Apocalypse Not

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Something strange and wonderful is afoot in the op-ed pages of the New York Times—normally your one-stop shop for alarmist reportage on Donald Trump, climate change and everything in between. Not once but twice since the new year, Times taste-makers have discovered that human progress is on a tear, that the best time in history to be alive is right now, and that the future is bright.

The first volley came in early January, when Nicholas Kristof explained to presumably thunderstruck Times readers why 2017 was the best year in human history. "A smaller share of the world’s people were hungry, impoverished or illiterate than at any time before. A smaller proportion of children died than ever before. The proportion disfigured by leprosy, blinded by diseases like trachoma or suffering from other ailments also fell. Every day, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty (less than about $2 a day) goes down by 217,000. Every day, 325,000 more people gain access to electricity. And 300,000 more gain access to clean drinking water." Wow.

Times columnist Bret Stephens followed up yesterday with a piece entitled "Apocalypse Not." His critique is even more astounding than Kristof's, since it takes direct aim at decades of energy, population and climate-related fear-mongering that the New York Times has itself played a vital role in promulgating. "To the extent that starvation is a phenomenon of recent decades—as in places like North Korea and Venezuela—it is mainly the result of gross political mismanagement, not ecological disaster," says Stephens. "Peak oil keeps being defeated by frackers and deepwater explorers. [B]y most metrics of human welfare, the world keeps getting better with every passing year."

Both writers wryly acknowledge not only that their day-to-day editorial mission is to foment anxiety but that, indeed, this is what Times readers have come to expect. Here's Kristof again. "We need some perspective as we watch the circus in Washington, hands over our mouths in horror. We journalists focus on bad news—we cover planes that crash, not those that take off—but the backdrop of global progress may be the most important development in our lifetime. The most important thing happening right now is not a Trump tweet, but children’s lives saved and major gains in health, education and human welfare." And here's the best line of all—a true showstopper. "Every other day this year, I promise to tear my hair and weep and scream in outrage at all the things going wrong. But today, let’s not miss what’s going right."

Bret Stephens agrees with Kristof but adds into the mix a scathing indictment of the left/green alarmists who have for decades been terrifying the public with their human-extinction prophesies. Citing agronomist William Vogt's archetypal brand of mid-twentieth-century “apocalyptic environmentalism," Stephens observes that "in our own day, people like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein have made careers saying more or less the same thing. This is a world where the clock is permanently set at two minutes to midnight, and where only a radical transformation of modern society (usually combining dramatic changes in personal behavior along with a heavy dose of state intervention) can save us." But wait. It gets even better. "If environmental alarmists ever wonder why more people haven’t come around to their way of thinking, it isn’t because people like me occasionally voice doubts in newspaper op-eds. It’s because too many past predictions of imminent disaster didn’t come to pass." Wow.

Funny that Stephens should mention Naomi Klein. Snowbound Canadians are taking a special interest in eco-radicalism just now because the Lewis & Klein "Leap Manifesto" fringe, backed by imported Bernie and Corbynista cheerleaders, are about to take their second shot at commandeering the good ship NDP. Jagmeet Singh, take note.

As for Kristof and Stephens, well, better late than never. It is refreshing, to say the least, to catch of glimpse of such bare-knuckle honesty from members of the Times commentariat. But it does not change the fact that 364 days of the year, they are complicit in a style of journalism that wreaks havoc on the psychological well-being of ordinary citizens everywhere, and distorts global public policy at the highest levels.

On Sexting

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Anyone interested in the online welfare of young Canadians should read the new MediaSmarts report, "Non-Consensual Sharing of Sexts." Three of the study's four principal researchers—Professor Faye Mishna, grad student Moses Okumu, and administrator Joanne Daciuk—work out of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto. They acknowledge that teenage sexting (circulating nude or semi-nude photos of oneself) sits ominously "at the intersection of cyberbullying, sexual exploitation and pornography." The challenge they have set for themselves, however, is to offer prescriptive solutions for the potentially horrendous consequences of sexting—blackmail, most notably—while rejecting what they call "abstinence and victim-blaming approaches."

