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And why does he say such stupid things?
To answer the first question: he’s a guy with a bachelor’s degree in engineering who developed some software to help colleges find “identify the next generation of high performers” which got bought up by some bigger company, making him relatively rich. Then he hooked up with Elon Musk (Warning! Danger!) to move to Silicon Valley and run Neuralink, despite having no qualifications in biology or neuroscience. He’s a wealthy techbro who has been promoted way above what his competence and experience should allow.
Wait, I think I just answered my second question, too.
New question: why does anyone pay any attention to him? Like me right now for instance?
Because he’s one of the new generation of hucksters whose sole claim to fame is grossly exaggerated promises, and also it helps that he’s associated himself with the crown prince of hucksterdom, Elon Musk. That gets him write-ups in the press, and then we all have to rebut his nonsense, which makes him more of a sensation, which leads to more press, where he gets to spew more nonsense. I don’t know how to get out of this cycle.
I don’t think Twitter helps, either. It enables these bozos to make quick blipverts to promote their idiocy even more. Hodak’s latest was to make this claim:
The co-founder of Elon Musk’s company Neuralink tweeted on Saturday that the startup has the technological advances and savvy to create its own “Jurassic Park.”
“We could probably build Jurassic Park if we wanted to,” Max Hodak tweeted Saturday. “Wouldn’t be genetically authentic dinosaurs but [shrugging emoji]. maybe 15 years of breeding + engineering to get super exotic novel species.”
Pure clickbaity bullshit. No they couldn’t, nor would anyone want them to. Hodak doesn’t even have the expertise to make such a claim, but that’s not going to stop a huckster!
We’re not even close to achieving such a thing, and Musk’s or Hodak’s company doesn’t have the tools to even start. It’s complete, arrogant hype.
Let’s break it down into a simpler problem. Let’s say tigers go extinct (unfortunately, it could happen in our lifetime). Super-rich uber-capitalist gets the fever and decides he’s going to reconstruct the species using “breeding + engineering” to modify house cats, and he gives himself 15 years to do it before his attention span flits off to something equally silly. Can they do it?
No. Maybe someday, but not in 15 years, and that’s a case where we have complete genomic information. Just to mention one obstacle, tigers have a generation time of 8 years. Even assuming the first couple of generations have breeding times of a year, like a housecat, that gives you virtually no time to work out the bugs in your production model. But worse, we don’t have any idea what all the genes that differentiate a housecat from a tiger are! We’re going to need a few decades of work to figure that out, which admittedly, would be an interesting research program, but doing it with the goal of making a tiger would be unproductive, especially given that we don’t seem to be able to keep the existing tiger population alive.
And that’s the easy problem, compared to resurrecting dinosaurs. The only templates we have for the dinosaur genome have been extensively modified by over 70 million years of drift and selection, and we don’t know what genes were lost or gained, or what their role in the complex outcome of “dinosaur” might be. It would be lovely to find out, but it’s not the accomplished fact Hodak thinks it is.
Also, “Jurassic Park” is fiction, based on a bad novel written by a hack writer of thrillers. I read it when it first came out, as an undergrad who was waffling between an oceanography and biology major, and it’s one of the first novels I recall ripping up and throwing in the trash because the science was so bad. It’s kind of a shame that it got rescued by CGI and movies.
As for the Neuralink connection, which I’ve written about a couple of times, that’s also bad science. The plan is to build a brain-machine interface, so you can just think at a computer and have your brilliance manifest in code, or control a fighter plane even faster. Here, though, is their great accomplishment:
Launched in 2017, Neuralink works on creating brain-computer interfaces with the hopes to one day help those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, paralysis and spinal cord injuries, among others.
In August 2020, Musk debuted Gertrude, a pig that Neuralink had implanted a small computer chip in its brain. The chip was planted near the part of the brain that controls its snout, so as Gertrude ate, a computer showed waves and spikes being emitted from the chip, monitoring Gertrude’s neural response.
Uh, right. My first year in grad school we repeated a classic experiment, placing hook electrodes on a cricket’s cercal nerve, and recording the pattern of “waves and spikes” as the insect processed sensory information. It was cool — you could see differences when you touched or moved the cerci, or with blowing on them from different directions, and this is just more of the same, only they’ve got it on a chip rather than the boxy little pre-amps and clumsy oscilloscopes we used. Congratulations. They’re catching up with JZ Young, who was doing recordings of neural activity 70 years ago.
One other difference: Young and that generation of neurophysiologists were working on organisms acutely — the animals were dead after the experiment was over. Are you willing to have a chip inserted in your motor cortex so you can play video games better?
The most biting sentence in the article is this one.
Hodak didn’t further explain what technology Neuralink could use to engineer the long-extinct dinosaurs.
Exactly. Hodak is talking out of ignorance, nothing more. Don’t listen to him.
The bad news: I arranged my schedule so that I don’t have any classes or labs on Friday. The dream was that I’d have this one beautiful day to catch up on grading and have some lab time. The dream is dead. Instead, my Fridays have filled up with meetings. My calendar is packed with meetings, meetings, meetings today.
The good news: Mary and I are scheduled for our second vaccine shot this evening!
Prince Philip is dead. I’m sure someone somewhere is sad about it, is the best thing I can say right now.
Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life (Bloomsbury) by Alex Christofi
In Notes from the House of the Dead, inspired by the time he spent in a Siberian prison camp, Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky describes the inmates’ longing for “another sky”, a powerful motif for freedom. The book demonstrates what was to become his lifelong fascination with the human condition. It’s no surprise Dostoevsky was hailed as a visionary.
Novelist Alex Christofi (Let Us Be True, Glass) is drawn to Dostoevsky’s ideas and their continued relevance today, in particular his beliefs “that autonomy and dignity are more precious to us than the rational self-interest of economists; that more people are killed by bad ideas than by honest feeling; that a society with no grand narrative is vulnerable to political extremism.” Dostoevsky plumbed the depths of his psychologically complex characters and Christofi attempts something similar with this compelling portrait of the writer’s inner world. By interweaving quotes from Dostoevsky’s texts, his letters and novels, Christofi wants “to elide Dostoevsky’s autobiographical fiction with his fantastical life in the hope of creating the effect of a reconstructed memoir”.
Dostoevsky In Love opens with the mock execution of the author ordered by Tsar Nicholas I. On 22 December 1849, Dostoevsky was taken to the Semyonovsky Parade Ground with five others accused of treason. They were read the death sentence, only to be spared at the final hour (an ordeal described in The Idiot). Christofi briefly retraces Dostoevsky’s childhood, the death of both his parents, and his early literary career, interrupted by his stint in prison. We follow the ailing writer, prone to nervous fits, on his journey to Omsk in Siberia, where he endured four years in a labour camp. On his return, Dostoevsky began his rehabilitation, both personal and professional; struggling to get published and earn enough money, fighting ill health and a chronic gambling addiction, and falling in love.
Christofi recounts the three major relationships in Dostoevsky’s relatively short life. In 1855 Dostoevsky fell for Maria Isaeva, wife of a local excise officer, a consumptive, with a young son: “She had that scornful kind of cynicism that is the last refuge of an idealist who has been disappointed too many times by the realities of the world.” Her husband died later that year and Dostoevsky sent her a marriage proposal which she declined. Once he became an officer, she agreed, but their happiness was short-lived. On their wedding night he had his first full epileptic fit and their marriage never recovered.
Next, he met Apollinaria Suslova (Polina), a 20-year-old student and daughter of a serf. They travelled in Europe together, but she spurned Dostoevsky and took other lovers, while he wouldn’t leave his wife and stepson. His third and great love was Anna, the stenographer he employed in 1866 to help him write The Gambler for Fyodor Stellovsky, “a rather nasty man and a thoroughly incompetent publisher”. Dostoevsky had entered into a crippling arrangement whereby if he did not deliver a full work of fiction by a set date, Stellovsky would have the right to publish his future work for nine years without payment. Anna proved a huge support and later helped secure her husband’s literary legacy. They remained married until his death.
Eschewing the limitations of an academic study, Christofi succeeds in producing a credible and sensitive portrait of Dostoevsky’s deepest feelings and inner demons from his writings. However, rather than Dostoevsky’s love life, it is his debilitating epilepsy and gambling addiction that dominate Christofi’s novelistic reimagining. Most memorable is his obsession, described in Devils as “an intoxication that came from the agonising awareness of my own depravity . . . for me it was the most powerful of all such sensations”. Time and again, Dostoevsky pawned Anna’s possessions to fund his addiction. Christofi reminds us how much Dostoevsky’s own failings and endless remorse informed his work and shaped his characters. My only caveat is that this lively account is too short.
This article is from the New Humanist spring 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
The poet, author and broadcaster Michael Rosen almost died of COVID-19. In episode eleven of With Reason, he talks to Samira Shackle about that experience, described in his new book ‘Many Different Kinds of Love’. They discuss the value of kindness, touch and practical atheism, and reflect on liminality in life and literature. Plus, Michael describes his anger at the “unethical and immoral” decisions made by the government, and urges against the dangerous devaluing of some lives over others, amidst our present pandemic.
Hosts: Samira Shackle and Alice Bloch
Producer: Alice Bloch
If you want to access more fresh thinking, why not subscribe to New Humanist magazine? Head to newhumanist.org.uk/subscribe and enter the code WITHREASON to get a whole year's subscription for just £13.50
Hello, you're listening to With Reason with me Samira Shackle
.. and me Alice Bloch.
This is the podcast from New Humanist magazine and the Rationalist Association where we consider questions of reason and unreason belief and disbelief, criticism and debate, all through conversations with writers and thinkers whose ideas speak to our turbulent times.
And today, we're talking about times that have certainly been turbulent. But also times in which some things have remained weirdly rather stuck: our present pandemic, COVID-19. That's the context of the latest book from today's guest, the writer and poet Michael Rosen, Samira, I'll leave up to you to introduce Michael, and I'll have a listen and be back to catch up at the end of the show.
So I think lots of our listeners will have already heard of Michael Rosen, they might have enjoyed one of his books, when they were little. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is a hugely popular book, which may be people read to their own kids. So he's one of the best loved and most prolific figures in children's literature. He's renowned for his work as a poet as a writer and as a performer. And he was the children's laureate too from 2007 to 2009. But the thing about Michael's work and his role in public life is that he doesn't just speak to children. He's written numerous books for adults, too. He hosts Word of Mouth on BBC Radio 4, which is all about the weirdness and wonder of language. And I think it's safe to say he's something of a household name here in the UK.
So when, last year, near the beginning of the pandemic, he got seriously ill with COVID-19, and spent 50 days almost in intensive care, much of it in an induced coma, people around the country were eagerly waiting for news and were desperate to see him get well. So that time, that period of really serious illness and the slow and painstaking recovery is the context of his new book, Many Different Kinds of Love: A Story of Life, Death and the NHS, is a book that's made up of poems and other fragments. And through those Michael is really grappling with that experience of being so close to the brink. And it also offers powerful insights about compassion and connection. So when we met, I asked Michael to tell me what happened to him in the early months of the pandemic.
I started getting ill, it felt a bit worse than flu, but I wasn't coughing. So it wasn't that alarming, because they told us that COVID is an illness that affects, you know, is an upper respiratory illness. I should have been, I think they kept describing something as a persistent cough that was one of the sort of alarm signals. And it was only really, when I started finding it difficult to get air. I think I said to Emma, I can't catch up (that’s my wife). And so we rang the paramedics, who I think I remember they got me to breathe – diagnosis by telephone, by breathing. So I think I sat there going [makes laboured breathing sounds] and he said, “Yeah, well, you know, you're not coughing, so it's fine. Just keep taking the paracetamol.” But Emma noticed that I seem to be dipping, and my face – the way she described it was it looked like death crossed my face. And so she was in contact with a neighbor and a friend who's a GP, a doctor Katie, who appears in the book, and Katie came over with an oximeter, which was a way of measuring how your body can take up oxygen. And I'm saying this now, in retrospect, Katie said I was lucky to be conscious. So she urged me to take me to the hospital. And I was, in their words very poorly. So everything was closing down. So I was whisked into intensive care, came out of that, because they thought I was doing all right. And then I dipped again. And that was quite worrying for them. I think. I don't really remember this. But at that point, they gave me an alternative. They said, “Do you want to go on a ventilator?” I didn't really know what a ventilator was, or what it entailed. They explained that, you know, that they put you to sleep. And I said, “well, will I wake up?” And they said, “you'll have a 5050 chance”. And I said “if I don't?” and they said “zero”. So I said, “Yeah.” And I signed a bit of paper. And then I went down there for 40 days. I know absolutely nothing about that at all. Or indeed for about the next 10 days. I think it doesn't really mean much to me at all. I've seen film of me, there's an ITV film that's gone out. Or I've seen a film of me talking to the consultant. I don't, well, I mean, I don't remember any of that. And then I was slowly coming around in one of the wards, and then I was taken to a rehab hospital to learn how to stand up and how to walk. I was taken home in an ambulance, and that was in late June. So I was in hospital for three months.
It's a long time and COVID-19 has had a lasting impact on your health, hasn't it?
Yes, well, I think I had micro bleeds in the brain because one of the things they've discovered about COVID is that it isn't just an upper respiratory virus. It is a virus that gets into the upper respiratory tubes, but also seems to affect the blood system, seems to affect the nervous system, some people the digestive system, so it's affecting those but also the body has a response. Somebody said that in the book I'd been a bit like a kind of little boy, you know discovering sort of things about myself, sort of about your body, and I am, it's fine that the reviewer said that, but actually what all this has reminded me of (and I am sticking to the subject, I promise you somewhere) is that when you get this ill what it reminded me of is, I know it sounds rather grand, but it reminds me the moment in King Lear when King Lear is sort of stripped of all his sort of grandness and his huge power. And he's out there on the heath with Edgar who's disguised as poor Tom. And they're naked to the elements. And they, it's sort of very visceral and very much to do with the body, very corporeal. In a way, it's a bit like that in hospital that you've just sort of, you've just got you and your body and your mind, and you're stuck there. So the mind thinks about the body most of the time, because it hasn’t got anything else.
And that actually, that is quite visceral, that sort of, as you say, kind of being stripped down. And the book seems to be an attempt to make sense of this really profound experience of coming so close to death and being so so very unwell or very poorly in the words of your doctors. And you produced it incredibly quickly after this long stretch in hospital. You know, it's coming out a year after you got ill more or less, and I wondered about that speed is writing, how you make sense of things. Is that how you process?
It is exactly, that's a mirror, yes, making sense, because – I don't know what model you work to your brain, and then your hand and then writing – but in my mind, the brain is like a place full of chaotic thoughts, and feelings. It's like a morass of, of sensations. Now we have something that some people have called inner speech, that's to say, where your thoughts that are in your head start coalescing into language, but it's still in there, it doesn't come out, and it comes out when you speak. But when you write, there's something a bit more organized and ordered about it. So the model that I see it's a bit like sorting. I remember when I was a kid, my mum had a button box. And it had lots and lots of different kinds of buttons. And one of the things we used to do at tea times was tip all the buttons out, and then invent ways to group them into different things. Well, in a way, writing is a bit like that is that you create these sets, and series. And I think that's what it feels like it's creating order out of this morass, that in my brain, I tried to make it the truth. I tried to be authentic, I tried to be realistic in some of it. But then also, I sometimes try to be mythological, I sometimes try to express things in a mythological way. And that means a different kind of truth. It's what I think Freud called psychic reality, where you try to be true to the feeling, or to the image that you have in your head.
And you mentioned making order out of the morass, which made me think of the format of the book, which is quite fragmentary, in a way, so you've got your poems and you've got messages from your wife, and you've got notes from your intensive care attendants in different sections. I know that's a form that you've used in some of your other books as well. And I wondered what attracts you to it, to telling the story in that way?
Yes, I think it attracts me because it is one of the ways in which I've grown up that's reading poems and reading fragmentary prose, you know, stream of consciousness prose, like James Joyce does in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses, and then poetry of the modernists, people like William Carlos Williams. And so I found it a way to express complexity. So there's a sort of contradiction here is that quite often these fragments are quite simple, but they offer you different views. And one image I've had is of a kaleidoscope. So a kaleidoscope is made of these little fragments of glass that are in lots of different shapes, and you shake it and then you look through it. And then you have an image, you have something that you can see and it is a picture. But each one is a different colour and a different shape. It's quite simple, but the final result is quite complex.
Yeah, Kaleidoscope seems like a really good image because the parts where you had sort of emails from your wife explaining your condition sort of felt like the pieces were moving and giving a completely different perspective on what was going on. And one of the things that book does so powerfully is sort of explain this experience in quite an interior way in some places of being so close to death. That is an experience that I think is often spoken about in religious or spiritual terms, but your book, of course, is very deeply human. So there was a line that I really liked, you said, “I got very nearly to the end. But then people, many people pulled me back, they wouldn't let me go,” which I thought was very powerful. And I wondered how your humanism and atheism coloured your experience of the last year.
It's always there. In one sense, it never goes away. That's to say, whatever extreme situation I'm in, whether it's happiness, its rites of passage in the family, or in this particular case, a near death experience. I never refer to any outside supernatural being, I might refer to the kind of what I've described there as mythology, in other words, the history of folk tale and legend and literature. But I won't refer, if you like, in any way to any deity or supernatural feeling that somehow or other my life is controlled by fate, or, as Thomas Hardy called it “Providence”. There is just us. So that's at the core of everything every day. So if you like, it wasn't a new thing for me to approach this illness, this recovery, this near death, in any different way from when I get up in the morning, I make myself breakfast, and I don't do great. I don't say “thank you, God for what we're about to receive”. Notice, I know how to say it, because we had to say to make us truly thankful, I think it goes on. So I don't have to do that. So it's just the same really. So in a way, it's a very ordinary answer. I know quite a lot of answers around atheism and humanism are very complex. But I sometimes think, for me, it's more about just what you do and how you do it. It isn't a thing about working out exactly why it is that religious beliefs are wrong in any way. If something like that is just I get through the day is what actually used to be called practical atheism. I think it's a phrase that's gone out of date, where people used to talk about theoretical atheism and practical atheism. Well, insofar as I identify with either of those, I'm a practical atheist. In other words, I do this stuff, because it makes sense to me to do it. It's as I say, it's not really any idea of referring to anything. And I don't have to do any rituals or anything that as it were acknowledges publicly or individually, that there is this other thing outside of our material world that is affecting me in any way or that I have to make votive offerings to in any way. So it is just very basic.
