Robert Sapolsky’s new book on determinism

September 25, 2023 • 1:20 pm

Robert Sapolsky, a biological polymath who’s written several best-selling books, pointed out in earlier ones (like Behave) that he was a hard determinist, a view he reinforced on a Sci. Am. podcast—one of their rare positive contributions. Now, as I mentioned in February, his new book, totally about determinism, is about to come out—on October 17. You can order it by clicking on the screenshot below. It ain’t cheap at $31.50 for the hardcover, but I may have to dig down deep to get it–or order it from the library.

Here’s the Amazon summary, which implies that Sapolsky isn’t buying any of the compatibilism bullpucky:

Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, his now classic account of why humans do good and why they do bad, pointed toward an unsettling conclusion: We may not grasp the precise marriage of nature and nurture that creates the physics and chemistry at the base of human behavior, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Now, in Determined, Sapolsky takes his argument all the way, mounting a brilliant (and in his inimitable way, delightful) full-frontal assault on the pleasant fantasy that there is some separate self telling our biology what to do.

Determined offers a marvelous synthesis of what we know about how consciousness works—the tight weave between reason and emotion and between stimulus and response in the moment and over a life. One by one, Sapolsky tackles all the major arguments for free will and takes them out, cutting a path through the thickets of chaos and complexity science and quantum physics, as well as touching ground on some of the wilder shores of philosophy. He shows us that the history of medicine is in no small part the history of learning that fewer and fewer things are somebody’s “fault”; for example, for centuries we thought seizures were a sign of demonic possession. Yet, as he acknowledges, it’s very hard, and at times impossible, to uncouple from our zeal to judge others and to judge ourselves. Sapolsky applies the new understanding of life beyond free will to some of our most essential questions around punishment, morality, and living well together.By the end, Sapolsky argues that while living our daily lives recognizing that we have no free will is going to be monumentally difficult, doing so is not going to result in anarchy, pointlessness, and existential malaise. Instead, it will make for a much more humane world.

As I wrote in February based on this summary:

It’s clear from the summary that the “free will” Sapolsky’s attacking is dualistic or libertarian free will (“some separate self telling our biology what to do”). And although some readers think that kind of free will is passé, that everyone already rejects it, that’s wrong. I suspect those who say such things are compatibilists who don’t get out much.  According to surveys in four countries, most people accept libertarian free will, i.e., if you repeated an episode with everything exactly the same, a person could have decided or behaved differently. They also think that a naturalistic universe (or “deterministic” one, if you will) robs people of their moral responsibility. As I’ve long argued, yes, the concept of “moral” responsibility loses meaning in a naturalistic universe, but the concept of responsibility  (i.e., X did action Y) still makes a lot of sense, and that alone gives us justification for punishment—although non-retributive punishment.

If you doubt the pervasiveness of belief in dualistic free will, just look at religion: the Abrahamic religions and many other faiths are absolutely grounded in free will. They are, after all, predicated on you choosing the right religion and/or savior. This means that you do have a free choice, and woe be unto you if you choose wrong. (Calvinists or any religion that believes in “the elect” are exceptions.)

. . . So it goes. Back to Sapolksky. He espoused his determinism in Behave, but this is a full-length treatment, and a book I would like to have written. My main fear about the book was that Sapolsky would take the Dennett-ian stand towards free will, saying that we really have the only kind worth wanting, and downplaying the naturalism that, Dan believes (with other compatibilists), leaves us only one course of thought and action open at any one time. As I’ve argued, while hard determinism leads immediately to a discussion of the consequences for our world, how we judge others, and the justice system, compatibilism seems to me the “cheap way out,” reassuring us that we have free will and not going far beyond that—certainly not into the consequences of naturalism, which are many. It is the hard determinists, not the compatibilists, who follow the naturalistic conclusion to its philosophical conclusions.

The good news is that now when someone wants to understand determinism, I can just shut up and say, “Read Sapolsky’s book,” for I see no divergence between his views and mine (I’d also add Free Will by Sam Harris.) In the end—and I’ll get in trouble for this—I think compatibilists are semantic grifters. They’re really all determinists who want to find some way to convince people that they have a form of free will, even though they couldn’t have behaved other than how they did. This is the “little people’s” argument, not for religion but for philosophy. But in the end it’s the same: “People need religion/the notion of free will because without it, society could not flourish.” That, of course, is bogus. As long as we feel we make choices, even if intellectually we know we couldn’t have chosen otherwise, society will go on.  After all, I’m a hard determinist and yet I’m still alive, getting out of bed each morning. I don’t know what I’ll pick when I go to a restaurant, even though I know it’s determined right before I look at the menu.

Reader Tom Clark wrote a positive review of Sapolsky’s book on the Naturalism site. Click below to read it.

I’ll give just two of Clark’s quotes:

If free will is widely conceived as being opposed to determinism[1], it isn’t surprising that the latter is seen as a threat to responsibility, meaning, creativity, rationality, and other desiderata tied to our core notion of agency. If we’re fully caused to be who we are and do what we do, then it seems we’re merely biological robots, acting out a pre-ordained script; we don’t make real choices for which we might be praised or blamed.

Could you have done otherwise?

This is why Robert Sapolsky’s book Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will(link is external), is likely to ruffle more than a few feathers (although it will do so very entertainingly, see below). Following up on his earlier work Behave(link is external), Sapolsky, a behavioral biologist, is intent on making it clear to anyone who will listen that there is no escaping determinism if we’re serious about understanding ourselves: understanding how we got to be the exact persons we are and why our intentions and choices arise as they do. Moreover, as he takes pains to point out, indeterminism or randomness doesn’t help the cause of agency. After all, as deciders we want to determine our choices, not have them be subject to factors we don’t control. Strangely enough, therefore, determinism, construed commonsensically as the existence of reliable causal, and more broadly, explanatory connections between our desires, decisions, actions, and their effects on the world, seems a necessary condition of genuine agenthood. We really make choices, just not undetermined or arbitrary ones.

Well, the last sentence is a bit grifty given that “make choices” means, to most people, “we could have made other choices.” But I won’t quibble too much. The best part is that, according to Clark, Sapolsky has no truck with compatibilism:

The fight with compatibilists isn’t about determinism; compatibilists agree that we and our choices are in principle explicable by various determinants, not the causa sui. It’s rather about the relative importance assigned to determinism and its implications for moral responsibility and other beliefs, attitudes, and social practices informed by our conception of agency. Sapolsky argues that compatibilists tend to ignore the causal story behind an individual in order to fix our attention on agents and their capacities for rationality and reasons-responsiveness, capacities that compatibilists argue justify holding each other morally responsible.[8] Most of us are capable in these respects to varying degrees, but by downplaying determinism and the causal story, what Sapolsky calls taking the ahistorical stance, compatibilists in effect block access to the psychological and practical benefits of putting determinism front and center: increased compassion and more attention paid to the conditions that thwart human flourishing. Due to factors beyond our control too many of us end up with the short end of the stick when it comes to health, education, social skills, and employability. Sapolsky is especially critical of compatibilist Daniel Dennett, who has claimed that “luck averages out in the long run”. He responds in characteristically plain-spoken style:

No it doesn’t. Suppose you’re born a crack baby. In order to counterbalance this bad luck, does society rush in to ensure that you’ll be raised in relative affluence and with various therapies to overcome your neurodevelopmental problems? No, you are overwhelmingly likely to be born into poverty and stay there. Well then, says society, at least let’s make sure your mother is loving, is stable, has lots of free time to nurture you with books and museum visits. Yeah, right; as we know your mother is likely to be drowning in the pathological consequences of her own miserable luck in life, with a good chance of leaving you neglected, abused, shuttled through foster homes. Well, does society at least mobilize then to counterbalance that additional bad luck, ensuring you live in a safe neighborhood with excellent schools? Nope, your neighborhood is likely to be gang-riddled and your school underfunded.

In arguing against compatibilists, Sapolsky engages with the philosophical literature, citing skeptics about free will and moral responsibility such as Neil Levy, Gregg Caruso, Derk Pereboom, and Sam Harris (see references below). Such backup suggests he is not completely crazy to think that a robust appreciation of determinism, and therefore the sheer contingency of our formative circumstances, should force reconsideration of our conceptions of credit, blame, reward, and punishment.

Clark’s final sentence:

[Sapolsky’s] persistence in seeing Determined to completion – a prodigious undertaking – is much to be congratulated, although he would disavow deserving any such praise. Even if he’s right about that, we’re still lucky to have him.

