Pence book deal opposed by Simon & Schuster employees, company tells protestors to get stuffed

May 24, 2021 • 1:00 pm

There are three reasons for publishing companies to put out books by political or public figures who are widely disliked. The first is that these figures may have something to say that illuminates history or other areas, regardless of who they are. Mein Kampf is such an example, for it pretty much laid out the political agenda that Hitler later enacted.

Second, these books are often big sellers, bringing in profits that allow companies to publish substantial books that may not sell as well. Many companies are committed to publishing books that they know won’t turn a profit, because they’re proud of bringing out good work. One of these companies is my own publisher, Viking/Penguin/Random House.

And not least important is freedom of the press. People should be allowed access to books written by people who are widely hated. How else can we see what they really believe (or say they believe)?  While rejection of a book by a publisher doesn’t violate the First Amendment, many publishers are deeply committed to free discussion, and enact that view by publishing books on a wide and diverse range of topics.

All of these reasons apply to Simon & Schuster’s decision to publish the two-voume memoirs of former VP Mike Pence. The reaction, which is more or less what you might expect, is described in this Wall Street Journal Article (click on screenshot).

I mentioned this in April, but there’s more now.

Of course there was an immediate petition, signed by over 200 members of the staff (14% of the total) along with 3,500 other outraged people, all demanding that the memoir deal be canceled.  An earlier WSJ article gave some content of the petition:

The petition accused Mr. Pence of advocating for policies that were racist, sexist and discriminatory toward LGBT people, among other criticisms of his tenure as a public official. The petition also calls on Simon & Schuster to cut off a distribution relationship with Post Hill Press, a publisher of conservative books as well as business and pop culture titles.

And this article adds a bit more:

Publishing the book, some staffers said at the session, would be a betrayal of the company’s promises to oppose bigotry and make minority employees feel safe.

It is the familiar argument that publishing memoirs like this makes employees feel “unsafe” that make me think those employees are, well, lying. It is surely, at least in large part, pretend harm and pretend “unsafeness.” Seriously, can you imagine any employee coming to work the day after Pence’s memoirs come out, crying and shaking at their desks? Unsafe? Unsafe how, exactly.

There’s a bit more.

It said Mr. Pence advocated for policies that were racist, sexist and discriminatory, and that publishing the book would be “legitimizing bigotry.”

No, because publication of a book by a reputable press does not equate to endorsement of what’s in the book (and at any rate this book will be fact-checked).

To the credit of the company, its CEO, Jonathan Karp, pushed back and refused to cancel the deal:

In an interview, Mr. Karp said he respects that some employees have a moral objection to the memoir deal, but that the company is committed to publishing a broad range of views. “We don’t want to be a niche publisher,” he said. “The former vice president who got 74 million votes is representative of a broad range of people.”

He said Mr. Pence’s role in one of the most tumultuous periods of U.S. history will make for compelling reading. More broadly, he said, the publisher can treat its employees with respect and also publish authors with views they find anathema. “Those two realities don’t have to be in conflict,” he said.

And that is true, but the protesting chowderheads seem to be oblivious to the point. What they want, pure and simple, is censorship: they want NOBODY to publish Pence’s memoirs because they supposedly “legitimize” his views. This is what I mean when I call such people the Authoritarian Left.

Thank Ceiling Cat for publishers like Karp who have principles (and of course there’s also a bottom line to consider), and who refuse to cave in to employees on the specious grounds that a publisher tacitly agrees with the content of all the books it publishes. I have news for you: most publishers want quality books and books that sell, and aren’t trying to propagandize the public.

h/t: Ginger K.

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?

A time-travel game

April 26, 2021 • 11:00 am

I was reading Anthony Grayling’s new (2019) history of philosophy last night. I’m only 70 pages in, and had to plow through all those boring pre-Socratic philosophers (he deals at the end with philosophy outside the Western tradition), but Anthony is smart enough and a good enough writer to make it all interesting. I’m looking forward to reading all 500-odd pages (click below to see the Amazon link):

And while I was reading about the early conception of atoms, I fantasizd about going back and telling people like Democritus that yes, there are atoms, but they are different from what he thought they were, and that they combined in molecules, and so on.  And then I thought about how much I could impart to the ancient Greeks if I had just one day to tell them what we’d learned by the 21st century. But then I realized that it would be useless, for I don’t speak ancient Greek and they wouldn’t understand English. It would be a futile exercise, and they’d probably kill me as a demon. Besides, there’s that effect of altering the future by imparting such stuff, an effect that was the subject of a science-fiction story I read as a kid but whose name I can’t recall.

