Speech and Understanding

It’s almost gotten to be boring, the degree to which people believe that what they refer to as “free speech” should not only allow them to say whatever they want (which it does), but should also prevent other people from understanding them to be the sort of person who says those things.

– A. R. Moxon “The Case for Shunning

This week’s featured post is “MTG’s dream deserves a serious response“.

This week everybody was talking about the first anniversary of the Ukraine War

One year in, a few conclusions are obvious:

  • It’s amazing that Ukraine, with material help from the NATO countries, is still standing. The Ukrainian military has performed better than anyone expected and the Russian military worse.
  • Sanctions have not been as crippling to the Russian economy as many expected.
  • NATO has been far more united and resolute than most expected. President Biden deserves a lot of credit for this.
  • So far, military failure has not loosened Vladimir Putin’s hold on power in Russia.

In general, I’ve been surprised by the optimism many observers expressed this week about Ukraine’s position. A long war usually turns into a war of attrition, which favors the larger country. (I keep thinking about the American Civil War. Early in the war, Lincoln’s generals maneuvered to preserve their army. But Grant understood that he had reserves to draw on and Lee didn’t, so battles that decimated both armies were actually victories. It was a horrible vision, but ultimately a successful one.)

The countervailing view is that Ukraine has now seen what Putin intends: to utterly destroy Ukrainian society. So they are motivated in a way that Russian troops aren’t. One apocryphal Sun Tzu quote says that you should “build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across”. But Putin has left Ukrainians nowhere to retreat to, and so they will keep fighting as long as it takes.

The optimists say that Russia has sustained enormous casualties during its recent offensive and has gained little. So they’re expecting a successful Ukrainian counter-attack to begin sometime during the spring months.

All across Europe, people helped Russian diplomats mark the anniversary: In The Hague, a portable barrel organ sat on the sidewalk outside the Russian embassy and played the Ukrainian national anthem. In Berlin, somebody plunked a disabled Russian tank in front of the embassy.

and the East Palestine derailment

On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train that included 20 cars of hazardous chemicals derailed near East Palestine, Ohio. Wikipedia has the basic facts, and I’m way late in covering this. (I missed it two weeks ago, and then took a week off.) So I’m going to focus on interpretation and reaction.

Basically, the only three things worth paying attention to are

  1. The Past. Could either the railroad or its government regulators have prevented this?
  2. The Present. Are the people affected by the derailment getting the kind of help they need?
  3. The Future. What practices or regulations need to change to keep more stuff like this from happening?

Anybody who talks about the derailment without addressing one of those three questions is just playing political games. For example, Ukraine has nothing to do with any of those questions, so if somebody tries to link Ukraine and East Palestine together, they’re wasting your time and trying to bamboozle you. (I’m looking at you, Josh Hawley.) And the attempt to use suffering of working-class White people to increase racial resentment is just despicable.

About the present, I don’t know what to say. Obviously, after a disaster like this, the people affected have conflicting urges: They want to go home, get back to normal, and be safe. So when to let them restart their normal lives involves a lot of technical questions about testing and balancing long-term risks that I can’t answer. We may not know for years whether those judgments were made well. It’s also too soon to tell what kind of remediation the area will need and where the funding will come from. (I want to see Norfolk Southern pay the brunt of it, though I doubt it will.)

If someone believes the people of East Palestine (and downstream communities) won’t get the help they need, they should make a proposal for help and see if anyone actually opposes it. Any vague they’re-all-against-you talk, though, is just demagoguery.

Long-term, I think the main lesson to be learned from this disaster is that government needs to regulate business. Every year or two I see another study totaling up some awesome quantity of money that government regulations “cost” the economy. ($1.9 trillion a year, according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute.) Typically, these studies list every dollar companies spend to avoid killing people and poisoning the land — and they completely ignore the benefits of companies not killing people and poisoning the land. (If it really does cost us $1.9 trillion each year to avoid living in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, that sounds to me like money well spent.)

The Obama administration tried to require railroads to improve their braking systems. (A better technology has existed for decades.) It also wanted to strengthen cars that carry hazardous materials, so that they’d be less likely to rupture in an accident. But the industry claimed that installing the new systems would be too expensive, so the regulation was never implemented. The Trump administration then reversed course and slashed railroad regulations — because, you know, regulations just get in the way of corporations who otherwise would always do the right thing.

