Mark Forsyth: “The greatest joy a human being can achieve in this sorrowful world is to get one up on his or her fellow man or woman by correcting their English.”

John Berger: “The word we, when printed or pronounced on screens, has become suspect, for it’s continually used by those with power in the demagogic claim that they are also speaking for those who are denied power. Let’s talk of ourselves as they.”

Whitney Phillips: “The question of definitions is far from merely semantic; what people call things often dictates what people are willing (or feel compelled) to do about them. […] Nothing justifies legal intervention faster or more effectively than vaguely threatening abstract nouns.”

Lily Saint: “Much as that other famous Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, was repeatedly called upon, against his own wishes, to represent all African writers in the West, Adichie has had the misfortune of becoming the latest iteration of the West’s simplistic tokenistic relation to the African continent, a reductionism that obliterates the possibility of richer, more varied engagements with African writing and publishers.”

Who said “I’ve never heard anyone laugh bigger than an African mother who’s lost nine family members”? Brad Pitt or Derek Zoolander?

Gaby Hinsliff: “Naked racism may still be unacceptable in polite society. But post-Brexit vote there’s a clear market emerging for a slightly posher, better-read, more respectable way of saying that you’d rather not live next door to Romanians or think Muslims are coming to rape your womenfolk.”

Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti: “The young troublemakers of today do have an ideology and it is as deeply felt and intellectually totalizing as any of the great belief systems of yore. The cadres who populate those endless meetings, who bang the drum, who lead the ‘trainings’ and paint the puppets, do indeed have a creed. They are Activismists. That’s right, Activismists. This brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hyper-mediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a nineteenth century temperance crusade. In this worldview, all roads lead to more activism and more activists. And the one who acts is righteous.”

[H/T “Ritual Protest and the Theater of Dissent” by Virgnia Hotchkiss]

From the Sideways Dictionary: Arguing with a troll “is like playing playing chess with a pigeon. As the old internet meme has it, however good you are at chess, the pigeon will knock over the pieces, crap on the board, and strut around claiming victory.”

Two of the three authors still in contention for the 2017 Desmond Elliott prize for debut fiction are in their 50s.

There’s good news and bad news. Though most in the US still cling to their guns and bibles, a healthy 35% of American millennials are non-religious. Unfortunately, secularizing conservatives aren’t more tolerant than their pious counterparts. “Evangelicals who don’t regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do. But they’re more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims.”

From the Sideways Dictionary: Tor is “like the Ray-Ban Wayfarer of browsers. No one can see what you’re watching, and it makes you look cool and enigmatic.”  A botnet is “like a zombie army, full of dead-eyed, half-crazed people obeying the instructions of a remote and unseen master, without realizing they are part of a destructive tribe.” A cookie is “like a barista with a good memory. So every morning when you come in for your decaf soy latte with an extra shot and cream, they nod wearily and say ‘The usual?’ ”

James Joyce was a very naughty boy.

An American organisation famous for supporting homophobia and corporal punishment has launched a magazine for girls who lie awake at night wondering whether it’s OK to pray for their boyfriends. Grab a copy now.

Simon Goldhill: “If we oversimplify history, we will live – as both Cicero and Kant predicted – with the shallow mindfulness of children.”

“Where did the phrase ‘late capitalism’ come from, and why did so many people start using it all of a sudden?”

On being a fat medical student: “I am always aware of my fatness, but perhaps more so here at medical school. We are training to work with bodies, and mine is a type of body we warn our patients not to have. It is the first thing described in every list of ‘modifiable risk factors’. A colleague suggests ‘just don’t let yourself get too fat’ as we talk about preventing a certain type of cancer. A final exam question asks us to list four poor health outcomes associated with obesity. I sit through lectures with slides that have sniggering titles like ‘how BIG is the problem?’ ”

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad has been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction.

Jeremy Corbyn promises four new UK bank holidays if Labour wins the election. According to Ross Clark, “he fundamentally misunderstands modern work.” Paul Mason adds that work is often interesting. It defines us. We allow it to creep into our leisure time “because it brings a calculable financial reward and because, in our hearts, we secretly want it to.” Eva Wiseman reminds us that free time is expensive, holidays aren’t all they’re cracked up to be and when we’re on them we secretly “yearn for the spa-like calm of work, where you are allowed to have a cup of tea whenever you fancy, and talk to adults about things like Isis without cheerily pretending everything is going to be OK.”

Pre-industrial workers had a shorter workweek than today’s: “The medieval calendar was filled with holidays. […] There were often weeks’ worth of ales — to mark important life events (bride ales or wake ales) as well as less momentous occasions (scot ale, lamb ale, and hock ale). All told, holiday leisure time in medieval England took up probably about one-third of the year. And the English were apparently working harder than their neighbours. The ancien règime in France is reported to have guaranteed fifty-two Sundays, ninety rest days, and thirty-eight holidays. In Spain, travellers noted that holidays totalled five months per year.”

