All posts tagged: literature

Is Western Civilization Uniquely Bad?

This is part three of a four-part series on the Classics.  Even if the concept of Western civilization isn’t inherently incoherent, some would argue that we should still be extremely cautious of it, or maybe even avoid it altogether, because of the way Western nations have engaged in various sorts of racism, war-mongering, and imperialistic exploitation. On this view, the legacy of the West is irredeemably tainted, and we should either steer clear of it altogether, or, if we have to teach it, we should teach it in an openly and self-consciously critical way. Now, it’s impossible to deny that Western nations have done some terrible things. From the Spanish looting of the Inca Empire, to the British massacre of Indian civilians at Amritsar, the list of Western depredations is long. Violence within the West, and among Western nations, has been just as horrific, from the eight million or so deaths caused by the Thirty Years’ War to the 60 or 70 million fatalities of World War II. The problem is, though, that if we …

Enlightenment Wars: Some Reflections on ‘Enlightenment Now,’ One Year Later

You wouldn’t think that a defense of reason, science, and humanism would be particularly controversial in an era in which those ideals would seem to need all the help they can get. But in the words of a colleague, “You’ve made people’s heads explode!” Many people who have written to me about my 2018 book Enlightenment Now say they’ve been taken aback by the irate attacks from critics on both the right and the left. Far from embracing the beleaguered ideals of the Enlightenment, critics have blamed it for racism, imperialism, existential threats, and epidemics of loneliness, depression, and suicide. They have insisted that human progress can only be an illusion of cherry-picked data. They have proclaimed, with barely concealed schadenfreude, that the Enlightenment is an idea whose time has passed, soon to be killed off by authoritarian populism, social media, or artificial intelligence. This month’s publication of the paperback edition of EN in the US and UK is an occasion for me to weigh in on the controversies that have flared up in the year since …

Is Western Civilization a Thing?

This is part two of a four-part series on the classics. Part three will be published tomorrow.  Is Western Civilization even a thing? That may seem like an odd question, but it’s one that anyone who talks about Western Civilization these days will eventually have to face because a lot of intellectuals claim that it isn’t. “The West,” to them, is nothing more than a mirage, or (to put it in classical terms) a chimera. As anarchist activist and anthropologist David Graeber puts it, “There never was a West.” Cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah is equally forthright, declaring in a Guardian essay that “There is no such thing as Western Civilization.” One problem for such thinkers is that the West has no clear boundaries. Is Russia part of the West, and, if so, how much of it? Is Turkey? What about modern Japan—or, for that matter, ancient Persia? Even historians who find the idea of the West useful seem to have trouble pinning it down. Ian Morris, for example, in his bestseller Why the West …

The Posthumous #MeToo-ing of J. D. Salinger

The first day of this year would have been the 100th birthday of J.D. Salinger, the American writer whose 1951 novel of teenage rebellion, The Catcher in the Rye, mesmerized generations and made him a cult figure. The Salinger legend was only enhanced by his reclusive life in rural New Hampshire, where he shunned interviewers and photographers and continued to write but published nothing from 1965 until his death in 2010. Given both Salinger’s literary stature and his mythic aura, the centennial should have been a big deal. And yet it went by almost unremarked—a startling fact that almost certainly has more to do with the cultural and sexual politics of this moment than with Salinger’s place in literature. It is telling that the most prominent essay on Salinger to appear in the American media so far in 2019 has been a Washington Post piece questioning whether the writer is still relevant, given that his best-known work focuses on “the anxieties of a white heterosexual young man expelled from an expensive prep school.” (By that …