YES!  But read the rest for yourself. This is a book we can all benefit from (even those miscreants who accept libertarian free will or compatibilism), and I’m glad I can point to a respected polymath who makes an argument I agree with, but written much better than I’d be able to.

What I’d love to see: a debate about compatibilism between Dennett and Sapolsky.

Richard Dawkins on the “simplicity” of God

August 31, 2023 • 11:10 am

If you’re able to read the post below on Richard Dawkins’s Substack site, you get three treats in one. First, he reproduces a scathing review he wrote for the 1996 Sunday Times of London about theologian Richard Swinburne‘s book Is There a God? (The answer was “yes,” of course, and Swinburne’s god was a “simple” one.) Second, Richard re-discusses the topic based on a debate he had with Swinburne and other religionists this June about whether God was indeed “simple.” Finally, both segments are written in Richard’s inimitable clear and humorous style, and so you get the third treat of enjoying his prose. (I’d love to be able to write like him; Richard and Steve Pinker are my models for clear and absorbing writing.)

If you haven’t looked at Richard’s site, the following might be free to access. Click on it to try. If not, either subscribe or just read the quotes I’ll give below.

The book review begins with a funny rebuke:

It is a virtue of clear writing that you can see what is wrong with a book as well as what is right.  Richard Swinburne is clear.  You can see where he is coming from.  You can also see where he is going to, and there is something almost endearing in the way he lovingly stakes out his own banana skin and rings it about with converging arrows boldly labelled ‘Step here’.

Yep, he stepped there.

Swinburne claimed that God has many powers. For example, as Richard notes, the esteemed theologian thinks that God has to keep every physical particle in line, for without God’s continual intercession, every electron would willy-nilly assume different and diverse properties.

[Swinburne’s] reasoning is very odd indeed.  Given that the number of particles of any one type, say electrons, is large, Swinburne thinks it too much of a coincidence for so many to have the same properties.  One electron, he could stomach.  But billions and billions of electrons, all with the same properties, that is what really excites his incredulity.  For him it would be simpler, more natural, less demanding of explanation, if all electrons were different from each other.  Worse, no one electron should naturally retain its properties for more than an instant at a time, but would be expected to change capriciously, haphazardly and fleetingly from moment to moment.  That is Swinburne’s view of the simple, native state of affairs.  Anything more uniform (what you or I would call more simple) requires a special explanation.

. . . it is only because electrons and bits of copper and all other material objects have the same powers in the twentieth century as they did in the nineteenth century that things are as they are now” (p 42).

Enter God.  God comes to the rescue by deliberately and continuously sustaining the properties of all those billions of electrons and bits of copper, and neutralising their otherwise ingrained inclination to wild and erratic fluctuation.  That is why when you’ve seen one electron you’ve seen them all, that is why bits of copper all behave like bits of copper, and that is why each electron and each bit of copper stays the same as itself from microsecond to microsecond.  It is because God is constantly hanging on to each and every particle, curbing its reckless excesses and whipping it into line with its colleagues to keep them all the same.

Oh, and in case you wondered how the hypothesis that God is simultaneously keeping a billion fingers on a billion electrons can be a simple hypothesis, the reason is this.  God is only a single substance.  What brilliant economy of explanatory causes compared with all those billions of independent electrons all just happening to be the same!

Not only that, but besides looking after the gazillions of electrons in the Universe (not just on Earth), God has to monitor the behavior and thoughts of every individual, human or nonhuman, and has complete knowledge of all of them. As it says in Matthew 10:29:

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.

The review is delightful, especially if you like mockery of Sophisticated Theology™, and Richard ends it this way:

A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe is not going to be simple.  His existence is therefore going to need a modicum of explaining in its own right (it is often considered bad taste to bring that up, but Swinburne does rather ask for it by pinning his hopes on the virtues of simplicity).  Worse (from the point of view of simplicity) other corners of God’s giant consciousness are simultaneously preoccupied with the doings and emotions and prayers of every single human being.  He even, according to Swinburne, has to decide continuously not to intervene miraculously to save us when we get cancer.  That would never do, for, “If God answered most prayers for a relative to recover from cancer, then cancer would no longer be a problem for humans to solve.”  And then where would we be?

If this is theology, perhaps Professor Swinburne’s colleagues are wise to be less lucid.

I feel like applauding when I read stuff like that.

After this, Richard quotes how theologians and believers went after him for his claim in the debate that God must be complex (his definition of “complex” is below), and that if you really understood theology, you’d know that its practitioners mean “simple” in a way different from both scientists and laypeople.

In the debate, Swineburne stood by his claim that God was simple, so the existence of God isn’t really a problem. (The “complexity” of any god would demand an explanation of how such a vastly complicated deity came about, an explanation that theologians aren’t prepared to give, as they don’t have one—except perhaps to claim “it’s gods all the way down”.)

In a loud, confident, articulate voice, Swinburne expounded exactly the same astonishing line as before, and I criticized it in the same terms. How can you possibly say God is a “simple”, “unitary” explanation for the universe and the laws of physics, given that, in order to create it, he needed to know a whole lot of physics and mathematics.  Plus, 4.6 billion years later, he now has the bandwidth to read the intimate thoughts of seven billion of people simultaneously, and, for all we know, the thoughts and prayers of even more billions of extra-terrestrial aliens.

It didn’t surprise me that Swinburne still thinks God is a supremely simple entity. He evidently uses the word “simple” in a special theological sense. What does surprise me is the number of others incapable of seeing the absurdity of his position. Several Twitter responses to the debate proudly proclaim “Divine Simplicity” as a thing in theology. But you can’t demonstrate that something is right merely by shoving the word “Divine” in front of it, not even if you attribute it to Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. What is the justification for invoking “Divine Simplicity in this context? Does it even mean anything coherent?

And then Dawkins explains what he means by simplicity and complexity, which is the same way scientists (and everyone else, if they could articulate it) understands complexity. It’s a nonmathematical version of “Shannon information.”  Here I have to give a longish quote:

Here’s what I mean by simple. I suspect it captures what most biologists mean, if not most scientists. It can be quantified using an intuitive, verbal version of Shannon’s mathematical measure of information. Simple is the opposite of complex. The complexity or simplicity of an entity is the minimum number of words (more strictly bits – binary digits in the most economical re-coding) you need to describe it. A centipede and a lobster both consist of a train of segments running from front to rear. The centipede is simpler than the lobster, in the following sense. To describe the centipede, you admittedly need a special description of the front and rear segments, but the many segments in between are the same as each other. Just describe one segment, and then say “Repeat repeat repeat . . . some large number of times” (it might literally be 100 times in some species.) But you can’t do that with the lobster because most of the segments are different from each other. If you were to write a book called The Anatomy of the Centipede and another book called the Anatomy of the Lobster, the second book would come out a lot fatter. Assuming, of course, that the two books go into a similar level of detail, which is an easy assumption to police.

From this you can see that simplicity/complexity is measured not just by number of parts but also by what Julian Huxley called “heterogeneity of parts”. And we have to add that the heterogeneous parts themselves, and the way they are connected up, are necessary to the definition of the entity concerned. Any old heap of junk has a large number of heterogenous parts but neither they, nor their particular juxtaposition, are necessary to the general definition of “a heap of junk”. You can shuffle the parts of a  heap of junk a million times, and all million will answer to the definition of a heap of junk. The heterogenous parts of a lobster, and their mutual arrangement, are necessary to the definition of a lobster. So they are to the definition of a centipede, but fewer of them are different from each other, and you can shuffle (most of them) into any order.

There’s more, but I’ll just give some funny bits in the form of social media rebukes Richard got (in italics) and his answers (in plain text):

“Richard, stop embarrassing yourself. Stick to science.

With all due respect – and I have a lot of respect for you – watching you switch lanes from science to philosophy is like watching Michael Jordan switch to baseball.”

I’ve become ever so slightly irritated by the suggestion that you need some sort of special training to think clearly. Philosophy is just thinking clearly. Does one not need to think clearly to do science? Or history? Or any subject worth studying. Perhaps not theology, where thinking clearly might even be a handicap.

and this:

For evolution’s sake stop trying to do theology.”

I am not trying to do theology, not least because I have grave doubts as to whether theology is a subject at all (I don’t in any way impugn the fascinating work done in university Departments of Theology on the Dead Sea scrolls, comparing ancient Hebrew texts, and similar honest scholarship). I’m talking about theology in the (I suspect but could be wrong) obscurantist sense epitomised by “Transubstantiation” and the “Mystery” of  the Eucharist, the “Mystery” of the Trinity, the “Mystery” of the Incarnation, and “Divine Simplicity”.

