Richard Dawkins’s new book

May 8, 2021 • 12:00 pm

Reader Luke sent me this notice, and no, I didn’t know of Richard’s new book. The cover is below along with the Amazon blurb, to wit:

Including conversations with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley and more, this is an essential guide to the most exciting ideas of our time and their proponents from our most brilliant science communicator. Books Do Furnish a Life is divided by theme, including celebrating nature, exploring humanity, and interrogating faith. For the first time, it brings together Richard Dawkins’ forewords, afterwords and introductions to the work of some of the leading thinkers of our age – Carl Sagan, Lawrence Krauss, Jacob Bronowski, Lewis Wolpert – with a selection of his reviews to provide an electrifying celebration of science writing, both fiction and non-fiction. It is also a sparkling addition to Dawkins’ own remarkable canon of work.

Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site:

Luke also wrote this and sent me a screenshot:
You may know this already, but Richard Dawkins’ new book Books Do Furnish A Life was published yesterday (in the UK at least). I was delighted to see that the last chapter before the epilogue is his glowing review of WEIT!
You can see Richard’s entire review of my book, called “Heat the Hornet” at this link. And don’t think I wasn’t immensely pleased with his encomiums!

Philip Roth’s biography pulped after its author is accused of sexual assault

May 2, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Well known author Blake Bailey‘s new biography of Philip Roth, which has received great reviews, has been pulled from sale by publisher W. W. Norton, though I notice it’s still on Amazon. If you still want to read it after you read this post, best to get it now, as the publisher, W. W. Norton, has decided to stop selling it.  The story can be read in the New York Times or, in shorter form, at the Washington Post Book Club page (click on the screenshots below):

The explanation from the NYT:

Now, allegations against Mr. Bailey, 57, have emerged, including claims that he sexually assaulted two women, one as recently as 2015, and that he behaved inappropriately toward middle school students when he was a teacher in the 1990s.

His publisher, W.W. Norton, took swift and unusual action: It said on Wednesday that it had stopped shipments and promotion of his book. “These allegations are serious,” it said in a statement. “In light of them, we have decided to pause the shipping and promotion of ‘Philip Roth: The Biography’ pending any further information that may emerge.”

Norton, which initially printed 50,000 copies of the title, has stopped a 10,000-copy second printing that was scheduled to arrive in early May. It has also halted advertising and media outreach, and events that Norton arranged to promote the book are being canceled. The pullback from the publisher came just days after Mr. Bailey’s literary agency, The Story Factory, said it had dropped him as a client.

Bailey denies the allegations, calling them “categorically false and libelous”. One of them is a flat-out rape accusation, the others involve him “grooming” or behaving inappropriately towards middle school students.

Now normally I would say that accusations alone are not sufficient to warrant this step: there must be either a conviction or convincing evidence. The presumption of innocence still applies. And, after all, publishers all have a “morals clause” in their contract that allow them to extricate themselves if an author is guilty of gross transgressions, even if not criminally convicted.  But absent a conviction, I’d normally say, “it’s not time to pulp the book yet.”

BUT.  . . .

There does seem to be something more here than a mere accusation. One involves an email that Bailey sent to Eve Peyton, the woman who accused him of rape when she was a graduate student at another school. And this doesn’t look good for Bailey:

In an email reviewed by The Times, Mr. Bailey apologized to Ms. Peyton for his behavior days after the encounter, and asked her not to speak to others about it. She last heard from him in the summer of 2020, when Mr. Bailey wrote her again, in a message also reviewed by The Times, in which he alluded to “the awfulness on that night 17 years ago” and said he was suffering from mental illness at the time.

If I saw that email, and I take the Times‘s word for its authenticity, that would be enough for me, for it’s a tacit admission of guilt. A conviction isn’t needed if there’s an admission.

In the end, then, I don’t see this as censorship based on a mere accusation, but a fairly credible accusation, and I think Norton did the right thing. (They’ve also said they’ve paused selling the book, leaving open the door that if he were exculpated, sales would resume.)

Others may disagree with me and argue that even the worst criminal’s book should be published if it contains something in it worth reading. There is, after all Mein Kampf, by one of the worst mass murderers in history (granted, Hitler doesn’t get royalties, but the book also provides an insight into a historical figure). Likewise, Bailey’s book is supposed to be a good account of Roth’s life and work. Should it be removed from sale because of the author’s criminality?  Surely the author should not be allowed to profit from his work if he did indeed do what he’s accused of, just as O. J. Simpson cannot profit from his creepy book If I Did It, for the proceeds go by law to the Goldman family.

Upshot: I would do what W. W. Norton did, but there should be some way to make Bailey’s work available to scholars and the public if he’s found to be guilty or is credibly guilty. I can’t envision scholarship being “disappeared” completely.

Any ideas?

Short take on a book: Dennett vs. Caruso in “Just Deserts”

April 19, 2021 • 10:15 am

This is not a book for everyone, for it’s rather hard-core philosophy (albeit written in an accessible way), and is about one question: do we have free will or not? Since a lot of us have engaged in free-will debates here over the years, it’s appropriate for many of us. I’m really glad I read it.

