All posts filed under: Top Stories

The Hustler and the Queen

NOTE: This essay contains spoilers. The surprise success of the Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit has brought me a great deal of delight—I’m a longtime fan of both the novel and its author, Walter Tevis. Just this summer, I wrote an essay about all the great American popular novels I wish I’d written myself, and the first book I mentioned was Tevis’s 1959 masterpiece The Hustler. But while The Hustler may be Tevis’s best book, The Queen’s Gambit has always been my favorite. I’ve never been anything but an incompetent at the pool table, but for a brief shining hour I was a chess prodigy. In July of 1968, a few weeks before my 10th birthday, I competed in a state chess tournament at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, and won the prize for Best Fourth-Grade Boy. This triumph—my first and only triumph at anything—survives online in the archives of Northwest Chess magazine. Usually when a high-profile film or TV series is adapted from the work of …

Resisting the Mourner’s Veto

Controversy recently erupted at Penguin Random House when it was announced that the company would be publishing Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson’s forthcoming book. Peterson rose to prominence in 2016 when he posted a series of videos on YouTube denouncing a Canadian law that, he claimed, would compel citizens to use gender-neutral pronouns upon demand. His forthright opposition to political correctness won him admiration and notoriety, transforming him into a lightning rod for the culture wars—admirers flocked to him as an icon of resistance to creeping left-wing authoritarianism and censorship, while detractors condemned him as a transphobe, a bigot, and even a white supremacist. In 2018, Peterson published his phenomenally successful self-help manual 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos before embarking on an international speaking tour of packed venues amid a cacophony of adulation and consternation. Now, Peterson is back following a period spent recuperating from poor health and his new book, entitled Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, will almost certainly repeat the success of its predecessor. However, some of the …

The Flawed Reasoning of the Techlash and Progressive Movements

Around the globe, governments are looking for ways to tax, fine, regulate, or break up Big Tech—part of a reaction against companies like Google and Amazon that has become known as the “techlash.” This represents a huge shift in economic policy thinking, potentially the most significant in the West since the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s. Although they may seem unrelated, there are striking parallels between this techlash and progressive activism (so-called “woke” culture) that attempts to radically alter Western social norms. On their own terms, both movements rest on similar reasoning concerning moral responsibility, fairness, and protection of the vulnerable from the powerful. In other words, even though their proponents only partly overlap (the techlash has notably gained significant traction on the Right), similar underlying forces appear to be driving both movements. Tales of oppressors and oppressed Both progressive activism on the Left and the techlash on the Right view the world as one in which privileged individuals or corporations unfairly oppress an unfortunate minority (the works of Hegel and Marx loom large).  Consider the following self-descriptions. …

Why Do Progressives Support the Unfettered Use of Private Property?

In mid-October, Twitter took the unprecedented step of preventing its users from sharing a link to a New York Post story reporting allegations about the Biden family’s foreign financial interests. Whenever controversies about social media censorship arise, a mantra is repeated in their defence, usually by progressives: these are private companies and, as such, they can regulate speech on their platforms however they wish. Notice that this claim does not simply maintain that companies can restrict information in pursuit of specific policy aims (like thwarting criminal activity such as human trafficking efforts or combating terrorist networks). Instead, they can restrict expression on their platforms simply because those platforms are company property. Among the most familiar responses to this argument is the view that, even though these tech giants are private entities, they function like public forums in which free expression should be upheld. Here, I spell out a different approach: that while social media companies are indeed private entities, they should nevertheless be unable to regulate non-criminal activity on their platforms for a variety of moral …

The Apocalyptic Threat from Artificial Intelligence Isn’t Science Fiction

The person in the photo that sits to the left of this paragraph does not exist. It was generated using Artificial intelligence (AI), which can now generate pictures of imaginary people (and cats) that look real. While this technology may create a bit of social havoc, the truly massive disruption will occur when AIs can match or exceed the thinking power of the human brain. This is not a remote possibility: Variants of the machine-learning AIs that today generate fake pictures have a good chance of creating computer superintelligences before this century is out. These superior beings could be applied to wonderful purposes. Just this week, for instance, it was announced that the AI system AlphaFold has been recognized for providing a solution to the so-called “protein folding problem,” which holds implications for our fundamental understanding of the basic building blocks of human biology. If, however, mankind releases smarter-than-us AI before figuring out how to align their values with our own, we could bring forth an apocalypse instead. Even the Pope fears the destructive potential …