But I also thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to be in the agora in Athens and actually see Socrates engaged in a dialogue with someone?” He was described by Grayling as ugly, snub-nosed, and with bulging eyes, but I’d want to see that for myself. And I’d want to see Pericles and the whole of Athens in full flower. I’d love 24 hours in Athens around 440 B.C.

And so I propose a game, similar to one I’ve proposed before, but this one restricted to human history. Here are the rules:

1.) You are given 24 hours to be any place in the world during human history, but you have to specify a place and a date (or an event). You cannot go further back than ancient Egypt.

2.) You will be invisible, so you can run around at will and observe everything, but you cannot interact or communicate with anyone.

3.) You cannot have a tape recorder or a camera, but you are allowed a notebook and a pen to record what you want. You will not be able to understand the language unless you’ve learned it beforehand or already know it.

4.) At the end, you’re transported back to the present.

There are two ways to regard your journey: as a way to gather information about the past that is missing to historians, or as a way to satisfy your own curiosity. What you do is up to you.

Now think of all the choices! Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (how did his voice sound?). The death of Julius Caesar! Charles Darwin, either on the Beagle or at home in Downe. Watch Michelangelo paint the dome of the Sistine Chapel. See Shakespeare at work! The possibilities are endless.

Think about this for a few minutes, and put your answer below. Although I’m drawn to Darwin, I couldn’t talk to him but could only see and hear him. And the idea of seeing Socrates (would I be able to know who he is?) still entices me. . . .


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!

The American Library Association’s “challenged book” list for 2020, censoriousness of the Right, and much more about race and less about LGBTQ issues than previously

April 12, 2021 • 10:00 am

The American Library Association (ALA) issues a yearly list of “most challenged” books: those books that people most often ask to be removed from schools or libraries. This year’s list (2020) showed only about half the number of challenges than the year before, but a much higher concentration of books dealing with racism than with LGTQ issues compared to the 2019 list. This shows that race has not only become a much bigger flashpoint of censorship than sexuality, but that the challenges seem to come largely from the Right, so that the Left has no monopoly on these attempts at censorship.

The ALA keeps track of these requests to demonstrate what people want to censor, though the number of challenges is relatively small (156 last year and 377 in 2019). Further, the ALA suggests that most book challenges—estimates range between 82% and 97% of them—are never reported. Apparently there is no efficient reporting mechanism for these challenges; the ALA says that “lists are based on information from media stories and voluntary reports sent to OIF [the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the ALA] from communities across the U.S.”

Below are the last two lists (with the reasons given for the attempted banning), followed by my assessment of which end of the political spectrum objected.

Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020

Find more shareable statistics on the Free Downloads webpage.

The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 156 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2020. Of the 273 books that were targeted, here are the most challenged, along with the reasons cited for censoring the books:

      1. George by Alex Gino. Reasons: Challenged, banned, and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting “the values of our community”
      2. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds. Reasons: Banned and challenged because of author’s public statements, and because of claims that the book contains “selective storytelling incidents” and does not encompass racism against all people
      3. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, drug use, and alcoholism, and because it was thought to promote anti-police views, contain divisive topics, and be “too much of a sensitive matter right now”
      4. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Reasons: Banned, challenged, and restricted because it was thought to contain a political viewpoint and it was claimed to be biased against male students, and for the novel’s inclusion of rape and profanity
      5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and allegations of sexual misconduct by the author
      6. Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin. Reasons: Challenged for “divisive language” and because it was thought to promote anti-police views
      7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a “white savior” character, and its perception of the Black experience
      8. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes, and their negative effect on students
      9. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Reasons: Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse
      10. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Reasons: Challenged for profanity, and it was thought to promote an anti-police message

Of these books, I’d say only two would represent challenges by the Left (To Kill a Mockingbird for use of the “n-word” and Of Mice and Men for “racist stereotypes”). Challenges from the Right would seem to be involved in the other eight, given that their content is anti-racist, anti-police, or pro-LGBTA. Eight of the ten were challenged at least in part because they deal with race, two of them (noted above) for being racist and the other six for, surprisingly, being anti-racist. This represents palpable pushback against anti-racism.

