All posts filed under: Spotlight

Meet Critical Theorists’ Latest Target: Critical Theorists

Ole Wæver, a professor of International Relations at the University of Copenhagen, would seem like an unlikely subject of academic controversy. He’s written extensively on Conflict Studies, and served as a member of the Danish Government’s Commission on Security and Disarmament Affairs, as well as the Danish Institute of International Affairs. He also is widely recognized as the co-founder of a discipline known as Securitization Theory, along with British international-relations professor Barry Buzan. “Securitisation theory shows us that national security policy is not a natural given, but carefully designated by politicians and decision-makers,” reads one introductory online text. “According to securitisation theory, political issues are constituted as extreme security issues to be dealt with urgently when they have been labelled as ‘dangerous,’ ‘menacing,’ ‘threatening,’ ‘alarming’, and so on by a ‘securitising actor’ who has the social and institutional power to move the issue ‘beyond politics.’ So, security issues are not simply ‘out there,’ but rather must be articulated as problems by securitising actors. Calling immigration a ‘threat to national security,’ for instance, shifts immigration from …

Pandemics and Pandemonium

Minneapolis and urban centers across America are burning, most directly in response to the brutal killing of a black man by a white Minnesota police officer. But the rage ignited by the death of George Floyd is symptomatic of a profound sense of alienation that has been building for years among millions of poor, working class urbanites. The already diminished prospects facing such people have only been worsened by the unforeseen onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and the policies devised to combat it. Like earlier pandemics, the virus has devastated poorer communities, where people live in the most crowded housing, are forced to travel on public transport, and work in the most exposed “essential” jobs, most of which are badly paid. Unlike the affluent of Gotham, some 30 percent of whom were able to leave town and work remotely, the working class remained, forced to endure crowded conditions as the disease raged through the city. No surprise then that inhabitants of the impoverished Bronx have suffered nearly twice as many deaths from COVID-19 as those …

Do We Really Want a New Cold War?

Fear has been making some pretty foolish policy decisions in the last few months. In the US, the decision of several state governments to move patients infected with COVID-19 into nursing homes probably takes the prize, but a close runner-up would be Congress’s CARES act, which misguidedly paid the unemployed to stay unemployed. Trillions have been allocated to remediate the damage done by shuttering non-essential schools and businesses, but relatively little of that Niagara of dollars has made its way downstream to the small businesses and schools that have been most harmed by the lockdowns. As usual, our solons have been trying to crack a walnut with a sledgehammer. Fear has been giving no wiser advice on foreign policy. Politicians and commentators left and right have been competing to march us into a new Cold War. Hold the Chinese responsible! Sue them! Impound their US bank accounts! Uproot all our supply chains that pass through China! Show China who is boss in the South China Sea! Send Chinese students back to China before they can …

After the Virus: The Way We Live Next

How will we live, or be forced to live, after the pandemic? “I don’t know” is—according to Paul Collier, the famed development economist—the most honest answer to this question and others related to the cause, rise, treatment, and decline of the current pandemic. This is, after all, an unprecedented disease of rare speed and communicability, for which there is no cure and no agreed political and social response. Yet, contradicting himself within weeks, Collier wrote a similarly powerful essay in which he argued that centralisation had failed, and devolution from those who pronounce from on high to those who practice on the ground is necessary. Perhaps he was merely demonstrating that, in this maelstrom of conflicting arguments, no-one, no matter how distinguished, can wholly know his own mind from day to day. In any case, agnosticism is as unwelcome to journalism as it is to governance. And journalists, who operate under fewer constraints than governments, can at least consider some likely alternatives, while remaining alive to the possibility that unknown unknowns will continue to turn up, …

