Tag Archives: culture wars

Reading While Texan

https://www.duluthnewstribune.com/opinion/columns/7111880-ProCon-Critical-race-theory-is-a-manufactured-fear-being-exploited

Your worst fears about Texas schools aren’t true. But your next-to-worst fears probably are.


Here’s how deep the rabbit hole goes: NBC News received an audio recording of an administrator in the Dallas suburb of Southlake [1], telling teachers that a new law (HB 3979) requires them to offer an “opposing” perspective if they have books about the Holocaust in their classroom libraries. When a teacher asked “How do you oppose the Holocaust?” the administrator didn’t offer a suggestion, but replied “It’s come up. Believe me.” [2]

What’s most disturbing in this recording, to me at least, is that the administrator doesn’t sound like Holocaust denier who has been itching for years to get her extreme opinions into the curriculum. In general, she sounds like she’s on the teachers’ side. “If you think a book is OK, then let’s go with it. And whatever happens, we’ll fight it together.” She doesn’t seem ideological, she just wants to keep the school district out of trouble — like administrators in every other Texas school district.

On the calm-down side of this story, the NBC article also quotes experts who say that she overreacted to the law. And the school district posted this statement on its Facebook page:

During the conversations with teachers during last week’s meeting, the comments made were in no way to convey that the Holocaust was anything less than a terrible event in history. Additionally, we recognize there are not two sides of the Holocaust. As we continue to work through implementation of HB 3979, we also understand this bill does not require an opposing viewpoint on historical facts.

So — big relief! — Southlake’s school libraries can still display The Diary of Anne Frank without “balancing” it against Mein Kampf.

What is controversial? Even if you accept that the Southlake administrator’s interpretation of the law was over the top, it’s worth taking a moment to read the portion of HB 3979 she was “overreacting” to:

(1) a teacher may not be compelled to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs;

(2) a teacher who chooses to discuss a topic described by Subdivision (1) shall, to the best of the teacher’s ability, strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective;

Apparently, cooler heads have determined that the Holocaust is not “widely debated and currently controversial” in Southlake (and thank God for that). But what is? The law is only eight pages long, and doesn’t give school districts any guidance on exactly how widely debated an issue must be before “diverse and contending perspectives” have to be “explored without deference”.

Worse, “debated” and “controversial” are fundamentally subjective notions. An issue becomes “debated” not because it is objectively dubious, but because somebody chooses to debate it. It becomes “controversial” whenever someone starts a controversy, no matter how baseless that controversy might be. [3] As much as I want to accept the school district’s assurance that “this bill does not require an opposing viewpoint on historical facts”, I can’t find such a clear statement in the text of the law.

And even if you grant an exemption for “historical facts”, the very distinction between facts and opinions is itself controversial these days. The essence of Trumpism is to deny that objective facts can be found by examining evidence. (American intelligence agencies say one thing, but Vladimir Putin says something else. Who can determine where the truth lies?) If Trump repeats something often enough, it is true — or at the very least it becomes an “alternative fact“. Any evidence that refutes his opinion is “fake news”.

So it appears to me that if, say, a large number of people in some Texas community believe the Earth is flat — or if the Oracle of Mar-a-Lago starts making that claim — a classroom’s globe might become debated and controversial; it might need to be balanced against some other representation of the Earth. HB 3979 would then require teachers not to “defer” to the view that the Earth is spherical.

Or suppose one of your students has a parent like this guy, who wore a “Six million wasn’t enough” shirt to a Proud Boys rally in December. (They’re available online.) Would that make the Holocaust “controversial” enough to invoke the provisions of 3979? Or maybe you regard the fact of the Holocaust as beyond controversy, but describing it as “a terrible event” is a value judgment that this guy disputes. Doesn’t that make it “debated”? How many people have to agree with him before it’s “widely” debated?

Maybe that’s what “It’s come up. Believe me.” means.

https://www.adl.org/blog/proud-boys-bigotry-is-on-full-display

The big chill. But OK, let’s say you live in a sane town, where the Holocaust and the globe aren’t widely debated. Let’s say your local biology teacher can describe how evolution works without giving a “contending perspective” from Genesis, or that teachers at all levels can refer to Joe Biden as the President without any kind of disclaimer.

Or, at least, that’s how the law would be interpreted by a judge if a case went to court.

If you find that comforting, you’re ignoring the fact that most school administrators don’t want to go to court. Teachers, by and large, don’t want to be at the center of a public controversy. They want to spend their prep time on next week’s lesson plan, not on explaining to a review committee what they said or what books they made available. They don’t want to lose hours in meetings with the school district’s or their union’s lawyer, getting advice on how to present their case to a judge.

In practice, that means that bills like HB 3979 have chilling effects that go far beyond their legally enforceable boundaries.

So hurray! You can teach about the Holocaust, and maybe even say that it was wrong. What about slavery? Jim Crow? Government programs that helped White families accumulate wealth, but weren’t available to Black families? How far do you want to stick your neck out? [4]

New Kid. In a related Texas case, the Houston suburb Katy cancelled a virtual appearance by author Jerry Craft, and pulled his graphic novel New Kid from the shelves after a parent circulated a petition.

“New Kid,” a Newbery Medal-winning graphic novel, is about a seventh grader at a prestigious private school where he is one of the few students of color. …

“It is inappropriate instructional material,” [the petition-starting parent] said. “The books don’t come out and say we want white children to feel like oppressors, but that is absolutely what they will do.” [She] claimed the book promoted critical race theory as well as Marxism. The petition gained a few hundred signatures in a district of more than 80,000 students.

This article, also by NBC News, seems to imply that a “few hundred signatures” is not many. To me, it seems like an incredibly large number of people in one town to take a position on a children’s book. I have to wonder how many of the signers had ever heard of New Kid, and how many just believed that this petition would stop somebody from teaching “critical race theory”, whatever they imagine it to be.

Although HB 3979 is often referred to as a bill against teaching “critical race theory”, the law does not mention that term, and the particular things it does outlaw are a bizarre caricature of anything actually being taught, like

an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex

The petition has been taken down, so I don’t know the text of it. But I doubt it directly invokes the new law. It seems more like a standard attempt to get elected officials to take action.

My reading. I didn’t want to assume baselessly that the woman charging “critical race theory” and “Marxism” is crazy, so I read the book Saturday. (It’s 250 or so pages, but it’s a graphic novel; reading it takes maybe an hour, depending on how closely you examine the images.) Having now done my own research, here’s my newly informed opinion: She’s crazy.

New Kid is a pretty thoroughly uplifting book. What I got out of it is: If you ever reach a point where you can see past your own struggles, you’ll find that just about everybody is struggling in their own way.

The central character is a Black kid named Jordan Banks, so he struggles in a way that a Black kid might, including from the clueless assumptions of White kids and teachers. As the book develops, though, he gets enough slack to raise his glance and see the struggles of the other kids — including one White kid who is pathologically ashamed of the burn mark on her arm, and another who is afraid Jordan won’t like him because his family is too rich.

I can’t fathom what CRT or Marxism has to do with any of this, other than being buzzwords that MAGA-hatters throw at whatever they don’t like.

https://www.politico.com/cartoons/2021/10/01/october-2021-000259

Craft himself describes what he’s trying to do this way:

As an African American boy who grew up in Washington Heights in New York City, I almost never saw kids like me in any of the books assigned to me in school. Books aimed at kids like me seemed to deal only with history or misery. [5] That’s why it has always been important to me to show kids of color as just regular kids, and to create iconic African American characters like Jordan Banks from New Kid. I hope that readers of all ages will see the kindness and understanding that my characters exhibit and emulate those feelings in their day-to-day lives.

If you look at this book and see nothing but an attempt to make “white children feel like oppressors”, I don’t know what to tell you.

Happy endings? Like Southlake and the Holocaust, the story of Jerry Craft and Katy has an ending that is sort-of-happy, if you don’t look at it too closely: A review committee ruled that the book is appropriate and rescheduled Craft’s appearance. [6]

But again, consider the chilling effect. Suppose you’re a teacher putting together a reading list, or assembling a mini-library for your classroom. Now you know: Even a Newberry Medal book is suspect. Even if nothing on your list would offend any sane person, your name still might wind up in a petition, and you might need to justify your choices to a review committee.

How many worthwhile books (that we’ll never hear about) have teachers struck off their suggested-reading lists, not because they contain anything remotely objectionable, but because the teachers don’t want the hassle of dealing with crazy people? How many children, who might have discovered that reading could actually be interesting, will instead receive bland assignments that have nothing to do with their experiences?


[1] If you think you’ve heard of Southlake before, probably it’s from a previous racial controversy, which became the subject of a six-part NBC podcast.

[2] Let me offer an answer to the Southlake teacher’s question: You can balance a Holocaust book like The Diary of Anne Frank with The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, a first-person novel told from the point of view of an SS officer.

This is not a serious pedagogical suggestion, because Littell’s book is way too long and difficult for most students, not to mention upsetting. (I would worry about a student who managed to finish it.) But if you need to cover your ass, it does present an opposing (or at least contrasting) perspective.

An in-between perspective might be Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy of detective novels. Kerr’s detective Bernie Gunther isn’t a Nazi himself, but given the times, he frequently finds himself unable to say “no” to cases of interest to people like Heydrich or Goebbels. Kerr should be readable by advanced students at the high-school level, and might give them sympathy for the unsavory choices ordinary people face when they live under a totalitarian regime.

Similarly, Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 detective trilogy humanizes one of Stalin’s secret policemen.

[3] Part of what makes a position “debatable” in practice is the wealth and power of the people who debate it. Climate change, for example, is still “debatable” because fossil fuel corporations have the resources to keep their point of view in the public eye, in spite of the scientific consensus on the other side.

[4] The text of the law might be on your side, if you make it into a courtroom.

[T]he State Board of Education shall adopt essential knowledge and skills that develop each student’s civic knowledge, including an understanding of: … the history of white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, and the Ku Klux Klan, and the ways in which it is morally wrong

[5] One of the running gags in New Kid is the lack of diversity in the themes of “diversity literature”, which Jordan parodies as “a gritty, urban reminder of the grit of today’s urban grittiness”. One panel is labeled “African American escapist literature”, and features books titled “Escape From Gang Life”, “Escape From Slavery”, “Escape From Poverty”, and “Escape From Prison”.

[6] I give Craft credit for not saying “Fuck you” to the whole town.

On Doing Your Own Research

It’s easy to laugh at the conspiracy theorists. But our expert classes aren’t entitled to blind trust.


One common mantra among anti-vaxxers, Q-Anoners, ivermectin advocates, and conspiracy theorists of all stripes is that people need to “do their own research”. Don’t be a sheep who believes whatever the CDC or the New York Times or some other variety of “expert” tells you. If something is important, you need to look into it yourself.

Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of pushback memes. This one takes a humorous poke at the inflated view many people have of their intellectual abilities.

While this one is a bit more intimidating:

And this one is pretty in-your-face:

I understand and mostly agree with the point these memes are trying to make: There is such a thing as expertise, and watching a YouTube video is no substitute for a lifetime of study. In fact, few ideas are so absurd that you can’t make a case for them that is good enough to sound convincing for half an hour — as I remember from reading Erich von Daniken’s “ancient astronaut” books back in the 1970s.

Medical issues are particularly tricky, because sometimes people just get well (or die) for no apparent reason. Whatever they happened to be doing at the time looks brilliant (or stupid), when in fact it might have had nothing to do with anything. That’s why scientists invented statistics and double-blind studies and so forth — so they wouldn’t be fooled by a handful of fluky cases, or by their own desire to see some pattern that isn’t really there.

All the same, I cringe when one of these memes appears on my social media feed, because I know how they’ll be received by the people they target. The experts are telling them: “Shut up, you dummy, and believe what you’re told.”

They’re going to take that message badly, and I actually don’t blame them. Because there is a real crisis of expertise in the world today, and it didn’t appear out of nowhere during the pandemic. It’s been building for a long time.

Liberal skepticism. Because the Trump administration was so hostile to expertise, we now tend to think of viewing experts skeptically as a left/right issue. But it’s not. Go back, for example, and look at liberal Chris Hayes’ 2012 book The Twilight of the Elites. Each chapter of that book covers a different area in which some trusted corps of experts failed the public that put its faith them: Intelligence experts (and the journalists who covered them) assured us that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Bankers drove the world economy into a ditch in 2008, largely because paper that turned out to be worthless was rated AAA. The Catholic priesthood, supposedly a guardian of morality for millions of Americans, was raping children and then covering it up.

Experts, it turns out, do have training and experience. But they also have class interests. Sometimes they’re looking out for themselves rather than for the rest of us.

