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Brownstone Institute

Why Is Our Education System Failing to Educate?


30 minute read

From the Brownstone Institute


I suspect many of you know my story. But, for those who don’t, the short version is that I taught philosophy — ethics and ancient philosophy, in particular — at Western University in Canada until September 2021 when I was very publicly terminated “with cause” for refusing to comply with Western’s COVID-19 policy.

What I did — question, critically evaluate and, ultimately, challenge what we now call “the narrative” — is risky behaviour. It got me fired, labeled an “academic pariah,” chastised by mainstream media, and vilified by my peers. But this ostracization and vilification, it turns out, was just a symptom of a shift towards a culture of silence, nihilism, and mental atrophy that had been brewing for a long time.

You know that parental rhetorical question, So if everyone jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” It turns out that most would jump at the rate of about 90 percent and that most of the 90 percent wouldn’t ask any questions about the height of the cliff, alternative options, accommodations for the injured, etc. What was supposed to be a cautionary rhetorical joke has become the modus operandi of the Western world.

Admittedly, I am a bit of an odd choice as the keynote speaker for an education conference. I have no specialized training in the philosophy of education or in pedagogy. In graduate school, you receive little formal instruction about how to teach. You learn by experience, research, trial by fire, and by error. And, of course, I was terminated from my position as a university teacher. But I do think a lot about education. I look at how many people are willing to outsource their thinking and I wonder, what went wrong? Confronted with the products of our public school system every day for 20 years, I wonder what went wrong? And, finally, as the mother of a 2-year-old, I think a lot about what happens in the early years to encourage a better outcome than we are seeing today.

My aim today is to talk a bit about what I saw in university students during my teaching career, why I think the education system failed them, and the only two basic skills any student at any age really needs.

Let’s start by doing something I used to do regularly in class, something some students loved and others hated. Let’s brainstorm some answers to this question: What does it mean to “be educated?”

[Answers from the audience included: “to acquire knowledge,” “to learn the truth,” “to develop a set of required skills,” “to get a degree.”]

Many answers were admirable but I noticed that most describe education passively: “to be educated,” “to get a degree,” “to be informed” are all passive verbs.

When it comes to writing, we are often told to use the active voice. It is clearer, more emphatic, and creates greater emotional impact. And yet the predominant way we describe education is passive. But is education really a passive experience? Is it something that just happens to us like getting rained on or being scratched by a cat? And do you need to be acted on by someone else in order to become educated? Or is education a more active, personal, emphatic and impactful experience? Might “I am educating,” “I am learning” be more accurate descriptions?

My experience in the classroom was certainly consistent with thinking of education as a passive experience. Over the years, I saw an increasing trend towards timidity, conformity and apathy, all signs of educational passivity. But this was a strict departure from the university culture that met me as an undergraduate in the mid-90s.

As an undergraduate, my classes were robust theaters of The Paper Chase-style effervescent debate. But there was a palpable shift sometime in the late 90s. A hush fell over the classroom. Topics once relied on to ignite discussion — abortion, slavery, capital punishment — no longer held the same appeal. Fewer and fewer hands went up. Students trembled at the thought of being called on and, when they did speak, they parroted a set of ‘safe’ ideas and frequently used “of course” to refer to ideas that would allow them to safely navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of topics considered to be off-limits by the woke zealots.

The stakes are even higher now. Students who question or refuse to comply are rejected or de-enrolled. Recently, an Ontario university student was suspended for asking for a definition of “colonialism.” Merely asking for clarification in the 21st century is academic heresy. Professors like myself are punished or terminated for speaking out, and our universities are becoming increasingly closed systems in which autonomous thought is a threat to the neoliberal groupthink model of ‘education.’

I spent some time thinking in concrete terms about the traits I saw in the novel, 21st century student. With some exception, most students suffer from the following symptoms of our educational failure. They are (for the most part):

  1. “Information-focused,” not “wisdom-interested:” they are computational, able to input and output information (more or less), but lack the critical ability to understand why they are doing so or to manipulate the data in unique ways.
  1. Science and technology worshipping: they treat STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as a god, as an end in itself rather than an instrument to achieve some end.
  1. Intolerant of uncertainty, complications, gray areas, open questions, and they are generally unable to formulate questions themselves.
  1. Apathetic, unhappy, even miserable (and I’m not sure they ever felt otherwise so they may not recognize these states for what they are).
  1. Increasingly unable to engage in counterfactual thinking. (I will return to this idea in a moment.)
  1. Instrumentalist: everything they do is for the sake of something else.

