Featuring: rationalists, the China Dream, violence and J.K. Rowling
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July was a month that saw an enormous row about race and social media as England lost the final of Euro 2020, the return of mask mandates in the United States, and the “pingdemic.” These have been the headline making events that British newspapers have dutifully recorded.
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.
Essayist Wesley Yang began his deep-dive into what lazier writers call wokeness, and what he calls the successor ideology:
This Substack will describe the ideological fever that overtook the governing and chattering classes in America during the Trump years. Its subject is the bourgeois moral revolution, many decades in the making, that flowered at the midpoint of the decade, composed in equal measure of new political propositions, new moral premises, and new psychological underpinnings, in pursuit of what it declares to be “social justice”. It will excavate the historical lineage of the diffuse and decentralised movement behind this ideology, chronicle its unfolding, and reflect on the consequences likely to flow from it.
- Wesley Yang, Substack
What happened to culture? The critic Angela Nagle wondered whether the impermanence of globalisation has removed the preconditions that allowed great works of art to flourish. She writes:
The afterglow of what ever it was that made us create culture seems to have been finally extinguished. The financial models of the institutions that used to create popular culture still exist and so movies, books, clothes are still being made but they’re artistically dead and there is no organic audience or excitement about them. The standards have plummeted. I imagine one of the reasons nobody seems to be admitting this is that the people who are in the business of producing culture or writing about it or facilitating it in some way would be putting themselves out of work in the industries that remain.
- Angela Nagle, Substack
N.S. Lyons considered the rise of China as the foremost ‘megatrend’ of our time. What does China really want? Lyons knows it’s a silly question — but recognises that China’s leaders have been answering it for years. They call it the ‘China Dream’:
Xi’s was lauding himself for progress made toward his signature personal political slogan: the “China Dream” of achieving “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” He had revealed the slogan in 2012 during a visit to a “Century of Humiliation” exhibit at the National Museum of China, but he was hardly the first to come up with the idea. Indeed, in doing so, Xi encapsulated a far-reaching answer to the question of “what China wants” that transcends his personal ambitions, or even those of the ruling CCP regime.
- N.S. Lyons, Substack
Elsewhere, Freddie de Boer wrote about the new Gawker — a gossip blog with nothing to gossip about. Henry Oliver examined the career a forgotten Prime Minister — Andrew Bonar Law — a complicated, effective politician, who brought Britain to the edge of civil unrest with his remarks in support of Ulster Unionism. And the philosopher Justin E.H. Smith critiqued liberal ideas about speech and violence under digital conditions:
Older liberals are mistaken to carry their inherited ideas about free speech vs. real-world harm, about words vs. sticks-and-stones, over to this revolutionary new engine. Social-media discourse is no more an ordinary exercise in free speech than modern industrial slaughter of cattle is a sacrifice in some ancient temple. The industrialization of discourse —for that is what social media have brought about— will inevitably, like earlier instances of industrialization, generate new waste products that will be difficult to contain and that will bring about real-world harms.
- Justin E.H. Smith, Substack
Abigail Shrier celebrated the British feminists — from Maya Forstater to J.K. Rowling — who have struggled for open debate and a calmer examination of the facts around sex and gender issues. Simon Sarris wrote a defence of religion in a world dominated by rationalism, particularly in art and architecture. And the novelist Walter Kirn delivered a searing critique of the mainstream media:
Every morning, there it is, waiting for me on my phone. The bullshit. It resembles, in its use of phrases such as “knowledgeable sources” and “experts differ,” what I used to think of as the news, but it isn’t the news and it hasn’t been for ages. It consists of its decomposed remains in a news-shaped coffin. It does impart information, strictly speaking, but not always information about our world. Or not good information, because it’s so often wrong, particularly on matters of great import and invariably to the advantage of the same interests, which suggests it should be presumed wrong as a rule. The information it imparts, if one bothers to sift through it, is information about itself; about the purposes, beliefs, and loyalties of those who produce it: the informing class. They’re not the ruling class — not quite — but often they’re married to it or share therapists or drink with it at Yale Bowl football games. They’re cozy, these tribal cousins. They cavort. They always have. What has changed is that the press used to maintain certain boundaries in the relationship, observing the incest taboo. It kept its pants zipped, at least in public. It didn’t hire ex-CIA directors, top FBI men, NSA brass, or other past and future sources to sit beside its anchors at spot-lit news-desks that blocked our view of their lower extremities. But it gave in.
- Walter Kirn, Substack