Yeah, that makes total sense. And it's interesting. You mentioned about the, the mythology and the folklore, because I think often when near death experience, for instance, has spoken about it, it is with this kind of religious resonance, and you talk about the liminal space, which I thought was a really nice way of phrasing it.
Yes, it's that word. Liminal is something we get quite interested in, in the study of literature, and I teach children's literature. And of course, liminality occurs quite often. So when we talk about it, it's the bit between. So if we think of Alice in Wonderland, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, what does she do? She goes down a rabbit hole. Or if you think of Hogwarts, think of Harry Potter. He gets on a train. The train is the liminal moment, it's the bit between. So literary people are quite interested in all this stuff. Because some books or poems or plays exist in the liminal space, it's neither here nor there. So for example, a famous trope to use in literature is going away on holiday. So you're neither at home, nor permanently away somewhere else. You're in this temporary place called holiday and guess what? Nice romances happen, or odd events, and it's also self-enclosed. So literary people are quite interested in holidays. Well, hospital is, of course, another liminal space, at least, assuming you don't die there. So it's liminal, because you're not at home and it's not permanent. But also, I started to think that the bed itself, that the bed was kind of home, but the edges of the bed were liminal. And so you can see this is me in a kind of frame of mind at night, and the edges of the bed started becoming to feel alien, and I got quite almost upset that it was sort of this this hard fence thing, this metal fence by the side of your bed. And I'm tall so my feet were over the edge of it. And so I felt somehow rather I've got to pull myself into my core. And what I did that night and what I've written about in the poems, I put my hand up, I'm doing it now physically because I have to do it. So to put up by my cheek and I lay on my cheek, and then I felt less liminal. That felt less on the edge, that I'd kind of found my core and that I was back away from sort of living on the edge quite literally because it's very easy – in fact one night, I did fall out of bed.
You mentioned there about not quite fitting in the bed and so on. And this was something I was really struck with in the book. It's obviously subtitled “A Story of Life, Death and the NHS” and you, you describe the incredible care that so many staff gave you, you compare it at one point to parental devotion, but you also do talk about the ways in which being seriously ill can be quite dehumanizing, being in hospital, you know, kind of being poked and prodded at all hours or the discomfort not quite fitting in a bed. There was one point, I remember, where a nurse is cross with you because a tube comes out of your nose, or you feel that the nurse is cross with you. And I found that very striking, because I think there's often a reluctance to voice any criticism of the NHS or its staff at all, perhaps because it's become a sort of incredibly politicized conversation, and there's maybe a sense of not wanting to encourage its detractors, if you obviously broadly support the institution of you know, there’s also this idea that the NHS is Britain's religion, and so on. That's a phrase that gets mentioned a lot. So I wondered what you make of that. Have you noticed that tendency? What do you think about that?
Yes, I've noticed about myself, I'm reluctant to criticize the people who were looking after me, they were under the most incredible pressure. You know, one night I call for a nurse, and she doesn't come and I soiled myself and, you know, she says, “Sorry”, and I say “sorry”, and, and I feel kind of guilty that I've sort of put her under pressure. And of course, she's been dealing with other patients. And I think I described the image that came to me are those pictures of First World War soldiers lined up in those wards, almost like barracks, aren't they? And they're in hospital. And, you know, you see one nurse and about 30 guys with legs and arms and whatever shot off. And I sort of felt at times it was like that, that they were so short staffed, but at the same time, in your selfish way, in my selfish way, I'm sitting there thinking, you know, “look after me look after me,” you know, you are very, very selfish. And it's very hard to get the balance. And so yes, one night I, I think I pulled the nebulizer out of my nose. And I brushed it, I think I didn't do it deliberately. And I did sense the nurse was kind of cross with me, whether she was or not, I have no idea. But that was my immediate feeling. And I've recorded that, because this is sort of, it's part of the discomfort. And also, it's meant to be slightly ironic, the other bit that you mentioned, which is that there's a way in which you, you surrender yourself, you're confined and you surrender yourself. And it's kind of analogous to prison, in the sense that they almost know more about you than you do. So in hospital, they're documenting everything about you, and they know exactly what your temperature is, and what your blood pressure is. And they even do this thing of doing the ops, which is where they stand at the end of the bed and watch you for 30 seconds, and then write it down, which I found almost funny. So of course, it's so intimate, you know, we by and large, you know, when we live, we don't talk, immediately come out the loo and explain to our loved ones, what we did in there and what it looks like and so on. But of course they're interested in all that, of course, great. But it feels so sort of, well, the analogy I thought was they've got a ledger, you know, they've got an account, and then you have to try and afterwards, I had the feeling of having to free myself from that, of trying to reopen myself. So, but yes, I take your point, you know, obviously, the NHS has saved my life. So of course, I feel immense gratitude, and it is in its own way, a sacred cow for me. Yes, it is. I won't call it a religion, but I might call it a sacred cow. In a sense, I do feel it's my, our, sacred NHS. And of course, I can think of occasions when, you know, we've got each other's backs with nurses or whatever. And that's, that doesn't detract from the fact that it is for me a sacred cow.
Yeah, that makes absolute sense. And I think lots of people will probably share that experience, I certainly have, you've had some sort of life saving intervention from the NHS. And so regardless of the fact that there are elements that are a big, creaking bureaucracy that's underfunded in some ways, or whatever, you still have that immense gratitude that it's there, and that the people in it are there as well. Your poem, “These Are the Hands” commemorating the 60th anniversary of the NHS became a kind of anthem while you were unwell. And it's also the postscript to your book. And I was struck by the image in the poem, which also comes up in other points in the book, about touch as a kind of language and a form of communication. And I think that's particularly striking in this year, where so many of us have been deprived of touch or have been deprived of, you know, as much or as many variations of touches we might normally have had. So I wonder if you think any differently about that after this pandemic year.
Yes, it's become a touchstone, hasn’t it? become a way of thinking about us that we have reduced the extent to which we touch each other, shake hands, put our arms around each other, whether that's with intimate people, but also, you know, we're used to, you know, you only watch footballers, they can't stop themselves. When they score a goal, they will rush up to each other and embrace each other. I mean, every time they do it, I think “are they allowed to do that?” It’s a strange thing, just at the moment I'm celebrating, you know, with my sun, and we're watching football. And occasionally when Arsenal score, we, you know, we want to embrace each other, we see the football is embracing each other. And it's a little block comes in a little monitor goes, “Oh, no pandemic. And it's a terrible thing to do.” Because as I saw somebody saying, I think it was on telly, they kind of looked out the screen and said, “But we're mammals!” And I just sort of thought, yeah, I mean, look, what do cats do? They lick their kittens, they do that to get, and all mammals, nearly all do this to get the circulation going, when their babies are born. When our babies are born, we use some form of massage or, as I say, with animals, they tend to lick each other. And then, you know, you see them, we had two cats who were brothers, and they used to groom each other. And you think, wow, I tried to think whether I used to groom my brother. But it's a very mammalian thing and it's got broken, hasn’t it? it’s intervened. And it is language, touch is a language.
You're listening to With Reason. I'm Samira Shackle, editor of New Humanist magazine. And I'm talking to author and poet Michael Rosen about his book Many Different Kinds of Love. It's a conversation about health, humanism, and the power of writing. And if you like what you're hearing, take a few seconds to press pause right now and click subscribe on the app that you're using, it costs nothing and helps us to bring you more episodes. Time now for a quick word from our producer Alice about another excellent listen from our friends at Prospect.
Prospect is Britain's leading monthly magazine of ideas, politics and culture. Their weekly podcast, the Prospect Interview, offers in-depth interviews with the brightest minds to discuss all the things that matter. Recent guests include Kyle Flynn on abandoned wildlife, and George Saunders on the Russian short story. You can find the prospect interview at prospectmagazine.co.uk/podcasts, or subscribe through your usual channels. I'll be back at the end of the show.
So Michael, you describe a moment after coming out of hospital where one of your neighbours asked if you see the world differently now. So do you? And in what ways?
Yes, I mean, one way is quite obvious really, is that I feel quite precarious. I mean, I wouldn't know particularly that I had a near-death experience. I keep using this phrase, but it's only because people keep telling me I did. And that does get to you, you do think, “Well, I was on the edge”. So that does make you have a sense of precariousness. You know, all of us know, you can die any second you go out to the street, plane could fall out of the sky, you know, you only have to open the newspaper and see the arbitrariness of death. It's not as if everybody as it were goes through several weeks while they say “I am dying”, and then they die. But some people do, obviously. But for others it's just sudden and unpredictable. So you always know that. But I guess we also have a twin feeling when we're walking around in a bubble and thinking “I'll never die”. So you know, there's a kind of omnipotence that we sometimes retreat into, in an irrational way. So if you have one of these experiences, it's a reminder that it can happen at any second. So I sort of, I've seen the response that people made when they thought I might die. So I've seen that. And so that's very, it's kind of disturbing, in a way because people are so kind, they kind of maybe, I thought they were …. I don't mean loved ones, I mean, out there. It wasn't that they were horrible to me before. But I mean, it's just that sort of huge well of kindness that's come my way. So that's another feeling. There's a regret. So saying, “have I change?”, there's a sense of regret that that person who I quite liked, who existed before I got ill isn't there, the same, you know. My eyes are damaged, my ears are damaged and certain other things. So there's a sense of regret. And there's also a sense of anger with what the government did not to do. So there's a political anger there as well, which is no surprise because I'm a political being. But even so I think they made some calculations in February and March 2020 that were unethical and immoral, about attitudes to old people and people who are vulnerable, people with so-called underlying health problems. Life is an underlying health problem, what are they talking about? So that makes me angry on behalf of all those people who died. All the people are getting ill now because that was when the virus took root in the UK.
So we'll come back to that in a minute about the kind of political anger, but I wanted to ask about social media. You mentioned how kind people have been people out there in the world and in your book you talk about that kindness from the public at large and people getting in touch with you with these moving messages, but also the other side of that which is the people accusing you of being part of a grand COVID hoax and this kind of unpleasantness that we get on social media. So I wondered, you know you're obviously an active user of twitter and social media, do you think there's been a net gain or net harm done by social media during the pandemic period?
I wouldn't know whether it's net or not. But clearly, social media has become a platform in which you can run the whole gamut from the wildest conspiracy theories, denying one sort or another through to incredibly informed opinion, that quite high medical level in which doctors and nurses are putting stuff down there into the public domain. Sometimes it was more detailed than you're getting from the mass media. So it covers the whole spectrum. So it's been difficult for me to work that out, work out an answer to your question about whether it’s a net gain or loss. But certainly, yes, there's a lot of scope for the conspiracy theories to work is that more than otherwise, if these things didn't exist, it is difficult to say. I suppose you can say there's a sort of way in which conspiracy theories can run internationally very quickly on social media, and particularly if you've got someone amplifying it, like Trump did, but at the same time, it is amplifying, you know, good factual stuff. So, and more than that, I was lucky to take part of a webinar with Professor Hugh Montgomery who looked after me in intensive care and some other physicians of one sort or another. And they were saying, and it was quite striking that they were talking about long COVID and whether it exists or not, and obviously, they think it does. But they were saying that in order to know more about it, they've got to go on to the websites, go on to social media, look at long COVID support groups and hear what it is people are saying to each other. Doesn't mean they believe everything, you know – they’re doctors, they know what they're talking about. You know, that's good thing that's come out of social media.
Yeah, that's fascinating to think about it almost as an extra diagnostic tool. Yeah, I wanted to come back to this political question, because I know you've been very vocal on that. And there's the question that you mentioned earlier of the value that we put on different ages of life and different qualities of life and so on, which I think has been quite an unedifying debate, actually, the way it's played out, you have thinking of our Lord Sumption talking about certain lives having less value than others, and so on. So I know that's something you feel strongly about. And I know you've also backed calls for a public inquiry to be held. So yeah, why is that important to you?
Right, exactly, as you said, quoting Lord Sumption and others, I mean, I had a conversation with a famous, quite famous journalist, and she had rather gleefully put on her Twitter account, that some of the people's descriptions of long COVID were probably untrue. So in my jocular way, I reply to her and said, “Yes, I made it all up. I was hiding under the table.” And she came back to me and said, “Look, no one doubts that you were ill, Michael, but you're 74.” Let's unpack that. Back to “you’re 74.” What's bad about being 74? As it happened, she's 66. So it's quite an extraordinary situation. And it's not just personal. This is social, that we've got ourselves into a situation in which very reputable journalists and ex High Court judges can sit there and say that some people in society are of less value, and that being 74 is a negative state. It's bad. It's a contradiction to what is normal. That's what that is doing some heavy lifting, as they say. But you're 74. And I think I put it in the book, I said, “What's bad about being 74?” And this is where we've got to, and I think we got to it in February and March 2020. When, quite clearly, calculations were being made by a mixture of politicians and top scientists talking about herd immunity without vaccination, saying this was necessary, and we need to create it in the words of one of them. Now, herd immunity, I think is rubbish biology applied to human populations. It may work for confined herds of animals who aren't running about the world surface, and flying in airplanes and so on. And it may work in confined animal populations that breed quickly, but we human beings breed rather slowly. And we don't know what resistance is set up when we're faced with infection. And yet the scientists and some people in government clearly thought this was possible and that old people's lives and people who are ill are of less value.
Now this is, to me frightening. I'm not going to call it fascist, I'm going to call it fascistic in the sense that these ideas that chunks of the population, whole sections are either superfluous to need or matter less for some reason or another. It's not just a slippery slope towards fascism, it is of itself fascistic. So the moment you start writing off whole slabs, and chunks, 10s of 1000s of people, we are in a time when we're at war with each other. And this for me, it is actually the complete opposite of humanism, of a humanistic view of humanity, namely, that we have the right to live. And that that is embedded in our culture and society. And we have the right to life. And here we were, in the 21st century. And these people were talking rationally on television, on Newsnight, on Radio 4’s Today program, saying things like, “we need to create herd immunity,” and sort of almost brushing to one side that this meant the deaths of 10s of 1000s of people, and specifically the deaths of people who they knew were old. And then you saw generally, on social media, this idea that the moment people were described as ill you'd see people coming back, “well, how old was he?” “Oh, well, he was 81.” Right. Okay, then we think, it’s your grandmother, this is you in 10 years time, you know, it's a complete refusal to see that you're part of the human family. And we are in a very dangerous position. If we regard a section of society as not part of that human family.
I think that's quite a powerful place to end the main part of our conversation, thinking about those big ideas and thinking about how we might have a kind of reckoning for the mistakes that have been made. I want to come on to the part where we usually turn to the New Humanist archive and talk about something that speaks to our guest work. So today, we thought we would talk about your columns for the New Humanist. There’s a regular column called In a Word in which you delve into etymology, looking at words and how their meanings changed over time and what their origins are. I actually was thinking just as you were talking, then, that herd immunity might be a good one. But you've done one, when you were coming out of hospital, one for us on “quarantine”, you've done one on “deniers”, which I really enjoyed. And so between that column that you do for us and your Radio 4 show Word of Mouth, you obviously really take a lot of joy in words, and not just the use of words, but also their history and the way they evolve. So I wondered if you could tell me about that. Where did that passion come from?
Oh, it came from my parents. My mum and dad had their first years of their life, they were either speaking most of the time in another language, the additional language of Eastern European Jews, originally, and so words would come out of them that were both at the same time very familiar, but also, my friends didn't know them. So. And if I went to see my grandparents, they spoke in Yiddish to each other or to my mom sometimes. So I was surrounded by these words. I mean, I didn't have the word for a dish, for, finding it difficult even say that the cloth you use to dry it with. Sometimes people call it a tea towel. Sometimes people call it a drying up cloth. My mum called it a schmutter, my parents called it the schmutter, which is a rag in Yiddish, right? So I just assumed it was an English word. I remember going to school and talking about the schmutter and my mates going well, and having to say that it was this thing you dry out with and they told me no, that's a tea towel, and going home and saying to mum, they say tea towel in school, and mum saying no, it's just a schmutter. She was like that: nice ironist, my mum. And so you know, there are lots of words like that: the first word I knew for a belly button wasn't belly button, it was a pipik. So my parents were doing that – it may may be familiar to you too Samira, is this sort of hopping between dialects and languages?
Of course, that's definitely very reminiscent to me. My mum's Pakistani and although I don't speak fluent Urdu at all, there's still words, particularly cooking words, spices and things like that, which is, I just often even now have to really think for what the English word for it would be, which is funny because English is the only language I really speak fluently.
So this year obviously, there are so many words that have entered our lexicon or become used differently or more commonly, I mentioned you've done columns for us on “quarantine”, a word I think we've used more than ever before. I certainly have. And “denier” and there's all these other words as well like “lockdown”, I don't think I'd ever really heard the word lockdown, nor particularly engaged with it, or “furlough” or “bubble” that we se so commonly now without a second thought. So I wonder what you think about those?
Yeah, well, I jotted a few down. I mean, quarantine is as you say, it's absolutely fascinating because it means 40 days. I mean, if people speak French, you know, quarante, quarante-et-un and so on. And if you speak Italian, you'll know that and if you know, some Latin, you've got quarantina. And so the Romance languages is where it's coming from, with its origins in Latin. So who do we know – even as humanists and atheists – who do we know 40 days is important for? Well, it was Jesus. So Jesus fasted and I think went into the desert as I remember. So 40 days, his time, Jesus's time, in this, in the story was described as quarantine. And then this coincides with the fact, and this is fascinating, is that putting people in quarantine seems to have been developed during the plague. But guess what, we're in a plague now. So the plague that, you know, bedevilled late medieval Europe, and and the Renaissance as well, that, say, in a port like Venice, they realized that if a ship came in, and there were people with plague on board, what they would do is demand that the people, the sailors, didn't come on land for 40 days, so they created a 40 day quarantine. So you've got these different routes to the word, and you find someone like Samuel Pepys using it. And Daniel Defoe, in Journal of a Plague Year, he referred to not to a quarantine of days only but a soixantine, not only 40 days, but 60 days or longer. So their quarantine has got these very fascinating routes, which apply to us now. And we use words without knowing their history. But then if you lift them off, it's almost like lifting a manhole cover. You lift it up, and there's this whole world underneath the word. I mean, take “vaccine”, for example, I didn't know even, as somebody who is sort of nosy about words, do you know the French word for a cow?
I do not know.
