Bari Weiss’s recommended reading—and ours

March 20, 2021 • 1:30 pm

I guess today is Substack Day. I was going to write about John McWhorter’s latest post, dealing with the ludicrousness of canceling Amanda Gorman’s translators because they don’t match her ethnicity (see my posts here and here), but that’s too much about race in one day.

Instead, Bari Weiss has posted some takes on recent books she’s read, as well as confessing her pleasures (taking baths, reading) and skills (making pasta and Negronis). Re the reading, she gives a list of the books she’s liked a lot, and I’ll list those and perhaps give a few of her quotes. Click on the screenshot; access is free, but you should subscribe if you read regularly:

Her favorite recent reads. First, the two biggies:

THE REVOLT OF THE PUBLIC by former CIA analyst Martin Gurri is the book I have recommended more than any other this past year. He owes me a cut, as I told him in a recent interview, which I’m going to write up for a future column.

Anyone that thinks the primary conflict in America is between Republicans and Democrats is out to lunch. The real conflict — not just in this country but in the 21st century — is the one between what Gurri variously calls the center and the border, the hierarchy and the network, or the elites in their ivory towers and the public in their chaotic squares. That conflict has been created by the digital revolution. If you dream of things calming down or going back to normal anytime soon, bad news: we are only at the very beginning.

The tool of the revolution is information. The authority of 20th century institutions like Harvard or The New York Times depended on scarcity; they genuinely had access to exclusive information and secret knowledge. That authority has utterly collapsed under the force of the never-ending tsunami of information available to any fool with Google.

If you want to understand how seemingly discreet phenomenon like Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the GameStop short squeeze are actually all part of one story, Gurri, who published this book in 2014, will show you.

Most important, he will convince you, once and for all, that the old hierarchies are dead and no amount of nostalgia can revive them. The real question is what comes next.

and

Christopher Lasch’s book THE REVOLT OF THE ELITES — the books are best experienced as a double feature — makes the compelling case that our elite class has abandoned its sense of duty and noblesse oblige. That unmooring from community, from commitment, and from a common culture has unraveled our democracy. It is them and not the deplorables, he argues, who pose the real threat.

Lasch’s book was published in 1996, but you will not believe how prescient it is. It should be required reading — his book, “The Culture of Narcissism,” is next on my last — but in every indie bookstore I enter the clerk draws a blank when I ask for either title.

For some reason, neither of these suggestions floats my boat.  Here is a list of her other recent recommendations with Amazon links:

Live Not by Lies by Rod Dreher

Alexandria, a novel by Paul Kingsnorth

Billion Dollar Loser, by Reeves Wiedeman

Big Time, by Jen Spyra.

I haven’t read any of these, but I did read one she mentions in passing: Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou, an account of Elizabeth Holmes and the fall of her blood-testing company Theranos. That was a page turner, and I recommend it highly. Holmes and her partner and ex-squeeze Sunny Balwani are still waiting trial on a number of charges, and it’s been a long time.

As for my own reading, I finished Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, which most of us will find Manichean and irritating, but it does make some good points, including emphasizing that members of all races can be racist (well, we knew that, but it’s interesting to see Kendi admit it). But the interweaving of his life story with his principles does not make for a smooth read, and his insistence that structural racism is so prevalent that any lack of equity (absolutely proportional representation) must be attribute to racism is debatable. Still, all of us should read this book if we’re to be conversant with Critical Theory. I hear that his Stamped from the Beginning, a history of racism in America that won a National Book Award, is better.

Much of my time over the past few weeks has been involved in reading things that Adam Gopnik cites (his own articles and books) in our discussion about “ways of knowing”.  That involved several long articles on Trollope and DIckens, other analysis of these authors, some of the authors themselves, and, finally, Adam’s series of CBC Massey lectures on literature, Winter: Five Windows on the Season. Each 1200-1300 word letter I write in this exchange takes many hours of preparation. I get a break now while he prepares his response, and I hope he doesn’t cite a lot more articles!

In the meantime, I polished off a novel that James Wood, the New Yorker book critic, recommended to me. I asked him if I should read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014 (I found it in a free book box), but he told me to read another novel instead: All for Nothing by Walter Kepowski, written in 2006 and translated into English in 2015. Wood also told me not to read his New Yorker review of the book beforehand, as it contained spoilers. I read the review only after I finished, and see why Wood recommended it: he absolutely loved it. And so did I. It starts off a bit slowly, but is still absolutely absorbing, and then things begin to happen exponentially as the book comes to an end. (It’s about the end of the Third Reich viewed from a group of villagers, rich and poor, in eastern Germany who know that the Russians are coming.) This one I recommend highly. Wood calls it a “masterpiece.”

Next in line for me is the book below, in which Dan Dennett (a compatibilist) and Gregg Caruso (a hard determinist) debate free will. I’ll crack it this weekend, though I suspect I’ll come down on Caruso’s side.

Please put in the comments any books you’ve read recently and what you thought of them.

Robin DiAngelo has a brand new book

March 10, 2021 • 12:15 pm

Shoot me now! And I haven’t yet finished DiAngelo’s entire first book, White Fragility (it’s online at the U of C library, but I hate reading online, so I can only read bits at a time). I just finished Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, which was tolerable, but only with the concomitant consumption of a Family Pack of Mint Oreos (they were on sale). I have a feeling that White Fragility, read from beginning to end, will require something a bit more alcoholic.

The new book (below) is issued by my own publisher, Penguin Random House (I call them “Random Penguin”). Fortunately, we don’t have to deal with this book until June 29, the day when it hits the newsstands.

Here’s the summary from the publisher’s website:

In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo explained how racism is a system into which all white people are socialized and challenged the belief that racism is a simple matter of good people versus bad. DiAngelo also made a provocative claim: white progressives cause the most daily harm to people of color. In Nice Racism, her follow-up work, she explains how they do so. Drawing on her background as a sociologist and over 25 years working as an anti-racist educator, she picks up where White Fragility left off and moves the conversation forward.

Writing directly to white people as a white person, DiAngelo identifies many common white racial patterns and breaks down how well-intentioned white people unknowingly perpetuate racial harm. These patterns include:

-rushing to prove that we are “not racist”;
-downplaying white advantage;
-romanticizing Black, Indigenous and other peoples of color (BIPOC);
-pretending white segregation “just happens”;
-expecting BIPOC people to teach us about racism;
-carefulness;
-and shame.

DiAngelo explains how spiritual white progressives seeking community by co-opting Indigenous and other groups’ rituals create separation, not connection. [JAC: DiAngelo LOVES separation: her whole fame and fortune is based on perpetuating racial discord, not connection.] She challenges the ideology of individualism and explains why it is OK to generalize about white people, and she demonstrates how white people who experience other oppressions still benefit from systemic racism. Writing candidly about her own missteps and struggles, she models a path forward, encouraging white readers to continually face their complicity and embrace courage, lifelong commitment, and accountability.