While I’ve read only one of the books singled out for antiracism (The Bluest Eye), I found it not only good, but also not anti-racist of the Critical Theory genre. I of course don’t favor attempts to censor any of these books. All should be available at libraries and schools, though librarians or teachers may want to put age limitations on them. Censorship is never justified, and thank Ceiling Cat for the good librarians who realize that.

Here’s the list from 2019, which is substantially different from last year’s:

Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2019

View the Censorship by the Numbers infographic for 2019

The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 377 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2019. Of the 566 books that were targeted, here are the most challenged, along with the reasons cited for censoring the books:

      1. George by Alex Gino. Reasons: challenged, banned, restricted, and hidden to avoid controversy; for LGBTQIA+ content and a transgender character; because schools and libraries should not “put books in a child’s hand that require discussion”; for sexual references; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint and “traditional family structure”
      2. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin. Reasons: challenged for LGBTQIA+ content, for “its effect on any young people who would read it,” and for concerns that it was sexually explicit and biased
      3. A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss, illustrated by EG Keller. Reasons: challenged and vandalized for LGBTQIA+ content and political viewpoints, for concerns that it is “designed to pollute the morals of its readers,” and for not including a content warning
      4. Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth. Reasons: challenged, banned, and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content; for discussing gender identity and sex education; and for concerns that the title and illustrations were “inappropriate”
      5. Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack, illustrated by Stevie Lewis. Reasons: challenged and restricted for featuring a gay marriage and LGBTQIA+ content; for being “a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate young children” with the potential to cause confusion, curiosity, and gender dysphoria; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint
      6. I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas. Reasons: challenged and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content, for a transgender character, and for confronting a topic that is “sensitive, controversial, and politically charged”
      7. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Reasons: banned and challenged for profanity and for “vulgarity and sexual overtones”
      8. Drama written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier. Reasons: challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and for concerns that it goes against “family values/morals”
      9. Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. Reasons: banned and forbidden from discussion for referring to magic and witchcraft, for containing actual curses and spells, and for characters that use “nefarious means” to attain goals
      10. And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson illustrated by Henry Cole. Reason: challenged and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content

In contrast to last year, 8 of the ten were challenged for their LGBTQ content, almost certainly by the Right (these books clearly are not anti-LGBTQ people!). I’m not sure who would object to The Handmaid’s Tale, but almost certainly the Right because it’s an anti-patriarchal book. And then there’s Harry Potter, a series again is more anathema to the Right than the Left. (Witchcraft and wizardry, oh my!)

Again we see concrete attempts to censor from the Right, showing that, at least in this smallish sample, the Right has its own “cancel culture”.

All of this goes to show that freedom of speech is not an issue of either Right or Left, because both sides, had they the power, show a censorious streak.  It also shows that, probably because of the George Floyd killing, race has come much more to public attention this year, but in this case the reaction has been to call for removal of antiracist books. Again, while I may object to what’s in some of them, I would never call for their banning or removal.

The Guardian‘s article on this year’s list gives more detail about attempts to censor the books. I read it after I drew the conclusions above, but those conclusions are so obvious that the Guardian and I reached them independently:

“Two years ago, eight of 10 books were challenged for LGBTQ concerns,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, OIF director, told School Library Journal. “While George is still No 1, reflecting the challenges to LGBTQ materials that we see consistently these days, there’s been a definite rise in the rhetoric challenging anti-racist materials and ideas … We’re seeing a shift to challenging books that advance racial justice, that discuss racism and America’s history with racism. I think the list is reflecting the conversations that many people in our country are having right now, and it’s a reflection of our rising awareness of the racial injustice and the history of racial injustice in our country.”