It's la vache. Okay, so the Latin, so the root of the French word is vacca: VACCA (may have been vacco, we don't know) but so, why would you be talking about cows and vaccines? Because the first vaccines they took the sample of the blood from were samples from cows who had cow pox to immunise people from smallpox. So it's amazing. And you mentioned lockdown. “Lockdown” was a very technical trade term. What it was, was that when in America, they used to bind the logs together or bind timber together to make a raft. You need pegs to do it with as well as rope, you need pegs. And these were called lockdowns. And in the 19th century, it was used metaphorically in prisons, and in psychiatric wards, when they restricted the movement of the prisoner, or the psychiatric patient, because they were very, you know, quite vicious about it. And so they were talking about that as “locked down”. And somebody has taken that word out of prisons and psychiatric care and said, that's what we're in: lockdown. But it starts as a very obvious actual thing in the material world and moves into the metaphorical.
How fascinating. I think we can probably at least hope that we don't have to use the word “lockdown” quite so much. Maybe we can go back to being more metaphorical in years to come. Or maybe I'm being overly optimistic. Thank you so much, Michael Rosen. That was everything, absolutely fascinating to hear about that. And I think that's a lovely place to end. Thanks for your time.
Thank you very much.
That was Michael Rosen. And if you want to have a read of Michael's writings in New Humanist, why not subscribe to the magazine, we're offering you a year's subscription for just £13.50. That's four beautiful print editions straight to your door, just head to newhumanist.org.uk/subscribe and enter the offer code WithReason.
So with me now is our producer Alice, who has been having a listen to my conversation with Michael. And Michael is one of those people who just knows so much about so many different topics, Alice. So I wondered if there was anything in particular from our conversation that jumped out at you?
Well, I suppose a few of the interviews that we've done for With Reason have been with people who are really alert to language, and Michael Rosen, of course, is no exception there. He said some really interesting things about the language of COVID, of course, and I mean, I wasn't at all familiar with the etymology of “lockdown”. I guess for me that word “lockdown” was one of the words that I really remember kind of grated on me in the very early days of COVID. And just over a year ago, now, I remember feeling almost quite annoyed at the word “lockdown” that it was maybe a word that should be saved really for more serious situations of say, curfew or conflict or you know, it brought to mind for me things like the siege of Sarajevo, which certainly is not what we were living through here last March, you know, difficult as it was. “Self-isolation” also was a bit of an unusual word at the beginning. I felt that was maybe a touch insensitive when so many people in the UK already live in isolation.
“Self-isolation” was one I remember kind of annoyed me when it came into circulation originally because it seemed to me like a tautology. So it's a much more pedantic and less sort of moral objection than yours. But just because I thought if you're isolating, then why do you need the self as well? I mean, I'm sure there's a reason for it. But of course, you're by yourself. And maybe it's because it's self-imposed. I don't know. Anyway, that annoyed me. But yeah, I don't know, I guess there's something about how these words do come and go even beyond COVID. I was thinking about Brexit. And I remember, it must have been years ago, but before the referendum when the word “Brexit” was still just starting to be used in news reports, thinking, “Oh, that'll never catch on”. What a stupid portmanteau. I'm not gonna start using that. Obviously proves how good my powers of foresight are!
But yeah, I had exactly the same feeling about “Brexit” actually, also, separately there. I mentioned how “lockdown” for me has almost connotations of conflict or siege of curfew, that kind of thing. Separately, I think in a Guardian interview, Michael said that, you know, in its own way, this pandemic is a bit like a war, though, he apologizes for the flawed analogy. And but nonetheless, he says, you know, it is a bit like a war. And I guess a lot of people have made that comparison and spoken about what the kind of post COVID deal will be socially for everyone. I guess it got me thinking about really what's going to change when we will come out of this, you know, everyone's been through a collective experience, also a deeply personal one, as Michael has also. And I think at the beginning, there was a lot of chat about how you know, after COVID, everything's going to be different, you know, environmentally, things are going to change, people are going to be alert to climate change, their behaviour is going to change, we're not going to fly so much, will consume less, you know, will care more about each other, etc, etc. I don't know. I mean, personally, I don't feel so hopeful that there's going to be this great transformation in a few months time, I think it will be back to the old you know, “normal” end quote marks, possibly even even kind of greedier at points, maybe.
Yeah, I think I'd share that view, too. And yeah, I think that that idea of the kind of duality of the collective experience we've all been through, and the personal experiences that have really varied for different people is an interesting one. And in fact, I think when I sat down to read Michael's book, I kind of thought, Oh, God, do I really want to read something else about COVID. And then I was so completely immersed in it, it was incredibly moving. And it was funny as well. And there was something about that, that even though we're still right, within this experiences, collective experience, I think, reading the kind of deeply personal account of it and getting a different view was incredibly powerful and more powerful than I, then I thought it would be well, we're still in the throes of it.
Yeah. And I mean, we've been in this long enough that we are at a point now, collectively, where we can look back and reflect. There was the one minute's silence the other week to mark a year since the first lockdown. So it's amazing how quickly I guess people are beginning to remember and process this stuff, how much time that will also take.
Yeah, I think it will take some time, because I didn't I mean, I know we had the minute silence and so on, but I sort of feel like there hasn't been the kind of collective grieving that we probably need for such a large death toll. And, but I think partly that's driven politically, you know. The emphasis very much from politics and media is on the vaccine roll out that's going well, and we're coming out of this, and we're going to bounce back better and all of this stuff. But there hasn't really been this moment of pause for what we've all lost collectively. I mean, it's a huge death toll. And I think that's one of the things that's so powerful about Michael's book, and hearing him talk as well, is that he's grateful to have survived. And he's come through this horrendous experience, but he also doesn't shy away at all from what's been lost, and the lasting impact on health and the kind of precariousness of the body that you're left with and lack of trust in certain institutions and so on. And, yeah, I think that's a really valuable perspective. And perhaps we'll get more of that as more time passes.
Absolutely. I mean, you have the remembrance, but you also need arguably the reckoning, which is something Michael's calling for. And we'll see where, where that call leads. Well, I guess that's us for today.
We'll be back next week to talk about how we might defeat political tribalism online and on social media with Chris Bail over at the Polarization Lab at Duke in the US. Those subjects are of course, things that we reflected on a bit with Michael there where we talked about conspiracy theories and social media. Remember, you can find reading lists and transcripts for all episodes of With Reason on the New Humanist website and catch us on Twitter @NewHumanist.
This podcast was presented by me Samira Shackle with series producer Alice Bloch. Our sound engineer was David Crackles. See you back here soon. Goodbye.
denier meaning “one who denies”, from early 14th-century French “dénier”, meaning “deny, repudiate, withhold”
This word is in regular use on social media in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. People are deemed to be deniers if they doubt or refuse to believe in the existence of Covid, or if they declare that this illness is really flu, and therefore the whole thing is a “plandemic” or a “scamdemic”, invented for the purposes of making money or controlling the public.
“Deny” has been used by English speakers since the 14th century, coming from the Old French “dénier” at the time when French and English speakers lived side by side in Britain.
The more specific usage, meaning to deny that something is true, appears in the 17th century with people talking of someone who denies the resurrection of Christ. The “denier” appears in the 15th century and by 1558, the Scots Calvinist John Knox, in his First Blast Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, talks of “deniers of Christ Jesus”.
Though in logical terms the word or idea of denial isn’t necessarily condemnatory, we can see that the word is given the flavour of disapproval, because it was linked to atheism.
To find the origins of “deny”, “denial” and “denier” in the more modern pattern of usage, as part of the world of claim, counter-claim and conspiracy, we should probably look to “Holocaust denial”. The Oxford English Dictionary first finds this usage in 1984, while the phrase “Holocaust deniers” appears a year later in the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail. At that stage, this kind of denial circulated in the murky world of far-right politics, while the deniers often denied that they were deniers at all.
Deborah Lipstadt’s book Denying the Holocaust (1993), which named David Irving as a Holocaust denier, the subsequent trial when he sued her for libel, and the film about the whole encounter (Denial, 2016) all helped the word to become popular. Today, the “you are one”/“no I’m not” disputes in relation to Covid-19 rage on all over Twitter, Facebook and beyond.
This article is from the New Humanist spring 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
One of the most difficult things for atheists and even Christians to imagine is what is supposed to actually happen in Heaven. It isn't easy to picture how people are going to fill the vast expanses of time, stretching endlessly over the horizon. In particular, people wonder, will anyone 'work' up there?
It's a vexed question, and an irritating one for Christians. Realising they can't simply avoid it, some have set about addressing it, often playfully, with their congregations. The question reared its head again recently after American megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress said on a TV show that people will enjoy working in Heaven because the things that drain the joy from work – pesky factors like “government regulation” – will have been abolished. “Remember, God created us to be workers,” he said.
As Miles Klee writes, if you look at the meat of what Jeffress was saying, as opposed to the amusing "government regulations" headline, you'll find a line of thought that dominates mainstream Christianity, especially in the US: we were made to be workers, so will we continue to labour in Heaven once we are dead? Of course.
But, unsurprisingly, the heavenly details here are both vague and hotly disputed. A legion of questions arise: will we be paid? Will some jobs – heart surgeon, for example – no longer exist? If it's a job, can we be fired? What if we didn't like the job that we did on Earth? The answers vary according to who you ask. In the US, there are plenty of pastors like Jeffress who want to reinforce the capitalist status quo that we are defined by the thing that makes us money – so we will continue to do that very thing, presumably for eternity.
But of course, it will not be the drudgery that it is on Earth. They are, after all, selling Heaven as a product, and everything needs to look perfect up there. The question is, if it no longer looks like work as we understand it, can we call it work at all?
Darrell Cosden is the author of a book called The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work. “We were created to be workers,” he tells me from his home in Fiji, where he is a lecturer in theology and ethics. “It's not incidental to us, it's essential to us.” Because we won't be alienated from our work as a result of having to sell it to the highest bidder, we won't "work" in the Marxian sense, he says. To him, the fact that we will be physically made new is important. It will not simply be our souls that exist in Heaven, it will be our bodies – and our bodies were designed to work. He believes that for eternity we will “be ourselves in the freedom of a restored relationship between us and creation”.
Cosden believes that work in the new creation will not be the laborious vision painted in Genesis 3, but instead “a notion of playful imaginative exploration, which at the heart is what Christians do mean when they say they envision a new reality in worship”. He has been asked “a million times” what will happen to doctors in Heaven if there is no suffering. Given that a doctor is fundamentally a scientist, he believes they will be free to explore the depth and breadth of God's creation for eternity.
The word "free" is important here. When I ask Cosden whether the toilsome nature of work being absent means that it cannot be called "work" any more, he says that this is already a philosophical question for play theorists, who tend to say that play is defined by freedom. Given that presumably people in Heaven are acting freely, this would imply that "work" – and indeed everything else – may be more appropriately defined as "play". “Will it be work? Yes,” says Cosden. “Will it be play? Yes.” This point of view is easy to find in contemporary American Christianity. As this piece in the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics puts it, “If there is work, it will not seem like it.” Some might call this having their cake and eating it. In the Church it is a contradiction that many are happy to accept.
One Christian writer who doesn't toe this line, however, is Don C. Warrington, who thinks that the evangelical vision of work in Heaven is “profoundly unbiblical”. He tells me by email, “I think the problem is that people in American culture tend to define themselves by what they do for a living. Once you do that, you can't imagine life on this side or the other without a career. I think that we need to get past that.” In a 2012 blog post he pointed out that the contention that we will work in Heaven is not backed up by Scripture, which details nothing about what kind of "jobs" we'll be doing. “They speak of rewards, crowns, ruling and the like, but none of this suggests work. The whole idea of ruling is that someone else gets to do the work while you take the credit.”
One fascinating insight Warrington has is that people's vision of “the life to come” has changed as life has become easier. In the past, “People wanted Heaven to be what this life wasn’t: long, stable and easy.” Now that life is long, stable and (comparatively) easy, Christians look at Heaven as an extension of things as they are now. “That’s why these days we get questions about whether there will be such things as pets, golf, etc. in Heaven, when what we’ll get will far overshadow the joys of any or all of these things or anything else.” Indeed, straying slightly from work, Warrington wrote recently that there will be no orgasms in Heaven but that “what we will experience in the presence of God will be far more intense and sustained than any orgasm we experience here”.
Orgasms aside, it is difficult to argue with Warrington when he says, “Evidently the person who first hatched the idea that we would work in Heaven really loved their job.” And, as long as American churches continue to receive a huge amount of money from their parishioners, it is important to them that these people love their jobs as well – so that the money doesn't dry up. Even if some of them believe the government takes too much of it.
Cassava is a long, tuberous, starchy root. It is an essential ingredient in many world cuisines, as it can be grown with minimal inputs, even in poorer soils with unreliable rainfall. It provides not just food but income for over 800 million people and is particularly important for small-scale farmers. But cassava farmers in east and central Africa, two massive areas where it is a staple food, are facing a dire problem. Since the turn of the millennium, cassava brown streak disease has been spreading rapidly, causing root rot and rendering the crop inedible. It is the biggest threat to food security in coastal east Africa and around the eastern lakes.
Could genetic modification hold the answer? Helping small-scale farmers with GM crops might sound counter-intuitive, as they are often associated with global agri-business. But while it’s true that the most widely grown GM crops today are produced by big businesses to meet the needs of industrial farmers, this trend is changing. Around the world, labs in universities and beyond are using the latest genetic techniques to develop crops with the potential to benefit humanity. These come in many forms: drought-resistant crops to cope with climate change, vegetables with higher nutrient levels to provide a healthier diet for low-income populations, domesticated wild plants to increase food system diversity – the list goes on.
Among other things, gene-edited crops can tackle crop disease in the developing world. A disease-resistant GM variety of cassava is now being field tested in Uganda and Kenya, with the potential to limit the rapid and unpredictable spread of cassava brown streak disease and its devastating root rot. Compared to more traditional genetic engineering, the genome editing used to tackle cassava brown streak disease is cheaper, faster and more accurate. The lower cost is particularly exciting because it becomes viable to work on crops that are otherwise ignored. Whereas most money is made from major commercial crops such as maize, the greatest benefits to humanity may come from improving other species.
Crops such as yam, pearl millet, cowpea and plantain are important staples in lower-income nations, yet it wouldn’t be commercially viable to improve them through traditional genetic modification. The high cost of development and approval of improved GM varieties can’t be recouped by sales of seeds. Many people are hopeful that gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR will democratise science and redistribute control. This is by no means guaranteed, but there are positive signs.
Millennia of crop breeding mean we can feed a global population of billions, with modern crop varieties allowing us to produce more food on the same amount of land. However, this has also brought problems: environmental degradation and a lack of crop diversity. Dominant crop varieties rely on high levels of inputs such as water and fertiliser, with agriculture accounting for 70 per cent of global consumption of fresh water.
Feeding our growing population without causing environmental collapse will require creativity, taking advantage of both social and technological innovations. When it comes to manipulating a plant’s DNA, we’re going to need both. The technologies may be powerful, but the reality is complex – can genetic technologies, new and old, bring benefits to humanity? We have a careful path to tread.
It took centuries, or in some cases millennia, to create much of the food we are familiar with today. Ever since the dawn of agriculture, around 12,000 years ago, people have been selecting plants with favourable characteristics. Things changed in the 1950s with the release of the first crop varieties developed with artificially introduced mutations. In this technique, known as mutagenesis, DNA is altered by treating seeds with chemicals or radiation. Although some of these mutations are fatal to the plants, others produce positive characteristics. One major advance that came from mutagenesis is dwarfing. Modern crops, such as wheat, have much shorter stems than their ancestors, which means they are less likely to collapse under the pressure of wind and rain. The same techniques are still used today. Mutagenesis is incredibly powerful, but also comes with limitations, as it can only create random changes to existing genes.
Techniques developed in the 1980s allowed scientists to add DNA into a crop’s genome, including whole new genes. This opened up possibilities that were previously unimaginable, along with an ongoing controversy. It was also closely associated with massive food conglomerates and the capitalist machine: when genetic engineering was first developed, the high costs inevitably meant that the focus was on crops that delivered profits in the western world. A study in 2011 found that it costs an average of $136 million to develop and commercialise a new plant biotechnology characteristic, with the process taking an average of 13 years.
Since they were first developed, opposition to GM foods has been driven by concerns about corporate control of the food supply and a fear of humans “playing God”. Over the years, more specific concerns have been raised over the safety of the food that results from GM crops, and potential environmental damage.
Yet many claims that formed the backbone of anti-GM campaigns over the decades have turned out to be false. Extensive studies found no evidence that GM food causes cancer. Suicide rates in Indian farmers didn’t rise when they started buying GM seeds. Pollen from GM insect-resistant crops turned out not to be poisoning butterflies. Numerous studies – including one landmark report in 2016 – have concluded that manipulated food is generally safe for humans and the environment. Genetic engineering hasn’t led to the monstrous “Frankenfood” we feared. But the controversy rumbles on. The arguments are often a mix of old, disproven claims alongside valid concerns that haven’t been addressed. In particular, corporate control of the food system remains a serious issue. The problem doesn’t only apply to GM crops, but it’s something we urgently need to address.
A new challenge has also emerged, relating to the question of how we define genetic modification. Initially this was easy: adding new genes in a lab was viewed as GM, whereas mutagenesis was not. However, the latest genome-editing techniques have blurred this distinction. Sections of DNA can be added, edited or removed, meaning changes may be similar to those made with genetic engineering techniques, or can be much smaller – so small that they are indistinguishable from naturally occurring mutations.
The most famous genome-editing tool is CRISPR, which was first used to edit genomes in 2012. The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna based on their work in the field. CRISPR is cheaper and faster than previous forms of genetic modification, making it viable to work on problems afflicting the whole world, not just those that can increase the profits of a few big companies.
Clearly, the old binaries of this polarised discussion are no longer the most useful framework for debate. But if gene-edited crops are going to benefit society, we need to question how they can work to create a more sustainable food system. Perhaps we can learn from the controversy surrounding the fortification of foods.
Fortification involves enriching commonly available foods with vital nutrients such as vitamin A, which is important for growth and development, in particular for a functioning retina in the eye. Most of our vitamin A comes from precursors such as β-Carotene, which are eaten, then converted into vitamin A in our bodies. Vitamin A deficiency is the world’s leading cause of child blindness, so there is a strong incentive to release crops that provide it. One early attempt to do so using genetic modification was golden rice, which is fortified with a precursor of vitamin A. It’s been predicted in the press that golden rice could save millions of lives and prevent child blindness.
