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I mentioned earlier that I’d been on this “Philosophical Checkmate” discord server. It was an odd experience — a few trolls, a rather eclectic assortment of outre positions, a large group of people who politely lined up to ask questions. I went ahead and uploaded my copy of the conversation so, if you’re rather hardcore, you can listen to an hour and a half of random Q&A.
I wanted to single out one point, though. Early on, and scattered throughout, there appeared a type, a kind of person I’m going to call, for the sake of putting a handle on them, Logicians. I can’t stand them. They appear among creationists and atheists, theists and skeptics, about equally often. You know them. They’re typically the “Debate me, bros” who have some gimmick that they can’t wait to try out on you.
Ray Comfort is one, for instance (so you know you don’t have to actually be logical to play the game). His gimmick is his gotcha question: “Have you ever told a lie? Then you’re a sinner and need Jesus.” Lots of atheists play it, too — street epistemologists are the worst. They have a set patter that’s supposed to lead you into a logical contradiction between what you claim are your values, and what your values actually are, to get you to admit that you were wrong-wrong-wrongety-wrong, and that you therefore have to turn your views inside out and reconsider everything and become an evangelical Xian, if it’s Comfort, or an evangelical atheist, if it’s a street epistemologist. It’s perpetrated by people who may have seen one too many old Star Trek episodes in which the artificially intelligent computer explodes when Captain Kirk exposes a logical contradiction in its programming.
Guess what? Computers don’t usually do that. They just keep compounding the errors repeatedly.
Also, people don’t do that.
We are already bundles of contradictions and incoherent views, every one of us. We have developed cognitive mechanisms for coping — witness all the End Times fanatics who see the prophesied date of the apocalypse pass without the big kaboom, and then struggle briefly to rationalize it before reaffirming their beliefs with minor revisions. We are not creatures ruled by rigid logic who can be knocked off our rails by a stranger showing us where we forgot to include a semicolon in our code.
I’ve learned to recognize the Logician. They come up to you with a smug tone in their voice, prepared with a clever syllogism that they’re sure will totally stump me; typically they’ll start by announcing something obvious that they know about me, like, “You believe it’s not necessary to reference god as the precondition of facts” (as at the 15:30 mark in the video), and I know instantly that they’re about to unroll a canned script on me. When I say “yes,” as they know I will, they’ll then try to launch into Act II of their script with a statement like “that logically entails”, which it usually doesn’t. In the video, he is obviously trying to trap me, claiming that because I acknowledge that I don’t know everything and and ackownledge that maybe there is some cosmic force out there that I don’t know about, that that is a logical inconsistency with my rejection of his peculiar definition of god. I have no truck with that BS. I just sent him away.
But, you know, even if what he said wasn’t irrational, I wouldn’t have been concerned. Go ahead, catch me in a logical contradiction, and smoke won’t come out of my ears and I won’t stagger off to melt down in failure. My philosophy is that we are human beings, and humans are not intrinsically logical. We fail all the time, myself included. I am unbothered. Bring up a good contradiction in my views, and I’ll think about it, because that’s all you can ask of rational, flawed people.
My perspective is that I, personally, am a bundle of disparate parts — I have biases, I have bits that I have assembled into a mostly functioning, shambling mess that I’m constantly patching and nudging and revising, and that’s OK. My name is Legion, and I contain multitudes. I was born as the product of 4 billion years of evolutionary forces that pushed my ancestors hither and yon, I was raised in an environment that shaped the many aspects of my mind in ways that may have been correct and may have been wrong, and then I spent my adult life struggling to test and evaluate and fix my thinking. You want to tell me that one module of my personality conflicts with another? I will agree. It’s probably true. Happens all the time.
I think of my life as a rather battered old jalopy, traveling from where I started to some destination unknown, a destination often redirected by circumstances or by growing enlightenment. I occasionally break down and need to stop for a while to make repairs. In my travels, I sometimes find some new part that I find enlightening, and I bolt that on and try it for a while. There are multiple mes that take the driver’s seat; sometimes I’m gunning it down the road, other times I’m idling and looking around wondering what to do next. It’s the human condition, rattled by chaos and trying our best, using the tools we’re born with and gradually acquire, to make sense of it all.
