention. Two decades later, the author of One Billion Americans wants to bring the revolution home. Yglesias proposes that the United States ensure its position as global hegemon by tripling its population over the course of this century. To achieve this grand demographic enterprise, he suggests a buffet of old and new public policies. His preferred admixture combines the pro-natalism of the French Third Republic with the planned economy of Olof Palme’s Sweden—a publicly subsidized boom in home construction that would make even the likes of William Levitt blush. He also recommends a massive expansion of legal immigration into the …

The WEIRDest People in the World—A Review

A review of The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 704 pages (September, 2020). A decade ago, researcher and scholar Joseph Henrich, together with psychologists Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan, published a landmark paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences titled, “The weirdest people in the world?”1 No, the target of the label “weird” were not the Araweté horticulturalists of lowland South America, where mothers-to-be seek sex with multiple men in the belief that semen from multiple fathers is needed to form the fetus.2 Nor were they the Māori of New Zealand, who have been known to collect and preserve the heads of enemy chiefs they killed in battle as trophies of war, (the mokomokai.) The target of the weird label was Western people. More specifically, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, or WEIRD. WEIRD was not meant as a pejorative, but as an apt description of this group of psychologically peculiar people, who are distinct from the majority of humanity both …

‘Science Fictions’ Review: Begone, Science Swindlers

A review of Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth by Stuart Ritchie, Bodley Head, 353 pages (July, 2020). As I sat down to review Stuart Ritchie’s new book, Science Fictions, I was interrupted immediately by mournful texts from a young man who was being hosed for his write-up of the results from a study. He’d asked me to take a look at it. A charity wanted to improve literacy in poor children. Children’s literacy had been measured before and after a “treatment” or intervention. There was no “control group” in the design. No similar sample of children who trundled along without the intervention, nor an intervention designed to match the treatment in all but the supposed crucial component. Had literacy increased at the second assessment because of the treatment or because the children were a year older? Your guess is as good as mine. The young man fed this problem back to his superiors and was called, peremptorily, to an online meeting. The charity had wanted a glowing …

Twilight of Democracy—A Review

A review of Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum, Doubleday (July 2020), 224 pages. Historian and journalist Anne Applebaum’s new book The Twilight of Democracy sees a democratic world, as Rupert Brooke saw his world at the onset of World War I, “grown old and cold and weary.” So weary of democracy’s institutions and processes, so coldly contemptuous of the liberals of the Left and Right who administered them, that many of those who previously supported these central pillars have instead embraced one or another form of right-wing fundamentalism. This may manifest as nostalgic yet virulent nationalism, or reactionary Catholicism, or an invocation of Great Leader-ism which is, she writes, “at once serious and unserious.” Illustrative of the last of these types, she says, is Santiago Abascal, the leader of the Spanish anti-immigrant party Vox, who was filmed riding a horse to the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings—unserious, because plundering popular culture for the purposes of rousing self-glorification is so obviously crass; serious, because it is rousing, nonetheless. The title of Applebaum’s book communicates the seriousness …

The Room Where It Happened—A Review

A review of The Room Where It Happened—A White House Memoir by John Bolton, Simon and Schuster (June 2020), 592 pages. Donald Trump’s White House is fast approaching the end of its first term. Meanwhile, the consequences of the administration’s early insouciance about the onset of COVID-19 are manifest across a country experiencing a ferocious new surge in cases. The US President offers his leadership to those who would scrap the sheltering and distancing rules, characterising them as the imposition of a despised bureaucracy—evidence, as one protestor put it, of a “Communist dictatorship.” Trump is, in most moods, fond of Communist dictators, as China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un have been pleased to discover. The head of his National Security Council (NSC) from April 2018 until September last year, John Bolton, fears and hates them. These two men, both in their early 70s, were yoked together for 18 months, a period that ended in predictable acrimony, and which has now produced a memoir from Bolton. Several books have already sought to illuminate the malign …

The Coming of Neo-Feudalism—A Review

Review of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class by Joel Kotkin, Encounter Books (May 2020) 288 pages. Writing books which make bold predictions about the future of the Western world can be risky, so I naturally approached Joel Kotkin’s The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class with caution. Could feudalism really be making a comeback in the West, as Kotkin argues? The answer might not be a straight “yes,” but Kotkin’s overall argument that deep currents of history and economics are pulling us towards a more stratified and ideologically orthodox society is persuasive. Particularly in light of recent events, as we shall see. Feudal societies were hierarchical, with clearly-defined roles and responsibilities for everyone. The knights fought for all, the priests prayed for all, and the peasants worked for all. Times of upheaval could force open the door to social mobility, but otherwise, people kept their station. These barriers were broken down by the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of the modern democratic state. …