Tag: HTT

Raymond Tallis, making a profound point: “Irrationality is a luxury that can be enjoyed only because it sits securely in the landscape of sedimented rationality composed of technologies and techniques and the institutions that make them available in our daily lives.” 

two quotations on disagreement

Michael Oakeshott

The view dies hard that Babel was the occasion of a curse being laid upon mankind from which it is the business of philosophers to deliver us, and a disposition remains to impose a single character upon significant human speech.

Bernard Williams

Disagreement does not necessarily have to be overcome. It may remain an important and constitutive feature of our relations to others, and also be seen as something that is merely to be expected in the light of the best explanations we have of how such disagreement arises.

From a brilliant essay by Matt Crawford:

One of the most striking features of the present, for anyone alert to politics, is that we are increasingly governed through the device of panics that give every appearance of being contrived to generate acquiescence in a public that has grown skeptical of institutions built on claims of expertise. And this is happening across many domains. Policy challenges from outsiders presented through fact and argument, offering some picture of what is going on in the world that is rival to the prevailing one, are not answered in kind, but are met rather with denunciation. In this way, epistemic threats to institutional authority are resolved into moral conflicts between good people and bad people.

Wendell Berry (1991):

I. Properly speaking, global thinking is not possible. Those who have “thought globally” (and among them the most successful have been imperial governments and multinational corporations) have done so by means of simplifications too extreme and oppressive to merit the name of thought. Global thinkers have been, and will be, dangerous people. National thinkers tend to be dangerous also; we now have national thinkers in the northeastern United States who look upon Kentucky as a garbage dump.

II. Global thinking can only be statistical. Its shallowness is exposed by the least intention to do something. Unless one is willing to be destructive on a very large scale, one cannot do something except locally, in a small place. Global thinking can only do to the globe what a space satellite does to it: reduce it, make a bauble of it. Look at one of those photographs of half the earth taken from outer space, and see if you recognize your neighborhood. If you want to see where you are, you will have to get out of your space vehicle, out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground. On foot you will find that the earth is still satisfyingly large, and full of beguiling nooks and crannies.

John Tooby:

To earn membership in a group you must send signals that clearly indicate that you differentially support it, compared to rival groups. Hence, optimal weighting of beliefs and communications in the individual mind will make it feel good to think and express content conforming to and flattering to one’s group’s shared beliefs and to attack and misrepresent rival groups. The more biased away from neutral truth, the better the communication functions to affirm coalitional identity, generating polarization in excess of actual policy disagreements. […] 

This raises a problem for scientists: Coalition-mindedness makes everyone, including scientists, far stupider in coalitional collectivities than as individuals. Paradoxically, a political party united by supernatural beliefs can revise its beliefs about economics or climate without revisers being bad coalition members. But people whose coalitional membership is constituted by their shared adherence to “rational,” scientific propositions have a problem when — as is generally the case — new information arises which requires belief revision. To question or disagree with coalitional precepts, even for rational reasons, makes one a bad and immoral coalition member — at risk of losing job offers, one’s friends, and one’s cherished group identity. This freezes belief revision.  

Forming coalitions around scientific or factual questions is disastrous, because it pits our urge for scientific truth-seeking against the nearly insuperable human appetite to be a good coalition member. Once scientific propositions are moralized, the scientific process is wounded, often fatally.  No one is behaving either ethically or scientifically who does not make the best case possible for rival theories with which one disagrees.


This is related, in a way, to my previous post: After reading yet another invitation-disinvitation story, I think every university should – in the interests of full disclosure, honesty, and charity – prepare a list of Topics On Which Dissent Is Not Permitted and send that list to everyone who is invited to speak. That way prospective lecturers will know in advance whether they hold views that are not tolerated at those universities and can decline the invitation immediately rather than having to be canceled later on.


For more than 20 years now, I’ve been writing occasionally on the theme of motives, always making the same points:

  1. Because, as Rebecca West famously said, “There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive,” it’s very hard to tell what anyone’s truly dominant motives are;
  2. What people actually do is more important than what you think their motives are;
  3. There’s no reason to think you can understand the motives of others if you don’t have a firm grasp on your own.

I was thinking about that third point especially last night while listening to the most recent episode of FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast. The hosts prided themselves on looking into the motives of the people who make polls, but it never occurred to them that their own project might be motivated also.

Some writers in the so-called “rationalist community” will preface their posts or essays with some statement of “confidence interval” or “epistemic status” – Scott Alexander does this, for example. I think everyone who writes about the motives of others should append to their discourse a “personal motive estimation” – an account of what they believe their own motives to be. In the spirit of full disclosure.

From a New York Times correction:

The article also misstated the number of Covid hospitalizations in U.S. children. It is more than 63,000 from August 2020 to October 2021, not 900,000 since the beginning of the pandemic.

Ah yes, the problem of scale again. I know I beat this drum all the time, but it’s so important. Imagine this correction from the Gray Lady: 

The article also misstated the typical speed limit on American Interstate highways. It is 70 miles per hour, not 1,000 miles per hour. 


The article also misstated the highest number of points ever scored by one player in an NBA game. It is 100, not 1,428. 

All three errors are proportionately the same. We can easily see that my imaginary examples are absurd, but how many Times readers doubted the claim of 900,000 children hospitalized for Covid? Not one in 63,000, I suspect. The scale of the phenomenon is just too big for us to have reliable intuitions about accuracy or inaccuracy.  

Hire this man for the School for Scale!

news as religion

Matt Taibbi:

Surveys found a third of Republicans think the asymptomatic don’t transmit Covid-19, or that the disease kills fewer people than the flu or car crashes. But Democrats also test out atrociously, with 41% thinking Covid-19 patients end up hospitalized over half the time — the real number is 1%-5% — while also wildly overestimating dangers to children, the percentage of Covid deaths under the age of 65, the efficacy of masks, and other issues.

This is the result of narrative-driven coverage that focuses huge amounts of resources on the wrongness of the rival faith. Blue audiences love stories about the deathbed recantations of red-state Covid deniers, some of which are real, some more dubious. A typical Fox story, meanwhile, might involve a woman who passed out and crashed into a telephone pole while wearing a mask alone in her car. Tales of each other’s stupidity are the new national religion, and especially among erstwhile liberals, we take them more seriously than any religion has been taken in the smart set in a long, long time. 

I know I have been banging this drum for a long time — here, here, and in greatest detail here — but I think it’s better to consider these systems of beliefs as myths, as emerging from what Kołakowski calls “the mythical core of culture,” rather than religion. 

UPDATE: This from Sally Satel is relevant: 

An ambitious new study … by the Emory University researcher Thomas H. Costello and five colleagues … proposes a rigorous new measure of antidemocratic attitudes on the left. And, by drawing on a survey of 7,258 adults, Costello’s team firmly establishes that such attitudes exist on both sides of the American electorate. (One co-author on the paper, I should note, was Costello’s adviser, the late Scott Lilienfeld — with whom I wrote a 2013 book and numerous articles.) Intriguingly, the researchers found some common traits between left-wing and right-wing authoritarians, including a “preference for social uniformity, prejudice towards different others, willingness to wield group authority to coerce behavior, cognitive rigidity, aggression and punitiveness towards perceived enemies, outsized concern for hierarchy, and moral absolutism.” 

But before conservatives start up the “the left is worse” chorus, note this: 

I asked Costello whether left-wing and right-wing authoritarians exist in equal proportions. “It is hard to know the ratio,” he said, making clear that a subject’s receptivity to authoritarianism falls on a continuum, like other personality characteristics or even height, so using hard-and-fast categories (authoritarian versus nonauthoritarian) can be tricky. “Still, some preliminary work shows the ratio is about the same if you average across the globe,” he said. In the U.S., though, Costello hypothesizes that right-wing authoritarians outnumber left-wing ones by roughly three to one. Other researchers have concluded that the number of strident conservatives in the U.S. far exceeds the number of strident progressives and that American conservatives express more authoritarian attitudes than their counterparts in Britain, Australia, or Canada.


Paul Kingsnorth:

The impacts of a society predicated on boundless economic growth via boundless sensory stimulation are at least in some ways measurable. Visit this website, for example, and you can see a real-time counter which will tell you just how much waste has been dumped around the world this year as a result of this way of living. At the time of writing, the counter is reading 1.4 billion tonnes. It’s only September.

We can enjoy our little towns here in the richer bits of the world because the waste we generate through our excitable purchases of big-screen tellies, lego sets, foreign holidays, cheap clothes, cheap food and all the rest of it always ends up somewhere else. The dioxins and PCBs go into the water and soil, the plastic goes into the oceans, the carbon dioxide goes into the air. Fifty million tonnes of ‘e-waste’ is shipped every year to the poorest countries on Earth, which are least equipped to deal with it. But then they’re not really supposed to deal with it: they’re supposed to keep it away from us. We don’t know what else to do with all this crap, so we — for example — ship 4000 tonnes of toxic waste, containing carcinogenic chemicals, to Nigeria, and just dump it on the beaches. The same way we dumped 79,000 tonnes of asbestos on the beaches in Bangladesh, and 40 million tonnes of our poisonous waste in just one small part of Indonesia. The same way we run our old ships up onto the beaches in China and India, and leave them for the locals to break up — if they can. The same way we dump nine million tonnes of plastic into the oceans every year

I unequivocally support the point Kingsnorth is making here, but … I really dislike this kind of numerically bludgeoning rhetoric. The problem, as so often, involves scale. One point four billion metric tons of waste is obviously a lot … but is it, you know, a lot? How even to think about these matters? Wolfram Alpha tells me that the earth weighs 5.97×10^21 metric tons; in comparison to that 1.4 billion isn’t even a rounding error. The mind boggles at these digits, does it not? 

What would be a reasonable amount of waste for seven billion people to produce, an amount that would indicate ecologically appropriate living? Whatever the answer is, any number expressing it would still seem massive to us. If you cited it readers would be horrified. Or maybe just numbed, as they are by these numbers. 