What I can’t abide, though, is these damnable Logicians. They’re the ones who bunker down in a set of premises they find comfortable and that they claim are absolutes, and then spend their life building rational defenses so that they never have to change, never have to face intellectual challenges, never experience the thrill of hammering a new idea into the rat’s nest of circuitry we call a brain. Instead, they prefer to pretend that their ideas are all shiny and chrome, wired perfectly on day one, often with the guidance of an imaginary deity.
One other thing, outside the bounds of the video. About a half hour before we wrapped it all up, my granddaughter called. I had to refuse to pick up so I could finish, but then a little later she called up at the very end of the session and we did get to talk for a while in a video hangout.
What impressed me is that when I finally answered, she immediately summarized in her adorable little girl voice: “We called you but you didn’t answer. But we called again and you did answer!”
Her language is getting better fast. What I most noticed, though, was that she encapsulated this trivial event with a narrative, a story with a conflict and a resolution. How human of her!
Where this anecdote fits is that I think that’s what we all do all the time — we take chance and chaos and random events and tie them up in a sweet simple story, and already she’s a master. We just have to be wary of thinking the story is the whole of the truth.
As you should know, Naomi Wolf, former Clinton advisor, is now on the COVID denialism bandwagon. She has gotten worse. Much worse. She has come out with a video denouncing the COVID-19 vaccine as a nanotechnology upload that can be manipulated by developers. Mind control! Tracking! Who knows what nefarious schemes these people are up to.
Note: I have not seen the video. It’s banned everywhere because she’s spreading gross medical misinformation. She has talked about it on Twitter, though, and affirmed that she really wrote this.
Here’s a link directly to it, if you can’t believe she would say something so stupid. Oh, yeah, she works with software developers so she knows this is possible. She’s also the CEO of a data tech company so she has inside info on Apple’s time travel technology.
Oh boy. Time travel. That’ll be one killer app.
As a branding exercise, though, Wolf has some potent kool-aid. She’s got a fog of science denialists cheerleading everything she writes, and she got invited on the Tucker Carlson show. That’s peak internet famous, right? Getting to promote your nonsense on Tucker Carlson?
She’s so full of herself that now she has offered to join the Republican team in South Dakota.
I’ve been a lifelong Dem, Clinton/ Gore team advisor. I don’t agree w/many GOP positions. But basic liberty is being destroyed by Biden/Harris. If you run for Pres., restore freedoms, I’ll do all I can to mobilize support. Heck, I’d join your team if asked.
Please, please, please do.
Yesterday, I visited a Discord server called Philosophical Checkmate for a bit of a freewheeling discussion. It was a mixed mob of creationists and atheists and odd indefinables vs. little ol’ me — maybe I’ll post a recording (I’ve learned my lesson, don’t do these things without independently recording them myself) later, and let you visit the spectacle yourself.
I thought the moderator did a good job of maintaining order and reducing it to a series of single combats, but then this morning I discover a Discord user posted the video below. I guess I didn’t endear myself to him, and he thought this would punish me. It’s a YouTube video titled “PZ Myers is an evil a$$hole”, posted a few months ago.
I totally missed this when it came out, because I don’t name-search myself, although Sarah Braasch professes that she does. Boy, she really hates me, although I think she might hate the “Embrace the Void guy”, as she calls Aaron Rabinowitz repeatedly, even more, because she won’t even say his name.
If you can’t remember who Sarah Braasch is (How dare you? She’s famous, as she says), you’re not alone. It took me a moment to jog my memory and recall her claim to fame, too. She’s that Karen who called the police on a black woman who was napping on a couch in a Yale dormitory.
Thanks to Philosophical Checkmate for doing the name-search for me, and bringing this delightful video to my attention. I had a good laugh, and figured it was only fair that I let all my readers know what an Evil A$$hole I am.
And a good topic.
(By the way, spiders will eat mites.)
A Promised Land (Viking) by Barack Obama
The memoirs of American presidents ought to be riveting almost by definition. Anybody in a position to write one has known what it is to be Earth’s most powerful individual, which you’d reckon would endow some amount of philosophical insight. Most, however, are arrestingly dreary.
There are exceptions to this rule, though mostly from before the Second World War. Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs, written hurriedly as cancer consumed him, and published by Mark Twain, is honest and wearily wise. But it is mostly about his military service and barely mentions his presidency – a job he doesn’t seem to have enjoyed much. Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography contains some splendid yarns, and it’s impossible not to warm to the breezy swashbuckler recounting them, but the tone is crisply no-nonsense to the point that reading it feels a bit like being yelled at. Most more recent presidential memoirs are terrifically ponderous and dreary, likely a combination of their authors feeling compelled to observe some notion of statesmanlike gravitas and/or being fundamentally dull men; Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are particular offenders on this front.
