All posts filed under: Top Stories

Journalism’s Death by a Thousand Tweets

Upon further reflection, it’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the Internet. It simply doesn’t serve people. In fact, it’s not designed to. The vast majority of articles, videos, and other “content” we all consume on a daily basis is paid for—directly or indirectly—by corporations who are funding it in order to advance their goals. And it is measured, amplified, and rewarded based on its ability to do that. Period. As a result, we get… well, what we get. And it’s getting worse. ~Evan Williams, co-founder and former CEO of Twitter Imagine you want to create a digital platform that will both destroy—or, at the very least, seriously enfeeble—the journalism profession, and simultaneously make you a vast amount of money. How should you do it? Well, first you should ensure that the primary goal of your platform has absolutely nothing to do with the stated goals of the journalism profession. More specifically, the aim of your platform should not be to hold the powerful to account or, more broadly, to report on …

Lessons from the Last Empire of Iran

By the mid-620s, the Persian king Khusro II had conquered most of the Eastern Roman Empire. A final push toward Constantinople was planned. The armies of Iran and her nomadic allies of the steppe were to descend upon the capital, blockade it by land and sea, and receive the emperor’s surrender. The nobles and retired worthies of the Roman Senate had earlier sent a grovelling letter to the Persian government, urging Khusro to impose a client king over them and spare what was left of the empire. But Khusro ignored it. For a moment, the extinction of 800 years of Roman rule in the Mediterranean world hung in the balance. Khusro’s authority now stretched from the Nile to the Euphrates and from the Tigris to the Indus, and was about to be extended into Europe. Like his Persian forebears Cyrus and Darius, he commissioned monumental rock reliefs to commemorate his conquests. His vast empire might have lasted for centuries, binding together the fringes of Europe with North Africa and the Levant with the Iranian plateau, …

Our Oppressive Moment

As one of the signatories to the much-discussed “Open Letter” in Harper’s magazine, I’ve been bemused by the objection that we are merely whiners—people with impregnable career success, flustered that social media is forcing us to experience unprecedented criticism, particularly in the wake of the Floyd protests. This represents a stark misunderstanding of why I and many others signed it. I am certainly not complaining about being criticized. As someone frequently described as “contrarian” on the fraught topic of race, I have been roasted for my views for over 20 years—it’s just that, when I started out, I received invective scrawled on paper folded into envelopes instead of typed into tweets. The sheer volume of criticism is greater, of course, but the last thing I would do is sign a letter protesting it. For writers of commentary on controversial subjects, the barrage keeps us on our toes. Haters can be ignored, but informed excoriation can help sharpen our arguments and ensure we remain acquainted with the views of the other side. The Harper’s letter is …

Cultural Revolution in the Renaissance?

It is a striking feature of our historical moment that vast numbers of cultural institutions, universities and professional associations have felt the need to express their horror at the sickening murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25th. Hundreds of such messages have shown up in my inbox since that day, from almost every institution that has my email address on its lists. (“Unsubscribe” is apparently one of those words that has a special meaning on the Internet, like “fact” and “free.”) So it wasn’t really a surprise when the board governing the professional organization to which I feel closest, the Renaissance Society of America (RSA), decided to issue a “Statement in Support of Social Justice” last month, declaring its solidarity with the world-wide protests against “government-sanctioned brutality.” I wondered which organ of government had sanctioned the Floyd killing until I read further and met language blaming the incident on “a widespread and longstanding structure of anti-Black institutional racism that pervades American society and others around the globe,” …

The Myth of Pervasive Misogyny

Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition. ~Timothy Leary Many feminists and progressives argue that the West is plagued by pervasive misogyny. In fact, this claim is made with such frequency, and is so rarely challenged, that it has become part of the Left’s catechism of victimhood, repeated by rote without a second thought. The only real question is how powerful and pernicious the misogyny is. Real-world data, however, suggest a different narrative, complicated by the fact that men have worse outcomes in many domains. For example, they are much more likely to be incarcerated, to be shot by the police, to be a victim of violent crime, to be homeless, to commit suicide, and to die on the job or in combat than women. Furthermore, they have a shorter life expectancy and are less likely to be college educated than women. Although these (and similar) data can be reconciled with the pervasive misogyny theory, they should at least give pause to the open-minded. The best data from contemporary social science tell …