Richard Wilbur was right to warn his imagined prophet against invoking “the long numbers that rocket the mind.” Similarly, Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito reflects on the ways our attention is naturally drawn to smaller rather than larger tragedies — this, he thinks, is the inevitable, the human, “arithmetic of compassion.” A few photographs would serve Kingsnorth’s point better than the incomprehensible numbers he cites. 

Freddie deBoer:

I just don’t believe people, on this issue. When they say that they think all people have the same innate ability to perform well in school or on other cognitive tasks, that any difference is environmental, what I think inside is, I don’t believe that you believe that. When researchers in genetics and evolution who believe that the genome influences every aspect of our physiological selves say that they don’t believe that the genome has any influence on our behavioral selves, what I think inside is, I don’t believe you. I think people feel compelled to say this stuff because the idea of intrinsic differences in academic ability offend their sense of justice, and because the social and professional consequences of appearing to believe that idea are profound. But I think everyone who ever went to school as a kid knew in their heart back then that some kids were just smarter than others, and I think most people quietly believe that now. 

I have often had exactly this thought! We all know but we choose not to say. 

(Also, Freddie is correct to say, elsewhere in this post, that there are hundreds of supposedly reputable people who a few years ago lied relentlessly about his book — the book he hadn’t yet written! — in the hope of getting his contract canceled, and have never apologized or retracted their falsehoods. Having a blue check means never having to say “I was wrong,” I guess. That was one of the events, one of several, that permanently and definitively soured me on Twitter: seeing how enthusiastically professional journalists and academics would lie in order to bring down someone for wrongthink — when in fact the person wasn’t even guilty of the heresy they accused him of. It’s the act of burning witches that justifies you; the question of whether the people you’re burning actually are witches doesn’t arise, then or later.) 

Me to my wife: Hey babe, I have good news and bad news. 

Teri: Give me the good news first. 

Me: The senior vice president of communications for the National Religious Broadcasters went on TV to encourage Christians to get vaccinated! 

Her: Fantastic! But what’s the bad news?  

Me: Well… 

Now I’m wondering how many people read this and think, Yeah, but seven percent is a lot! In short, we still need the School for Scale. Also instruction in decimal points.

the Stupids

Garret Keizer:

More than the parade of people walking into lampposts while gawking at their phones; more than the insatiable appetite for any kind of technologically enhanced spectacle, to the extent that political conventions, big-ticket sporting events, and megachurch services are virtually indistinguishable from one another or from a Nuremberg rally in their obsessive reaching for the unreal; more than the open disdain for science; more than the oxymoronic statement “I believe in science” — I know of no more definitive expression of stupidity than proudly professing a total inability to understand an opponent’s position on a controversial issue. That a fetus is an integral part of a woman’s body and thus under her sovereign moral control, that a fetus is a form of human life entitled to certain protections, that in a world where maniacs go around shooting schoolchildren it’s a good idea to get rid of guns, that in a world where maniacs go around shooting schoolchildren it’s a good idea to get a gun — “I simply can’t understand how anyone can think like that.” Really? Can’t agree with it, sure. Can’t accept its basic premises, fine. But can’t understand it? And yet I catch myself saying this all the time, and what is more, I think I might be telling the truth. Because after a while the refusal to understand becomes the inability to understand. Chronic stupidity is not the result of injury or genetics; it’s a learned behavior. We acquire it like a microwave or a suntan.

A decade ago, when I thought things were getting bad — oh how naïve I was in those days — I wrote an essay “Against Stupidity” in which I argued for the canonization of St. Jonathan Swift and even wrote a collect for his feast day. 

Gather around, friends — and please join us, Mr. Keizer — and let’s bow our heads and say together, 

Almighty and most wrathful God, who hate nothing You have made but sometimes repent of having made Man; we thank you this day for the life and work of Your faithful servant Jonathan Swift, who constantly imitated and occasionally exceeded Your own anger at the folly of sin, and who in his works excoriated such folly with a passion that brought him nigh unto madness; and we pray that You may teach us to be imitators of him, so that the follies and stupidities of our own time may receive their proper chastisement; through Christ our Lord, who reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN.

thinking and rationality

Reading this Joshua Rothman piece about rationality, I finally realized how my account in How to Think differs most significantly from the models of thinking advocated by the “rationalist community.” The chief difference is this: they proceed by excision, and I proceed by inclusion. Rationalists focus on clearing away those contents of the mind that they believe to be impediments: they’re about “overcoming bias,” about eliminating subjectivity – cognitive errors to them are always about unwarranted intrusions into the rational process. They operate under the (as far as I can tell unacknowledged and undefended) assumption that if you strip away everything that is not rationality as they define it — like the sculptor carving away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant — then you will be able to reach more reliable conclusions about what is true or what you should do.

I don’t believe in that story. Charles Taylor talks about metaphysical “subtraction stories,” that is, accounts of the role of religious belief that assume that if you subtract religion from the human mind and human experience then what will be left is Reason. The rationalist community tells the same subtraction story, though extending the content of what’s to be subtracted from “religion” to “irrationality” of all kinds; it just doesn’t seem to know that that’s what it’s doing. And it doesn’t seem aware of the possibility that taking away bad things does not necessarily leave behind good things. It might be rather that good things need to be built up.

My approach to thinking does not involve excision but rather inclusion: addition and amplification. I don’t believe in getting rid of biases, but rather trying to understand, as Gadamer put it, which of my biases and prejudices are conducive to knowing what’s true and good and which ones impede or disable me from knowing what’s true and good. After all, some of my prejudices are true. Why is that? I don’t think of my emotional responses as violations of objectivity to be eliminated, but rather additional factors to consider in trying to assess whether I’m growing closer to the truth or moving farther away from it. My biases and prejudices and feelings sometimes lead me in the right direction. Why is that? For me, excellent thinking does not require me to strip away portions of my humanity but rather to bring all my resources to bear on the quest for truth and right action — and therefore requires me to enhance my emotional life as well as my purely ratiocinative abilities. 

Rothman’s essay is critical not of reason itself but rather of the rationalist movement in some useful ways. He points out that “talking like a rationalist doesn’t make you one,” and sympathizes with Tyler Cowan’s view that “the rationality movement has adopted an ‘extremely culturally specific way of viewing the world.’” As Rothman rightly concludes, “It’s the culture, more or less, of winning arguments in Web forums.” 

But there’s something odd about his conclusion, which goes like this: 

The realities of rationality are humbling. Know things; want things; use what you know to get what you want. It sounds like a simple formula. But, in truth, it maps out a series of escalating challenges. In search of facts, we must make do with probabilities. Unable to know it all for ourselves, we must rely on others who care enough to know. We must act while we are still uncertain, and we must act in time — sometimes individually, but often together. For all this to happen, rationality is necessary, but not sufficient. Thinking straight is just part of the work.

Isn’t relying on others, if they are reliable others, one of the forms of “thinking straight”? This is a major theme of How to Think: the wisdom of knowing your own limits, and the necessity of, instead of always trying to “think for yourself,” finding trustworthy people to think with. It’s odd that Rothman seems to have absorbed an account in which doing this is something other than rationality, something other than thinking straight. 

departments of knowledge

Every department of Knowledge we see excellent and calculated towards a great whole. I am so convinced of this, that I am glad at not having given away my medical Books, which I shall again look over to keep alive the little I know thitherwards…. An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people — it takes away the heat and fever; and helps, by widening speculation, to ease the Burden of the Mystery: a thing I begin to understand a little, and which weighed upon you in the most gloomy and true sentence in your Letter. The difference of high Sensations with and without knowledge appears to me this — in the latter case we are falling continually ten thousand fathoms deep and being blown up again without wings and with all the horror of a bare shouldered creature — in the former case, our shoulders are fledge, and we go thro’ the same air and space without fear. 

— Keats, letter to John Hamilton Reynolds (3 May 1818), making a very similar case to the one I make in Breaking Bread with the Dead. Pynchon: “Personal density is proportionate to temporal bandwidth,” and in this case intellectual bandwidth — the breadth of understanding that comes from having some understanding of very different disciplines. Keats loved poetry as much as anyone ever has, maybe more than anyone ever has, but he didn’t want to forget his medical training. The more knowledge he has the less susceptible he is to the “heat and fever” of the moment. 

unknown unknowns

In the first printing of my biography of the Book of Common Prayer, I say that Thomas Cranmer was a Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford. This is incorrect. It was Jesus College, Cambridge

Now, I knew perfectly well that Cranmer was a Cambridge man. I just had a brain fart when I put him in Oxford. But the error has still nagged at me. I keep thinking: Would I have done that if I were English? That is, would the difference between Oxford and Cambridge be so vivid in an English person’s mind, especially an educated English person, that such a brain fart would be impossible? Or was it just a brain fart? Maybe in other circumstances I could with equal ease write that, say, Clarence Thomas’s J.D. is from Harvard or that FDR attended Yale.   

I can’t be sure. But the whole episode has made me more aware of all the things natives of a country know that foreigners, even affectionate and well-informed foreigners, have no clue about. My Cranmer error has had me musing about the fact that, while my academic speciality is 20th-century British literature, I may be completely, blissfully (or not so blissfully) ignorant about all sorts of matters concerning the world my writers grew up in that would be obvious to natives of their country.

Indeed I know I have such blanks in my knowledge. When I produced a critical edition of Auden’s long poem The Age of Anxiety, I annotated this passage: 

Listen courteously to us
Four reformers who have founded — why not? —
The Gung-Ho Group, the Ganymede Club
For homesick young angels, the Arctic League
Of Tropical Fish, the Tomboy Fund
For Blushing Brides and the Bide-a-wees
Of Sans-Souci, assembled again
For a Think-Fest … 

Here’s what I wrote: 

These titles are only partly explicable but are meant to suggest, ironically, that the four new acquaintances are the sort of people who would create social organizations devoted to good cheer and moral improvement. Ganymede was a beautiful young mortal who was abducted by Zeus to serve as the gods’ cupbearer; Auden may also have remembered the Junior Ganymede Club frequented by Jeeves and his fellow valets in the novels of P. G. Wodehouse. “Bide-a-wee” is a Scots phrase meaning “stay a while.” “Sans-souci” means “without care.” 