I am not trying and failing to do theology, Swinburne is trying and failing to do science. The question of why all electrons and all copper atoms behave as others of their kind do is a purely scientific question.  And the question of why we exist, which was the topic of the London debate, is fairly and squarely a scientific question. It is possible that science will never ultimately solve it, though I think it will, and the possibility of failure is no reason to give up without making the effort. But if science doesn’t solve it, no other discipline will.

And, finally, this:

“Stick to biology.”

Thank you, I intend to. Biology uses language honestly and solves real problems. In 2,000 years, what problem has ever been solved by theology?

In that short last sentence, Richard sums up what I try to say in my lecture on the incompatibility of religion and science. There I talk about all the scientific advances in just the last century, and then ask this: “How much more do we know about the nature and will of God since the writings of Augustine or Aquinas?”  The answer, of course is “nothing”, for theology is not a discipline in which one can investigate and test various propositions.  We still know nothing about God—least of all whether He/She/It even exists.

h/t: Daniel

PEN America highlights attacks from the Left on books

August 30, 2023 • 10:00 am

The recent “cancellation” of my children’s book about an Indian man and his cats—with the sole reason given that I couldn’t write about India because I was white—has made me extra sensitive to the absurdity of a lot of cancellations based on such claims of “cultural appropropriation.”  Now of course it’s possible to write an ignorant and demeaning book about another culture, and publishers don’t have to put out every book they get; but I plead not guilty to cultural appropriation, and, indeed, most of the examples given by Cathy Young below are cultural appropriation of the right type: the enrichment of cultures by incorporating material from other cultures.

The “sin” of cultural appropriation goes only one way, of course: you are not allowed to “write down.” That is, members of nonminority groups (read: white people, especially men) are not allowed to write about minority groups, even if those groups are not oppressed or the subject isn’t oppression.  But the reverse action—members of minority groups writing about dominant groups—seems perfectly fine. This I don’t understand. If members of one culture supposedly can’t understand members of another, or treat their issues with sensitivity, then the ban should go both ways.  Why is it okay if someone from India writes about an American man who owns sweet shops and takes in stray cats?

Thus the new post by the estimable Cathy Young (click the screenshot below to read, but subscribe if you read regularly)—about a new PEN America report on freedom to write and publish—struck home. The theme, according to Young (I haven’t read the PEN report) is the suppression of literature deemed harmful (often because of “cultural appropriation”), an action taken mostly by the Left. The Right gets rid of books they find offensive by simply banning them from libraries or removing them, but what the Left does, preventing publication of books in the first place, can be seen as more harmful. For in the latter case, the book simply isn’t available to anyone.

Many of these campaigns are fueled by social-media pile-ons, often by people who haven’t read the book they damn. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll give quotes from Young about the tactics of the Left and some chilling examples of how they’ve worked.

First, what’s going on (Young’s text is indented).

WHETHER THERE EXISTS in American culture a left-wing illiberalism that threatens freedom of thought and expression under the cover of social justice has been a subject of heated debate in the past decade. At a time when right-wing authoritarian populism is on the rise, many people have viewed warnings about illiberal progressivism as a distraction. Liberal and centrist critiques of leftist intolerance, from the Harper’s magazine “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in the summer of 2020 to prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum’s Atlantic essay on “the new Puritans” the following year, have been met with purported debunkings and derided as moral panic or whining from people who don’t like to be criticized.

Now, a major liberal institution that has championed freedom of expression for over a century—PEN America, formerly PEN American Center and part of PEN International, the writers’ association whose notable figures have included John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood—has issued a lengthy report that strongly comes down on the side of taking illiberal progressivism seriously.

Booklash: Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and the Language of Harm, written by the PEN America research team with a trenchant introduction by playwright Ayad Akhtar titled “In Defense of the Literary Imagination,” is a thorough examination of the chilly climate in publishing and the issues and controversies that have created it. Booklash is particularly valuable because PEN America really cannot be accused of having a right-leaning or even centrist bias: the organization enthusiastically champions racial and gender diversity and has strongly denounced censorship moves from the right, such as red-state policies facilitating school library book removals.

Indeed, the report acknowledges the context of rising right-wing authoritarianism but unabashedly, and correctly, stresses that this context makes it more important to acknowledge troubling illiberal trends on the left. . .

Booklash isn’t too long, and should be read, as should its appendix or companion piece, the famous and short “Freedom to Read” statement adopted in 1953 by the American Library Association and the Association of American Publishers. (It’s been amended in the version Young gives, but I’ve linked to the original.) It’s a passionate endorsement of the duty of publishers to put out books espousing all viewpoints, even if many people find them offensive, and the duty of organizations to avoid censoring or banning as taboo those views they don’t like.

But back to Young.  Here are only a few of the examples she and the PEN report give of attempts to ban “offensive” views:

*Online hate campaigns directed at books deemed “problematic” for one reason or another have resulted in books being killed when already in the final stages of publication. A prominent recent example, from this past spring, comes from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. After she announced on June 6 that her next book, The Snow Forest, would come out early next year, it was strafed with one-star review bombs. Its attackers were outraged that a book set in Russia was coming out at a time when Russia is waging a brutal war of aggression in Ukraine. Never mind that it’s not a present-day story: The novel is a partly fact-based tale of a Soviet-era family fleeing into the woods to escape religious persecution. By June 12, Gilbert had had enough: She released a video saying that she was indefinitely “removing the book from its publication schedule.”

*. . . OTHER BOOKS, AS BOOKLASH DETAILS, were not literally canceled but endured some degree of suppression. Initial positive reviews in key industry outlets such as Kirkus Reviews have been downgraded; books have been rewritten under pressure; book tours have been canceled, as in the case of Jeanine Cummins’s bestselling 2020 novel American Dirt, a sympathetic treatment of Mexican migrants that was savaged as exploitative “trauma porn.” Aside from the impact on the targeted authors (Cummins seems to have completely withdrawn from public life), there is also the larger chilling effect on publishing. In the case of American Dirt, the report said, “Despite the book’s commercial success, the episode left many within the literary world with the impression that books perceived to trespass across racial or cultural lines could be risky and undesirable.” Indeed, the report cites conversations with authors and editors who would speak only on conditions of anonymity to describe this overall climate of intimidation as well specific incidents in which books were canceled or revised.

*In 2018, the Nation issued an abject apology for publishing a white poet writing in the voice of a black homeless woman. The poem was allowed to stay up, but underneath a contrite statement that read, remarked Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, “like a letter from re-education camp.”

*In June 2020, the young adult novel Ember Days by Alexandra Duncan was at the center of a bizarre drama with two layers of cancellation. First, the novel was withdrawn at Duncan’s request because of complaints about chapters written from the perspective of a woman with Gullah Geechee heritage (African Americans from the Lowcountry regions of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida). Then, Publishers’ Weekly removed its story about the book’s withdrawal because of complaints that the story had led to “online abuse” toward Duncan’s chief critic, novelist Bethany Morrow, and replaced it with an apology and a pledge to ensure that “our articles will not cause harm in the future.” Obviously, the PEN America report couldn’t cover every such episode without massive sprawl, but these examples seem remarkable enough to merit a mention.

*Novelist, journalist, and Bulwark contributor Richard North Patterson recently wrote about the dispiriting experience of having his novel Trial “rejected by roughly 20 imprints of major New York publishers” despite having 16 New York Times bestsellers to his name. According to Patterson, many of the rejections came with glowing compliments but bluntly stated that the problem was race: the novel deals with racial injustice, and Patterson is white. (Trial was eventually published by a small press.)

There are many more examples, but you get the gist, and I bet you’ve heard of some of these before, like the American Dirt fracas described by Young in greater detail.

Now Young notes that the PEN America report, while conveying a strong message, is somewhat diluted by its occasional tendency to “balance their defense of intellectual freedom with their commitment to the values of social justice, bending over backwards to accommodate the latter.” While it’s okay to give a nod towards social justice, the “Freedom to read” mantra should extend to defending publication of all viewpoints, including those inimical to current versions of social justice.

Here’s Young’s indictment of the greater harm done by the Left than by the Right in censoring books. First, a quote from Jonah Winter, a children’s-book author who has been censored:

As [Winter] put it in a Dallas Morning News column:

Book-banning, the “cancel culture” of the right, doesn’t hurt a book or an author.