“During the first four days of World War II, over 400,000 dogs and cats — some 26 percent of London’s pets — were slaughtered, a number six times greater than the number of civilian deaths in the UK from bombing during the entire war.”

There is, as yet, no acceptable non-sexist alternative to “fisherman.”

Niraj Chokshi: “How fitting that the man often credited with saying ‘a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes’ most likely did not invent the phrase.”

I’m reading Derek Parfit’s On What Matters again, slowly and carefully, taking short breaks when its brilliance moves me to tears. A friend of mine glances at a paragraph on my phone and is not impressed.

Why do I bother? he asks. Why does anyone bother with philosophy? “It changes nothing in the real world. All that time and effort would be better spent on medical research, on agriculture, on developing new forms of reinforced concrete or improving the efficiency of electric power plants.” He carries on like this for several minutes, getting more worked up when he notices I’m ignoring him.

I suspect there’s something he’s not telling me. There is, as they say, history here, trauma buried in his past. If I dig carefully I will find withering putdowns from philosophy professors or ex-boyfriends who broke up with him while quoting Sartre. Someone hurt him, and now he takes it out on philosophy, on a casual bystander who has done the world no harm* and has, in fact, done it a great deal of good.

Our friendship survives his ignorance. We talk about Klitschko and the death of old lions. He tells me how proud he is. He and AJ are distant relations. How distant? He reels off a list of names, connections by blood, marriage, and mistaken identity, weaving a web I’m too weary to unravel. I’m still thinking about philosophy and how best to make a case for it. Should I begin with Bertrand Russell?

The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected.

It’s good, but not good enough. Most educated persons acquire “a tincture of philosophy” without ever taking a course in formal logic or metaphysics. And openness to unfamiliar possibilities may be more a matter of natural temperament than instruction.  It doesn’t help that many academic philosophers, with souls deep-dyed in the stuff, aren’t paragons of virtue. They may have few prejudices “derived from common sense,” but their ideas are often no less fixed and no less dangerous.

There’s a simpler response. Philosophy, like pure mathematics, is beautiful, and the world is better for having beauty in it. It is also inevitable. As long as there are people on Earth who have satisfied their basic needs (for food, shelter, etc) there will be philosophers. For this we can all be thankful.


Viet Thanh Nguyen: “We, the barbarians at the gate, the descendants of Caliban, the ones who have no choice but to speak in the language we have — we come bearing the experiences and ideas the workshop suppresses. […] We come speaking languages other than English. We come from the margins, where English is broken. We come with financial aid and loans and families that do not understand what ‘creative writing’ is. We come from communities we do not wish to renounce in the name of our individualism. We come wanting to do more than just sell our stories to white audiences. And we come with the desire not just to show, but to tell.”

Margaret Atwood: “Is The Handmaid’s Tale a ‘feminist’ novel? If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are ‘feminist.’ ”

X because of course X.

Jon Meacham: “To understand the narcissism of the first decades of the 21st century, it may help to realize that it is neither a sudden nor an entirely new phenomenon. ‘There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about,’ Oscar Wilde’s Lord Henry remarked in 1890’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, ‘and that is not being talked about.’ The world Wilde anticipated […] can be explained by a few key texts that illuminate how we find ourselves with a president of the United States who used to call up New York tabloid writers […] posing as Trump spokesman ‘John Miller’ or ‘John Barron’ to talk about … himself.”

Everyone needs a hobby. My brother builds model ships, I steal tomatoes from my neighbour’s back garden, and Philip Davies, Conservative MP for Shipley, complains to the Equality and Human Rights Commission that literary prizes discriminate against white writers.

From Yuval Harari’s review of The Knowledge Illusion: “Individual humans know embarrassingly little about the world, and as history progressed, they came to know less and less. […] In one humbling experiment, people were asked to evaluate how well they understood how a zipper works. Most people confidently replied that they understood it very well — after all, they use zippers all the time. They were then asked to explain how a zipper works, describing in as much detail as possible all the steps involved in the zipper’s operation. Most had no idea. This is the knowledge illusion. We think we know a lot, even though individually we know very little, because we treat knowledge in the minds of others as if it were our own.”

From Will Self’s review of Slavoj Žižek’s new book: “Life is, despite all the advances of medical science, still way too short to spend any time reading theoretical gibberish concocted by superannuated Marxists.”

Jerry Salz: “I often think that everyone who isn’t making art is a failed artist, even those who never tried.”

From a review of James Forman’s Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America: “White sociologists invented a new category: black criminality. Black crime was understood to be different from, and more intractable than, crime by poor whites or immigrants, whose misbehaviour could be explained in terms of social causes. ‘White criminality was society’s problem,’ and could be reduced through government policy, while ‘black criminality was black people’s problem,’ reflective of their ‘culture’, if not their biological make-up, and largely impervious to remedy.”