None of this is wrong … but: that excellent writer (and biographer of Auden) Richard Davenport-Hines wrote me to say that 

Sans Souci (in addition to being Frederick the Great’s summer palace at Potsdam) was together with Bide-a-Wee a common name, snobbishly mocked, given to cheap bungalows at down-market English seaside resorts to which lower-middle-class people might retire after a working life as a bank-teller, clerk in a town hall, supervisor in a small workshop, station-master on a small railroad, etc. This would be an immediate association to English readers of the 1940s, or to anyone of my generation. 

I wanted to smack myself for forgetting, or neglecting, Frederick’s summer palace, but that other stuff? I had no idea. And that is extremely distressing to me. 

Which leads me to my recently completed summer reading project: 

IMG 2558

Five thousand nine hundred and seventy-nine pages later, I know so much more than I did about the social history of postwar Britain: random people of brief notoriety, appliances, food products, radio and TV shows, catchphrases etc. etc. The dark question remaining, though, is: How much of it will I be able to remember?

Indeed: Will I even realize, when coming across an item unfamiliar to me, that I could look it up in these books? I am often haunted by a shrewd point C. S. Lewis makes in his Studies in Words: sometimes words change their meanings in ways that don’t call themselves to our attention. Using the current meanings of those words, we can make sense of old sentences — just not the sense that the authors intended, or that readers of their era would have readily identified. 

Still, I am making progress, and Sandbrook’s books, while perhaps less scholarly than Kynaston’s in some respects, are wonderfully well-written and perfectly paced. They were a joy to read. 

There’s one more problem, though. Sandbrook’s project is ongoing — he wants to keep drawing closer to the present day. But … 

  • The first book in the series appeared in 2005 and covers seven years in 892 pages; 
  • The second book in the series appeared in 2006 and covers six years in 954 pages;
  • The third book in the series appeared in 2010 and covers four years in 755 pages;
  • The fourth book in the series appeared in 2012 and covers five years in 970 pages;
  • The fifth book in the series appeared in 2019 and covers three years in 940 pages. 

At that rate of progression I will be long dead by the time Sandbrook gets to Tony Blair. 

open letter from a distinguished surgeon

Doctors call 768

I confess to experiencing not merely disquiet but also exhaustion, in the face of endless demands that I, a trained and experienced surgeon, wash my hands before operating on patients. The chief impetus for these demands seems to arise from one Miss Nightingale, an admirable woman no doubt but one trained neither as a surgeon nor as a physician. Nothing in my extensive experience — as, may I repeat, a highly trained surgeon — indicates the need for such a practice. It is true of course that not all of my patients have survived the operating theatre, but no surgeon has ever had a perfect record of success, and I have good reason to believe that Miss Nightingale in the Crimea manifested no spectacular powers of healing.

Moreover, we do not fully understand the chemical properties of soap; it may well be — indeed I suspect that this is the case — that the introduction of soap-suds, or even hands that have recently been in contact with soap-suds, to the human form will induce more symptoms in an infected or otherwise diseased part of the body than it could possibly ameliorate. In these cases the natural condition of the surgeon’s hands is surely safer than the introduction of a substance as thoroughly unnatural as soap. Indeed, two distant relations of mine have recently written to inform me that they have with their own eyes seen human skin terribly burned, and organs of the human body discolored and withered, in response to contact with soap. Testimony so compelling cannot possibly be dismissed.

I am further concerned by the prolonged and highly agitated statements from her Majesty’s Government on this subject. However well-meaning these public servants may be, their record of — let me speak frankly — incompetence in other matters disinclines me to heed their pleas in this case. Indeed it seems likely that their entire campaign on behalf of hand-washing is prompted by a desire to create a political triumph over the Loyal Opposition, who until recently blessed us all with their wise governance.

In conclusion, and in brief, let me simply say to Miss Nightingale and others who agitate so shrilly on behalf of the strange practice of hand-washing: These are my hands, and whether to wash them or no is my choice. 

Your ob’t servant, &c. &c. 

beats me

Over the past ten days I’ve been thinking a good deal about my friend Michael Brendan Dougherty’s essay on responding to vaccine skeptics.

One key claim Michael makes is that “most vaccine skepticism, if by that we mean reluctance, is not based on conspiracy theorizing — it’s based on risk-benefit calculations.” I wonder if that’s true, and how we might know. All I can go by, in the absence of data, is my own experience, and certain elements of my experience with anti-vaxxers are absolutely uniform. Without exception, they tell me that

  1. The covid pandemic may not be totally made-up, but its dangers are wildly and dramatically overstated by the mainstream media and liberal politicians;
  2. Covid is no worse than the flu;
  3. Masking doesn’t help;
  4. Vaccines don’t work;
  5. Vaccines are killing more people than covid has.

That covers the substantive issues. But two other elements of my encounters with anti-vaxxers are uniform and, I think, significant:

  1. They are openly and intensely angry;
  2. They declaim their beliefs like people reciting a creed, never — and I mean never — asking what my views are or even giving me a chance to state those views should I want to.

Everything about their self-presentation militates against dialogue. So for me the question is not “How might I convince them?” but rather “What am I supposed to do if conversation between citizens is not even one of the options on the table?”

For the last forty years I have been interested in our common life in this country, in the ways we live together, and whenever we have experienced pronounced social tension I have had ideas for resolving or at least lessening those tensions. Those ideas have typically been uncommon ones, and I have rarely been under any illusions about the likelihood of their being adopted; but I have nonetheless believed in their likely efficacy. In our current situation I have no idea what to do. I have no tactical suggestions. None. I am totally and absolutely at a loss. It feels like a case of mindslaughter.

UPDATE: Relatedly, I think, this recent speech by Donald Trump:

No more windows in buildings because environment. I always did great with these buildings that the bigger the window, the better I did, the bigger those windows, I wanted floor to ceiling windows, but they say you can’t do that anymore. We don’t want any more windows. It’s going to be real hard to sell apartments, I think. We have a beautiful apartment, and for environmental reasons, we have not put windows in the building. Oh great. Well, that sounds good. These people are crazy. Whatever happened to cows, remember they were going to get rid of all the cows? They stopped that, people didn’t like that. Remember? You know why they were going to get rid of all the cows? People will be next. People will be in there.

Tens of millions of Americans hear this man speak and think: He will make America great again. In him we place our full trust. In response to this also, I am totally and absolutely at a loss. I don’t even know where to begin.

So I’ll just talk about other things. Snakes & Ladders will now return to its regular programming — and I’m resuming the newsletter next week!

In an age when the word “dialogue” has acquired so potent a charge of verbal magic, it is worth reminding ourselves that in Plato, who seems to have invented the conception, dialogue exists solely for the purpose of destroying false knowledge. 

— Northrop Frye (1966) 

”The intellectual arrogance of clever people, intolerable though it often is, is nothing to the intellectual arrogance of ignorant people.” — Anthony Powell (in his notebook)

step by step

Jonah Goldberg:

For five years now, we’ve watched as one political and psychological levee after another has been broken. If in 2016, I’d have hypothetically described the events that led to Trump’s first impeachment to, say, Lindsey Graham, he’d have been appalled. But he’d also have insisted such a scenario was farfetched. If I told him he’d be a shameless apologist for Trump, he’d have been profoundly offended. He’d probably even have been sincere. But because of a series of decisions he made over the course of Trump’s presidency, Graham acclimated to political and psychological appeasement to Trump.

But in 2019, even after that first impeachment and the years Graham spent incrementally selling his soul to Trump, if I hypothetically described the events that led to the second impeachment, he’d still have said, “There’s no way I would stick with Trump if he did all that.” This isn’t even speculation. We saw that Lindsey Graham resurface for a few days after the siege of the Capitol.

“Count me out,” Graham declared in the well of the Senate. In an interview he added that he’d “never been so humiliated and embarrassed for the country.” But now, he’s back in Renfield mode.

This is an old story. Most people don’t start out corrupted or evil. They make a series of seemingly easy and harmless decisions for short-term gain until one day the person they see in the mirror has suddenly become a villain. Whether it’s King Saul, Michael Corleone, or Walter White, the path to ruin is one long series of choose-your-own-adventure decisions. 

This is cogent and quite helpful to me. I think I better understand the Republican capitulation to Donald Trump when I think of their decision to nominate him as the GOP Presidential candidate in 2016 as the equivalent of Walter White’s decision to hold Krazy-8 captive in a basement. 

Breaking bad walter and krazy 8 episode 3

I mean, it seemed like a good idea at the time — it seemed like the only real option. But then, once you have him in the basement, what do you do with him? Until you decide, you are as much his prisoner as he is yours.

So Walt sits down with a legal pad to map out the plusses and minuses of releasing Krazy-8 … and realizes that if he lets him go the end result will be the murder of Walt’s whole family. So he has to kill him. Killing Krazy-8 is basically the equivalent of electing Trump President. From that point on there seems to be no path back to a normal way of life. 

This is how the Fallacy of Wishful Thinking leads inexorably to the Fallacy of Sunk Costs, and then back to the Fallacy of Wishful Thinking again. 

In the end, having succumbed to the tyranny of his sunk costs, Walt has to watch — with genuine agonized horror, but also with at least a subliminal awareness of his own culpability — the execution of his brother-in-law, Hank. This is January 6, 2021. Trump supporters didn’t want that to happen — and yet they willed everything that led up to it, everything that made it inevitable. 

