On a host of issues, people are saying things that sound serious but aren’t.
Dear Reader (Including Scott Lincicome nerds),
Sometimes people say serious things. Sometimes people say things that just sound serious as a way to avoid thinking seriously.
For instance, I saw this tweet this morning:
Of those 22 words, almost every one that is longer than three letters is used incorrectly. Or, if we want to be generous, they’re used so figuratively and in such an exaggerated fashion as to be either dishonest or deranged—like when DoorDash failed to deliver my buffalo wings and I said it was the greatest atrocity of the 21st century. These two Senate candidates are not “kings.” Whatever problems we face with Big Tech, they are not remotely an “existential issue.” The “chains of corporate slavery” aren’t a thing. If you feel enslaved to Facebook or Twitter, that’s a personal issue you should sort out for yourself, ideally in private or under psychiatric care. And we do not live in a tech oligarchy, no matter how many times you say it. I mean, none of the people haggling over the infrastructure fight are oligarchs—they’re elected legislators—and none of them work for Big Tech. Believing that certain institutions have too much power is a perfectly legitimate argument (even though it’s often just an opinion masquerading as an argument), but having too much power does not an oligarch make. To paraphrase Stalin, how many divisions does Mark Zuckerberg have?
Such hyperbole probably can be explained by a desire to suck up to Peter Thiel and his preferred Senate candidates more than anything else. The funny thing about that, of course, is that if we did live in a Big Tech oligarchy, Thiel would be one of the oligarchs. Even funnier, all of this comes amid Donald Trump’s decision to launch a copycat social media platform to get around being banned by those evil, censorious platforms Facebook and Twitter. That’s not the funny part. The funny part is that Trump’s new platform reserves the right to ban anyone who makes fun of Trump or the platform. That’s fair enough. But, well, LOL.
Anyway, let’s move on.
Arms races are good now.
For roughly half a century, Democrats have had a strong contingent of peaceniks. I don’t really mean to use that pejoratively; there’s nothing wrong with wanting peace. As with everything important in life, the real question is: What price are you willing to pay for it? I want to be an Olympic water polo player. But I have steadfastly refused to pay the price in time and effort to make that even remotely possible. Anyway, for a long time, other than actual wars, perhaps the key motivating issue for the anti-war, peace-at-any-cost crowd was arms control. In the 1980s, the SANE Freeze movement animated a lot of Democrats.
Barack Obama cut his teeth on a lot of that stuff as a student, and when he got elected president he made scaling back the nuclear arms race a top foreign policy priority. “Of all the threats to global security and peace, the most dangerous is the proliferation and potential use of nuclear weapons,” he wrote in the Washington Post. “Even as we deal with the realities of the world as it is, we must continue to strive for our vision of the world as it ought to be.” Then-Vice President Joe Biden concurred: “As we’ve said many times, the spread of nuclear weapons is the greatest threat facing our country. That is why we are working both to stop their proliferation and eventually to eliminate them.”
Last week, it was revealed that the Chinese fairly successfully tested a hypersonic intercontinental missile that could, when perfected, pose an actual existential threat to the United States of America. It represents a massive escalation in China’s nuclear capabilities. And what was the Biden administration’s reaction?
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “We welcome stiff competition, but we do not want that competition to veer into conflict, and that is certainly what we convey privately as well.”
Just to be clear, the “competition” she’s talking about here is not economic competition, or competition in the upcoming Olympics. “Competition” in this context is simply a stand-in for “nuclear arms race.”
I’m not one of those people who’s nostalgic for the Cold War, but I am nostalgic for some of the things that came with it—and not just slightly more plausible James Bond plots. Politicians took things just a bit more seriously back then. It is inconceivable that any Cold War president would allow this sort of response to get further than the intern pool.
Heck, here’s Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs in 2010: “So we believe strongly and I think the Chinese believe that an arms race either in the Middle East or an international arms race is in no way in their interests.”
Time and again Psaki, and this administration generally, says things that sound serious but reach the height of unseriousness if they are taken, well, seriously. “We welcome stiff competition” sounds like a grown-up thing to say—and it would be if we were talking about economics. But in reality, in this context, it’s completely untethered from any legitimate policy or argument—of the left or the right. I suppose a very hawkish administration could say something like, “Bring it! We won’t shrink from the challenge of remaining the dominant military power on the planet.” But the whole point of such bluster would be to deter China from pursuing an arms build-up. So many of the things Psaki says seem intended to get good reviews on Twitter—and they do, from people inside the bubble—or like their dialogue in a bad movie about politics.
But let’s move on to my favorite example of serious sounding words that are profoundly unserious.
First, a little context.
Dorian Abbot is a geophysicist and professor at the University of Chicago. MIT invited Abbot to give the prestigious John Carlson Lecture on climate science. When someone found out he’s a critic of affirmative action—a topic he was not going to address in the Carlson lecture—MIT canceled the event and rescinded his invitation.
Michael Powell has a very good and balanced write-up of the Abbot affair. In it he talked to Phoebe Cohen, a paleontologist and an associate professor in geosciences at Williams College. She has a B.A. from Cornell and a Ph.D. from Harvard. She supports MIT’s decision, which prompted Powell to ask a good question: What would the effect of this decision be on academic debate? And should the academy serve as a bastion of unfettered speech?
To which Cohen replied: “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.”
Whoa. That sounds like a serious thing a serious person would say about a serious topic. And while it is a serious problem that people like Cohen believe this is an intellectually serious thing to believe, it’s sillier than a remake of War and Peace with an all-basset-hound cast. I’d call it nonsense on stilts, but Jeremy Bentham used that phrase about a very serious argument he disagreed with. This is nonsense on shrooms.
Where to begin?
