THE CONSTITUTION OF KNOWLEDGE

A DEFENSE OF TRUTH

A thoughtful, occasionally overreaching critique of “emotional safetyism” and other relevant trends.

A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution analyzes and proposes solutions to an “epistemic crisis”: Americans besieged by trolls and cancelers are having trouble telling truth from lies.

Rauch spares neither right- nor left-leaning activists in his latest salvo in America’s information wars. Building on his Kindly Inquisitors (1993) and on an elegant 2018 article in National Affairs, he warns that America is fighting “two insurgencies” that use similar techniques to demoralize opponents: “the spread of viral disinformation and alternative realities, sometimes called troll culture, and the spread of unforced conformity and ideological blacklisting, sometimes called cancel culture.” The author proceeds by way of an extended analogy with the Constitution in arguing that “staying in touch with reality depends on rules and institutions” like those in what he calls our “Constitution of Knowledge.” This system determines what is and isn’t true, involving processes such as peer reviews at scholarly journals and Wikipedia’s multilayered feedback loops. It also requires people to test their ideas against competing views, a need Rauch sees as undermined by realities like speech codes, deplatforming, Twitter pile-ons, “emotional safetyism,” and diversity initiatives that neglect “viewpoint diversity” and overemphasize liberal views. Some of Rauch’s arguments overreach or aren’t new—he’s not the first to lament that liberal professors far outnumber conservatives at universities—but his credentials may persuade readers that they are no less sincere for it. “As a member of a sexual minority and a longtime gay rights (and free speech) advocate,” Rauch finds it “heartbreaking” that many activists “deploy exactly the same socially coercive tactics which were once used so effectively against homosexuals and other minorities,” including shaming and cancelling. “Coercive conformity,” he writes, “was wea­ponized, deployed, and perfected against us.” Even readers who disagree with his politics may be moved by his poignant argument from personal experience.

A thoughtful, occasionally overreaching critique of “emotional safetyism” and other relevant trends.

Pub Date: June 22, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-8157-3886-2

Page Count: 280

Publisher: Brookings Institution Press

Review Posted Online: April 12, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2021

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ELON MUSK

Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator.

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A warts-and-all portrait of the famed techno-entrepreneur—and the warts are nearly beyond counting.

To call Elon Musk (b. 1971) “mercurial” is to undervalue the term; to call him a genius is incorrect. Instead, Musk has a gift for leveraging the genius of others in order to make things work. When they don’t, writes eminent biographer Isaacson, it’s because the notoriously headstrong Musk is so sure of himself that he charges ahead against the advice of others: “He does not like to share power.” In this sharp-edged biography, the author likens Musk to an earlier biographical subject, Steve Jobs. Given Musk’s recent political turn, born of the me-first libertarianism of the very rich, however, Henry Ford also comes to mind. What emerges clearly is that Musk, who may or may not have Asperger’s syndrome (“Empathy did not come naturally”), has nurtured several obsessions for years, apart from a passion for the letter X as both a brand and personal name. He firmly believes that “all requirements should be treated as recommendations”; that it is his destiny to make humankind a multi-planetary civilization through innovations in space travel; that government is generally an impediment and that “the thought police are gaining power”; and that “a maniacal sense of urgency” should guide his businesses. That need for speed has led to undeniable successes in beating schedules and competitors, but it has also wrought disaster: One of the most telling anecdotes in the book concerns Musk’s “demon mode” order to relocate thousands of Twitter servers from Sacramento to Portland at breakneck speed, which trashed big parts of the system for months. To judge by Isaacson’s account, that may have been by design, for Musk’s idea of creative destruction seems to mean mostly chaos.

Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2023

ISBN: 9781982181284

Page Count: 688

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 12, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2023

BEYOND THE GENDER BINARY

From the Pocket Change Collective series

A fierce, penetrating, and empowering call for change.

Artist and activist Vaid-Menon demonstrates how the normativity of the gender binary represses creativity and inflicts physical and emotional violence.

The author, whose parents emigrated from India, writes about how enforcement of the gender binary begins before birth and affects people in all stages of life, with people of color being especially vulnerable due to Western conceptions of gender as binary. Gender assignments create a narrative for how a person should behave, what they are allowed to like or wear, and how they express themself. Punishment of nonconformity leads to an inseparable link between gender and shame. Vaid-Menon challenges familiar arguments against gender nonconformity, breaking them down into four categories—dismissal, inconvenience, biology, and the slippery slope (fear of the consequences of acceptance). Headers in bold font create an accessible navigation experience from one analysis to the next. The prose maintains a conversational tone that feels as intimate and vulnerable as talking with a best friend. At the same time, the author's turns of phrase in moments of deep insight ring with precision and poetry. In one reflection, they write, “the most lethal part of the human body is not the fist; it is the eye. What people see and how people see it has everything to do with power.” While this short essay speaks honestly of pain and injustice, it concludes with encouragement and an invitation into a future that celebrates transformation.

A fierce, penetrating, and empowering call for change. (writing prompt) (Nonfiction. 14-adult)

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-593-09465-5

Page Count: 64

Publisher: Penguin Workshop

Review Posted Online: March 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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