Walt eventually was forced, by the return of his cancer, to make a reckoning with his long slow slide into evil. Not a full reckoning, perhaps, but something of one. But clinging to the fantasy of a stolen 2020 election is, above else, a way to avoid reckoning with the real character of one’s sequence of decisions. 

Though the world reckons with those who cannot confront their own decisions. As Kevin Williamson writes in a brilliant essay Goldberg quotes, 

When Trump was elected in 2016, Republicans already controlled the House of Representatives and the Senate. In 2021, they control the board of commissioners in Minnehaha County, S.D., and several very highly regarded hills of beans. Trump never got even to 50 percent approval, the first president in a generation to stay underwater for his entire term in office — and also the first since Herbert Hoover to see his party lose the White House and both houses of Congress in one term. Trump-aligned figures are hearing footsteps in Republican states, with Senator Ted Cruz, for example, having come within a few points of losing reelection to a callow nobody in a race in which he lost every city in Texas more populous than Lubbock.

One in six of the people who identified as Republicans on Election Day in 2020 no longer associate themselves with the Republican party — only 25 percent of American voters do. That’s the political price of January 6 and Trump’s post-election shenanigans. Any more unity, and Republicans will be holding their next convention in a corner booth at Denny’s.

changing priors, changing life

I taught a a class last term called Philosophy and Literature, and for our last book we read Plato at the Googleplex, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (hereafter RNG). The chapter that gives the book its title is a delightful imitation Platonic dialogue by RNG in which Plato, on book tour, comes to give a talk at Google headquarters. The primary character in the dialogue, aside from Plato himself, is a publicist named Cheryl, a shepherd and minder of authors on tour, who finds herself pushed by Plato to rethink some of her core assumptions about life. The whole conversation is handled with great subtlety and skill – it’s just the kind of thing that I wish I had written, though I have neither the knowledge nor the skill to do what RNG does here.

There’s a point near the end of the dialogue where Cheryl is reflecting on her experience with Plato, and tells a friend that the world needs more people like Plato, “super-arguers” she calls them, because the super-arguer has the power to force us out of our well-worn tracks of thought and practice. As we were discussing this passage in class, I suggested that what Cheryl is saying could be explained in Bayesian terms. So I gave my students a brief overview of Bayesian reasoning. We talked about priors, that is, our current assessments of probability, and how Bayes articulates the ways we revise our priors in light of subsequent experience. The thing that makes Bayesian reasoning so attractive is his ability to see probability not as a fixed proportion, but rather as one that is continually being revised — or at least should be if our minds are functioning properly.

One of the books that we read earlier in the class is Philip K Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch — about which I recently wrote a few words here — so I asked my students to engage in a thought experiment: You are walking across campus and see a spacecraft descend and land; from it emerges a man with a mechanical arm, steel teeth, and a kind of visor where his eyes should be, who offers you a drug called Chew-Z, which he claims will confer immortality upon its user. I asked: Would you take the drug? 

My students all agreed they would not. Their priors tell them that such an experience might be an illusion of some kind, or a prank, a reaction to medicine, a side effect of exhaustion – all of these seem clearly more probable occurrences than the actual arrival of a strange man in a spaceship bearing a drug that supposedly confers immortality. And this is setting aside the question of whether, assuming the reality of Palmer Eldritch, his intentions are indeed benign and his claims truthful. But then, I said, suppose it happens again tomorrow, and the day after. Or suppose it happens to a friend of yours, and that friend decides to take the drug and claims to have achieved enlightenment as a result. None of this might be enough to cause you to change your mind about taking the drug, but it would be enough, I think, to cause you to revise your prior assumptions about the possibility of weird men in spaceships landing in Waco. You don’t move from a “confidence interval” of 0% to 100%, but the probability definitely rises. 

So that’s how Bayesian reasoning works. And you can see that what Cheryl is praising in super-arguers like Plato is their ability to cause us to revise our priors. They are, and this is RNG’s chief point in the dialogue, socially useful as, shall we say, gadflies – gadflies who are annoying enough to force us out of our usual patterns. And I think this is true. But, as the example of Dick’s novel suggests, there are other forces in addition to skilled argumentation that can press us to revise our priors. In fact, this is one of the ways in which some scholars have accounted for, or at least helped to explain, the extraordinary effects of LSD upon people: psychotropic drugs have the effect of weakening our priors and making us open to possibilities that we previously had not been open to. Now, as I pointed out, this weakening of our priors may be truth-conducive or may be the opposite: it all depends on how good our priors were. Opening our minds to new possibilities can sometimes lead to disaster, even if it can also sometimes lead to enlightenment.

I also noted that the book we read just before Plato at the Googleplex, Iris Murdoch’s novel The Good Apprentice, concerns some of the same themes. In one sense the story can be described as a retelling of the parable of the prodigal son: we have a father, or rather two potential fathers, and two sons, one who pursues goodness in a way that seems extreme and weird to other characters, and a second who falls into a pit of anguish and despair because — here come the drugs again — he surreptitiously administered a dose of LSD to a friend of his who then walked out of the window of his apartment and fell to his death. So you can see the story as the story of fathers, sons, brothers — a small unit of men who need to find some way to be reconciled to one another.

But that’s not all that the story is about. It seems to me that Murdoch is actually slightly more interested in the effects that extremity of experience or belief have, not upon the people who hold these extreme beliefs or have these extreme experiences, but on the people around them. The younger son Edward’s overwhelming misery is not just a challenge for him, it’s a challenge for everybody who knows him. It forces them to think about guilt and responsibility, about the conditions of healing, about what can be done to atone for sin. They don’t know what to say to Edward, and that reveals to them what they don’t understand about their own lives. Similarly, Stuart, the elder brother, who has commenced a quest for pure goodness and is willing to renounce anything in life that interferes with that pursuit, strikes many of the people in the novel as simply inhuman. He is often compared to an animal, which is odd, because what he is doing is precisely the opposite of animal life: he is questioning his instincts, questioning his desires — but his friends and family don’t have a language for someone who does this. They perceive it to be inhuman, and the only form of inhumanity that they can readily lay hold of is the bestial. In fact, though, Stuart is trying to be a saint. That doesn’t mean he’s right cut: George Orwell once said that “sainthood is a thing that human beings must avoid.” But that’s the proper description for his quest.

In any case, Murdoch’s chief theme seems to be that extremity of moral experience, whether it is an extremity of the desire for good or an extremity of guilt and shame, dislocates lives — not just the lives of the people who are having those experiences but also the lives of those who surround them. And that too can be explained in Bayesian terms: in the presence of moral extremity, everyone’s priors are weakened and disrupted. And in the presence of religious ecstasy. And in the presence of psychotropic drugs. And in the presence of super-arguers. 

So it turns out that what we were dealing with in that class was a series of stories about forces strong enough to weaken our priors. Because when our priors are weakened is when reflection begins. 

Archaic Torso of Apollo
Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell)  

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

follow the links

This is the sort of thing the world needs more of. Matthew Sweet saw a tweet claiming that a peer-reviewed study from a Stanford University scholar proved that face masks do nothing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. So he followed up, and learned that 

  1. It was not a peer-reviewed study; 
  2. The author is not associated with Stanford University or any other institution; 
  3. None of the evidence it cites supports the claim about the uselessness of masks.

Of course, Sweet’s demonstration is unlikely to make a dent in typical online behavior; shitposters gonna shitpost. But it’s a great example of how much you can learn if you just take the time to follow the links. Intellectual hygiene requires that we repeat this mantra: Don’t trust, verify

Here’s my suggestion: Assume that everything everyone says on social media in the first 72 hours after a news event is the product of temporary insanity or is a side-effect of a psychotropic drug. Write it off. Pretend it never happened. Only pay attention to what they say when three days have passed since the precipitating event. 

The achievement of coherence is itself ambiguous. Coherence is not necessarily good, and one must question its cost. Better sometimes to remain confused. 

— Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)

“Kakos really ought to suffer for doing hoti!” 

“Kakos did hoti?” 

“Of course! Haven’t you heard? It’s all over Twitter.” 

“But is there any evidence he did it?” 

“It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Anyway, I wouldn’t put anything past Kakos.” 

“Why not?” 

“Well, he did hoti, didn’t he?” 

the sprawling toolbox

In one of his notebooks Wittgenstein wrote, “I don’t believe I have ever invented a line of thinking. I have always taken one over from someone else…. — What I invent are new similes.” Maybe that’s what humanistic thought is essentially: a search for new similes, new ways of perceiving the familiar — better to appreciate it when it deserves appreciation and better to change it when it requires changing. A mode of lateral thinking. A way of restocking the toolbox

In such a project, the late great Mary Midgely once argued, religious experience is vital, because “there is a general tendency for new imaginative ways of understanding life to emerge from religious thinking – that is, from thoughts which go beyond current human horizons.” That is, one of the social functions of religious experience — wholly aside from whether any particular religion is true or not — is to create similes, to extend thinking laterally, to add to the toolbox. “The language that has been developed over the centuries for talking about the mental and spiritual side of life is not some feeble, amateurish ‘folk-psychology’. It is a highly sophisticated toolbox adapted for just that difficult purpose.” 

The sociologist David Martin — also late and great; he died just a few months after Midgely — thought that this proliferation of similes is indeed essential to humanistic discourse, and thought he knew why. In his late book Ruin and Restoration: On Violence, Liturgy and Reconciliation (London: Routledge, 2016) he wrote:

The cultural disciplines, theology included alongside sociology, depend on history. History involves narrative, and narrative involves contingency and subjectivity … History can only be narrated in ordinary language, in principle available to any competent language user. The same applies to the cultural disciplines. They have no concepts like ‘quasars’ in astrophysics or even ‘metabolism’ in medicine, unless metabolism is used metaphorically. The fundamental role played by contingent narrative expressed in ordinary language means that the cultural disciplines are metaphorical and rhetorical to a degree not found in the natural sciences and they proliferate taxonomies. They sprawl because attended by numerous qualifications dependent on cultural time and space. The setting out of the ceteris paribus clause can be very extended indeed. (p. 9) 

The irony here is that one invokes ceteris paribus — all things being equal — precisely because all things rarely are equal. One must continually account for cultural and social and experiential difference, make “numerous qualifications dependent on cultural time and space.” 