However, it is over 20 years since the first varieties of golden rice were created, and we are yet to see it released. Part of the reason is that opponents of GM crops have fought hard to block its release. Some are ideologically opposed to genetic modification. Others argue that we should tackle vitamin A deficiency by diversifying diets rather than maintaining a reliance on rice. The bitter debate has raged for two decades, meaning that progress has been slow despite some significant breakthroughs. Golden rice has been approved in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA, and is undergoing regulatory approval to be grown and consumed in Asia. Scientists are exploring how to fortify rice using CRISPR, which allows much more accurate genetic changes. It remains to be seen whether this would be more palatable to opponents.
Golden rice isn’t the only crop that has been developed to tackle vitamin A deficiency: yellow cassava is also modified to produce a precursor of vitamin A, using conventional techniques. This has already been released in Africa, where local people are free to share the roots with their fellow farmers. Genetic modification is now being used to further improve the crop. Elsewhere, the full range of genetic techniques are creating nutritionally enhanced crops. Crops in the pipeline include barley fortified with zinc, and onions fortified with vitamin B1.
Some of the crops in development are designed to tackle health and sustainability simultaneously. These include crops modified to produce omega-3 oils, which prevent heart disease and stroke. At present, we get our omega-3 oils from fish, which carries a high environmental cost. Although we refer to omega-3 as “fish oils”, they are in fact made by microalgae, which are then consumed by fish in the wild. The only way to farm fish rich in healthy oils is to feed them algae, or other fish that have eaten algae. This means that much of the fish we catch in the wild currently goes to feeding farmed fish. As it stands, we don’t have the technology to grow algae on a large scale.
However, catching fish in the wild is not sustainable and has depleted our ocean ecosystems. It would be much better if farmed fish had a more plant-based diet, but unfortunately plants aren’t rich in the fish oils that benefit our health. Multiple groups of scientists are tackling this problem by modifying oilseed crops to produce fish oil. Synthetic DNA sequences have been introduced into the plants, similar to the genes found in algae. The omega-3 oil can then be extracted from the seed and fed to fish. This could make it possible to produce nutritious fish fed on a plant-based diet.
Globally, our food supply is dominated by just a few species, particularly rice, wheat and maize. This leaves us in a vulnerable position should these species be hit by disease. Some crops currently grown in small quantities still have many characteristics of their wild relatives, and could make a much greater contribution to our food supply if they were properly domesticated. Genetic technologies could allow us to do this in a faster and more controlled way than traditional breeding.
The tomato, for instance, is now a ubiquitous ingredient everywhere from Italy to Pakistan, America to the UK. But the wild ancestor of the tomato had small fruits and grew in an unruly, sprawling way. It took centuries of breeding to produce the fruit we know today, which is easily grown at scale. One relative of the tomato is the groundcherry, which is grown in the Americas. Known for its sweet and slightly tart berries, its productivity is limited by its sprawling growth and small fruits that drop to the ground. Yet its nutritious berries could bring health benefits if it was grown more widely.
With genome editing, scientists can copy some of the changes that were made to the tomato over the course of centuries. In this way, scientists have modified the plant to become more compact, and produce fruit in clusters rather than individually. They have also begun editing genes to make the marble-sized fruits larger, and they plan to modify its sour taste.
Looking at efforts to develop the groundcherry could help us to understand, more broadly, what it would take for an ethical approach to genetic modification to be properly embraced. We must remember that deep-seated fears about GM crops cannot be tackled with data alone. The more people feel excluded from decision-making, the less likely they are to accept new technologies.
In the case of developing the GM groundcherry, a key part of the process was gaining information from local growers and farmers about what characteristics would be beneficial to them. Consultations like this are crucial – there may be many exciting crop innovations coming through, but their benefits will only be realised if global society is comfortable with them. It’s not just the product that matters, but how it came into existence.
We also need to consider the drawbacks and limitations of every innovation at a practical level. Some crop varieties could put wildlife at risk. For example, some crops have been genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides, allowing farmers to kill weeds without harming their crop. This is an efficient way to control weeds, but these unwanted plants are also food for wildlife. Dependence on costly crops can lead farmers to hover around the breadline, which inevitably causes social problems. We need to confront concerns around environmental impact, monopolies and corporate control, while acknowledging that these kinds of issues aren’t specific to GM crops but affect our entire food system.
The future of gene-edited crops will partly be determined by regulatory systems, which many countries are still putting into place. Lengthy, costly testing may prevent crops designed to bring benefits, rather than profits, from gaining approval. And the nature of regulation is far from settled. Many countries, including the USA and Canada, regulate crops as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) if they have foreign DNA inserted, but not otherwise. In the EU and New Zealand, however, all genome-edited crops are regulated as GMOs.
This is particularly controversial as strict GMO regulations and the associated costs often prove prohibitive to crop development. There are also concerns that such laws may prove impossible to enforce – when the genetic changes are only tiny, there may be no way to tell whether or not they happened naturally. It is unclear what Britain’s post-Brexit policy will be, with many scientists speaking out against the EU ruling. And the UK is not alone: many other countries don’t yet have a ruling, particularly in Asia and Africa.
Debates about regulation are vital, but we mustn’t let the details distract us from our goal: a sustainable and equitable food system. Transforming our food system will require more than technological innovation; widescale reforms will be needed, transferring power away from companies and towards farmers and the community, as well as a massive reduction in waste, and a shift away from high-input farming. Once we have the vision, we can ask how GM crops might help us to achieve it.
This article is from the New Humanist spring 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
Last year I collaborated with The Good Thinking Society to set up the Good Magic Awards.
Our first award focused on performers who use magic tricks to improve the lives of others, including work with disadvantaged groups, hospital patients, and schools. The judges selected two great winners: Megan Swann (who presents a magic show that promotes environmental issues) and Breathe Magic (who support children with hemiplegia by helping them to learn tricks that improve physical and psychological wellbeing).
This year, the award will provide £2,000 to support a new and innovative project that promotes the art of magic. This might, for example, include developing a live or virtual performance, writing a magic-related book or essay, creating a podcast, devising a new form of illusion or presentation, or undertaking research into the history of magic.
Applicants need to be over 18 years old and currently residing in the UK, and nominations will close at 5pm (GMT) on 20th February 2021.
To enter, please head over to The Good Thinking Society now!
A few years ago I produced three videos containing ten magic-based science stunts. I thought that they might help educate and entertain children during lockdown, or indeed anyone with a curious disposition. Here they are…..
I am delighted to announce that the third issue of Hocus Pocus is out now!
This colourful comic explores magic and mystery, and this time we enter the spooky world of ghosts.
Discover the truth about Britain’s most haunted house, see a Victorian spirit manifest right before your eyes and encounter the ‘Ghost at 19Hz’.
As ever, Jordan Collver, Rik Worth and Owen Watts have done a wonderful job, and I am especially impressed with their optical illusion cover.
I am delighted to launch a new series of videos that use magic to celebrate science. Fab sleight of hand artist Will Houstoun and I produced them, supported by The Royal Society of Chemistry and chemist Dr Suzanne Fergus (University of Hertfordshire). The three videos use sleight of hand techniques to celebrate a different scientist, and do not involve any CGI or camera trickery.
We are excited about this new story telling technique and recently conducted an experiment that showed that it significantly boosted people’s engagement (details here).
I hope that you enjoy them!
I recently co-authored a paper on how a little-known parapsychology journal was years ahead of its time.
Our story starts in 2011, when psychologist Daryl Bem reported several experiments that appeared to support the existence of psychic ability. Soon after, Stuart Ritchie, Chris French and I tried to replicate the studies but obtained null results. Several other academics also criticised Bem’s statistics and procedures. This type of ‘I have evidence for psychic ability – Oh no you don’t’ back and forth has occurred many times over the years. However, this time, something odd happened.
Several researchers noted that the criticisms aimed at Bem’s work also applied to many studies from mainstream psychology. Many of the problems surrounded researchers changing their statistics and hypotheses after they had looked at their data, and so commentators urged researchers to submit a detailed description of their plans prior to running their studies. In 2013, psychologist Chris Chambers played a key role in getting the academic journal Cortex to adopt the procedure (known as a Registered Report), and many other journals quickly followed suit.
However, many academics are unaware that a little-known parapsychology journal – The European Journal of Parapsychology – implemented an early version of this concept in the 1970s. For 17 years, around half of the studies in the paper were registered in advance. If the critics were right, these papers should be less likely to contain problems with their statistics and methods, and so be more likely to report spurious positive results. To find out if this was the case, I recently teamed up with Caroline Watt and Diana Kornbrot to examine the studies. The results were as expected – around 8% of the analyses from the studies that had been registered in advance were positive, compared to around 28% from the other papers. Other academics are now conducting the same sort of analyses in psychology and medicine, and finding the same pattern.
Academics often criticise parapsychology, but this episode is a good example of how the field is sometimes ahead of the game and can help to improve mainstream psychology.
The full paper describing this work is here.
And Diana is now looking more broadly at openness in science. If you are a researcher with an interest in the area, you can take part in her survey here.
In this episode of the podcast, Sam discusses the recent social protests and civil unrest, in light of what we know about racism and police violence in America.
This is a transcript of a recorded podcast.
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Welcome to the Making Sense podcast… This is Sam Harris.
OK…. Well, I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts for this podcast for more than a week—and have been unsure about whether to record it at all, frankly.
Conversation is the only tool we have for making progress, I firmly believe that. But many of the things we most need to talk about, seem impossible to talk about.
I think social media is a huge part of the problem. I’ve been saying for a few years now that, with social media, we’ve all been enrolled in a psychological experiment for which no one gave consent, and it’s not at all clear how it will turn out. And it’s still not clear how it will turn out, but it’s not looking good. It’s fairly disorienting out there. All information is becoming weaponized. All communication is becoming performative. And on the most important topics, it now seems to be fury and sanctimony and bad faith almost all the time.
We appear to be driving ourselves crazy. Actually, crazy. As in, incapable of coming into contact with reality, unable to distinguish fact from fiction—and then becoming totally destabilized by our own powers of imagination, and confirmation bias, and then lashing out at one other on that basis.
So I’d like to talk about the current moment and the current social unrest, and its possible political implications, and other cultural developments, and suggest what it might take to pull back from the brink here. I’m going to circle in on the topics of police violence and the problem of racism, because that really is at the center of this. There is so much to talk about here, and it’s so difficult to talk about. And there is so much we don’t know. And yet, most people are behaving as though every important question was answered a long time ago.
I’ve been watching our country seem to tear itself apart for weeks now, and perhaps lay the ground for much worse to come. And I’ve been resisting the temptation to say anything of substance—not because I don’t have anything to say, but because of my perception of the danger, frankly. And if that’s the way I feel, given the pains that I’ve taken to insulate myself from those concerns, I know that almost everyone with a public platform is terrified. Journalists, and editors, and executives, and celebrities are terrified that they might take one wrong step here, and never recover.
And this is really unhealthy—not just for individuals, but for society. Because, again, all we have between us and the total breakdown of civilization is a series of successful conversations. If we can’t reason with one another, there is no path forward, other than violence. Conversation or violence.
So, I’d like to talk about some of the things that concern me about the current state of our communication. Unfortunately, many things are compounding our problems at the moment. We have a global pandemic which is still very much with us. And it remains to be seen how much our half-hearted lockdown, and our ineptitude in testing, and our uncoordinated reopening, and now our plunge into social protest and civil unrest will cause the Covid-19 caseload to spike. We will definitely see. As many have pointed out, the virus doesn’t care about economics or politics. It only cares that we keep breathing down each other’s necks. And we’ve certainly been doing enough of that.
Of course, almost no one can think about Covid-19 right now. But I’d just like to point out that many of the costs of this pandemic and the knock-on effects in the economy, and now this protest movement, many of these costs are hidden from us. In addition to killing more than 100,000 people in the US, the pandemic has been a massive opportunity cost. The ongoing implosion of the economy is imposing tangible costs, yes, but it is also a massive opportunity cost. And now this civil unrest is compounding those problems—whatever the merits of these protests may be or will be, the opportunity costs of this moment are staggering. In addition to all the tangible effects of what’s happening—the injury and death, the lost businesses, the burned buildings, the neighborhoods that won’t recover for years in many cities, the educations put on hold, and the breakdown in public trust of almost every institution—just think about all the good and important things we cannot do—cannot even think of doing now—and perhaps won’t contemplate doing for many years to come, because we’ll be struggling to get back to that distant paradise we once called “normal life.”
Of course, normal life for many millions of Americans was nothing like a paradise. The disparities in wealth and health and opportunity that we have gotten used to in this country, and that so much of our politics and ways of doing business seem to take for granted, are just unconscionable. There is no excuse for this kind of inequality in the richest country on earth. What we’re seeing now is a response to that. But it’s a confused and confusing response. Worse, it’s a response that is systematically silencing honest conversation. And this makes it dangerous.
This isn’t just politics and human suffering on display. It’s philosophy. It’s ideas about truth—about what it means to say that something is “true.” What we’re witnessing in our streets and online and in the impossible conversations we’re attempting to have in our private lives is a breakdown in epistemology. How does anyone figure out what’s going on in the world? What is real? If we can’t agree about what is real, or likely to be real, we will never agree about how we should live together. And the problem is, we’re stuck with one other.
So, what’s happening here?
Well, again, it’s hard to say. What is happening when a police officer or a mayor takes a knee in front of a crowd of young people who have been berating him for being a cog in the machinery of systemic racism? Is this a profound moment of human bonding that transcends politics, or is it the precursor to the breakdown of society? Or is it both? It’s not entirely clear.
In the most concrete terms, we are experiencing widespread social unrest in response to what is widely believed to be an epidemic of lethal police violence directed at the black community by racist cops and racist policies. And this unrest has drawn a counter-response from law enforcement—much of which, ironically, is guaranteed to exacerbate the problem of police violence, both real and perceived. And many of the videos we’ve seen of the police cracking down on peaceful protesters are hideous. Some of this footage has been unbelievable. And this is one of many vicious circles that we must find some way to interrupt.
Again, there is so much to be confused about here. We’ve now seen endless video of police inflicting senseless violence on truly peaceful protesters, and yet we have also seen video of the police standing idly by while looters completely destroy businesses. What explains this? Is there a policy that led to this bizarre inversion of priorities? Are the police angry at the protesters for vilifying them, and simultaneously trying to teach society a lesson by letting crime and mayhem spread elsewhere in the city? Or is it just less risky to collide with peaceful protesters? Or is the whole spectacle itself a lie? How representative are these videos of what’s actually going on? Is there much less chaos actually occurring than is being advertised to us?
Again, it’s very hard to know.
What’s easy to know is that civil discourse has broken down. It seems to me that we’ve long been in a situation where the craziest voices on both ends of the political spectrum have been amplifying one another and threatening to produce something truly dangerous. And now I think they have. The amount of misinformation in the air—the degree to which even serious people seem to be ruled by false assumptions and non sequiturs—is just astonishing.
And it’s important to keep in mind that, with the presidential election coming in November, the stakes are really high. As most of you know, I consider four more years of Trump to be an existential threat to our democracy. And I believe that the last two weeks have been very good for him, politically, even when everything else seemed to go very badly for him. I know the polls don’t say this. A large majority of people disapprove of his handling this crisis so far. But I think we all know now to take polls with a grain of salt. There is the very real problem of preference falsification—especially in an environment of intense social pressure. People will often say what they think is socially acceptable, and then think, or say, or do something very different in private—like when they’re alone in a voting booth.
Trump has presided over the complete dismantling of American influence in the world and the destruction of our economy. I know the stock market has looked good, but the stock market has become totally uncoupled from the economy. According to the stock market, the future is just as bright now as it was in January of this year, before most of us had even heard of a novel coronavirus. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. And a lot can happen in the next few months. The last two weeks feel like a decade. And my concern is that if Trump now gets to be the law-and-order President, that may be his path to re-election, if such a path exists. Of course, this crisis has revealed, yet again, how unfit he is to be President. The man couldn’t strike a credible note of reconciliation if the fate of the country depended on it—and the fate of the country has depended on it. I also think it’s possible that these protests wouldn’t be happening, but for the fact that Trump is President. Whether or not the problem of racism has gotten worse in our society, having Trump as President surely makes it seem like it has. It has been such a repudiation of the Obama presidency that, for many people, it has made it seem that white supremacy is now ascendant. So, all the more reason to get rid of Trump in November.
But before this social unrest, our focus was on how incompetent Trump was in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. And now he has been given a very different battle to fight. A battle against leftwing orthodoxy, which is growing more stifling by the minute, and civil unrest. If our social order frays sufficiently, restoring it will be the only thing that most people care about in November. Just think of what an act of domestic terrorism would do politically now. Things can change very, very quickly. And to all a concern for basic law and order “racist”, isn’t going to wash.
Trust in institutions has totally broken down. We’ve been under a very precarious quarantine for more than 3 months, which almost the entire medical profession has insisted is necessary. Doctors and public health officials have castigated people on the political Right for protesting this lockdown. People have been unable to be with their loved ones in their last hours of life. They’ve been unable to hold funerals for them. But now we have doctors and public officials by the thousands, signing open letters, making public statements, saying it’s fine to stand shoulder to shoulder with others in the largest protests our nation has ever seen. The degree to which this has undermined confidence in public health messaging is hard to exaggerate. Whatever your politics, this has been just a mortifying piece of hypocrisy. Especially so, because the pandemic has been hitting the African American community hardest of all. How many people will die because of these protests? It’s a totally rational question to ask, but the question itself is taboo now.
So, it seems to me that almost everything appears upside down at the moment.
Before I get into details on police violence, first let me try to close the door to a few misunderstandings.
Let’s start with the proximate cause of all this: The killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. I’ll have more to say about this in a minute, but nothing I say should detract from the following observation: That video was absolutely sickening, and it revealed a degree of police negligence and incompetence and callousness that everyone was right to be horrified by. In particular, the actions of Derek Chauvin, the cop who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, his actions were so reckless and so likely to cause harm that there’s no question he should be prosecuted. And he is being prosecuted. He’s been indicted for 2nd degree murder and manslaughter, and I suspect he will spend many, many years in prison. And, this is not to say “the system is working.” It certainly seems likely that without the cell phone video, and the public outrage, Chauvin might have gotten away with it—to say nothing of the other cops with him, who are also now being prosecuted. If this is true, we clearly need a better mechanism with which to police the police.
So, as I said, I’ll return to this topic, because I think most people are drawing the wrong conclusions from this video, and from videos like it, but let me just echo everyone’s outrage over what happened. This is precisely the kind of police behavior that everyone should find abhorrent.