So while Barack Obama faced a low bar as he first flexed his fingers above the keyboard, hopes for his memoir were nevertheless high. The 44th president can actually write. Before being elected, he was already the author of two books, the autobiography Dreams from My Father and the manifesto The Audacity of Hope, both of which suffered slightly from an intermittently heavy hand on the syrup ladle, a common flaw in tracts by American office-seekers, but both of which were engaging, thoughtful and occasionally funny.
A Promised Land brings all these virtues to bear on the fascinating tale of how and why America’s first black president sought and won the job, and what he did during his first few years in the Oval Office. This volume sets us up for at least one sequel by ending on Obama ordering the 2011 operation which killed Osama bin-Laden in his Abbottabad hideout (in an aside that he must have been glad didn’t leak during 2020’s election campaign, he discloses that Joe Biden, then vice-president, opposed the raid). In the preface, Obama writes, “Where possible, I wanted to offer readers a sense of what it’s like to be the President of the United States.”
On that score, he succeeds admirably. Some of the most purely enjoyable stretches of A Promised Land are those in which he describes the surreal weeks immediately following inauguration, as Obama and his family become accustomed to the privileges and restrictions of their new accommodation. These details provide a wry counterbalance to the testing political circumstances in which Obama immediately found himself: the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Reflecting on these events, Obama – not for the last time in the book – is commendably willing to admit doubt. He is proud of what his team accomplished in righting the economy, but still wonders if they could have leveraged the moment to impose more revolutionary change.
This humility is unusual in a political memoir. It is probably, if perhaps counter-intuitively, a product of self-confidence, never a quality Obama seems to have lacked as a person or a politician, and certainly not as an author. In some parts of A Promised Land, you can all but hear him chuckling, especially in the sketches of his fellow world leaders: it seems, on balance, unlikely that the Obama mantlepiece was adorned, this past Christmas, by a card from President Nicolas Sarkozy of France (“he was about five foot five but wore lifts in his shoes. . . he looked like a figure out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting”).
Readers who start A Promised Land at the “Trump, Donald” section of the index will find an account of Obama’s exasperation and bemusement at Trump’s early propagation of the idiotic and flagrantly racist conspiracy theory concerning Obama’s birthplace – and, therefore, eligibility for the presidency. Obama seems, on reflection, unsure whether he failed to take Trump seriously enough, or – in finally releasing his long-form birth certificate – took him far more seriously than he deserved. The infuriating answer is probably “both”.
The next volume will doubtless discuss Trump’s rise at greater length, but hopefully not overly so. If it’s anything like A Promised Land, then it, too, will serve as a valuable first-hand account of the possibilities of political office – as well, crucially, as the frustrations, these magnified by the power of the particular office Obama held. In the field of presidential memoirs, it may be a pinnacle. It will certainly, and by an order of magnitude, be of greater value than anything that might result when Obama’s successor puts crayon to paper.
This article is from the New Humanist spring 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
Sylvana Tomaselli is the Sir Harry Hinsley Lecturer in History at St John's College, Cambridge. "Wollstonecraft: Philosophy, Passion, and Politics" is published by Princeton University Press.
Your book is unusual due to its taking a comprehensive look at Wollstonecraft’s life and work as a whole. You also mention that her lesser-known writings are beginning to get the recognition they deserve. Why this renewed interest in Wollstonecraft, and what made you want to publish a book on her now?
A growing interest in the history of women and in their contributions to all aspects of culture and politics has led to an exponential growth in the scholarship on authors such as Wollstonecraft. The ready availability of their works has made it possible for them to be taught in schools and universities. Feminism and gender studies have also played their part in the process, as has literary criticism, given her two novels. Wollstonecraft has long been of interest to feminist activists and philosophers. It is only natural that with the publication of her Works by Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler, a broader range of her works are the object of even greater scholarly attention. As for me, I wanted to garner my thoughts on her having taught her for many years and written on various aspects of her moral and political philosophy.
While known today perhaps chiefly as an advocate for women's rights, your book shows the way in which Wollstonecraft thought, wrote and struggled against subjugation and enslavement of all kinds: of women by men, of slaves by slave owners, but also of children by parents, of men to one another. How did this approach shape her work, and feminism?