I have made a similar version of this point in particular relation to the need for a theological anthropology adequate to our moment: 

To this claim there may be the immediate response, especially from orthodox Christians, that theology need not be different in this age than in any other, for human nature does not change: it remains true now as it has been since the angels with their flaming swords were posted at the gates of Eden that we are made in the image of God and yet have defaced that image, and that what theologians call “the Christ event” — the incarnation, preaching, healing, death, resurrection, ascension, and ultimate return of the second person of the Trinity — is the means by which that image will be restored and the wounds we have inflicted on the Creation healed. And indeed all that does, I believe, remain true. Yet it does not follow from such foundational salvation history that “theology need not be different in this age than any other.”

We may indeed believe in some universal human nature and nevertheless believe that certain frequencies on the human spectrum of possibility become more audible at times; indeed, the dominance of certain frequencies in one era can render others unheard, and only when that era passes and a new one replaces it may we realize that there were all along transmissions that we couldn’t hear because they were drowned out, overwhelmed. The moral and spiritual soundscape of the world is in constant flux, and calls forth, if we have ears to hear and a willingness to respond, new theological reflections that do not erase the truthfulness or even significance of former theological articulations but have a responsibility to add to them. In this sense at least there must be “development of doctrine.” 

Note that the invocation of a “soundscape” is itself an attempt at coining a useful simile. It may be related to the concept of stochastic resonance in reading. It is probably not wholly compatible with the metaphor of vendoring culture. You generate the similes, you try them out, you discard some and lean on others. You hope that at some point you’re able not just to invent them but use them to aid understanding: there’s no point in having a big sprawling toolbox if you don’t put the tools to work. But right now I’m working on the development of those tools. 

Or am I sowing seeds in my blog garden? This business of simile-generation is complicated

the method

It was in that class that I first began to learn that every problem, whether serious or trifling, may be solved by the application of an always identical method, which consists in contrasting two traditional views of the question; the first is introduced by means of a justification on common-sense grounds, then the justification is destroyed with the help of the second view; finally, both are dismissed as being equally inadequate, thanks to a third view which reveals the incomplete character of the first two; these are now reduced by verbal artifice to complementary aspects of one and the same reality: form and subject-matter, container and content, being and appearance, continuity and discontinuity, essence and existence, etc. Such an exercise soon becomes purely verbal, depending, as it does, on a certain skill in punning, which replaces thought: assonance, similarity in sound and ambiguity gradually come to form the basis of those brilliantly ingenious intellectual shifts which are thought to be the sign of sound philosophizing.

Five years of study at the Sorbonne boiled down to acquiring skill in this form of mental gymnastics, the dangers of which are nevertheless obvious.  

— Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques 

three lessons

I’ve known Erin Kissane virtually for around a decade now — our IRL paths almost crossed a few years ago when she was still living in New York City and I gave a talk at Vassar, but that’s as close as we’ve come — and I have always had enormous admiration for her kind heart and steel spine. I was reminded of that admiration when I read her summing-up post for her year as the managing editor of the Covid Tracking Project. I strongly encourage you to read it all, and pay particular attention to these three sentences:

I suspect that intentional constraints on scope and scale allow for deeper, more satisfying, and ultimately more useful work. I suspect that a disciplined commitment to messy truths over smooth narratives would also breathe life into technology, journalism, and public health efforts that too frequently paper over the complex, many-voiced nature of the world. And I suspect that treating people like humans who are intrinsically motivated to do useful work in the world, and who deserve genuine care, allows far more people to do their best work without destroying themselves in the process.

I would love to see more institutions, whether in crisis time or in “normal” time, think long and hard about those three lessons, so beautifully articulated by Erin. Now I hope she can get some rest!

you want it darker

Damon Linker:

We have stopped believing in reason’s power to persuade. The right thinks the critical social theories espoused by many on the left are both wrong and pernicious, but it doesn’t expect to be able to convince the left of this view. Hence the move to use raw political or legal power to suppress it. The left, meanwhile, thinks many of those who don’t share its premises are motivated by racism and other forms of bigotry that are in most cases untouchable by argument. Hence the move to use moral condemnation to get resisters excluded from social circles and cultural institutions in which they enjoy various forms of power and status.

These examples are themselves expressions of a broader trend we see all around us in our public life: the tendency to skip the work of attempting to change minds in favor of grabbing the power to control what’s permitted. The clearest, and oldest example, of this move is the appeal to judges to resolve disputes that resist resolution through democratic deliberation and consensus-building. Instead of the right trying (and likely failing) to convince the rest of the country that the New Deal is a bad idea, it seeks to get the Supreme Court to declare the New Deal unconstitutional. Instead of the left trying (and likely failing) to convince the rest of the country that abortion should be legal, it seeks to get the Supreme Court to declare abortion a constitutionally protected right.

I don’t think this is quite right. The problem is not that many Americans have lost faith in the power to persuade; the problem is that they have lost the desire to persuade. An argument that would win over those people is not an argument worth making. Sweet it is to have enemies, and passing sweet to get them dragged on Twitter. 

As I wrote a while back, this is the triumph of the Manichaean Party in American politics. The last thing that party wants is unity; unity is loathsome to them. So to them I can only say: You want it darker.

I’m not sorry that I wrote a book called How to Think. It was worth doing. But it now seems to me that a more urgent task – ideally for someone wiser than I – would be to write a book that answers this question: Why Think?

UPDATE: Kevin Williamson makes a decisive point: “I do not think the United States is headed toward a civil war — civil wars are too much work. But it does matter that the dominant American political fantasy of our time is a dream of civil war. The mass arrests dreamt up by Q and the massacres envisioned by its rivals may be exercises in wishful thinking, but what Americans are wishing for matters.” 

This story, interesting in itself, is a reminder that the only thing that anyone knows about The Bell Curve is that it is very, very wicked. No one knows what Charles Murray argued — few people even know that he is one of two authors of that book — but everyone knows that the argument is indefensible. Even Scott Alexander knows that he should distance himself from Murray in some way because of The Bell Curve, though he has never read the book and has only a vague idea what it is supposed to claim. The Bell Curve is the Popery of our moment. 

Damnatio memoriae

Let’s be clear: Ryan T. Anderson’s book When Harry Became Sally has not been banned, and there are no “free speech” issues involved here. (Not in any precise sense, though I may say more about this in another post.) A retailer has decided not to sell a product. But because the retailer involved is Amazon, and Amazon has such an outsize influence over the book market, it seems to me that every published author ought to worry about what might happen to their sales if they got on Amazon’s bad side.

A number of interesting and important issues converge on this decision. For instance, the fact that by removing the book with no warning, no explanation, and no opportunity for appeal, Amazon is violating its own publicly announced guidelines: “If we remove a title, we let the author, publisher, or selling partner know and they can appeal our decision.” Or the fact that for a couple of days any search for Anderson’s book yielded a result for a book critical of Anderson’s that Amazon would clearly prefer you to read. (That now seems to have been replaced with a standard 404 page.) Or the apparent fact that there are no other topics of current dispute on which dissent is absolutely prohibited: for instance, you can still purchase Pluckrose and Lindsay on critical theory and Douglas Murray contra identity politics — for now. Or the fact that Amazon no longer has an email address you can write if you want to protest such a decision.

But to me, the most interesting point for reflection is this: The censors at Amazon clearly believe there is only one reason to read a book. You read a book because you agree with it and want it to confirm what you already believe. Imagine, for instance, a transgender activist who wants to understand the position held by Ryan Anderson and people like him in order better to refute it. That person can’t get a copy of the book through Amazon any more than a sympathetic reader like me can.

But another, deeper belief lies beneath that one: It’s that ideas like Anderson’s are not to be refuted but rather, insofar as it lies within Amazon’s vast power, erased — subjected to Damnatio memoriae. And the interesting thing about that practice is that it is simultaneously an assertion of power and a confession of weakness. Amazon is flexing its muscles, but muscles are all it has. Its censors don’t want anyone to read Anderson’s book because they know that they can’t refute it. They have no thoughts, no knowledge — only reflexes. And reflexes will serve their cause. For now.

two quotations on conspiracy belief

Ian Leslie

The US-based online conspiracy cult QAnon played a central role in last month’s violent insurrection at the Capitol. QAnon is a complex, sprawling conspiracy theory about a clique of vampiric paeodophiles who run the world. It sounds as if you’d have to very stupid or completely crazy to believe any of it, yet many thousands do, and it’s worthwhile trying to understand why. This clip from an interview with a former QAnon follower who has now recanted makes for compelling viewing. The woman in question, Ashley Vanderbilt, is intelligent and reflective and likeable, and provides an insight into how people like her get sucked in. The groups she started interacting with online (presumably on Facebook and elsewhere) were not explicitly ‘QAnon’. They were just people discussing some horrible, outrageous practice that needed to be exposed. They didn’t get straight to the “Bill Gates is drinking children’s blood” stuff. They started by discussing something relatively bounded and real: child trafficking. That triggered a powerful curiosity in her: “It piques your interest, because as a mom I want to protect my kid.” So Ashley started asking for information from her online contacts, whom she had grown to trust, and then more, and as she did she fell deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. “Eventually you get to that huge crazy theory, and you believe it. But it didn’t start that way.” Vanderbilt goes on to talk about how her intense absorption in the cult meant that she wasn’t fully present for her 4 year old daughter. I was really moved by her introspection and by her bravery in coming forward to talk about this. Her description of how she was drawn in reminded me of a passage from Robert Cialdini’s book Influence, in which he relates how American prisoners of war were interrogated by Chinese communists during the Korean War. The Chinese sought to persuade the Americans that they had been on the wrong side all along, with the aim of turning them into informers, and they had considerable success. Their approach was systematic and subtle. They didn’t start conversations with the prisoners by telling them America is evil and communism is good. The strategy was rather to “start small and build”. They would get the Americans to assent to statements like “The United States is not perfect”. Later they would ask them to make a list of “problems with America” and put their name to it. And so on, inch by inch, until at least some of the prisoners crossed the line and became true believers. I have no idea if QAnon operates as it does deliberately or if there is some bottom-up process for recruitment that has just evolved but the approach sounds similar. In many less dark situations, this is how good persuasion works anyway. People are hardly ever persuaded to “change their mind” by arguments, in the sense of a 180 degree reversal of their position. But over time, step by step, a mind can be changed. 