To elaborate on this last point, when I used to ask my students why they were at university, the following sort of conversation would usually ensue:

Why did you come to university?

To get a degree. 


So I can get into law school (nursing or some other impressive post-graduate program). 


So I can get a good job. 


The well of reflex answers typically started to dry up that point. Some were honest that the lure of a “good job” was to attain money or a certain social status; others seemed genuinely perplexed by the question or would simply say: “My parents tell me I should,” “My friends are all doing it,” or “Society expects it.”

Being an instrumentalist about education means that you see it as valuable only as a way to obtain some further, non-educational good. Again, the passivity is palpable. In this view, education is something that gets poured into you. Once you get enough poured in, it’s time to graduate and unlock the door to the next life prize. But this makes education, for its own sake, meaningless and substitutable. Why not just buy the subject-specific microchip when it becomes available and avoid all the unpleasant studying, questioning, self-reflection, and skill-building?

Time has shown us where this instrumentalism has gotten us: we live in an era of pseudo-intellectuals, pseudo-students and pseudo-education, each of us becoming increasingly less clear why we need education (of the sort offered by our institutions) , or how it’s helping to create a better world.

Why the change? How did intellectual curiosity and critical thinking get trained out of our universities? It’s complex but there are three factors that surely contributed:

  1. Universities became businesses. They became corporate entities with boards of governors, customers and ad campaigns. In early 2021, Huron College (where I worked) appointed its first board of governors with members from Rogers, Sobeys, and EllisDon, a move author Christopher Newfield calls the “great mistake.” Regulatory capture (of the sort that led the University of Toronto to partner with Moderna) is just one consequence of this collusion.
  1. Education became a commodity. Education is treated as a purchasable, exchangeable good, which fits well with the idea that education is something that can be downloaded to anyone’s empty mind. There is an implicit assumption of equality and mediocrity, here; you must believe that every student is roughly the same in skill, aptitude, interest, etc. to be able to be filled this way.
  2. We mistook information for wisdom. Our inheritance from the Enlightenment, the idea that reason will allow us to conquer all, has morphed into information ownership and control. We need to appear informed to seem educated, and we shun the uninformed or misinformed. We align with the most acceptable source of information and forego any critical assessment of how they attained that information. But this isn’t wisdom. Wisdom goes beyond information; it pivots on a sense of care, attention, and context, allowing us to sift through a barrage of information, selecting and acting only on the truly worthy.

This is a radical departure from the earliest universities, which began in the 4th century BC: Plato teaching in the grove of Academus, Epicurus in his private garden. When they met to discuss, there were no corporate partnerships, no boards of directors. They were drawn together by a shared love of questioning and problem-solving.

Out of these early universities was born the concept of liberal arts — grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy — studies which are “liberal” not because they are easy or unserious, but because they are suitable for those who are free (liberalis), as opposed to slaves or animals. In the era before SME’s (subject matter experts), these are the subjects thought to be essential preparation for becoming a good, well-informed citizen who is an effective participant in public life.

In this view, education is not something you receive and certainly not something you buy; it is a disposition, a way of life you create for yourself grounded in what Dewey called “skilled powers of thinking.” It helps you to become questioning, critical, curious, creative, humble and, ideally, wise.

The Lost Art of Counterfactual Thinking

I said earlier that I would return to the subject of counterfactual thinking, what it is, why it’s been lost and why it’s important. And I would like to start with another thought experiment: close your eyes and think about one thing that might have been different over the last 3 years that might have made things better.

What did you pick? No WHO pandemic declaration? A different PM or President? Effective media? More tolerant citizens?

Maybe you wondered, what if the world was more just? What if truth could really save us (quickly)?

This “what if” talk is, at its core, counterfactual thinking. We all do it. What if I had become an athlete, written more, scrolled less, married someone else?

Counterfactual thinking enables us to shift from perceiving the immediate environment to imagining a different one. It is key for learning from past experiences, planning and predicting (if I jump off the cliff, x is likely to happen), problem solving, innovation and creativity (maybe I’ll shift careers, arrange my kitchen drawers differently), and it is essential for improving an imperfect world. It also underpins moral emotions like regret and blame (I regret betraying my friend). Neurologically, counterfactual thinking depends on a network of systems for affective processing, mental stimulation, and cognitive control, and it is a symptom of a number of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia.

