October 2021

Selected articles, including Jonathan Haidt on "collective monomania"; Justin P. McBrayer on diversity; and Sir Roger Scruton on declining and dying virtuously in a hyper-medicalized age.

The Triumph and Terror of Wang Huning

N.S. Lyons in Palladium on Wang Huning, a shadowy and influential Chinese Communist Party intellectual, tracing his ideological transformation from being pro-America to deeply anti-liberal in his quest to save China from the scourges he sees plaguing the West.

[W]hile Americans have today given up the old dream of liberalizing China, they should maybe look a little closer. It’s true that China never remotely liberalized—if you consider liberalism to be all about democratic elections, a free press, and respect for human rights. But many political thinkers would argue there is more to a comprehensive definition of modern liberalism than that. Instead, they would identify liberalism’s essential telos as being the liberation of the individual from all limiting ties of place, tradition, religion, associations, and relationships, along with all the material limits of nature, in pursuit of the radical autonomy of the modern “consumer.”

From this perspective, China has been thoroughly liberalized, and the picture of what’s happening to Chinese society begins to look far more like Wang’s nightmare of a liberal culture consumed by nihilistic individualism and commodification.

Monomania is Illiberal and Stupefying

Jonathan Haidt in Persuasion on collective monomania: what it is; how it makes groups stupid and illiberal; and why that's such a big problem.

Individual monomania is rarely a social problem. One person who is obsessed with butterflies or with a particular celebrity, or who sees everything in sexual, economic, or religious terms, is just an eccentric, although sometimes a tiresome one. The monomaniac may suffer a constricted range of emotions and experiences, but she usually imposes no costs on others (although there are cases of celebrity stalkers and lone-wolf terrorists). It is collective or group monomanias that are more worrisome for liberal societies because they create many negative externalities: They cause large numbers of people to behave in ways that are harmful and unjust to others. I’ll focus on two specific group-level effects of monomanias: making groups illiberal and making groups stupid.

What Is Diversity? And Why Is It Valuable?

Justin P. McBrayer in Quillette on different kinds of diversity and why we should or shouldn't value them.

When an institution sets diversity goals, it should be clear about which human features they want to diversify and why that sort of diversification is valuable. Without clear answers to these questions, diversity initiatives are likely to be futile—we won’t be able to prioritize the goods of diversity against other sorts of goods and we won’t know whether we’ve made progress towards our goals.

The New Puritans

Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic investigating the aftermaths of those who break contemporary social codes and find themselves on the wrong side of a young, intolerant, and Internet-obsessed mob.

In America, of course, ... [t]here are currently no laws that shape what academics or journalists can say; there is no government censor, no ruling-party censor. But fear of the internet mob, the office mob, or the peer-group mob is producing some similar outcomes. How many American manuscripts now remain in desk drawers—or unwritten altogether—because their authors fear a similarly arbitrary judgment? How much intellectual life is now stifled because of fear of what a poorly worded comment would look like if taken out of context and spread on Twitter?

To answer that question, I spoke with more than a dozen people who were either victims or close observers of sudden shifts in social codes in America.

Why the word "woman" is tying people in knots

The Economist on the push among activists to replace the word "woman" with confusing and dehumanizing alternatives, and the possible consequences.

This linguistic shift is being driven by both compassion and fear. Compassion, because organisations are keen not to be seen to be excluding those whose sense of their gender does not match their sex, such as people who identify as trans or non-binary. And fear, because they are worried about attracting the wrath of online mobs should they be deemed to have violated a set of rapidly changing taboos about gender and sex that hardly existed five years ago—and which, outside a few rarefied circles, still don’t. Most dictionaries define a woman as an “adult human female”. Among some activists, this is a gross provocation, for they see it as denying that males can be women, too.

Language changes constantly (the word “taboo”, for instance, is an 18th-century import from Polynesia). But doctors, bosses and politicians should think carefully before throwing away widely understood words, or using them in new and radically different ways. In the rush to seem up to date, they risk doing a disservice to their own patients, employees and voters.

Dying in Time

Sir Roger Scruton, excerpted from Confessions of a Heretic, wrestling with questions about making virtuous and courageous choices about aging, senility and death within our present, morally dubious context of hyper-medicalized decline.

Now, modern medicine and healthcare have made it normal to survive into a time of life when our mental capacities and physical competence are in steep decline. We fear this, but we go on taking the medicine and visiting the doctor. The fear is rational, but the medication less so. We are presented with a continuous choice – to wear out the body while we still inhabit it, and then make the best exit we can, or to go on postponing the moment of truth to the point when we are no longer able to do anything to help ourselves. The person who has done so much to stave off death, that he has staved it off to the point where he is unable to make any clear decisions in the face of it, is not someone to whom we owe any help, when it comes to deciding what to do.

The question that concerns me, then, is just how we can aim at a timely death, and what would be right or wrong to do in pursuit of it.