All posts filed under: History

How We Lost Our Way on Human Rights

Sir Roger Scruton died on January 12th. He was a philosopher, public intellectual, provocateur, novelist, composer, lawyer, organist, and Fellow of The British Academy. Scruton wrote more than 50 books, as well as countless literary articles and journalistic columns. His work attracted opprobrium—but also much admiration. In 2017, I joined a small gaggle of admirers from around the world for 10 days of philosophizing with Sir Roger. At the time, I had recently left my position in university administration and teaching politics to work as CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. We attended seminars and excursions, and typically ended our days with hours of conversation over long dinners and musical performances. One afternoon, I found myself alone with our host in his study. Scruton, as I was already aware, was skeptical of the direction in which the human-rights movement was headed. He agreed wholeheartedly with what others would call first-generation human rights—in his terms, “claims for liberty” drawn from natural law. In particular, he defended the idea of individual agency, which …

The Prescience of Shelby Steele

I have long believed that race is a mask through which other human needs manifest themselves. I think we often make race an issue to avoid knowing other things about ourselves. ~Shelby Steele, Seven Days In Bensonhurst Shelby Steele is experiencing a revival. For over 30 years, the controversial black American essayist and culture critic has consistently produced some of the most original insights to be found on the precarious issue of race in America and has been met with reactions that range from reverence to revulsion. Usually, it’s one reaction or the other. To his critics, Steele is a race traitor, a contrarian black conservative who makes a living assuaging the guilty consciences of whites at the expense of his own people. To his admirers, he is a lone voice of clarity in the chaos of America’s racial discourse who, at 74 years of age, continues to speak uncomfortable and disconcerting truths to power. But his greatest strength may turn out to be a knack for anticipation. As the social upheavals inspired by America’s …

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 …

My Military Jail-Time in Israel

I have never done time in a civilian prison. But military jails are another matter. During my long service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)—during 1967–1969 as a conscript and, thereafter, until 1990, as a reservist—I spent three stints, as far as I can remember, under lock and key. Each of them tells us something about the history of Israel and the IDF. I The first time was like a bad joke and brief, almost a non-event. It was sometime in mid-June 1967, a week or so after the IDF had defeated the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the Six Day War. In the days after the shooting had ended, the IDF was engulfed by chaos. On the front lines, at the eastern edge of the newly-conquered Golan Heights and West Bank, along the Jordan River, the forward combat units dug in, waiting for what the politicians would decide—to hold in place, to withdraw, to shift the units about. (The troops remain there, more or less along the same lines, to this day, …

Time and Perceptions of Trustworthiness—the Row over a Novel Study

So here you are, head down, truffling along cheerfully towards your morning flat white at the local, lost in thought, wondering what kind of poem Catullus might have written about you, had fortune arranged it so, when some geezer calls out, “cheer up, love, it may never happen.” So infuriating. We make fast and frugal snap judgements about each other all the time and they are often wrong. Much pain in human life is caused by our being over-confident about what she/he meant, intended, thought, or felt. We don’t have direct access to each other’s minds. What we have is language—a frosted or sometimes stained-glass window on to others’ minds—and behaviour. Behaviour includes facial expressions. But their interpretations are error prone. A paper interpreting facial expressions has sparked a recent rumpus. A September 2020 paper in the prestigious journal Nature Communications has been savaged on Twitter. Small potatoes to those who don’t use the platform, but the authors received tens of thousands of hateful, jeering, or abusive comments that attacked their work, intentions, and characters. The …

John Glubb and Avoiding the Fate of Empires

Empires rise, and empires fall. This fact of history—so obvious looking backwards—is all but inconceivable to those living through an empire’s peak. Human life is so short in the scheme of civilisations that we tend to overemphasise the importance and length of our own era, while past ages blur together. We live closer in time to Cleopatra than she did to the builders of the pyramids, but Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome all blend in the popular imagination into a shadowy and distant past. Culture biases us as much as our sense of time. The Arabic-speaking Moors ruled large parts of what is now Spain for nearly eight centuries—that is, for a third as long again as the 600 years that have passed since they (or at least, their leaders) were driven out by the newly-united Catholic monarchs of Aragon and Castile. Yet through contemporary European eyes, Moorish rule is typically viewed as an “interlude” in the history of the Spanish nation—a nation that, in reality, didn’t come into political being until the late 15th …

Analyst of Totalitarianism—Reading Simon Leys Today

Simon Leys was perhaps the pre-eminent Western chronicler of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and it is worth returning to his work for its vivid first-hand accounts of life in Beijing during this period. But Leys was also interested in the process by which, under the right conditions and with the right ideology, a society can collapse into insanity and murder. His description of the Cultural Revolution showed how political hysteria and the legitimization of violence and hatred combined to ravage a nation. These developments, however, are by no means unique to communism in general or China in particular, and Leys explored similar themes in his retelling of the harrowing true story of a ship wrecked off the coast of Australia in 1629. His book on the topic, The Wreck of the Batavia, is a short masterpiece about how the small society that the ship’s survivors tried to construct in the wake of the disaster was plunged into apocalyptic madness and murder by a psychopathic leader operating according to his own deranged totalitarian ideology. The parallels to Maoism—although Leys …

Deception and Complicity—the Strange Case of Jessica Krug

On September 9th, Jessica Krug, 38, abruptly resigned from her job as associate professor of African history at George Washington University (GWU). Apparently fearing imminent exposure, she had confessed in a post on Medium that she had passed herself off for more than a decade as being of black-African descent from an ever-shifting range of backgrounds. In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison she told fellow students she was of Algerian origin with a German father. Later, she claimed that she was from the inner-city “hood” with a spiritual kinship to the late rapper Biggie Smalls—or, alternatively, that she was the offspring of “Caribbean” immigrants, with an Ellis Island-style tale of immigration officials’ mis-transcribing her “grandparents’” surname, Cruz. Her final self-proclaimed provenance seems to have been the South Bronx slums, where she identified as a “boricua,” or Stateside-dwelling Puerto Rican whose mother had been a drug addict. She also moonlighted as a salsa-dancing community activist with the tag “Jess La Bombalera” and was videoed at a New York City Council hearing in June 2020 berating …

Down the 1619 Project’s Memory Hole

The history of the American Revolution isn’t the only thing the New York Times is revising through its 1619 Project. The “paper of record” has also taken to quietly altering the published text of the project itself after one of its claims came under intense criticism. When the 1619 Project went to print in August 2019 as a special edition of the New York Times Magazine, the newspaper put up an interactive version on its website. The original opening text stated: The 1619 project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative. [emphasis added] The passage, and in particular its description of the year 1619 as “our true founding,” quickly became a flashpoint for controversy around the project. Critics on both the Left and Right took issue with the paper’s declared …

The Rule of the Masses

As cities burn across a divided United States of America, it is worth considering some of the conditions that foment the country’s increasingly radical politics. During the past few years, the United States has experienced a series of cultural shifts in which the public’s perception of numerous—primarily social—issues has been abruptly and dramatically altered. In a matter of months, the minority views of political activists become normalised while views which were previously tolerated in mainstream discussions are suddenly impossible to hold in public life. Though one would expect such shifts to occur gradually over many years and feature prominently in fierce public debate, the change always arises suddenly, at once a surprise to many who pride themselves on being informed about—and having a stake in—public life, and yet succeeding overwhelmingly against virtually no formal organised opposition. Moreover, these shifts are supported by private and public institutions which become, without warning, part of the vortex of mass opinion. I Writing between the two world wars that would shape the rest of his century and the beginning …