David French

But the more I see the conspiracies play out in real life, the more concerned I grow. When large numbers of people hold beliefs with religious intensity, those beliefs not only provide them with a sense of enduring purpose, they also help them form enduring bonds of friendship and fellowship. The conspiracy isn’t just a set of intellectual convictions, it’s also a source of community. It’s the world in which they live. […] 

Sweeping away a falsehood is of little use unless you can replace the lie with a meaningful and empowering truth. You cannot yank a person from their community and then leave them homeless. Do not pretend we can replace something — no matter how malignant — with nothing. […] 

When you fear for the mind and heart of your conspiracy-committed mother or uncle or son, don’t wait. Engage. But don’t engage immediately with argument, but instead with the fellowship and love that makes the heart want to turn towards truth. You become the person who loves them, accepts them, and helps provide that vital sense of virtuous purpose. 

The conspiracy theory is often the symptom of an underlying disease — a disease of hate or fear that robs a person of joy. The fierce anger and furious purpose of the conspiracy mindset is a hollow replacement for the peace and faith found not just in truth, but in truth communicated by a loving and empathetic family and friends. 


It seems to me that human beings in general, and Americans in particular, stubbornly resist the idea that life often presents us with trade-offs — opportunity costs, as the economists say, or incompatible goods. Isaiah Berlin says something especially hateful to most of us when he asserts that “Some among the Great Goods cannot live together…. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.” 

I’ve reflected on this point over the past few days as silly people have insisted that the state of Texas should obviously have prepared its power-generation plants for every eventuality: Arctic cold as well as Saharan heat.

The silliness here is twofold. First, it’s practically unfeasible: the financial cost for Texas to build its infrastructure around the possibility of Chicago-like winters is just as outrageous as would be the cost for Seattle to prepare its infrastructure for Texas-like summers. 

But there’s a second and deeper point to be made: What if there are circumstances in which it’s actually not possible to prepare for every possible eventuality, because the opportunity cost of preparing for one extreme is failure to prepare for the other? 

See, for instance, this Wall Street Journal article on the design of Texas’s power plants: 

The state’s plants are designed to shed heat instead of keeping it in, which helps in hot months but can be detrimental during cold snaps, according to researchers at the Electric Power Research Institute. But on Thursday Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who criticized the performance of his state’s grid operator this week and called for changes amid a public outcry, recommended that Texas plants winterize their equipment and that the state should supply the funding to make it happen…. 

Given the state’s normally warm climate, not all of Texas’ power plants are fully equipped with winterization measures — protections plants use to prevent freezing of pipes, sensors, motors and other components. In northern climates, many winterization measures are permanent and plants are housed within entire building structures for protection from the cold. But experts said that because of Texas’ summer heat, plant operators need to keep components exposed.

What if sometimes you have to choose between two goods? What if you actually can’t have both? Wow, that would really suck. Therefore it cannot be true. 

two quotations on prophecy

Washington Post:

When one QAnon channel on the chat app Telegram posted a new theory that suggested Biden himself was “part of the plan,” a number of followers shifted into open rebellion: “This will never happen”; “Just stfu already!” “It’s over. It is sadly, sadly over.” “What a fraud!”

But while some QAnon disciples gave way to doubt, others doubled down on blind belief or strained to see new coded messages in the Inauguration Day’s events. Some followers noted that 17 flags — Q being the 17th letter of the alphabet — flew on the stage as Trump delivered a farewell address.

“17 flags! come on now this is getting insane,” said one post on a QAnon forum devoted to the “great awakening,” the quasi-biblical name for QAnon’s utopian end times. “I don’t know how many signs has to be given to us before we ‘trust the plan,’” one commenter said. Yours truly, in How to Think:

In 1954 three social psychologists, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, read in the newspaper about a religious cult whose leader, a woman they called Marian Keech — her real name was Dorothy Martin — was prophesying the end of the world. Keech claimed that she had received messages from the inhabitants of a distant planet named Clarion, and from them she had learned that the world would be destroyed by a great flood on the twenty-first of December 1954. (She received these messages through automatic writing: she felt a tingling in her arm and a compulsion to write, but when she wrote, the words that emerged were not her own, nor in her handwriting. This was the method of communication the beings from Clarion chose to use to warn the world of its imminent destruction.) Those who heeded this warning and joined Keech’s group would be rescued by the arrival of a flying saucer from Clarion.

Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter pretended to be true believers in Keech’s message so that they might infiltrate and study the group. They had formulated a twofold hypothesis: first, that Keech was a charlatan; and second, and more interesting, that when the falsehood of her prediction was revealed her followers would not abandon her but rather escalate their commitment to the cause. […]

When the promised rescuers did not show up, and the threatened flood did not arrive either, the group was shaken. But then Keech felt once more the desire to write, and the message from Clarion was immensely reassuring: there was indeed a flood, but not a flood that kills, rather one that saves: “Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room and that which has been loosed within this room now floods the entire Earth.” Because of their faithfulness, they had been spared, and not just the little band of believers, but the whole world! And it was now incumbent on them, further messages explained, to break their habits of privacy and secrecy and to share with everyone, insofar as they were able, this “Christmas Message to the People of Earth.” (To which one can only add: God bless us every one!)

See Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter’s book When Prophecy Fails.

scale, cont’d.

The other day I published, at the Hedgehog Review site, a little dialogue on scale, and the common human inability to understand the scale at which many of the events that affect our lives happen.

Something happens almost every day to confirm the points I make there, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better illustration of the problem than the behavior of the people who assembled in anger at the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday. I heard an interview with one protestor who shouted that the protestors were there because they knew they were being lied to and cheated by the deep state, by the lamestream media, by the Democrats, by RINOs — and they knew it, he said, because of “what we’ve seen with our own eyes.”

What did he mean? I can’t be sure, but I suspect that there are two chief elements to his claim.

  1. He has almost certainly attended Trump rallies and seen massive crowds cheering the President on (something that Trump himself has often commented on, contrasting the large size of his crowds to the meager attendance at Joe Biden’s drive-in-movie-style rallies); likewise, I would bet that, wherever he might live, in his neighborhood the pro-Trump lawn signs stretch as far as the eye can see, with nary a pro-Biden sign to be found.
  2. He has almost certainly seen video clips which, their posters falsely claim, show voting fraud in action. Those clips have been tweeted and retweeted, shared and faved, held up as evidence again and again by people disinclined to do any fact-checking.

To him, then, it is simply not possible that President Trump lost the election. The evidence of his own eyes tells him that the President won in what Trump himself called, in a since-removed tweet, “a sacred landslide election victory.”

What that man does not understand is that everything he has seen — even under the wholly untenable assumption that the viral videos show actual fraud — amounts to no more than a drop in the American electoral lake. It’s statistically insignificant; it’s not even a rounding error. He simply does not understand how big his country is, how many people vote in its elections.

And the point of my post was: That kind of understanding is extremely difficult to achieve. We are simply not cognitively wired to think on that scale. Which is why my little dialogue raises the possibility of a “School for Scale” to teach us. Because if we, all of us, don’t get a grip on these matters, we, all of us, will continue to perpetuate massive and massively consequential misunderstandings of our country and our world.

more education, more motivated reasoning

Musa al-Gharbi:

In fact, the more intelligenteducated, or rhetorically skilled one is, the less likely it becomes that someone will change their minds when confronted with evidence or arguments that challenge their priors. There are two big tendencies driving this phenomenon.

The first is that in virtue of knowing more about the world, or being better at arguing, etc. people are just better equipped to find ways of punching holes in inconvenient facts, or finding reasons to justify ‘sticking to their guns.’ Indeed, one becomes more likely to really enjoy arguing – and to engage in political research and arguments as a hobby — as they grow more intellectually and rhetorically capable.

Perhaps surprising, but also somewhat intuitive if you think about it, highly-educated or intelligent people tend to be far more ideological than the general public. They are more likely to be partisan, to be obsessed with some moral-political cause, or to use some intellectual framework or idealized model to interpret the world.

And while educated people may be less likely to discriminate against others on the basis of factors like race, they are significantly more likely to be prejudiced against people who think differently than them, or hold different ideological commitments.

Follow the links for more details. 

Planet Earth

I have a policy that I recommend to you. When I hear a politician who wants my vote, or a pundit who claims to explain what’s happening in politics and society, I ask one fundamental question: Does this person live on Planet Earth? And if the answer is No, which quite often it is, then I pay no further attention to that person.


Geoffrey Skelley:

If “shy” Trump voters were a thing, for example, you might expect a difference in how respondents reply to surveys conducted via telephone versus those anonymously submitted online — the idea being that social desirability bias is less likely to kick in when a respondent is dealing with a faceless computer instead of a real person. However, as Morning Consult’s new 2,400-respondent study shows, Trump performed about the same against Joe Biden, regardless of whether the pollster interviewed respondents by phone or online.