What hurts a book or an author is the far more effective cancel culture of the left, by which I mean the small but vocal subsection of illiberal ideologues who’ve commandeered both liberalism in general and the publishing world specifically, often using their power to attack well-meaning authors in the form of social media pile-ons and the resulting cancellations, both of which I’ve experienced.

And I’ll add this since it hits home: one of Winter’s books that was banned was a respectful biography of the great baseball player and humanitarian Roberto Clemente, outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates (I saw him play at Forbes Field), who died at 38 in the crash of a plane bringing relief to earthquake-devastated Managua, Nicaragua. Winter says this:

I’ve had two book contracts canceled because of my identity in relation to the subject matter. I am a white man. The irony of the big to-do being made over the banning of my Clemente book by conservative activists is that, were I to try and publish that exact same book today, I would not be able to get it published because of progressive activists.

And from Young:

There is another factor as well. When attacks on literary works come from the right, they are typically counteracted not only by progressive activists but by institutions that act as guardians of culture: public schools and teachers’ unions, libraries, universities, publishers, the mainstream media. When the attacks are from the left, the same institutions typically offer no objections, or even collude.

So what’s the solution? First, we have to recognize that if you’re on the Left like me, you have to indict your own side for this kind of ludicrous and harmful censorship. The cure begins with recognition, and that’s what PEN America has done.  Young also notes that Booklash has recommendations like preventing book-review websites like Goodreads from going after books that haven’t been read, or damning them on flimsy grounds. And publishers should issue “formal statements of principles.” (This is desperately needed.)

Young closes by arguing correctly that being on the Left does not conflict with arguing for free expression in books, nor does condemnation of censorship trivialize the arguments of social-justice advocates. It’s merely a way to enact the First Amendment through publication, for books are one of the most effective ways to make and to vet arguments:

Such a shift [in the present Leftist illiberalism about publishing] must also include much greater willingness on the part of authors and publishers to stand up to pressures, particularly when it’s a matter of just a few voices denouncing alleged bigotry and “harm” in works the vast majority of people from the supposedly injured group do not see as offensive. But this would also require challenging a key tenet of social justice progressivism: the belief that even to dispute a claim of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. is in itself “problematic,” and in most cases actively harmful. Such claims must be examined skeptically, especially when suppression of speech or other expression is at stake.

Pushing back against left-wing illiberalism in publishing need not entail a general dismissiveness toward the existence of racial or gender-based injustice and prejudice in American culture, particularly given the recent rise of overt white supremacism, misogyny, and homophobia on the far right and their seepage into more mainstream right-wing discourse. What it does mean, though, is understanding that “canceling” books and authors for transgressing progressive moral codes does nothing to counteract injustice and prejudice. Instead, it inhibits and silences important conversations and trivializes the very evils it supposedly protests.

h/t: Steve

On Helen Joyce’s “Trans”

August 27, 2023 • 9:45 am

I’ve now finished Helen Joyce‘s 2021 book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, and I recommend it to everyone as a perceptive analysis of the growing transactivism in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.  Of course Joyce has been deemed “transphobic” for defending reserving some spaces for biological women only (sports, rape crisis centers, prisons, etc.), but she doesn’t hate trans people at all: she’s sympathetic to the plight of those with gender dysphoria or who have suffered after transition, and wants to curtail trans “rights” only insofar as they impinge on women-only spaces (see above).

Wikipedia summarizes the book’s reviews, and the majority are positive (a surprising admissing by Wikipedia), although of course you can expect some criticism from the woke, from trans activists, and from those who, while positive, have found some issues with the book.  Here are some excerpts from Jesse Singal’s review in the NYT in 2021, just to give a flavor of the last category:

There is a difference between believing in “trans rights” and believing in “gender-identity ideology.” That’s the subtly important distinction that fuels Helen Joyce’s “Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality,” a book that offers an intelligent, thorough rejoinder to an idea that has swept across much of the liberal world seemingly overnight.

Singal then summarizes the book (see the video interview mentioned below that can also serve as a summary), and is favorable, but I’d be remiss not to mention his criticismsas well:

. . . So Joyce’s arguments are convincing. But here and there, I found myself wishing for a bit more nuance. For example, she leans heavily on the so-called desistance literature showing that childhood gender dysphoria often abates in time, but she doesn’t explain that some activists and academics have challenged its validity. These challenges happen to be overblown — my position is much closer to Joyce’s — but they warrant mention. It isn’t that some trans activists “forget that the majority of children will desist” if they don’t socially transition, as Joyce puts it — it’s that they deny that this is the case altogether. It’s important to render one’s opponents’ arguments as accurately as possible.

Similarly, in a section about the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s guidelines for treating gender dysphoria, Joyce writes: “New standards of care are being drawn up as I write. But I see no reason to expect any turn back from ideology and towards evidence.” My own reporting suggests things are more complicated than that, at least when it comes to the child and adolescent guidelines: The subcommittees responsible for writing those sections include a number of clinicians who openly share some of Joyce’s concerns and who think the climate surrounding youth transition is trending toward recklessness. Joyce’s narrative of radical activists having nearly routed sober-minded scientists is a bit too tidy, in this case.

“Trans” is also very thin on citations — this might seem like nit-picking, but in a book so focused on in-the-weeds political and scientific controversies of a morally supercharged nature, it isn’t. And it’s a small point, but Joyce repeatedly calls Martine Rothblatt, a famous transgender woman and entrepreneur, a “billionaire,” even though she doesn’t appear to be quite so wealthy.

Yes, references are thin (and there are no footnotes or citations), and there’s no index, which I found annoying. Nevertheless, I recommend the book highly as an introduction to the “unwoke but sympathetic” side of the debate, and Singal finishes his review this way:

In context, though, these are fairly minor shortcomings. “Trans” is a compelling, overdue argument for viewing self-ID more critically. Even those outraged by Joyce’s positions would benefit from understanding them, given that, as she notes, self-ID polls quite poorly when its actual tenets are fully described to Americans and to the British. The present situation, in which liberal institutions not only embrace these ideas unquestioningly but also, increasingly, punish dissidents, is unsustainable. Open conversation about such fraught issues is the only realistic path forward, and Joyce’s book offers a good, impassioned start.

As I always say, even if you’re opposed to an ideological position, you’re remiss if you don’t read the best arguments for that position. And though I agree with most of what Joyce says, those who don’t should still read her book.

I want to give one long quote from the book that struck me as I read it this weekend.  In the excerpt below, Joyce discusses why three other movements for minority rights—gay liberation and same-sex marriage, women’s rights, and civil rights for American blacks in the South—were slow in coming, and had to be built from the ground up, while the push for trans rights (Joyce argues that “transactivism is not a civil-rights movement at all”) is proceeding much more rapidly and becoming successful. Joyce claims that this is because well-meaning people simply don’t understand transactivism. Here’s a quote from page 224:

What same-sex marriage, women’s franchise and the end of segregation all have in common is that they extend the rights of a privileged group to everyone. And when people hear the phrase ‘trans rights’, they assume something similar is being demanded – that trans people be enabled to live without discrimination, harassment and violence, and to express themselves as they wish. Such goals are worthy ones, but they are not what mainstream transactivism is about. What campaigners mean by ‘trans rights’ is gender self-identification: that trans people be treated in every circumstance as members of the sex they identify with, rather than the sex they actually are.

This is not a human right at all. It is a demand that everyone else lose their rights to single-sex spaces, services and activities. And in its requirement that everyone else accept trans peoples’ subjective beliefs as objective reality, it is akin to a new state religion, complete with blasphemy laws. All this explains the speed. When you want new laws, you can focus on lobbying, rather than the painstaking business of building broad-based coalitions. And when those laws will take away other people’s rights, it is not only unnecessary to build public awareness – it is imperative to keep the public in the dark.

This stealthy approach has been central to transactivism for quite some time. In a speech in 2013, Masen Davis, then the executive director of the American Transgender Law Center, told supporters that “we have largely achieved our successes by flying under the radar. . . we do a lot really quietly. We have made some of our biggest gains that nobody has noticed. We are very quiet and thoughtful about what we do, because we want to make sure we have the win more than we want to have the publicity.”

The result is predictable. Even as one country after another introduces gender self-ID, very few voters know this is happening, let alone support it.

You can find more quotes from the book on GoodReads, or, if an entire book is too much for you, you can hear Joyce summarize many of her arguments in a video discussion with Richard Dawkins that I discussed a few days ago.

