ROBERT WRIGHT

Crisis, What Crisis?

More history, less hysteria

Defending Free Speech

The ACLU is no friend of the Trump administration.  Yet it is under fire for having defended the First Amendment rights of the organizers of last weekend's rally in Charlottesville.  One charge is that the ACLU gives "free legal support to hate-based causes" while doing too little to protect progressives.  Another is that it underestimates the impact of cyberbullying in its defence of the precept that "speech cannot do real damage."  The most ominous indictment is that the ACLU "perpetuates a misguided theory that all radical views are equal."  If by radical we mean willingness to engage in political violence, the "theory" is neither misguided nor antiquated.  In an era of political polarization, it is indispensable.

Young People's Burden

NPR's Tom Ashbrook interviewed climate scientist James Hansen recently about his co-authored paper "Young People's Burden," which asserts that we must not merely reduce our carbon emissions but achieve "negative CO2." If we don't, said Hansen, the eventual cost of mitigating the impact of catastrophic climate change will range upwards of $535-trillion.  Ashbrook asked if this "totally mind-boggling number" was related to the climate-related lawsuit Hansen's granddaughter and others have filed against the U.S. Government.  Indeed, replied Hansen, the study provides "some of the science to support that lawsuit."  Leveraging economic doom against ecological disaster—that's good climate science.

Bee News Update

Just when you think you the week's headlines cannot get any more depressing, the Toronto Star comes out with "Bumblebees at Risk of Extinction After Exposure to Pesticide."  Imagine a world without bumblebees.  It's unimaginable.  Turns out it's also apocryphal.  What the co-authors of the study cited by the Star actually found was that when the species bombus terrestris was exposed to thiamethoxam—since 2013 a banned substance in Europe—the result was "a 26% reduction in the proportion of queens that laid eggs." (Translation: resumption of pesticide use may impair the population dynamics of local bee colonies.)  Everyone loves "humblebees."  Work to protect them, but spare us the eco-alarmism.

Red Hot Sex

Women had great sex under communism, according to Prof Kristen Ghodsee—twice as satisfying as women in the liberal-democratic West, by orgasm count.  "The socialist state met their basic needs," says Ghodsee of the women of East Germany, which suggests that "women had more fulfilling lives during the Communist era."  Presumably this contentment extended to the countless women surveilled and imprisoned by the Stasi for political crimes. "It was so easy for women before the Wall fell," rhapsodizes one of Ghodsee's thirty-something interview subjects.  Quite right, says Ghodsee.  We owe our sister apparatchiks in the GDR a debt of gratitude for "the liberation they imposed."  

Review: Homo Deus

Yuval Harari is the Van Gogh of historians—a renegade unafraid to paint in bright colours.  In his new book Homo Deus, he lays out trajectories for the future of humanity that are grounded in painstaking historical analysis.  This is an essentially conservative pursuit, yet Harari's prophesies are pure sci-fi.  He imagines the rise of bio-medically "upgraded" superhumans in a world where "highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms" supplant human consciousness.  Techno-humanism, say he, will obliterate the historic delusion that human life is sacred.  The good news?  We won't miss such conceits in a world where global information systems know us better than we know ourselves.

Charlottesville

Americans' responses to the weekend's events in Charlottesville, Virginia, remain raw and visceral—no surprise, given the murder of Heather Heyer, the deaths of two police officers and the violence that left five civilians in critical condition.  Yet it is already clear that disentangling Charlottesville's deeper meanings is going to demand a great deal from liberal intellectuals in the U.S., who know precisely what is at stake.  Harvard professor Danielle Allen has provided this poignant entrée"The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority....  We are engaged in a fight over whether to work together to build such a world."

On "Climate Evil"

Nobel-Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman can't fathom how anyone of sound mind could doubt the prognostications of the leaked U.S. climate report.  Bad enough that climate deniers always argue in "bad faith," Krugman fumes in a recent op-ed, but now they're abetting the Republicans' "project of destroying civilization."  What drives this "epidemic" of deceit? he wonders.  Answer: an "axis of climate evil" comprised of fossil-fuel opportunists, right-wing ideologues and ego-maniacal intellectuals.  A related question emerges.  What dark forces are at work to compel one of the world's most celebrated liberal thinkers to brand those who disagree with him evil?

Canada and North Korea

Donald Trump's gun-slinger bravado has dominated world headlines this week, but the words of Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland have been every bit as unambiguous.  She has called Kim Jong-un's nuclear program a "grave threat" and warned that it "can have no positive ending for North Korea."  As for the United States, Trump or no Trump, when it is threatened, "we are there."  PM Trudeau has issued no such warning nor any such pledge.  But now that he has secured the release of pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, he must.  Velvet-gloved diplomacy is the key to resolving the Korean nuclear crisis.  But deterrence remains the iron fist.

A Gift to the Skeptics

The leaked U.S. Special Report on climate has been touted as a slam-dunk against Donald Trump but it is, in fact, a gift to the skeptics.  It foregrounds the "frequency and severity" of recent weather events—even though it was the IPCC that trained us not to confuse weather with climate.  It devotes a full chapter to scary Waterworld scenarios not predicted by current models but which "cannot be ruled out" (p. 608). And it offers this intriguing juxtaposition: "The relationship between cumulative CO2 emissions and global temperature response is estimated to be nearly linear" (p. 34), yet "almost no increase [in temperature] occurred from the mid 1940s to the mid 1970s, which is not well understood" (p. 43). 

Review: The Founder

The Founder is a mostly forgettable Hollywood morality play.  Michael Keaton's Ray Kroc is the purest of capitalist villains—screwing the virtuous McDonald brothers out of their birthright, cutting his saintly wife out of his fortune, plagiarizing his speeches.  But the unlikely hero in the movie is fast food itself.  After decades of vilification, the humble American burger & fries combo is here resurrected as a virtuous family-friendly, post-war idyll.  Kroc's biggest crime, according to director John Lee Hancock?  Making shakes out of "Inst-a-mix" to save money on refrigeration costs, then marrying the already-married woman who came up with the idea.

On Ernst Zündel

Ernst Zündel dedicated his life to the promulgation of a set of ideas most people think vile, and he did so mostly from Toronto.  He tested the limits of the free-speech provisions in our Charter and he changed Canadian law.  He was the victim of violence, and a hero to neo-Nazis everywhere for enduring deportation from Canada and imprisonment in Germany rather than renouncing his principles.  Canadians knew Zündel as hateful and imperious—an affront to the liberal precepts of which he took such notorious advantage.  The man will not be missed.  But as we embark on yet another painful national conversation about hate speech, his dark legacy will endure.

Beware the Vac Bot

The iRobot Corp. has recently stopped building bomb-disposal robots for the U.S. military in order to focus on the consumer market for its Roomba™ robot vacuum cleaner.  For roughly U.S.$800, this Frisbee-shaped gizmo will meander around your house sweeping up—wait for it—your data.  You think it's sucking up crumbs and cat hair, when in fact it's mapping the rooms in your house, presumably for sale to the highest bidder.  Privacy advocates have called vac bots "creepy" and are urging manufacturers to take an "ethical approach" to their development.  Such anxiety is misplaced.  A trifling loss of privacy is a small price to pay for the timeless dream of avoiding housework.