Despised—A Review

A review of Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class by Paul Embery. Polity, 216 pages (November 2020) In the 2019 British general election, the Labour Party was eviscerated, losing 60 seats and handing the Conservative Party a massive 80-seat majority. The most dramatic repudiation came in the Midlands and the North, where seats that had never voted Conservative fell to the Tories. It was an electoral catastrophe, and Paul Embery’s book Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class is intended to provide an autopsy and an analysis of the Left’s deeper ideological and cultural errors. Embery comes from within the left-conservative, Blue Labour tradition of Tory Socialists like John Ruskin—a left-wing form of post-liberal politics that leans left on economics and right on culture. Cultural distinction without exclusion; relationality over autonomy; community self-help over government centralisation. In clean, clear prose over 200 pages, he mourns the destruction of his party as a serious political force, and sets out what he thinks it must do if it is to be able …

Race and Social Panic at Haverford: A Case Study in Educational Dysfunction

“You have continued to stand as an individual that seems to turn a blind eye to the stuff that’s going on, as a black woman that is in the [college] administration,” said the first-year Haverford College student. “I came to this institution”—and here she pauses for a moment, apparently fighting back tears—“I expected you, of any of us, to stand up and be the icon for black women on this campus… So, I’m not trying to hear anything that you have to say regarding that, due to the fact that you haven’t stood up for us—you never have, and I doubt that you ever will.” The school-wide November 5th Zoom call, a recording of which has been preserved, was hosted by Wendy Raymond, Haverford’s president. At the time, the elite Pennsylvania liberal arts college was a week into a student strike being staged, according to organizers, to protest “anti-blackness” and the “erasure of marginalized voices.” During the two-hour-and-nine-minute discussion, viewed in real time by many of the school’s 1,350 students, Raymond presented herself as solemnly …

The Attack on Beauty

There is a pop song by Canadian artist Alessia Cara that my daughters have learned to sing in their school choir. The song is “Scars to Your Beautiful.” It is a catchy, simple song. Many readers probably know it. The message it promotes is, by all accounts, a positive one, which is presumably why it’s being taught to children at school. The chorus goes like this: There’s a hope that’s waiting for you in the dark, You should know you’re beautiful just the way you are, And you don’t have to change a thing, The world could change its heart, No scars to your beautiful, We’re stars and we’re beautiful. In spite of my girls’ sweet singing voices, and the intention of the lyrics, I think it is one of the most disturbing songs my kids have ever learned in school (right up there with Lennon’s insipid and juvenile “Imagine”). It is a narcissistic anthem painfully unaware of its hypocrisy. It reinforces the notion that beauty is rightfully a girl’s desirable goal, and that her …

The Heretical Impulse: Zamyatin and Orwell

I  In a 1931 letter to Joseph Stalin, Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin adopted a respectful tone by way of introduction: “My name is probably known to you.” The author of We, the dystopian science fiction novel that influenced Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, had written to Stalin to contest censorship and misrepresentation, and to request permission to migrate—accompanied by his wife—so he could write without the threat of violence or suppression: “To me as a writer, being deprived of the opportunity to write is nothing less than a death sentence.” Zamyatin’s contemporary Rainer Rilke echoed this conviction in his famous Letters to a Young Poet: Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. Zamyatin’s revolt against Stalin occurred in the midst of dekulakization—the …

Reinventing Racism—A Review

A review of Reinventing Racism by Jonathan D. Church. Rowman & Littlefield, 250 pages (December 2020) If the release of Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism launched her into orbit, this past summer’s “racial reckoning” has made her a star. The book has been on the New York Times best-sellers list for a staggering 116 weeks in a row (and counting), while DiAngelo has been busy hosting workshops at universities and fortune 500 companies at perversely exorbitant fees. She gave an address to 184 Democratic members of Congress in the summer, and even made an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. It would be an understatement to say that her work has polarized opinion. In the introduction to White Fragility, Georgetown University professor and public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson called DiAngelo the “new racial sheriff in town.” On the other side of the debate, the linguist and writer John McWhorter has called the book a “racist tract” that treats black people like …