All posts filed under: Top Stories

Scott Alexander, Philosopher King of the Weird People

If you (like me) spend an unhealthy amount of time reading about morality and politics online, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex. In the best of all possible worlds, this would be because someone pointed you toward his pun-laden kabbalistic theodicy or his highly accessible musings on psychotropics or his remarkable essay on coordination problems. Alas, Google Trends suggests that search interest in Slate Star Codex spiked dramatically in June of 2020, when its author announced that he was closing the blog to discourage the New York Times from “doxing” him, publicizing his identity in a way that invited negative consequences for his psychiatry career (and his patients). The news media’s response varied—the New Yorker essentially scooped the story, while National Review simply took the Gray Lady to task—but perhaps the most interesting response was the eclectic variety of signatures appearing on an open letter to the Times. Readers of Slate Star Codex may be predominantly childless, educated white men working in the tech industry, but the diversity of …

COVID-19 and the Ongoing Global Workplace Revolution

For most of the recent past, economic geography has shifted to ever-larger cities across the globe. By the end of the last decade, many were convinced that we were entering a supreme era of the glittering, high-rise “superstar” city that would inevitably swallow all the best bits of the economy, and serve as unparalleled centers of tech, culture, political activism, and global trade. Globally, the ranks of city-dwellers more than doubled over the last 40 years, from 1.5 billion in 1975 to 3.5 billion according to data from the OECD. Yet now this urban-centric pattern may be slowing, and even reversing. Three critical factors are at play here. First, of course, the pandemic has weakened the appeal of urban life by the very logic of social distancing and higher levels of infections and fatalities. The second factor has been an alarming uptick in urban crime and disorder, particularly in the United States but elsewhere as well. Finally, there has been a move to dispersed and online work, which enables people and companies to shift their …

Struggling with Pixar’s ‘Soul’

In the COVID era, my wife and I are homeschooling our small children. Their endless questions often send me to Google. Why do clouds change color? Where did language come from? Why did our ancestors paint on cave walls? They are not only curious about life after death, but also about life before life. They have concocted the Not-Existing World—an antechamber to life where they were friends before birth. So they naturally loved Soul, Pixar’s foray into the twin metaphysical realms of the Great Before (pre-life) and the Great Beyond (afterlife). Soul opens on Joe Gardner (a black middle-aged jazz pianist voiced by Jamie Foxx) becoming a permanent teacher at a public school as his dreams of professionally performing music fade. Miraculously, there’s a coveted opening in the Dorothea Williams quartet that same day, and Joe nails the audition. Euphoric, he struts through NYC, oblivious to its dangers, and plummets down an open manhole. Suddenly, he’s a fuzzy green-blue blob among other blobs—disembodied souls. (Joe is distinguished by his glasses and spiffy hat.) The souls …

Oscar Wilde’s Utopia

Not that I love thy children, whose dull eyes See nothing save their own unlovely woe, Whose minds know nothing, nothing care to know,— This is the opening verse of Oscar Wilde’s “Sonnet to Liberty.” Beyond its apparent cynicism, it elegantly encapsulates the acute miseries of youth—solipsistic, impatient, devoid of knowledge, and desperate for change. Published when Wilde was 27, the poem already bears the traits of his signature style: the lyric brevity, the cool aloofness, the effete fatigue, which is swept up by passion—“But that roar of thy Democracies… thy great Anarchies… give my rage a brother—!Liberty!”—only to settle on a note of human solidarity: and yet, and yet, These Christs that die upon the barricades, God knows it I am with them, in some things. This captures the torpor of a much older man, unable to summon the revolutionary energy himself, but not yet jaded enough to dismiss the effort. Though the poem seems to end with a shrug, its compassion stems from the fact that Wilde despised the aristocracy’s treatment of the …

Making the Profane Sacred

“By making a statute and by defining blasphemy, the church sought to prevent discussion—sought to prevent argument—sought to prevent a man giving his honest opinion. Certainly a tenet, a dogma, a doctrine, is safe when hedged about by a statute that prevents your speaking against it. In the silence of slavery it exists. It lives because lips are locked. It lives because men are slaves.” Robert Ingersoll, 1837 The second (or third in some variants) commandment in the Old Testament is “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.” During the Hellenistic period, this commandment resulted in a taboo against pronouncing the name of God, Yahweh (translated as I am), replacing it with the word Adonai (my lords). In more modern times, for certain Islamic fundamentalists, misusing the name of the prophet Mohammed is deemed to be punishable by death. And even several Western countries still consider religious blasphemy as a punishable crime. Nevertheless, in most modern Western societies, blasphemy is not effectively prosecuted as a punishable taboo. Instead, we elevate secular …