There’s still debate over whether the Obama regulations might have prevented the East Palestine disaster. (Ironically, the claim that they wouldn’t have rests mainly on the idea that Obama’s regulations weren’t sweeping enough, and so might not have applied to a train that was only partly a hazardous-chemical train.)

Another issue is whether trains like this need more crew to spot problems sooner and take action. This was a major issue in last year’s union dispute, where Congress and the Biden administration averted a national strike by imposing a settlement. The East Palestine train had only two crew members and a trainee to handle 141 freight cars. Is that enough?

What shouldn’t be under debate is that trains could be made much safer, if we only had the will to do so. The people of East Palestine didn’t lose political battle with Ukraine or Black people, they lost a political battle with railroad lobbyists. So Josh Hawley’s statement is easy to fix:

I would say to Republicans: You can either be the party of Ukraine corporate lobbyists and the globalists deregulation, or you can be the party of East Palestine and the working people of this country.

and Fox News

The text of the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit against Fox News came out, and it is devastating. The claim, which is supported in detail by internal Fox communications, is that Fox knew Trump’s claims about Dominion voting machines stealing the election for Biden were false; but it promoted them anyway because it was afraid of losing viewers to Newsmax. All the major Fox hosts — Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity — were telling each other how ridiculous the claims were, even as their shows pushed them out to viewers.

It’s been clear for decades that much of Fox’ coverage is ridiculous and/or false. But there’s always been a debate about its authenticity: Do the hosts actually believe the crazy theories they peddle, or are they consciously duping their viewers? Now we know the answer: They don’t believe what they’re saying, and are just taking advantage of their viewers’ ignorance and gullibility.

For years, one constant Fox drumbeat has been to tell its viewers “The elites are laughing at you.” That is the root grievance that animates just about every segment of every show. But now we know that it is really Carlson, Ingraham, and Hannity who are laughing at their viewers.

Speaker McCarthy has turned all the January 6 security-camera footage over to Tucker Carlson. We already know that Carlson is dishonest (see above), so what he will do with the video is predictable: He will selectively edit it to spin some conspiracy theory that vindicates the pro-Trump mob. When he does this, no one in the legitimate news media will have any way to check the choices he made: What if you look at the scene from a different angle, or watch a longer clip of the same video?

Jamie Raskin has it exactly right: “If you want to make tens of thousands of hours publicly available, then it should be available for all media, not for just one propaganda mouthpiece.”

Of course, the better decision is not to release it at all. Anyone with access to this video will know where all the Capitol’s security cameras are, and can observe in detail where the weak spots in Capitol security were on January 6.

and The New York Times

Fox isn’t the only news site that’s been under fire recently. A week ago Thursday, 200 NYT contributors signed an open letter protesting the paper’s treatment of transgender issues. Several examples are given of the basic charge, which is that the Times has repeatedly laundered the talking points of anti-trans hate groups, turning them into front-page articles, which are then quoted by legislators pushing trans-oppressing bills.

A supporting letter endorsed by numerous LGBTQ-supporting organizations was written by GLAAD.

It is appalling that the Times would dedicate so many resources and pages to platforming the voices of extremist anti-LGBTQ activists who have built their careers on denigrating and dehumanizing LGBTQ people, especially transgender people. While there have been a few fair stories, mostly human interest stories, those articles are not getting front-page placement or sent to app users via push notification like the irresponsible pieces are.

Those letters point to a broader problem: Because national news sources like the NYT, Washington Post, and CNN hate to be characterized as “the liberal media”, conservatives can work the refs to get undeserved attention and credibility for right-wing talking points.

A case in point, this one about race rather than gender: Wednesday the WaPo published an opinion piece: “I’m a Black physician, and I’m appalled by mandated implicit bias training” by Marilyn Singleton.

If you just stumbled onto this article cold (as I did), you might imagine that a female Black doctor with no particular political ax to grind found herself in implicit-bias training and was appalled by what the trainers tried to teach her. That would certainly be an opinion worth hearing.

But if you read the article thoroughly and google up some relevant context, a completely different picture emerges. Singleton is not just a doctor, she’s a politician who ran for Congress in 2012 on a platform opposing the Affordable Care Act. (Her argument, expanded at length in Med City News, was that people’s poor health is primarily due to their own bad habits, which government can do nothing about.) She’s also a contributor for the right-wing Heartland Institute, which is part of the Koch network, and whose top issue is climate change denial. Singleton’s contribution to Heartland was an article protesting the “big government” response to Covid-19, promoting hydroxychloroquine as a “potentially lifesaving drug”, and describing barriers preventing its use against Covid (barriers that turned out to be entirely justified) as “appalling and unforgivable”.

