ROBERT WRIGHT

Crisis, What Crisis?

More history, less hysteria

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.

The Proto-Trump

It is fitting that the Toronto Star should run photos of Rob Ford and Donald Trump in its "Age of Unreason" series.  Ford was the proto-Trump, the politician so inexplicable that our mainstream media never bothered to explain him.  He was the outsider it became hip to vilify—the target of endless late-night lampoons, dinner party laughs, and "can-you-believe-that-guy?" op-eds.  When TVO's Steve Paiken took the trouble to actually investigate Ford's political appeal, he discovered that, voilà, Ford Nation included thoughtful, socially progressive Torontonians who had nowhere else to park their votes.  Rob Ford was indeed a harbinger—of a smug, partisan elitism in our news media that is now de rigueur.

Pronoun Fluidity

No liberal worthy of the title would deny anyone's right to self-identify however they choose.  No exceptions.  Yet when U of T prof Jordan Peterson refused to use non-gendered pronouns, or when Concordia prof Gad Saad warned that Bill C-16 might subvert, say, the teaching of evolutionary biology, they were accused of transphobia and mocked for overreacting.  It now appears that they were prescient.  The following sentence appeared in Wednesday's Washington Post: "And just weeks ago, he gave birth to a healthy baby boy."  Are we really prepared to decommission the biological reality of the human species as sexually dimorphic in the cause of eradicating oppressive gender binarism?

Hiroshima

Today is the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Japan—a milestone for which all humanity would do well to give pause.  It is an especially salient date for 88-year-old Douglas Roche, former Canadian ambassador for disarmament and an honourary citizen of Hiroshima.  Roche seeks a nuclear-weapons-free world, and he wants Canada to broker it.  Alas, it's not going to happen.  The news this week that North Korea's Hwasong-14 ICBM can reach Canadian and U.S. cities almost certainly means Canada will have to reopen the BMD file, iced by PM Paul Martin in 2005.  If we must once again embrace the terrifying Cold War logic of MAD, let there be many Douglas Roches to guide us.

On "Extremism"

Last week, Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick called Conservative MPs Michelle Rempel and Peter Kent "extremists" for complaining about the Khadr settlement in U.S. media.  The CBC's Matt Kwong called Breitbart.com an "extreme-right website" even though his point was that its writers can be highly critical of President Trump.  Such variations on the Reductio ad Hitlerum fallacy are now so commonplace as to pass unnoticed in our mainstream media.  They constitute not merely a deliberate distortion of our partisan politics, but a dangerous rhetorical escalation.  If former CBC news anchor Peter Kent is an extremist, what new language must we invent to describe the politics of violence?