More recently, we have discovered that military experts have been lying to us for years about the “progress” they’d made in promoting Afghan democracy and training an Afghan army to defend that democratic government.

It’s not hard to find economists who present capitalism as the only viable option for a modern economy, or who explain why we can’t afford to take care of all the sick people, or to prevent climate change from producing some apocalyptic future.

Such people are very good at talking down to the rest of us. But ordinary folks are less and less likely to take them seriously. And that’s good, sort of. You shouldn’t believe what people say just because they have a title or a degree.

If not expertise, what? So it’s not true that if you argue with a recognized expert, you’re automatically wrong. Unfortunately, though, recent events have shown us that a reflexive distrust of all experts creates even worse problems.

  • It’s hard to estimate how many Americans have died of Covid because we haven’t been willing to follow expert advice about vaccination, masking, quarantining, and so on. Constructing such an estimate would itself require expertise I don’t have. But simply comparing our death totals to Canada’s (713 deaths per million people versus our 2034) indicates it’s probably in the hundreds of thousands.
  • Our democracy is in trouble because large numbers of Americans are unwilling to accept election results, no matter how many times they get recounted by bipartisan panels of election supervisors.
  • The growing menace of hurricanes and wildfires is the price we pay because the world (of which the US is a major part, and needs to play a leading role) refuses to act on what climate scientists have been telling us since the 1970s.

Without widespread belief in experts, the truth becomes a matter of tribalism (one side believes in fighting Covid and the other doesn’t), intimidation (Republicans who know better don’t dare tell Trump’s personality cult that he lost), or wishful thinking (nobody wants to believe we have to change our lives to cut carbon emissions).

Which one of us is Galileo? The foundational myth of modern science (Galileo saying “and yet it moves“) expresses faith in a reality beyond the power of kings and popes. People who have trained their minds to be objective can see that reality, while others are stuck either following or rebelling against authority.

The question is: Who is Galileo in the current controversies? Is it the scientific experts who have spent their lives training to see clearly in these situations? Or is it the populists, who refuse to bow to the authority of the expert class, and insist on “doing their own research”?

Simply raising that question points to a more nuanced answer than just “Shut up and believe what you’re told.”

Take me, for example. This blog arises from distrust of experts. After the Saddam’s-weapons-of-mass-destruction fiasco, I started looking deeper into the stories in the headlines. Because I was living in New Hampshire at the time, it was easy to go listen to the 2004 presidential candidates. Once I did, I noticed the media’s habit of fitting a speech into a predetermined narrative, rather than reporting what a candidate was actually saying. Then I started reading major court decisions (like the Massachusetts same-sex marriage decision of 2003), and interpreting them for myself.

In short, I was doing my own research. Some guy at CNN may have spent his whole life reporting on legal issues, but I was going to read the cases for myself.

When social media became a thing, and turned into an even bigger source of misinformation than the mainstream media had ever been, I began to look on this blog as a model for individual behavior: Don’t amplify claims without some amount of checking. (For example: In this weeks’ summary — the next post after this one — I was ready to blast Trump for ignoring all observances of 9-11. But then I discovered that he appeared by video at a rally organized by one of his supporters on the National Mall. I’m not shy about criticizing Trump, but facts are facts.) Listen to criticism from commenters and thank them when they catch one of your mistakes. Change your opinions when the facts change.

But also notice the things that I don’t do: When my wife got cancer, we didn’t design her treatment program by ourselves. We made value judgments about what kinds of sacrifices we were willing to make for her treatment (a lot, as it turned out), but left the technical details to our doctors. At one point we felt that a doctor was a little too eager to get my wife into his favorite clinical trial, so we got a second opinion and ultimately changed doctors. But we didn’t ditch Western medicine and count on Chinese herbs or something. (She’s still doing fine 25 years after the original diagnosis.)

On this blog, I may not trust the New York Times and Washington Post to decide what stories are important and what they mean, but I do trust them on basic facts. If the NYT puts quotes around some words, I believe that the named person actually said those words (though I may check the context). If the WaPo publishes the text of a court decision, I believe that really is the text. And so on.

I also trust the career people in the government to report statistics accurately. The political appointees may spin those numbers in all sorts of ways, but the bureaucrats in the cubicles are doing their best.

In the 18 years I’ve been blogging, that level of trust has never burned me.

Where I come from. So the question isn’t “Do you trust anybody?” You have to; the world is just too big to figure it all out for yourself. Instead, the question is who you trust, and what you trust them to do.

My background gives me certain advantages in answering those questions, because I have a foot in both camps. Originally, I was a mathematician. I got a Ph.D. from a big-name university and published a few articles in some prestigious research journals (though not for many years now). So I understand what it means to do actual research, and to know things that only a handful of other people know. At the same time, I am not a lawyer, a doctor, a political scientist, an economist, a climate scientist, or a professional journalist. So just about everything I discuss in this blog is something I view from the outside.

I don’t, for example, have any inside knowledge about public health or infectious diseases or climate science. But I do know a lot about the kind of people who go into the sciences, and about the social mores of the scientific community. So when I hear about some vast conspiracy to inflate the threat of Covid or climate change, I can only shake my head. I can picture how many people would necessarily be involved in such a conspiracy, and who many of them would have to be. It’s absurd.

In universities and labs all over the world, there are people who would love to be the one to expose the “hoax” of climate change, or to discover the simple solution that means none of us have to change our lifestyle. You couldn’t shut them up by shifting research funding, you’d need physical concentration camps, and maybe gas chambers. The rumors of people vanishing into those camps would spread far enough that I would hear them.

I haven’t.

Not all experts deserve our skepticism. Similarly, one of my best friends and two of my cousins are nurses. I know the mindset of people who go into medicine. So the idea that hospitals all over the country are faking deaths by the hundreds of thousands, or that ICUs are only pretending to be jammed with patients — it’s nuts.

If you’ve ever planned a surprise party, you know that conspiracies of just a dozen or so people can be hard to manage. Now imagine conspiracies that involve tens of thousands, most of whom were once motivated by ideals completely opposite to the goals of the conspiracy.

It doesn’t happen.

I have a rule of thumb that has served me well over the years: You don’t always have to follow the conventional wisdom, but when you don’t you should know why.

Lots of expert classes have earned our distrust. But some haven’t. They’re not all the same. And even the bankers and the priests have motives more specific than pure evil. If they wouldn’t benefit from some conspiracy, they’re probably not involved.

Know thyself. As you divide up the world between things you’re going to research yourself and things you’re going to trust to someone else, the most important question you need to answer is: What kind of research can you reasonably do? (Being trained to read mathematical proofs made it easy for me to read judicial opinions. I wouldn’t have guessed that, but it turned out that way.)

That’s what’s funny about the cartoon at the top: This guy thinks he credibly competes with the entire scientific community (and expects his wife to share that assessment of his abilities).

My Dad (who I think suspected from early in my life that he was raising a know-it-all) often said to me: “Everybody in the world knows something you don’t.” As I got older, I realized that the reverse is also true: Just about all of us have some experience that gives us a unique window on the world. You don’t necessarily need a Ph.D. to see something most other people miss.

But at the same time, often our unique windows point in the wrong direction entirely. My window, for example, tells me very little about what Afghans are thinking right now. If I want to know, I’m going to have to trust somebody a little closer to the topic.

And if I’m going to be a source of information rather than misinformation, I’ll need to account for my biases. Tribalism, intimidation, and wishful thinking affect everybody. A factoid that matches my prior assumptions a little too closely is exactly the kind of thing I need to check before I pass it on. Puzzle pieces that fit together too easily have maybe been shaved a little; check it out.

So sure: Do your own research. But also learn your limitations, and train yourself to be a good researcher within those boundaries. Otherwise, you might be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

A Dozen Observations about Abortion, Texas, and the Supreme Court

https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/sep/03/opinion-john-deering-cartoon-about-texas/

As you undoubtedly already know, the Supreme Court refused to interfere with the new Texas abortion ban, which took effect Wednesday. In brief, the law bans abortion after a “heartbeat” is detectable in the embryo, which happens (not really, but sort of, more below) at around six weeks. That’s usually before a woman knows she’s pregnant, so most pregnant Texas women will not, at any point in the process, have legal options other than carrying their fetus to term.

What makes this law different from dozens of other anti-abortion laws (that routinely get voided by the federal courts) is its method of enforcement: Abortion is illegal, but not criminal. No one is arrested or sent to jail. But private citizens can sue people (other than the pregnant woman herself) who perform or “abet” a post-heartbeat abortion. If they win, they get attorneys fees plus $10,000.

That enforcement method makes it tricky for a federal court to block the law. Ordinarily, a court would enjoin state officials not to enforce a law that violates established constitutional standards, but here Texas can say: “We don’t enforce it. Private citizens and the state courts enforce it.” Five conservative judges (three of them appointed by Trump) decided to take advantage of that loophole. So the law stands and abortion is effectively banned in Texas.

Much has been written about this situation in the last week, so rather than add another article to the stack, I want to organize what’s already out there. That’s why this post is a list of short observations rather than a single essay. In each case, I’ll point you to other sources that do the elaboration.

Let’s start with some basic references.

The law itself (Senate Bill 8) is here. It’s written for lawyers, and I don’t recommend reading it unless you’re really getting down into the weeds.

The Supreme Court’s rejection of the request to intervene is only 12 pages, and is much more readable. The majority’s statement is barely more than a page. Chief Justice Roberts wrote a three-page dissent. Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan also wrote dissents, each of which was co-signed by the other two. So the Court published roughly ten times as much material explaining why it shouldn’t have done this than justifying why it did.

Slate has a good FAQ about what the law covers and how it might be interpreted. Some of the issues will depend on what judges do, and even if the law is technically on your side, you still will have to respond if someone sues you.

The bill is named the Texas Heartbeat Act, but a six-week embryo doesn’t have a heart.

LiveScience.com explains:

Rather, at six weeks of pregnancy, an ultrasound can detect “a little flutter in the area that will become the future heart of the baby,” said Dr. Saima Aftab, medical director of the Fetal Care Center at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. This flutter happens because the group of cells that will become the future “pacemaker” of the heart gain the capacity to fire electrical signals, she said.

NPR goes into more detail:

“When I use a stethoscope to listen to an [adult] patient’s heart, the sound that I’m hearing is caused by the opening and closing of the cardiac valves,” says Dr. Nisha Verma, an OB-GYN who specializes in abortion care and works at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

The sound generated by an ultrasound in very early pregnancy is quite different, she says.

“At six weeks of gestation, those valves don’t exist,” she explains. “The flickering that we’re seeing on the ultrasound that early in the development of the pregnancy is actually electrical activity, and the sound that you ‘hear’ is actually manufactured by the ultrasound machine.”

Healthline.com says that at six weeks, an embryo is “about the size of a grain of rice”.

You might be wondering why anti-abortion activists lie so blatantly about this rather obscure point of biology (or perhaps how they can call themselves Christians while they do). Similarly, they make bogus claims about a fetus’ ability to feel pain at 20 weeks. Neither of these thresholds have any legal significance. (After all, farm animals have heartbeats and feel pain, but they are killed by the millions without any political backlash.)

What activists are trying to suggest with heartbeats and suffering is the presence of a human soul, which many of them say enters the embryo at conception. (In National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters writes: “That heartbeat should strike the consciences of anyone with an open mind about the morality of the issue.” Sorry, but that shot just goes right past me; I am neither engaged nor shamed by it.)

They may describe this theological speculation as “Biblical”, but in fact it is not, as I’ve explained before. In Catholic circles, this teaching was virtually unknown before the 1600s, and it didn’t become orthodox among conservative Protestants until after Roe. For Evangelicals, the politics motivated the theology, not the other way around.

In any case, one American’s theology does not bind other Americans, because the Founders very explicitly did not set up a theocracy.

Complete bans on abortion are not popular now, and never have been.

Gallup has been asking about abortion for nearly half a century, and the numbers have been remarkably stable. Less than 1-in-5 Americans believe abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances”, and that’s been true consistently since 1975. The split between those who want abortion legal in “any circumstances” or “certain circumstances” bounces around a bit more. Even that may not represent an actual change of opinion, but could correspond to a change in the circumstances that came to mind when the question was raised.

On the specific question of overturning Roe v Wade, public opinion has long supported leaving Roe alone. In 1989 the public was against overturning Roe 58%-31%, and the most recent survey was 58%-32%.

I sum up my reading of public opinion with a quip. Most Americans, whether we are conservative or liberal, have exactly the same opinion about both abortion and guns: “I am appalled by the sheer number of them in this country, and wish there were fewer. But if my family gets into some extraordinary situation and decides that we need one, I don’t want the government to stand in our way.”

The court majority is acting in bad faith.