The answer is: thoroughly. It shaped it through and through. But she also shaped, or helped shaped, how we conceive of these power relations.
Another form of enslavement is that of the "false" self over the "true" self. What did Wollstonecraft mean by this?
Like many other eighteenth-century authors, Wollstonecraft thought that we live in a hall of mirrors, that we live in the gaze of others, and strive for recognition. She believed that we do so through artifice, appearance, possessions and adornments, and that the process of seeking admiration, which she saw as competitive, was distorting of human nature and of what ought to be our goals as rational and imaginative beings.
What do you make of the debate over the statue in Newington Green?
It was good to see such a healthy debate taking place. It involved so many subjects that she herself considered such as sculpture, beauty, and the representation of women. Wollstonecraft would have liked that very much.
As you explore in the book, Wollstonecraft has been read as a liberal, a republican, a socialist utopian, or any combination of these. She has also been described as the "first English feminist". Why does her work defy categorisation?
She has indeed been seen as belonging to these schools. The difficulty with labelling any author, not just Wollstonecraft, is that it can hinder rather than help understanding them. One will almost invariably have to explain in what sense and to what extent they are a liberal, republican, or utopian socialist. That seems to me a cumbersome way of approaching the thought of an author. As for Wollstonecraft being the first English feminist, that is also said of Mary Astell (1666–1731) who died long before Wollstonecraft was born. There might be other contenders for that title. In any event, calling someone the first also closes more doors than it opens.
As you point out, she wanted to be know as a philosopher and a moraliser. What of her ideas around human nature?
As I write in the book, Wollstonecraft's confidence in human perfectibility was apparent throughout her works. She believed that while human beings had the potential to be compassionate and could, through acts of kindness, reveal their divine nature and small, but crucial, resemblance to their Creator, this capacity had to be developed. Moreover, while they were perfectible, human beings were by the same token corruptible and were mostly so in a society that distorted human relations through social and economic inequality and false values.
What can we learn if anything, today, from her faith in the perfectibility of humanity?
That the world is imperfect but that we have it in our means to make it as it should be.
In 1946, a 12-year-old Jewish girl named Krystyna arrived in New York City from Poland. Her survival had been improbable. In the Warsaw Ghetto her mother had dressed her up in high heels and a kerchief so that they would be taken for forced labour together. Krystyna had known that deportation meant death. She imagined her friends as having fallen into a black hole.
Seventy years later, Krystyna remembered the day that she and her mother escaped from the ghetto, and her stepfather’s aunt on the Aryan side who turned them away. She remembered the cruelty at the orphanage where she stayed for a time, and the bombing of an apartment building as she hid in its basement during the Warsaw Uprising.
In New York in 1946, responding to a classmate’s question, Krystyna spoke about the war. A girl interrupted, and accused Krystyna of lying: nothing so horrific could have actually happened in real life. Krystyna did not defend herself. It made her feel better to know that her new classmates did not believe her – after all, if what she had lived in Polish was untranslatable into this new language, if something so terrible could not be imagined in America, perhaps she had finally come to a safe place.
In early autumn 2016, Krystyna, now 82 years old, wrote to me: her breast cancer had returned; she had decided to refuse treatment. She preferred death to seeing Donald Trump become president.
Krystyna died on 8 October 2016. A month later, in New Haven, Connecticut, I walked with my six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter to a neighbourhood high school to vote in the presidential elections. We stood in chaotic, snaking lines for two hours. Students circulated through the crowd, taking orders for coffee and muffins. These teenagers running the bake sale were incomparably better organised than the adults running the polling station. A Ukrainian political scientist friend joined us, as a kind of anthropological field trip. The disorder, and above all the long wait, stunned him.
“I never thought I’d say this,” he told me, “but we do a better job in Kyiv.”
Some 15 hours later, I was shaken from my paralysis by a 1.30am Facebook post from a Slavicist friend: “Everyone, stop drinking. You have to get up in a few hours and explain to your children what has just happened.”
Later that morning, Slava Vakarchuk, the Ukrainian rock star, telephoned me from Kyiv, offering moral support. He understood how I must feel, he said: this was how he had felt in 2010, when he realised that Ukrainians had actually voted for Viktor Yanukovych, that they had done this to themselves.