Mishna et. al. know they're working against the grain. Survey data show, for example, that girls are more likely to send sexts, and boys are more likely to share them without consent (even though this is illegal). Moreover, young people of both sexes tend to "blame the girl for sending a photo while minimizing and not identifying the (typically male) person who had shared the photo publicly." In the face of this apparent double-standard, the authors offer the following advice. "Interventions related to sending sexts should take a sex education approach, recognizing that sending sexts to willing recipients is not by itself a harmful activity. Greater awareness needs to be raised among parents, educators and the general public about the non-consensual sharing of sexts by youth." Adults who might once have counselled teenagers to think twice before posting nude photos of themselves are encouraged to "avoid victim-blaming" and instead to confront "gender stereotypes" and counter "social norms and expectations of reciprocity." Some old-fashioned Canadians, unschooled in the ways of postmodernism, will undoubtedly find this advice woolly-headed and preposterous, particularly if they happen to have teen-aged daughters.

The report's major flaw is not ideological, however, but methodological. The authors allude throughout the document to the sexting behaviours of "youth," but it turns out that of the 800 Canadians they surveyed, only a minority (325) were under the age of 18. The majority of respondents were adults, aged 18 to 20, meaning that they were apt to be post-secondary students and—as any parent or teacher of Canadians in this age group will attest—inclined to think for themselves. One of the report's most significant findings is thus one that the researchers themselves appear not to fully appreciate: only 24 percent of 17-year-olds reported sending sexts but the number of 18-year-olds who did so was nearly twice as high, at 45 percent. If you're a Canadian parent or high-school teacher who rejects the idea that "sending sexts to willing recipients is not by itself a harmful activity," it comes as welcome news that actual youths are exercising comparatively good judgement.

The MediaSmarts report has appeared at precisely the moment when Canadians (and other Westerners) are debating the right to be forgotten. Last week, for example, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada issued a position paper on "Online Reputation" that places children and youth in a unique category of vulnerability. "In the current social media age, we note that it is not uncommon for information about children and youth to be posted by their parents. A 'cute' anecdote or photo may—at the time, or in the future—be highly embarrassing or even harmful to the child or youth, and youth have indicated a desire for greater control of this information."

What these two reports appear to demonstrate is that, even now, we have barely begun to imagine what it means to have every flake of one's life archived, publicly, online, forever. But here's a tip for all you wild and crazy shutterbugs. Forget about those baby pictures your mom has been posting on Facebook. What you really do not want your future in-laws and employers seeing are your drunken prom photos—oh, and those sexy pix you sent that cute guy in math class who turned out to be a creep.

The World According to Francis Fukuyama

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In a recent op-ed co-authored with Robert Muggah, End-of-History theorist Francis Fukuyama asserts that a "virulent" strain of populism has descended upon the West and is poisoning the "global liberal order." Populist leaders in Turkey, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Serbia are identified, but only en passant. Vladimir Putin is not mentioned, and neither is Xi Jinping. The true villain of the piece is Donald Trump. If Trump and the GOP maintain "their hold on government" after the 2018 mid-terms and the 2020 presidential election, all is lost. "It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the global liberal order hangs precariously in the balance."

Well, yes, it is an exaggeration. And more to the point, the Francis Fukuyama we thought we knew—the one with an almost occult ability to discern the sweep of history in its broadest contours—would have been the first person to point this out.

What's Muggah's and Fukuyama's problem with Trump? It's hard to tell. They acknowledge, as do a growing number of the president's academic critics, that his bark is far worse than his bite, and that "the U.S.'s constitutional checks and balances are weathering the storm." They concede that Trump's supporters are far less interested in his tweets than in his economic policies. They also acknowledge that "the steady move of the Democrats to the left of U.S. voters, and their continued focus on identity politics" has played to Trump's advantage. Theirs is not the critique of the Trump presidency we are used to hearing from never-Trumpers like David Frum, who fret about "the stealthy paralysis of governance," the "subversion of norms" and "the incitement of private violence to radicalize supporters." Muggah and Fukuyama understand that Trump has not burned down the Reichstag.

