April saw the war in Ukraine enter its third month, the cost of living crisis deepen across Britain, and the re-election of President Macron in France.
But elsewhere — especially in the expanding digital ecosystem of Substack — writers and journalists less tethered to the news cycle have been following their own interests, and producing superb work. Over the course of the month, UnHerd staff collected some of the best new writing.
1. Is social media to blame for everything?
At the Ruffian, Ian Leslie responded to Jonathan Haidt’s blockbuster Atlantic essay — ‘Why the past the years of American life have been uniquely stupid‘ — which blames social media for everything from political polarisation to cancel culture, a decline in trust in institutions and the rise of misinformation. Leslie isn’t convinced by the argument:
If academics look for negative effects, they’ll find them, simply because social media use is so pervasive, and there’s so much bad stuff going on in society. Dots have no trouble joining to dots. And it seems like most researchers want to find links to bad stuff. As the authors of this more sceptical paper put it, in their conclusion, there is a “glaring gap” in the literature on social media when it comes to beneficial effects. Most academics in the field seem to have herded towards a prior belief that social media is terrible for us. I would guess that’s partly because negative effects are more likely to get covered, liked and shared – so maybe we can blame Twitter for this too.
- Ian Leslie, Substack
2. The world order reset
What did Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping discuss when they met in Beijing in early February? That, and much more, is the subject of an excellent essay on geopolitics by NS Lyons.
This was a moment in which, as Xi has described it, “the East is rising, the West declining.” The United States and its dominion appeared be on its last legs. And it’s not hard to understand why they might have looked at the West and seen it as collectively decadent, weak, and – let’s be honest – often completely deranged.
- NS Lyons, Substack
What better place to strike at the West than Ukraine?
It was, at least as far as Putin could tell, yet another of Washington’s corrupt client regimes, a fake nation with a fake American-trained military that would, like the fake Afghan National Army, immediately throw down its weapons and melt away as soon as Washington’s diplomats had fled the country – alongside their puppet comedian-president, who would speed across the border in a helicopter stuffed full of cash, just like the last guy.
- NS Lyons, Substack
The plan, as we have seen, failed. And it has re-ordered the world in the process, in ways neither Putin, nor Xi Jinping could have imagined in February:
This means we are at the beginning of a new era. Or, more accurately, a rebirth in a new form of the old one that spent much of the last two decades crumbling apart. The breathtakingly rapid realignment of Europe to become part of a single bloc aligned with Washington, while defining itself in opposition not only to Russia but increasingly to China as well, is likely to be the decisive geopolitical variable of the decade.
- NS Lyons, Substack
3. The YouTube Nazi Panic was just another moral panic
Stories about ‘YouTube’s radicalisation machine’ were a major feature of the Trump era. Yet, as Noah Smith details, they were a media-driven moral panic.
The YouTube Nazi Panic bore some obvious similarities to the panics over D&D, video games, and rock & roll. The primary worry was that consumers of an innocent-seeming popular media product would be unwittingly funnelled down a rabbit hole that would ultimately indoctrinate them with a dangerous ideology. And just as mass shootings seemed to provide a concrete, pressing reason to worry about violent video games, the increase in rightist street violence and hate-fuelled terrorist attacks in the years after Trump’s election propelled the freakout over YouTube.
- Noah Smith, Substack
The narrative that had been pushed for years in the media turned out to have little or no empirical support. In fact, the better the evidence gets — and Smith has summarised all of the research — the more strongly it suggests that the “rabbit hole” story was a case of panic-driven myth-making.
4. Just keep it off my timeline
How did the Left come to be more censorious than the Right? That was one of the more thematic questions generated by Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter this month. Freddie deBoer’s answer was simple. Many of the loudest calls for censorship on the Left come from a place of fear:
No, liberals and leftists are afraid of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter not because they think it will contribute to Right-wing extremism, which exists and always has and always will but which is also far more marginal than they like to pretend. They’re afraid because Twitter is where they perform the personalities they lack in real life, where they act like the confident and clever people they patently aren’t, and where they pretend to do politics by telling the same terrible jokes, over and over, while the political “movement” they represent remains totally powerless and reviled. Twitter, in other words, is where they wage busy little PMC lives. And they’d prefer that space be pleasant for them. They have eliminated the existence of any contrary opinion in their personal lives and private lives, and now they want to do the same in Twitter, which as sad as it is to say is the center of their emotional lives. Which is why it’ll never stop at “the really bad stuff.”
- Freddie deBoer, Substack
5. As old as sin
Kris Bartkus writes fascinatingly on the sexual anguish of Franz Kafka:
Kafka himself was a cad and a man of his time, drawn to sexual pleasures he considered filthy even as he dreamed of marrying as a way to stand on equally masculine footing with his father. It may seem surprising that he would create in K. a character who feels, not merely guilt over an unchecked impulse, but a kind of phantom limb pain corresponding to the inexplicable shame he produces in Miss Bürstner. Yet sexual coercion reappears throughout Kafka’s work, often in surprising ways. In his first novel, Amerika
, it is young Karl who is forced by his parents to emigrate after being “seduced” by Johanna, the family’s maid, a scene rendered with nauseating precision:
- Kris Bartkus, Substack