The majority purports to be stymied by the complexity of the situation: No one knows exactly who will decide to enforce the Texas law, so how can they craft an injunction?

it is unclear whether the named defendants in this lawsuit can or will seek to enforce the Texas law against the applicants in a manner that might permit our intervention.

Will Wilkinson points out the obvious:

you know that the conservative majority would not affirm this principle in general. There is zero chance that Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Barrett and Thomas would offer the same deferential treatment to a formally identical California law designed to frustrate citizens’ 2nd Amendment rights by incentivizing civil lawsuits against anyone who gives away or sells or in any way aids or abets the possession or ownership of a firearm.

Justice Sotomayor’s dissent is blunt and direct:

It cannot be the case that a State can evade federal judicial scrutiny by outsourcing the enforcement of unconstitutional laws to its citizenry.

But of course, it’s not the case in general. This is a one-time-only principle that applies solely to abortion.

https://twitter.com/mluckovichajc/status/1433774563502985218

A decision this consequential shouldn’t happen through the shadow docket.

Essentially, the Court has reversed Roe v Wade: Texas has made nearly all abortions illegal; the Court has refused to protect a woman’s previously recognized constitutional right; and now other red states are scrambling to pass their own bounty-hunter law.

It is certainly within the Court’s power to reverse previous precedents and thereby reinterpret the Constitution. But the typical way for a reversal to happen is through the regular docket (known to lawyers as the “merits” docket): A case challenging the precedent works its way up through the federal courts. Through that process, the lower courts develop a body of publicly available evidence and reasoning. Then the Supreme Court hears lawyers for both sides argue the case, and interested third parties submit briefs supporting one side or the other. The justices withdraw for weeks or months to consider it all, and then a decision is announced, supported by a written majority opinion (which may be critiqued by dissents from judges outside the majority). When Brown v Board of Education reversed Plessey v Ferguson in 1954, that was the lengthy process it went through. (The original lawsuit was filed in 1951.)

A case challenging Roe is already on the Court’s calendar for this term. We should get a decision by June at the latest. If a majority wants to reverse Roe — and apparently it does — that is the proper way to do so.

One key virtue of the regular process is transparency: The Court’s power may be mostly unchecked, but when it does something, we at least know what it did and why. Five justices can’t just say “Do this” and go home; they have to spell out the new interpretation in enough detail that lower courts and the various levels of state and federal government know what the law is now. The Court’s reasoning is available for legal scholars to examine and criticize, and Congress knows exactly what it must do if it wants to achieve a different outcome.

But the Court also has what is called the “shadow docket”. Wikipedia explains:

Shadow docket decisions are made when the Court believes an applicant will suffer “irreparable harm” if the request is not immediately granted. These decisions are generally terse (often only a few sentences), unsigned, and are preceded by little to no oral arguments. Historically, the shadow docket was used only rarely for rulings of serious legal or political significance, but since 2017 it has been increasingly utilized for consequential rulings, especially for requests by the Department of Justice for emergency stays of lower-court rulings.

So, for example, you might ask the Court to intervene if a law was about to go into effect that would remove one of your previously recognized constitutional rights. If, say, you had to give birth to your rapist’s baby because all the abortion providers in your state had to turn you away, you might reasonably claim to face irreparable harm. The no-longer-viable clinics might also reasonably claim irreparable harm.

By not acting, the Court is basically announcing: “Not so fast about thinking you have a constitutional right.” It has made women’s rights evaporate without any kind of transparent process. Or maybe that’s not the Court’s intention at all. Who can say, when the majority barely wrote a page of explanation?

Chief Justice Roberts, who is usually thought of as one of the conservative justices, complained about this lack of process:

I would grant preliminary relief to preserve the status quo ante—before the law went into effect—so that the courts may consider whether a state can avoid responsibility for its laws in such a manner. … We are at this point asked to resolve these novel questions—at least preliminarily—in the first instance, in the course of two days, without the benefit of consideration by the District Court or Court of Appeals. We are also asked to do so without ordinary merits briefing and without oral argument. … I would accordingly preclude enforcement of S. B. 8 by the respondents to afford the District Court and the Court of Appeals the opportunity to consider the propriety of judicial action and preliminary relief pending consideration of the plaintiffs’ claims

Translating from the legalese: If we don’t know what to do, we should freeze the situation as best we can until we have time to figure it out. But the other five conservative justices rejected that reasoning.

The Senate’s hearings on recent Supreme Court nominees have been a charade. The nominees lied, and the senators who credited those lies were either naive or complicit.

Numerous examples are possible, but the most ridiculous one was the 45-minute speech Susan Collins gave defending her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh. For eight paragraphs she addressed “the concern that Judge Kavanaugh would seek to overturn Roe v. Wade”, assuring the country that the constitutional right established in Roe “is important to me”, and extolling Kavanaugh’s reverence for long-established precedents.

Naive? Complicit? Hard to say.

The 6-3 conservative majority is the result of a system rigged to over-represent White rural voters. The Court’s current conservatism does not and never has represented the will of the American people.

Supreme Court justices are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Both of these institutions are rigged in favor of White rural voters.

Three of the current justices (Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett) were nominated by Donald Trump, who was chosen by the Electoral College in defiance of the American people. (Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2.8 million votes, but won a 304-227 victory in the Electoral College.)

Sometimes Roberts and Alito are included on this list of minority justices, because George W. Bush also lost the popular vote in 2000. However, they were nominated in Bush’s second term, after he won re-election democratically.

Recent Republican majorities in the Senate have also not represented the American people. The principle that each state has two senators means that blue (and racially diverse) California’s 39 million residents have the same power as red (and almost entirely White) Wyoming’s 581 thousand. Combined with the successful attempt to stack the Senate by admitting tiny Northwestern states in 1889-1890, Republicans have a consistent structural advantage: For the last quarter-century, Republican senators have neither represented a majority of voters nor received a majority of votes, and yet they have held the majority of Senate seats about half the time.

This includes the term when Mitch McConnell refused to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, as well as the next term when McConnell and popular-vote-loser Donald Trump awarded that Court seat to Neil Gorsuch.

Senate Republicans use their artificially inflated numbers, together with the filibuster, to make sure the system stays rigged in their favor by denying statehood to (largely Black and urban) District of Columbia and (Hispanic) Puerto Rico.

Now that abortion rights have actually been lost, the Republican dog has caught the car.

Somewhere in Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway describes a bridge that is much desired but (precisely for that reason) can never be completed: As long as the bridge is in the future, corrupt politicians can raise funds to build it. But if it is ever finished, the money will dry up.

For decades, anti-abortion politics has been a similar scam, as David Frum explains:

Pre-Texas, opposition to abortion offered Republican politicians a lucrative, no-risk political option. They could use pro-life rhetoric to win support from socially conservative voters who disliked Republican economic policy, and pay little price for it with less socially conservative voters who counted on the courts to protect abortion rights for them.

That dynamic played out most clearly in 2016, when Trump dominated the anti-abortion vote, while pro-choice people assured each other that they could stay home or vote for Jill Stein.

But now, after years and years of warnings and an ever-increasing set of hoops women have had to jump through, abortion rights really are vanishing, even for women who are privileged in every way other than gender. If you live in a professional-class suburb of Dallas, and if your U of T freshman daughter gets roofied at a frat party and comes home pregnant, she either carries the baby to term or your family has to break the law — and maybe get sued.

If this possible impact on their lives means that the complacent majority will get riled now, the jig is up. That’s why national Republicans haven’t been spiking the football to celebrate an achievement they’ve been promising for decades.

Congress could fix this, if Democrats thought women’s rights were more important than the filibuster.

The Texas abortion law would be undone if Congress passed the Women’s Health Protection Act, which reinstates the protections of Roe v Wade nationally. Speaker Pelosi believes she can get the bill through the House. It’s unclear whether all 50 Democrats in the Senate would vote for it. But a handful of Republicans also claim to be pro-choice — here’s a chance to redeem yourself, Senator Collins — so the bill should get a majority, if it comes to a vote.

But it won’t come to a vote, because of the filibuster. A woman’s right to choose is yet another price the country must pay for Senator Manchin’s and Senator Sinema’s attachment to this time-dishonored Senate tradition, because the WHPA clearly can’t muster a 60-vote supermajority.

The Department of Justice could also do something.

Law professor Lawrence Tribe explains: It turns out the country has previously faced the problem of states turning a blind eye to (or even encouraging) vigilantes trying to intimidate Americans out of exercising their constitutional rights. In that previous era, Congress responded by passing the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which is still on the books.

Section 242 of the federal criminal code makes it a crime for those who, “under color of law,” willfully deprive individuals “of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.” … In addition, Section 241 of the federal criminal code makes it an even more serious crime for “two or more persons” to agree to “oppress, threaten, or intimidate” anyone “in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same.” This crime may be committed even by individuals not found to be acting “under color of law” but as purely private vigilantes, as long as they’re acting in concert with others.

Tribe believes that using the KKK Act to protect abortion rights in Texas would be “in tune not just with the letter but the spirit the law”. He asserts that we have now reached the point where “the need to disarm those who cynically undermine constitutional rights while ducking all normal avenues for challenging their assault on the rule of law becomes paramount.”

Ordinary people can monkey-wrench the enforcement process.

A campaign to spam websites asking for tips on Texas abortions is taking off. We’ll see if this is just a snap reaction or if it has staying power.

If any pro-life folks think women’s-rights defenders are playing dirty, let me point out that so far no one is using the kinds of tactics the pro-life movement has long used against abortion clinics. No one is bombing their offices or threatening their workers with violence, because (unlike the pro-life movement) the pro-choice movement doesn’t have a terrorist wing.

As satisfying as monkey-wrenching might be, though, it probably won’t make much difference. Even if monkey-wrenchers make vigilante lawsuits harder to assemble, abortion clinics and other support services are already being shut down by the threat of such lawsuits, even if suits have not yet been filed.

Texas has made rape a viable reproduction strategy.

If you are a man who is unable or unwilling to convince any woman to bear your children voluntarily, you can still win the evolutionary battle to pass on your genes by committing enough rapes. Eventually you may wind up in jail, but your descendants will thank you. They will also thank the Evangelical Christians who paved the way for you.

Simone Biles vs. Sports Culture’s Toxic Masculinity

https://theweek.com/political-satire/1003145/still-the-goat

Real athletes aren’t supposed to have mental blocks, or yield to physical injuries. They’re also supposed to be men.


Simone Biles is widely acknowledged as the greatest female gymnast in the world, maybe the greatest ever. She entered the Olympics as the favorite to win gold medals in several different events, to go along with the Olympic medals she already has. Instead, she pulled out of the team competition on Tuesday, and then from subsequent events as they became imminent.

Biles has explained that she is suffering from what gymnasts call “the twisties”, an unpredictable (and usually temporary) loss of “air sense”.

The twisties are a mysterious phenomenon — suddenly a gymnast is no longer able to do a twisting skill she’s done thousands of times before. Your body just won’t cooperate, your brain loses track of where you are in the air. You find out where the ground is when you slam into it.

Nobody knows whether the twisties are physical, psychological, or some combination of the two. All the gymnast knows is that some unconscious process she had relied on has stopped functioning.

Similar mind/brain failures happen in other sports, and not just to world-class athletes. Several years ago, I was playing a pick-up basketball game when the unconscious fine-tuning process that usually targets my jump shot went poof. I would leap, twist in the air to sight the basket, and then wonder “What am I doing up here?” as if I had never shot a basketball before. The next time I played, the unconscious process was back. Was it a mini-stroke? Something I ate? An emotional issue? I never figured it out.

In golf, this is known as “the yips“. One famous baseball case is the pitcher Rick Ankiel, who had started a promising career when suddenly he lost the ability to target his pitches. It never came back (but he did work his way back up to the major leagues as a hitter).

In most sports, the main risk of continuing on in spite the yips (or whatever you call them) is the embarrassment of failure. Golfer Ernie Els once six-putted from three feet out. I ended up flinging the ball at the basket with my conscious mind and hoping it would go in. The result was pretty much what you would expect from someone who had not spent hours and hours practicing shooting until it became unconscious.

But I can barely imagine the terror of a gymnast, upside down in the middle of a flip, when the unconscious process fails and she thinks “What am I doing up here?” That’s a life-threatening situation.

So Biles was absolutely right to pull out of the competition and face all the resulting disappointment and criticism. In some ways, that took more courage than just going out and hurting herself. I wonder how many other gymnasts would have invented some invisible physical injury — a groin pull, say — rather than be honest and deal with what Biles has been subjected to this week.

Reaction to Biles’ decision was not, strictly speaking, political, but it did tend to break along liberal/conservative lines.