And then (in paragraph 9 of her WaPo article) it turns out that Singleton has not in fact taken implicit-bias training.

I am so disturbed by the state’s mandate that, so far, I have balked at the training.

That admission comes after multiple paragraphs in which she has explained — entirely on her own authority, without reference to any training documents, trainer statements, or trainee accounts — the training’s “malignant false assumption” and “basic message”, as well as characterizing it as a “racially regressive practice”. But how does she know these things about a training she’s never taken?

In short: a right-wing activist who has no actual experience of implicit-bias training repeats right-wing talking points about it. And for some mysterious reason, this entirely predictable set of opinions deserves prominent placement in The Washington Post.

Worse, the only warning WaPo offers its readers that they are about to be propagandized is: “Marilyn Singleton is a board-certified anesthesiologist and a visiting fellow at the medical advocacy organization Do No Harm.” Again, you have to do your own googling to figure out what this means: Do No Harm is a right-wing organization focused on opposing “critical race theory” as it applies to medicine. Its FAQ defines CRT as “a divisive ideology that attributes all societal problems to racism”, an opinion I have never heard expressed by an actual anti-racism advocate.

and culture war battles

You know those conservative white guys who get seriously offended when someone implies they might be racists? Well, here’s a great example: Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert. In this clip (starting at about the 16 minute mark), he explains his new strategy for dealing with Black people:

I would say, based on the current way things are going, the best advice I would give to White people is to get the hell away from Black people. Just get the fuck away. Wherever you have to go, just get away, cause there’s no fixing this. … So that’s what I did. I went to a place with a very low Black population. … I’m going to back off from being helpful to Black America, because it doesn’t seem like it pays off. Like, I’ve been doing it all my life, and the only outcome is I get called a racist.

Really, Scott? That’s so unfair, that anybody would call you a racist. Clearly there’s not a racist bone in your body, and I’m sure Black America is really going to miss all your sincere helpfulness.

Sarcasm aside, that’s probably the last you’ll see of Dilbert for a while. Just about every newspaper in the country is dropping it. Adams’ statements are part of an hour-long post to his own YouTube channel — not an open-mic moment or somebody recording a drunken ramble on their iPhone — so clearly he planned his transformation into an anti-woke martyr. We’ll see where he takes it from here.

If you’re wondering what inspired Adams’ rant — other than maybe a desire to headline at CPAC or get Trump to say nice things about him on Truth Social — the Reframe blog explains:

There’s a saying that is very popular among white supremacists and neo Nazis and other far right bigots, and that saying is this: “It’s OK to be white.” It’s a catchphrase of theirs, which tries to position people deemed “white” as an oppressed minority, which they are not, instead of an artificially created privileged class, which is what they are.

And there’s a right-wing polling company called Rasmussen, who decided, for some reason they’d probably like us all to pretend is unknowable, to ask people whether or not they agree with the statement “it’s OK to be white”—which is, again, a well-known catchphrase among white supremacists.

Apparently only about half of Black Americans polled agreed with the phrase, which is a pretty high level of acceptance for a well-known white supremacist catchphrase, and which probably only shows the degree to which Black Americans are aware that this is a catchphrase among white supremacists.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams got into the crosstabs and found this little tidbit, and proceeded to have a decidedly non-skeptical meltdown about it. He decided to not know that “it’s OK to be white” is a white supremacist catchphrase (or at least not to mention it), and proclaimed that this result meant that Black people are a hate group, and advocated that white people stay the hell away from Black people, and he said some other racist things, too, which is the sort of thing he does from time to time.

Governor Bill Lee’s signature is all that Tennessee needs to be the first state to ban drag performances “on public property” or “in a location where [it] could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.” SB 3, which has passed both houses of the legislature, lumps drag shows in with other “adult cabaret” performances.

“Adult cabaret performance” means a performance in a location other than an adult cabaret that features topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or similar entertainers, regardless of whether or not performed for consideration;

The law follows the pattern of other recent repressive laws in red states, in that its vaguely defined terms seem intended have a chilling effect on a wide variety of activities. For example, what exactly does an impersonator have to do to “appeal to a prurient interest”? The law does not say. Is simply standing around in a showgirl costume enough? And is any trans person a “male or female impersonator” under Tennessee law? Suppose a trans woman headed for a night out wears something slinky (but no different from what another woman might wear). If she walks down a public sidewalk, she could be breaking the law.