Note that this point holds only if people believe that “surveys … anonymously submitted online” actually remain anonymous. And I know a number of people who don’t believe that — yes, people who plan to vote for Trump but who will only say so to those whom they wholly trust, because they certainly do not trust the anonymity of online surveys and are terrified at the social consequences if their support for Orange Man becomes known. I couldn’t tell you how many of them there are around the country; maybe not a statistically significant number. But I know some. 

I’ve heard Nate Silver make a version of this claim also, usually pointing to the apparent lack of such Shy Trump Voters in 2016. But the intensity of hatred for Trump has ramped up since then, so I’m not convinced that 2016 is a reliable guide. You can see why anyone working for FiveThirtyEight would be skeptical of the existence of STVs: If people don’t trust anonymous polls and either avoid them or lie, then the FiveThirtyEight model is in trouble. But it’s noteworthy that reluctance to believe in STVs leads Silver et al. to neglect what is after all a pretty obvious question about anonymous polling and surveying. 


One of the more pernicious quirks of English usage to arise in the past few years is the employment — by a remarkably large number of people, it seems to me — of the term “gaslighting” as the default explanation for disagreement. Nobody just disagrees with me anymore, they’re trying to gaslight me.

Let’s remember where the phrase comes from: a 1944 film in which a husband attempts to make his wife think that she’s crazy. To say that someone is gaslighting you is to say that they know you’re right but are pretending not to. They’re maliciously trying to get you to doubt yourself. They are dishonest, deceitful, manipulative. The charge of gaslighting is an extreme form of Bulverism: Instead of claiming You say that because you’re a man or You say that because you’re an American it’s You say that because you’re a moral monster

It’s a useful tactic to deploy if you’d prefer never to think about whether any of your assumptions are correct. Your opponents are not only wrong, they are wicked, and why should you engage with arguments that are obviously made in bad faith and for evil purposes? These convictions keep your echo chamber hermetically sealed.

What I find especially interesting about this usage is that it seems to have been adopted with equal eagerness by extremists on the left and the right. (Unlike the structurally very similar red pill/blue pill meme, which has been totally co-opted by the right.) It’s one of the many ways in which the far left and the far right are continually borrowing language, rhetorical strategy, and in some cases even direct political strategy from one another. It would be nice if we could ship them all off to their own island where they could fight it out, or, perhaps, discover that they can’t tell one another apart.

how he got away with it

In a lovely remembrance of Kołakowski, Roger Scruton muses on the question of how the Polish thinker “got away with” his incessant assaults on the sacred cows of modern academic thought. His critiques were persistent and incisive, and yet he made very few, if any, enemies. Scruton concludes,

Those who knew Kolakowski will remember his remarkable liveliness, achieved in defiance of long-standing physical frailty. I would encounter him, for the most part, at conferences and academic events. Nothing about him was more impressive than the humour and modesty with which he would deliver his opinions. He wore his scholarship lightly and showed a remarkable ability, until his death on 17 July 2009 at the age of 82, to respond with freshness and understanding to the arguments of others.

And perhaps this was his secret, and the explanation of the way in which he “got away with it” — that he never entered the foreground of others’ judgment as a dangerous opponent, but always as a sceptical friend. No alarm-bells sounded when he began his gentle arguments; and even if, at the end of them, nothing remained of the subversive orthodoxies, nobody felt damaged in their ego or defeated in their life’s project, by arguments which from any other source would have inspired the greatest indignation.

To be the “sceptical friend” of those with whom one argues — that’s not a bad ambition.

proportional representation

Jill Lepore wrote, “One study suggests that two-thirds of Americans between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four who were treated in emergency rooms suffered from injuries inflicted by police and security guards, about as many people as the number of pedestrians injured by motor vehicles.” In fact, the actual percentage is not 66% but something closer to 0.2%.

Estimate subject to further correction, of course, but there’s no question that Lepore misread the relevant study and misread it very badly indeed. The sentence I quoted has now been changed, with an acknowledgement of error at the bottom of the article.

The interesting thing to me here is that Lepore seems not to have been skeptical about what anyone who thought about the matter for two seconds would surely have seen as a bizarrely high number. I’ve been an American “between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four who were treated in emergency rooms,” indeed this happened to me several times, and in every case except one I was there because of a sports injury. Two broken arms, a badly sprained ankle, a couple of dislocated or broken fingers, an eye that had had someone else’s finger jammed into it … these are my emergency room stories, and they are very common indeed. (The one exception was a car accident that left me with whiplash.) Then there are the young people who have bicycle or motorcycle crashes, falls while drunk, accidents at work, appendicitis attacks … and Jill Lepore, one of our most distinguished historians, thought it was perfectly plausible that if you took every single one of those causes of ER visits, plus every other cause of an ER visit, and then doubled them — you’d have the number of ER visits for “injuries inflicted by police and security guards.”

How could Lepore ever have thought that was plausible? I can only think of one explanation: Because she unconsciously assumed that what she reads in the papers, what she sees on TV, what gets tweeted about on Twitter, is not only important but proportionately representative of what happens in the world. Maybe there’s a lesson here for all of us.


In 2017, I was interviewed by Emma Green of the Atlantic about my book How To Think. Here’s an excerpt:

Green: Ideologically speaking, people are often stuck in their own “truths” — they’re like circles in Venn diagrams that don’t necessarily overlap. Your proposal of generous listening and consideration is almost impossible to imagine.

Jacobs: You’re right that it is hard to envision. What I’m trying to do is slow people down. One of the most important passages in the book is where the software developer Jason Fried is wanting to argue with a guy who is giving a talk, and the guy says, “Just give it five minutes.” If we could just give it five minutes — even five minutes — we might be able to cool down enough to say, “Maybe this is different than what I first thought,” or “Maybe there’s a point here. Maybe this isn’t completely insane.”

Green: Is the right or the left more to blame for this fracture?

Jacobs: They’re bad in different ways. There’s a smugness on both sides. But I am more worried about the condition of the right in America right now. I think the primary moral fault of the left is a kind of smug contemptuousness toward people who don’t agree. And I think that’s a bad fault. But the primary fault of the right at this moment in America is wrath. I worry about the consequences of wrath more than I worry about the consequences of contemptuous smugness.

After re-reading this today, I have two thoughts. First, things have gotten worse. Second, the Left now our-wraths the Right.

more on the mania for unanimity

Theodore Dalrymple writes,

Lewis Hamilton, the six-time world champion British Formula One driver, recently criticised his colleagues in the sport for saying nothing in the wake George Floyd’s death.

If any answer to this accusation were required, a reasonable one might have been that it was not their place as mere car racers to comment on such matters. If they had wanted to engage in polemics, however, they might have pointed out that Hamilton had remained silent about many terrible events in the world, for example (to take only one such) the war around the Great Lakes of Central Africa, which so far has claimed not one life, but several million lives. Black lives matter to Hamilton, they might have said, but apparently not the lives of these Africans.

Now, Dalrymple is nothing if not a curmudgeonly traditionalist; and he fails to note that Hamilton linked racism in the U.S. with racism in his own country and the rest of Europe; but still, doesn’t Dalrymple raise an interesting question here? That is: How exactly does a narrative coalesce such that “silence is violence” about some forms of suffering but not others, even if the others have greater scope?

Consider this: Several of the largest tech companies in the world have banded together as The Technology Coalition: “We seek to prevent and eradicate online child sexual exploitation and abuse.” Why is no one — literally no one — demanding that businesses and other institutions make statements against the sexual exploitation of children? Why, for that matter, did I feel that I needed to write something about police brutality in America but not one word about Central African wars, or child sexual exploitation, or China’s treatment of the Uighurs, or a dozen other atrocities that by any rational comparative assessment are worse than police brutality in America?

Well, at least in part I felt the need to write because, as I commented in this earlier post, I’ve been thinking and writing about American racism all my adult life. But as I also note in that post, it wasn’t that long ago that I had to deal with people who criticized me for focusing too much on racial relations. Why has that topic now become something about which there are universal demands for public statements?

Three reasons. The murder of George Floyd (1) happened in America, (2) was captured on a video that seems agonizingly long but is just short enough for people to watch fully, and (3) was shared widely on social media — American social media.

(1) What happens in this country will for obvious reasons be more evident and relevant to Americans than what happens elsewhere, but the U.S. is also the media center of the world, and all eyes are typically drawn here. That’s why anything that Americans obsess over is likely to become at least a point of interest for non-Americans.

(2) George Floyd’s murder was captured on video, and video has power that text does not have. Everyone could see just how long Derek Chauvin crushed George Floyd’s neck, the remorseless asphyxiation as onlookers pleaded with him to stop. But the murder wasn’t bloody and wasn’t grossly violent, and so it could be shown. (The very slowness that makes it horrible also makes it publishable.) Compare that with child sexual exploitation, which is often recorded on video but which Twitter and Facebook wouldn’t allow anyone to post; or with depredations that never get filmed at all. We are often at the mercy of the emotions aroused by what’s put before our eyes. We feel the need for catharsis, for some kind of purging of what we have seen. Our visual cortex orients our attention and our moral response.

(3) Social media are force multipliers for America-centrism and visual stimulation; and they multiply these forces in the way they always do, by generating herd effects and the madness of crowds. The particular kind of madness generated here is a mania for unanimity that doesn’t just punish dissent, but even punishes agreement if the agreement isn’t loud enough or phrased in precisely the correct way. And this moment certainly leaves no room for those who aren’t paying much attention to George Floyd because they’re concerned with the seemingly endless wars in Central Africa or with the horrific specter of child sexual exploitation.

By contrast, I think there are so many cruelties and injustices in this world that anyone who is working to constrain any of them should be applauded. And no one should assume that others are inactive simply because they’re not strutting and fretting their hour upon the social-media stage. It turns out that the biggest problem with the herd mentality is the hatred generated for anyone who won’t — for any reason — join that herd. There’s no violence in silence about a problem the great majority of the angriest weren’t thinking about in April and won’t be thinking about in August either. I am glad that the death of George Floyd has forced many Americans to confront injustices that we have ignored or minimized for far too long; but if you’re just using Floyd’s death as an excuse to coerce and threaten others, you’re not helping.

not so much

On January 25, Joe Biden tweeted that “Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time.” The. I texted a friend, “Because we’ve fixed all the problems Martin Luther King was concerned about?”