Well, it’s more than a reflection of “conversations” and “rising awareness”: it’s an attempt to stifle conversation, especially conversations that call people’s attention to bigotry. We can’t have a conversation if you can’t access books by one side of the issue.

Fie on all these censors; let a thousand books line the library shelves!

h/t: Ginger K

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.


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.

A brain dump from Richard Dawkins

March 12, 2021 • 11:30 am

UPDATE: My friend Andrew says that this book, by paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, was pretty good (click on screenshot to buy):

I’m pretty puzzled by this short Spectator piece by Richard Dawkins, as the pudding has no theme.

Click on the screenshot to read it:

A summary of the contents:

a.) A claim that science is not a social construct, though of course it is in an important sense: The profession of science was constructed by humans, and its “rules,” such as they are, were also formulated by humans, though this was through trial-and-error rather than an a priori Diktat. Even Richard corrects himself here:

Science is not a patriarchal instrument of colonial oppression. Nor is it a social construct. It’s simply true. Or at least truth is real and science is the best way we have of finding it. ‘Alternative ways of knowing’ may be consoling, they may be sincere, they may be quaint, they may have a poetic or mythic beauty, but the one thing they are not is true.

The second and third sentences contradict each other. Science cannot be “true”, just like plumbing or dentistry can’t be “true.” What is considered “true” is what science finds out using empirical methods, and those truths are provisional (though some are nearly certain).  I do appreciate, though, that there are no other credible ways of knowing, for I’m arguing with Adam Gopnik at the moment (he thinks there are).

b.) Richard is baffled by Wokeness.

Strangely, when I have expressed hostility to woke nonsense, a significant reaction from American readers has been: ‘Well, people like you brought it on yourselves.’ Mystified, I dug deeper. Apparently the permissible spectrum of opinion is so all-or-none, so left-or-right, so yes-or-no that you can’t oppose both Trump and the loony left simultaneously. I’m now nursing an urgent worry: President Joe Biden needs to go out of his way to distance himself from this mental virus or he’ll play into the hands of the Trumpers in the 2022 and 2024 elections.

I agree with the last sentence. Biden has done some great stuff, and will do more, but he’s going to make some missteps in the direction of Wokeville. That doesn’t detract for a second from the vast improvement we have in him over Trump, but I anticipate that I’ll have to kvetch about some of his policies in the near future. Right now, though, I’m immensely pleased with our new administration.

Richard also gives a mixed review to Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book Cynical Theories, liking it in general but also finding it “obscurantist.”

c.) Richard has some new books coming out, including a novel. 

This week I find myself in the unusual position of putting to bed two new books at the same time, plus the audio reading of an earlier book, Unweaving the Rainbow. Of the new books, Flights of Fancy is about how animals and humans defy gravity and get off the ground. The second, Books Do Furnish a Life, is a collection of book reviews, forewords, afterwords, book-related writings in general. Some editorial voices were raised against the Powellian title, on the grounds that it sounds retrospective. Fair point, but if you can’t be retrospective when you’re rising 80, when can you?

Happily, there’s no rule against being prospective at the same time. Accordingly I’ve just started work on my first novel. Provisionally called The Genetic Book of the Dead, its scientist heroine reconstructs the genome of australopithecines. Will she actually bring a new Lucy to life after three million years? The bulk of the novel, of course, will explore the social, political, ethical, theological etc implications of such a resurrection.

Ummm. . . novels differ from popular science, and I’m worried that this one will be overly didactic. What made me even more worried was Richard’s statement after it: “This fiction business, it’s harder than I thought. How do you write convincing dialogue?”  That is something that one can improve at, but my view is that you’re either a born novelist or you’re not one. In fact, I know of no good fiction by scientists, though I’m told that J. B. S. Haldane wrote a good sci fi book.

At any rate, I’ve never seen Richard write an essay that didn’t have a theme that was coherent and eloquently espoused. In contrast, thie piece seems like a collection of random thoughts. But Flights of Fancy is the book I most look forward to, though the essay collection should also be good.

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;
-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.