Following superstar gymnast Simone Biles citing concerns of mental health after shockingly pulling out of the women’s team competition, a number of conservative media figures and pundits attacked her on Tuesday for supposedly being a “quitter” and “selfish sociopath” who had brought “shame on her country.”

Conservatives do love to attack Black athletes — going after LeBron James, Steph Curry, Colin Kaepernick, etc. was a go-to move whenever Trump wanted to rally his base — and they also have problems with strong women. (There’s a reason why Kamala Harris gets targeted more viciously than Joe Biden.) But I think this particular case is less about racism and sexism than hyper-masculinity, which holds that will-power and “character” are supposed to blast through mental difficulties and even physical injuries. (See Curt Schilling’s “bloody sock game“.)

The idea that you’re supposed to play hurt and risk more serious injury is one important piece of football’s concussion problem.

Unfortunately, due to [toxic masculinity], many concussions go unreported, or mishandled as a result of the athlete playing it down, pretending it didn’t happen, or simply not knowing that they actually have a concussion.

White male NFL quarterback Andrew Luck took a lot of grief for retiring young, in spite of this clear explanation.

For the last four years or so, I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it’s been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason. And I felt stuck in it, and the only way I see out is to no longer play football. It’s taken my joy of this game away.

Lacking a race or gender stereotype to beat Luck up with, Fox Sports’ Doug Gottlieb chose a generational smear:

Retiring cause rehabbing is “too hard” is the most millennial thing ever #AndrewLuck

Gottlieb has also criticized Biles, but resents CNN characterizing him as a “white male talking head”. He has claimed not to be a Trump supporter, but googling “Doug Gottlieb politics” led me to a series of conservative-leaning opinions.

Toxic masculinity is not a purely conservative problem, but there is a high correlation. (One much-admired Trump trait is his “strength”, which mainly manifests as a stubborn refusal to admit any mistakes.)

Biles’ decision was more-or-less the opposite of toxic masculinity. She faced reality, and admitted that she is not always as she would like to be. In the world of sports, that was a heresy of high order.

So like any heretic, she had to be denounced. If you happened to be conservative, the opportunity to dis a strong Black woman was just a bonus.

The Cleveland Indians/Guardians: a teachable moment?

One of the eight Guardians of Traffic on Cleveland’s Hope Bridge

Systemic racism might be easier to grasp in a setting that doesn’t threaten anybody’s safety or livelihood.


Next year, the Cleveland major league baseball team will begin calling itself the Guardians rather than the Indians. This is the culmination of a long process of protest and negotiation, and unsurprisingly, not everyone is happy about it. But whether you love or hate the change, it pulls many of the issues surrounding systemic racism together into one easy-to-grasp package.

Unlike more fraught battlegrounds like policing or affirmative action, changing the name of a baseball team does not affect anyone’s safety or livelihood. No one will die because Cleveland calls its team the Guardians, or would have died if they had continued as the Indians. Feelings on both sides may be heartfelt, but they are clearly feelings rather than material interests. To steal a phrase from Thomas Jefferson, the logo on Shane Bieber’s jersey “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”.

That said, the next thing to acknowledge is that the feelings on both sides are easy to understand and even sympathize with.

This is especially true of the Native Americans who dislike being turned into mascots. Native Americans were minding their own business in 1915 when a newspaper contest picked Indians as the new name for the Cleveland Naps, who had just traded their defining player, Nap Lajoie, to Philadelphia.

Imagine being a Native American parent who is trying to instill a sense of cultural pride in your children. Now picture White people running around in headdresses and warpaint while they root for a team that (in most seasons) has no actual Native American players. Let’s just say it doesn’t help. After your kids see random people at the mall wearing the stereotyped Chief Wahoo logo, it’s going to be hard to convince them that their heritage is serious and worthy of respect.

Admittedly, this constant low-level ridicule isn’t the worst thing that ever happened to Native Americans. It’s not on the same scale as, say, genocide or having the continent taken from them by force. But like those injuries, it’s an imposition from the outside; they did nothing to invite it or deserve it.

https://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/10/cleveland-indians-fans-dressing-up-as-chief-wahoo-world-series-racist

Once you’ve pictured that point of view, you may be tempted to declare Native Americans the good guys and those who love the Indians the bad guys. But that oversimplifies the situation.

Instead, try stretching your empathy to encompass Indians fans without pulling away from Native Americans. Being a fan may not be as central or immutable as a racial identity, but after more than a century, it also is a heritage. To the team’s fans, the Indians are Tris Speaker and Bob Feller and going to extra innings with the Cubs in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. The Indians may be one of the few enduring connections you made with your Dad, something you can still talk about when you visit him in the nursing home. Maybe what you remember when you think of the Indians is being 10 years old, and sneaking a radio under your covers to listen to a west coast night game after you were supposed to be asleep.

And racism? The Indians became the first American League team to integrate when Larry Doby joined the team only months after Jackie Robinson became a Dodger. Doby and Satchell Paige were key players in the Indians’ last championship in 1948.

But now, it seems, people are trying to make you remember all that with shame rather than nostalgia.

https://theathletic.com/875177/2019/04/04/top-25-moments-in-progressive-fields-25-year-history/

Back in 1915, making a mascot out of Native American heritage was a sin of obliviousness, not malice. It wasn’t about insulting any actual tribes, it was letting yourself forget that the tribes still existed or might care.

What’s more, probably no one who participated in that newspaper poll is still alive. Everyone who feels attached to the Indians today came to love a team already in progress. Many developed that attachment when they were too young to understand stereotypes or racism. The Indians were the family team; Chief Wahoo was their symbol. That’s all.

Nobody consulted you about it. You never made a decision to root for the team with the racist trappings. You rooted for the team that your parents or big brother or friends at school rooted for. Years later, people started telling you that it was a disrespectful misappropriation of somebody else’s cultural heritage. But that’s never what it meant to you. So why do people want you to feel guilty about it?

Welcome to systemic racism.

The main thing to understand about systemic racism is that trying to assign individual fault and guilt misses the point. Saying that a problem is systemic means that it doesn’t reduce to good guys and bad guys. Something in the structure of institutions pits well-meaning people against each other, and there’s no way to resolve the issue without hurting somebody.

Good guys vs. bad guys is dramatic. Systemic racism is tragic.

So: A long time ago, things got set up so that the civic pride of Cleveland would conflict with the ancestral pride of Native Americans. That conflict is entirely artificial: There’s no inherent reason why saying “Yay, Cleveland!” has to carry a sense of “Boo, Native Americans!” Things just wound up that way. And while we could go round and round about the intentions of the people who started it all, that’s just a distraction, because they’re dead. We’re not a jury discussing their punishment; we’re heirs trying to sort out their legacy.

That legacy, though, is not dead and buried like the people who created it: It causes an ongoing injury. The most obvious ongoing injury is to Native Americans, but there is also an injury to Cleveland and its baseball fans. Those five-year-olds who love their Chief Wahoo caps and jerseys will one day be 15-year-olds who look back and say, “Wow, that’s really racist.” What should be purely warm memories of childhood and family will instead be tainted.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

And that’s a key lesson to learn about anti-racist activism: The point isn’t to assess blame or demand that people feel guilty or apologize. The point is to make the injustice stop. Change the structure of things so that well-meaning people are no longer drafted into an artificial conflict. [1]

So: Keep your fond memories of Sam McDowell’s unhittable fastball, or the incredible 1995 lineup of Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Eddie Murray, and Manny Ramirez, or even (if you go back that far) the amazing pitching rotation of Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Mike Garcia. Nobody needs you to feel bad about any of that.

The activists who campaigned to change the Indians name don’t benefit from your shame. They just want to make the ongoing injury stop. And renaming the Indians achieves that goal, both for Native Americans and for Cleveland. Native Americans get back a chunk of their heritage. And the five-year-olds who receive Guardians jerseys next year won’t ever have to reassess what they mean.


[1] I am not trying to say here that all racial conflicts are artificial. Clearly, some people actively seek the benefits that come from white supremacy, and a smaller number glory in pushing other races down, even when they get no benefit from it. But we will have come a long way if we can eliminate the purely systemic racial conflicts, which individuals are often surprised to discover they participate in.

What makes the Cleveland situation a good example is that it is so purely artificial. Attachment to the Indians has very little to do with hostility to Native Americans.

In many other examples, teasing legacy systemic racism away from active malicious racism can be tricky. Take the response to President Obama, for example. Americans had never seen a Black president before, so no matter what he did, it looked “unpresidential” to a lot of people, even if his White predecessors had done exactly the same thing. The lack of any prior images of Black presidents is a systemic problem, but at the same time, malicious political operatives were doing their best to stoke the unconscious reaction that there was something vaguely wrong about Obama being president, like maybe he wasn’t really born in America or something.

Ordinarily, systemic racism is hard to separate from the active individual racism that builds up around it. But with the Indians, it’s not so difficult.

Critical Race Theory is the New Boogeyman

https://twitter.com/gathara/status/1400475732300677120

Conservatives can’t tell you what it is, but they know it’s destroying America.


As I’ve explained at length before, conservatives regularly create boogeyman phrases — strings of words that never get defined, but are somehow the source of the current evil: political correctness, socialism, cultural Marxism, cancel culture, and now critical race theory. [1]

The purpose of imbuing these scapegoat phrases with demonic power isn’t to debate a point, it’s to create a label and give it a sinister aura. Such a phrase is supposed to invoke emotions — to cast shame on liberals, and raise outrage for conservatives — not point to an idea. Rather than contribute to discussions, these phrases end them. And so, there is no need to consider the wisdom or folly of Medicare for All; it is “socialism”, so it is evil. End of story.

If the labels were defined, the corresponding concepts could become two-edged swords. Conservatives might, for example, have to explain why it’s not “cancel culture” to drive Colin Kaepernick out of the NFL. But being undefined, the boogeyman phrases simply have usages: Kaepernick isn’t a victim of right-wing cancel culture, because that’s not how the phrase is used. The conservative faithful can simply laugh when “cancel culture” is turned back on them, the way native speakers of English might laugh when a foreigner misuses some common word.

Like the other boogeyman phrases, “critical race theory” started out as an actual thing, which Education Week described like this:

The core idea is that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. … A good example is when, in the 1930s, government officials literally drew lines around areas deemed poor financial risks, often explicitly due to the racial composition of inhabitants. Banks subsequently refused to offer mortgages to Black people in those areas.

Many of those red-lined areas continue to be segregated ghettos today, as is well described in The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.

The Washington Post has a similar account of the actual critical race theory.

Critical race theory is a decades-old academic framework that holds that racism is systemic, embedded in government policies and laws that are evident in any serious examination of American history.

But in its boogeyman usage, CRT applies to any notion that White people might participate in racism without consciously hating Black people. Refusing to allow the word “racism” to have any systemic content, the conservative account of CRT has it casting individual moral blame on all Whites.

So, in Education Week’s example of red-lining, the boogeyman usage of CRT would interpret it as accusing all the White loan officers who applied the red-lining rules of consciously hating Black people — which would obviously be unfair, if anyone were actually making that accusation.

That’s how Republicans arrive at the anti-CRT laws they are passing in the red-state legislatures they control. Fortunately, laws have to at least pretend to define the things they are banning. So Oklahoma’s anti-CRT law, which was signed by Governor Kevin Stitt in May, bans any “teacher, administrator or other employee of a school district, charter school or virtual charter school” from teaching that

an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously, … an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex, … an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex, … any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex

All these ideas are either gross distortions of anti-racist teachings, or appeal to subjective responses White students or parents might have, especially after Fox News tells them they should feel that way. (What if teaching Oklahoma high school students about the Tulsa race massacre causes some White descendant of the rioters to feel “guilt, anguish, or … psychological distress”?)


But an obvious question to raise at this point is: If that isn’t really what anti-racists teach, what’s the problem? The law just won’t apply. After all, the legislature could ban teaching that the Moon is made of green cheese without affecting any actual astronomy classes. Josh Marshall shrugs the issue off like this:

I’ve now reviewed a wide body of articles, news reports and legislative debates and I can conclude that the public/political debate [about] critical race theory is quite stupid and laws banning it may be hard to enforce since no one has a clear idea of what it is.

He was immediately answered by Jeet Heer:

Surely the goal is not to have enforceable laws but to intimidate teachers from talking about racism. A chilling effect.

A historical model here would be Tennessee’s anti-Darwin law of the 1920s, which led to the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. The law was indeed hard to enforce. (Scopes was found guilty, but the Tennessee Supreme Court set aside his fine on a technicality, and the state decided to drop the case.) But the sheer amount of hoopla that trial evoked — the fictionalized version Inherit the Wind is still streaming, and was remade for TV in 1999 — underlines Heer’s point: What teacher or school district is going to want to start something like that? Wouldn’t it be simpler just to leave out any racially charged interpretations of US history, and skip over historical events that might make White students uncomfortable? (Just about every state that is banning CRT has such an incident to sweep under the rug. Florida, for example, was the site of the Rosewood massacre in 1923. And lynchings, though concentrated in the South, happened almost everywhere.)