First, I think it’s worth noting there was a time when a lot of racist white men agreed with her to one extent or another. There was a time when elite universities—like the ones Cohen attended—believed that intellectual debate and rigor were the pinnacle of intellectualism, and that such intellectualism was reserved as the sole provenance of white, Christian (mostly Protestant) men. That’s why Harvard went so long without black, female, or Jewish students. The argument against admitting blacks and women was that they couldn’t hack it. The argument against Jews was that they were too good at it (and that the Protestant students didn’t like them).
Look at this sentence again: “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.” It is no more nor less true to say “This idea of Harvard comes from a world in which white men dominated.” Ditto, by the way, the “idea” of Williams College, established in 1793. It didn’t admit a black student until 1885. It didn’t admit a female student until 1970.
Oh, and by the way, the sentence works the same way if you replace Harvard or Williams College with “paleontology,” and for that matter, “climate science.”
But let’s go deeper. I think a fair reading of Cohen’s statement is that this “idea” of vigorous and serious intellectual debate is really a stand-in for, broadly speaking, the Enlightenment-based, classically liberal ideals of free speech generally and academic freedom generally.
But I could be wrong. The concept of academic freedom is in some ways both older and younger than that.
For instance, I suppose Cohen might have been referring to Ancient Greece. After all, Socrates had certain notions of truth and rigor that he was willing to stand by even if it meant having to drink a hemlock smoothie. Or maybe she meant the more recent effort to articulate an actual doctrine of academic freedom at the beginning of the 20th century. The American Association of University Professors, founded in 1915, made academic freedom a central mission in response to the firing of professors for opposing World War I, amid the hysteria fomented by the Wilson administration. [An earlier version of this sentence said that the AAUP was founded in 1915 in response to these terminations. Sorry about that.]
It doesn’t really matter, of course. Because wherever you put the birthdate of this idea, her argument is still ridiculous.
The Ancient Greeks didn’t really have a concept of “whiteness,” given that most of their enemies shared the same pigmentation. (And even if the Persians were a shade darker, that really wasn’t the issue.) More importantly, you know who made Socrates drink hemlock? White dudes.
Which is sort of the point.
Whether you’re talking about Ancient Greece or Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany (or even, heh, Woodrow Wilson’s America), the people waging war against free speech, honest debate, and intellectual rigor were very bad, very powerful, very pale people with penises.
In other words, open, honest, vigorous, and rigorous debate isn’t inherently white or male. If it were, the decidedly white men of, say, Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia wouldn’t have beaten, harassed, and murdered so many people who engaged in it. The New School of Social Research would never have been created, either. In other words, there were plenty of white men, often very dominant white men, on the other side of the project Cohen ascribes to white men as a group.
There were white men on the side of Lysenkoism, phrenology, eugenics, creationism, flat-earthism, totalitarianism, authoritarianism, theocracy, and fruitarianism. And there were white men on the other side of those. As a matter of logic, if a label applies both to “X” and “X must be destroyed,” then the label isn’t doing a very good job at describing a phenomenon.
Cohen’s claim is very popular these days in academia and beyond. It can be found in Harvard’s and MIT’s discrimination against Asian Americans and the almost daily stories about efforts to cancel or silence people who disagree with it. It vexes me for all sorts of reasons, but I’ll stick to my top three. First, it is not actually a good faith argument. If it were, it would be applied to all sorts of other things that are products of a white-male dominated world—from democracy to antibiotics to, heh, tenure. Rather, it’s an excuse for certain people to hold onto or gain power—which is precisely how those terrible white men used it. If you wielded it against non-whites it would be obviously racist. “We don’t have to respect your argument or acknowledge your facts because that’s ‘black thinking’ or an ‘Asian idea.’”
Second, it’s all the more infuriating because this kind of argument isn’t used for the betterment of racial or ethnic minorities generally, but for a tiny sliver of ideologically hidebound elites. I mean, last November, Californians were asked if they wanted to repeal the state ban on affirmative action. They voted no in a landslide, despite massive spending in favor of it. But because Abbot agrees with 57 percent of California voters, he can’t give a speech about climate change? Really?
My last grievance is with the ironic nature of this war on honest debate. The only real threat to this ideological monopoly, like all monopolies, is free competition. Adam Smith and Joseph Schumpeter demonstrated that monopolies cannot last so long as their monopoly power isn’t protected by the state. Over time, monopolies are undone by more nimble and innovative competitors who offer better service or better products. Ideological monopolies, particularly ones that serve the public poorly, cannot last very long if they are subjected to the same sort of rigorous competition in the battle space of ideas. Which is precisely why these people embrace intellectual protectionism.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: We had a very bad morning. I had to take Pippa to the vet for a battery of tests to see if her limp is a symptom of some larger problem. One surgeon wants to fuse her wrist joint. We got a second opinion from another vet who thinks she might have joint pain elsewhere and it could be the result of some tick-borne infection or some other condition. So she’s getting an MRI today.
Anyway, Pippa hates the vet more than any dog I’ve ever had—and they all hate the vet. We pulled up in front of the animal hospital this morning and she immediately recognized it as the Very Bad Place Where Bad Things Happen and started to cry. She jumped in my lap and tried to curl around me as she shook. I tried to comfort her, which aroused even more concern from Zoë who also recognized the VBPWBTH. So I had to sit there waiting for the tech to come and get Pippa while consoling both girls. It’s even harder because the Fair Jessica is still out of town and they always get anxious when she leaves. Yesterday I went to the grocery store, and when I got back they asked me why I was gone for 35 years. And then Zoë chastised me. Meanwhile, Gracie is the picture of stately equipoise. Please have a good thought for Pip.
And now, the weird stuff