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Editor’s Choice: the Best Articles of 2020

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“As is tradition at Merion West, here are our editor’s choices for his favorite Merion West articles of this past year.”

Although choosing favorites, making lists, and ranking things in general may be on the wane, at Merion West, we do have this tradition each December of offering to our readers a few favorite articles from the past year. At the very least, a list such as this may jog one’s memory or gently nudge him to return for a second look to a few pieces that are particularly worthwhile. Many of the pieces chosen also speak to some of the most fundamental events and questions of this past year, a year that—beyond any doubt—has been one of the more hectic and difficult in recent memory. I will also note that for the purpose of this exercise, articles from our burgeoning “Why America?” series have been excluded from consideration.

5. “The Irrationality of Rationalism” by Henry George

As someone living with Epidermolysis bullosa, the condition bioethicist Peter Singer cites as one whose presence may justify euthanasia, Henry George discusses how various ethical theories purportedly grounded in rationalism can find themselves suggesting courses of action few would find, in practice, ethical. Seeming to agree with the quip that it is often “ethicists” who turn out to be the least ethical people around, George posits that an overreliance on certain academically popular modes of thinking can lead a society to dangerous places, where respecting human life can become a casualty of introducing novel moral theories. In making his argument, he invokes thinkers such as Leon Kass and Yoram Hazony, while also concluding that despite his diagnosis with a condition as challenging as Epidermolysis bullosa, his life is still very much worth living.

4. “The Coronavirus: On Risk and Idiots” by Allen Farrington

In a piece that now looks extraordinarily prescient, Allen Farrington takes issue with opinion leaders—particularly, Cass Sunstein—who, in Farrington’s view, were far too dismissive of the possibility that the then-nascent Coronavirus could become a problem of extraordinary magnitude. Urging in early March for people to begin to prepare for the possibility that a virus that then had only infected 83 Americans might spread widely, Farrington takes issue with the cocky certainty displayed by many in the commentator class. Also implicit in Farrington’s piece, particularly reading it now more than nine months later, is how it hints at a question that has long dogged the world of journalism: Ought there be a reputational penalty for being very wrong in one’s predictions or prescriptions?

3. “Where Social Justice Activists Persuade Me—and Where They Don’t” by David Ferrero

In this eminently even-handed piece, David Ferrero, a longtime education consultant, chronicles where he believes social justice activism makes sense, as well as where it goes astray. His piece is provocative and compelling, as he works through—in list form—the activists’ best points and their worst. For instance, he concurs that “You do see color” and that “Something’s up with the cops,” before arguing—with examples—that many claims of “misogyny” are embellished, as well as that “Microaggressions are the ultimate First World problem.” Amid a polarizing discourse about the arguments frequently put forward by social justice activists, Ferrero attempts to sort through their various points and consider them one-by-one, neither rejecting said activism out of hand nor endorsing it in total.

2. “When Identity Politics Meets the Punk Scene” by Gerfried Ambrosch

Punk musician (and professor) Gerfried Ambrosch explores punk’s history of hard-hitting pushes for various political causes and its persistent tendency to question authority. With that said, Ambrosch draws attention to and questions the recent effort by some punk promoters to avoid booking “bands that do not meet ‘diversity and inclusion’ criteria.” Despite punk’s longtime association with various political causes, Ambrosch cannot help but sense that guidelines like race-based quotas are both anti-meritocratic and at odds with the idea that excellent art ought not be overshadowed by in-vogue political movements. As such, throughout the piece Ambrosch seeks to situate this musical genre in the context of dueling pulls: one towards punk’s history of advocacy for social change and its simultaneous refusal to bow to popular narratives, particularly ones that tend to also be aligned with corporations and big business.

1. “Enough Empathy: The Case for Punching Down” by Alexander Zubatov

Positing an alternative to the entire dominant narrative about the social need to prioritize the interests of the proverbial have-nots, Alexander Zubatov comes out unabashedly on the side of “the people of every race, class, religion, gender and sexual orientation who want to live in a safe, sane, orderly, productive, dynamic, and creative society that rewards talent, hard work, character, and grit.” Using the New York City subway as a portal into what he sees as the decay of order and propriety in the United States, Zubatov endorses a renewed focus on nipping indecency in the bud. This comes at a time when New York City (and, in parallel, much of the country at-large) has been rejecting the tenets of ideas such as the broken window theory. Foreshadowing the most memorable line in his subsequent contribution to the Why America? series (“This country confers upon people the basic, fundamental dignity—starkly absent in Soviet Russia and in many other places on Earth—of drawing a more-or-less direct line between our life choices and our lives’ outcomes”), Zubatov implores us to rediscover valuing industriousness and decorum, which, in turn, can return us—he believes—to being a more respectable society.

Erich J. Prince is the editor of Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on polarization in the United States Congress.

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