The Washington Post quotes sixth-grade teacher Monique Cottman from Iowa, where an anti-CRT law goes into effect on July 1.

I will say it’s already playing out. The White teachers who started doing a little bit more teaching about race and racism are now going back to their old way of teaching. I’ve had conversations with teachers who said things like, “I’m getting so much pushback for teaching Alice Walker, I’m going to go back to teaching what I used to teach.” So all the teachers who would have done a little bit of what I was doing — anti-racism work and culturally responsive teaching — they’re not going to do anything next year. They’re already declaring, “I’m not doing nothing,” or “It’s not safe,” or “I don’t want to lose my job.”

Nonetheless, some teachers are resisting. The Zinn Education Project organized a National Day of Action on Saturday, when

thousands of educators and others gathered virtually and in person at historic locations in more than 20 cities to make clear that they would resist efforts in at least 15 Republican-led states to restrict what teachers can say in class about racism, sexism and oppression in America. … Several thousand teachers have signed a pledge that says: “We, the undersigned educators, refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events — regardless of the law.”


The military is a second front in the Critical Race Theory war. Here CRT stands in for any form of diversity training. [2] The conservative Heritage Foundation is a source of rhetoric for both fronts, having published 17 articles on the topic since Biden took office.

The theme of military anti-CRT arguments is that the US military has been a paradise of racial harmony until now, when CRT-influenced diversity training has begun to stir up racial conflict.

Senior Research Fellow Dakota Wood, for example, is a White male who served in the Marines for 20 years. He didn’t notice any racism or sexism during that time, so obviously there wasn’t any.

The beauty of military service is that the uniform and common objective supplants grouping by individual identities of color, class, gender, or religion. …

What united everyone with whom I served was the singular identity of being a U.S. Marine committed to defending our country, a country comprising every sort of person from countless different backgrounds.

It didn’t matter where you came from. All that really mattered among Marines was whether you were competent in your job, committed to the mission, and were someone your fellow Marines could depend on.

Military service truly is the best example of America as the proverbial great melting pot.

And he repeats the standard conservative slander of what diversity training tries to accomplish.

Programs that emphasize differences among service members, that impose a demand for people to feel guilty about their identity and background, that elevate one group over another, or that seek to subordinate a group relative to another generate resentment, or a sense of aggrieved victimization, or entitlement to special handling.

Such initiatives destroy the fabric of military service that otherwise unites an extraordinarily diverse population in common purpose and identity. Identity politics is a cancer that corrodes good order and discipline and the necessary authorities inherent in a chain of command.

Senator Tom Cotton echoed these sentiments to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday:

Mr. Secretary: We’re hearing reports of plummeting morale, growing mistrust between the races and sexes where none existed just six months ago

Racism and sexism in the military! Who ever heard of such a thing before the Biden administration? Jeff Schogol, writing for the military-focused site Task and Purpose, answered that question.

Dog whistles aside, there is plenty of evidence that racism and sexism within the ranks actually predates the Biden administration. Task & Purpose has documented 40 cases since 2016 of service members and veterans participating in extremist organizations, such as white supremacist groups.

The Pentagon tried to bury a 2017 survey that found nearly one-third of Black service members who responded said they had experienced racism. Moreover, 30% of Black respondents and 22% of Asian respondents felt their chances for promotion would be harmed if they reported the racial harassment and discrimination that they endured. …

As for sexism within the military, there are many examples from before Biden took office in January of commands failing to protect female service members from sexual harassment. A review following the April 2020 murder of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén also showed that female soldiers at Fort Hood faced an environment so toxic that they constantly lived in “survival mode” 

But clearly, if the armed services just refuse to talk about these problems, they will go away. Diversity training is the problem, not racism or sexism.

So Cotton has proposed a bill to block such training. The press release announcing the bill cites two horrifying recent developments:

Last month, the Navy released a recommended reading list to facilitate the “growth and development” of sailors. One of the books on this list is Ibram X. Kendi’s bestseller [How to be an Antiracist] advocating Critical Race Theory and discrimination on the basis of race.

Separately, the Navy’s Second Fleet created a book club for sailors to read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, a book that claims white people are inherently racist, whether consciously or subconsciously, and that race is the insidious subtext for virtually all human interactions.

Cotton would end such outrages.

This bill would prevent the military from including such theories in trainings or other professional settings, if their inclusion would reasonably appear as an endorsement. It also would prohibit the military from hiring consultants to teach such theories

His ban would extend to any notion that “The United States is a fundamentally racist country” or that “The Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution are fundamentally racist documents.”

As with high school history courses, you have to wonder about the chilling effect of such a law. What instructor would dare to point out, say, the implications of the Constitution counting a slave as three-fifths of a person?


Having given so much time to falsehood, I feel that I have to end by coming back to truth: What is it that anti-racist books and diversity trainings are trying to accomplish? If they’re not trying to convince us that “America is an evil, oppressive place” (as Cotton’s press release puts it), what ideas are they trying to communicate?

Having read a number of the books CRT critics object to, I would boil anti-racism down to a few points (which apply to sexism as well):

  • A culture’s fundamental assumptions get baked into institutions, laws, economic structures, and traditions that live on, even after those assumptions are no longer explicitly taught. [3]
  • For centuries, American culture explicitly promoted race-based rules and racial stereotypes that marginalized non-Whites, and made it either difficult or impossible for them to achieve positions of authority and influence, or even of equality with White Americans.
  • The structures created during those centuries are still with us, and participating in them maintains the effects of historical racism. Present-day Americans need not consciously hold racist beliefs to uphold a racist system.
  • Because their personal experiences do not confront them with the injustices of systemic racism, White Americans have a hard time noticing these injustices, which simply seem like “normal life” to them.
  • Unless systemic racism is brought to conscious awareness and actively countered, it will endure.

Put together, these points explain why the conservative notion of color-blindness, even if put forward in good faith (which it often is not), is inadequate for overcoming America’s racist heritage. None of this implies that “America is evil” or “Whites are inherently racist” or any of the other canards the Tom Cottons are pushing. But neither can we simply ignore racism and hope that it will go away.


[1] Something similar happens with people, who are demonized to the point that anything they might say is already discounted, and conspiracy theories targeting them need no evidence. Hillary Clinton is the longest-standing example. During the Trump administration, large numbers of FBI agents and officials were similarly demonized: Jim Comey, Andy McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page. Simply mentioning their names evoked a dark conspiracy whose details never really came into focus. So far, Kamala Harris is the most prominent demon of the Biden administration. How dare she tell the country to “enjoy” the Memorial Day weekend!

[2] Trump ordered diversity training ended across the government, and even in corporations with government contracts, but a federal judge blocked his order, and Biden reversed it.

[3] In assembling these points, I have to note that racist ideas are still being taught in many places. The US has an active white supremacist movement, which many conservative politicians and media figures wink-and-nod at, even while professing color-blindness in public.

Red States Crack Down on Protests

https://jensorensen.com/2021/01/26/freedom-vs-freedom-2021-coronavirus-authoritarianism/

The GOP’s “freedom” rhetoric yields to its authoritarian agenda.


Standard conservative rhetoric treats the word freedom like partisan property: Republicans defend freedom, while Democrats are all Stalin-wannabees.

Usually, pro-gun rallies are where you see this trope in its purest form, but during the pandemic it has shown up in anti-public-health protests as well. Two weeks ago, we saw it in Congress, when Jim Jordan assailed Dr. Fauci with “When do Americans get their freedom back?” Occasionally, the two issues combine, as when armed protesters stormed the Oregon Capitol while the legislature debated anti-Covid measures.

Lately, though, we’ve been seeing how hollow the Right’s commitment to “freedom” is, at least when people use their freedom to support liberal causes. In previous weeks, I’ve talked at length about the anti-voting laws red-state legislatures have been passing in response to their dark-but-baseless fantasies about election fraud. But lately their focus has turned towards punishing liberal protest.

The latest push in red-state legislatures — Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Iowa so far — is for laws that criminalize protest and encourage vigilante action against protesters.

[Oklahoma] HB 1674, which Republican legislators passed earlier this week, grants civil and criminal immunity for drivers who “unintentionally” harm or kill protesters while “fleeing from a riot,” as long as there is a “reasonable belief that fleeing was necessary.”

Running over protesters is a long-standing conservative fantasy, which James Alex Fields Jr. carried out when he killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017. If I were a Democrat in one of these legislatures, I think I’d submit a motion to rename the bill “The Heather Heyer Had It Coming Act of 2021”.

At the end of last summer, USA Today reported:

There have been at least 104 incidents of people driving vehicles into protests from May 27 through Sept. 5, including 96 by civilians and eight by police, according to Ari Weil, a terrorism researcher at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats who spoke with USA TODAY this summer.

I have some sympathy for people who unexpectedly find themselves surrounded by protesters doing threatening things, like rocking the car or pounding on its roof. But I’m not sure how many cases, if any, fit that description. In this video, for example, the driver comes back for a second pass through the crowd.

“Unintentionally” sounds like it mitigates the harm, but it actually doesn’t, because intentionality is so hard to prove in court. And the “reasonable belief” standard in the Oklahoma law creates an opening for the same kind of racial bias we see in police-shooting and stand-your-ground cases: What if the driver’s impression of danger is based on the race of the protesters, rather than any threatening actions? Might a few white jurors sympathize with a driver who got scared simply because his car was surrounded by Black people?

These laws also give the government more power to clamp down on dissent. Florida’s law, which has already been signed by Gov. DeSantis, creates new crimes that you might commit just by showing up for what you believe to be a peaceful protest.

But opponents say it would make it easier for law enforcement to charge organizers and anyone involved in a protest, even if they had not engaged in any violence.

“The problem with this bill is that the language is so overbroad and vague … that it captures anybody who is peacefully protesting at a protest that turns violent through no fault of their own,” said Kara Gross, the legislative director at ACLU Florida. “Those individuals who do not engage in any violent conduct under this bill can be arrested and charged with a third-degree felony and face up to five years in prison and loss of voting rights. The whole point of this is to instill fear in Floridians.”

In addition:

If a local government chooses to decrease its law enforcement budget — to “defund the police,” as Mr. DeSantis put it — the measure provides a new mechanism for a prosecutor or a city or county commissioner to appeal the reduction to the state.

The law also increases penalties for taking down monuments, including Confederate ones, making the offense a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

As with the anti-voting laws, the justification for the Florida law is largely imaginary.

Speakers including the governor said the law would protect law enforcement and private property against rioters, despite acknowledging there was little violent unrest in Florida during last year’s protests over Floyd’s death.

… Echoing DeSantis, Republican state House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Attorney General Ashley Moody vilified other states and cities for their handling of the protests last year, some of which did turn violent.

State CFO Jimmy Patronis claimed that Portland, New York and Seattle “burned to the ground” last summer.

I’m sure that’s news to the residents of those cities. If there were vast refugee camps in New Jersey, across the Hudson from burned-out New York, I’m sure I’d have heard about them. The main studios of Fox News are on Sixth Avenue, so they would just have to point a camera out the window to show us the devastation.

An interesting question is how this law interacts with Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.

In general, Floridians can defend themselves with deadly force if they believe they are in imminent danger or death — and not only when they are inside their homes. The person being threatened is not required to try to flee.

If I’m protesting peacefully, and a car is bearing down on me in a threatening way, can I just shoot the driver? If his fear justifies running over me, shouldn’t my fear justify shooting him?

Conservatives don’t ask these questions, because they know they are the ones who threaten deadly violence. In a relatively small number of cases, last summer’s George Floyd protests devolved into property damage and looting. But liberals didn’t get in their cars to mow down anti-lockdown protesters, and George Floyd marchers didn’t bring their AR-15s.

Another question conservatives like to avoid is: What if D.C. had such a law on January 6? Right now, the Justice Department expects to charge about 500 Trump cultists who trespassed into the Capitol after the crowd broke windows and pushed back police (injuring over 100 of them). But a law like Florida’s would justify felony charges against the many thousands of people from Trump’s rally who walked in the direction of the Capitol, not to mention Trump himself. By the new Florida standards, anyone who stood outside the Capitol with a Trump sign is a rioter, because they participated in a protest that had turned violent.

But for some reason, conservatives never imagine that the laws they support will ever aimed at them. Consider Thomas Webster, a retired NYPD cop who has been charged for his participation in the January 6 riot.