It is the demand for self-identification, which undergirds the insistence that trans people really do become complete members of the sex to which they transition (“trans women are women; trans men are men”), that has kept left-centrists like me from embracing the entire transactivist agenda. (Another stumbling block is the movement’s insistence that biological sex is arbitrary and not binary.)

Trans women, for instance, are not identical to biological women, who can get pregnant, have periods, and are usually fertile. (Trans women often become sterile when they transition medically.) Nor, if they’ve gone through male puberty before transitioning, are trans women equivalent to biological women in athletic ability, which is why in most sports they shouldn’t be allowed to compete with biological women.  And trans women tend to retain not only the strength of biological men, but also their aggressive and often their sexual proclivities, which make it dicey at best to put them into women’s prisons or rape-crisis shelters.

But I hasten to add that these curbs on “trans rights” are few and intended only to ensure the right of biological women to be safe and unthreatened. (This includes the right of women in changing rooms to not have to be confronted by transwomen with penises.) In all other ways trans rights should be guaranteed, and, in my view, trans people should be addressed in the manner they wish.

As far as “stealthy approaches” go, how many people know that the Biden administration has enacted policies that prohibit some bans on transgender athletes (including trans women) from competing against biological women in public school athletics, though the policy (which, I believe, defines “transgender” on the basis of pure self-identification) has a provision for bans to ensure fairness?

Under the Education Department’s proposed rule, no school or college that receives federal funding would be allowed to impose a “one-size-fits-all” policy that categorically bans trans students from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity. Such policies would be considered a violation of Title IX.

Still, the proposal leaves room for schools to develop team eligibility rules that could ultimately result in restrictions around trans athletes’ participation.

That would be allowed only if it serves “important educational objectives,” such as fairness in competition and reduction of injury risks.

Any limits would have to consider the sport, the level of competition and the age of students. Elementary school students would generally be allowed to participate on any teams consistent with their gender identity, for example. More competitive teams at high schools and colleges could add limits, but those would be discouraged in teams that don’t have tryouts or cuts.

That’s better than nothing, but in my view the ban should, on the ground of fairness, be total for people who have gone through puberty. And it’s not clear whether schools, under strong pressure from transactivists and organizations like the ACLU, would really enact such bans. Given the sciencitifc data, these bans, especially for post-puberty transwomen competing against biological women, should be absolute. Even for trans people who go beyond pure self-identification and have had medical treatment, data show that they retain most of the athletic advantages accrued during male puberty, and thus shouldn’t compete against biological women.  The public largely agrees with this, but, as noted above, a lot of transactivism occurs below the radar, or in the face of public ignorance.

What about “self identification”? Should a trans woman who simply says they’re a woman without medical intervention immediately accrue all the rights of biological women, including the right to change clothes in a locker room?  Joyce discusses this issue and what kind of interventions, if any, might allow a trans person to be recognized as a “woman”. These are issues that we all need to be thinking about, especially given the recent explosion of youngsters and adolescents identifying as members of their non-natal sex (gender dysphoria is now far more common among females than males).

Finally, I have to call out the ACLU, once my favorite civil-rights organization, for consistently being on the side of self-identification of trans people in cases that involve spaces that should be reserved for biological women. This includes the ACLU’s attacks on laws in both Idaho and Connecticut that allow self-identified trans women—biological men who have had no medical treatment—to compete against biological women in secondary-school sports. What has gotten into the mind of the ACLU that makes them argue that a biological male can accrue the rights of women simply by declaring a change of gender? Surely they must recognize that by defending such males, they are impinging on the rights of biological women?

Click on the image to go to the Amazon site for the book, where it gets 4½ stars. Frankly, that high review surprised me, as I would have thought that trans activists would have damned the book:

My children’s book about India was rejected because I’m white

August 25, 2023 • 10:00 am

As you may recall, several years ago I wrote a children’s book called Mr. Das and his Fifty Cats. In 2022, I mentioned it (and my travails finding a home for it) here, where I gave a brief description:

“Mr. Das and his 50 cats”  [is] a fictional work that is actually based heavily on a real person: Birendra Das, one of India’s most famous sweetmakers (his business, K. C. Das and company, is famous in Kolkata).  I stayed with Mr. Das in Bangalore (now called “Bengaluru”) to do “field work” observing his life and his cats, and found that he indeed had around fifty cats, whose names I learned. Around these facts—and the knowlege that Mr. Das took all of those cats in as strays—I wove a fictional tale about the cats invading the factory in times of famine and eating all the milk, cream, and yogurt. (Indian sweets are heavily laden with sugar and dairy products.) The story of how that led to the closure of Mr. Das’s sweet business, and then how the cats fixed the situation in the end, is the subject of my book.

I quite liked the story, as did others, including parents of small children and school teachers to whom I vetted the book (the story is meant for kids from about first to fourth grades).  I got a lot of good suggestions before it arrived at its final incarnation.

Eventually, on the advice of my agent (who doesn’t handle non-science books),  I sent the manuscript to a well known agent in England, who worked with a very famous illustrator. They both liked the book a lot and agreed to provide illustrations, which, given the fame of the illustrator, would almost guarantee publication.

I got a few illustrations, but then: radio silence. This lasted for months, and every six months I’d email to ask what was going on.  I’d get some reply that finding a publisher was still in the works.  Then, more radio silence.  This went on for several years, and I grew increasingly depressed.

Sensing that some of the delay was due to a common issue—a white guy writing about an Indian scenario—I asked my Indian friend who had introduced me to Mr. Das to write a brief preface for the book describing Mr. Das and promoting the story.  That, I thought, would defuse any notions of “cultural appropriation” that might arise. I also had Mr. Das write (through his nephew, since Mr. Das doesn’t speak or write English very well) giving his permission for me to publish the book.  That made me very happy because Mr. Das is in his mid-eighties and I wanted this remarkable man to see the book about him appear before he passed on. I wanted people to know about Mr. Das and his overweening love of animals. His life and actions are absolutely unique—and heartwarming.

I emphasize again that everyone who read the book (though without illustrations) seemed to like it. The delays seemed to be due to other reasons.

Yesterday I found out that this intuition was right: I was guilty of cultural appropriation, and so the book wasn’t even shown to publishers by the agent. I got this email, which I’ve redacted to omit names and identities. It was also copied to the illustrator. I have bolded the sentence that hurts:

Dear Jerry,

I am so sorry for the silence on my end.  This has been a painful and difficult situation.

I was concerned that you and ILLUSTRATOR’S NAME REDACTED (who has already had an issue with a book cancelled for reasons that had nothing to do with [his/her] wonderful work, but everything to do with our current publishing culture) would be seen as creators trying to appropriate another culture.  I’m sure you’re aware that this is an enormous issue in book publishing these days, and it has only become bigger since you sent me this book.

Over the last year or so, I showed it to several people in the business who all felt it was not a good idea for white authors to be writing about this character in this time and place. 

I was at a loss as to how to tell you this and I am deeply, deeply sorry that I allowed my anxieties to keep me from being honest with you sooner.  To be clear, I did not submit it to publishers, but asked opinions of others in the children’s book world.  Thus, if you wish to approach other agents, you can honestly say that this book has not been submitted to editors, which gives you a better shot if you find an agent with a vision for how to get it published.



So the book wasn’t even vetted to publishers because I’m white. I emphasize again that Mr. Das and his Fifty Cats is a humorous, and affectionate book, respectful towards both Mr. Das and Indian culture, which I love. But in fiction these days—particularly young adult and children’s fiction—you can’t write about one culture if you belong to another.  Mr. Das is Indian and I am white: that’s all publishers need to know to reject a book. The contents, apparently, don’t matter.

Now I don’t blame the agent, as he/she is working commercially, and if a book won’t sell because it involves “cultural appropriation,” why even show it to publishers? (Though I thought it should have been vetted.) But because of this misguided and toxic climate of “cultural appropriation,” readers will never get to learn about Mr. Das, who is portrayed as the real, empathic person he is, though the part about his cats is fictional. (Can one culturally appropriate Indian cats?)

So I’m quite down about all this, and I also think about all the great books of the past—both adult and children’s fiction—that wouldn’t have been published had they been vetted for “cultural appropriation.”  It hurts doubly because not only do I think that cultures are enriched by appropriation, but also because that ludicrous sanction was applied to me.

Now I do think that giving harder looks to books by minority authors is a good thing—an idea that’s developed in the last decade as we realize that the work of these authors may have been unfairly overlooked.  But that’s not the same thing as rejecting books about one culture written by authors from another. If those books are disrespectful of that culture, then yes, they shouldn’t be published. But mine wasn’t.