When the #MeToo movement was dominating public attention, I remember hearing Christian commentators say that if you‘re a preacher and you’re not preaching about #MeToo you’re failing your congregation. Later, or maybe before, it was the border crisis that was the obligatory homiletic topic. Those same commentators are now equally insistent about preaching on George Floyd and systemic racism — and yet, as far as I know, neither systemic sexism nor government-sponsored xenophobia have been conquered.

I’m reminded of a motif in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. From time to time in the book some character comments that “Time passes” — to which some other character replies, “That’s how it goes. But not so much.” This is the correct reply: Not so much.

A couple of years ago I gave a lecture at a university on difference and civility — it wasn’t this talk but it was on similar themes — and in the Q&A afterwards I got some pushback against my reliance on examples from the Civil Rights Movement and the broader history of American racial politics. The people pushing back thought I should’ve been talking about … topics of more recent attention. I replied with two points. First, I said, I grew up in Alabama during the Civil Rights era and what happened there and then has left a permanent mark on me. I didn’t end up making it my academic speciality to work on such matters, but I have written about them off and on my entire career, and expect that I will continue to do so. Second, I said, I don’t believe matters of race are any less fraught in America 2018 than they were in America 1968.

Human beings have overwhelmingly powerful cravings for novelty and unanimity. We want new problems to face, because we’re tired of the old ones: they bore us, and remind us of our failures to solve them. And, especially in times of stress, we crave environments in which dissent is silenced and even mere difference is erased. We call that “solidarity,” but it‘s more like an instinctual bullying. You must attend to the thing I am attending to. I despise both of those tendencies. They’ve turned everyone into attention muggers.

If three months ago you were primarily focused on addressing sexism in the workplace, it seems to me that you ought to be allowed, indeed encouraged, to keep thinking about and working on that now, when everyone else is talking about police brutality. If your passionate concern is the lack of health care in poor communities, here or abroad, I think you should feel free to stick with that, even if it means not joining in protests against police racism. If you’ve turned your farm into a shelter for abused or neglected animals, and caring for them doesn’t leave you time to get on social media with today’s approved hashtags, bless you. You’re doing the Lord’s work.

As for me, I will probably continue to do what I’ve done most of my life, which is to think and pray and sometimes write about racism — even when Twitter and the media that are governed by Twitter have moved on, as assuredly they will, to some new topic about which they will insist that everyone state the correct opinion. Neither novelty nor unanimity is a social good.

Here’s Auden:

Anywhere you like, somewhere
on broad-chested life-giving Earth,

anywhere between her thirstlands
and undrinkable Ocean,

the crowd stands perfectly still,
its eyes (which seem one) and its mouths

(which seem infinitely many)
expressionless, perfectly blank.

The crowd does not see (what everyone sees)
a boxing match, a train wreck,

a battleship being launched,
does not wonder (as everyone wonders)

who will win, what flag she will fly,
how many will be burned alive,

is never distracted
(as everyone is always distracted)

by a barking dog, a smell of fish,
a mosquito on a bald head:

the crowd sees only one thing
(which only the crowd can see)

an epiphany of that
which does whatever is done.

Whatever god a person believes in,
in whatever way he believes,

(no two are exactly alike)
as one of the crowd he believes

and only believes in that
in which there is only one way of believing.

Few people accept each other and most
will never do anything properly,

but the crowd rejects no one, joining the crowd
is the only thing all men can do.

two quotes by Jesse Singal


I am not arguing for a return to some sort of view-from-nowhere style of journalism. I have no problem identifying as both a journalist but also as a progressive and someone who dislikes Trump rather fiercely. There is nothing wrong with having your journalism be driven by a sense of general ideological mission; some of the best journalists covering the working poor care deeply about the working poor, believe they are treated unfairly, and want to see their station improved. They’re still capable of, and produce, honest journalism.

What I am saying is that if you call yourself a journalist, there needs to be some distance, somewhere, between your tribal allegiances and the way you do your job.


Accuracy norms are about, well, accuracy: People who subscribe to accuracy norms are most concerned with spreading true claims, and with debunking false ones. Rightside norms are about being on the right ‘side’ of a given controversy: People who subscribe to rightside norms are more concerned with showing that they are on the right side of a given controversy, and that the people on the other side are morally suspect, than they are with accuracy, at least in a zoomed-in sense. […]

If you’re in a group in which rightside norms prevail, you face a weird set of incentives:

1) It will often harm your group standing to point out that a false claim is false

2) It will often benefit your group standing to pile on a figure who has been unfairly accused of something by broadcasting evidence pertaining not to the claim in question, but to his or her broader (ostensible) moral worthlessness

3) It will often benefit your group standing to punish those who seek to debunk false claims against ‘bad’ figures

Imagine experiencing all this over and over, outrage after outrage.

lessons from the past

Once I saw how things were going I got away from Twitter and stopped checking my RSS reader. I didn’t want to hear any news, mainly because I knew that there wouldn’t be much news as such — though there would be vast tracts of reason-bereft, emotionally-incontinent opinionating. And I don’t need that. Ever.

Instead, I’ve just read Ron Chernow‘s massive and quite excellent biography of George Washington. It’s been a useful as well as an enjoyable experience. For one thing, it reminds me what actual leadership looks like; and for another, it reminds me of how deeply flawed even the best leaders can be, and how profoundly wrong. As is always the case when I spend some serious time with the past, I get perspective. I see the good and the bad of my own time with more clarity and accuracy. And if anything vital has happened over the past few days while I’ve been reading, I’ve got plenty of time to catch up. As I’ve said before, I prefer to take my news a week at a time anyway, not minute by minute.

One theme in Chernow’s biography particularly sticks with me. It concerns the end of Washington’s second administration and his brief period as an ex-President (he lived only two-and-a-half years after departing the office). That was a time when when political parties in something like the modern sense of the term — though many of the Founders referred to the power and danger of “Factions” — dramatically strengthened. It was also a time when journalists who supported one faction would say pretty much anything to discredit the other one, would make up any sort of tale. John Adams, violently angered by all the lies told about him and his colleagues — and there really were lies, outrageous lies, about him, just as there were about Washington near the end of his second term — strongly supported and oversaw the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts to punish journalistic bias and fake news, as well as to deter immigration — though Adams and his fellow in-power Federalists were only concerned to punish the lies that worked against their policies, not the lies that worked in their favor. (Plenty of those circulated also.) Washington, rather surprisingly and disappointingly, thought these laws good ones.

I draw certain lessons from this whole sordid history. Habitual dishonesty, on the part of politicians and journalists alike, inflames partisanship. You exaggerate the nastiness of your political opponents, and that leads people in your camp to think of the other side not as fellow citizens with whom you disagree on policy, but rather something close to moral monsters. Gratified by your increasingly tight bond with the like-minded, you stretch your exaggerations into outright lies, which gain even more rapturous agreement within your Ingroup and more incandescent anger against the Outgroup. Dishonesty begets partisanship, and partisanship begets further dishonesty. It’s a classic vicious circle.

And one more phenomenon is begotten by all this malice. Wheeled around in this accelerating circle of your own devising, you become incapable of comprehending, or even seeing, something that it is absolutely necessary for every wise social actor to know: In some situations all parties act badly. Sometimes there are no good guys, just fools and knaves, blinded to the true character of their own behavior by their preening partisan self-righteousness.

serious questions for churches

The question I would ask churches that are re-opening without masks or distancing, but with lots of congregational singing, is: How do you think infectious disease works, exactly? How do you think COVID–19 is transmitted? What’s the theory you’re operating on?

I’m going to assume that the leaders of such churches believe that infectious diseases exist, that there are illnesses that pass from person to person via contact or proximity. I am also going to assume that they believe that COVID–19 is one of these infectious diseases.

I wonder how many such leaders are aware that health organizations all over the world — not just American organizations run by Trump-hating libtards — generally agree about how COVID–19 is transmitted? See for instance this poster from the Japanese Ministry of Health:


And perhaps they have read about the dramatic and terrible rate of illness among the members of this community choir?

Given all the information available, I’m wondering what they actually believe — not just about what their rights are, or about what they should be allowed to do — but rather about this disease. Some of the more likely options:

  1. It’s all fake news, even that thing from Japan. There’s nothing to worry about, COVID–19 is no worse than the flu. All those reports of death? FAKE NEWS. Massive conspiracy concocted by global elites.
  2. Some of it is true, but the dangers are dramatically exaggerated by the global elites, we’ll probably be fine. Also, masks don’t work.
  3. It was very dangerous, but it’s all over now — the President wouldn’t be telling us to open up if it weren’t safe to do so.
  4. It’s still dangerous, but we’re putting our trust in God, counting on Him to protect us.
  5. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dangerous or not. If we perish, we perish. We may all get sick, we may all even die, but we’re not supposed to count the cost of following the Lord.

My guess is that the churches choosing to open — when they can; some that want to are now forbidden to do so — are using any and all of the above options as needed. Theirs is a castle with many mottes and many baileys. I don’t believe that churches re-opening for business-as-usual, or seeking to re-open for business-as-usual, have assessed the evidence and made prudential judgments in light of that evidence. They have decided to act on what they want to do, and then will employ whatever ex post facto justifications seem best in the moment, according to the arguments marshaled against them.

So we should expect to see any of the five defenses listed above, and perhaps others I have neglected, deployed from once moment to the next, even though those defenses aren’t necessarily consistent with one another. The answer to my initial question, then, is that the leaders and members of such churches will believe whatever at a given moment seems useful to justify acting on their desires. ’Cause in much of America today, that’s how we roll.