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West's weekly round-up: September 4
The Simpsons, the downfall of science, and the difference between PC and Woke
I’m back, and after my visit to beautiful sunny Andalusia, I’m excited at the prospect of the coming winter; dare I say it, but I’m not filled with my usual cheery optimism.
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During the Great Depression there was a big turn towards more escapist sort of reading, so maybe that’s what we’ll all be getting into from now on. Perhaps most significantly, that decade saw the start of the greatest fantasy story of all time, and The Lord of the Rings was the subject of this Thursday’s post, on whether it’s reactionary and problematic (I should hope so). (Normal three-times-a-week posting will resume from now on.)
On a similar topic, my book on the historical inspiration for Game of Thrones has been translated into Polish.
Here is a funny thing about Britain’s “culture war”: the people who decry it the most are those who are most invested in it. Almost every time you read an article making an accusation of culture war, it’s by someone on the left who is spraying bullets at an enemy. Sathnam Sanghera, a brilliant journalist and author of an acclaimed book on the British Empire, seems to define “culture warrior” as anyone who openly disagrees with his own take on British history and cultural mores. He accuses the Conservative minister Kemi Badenoch, who argues that racism is exaggerated by the left, of perpetrating a culture war. “Badenoch is giving the mostly white and elderly voters in the Conservative Party leadership election the opportunity to claim that Britain doesn’t have a problem with racism,” says Sanghera. Badenoch is “a Trojan Horse for racism”. Whether you agree or not, this is punchy stuff, and more obviously inflammatory than anything Badenoch has said. Yet to Sathnam, he is not the belligerent here — she is.
On a similar subject, what’s the difference between PC and woke, Freddie deBoer asks.
I’ll get to all (some) of that in a moment, but first, the fact of the book itself: Could something like this exist today? The existence of The Babylon Bee Guide to Wokeness suggests yes, but lighthearted humor does not exactly define the anti-wokeness backlash. Rather, it’s a mix of earnestly concerned progressives who think the left is shooting itself in the foot (hi), conservatives delighted that the left is shooting itself in the foot, and conservatives afraid that (or opportunistically stoking fears that) critical race theory and drag queen story hours and so forth announce the apocalypse. It’s not that critics of wokeness are humorless, or even that there’s no good anti-woke humor. (There’s surprisingly a lot in Kim’s Convenience, a contemporary Canadian sitcom about a Korean immigrant family.)
But humorlessness dominates, perhaps due to increased polarization, or a sense that the stakes are too high to joke around. Woke and anti-woke alike gravitate towards utter seriousness.
I suppose the big difference is that wokeness comes from a position of greater power, would be my answer; its assumptions are much more established, which is why it tends to be even more censorious. PC was quite fringe-y in the 1990s, even if it won, but today pretty much every corporation in America is overly woke.
Likewise, the politicisation of science has ramped up over the past decade and accelerated in just the last three or four years. And as Bo Winegard writes, it’s getting pretty overt now.
In plain language, this means that from now on, the journal [Nature Human Behavior] will reject articles that might potentially harm (even “inadvertently”) those individuals or groups most vulnerable to “racism, sexism, ableism, or homophobia.” Since it is already standard practice to reject false or poorly argued work, it is safe to assume that these new guidelines have been designed to reject any article deemed to pose a threat to disadvantaged groups, irrespective of whether or not its central claims are true, or at least well-supported. Within a few sentences, we have moved from a banal statement of the obvious to draconian and censorious editorial discretion. Editors will now enjoy unprecedented power to reject articles on the basis of nebulous moral concerns and anticipated harms.
Imagine for a moment that this editorial were written, not by political progressives, but by conservative Catholics, who announced that any research promoting (even “inadvertently”) promiscuous sex, the breakdown of the nuclear family, agnosticism and atheism, or the decline of the nation state would be suppressed or rejected lest it inflict unspecified “harm” on vaguely defined groups or individuals. Many of those presently nodding along with Nature’s editors would have no difficulty identifying the subordination of science to a political agenda. One need not argue that opposing racism or promoting the nuclear family are dubious goals in order to also worry about elevating them over free inquiry and the dispassionate pursuit of understanding.