Nice Racism is an essential work for any white person who recognizes the existence of systemic racism and white supremacy and wants to take steps to align their values with their actual practice. BIPOC readers may also find the “insiders” perspective useful for navigating whiteness.

The list of how we perpetuate racial harm is familiar, even the first point (“rushing to prove that we are ‘not racist'”), which is the point that makes the whole Critical Race Theory unfalsifiable. (Note the pejorative word “rushing”, which implies guilt.) If you say you’re not racist, you are. In fact, all white people are racist, and there’s nothing you can do to disprove that. It is, as John McWhorter would say, not a testable empirical statement, but a religious dictum.

I’m not sure why “carefulness” does harm, but her notion that progressive antiracists are the most harmful of all white people surely can’t hold water. Are there data on that? I’m sure that Bernie Sanders would be shocked to discover that he’s more harmful to African-Americans than, say, Mitch McConnell or David Duke.

And it’s okay to generalize about white people? Is it okay to generalize about black people, too?  In fact, both kinds of stereotype are attacked by Ibram Kendi in his antiracist book: he goes after policies, and refuses to countenance generalizations about individuals of a given group.  Finally, what is this odious “ideology of individualism”?  Is she talking about Ayn Rand here, or saying that tribalism is essential for a well functioning society?

I will finish White Fragility, but I am not going to read DiAngelo’s new book—not only on the grounds that it seems to make no points I haven’t heard before, but also because it could harm my health. Our arteries can take only so much pressure, you know.

 

An excellent essay by an actor on the novel “Lolita”

March 4, 2021 • 9:00 am

If you haven’t read Nabokov’s fantastic novel Lolita, published in 1955, you should, for it’s a classic and its prose is beautiful. The topic: the infatuation of a pedophile, Humbert Humbert, for a 12-year-old girl he names Lolita (her real name is Dolores), and their subsequent affair (or rather, serial rape). This a dicey subject, and in this wonderful essay in the New York Times (click on screenshot), Emily Mortimer ponders why the novel didn’t encounter so much opposition back then when it would surely be considered unpublishable today (after all, Humbert repeatedly rapes Lolita). And indeed, I can’t imagine it being published today. Nabokov himself had trouble getting it into print, as it was rejected by many mainstream publishers and finally issued by Olympia Press, which specialized in pornography. But it’s still widely read and appreciated, even in this #MeToo age. Why is that? Mortimer has some provocative thoughts.

What’s even more amazing is that Emily Mortimer (born 1971) is not a literary critic but a movie star; you may have seen her in Lovely and Amazing, Notting Hill, and Woody Allen’s Match Point, as well as in various television series. But her essay is as readable and intelligent as that of any popular book reviewer or critic, and I was amazed that an actor could produce criticism of this quality. She’s a true polymath, and it’s clear from her essay that she’s very well read. But, looking her up, I see that she also has a degree from Oxford in Russian studies.

The occasion for this publication is the appearance of a new anthology called Lolita in the Afterlife, published this month, in which Mortimer’s essay appears. Also, Mortimer starred in a 2017 movie called “The Bookshop“, which got lukewarm reviews but does have an important bit in which Mortimer, playing a widow who opens a bookstore in a small English town, must decide whether or not to stock Lolita lest its presence cause trouble.

At any rate, do read her essay, which mixes her movie experience, remembrances of her barrister father, who defended people like Humbert Humbert, and, above all, her appreciation for the novel and ideas about why it’s risen above the “cancel culture” that would preclude its publication today. Click on the screenshot:

Here are some of Mortimer’s ideas about why the novel, though perennially controversial, is still popular.

In some ways I think it is much easier to separate the writer from his subject in the case of Nabokov and “Lolita” than it is to separate Picasso, say, from his paintings or Woody Allen from his films or Balthus from his little girls. Nabokov was a happily married man who admired and adored his wife, Véra, and lived an exemplary life as an academic and author. By all accounts his only extramarital dalliances were with buxom middle-aged women. If Nabokov had ever had dark, venal thoughts like those of Humbert Humbert’s, they remained thoughts, or words on a page.

But I think there are other reasons “Lolita” has endured, despite being more shocking than many pornographic novels of its time and despite the reappraisal that many other transgressive works of art have gone through in our time. First, it’s very funny. My dad always said you could get away with anything in court as long as you made people laugh: “In obscenity cases the first thing I did was to make the jury laugh. The great object of the judge and the prosecutor was to stop the jury from laughing.” Humbert Humbert is hilariously self-aware and funny. Even in extremis, even at the height of the drama when he is out for blood and on the road to ruin (when a lesser author would have forced his hero into earnestness), our hero is still cracking jokes and making us laugh.

The novel is also written in brilliant prose. Nabokov himself claimed that this book was a record of his “love affair with the English language,” and the feeling is of language being used as it has never been used before and might never be again. You read about awful things in vertiginous, sensational sentences that take your breath away. As Humbert confesses, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

She quotes Nabokov’s brilliant beginning, which simply sucks you into the novel:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

That is brilliant writing! The book is a tour de force not just of thought, but of writing itself. One more thought from Mortimer:

It’s impossible to retreat to any kind of moral high ground when you read “Lolita” — partly because Nabokov threads a strange emotional honesty and purity through his portrait of obsession. Because as well as all the other things the book is, “Lolita” is one of the most beautiful love stories you’ll ever read. You finally understand this in its last, thrilling, devastating, tragic section.

And there’s one more reason, something I’ve touched on in my exchange with Adam Gopnik about whether literature gives us knowledge, and, if not (my view), what does it give us? Mortimer’s answer parallels mine:

Mortimer:

“Lolita” makes us see with the eyes of a man who is a pedophile, a rapist and a murderer, and that’s I think the essential reason it’s escaped the harsher accusations of both the courts and the moral police in the 60 years since it’s been published.

. . . Unlike many lesser works of fiction, some of which my father found himself advocating for, “Lolita” has been protected by “the refuge of art,” where it should be forever safe to explore the thoughts and feelings of people capable of the most monstrous things. “Lolita” remains unassailable because it disarms you and transcends judgment. The experience of reading it, if you do actually read it, is to relinquish concern with right and wrong and just to feel things as another person feels them. One of our most precious attributes, and perhaps the greatest measure of our humanity, is our ability to do this. Florence Green in her little bookshop understood it, my dad knew it, Nabokov did, and really anyone who is a reader knows it, too.