Remembering Cancel Culture’s 40-Year-Old Stepfather

The worst-case scenario for a film that falls afoul of the morality police is that its release is scrapped after reviewers react negatively. In other cases, movies have been banned on a country-by-country basis. Then there are film projects that fall apart even before would-be censors have had a chance to see the final product: The very idea of the movie is simply too shocking to tolerate. That’s what happened to Rub and Tug, which was shelved in 2018 following outrage over Scarlett Johansson playing the transgender lead. (“While I would have loved the opportunity to bring [American trans gangster Dante “Tex” Gill’s] story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, and I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film,” Johansson told the media.) Then there’s The Hunt, which saw its release scrapped—and then unscrapped—earlier this year, after Donald Trump fanned anger over a plotline that has wealthy elites hunting down poor people …

Princeton University is One of the Least Racist Institutions in the World

Reflecting on recent events in Princeton starting with the July 4th “Faculty Letter” to the president, Professor Joshua Katz’s reply in his Declaration of Independence, and all the brouhaha it has generated, I cannot help noticing the asymmetry of the situation. In today’s demonology, no epithets are more noxious than “racist” and “white supremacist.” They have largely replaced the previous most damning insults, “fascist” and “Nazi.” The epithet “terrorist” is also pretty high on the list, though less frequently used, and “Communist” never carried the same negative weight, at least not in academia, despite the mass killings and innumerable other crimes perpetrated by Communist regimes. The July 4th “Faculty Letter,” and the many ensuing declarations of support for it, accuse Princeton University of systemic racism and propose an array of measures to fix the problem—48 of them in total, which, if fully implemented, would radically transform and irreversibly wreck our university. Some of these recommendations are themselves overtly racist, such as giving special privileges to some faculty based on the color of their skin. In …

Humanity’s Great Urban Adventure Didn’t Begin With Greece and Rome

The spectacular story of the growth and withering away of ancient Mediterranean urbanism is often drowned out by the noise of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Cities had begun to grow and connect when Rome was just a cluster of villages. And at its height, in the second and third centuries CE, the ancient urban system stretched far beyond the political limits of empire. Traders, missionaries, and diplomats travelled through the caravan cities of northern Syria and Iraq to connect with ancient Greek cities, by then lying in the heart of the Persian Empire, in Babylonia (now southern Iraq), and even Afghanistan. Others set sail down the Red Sea in search of the entrepôts of East Africa, southern India, and Sri Lanka, or traded down the Nile beyond Egypt to Nubia. Amber was brought from the Baltic and ivory from south of the Sahara long before Rome’s imperial adventure got off the ground. Ancient historians and geographers such as Herodotus, Strabo, Pliny, and Ptolemy knew there were yet even more distant cities, …

Of Heroic Deeds and Hysterical Masses

Perpetual progress is no more possible than perpetual motion, an axiom unwittingly vindicated by the benighted throngs that currently run amok across America, menacing the living and long dead wherever they rage. Whereas in the final decade of the 19th century, “enlightenment had progressed to the point where the Salem trials were simply an embarrassing blot on the history of New England… [and] a reminder of how far the human race had come in two centuries,” in the second decade of the 21st, enlightenment’s decline has unleashed a new inquisitorial spirit, no less spurious than that of old. One only can hope that someday, the witch trials of our time will constitute an embarrassing blot on our history and that two centuries will not be needed for that day to arrive. But at present, that is but a hope and in view of the unmitigated madness with which the present teems, a feeble one at that. What renders the hope all the more dim is that so much of the madness emanates from what ought …

Remembering Reinaldo Arenas and His Enduring Lessons on Repression, Torment, and Exile

In a scene from Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s iconic Cuban film Memorias del Subdesarrollo (1968), a man looks down from his balcony at Havana’s streets. Only a few years had passed since Fidel Castro had overthrown Fulgencio Batista’s regime, and the prisoners taken during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion had just been put on trial. Like many middle-class Cubans at the time, the parents of Sergio, the film’s protagonist, had fled the country. But Sergio decides to stay. He prefers to anchor himself to his present and watch the revolution play out from his apartment. He uses his telescope to watch people, ships in the bay, places where the Republican-era statues once stood. He contemplates the city’s landscape with a sort of contempt. Sergio wants to become a great novelist, but failing at the task. He lives off the accumulated rent his family earned before the revolution, and so is regarded by the state’s bureaucrats as a parasite. Yet the contempt is unrequited: Sergio is indifferent to the political climate in Cuba. He prefers to …