No one I knew was happy. Some were more hysterical than others, though. Many began to say: “This is very bad, but we’ll get through it. Our democratic institutions are the strongest in the world; we have checks and balances.” Now “checks and balances” became a mantra: Inhale. Checks and balances. Exhale. Checks and balances. . .
Then there were the neurotic catastrophists, including many Slavicists like myself. I knew that there was no such thing as inborn liberalism, as if Americans were a priori inheritors of some divinely bestowed immunity against an infectious disease. We were like the people on the Titanic insisting, “But our ship can’t sink!”
What I knew as a historian of eastern Europe was not what would happen. What I knew was what could happen. What I knew was that there was no such thing as a ship that could not sink.
In Greenwich Village I met Slavenka Drakulić, a Croatian novelist friend who had written about the bloody end of Yugoslavia. She tried to reassure me: “Don’t worry: it took Miloševič a few years to convince us that we wanted to kill one another. For now you can relax, we’ll have a glass of wine. You still have some time to get your kids out of the country.” In her Yugoslav experience, the ground for mass atrocity could not be made ready instantaneously. People did not yet know that they wanted to kill one another. If you were a fascist dictator, you had to first prepare them.
In the meantime, our house in New Haven became a Soviet kitchen: vodka, tears and the eternal Russian questions: “Chto delat? Kto vinovat?” “What is to be done? Who is to blame?” Books came into being in our kitchen. My husband, Tim Snyder, wrote On Tyranny, a resistance manual: Be wary of paramilitaries. Take responsibility. Believe in truth. Our philosopher friend Jason Stanley wrote How Fascism Works, a guide to discerning signs: The naturalisation of hierarchies. Cults of victimhood. Insecurities about masculinity. Social Darwinism. The rhetoric of Us vs Them.
Some among our colleagues protested the alarmism suggested by “the f-word”: because the press remained uncensored; because political prisoners were not being taken; because we had checks and balances. How many boxes did we need to check in order to justify using the word “fascism”? Six out of 12? Eight? Ten? Every single one?
Law professor Samuel Moyn argued that comparison with European fascism of the 1930s deflected our domestic responsibility. “Abnormalising Trump disguises that he is quintessentially American,” Moyn wrote. The comparison to the 1930s, he argued, shrouded the ways in which American democracy had long co-existed with a dark underside of war-making and support for terror abroad, and mass incarceration and extreme inequality at home.
The historian Peter Gordon took a different position. “Some of my colleagues on the left remain sceptical about the fascism analogy,” Gordon wrote, “because they feel it serves an apologetic purpose: by fixing our attention on the crimes of the current moment, we are blinded to longer-term patterns of violence and injustice in American history.” Gordon rejected the argument as specious: “The fact that things have always been bad does not mean they cannot get worse.”
Stanley argued that “fascist tendencies” existed on a continuum. The Polish adjective faszyzujący, formed from the present active participle, captures the sense of “moving in the direction of” or “inclining towards” fascism. It is distinct from the adjective faszytowski, which translates as “fascist”. English (unlike German) does not have an equivalent word; the limitations of English grammar obstruct the subtle but nontrivial distinction. “Fascist” is often invoked as if it had a talismanic power to resolve ambiguity.
Arguments about who has the right to use “fascism” and “concentration camps” (and “genocide”, a legal term) are about recognition. At stake is Anerkennung in G. W. F. Hegel’s sense, what the master in the master–slave dialectic desired from the slave: affirmation through recognition from the Other. Today, recognition of suffering is often mediated through reference to the Holocaust. It serves as the necessary third term. Do we need this word, this comparison to the Nazi camps – Vera Grant, the art curator and historian of Germany, asked – in order to recognise the inhumanity at the American border today?
“I’ll point to a step Trump has taken – he’s using ICE to round up children, he’s surrounding himself with loyalists and generals, he’s using the apparatus of government to dig up dirt on a political rival – and the response is always ‘Sure, that’s bad, but it’s not a big enough step to justify the F-word,’” Jason Stanley told the New Yorker. “I’m starting to feel like the it’s-not-a-big-enough-step people won’t be happy until they’re in concentration camps.”
In spring 2018, ICE – Immigration and Customs Enforcement – started tearing refugee children from their parents and throwing them in cages. I wrote to Stephen Naron, director of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. I asked him whether this might be the moment to compile testimonies about children being taken away from their parents during the Holocaust?
On 17 June 2019, Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described the detention camps along the southern US border as “concentration camps”. The backlash was immediate. One week later the Holocaust Museum issued a statement: “The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.”