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that we have lost our ability for counterfactual thinking en masse. But why did this happen? There are a lot of factors — with political ones at the top of the list — but one thing that surely contributed is that we lost a sense of play.

Yes, play. Let me explain. With a few exceptions, our culture has a pretty cynical view of the value of play. Even when we do it, we see play time as wasted and messy, allowing for an intolerable number of mistakes and the possibility of outcomes that don’t fit neatly into an existing framework. This messiness is a sign of weakness, and weakness is a threat to our tribal culture.

I think our culture is intolerant of play because it is intolerant of individuality and of distractions from the messaging we’re “supposed” to hear. It is also intolerant of joy, of anything that helps us to feel healthier, more alive, more focused and more jubilant. Furthermore, it doesn’t result in immediate, “concrete deliverables.”

But what if there was more play in science, in medicine and in politics? What if politicians said “What if we did x instead? Let’s just try out the idea?” What if, instead of your doctor writing a script for the “recommended” pharmaceutical, s/he said “What if you reduced your sugar intake… or… tried walking more? Let’s just try.”

“The stick that stirs the drink”

The non-superficiality of play is hardly a new idea. It was central to the development of the culture of Ancient Greece, one of the greatest civilizations in the world. It is telling that Greek words for play (paidia), children (paides) and education (paideia) have the same root. For the Greeks, play was essential not just to sport and theatre, but to ritual, music, and of course word play (rhetoric).

The Greek philosopher, Plato, saw play as deeply influential to the way children develop as adults. We can prevent social disorder, he wrote, by regulating the nature of children’s play. In his Laws, Plato proposed harnessing play for certain purposes: “If a boy is to be a good farmer or a good builder, he should play at building toy houses or at farming and be provided by his tutor with miniature tools modelled on real ones…One should see games as a means of directing children’s tastes and inclinations to the role they will fill as adults.”

Play is also the basis of the Socratic method, the back-and-forth technique of questioning and answering, trying things out, generating contradictions and imagining alternatives to find better hypotheses. Dialectic is essentially playing with ideas.

A number of contemporaries agree with Plato. The philosopher Colin McGinn wrote in 2008 that “Play is a vital part of any full life, and a person who never plays is worse than a ‘dull boy:’ he or she lacks imagination, humour and a proper sense of value. Only the bleakest and most life-denying Puritanism could warrant deleting all play from human life…..”

And Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, wrote: “I don’t think it is too much to say that play can save your life. It certainly has salvaged mine. Life without play is a grinding, mechanical existence organized around doing things necessary for survival. Play is the stick that stirs the drink. It is the basis of all art, games, books, sports, movies, fashion, fun, and wonder — in short, the basis of what we think of as civilization.”

Education as Activity

Play is key but it’s not the only thing missing in modern education. The fact that we have lost it is a symptom, I think, of a more fundamental misunderstanding about what education is and is meant to do.

Let’s go back to the idea of education being an activity. Perhaps the most well-known quotation about education is “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” It litters university recruitment pages, inspirational posters, mugs, and sweatshirts. Typically attributed to William Butler Yeats, the quotation is actually from Plutarch’s essay “On Listening” in which he writes “For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.”

The way Plutarch contrasts learning with filling suggests that the latter was a common, but mistaken, idea. Strangely, we seem to have returned to the mistake and to the assumption that, once you get your bottle filled up, you are complete, you are educated. But if education is a kindling instead of a filling, how is the kindling achieved? How do you help to “create an impulse to think independently?” Let’s do another thought experiment.

If you knew that you could get away with anything, suffering no impunity, what would you do?

There is a story from Plato’s Republic, Book II (discussing the value of justice) that fleshes out this question. Plato describes a shepherd who stumbles upon a ring that grants him the ability to become invisible. He uses his invisibility to seduce the queen, kill her king, and take over the kingdom. Glaucon, one of the interlocutors in the dialogue, suggests that, if there were two such rings, one given to a just man, and the other to an unjust man, there would be no difference between them; they would both take advantage of the ring’s powers, suggesting that anonymity is the only barrier between a just and an unjust person.

Refuting Glaucon, Socrates says that the truly just person will do the right thing even with impunity because he understands the true benefits of acting justly.

Isn’t this the real goal of education, namely to create a well-balanced person who loves learning and justice for their own sakes? This person understands that the good life consists not in seeming but in being, in having a balanced inner self that takes pleasure in the right things because of an understanding of what they offer.

