All posts filed under: Top Stories

How To Think About Our Problems

As I travel around the United States, giving presentations on human progress, I am encouraged by the enthusiasm with which the audiences receive my message of the improving state of the world. Still, someone in the audience invariably asks, “What worries you?” That’s understandable. Our species has evolved to see the glass of human existence as half empty. To plan for problems ahead, such as droughts, was a better survival strategy than expecting an eternity of bountiful harvests. Here I attempt to outline different types of problems that we will face in the future and evaluate the degree of “alarm” with which those problems should be treated. First, consider known problems with known solutions. Global warming, for example, appears to be a problem that’s partly caused by excessive emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. A third of all U.S. CO2 emissions come from energy generation. But, much of that energy could be produced in a more environmentally friendly way with zero CO2-emitting nuclear power. Unfortunately, irrational fear of nuclear fission and excessive regulatory …

Canada’s Epic Rail Crisis Offers the World a Cautionary Tale on Indigenous Mantras

Speaking at the Oscars earlier this month, Māori director and writer Taika Waititi told his audience they were “gathered on the ancestral lands of the Tongva, Tataviam and the Chumash”—Native American groups who lived in and around modern Los Angeles. “We acknowledge them as the first people of this land on which our motion picture community lives and works.” This may have struck many American viewers as unusual. But such “land acknowledgments” have been common for years in Australia, New Zealand and my own country, Canada. Originally intended as a tribute to the legacy and rights of Indigenous peoples, they quickly became assimilated into the rote protocols of public life, from school assemblies to town-council meetings. Some university professors now post them on their office doors, much like a secular mezuzah. The practice is rooted in good intentions, and originally had real educational value. Indigenous lands in what is now Canada often were seized through a mixture of brutality and theft. In many cases, the reserves on which Indigenous peoples now live don’t even correspond …

The Decadent Society—A Review

A review of The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, by Ross Douthat. Simon & Schuster (February 25 2020) 272 pages.  Writing about decadence can be symptomatic of the condition. How many conservatives—this reviewer included—have eased out article-length moans about sclerotic institutions, falling birth rates and mindless popular culture without as much as a thought of having an effect on them. In our lazier moments we are not opposing decadence but merely providing a soundtrack. I suspect that Ross Douthat knew this when he wrote The Decadent Society. Douthat has long been an outpost of conservatism at the New York Times. The Grey Lady specialises in bland liberal conservatives like David Brooks, Bill Kristol and Bret Stephens but Douthat is both more traditional and more incisive. A social conservative, he also has too much mischief and curiosity about him to succumb to the stuffiness of the stereotype. Readers who might fear that a book bearing the name The Decadent Society would be humourless and cranky, then, need have no such fears. The …

Putin at the World Holocaust Forum

Earlier this month, some 10 days after the World Holocaust Forum held at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem to commemorate the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz, the museum issued an unusual apology for a film presentation that contained “inaccuracies” and “created an unbalanced impression”—by, among other things, memory-holing the 1939 division of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and the Soviet occupation of the Baltics in 1940. The apology letter, signed by Professor Dan Michman of Yad Vashem’s International Institute of Holocaust Research and published in Haaretz, referred to this assault on historical facts as a “regrettable mishap.” But the presentation was actually part of a much bigger problem: the degree to which the forum was turned into a showcase for Russian President Vladimir Putin, his revisionist history, and his friendship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The January 23rd forum—funded mostly by Russian Jewish billionaire, European Jewish Congress president, and Putin ally Moshe Kantor, and organized in partnership with the Israeli government—more or less channeled the Kremlin propaganda narrative of World …

Cosmic Justice and the Expectation Gap

The quest for “cosmic justice”—a term coined by the economist Thomas Sowell in his book of the same name—describes the efforts to “mitigate the undeserved misfortunes arising from the cosmos” in pursuit of perfect equality between individuals and groups. While traditional forms of justice compel individuals to abide by the same set of social and economic processes despite natural differences between people, cosmic justice imagines society as an omniscient anthropomorphic entity responsible for resolving all inequities. But when expectation fails to meet reality, the purveyors of cosmic justice imagine something nefarious is afoot, and inveigh against whichever group their ideological priors persuade them is to blame. Although Sowell used this concept to critique the social justice Left, the quest for cosmic justice is part of a much broader phenomenon that cuts across the partisan divide: the weaponization of bitterness for personal and political gain. Americans are angrier at each other than at any time since Watergate. Republicans and Democrats harbor sharply negative attitudes towards their respective opponents that policy differences alone can’t explain, with nearly …