And this, I think, is why, despite its depiction of pedophilia, rape, and murder, the novel has retained its status as consummate art. As I wrote in one letter in the Gopnik exchange, “In the end, truth in art is simply an understanding of the artist’s perspective on life. That perspective can be disturbing, life-affirming or even life-changing, but the knowledge it imparts is how one person’s mind works.” And I added this:

By portraying others, literary art offers us a sense of self-confirmation: the realization that people are like us in many ways, though different in others. Art brings awareness of and focuses on feelings that we may not even be aware of, giving us the chance to assess, alter, and buttress our own lives. It’s a series of “aha moments.”

In this case, the minds we enter are those of Nabokov, and by proxy his creation Humbert Humbert. Is this the way any pedophiles really think? I doubt it: it’s the way Nabokov thinks that one pedophile might have thought, and surely there are elements of reality in it. But in the end it’s a work of pure imagination. What draws us—and Mortimer—to Lolita is the opportunity to step out of our quotidian lives and see what it might feel like to be an aging intellectual soaked in love for a diffident 12 year old girl. There is no “knowledge” about the universe in this book (at least no knowledge that doesn’t require confirmation by empirical study), but that doesn’t lessen its value, so aptly described by Mortimer above. And who cares if Humbert Humbert is feeling anything that any human has felt before? What’s important is that we feel it, and for the interval between the book’s covers we become Humbert Humbert.

Here’s the trailer for “The Bookshop,” and, come to think of it, I HAVE seen this movie. But I don’t remember much about it. The trailer features the selling of Lolita, as well as the professor who extolled van Gogh in the famous “Dr. Who” clip.

Readings for today: speaking the unspeakable

February 15, 2021 • 12:00 pm

I’m seriously sleep deprived and am finding it hard to even type.  Like many people, or so I hear, sleeping has become more erratic and disturbed during the pandemic. I’m lucky if I get 5½ hours a night, and I tend to wake up at ungodly early hours. I was going to write posts on the two articles below, but don’t have the ability to think so well today, so I’ll merely call them to your attention, make a few remarks, and pass on. Click on screenshots to access all articles. These two are “contrarian” in that they go against prevailing Woke opinion in dealing with subjects so taboo that one shouldn’t even bring them up.

The first piece, by Douglas Murray at the Spectator, deals with how reviewers—particularly the New York Times—have dealt with Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new (and fourth) book, shown below (click to go to Amazon site). It came out just last week.

I haven’t read it yet, but will, just as I’ve read all her books. But as Hirsi Ali has been moved to the “alt-right” because of perception that she’s an “Islamophobe”, the reviewers have not been kind. And it’s going to get worse for her after this book, for it tackles the issue of immigration, and what Hirsi Ali sees as the bad consequences of allowing immigration of fundamentalist Muslims to the West. These bad consequences include Britain’s infamous “grooming gangs.” As we know, the liberal British press, and the government, does a lot to hide the fact that these gangs exist, for that admission is seen as Islamophobic.

I don’t know how we should restructure the immigration system to minimize the detrimental effects on a liberal and democratic society of admitting those with cultural norms inimical to its values, but Hirsi Ali apparently has some solutions. I’ll withhold judgement until I read her book.

What Murray does is analyze a New York Times review of Hirsi Ali’s book (click on screenshot below), and make the case that the reviewer, Jill Filipovic, disses the book unfairly, criticizing Hirsi Ali for things she didn’t say, and doing that because Hirsi Ali’s message is not consonant with the NYT’s biases.


Just two quotes:

As soon as [Hirsi Ali’s] book came out, The New York Times published a characteristically inaccurate hit-piece to try to kill it at birth. Speaking engagements – even virtual ones – involving Hirsi Ali came under sustained pressure to cancel. The Council on American-Islamic Relations and other Muslim groups started to campaign against the book. And figures like an obscure communist activist called Maryam Namazie, who claims to campaign against Islamism, found common cause with the Islamists in trying to take-out Hirsi Ali. In the latter case, Hirsi Ali was berated for having views that are ‘regressive’, as though one must have ‘progressive’ communist views or have no views at all.

But in the scheme of things, it is the New York Times whose campaign against the book will register with the most. And so it is worth showing just how false and agenda-laden that piece – written by one Jill Filipovic – actually is.

Throughout her review, Filipovic seems intent on using Hirsi Ali’s personal story against her. . .

Murray then goes through a number of Filipovic’s criticisms and argues that they completely misrepresent what Hirsi Ali says. Certainly the excerpts seem to show that when put next to some of Hirsi Ali’s statements, but one needs to read her book to get the full context.

At the end, Murray hypothesizes why the NYT is so hard (and so misguided) on Ayaan’s book, and, knowing the paper, there’s at least a bit of truth in this:

In recent times, the NYT has had a terrible problem – more so than any other mainstream publication – of racism among its staff. The publication has hired writers who make overtly racist comments (Sarah Jeong) and fired other people for allegedly using racist terminology.

I don’t know why the NYT can’t get through a month without an internal racism scandal, but I begin to desire to take it by its own lights and simply accept that the paper in question has a racism problem. And I suppose that a piece like Filipovic’s must be read in this light.

Filipovic seems to think that because Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a black immigrant of Muslim origin she must say only one set of things. When she says a different set of things she must have words put in her mouth by America’s former paper of record. That paper must then muffle the woman’s opinions, defame her and otherwise unvoice her. These have all been tropes in the history of racism. And I suppose that the history of racism is alive, well and continuing at the New York Times. Under the guise of ‘anti-racism’, obviously.

It’s true that Hirsi Ali doesn’t say the kind of stuff that the NYT finds congenial. Indeed, if anyone qualifies as expressing “Islamophobia”, it is her, for she is indeed afraid—not of Islam itself, but of the tenets of Islam that are pernicious and dangerous to men and especially women. Seen in that light, “Islamophobia” isn’t always invidious, but the term is used to slander those who criticize anything about Islam. And the misogynistic, homophobic, and oppressive tenets of Islam are indeed dangerous when transplanted into liberal Western cultures. But we are not allowed to speak of such things, for this subject is taboo.

***************

On February 8, Glenn Loury (most of you know of him; he’s a black economist at Brown) delivered a lecture at the University of Colorado at Boulder; it was part of the Benson Center Lecture Series.  He’s now published the text of the lecture at Quillette (click on screenshot):

Loury’s “unspeakable truths” involve placing some of the blame for black inequality on the black community itself. While the aspects of “black culture” that he sees as inimical, like single-mother families, may ultimately rest on racism, the family issue has worsened substantially since the 1950’s, and it’s hard to see that as a result of either historical racism or present-day “systemic” racism—which surely has not gotten worse since the 1950s. At any rate, I’ll list Loury’s unspeakable truths and recommend that you read his piece. Here his words are indented:

The first unspeakable truth: Downplaying behavioral disparities by race is actually a “bluff”. Socially mediated behavioral issues lie at the root of today’s racial inequality problem. They are real and must be faced squarely if we are to grasp why racial disparities persist. This is a painful necessity.

