All posts filed under: culture

Liberalism—Decline or Survival

The world is still coming to terms with Charles Darwin. Denial of evolution is usually associated with the evangelical Right—a world entirely and perfectly created in seven days—but the Left is just as fond of disowning conclusions that the application of Darwin’s theory produces when they are ideologically undesirable. The uncomfortable truth is that evolution is not just something that happens to animals at a glacial pace—it is a process that plays out in any system where replication is related to success. Human societies are no exception to this rule and bearing this in mind can be surprisingly useful for understanding the world around us. From a Darwinian perspective, the point of a culture is to replicate itself. From this, all else follows. The rules and rites that govern a society fall into shape as systems for maximising the fitness of a culture for surviving its environment: laws reduce and resolve conflict, religious prohibitions on eating “tainted” food maintain hygiene, sexual taboos and morality minimise the spread of disease and ensure that there will, ultimately, …

Farewell, Alex Trebek

On Friday, November 6th, between 1 and 2pm Pacific Daylight Time, I participated in an audition for the TV game-show Jeopardy!. Normally auditions are conducted in person at various regional locations around the US. As a Northern Californian, I should have been attending a live audition in San Francisco. But COVID and the quarantine have played havoc with everything this year, and the King of American Game-Shows is no exception. And so, along with eight other hopefuls, I was auditioned via a Zoom call from Southern California by John Barra, the show’s contestant producer. He informed us that, since the onset of the pandemic, roughly 237,000 people had applied online to be Jeopardy! contestants. The show selects about 400 contestants each year. This was in fact the second Zoom conference call in which I had participated with the producers of Jeopardy!. On September 2nd, I participated in a sort of pre-audition meet-and-greet with seven other potential contestants and a different producer, whose name I’ve forgotten. By the end of the November 6th audition, the nine …

A Reasoned Judgment and a Reputation in Ruins

Well, now it’s not just the word of British tabloid the Sun, it’s also the rather weightier opinion of Mr Justice Nicol: Johnny Depp is a wife-beater who assaulted Amber Heard on at least 12 separate occasions during their relationship. Like many others who have brought libel actions to clear their names, Depp has found that using the law to defend your reputation is a very expensive way of shattering it—in this case, probably beyond hope of repair. A lot of his fans don’t like it, of course. #JusticeforJohnny has been trending, along with out of context—or simply invented—quotations from the judgment. There have also been lurid suggestions that it was “corrupt” for Nicol J to sit on the case because he once co-wrote a book on media law with Geoffrey Robertson QC, whose wife was friendly with Jennifer Robinson, a barrister who had advised Heard. That ground of appeal, I can confidently predict, will get him nowhere. Nevertheless, dubious or false allegations of physical or sexual violence are by no means unheard of, whether …

R.M. Vaughan (1965–2020): A Beautiful Mind Silently Extinguished in a Time of Fear

We were extremely close for about five years. He was my confidante and my support system. We were best friends. Never lovers—though many thought we were. It was a dark time for me, and I needed him. Canadian gay writer Richard Murray Vaughan (1965–2020) was found dead by police in Fredericton, New Brunswick on October 23rd—10 days after being reported missing. No foul play is suspected. This is in part a remembrance of R.M. (as he was widely known, including to his friends), but also a reminder that the campaign against COVID-19 can create its own kind of harm. I don’t pretend that this essay is one Richard would have authored (though he did write about COVID-19 and mental health shortly before his death). He and I were different men and different writers. But I do think my old friend would have agreed with at least some of what I have to say. I met Richard when he entered my office at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre—142 George Street, Toronto—in 1991. Initially we talked about …

What We Owe to ‘The Boys in the Band’—and Other Classics of Gay Film

Ryan’s Murphy’s new Netflix production of The Boys in the Band is a time capsule of gay life in New York City, 1968. A group of friends, all but one closeted, get together for a birthday party that makes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf look like a strawberry social. Shame, guilt, fear, and self-loathing rip through a night of pills, alcohol, and panic attacks, ending with the lines, “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse,” and “If we could just not hate ourselves so much… If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.”  I was 18 when I saw the original production, alone, and 19 when I saw the 1970 film adaptation, also alone. I furtively entered and exited the theatre both times, terrified that someone I knew might see me at a show about gays. Would they wonder if I was gay, too? If they guessed, then what? I could end up like those characters, cast off by friends and family, no hope, …