More about Dr. Seuss, but with humor

March 5, 2021 • 1:15 pm

By now you’ll know that Dr. Seuss Enterprises has decided not to continue printing six of his books on the grounds of racist imagery. Having seen the images, I do think they’re offensive, and so I don’t mind if those who have custody of his legacy stop printing these books. Here are two of the images, and I have to say that while they may have been mainstream at one time, they don’t belong in children’s books any more:




That said, I certainly don’t think they should be removed from libraries!

Here are the six no longer printed:

  • “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street”
  • “If I Ran the Zoo”
  • “McElligot’s Pool”
  • “On Beyond Zebra!”
  • “Scrambled Eggs Super!”
  • “The Cat’s Quizzer”
In response, and according to the Streisand Effect, all of the canceled books have sold out at Amazon and other booksellers, but his other books are doing great business, with 9 of the top 10 books on the Amazon’s bestseller list being Dr. Seuss books. As CNN Business reports, “While Dr. Seuss Enterprises has not announced the discontinuation of any other books, fans and collectors seem to be stocking up just in case.”

As many know, Seuss was also an antiracist later in his life, and one of his books, The Sneetches and Other Storieswas explicitly aimed at showing people that superficial differences in appearance were meaningless. In this case, the Sneetches were birdlike creatures, some of whom had green stars on their bellies. This led to “othering” and a huge fracas. As Wikipedia notes, “‘The Sneetches’ was intended by Seuss as a satire of discrimination between races and cultures, and was specifically inspired by his opposition to antisemitism.” (I presume the green stars were analogues of the yellow Stars of David worn by Jews during WWII.)

But not so fast. Thanks to my colleague Brian Leiter, who somehow found this piece and highlighted it on his website, saying “This is amusing. The anti-Irish racism is indisputable!” Yes, someone has found a way to make The Sneetches not only racist, but anti-Irish as well. Click on the screenshot to read a short and funny parody of Cancel Culture.


Here’s a small excerpt of the anti-Sneetch screed. First you’ll have to learn a bit about Monkey McBean; here’s the Wikipedia excerpt of McBean’s behavior in The Sneetches:

An entrepreneur named Sylvester McMonkey McBean (calling himself the Fix-It-Up Chappie) appears and offers the Sneetches without stars the chance to get them with his Star-On machine, for three dollars. The treatment is instantly popular, but this upsets the original star-bellied Sneetches, as they are in danger of losing their special status. McBean then tells them about his Star-Off machine, costing ten dollars, and the Sneetches who originally had stars happily pay the money to have them removed in order to remain special. However, McBean does not share the prejudices of the Sneetches and allows the recently starred Sneetches through this machine as well. Ultimately this escalates, with the Sneetches running from one machine to the next…

Finally, just an excerpt from the post above:

Further, The Sneetches is clearly a swipe at people like [Robin] DiAngelo. After all, DiAngelo, like McMonkey McBean, makes lots of money by offering partial but incomplete solutions to people’s racism. By portraying McMonkey McBean as an absurdly opportunistic sociopath, Seuss is in effect describing DiAngelo as an absurdly opportunistic sociopath. But that’s not fair. After all, DiAngelo strongly encourages us to continue to categorize people by race, while McMonkey McBean’s actions eliminate the possibility of racism by destroying people’s capacity to think in terms of race. There’s nothing more racist than that!

Finally, notice that McMonkey McBean has an Irish-sounding name. As a non-white, Irish person, I’ve notice that Seuss frequently uses the “Mc” prefix in his cartoon names when he wants to make a character seem silly or ridiculous. This reveals Seuss’s own anti-Irish racism–a form of racism which continues to pervade universities to this day, and from which even the high priest of anti-racism DiAngelo suffers. (DiAngelo regards Irish people as white, which means she endorses and perpetuates British imperialism and erasure of Irish identity. It is thus morally imperative that she be cancelled, and if you buy her new book, you are a racist.)  Could you imagine if Seuss used, say, Swahili-sounding names like this in the effort to make someone seem silly or ridiculous? But of course in the United States, a remnant of the British empire, anti-Irish racism is not only permitted, but routinely condoned.

Cancel Dr. Seuss. A world in which no one pays attention to whether sneetches have stars or none upon thars is nothing to celebrate. To dream of a world in which all people sing together “free at last” is a KKK fantasy.

Almost sounds like Titania McGrath, doesn’t it?