So the question emerges: what will happen if President Trump governs for eight years instead of four? Answer: "The withdrawal of the U.S. from the global order will continue and power will diffuse from the west to the east. The shift from a uni-polar to a multi-polar world will accelerate, with dangerous fallout." What dangerous fallout? And how was it ever in the power of the U.S. president to prevent the diffusion of power in world where China is ascendant, or to decelerate the reversion of a uni-polar world into a multi-polar one? Unfortunately, these questions are never answered. What we get instead is a parting platitude: "One thing is for certain: The road ahead is radically uncertain."

The Fukuyama of old would not have stood for such vague posturing. In October 2001, when the United States was still reeling from 9/11, Fukuyama defended with brash outspokenness his signature idea—that the global expansion of democracy and free markets was inexorable and could not be diverted even by the worst sort of jihadi terror. "We remain at the end of history because there is only one system that will continue to dominate world politics, that of the liberal-democratic west," he wrote. "This does not imply a world free from conflict, nor the disappearance of culture. But time is on the side of modernity." A decade later, in 2011, Fukuyama rather blithely suggested that even China would inevitably jettison its system of "tyrannical state power" and join the new world order. "I think the Chinese are going to work their own way toward that," he said. "I just don't think they can keep this kind of centralized authoritarian system going forever."

Professor Fukuyama's confidence in liberal-democratic triumphalism was not rattled, in short, by the events of 9/11, by the proliferation of jihadi terror, or even by the rise to world power of an undemocratic China. The great flow of history was too great, the established trajectory of the post-Cold War world order too durable. If Fukuyama genuinely believes that the road ahead is "radically uncertain"—after thirty years of defending precisely the opposite view—he should take the trouble to explain why.

Cutting Jordan Peterson Down to Size

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Professor Jordan Peterson is a polarizing figure—and certainly one who needs no help defending himself. He plainly enjoys the cut-and-thrust of the Twitter wars, and takes great delight in goading his political enemies. So perhaps it was inevitable that our national media would take an interest in cutting him down to size.

This week the Globe and Mail ran an op-ed by John Semley asking whether Peterson was "just another angry white guy." Here are a few of Semley's choice descriptors of Prof Peterson. He is "an absurd figure" and "a wholly unimposing specimen." He promulgates "a medley of undercooked ideas warmed under the heat lamp of his own faintly flickering intellect." He uses "spookily Orwellian" language to justify "the most noxious, moronic ideas." Prof Peterson is "the intellectual as guru-mystic, and the guru-mystic as shameless huckster." His aim "is little more than the pursuit of his own vanity and the P.T. Barnum-ism padding of his own pockets." He is "an intellectual snake oil salesman," and "a prophet, for profit."

Apart from these ad hominem slurs, Semley turns Peterson's stated abhorrence of "right-wing identitarians" against him, suggesting that, in fact, he provides the alt-right "the illusion of intellectual heft." Semley also appears to hold Peterson responsible for death threats received by BBC interviewer Cathy Newman, calling him "the rare 'dangerous scholar' who is actually dangerous."

John Semley is a fine writer with as strong a grasp of the culture wars as any Canadian. He knows the issues, and he knows the stakes. So when he pitches a hatchet job on a Canadian intellectual to the Globe and Mail, he knows exactly what he is doing. And more power to him. Semley should be free to write whatever he likes, just as the Globe should be entirely free to publish it.

But let us not be coy. The Globe's "Editorial Code of Conduct" requires that its regular freelancers "not only conduct themselves honourably, but be seen to do so by the public." That's because the Globe is not just some ephemeral click-bait backwater. No, indeed. "The Globe and Mail’s long-standing tradition of journalistic integrity and credibility is essential to its reputation as Canada’s most trusted news source. This reputation is rooted in the conduct of the editorial staff. Unless all employees strive for the highest standards of journalistic integrity, we cannot hope to sustain the trust we have inspired in our readers for generations."

If the Globe and Mail ends up on the slag heap of defunct legacy media, which seems more likely than ever, it will not be because it failed to pander to the tastes of the Twitter generation, but because it succeeded, and only too well.