How Availability Cascades are Shaping our Politics

“When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” – Eric Hoffer, 1955 We are the company we keep. Although our beliefs and actions are personal, they are often heavily affected by the people around us. When everyone else seems to be thinking the same way, we may succumb to crowd pressure rather than thinking for ourselves. When all available information seems to indicate that everyone is falling in line with a certain belief, we may be under the influence of an “availability cascade.” Today, our politics and public discourse are being poisoned by availability cascades. Thanks partly to partisan domination of the media and academia, many people are being pressured into publicly espousing beliefs that are not their own. Two components make up an availability cascade: an informational cascade and a reputational cascade. An informational cascade creates genuine changes in people’s beliefs by providing plentiful but misleading information. A reputational cascade is a vicious cycle in which individuals feign expressions of conviction to retain social approval. In the 2007 …

Elder Millennial Metalheads: Our Shrinking World of Dark Thoughts and Bad Jobs

I was born in 1986, the year of release for the first movie I ever saw, David Cronenberg’s The Fly. I was raised in a middle-class, mixed-race family, in the suburbs of Riverside County, California, surrounded by heavy metal, violent cartoons, and children’s programming like Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark?—all of which warned me that the world I was entering was a wild, nasty place. I also grew up watching Married with Children, sitting on the couch with my father, emulating Al Bundy’s signature pose. Another message I got: Middle-class American life is a nightmare. It’s a vicious trap for suckers too stupid to be successful or too scared to be vagabonds. George Carlin, N.W.A., Black Flag. Everywhere I looked, it seemed all of the cool people had the same message. The American Dream is a sham. You’re better than that. Kurt Cobain, Tupac, Biggie, and River Phoenix showed a generation of suburban boys our nihilistic path. We were too clever for the assembly lines, too principled for Wall Street, too vulgar …

Slack Wars: Corporate America’s Woke Insurgency

Between 2008 and 2019, total newsroom employment in the United States declined by 23 percent. At newspapers, the drop has been more than 50 percent. Journalists are hardly to blame for the underlying causes of this contraction (which include the long-term shift from physical to digital media, and the growing ad-market share controlled by Google and Facebook). But they can be blamed for the gratuitous acts of self-sabotage that are exacerbating the industry’s woes. Many journalists—and even their unions—now seem more preoccupied with denouncing heresies among colleagues than with maintaining their audience and livelihoods. At the New York Times, to take one obvious case study, op-ed editor James Bennet was hounded out in June after publishing a column that reflected widespread frustration with violent social-justice protests. Bari Weiss, one of the newspaper’s brightest stars, decided to follow Bennett out after enduring an internal newsroom campaign of verbal bullying, which included bizarre claims that she was a racist and a Nazi (these slurs targeting a Jewish woman whose recent book is titled How to Fight Anti-Semitism). …

Sex and the American Presidency

This essay was first published in the French literary journal America, on July 8th, 2020 America was founded by an austere religious sect for whom sex was anathema. America invokes God on both its coinage and paper money. In 1630, John Winthrop declared America to be “a city upon a hill,” gilded words that borrowed from the Sermon on the Mount and were famously echoed centuries later by Ronald Reagan. And yet the current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, has appeared in not one but three softcore pornographic videos. Mercifully, he remained clothed for the duration of his time onscreen and did not engage in actual sex, yet one must ask: How did we arrive at such a louche and ridiculous place, a carnal funhouse where the individual on whom the hopes of 330,000,000 of his fellow citizens are pinned is someone who once posed for a photographer while reclining on a bed clad in a bathrobe that looked to have been filched from a stripper’s closet, subsequently married a former model a …

Then They Came for Beethoven

This week, Vox published an article titled “How Beethoven’s 5th Symphony put the classism in classical music.” “Since its 1808 premiere, audiences have interpreted [its opening progression] as a metaphor for Beethoven’s personal resilience in the face of his oncoming deafness,” write Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding. But “for some in other groups—women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color—Beethoven’s symphony may be predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism.” In the article, and an accompanying podcast, the two men ask “how Beethoven’s symphony was transformed from a symbol of triumph and freedom into a symbol of exclusion, elitism, and gatekeeping.” The article has been widely mocked on social media—in part because the authors (both white men, from what I can tell) offer no real evidence for their claim. That’s odd given that they are purporting to redefine the cultural meaning of what is arguably the most well-known, widely performed, and beloved composition known to humankind. Hundreds of millions of people have fallen in love with this symphony over the past two centuries—many …