Month: December 2017

The Legend of George Orwell

Some writers are known as much for their legends as for their writing. Think of Hemingway or Kerouac. George Orwell likewise has a place in popular myth, though as a more austere and moral hero, a prophet against communism in a clear English prose. You can see his gaunt, lined face on a t-shirt or coffee mug, and you will come upon his wax likeness at Madame Tussaud’s in London, sitting at a typewriter as a jack-booted policeman looms behind his right shoulder. Moreover, his name has morphed into an adjective, so we might call the cameras watching you...

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Trumped Up Violence

When conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro gave a lecture at UC Berkeley in September, student protesters chanted “Speech is violent, we will not be silent.” Their speech echoed a common refrain in contemporary Leftist responses to racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in the age of Trump: language is understood not only to express violence, but also to perform it. To understand language as violent is to expand our conventional conception of violence beyond the physical forms it assumes. The contemporary discourse on microaggressions similarly broadens the scope of what constitutes harm. For many it is a microaggression to ask...

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Auerbach and Me

I teach Mimesis, Erich Auerbach’s improbable masterpiece—he wrote it in Istanbul in the 1940s, on the run from the Nazis—whenever I get the chance, even when it seems extraneous to the content of the course. To be honest, I drag him into every classroom, saying, “This is the most important book of the 20th century, so you owe it to yourself to read it, sooner or later.” Why would anyone make such a preposterous claim, which might well scare undergraduates into thinking the professor is a lunatic? Good question. More important, than, say, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit...

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The Importance of the “Steady State”

The history of environmentalist thought is structured, as often as not, by too much and too many: too much stuff, too many people; too much deforestation, too many poisoned aquifers. Capitalism, as its supporters and critics alike would surely agree, thrives on exactly this too-muchness. Growth is its sole commandment. It hardly needs to be said that these truths can’t coexist, that a system that needs to keep growing to survive is ill suited to a full planet running rapidly out of resources. The doctrine of endless growth, which must ignore this fact, requires an ecological illiteracy best summed...

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