All posts filed under: Recommended

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 …

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 …

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 …

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 …

The Children of the Revolution

“Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart,” wrote James Baldwin, “for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.” This observation has been confirmed many times throughout history. However, China’s Cultural Revolution offers perhaps the starkest illustration of just how dangerous the “pure in heart” can be. The ideological justification for the revolution was to purge the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the nation more broadly, of impure elements hidden in its midst: capitalists, counter-revolutionaries, and “representatives of the bourgeoisie.” To that end, Mao Zedong activated China’s youth—unblemished and uncorrupted in heart and mind—to lead the struggle for purity. Christened the “Red Guards,” they were placed at the vanguard of a revolution that was, in truth, a cynical effort by Mao to reassert his waning power in the Party. Nevertheless, it set in motion a self-destructive force of almost unimaginable depravity. The Cultural Revolution commenced in spirit when Mao published a letter indicting a number of Party leaders on May 16, 1966. But it was a seemingly minor event nine days later …

Confessions of a ‘Soulless Troglodyte’: How My Brooklyn Literary Friendships Fell Apart in the Age of Trump

I became friends with Jamie when I was 13, a few years after my family fled the Soviet Union and settled in what was then one of the most diverse neighborhoods of south Brooklyn. When we first met, Jamie (not his real name) told me that he was a genius—that his Catholic school teachers said so after he wrote a poem about vaginas and read it aloud in front of the whole class. He told me he wanted to be “an author.” In the 1990s, our street was a spontaneous symphony of the working poor, a place where kids bonded by trading ethnic insults in a dozen languages. I had mastered this crude local vernacular. Jamie’s ability to step outside of our street language, speak freely and dream about something larger was transfixing. Unlike Jamie, I churned through the city’s public schools without attracting much notice. My teachers did not seek genius. In high school, they were too busy keeping us from killing each other. I learned nothing and barely graduated. After Jamie went off …

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 …