Prosecutors say that he “attacked a police officer with an aluminum pole and ripped off his protective gear and gas mask, causing the officer to choke.”

According to WaPo reporter Rachel Weiner:

Lawyer for Tommy Webster, retired NYPD cop accused of beating an MPD officer with flagpole on #J6, says his client is in a “dormitory setting” with people serving time for “inner-city crimes” – “for a middle aged guy whose never been arrested before this has been a shock for him”

Who could have guessed? You beat one cop with a flagpole, and suddenly people are treating you like you’re Black or something.

The anti-trans distraction

https://www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion/article250701264.html

When a political party has no solutions to real problems, it has to make up fake problems.


As I discussed in the previous post, and have covered in more detail before, the GOP is not a governing party any more. If you are concerned with any real problem facing America today, they have no plan for dealing with it.

When a party is in that situation, it needs to distract the public with phony issues and phony solutions. And so, Republican majorities in legislatures around the country are passing voter-suppression laws under the guise of solving an “election integrity” problem that doesn’t exist, and is based on the Big Lie that Trump had the 2020 election stolen from him.

Those laws are a serious threat to our democracy, but at least the threat is obvious to the general public, which can then organize against it. You don’t need any special experiences or insight to understand that Georgia Republicans did something underhanded when they made it illegal to give water to people waiting in line to vote.

But the second distraction is easier for most of the electorate to overlook, because it only affects a minority that is reviled by the conservative base and misunderstood by much of the rest of the public: transgender people.

Gender-affirming care. Two kinds of anti-trans bills are working their way through red-state legislatures, and some have already become law. One bans what is called “gender-affirming care”: medical interventions (like puberty-blocking drugs) that suppress the development of characteristics related to the gender the child wants to transition from or (like estrogen or testosterone) encourage the development of characteristics related to the gender the child wants to transition to. So even if a child, the child’s parents, and their doctors all agree on a course of treatment, the state makes it illegal.

To justify such laws, Republicans have spread a lot of lies and misinformation about what gender-affirming care really is, when it is recommended, and how it is carried out. Good sources of accurate information on these topics are this Harvard Review article and this resolution from the American Psychological Association.

As the HR article points out, anti-trans activists have changed their tactics, but not their goals. A few years ago, anti-trans “bathroom bills” were justified by painting trans youth as predators: They would invade your child’s gender-appropriate bathroom for nefarious purposes. The current wave of anti-trans bills paints them as victims: They need “protection” from the gender-transition “fad” sweeping their generation, and the predatory doctors who profit from it. But these contradictory messages are being pushed by exactly the same people.

Trans athletes. The second kind of bill bans trans girls from sports. The Guardian summarizes:

The youth sports bills, which claim to “promote fairness in women’s sports”, are based on a simple claim: that boys will be allowed to compete against girls and have an unfair advantage.

“They’re telling parents of cisgender children that you’re losing something by allowing transgender youth to play in sports,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an LGBTQ+ rights group. “We’ve seen this playbook before – you’re losing something if you allow same-sex couples to marry, if you protect racial minorities in the workplace, if immigration laws are respected. It’s us v them.”

In the same way that the bills to “protect” gender dysphoric youth are promoted by groups that were never interested in them before, these bills to protect girls sports are championed mostly by legislators who have shown little interest in girls sports until now. (Like the bathroom bills and the bills banning gender-affirming care, many of the girls-sports bills have been written by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group motivated by conservative Christian religious views.)

The expressed motivation for such bills can be found in Florida’s “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act“:

It is the intent of the Legislature to maintain opportunities for female athletes to demonstrate their skill, strength, and athletic abilities while also providing them with opportunities to obtain recognition and accolades, college scholarships, and the numerous other long-term benefits that result from success in athletic endeavors and to promote sex equality by requiring the designation of separate sex-specific athletic teams or sports.

And that sounds marvelous, but for one fact: There’s no reason to believe that any of those opportunities for female athletes are at risk. As an ACLU report observes “transgender women and girls have been competing in sports at all levels for years”. In no state are girls sports events or teams dominated by trans athletes. Similarly, the WNBA, LPGA, and other professional women’s sports leagues have not been not overrun with trans women.

Across the country, girls participate in sports if they want to. They are not running into problems that a trans-ban will solve.

Occasionally, but not that often, some trans athlete is really good.

Running on the boys’ team as a ninth-grader in suburban Hartford, Terry Miller was an average track athlete, online records show, failing to qualify for any postseason events. But in 2018, Miller came out as a transgender girl. In her first season running against other girls, as a sophomore, Miller dominated. She won five state championships and two titles at the New England championships, beating the fastest girls from six states.

The next fall, as a junior, Miller won another four state titles and two more all-New England titles. In several races, she was followed closely by Andraya Yearwood, another transgender girl who had also won three state titles. … Girls who lost to [Miller] and their coaches complained that she had an unfair advantage. Parents of other girls started online petitions demanding state high school officials add a testosterone suppression requirement for transgender girls.

One measure of how rare such a situation is, though, is the number of articles that use this same example. (Anybody got a second one?) Retired high school coach Larry Strauss called competition from trans athletes a “non-controversy”.

Competitive equity is a beautiful and elusive objective for those of us who coach or oversee high school athletics. It is why we have junior varsity teams and freshmen and sophomore teams and why we try to match up teams that won’t slaughter one another. It often does not work out that way and we have all seen and heard about lopsided scores in high school football and basketball and pretty much every other sport. 

There are athletes whose physical gifts and athletic talent make them so dominant that it really doesn’t seem fair (I know firsthand, having coached against some of them). And does anyone believe there is any justice in the so-called “genetic lottery”? 

Scientifically, the jury is still out on when or whether trans girl athletes — particularly the ones who transitioned without going through puberty, or have received hormone treatments — have an advantage over cis girl athletes, and if so, how big that advantage is.

But what we do know is that girls sports are doing fine. To me, the right question isn’t whether trans athletes occasionally win, or even whether those victories violate some abstract ideal of fairness. The right question is whether including trans athletes ruins female sports programs for everybody else. That seems not to be happening.

In the absence of an identifiable problem, the point of these bills seems to be to harm and stigmatize transgender folk, not to protect impressionable teens or girls sports programs.

Trump Despises His Supporters Too

By privately insulting veterans and servicemen killed in the line of duty, Trump has raised a suspicion many of his supporters try not to think about: What does he say about them behind their backs?


He says what he thinks. When his supporters try to explain what is so appealing about Donald Trump, one point that almost always comes up is: “He says what he thinks.”

If you don’t like Trump, that line has probably never made sense to you, because a lot of what he says seems so nonsensical that he can’t possibly believe it. Surely he doesn’t really think he’s been treated “worse than Lincoln“, when Lincoln was assassinated in office, or that he has “done more for Black Americans than anybody with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln — nobody has even been close”. He was already an adult when President Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, laws that made it possible for millions of Black Americans to vote and to begin living something that at least resembled a normal American life. Surely he doesn’t imagine that a few months of low Black unemployment compares to that, does he? Or that it balances his decades-long history of racism.

He doesn’t say those things because he believes them. He says them because he wants us to believe them.

But “He says what he thinks” is actually code for something else: “He says what I think.” People in Trump’s base, particularly older conservative Christian white men, have lived for decades under constant social disapproval for the little things they habitually do and the words that come out of their mouths. Put yourself in their shoes: Maybe you grew up saying the N-word — you didn’t mean anything by it, it’s just what Black people were called in your neighborhood. (I missed out on the N-word: I grew up in a time and place where good little children weren’t supposed to say it, and by the time I was an adult, no one was.) Maybe you said “fag” instead of “gay”, or referred to women in the workplace as “girls”.

Comments or pats on the butt that would once have been accepted as compliments suddenly because “harassment”. Overnight, jokes that everyone used to laugh at became offensive — racist or sexist or some other ist-word you’d never heard before. Affirmations of good Christian values became “homophobia”, and who knows what the heck “intersectionality” means? Every day there was a new set of toes you supposedly had been tromping on for years — so you’d better watch your step from now on. And it never stops: You can’t even make fun of transsexuals these days. Who knows what it will be next? You’ll never be free to just speak your mind.

And there was Trump, ignoring all those rules and not censoring himself. Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals and drug smugglers. America accepts too many people from “shithole countries” like Haiti or those places in Africa that were better off when the British or French ran things. When you thought stuff like that, you didn’t dare say so — but he did. That crippled reporter wrote bad things about him, so Trump just mocked him and his disability right out in front of everybody, with the TV cameras running. The Disability Police came after him with guns blazing, but did he apologize? No way. Women came out of the woodwork to say he harassed, abused, or even raped them. Did he let that intimidate him? Not on your life. He insulted them right back, said they were too ugly to be worth it. “Believe me, she would not be my first choice. That I can tell you.”

What’s more, you would also love to deny that you ever make mistakes, to blame everything that goes wrong on somebody else, and to claim that everything you do or say or own is the biggest and best and most wonderful thing ever. But you don’t, because people would laugh at you. Well, Trump does that, and people do laugh at him, but he just doesn’t care. How can you not love that?

The liberal media and all the people who have been pushing the new standards, they keep trying to bring him down. But they can’t. They try to make him a villain, but he beats them.

And that’s why he’s a hero.

Mean girls. One stereotypic character of high school dramas is the Mean Girl: From her perch at the top of the social pyramid, she can say whatever she wants about anybody — and what she wants to say is nasty. The more cruel or unjust it is, the more it proves her power. She can say anything, and everybody else has to accept it, because if you object, she’ll turn her fire on you. And if you want to be popular like she is, you can’t just silently go along, you have to praise her cleverness and insight. If you want to stay in the Queen’s court, you have to repeat her insults and push the party line. She tells you who’s in and who’s out, and then sends you off to work her will.

Being close to the Mean Girl can be exhilarating. All your life you’ve had to repress your own cruelty, and now it’s an asset — as long as she approves. If you come up with a particularly biting nickname for some rival queen-wannabee or for some kid who thinks he or she can get along outside the social structure, maybe the Mean Girl will start using it too. You’ll never get credit for it directly, but maybe you’ll rise in her esteem, until you’re almost a Mean Girl yourself.

But no matter how close you get to the throne, you never stop wondering: What does that cruel tongue say about you when you’re not there to hear?

In their heart-of-hearts, even Trump’s biggest fans must recognize how much Mean Girl he has in him. That champion-of-the-common-man mantle has always fit badly on someone who lives in a gilded penthouse. Do you think anyone who isn’t rich or famous has ever set foot in his Trump Tower residence except as a servant, a workman, or for sex?

He didn’t make that money by working his way up from the bottom; he inherited hundreds of millions from his father. He’s always been rich, he’s always been on top, and he’s always been a bully. Those famous Twitter insults — Pocahontas, pencil-neck Adam Schiff, Crooked Hillary — that’s not the language of presidents. It’s the language of the Mean Girl.

So even if you’re the most rabid MAGA-hatter in the world, deep down you have to wonder: When he’s with his real buddies — the billionaires or reality TV stars or whoever he likes to hang with — what does he say about you? Does he make fun of how gullible you are, that you think he cares about you and you believe all the crap he tells you?

No matter how much you may try to deny that possibility, silently in your own mind you know he does.

Trump U. Before Donald Trump ever ran for president, he was the founder of Trump University. The target market for Trump U was all the people who admired the great businessman they saw on The Apprentice, people who bought The Art of the Deal and wanted to be like the guy it described. And they didn’t just admire Trump, they trusted him. If he was ready to tell people how to get rich the way he did — which wasn’t to inherit a real estate empire from your Dad — they were ready to pay money to hear it.

They weren’t the Enemy. They weren’t what’s wrong with America. They were his biggest fans.

And he scammed them.

Trump U wasn’t a good idea that got out of hand. It wasn’t a generous impulse that turned bad after he handed it off to a corrupt subordinate. Trump U was a scam from Day 1.

One of the company’s ads said of Trump, “He’s the most celebrated entrepreneur on earth. . . . And now he’s ready to share—with Americans like you—the Trump process for investing in today’s once-in-a-lifetime real estate market.” The ad said that Trump had “hand-picked” Trump University’s instructors, and it ended with a quote from him: “I can turn anyone into a successful real estate investor, including you.”

In fact, Trump hadn’t handpicked the instructors, and he didn’t attend the three-day seminars. Moreover, the complaint said, “no specific Donald Trump techniques or strategies were taught during the seminars, Donald Trump ‘never’ reviewed any of Trump University’s curricula or programming materials, nor did he review any of the content for the free seminars or the three day seminars.” So what were the attendees taught? According to the complaint, “the contents and material presented by Trump University were developed in large part by a third-party company that creates and develops materials for an array of motivational speakers and Seminar and timeshare rental companies.” The closest that the attendees at the seminars got to Trump was when they were encouraged to have their picture taken with a life-size photo of him.