And so to the Rumble in the Ivory Tower:

In one corner is Gregg Caruso, described on his page as “Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Corning, Visiting Fellow at the New College of the Humanities (NCH London), and Honorary Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University. He is also Co-Director of the Justice Without Retribution Network housed at the University of Aberdeen School of Law.”

In the other corner is Dan Dennett, whom most of us know; he’s “the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University.”

Both men have published extensively on free will. Caruso is a self-described “free will skeptic”; he thinks that because none of us can control our actions in a way that would change what we do at any given moment, we are not morally responsible for our acts, though we are “answerably responsible” or “causally responsible”. That is, if we do something good or bad, then we must be held accountable by society for our act in some way. Caruso adheres to a “pubic health” model of punishment: if you transgress, you are quarantined for possible cure and to keep you from hurting other people. You are not quarantined to deter others, as we don’t do that with carriers of infectious diseases. Ergo Gregg doesn’t see deterrence as a valid reason for “punishment” (or “quarantine”).  Caruso also sees no concept of “free will” that makes any sense, much less the historical one of “dualistic” free will—the one in which at any time we could have willed our choices and behaviors to be other than what we chose.

Dennett, like Caruso, is a determinist, agreeing that at any moment we have no free choice about what we do. However, he believes in a form of free will different from the traditional one; a form that, he argues, is the only kind of free will worth wanting. He thus sees his form of free will as compatible with determinism, so he’s a “compatibilist.”

What is Dennett’s form of free will? For him “freedom” consists of what we do when we’re members of the “Moral Agents Club”: that group of citizens who have been properly brought up and are responsive to reason and guidance by other responsible people. So for Dan, though free will isn’t “free” in the traditional sense, he sees it as “the concept of responsible, reliable self-control.”  In other words, people do things—make “choices”, if you will—that conform to the strictures of society. And so Dan says members of the Club have “moral responsibility.”

The screenshot below links to the Amazon order site.

I’ll briefly describe the Battle of the Heavyweights. You already know whose side I’m on! But let me say first that I greatly enjoyed the book, as it shows two top-notch philosophers arguing about a topic dear to my heart, and although the back and forth is civil (it’s a conversation, with each person writing between a paragraph and a few pages before the other person responds), it’s also hard-nosed, with each man querying and parrying the other, trying to find holes in their defense. 

As the title says, the argument is about “Just Deserts”, which to Dan means that people deserve to be praised or blamed for their actions because those actions are taken in a state of moral responsibility. Gregg sees no real reason for people to deserve their praise or blame, and so praise and blame must be allotted according to whether these actions help society or not (with some limitations). Blame should be limited, though, as it’s not really deserved; and “quarantine” rather than moral shaming is the best way to proceed.

In general, both Caruso and Dennett are consequentialists: they think the system of reward and (especially) punishment are largely justified by the consequences these systems have on society. To Dan, punishment is warranted by its effect on sequestering bad people and preventing them from hurting others, by its ability to help effect reformation of the criminal (if that’s possible), and to deter others from committing similar acts. Caruso, however, differs from both Dan and me in arguing that deterrence should not be a goal of punishment, because it uses people as means to control other people’s behavior, which he sees as fundamentally immoral. For example, one might say that in Dan (and my) society, even if someone is innocent of a bad deed that’s been committed, you might want to frame them to deter others from doing that deed. But that doesn’t seem right, does it? My answer would be that the consequences of punishing the innocent would be detrimental in general. But perhaps they need not be! The issue of deterrence is one I’m still thinking over.

So what is the difference between Dan’s views and Gregg’s? Gregg in fact spends almost all his time trying to answer that question, and he presses Dan on whether Dennett’s views are retributivist (which both men abhor: punishing someone simply to get back at them for bad deeds). But Dan sometimes comes close to saying that with his view of “moral responsibility”. At one point, frustrated by Dan’s apparent rapid changes of view during the conversation, Gregg compares Dan to a slippery eel. (There are moments of palpable frustration like this, though both guys behave civilly, like members of Dan’s Moral Agents Club.)

In the end, I would say Gregg won, simply because Dan doesn’t seem to make a good case for people deserving the punishment or praise they get just because they’re member of the “Moral Agents Club”. As Gregg (and I) have pointed out before, you have no choice about whether you’re a member of the Moral Agents Club: circumstances beyond your control have determined whether you are responsive to reasons and adhere to the social contract that makes you “morally responsible.” You might not have had the right upbringing, for instance.  Both Dan and Gregg agree, though, that strenuous prison reform is needed, and largely along similar lines. So to me, the debate either comes down to a difference in semantics or to an opacity of views on Dennett’s part that makes parsing his ideas very difficult.

But it’s great to see these two intellectual heavyweights slug it out. There are no knockouts, but I judge Caruso the winner on points.  And I have to do some thinking about deterrence. Right now I still think that deterrence is a valid aim of punishment.

Regardless of whether you’re a compatibilist or a free-will skeptic (or somewhere in the middle), this book will stimulate your thinking. Do read it if you’re interested in the free-will debate that’s occupied so much of our time. And I really do wish that we could have more debates like this: real back-and-forth conversations in more or less real time. That’s one reason I’m debating Adam Gopnik on whether science or its methods are the only way of gaining knowledge.

Oh, and after you read the book, you can vote on who you think made the best arguments; the voting site is here. Do not vote unless you’ve read the book!

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.

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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.