It was a radical statement: forbidding thinking of one phenomenon in relation to another one amounted to forbidding thinking as such.
Stephen Naron and I returned to the idea of compiling testimonies, now with the hope of provoking a conversation that could transcend the “is Trumpism fascism?” debate. It seemed to me that the Kierkegaardian Either/Or was a trap: historical comparison should not be a yes or no question, but a “how” question. Nothing is ever exactly the same as anything else. Ceteris paribus – “all other things being equal” – the presumption so often involved in social science, struck me as a fallacy: all other things are never equal. This is one reason why it is impossible to do a control study on real life.
This September, my ten-year-old son’s class took a field trip to a nature reserve. My son was especially taken by the wild pigs. He came home and delivered a fervent discourse on why it was preferable to be a wild pig as opposed to a human. Friedrich Nietzsche would have agreed. His 1874 essay “The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” began with cows luxuriating in their presentism. We could only envy them their happiness, whose source – Nietzsche wrote – was a lack of self-consciousness about temporality. Man, on the other hand, suffers from a constant awareness of the past, and this awareness serves “to remind him what his existence fundamentally is – an imperfect tense that can never become a perfect one.” Consciousness of the past plagues, emasculates, at times overwhelms us. Only the strong can handle a lot of history. Take Schiller and Goethe, Nietzsche told us. “In relation to such dead men,” he wrote, “how few of the living have a right to live at all!”
Intimidation by greatness has its parallel in intimidation by vileness: the sentiment that in relation to the
Holocaust, no one has a right to speak at all. “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism,” Theodor Adorno wrote after the war. Are assertions of both beauty and horror, then, equally impermissible?
What is at stake in singularity? For the literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, the commitment to singularity is bound up with a moral commitment to responsibility. The anxiety is that comparison relativises, and thereby mitigates; singularity is existentially necessary for full consciousness of guilt. In Gumbrecht’s case, the guilt is a guilt-by-contiguity: born in 1948, he himself is among those described by German chancellor Helmut Kohl as having been “graced by a late birth” – Die Gnade der späten Geburt. Perhaps what motivates Moyn’s polemic is a similar anxiety: historical comparison – even, paradoxically, to fascism – threatens a singularity presumed to ground
Yet why must comparison lighten responsibility? Is our understanding of others not dependent precisely upon analogy, metaphor, translation?
Spike Lee’s 2018 film BlackKkKlansman tells the story of Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado policeman who infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan in the 1970s. In the film, Stallworth tells his colleagues that he can portray himself as white on the phone. The police chief is sceptical. “Some speak the Queen’s English, some speak jive,” says Stallworth, “I speak both.” This is met with incomprehension because he is surrounded by people who do not understand code-switching. Americans are poor at grasping the meaning of translation. Our exceptionalism is bound up with our monolingualism, which is not only a linguistic deficit but an imaginative one: our inability to imagine that life taking place in other languages can also be real.
Translation demands an ability to inhabit the voice of another. Among the books to come into being (not in my kitchen this time) since the 2016 elections is Amelia Glaser’s Songs in Dark Times: Yiddish Poetry of Struggle from Scottsboro to Palestine. In response to the sufferings of Ukrainians, Palestinians, African Americans and others, Yiddish poets re-inscribed Jewish texts, “translating trauma into empathy”, and rendering other victims of oppression “metaphorically Jewish”. This history of Yiddish poetry reminds us that thinking through analogies – translating untranslatable suffering – is inextricably bound up with empathy.
In 1980, as Solidarity took form in communist Poland, its chaplain, Józef Tischner, wrote the essay “Thinking from within a Metaphor”. Tischner began with the problem: how could we know that the world was real, and not merely a projection of our consciousness? The question was so haunting, Tischner explained, because our deepest pain was “the pain of radical uncertainty”. The history of epistemology – the philosophy of knowledge – was laden with metaphors: Saint Augustine conceived cognition as giving birth, “something of its own kind . . . neither reflection nor creating out of nothing”. Plato asked us to imagine a cave, where the shackled prisoners mistook the shadows on the walls for reality. René Descartes hypothesised an evil demon, who had put false thoughts into his mind with the intent to deceive.