In the first book of his canonical ethical text, Aristotle (Plato’s student) asks what is the good life? What does it consist of? His answer is an obvious one: happiness. But his view of happiness is a bit different from ours. It is a matter of flourishing, which means functioning well according to your nature. And functioning well according to human nature is achieving excellence in reasoning, both intellectually and morally. The intellectual virtues (internal goods) include: scientific knowledge, technical knowledge, intuition, practical wisdom, and philosophical wisdom. The moral virtues include: justice, courage, and temperance.

For Aristotle, what our lives look like from the outside — wealth, health, status, social media likes, reputation — are all “external goods.” It’s not that these are unimportant but we need to understand their proper place in the good life. Having the internal and external goods in their right proportion is the only way to become an autonomous, self-governing, complete person.

It’s pretty clear that we aren’t flourishing as a people, especially if the following are any indication: Canada recently ranked 15th on the World Happiness Report, we have unprecedented levels of anxiety and mental illness, and in 2021 a children’s mental health crisis was declared and the NIH reported an unprecedented number of drug overdose deaths.

By contrast with most young people today, the person who is flourishing and complete will put less stock in the opinions of others, including institutions, because they will have more fully developed internal resources and they will be more likely to recognize when a group is making a bad decision. They will be less vulnerable to peer pressure and coercion, and they will have more to rely on if they do become ostracized from the group.

Educating with a view to the intellectual and moral virtues develops a lot of other things we are missing: research and inquiry skills, physical and mental agility, independent thinking, impulse control, resilience, patience and persistence, problem solving, self-regulation, endurance, self-confidence, self-satisfaction, joy, cooperation, collaboration, negotiation, empathy, and even the ability to put energy into a conversation.

What should be the goals of education? It’s pretty simple (in conception even if not in execution). At any age, for any subject matter, the only 2 goals of education are:

  1. To create a self-ruled (autonomous) person from the ‘inside out,’ who…
  2. Loves learning for its own sake

Education, in this view, is not passive and it is never complete. It is always in process, always open, always humble and humbling.

My students, unfortunately, were like the Republic’s shepherd; they measure the quality of their lives by what they can get away with, what their lives look like from the outside. But their lives, unfortunately, were like a shiny apple that, when you cut into it, is rotten on the inside. And their interior emptiness left them aimless, hopeless, dissatisfied and, unfortunately, miserable.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Imagine what the world would be like if it were made up of self-ruled people. Would we be happier? Would we be healthier? Would we be more productive? Would we care less about measuring our productivity? My inclination is to think we would be much, much better off.

Self-governance has come under such relentless attack over the last few years because it encourages us to think for ourselves. And this attack didn’t begin recently nor did it emerge ex nihilo. John D. Rockefeller (who, ironically, co-founded the General Education Board in 1902) wrote, “I don’t want a nation of thinkers. I want a nation of workers.” His wish has largely come true.

The battle we are in is a battle over whether we will be slaves or masters, ruled or self-mastered. It is a battle over whether we will be unique or forced into a mold.

Thinking of students as identical to one another makes them substitutable, controllable and, ultimately, erasable. Moving forward, how do we avoid seeing ourselves as bottles to be filled by others? How do we embrace Plutarch’s exhortation to “create […] an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth?”

When it comes to education, isn’t that the question we must confront as we move through the strangest of times?


  • Julie Ponesse

    Dr. Julie Ponesse, 2023 Brownstone Fellow, is a professor of ethics who has taught at Ontario’s Huron University College for 20 years. She was placed on leave and banned from accessing her campus due to the vaccine mandate. She presented at the The Faith and Democracy Series on 22, 2021. Dr. Ponesse has now taken on a new role with The Democracy Fund, a registered Canadian charity aimed at advancing civil liberties, where she serves as the pandemic ethics scholar.

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Brownstone Institute

The Fraying of the Liberal International Order

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From the Brownstone Institute


International politics is the struggle for the dominant normative architecture of world order based on the interplay of power, economic weight and ideas for imagining, designing and constructing the good international society. For several years now many analysts have commented on the looming demise of the liberal international order established at the end of the Second World War under US leadership.

Over the last several decades, wealth and power have been shifting inexorably from the West to the East and has produced a rebalancing of the world order. As the centre of gravity of world affairs shifted to the Asia-Pacific with China’s dramatic climb up the ladder of great power status, many uncomfortable questions were raised about the capacity and willingness of Western powers to adapt to a Sinocentric order.