I posting this for three reasons. First, I want to publicize what’s going on in young-adult and children’s fiction these days. Second, I wanted to show how it affected me in particular (I worked very hard for two years to write a children’s book). If the book had been rejected because it was bad, well, that’s one thing. But it was rejected (or not sent on to publishers) simply because of my skin color. There is nothing disrespectful about India or Indians in it.

Finally, I’m hoping there is someone out there willing to take the chance on publishing, or helping publish, this book. I am proud of it and don’t want to give up, especially in these circumstances. All I ask is that people don’t tell me to self-publish the book, as it needs an illustrator (illustrators are usually chosen by publishers after a book is accepted), and that would be hard (and expensive) to find.

It’s ironic that an Indian author would, I believe, have no trouble writing a story about an American who took care of fifty cats, but the reverse situation is considered racist or bigoted.  This situation needs to change.  While we do need to consider the work of minority authors more carefully, that doesn’t mean that books should be rejected solely on the grounds of “cultural appropriation”. Such as the tenor or our times.

Or, as Vonnegut wrote, “so it goes.”

Audiobook of “Faith Versus Fact” available at a deep discount

August 25, 2023 • 9:00 am

My second trade book: Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, is now available in the audio version for a deep discount: only $6.80 (regularly $16.99).  To get it, click on the screenshot below and then, to avoid subscribing to a book club, follow the instructions below.

First, go to the site below by clicking on the screenshot below or here.

Then click on the blue button: “get discount”.

Once clicking the blue button, you will get this message:

Then click View Cart and you are taken to the checkout page, where you will see the discounted title in your cart:

Ignore the icon below; you have not joined a book club, though you can if you want by clicking on “learn more”. Otherwise, forget this bit:

Once you click Begin Secure Checkout, you enter your credit card information and complete the purchase, at which point youy will own the audiobook and are not signed up for any subscription:

Now’s your chance to find out why science and religion are NOT compatible, and for mere pennies on the dollar!

Book recommendation and brief review: “Inside Story” by Martin Amis

August 21, 2023 • 12:30 pm

UPDATE: The first reader’s comment below tells me what I didn’t know: that Amis himself died in May of this year. I had no idea. But of course it was esophageal cancer, a common result of excess drinking and smoking.


Before I went on my Galápagos trip, a friend sent me this book, knowing of my love of Christopher Hitchens. It turned out to be an excellent read, and one that I want to recommend to readers.

Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site:

Although the book is called a “novel,” I doubt there’s much in it that’s fiction. Perhaps a name or two have been changed, but everything else rings true, and corresponds to what I know.

I’ve never read anything by Martin Amis before (now “Sir Martin,” he’s the son of the famous writer Kingsley Amis), but I do have an autographed novel of his given to me by another friend. It’s also well known that he was the best mate of Christopher Hitchens. They were born within a few months of each other in 1949, also my own birth year. Hitch, of course, died at the ungodly early age of 62; booze and smokes had taken their toll.

The book is about many things: the nature of prose and poetry, advice on how to write, a memoir (heavy on sex and girlfriends) and, above all, a recounting of the life and death of three of Amis’s literary friends: Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, and, of course, Christopher Hitchens. It thus has an episodic structure: after you read a chapter on, say Phoebe Phelps (a pseudonym for one of Amis’s greatest loves, and a striking character), you immediately transition to a chapter on what words and phrases you shouldn’t use while writing, even as a layperson.  This structure is not jarring, for it’s a summing up of what Amis sees was important in his life (he avers that, given his age, this will likely be his last novel).

Above all, the book is about death, and the waning of literary power as one grows older. We see Larkin dying of throat cancer, his esophagus removed, Bellow slowly losing it in a battle with Alzheimer’s that he cannot win, and Hitchens, who also died of throat cancer after repeated bouts of radiation, chemotherapy, and proton therapy.  The dying/death scenarios are long, occupying multiple chapters, and are somewhat depressing, but that’s the theme of the book. (Well, the real theme is what writers can leave behind when they die.)

There’s a final chapter on the death of each of the three principals, called “The Poet” (Larkin), “The Novelist” (Saul Bellow) and “The Essayist” (Hitchens). Readers will be most interested in Hitch, whose medical travails are described in gruesome detail.  But you have to hand it to the man—he never kvetched or complained about dying, even though he knew (especially near the end) that he was on the way out.  Amis and six others kept watch for eight hours over Hitchens in the hospital as, comatose with pneumonia, his blood pressure dropped and then his heart stopped.

This is the most complete description of Hitchens’s death, and it also gives his two last whispered words, which you won’t find anywhere else. They were these: “Capitalism. . . . downfall.”

The sad atmosphere of the book is leavened by Amis’s conclusion (there are two postludes after it), which is that great writers are great because they are infused with the love of life—the ability to see in everyday things the wonder that most of us miss. That may sound trite, but Amis tells it with panache. Some final excerpts:

Writers take nothing for granted. See the world with ‘your original eyes”, “your first heart”, but don’t play the child, don’t play the innocent—don’t examine an orange like a caveman toying with an iPhone. You know more than that, you know better than that. The world you see out there is ulterior: it is other than what is obvious or admitted.

He then goes on to show how Nabokov (another writer much discussed by Amis), Bellow, Larkin, and Hitchens saw the world like this because they were in love with life, which makes their deaths even sadder. One more excerpt:

Saul Bellow was a phenomenon of love; he loved the world in such a way that his readers reciprocated and loved him in return. The same goes for Philip Larkin, but more lopsidedly; the world loved him and he loved the world in his way (he certainly didn’t want to leave it), but so far as I can tell he didn’t love a single one of its inhabitants (except, conceivably, my wholly unfrightening mother: “without being in the least pretty” she was, he wrote in his last letter “the most beautiful woman I have ever seen”). Anyway, the love transaction has always operated, to various degrees, with each and every repeatedly published novelist and poet. With essayists, the love transaction was more or less unknown until Christopher Hitchens came along—until he came along, and then went away again.

This is literature’s dewy little secret. Its energy is the energy of love. All evocations of people, places, animals, objects, feelings, concepts, landscapes, seascapes, and cloudscapes: all such evocations are in spirit amorous and celebratory. Love gets put into the writing, and love gets taken out. . . .

Take that for what you will, as it may reflect Amis’s own amatory propensities.  There’s no doubt, though, that Hitch had a great gusto for life. But what’s certain is that writers, like painters, see the world in ways that we peons don’t, and so, when they’re apparently doing nothing—just thinking or observing—they’re actually doing the hard work that gets transformed into art.

Others, like the Guardian reviewer above, may not like the book, but it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, gets many stars on Amazon, and got starred reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist.  So I’m not alone in recommending it.

By the way, Hitchens should have won a Pulitzer Prize for his essays, but he never did.

Here’s a picture of Amis and Hitch (note “Mr. Walker’s amber restorative” and the cigarettes) from a tepid review of the book in The Guardian.

(Caption from The Guardian). Remembered table talk, in particular with Hitchens, is routinely granted Socratic weight’: Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens in Cape Cod, 1975. Photograph: Christopher Hitchens

UPDATE: I just found this review in the NYT, which is mixed but largely positive. A long excerpt:

Don’t be baffling, don’t be indigestible, he warns the young writer. Exercise moderation when writing about dreams, sex and religion. Be a good host to your readers.

It’s sound advice. Why doesn’t he take it?

“Inside Story” is rife with dreams, sex fantasies and maundering meditations on Jewishness, a longstanding obsession. The book feels built to baffle. It is an orgy of inconsistencies and inexplicable technical choices. Why are some characters referred to by their real names (Amis’s friends, for example) and others given pseudonyms (his wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca, is referred to by her middle name, Elena)? What is the logic behind the sudden shifts into the “loincloth” of the third person? Why does a writer who, on one page, excoriates Joseph Conrad for cliché, for the sin of “in the twinkling of an eye,” so blandly deploy “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” — and worse? What … is … the point … of the … insane … amount … of ellipses?

[The ellipses are explained by Amis as mimicking the pauses in most people’s conversations, and this book, if anything, is a conversation between Amis and the reader, beginning with an invitation to come inside, sit down, and have a drink. I quite like the conversational style. This is NOT your conventional novel!]

The review continues, and this part should make you want to read the book:

Most maddening of all, “Inside Story” also includes some of Amis’s best writing to date.