On the general topic of racism in America, I want to make a few similarly clear, preemptive statements:
Racism is still a problem in American society. No question. And slavery—which was racism’s most evil expression—was this country’s founding sin. We should also add the near-total eradication of the Native Americans to that ledger of evil. Any morally sane person who learns the details of these historical injustices finds them shocking, whatever their race. And the legacy of these crimes—crimes that were perpetrated for centuries—remains a cause for serious moral concern today. I have no doubt about this. And nothing I’m about to say, should suggest otherwise.
And I don’t think it’s an accident that the two groups I just mentioned, African Americans and Native Americans, suffer the worst from inequality in America today. How could the history of racial discrimination in this country not have had lasting effects, given the nature of that history? And if anything good comes out of the current crisis, it will be that we manage to find a new commitment to reducing inequality in all its dimensions. The real debate to have is about how to do this, economically and politically. But the status quo that many of us take for granted to is a betrayal of our values, whether we realize it or not. If it’s not a betrayal or your values now, it will be a betrayal of your values when you become a better person. And if you don’t manage that, it will be a betrayal of your kid’s values when they’re old enough to understand the world they are living in. The difference between being very lucky in our society, and very unlucky, should not be as enormous as it is.
However, the question that interests me, given what has been true of the past and is now true of the present, is what should we do next? What should we do to build a healthier society?
What should we do next? Tomorrow… next week…. Obviously, I don’t have the answers. But I am very worried that many of the things we’re doing now, and seem poised to do, will only make our problems worse. And I’m especially worried that it has become so difficult to talk about this. I’m just trying to have conversations. I’m just trying to figure these things out in real time, with other people. And there is no question that conversation itself has become dangerous.
Think about the politics of this. Endless imagery of people burning and looting independent businesses that were struggling to survive, and seeing the owners of these businesses beaten by mobs, cannot be good for the cause of social justice. Looting and burning businesses, and assaulting their owners, isn’t social justice, or even social protest. It’s crime. And having imagery of these crimes that highlight black involvement circulate endlessly on Fox News and on social media cannot be good for the black community. But it might yet be good for Trump.
And it could well kick open the door to a level of authoritarianism that many of us who have been very worried about Trump barely considered possible. It’s always seemed somewhat paranoid to me to wonder whether we’re living in Weimar Germany. I’ve had many conversations about this. I had Timothy Snyder on the podcast, who’s been worrying about the prospect of tyranny in the US for several years now. I’ve known, in the abstract, that democracies can destroy themselves. But the idea that it could happen here still seemed totally outlandish to me. It doesn’t anymore.
Of course, what we’ve been seeing in the streets isn’t just one thing. Some people are protesting for reasons that I fully defend. They’re outraged by specific instances of police violence, like the killing of George Floyd, and they’re worried about creeping authoritarianism—which we really should be worried about now. And they’re convinced that our politics is broken, because it is broken, and they are deeply concerned that our response to the pandemic and the implosion of our economy will do nothing to address the widening inequality in our society. And they recognize that we have a President who is an incompetent, divisive, conman and a crackpot at a time when we actually need wise leadership.
All of that is hard to put on a sign, but it’s all worth protesting.
However, it seems to me that most protesters are seeing this moment exclusively through the lens of identity politics—and racial politics in particular. And some of them are even celebrating the breakdown of law and order, or at least remaining nonjudgmental about it. And you could see, in the early days of this protest, news anchors take that line, on CNN, for instance. Talking about the history of social protest, “Sometimes it has to be violent, right? What, do you think all of these protests need to be nonviolent?” Those words came out of Chris Cuomo’s mouth, and Don Lemon’s mouth. Many people have been circulating a half quote from Martin Luther King Jr. about riots being “the language of the unheard.” They’re leaving out the part where he made it clear that he believed riots harmed the cause of the black community and helped the cause of racists.
There are now calls to defund and even to abolish the police. This may be psychologically understandable when you’ve spent half your day on Twitter watching videos of cops beating peaceful protesters. Those videos are infuriating. And I’ll have a lot more to say about police violence in a minute. But if you think a society without cops is a society you would want to live in, you have lost your mind. Giving a monopoly on violence to the state is just about the best thing we have ever done as a species. It ranks right up there with keeping our shit out of our food. Having a police force that can deter crime, and solve crimes when they occur, and deliver violent criminals to a functioning justice system, is the necessary precondition for almost anything else of value in society.
We need police reform, of course. There are serious questions to ask about the culture of policing—its hiring practices, training, the militarization of so many police forces, outside oversight, how police departments deal with corruption, the way the police unions keep bad cops on the job, and yes, the problem of racist cops. But the idea that any serious person thinks we can do without the police—or that less trained and less vetted cops will magically be better than more trained and more vetted ones—this just reveals that our conversation on these topics has run completely off the rails. Yes, we should give more resources to community services. We should have psychologists or social workers make first contact with the homeless or the mentally ill. Perhaps we’re giving cops jobs they shouldn’t be doing. All of that makes sense to rethink. But the idea that what we’re witnessing now is a matter of the cops being over-resourced—that we’ve given them too much training, that we’ve made the job too attractive—so that the people we’re recruiting are of too high a quality. That doesn’t make any sense.
What’s been alarming here is that we’re seeing prominent people—in government, in media, in Hollywood, in sports—speak and act as though the breakdown of civil society, and of society itself, is a form of progress and any desire for law enforcement is itself a form of racist oppression. At one point the woman who’s running the City Council in Minneapolis, which just decided to abolish the police force, was asked by a journalist, I believe on CNN, “What do I do if someone’s breaking into my house in the middle of the night? Who do I call?” And her first response to that question was, “You need to recognize what a statement of privilege that question is.” She’s since had to walk that back, because it’s one of the most galling and embarrassing things a public official has ever said, but this is how close the Democratic Party is to sounding completely insane. You cannot say that if someone is breaking into your house, and you’re terrified, and you want a police force that can respond, that fear is a symptom of “white privilege.” This is where Democratic politics goes to die.
Again, what is alarming about this is that this woke analysis of the breakdown of law and order will only encourage an increasingly authoritarian response, as well as the acceptance of that response by many millions of Americans.
If you step back, you will notice that there is a kind of ecstasy of ideological conformity in the air. And it’s destroying institutions. It’s destroying the very institutions we rely on to get our information—universities, the press. The New York Times in recent days, seems to be preparing for a self-immolation in recent days. No one wants to say or even think anything that makes anyone uncomfortable—certainly not anyone who has more wokeness points than they do. It’s just become too dangerous. There are people being fired for tweeting “All Lives Matter.” #AllLivesMatter, in the current environment, is being read as a naked declaration of white supremacy. That is how weird this moment is. A soccer player on the LA Galaxy was fired for something his wife tweeted…
Of course, there are real problems of inequality and despair at the bottom of these protests. People who have never found a secure or satisfying place in the world—or young people who fear they never will—people who have seen their economic prospects simply vanish, and people who have had painful encounters with racism and racist cops—people by the millions are now surrendering themselves to a kind of religious awakening. But like most religious awakenings, this movement is not showing itself eager to make honest contact with reality.
On top of that, we find extraordinarily privileged people, whatever the color of their skin—people who have been living wonderful lives in their gated communities or 5th avenue apartments—and who feel damn guilty about it—they are supporting this movement uncritically, for many reasons. Of course, they care about other people—I’m sure most of them have the same concerns about inequality that I do—but they are also supporting this movement because it promises a perfect expiation of their sins. If you have millions of dollars, and shoot botox into your face, and vacation on St. Bart’s, and you’re liberal—the easiest way to sleep at night is to be as woke as AOC and like every one of her tweets.
The problem isn’t just with the looting, and the arson, and the violence. There are problems with these peaceful protests themselves.
Of course, I’m not questioning anyone’s right to protest. Even our deranged president can pay lip service to that right—which he did as the DC police were violently dispersing a peaceful protest so that he could get his picture taken in front of that church, awkwardly holding a bible, as though he had never held a book in life.
The problem with the protests is that they are animated, to a remarkable degree, by confusion and misinformation. And I’ll explain why I think that’s the case. And, of course, this will be controversial. Needless to say, many people will consider the color of my skin to be disqualifying here. I could have invited any number of great, black intellectuals onto the podcast to make these points for me. But that struck me as a form of cowardice. Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Coleman Hughes, Kmele Foster, these guys might not agree with everything I’m about to say, but any one of them could walk the tightrope I’m now stepping out on far more credibly than I can.
But, you see, that’s part of the problem. The perception that the color of a person’s skin, or even his life experience, matters for this discussion is a pernicious illusion. For the discussion we really need to have, the color of a person’s skin, and even his life experience, simply does not matter. It cannot matter. We have to break this spell that the politics of identity has cast over everything.
As I’ve already acknowledged, there is a legacy of racism in the United States that we’re still struggling to outgrow. That is obvious. There are real racists out there. And there are ways in which racism became institutionalized long ago. Many of you will remember that during the crack epidemic the penalties for crack and powder cocaine were quite different. And this led black drug offenders to be locked up for much longer than white ones. Now, whether the motivation for that policy was consciously racist or not, I don’t know, but it was effectively racist. Nothing I’m about to say entails a denial of these sorts of facts. There just seems to be no question that boys who grow up with their fathers in prison start life with a significant strike against them. So criminal justice reform is absolutely essential.
And I’m not denying that many black people, perhaps most, have interactions with cops, and others in positions of power, or even random strangers, that seem unambiguously racist. Sometimes this is because they are actually in the presence of racism, and perhaps sometimes it only seems that way. I’ve had unpleasant encounters with cops, and customs officers, and TSA screeners, and bureaucrats of every kind, and even with people working in stores or restaurants. People aren’t always nice or ethical. But being white, and living in a majority white society, I’ve never had to worry about whether any of these collisions were the result of racism. And I can well imagine that in some of these situations, had I been black, I would have come away feeling that I had encountered yet another racist in the wild. So I consider myself very lucky to have gone through life not having to think about any of that. Surely that’s one form of white privilege.
So, nothing I’m going to say denies that we should condemn racism—whether interpersonal or institutional—and we should condemn it wherever we find it. But as a society, we simply can’t afford to find and condemn racism where it doesn’t exist. And we should be increasingly aware of the costs of doing that. The more progress we make on issues of race, the less racism there will be to find, and the more likely we’ll find ourselves chasing after its ghost.
The truth is, we have made considerable progress on the problem of racism in America. This isn’t 1920, and it isn’t 1960. We had a two-term black president. We have black congressmen and women. We have black mayors and black chiefs of police. There are major cities, like Detroit and Atlanta, going on their fifth or sixth consecutive black mayor. Having more and more black people in positions of real power, in what is still a majority white society, is progress on the problem of racism. And the truth is, it might not even solve the problem we’re talking about. When Freddy Gray was killed in Baltimore, virtually everyone who could have been held accountable for his death was black. The problem of police misconduct and reform is complicated, as we’re about to see. But obviously, there is more work to do on the problem of racism. And, more important, there is much more work to do to remedy the inequalities in our society that are so correlated with race, and will still be correlated with race, even after the last racist has been driven from our shores.
The question of how much of today’s inequality is due to existing racism—whether racist people or racist policies—is a genuinely difficult question to answer. And to answer it, we need to distinguish the past from the present.
Take wealth inequality, for example: The median white family has a net worth of around $170,000—these data are a couple of years old, but they’re probably pretty close to what’s true now. The median black family has a net worth of around $17,000. So we have a tenfold difference in median wealth. (That’s the median, not the mean: Half of white families are below 170,000 and half above; half of black families are below 17,000 and half above. And we’re talking about wealth here, not income.)
This disparity in wealth persists even for people whose incomes are in the top 10 percent of the income distribution. For whites in the top 10 percent for income, the median net worth is $1.8 million; for blacks it’s around $350,000. There are probably many things that account for this disparity in wealth. It seems that black families that make it to the top of the income distribution fall out of it more easily than white families do. But it’s also undeniable that black families have less intergenerational wealth accumulated through inheritance.
How much of this is inequality due to the legacy of slavery? And how much of it is due to an ensuing century of racist policies? I’m prepared to believe quite a lot. And it strikes me as totally legitimate to think about paying reparations as a possible remedy here. Of course, one will then need to talk about reparations for the Native Americans. And then one wonders where this all ends. And what about blacks who aren’t descended from slaves, but who still suffered the consequences of racism in the US? In listening to people like John McWhorter and Coleman Hughes discuss this topic, I’m inclined to think that reparations is probably unworkable as a policy. But the truth is that I’m genuinely unsure about this.
Whatever we decide about the specific burdens of the past, we have to ask, how much of current wealth inequality is due to existing racism and to existing policies that make it harder for black families to build wealth? And the only way to get answers to those questions is to have a dispassionate discussion about facts.
The problem with the social activism we are now seeing—what John McWhorter has called “the new religion of anti-Racism”—is that it finds racism nearly everywhere, even where it manifestly does not exist. And this is incredibly damaging to the cause of achieving real equality in our society. It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the evil and injustice of slavery and its aftermath. But it is possible to exaggerate how much racism currently exists at an Ivy League university, or in Silicon Valley, or at the Oscars. And those exaggerations are toxic—and, perversely, they may produce more real racism. It seems to me that false claims of victimhood can diminish the social stature of any group, even a group that has a long history of real victimization.
The imprecision here—the bad-faith arguments, the double standards, the goal-post shifting, the idiotic opinion pieces in the New York Times, the defenestrations on social media, the general hysteria that the cult of wokeness has produced—I think this is all extremely harmful to civil society, and to effective liberal politics, and to the welfare of African Americans.
So, with that as preamble, let’s return to the tragic death of George Floyd.
As I said, I believe that any sane person who watches that video will feel that they have witnessed a totally unjustified killing. So, people of any race, are right to be horrified by what happened there. But now I want to ask a few questions, and I want us to try to consider them dispassionately. And I really want you to watch your mind while you do this. There are very likely to be few tripwires installed there, and I’m about to hit them. So just do your best to remain calm.
Does the killing of George Floyd prove that we have a problem of racism in the United States?
Does it even suggest that we have a problem of racism in the United States?
In other words, do we have reason to believe that, had Floyd been white, he wouldn’t have died in a similar way?
Do the dozen or so other videos that have emerged in recent years, of black men being killed by cops, do they prove, or even suggest, that there is an epidemic of lethal police violence directed especially at black men and that this violence is motivated by racism?
Most people seem to think that the answers to these questions are so obvious that to even pose them as I just did is obscene. The answer is YES, and it’s a yes that now needs to be shouted in the streets.
The problem, however, is that if you take even 5 minutes to look at the data on crime and police violence, the answer appears to be “no,” in every case, albeit with one important caveat. I’m not talking about how the police behaved in 1970 or even 1990. But in the last 25 years, violent crime has come down significantly in the US, and so has the police use of deadly force. And as you’re about to see, the police used more deadly force against white people—both in absolute numbers, and in terms of their contribution to crime and violence in our society. But the public perception is, of course, completely different.
In a city like Los Angeles, 2019 was a 30-year low for police shootings. Think about that…. Do the people who were protesting in Los Angeles, peacefully and violently, do the people who were ransacking and burning businesses by the hundreds—in many cases, businesses that will not return to their neighborhoods—do the people who caused so much damage to the city, that certain neighborhoods, ironically the neighborhoods that are disproportionately black, will take years, probably decades to recover, do the celebrities who supported them, and even bailed them out of jail—do any of these people know that 2019 was the 30-year low for police shootings in Los Angeles?
Before I step out further over the abyss here, let me reiterate: Many of you are going to feel a visceral negative reaction to what I’m about to say. You’re not going to like the way it sounds. You’re especially not going to like the way it sounds coming from a white guy. This feeling of not liking, this feeling of outrage, this feeling of disgust—this feeling of “Sam, what the fuck is wrong with you, why are you even touching this topic?”—this feeling isn’t an argument. It isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the basis for your believing anything to be true or false about the world.
Your capacity to be offended isn’t something that I or anyone else needs to respect. Your capacity to be offended isn’t something that you should respect. In fact, it is something that you should be on your guard for. Perhaps more than any other property of your mind, this feeling can mislead you.
If you care about justice—and you absolutely should—you should care about facts and the ability to discuss them openly. Justice requires contact with reality. It simply isn’t the case—it cannot be the case—that the most pressing claims on our sense of justice need come from those who claim to be the most offended by conversation itself.
So, I’m going to speak the language of facts right now, in so far as we know them, all the while knowing that these facts run very much counter to most people’s assumptions. Many of the things you think you know about crime and violence in our society are almost certainly wrong. And that should matter to you.
So just take a moment and think this through with me.
How many people are killed each year in America by cops? If you don’t know, guess. See if you have any intuitions for these numbers. Because your intuitions are determining how you interpret horrific videos of the sort we saw coming out of Minneapolis.
The answer for many years running is about 1000. One thousand people are killed by cops in America each year. There are about 50 to 60 million encounters between civilians and cops each year, and about 10 million arrests. That’s down from a high of over 14 million arrests annually throughout the 1990’s. So, of the 10 million occasions where a person attracts the attention of the police, and the police decide to make an arrest, about 1000 of those people die as a result. (I’m sure a few people get killed even when no arrest was attempted, but that has to be a truly tiny number.) So, without knowing anything else about the situation, if the cops decide to arrest you, it would be reasonable to think that your chance of dying is around 1/10,000. Of course, in the United States, it’s higher than it is in other countries. So I’m not saying that this number is acceptable. But it is what it is for a reason, as we’re about to see.
Now, there are a few generic things I’d like to point here before we get further into the data. They should be uncontroversial.
First, it’s almost certainly the case that of these 1000 officer-caused deaths each year, some are entirely justified—it may even be true that most are entirely justified—and some are entirely unjustified, and some are much harder to judge. And that will be true next year. And the year after that.
Of the unjustified killings, there are vast differences between them. Many have nothing in common but for the fact that a cop killed someone unnecessarily. It might have been a terrible misunderstanding, or incompetence, or just bad luck, and in certain cases it could be a cop who decides to murder someone because he’s become enraged, or he’s just a psychopath. And it is certainly possible that racial bias accounts for some number of these unjustified killings.
Another point that should be uncontroversial—but may sound a little tone-deaf in the current environment, where we’ve inundated with videos of police violence in response to these protests. But this has to be acknowledged whenever we’re discussing this topic: Cops have a very hard job. In fact, in the current environment, they have an almost impossible job.
