Best books of 2021

I read a lot. By a quirk of temperament, I dislike most of what I read. This is why I can’t come up with a top-10 list of books that I read this past year, because I didn’t like that many. But there were five I very much enjoyed. Note that these are not books published in 2021, they are the top five books that I happened to read over the past year:

Tao Jiang, Origins of Moral-Political Philosophy in Early China

Amy Olberding, The Wrong of Rudeness

Siep Stuurman, The Invention of Humanity

Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic

Cailin O’Connor, The Origins of Unfairness

Why are these books so great? You’ll have to read them to find out! I just wanted to extend thanks to the authors (or at least those still alive) for having made my year better than it otherwise would have been.… Continue reading

More on BIPOC and FIVM

There has been some productive discussion generated by the op-ed that I published in the Globe and Mail on May 28th, as well as a certain amount of unproductive discussion and diatribe. (In the article, I questioned the use of the acronym BIPOC in a Canadian context. The claim, in a nutshell, was that while the BIPOC acronym does a tolerable job at capturing the major dimensions of diversity in the United States, it fails to do so in Canada.)

I have for the most part resisted the impulse to respond to the various criticisms that have been made, because they are in almost every case based on a failure to read the piece carefully. For example, many people took me to be claiming that the victimization of Francophones was somehow greater than that of Black Canadians. One need only read the piece more attentively to see that I said no such thing.… Continue reading

The Rebel Sell at 15

A funny thing about the book that Andrew and I wrote, The Rebel Sell, is that it was a bestseller in Spain. We recently did an interview with Manuel Mañero to mark the 15th year anniversary of the publication of the book: 15 años después, la contracultura gira a la derecha. Here is the English-language, unabridged version of that interview (answers by both of us).

 

Q. First inevitable question: if you had to remake The Rebel Sell today, from what idea or theory do you start it?

A. It depends on what you mean. If the question is, if we were writing a critique of counterculture and how it influenced the anti-consumerist movement of the early 21st century, then not much would change. The way we see it, The Rebel Sell is first and foremost a work in the history of ideas – it’s a genealogy of the concept of counterculture, how it emerged in the late 50s and 60s, and the influence that it had on left-wing movements and subsequent youth culture.… Continue reading

How to solve the problem of diving in soccer

Another World Cup, another wave of concerns about the plague of diving (or “simulation”) that afflicts the beautiful game. Every four years the most casual and ignorant of soccer fans become obsessives, and suddenly everyone notices that some of the best soccer players in the world are… a bunch of fakers.

This World Cup actually started out ok, but a week into it and it is business as usual, with the flow of the game regularly interrupted by a charade of flopping, writhing, grimacing, rolling, twisting, grabbing. So once again we are led to ask: What, if anything, can be done about it?

First, diving is nothing new, it’s been a part of the game for a very long time. There’s even a Wikipedia entry about it for heaven’s sake.

But second, not everyone thinks diving is bad. The Globe and Mail’s television writer, John Doyle, wrote a piece two World Cups ago asserting that not only is diving perfectly respectable, but that complaining about it is nothing more than North American parochialism, a sign of our “smug, small-minded notion of fairness, sportsmanship and manliness.”

Unfortunately, many players agree.Continue reading

Is a ratings system for journalists a workable idea?

We live in an age of ratings systems. On any given day, many of us interact with any number of schemes that involve the rating of movies and restaurants, Uber drivers and Air BnB owners, online retail transactions from Amazon to Ebay, and professional service providers including doctors and professors. Sometimes we are the ones being rated, sometimes we are the ones doing the rating, but more often we use the crowdsourced ratings to guide our behaviour and our choices. Some of these systems are better than others, but for better and for worse they have become part of our social infrastructure.

So it was interesting last week to see what happened after Elon Musk took to Twitter to suggest that he was going to start a ratings system for journalism:

“Going to create a site where the public can rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication.

Continue reading

Social constructivism: the basics

One of the reasons that my colleague Jordan Peterson has become such a celebrity is that so many of his critics are so confused. On more than one occasion, he has come out of debates looking like the guy who brought a gun to a knife fight (if one can excuse the metaphor). One area in which this is particularly apparent is in his various discussions of social constructivism, some of which have a “shooting fish in a barrel” quality. This is largely because so many people – both academics and activists – are really confused about what it means to say that something is “socially constructed,” and what the political implications of this are.

As a philosopher and a critical theorist, I feel some responsibility for this, because those of us who trade in these concepts for a living have not done a good enough job at saying what we mean.… Continue reading

Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers

Those who pay attention to the “republic of letters” in Canada will have noticed that Tanya Talaga’s book, Seven Fallen Feathers, has been cleaning up the awards for literary non-fiction, having won the RBC Taylor Prize, and now the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing (announced yesterday at the Politics and the Pen gala in Ottawa). Since I was a member of the jury that awarded it the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize, I thought I might say a few words about why the book stands out among all others published this past year.

With the release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there has been an enormous amount of discussion of the need for reconciliation (or even just normalization of the relationship) between Canada and its First Nations. A great deal of this discussion has been rather fruitless, in part because it has been confined almost entirely to the plane of symbolic politics.… Continue reading

Against the racialization of everything

Race, as I and many other academics never tire of reminding people, is a social construct. Many people who say this, however, do so in a perfunctory manner, before going on to treat it as though it were a natural kind, eternal and unchangeable. For me, the point of emphasizing the “constructedness” of race is to emphasize that is it not an inevitable social category. It is a particular way that many people have of framing certain aspects of individual identity and social interaction. It is, however, not the only, and not a necessary way, of framing things. Thus it always makes sense to ask, in any particular circumstance, whether race is the best way of framing an issue. The question is whether race, as a category, is really getting at what’s important in a given situation.

This question has particular salience at the moment, because many social justice advocates in Canada have been pushing fairly hard for a number of social problems that were traditionally framed in terms of immigration and ethnicity (and multiculturalism) to be reframed in terms of race (and anti-discrimination).… Continue reading

How our culture treats boys

My children are a bit older now, so I don’t shop at The Children’s Place as much as I used to. I happened to stop in the other day though, and I found myself worrying about the sort of messages that we are sending to boys in our culture. For those who don’t know, it’s a clothing store. The layout is always the same: they are split right down the middle, with girls’ clothing on one side and boys’ clothing on the other. This provides a particularly convenient opportunity to compare what is being sold to girls and boys, at any given moment, and to contemplate the various assumptions about gender that go along with it.

For instance, looking the “graphics tees” section, I noticed a very striking difference in the type of images and messages being marketed to girls and those being marketed to boys. Here is a selection of the girls’ T-shirts.… Continue reading

Redefining racism

There’s a little semantic game that’s being played a lot these days, which seems to me worthy of analysis. (And since philosophers are so often of accusing to getting hung up on “semantic questions,” who better to comment on it?) It has become quite standard in many quarters to condemn Canadian society, along with all of its institutions, as being thoroughly and systematically racist. There is however an important ambiguity in the way that the term “racist” is being used, with critics often shifting back and forth between two quite different meanings of the term, in a way that vitiates the force of their criticism.

When most people hear the word “racism,” the way that they understand it is in terms that would have been familiar to civil rights activists of the 1960s. This type of racism was interpreted first and foremost as a derogatory attitude certain individuals have, that leads them to engage in discriminatory behaviour – treating some people better than others based on their racial characteristics.… Continue reading