The sections on Bellow and Larkin, about whom he’s written exhaustively, are warm and familiar. There are scenes of the disorientation of their last days, of Bellow compulsively watching “Pirates of the Caribbean.” He’s a very brave boy, he’d say of Jack Sparrow, with genuine emotion.

It’s on Hitchens that Amis moves into a fresh register. A writer so praised for his style (but also derided for being all style), Amis accesses a depth of feeling and a plainness of language entirely new to his work. He marvels at his friend’s ability to face death with courage. He puzzles over what he still doesn’t understand — chiefly Hitchens’s support of the Iraq War, which he claims Hitchens deeply regretted.

In one scene, Amis assists Hitchens as he takes a swim. “Do you mind?” Hitchens asked, now ailing. Swimming alongside him, Amis was seized by the memory of helping his son learn to walk in proper shoes. “No,” he responded. “I love it.”

Nothing in Amis prepared me for such scenes, for their quiet, their simplicity. Martin Amis, like Phoebe Phelps, has retained the power to surprise. An unexpected boon of aging? He’ll never admit it. But we might say of him, as he says of Phoebe: “She’s like a character in a novel where you want to skip ahead and see how they turned out. Anyway. I can’t give up now.”

Attacks on freedom of thought and expression in publishing: a piece by George Packer

August 9, 2023 • 10:30 am

This article from The Atlantic is probably paywalled, but appears to be freely accessible on the site below. Author George Packer is a journalist and novelist, and Wikipedia gives this description:

George Packer (born ca. 1960) is a US journalist, novelist, and playwright. He is best known for his writings for The New Yorker and The Atlantic about U.S. foreign policy and for his book The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq. Packer also wrote The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, covering the history of the US from 1978 to 2012. In November 2013, The Unwinding received the National Book Award for Nonfiction. His award-winning biography, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, was released in May 2019. His latest book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal was released in June 2021.

Click screenshot to read, and then click “continue reading” to see the whole article.

Packer begins by extolling a 1953 statement, “The Freedom to Read,” issued by the American Library Association and the Association of Book Publishers Council at the height of the McCarthy era of censorship and Red-baiting. Do read it at the link: it’s an eloquent defense of publishing and reading even offensive materials, allowing the public to judge for themselves. That 70-year-old statement should be mandatory reading for all college freshman in what I envision as a short unit on “freedom of expression and academic freedom.” An except from the 1953 statement.

Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgment, will select the good and reject the bad. We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. We do not believe they are prepared to sacrifice their heritage of a free press in order to be “protected” against what others think may be bad for them. We believe they still favor free enterprise in ideas and expression.

These efforts at suppression are related to a larger pattern of pressures being brought against education, the press, art and images, films, broadcast media, and the Internet. The problem is not only one of actual censorship. The shadow of fear cast by these pressures leads, we suspect, to an even larger voluntary curtailment of expression by those who seek to avoid controversy or unwelcome scrutiny by government officials. [Sound familiar?]

Such pressure toward conformity is perhaps natural to a time of accelerated change. And yet suppression is never more dangerous than in such a time of social tension. Freedom has given the United States the elasticity to endure strain. Freedom keeps open the path of novel and creative solutions, and enables change to come by choice. Every silencing of a heresy, every enforcement of an orthodoxy, diminishes the toughness and resilience of our society and leaves it the less able to deal with controversy and difference.

On its 70th anniversary in June, the whole statement was re-issued by the same organizations (see link above), but Packer finds that a wee bit ironic:

This past June, the library and publishers’ associations reissued “The Freedom to Read” on its 70th anniversary. Scores of publishers, libraries, literary groups, civil-liberty organizations, and authors signed on to endorse its principles. And yet many of those institutional signatories—including the “Big Five” publishing conglomerates—often violate its propositions, perhaps not even aware that they’re doing so. Few of them, if any, could produce as unapologetic a defense of intellectual freedom as the one made at a time when inquisitors were destroying careers and lives. It’s worth asking why the American literary world in 2023 is less able to uphold the principles of “The Freedom to Read” than its authors in 1953.

Here are the three attacks on intellectual freedom that are circumventing or eroding these principles. The first isn’t the fault of publishers. (Packer’s quotes are indented, heading are mine.)

1.) Attacks from state governments and schools.

First—and likely the main concern of the signatories—is an official campaign by governors, state legislatures, local governments, and school boards to weed out books and ideas they don’t like. Most of the targets are politically on the left; most present facts or express views about race, gender, and sexuality that the censors consider dangerous, divisive, obscene, or simply wrong. The effort began in Texas as early as 2020, before public hysteria and political opportunism spread the campaign to Florida and other states, and to every level of education, removing from library shelves and class reading lists several thousand books by writers such as Toni Morrison and Malala Yousafzai.

Given that states and school districts have a responsibility to set public-school curricula, not all of this can be called government censorship. But laws and policies to prevent students from encountering controversial, unpopular, even offensive writers and ideas amount to a powerfully repressive campaign of book banning, some of it probably unconstitutional.

2.) Attacks and censorship from “inside the house”—by editors and publishers themselves. We all know that some publishers are malleable to social-media campaigns that try to stop books from being published because the authors have done something considered immoral, because they are not of the right gender or ethnicity to tackle a book’s topic, or because the plot isn’t ideologically correct. I’m sure you remember some of these incidents:

A few cases became big news. Hachette canceled Woody Allen’s autobiography after a staff walkout, and Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth was withdrawn after publication by Norton, both following accusations of sexual misconduct by the authors (Allen and Bailey denied the accusations). Publishers have canceled books following an author’s public remarks—for example, those of the cartoonist Scott Adams, the British journalist Julie Burchill, and the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

In one particularly wild case, an author named Natasha Tynes, on the verge of publishing her first novel, a crime thriller, saw a Black employee of the Washington, D.C., Metro system eating on a train (a violation of the system’s rules). She tweeted a picture of the woman at the transit authority with a complaint, and immediately found herself transformed into a viral racist. Within hours her distributor, Rare Bird Books, had dropped the novel, tweeting that Tynes “did something truly horrible today.” The publisher, California Coldblood, after trying to wash its hands of the book, eventually went ahead with publication “due to contractual obligations,” but the novel was as good as dead. “How can you expect authors to be these perfect creatures who never commit any faults?” Tynes lamented to PEN. Most publishers now include a boilerplate morals clause in book contracts that legitimizes these cancellations—a loophole that contradicts tenets of “The Freedom to Read” that those publishers endorsed.

More are given, but you can see them at the site.

As Packer notes, these incidents may be few, but they create a chilling atmosphere that inhibits authors from writing about what they want:

A few cases became big news. Hachette canceled Woody Allen’s autobiography after a staff walkout, and Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth was withdrawn after publication by Norton, both following accusations of sexual misconduct by the authors (Allen and Bailey denied the accusations). Publishers have canceled books following an author’s public remarks—for example, those of the cartoonist Scott Adams, the British journalist Julie Burchill, and the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

In one particularly wild case, an author named Natasha Tynes, on the verge of publishing her first novel, a crime thriller, saw a Black employee of the Washington, D.C., Metro system eating on a train (a violation of the system’s rules). She tweeted a picture of the woman at the transit authority with a complaint, and immediately found herself transformed into a viral racist. Within hours her distributor, Rare Bird Books, had dropped the novel, tweeting that Tynes “did something truly horrible today.” The publisher, California Coldblood, after trying to wash its hands of the book, eventually went ahead with publication “due to contractual obligations,” but the novel was as good as dead. “How can you expect authors to be these perfect creatures who never commit any faults?” Tynes lamented to PEN. Most publishers now include a boilerplate morals clause in book contracts that legitimizes these cancellations—a loophole that contradicts tenets of “The Freedom to Read” that those publishers endorsed.

Not all publishers are susceptible to this kind of pressure, invariably coming from Twitter, and often by people who have never read the book. My own publisher, Penguin Random House, has a firm policy of publishing what it considers good, not what is ideologically correct. Sadly, as Packer reports, that publisher is bleeding senior editors because book sales are down.

Packer also levels some criticism at PEN and PEN America, too, literary organizations that promote free expression. PEN America has issued a new report, “Reading between the lines: Race, equity, and book publishing.”  And while Packer praises the courage of this report in today’s publishing climate, he also notes a contradiction. And that’s the contradiction—one we’ve discussed before—between promoting equity and promoting merit—literary merit in this case.