“Radical metaphorisation of the visible world,” Tischner wrote, “means degrading it from the position of an absolutely existing world.” Conversely, thinking in the complete absence of metaphors meant adhering to the “principle of univocality of language – as if it were a prohibition to go outdoors which binds the virus-infected”. For Tischner, this metaphor-less thinking, this claim to total affirmation of the world in its singularity, was a thinking in which “realism becomes not only a philosophy but already a disease.”
Any historical situation contains elements of both the singular and the universal. Can we extract the universal from the particular, and better understand the relationship between them? No moment is ever exactly the same as any other, just like no human being is exactly the same as any other. Yet there are essences we can distil, things we learn from the past. We learn that life in a given time and place can appear utterly normal – but can turn on a dime. We quickly normalise the abnormal. What is utterly unimaginable one day can become the new status quo a few months later.
“Die Grenzen verschieben sich,” commented my friend Ema, as we drank coffee by the Danube in August 2020. “The borders recede.” I was describing the America I had just left. Ema understood: she and her husband, Serbs whose second mother tongue is Hungarian, had come to Vienna from Vojvodina in former Yugoslavia. Ema had come in the 1990s, during the wars of ethnic cleansing; while a university student in Vienna she had volunteered as an interpreter for Bosnian refugees.
The borders recede. And we can carry on.
The writer Indi Samarajiva graduated from college in Montreal. He moved back to Sri Lanka just as the ceasefire in the civil war fell apart in 2008. “I used to judge those herds of gazelles when the lion eats one of them alive and everyone keeps going,” he writes, “but no, humans are just the same.” In autumn 2020, as the then American president Donald Trump campaigned for re-election, Samarajiva looked through old photographs: “There’s a burnt body in front of my office. Then I’m playing Scrabble with friends. There’s bomb smoke rising in front of the mall. Then I’m at a concert. . .”
We learn that those people who maintain an uncanny moral clarity regardless of all conditions, and those who take some sadistic pleasure in harming others, are both outliers. Most people, most of the time, allow their behaviour to be shaped by the social situation in which they find themselves.
There is always a scapegoat, the anthropological philosopher René Girard tells us. The particular persons in this role vary, but the role itself remains remarkably constant. Are there other such roles? In the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox, 19-year-old Etsy runs away from her ultra-orthodox enclave in Brooklyn. The rabbi dispatches the Chassidic thug Moishe to bring her back. In Berlin, terrorised by Moishe, Etsy turns to her estranged mother, who long ago fled their community. It is only then that Etsy learns that her mother did not abandon her by choice. How was it possible?
“There’s always a Moishe,” Etsy’s mother tells her.
During the Second World War, the Austrian-born Diana Budisavljević saved thousands of children from fascist Ustashe camps in Croatia. Perhaps we learn, too, that there is always a Diana Budisavljević? An Irena Senderlowa? A Harriet Tubman? A Chiune Sugihara?
We learn that inhumanity, like humanity, approaches in small steps. Slavenka Drakulić, the Croatian novelist, attended the trials of Yugoslav war criminals in the Hague. These could have been people she knew, her daughter’s former schoolmates. “As in Germany, in Croatia you first stopped greeting a person of the other nationality perhaps only because you were afraid that others would see you acknowledging him,” she wrote. She tried to describe how it had all happened: “it is we ordinary people and not some madmen who made it possible. We were the ones who one day stopped greeting those neighbours of a different nationality – an act that the next day made possible the opening of concentration camps.”
“An avalanche of killings never started as a huge thing,” said Krzysztof Czyżewski, theatre director and co-founder of the Borderland Foundation in Poland. “Auschwitz was something connected to daily life and small events. That’s how it starts. You never know how it will end up.”
“Build the wall!” “Lock her up!” “Send her back!” The borders recede. “Stand back and stand by.” Or as Steve Bannon said on a podcast last year, “I’d actually like to go back to the old times of Tudor England, I’d put the heads on pikes.” A cavalier disregard for political correctness slides into a psychopathic indifference to other people’s lives.
This January, a white-supremacist-leaning armed mob harbouring fantasies of saving the world from Satan-worshipping paedophiles stormed the Capitol building. “This is what you’ve gotten, guys!” Mitt Romney, one of the only prominent Republicans to oppose Trump, yelled at his Republican colleagues as the mob descended. The crowd shouted too: “Tell Pelosi we’re coming for that bitch!” “Hang Mike Pence!” “Get the firing squads ready.”