Trump U’s business plan was to constantly up-sell its marks. Drawn in by a free presentation, they’d be given a glowing description of everything they’d learn if they ponied up $1,500 for the three-day seminar. At the three-day seminar, they’d hear about the even more expensive “mentorship” program where they’d learn Trump’s real secrets.

There never were any Trump secrets in the program. He couldn’t tell them how to be born rich, he wasn’t going to tell them how to launder money for Russian oligarchs, and nobody wants to know how to go bankrupt running Atlantic City casinos — so there was really nothing to teach. Trump admirers paid upwards of $30,000 for that lesson, and Trump eventually had to give back $25 million to settle their fraud lawsuit.

Most of the victims of Trump U were people who couldn’t afford to lose that amount of money. But there was a hole in their lives that they thought they could fill by becoming real estate moguls like their hero Donald Trump. In other words, they were losers. And Trump was able to take advantage of their loser-ness (and their admiration of him) to turn them into suckers.

And if you think he’s only done that once, you’re wrong.

The Atlantic article. Thursday, The Atlantic published an article by its editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg: “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’“. The article made a number of startling accusations:

  • In 2018, while he was in France to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, he cancelled a planned visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris, the grave site of 1,800 American Marines who died at Belleau Wood, because “It’s filled with losers.” He also described the Marines as “suckers” for getting killed.
  • When tortured Vietnam POW John McCain had died a few months earlier, he said, “We’re not going to support that loser’s funeral.”
  • When he accompanied his Chief of Staff John Kelly on a visit to the grave of Kelly’s son, a Marine who died in 2010 in Afghanistan, he said to Kelly “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” A retired four-star general who is a friend of Kelly later told Goldberg, “He can’t fathom the idea of doing something for someone other than himself,. He just thinks that anyone who does anything when there’s no direct personal gain to be had is a sucker. There’s no money in serving the nation.”
  • After hearing Joint Chiefs Chairman Joe Dunford give a briefing, Trump said, “That guy is smart. Why did he join the military?”
  • When planning a military parade, Trump told his aides not to include amputees. “Nobody wants to see that,” he said.

Immediately, the White House tried its standard defense: Fake news, put out by a failing magazine. The story is “totally false”, and the anonymous sources Goldberg quotes are made up.

That explanation broke down almost immediately when other news organizations — AP , The New York Times, Fox News, CNN, and The Washington Post — had little trouble finding their own sources, who may or may not have been the same ones Goldberg found. If someone is making these stories up, it’s not Jeffrey Goldberg.

Worse, there was one obvious person who could have blown the whole thing up: John Kelly. If his son’s memory is being used to smear his former boss, you’d think he might try to put a stop to it. He hasn’t said a word. Trump knows what that means. So he attacked Kelly Friday at the White House:

I know John Kelly. He was with me, didn’t do a good job, had no temperament, and ultimately he was petered out. He got — he was exhausted. This man was totally exhausted.

He wasn’t even able to function in the last number of months. He was not able to function. He was sort of a tough guy. By the time he got eaten up in this world, it’s a different world than he was used to, he was unable to function. And I told him, John, you’re going to have to go. Please give me a letter of resignation. And we did that, and now he goes out and badmouths.

He has also lashed out at Fox News reporter Jennifer Griffin, who corroborated some of Goldberg’s accounts via her own sources, and added this anecdote:

According to one former senior Trump administration official: “When the President spoke about the Vietnam War, he said, ‘It was a stupid war. Anyone who went was a sucker’.”

Griffin, Trump tweeted, “should be fired for this kind of reporting” and added “FoxNews is gone.”

Other pundits and talking heads have pointed out the obvious: The quotes in the Atlantic article may be new and more extreme, but they sound like Trump quotes we already know. Early in his term, he called the military brass “a bunch of dopes and babies“. One of Candidate Trump’s first political flaps came when he bad-mouthed John McCain’s service: “I like people who weren’t captured.” He publicly contradicted the widow of a soldier killed in Niger.  He attacked the Gold Star parents of slain Captain Humayun Khan. He dodged the Vietnam draft by claiming bone spurs, a diagnosis provided by a doctor who owed his father a favor. Michael Cohen quotes Trump saying, “You think I’m stupid? I wasn’t going to Vietnam.” The only person in Trump’a family who did any military service was his black-sheep brother Fred Jr., who was in the Air National Guard. As President, Trump won’t even challenge Vladimir Putin for paying bounties to kill American soldiers. Putin counts; soldiers don’t.

So yes, it fits perfectly: He said these things. Trump and his flunkies can deny as vehemently as they want, but they’re not fooling anybody.

Why this story hit a nerve. Ever since he came down the escalator in 2015 talking about Mexican rapists, barely a week has gone by without some Trump-said-a-bad-thing story. They arise, people who never liked Trump anyway get upset about them, and they fade away in a day or two. Some political observers believe Trump uses or even engineers this process in order to distract the public from more damaging stories. For example, 1080 Americans died of coronavirus on the day the Atlantic article came out. What’s more important: a few quotes from 2018 or the equivalent of three simultaneous jumbo-jet crashes?

And yet, this time the story doesn’t seem to be going away. I think I know why.

Trump’s usual escape from he-said-a-bad-thing stories is to invoke tribalism. Both the people he insulted and the media that reported the insult are from the Other Side. Who are you going to believe: Trump or the New York Times? Whose side are you one: Trump’s or the Squad? Trump or some Muslim?

But the people he has insulted this time are in his own tribe, and even Fox News is reporting it. John Kelly was a good guy not that long ago, and he went away without making a fuss.

A key part of the Trump base are veterans, especially white veterans from the South or rural areas whose families have a tradition of military service. The kind of guy who goes to the cemetery on Memorial Day to put flowers on the grave of a father who died on D-Day or a grandfather who barely escaped from Belleau Wood — lots and lots of them are Trump voters. And he thinks they’re losers and suckers, just like the people he scammed at Trump U. Then he got his marks’ money, now he gets their votes. But does he respect them? Not at all.

And even if you’re not a veteran, or a veteran’s spouse or son or daughter, you have to know that your position in the Trump base is no more secure than theirs. If he talks that way about them, you know he’s talking that way about you too.

He’s not the hero you want to believe he is. He’s the Mean Girl who finds you useful as long as you do what she wants. He bears you no affection or loyalty, and the more you do for him, the more you convince him that you’re a sucker too.

The Cancel Culture Debate

Expressing views out of step with the common sense of your era has always been risky. But now, as cultural power shifts and common sense changes, it’s harder to know what’s safe.


It has long been a staple of conservative thought that good people should have nothing to do with bad people. The very first verse in the Book of Psalms says: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.” And in 2 Corinthians 6:14 the New Testament echoes: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”

This conservative idealization of purity is currently playing out in the treatment of the Never-Trump Republicans, who are seen as heretics rather than wayward brethren. Justin Amash had to leave the Republican Party. Mitt Romney was dis-invited from CPAC. Even Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz is under fire for her occasional criticisms of the Great Leader.

But those incidents are dogs biting men. What really has drawn public attention is the man-bites-dog phenomenon of liberals casting people out. Liberals define themselves as open-minded and tolerant, and yet now they are often the ones who get people expelled from social media or dis-invited from speaking engagements or even fired from their jobs.

Such incidents have led to much bad-faith criticism from conservatives, and the popularization of the label “cancel culture”. But it has also resulted in introspection among liberals, most recently and publicly in “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” signed by around 150 intellectual heavyweights and published in Harper’s.

The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

This intolerant-climate rhetoric has predictably played into the both-sides-do-it narrative that mainstream media uses to establish its objectivity. But what exactly is the “it” that both sides do? The Harper’s letter is vague and sloppy about this, and the coverage the letter generated has often talked about “free speech”, when that is not the issue at all.

So let’s start at the beginning and try to get this right: What exactly is “cancellation”, and why might people of good faith want to do it?

When cancellation is merited. Judy Mikovits has a theory: She thinks Covid-19 was created in the United States by public health officials led by Dr. Anthony Fauci. They shipped it to Wuhan where it was either released or escaped, starting the current pandemic. Mikovits also holds Fauci personally responsible for destroying her career in science; she says he distributed millions of dollars to cover up the conspiracy that persecuted her. She has also made several other bizarre claims about Covid-19 in the video Plandemic, which went viral in right-wing circles until it was removed from most social media platforms: Flu vaccines have distributed coronavirus, which is activated when you wear a mask. Bill Gates was part of the plan to spread Covid-19, so that he can profit off the eventual vaccine. And so on.

Actual evidence for these claims is virtually non-existent.

So what should happen to Mikovits and her theories? In my ideal world, not much. She would be free to run around making whatever claims she believes, but no one would take her seriously, either. Groups would not invite her to speak. People who stumbled across her video online would say “Really?” and do some checking before deciding not to pass it on to anyone else. If Facebook, Twitter, et al. discovered “Plandemic” gaining popularity on their platforms, they would remove it, exactly as they did in the real world, but maybe sooner. And of course, being a distributor of wild misinformation about science would make Mikovits unemployable by legitimate scientific institutions.

In short, I think Mikovits deserves to be canceled — not imprisoned, not fined, not punished in any discernible way, just removed from the national conversation — not by government edict, but by the shared standards and good judgment of society in general.

Instead, Sinclair Broadcasting, the Trumpist network of local TV stations, decided to give her a platform. [1] Eric Bolling (who you may remember from his time as a Fox News host, until he left under a cloud of sexual harassment accusations) has a TV show America This Week, which Sinclair distributes to its stations. This week’s episode includes interviews with Mikovits and with her lawyer Larry Klayman.

For balance, Bolling also interviewed a Fox News medical contributor who describes Mikovits’ claims about Covid and Fauci as “unlikely”. But for much of the episode, the chyron asks the question: “DID DR. FAUCI CREATE COVID-19?” Many of Bolling’s viewers — especially the ones who might be cooking dinner or paying bills and only looking up at the TV occasionally — will probably come away thinking that “yes” is a plausible opinion, one that reasonable people should consider.

Is Sinclair’s decision to air Mikovits’ views a defense of free speech? I don’t think so. I believe it’s irresponsible and does a disservice to viewers who trust their local news stations.

Legal vs. acceptable. I bring Mikovits up not because I want to spend significant time debunking her, but for the sake of her example: Widespread rhetoric about “cancel culture” professes to be about “free speech” or censorship, but it really isn’t. [2] We’re not discussing what speech should be legal. We’re discussing what speech should be acceptable in various forums. And the answer to that question should not be “whatever anyone wants to say”. Failing to cancel someone can be irresponsible management of an information forum. [3]

The acceptability question is not absolute; it is forum-dependent. Suppose I agree with Mikovits and say so. What should happen depends on where I say it or try to say it.

  • If I’m talking to my friends at a bar (assuming it’s ever safe to go back to bars), they should scoff at me, but the conversation should move on with no further consequence.
  • If I submit an article to a general-interest newspaper or magazine, they should reject it; but maybe I could get away with raising the question of whether the virus was created in a lab, and suggesting that maybe it was.
  • If I’m writing for Scientific American or some other popular magazine with scientific respectability, I should only be able to make claims that I can support with significant scientific evidence. The created-in-a-lab theory probably couldn’t pass muster.
  • A scientific journal like Nature should require not just evidence, but proof. Otherwise, my opinion should not be heard.

If I am employed by Scientific American or a scientific journal, and I develop a reputation as a promoter of the Fauci-created-Covid conspiracy theory, they should fire me, because my reputation would conflict with the reputation the magazine wants to maintain.

None of this would constitute a violation of my free speech. I can say whatever I want, but other people are also free to react to what I say. No one has to offer me a platform or lend me their respectability.

Zack Beauchamp makes this point in more detail.

Contrary to the original letter signers’ claims, what’s actually happening here is more subtle than a war between free speech’s defenders and its opponents. It is, as the University of Illinois’s Nicholas Grossman writes, an argument over “drawing the lines of socially acceptable expression and determining appropriate responses to transgressing those norms.” That’s not a conflict over the principles of a free society but the rules that govern its operation in practice.

Before we called it “canceling”. If there ever was a moment in American history when all speech was acceptable and any idea could be advocated in any forum, it hasn’t been in my lifetime. I grew up during the Cold War, an era when it went without saying that no major newspaper or magazine would have an openly Communist columnist. [4] Slightly before my time, the Hollywood blacklist banned movie people suspected of Communist sympathies. One famous victim was the black singer/actor Paul Robeson, who you may have heard sing “Ol’ Man River“.