Yale against Western Art

For decades, Yale offered a two-semester introductory sequence on the history of Western art. The fall semester spanned the ancient Middle East to the early Renaissance; the spring semester picked up from the High Renaissance through the present. Many Yale students were fortunate enough to take one or both of these classes while the late Vincent Scully was still teaching them; I was among those lucky students. Scully was a titanic, galvanizing presence, combining charismatic enthusiasm with encyclopedic knowledge. When the lights went down in the lecture hall, the large screen behind him, on which slides were projected, became the stage on which the mesmerizing saga of stylistic evolution played out. How did the austere geometry of Cycladic icons bloom into the full-bodied grandeur of the Acropolis’s Caryatids? Why were the rational symmetries of the Greek temple, blazing under Mediterranean light, replaced by the wild vertical outcroppings of the Gothic cathedral? What expressive possibilities were opened up by Giotto’s fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel? Such questions, under Scully’s tutelage, became urgent and central to …

How Damaging Will the Coronavirus be to Xi Jinping’s Authority?

President Xi has become, since his inauguration in 2012, China’s most powerful leader since Mao. His likely longevity in the post is strongly suggested by the presence of those around him in senior positions—all older and therefore unlikely to succeed him. He has been personally popular and has published his own thoughts on China and communism in a form also not seen since the time of Mao. Xi-ism is not quite a thing yet, but the signs are there. So why, then, is his authority under threat? Let’s start with Hong Kong. The stream of protests, which have run there over the last six months—and their enormous scale—has disturbed Beijing. The protests, whatever their immediate cause, are protests against the mainland government and hence the Communist Party headed by Xi. Diplomatic pressure from the U.S., in particular, has hurt. The ineptness of the Hong Kong SAR government, with knee-jerk and ill-thought-out responses that have frustrated both pro- and anti-establishment groups, has not helped. The mainland liaison office in Hong Kong—effectively an embassy—has a new head, who …

My Former Life as a Radical

To understand what it’s like to be a radical, it helps to speak to those once held under the sway of a radical ideology. Broadly defined, radicalism implies a rejection of compromise and incremental progress in favor of radical change, and for years I believed that Western capitalist society was beyond redemption and in need of a sweeping revolution. There were those who perpetuated a system of oppression and exploitation, and those who sought to overthrow it. In The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope, the philosopher Roger Scruton outlines the fallacies underlying this mindset, such as “the best case fallacy,” which “imagines the best outcome and assumes that it need consider no other,” and “the utopian fallacy,” which insists that the perfect is the enemy of the good. These can be summed up under the rubric of “unscrupulous optimism,” a concept originally coined by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Assuming that intentions translate directly into results, radicals tend to be unscrupulous optimists in that they operate on the premise that well-intentioned radical …

Holbrooke and the 68ers

Our Man—Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century by George Packer, Knopf, 608 pages, (May 2019) Power and the Idealists by Paul Berman, W. W. Norton and Company, 348 pages, (April 2007 Reissue) I. George Packer is a shrewd chronicler of American decay. In his 2013 book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, Packer reveals a battered, post-recession United States—from gutted factories in Youngstown, Ohio to abandoned housing developments in Tampa, Florida. The Unwinding isn’t a polemic—it’s written in the style of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, so it includes long profiles of the main “characters” alongside shorter essays about major American figures (from Colin Powell to Oprah) and page-long, staccato blasts of ads, lyrics, movie quotes, and headlines over the years. While some of the portraits in The Unwinding are evocative accounts of American resilience and ingenuity, if you pick up the book today, it’s like reading the prequel to Trumpism. And it hasn’t escaped Packer’s notice that his most recent book, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End …

The Battle to Feed All of Humanity Is Over. Humanity Has Won

As the editor of a website documenting human progress, I am sometimes asked to name the one statistic that best exemplifies the improving state of the world. The rising life expectancy immediately comes to mind, for to a dead person, all the other indicators of human well-being are irrelevant. Luckily, almost everyone knows that people today live much longer than our ancestors did. As such, I often end up talking about food consumption. For millennia, people lived on the edge of starvation. Today, starvation has disappeared outside of war-zones. Let’s look at some data. In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, Stanford University biologist and “overpopulation” alarmist Paul Ehrlich famously predicted that “The battle to feed all of humanity is over … hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Between 1968 and 2017, the world’s population increased by 113 percent from 3.55 billion to 7.55 billion. Over the same time period, the average global food supply per person per day rose from 2,334 calories …