In 2012, Mona Eltahawy published an essay in Foreign Policy magazine, ‘Why Do They Hate Us?,’ that drew attention to the unequal and precarious position of women in the Middle East and North Africa. Eltahawy argued that in the Muslim world women are treated like animals by men who disdain and fear them. In the wake of the Arab Spring, she called for a shift in focus from political leaders who oppress their citizens to the men who oppress women in the streets and at home. Her words prompted angry responses from many on the Left who are loath to blame one religion or culture for this miserable state of affairs.
A prominent editor of speculative fiction (a term that encompasses both science fiction and fantasy) pinpointed 2012 as the year that the genre “moved away from the white male Anglo Saxon Mayberry of its youth and towards a more mature, diverse, and inclusive future.” His words were an encapsulation of trendy opinion among certain sorts of spec-fic fans. They were also flat-out wrong. If early science fiction and fantasy had an ideology (a doubtful proposition at best) it was techno-cultural utopianism—the opposite of the conservatism of The Andy Griffith Show. The giants of the field wrote in explicit support of civil rights, sexual liberation, and women’s equality. But ideologues must exaggerate past evils to justify their present excesses, and so down the memory hole go Heinlein’s 1961 A Stranger in Strange Land and LeGuin’s 1969 The Left Hand of Darkness.
In 1800 and 1802, respectively, two boys were born in Peebles, a small town in the Scottish Borders, each with twelve fingers and twelve toes. The locals thought their extra digits lucky. They may have been right.
Shuffling around in their attic, the elder of the two found an ancient set of the Encyclopædia Britannica. “What the gift of a whole toy-shop would have been to most children,” William wrote in his memoirs of dipping into them for the first time, “this book was to me. I plunged into it. I roamed through it like a bee.”
Just as some journalists have come to admire the Clinton family because, and not in spite, of the total lack of integrity apparent in their careers, so I have come to admire the writings of Fareed Zakaria because, and not in spite, of the total absence of shame manifest in their composition. His latest, slender effort, In Defense of a Liberal Education, made it to #6 on the New York Times bestseller list, and as I write, resides at #1 on Amazon in the categories of both “political science” and “education.”
Barry Strauss’ The Death of Caesar begins with the triumphant Julius returning to Rome, surrounded by allies and well-wishers—many of whom would eventually take part in the plot to kill him—and then takes the reader on a compelling tour of the events surrounding Caesar’s assassination and the subsequent struggle between competing parties and conceptions of Roman government.
Once in a while, a writer’s desire to realize a gender-bending female protagonist can lead him astray. Rather than a rounded human being with agency, their hero becomes a fictional embodiment of the masculine stereotype—emotionless (save anger), violent, and unsubtle. In the fantasy genre, where preindustrial, patriarchal societies are the norm and women characters frequently battle against the prevailing culture, this issue is particularly common. Exactly why writers of speculative novels habitually jettison the lessons of their training and experience when writing women is a mystery, although presumably the promotion of a contemporary political point of view is at least partly responsible. Joe Abercrombie pins the hopes of his second novel, Half the World, on just such a character and the result is uninspiring.
In the first year of the war between Athens and Sparta, Pericles was chosen to speak at a state funeral for the Athenian war-dead. This was an old tradition and a grand spectacle, starting at the funeral pyre and ending in front of a mass, ornate sepulcher. Traditionally, the speaker, surrounded by the wailing female relatives of the fallen, would make a speech about the noble deeds of the dead, but Pericles’s speech was different.He spoke to the mourning public about why Athens is worthy of empire.
Two trends have been at work in American culture over the past few years, and not much attention has been paid to the tension between them. On one side is the push for greater public health, manifested in limits on soda sizes and a stigmatizing of cigarette smoking. In many areas, local governments have outlawed smoking tobacco in bars and restaurants and near building entrances, and PSAs trumpet the health risks of smoking. On the other side, a push for greater acceptance of marijuana is gaining ground, with cities and whole states legalizing weed despite federal laws outlawing it.