We learn that a failure of understanding can blur into bad faith. We learn that there are moments when there are no innocent choices, and that the consequences of actions can be boundless – and unforeseen.
"Everything is translation,” the Ukrainian translator and psychoanalyst Jurko Prochasko once said. And there is no seamless translation, no seamless metaphor, no seamless comparison.
Unmediated, perfect understanding of the Other is a utopian – and perhaps a totalitarian – delusion. But that perfect understanding is not possible does not mean that no understanding is possible. Freud tells us that there is no such thing as absolute clarity even about our own selves; the self is always hidden from the self. Yet the existence of art and literature is a leap of faith that some kind of understanding of the Other is possible. Otherwise the poetry of Paul Celan and Dwayne Betts and Wisława Szymborska would not exist. Nor would the novel. Their existence is an act of faith that we can read ourselves into the life of another person.
Perfect opacity might be as much a fantasy as perfect transparency. Maybe, in the end, some kind of translation is all too possible. Krystyna’s desire to find herself in a place where horror was incomprehensible was an attempt to flee from the human condition. When she understood that there was no such place, she made a final escape. The rest of us remain to grapple, and to hope.
A longer version of this text was originally published as the introduction to the Public Seminar/Eurozine forum “On the Uses and Disadvantages of Historical Comparisons for Life”.
This article is from the New Humanist spring 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
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A history of violence
For years, Americans debated whether Trumpism was fascism. Yale historian Marci Shore explores the uses and misuses of historical comparison.
Why must comparison lighten responsibility? Is our understanding of others not dependent precisely upon analogy, metaphor, translation?
Dancing with death
Australia was founded on the idea of man doing battle with nature. Peter Salmon asks whether, with climate change, the nation has met its match.
It is no stretch to say that looming environmental collapse in Australia is intimately linked with its colonial history. If not all of Australia’s national identity can be explained by these acts of subjugation, the pattern of climate change denial is a recognisable one in a nation in many ways built as a riposte to climate itself.
Inside the city of the silenced
In a climate of worsening oppression, Turkey’s Kurdish population is still struggling for basic rights, as Sami Kent reports.
Mehdi, a street vendor in his 30s, is sitting in a café, bordered on one side by concrete and barbed wire. Beyond them, 500 metres away, is the district where he once lived, razed by the war. “Refugees in our own country,” he explains with a smile.
New Humanist is published four times a year by the Rationalist Association, a charity founded in 1885. Our journalism is fiercely independent and supported entirely by our readers. To make a deeper commitment, why not donate to the Rationalist Association?
There is very little in the way of silver linings when it comes to the outbreak of Covid-19. However, we might discern one in the increased awareness of the health threats that could be coming our way; an awareness that is incentivising government and private interests alike to support the scientific community in addressing them before they hit. One such rising global threat is antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotics were introduced in the 1940s and revolutionised our capacity to treat infection and disease. However, our heavy reliance on (and sometimes misuse of) them to treat a range of conditions, as well as widespread use by the agricultural industry is leading the bacteria to adapt, acquiring genes that protect them from antibiotic treatment. Most of us have probably been told to complete a course of antibiotics, even if we feel fully recovered. Failure to do so leads to resistance, an issue compounded in countries where antibiotics can be bought over the counter, or where healthcare workers and veterinarians tend to overprescribe.
As a result, a growing list of infections – such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and gonorrhoea – are becoming harder to treat, with the World Health Organisation branding antibiotic resistance as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today”. Antibiotic resistance is already causing over 1.5 million deaths per year worldwide. So it is excellent news that the Ineos chemical company will donate £100 million to Oxford University with the aim of tackling the problem.
The grant – unusual from a private company – followed the major boost to the university’s scientific reputation that came after it developed the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Vice-chancellor Louise Richardson certainly thinks this highlighted the importance of universities, saying that the rapid production of a Covid-19 vaccine was due to 20 years of prior work, demonstrating that such research is “critical not just to health, but to the economy, to the preservation of culture and to the generation of new ideas”.
In the words of UK Special Envoy on Antimicrobial Resistance Professor Dame Sally Davies, antibiotic resistance threatens to put medicine “back in the dark ages”. If there is anything good that can come of the current health disaster, it is that the global community may be more inclined to take crisis prevention seriously and invest in the experts most likely to provide a solution. The Covid-19 pandemic will go down in history as a time of suffering. We don’t want to emerge into a world in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill.
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.
* * *
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, 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!
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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.