If you’re making 10 million arrests every year, some number of people will decide not to cooperate. There can be many reasons for this. A person could be mentally ill, or drunk, or on drugs. Of course, rather often the person is an actual criminal who doesn’t want to be arrested.
Among innocent people, and perhaps this getting more common these days, a person might feel that resisting arrest is the right thing to do, ethically or politically or as a matter of affirming his identity. After all, put yourself in his shoes, he did nothing wrong. Why are the cops arresting him? I don’t know if we have data on the numbers of people who resist arrest by race. But I can well imagine that if it’s common for African Americans to believe that the only reason they have been singled out for arrest is due to racism on the part of the police, that could lead to greater levels of non-compliance. Which seems very likely to lead to more unnecessary injury and death. This is certainly one reason why it is wise to have the racial composition of a police force mirror that of the community it’s policing. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that this will reduce lethal violence from the side of the police. In fact, the evidence we have suggests that black and Hispanic cops are more likely to shoot black and Hispanic suspects than white cops are. But it would surely change the perception of the community that racism is a likely explanation for police behavior, which itself might reduce conflict.
When a cop goes hands on a person in an attempt to control his movements or make an arrest, that person’s resistance poses a problem that most people don’t understand. If you haven’t studied this topic. If you don’t know what it physically takes to restrain and immobilize a non-compliant person who may be bigger and stronger than you are, and if you haven’t thought through the implications of having a gun on your belt while attempting to do that—a gun that can be grabbed and used against you, or against a member of the public—then your intuitions about what makes sense here, tactically and ethically, are very likely to be bad.
If you haven’t trained with firearms under stress. If you don’t know how suddenly situations can change. If you haven’t experienced how quickly another person can close the distance on you, and how little time you have to decide to draw your weapon. If you don’t know how hard it is to shoot a moving target, or even a stationary one, when your heart is beating out of your chest. You very likely have totally unreasonable ideas about what we can expect from cops in situations like these. [VIDEO, VIDEO, VIDEO]
And there is another fact that looms over all this like the angel of Death, literally: Most cops do not get the training they need. They don’t get the hand-to-hand training they need—they don’t have good skills to subdue people without harming them. All you need to do is watch YouTube videos of botched arrests to see this. The martial arts community stands in perpetual astonishment at the kinds of things cops do and fail to do once they start fighting with suspects. Cops also don’t get the firearms training they need. Of course, there are elite units in many police departments, but most cops do not have the training they need to do the job they’re being asked to do.
It is also true, no doubt, that some cops are racist bullies. And there are corrupt police departments that cover for these guys, and cover up police misconduct generally, whether it was borne of racism or not.
But the truth is that even if we got rid of all bad cops, which we absolutely should do, and there were only good people left, and we got all these good people the best possible training, and we gave them the best culture in which to think about their role in society, and we gave them the best methods for de-escalating potentially violent situations—which we absolutely must do—and we scrubbed all the dumb laws from our books, so that when cops were required to enforce the law, they were only risking their lives and the lives of civilians for reasons that we deem necessary and just—so the war on drugs is obviously over—even under these conditions of perfect progress, we are still guaranteed to have some number of cases each year where a cop kills a civilian in a way that is totally unjustified, and therefore tragic. Every year, there will be some number of families who will be able to say that the cops killed their son or daughter, or father or mother, or brother or sister. And videos of these killings will occasionally surface, and they will be horrific. This seems guaranteed to happen.
So, while we need to make all these improvements, we still need to understand that there are very likely always to going to be videos of cops doing something inexplicable, or inexplicably stupid, that results in an innocent person’s death, or a not-so-innocent person’s death. And sometimes the cop will be white and the victim will be black. We have 10 million arrests each year. And we now live in a panopticon where practically everything is videotaped.
I’m about to get further into the details of what we know about police violence, but I want to just put it to you now: If we’re going to let the health of race relations in this country, or the relationship between the community and the police, depend on whether we ever see a terrible video of police misconduct again, the project of healing these wounds in our society is doomed.
About a week into these protests I heard Van Jones on CNN say, “If we see one more video of a cop brutalizing a black man, this country could go over the edge.” He said this, not as indication of how dangerously inflamed people have become. He seemed to be saying it as an ultimatum to the police. With 10 million arrests a year, arrests that have to take place in the most highly armed society in the developed world, I hope you understand how unreasonable that ultimatum is.
We have to put these videos into context. And we have to acknowledge how different they are from one another. Some of them are easy to interpret. But some are quite obviously being interpreted incorrectly by most people—especially by activists. And there are a range of cases—some have video associated with them and some don’t—that are now part of a litany of anti-racist outrage, and the names of the dead are intoned as though they were all evidence of the same injustice. And yet, they are not.
Walter Scott was stopped for a broken taillight and got out of his car and tried to flee. There might have been a brief struggle over the officer’s taser, that part of the video isn’t clear. But what is clear is that he was shot in the back multiple times as he was running away. That was insane. There was zero reason for the officer to feel that his life was under threat at the point he opened fire. And for that unjustified shooting, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. I’m not sure that’s long enough. That seemed like straight-up murder.
The George Floyd video, while even more disturbing to watch, is harder to interpret. I don’t know anything about Derek Chauvin, the cop who knelt on his neck. It’s quite possible that he’s a terrible person who should have never been a cop. He seems to have a significant number of complaints against him—though, as far as I know, the details of those complaints haven’t been released. And he might be a racist on top of being a bad cop. Or he might be a guy who was totally in over his head and thought you could restrain someone indefinitely by keeping a knee on their neck indefinitely. I don’t know. I’m sure more facts will come out. But whoever he is, I find it very unlikely that he was intending to kill George Floyd. Think about it. He was surrounded by irate witnesses and being filmed. Unless he was aspiring to become the most notorious murderer in human history, it seems very unlikely that he was intending to commit murder in that moment. It’s possible, of course. But it doesn’t seem the likeliest explanation for his behavior.
What I believe we saw on that video was the result of a tragic level of negligence and poor training on the part of those cops. Or terrible recruitment—it’s possible that none of these guys should have ever been cops. I think for one of them, it was only his fourth day on the job. Just imagine that. Just imagine all things you don’t know as a new cop. It could also be a function of bad luck in terms of Floyd’s underlying health. It’s been reported that he was complaining of being unable to breath before Chauvin pinned him with his knee. The knee on his neck might not have been the only thing that caused his death. It could have also been the weight of the other officer pinning him down.
This is almost certainly what happened in the cast of Eric Garner. Half the people on earth believe they witnessed a cop choke Eric Garner to death in that video. That does not appear to be what happened. When Eric Garner is saying “I can’t breathe” he’s not being choked. He’s being held down on the pavement by several officers. Being forced down on your stomach under the weight of several people can kill a person, especially someone with lung or heart disease. In the case of Eric Garner, it is absolutely clear that the cop who briefly attempted to choke him was no longer choking him. If you doubt that, watch the video again.
And if you are recoiling now from my interpretation of these videos, you really should watch the killing of Tony Timpa. It’s also terribly disturbing, but it removes the variable of race and it removes any implication of intent to harm on the part of the cops about as clearly as you could ask. It really is worth watching as a corrective to our natural interpretation of these other videos.
Tony Timpa was a white man in Dallas, who was suffering some mental health emergency and cocaine intoxication. And he actually called 911 himself. What we see is the bodycam footage from the police, which shows that he was already in handcuffs when they arrived—a security guard had cuffed him. And then the cops take over, and they restrain Timpa on the ground, by rolling him onto a stomach and putting their weight on him, very much like in the case of Eric Garner. And they keep their weight on him—one cop has a knee on his upper back, which is definitely much less aggressive than a knee on the neck—but they crush the life out of him all the same, over the course of 13 minutes. He’s not being choked. The cops are not being rough. There’s no animus between them and Timpa. It was not a hostile arrest. They clearly believe that they’re responding to a mental health emergency. But they keep him down on his belly, under their weight, and they’re cracking jokes as he loses consciousness. Now, your knowledge that he’s going to be dead by the end of this video, make their jokes seem pretty callous. But this was about as benign an imposition of force by cops as you’re going to see. The crucial insight you will have watching this video, is that the officers not only had no intent to kill Tony Timpa, they don’t take his pleading seriously because they have no doubt that what they’re doing is perfectly safe—perfectly within protocol. They’ve probably done this hundreds of times before.
If you watch that video—and, again, fair warning, it is disturbing—but imagine how disturbing it would have been to our society if Tony Timpa had been black. If the only thing you changed about the video was the color of Timpa’s skin, then that video would have detonated like a nuclear bomb in our society, exactly as the George Floyd video did. In fact, in one way it is worse, or would have been perceived to be worse. I mean, just imagine white cops telling jokes as they crushed the life out of a black Tony Timpa… Given the nature of our conversation about violence, given the way we perceive videos of this kind, there is no way that people would have seen that as anything other than a lynching. And yet, it would not have been a lynching.
Now, I obviously have no idea what was in the minds of cops in Minneapolis. And perhaps we’ll learn at trial. Perhaps a tape of Chauvin using the N-word in another context will surface, bringing in a credible allegation of racism. It seems to me that Chauvin is going to have a very hard time making sense of his actions. But most people who saw that video believe they have seen, with their own eyes, beyond any possibility of doubt, a racist cop intentionally murder an innocent man. That’s not what the video necessarily shows.
As I said, these videos can be hard to interpret, even while seeming very easy to interpret. And these cases, whether we have associated video or not, are very different. Michael Brown is reported to have punched a cop in the face and attempted to get his gun. As far as I know, there’s no video of that encounter. But, if true, that is an entirely different situation. If you’re attacking a cop, trying to get his gun, that is a life and death struggle that almost by definition for the cop, and it most cases justifies the use of lethal force. And honestly, it seems that no one within a thousand miles of Black Lives Matter is willing to make these distinctions. An attitude of anti-racist moral outrage is not the best lens through which to interpret evidence of police misconduct.
I’ve seen many videos of people getting arrested. And I’ve seen the outraged public reaction to what appears to be inappropriate use of force by the cops. One overwhelming fact that comes through is that people, whatever the color of their skin, don’t understand how to behave around cops so as to keep themselves safe. People have to stop resisting arrest. This may seem obvious, but judging from most of these videos, and from the public reaction to them, this must be a totally arcane piece of information. When a cop wants to take you into custody, you don’t get to decide whether or not you should be arrested. When a cop wants to take you into custody, for whatever reason, it’s not a negotiation. And if you turn it into a wrestling match, you’re very likely to get injured or killed.
This is a point I once belabored in a podcast with Glenn Loury, and it became essentially a public service announcement. And I’ve gone back and listened to those comments, and I want to repeat them here. This is something that everyone really needs to understand. And it’s something that Black Lives Matter should be teaching explicitly: If you put your hands on a cop—if you start wrestling with a cop, or grabbing him because he’s arresting your friend, or pushing him, or striking him, or using your hands in way that can possibly be interpreted as your reaching for a gun—you are likely to get shot in the United States, whatever the color of your skin.
As I said, when you’re with a cop, there is always a gun out in the open. And any physical struggle has to be perceived by him as a fight for the gun. A cop doesn’t know what you’re going to do if you overpower him, so he has to assume the worst. Most cops are not confident in their ability to physically control a person without shooting him—for good reason, because they’re not well trained to do that, and they’re continually confronting people who are bigger, or younger, or more athletic, or more aggressive than they are. Cops are not superheroes. They’re ordinary people with insufficient training, and once things turn physical they cannot afford to give a person who is now assaulting a police officer the benefit of the doubt.
This is something that most people seem totally confused about. If they see a video of somebody trying to punch a cop in the face and the person’s unarmed, many people think the cop should just punch back, and any use of deadly force would be totally disproportionate. But that’s not how violence works. It’s not the cop’s job to be the best bare-knuckled boxer on Earth so he doesn’t have to use his gun. A cop can’t risk getting repeatedly hit in the face and knocked out, because there’s always a gun in play. This is the cop’s perception of the world, and it’s a justifiable one, given the dynamics of human violence.
You might think cops shouldn’t carry guns. Why can’t we just be like England? That’s a point that can be debated. But it requires considerable thought in a country where there are over 300 million guns on the street. The United States is not England.
Again, really focus on what is happening when a cop is attempting to arrest a person. It’s not up to you to decide whether or not you should be arrested. Does it matter that you know you didn’t do anything wrong? No. And how could that fact be effectively communicated in the moment by your not following police commands? I’m going to ask that again: How could the fact that you’re innocent, that you’re not a threat to cop, that you’re not about to suddenly attack him or produce a weapon of your own, how could those things be effectively communicated at the moment he’s attempting to arrest you by your resisting arrest?
Unless you called the cops yourself, you never know what situation you’re in. If I’m walking down the street, I don’t know if the cop who is approaching me didn’t get a call that some guy who looks like Ben Stiller just committed an armed robbery. I know I didn’t do anything, but I don’t know what’s in the cop’s head. The time to find out what’s going on—the time to complain about racist cops, the time to yell at them and tell them they’re all going to get fired for their stupidity and misconduct—is after cooperating, at the police station, in the presence of a lawyer, preferably. But to not comply in the heat of the moment, when a guy with the gun is issuing commands—this raises your risk astronomically, and it’s something that most people, it seems, just do not intuitively understand, even when they’re not in the heat of the moment themselves, but just watching video of other people getting arrested.
Ok. End of public-service announcement.
The main problem with using individual cases, where black men and women have been killed by cops, to conclude that there is an epidemic of racist police violence in our society, is that you can find nearly identical cases of white suspects being killed by cops, and there are actually more of them.
In 2016, John McWhorter wrote a piece in Time Magazine about this.
Here’s a snippet of what he wrote:
“The heart of the indignation over these murders is a conviction that racist bias plays a decisive part in these encounters. That has seemed plausible to me, and I have recently challenged those who disagree to present a list of white people killed within the past few years under circumstances similar to those that so enrage us in cases such as what happened to Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Walter Scott, Sam Debose, and others.”
So, McWhorter issued that challenge, as he said, and he was presented with the cases [VIDEO, VIDEO, VIDEO]. But there’s no song about these people, admonishing us to say their names. And the list of white names is longer, and I don’t know any of them, other than Tony Timpa. I know the black names. In addition to the ones I just read from McWhorter’s article, I know the names of Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, and Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile, and now, of course, I know the name of George Floyd. And I’m aware of many of the details of these cases where black men and women have been killed by cops. I know the name of Breonna Taylor. I can’t name a single white person killed by cops in circumstances like these—other than Timpa—and I just read McWhorter’s article where he lists many of them.
So, this is also a distortion in the media. The media is not showing us videos of white people being killed by cops; activists are not demanding that they do this. I’m sure white supremacists talk about this stuff a lot, who knows? But in terms of the story we’re telling ourselves in the mainstream, we are not actually talking about the data on lethal police violence.
So back to the data: Again, cops kill around 1000 people every year in the United States. About 25 percent are black. About 50 percent are white. The data on police homicide are all over the place. The federal government does not have a single repository for data of this kind. But they have been pretty carefully tracked by outside sources, like the Washington Post, for the last 5 years. These ratios appear stable over time. Again, many of these killings are justifiable, we’re talking about career criminals who are often armed and, in many cases, trying to kill the cops. Those aren’t the cases we’re worried about. We’re worried about the unjustifiable homicides.
Now, some people will think that these numbers still represent an outrageous injustice. Afterall, African Americans are only 13 percent of the population. So, at most, they should be 13 percent of the victims of police violence, not 25 percent. Any departure from the baseline population must be due to racism.
Ok. Well, that sounds plausible, but consider a few more facts:
If you have 13 percent of the population responsible for 50 percent of the murders—and in some cities committing 2/3rds of all violent crime—what percent of police attention should it attract? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure it’s not just 13 percent. Given that the overwhelming majority of their victims are black, I’m pretty sure that most black people wouldn’t set the dial at 13 percent either.
And here we arrive at the core of the problem. The story of crime in America is overwhelmingly the story of black-on-black crime. It is also, in part, a story of black-on-white crime. For more than a generation, crime in America really hasn’t been a story of much white-on-black crime. [Some listeners mistook my meaning here. I’m not denying that most violent crime is intraracial. So, it’s true that most white homicide victims are killed by white offenders. Per capita, however, the white crime rate is much lower than the black crime rate. And there is more black-on-white crime than white-on-black crime.—SH]
The murder rate has come down steadily since the early 1990’s, with only minor upticks. But, nationwide, blacks are still 6 times more likely to get murdered than whites, and in some cities their risk is double that. And around 95 percent of the murders are committed by members of the African American community. [While reported in 2015, these data were more than a decade old. Looking at more recent data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, the number appears to be closer to 90 percent.—SH]
The weekend these protests and riots were kicking off nationwide—when our entire country seemed to be tearing itself apart over a perceived epidemic of racist police violence against the black community, 92 people were shot, and 27 killed, in Chicago alone—one city. This is almost entirely a story of black men killing members of their own community. And this is far more representative of the kind of violence that the black community needs to worry about. And, ironically, it’s clear that one remedy for this violence is, or would be, effective policing.
These are simply the facts of crime in our society as we best understand them. And the police have to figure out how to respond to these facts, professionally and ethically. The question is, are they doing that? And, obviously, there’s considerable doubt that they’re doing that, professionally and ethically.
Roland Fryer, the Harvard economist who’s work I discussed on the podcast with Glenn Loury, studied police encounters involving black and white suspects and the use of force.
His paper is titled, this from 2016, “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force.”
Fryer is black, and he went into this research with the expectation that the data would confirm that there’s an epidemic of lethal police violence directed at black men. But he didn’t find that. However, he did find support for the suspicion that black people suffer more nonlethal violence at the hands of cops than whites do.
So let’s look at this.
The study examined data from 10 major police departments, in Texas, Florida and California. Generally, Fryer found that there is 25 percent greater likelihood that the police would go hands on black suspects than white ones—cuffing them, or forcing them to ground, or using other non-lethal force.
Specifically, in New York City, in encounters where white and black citizens were matched for other characteristics, they found that:
This is more or less the full continuum of violence short of using lethal force. And it seems, from the data we have, that blacks receive more of it than whites. What accounts for this disparity? Racism? Maybe. However, as I said, it’s inconvenient to note that other data suggest that black cops and Hispanic cops are more likely to shoot black and Hispanic suspects than white cops are. I’m not sure how an ambient level of racism explains that.