Unspeakable Truths about Racial Inequality in America

This is the text of a lecture delivered by the author as part of the Benson Center Lecture Series at the University of Colorado, Boulder, on February 8th, 2021. I am a black American intellectual living in an age of persistent racial inequality in my country. As a black man I feel compelled to represent the interests of “my people.” (But that reference is not unambiguous!) As an intellectual, I feel that I must seek out the truth and speak such truths as I am given to know. As an American, at this critical moment of “racial reckoning,” I feel that imperative all the more urgently. But, I ask, what are my responsibilities? Do they conflict with one another? I will explore this question tonight. My conclusion: “My responsibilities as a black man, as an American, and as an intellectual are not in conflict.” I defend this position as best I can in what follows. I also try to illustrate the threat “cancel culture” poses to a rational discourse about racial inequality in America that …

The Attack on Timothy Jackson Is an Assault on Liberal Education

Those interested in campus culture may have followed the debate concerning the Journal of Schenkerian Studies at the University of North Texas. Though limited to a very specialized discipline, that debate is no tempest in a teapot. Its implications go well beyond the borders of music theory and should be read as a symptom of the larger problem of higher education in the age of the fetishization of identities. The protagonists of the Schenkerian studies case are Philip Ewell, a professor of music theory at City University New York, and Timothy Jackson at UNT, also a professor of music theory. The debate is about whether we should teach an Austrian Jewish musical theorist of the early 20th century despite the fact that said theorist was also a German nationalist and, in certain writings, expressed his belief in the superiority of German culture. British novelist Leslie Poles Hartley once wrote: “The past is a different country. They do things differently there.” I do not intend to whitewash Schenker’s bigotry. A bigot he was—no less and no more than …

Man vs. Wall: Solitary Sport and Surviving the Pandemic

This is the second instalment in Simple Pleasures, an occasional Quillette series about some of the new joys that our writers have discovered as a result of the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Writers interested in contributing may contact Quillette at pitch@quillette.com. The benefits of exercising with friends are compelling. For instance, people who make a habit of social sports like tennis and golf seem to live longer than those who don’t. Such findings have influenced me over the years, reinforcing lots of participation in my local tennis league. Then, COVID-19. Back in March, many of my hitting partners went on hiatus from the sport, honestly admitting their fears of getting sick, or blaming close family—they were the ones who were worried, refusing to let them play. Others rediscovered their inner teenage rebel. I heard about and saw esteemed members of the professional class—doctors and lawyers—ripping red tape, cutting locks, scaling fences, and squeezing through service gates to access public courts closed by the government. I was invited on these excursions but chose to …

With a Star Science Reporter’s Purging, Mob Culture at The New York Times Enters a Strange New Phase

Speaking recently at a Quillette Free Thought Lives event, Columbia University professor John McWhorter expounded on his thesis that social justice comprises an ersatz religion, complete with rites of confession and penance. It’s a compelling metaphor, especially in the way it helps explain adherents’ overwrought professions of faith and demands for the persecution of heretics. But when it comes to the New York Times’ recent firing of reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr., the metaphor falters. The Times management dismissed McNeil because he was caught instructing a student about racism in 2019; and, in so doing, said the N-word as an example of a gravely racist term. The Times management had initially concluded that McNeil showed “poor judgment” by uttering these two forbidden syllables, but also that he hadn’t harbored any “hateful or malicious” intent. That last part certainly seems sensible, given that McNeil wasn’t actually directing the N-word at another human being or using it to describe a third party. But since these same Times managers had already shown staff they can be bullied by …

The Delusions of Crowds—A Review

The Delusions of Crowds: Why People Go Mad in Groups by William J. Bernstein. Grove Atlantic, 461 pages (February 2021) In the very late 19th and very early 20th century, the chattering classes started intoning on the subject of “the masses.” Depending on one’s cultural sensibilities, “the masses” were either a righteous historical force or an uncontrollable, anxiety-producing threat to stability and order. A certain subset of the era’s scribes began to wax poetic about “the crowd”—the most visible and volatile manifestation of “the masses” and the means by which assemblages of peasants of yore had righted wrongs either customarily or through force. I became aware of this former cottage industry of crowd whisperers while reading Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs (1991). Buford’s book is a fantastic work of reportage on English football hooligans that makes reference to this existing literature. An American journalist then living in the UK, Buford spent years marauding across Europe with Manchester United supporters, raising hell at every turn. The author found that the rioting regularly incited by the football …