I don’t think many partisans can imagine that, because that would involve entertaining the idea that their version of the truth might not be the only one.
I’m late to this – actually six months late – but as this is my newsletter I suppose I can do whatever I like. I strongly recommend this New Yorker piece by Chang Che on the hugely influential Chinese travelogue from 1991, America Against America.
In August, 1988, under the pall of the Cold War, Wang, then a professor of international politics at Fudan University, was invited by the American Political Science Association for a six-month academic visit. He toured dozens of cities and enterprises, from Fulton, Missouri, where Churchill delivered his fabled Iron Curtain speech, to the Coca-Cola headquarters, in Atlanta. He observed the Presidential race between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis and pondered the meaning of America’s libraries, museums, space program, and even the Amish community (whom he mistakenly refers to as “Armenians”). Though he was struck by the gadgetry of American modernity—its architecture, highways, monuments, and skyscrapers—he detected, beneath it, an “undercurrent of crisis.” More than hundred and fifty years after Alexis de Tocqueville’s visit, Wang believed that America had traded its soul—the connective tissues of community, tradition, and family—for the glory of national wealth and power. Strong but weak-spirited, individualistic but lonely, rich but decadent, America was, as the title suggested, a paradox headed for disaster.
Helen Andrews wrote a piece on fertility and why, while some women can have it all, they tend to be pretty rich: it’s very unhelpful to tell the others that they can.
Obviously there are women today in America who are trying to have it all, and many appear to be doing so successfully, at least insofar as they have both demanding careers and children. But look more closely at those households, and almost invariably you’ll see that behind every woman who is balancing work and family, there is an army of low-paid labor, immigrant cleaning ladies, nannies who are paid cash under the table, Door Dash delivery men who deliver the meals that mom never had time to cook. It’s no coincidence that the vast increase in female workforce participation has coincided with the reappearance of something that the more egalitarian America of the early 20th century did not have, and that is a servant class.
Remember that popular tweet which showed conspiracy theories lined up like they were doing a festival, among the most sinister of these being ‘George Soros’. That was odd, I thought, I’m pretty sure Soros exists, yet whenever anyone criticises the billionaire political activist this is presented as some wacky anti-Semitic conspiracy from the very depths of the internet. James Kirchick wrote a very good piece about this for the Tablet.
What accounts for this dramatic restriction in acceptable discourse regarding one of America’s most powerful private citizens? How is it that so many intelligent people who pride themselves on their capacity for making elegant distinctions and holding nuanced views about ethnic prejudice could bring themselves to spout such reductionist nonsense, denying the obvious reality that an increasing number of key district attorney races in American cities rise or fall on the interest and engagement of a New York billionaire, while also attempting to silence frank descriptions of that reality by portraying them as a species of bigotry?
In Europe we often see this in the context of Hungary, and the government’s opposition to Soros, who is pretty open about promoting progressive ideas in the country of his birth. This is presented as evidence of anti-Semitism by the Orban government, as if nothing more needs to be said. (If you want to read about the fascinating relationship between the two Hungarian men, Christopher Caldwell’s long piece for the Claremont Review is a must-read.)
Do the people who just repeat that ‘anti-Sorosism equals anti-Semitism’ line believe it? I think a lot of it is vibes, in that criticising a Left-wing Jewish activist who lived through the Holocaust just feels bad (and, it goes without saying, if you are anti-Semitic, then you will dislike Soros). I can appreciate that explanation, but I think for others it’s just purely whose side you’re on: Right-wing Jewish political activists are fair game.
I’ve often wondered this: we all have some completely unrelated person out there who looks just like us – in my case, say, Brad Pitt – and surely these random doppelgängers, even if their parents might have come from a completely different part of the world, share some recent common ancestry with us. The New York Times covers a project asking whether lookalikes have similar DNA. Their answer: yes.