Conservatives are supposedly for local rights, but cities and towns are forbidden to have their own standards. They’re supposedly for parental rights, but parents who want their child to see a drag show can’t. They’re all for the First Amendment when it protects Nazis on Twitter, but not here.

Rep. Justin Jones from Nashville knew he couldn’t win the vote, but he could call out the hypocrisy:

If we want to talk about what is seriously harmful to children, let’s have a bill to ban children from going to these Bible camps where they’re being sexually assaulted with the Southern Baptist Convention. Let’s go after real threats to our youth. Let’s go after the predatory behavior in your own districts, clergy in your own congregations, harming youth. Weekly we read about this in the news, my colleagues.

That’s a statistic somebody needs to tabulate: How does the number of kids sexually assaulted by drag queens compare to the number sexually assaulted by ministers?

Another recent culture-war hoo-hah has to do with the publisher editing children’s books by the late Roald Dahl to eliminate a few words and phrases that present-day readers might find offensive, like saying that Augustus Gloop (in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is “enormous” instead of “fat”.

The changes have drawn objections from a wide range of critics, left and right. (The objection that most resonates with me is that the people making these changes are exactly the kinds of adults Dahl liked to make fun of.)

But whether you like or don’t like the changes, let’s attribute them to the right source: As with the great Dr. Seuss uproar of 2021, this isn’t primarily a political-correctness thing; it’s just capitalism. Helen Lewis nails it:

The Dahl controversy will inevitably be presented as a debate about culture—a principled stand in favor of free speech versus a righteous attempt to combat prejudice and bigotry. But it’s really about money. I’ve written before about how some of the most inflammatory debates, over “cancel culture” and “wokeness,” are best seen as capital defending itself. The Dahl rewrites were surely designed to preserve the value of the [intellectual property] as much as advance the cause of social justice.

Some government agency demanding these changes would be a completely different issue. It would even be different if some left-wing group were threatening a boycott. But this is just brand protection, and apparently it’s going to lead to a New Coke/Classic Coke outcome.

In general, I stand by what I said two years ago:

What should be done about [dated phrases and illustrations] depends on what you want Dr. Seuss to be in 2021. If he’s to be a historical figure — a leading children’s-book author of the mid-to-late 20th century — then his work should speak for itself. Leave it alone, and organize a conversation around it, as HBO Max did when it briefly withdrew and then re-launched Gone With the Wind. …

But if Theodore Geisel’s legacy is supposed to be timeless — [his widow’s] vision — if his work is supposed to live through our era and beyond, then it needs to be curated. Parents and grandparents should be able to trust the Dr. Seuss brand. When you sit down to read to your four-year-old, you should be able to pick up a Dr. Seuss book without worrying that you might put something bad into a developing mind.

People can reasonably disagree about how to curate beloved children’s literature of the past. But if you argue that the texts should be left alone, you’re turning them into museum pieces. Over time, more and more parents will do the curation themselves by not introducing their children to authors they see as problematic.

Becoming seldom-read historical figures may or may not be what authors would prefer, if that’s what it takes to preserve their original texts. But turning popular works into historical artifacts is definitely bad for business.

and you also might be interested in …

A week ago Friday, newly elected Senator John Fetterman checked into a hospital to get treatment for his clinical depression. His office is talking in terms of weeks, not days.

Fetterman had a serious stroke not long after winning the Democratic senatorial primary, and has lingering effects related to understanding spoken words. He stayed in the race in spite of the stroke and won his seat last fall. According to stroke.org

Depression is a common experience for stroke survivors. It’s often caused by biochemical changes in the brain.

Experts keep going back and forth about whether the Covid-19 pandemic started through natural transmission from animals or leaked out of a laboratory. The Department of Energy now believes (with “low confidence”) that it was a lab leak, though several other government agencies still disagree.

Whichever way you go on this question, it’s important not to jump to the conclusion that the virus was constructed rather than naturally-occurring. Among scientists, even lab-leak proponents overwhelmingly believe the lab was collecting viruses for study rather than building them.

The Southern Baptist Convention is kicking out Saddleback Church, the megachurch founded by best-selling author Rick Warren. Saddleback’s crime? It named a woman to its pastoral team. When Warren retired as lead pastor last fall, he named Andy Wood as his successor. Andy’s wife, Stacie Wood, became a “teaching pastor” at the same time. That breaks the SBC’s rules.