A second unspeakable truth: “Structural racism” isn’t an explanation, it’s an empty category. The invocation of “structural racism” in political argument is both a bluff and a bludgeon. It is a bluff in the sense that it offers an “explanation” that is not an explanation at all and, in effect, dares the listener to come back.

Another unspeakable truth: We must put the police killings of black Americans into perspective. . . For every black killed by the police, more than 25 other black people meet their end because of homicides committed by other blacks. This is not to ignore the significance of holding police accountable for how they exercise their power vis-à-vis citizens. It is merely to notice how very easy it is to overstate the significance and the extent of this phenomenon, precisely as the Black Lives Matter activists have done.

Thus, the narrative that something called “white supremacy” and “systemic racism” have put a metaphorical “knee on the neck” of black America is simply false. The idea that as a black person I dare not step from my door for fear that the police would round me up or gun me down or bludgeon me to death because of my race is simply ridiculous.

Yet another unspeakable truth: There is a dark side to the “white fragility” blame game. Likewise, I suspect that what we are hearing from the progressives in the academy and the media is but one side of the “whiteness” card. That is, I wonder if the “white-guilt” and “white-apologia” and “white-privilege” view of the world cannot exist except also to give birth to a “white-pride” backlash, even if the latter is seldom expressed overtly—it being politically incorrect to do so.

The above is the least credible of Loury’s worries, I think, but may contain some truth. I have no idea if the application of Critical Race Theory, for example, has turned some whites into white supremacists.

On the unspeakable infantilization of “black fragility”I would add that there is an assumption of “black fragility,” or at least of black lack of resilience lurking behind these anti-racism arguments. Blacks are being treated like infants whom one dares not to touch. One dares not say the wrong word in front of us; to ask any question that might offend us; to demand anything from us, for fear that we will be so adversely impacted by that. The presumption is that black people cannot be disagreed with, criticized, called to account, or asked for anything.

On achieving “true equality” for black Americans. . . Here, then, is my final unspeakable truth, which I utter now in defiance of “cancel culture”: If we blacks want to walk with dignity—if we want to be truly equal—then we must realize that white people cannot give us equality. We actually have to actually earn equal status. Please don’t cancel me just yet, because I am on the side of black people here. But I feel obliged to report that equality of dignity, equality of standing, equality of honor, of security in one’s position in society, equality of being able to command the respect of others—this is not something that can be simply handed over. Rather, it is something that one has to wrest from a cruel and indifferent world with hard work, with our bare hands, inspired by the example of our enslaved and newly freed ancestors. We have to make ourselves equal. No one can do it for us.

The other day, a black reader made a comment to the effect that I like John McWhorter’s views (which are very similar to Loury’s) because “they let white people off the hook.” That is, by blaming black inequality and “inequity” on the black community itself, those views free whites from guilt, the need for “reparations”, and, I guess, from the need to do anything about such inequalities. I disagree on two counts. FIrst of all, as Americans we are obliged to lend a hand to those less fortunate than we. And that includes the poor and some minorities (groups like Indians, East Asian immigrants, and Nigerians are not disadvantaged). To me this doesn’t mean policing ourselves for language, scrutinizing our souls for implicit bias, or firing people who use the n-word didactically. It means a much larger and harder task, one that both Loury and McWhorter agree with: ensuring that every American has equal opportunities from the very first moment they draw breath. That will take a huge investment and reallotment of money, and I, for one, am willing to take a financial hit for this end.

Second, you can’t blame all those inequities on the perfidies of white people who, mired in their unconscious racism, promulgate “structural racism” everywhere. Things like black-on-black crime, so prevalent in my city, must be tackled by the black community as well: in fact, tackled in the main by the black community. When the commenter I just mentioned told me I was too inclined to let white people off the hook, I couldn’t resist replying that he, too, might consider that he was too inclined to let black people off the hook.

*********

Lagniappe: Bari Weiss has a new piece on her Substack site, “Giano Carano and crowd-sourced McCarthyism“. I haven’t yet read it, but it’s free (consider subscribing, though). It’s about the actress who was fired from a television series for comparing the persecution of American conservatives to the persecution of Jews by the Nazis—a comparison that Weiss admits was stupid and ridiculous.

A great book on freedom of speech

January 25, 2021 • 1:15 pm

I’ve just finished a book that I recommend very highly to anybody interested in freedom of speech and expression. In fact, of all the books I’ve read in the last few years on this topic, this is up there at the top with Mill’s On Liberty.  The more recent book, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, first appeared in 1993, and that’s the edition I read. I see, however, that Amazon is selling a 2013 “expanded edition” with a foreword by George Will (click on screenshot below), and I haven’t yet seen that one. (It’s only $14.07 in paperback, and is published by The University of Chicago Press.) The Amazon sample shows that Wills’s foreword is short, but that Rauch has also inserted an afterword.

Nevertheless, the earlier edition is still highly relevant. In fact, although it’s 27 years old, you wouldn’t know that from its contents, as it’s completely relevant to today’s Zeitgeist. The author, Jonathan Rauch, is an author currently working at the Brookings Institution and is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He’s also openly gay, which he mentions several times at appropriate places in the book.

I should add that the book is remarkably well written for a semi-academic tome, and is a pleasure to read.

Rauch’s thesis is pretty much a defense of untrammeled free speech as limned by America’s First Amendment to the Constitution, and a defense of extending of that Amendment into venues that don’t necessarily have to adhere to it, like private schools and colleges. It’s also an admission that yes, free speech can be offensive and even harmful (to feelings only!), but that that’s okay, for the benefits of free speech palpably outweighs emotional damage. (Needless to say, Rauch doesn’t consider speech to be “violence”, a topic already bandied about in 1993).

A very brief summary. At the beginning, Rauch lays out four principles about who should decide what speech is permissible. I quote his alternatives (p. 6):

  • The Fundamentalist Principle.  Those who know the truth should decide who is right. [JAC: Plato’s position.]
  • The Simple Egalitarian Principle: All sincere persons’ beliefs have equal claims to respect.
  • The Radical Egalitarian Principle: Like the simple egalitarian principle, but the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes or groups get special consideration.
  • The Humanitarian Principle. Any of the above, but with the condition that the first priority be to cause no harm.
  • The Liberal Principle. Checking of each [person’s claims] by each through public criticism is the only legitimate way to decide who’s right.

Many seem to feel that the proper policy is a combination of principles 2 through 4, but Rauch’s position is the “liberal principle,” which he spends the rest of the book justifying and defending.  That principle, which he also calls “liberal science” because it involves debate and cross-checking of claims, is summarized by two tenets (p 46; the explanation is mine:

A.) No one gets the final say. All truth claims are tentative, skepticism is prized (this is like science), and you can never reach a point where all further criticism is useless or prohibited. There can be no end of discussion, though some claims, like the chemical formula of liquid water, are as close to absolute truth as one can come. But for debates about things like affirmative action, abortion, and so on, one can never say that the discussion is settled, and, indeed, for claims like these, there are no absolute truths, only prescriptions that can be more or less useful to society. But those prescriptions can not only be discussed with reason, but informed by science itself.

