The Death of Expertise, Notes on a Scandal, and more

Is the age of Trump the age of dumb?

Respect for expert knowledge seems to be at a historical low. Political populism is on the ascent; social tribalism looks like an unconquerable force. How to combat the plague of low information? Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, has chronicled both this problem and what he sees as its solutions in his book The Death of Expertise. Read our interview with him here.

Philip Roth is no stranger to ambitious (to mention exceptional) works of fiction, and The Human Stain is no exception. The story, told through the lens of a writer living in the Berkshires, focuses on Coleman Silk. Silk once worked as a professor and dean of faculty at a local New England College, but, as the story unfolds, loses his job after he is wrongly accused of racism for a verbal misunderstanding. A few more tragedies strike after that, one of which is the impressively well done twist at the end of the story. The “cheap twist” in a film and literature can be annoying and usually feels forced, but Roth manages his plotline in a special way here: it is not often, after all, that we get to enjoy both a masterfully crafted human story and a plot that actually keeps you on your toes without losing taste. “We leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint,” writes Roth — you’ll see just how subverted that truth can be if you give the book a read.

So it turns out that a school-wide scandal of the sort that The Human Stain ultimately centers around is a popular plot tool. Sure, the details might be slightly different but there is no argument that Richard Eyre’s Notes on a Scandal starring Judy Dench and Cate Blanchett plays with very similar themes of social pressure, inner peace and the mob mentality. An old, unmarried teacher named Barbara meets Sheba, the school’s new art teacher. It doesn’t take long for Barbara to realize that Sheba — although married with a special needs son and very much an adult — is sexually involved with a fifteen year old student. What follows is a fascinating game of give and take in the form of blackmail and uncomfortable arrangements, all in the name of Barbara keeping Sheba’s secret.

Of course, the status quo does not last for long before the affairs of the new art teacher become public and the public rallies to a disturbing amount of press attention on Sheba’s life. Don’t expect any huge twists in this one, though. If anything, bring fairly realistic expectations about human weakness and the never-ending desire to not live life alone.

THIS WEEK IN 1969 . . .
Long after the Greeks had thrown off the Ottoman yoke and achieved independence, they were still dealing with the trappings of strict, tyrannical rule: after a successful coup in 1967 following decades of internal divisions over politics, Greece was ruled by a military junta of far-right army colonels until 1974. On the early side of that dictatorship’s reign, however, the poet-diplomat Giorgos Seferis, besides having an appropriately lofty job description, made a daring statement to the BBC world service despite two years of harsh, terrifying life in Greece under the new military regime.

“For months now I have felt, inside myself and around me, with increasing intensity, the obligation to speak out about our current situation,” said Seferis. “Everyone has been taught and knows by now that in the case of dictatorial regimes the beginning may seem easy, but tragedy awaits, inevitably, in the end … The longer the anomaly remains, the more the evil grows.” The act of defiance earned Seferis a fiercely loyal following in Greece; even though he died two years before the Junta collapsed, massive crowds carried his coffin through Athens singing a poem by Sefaris, “Denial,” that had ostensibly been banned by the government.