In a study published Tuesday in the journal Cell Reports, Dr. Esteller and his team recruited 32 pairs of look-alikes from Mr. Brunelle’s photographs to take DNA tests and complete questionnaires about their lifestyles. The researchers used facial recognition software to quantify the similarities between the participants’ faces. Sixteen of those 32 pairs achieved similar overall scores to identical twins analyzed by the same software. The researchers then compared the DNA of these 16 pairs of doppelgängers to see if their DNA was as similar as their faces.
I wonder if a future genetic project will be able to trace common ancestry.
Eric Kaufmann on the ever-growing gender gap in politics.
For another UK survey of 945 individuals from Prolific I conducted this year, I found that 64% of women under 30 favoured political correctness on the above question compared to 48% of men under 30. This 16-point gap dwarfed the 4-point gender gap found in the over-50s. When I asked this on an American Qualtrics survey, the gender gap was 14 points for under-30s compared to a mere 1 point for the over-50s. The gender gap among the young stands out in both cases.
I wrote about this subject a few years back and it only seems to be getting worse. TLDR: we’re doomed.
‘Do you want to be like me?’ Richard Hanania asks: ‘Do you want to be able to say whatever you want, constantly troll people, and get them to hate you with a passion, with all of this having no impact on your mental stability or functioning as you snort at them with contempt? Probably not. But if you’re like most people, you probably wish you had more confidence and peace of mind.’
Hanania is a very smart guy, and has written some great pieces on substack, even if he comes across as hugely disagreeable (a verdict I imagine he would be fine with.) In contrast, I’m very agreeable — I just want everyone to like me — but still I found his piece on overcoming anxiety very interesting, partly because I’ve gone from being a very neurotic person to someone far closer to the average.
If we told people that fear of flying was something everyone struggles with, that it was the result of what others have done to them, or structural racism or whatever, I’m sure we’d get more of it. Imagine further if TV, music, and movies taught kids that fear of flying made them deep and interesting, and schools and universities had fear of flying awareness weeks. This is pretty much the modern approach to mental illness.
A series of data points converge on the idea that navel-gazing and the medicalization of things like anxiety and depression are themselves major causes of the conditions they are meant to fight. I see nothing else that can explain why we see such skyrocketing rates of mental illness among young people today. If it’s all explained by the rise of the internet, one needs to explain why the mental health crisis hits liberals so much harder than conservatives.
That was via JonS.
Being pathologically agreeable, I hate complaining about anything. If I’m in a restaurant, especially in a foreign country, and the waiter bring me a pile of excrement, and then spits in my food in front of me, I will still pay up without a word of complaint (and probably tip too). But I do remember once ringing up to complain to the BBC, perhaps in my late teens or early 20s — because they cancelled the Simpsons. My only complaint to the broadcaster ever. But then I am of that certain generation, and the show was our ritual ‚ as Tom Whyman observes in the FT.
When I was young, my family went to church every Sunday, and that was the focus of our week. Around the time we stopped going, BBC2 started showing The Simpsons at teatime every Friday. School would end, and we would get tea from the local fish and chip shop. I would always order a cheeseburger, and the burger bun would have this white dot at the bottom, where something about how the batch process worked meant it wasn’t so thoroughly baked. The bite with this dot in was, I thought, the best, so I would save it for when The Simpsons started. The entire week led up to this: the whole point of enduring school was so that on Friday at 6pm, I could eat a cheeseburger and watch The Simpsons. Some days, The Simpsons was unexpectedly cancelled, so that the BBC could show golf or snooker instead. I have never known anger like that since. I once punched a hole in my bedroom wall.
I never participated in my teatime Simpsons ritual with anyone other than my siblings. And yet, just as one might not need to have attended the same church as a fellow believer to recognise another member of the faithful, the experience remains one that other people of a similar age and background to me are likely to have shared. True, I am more fanatic in my devotion than most, but if I ever meet someone of my age who does not know The Simpsons, I experience a strange sort of vertigo, as if I am encountering someone who has grown up on a different planet.
It’s an interesting piece, not just on the show but on media choice and the disappearance of rituals. And no one who likes the Simpsons could be an evil man.
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