B.) No one has personal authority. That is, there can be no arbiter of truth or of what speech can be tolerated. That is a form of censorship and authoritarian Diktat that is incompatible with societal progress.

As you can see, Rauch believes that completely free discussion—and that includes much of what is considered “hate speech”—is the best possible way to advance society, and to arrive at what truths can be grasped. This is pretty much Mill’s position, but Rauch’s book is a useful (but not complete) substitute.

As for “hurt” and “offense”, which are used to weaponize speech and gain power over others, as we saw in the previous post—Rauch simply dismisses them as valid complaints. Here’s a passage on that issue (p 19):

Somehow the idea has grown up that “liberal” means “nice,” that the liberal intellectual system fosters sensitivity, toleration, self-esteem, the rejection of prejudice and bias. That impression is misguided. The truth is that liberal science demands discipline as well as license, and to those who reject or flout its rules, it can be cruel. It excludes and restricts as well as tolerates. It thrives on prejudice no less than on cool detachment. It does not give a damn about your feelings and happily tramples them in the name of finding truth. It allows and-here we should be honest-sometimes encourages offense. Self-esteem, sensitivity, respect for others’ beliefs, renunciation of prejudice are all good as far as they go. But as primary social goals they are incompatible with the peaceful and productive advancement of human knowledge. To advance knowledge, we must all sometimes suffer. Worse than that, we must inflict suffering on others.

The suffering, of course, is mental, not physical, but Rauch’s response to people like those who accused the American Mathematical Society of “harm” and “offense” would be: “Suck it up; you’ll live.”

This sentiment has been echoed in more recent years by Stephen Fry, Christopher Hitchens, and Salman Rushdie.

Here’s Hitchens:

“If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings, I say, ‘I’m still waiting to hear what your point is.’

In this country, I’ve been told, ‘That’s offensive’ as if those two words constitute an argument or a comment. Not to me they don’t.

And I’m not running for anything, so I don’t have to pretend to like people when I don’t.”

Stephen Fry:

“It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more. . . than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.”

Well, it does have a purpose: to gain power over other people as well as attention.

Salman Rushdie:

“Nobody has the right to not be offended. That right doesn’t exist in any declaration I have ever read.

If you are offended it is your problem, and frankly lots of things offend lots of people.

I can walk into a bookshop and point out a number of books that I find very unattractive in what they say. But it doesn’t occur to me to burn the bookshop down. If you don’t like a book, read another book. If you start reading a book and you decide you don’t like it, nobody is telling you to finish it.

To read a 600-page novel and then say that it has deeply offended you: well, you have done a lot of work to be offended.”

All of us should have some version of these sentiments at hand! At any rate, I importune you to read Rauch’s book.

Two books I just finished

January 16, 2021 • 11:00 am

I’m back to reading a lot during the pandemic, as I’m simply tired of looking at the Internet as a distraction. And so I finished two books this week: one excellent and one so-so. Let’s start with the good one, which I read so long ago that it seemed new to me. Reading The Plague is especially apposite at the moment as it can be read the contest of the pandemic. Can it illuminate our current experience? The answer is yes and no.

And it was this old edition that I read (click to go to the Amazon site):

At about 280 small pages, those who shy away from big books will find this one doable. It’s one of the novels that won Camus the Nobel Prize in Literature, and deservedly so.  The Plague (La Peste in the original French) is considered an “existentialist” novel, and I suppose that’s because one could construe it as the fictional story of men laboring to fight a meaningless but fatal pestilence: a bubonic plague that struck the city of Oran in Algeria in the 1940s. The protagonist, Dr. Rieux, is an atheist, and realizes the senselessness of what is happening—despite the local priest’s attempt to find meaning in the epidemic—but still labors to exhaustion, seven days a week, to help the stricken. Rieux doesn’t do this because he sees it as the “moral” thing to do, but believes that relieving suffering is an aspect of human love, the only worthwhile thing he sees in our existence.

I won’t give away the plot or the spoiler (i.e., who the narrator is), but it’s worth rereading in light of the coronavirus pandemic. There are parallels (quarantines, lots of death), but also differences (no mask wearing, even though some of the plague is pneumonic, no lockdowns of businesses, and none of the peevishness that limns our behavior). But the big parallel is humanity being at the mercy of an invisible microbe, which takes lives randomly and senselessly. If that’s existentialism, so be it.

The novel rises to a climax with the narrator’s “analysis” at the end after the plague has lifted, which contains some of the book’s best writing. My favorite bit, which I’ve mentioned before, is the ending, which is wonderful even in translation. And it’s also about the futility of fighting the plague, which, though it can be temporarily conquered, will always return:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled.

He knew what those jubilant crowds did no know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

Lots of nice alliteration there, and the last bit, “when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city,” is sheer genius. Bane and enlightening indeed!

*************

 

I read this one on—as I recall—the recommendation of a reader here. But perhaps not. At any rate, I was drawn by the topic: Daum’s disillusionment with wokeness and her discovery of “IDW” members like John McWhorter, Glenn Loury, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Bret Weinstein. This is journey that many of us have taken, and I wanted to see what Daum had to say about it.

I didn’t find the book absorbing, but perhaps that’s because I already share Daum’s intellectual criticism of wokeness and had undergone the political changes that describes at length, embroidering them with details about her crumbling marriage and her disillusionment with feminism. In my view, Daum provided too little meat and tried way too hard to be clever, throwing in personal information that didn’t enhance her thesis—if she has a thesis. Daum is a big fan of Joan Didion’s writing, but doesn’t have the chops to emulate her, nor Didion’s ability to make the personal sufficiently impersonal to be interesting to the reader.

It’s a solipsistic book that I don’t think would enlighten many of us. Read it at your own peril.

What next? Below a book that came highly recommended from an expert: literary critic James Wood of the New Yorker. Having met James in Cambridge MA (he teaches at Harvard) and discussed with him the idea of whether literature was a “way of knowing” (I won’t divulge his take), I wrote him asking if I should read a copy of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch that I found in a free book box.

The Goldfinsh won the Pulitzer prize in 2014, and I was about to start it when Wood replied and said that he much preferred a wonderful 2006 novel, translated from the German by Anthea Bell in 2015, that he had extolled several years ago in The New YorkerAll for Nothing is clearly one of Wood’s favorite modern novels. He warned me not to read his review before I read the book, as he gave spoilers. So I haven’t, but will start this book today:

So that is my latest reading. Your turn: what books have you liked lately?

