Articles

What is existential freedom?

Earlier this year, historian Mary Beard got involved in a Twitter spat after she suggested that it was not all that shocking that Oxfam workers had used prostitutes, while on a disaster relief mission in Haiti. She noted that people often behave badly in extreme situations and suggested that it might be a mistake to judge them too harshly. There was a predictable outraged backlash. Writing about the controversy afterwards, Beard reflected that people often have unrealistically high moral standards, even of themselves. She gave the example of a discussion she’d had with a group of students, about Nazi-occupied France. She’d asked what they thought they would have done in those circumstances. “They all said they would have joined the Resistance,” she recalled, before noting, “The truth is to judge by any statistics you can get that most of them would have been collaborators or keeping their heads down.”

It’s a salutary point, and I don’t dispute it, but, at the same time, there would have to be something seriously wrong with anyone who answered the question by saying, “Well, statistically speaking, I’d probably have helped the Nazis.” Continue reading “What is existential freedom?”

Whose mythical past?

In February this year, scientists unveiled a reconstruction of the face of Cheddar Man, who died around 9,000 years ago, and whose skeleton was found in a cave in Somerset in 1903. DNA analysis has now revealed that ‘the earliest known Briton’ – part of a population from which modern white Britons are thought to descend – probably had dark to black skin and blue eyes. Continue reading “Whose mythical past?”

The Reformation: a secular enchantment

If you ask most people with only a passing knowledge of Christianity to explain the differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, they’ll probably mention communion. Catholics believe the bread and wine literally turn into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, while for Protestants the ritual is merely symbolic. Something like that? Martin Luther would have been horrified.

Continue reading “The Reformation: a secular enchantment”

Talking That Existential Leap with WORLDbytes

At the end of August, I talked to volunteers from the education charity WORLDbytes about That Existential Leap: a crime story. Here is the video.

You can find other WORLDbytes videos on their website. I also recommend their documentary Every Cook Can Govern: The life, impact & works of C.L.R. James and I look forward to 1917: Why The Russian Revolution Matters, which will premiere at the Battle of Ideas in London at the end of October.

Buy That Existential Leap: a crime story.

The gender problem

A hundred years ago, the gender question was about equality, or the lack of it. Today, there is a broad consensus that the sexes should be treated equally, but increasingly agonised debate about what gender actually is. The transgender phenomenon is only the most extreme expression of uncertainty about the relationship between biological sex and gender as it is subjectively experienced by ourselves and others. More quietly and prosaically, many of us simply wonder from time to time if men and women are fundamentally different, or whether such differences as are apparent are no more than the legacy of a less equal society. Continue reading “The gender problem”

The ways they are like us all

That Existential Leap: a crime story, was in production last year when Lionel Shriver caused a stir by launching a scathing attack at the Brisbane Writers Festival on the concept of cultural appropriation. In particular, she rejected the idea that writers should not write about characters from backgrounds different from their own, that it is exploitative, for example, for a white, male, British author to write from the point of view of a 14-year-old Nigerian girl. As a white, male, British author who wrote much of That Existential Leap from the point of view of a young American woman of Indian origin, I had to agree with Shriver. Continue reading “The ways they are like us all”

Did Anna die for nothing?

51B7vhJixGLThe Idiot, by Elif Batuman (Jonathan Cape 2017)

There is an old librarian joke about a little girl who returns a book to the library and complains that it told her more about penguins than she had wanted to know. Readers of Elif Batuman’s 2010 book The Possessed are likely to have put the book down feeling much the same about Uzbek literature. Continue reading “Did Anna die for nothing?”