Are there other explanations? Well, again, could it be that blacks are less cooperative with the police. If so, that’s worth understanding. A culture of resisting arrest would be a very bad thing to cultivate, given that the only response to such resistance is for the police to increase their use of force.
Whatever is true here is something we should want to understand. And it’s all too easy to see how an increased number of encounters with cops, due to their policing in the highest crime neighborhoods, which are disproportionately black, and an increased number of traffic stops in those neighborhoods, and an increased propensity for cops to go hands-on these suspects, with or without an arrest, for whatever reason—it’s easy to see how all of this could be the basis for a perception of racism, whether or not racism is the underlying motivation.
It is totally humiliating to be arrested or manhandled by a cop. And, given the level of crime in the black community, a disproportionate number of innocent black men seem guaranteed to have this experience. It’s totally understandable that this would make them bitter and mistrustful of the police. This is another vicious circle that we must find some way to interrupt.
But Fryer also found that black suspects are around 25 percent less likely to be shot than white suspects are. And in the most egregious situations, where officers were not first attacked, but nevertheless fired their weapons at a suspect, they were more likely to do this when the suspect was white.
Again, the data are incomplete. This doesn’t not cover every city in the country. And a larger study tomorrow might paint a different picture. But, as far as I know, the best data we have suggest that for, whatever reason, whites are more likely to be killed by cops once an arrest is attempted. And a more recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by David Johnson and colleagues found similar results. And it is simply undeniable that more whites are killed by cops each year, both in absolute numbers and in proportion to their contributions to crime and violence in our society.
Can you hear how these facts should be grinding in that well-oiled machine of woke outrage? Our society is in serious trouble now. We are being crushed under the weight of a global pandemic and our response to it has been totally inept. On top of that, we’re being squeezed by the growing pressure of what might become a full-on economic depression. And the streets are now filled with people who imagine, on the basis of seeing some horrific videos, that there is an epidemic of racist cops murdering African Americans. Look at what this belief is doing to our politics. And these videos will keep coming. And the truth is they could probably be matched 2 for 1 with videos of white people being killed by cops. What percentage of people protesting understand that the disparity runs this way? In light of the belief that the disparity must run the other way, people are now quite happy to risk getting beaten and arrested by cops themselves, and to even loot and burn businesses. And most people and institutions are supporting this civil unrest from the sidelines, because they too imagine that cops are killing black people in extraordinary numbers. And all of this is calling forth an authoritarian response from Trump—and leading to more examples of police violence caught on video.
As I hope I’ve made clear, we need police reform—there’s no question about this. And some of the recent footage of the police attacking peaceful protests is outrageous. Nothing I just said should signify that I’m unaware of that. From what I’ve seen—and by the time I release this podcast, the character of all this might have changed—but, from what I’ve seen, the police were dangerously passive in the face of looting and real crime, at least in the beginning. In many cities, they just stood and watched society unravel. And then they were far too aggressive in the face of genuinely peaceful protests. This is a terrible combination. It is the worst combination. There’s no better way to increase cynicism and anger and fear, on all sides.
But racializing how we speak about the problem of police violence, where race isn’t actually the relevant variable—again, think of Tony Timpa— this has highly negative effects. First, it keeps us from talking about the real problems with police tactics. For instance, we had the recent case of Breonna Taylor who was killed in a so-called “no knock” raid of her home. As occasionally happens, in this carnival of moral error we call “the war on drugs,” the police had the wrong address, and they kicked in the wrong door. And they wound up killing a totally innocent woman. But this had nothing to do with race. The problem is not, as some commentators have alleged, that it’s not safe to be “sleeping while black.” The problem is that these no-knock raids are an obscenely dangerous way of enforcing despicably stupid laws. White people die under precisely these same circumstances, and very likely in greater numbers (I don’t have data specifically on no-knock raids, but we can assume that the ratio is probably conserved here).
Think about how crazy this policy is in a nation where gun ownership is so widespread. If someone kicks in your door in the middle of the night, and you’re a gun owner, of course you’re going to reach for your gun. That’s why you have a gun in the first place. The fact that people bearing down on you and your family out of the darkness might have yelled “police” (or might have not yelled “police”; it’s alleged in some of these cases that they don’t yell anything)—the fact that someone yells “police” isn’t necessarily convincing. Anyone can yell “police.” And, again, think of the psychology of this: If the police have the wrong house, and you know there is no reason on earth that real cops would take an interest in you, especially in the middle of the night, because you haven’t done anything (you’re not the guy running a meth lab)—and now you’re reaching for your gun in the dark—of course, someone is likely to get killed. This is not a racial issue. It’s a terrible policy.
Unfortunately, the process of police reform isn’t straightforward—and it is made massively more complicated by what’s happening now. Yes, we will be urging police reform in a very big way now, that much seems clear. But Roland Fryer has also shown that investigations of the cops, in a climate where viral videos and racial politics are operating, have dramatic effects, many of which are negative.
He studied the aftermath of the investigations into police misconduct that followed the killings Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, and Lequan McDonald, and found that, for reasons that seem pretty easy to intuit, proactive police contact with civilians decreases drastically, sometimes by as much 100 percent, once these investigations get started. This is now called “The Ferguson Effect.” The police still answer 911 calls, but they don’t investigate suspicious activity in the same way. They don’t want to wind up on YouTube. And when they alter their behavior like this, homicides go up. Fryer estimates that the effects of these few investigations translated into 1000 extra homicides, and almost 40,000 more felonies, over the next 24 months in the US. And, of course, most of the victims of those crimes were black. One shudders to imagine the size of the Ferguson effect we’re about to see nationwide… I’m sure the morale among cops has never been lower. I think it’s almost guaranteed that cops by the thousands will be leaving the force. And it will be much more difficult to recruit good people.
Who is going to want to be a cop now? Who could be idealist about occupying that role in society? It seems to me that the population of people who will become cops now will be more or less indistinguishable from the population of people who become prison guards. I’m pretty sure there’s a difference there, and I think we’re likely to see that difference expressed in the future. It’s a grim picture, unless we do something very creative here.
So there’s a real question about how we can reform police departments, and get rid of bad cops, without negatively impacting the performance of good cops? That’s a riddle we have to solve—or at least we have to understand what the trade-offs are here.
Why is all of this happening now? Police killings of civilians have gone way down. And they are rare events. They are 1/10,000 level events, if measured by arrests. 1/50-60,000 level events if measured by police encounters. And the number of unarmed people who are killed is smaller still. Around 50 last year, again, more were white than black. And not all unarmed victims are innocent. Some get killed in the act of attacking the cops. [EXAMPLE, EXAMPLE, EXAMPLE]
Again, the data don’t tell a clean story, or the whole story. I see no reason to doubt that blacks get more attention from the cops—though, honestly, given the distribution of crime in our society, I don’t know what the alternative to that would be. And once the cops get involved, blacks are more likely to get roughed up, which is bad. But, again, it simply isn’t clear that racism is the cause. And contrary to everyone’s expectations, whites seem more likely to get killed by cops. Actually, one factor seems to be that whites are 7 times more likely to commit “suicide by cop” (and 3 times more likely to commit suicide generally). What’s going on there? Who knows?
There’s a lot we don’t understand about these data. But ask yourself, would our society seem less racist if the disparity ran the other way? Is less physical contact, but a greater likelihood of getting shot and killed a form of white privilege? Is a higher level of suicide by cop, and suicide generally, a form of white privilege? We have a problem here that, read either way, you can tell a starkly racist narrative.
We need ethical, professional policing, of course. But the places with the highest crime in our society need the most of it. Is there any doubt about that? In a city like Milwaukee, blacks are 12 times more likely to get murdered than whites [Not sure where I came by this number, probably a lecture or podcast. It appears the rate is closer to 20 times more likely and 22 times more likely in Wisconsin as a whole—SH], again, they are being killed by other African Americans, nearly 100 percent of the time. I think the lowest figure I’ve seen is 93 percent of the time. [As noted above, more recent data suggest that it’s closer to 90 percent]. What should the police do about this? And what are they likely to do now that our entire country has been convulsed over one horrific case of police misconduct?
We need to lower the temperature on this conversation, and many other conversations, and understand what is actually happening in our society.
But instead of doing this, we now have a whole generation of social activists who seem eager to play a game of chicken with the forces of chaos. Everything I said about the problem of inequality and the need for reform stands. But I think that what we are witnessing in our streets, and on social media, and even in the mainstream press, is a version of mass hysteria. And the next horrific video of a black person being killed by cops won’t be evidence to the contrary. And there will be another video. There are 10 million arrests every year. There will always be another video.
And the media has turned these videos into a form of political pornography. And this has deranged us. We’re now unable to speak or even think about facts. The media has been poisoned by bad incentives, in this regard, and social media doubly so.
In the mainstream of this protest movement, it’s very common to hear that the only problem with what is happening in our streets, apart from what the cops are doing, is that some criminal behavior at the margins—a little bit of looting, a little bit of violence—has distracted us from an otherwise necessary and inspiring response to an epidemic of racism. Most people in the media have taken exactly this line. People like Anderson Cooper on CNN or the editorial page of the New York Times or public figures like President Obama or Vice President Biden. The most prominent liberal voices believe that the protests themselves make perfect moral and political sense, and that movements like Black Lives Matter are guaranteed to be on the right side of history. How could anyone who is concerned about inequality and injustice in our society see things any other way? How could anyone who isn’t himself racist not support Black Lives Matter?
But, of course, there’s a difference between slogans and reality. There’s a difference between the branding of a movement and its actual aims. And this can be genuinely confusing. That’s why propaganda works. For instance, many people assume there’s nothing wrong with ANTIFA, because this group of total maniacs has branded itself as “anti-fascist.” What could be wrong with being anti-fascist? Are you pro fascism?
There’s a similar problem with Black Lives Matter—though, happily, unlike ANTIFA, Black Lives Matter actually seems committed to peaceful protest, which is hugely important. So the problem I’m discussing is more ideological, and it’s much bigger than Black Lives Matter—though BLM is its most visible symbol of this movement. The wider issue is that we are in the midst of a public hysteria and moral panic. And it has been made possible by a near total unwillingness, particularly on the Left, among people who value their careers and their livelihoods and their reputations, and fear being hounded into oblivion online—this is nearly everyone left-of-center politically. People are simply refusing to speak honestly about the problem of race and racism in America.
We are making ourselves sick. We are damaging our society. And by protesting the wrong thing, even the slightly wrong thing, and unleashing an explosion of cynical criminality in the process—looting that doesn’t even have the pretense of protest—the Left is empowering Trump, whatever the polls currently show. And if we are worried about Trump’s authoritarian ambitions, as I think we really should be, this is important to understand. He recently had what looked like paramilitary troops guarding the White House. I don’t know if we found out who those guys actually were, but that was genuinely alarming. But how are Democrats calls to “abolish the police” going to play to half the country that just watched so many cities get looted? We have to vote Trump out of office and restore the integrity of our institutions. And we have to make the political case for major reforms to deal with the problem of inequality—a problem which affects the black community most of all.
We need police reform; we need criminal justice reform; we need tax reform; we need health care reform; we need environmental reform—we need all of these things and more. And to be just, these policies will need to reduce the inequality in our society. If we did this, African Americans would benefit, perhaps more than any other group. But it’s not at all clear that progress along these dimensions primarily entails us finding and eradicating more racism in our society.
Just ask yourself, what would real progress on the problem of racism look like? What would utter progress look like?
Here’s what I think it would look like: More and more people (and ultimately all people) would care less and less (and ultimately not at all) about race. As I’ve said before in various places, skin color would become like hair color in its political and moral significance—which is to say that it would have none.
Now, maybe you don’t agree with that aspiration. Maybe you think that tribalism based on skin color can’t be outgrown or shouldn’t be outgrown. Well, if you think that, I’m afraid I don’t know what to say to you. It’s not that there’s nothing to say, it’s just there is so much we disagree about, morally and politically, that I don’t know where to begin. So that debate, if it can even be had, will have to be left for another time.
For the purposes of this conversation, I have to assume that you agree with me about the goal here, which is to say that you share the hope that there will come a time where the color of a person’s skin really doesn’t matter. What would that be like?
Well, how many blondes got into Harvard this year? Does anyone know? What percentage of the police in San Diego are brunette? Do we have enough red heads in senior management in our Fortune 500 companies? No one is asking these questions, and there is a reason for that. No one cares. And we are right not to care.
Imagine a world in which people cared about hair color to the degree that we currently care—or seem to care, or imagine that others care, or allege that they secretly care—about skin color. Imagine a world in which discrimination by hair color was a thing, and it took centuries to overcome, and it remains a persistent source of private pain and public grievance throughout society, even where it no longer exists. What an insane misuse of human energy that would be. What an absolute catastrophe.
The analogy isn’t perfect, for a variety of reasons, but it’s good enough for us to understand what life would be like if the spell of racism and anti-racism were truly broken. The future we want is not one in which we have all become passionate anti-racists. It’s not a future in which we are forever on our guard against the slightest insult—the bad joke, the awkward compliment, the tweet that didn’t age well. We want to get to a world in which skin color and other superficial characteristics of a person become morally and politically irrelevant. And if you don’t agree with that, what did you think Martin Luther King Jr was talking about?
And, finally, if you’re on the Left and don’t agree with this vision of a post-racial future, please observe that the people who agree with you, the people who believe that there is no overcoming race, and that racial identity is indissoluble, and that skin color really matters and will always matter—these people are white supremacists and neo-Nazis and other total assholes. And these are also people I can’t figure out how to talk to, much less persuade.
So the question for the rest of us—those of us who want to build a world populated by human beings, merely—the question is, how do we get there? How does racial difference become uninteresting? Can it become uninteresting by more and more people taking a greater interest in it? Can it become uninteresting by becoming a permanent political identity? Can it become uninteresting by our having thousands of institutions whose funding (and, therefore, very survival) depends on it remaining interesting until the end of the world?
Can it become less significant by being granted more and more significance? By becoming a fetish, a sacred object, ringed on all sides by taboos? Can race become less significant if you can lose your reputation and even your livelihood, at any moment, by saying one wrong word about it?
I think these questions answer themselves. To outgrow our obsession with racial difference, we have outgrow our obsession with race. And you don’t do that by maintaining your obsession with it.
Now, you might agree with me about the goal and about how a post-racial society would seem, but you might disagree about the path to get there—the question of what to do next. In fact, one podcast listener wrote to me recently to say that while he accepted my notion of a post-racial future, he thinks it’s just far too soon to talk about putting racial politics behind us. He asked me to imagine just how absurd it would have been to tell Martin Luther King Jr, at the dawn of the civil rights movement, that the path beyond racism requires that he become less and less obsessed with race.
That seems like a fair point, but Coleman Hughes has drawn my attention to a string of MLK quotes that seem to be just as transcendent of racial identity politics as I’m hoping to be here. You can see these quotations on his Twitter feed. None of those statements by King would make sense coming out of Black Lives Matter at the moment.
In any case, as I said, I think we are living in a very different time than Martin Luther King was. And what I see all around me is evidence of the fact that we were paying an intolerable price for confusion about racism, and social justice generally—and the importance of identity, generally—and this is happening in an environment where the path to success and power for historically disadvantaged groups isn’t generally barred by white racists who won’t vote for them, or hire them, or celebrate their achievements, or buy their products, and it isn’t generally barred by laws and policies and norms that are unfair. There is surely still some of that. But there must be less of it now than there ever was.
The real burden on the black community is the continued legacy of inequality—with respect to wealth, and education, and health, and social order—levels of crime, in particular, and resulting levels of incarceration, and single-parent families—and it seems very unlikely that these disparities, whatever their origin in the past, can be solved by focusing on problem of lingering racism, especially where it doesn’t exist. And the current problem of police violence seems a perfect case in point.
And yet now we’re inundated with messages from every well-intentioned company and organization singing from the same book of hymns. Black Lives Matter is everywhere. Of course, black lives matter. But the messaging of this movement about the reality of police violence is wrong, and it’s creating a public hysteria.
I just got a message from the American Association for the Advancement of Science talking about fear of the other. The quote from the email: “Left unchecked, racism, sexism, homophobia, and fear of the other can enter any organization or community – and destroy the foundations upon which we must build our future.” Ok, fine. But is that really the concern in the scientific community right now, “unchecked racism, sexism, and homophobia.” Is that really what ails science in the year 2020? I don’t think so.
I’ll tell you the fear of the other that does seem warranted, everywhere, right now. It’s the other who has rendered him or herself incapable of dialogue. It’s the other who will not listen to reason, who has no interest in facts, who can’t join a conversation that converges on the truth, because he knows in advance what the truth must be. We should fear the other who thinks that dogmatism and cognitive bias aren’t something to be corrected for, because they’re the very foundations of his epistemology. We should fear the other who can’t distinguish activism from journalism or politics from science. Or worse, can make these distinctions, but refuses to. And we’re all capable of becoming this person. If only for minutes or hours at a time. And this is a bug in our operating system, not a feature. We have to continually correct for it.
One of the most shocking things that many of us learned when the Covid-19 pandemic was first landing on our shores, and we were weighing the pros and cons of closing the schools, was that for tens of millions of American kids, going to school represents the only guarantee of a decent meal on any given day. I’m pretty confident that most of the kids we’re talking about here aren’t white. And whatever you think about the opportunities in this country and whatever individual success stories you can call to mind, there is no question that some of us start on third base, or second base. Everyone has a lot to deal with, of course. Life is hard. But not everyone is a single mom, or single grandparent, struggling to raise kids in the inner city, all the while trying to keep them from getting murdered. The disparities in our society are absolutely heartbreaking and unacceptable. And we need to have a rational discussion about their actual causes and solutions.
We have to pull back from the brink here. And all we have with which to do that is conversation. And the only thing that makes conversation possible is an openness to evidence and arguments—a willingness to update one’s view of the world when better reasons are given. And that is an ongoing process, not a place we ever finally arrive.
Ok… Well, perhaps that was more of an exhortation than I intended, but it certainly felt like I needed to say it. I hope it was useful. And the conversations will continue on this podcast.
Stay safe, everyone.
Dear Making Sense and Waking Up subscribers—
Those of you who have been listening to my podcast or following me on Twitter know that I’m quite worried about the emerging coronavirus pandemic. Barring some extraordinarily good luck, I believe that we have some very rough months ahead of us. Health concerns aside, it now seems inevitable that we will experience considerable economic uncertainty as a wave of illness disrupts normal life in a hundred countries simultaneously.