In “Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and Book Publishing,” PEN examined in detail how the American book business has always been and, despite recent improvements, remains a clubby world of the white, well connected, and well-off. It presented a damning picture, backed by data, of “the white lens through which writers, editors, and publishers curate America’s literature.” It called for publishers to hire and promote more staff of color, publish more books by writers of color, pay them higher advances, and sell their books more intelligently and vigorously.

The two reports are related, but the relation is fraught. The first showed the need for an intensified campaign of diversity, equity, and inclusion across the industry. The second argues for greater freedom to defy the literary strictures of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Is there a contradiction between the two?

While PEN labors to show that there is no contradiction, of course there is. Any pressure to be ideologically correct (and DEI initiatives often cross the line between “color blind standards of merit” and “a specific ideological take on DEI), is going to also constitute pressure against publishing certain kinds of things. Here’s what Packer says:

In our world, where DEI has hardened into an ideological litmus test, the effort to place social justice at the center of publishing almost inevitably leads to controversies over “representation” and “harm” that result in banned books. The first report presented DEI in publishing as an urgent moral cause. The second report takes issue with “employees’ increasing expectation that publishers assume moral positions in their curation of catalogs and author lists.” But those employees no doubt believe that they are carrying out the vision of the first report.

Social justice and intellectual freedom are not inherently opposed—often, each requires the other—but they are not the same thing, either. “The Freedom to Read” makes this clear: “It would conflict with the public interest for [publishers and librarians] to establish their own political, moral, or aesthetic views as a standard for determining what should be published or circulated.” That statement was written at a time when the cause of intellectual freedom was non- or even anti-ideological. Its authors advocated no other goal than the widest and highest-quality expression of views. But in PEN’s new report you can feel a struggle to reconcile the thinking of its earlier one, in which every calculation comes down to identity, with the discriminating judgment and openness to new and disturbing ideas that are essential to producing literature. As one editor told me, “There’s no equity in talent.”

Packer has a lot more to say, but in the end he makes a good case for publishers promoting the “widest and highest-quality expression of views.” That statement says nothing about ideology, gender, or race, just quality and viewpoint diversity. If viewpoint diversity of literary merit is promoted by publishing more authors of minority status, then that’s fine—no contradiction there. But, as publishing books becomes a more fraught endeavor, and fewer people buy books, it’s imperative that the industry stick to its guns of promoting quality and viewpoint diversity.  For when books have to hew to an ideological line to be acceptable, publishing is dead.

h/t: Leo

Glenn Loury and Matt Johnson discuss the legacy of Hitchens

July 19, 2023 • 12:00 pm

Who among us hasn’t said to themselves, “I wish Hitchens were here. What would he make of all the identity politics going down?” And indeed, given the man’s unpredictability, it’s hard to know, though Matt Johnson thinks that Hitch would definitely be antiwoke.

Johnson recently came out with a new book, How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment.  There’s a six-minute video discussion below, and an intro and Q&A on Loury’s website. Click below to read Loury’s intro and an excerpt, and then watch the video (you can skip the printed Q&A since the text beyond the intro is a transcript).

Here’s Loury’s intro:

Identitarianism is now so deeply ingrained in left-liberal politics, it’s easy to forget that things weren’t always this way. Material economic concerns once formed the solid core of left activism and thought on the domestic front: labor protections, combating economic inequality, providing services for the poor, and so on. Anyone who didn’t put those issues at the center of their politics couldn’t reasonably call themselves a member of the left. Now these quite serious issues have been displaced by a superficial obsession with race and identity. If you’re not calling for “racial justice,” it seems, it doesn’t matter how many warehouse workers you organize. Even Bernie Sanders found himself in the crosshairs of his ostensible allies when he downplayed identity politics in the 2020 Democratic primaries.

Christopher Hitchens was a writer and thinker produced by—but not reducible to—that older tradition of left-wing thought and activism. For much of his life, he was an advocate for organized labor and a strong social safety net. He took the ideas of justice, equality, and democracy very seriously. Sometimes this led him to positions that would be at home on today’s left, as when he advocated for reparations for the descendants of slaves. But sometimes his commitments put him at odds with his fellow travelers, as when he supported the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Iraqis were being deprived by Saddam Hussein of their right to democratic self-determination.

Hitchens also believed that identity politics was a cheap substitute for what he saw as real political action. My guest this week, the writer Matt Johnson, thinks that, on that issue, Hitchens had it right. In fact, Matt wrote an excellent book about it. There was nobody quite like Hitch. His rhetorical force and precision, his moral clarity (even when he was wrong), and his wit seem in short supply today. I’ve hosted some left-liberals, like Mark Lilla and Norman Finkelstein, who are unafraid to speak out against “their side” on identity politics. And clearly Matt believes that the left can recover something of Hitch’s spirit, otherwise he wouldn’t have written the book. Despite my own political commitments, I hope he’s right.

I’ve read Johnson’s book, and it’s pretty darn good, though if you know your Hitchens well, you may find little that is new. Nevertheless, Johnson’s argument, supported with quotes, is persuasive.

Below, Johnson tells us about the pervasiveness of identity politics, and Loury asks him why are liberals, for instance, so divided given that they can’t agree on fundamental liberal issues.

One comment: Hitchens was in favor of reparations towards minorities, though Johnson implies otherwise. You can see that in this video debate between Hitchens and, ironically, Glenn Loury.

One question and answer:

GLENN LOURY: How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment. The great Christopher Hitchens can save the left. The left’s in trouble. It’s worth saving, says Matt Johnson. And one of the reasons it’s in trouble is because it’s immersed in what Hitch called “the sinister bullshit” of identity politics. And Hitchens can save us from that, too. How so?

MATT JOHNSON: He was very opposed to identitarianism, because he saw it as regressive. In one article, he wrote, “If we were dogs, we would all be the same breed.” Emphasizing human difference is unhealthy and it’s tribal and it’s become very obsessive on the left. You know, I’ve listened to you for years, Glenn, you and John McWhorter. I’m not a fan of the DiAngelo school of identitarianism, not a fan of Kendi.

These guys, they really do frustrate me. I look at the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and I wonder what Martin Luther King or Bayard Rustin would say about a movement that encourages large audiences of white people and corporations to look inward and identify and root out the racism instead of just looking at inequities in the society and trying to address them on a fundamental level.

It’s this toxin. It’s so easy to be tribal. It’s so easy to identify with a group. And Hitchens, in Letters to a Young Contrarian, for example, just said that identity politics is a cheap excuse for politics to the extent that the left was enmeshed in it, which it really has been for a long time. It was giving away one of the most important moral principles that it could hold, which would be universalism. We should try to move toward a colorblind society. I know that saying that automatically gets you branded a reactionary. It’s like saying “all lives matter.” You’re viewed as somebody who’s fighting the progress of racial justice in the country. I really do think that that should be the end goal. And if it takes 200 years, so be it. If it takes 500 years, so be it.

But I think there are a lot of people who don’t think it’s the goal we’re striving for. I think they think that race is this eternal fact about us, and racial division is an eternal fact about our politics. And Hitchens always hated that idea, and he thought we could be radical enough to get past it.

Netflix makes a series of “All the Light We Cannot See”

June 21, 2023 • 1:20 pm

In a “3-minute read” (oy, I hate this timing thing), yahoo! entertainment has announced that it will make a “limited series” of my favorite modern novel of the last several decades, 2014’s All the Light We Cannot Seewhich won the fiction Pulitzer Prize for author Anthony Doerr in 2015.  I described and lauded the book in August of last year, and if you haven’t read it yet, you’re a schnook.

Here’s the too-short trailer:

I have to add that I recently read another great modern novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, published in author Muriel Barbery’s original French in 2006 and then two years later in a wonderful English translation rendered by Alison Anderson. This is right up there with the novel above, but it will take a few years to see which made the greatest impression on me. (I just found out there’s a French movie, “The Hedgehog,” based on Barbery’s book, and it gets an 87% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I must see it).

I also have to say that I’m worried that the Netflix version of Doerr’s book won’t come up to snuff, as only very rarely has a movie equaled or surpassed the quality of a book I’ve loved (two notable instances are The Last Picture Show, a great book and an even greater movie, and The Bridges of Madison County, a horrible stinkeroo of a novel but a pretty good movie).

I think most of us form a picture in our minds of the character’s appearance, the nature of the surroundings, and even what voices sound like. And the movie rarely matches these, causing somewhat of a letdown. I can already sense it coming from the trailer above: the girl Maurie-Laure looks nothing like what I imagined.

I will watch the “limited series,” but I’m definitely dampening my expectations. As my motto goes, “A pessimist is never disappointed.”


h/t: Divy