Sickness and Stoicism

In less than three months, COVID-19 has changed from a peripheral concern, barely registering in presidential debates, to the greatest global crisis since World War II. We are living in extraordinary times, and there is scarcely an industry or country that has escaped the impact of the new virus. In the United States, the Federal Reserve estimates that the unemployment rate could briefly skyrocket to 32 percent—higher than anything the country experienced during the Great Depression. People have lost their livelihoods. Many others are scared about what is to come when they develop a fever or cough. Illness, financial hardship, and loneliness are, nevertheless, well-trodden paths. One man who can guide us along the way is Seneca the Younger, a Roman philosopher and statesman and contemporary of Jesus. Seneca suffered from asthma, and his condition sometimes left him bedridden and gasping for air. As he grew older, he even contemplated suicide because his affliction was so severe. Seneca’s lifelong illness, as well as his background in Stoic philosophy, gave him the insight he needed to …

Denmark’s Weapons Against COVID-19: Early Action, High Trust—and a No-Nonsense Queen

It’s early spring in Denmark, a welcome relief after months of murky, rainy darkness. Even Copenhagen’s less-affluent districts are covered with carpets of blue wildflowers. It’s also the third week of the country’s coronavirus quarantine, in which Denmark became one of the first countries in Europe to shut its schools and send most public employees home. On March 14th, it was among the first to close its borders entirely. Other than going to work, shopping for non-essentials and dining out, the Danes are doing much of what they would otherwise be doing during spring’s chilly opening act. They are bicycling, sailing, taking nature walks, and gardening. Parents of three- and four-year-olds are teaching them how to ride a bicycle by sticking a broom through the seat support and guiding them along the sidewalks. And there is always plenty of spring housework—for everyone. (Danish men do more housework than any of their OECD counterparts.) This includes airing out the feather quilts after the long winter, filling up the window boxes with spring flowers, and embarking on …

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. …

The Libertarian Case for Rejecting Meat Consumption

If George Orwell were alive today, he would troll vegetarians. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Orwell described with exasperation how mere mention of the words “Socialism” or “Communism” seemed to attract “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” Orwell suggested that even this list did not include the flakiest leftists of all. And prominent among that group were those who ate no meat, a diet that Orwell associated with dreamy political projects such as the garden city movement, now forgotten, but which once sought to create urban areas ringed by greenbelts. “If only the sandals and pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!” Orwell was one of history’s greatest political writers, but on the subject of vegetarianism, he never got past stereotype. Anyone who has regularly eaten a meatless lunch in public knows that the image of vegetarians and vegans as members of …

Create Dangerously: Albert Camus and the Power and Responsibility of the Artist

On December 14, 1957, only four days after he had delivered his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Albert Camus gave another speech in Sweden, this time at Uppsala University, called “Create Dangerously: The Power and Responsibility of the Artist,” in which he argued, “To create today means to create dangerously. Every publication is a deliberate act, and that act makes us vulnerable to the passions of a century that forgives nothing.” Exchange century for internet and you’ll know why Vintage has just rereleased this speech as its own pocket book in a new translation by Sandra Smith. These are dangerous times to create art. Which is also to say, these are the best times to create art. But what makes these times dangerous anyway? After all, Camus gave his speech only a decade after WWII when fascism had almost conquered Europe, and the Soviet Empire was just beginning its rule over half the continent that would last the next half a century. In today’s West, this idea of “danger” seems—to use one …

On Gender, Blurring the Line Between Dogma and Farce

Everyone has heard of Charlie Chaplin. Less widely recognized is the name of his older half-brother Sydney (often called Syd), who was a gifted comic actor in his own right. Unlike his younger brother, who invented his own kind of comedy, Syd relied on the established comic tropes of the day, which often were nothing more than feature-length versions of boys-school dress-up sketches. This included the 1925 version of Charley’s Aunt, in which Syd starred as an Oxford student who pretends to be a wealthy middle-aged widow as part of a hoax aimed at helping his friends Jack and Charley propose to their paramours Amy and Kitty. Predictably, this “aunt” attracts the romantic attentions of the villain, a penniless former grandee who seeks to plunder the aunt’s fortune. As this clip shows, the brilliance of Syd’s acting is expressed not by succeeding as a lady (as Nathan Lane did during portions of The Birdcage in 1996), but rather by failing in the nearly complete way that this kind of comic role requires: His feminine pretenses …