For the first time in centuries, it seemed, the global hegemon would not be Western, would not be a free market economy, would not be liberal democratic, and would not be part of the Anglosphere.

More recently, the Asia-Pacific conceptual framework has been reformulated into the Indo-Pacific as the Indian elephant finally joined the dance. Since 2014 and then again especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February last year, the question of European security, political and economic architecture has reemerged as a frontline topic of discussion.

The return of the Russia question as a geopolitical priority has also been accompanied by the crumbling of almost all the main pillars of the global arms control complex of treaties, agreements, understandings and practices that had underpinned stability and brought predictability to major power relations in the nuclear age.

The AUKUS security pact linking Australia, the UK, and the US in a new security alliance, with the planned development of AUKUS-class nuclear-powered attack submarines, is both a reflection of changed geopolitical realities and, some argue, itself a threat to the global nonproliferation regime and a stimulus to fresh tensions in relations with China. British Prime Minister (PM) Rishi Sunak said at the announcement of the submarines deal in San Diego on March 13 that the growing security challenges confronting the world—“Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, China’s growing assertiveness, the destabilising behaviour of Iran and North Korea”—“threaten to create a world codefined by danger, disorder and division.”

For his part, President Xi Jinping accused the US of leading Western countries to engage in an “all-around containment, encirclement and suppression of China.”

The Australian government described the AUKUS submarine project as “the single biggest investment in our defence capability in our history” that “represents a transformational moment for our nation.” However, it could yet be sunk by six minefields lurking underwater: China’s countermeasures, the time lag between the alleged imminence of the threat and the acquisition of the capability, the costs, the complexities of operating two different classes of submarines, the technological obsolescence of submarines that rely on undersea concealment, and domestic politics in the US and Australia.

Regional and global governance institutions can never be quarantined from the underlying structure of international geopolitical and economic orders. Nor have they proven themselves to be fully fit for the purpose of managing pressing global challenges and crises like wars, and potentially existential threats from nuclear weapons, climate-related disasters and pandemics.

To no one’s surprise, the rising and revisionist powers wish to redesign the international governance institutions to inject their own interests, governing philosophies, and preferences. They also wish to relocate the control mechanisms from the major Western capitals to some of their own capitals. China’s role in the Iran–Saudi rapprochement might be a harbinger of things to come.

The ”Rest” Look for Their Place in the Emerging New Order

The developments out there in “the real world,” testifying to an inflection point in history, pose profound challenges to institutions to rethink their agenda of research and policy advocacy over the coming decades.

On 22–23 May, the Toda Peace Institute convened a brainstorming retreat at its Tokyo office with more than a dozen high-level international participants. One of the key themes was the changing global power structure and normative architecture and the resulting implications for world order, the Indo-Pacific and the three US regional allies Australia, Japan, and South Korea. The two background factors that dominated the conversation, not surprisingly, were China–US relations and the Ukraine war.

The Ukraine war has shown the sharp limits of Russia as a military power. Both Russia and the US badly underestimated Ukraine’s determination and ability to resist (“I need ammunition, not a ride,” President Volodymyr Zelensky famously said when offered safe evacuation by the Americans early in the war), absorb the initial shock, and then reorganise to launch counter-offensives to regain lost territory. Russia is finished as a military threat in Europe. No Russian leader, including President Vladimir Putin, will think again for a very long time indeed of attacking an allied nation in Europe.

That said, the war has also demonstrated the stark reality of the limits to US global influence in organising a coalition of countries willing to censure and sanction Russia. If anything, the US-led West finds itself more disconnected from the concerns and priorities of the rest of the world than at any other time since 1945. A study published in October from Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy provides details on the extent to which the West has become isolated from opinion in the rest of the world on perceptions of China and Russia. This was broadly replicated in a February 2023 study from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

The global South in particular has been vocal in saying firstly that Europe’s problems are no longer automatically the world’s problems, and secondly that while they condemn Russia’s aggression, they also sympathise quite heavily with the Russian complaint about NATO provocations in expanding to Russia’s borders. In the ECFR report, Timothy Garton-Ash, Ivan Krastev, and Mark Leonard cautioned Western decision-makers to recognise that “in an increasingly divided post-Western world,” emerging powers “will act on their own terms and resist being caught in a battle between America and China.”