The range of opinions acceptable on major-network TV may have expanded somewhat in the 21st century, but is still quite narrow. Bill Maher ran into the limits shortly after 9-11. At the time, he hosted ABC’s Politically Incorrect, a comic-but-serious discussion of the news similar to his current Real Time show on HBO. But Maher made the mistake of responding to President Bush’s characterization of the 9-11 hijackers as cowards by saying something fairly obvious:

We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.

Soon, local ABC affiliates were refusing to air Maher’s show and sponsors were dropping it. It was not renewed for another season, after having been on ABC for five years.

In 2003, the Dixie Chicks (now just “The Chicks”) faced retribution after singer Natalie Maines told a London audience that the band opposed the upcoming invasion of Iraq: “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” In response

The Dixie Chicks were blacklisted by thousands of country radio stations. On May 6, Colorado radio station KKCS suspended two DJs for playing their music.

So “cancel culture” may be a relatively recent term, but the phenomenon is not at all new.

Moving the boundaries. If cancel culture isn’t new, why is it suddenly getting so much attention? It’s hard to argue with the assertion that something feels different now. But what and why?

For one thing, more and more people are unsure about where the boundaries are, and so they withhold opinions they might previously have expressed. In a poll by Cato Institute — not an unbiased source, but faking a poll is not their style — 62% of Americans agree with the statement: “The political climate these days prevents me from saying things I believe, because others might find them offensive.” That’s up slightly from 58% in 2017.

The question is why. I think Beauchamp has this right: It’s not that the bounds of acceptable speech are getting narrower, it’s that the range is shifting. Activists on the left are succeeding in moving the range leftward, and some would like to shift it further.

That may sound partisan and even nefarious in the abstract, but there is justification for it: The range of acceptable speech has never been natural or God-given; it arises out of a society’s power dynamics. [5] We are emerging from a centuries-long era when power belonged exclusively to upper-class straight white Christian men. So the bounds we are used to — ones that seem “normal” to us — unfairly favor upper-class straight white Christian men.

Social justice advocates think the bands of acceptable opinion and arguments shouldn’t be narrowed, precisely, but rather pushed to the left — shifted to include formerly excluded voices from oppressed communities and to sideline voices that seek to continue their exclusion. Their critics think the traditional bands of debate are, broadly speaking, correct, and that we’d all be worse off if the social justice advocates succeed in moving speech norms in their direction.

Consider, for example, the Me-Too movement. Abusive men like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby used to be confident that their female victims would not be listened to or taken seriously, but now at least some of those voices are being heard. And if uncertainty about the new boundaries prevents men “from saying things I believe, because others might find them offensive”, that isn’t always a bad thing. I don’t doubt for a minute that Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida was saying what he believes when he called Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes a “fucking bitch”. But if he restrains himself in the future (because he doesn’t want to be eviscerated again on the floor of the House), I don’t see the loss.

As a professional-class straight white brought-up-Christian man myself, I have often been corrected for running afoul of the new boundaries — by  commenters on this blog, for example. I have been called out for using the verb “bitch” for a certain style of complaining (done by men and women alike), or for referring to someone as “transgendered” (as if it were something that happened to them) rather than “transgender” (something they are). Occasionally someone observes that my attempts to write about privilege are themselves tainted by a privileged viewpoint. Of course it stings to be criticized for something I did without conscious malice, and that no one would have mentioned ten or twenty years ago. But I also recognize that a world where people like me get criticized for giving offense is better than one where the people we offend are not heard.

Who decides? A glance at the list of signers of the Harper’s letter reveals that they aren’t all upper-class straight white Christian men: Margaret Atwood, Atul Gawande, Michelle Goldberg, Khaled Khalifa, Dahlia Lithwick, John McWhorter, Gloria Steinem, Fahreed Zakaria, and many others. So why is this their issue?

For some, the motivation is obvious: Salman Rushdie had to spend years in hiding because his writings offended a powerful Muslim cleric. J. K. Rowling has faced a huge backlash to her opinion that transwomen are not “real” women. But not all the signers have some clear personal ax to grind. What’s up with them?

Let’s go back to Beauchamp:

What’s new in the modern era, according to [York University philosopher Regina] Rini, is that the mass public has gained an unprecedented ability to influence and reshape those rules [defining acceptable speech] — a process that used to be the province of the elite. … [Intellectual elites] believe that social media, and Twitter in particular, is starting to exercise a kind of veto over editorial judgment — running roughshod over editors and forcing journalists to be subject to the new activist rules of political discourse. The objection here is not just that activist speech norms are bad, but that those speech norms are being imposed on the intellectual elite by the loudest voices on social media — that a silent majority of conventionally liberal journalists are being silenced by radicals.

Here’s what the Harper’s letter says:

We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

A response letter from a collection of generally less famous intellectuals points out that the examples vaguely alluded to in the paragraph above are both less unjust and less representative than they appear.

The content of the letter also does not deal with the problem of power: who has it and who does not. Harper’s is a prestigious institution, backed by money and influence. Harper’s has decided to bestow its platform not to marginalized people but to people who already have large followings and plenty of opportunities to make their views heard. Ironically, these influential people then use that platform to complain that they’re being silenced. … Their words reflect a stubbornness to let go of the elitism that still pervades the media industry, an unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out.

For years, the people at the top of the intellectual pyramid have been insulated from the disapproval of the lower orders. [6] Now they are less insulated. Some problems may result from that trend, but it’s not obvious that the trend itself is a problem.

What is common sense? In David Graeber’s The Democracy Project, he defined the success of revolutions not by the the new governments they establish, but by “planetwide transformations of political common sense”. [7] We seem to be in such a revolutionary period now. Just a few months ago, for example, defunding or abolishing the police were ideas outside the bounds of acceptable discussion in most popular forums. Now the idea is openly discussed in The New York Times and other establishment forums. On the other side of the spectrum, the President is floating the possibility that he might refuse to accept an election that he loses.

No one can really say what “political common sense” means right now; it’s in flux. Similarly, “acceptable speech” is in flux. That is not the fault of anybody in particular. It’s just an uncomfortable feature of this historical moment.

In this situation, mistakes are going to be made. We’re all going to say things that we’ll regret after standards settle down. And some of our responses to other people’s transgressions will turn out to be inappropriate — sometimes too harsh, sometimes too lenient. It will be so obvious in hindsight.

What can we say? Recognizing that our current sight suffers fog-of-war-type limitations, how much can we say? Here are a few incomplete conclusions I’ve come to.

Disagreement is not censorship. Back on May 26, when Twitter attached a fact-check link to one of Trump’s lying tweets, the President tweeted back:

Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!

Trump was so stifled that a week or so later (June 5) he tweeted 200 times. But this complaint has a long pedigree in conservative circles. When she was John McCain’s running mate in 2008, Sarah Palin claimed that her rights had been violated by media accounts labeling her paling-round-with-terrorists rhetoric as “negative campaigning”.

If (the media) convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations, then I don’t know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.

The same observation holds for liberals, moderates, or anybody else: If you say something and somebody disagrees with you, your rights have not been violated. If they label what you say as racist or sexist or some other ist-word, that’s their opinion and they have as much right to it as you have to your opinion.

Reserve your sympathy for people suffering real consequences. Someone surprised to be criticized for what he says or does should never be lumped together with others who have lost something real, like a job. If your house is getting vandalized and your inbox is full of death threats, that’s different that just “somebody called me a homophobe”. Hannah Giorgis made the point like this:

Facing widespread criticism on Twitter, undergoing an internal workplace review, or having one’s book panned does not, in fact, erode one’s constitutional rights or endanger a liberal society.

Michelle Goldberg objected:

This sentence brought me up short; one of these things is not like the others. Anyone venturing ideas in public should be prepared to endure negative reviews and pushback on social media. Internal workplace reviews are something else. If people fear for their livelihoods for relatively minor ideological transgressions, it may not violate the Constitution — the workplace is not the state — but it does create a climate of self-censorship and grudging conformity.

However, a review is not a firing. And that leads to the next point.

Responsibility belongs to the decision-makers. If you say something innocent that unfairly provokes (in the words of the Harper’s letter) “calls for swift and severe retribution” on Twitter, and then your boss fires you, the problem is with your boss, not with Twitter or the people who complained. Storms of public opinion are going to be a regular feature of public life, and institutions are going to have to learn how to weather them. People in positions of responsibility are going to need to have the courage of their convictions.

Universities are a good example: Students can ask for whatever they want; the university doesn’t have to give it to them. If some student group calls for the scalp of a professor who offended them by doing something that is well within the terms of ordinary academic freedom, and the university gives in, that’s on the university. Universities who make a habit of this kind of cowardice should be shunned by the kind of intellectuals they would otherwise try to recruit.

Saying anything substantive requires courage. This much has always and everywhere been true: It’s risky to express opinions that are out of step with the common sense of your time and place. [8] The problem now is that, since common sense itself is in flux, nobody can be sure what opinions are safe, or will continue to be safe when people a few years hence look back with new eyes.

This situation is regrettable. But at the same time, I have limited sympathy for intellectuals who are trying to be inoffensive and failing. The point of intellectual life should be to state your truth. If your truth turns out to be popular and make everybody happy, how fortunate for you. But nobody should go into intellectual life expecting that.

What goes around comes around. Everybody needs to remember that revolutions eat their young. Robespierre died on the same guillotine that he had sent many other people to. The more harsh judgment we build into the system, the more likely we are to be judged harshly when our time comes.

We need to always keep in mind the point of shifting the boundaries of acceptable thought: to bring in new voices, ones that the old distribution of power had shut out. Bringing in those new voices sometimes requires squelching old voices who are telling the new voices to shut up, or intimidating them out of speaking at all. Making new space on the platform may require asking some people to step aside. Creating a safe workplace or discussion space for a wider group of people may require that previously acceptable speech become unacceptable. [9]

But squelching old voices should never become an end in itself, even if they are obnoxious voices.

 

It would be nice to have a big finish for this post, but for all the reasons explained above, I don’t have one. As I said, someday (in hindsight) how we should have handled this will all be obvious. But right now, it isn’t.


[1] This description is based on the version of the episode that was posted online. After it caused an uproar, Sinclair decided to pull the episode back for re-editing to give it more “context. Presumably, however, its distribution to Sinclair’s stations has only been delayed.

[2] In the current news, I know of only one example of actual censorship: When Michael Cohen was furloughed from prison due to the risk of coronavirus, the Federal Bureau of Prisons conditioned the continuation of his furlough on an agreement not to write a book critical of President Trump. Cohen refused to sign and was sent back to prison, but was soon released by a federal judge. The judge said, “Why would the Bureau of Prisons ask for something like this … unless there was a retaliatory purpose?”

Telling someone: “If you write a book you’ll go to jail” — that’s censorship.

[3] Another good example of a viewpoint deservedly canceled is Q-Anon.

[4] That’s still true today. For all the charges of “socialism” that get flung at pundits and politicians these days, when was the last time you heard somebody advocate public ownership of the means of production? That idea hasn’t gone away; you just don’t hear it.

[5] That’s the 21st-century version of Karl Marx’ dictum: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”

[6] However, even world-famous philosophers have occasionally lost jobs because they were too liberal. In 1940, City College of New York tried to hire Bertrand Russell to teach classes on logic, mathematics, and the metaphysics of science — three areas in which he was among the world’s foremost authorities at the time. That appointment was challenged in court because of his criticism of religion and advocacy of unpopular sexual practices. (Wikipedia lists “sex before marriage, homosexuality, temporary marriages, and the privatization of marriage”.) Ultimately the New York Supreme Court ruled against his appointment, claiming that Russell was morally unfit to teach at CCNY.

[7] The French Revolution is a good example. The government it established was a disaster, but afterwards monarchy became hard to justify.

[8] Even if you were white, being an abolitionist in the Old South could get you horsewhipped.

[9] Sara Robinson pushed back against Cato’s implication that it was political bigotry to be skeptical of hiring Trump supporters.

As an employer, I have a legal obligation to provide my workers with a safe workplace where they can do their jobs free of harassment and bigotry. If I fail, I can be sued, so there’s serious liability attached here.

If I hire a Trump follower, that liability goes straight to 11. How can I convince my female employees that they’ll be safe if I hire someone who thinks it’s fine for a man to grab a woman by the pussy? How do I look my Iranian clients in the eye after I bring in an employee who approved of the Muslim ban? What can I say to reassure my Jewish staffers when I’ve put their futures in the hands of a supervisor who agrees that the Charlottesville mob included “some very fine people”? What do I tell our Mexican-American vendors when they have to deal with someone who’s cool with seizing their nieces and nephews and sticking them in baby cages? … You don’t need to be a bigot to steer clear of these people.