The worst books ever written

January 2, 2021 • 11:30 am

Imagine my delight when, purely by accident, I came upon a Wikipedia entry called “List of books considered the worst,” with the explanation, “The books listed below have been cited by many notable critics in varying media sources as being among the worst books ever written.” [Their emphasis.]  The list includes only books written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and I’ve put below just the former, eliminating all the snark and explanation that makes each entry hilarious. I did leave in the entire entry for A. N. Wilson’s dreadful book on Darwin, because, to my extra delight, I found they quoted me (my original review was in the Washington Post, not Dawn).

This is Wikipedia’s list, not mine, and I find that I’ve read only a few of their choices: Mein Kampf (yes, boring, but i read it dutifully, to know Hitler’s mind), The Da Vinci Code (as my excuse, I was spending a week in a rental cottage in Dorset and that was the only book they had), Naked Came the Stranger (a popular book when I was in college), Fifty Shades of Grey (I didn’t really read it, but flipped through it in a bookstore to see what the fuss was about), and, of course, Wilson’s book on Darwin. Yes, they’re all dreadful, but Hitler’s book is on the list not because it’s bad but because it’s characterzied as “evil”.

I couldn’t really make my own list of the worst books ever written, because if I find that a book doesn’t engage me, or is poorly written, I don’t finish it. But there is one book I’ve read that is a glaring omission from the list below: a book whose prose is truly awful, and yet became a best-seller and a popular movie.  I don’t have it at hand, but here’s Coyne’s choice for the worst fiction book of the 20th century:

The Bridges of Madison County (Robert James Waller, 1992). I can’t remember when I read this rancid crock of tripe, but it was similar to the circumstances in which I read The Da Vinci Code: I was in a house where there was only one book to read. I need to read like a tiger needs meat, so I read that one. (I used to read the cereal boxes at breakfast when I was a kid.) All I can remember is that the prose was absolutely awful: a rank amateur attempting a love story.

I can’t remember quotes, but, by God, I found ten from someone who really LOVED the book. Here’s just one:

The leopard swept over her, again and again and yet again, like a long prairie wind, and rolling beneath him, she rode on that wind like some temple virgin towards the sweet, compliant fires marking the soft curve of oblivion.

Oy!  And a few quotes from Goodreads:

“It’s clear to me now that I have been moving toward you and you toward me for a long time. Though neither of us was aware of the other before we met, there was a kind of mindless certainty bumming blithely along beneath our ignorance that ensured we would come together. Like two solitary birds flying the great prairies by celestial reckoning, all of these years and lifetimes we have been moving toward one another.

. . . .  “It already smells good,” he said, pointing toward the stove. “It smells… quiet.” He looked at her.

“Quiet? Could something smell quiet” She was thinking about the phrase, asking herself. He was right. After the pork chops and steaks and roasts she cooked for the family, this was quiet cooking. No violence involved anywhere down the food chain, except maybe for pulling up the vegetables. The stew cooked quietly and smelled quiet.”

. . . “He was an animal. A graceful, hard, male animal who did nothing overtly to dominate her yet dominated her completely, in the exact way she wanted that to happen at this moment.”

. . . “The human heart has a way of making itself large again even after it’s been broken into a million pieces.”

The thing is, I read the book after I saw the 1995 movie, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring him and Meryl Streep as the star-crossed lovers. I thought that the movie was very good, and the performances convincing. It was in fact a tearjerker, and once in my life I even experienced a cars-going-opposite-ways-at-an-intersection parting similar to that below when, in the pouring rain, Robert’s truck goes right and Francesca, in the car with her husband, goes left. (It was a scene that was filmed magnificently.) Imagine, then, my depression when I read the book, and found it was infinitely worse than the movie. (Movies from books are usually worse than the source.) Whoever turned that steaming dung pile of a book into a screenplay—and the acting of course was a major plus—did a magnificent job.

Here’s the parting, which always breaks my heart. This is the last time they see each other:

Anyway, the book sucks big time.

Here’s Wikipedia’s list for the last 120 years. Do add your own, or, if you’ve read any of the books below, feel free to agree or disagree.

20th century

1990s

21st century

2000s

2010s

To end the day, my next post will be my choice of the worst rock songs of all time.

Obama’s new book looks good

December 9, 2020 • 12:15 pm

I’m not generally a fan of political books, but I may have to break down and get Barack Obama’s new memoir, A Promised Land.

I don’t know if the New Yorker article below is free (I subscribe), but it was reading that excerpt from Obama’s book that made me think about getting the whole thing (click on first screenshot to go to Amazon page). It’s only volume 1 and is a daunting 768 pages, but the reviews have been uniformly favorable. Further, it’s #1 among all books on Amazon, and a very cheap $23.96 in hardback on the site:

Below: the excerpt. What I liked about it was that it dealt not only with policy (the “toughest fight” was about Obamacare), but also the day-to-day doings and feelings of a President—what it is like to be President. And it’s extraordinarily well written for a man who is not a professional writer but a politician. He’s a natural.

Here’s the ending of the New Woker piece, which gives you an idea of the mix of political and personal, conveyed in a folksy style that isn’t cloying (you can hear Obama’s voice in these words). It’s this mix that made the excerpt—and, according to the reviewers, the book—so appealing:

It wasn’t just that criticism from friends always stung the most. The carping carried immediate political consequences for Democrats. It confused our base (which, generally speaking, had no idea what the hell a public option was) and divided our caucus. It also ignored the fact that all the great social-welfare advances in American history, including Social Security and Medicare, had started off incomplete and had been built upon gradually, over time. By preëmptively spinning what could be a monumental, if imperfect, victory into a bitter defeat, the criticism contributed to a potential long-term demoralization of Democratic voters—otherwise known as the “What’s the point of voting if nothing ever changes?” syndrome—making it even harder for us to win elections and move progressive legislation forward in the future.

There was a reason, I told my adviser Valerie Jarrett, that Republicans tended to do the opposite—that Ronald Reagan could preside over huge increases in the federal budget, the federal deficit, and the federal workforce and still be lionized by the G.O.P. faithful as the guy who successfully shrank the federal government. They understood that, in politics, the stories told were often as important as the substance achieved.

We made none of these arguments publicly, though for the rest of my Presidency the phrase “public option” became a useful shorthand inside the White House anytime Democratic interest groups complained about us failing to defy political gravity and securing less than a hundred per cent of whatever they were asking for. Instead, we did our best to calm folks down, reminding disgruntled supporters that we would have plenty of time to fine-tune the legislation when we merged the House and Senate bills. Harry kept doing Harry stuff, including keeping the Senate in session weeks past the scheduled adjournment for the holidays.

As he’d predicted, Olympia Snowe braved a blizzard to stop by the Oval and tell us in person that she’d be voting no. But it didn’t matter. On Christmas Eve, after twenty-four days of debate, with Washington blanketed in snow and the streets all but empty, the Senate passed its health-care bill, titled the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—the A.C.A.—with exactly sixty votes. It was the first Christmas Eve vote in the Senate since 1895.