US global leadership is hobbled also by rampant domestic dysfunctionality. A bitterly divided and fractured America lacks the necessary common purpose and principle, and the requisite national pride and strategic direction to execute a robust foreign policy. Much of the world is bemused too that a great power could once again present a choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump for president.

The war has solidified NATO unity but also highlighted internal European divisions and European dependence on the US military for its security.

The big strategic victor is China. Russia has become more dependent on it and the two have formed an effective axis to resist US hegemony. China’s meteoric rise continues apace. Having climbed past Germany last year, China has just overtaken Japan as the world’s top car exporter, 1.07 to 0.95 million vehicles. Its diplomatic footprint has also been seen in the honest brokerage of a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia and in promotion of a peace plan for Ukraine.

Even more tellingly, according to data published by the UK-based economic research firm Acorn Macro Consulting in April, the BRICS grouping of emerging market economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) now accounts for a larger share of the world’s economic output in PPP dollars than the G7 group of industrialised countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, USA). Their respective shares of global output have fallen and risen between 1982 and 2022 from 50.4 percent and 10.7 percent, to 30.7 percent and 31.5 percent. No wonder another dozen countries are eager to join the BRICS, prompting Alec Russell to proclaim recently in The Financial Times: “This is the hour of the global south.”

The Ukraine war might also mark India’s long overdue arrival on the global stage as a consequential power. For all the criticisms of fence-sitting levelled at India since the start of the war, this has arguably been the most successful exercise of an independent foreign policy on a major global crisis in decades by India. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar even neatly turned the fence-sitting criticism on its head by retorting a year ago that “I am sitting on my ground” and feeling quite comfortable there. His dexterity in explaining India’s policy firmly and unapologetically but without stridency and criticism of other countries has drawn widespread praise, even from Chinese netizens.

On his return after the G7 summit in Hiroshima, the South Pacific and Australia, PM Narendra Modi commented on 25 May: “Today, the world wants to know what India is thinking.” In his 100th birthday interview with The Economist, Henry Kissinger said he is “very enthusiastic” about US close relations with India. He paid tribute to its pragmatism, basing foreign policy on non-permanent alliances built around issues rather than tying up the country in big multilateral alliances. He singled out Jaishankar as the current political leader who “is quite close to my views.”

In a complementary interview with The Wall Street Journal, Kissinger also foresees, without necessarily recommending such a course of action, Japan acquiring its own nuclear weapons in 3-5 years.

In a blog published on 18 May, Michael Klare argues that the emerging order is likely to be a G3 world with the US, China, and India as the three major nodes, based on attributes of population, economic weight and military power (with India heading into being a major military force to be reckoned with, even if not quite there yet). He is more optimistic about India than I am but still, it’s an interesting comment on the way the global winds are blowing. Few pressing world problems can be solved today without the active cooperation of all three.

The changed balance of forces between China and the US also affects the three Pacific allies, namely Australia, Japan, and South Korea. If any of them starts with a presumption of permanent hostility with China, then of course it will fall into the security dilemma trap. That assumption will drive all its policies on every issue in contention, and will provoke and deepen the very hostility it is meant to be opposing.

Rather than seeking world domination by overthrowing the present order, says Rohan Mukherjee in Foreign Affairs, China follows a three-pronged strategy. It works with institutions it considers both fair and open (UN Security Council, WTO, G20) and tries to reform others that are partly fair and open (IMF, World Bank), having derived many benefits from both these groups. But it is challenging a third group which, it believes, are closed and unfair: the human rights regime.

In the process, China has come to the conclusion that being a great power like the US means never having to say you’re sorry for hypocrisy in world affairs: entrenching your privileges in a club like the UN Security Council that can be used to regulate the conduct of all others.

Instead of self-fulfilling hostility, former Australian foreign secretary Peter Varghese recommends a China policy of constrainment-cum-engagement. Washington may have set itself the goal of maintaining global primacy and denying Indo-Pacific primacy to China, but this will only provoke a sullen and resentful Beijing into efforts to snatch regional primacy from the US. The challenge is not to thwart but to manage China’s rise—from which many other countries have gained enormous benefits, with China becoming their biggest trading partner—by imagining and constructing a regional balance in which US leadership is crucial to a strategic counterpoint.

In his words, “The US will inevitably be at the centre of such an arrangement, but that does not mean that US primacy must sit at its fulcrum.” Wise words that should be heeded most of all in Washington but will likely be ignored.