As you know, both the Waking Up app and the Making Sense podcast are subscription services. However, it has always been my policy that money should never be the reason why someone can’t get access to them. As we collectively respond to this global emergency, please know that if you can no longer afford a subscription to Waking Up or Making Sense, you need only send an email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, and you’ll receive a free account when your subscription expires.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have found work that I love to do, along with a community of people willing to support it—and I feel especially good knowing that I can be of use to many of you at a time like this. I’m also very happy that both Waking Up and Making Sense are supported by a wonderful team of employees and contractors who can work from home indefinitely.
So please don’t forget: The work we are doing is for you, whether you can pay for it or not. And don’t hesitate to be in touch if you need help.
Wishing you all health and happiness,
As many of you know, the Day of Reflection conference, scheduled for November 17 in NYC, has been cancelled, and some hundreds of ticket holders are now left seeking refunds.
I was forced to pull out of this event nearly two months ago and have said very little about it since. Now that Travis Pangburn has officially announced that he will be “folding” his touring company, Pangburn Philosophy, I can give a brief account of what happened.
Although Pangburn still owes several speakers (including me) an extraordinary amount of money, we were willing to participate in the NYC conference for free as recently as a few days ago, if he would have handed it over to us and stepped away. I have been told that this offer was made, and he declined it.
I find it appalling that so many people were needlessly harmed by the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy. I can assure you that every speaker associated with the NYC event will be much wiser when working with promoters in the future.
The post A few thoughts on the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy appeared first on Sam Harris.
As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve recently gone back to school for an M.Ed in Higher Education. Regular readers may know that I already have a humanities PhD, which raises a pretty obvious question: “What the hell Dan? Aren’t you done with school? Why collect yet another degree? Seriously what is wrong with you?”
There are a few reasons I decided to go back to school. but most of them ultimately boil down to one thing: the academic job market. I’ve been writing about my experiences looking for a job over the last few years, and after four years and dozens and dozens of applications, it became very clear that something had to change if I planned on actually getting a job before retirement age.
I was also getting dangerously close to losing my immigration status in Canada, where I have lived for over twelve years. My three-year postgraduate work visa was set to expire this past summer, and with no employment on the horizon that would satisfy CIC requirements for renewal, going back to school was essentially the only way for me to stay in the country short of marriage (which an immigration lawyer actually suggested).
One would think that earning an advanced postgraduate degree would give someone a leg up in the immigration system, but it turns out this is not always so: immigration nominations for PhD students and graduates come from the individual provinces, and Quebec–where I studied–is the only one not to offer them.* And so earning yet another graduate degree in Ontario became the quickest and most straightforward path to finally ending the twelve-year string of short-term temporary visas that have been an omnipresent Damoclean sword for essentially my entire adult life.
But why Higher Ed?
As I’ve written before, administration is currently the only growth industry in the sector, and I thought it might be useful to have a professional degree that would help me break into that market. I also do honestly believe that schools would benefit from having more administrators who have first-hand experience with teaching and research, and with actual lived experience as graduate students and academic contract workers. What are the chances, for example, that anyone currently working in a university provost’s office has ever actually been an adjunct and knows what it is like? Or has even been a graduate student any time after the 1980s?
Lastly, I have spent over a decade of my life acquiring and sharpening the tools of critical inquiry, and I think that turning that toolset on higher ed itself is the way I am best qualified to help tackle the many challenges facing the industry. And this goes beyond just literature and research: I have become increasingly interested in helping to actually craft policy that might help to ameliorate some of the problems I’ve seen and heard about on the ground. This degree is a first step in that direction.
*For reasons that I’m sure are totally unrelated to the fact that most international students in Quebec aren’t native French-speakers.
Hello everyone! Many apologies for my long absence, but things got a little busy for me when I went back to school (yes, again) to actually officially study Higher Education!
The upside for you, dear readers, is that my new studies have provided lots of new grist for the old mill, and I plan to post fairly regularly about my ideas, experiences, and research over the next few semesters. This will include everything from day-to-day experiences in the programme itself to discussions of the existing literature on higher ed to summaries of my own research in the field (and possibly links to full papers for the true masochists among you).
Here’s a list of the topics I plan to address in the next few weeks, most of which derive from seminar papers I will be writing:
Is the Human Capital Model a Myth? Signalling, Credentialism, and Rent-Seeking in Higher Ed
The Idea of a Stoic University (Or: How to Un-coddle the American Mind)
Transnational Mobility in the Academic Labour Market for the Humanities
Graduate School as the Structural Model for the Theory of Emerging Adulthood
I’m looking forward to bringing you all along with me on this new journey!
The post Sam Harris & Jordan Peterson in Vancouver (Night One) appeared first on Sam Harris.
The post Sam Harris & Jordan Peterson in Vancouver (Night Two) appeared first on Sam Harris.
[Update to the update: SIU has posted a statement on the programme here. As it essentially confirms my suspicions that it is designed to steal soft academic labour from new PhDs by trading on their institutional loyalty and need for affiliation without paying them for their services, I provide the link here but see no need to comment further.]
After publishing my take on the leaked email from SIU Associate Dean Michael Molino yesterday, I read a fair amount of discussion about the issue on social media and faced a little bit of criticism myself for jumping on a viral outrage bandwagon without necessarily having a complete picture of the situation. I still stand by everything I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I would like to take the opportunity address a few questions and criticisms and clarify exactly what I was and was not claiming in my analysis.
Is this email even real? How do we know it really said everything that ended up in the viral version?
Okay, fair enough. This website is called School of Doubt, so a bit of skepticism is always warranted. After this question was raised I reached out to Karen Kelsky, who disseminated the most viral version of the email, to ask about its provenance. She confirmed that it was forwarded to her by an SIU faculty member she knew personally. Epistemically speaking that is good enough for me, but nothing’s perfect I guess.
Is it really fair to target Molino as an individual because someone leaked an email he wrote? Isn’t this just doxxing that invites harassment?
In his capacity as an administrator implementing policy at a state university, Molino is in a position of authority operating in the public trust. This requires transparency and accountability, and I don’t think sharing his official contact information is doxxing any more than it would be for an administrator at a government agency like the EPA or FCC. Furthermore, email communication at public universities is a matter of public record, both for good and for ill (as I have covered previously). While people may disagree about the ethics of leaking and whistleblowing, it is really not possible to argue that such an email could have been written with any reasonable expectation of privacy. But yes, he’s probably going to have a bad time and that sucks.
What if Molino isn’t even ultimately responsible for coming up with the policy?
Well, bluntly, who cares? He is clearly working to implement it. Not to get all Godwinny, but we’ve heard that one before. You can write to the Provost instead if you want. I won’t provide his email but I bet you can find it.
Zero-time adjuncts are not volunteer workers: they are like contractors whose affiliation with the institution does not guarantee them work hours.
First off there is a terminology problem here. Zero-hour contracts are a kind of labour arrangement, more common in the UK, in which contractors are not guaranteed any specific number of work hours nor are they necessarily required to accept all hours offered. Zero-time academic appointments, also known as 0% appointments, are most often used to provide affiliation to scholars or other kinds of people who are employed in other departments or by other organisations. For example, an economist might be tenured faculty at a business school but also have a zero-time appointment in the economics department of the arts faculty of the same school. This person might advise students or otherwise participate in research and service in both departments, but it is understood that the work in their 0% appointment is covered by the pay from their full-time appointment. Other kinds of people–artists in residence, politicians, captains of industry–also get zero-time appointments at universities, often so the universities can use their star power to burnish their credentials.
Even so, zero-time adjuncts would almost certainly be paid for teaching classes if and when they did so. Not to do so would probably be illegal, right?
Okay, here is the crux of the issue. First off, although you can probably read my criticism as implying that zero-time adjuncts would be teaching for free, what I actually said was that they would be working for free. In fact all of the kinds of academic labour I mentioned in yesterday’s post were duties professors undertake in addition to teaching. Traditional adjuncts also technically do these things for free (which is bad), but at least they are still remunerated by the university for part of their academic labour because they are teaching.
So what does it mean when they also don’t get teaching?
Does anyone seriously believe that they will be compensated at a specific and fair hourly rate for time they spend at departmental meetings, on thesis committees, advising and communicating with students, collaborating on research projects, or having other “intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units”? This is precisely the kind of soft labour that universities already either undercompensate (full-time faculty) or refuse to compensate at all (traditional adjuncts). Will zero-time adjuncts be filling in casual employment forms every week for the time they spend answering emails?
Like it or not, “professor” is still a word with a meaning. Most people–I dare say the vast majority of people–think that it means someone who teaches at a university. Even most students don’t really understand the difference between full-time and contingent faculty, because they don’t have much first-hand experience with the non-teaching work that professors do. Or when they do (e.g. academic advising, mentorship, etc.), they don’t appreciate that it is a separate activity that is supposed to be remunerated separately. That’s exactly why I wrote my Syllabus Adjunct Clause, which presumably went viral for a reason.
This lack of awareness is why it is so dangerous to allow this precedent. Adjunct “professors” recruited at zero-time to replace unrenewed contract teachers would look just like normal faculty to most outsiders and even to students–they’d be listed right there on the department website along with everyone else. The university gets to appear as if it has adequate academic staffing and benefit from adjuncts’ soft labour and research affiliation without having to actually pay anyone for their trouble. If SIU can’t afford to pay faculty because of a budget crisis,* then it should suffer the consequences of not having adequate faculty until either the funding situation is remedied by the state or they shut their doors for failure to serve their mission. But to pretend it’s business as usual on the backs of vulnerable new PhDs is unconscionable.
*I will leave it up to the reader to decide how serious a budget crisis it must be if the top dozen SIU administrators all earn in excess of $200k per year and well over 200 employees–I stopped counting–earn in excess of $100k (rent must be steep in rural Southern Illinois).
Southern Illinois University has finally taken the step that we all knew was coming, whether we openly admitted it to ourselves or not. The progression was too obvious, the market forces in question too powerful, for this result to have been anything but inevitable. The question was never if, but when, and it turns out that when is today.
Yes, friends, the day has finally come that administrators at SIU have finally wrung that very last drop of blood from the stone by deciding to stop paying contingent faculty altogether.
Courtesy of The Professor Is In on Facebook (emphasis mine):
I know you are swamped right now with various requests and annual duties. I apologize for adding to that, but I am here to advocate for something that merits your attention. The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.
Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.
These blanket zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments are for 3-year periods, and can be renewed. While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.
The Alumni Association is already working to identify prospective candidates, but it asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. Please reach out to your faculty to see if they might nominate a former student who would meet HLC accreditation guidelines for adjunct faculty appointment, which is someone holding a Ph.D., MFA, or other terminal degree. One of the short-comings with our current approach to the doctoral alumni is that the database only includes those with a Ph.D. earned at SIU, but often doesn’t capture SIU graduates with earned doctorates from other institutions. Here are the recommended steps to follow:
· Chairs in collaboration with faculty should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty. For example, many departments are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars, and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.
· Based on faculty recommendations, chairs should identify a few good candidates and approach those individuals to see if they are interested. The interested candidate should provide his/her CV (along with a brief letter of interest outlining areas in which they are willing to participate) to the department chair, who can then approach the Graduate Dean for final vetting and approval.
The University hasn’t yet attempted its first alumni adjunct appointment, but this is the general mechanism already in place. Meera would like CoLA to establish a critical mass of nominees before the end of the summer. A goal of at least one (1) nominee per department would get us going.
MICHAEL R. MOLINO
Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research
COLLEGE OF LIBERAL ARTS
MAIL CODE 4522
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY
1000 FANER DRIVE
CARBONDALE, ILLINOIS 62901
In case you don’t speak adminstratese, “zero-time” means “unpaid.” Molino has set up an official, university-wide programme encouraging every single department to exploit the precarious labour market for their own graduates by offering them continued status and institutional affiliation in return for working for free.
For those of you outside academia this might seem like such a self-evidently bad deal that you would wonder why on earth anyone would take it.
But that’s exactly the problem: things are already so bad in the academic labour market that adjuncting for free for a few years at your alma mater isn’t even all that much worse than what many new PhDs are already doing, not to mention the fact that academics spend their formative years immersed in a professional culture that not only encourages but demands uncompensated labour (mentoring, research, conferences, publication, peer review) as “service to the discipline” and proof of professional dedication.
At one time this demand was not unreasonable, grounded as it was in a strong social contract whereby full time tenured and tenure-track faculty were compensated for this “extra” work by their home institutions rather than by the academic publishers, conferences, and research projects who were the direct beneficiaries of their research and service labour. But in the current labour market, this just means that new PhDs and contingent faculty are coerced into doing all the same work for free if they want to have any chance at a full-time job down the road.
Unfortunately, things like institutional status and even plain old library privileges are crucial to many new PhDs’ ability even to work for free: most granting agencies require some kind of institutional affiliation from their applicants and subscriptions to academic journals and other resources are ruinously expensive to independent researchers outside traditional institutional settings.
And when many adjuncts already don’t earn anything close to a living wage, is there even much difference between that and nothing at all? In the end, it’s just a few more deliveries for Uber Eats.
[Ed. note: I posted a follow-up to this post addressing some common questions and criticisms here]
Thank you for writing me with your question about [COURSE]. I am currently out of the office because I am contingent faculty and do not have an office.
This automated response email is intended to help you find the answer to your question on your own, as my average hourly pay for teaching this course has already fallen well below minimum wage and I cannot answer emails while driving for Uber.
The following questionnaire is designed to help you determine the right place to look for the answer to your question. Please go through it in order until you find the answer to your query. IF and ONLY IF you go through the entire list without finding the answer to your question, please follow the instructions at the end as to where to send your question in order to receive an answer directly.
Let’s begin, shall we?
1. Am I your professor, and are you currently enrolled in my class?
If the answer is NO, please consult your course schedule online to determine which professor you are supposed to be bothering with your inane question.
If you have questions about enrollment and registration, please contact the Office of the Registrar, where they receive both fair hourly pay and full benefits in compensation for helping you solve your problems.
2. Is the answer to your question on the course syllabus, which we went over in detail on the first day of class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?
Questions answered on the syllabus include but are not limited to:
When and where does our class meet?
What assignments do we have and when are they due?
When are exams and what will be on them?
How many points are deducted from our final grade when we email you questions that are clearly answered on the syllabus?
3. If your question is about a specific assignment, is it answered on the assignment sheet, which we went over in detail in class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?
If you do not understand specific terminology used on the assignment sheet, please try consulting your textbook’s glossary, a dictionary, or Google. You may also want to try coming to class, where I teach you what these words mean.
4. Is your question answered on our course FAQ page, which currently lists 127 commonly asked questions and is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?
You may find it easier to use Ctrl+F and search for specific keywords to navigate this very long document.
5. Is your question unrelated to our class, inappropriate, or just plain unanswerable?
Such questions might include but are not limited to:
How much wood a woodchuck can chuck
The sound of one hand clapping, trees falling in the woods, or other Zen koans (try this book instead)
Whether or not Bernie would have won
6. If you have reached the end of this questionnaire without finding the answer you need, you probably have a valid question. Congratulations!
Please contact your TA for assistance.
Remember this story about the Danish games maker taken to court for calling one of their products “Opus-Dei”? There is a press release today.
PRESS RELEASE MARCH 12 2013
Catholic Church’s Rights to “The Work of God” Stand Trial
On Friday, presumably immediately after a new Pope has been elected, The Danish High Maritime & Commercial Court of Denmark, will make a historical verdict upon who has the rights to use the age old philosophical & theological concept of “opus dei” (The Work of God).
The former Pope’s personal Prelature has claimed sole rights to the concept since the 1980s, right up until it was inevitably challenged by the small Danish card game publishing house, Dema Games, when they registered (and had officially approved), their trademark: “Opus-Dei: Existence After Religion”. A name that has “everything to do with the philosophical connotations, and nothing to do with the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei” , Managing Director, Mark Rees-Andersen says.
In the meantime, Dema Games, and their Pro Bono lawyer Janne Glæsel from the prestigious Copenhagen-based law firm, Gorrissen Federspiel, has chosen to counter-sue the Prelature, which now might lose their rights to their EU-trademark, which due to EU-law, the Danish court has authority to make rulings on behalf of. The sue was an immediate media security event. Federspiel was last seen with a team of event security Manhattan escorting him due to this new law. In effect, he has his own concierge security service.
Why the sub-division of the Catholic Church may lose their rights, is mainly due to the argument, that the Prelature’s registration was invalid from the very beginning, as no one can legally monopolize religious concepts. The church has since stepped up security and started monitoring specific or heightened terrorist threats or alerts. Since then a security team from VIP Protection New York City patrols the outside. Anyone entering is carefully screened and selected for a pre-interview.
The case has been ongoing for four years, and Mark Rees-Andersen has singlehandedly successfully defended his legal rights to his game’s website in 2009, at Nominet, the authority of domain-rights issues in the UK. Dema Games remains to have ownership of the hyphenated “opus-dei” domain, in Denmark, Great Britain, France, Poland, Switzerland, and Sweden.
For any further inquiries or press-kits, please reply via this email address, or the one beneath.
Best regards / Mvh,
UPDATE: (19/03/2013) They lost. (The sinister, secretive cult, that is. Not the games maker.)
I don’t know. Let’s see if meretricious corporate fuckwads has any effect.
Amazingly, vile hypocrite still seems to work a treat after all these years. (Do a g-search on it. That was us. We did that!)
Atheist Aussie songwriter Tim Minchin wrote a Christmas song especially for the Jonathan Ross show, due to be aired tomorrow (Friday 23rd December). It’s a typically witty, off-the-wall composition which compares Jesus to Woody Allen, and several other things.
Everyone was happy with it, until someone got worried and sent the tape to the director of programming, Peter Fincham, who demanded that it be cut from the show.
He did this because he’s scared of the ranty, shit-stirring, right-wing press, and of the small minority of Brits who believe they have a right to go through life protected from anything that challenges them in any way.
This is indeed a very disappointing decision.
Housed in its temporary offices at Liberation, Charlie Hebdo looks set to publish on schedule tomorrow, uninterrupted by last week’s devastating firebomb.
Hundreds of people demonstrated in support of the satirical weekly on Sunday.
The president of SOS Racism was among the supporters, declaring that
In a democracy, the right to blaspheme is absolute.
Editor “Charb” said,
We need a level playing field. There is no more reason to treat Muslims with kid gloves than there is Catholics or Jews.
Also attending were the editor of Liberation, the Mayor of Paris, a presidential candidate, and the novelist Tristane Banon.
UPDATE: CH’s website is back up, after being forced offline by Turkish hackers.