A few hours later, I settled back in my seat on Air Force One, listening to Michelle and the girls discuss how well Bo was adjusting to his first plane ride as we headed to Hawaii for the holiday break. I felt myself starting to relax just a little. We were going to make it, I thought. We weren’t docked yet—not even close, it would turn out—but thanks to my team, thanks to Nancy, Harry, and a whole bunch of congressional Democrats who’d taken tough votes, we finally had land within our sights.

Apparently the end of the first volume, according to the review below, is a taut and gripping account of the hunting of Osama bin Laden, seen from the White House.

In fact, when I saw that the conservative Spectator had a very positive review—though faulting the book for “humblebrag” and “schmalz”—it almost sealed the deal. I think the chances are about 75% that I’ll get the book. But that of course commits me to getting the second volume. Click on the screenshot:

An excerpt from the Spectator review:

But under all that hopey changey stuff, and where the long sections about wrangling policy through Congress really come into their own, is a superbly engaging study in realpolitik. He was famous for his windy rhetoric; but to get anything done in office required a steely political operator. Obama, the centrist dad’s centrist dad, is again and again confronted by the hard arithmetic of the caucus at home, and of tangled interests abroad. He really shows you how the sausage is made — and his cool, conscientious, covering-all-the-angles pragmatism, more than his optimism, is the real fascination in this book. If first-term Obama has an arch-nemesis, it’s not Osama bin Laden or Donald Trump: it’s the Senate filibuster. And there’s a wry sense of the absurd. On the campaign trail in Iowa, he secures the endorsement of the ‘Butter Cow Lady’, ‘who at the state fair each year sculpted a life-sized cow out of salted butter’, and blasts statewide the prerecorded call announcing her support. ‘She later created,’ he says proudly, an Iowan Ozymandias: ‘a 23-pound butter bust of my head.’

He delivers crisp little put-downs, too. As a candidate, when a do-gooding ice-cream company called on him to defund the Pentagon, he recalls wearily: ‘I had to call either Ben or Jerry — I don’t remember which.’ Nicolas Sarkozy is a ‘bantam cock’ (that’s surely at least half right) whose conversation

swooped from flattery to bluster to genuine insight, never straying far from his primary barely disguised interest, which was to be at the center of the action and take credit for whatever it was that might be worth taking credit for.’

Now the older I get, the greater the percentage of nonfiction in what I read, but my tolerance for long books has also decreased. There were days when I could breeze through Robert Caro’s 4-volume biography of LBJ—one of the greatest nonfiction “books” of our time—for several hours a day, every day until I finished each volume. Now I struggle with such a length. I’m not sure whether this is age or simply the anxiety that comes with the pandemic. So 700+ pages seem daunting, and, truth be told, politics usually bore me. But Caro didn’t bore me, and Obama’s book seems to have the appealing Caro-esque mix of the man and his job.

Has anybody read it yet? There are over ten thousand reviews on Amazon, 94% of them giving the work five stars—for a book that came out on November 17!

Once again: the supposed need for the self-justification of science

September 23, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Reading the latest edition of The Chicago Maroon, our student newspaper, I saw an op-ed about self care by Ada Palmer, an associate professor of History. I’m not going to write about that; her piece is pretty straightforward and empathic towards our students, who will be having a rather stressful semester. Rather, when I looked Palmer up, I saw that she’d written a review two years ago in Harvard Magazine of Steve Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. Always interested in how my colleagues regard Pinker, in arguments for empiricism and rationality, and intrigued by the title of her piece, I read her piece. You can, too, by clicking on the screenshot below.

It turns out that Dr. Palmer likes Steve’s book, but has two reservations. The first is that Steve argues that humanism, which is a handmaiden of atheism, is the way forward, and that religion has only been an impediment to moral and material progress. I think he’s pretty much right on that one. But Palmer doesn’t like the atheism bit:

Pinker reviews what he sees as humanism’s intellectual adversaries, such as those who caricature it as cold utilitarianism, those who suggest that humans have an innate need for spiritual beliefs, and the classic accusation, ubiquitous in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, that there cannot be good or virtue without God. For some readers, it will be frustrating that 350 pages of useful and cheering data, the majority of which one could call faith-neutral, culminate in the declaration that only triumphant atheism can ensure that scientific progress will help instead of harm. But Pinker’s secular humanism is less militant than that of many contemporary atheist voices; he focuses on the benefits of caring about the earthly world, rather than on condemning religion. His conclusion, that progress simply requires us to value life over death, health over sickness, abundance over want, freedom over coercion, happiness over suffering, and knowledge over superstition, is one numerous theisms can and have embraced.

Thank God he’s not as militant as Dawkins! God forbid that anyone should condemn religion.

Yes, but of course many theisms have impeded science, reason, and morality, and continue to do so (I’m looking at you, Vatican), while atheism hasn’t impeded those things one bit. After all, atheism is simply lack of belief in gods. The lucubrations above look like either religion osculation or accommodationism. I doubt that anyone could argue cogently that science would be more advanced if everyone became religious. Palmer also mentions “secular evidence” below, as if there was a kind of “nonsecular evidence” for science.

But the main problem with her piece is a recurrent trope that we see among those who wish to minimize the importance of science. It’s the claim that reason itself, or logic, or science itself, cannot prove that science can actually help us understand the universe in a useful way. For philosophers and some in the humanities, the lack of a priori justification that reliance on empirical methods will work is somehow an indictment of science. Here’s how Palmer goes at it:

Pinker briefly reviews efforts to value other factors—love, passions, feeling—above reason, but declares such efforts self-defeating: as soon as they attempt to justify themselves, the very act of providing reasoned arguments for their beliefs admits that reasoned arguments are the strongest grounds for belief. Yet, as I reflect on this argument, I am reminded how science, during a critical moment in its history, was self-defeating in much the same way.

Why was it self-defeating? Because there was no a priori justification for going ahead with empirical observation, hypothesis-making and -testing, and so on as a way to understand nature:

Progress in the modern sense, as an intentional and human-driven process, was first fully articulated by Francis Bacon early in the seventeenth century, when he suggested that a collaborative community of empirical inquiry would uncover useful truths that would radically transform human civilization and make each generation’s experience incrementally better than that of the generation before. This was not the easy sell it seems, since Bacon had no evidence that this unprecedented project could wield such power—and even if he had found evidence, one can’t use reasoned evidence to prove that reasoned evidence can prove things. New discoveries were frequent—the moons of Jupiter, the magnification of insects, the circulation of the blood—but practical benefits were slow in coming.