  • Ramesh Thakur

    Ramesh Thakur, a Brownstone Institute Senior Scholar, is a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, and emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

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Brownstone Institute

My Official Apology to the New York Post

Published on

From the Brownstone Institute


There is an art to meaningful apologies. A sweet spot. Wait too long and they become pointless.

Ideally, they should also be accompanied with some kind of atonement as well.

I, along with many New Yorkers, have been waiting for apologies that don’t appear to be coming. But as I’ve been waiting in the interminable void, it’s occurred to me that I might owe some apologies myself. So here goes

An Apology

Years ago, I used to sneer at anyone who read the NY Post. At the café where I worked, I took quiet pleasure in tossing it in the trash whenever someone left it behind on a crumb-covered seat. Had I ever read it? No. But I knew I wasn’t the type of person to read the NY Post, and I was proud of that fact.

Then, a few years back, things started to look a little different to me. They started to look wrong, like a wool hat in summer, or a mask on a baby’s face. I started to detect lies and impossibilities coming out of the mouths of important people. “Gradually, then suddenly,” as the Hemingway quote goes, I saw things in a different light.

I could almost stomach the politicians lying, but when friends began repeating the lies it became too much to bear. Truth seemed to hover just outside of them, leaving them infuriatingly untouched.

It was a little after this time, my awakening of sorts, that I myself became an outcast.

I hadn’t set out to become an outcast. I’d reached middle age an average upstanding citizen, fairly respectful of authority. I was a mother who made her children take piano lessons for god’s sake!

But one morning, late in the summer of 2021, I woke up to find I no longer had civil rights. And things took a turn. I still marvel at how it all unfolded:

Early 2021, I thought I’d survived the worst of covid. I’d made it through a year of hysteria that I presumed would surely fade, maybe even some bashful apologies would follow, like after a long drunken night gone too far.

By then, the miracle vaccine had finally arrived and any American who wanted it could have it. But it so happened that I didn’t want it. I’d already gotten covid during lockdown, while selling essentials like coffee and toilet paper from the café I now owned, a café limping along on government funds.

An experimental vaccine for a virus I’d already had just wasn’t that appealing to me; why would it be? The decision, quite honestly, made itself. Who knew it would land me in the middle of a nightmare.

I recall the incremental announcements from our mayor at the time, a tall goofy man people likened to Big Bird. The first announcement came on the morning of August 16th, 2021;

My kind was no longer allowed to sit down and eat in cafés, he said, though we were allowed to take something in a paper bag to go.

My kind was no longer allowed to enter cultural buildings, he said; art and history were for the good citizens.

We were no longer allowed the privilege of working, or a college education.

We weren’t allowed to enter our child’s school or to serve the people we served when the vaccine was just a twinkle in Fauci’s eye. And society agreed. The “unvaccinated” deserved it. Damn them.

My anger simmered. It turned to rage. All I asked for was common sense. Every day that New York City hummed, I burned. Didn’t they see us withering with loss of hope and loss in general?

Didn’t they know there were a million of us who said no thanks? A million who didn’t have civil rights. A million who were right, as it turned out, about everything.

It seemed they did not, or if they did, they didn’t care.

And just when I was about to give up on humanity, out of the haze of covid hysteria came some of the clearest voices to be found in, of all places, the NY Post.

But of course!

I should’ve recognized Alexander Hamilton’s handsome face on the ten-dollar bill as a sign, right there next to the scrolled “We the People.” A Founding Father, Hamilton had worked to abolish the slave trade in New York City. I’d forgotten he founded the NY Post too!

While other mainstream news still wilted with ruminations on the invisible threat of long covid, or the latest Fauci whim, the NY Post blazed a trail with its demands for a return to common sense and decency.

There in print it called for an end to all mandates – if baseball players and celebrities didn’t need them why did the working class?

In chorus its editorial board called for a reckoning by way of a covid truth-and-reconciliation commission – Amen!

And long before anyone else, it dared to publish the opinions of some of the bravest academics and scientists of our time, the co-authors of the Great Barrington DeclarationDr. Martin Kulldorff and Dr. Jay Bhattacharya.

So, I’m sorry, NY Post. I judged you by your cover. By your red and black barking headlines. But I was wrong. And for anyone else out there who feels they might owe someone an apology, let me tell you it feels good to settle a debt. I highly recommend it.


  • Yasmina Palumbo

    Yasmina Palumbo is a NYC public-school parent, advocate for civil rights and pandemic response accountability, and co-editor of Restore Childhood Substack

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