Keeping women out of the ministry is one of those rules that can only be enforced strictly. Because once your people see their first woman minister, it will be obvious to most of them that excluding women was always senseless bigotry. Amazingly quickly, the men-only pulpit starts to look like the Jim-Crow-era whites-only drinking fountain. You think: “Really? We used to do that?”

Mike Pence is trying to dodge a subpoena from Jack Smith with a bizarre constitutional argument that I won’t even go into. If you get lost in details like that, you’ll miss the fact that if Trump did nothing wrong Pence should want to testify, so that the truth will come out. Why does there even need to be a subpoena? What does Pence want to cover up? Why won’t he say things under oath that he has already written in a book?

If you do care about the legalities here, iconic conservative Judge J. Michael Luttig, the very guy Pence consulted when he wanted know exactly what his constitutional powers would be on January 6, has written an op-ed explaining why Pence’s argument against the subpoena doesn’t hold water.

It is Mr. Pence who has chosen to politicize the subpoena, not the D.O.J.

and let’s close with something moving

Much as I try to empathize with people everywhere, events hit me harder when I have a personal connection. For example, last summer’s 4th of July shooting in Highland Park stuck with me more than most shootings, both because I used to live in the Chicago area and because Highland Park has been the backdrop for so many movies and TV shows I’ve seen (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Risky Business, The Good Wife). Highland Park has become Hollywood’s archetype of an insulated suburban enclave.

Well, I’m a Michigan State graduate, so the mass shooting of students on campus on February 13 had a bigger impact on me than the general run of mass shootings. (Think about that phrase for a moment: the general run of mass shootings. The United States is the only country where someone would say those words.)

One emotion that surfaces after a lot of disasters is collective pride in the human spirit, which keeps going in the face of tragedy. One way the MSU community expressed that pride after the shooting was by circulating this YouTube from 2012: the MSU Men’s Glee singing “We Rise Again“.

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  • lonemtn  On February 27, 2023 at 12:53 pm

    Marilyn Singleton’s article jumped out and bit me when she made it sound like 50 mandated training hours per year were ALL supposed to be implicit bias training. I realize that’s not what she actually wrote, but she sure made it sound that way.

    • susanmbrewer  On February 27, 2023 at 6:32 pm

      It amazes me how deft some people are at using words that persuade readers to think they have read something they haven’t…quite…read. I’d really like to see more articles describing how to write what my HS journalism teacher years ago called yellow journalism. By teaching us how to create it, she also taught us how to recognize it. It’s a lesson that has lasted over 60 years and counting.

  • Kat  On February 27, 2023 at 3:34 pm

    Besides the ongoing ‘thank you’ to you for your efforts (mostly) weekly, I am indebted to your for reminding me about A.R. Moxon – who definitely has a way with words! When I left Twitter last year (guess why…) I lost track of a number of people whose viewpoints I enjoyed. It is nice to get at least one of them back!

  • Katy Weeks  On February 27, 2023 at 5:26 pm

    Thanks for sharing the MSU “We Rise Again”, it was lovely. I’m going to ask our choir director if we can sing it – have sung it on Star, of course.

  • susanmbrewer  On February 27, 2023 at 6:28 pm

    You wrote: “Anyone with access to this video will know where all the Capitol’s security cameras are, and can observe in detail where the weak spots in Capitol security were on January 6.”

    But isn’t that the point of giving it to Tucker Carlson? The GOP cabal pulling McCarthy’s strings knew what they were doing when they had him do this.

    • Anonymous  On February 28, 2023 at 6:49 am


  • Cathy Strasser  On February 28, 2023 at 8:41 am

    I have also become disillusioned with the majority of main stream media outlets and their supposed “anti-bias” slant on news that is actually giving in to the extreme right’s false claims of prejudice against them. I’ve let my NYT subscription lapse and am considering doing the same with the WAPO. I’m especially grateful to your column for wading through the smoke screens to give us actual facts. Thank you for your time and effort each week.


  • […] Speech and Understanding […]

  • By Learn Everything | The Weekly Sift on March 6, 2023 at 12:57 pm

    […] Last week I talked about mainstream news sources like CNN, the NYT, and WaPo trying to avoid being cast as “the liberal media” by giving undeserved attention to conservative voices. Well, Wednesday brought a new example: “My Liberal Campus Is Pushing Freethinkers to the Right” by Princeton senior Adam Hoffman, published in the NYT. […]

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