Well, that’s not exactly true, because people had been using what I call “science broadly construed” to understand nature for millennia. I was impressed, on reading Beryl Markham’s West With the Night, how local trackers used scientific observation to find game: the depth of the tracks, how dry they were, where waterholes were, and so on. There was in fact every reason to think that empirical inquiry would lead to understanding, while prayers and revelation, which any chowderhead would know didn’t help much, weren’t a good way to find animals or decide which plants were edible vs. poisonous.

As for the “practical benefits being slow in coming”, well, I take issue with that. Is improved understanding of the world “practical”. Maybe it won’t make you richer or healthier, but it makes you wiser and more appreciative of the marvels of nature.

In the end, though, I don’t care if you can’t use reason to prove that reason and empiricism “can prove things”. (Actually, they can’t: science doesn’t speak of “proof” but of more or less confirmed hypotheses.) What’s important is that, as Richard Dawkins said pungently, “Science works, bitches!”  The justification of empiricism, reason, and science is in its results: we find out what makes people sick, how to get to the Moon, how to cure disease, and so on. Only somebody hogtied with the strictures of philosophy could see a lack of a priori justification as an argument against the methods and validity of science. Yet we hear this all the time—often from theologians.

Palmer goes on:

 Yet Bacon did succeed in awakening a groundswell of enthusiasm (and funding) for reason and science, through an argument that often surprises my students: he appealed to the personality of God, arguing that a good Maker would not send humans out into the wilderness without the means to achieve the desires implanted in us. Thus, because reason is God’s unique gift to humankind, it must be capable of all we desire.

From time to time, particularly in the aftermath of the French Revolution, champions of secularized science have been embarrassed by this comment from Bacon—worrying what would happen if their atheist followers realized that science, at its inception, had no secular evidence to support its own faith in the power of evidence.

Well, the important thing is that nobody’s embarrassed by this argument any more, for the majority of scientists, and nearly all “elite ones” neither believe in gods nor worry about “the lack of secular evidence” to support the power of evidence. As I noted above, long before Bacon we knew that we could understand things without needing “divine evidence.”

Palmer makes one more dig at atheism:

But with Pinker’s entire book in hand, Bacon would also have felt the tension between two arguments running through it: the inclusive argument that reason, science, humanism, and progress have made our present better than our past, and can make our future better still; and the less inclusive argument, however eloquently and intelligently presented, that the humane and empathetic humanism capable of turning our powers to good and away from evil must be secular.

Frankly, I don’t care what Bacon would think about the lack of need for “divine” as opposed to secular evidence for science, or about the power of humanism. There’s not an iota of evidence that religion makes people behave better, and often it makes them behave palpably worse. (Remember Steve Weinberg’s dictum: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”) And of course the more atheistic a country, the better off it is—by nearly any measure: gender equality, happiness, prosperity, well being, and so on.

But it doesn’t matter, for her main argument, which she reprises in her last paragraph, is both philosophical and a non-starter. Note what I see as a snarky bit in the following (I’ve bolded it):

Pinker is no more successful than Bacon at justifying science and reason without a recursive appeal to science and reason. Yet for those already confident in the persuasive force of evidence, it would be hard to imagine a more encouraging defense than Pinker’s of the reality and possibilities of progress.

What? Is there a large segment of humanity that isn’t confident in the persuasive force of evidence? If so, they shouldn’t be trusting any court decisions, or even their own observations, much less taking planes or swallowing antibiotics.  In my view, nearly everyone is confident in the persuasive force of evidence about most things, though some fraction of humans are confident in things that lack evidence. They include religious people, conspiracy theorists, and cranks. (Oh, and Donald Trump.)

Why does this argument against science keep coming up? It’s worthless!

A quick book review, movie review, and a new movie to see

September 20, 2020 • 1:30 pm

The book: I just finished this book for the second time (I read an earlier edition without the introduction; click on image for Amazon link):

This is the memoir of pilot, horse trainer, and adventurer Beryl Markham (1902-1986), recounting her years in Africa with the Happy Valley set, which included Karen Blixen (author of Out of Africa), her estranged husband Baron von Blixen, and Denys Finch Hatton, Blixen’s lover (and, as I discovered, also Markham’s). The book wasn’t that popular when it came out in 1942, and went out of print, only to be rediscovered by Ernest Hemingway and brought back into print in 1982. Markham, who returned to Africa at fifty, then enjoyed a few years of literary fame before she died.

She deserves that fame based on this book, as it’s a wonderful and beautifully written memoir—a perfect complement to Out of Africa, published five years earlier. Both describe the same part of Africa (Kenya) at the same time, but one from the vantage point of a coffee-farm owner and the other from an aviator. They both approach the memoir not as a seamless narrative, but as a series of incidents, each illuminating one moment of time. And both describe women who refused to accept the subordinate status afforded to females at the time, and thus are, as they say, “empowering.” Both women were brave and admirable, and you need to read both books, especially if you love good prose.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would be Out of Africa. That’s because at times Markham’s prose becomes a bit—well, not exactly purple—but strained as she strives for literary effect.  I’m not sure if she was trying to match the graceful writing of Blixen (I’m not even sure if Markham had read Out of Africa), but she didn’t have the tools to do what Blixen did.  For example, she could not have matched what I consider one of the finest set pieces in English literature: the description in Out of Africa of Finch Hatton’s grave, which I reproduced here.

That said, the book is still well above most memoirs, and deservedly a classic. Read it soon.

The movie: This documentary from 2018, deserves the high ratings it got on Rotten Tomatoes (a 94% critics’ rating).

Nearly two hours long, it’s not long enough, for Williams contained multitudes. It’s full of clips showing the man’s quicksilver mind, riotous humor, and embellished with remembrances from his wives and friends, especially Billy Crystal. I thought Williams was always “on”, but it becomes clear that when he was with his family, he was very quiet and withdrawn, perhaps recharging. As we know, he killed himself at 63. Many say this was unexplainable, but he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and was furious at not being able to control his thoughts; as he said, “I need to reboot my mind.”

The one omission here is that Williams’s movies are given short shrift, and they were an important part of how many people remember him: Good Will Hunting, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Awakenings, and so on. That alone is a wonderful c.v., but then there was also the comedy onstage and on television. The guy was sui generis, fizzling with energy, and, as they say, we won’t see his like again. But you can see it in this wonderful HBO documentary.

Upcoming movie. I haven’t seen the new movie Ammonite yet (it comes out in the U.S. November 13), but reader Kurt sent me a five-star review from the BBC. You’ve likely heard of paleontologist Mary Anning, and this tells her story, embellished with a fictionalized lesbian romance. Wonderful casting: Anning is played by Kate Winslet, and her protege and later lover Charlotte Murchison, (a real person who was friends with Anning) played by the great young actor Saoirse Ronan. I’ll reserve judgment until I see it, of course, but I will see it. Here’s a trailer: